Light And Shadow Over The Garden Fence

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Late summer and corn cockle seed heads against a Wenlock Edge sunset.

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Townsend Meadow behind the house; the fence surrounding the attenuation pond that protects the town from flash floods. And also our local carrion crow couple being nicely scenic.

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The upstairs garden seat in winter; the ash log sun dial, and the last of the crab apples.

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Autumn dawn, the guerrilla garden in shadow: Michaelmas daisies and helianthus. Townsend Meadow after the barley harvest, but still golden in the early morning sunshine.

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An early summer monochrome foxgloves and purple toadflax in the guerrilla garden.

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And an almost-monochrome. Shadow play on a dust sheet hug out to dry on the washing line.

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Lens-Artists: Light & Shadow  Patti has set the theme this week. Please pay her a visit. She has some stunning photos to show us.

Wild And Wychy On Windmill Hill

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Here in the northern spring lands our eyes are presently filled to bursting with blooming displays of cherry, apple, pear, black thorn and magnolia trees. It’s easy to forget that all trees have their floral season, one way or another. Some tree flowers are so inconspicuously green, are so very small, or flowering at the end of winter when we’re least about, it’s easy to overlook them. This is certainly true of the early spring flowers that preceded this branchy display of green-winged fruits, discovered last week, sprawling over the perimeter fence on Windmill Hill.

Its ID took a bit of tracking down. I’d got it in my head that it was some kind of hornbeam. But it isn’t. It’s a Wych Elm sapling, Ulmus glabra. This, I further discover, is Britain’s only native elm, common throughout the land as tree cover was restored after the Ice Age, but much depleted from round 7,500 years ago, when the first stone age farmers began to systematically clear the woodland for agriculture.

The so-called English Elm Ulmus procera  was only introduced some 3,000 years later by our Bronze Age ancestors. This introduction may well be a reflection both of the utility of water resistant elm wood (for boats, wheels, furniture and coffins) and of its ritual significance. The tree was sacred to many peoples of Northern Europe, and in particular was thought to induce prophetic dreams.

Since the 1960s the English Elm has succumbed drastically to Dutch Elm disease – a fungal infection spread by elm bark beetles. The Wych Elm, to some extent, appears to have resistance, though it too is now a rare find in our English countryside. The decline in both species has meant a decline in the white-letter hairstreak butterfly which breeds in elm tree canopies.

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But if the Wych Elm does manage to escape infection, and finds itself growing in a preferred climate of cool summers with damp air, or on a rocky hillside beside a stream, then it can reach 30 metres (100 feet) in height, while surrounding itself with a sweepingly majestic canopy.

And so what of the Wych Elm on Windmill Hill? Did some human hand plant a young sapling there, or did it grow itself from an off-chance, wind-blown seed? That it is growing entangled with the chain-link fence that surrounds the perimeter of Shadwell Quarry, suggests more happenstance than intention. On the other hand, at some time in the past, the old quarry face has been planted with a wide variety of trees – both deciduous and coniferous species. In the next photo you can see the tree-line (behind the windmill) that marks the quarry perimeter. Beyond it, the ground falls away in an alarming manner, the most recent limestone workings lying way below and filled with a deep, deep pool of turquoise water, locally dubbed ‘the Blue Lagoon’.

Anyway, note to self: remember to collect some seeds when they ripen in the summer. A Wych Elm nursery is a fine prospect.

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And We Think Our Weather Is Chaotic, But What About 1821-22?

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Last night in Wenlock it was all howling wind and battering raindrops on the roof lights. Then this morning the gusts were positively whistling through the tiniest gap in the closed bathroom window. Shivery indeed. Yet the onset of this 40 mile per hour small gale was yesterday described by the weatherfolk  as ‘brisk’. A bit of an understatement methinks. But however one describes it, this current bout of wild and changeable weather now makes the week of lunch-in-the-garden back in March seem a long time ago. (Did it even happen?) And on top of that, it’s definitely curtailing gardening pursuits.

On the other hand, being confined indoors yesterday led to an interesting internet discovery of a wild-weather nature, this courtesy of the very fabulous Derbyshire Record Office which holds archive riches relating to Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, he whose 1845 expedition to chart the Northwest Passage, tragically foundered in the ice. Among the treasure trove of documents listed in the archive is the transcription of an 1822 letter written in the May of that year by Franklin’s first wife, poet Eleanor Anne Porden. Franklin is away in the Arctic while Eleanor is writing from London, and filling him in on the dramatic events of England’s weather during 1821-1822.

For someone who is used to forever hearing how our weather is set to become ever more chaotic, I found it fascinating to learn how very chaotic it already was in 1821 when Britain was emerging from the Little Ice Age (c. medieval period – 1850). Eleanor’s letter in fact makes reference to the last of the Thames’ Frost Fairs held in 1814.

A view of the river Thames: 1814

The Last Frost Fair of 1814 copyright Museum of London

Between 1600 and 1814 the Thames would freeze for up to 2 months creating an astonishing  venue for all manner of events and entertainment.

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But first she broaches the weather topic by telling John Franklin that though matters may be peaceable in other domains, ‘the elements are in sad confusion.’

She goes on to say:

I should think that the mean temperature of last year was pretty nearly what it ought to be, but the seasons were all mixed together, and not well mixed neither; we had neither Spring nor Autumn, Winter nor Summer. Only two nights greeted us with the agreeable novelty of a frost, and the consequence was that a friend of ours saw the armies of two rival confectioners fighting for the thin cake of ice on a pond behind his house. As for snow, I think you had best bring a little home in a bottle, to shew as a curiosity to those who may have forgotten its colour.

Then she moves on to the storms ‘such as I never remember’ following one after another for three months:

Trees were torn up, and houses blown down, and from the coasts the accounts were dreadful- three Indiamen* were lost in sight of land.

* ships of the British East India Company

Next came the Christmas Thames’ floods in London’s Westminster and Vauxhall

forcing numbers of inhabitants to take refuge in the upper rooms of their houses, till they could be carried away in boats. At Staines it is said that the water was rushing in torrents through every house, and parts of Windsor were in similar condition.

She quips that people who usually travelled up to London for the Christmas season had abandoned their plans, not wishing to embark on a sea voyage in order to achieve that objective.

And then follows an account of the most bizarre event of all:

To complete my catalogue of marvels, in less than three months after, a strong south wind so drove back the waters of the Thames, that aided by a neap tide the channel was left nearly dry, and it was crost on foot between London and Blackfriars bridges, almost in the spot where an ox had been roasted whole on the ice just 8 years before…I understand that the tide afterwards flowed with unusual force for 3 days, and it has been thought that the extraordinary shape of the river must have been connected with some volcanic phenomenon.

And finally she concludes with mention of London’s May weather:

this week we were shivering over a fire, and now the thermometer is at 81⁰ in the shade.

You can read the whole lively letter HERE

Meanwhile, planting still curtailed, I shall cultivate a state of reduced grumpiness about Shropshire’s changeable elements. I am anyway much amused by Eleanor’s suggestion that Sir John Franklin should return home with a bottle of snow to remind the general populace what this unfamiliar substance looks like. The more things change, eh…

Spring Curves

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Alder catkins catch the sun in the Linden Field

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Spring came to Wenlock this week, both time-wise and weather-wise. We’ve had lunch in the garden three days running. Astonishing for March! Full-on sun and a general bursting of buds and blooms in every quarter. Even the moss on the garden steps has switched to hyper-green mode.

Over the road in the Linden Field there are prairies of wild garlic leaves just begging to be plucked for sauces and soups. In fact such  is the vegetative imperative of this particular plant, it’s to be found sprouting from the lime tree hollows on the Linden Walk. At the top of the field, under the oaks, the daffodils are at peak perfection. Also growing there are wood anemones, dog’s mercury, violets and primroses. Then beside the Cutlins path the horse chestnut trees are now a mass of sticky buds. And at home in the garden the white japonica is looking its serene best.

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This week Ann-Christine at Lens-Artists asks us to show her curves.

Lens-Artists: Curves

Don’t look now, but there’s a man in the tree…

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Monday morning. Sunshine after days of rain plus hints of spring.  A walk to the shops then. We set off down the Cutlins field path, pleased to find it dry underfoot, though we’re pleased too soon: at the path bottom by the kissing gate we find a huge puddle.  Ah well. Muddy shoes AGAIN. There are strange sounds too, out on the lane, shattering the peace of the Priory ruins. Chainsaws.

When we reach the Priory Hall (originally a National School that once served Much Wenlock’s poor children, but now is the town’s community centre), this is the sight that greets us. Goodness.

Then we recall the recent planning application. The line of  lime trees along the churchyard wall behind the Priory Hall has been scheduled to be taken in hand – three cut down and the remaining ones pruned. Better get a better look then. It’s not often that Much Wenlock provides so much excitement on a Monday morning:

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Lens-Artists: Close and closer

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There may be signs of spring here in Shropshire, but the wind is still perishing cold. It’s reminding me of a wind-blown winter’s visit to Llanddwyn Island on Anglesey, where the sea-gale found every chink in one’s protective layers. Even so, it was a fine place to be: racing waves and whipped up grasses.

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Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: one

Wind-Lines Past And Current

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These photos were taken during our blustery stay on Anglesey, North Wales, back in early January. The hawthorn tree in the farm hedge has been sculpted and stunted by the prevailing sea gales over decades. In its dormant state it is now so rigid a structure that the winter blasts have little apparent effect. By contrast, the grasses were bowing flat in the bed outside the converted chapel where we were staying. One knew how they felt.

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Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Lines

Rocks, boulders, Stiperstones

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Shropshire’s mysterious Stiperstones featured in a recent Square Odds post. Here are more shots in monochrome, plus a few facts for geology lovers.

The grey-white rock of the ridge is quartzose sandstone known as the Stiperstones Quartzite Formation, created some 480 million years ago in the Ordovician era.

The tors and the rubble-like surroundings we see today are the work of more recent events in the last Ice Age (c. 115,000 – c. 11,700 years ago).  During this time, the eastern edge of the Welsh ice sheet was nudged up against the Stiperstones, not covering it,  but causing the quartzite to fracture during periods of intense freezing followed by thawing.

The highest point (Manstone Rocks) is 536 metres (1,759 ft) above sea level, making it the county’s second tallest hill after Brown Clee.  The ridge extends some 8 kilometres (5 miles), the summit crowned with a series of six distinctive outcrops.

For geology buffs there is a detailed overview of Shropshire’s 700 million year geological history by Peter Toghill HERE.

This next photo: men on Manstone Rock, the highest point on the Stiperstones…

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Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: rocks, boulders, stones

Odd Moment With A Sheep And Old Tales Of Dodgy Deals

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I don’t know about you, but I feel quite uncomfortable being so closely scrutinized by a member of the ovine tribe. It happens now and then as I tramp the lanes and byways of Much Wenlock.

This one was in the field opposite Wenlock Priory ruins, which interestingly had much to do with sheep rearing in the early Middle Ages. In fact the sale of wool from its flocks was an important source of the Priory’s wealth. And so you may imagine the brotherly fury (even to the point of murderous intent) that was roused  when, in the late 1200s, the then Prior, John de Tycford, engaged in some dirty dabbling in the futures market and sold 7 years’ wool crop in advance and then kept the proceeds.

One monk, William de Broseley was so incensed, he left the Priory and gathered a gang in the woods, all set to ambush and kill the Prior. News of this plan did not go down well with the higher authorities, who instructed sheriffs to arrest ‘vagabond monks of the Cluniac order.’ William was duly captured and received his just deserts (not defined by chroniclers, but doubtless deeply unpleasant).

Meanwhile the Prior, who also went in for monastic asset stripping as well as having a history of fraternizing with money-lenders, had friends in a very high place: first King Henry III and then his successor-son, Edward Longshanks, aka Edward I. De Tycford, it seems, was good at political intrigue and had been royally employed on a  diplomatic mission to nearby troublesome Wales. It did not seem to matter that he had run the Priory into debt. When he left Much Wenlock in 1285 it was to take up an appointment  as Prior of Lewes in Sussex, not only another grand Cluniac house, but also a politically sensitive location. The army of Henry III had retreated into the Priory in 1264 during the barons uprising led by Simon de Monfort. This had caused serious division between the monks, many of whom were later punished or banished back to France.

And so it goes. It’s how the world runs. Power and money control ALL aspects of our lives, although we’re mostly too distracted to see how deep and wide this goes. Perhaps the sheep is trying to tell me something. Perhaps I ought to tell it: I am not a sheep.

The Square Odds #15