Dracunculus a gothick arum

In April I was in Western Crete in the company of a group of botanical enthusiasts. One of the most truly memorable plants, ( not rare, but spectacular) was Dracunculus vulgaris var. creticus The Dragon Arum. I photographed it repeatedly in the scrubby roadside on the Akrotiri peninsula.  As with meeting a group of giraffes on safari, each individual you see seems more unique and and exquisite than the last.

The spectacular spathe of the Dragon Arum

We were all of us equally enthused, exploring among the scrub on the stoney slopes, brandishing i-phones, tablets and cameras, getting in close to verify the alleged powerful and disgusting odour of the flower.

John Corfield seeks the Dragon Arum

Ruth Griffiths verifies the odour

 

Andrew Agnew spotted our first Dracunculus

The stem is thick, fleshy, pale, and sinisterly mottled in purple blotches, and rises up to a metre from the poor earth.  The luxuriant leaves are deeply cut into leaflets and mottled in white, while the chocolate-purple coloured spadix extends from the silky purple enfolding spathe.    Certainly a plant which evokes a sense of drama  –  a Little Shop of Horrors sort of plant.

A month later I was viewing a selection of botanical volumes in the Roderic Bowen Library at Lampeter.  And here, blazing out from the page of a magnificent folio sized volume published in 1799 was my newest favourite flower!  The book was The Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton  a ‘coffee table’ book for the gentlemen returned from the Grand Tour of Europe.  The bloom, exquisitely rendered in glowing colour, is framed against the eruption of Vesuvius for added drama.

Illustration in Thornton’s Temple of Flora ( 1799)
by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives
University of Wales Trinity Saint David

And the text tends even further towards the gothick than our own impressions.  After some well-selected phrases  ” a horrid spear of darkest jet”  … “a noisome vapour infecting the ambient air”… the author turns to the poetic works of Frances Arabella Rowden to do full justice to the malign possibilities of Dracunculus:

 

by kind permission of: Roderic Bowen Library and Archives University of Wales Trinity Saint David

by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

 

Arums are generally poisinous, but the theatrical appeal of this plant has perhaps led to some over-exaggeration.  Dioscorides instead was obviously taken by the sexual connotations of the plant’s appearance for he recorded that “being drunk with wine, it stirs up the vehement desires to  coniunction”.  Not quite so fatal then,  and we don’t really know whether the desires were fanned by the arum or the wine!

I understand that Thornton’s book, in which the 28 colour plates, employing the finest artists and reprographic techniques, bankrupted him as the wealthy clients whom he expected to buy his book suffered financial setbacks through the Napoleonic wars.  It is very tempting to imagine a copy of this book spread open in Thomas Johnes’  octagon library at Hafod, and to picture him and Jane Johnes ogling the illustrations  and sending for a Dracunculus, and perhaps an insectivorous Sarracenia and a night-flowering Cereus (both also illustrated) to grow in their Nash conservatory.  Johnes very possibly did have a copy of The Temple of Flora, but it would have gone up in flames in the disastrous fire of 1807, and there is no record of just what his library contained.  It is thanks to the London Welshman, Thomas Phillips, East Indian Company Surgeon, that The Founder’s Library at Lampeter received a copy of this, and many other rare books in the mid 19th century.

The book, and many others may be seen, by appointment at the Roderic Bowen Library http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/rbla/

There is an online exhibition listing the botanical volumes in the collection.http://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/rbla/online-exhibitions/from-herbals-to-floras

Poring over the exhibition by kind permission of:
Roderic Bowen Library and Archives, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

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Two Thomas Weavers of the 19th century

by The Curious Scribbler

In my last entry I reflected upon the phenomenon whereby volunteer organisations seem to be prone to particularly vicious in-fighting.

Seeking respite from the present I found myself in the library looking for evidence of the long-deceased animal painter, Thomas Weaver 1774–1843. Weaver painted handsome four square portraits of  sheep and cattle with tiny heads and a sturdy leg at each corner.   Unpublished correspondence also shows that Col Phelp of Coston, the father of Laura Powell of Nanteos, would have liked to get Weaver, who lived at Shrewsbury, to paint his daughters.  I did not find any evidence that he actually did so, but, through one of those plausible false alarms I found myself reading the obituary of another gentleman of the same name, a certain Thomas Weaver who died in 1852,  who appears in a bound collection of published sermons on microfilm at the National Library of Wales.  This Thomas Weaver, who was buried at Shrewsbury had served as a clergyman for 53 years.

Much of the sermon was to, 21st century readers, almost intelligible, drawing upon references to very obscure aspects of the old testament, and with a fine rolling oratorial style which made it even more difficult to follow.

However when we got to the biographical part it was far more illuminating.

He obtained his ministerial education at Hoxton College in London: and upon receiving a cordial invitation from the church assembling in this place he settled among them as their pastor in the year 1798: not, however, till after some hesitation about such a step, arising from the depressed nature of the congregation, and the somewhat repulsive aspect, spiritually viewed, of some of its members.  His decision seems to have been made under the advice of a ministerial friend, who, in reference to some of those who were least attractive to him, quaintly and quietly said ” Death will soon help you there”.

His ministry, commenced under such disadvantageous circumstances, proved, by the blessing of God, successful.

Did the funeral congregation allow themselves an approving chuckle at this ‘quaint and quiet counsel’? We seem to be far more reluctant, these days, to publicly count our future blessings in the form of the anticipated death of those of whom we disapprove. How, after all, could the Revd Thomas Weaver be confident that the population of Hoxton would not be swelled by an  equal number younger and healthier, yet equally spiritually repulsive individuals,  perhaps even the spawn of his old adversaries?

Judged with hindsight, it seems to me that to leave posterity with a really nice portrait of a foursquare cow is probably a more enduring form of immortality than ministering to the residents of Hoxton.

A Brindled shorthorn cow bred at Calke.  1831 Thomas Weaver, artist

A brindled shorthorn cow bred at Calke.
1831 Thomas Weaver, artist.    National Trust.

 

 

 

 

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A walk at Borth

by The Curious Scribbler

There has always been something reassuringly bleak about Borth.   A treeless ribbon of buildings along either side of a road built along the storm beach.  Some of the cuter buildings are one storey cottages,  fashioned out of rounded beach boulders and roofed in slate, homes of long departed fishermen and mariners.  Then there is the surge of late nineteenth and early 20th century buildings, more suburban in style, detached and terraced houses of two or even three storeys dwarfing the original inhabitants of the bar.  These houses all face inwards onto the road, but the seaward rears of those on the western side are were always battened down come autumn with variously makeshift shutters and boarding designed to keep out the winter storms.  For winter storms regularly lash Borth, bursting over the seaward houses and showering beach pebbles through the gaps onto the road.

And that is why Borth has recently been undergoing drastic alterations,  new sea defences involving great berms of boulders out in the sea, and a huge unsightly reshaping of the foreshore adjoining the southern part of the village.  On summer days a decade ago one could walk through a gap between the houses and immediately emerge onto a natural strand of big rounded beach stones, then descend to a truly wonderful vast sandy beach, punctuated by aging wooden groynes, and lapped by an endless sequence of lazy small rollers lapping on the shore.  We would buy pizzas and eat them on the stones on a summer evening, and then go in for a last dip swimming and bodyboarding before heading home.

But last week it was not a day for swimming, and the second phase of the new sea defences was well under way.  Huge yellow diggers on caterpilllar tracks articulated their giant scoops in the shore and Volvo dumper lorries roared back and forth along the once pristine sands.  The groins were being plucked out by  another machine, like toothpicks from the sand.  A pile of stones destined for another berm reared high as houses, dwarfing the municipal loo nearby.  The shore was entirely churned and dominated by the machines, digging out the peat and clay below the intertidal zone and transporting the excess material up to big waste piles by the promenade.

Diggers parked by the Public Conveniences on Borth sea front.  A huge stone pile awaits its final location on the lower shore.

Diggers parked by the Public Conveniences on Borth sea front. A huge stone pile awaits its final location on the lower shore.

Diggers and dumper lorries at Borth.

Diggers and dumper lorries at Borth.

Clay and peat dug out from the lower shore at Borth.

Clay and peat dug out from the lower shore at Borth.

 

I returned on the Sunday, when the site was quiet.  Inside the security fencing on the upper shore were caches of materials and site waste:  excavated clay and peat, old Victorian  pilings with armoured metal points,  and quarried boulders trucked in from Pembrokeshire. But there was another category of waste : piles of tree stumps, their roots frayed and yellow where they have been torn from the ground, their  bark still scaly and intact though waterlogged.

Ancient tree stumps for the submerged forest, dug out during the storm defence work at Borth.

Ancient tree stumps from the submerged forest, dug out during the storm defence work at Borth.

 

 

Lumps of excavated clay  laced with roots descending from what was once the surface of the forest floor.

Lumps of excavated clay laced with roots descending from what was once the surface of the forest floor.

The trees have come out of the grey clay in the intertidal zone, and are 6000-10000 years old remnants like the more familiar ‘fossil forest’ which gets exposed at low tide on this beach when the sands shift.  They look much fresher that those, perhaps because they have been entombed in sediment rather than smoothed and battered by the waves.  The giant diggers unearthed them when preparing platforms for the new berms on the lower shore.

They are piled up in tangled heaps now, each with a survey label attached, and destined to go off to Lampeter University for carbon dating and other tests.  The old legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod has never seemed more convincing. Judging by the scaley bark, many of these trees appear to have been pine trees, which formed a forest west of Borth when sea levels were lower. And they all look much of an age, and as if some catastrophe resulted in their preservation.

This ancient tree looks like a pine, formerly growing west of Borth village.

This ancient tree looks like a pine, which formerly grew west of Borth village.

 

Was it really a gradual rise of sea level which killed them?  If so, would they not have died standing, and rotted and weathered over the years?  Or was there  a sudden breach of a shingle bar which formerly marked the coastal margin further out to the west, and swiftly brought about their burial in sediment?   If that is the case it’s not a far cry from the old legend of the drunk Welsh prince Seithenyn, who one night forgot to close the sluice gates to the kingdom as the tide rose.

 

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New gardens on the Rheidol Railway

by The Curious Scribbler

For the first time in 28 years, I travelled with members of my family on the Vale of Rheidol Railway, which puffs its way sedately from Aberystwyth to Devil’s Bridge, laden with tourists. My previous journey was described in this blog on February 10 2014. http://www.letterfromaberystwyth.co.uk/historic-derailment-on-the-devils-bridge-railway/  It had been abruptly curtailed on the return journey by its derailment near Nantyronen.

On this year’s journey ours was a special, stopping train, which halted at every station along the route. The passengers, members of the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society and the Ceredigion Welsh Historic Gardens Trust were bent on visiting the latest developments, – newly planted railway gardens at each of the stations and halts along the line.

Inspecting the trough at Capel Bangor station

The whole operation has prospered under the charitable trust which bought the railway from British Rail twenty five years ago. There is a substantial new engine shed with brick built gable ends near the station at Aberystwyth, and an attractive private car park dedicated only to Rheidol Railway travellers. At every halt the station buildings have been smartly restored and painted in the railway livery of cream and brown. At Aberffrwd one can play at stationmaster with the old telephone and ticket shelves in the corrugated iron and pitch pine building. At other halts a newly installed but tastefully gothic corrugated iron shelter protects waiting passengers from the elements. The latest initiative has been to create gardens such as might have been tended by proud stationmasters along the route. These have been planted and tended by local volunteers.

At Capel Bangor we alighted near a raised bed margined by railway sleepers planted with Victorian formality. French marigolds in yellow and orange framed taller plantings of pink cistus and the statuesque Bishop of Llandaff dahlia. The line divides to serve both platforms here, and they are adorned with stout barrels. I particularly liked the one containing a standard bay tree underplanted with brilliant red geraniums which echoed the signage on the picket fence beyond.

Capel Bangor Station

Tub on Capel Bangor Station

At Nantyronen the French marigolds were to be found again, but this time in long raised troughs along the platform and interplanted with verbenas and other bedding plants.

Nantyronen Station

Nantyronen

Troughs at Nantryonen

At Aberffrwd a more ambitious border between the platform and the fence was planted with perennials, Canterbury bells, peonies, astrantia, Erisymum ‘Bowles Mauve’ and Japanese Anemones.

Here the volunteers were distraught, on the eve of the station’s official re-opening by Tourism and Transport Minister Edwina Hart, to find that many of the flowering stems had been snipped off some 10inches above the ground. Close inspection revealed rabbits to be the culprits, apparently reaching up to nibble off the flower stems and eat the flowers.   Hasty replanting with colourful osteospermums filled in for some of the losses. Rabbit repulsion in a rural area remains a challenging goal.

Inspecting the border at Aberffrwd

Rabbit damage

Less toothsome to rabbits and very much in keeping with the landscape is the slope on the side facing the platform, which has been planted as a sedum bed, in which the name of the station is spelt out in white painted river stones.

Sedum border at Aberffrwd

The line divides again here, and it was nice to watch the downward train exchange batons with our driver and continue on its way.

Trains pass the baton at Aberffrwd

We paused at The Rheidol Falls stop, to see the azalea planting and a clematis montana which will soon gallop exuberantly along the fence.

Fire buckets at Devil’s Bridge

We dismounted at Devil’s Bridge to find four red fire buckets planted with gaudy gazanias. After a lavish lunch at the Two Hoots Cafe we rattled back down to Aberystwyth with just a pause at Rhiwfron, the other high altitude stop. Here the visitor looks out northward across the valley to the cream and gold spoil tips of mining on the other side. A hundred years has not diminished its mineral toxicity, and only a few trees have gained foothold on these slopes.

Spoil tips viewed from Rhiwfron Halt

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Kicking a Badger

by The Curious Scribbler

Last week I was out in my pyjamas at one o’clock in the morning kicking a badger in the ribs.  Which may surprise you since I am in general a tolerant animal lover.

The story begins at about 11-30pm when my guests, recently retired to bed, complained of extremely odd sounds from the quiet lane below their window.  Not, they thought, a cat fight, but a worrying assortment of groans, barks and guttural mumblings.  A car had drawn up and then driven on.  Our family dog had barked within the house.  And the strange sounds continued.

Armed with a torch I went out to investigate.  All was silent, but as I approached the entrance to a field gate I saw a great ball of fluffed out brownish fur.  As I approached it, a sleek young stripey-headed badger detached itself from beside it, and slipped under the field gate to run up the field.  The lump of fur though scarcely moved.  It seemed to scrabble forward with its front feet but the hindquarters dragged on the ground and after a few inches it lay still.  I considered the scene for some time, guessing that the injured badger had perhaps been struck by a car.  It was certainly in shock and shivering.

Reporting back to the family, I described the scene and suggested that the large motionless badger would shortly die of its injuries.  Both the practicalities and the ethics of mercy killing a badger seemed daunting, so we went to bed.

But it did not die quietly.  Soon the grunting and groaning resumed and I rose once more, arming myself with a clump hammer, and thinking that if the badger still lay paralysed and groaning I could perhaps knock it on the head and put it out of its misery.  I went quietly down the road with a torch. The sleek young badger was back, sitting companionably with its back leaned against the older animal , and 50 yards down the road by the light of the only streetlight I saw another young badger running towards me.

As I approached the gateway, companion badger again squeezed under the gate and ran up the hill, but this time old badger was on its four feet, moving around a little.  It seemed a bit dazed but showed  no obvious injury other than some blood around its nose.  Perhaps, I concluded, it was making a recovery.  The clump hammer was stood down and I went to bed once more.

Noise abatement was not achieved.  If anything the gutteral squawks and groans increased and at One a.m. came the sound of a heavy body or bodies colliding with our dustbin.  It rattled back and forth, just failing to fall over.

So up I got once more, dragging on jeans and jumper and running down the road.  And there, beneath the streetlight some 25 yards from where my injured badger had been sheltering was it and a young assailant, locked together and snarling, rolling and dragging one another too and fro in the middle of the road.  Doubtless it was they who had almost toppled the dustbin.  So on the principle of siding with the under badger, I kicked the young attacker in the ribs and chased him 100 yards down the road.  My guests lay in bed transfixed by my yells of  ” Bugger off!  You’re making too much noise.”

Returning, I expected to find injured old badger, released and lying exhausted in the road.  But no, his walking ability had clearly returned and I found him stubbornly back at the field gate where I had first found him. Unlike his slighter young associate he did not seem minded to squeeze under the gate, so I climbed upon it, released the farmer’s wire, and opening it wide over the sodden earth, I poked my badger with a stick until it reluctantly went through into the field.  It trudged off alongside the hedgerow, and I went to bed.

I sat up reading websites about badger social behaviour.  Was our field gateway at the margin of two territories?  Was the companionable badger one of its social group, sitting up against him to share fragrance from his rear scent glands.  Was young badger in the road a warrior from the adjoining tribe down the way?

It’s hard to tell.  But at least the young fighting badger did not return after my blandishments, and the old badger was nowhere to be seen dead in the hedgerow the following day.

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The National Plant Phenomics Centre at Gogerddan

by The Curious Scribbler

Plants, mainly grasses, have been being selected and improved at Aberystwyth for almost a hundred years.  Modern experimental oat breeding, for example, began here in 1919 along with experiments designed to improve the properties of forage grasses for sheep and cattle.  In those bygone days the research organisation was called the Welsh Plant Breeding Station (WPBS) and it was directed from 1919 to1942 by George Stapledon, who was duly knighted for his endeavours towards achieving what we now call ‘Sustainability and Food Security’.  In those days it was called ‘Autarky’.  In the Seventies we called it ‘Self-Sufficiency’.  (In any case, all these terms mean producing more, with less dependence on imports and political alliances).

I recently saw some charming photos of the early days of plant breeding at Aberystwyth.  Airy greenhouses contained bevies of women in pretty dresses, meticulously stripping the male parts (the anthers) from oats or other grasses and pollinating the stigmas with paintbrushes loaded with the chosen pollen.  Over the years the Welsh Plant Breeding Station grew in size and importance, moving in 1953 to the Gogerddan estate, of one of the former great mansions of Ceredigion, at Penrhyncoch.  The Queen came to open the new establishment.  The former walled garden of the estate soon disappeared under a complex of modern buildings. 

 

Traditional experimental plots trialling many varieties of rye-grass at IBERS, Gogerddan

 

 In the 1990s after various mergers WPBS renamed itself the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) and then to the bewilderment of many, mutated once more, by merger with Rural and Biological Sciences at Aberystwyth University into IBERS (The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences).  Many still know it by its older acronymns, especially the large local workforce who since its inception found employment in its  glasshouses, fields and experimental plots. Today IGER oats account for 65% of the oats planted in Britain and IGER varieties of rye-grass are contentedly masticated all over the world.  IGER turf has been developed for the particular needs of different sporting venues, and even to grow on vertical surfaces to enrobe green sculptures.

Meanwhile the sophistication of genetic engineering moved on from the days of girls in pretty dresses and now involves the scrutiny not just of new hybrids but of individual genes. And to mark the twenty-first century IBERS has a startling new toy, The National Plant Phenomics Centre, one of the most advanced experimental greenhouses in the world.    

In the National Plant Phenomics Centre glasshouse, plants leave the artificial sunlight for a visit to the measuring chambers.

 

Here in a giant brightly lit glasshouse, plants reside in identical individual pots, moving gently around the huge space on whirring, clicking conveyor belts.  Each pot contains a microchip which identifies its programmed needs. Each plant may have been designated for a personalised regime of water, fertiliser, pesticide.  And each plant is daily monitored.  As its progresses along the conveyor belt it pauses, turns to the left and passes into a chamber like a lift, whereupon the automatic doors close it from view. Inside it is rotated and photographed from four sides and above so that a computer programme can compute its precise enlargement since yesterday’s visit to the chamber.  In another chamber it may be lifted out of its pot to measure the root growth under infra red light, or measured for fluorescence.  Then the doors open and the belt moves on.  Then there is a breathless pause.  The plant pot stands upon a scale by which its weight indicates the amount of water it has lost or used since last it visited this point.  The pause continues, the computer deliberates, and then according to its needs and the experimental programme, a downward angled gun delivers a precisely measured bolt of water to the roots.  There is a further click and the patient moves on, to be followed by another and then another.  There is a remarkable sense of suspense in watching a series of identical plants passing the weigh station, some to be rewarded with a drink of water, others assessed, measured and sent on their way thirsty.

 

This lucky plant receives a squirt of water before returning to the bench

 

The multi-million pound National Plant Phenomics Centre opened very recently. It is a magnificent piece of sci-fi, with all the man-appeal of a train set.  Quietly clicking and whirring belts drive continual motion, not a human in sight.  Watch the You Tube animation here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qBsVP0j70k

It looks as if fewer local jobs will arise from the National Plant Phenomic Centre than from the old techniques of watering cans and trial plots, for it is all controlled by computer from a single work station.  In the animation you will find that the sole operative of the laboratory computer terminal looks suspiciously like superheroine Lara Croft.  The film is accompanied by a mind numbingly repetitive electronic music sound track.  Only in this respect does the animation exceed reality.

 

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Bilberries in the hills

by The Curious Scribbler

Ripe Bilberries ( Vaccinium myrtillus)

August is a rich foraging time and we recently took a break from mushrooming to make a second visit to our favoured Bilberry spot in the Cambrian uplands.

Bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) are the much smaller and tarter wild relative of the supermarket Blueberry  (V. corymbosum) a cultivated form of the wild North American species.  When I was a child, blueberries were unknown in British shops and so bilberry picking was a seasonal tradition, the whole family crouched in the heather and scrub, fingers purpling as we picked off the berries, squishing the overripe ones as we picked. It is a tedious task, as few berries are as much as a centimetre in diameter, and while the largest, ripest ones tumble far too easily through one’s fingers, the slightly less ripe ones cling firmly to the bush.  Unless there is a strong breeze, a horde of buzzing flies soon circle around the picker, and horseflies converge from great distances upon a likely blood meal.

But the outcome was a cascade of small spherical fruit baked with sugar and perhaps some apple in a pie topped with shortcrust pastry.  We liked to compare tongues after a bilberry pie, for the purple pigment stains the skin, and a tongue would remain blue for at least a day after the meal. Once you have had a bilberry pie, blueberries will always seem watery and insipid –  a pale imitation of these mountain fruits.

Finding a good Bilberry spot is a matter of luck and close observation.  At best the shrubs grow as loose bushes about 18 inches tall, but often their growth has been accompanied by regrown oak woodland, and they do not fruit freely in the shade.  On sunny hillsides they grow densely with heather (Calluna vulgaris) and form a low growing carpet of green and purple.  Grazing and hill fires both hold back the size of the bushes and the fruit may be smaller and sparser.  Most of the best spots are probably on forestry land where there has been little or no recent grazing but the trees are few.

A sunny hillside of bilberry and heather

Our two man-hours of picking yielded two and a half pounds of fruit which will freeze from fresh into perfect little black spheres of shot.  Neither flavour nor texture is diminished by the freezing process and I will later layer them with bramley apple and sugar in a generous pie.  If half the health benefits attributed to the milder blueberries apply to these wild fruit then we are also protecting ourselves from the ravages of senility, stroke, heart attack  and macular degeneration of the eyes.  And of course the physical exertion of climbing the hill will have also been very good for us!

 

Bilberries ready for the kitchen

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Too busy picking mushrooms

by The Curious Scribbler

My blogging regularity has diminished recently, so what is my excuse?  Well part of it is the pleasure of foraging to fill the freezer.

Lines of mushrooms press up through the new grass.

Real wild field mushrooms have suddenly burst forth in our field.  They are the most unpredictable of crops.  In 2011 we picked half a carrier bag-full every few days for several months starting in late May.  By contrast last year’s rainy and vile summer yielded not a single one.  And throughout the baking hot days of June and July this year, the hay crop grew up, was harvested, and the new grass began springing from the roots. There was not a mushroom to be seen.

And then this week, after several refreshing bouts of rain the mushrooms are emerging, gleaming white chains of domes pushing up through the grass and herbs.  They form distinct colonies, reflecting the spread of the mycelium below the ground, and in many cases the colonies have spread out into partial ‘fairy rings’: large  arcs of emerging mushrooms in grass which is growing slightly richer and greener than the rest.  Walking across the rising ground one can pick out these darker green strands of meadow, and on closer approach, find the mushrooms sheltering within them.

Darker green grass marks the margin where two separate sets of mycelia meet and the fruiting bodies emerge.

When we bought our field some twenty years ago it grew a deep hay meadow of coarse grasses, cocksfoot and timothy which one waded through with difficulty before the cut.  The farmer in those days would apply chemical fertilizer each year to promote the hay, and graze the field with winter sheep.  There were few wild flowers and no mushrooms.

Field Mushrooms

 

Under our management there is no chemical fertilizer, just a traditional sprinkle of farmyard manure after the sheep and lambs have grazed it bare in spring.  And over the years the tall grasses have disappeared, and a species-rich meadow has re-established itself.  The hay crop looks pretty substantial when rolled up in big bales, but even at harvesting the vegetation is now little more than ankle deep, low enough that a strolling free range chicken can look out over the grass heads on alert for the fox.  It is a richly flowery mix with vetches, daisies, clover, plantain and other herbs. A gourmet diet for sheep, which, as is well known, much prefer a mixed and varied forage.

Most of the mushrooms, I trim and wipe free of grass and gently bag them up for the freezer.  A frozen mushroom obviously loses its firm texture for mushrooms on toast, but so does a mushroom which has been slowly stewed.  All through the winter I add frozen field mushrooms to richly winey coq au vin or boeuf bourguinon, layer them in meat pies or add them to soup.  The commercial mushroom is a pale tasteless echo of the real thing.  These mushrooms pack a punch of flavour.

A half hour stroll yields a brimming basket of mushrooms.

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A medieval deer park and Bushell’s Well

by the Curious Scribbler

Not far up the road from Gwynfryn,  birthplace of our forgotten author Dorothea Jones is an area of wooded, rising ground overlooking the Dyfi estuary.  In Dora’s day it would have been predominantly scrubby oak woodland,  – the Sessile oak, Quercus petraea which clothes the Cardiganshire hills.  At its feet, the low lying land towards the estuary was pasture, for in the early 19th century much of the salt marsh had been drained by a system of dykes and embankments. Today the surviving salt marsh habitat is best seen in the ribbon of land cut off by the railway line which snakes northwards from Aberystwyth to Machynlleth, and through mid Wales to Shrewsbury and the wider world.

This high ground woodland had long been part of the lands of the Pryses of Gogerddan and was known as Parc Bodvage, later Lodge Park.  In 1637 a lease of Park Bodvage granted  by Richard Pryse of Gogerddan reserved to himself and his heirs “the pasture of three horses, nags geldings or mares at all times during the said terme within the said parke, and common of pasture for his and their deare [deer] within the said parke, with free access egresse and regresse thereunto to hunt course chase or kill the same at his or their pleasure…”  By the 19th century the deer were gone, but the Pryses remained indefatigable sportsmen and their game books in the National Library of Wales list the yield of the hunt.  In addition to foxes, otters and pine marten, rabbits and hares, the woodland and the marshes yielded pheasant, partridge, geese and duck in season, snipe, woodcock and even the odd corn crake.  In the 20th century, the family fortunes became extinct, and the estate broke up.  The Forestry Commission soon enrobed the high ground in conifers and the dwelling at the centre, which by 1800 had become a substantial gentleman’s residence was sold off with less than half its garden.  The pasture land became separate holdings with its former tenant farms.

It is through this divided patchwork of history that a group of Welsh Historic Gardens Trust  enthusiasts sought, last week, to unravel the traces of the original land-use, for Lodge Park is thought to have been the only medieval deerpark in the county. Like the many better known parks in England it is a lozenge shaped area of woodland grazing, around 100 acres in size, which had at its centre a lodge, a building used by the parkers in managing the deer and possibly as a place of refreshment when deer hunting became less of a larder activity and more of a gentleman’s sport.  Like other parks it retains on parts of its circumference the characteristic ditch and bank construction, which would originally have been topped by a palisade.  The ditch is on the inner side of the park, while the outer side of the bank is constructed of carefully placed vertical stones set into the earth bank, quite unlike the traditional herringbone arrangement of diagonal stones seen reinforcing field banks throughout the county.

Vertically placed stones hold back the bank and ditch boundary of the deer park

Vertically placed stones hold back the bank and ditch boundary of the deer park

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The park wall construction is distinctive

Some interesting people occupied the enlarged parker’s lodge in the 17th century.  This was the time of great mineral exploitation in the area and much of the British coinage of the time comes from Cardiganshire silver, minted at the Tower of London, and later at Aberystwyth Mint.  The leases of mining rights were granted by the Crown, first the Hugh Myddleton of Chirk Castle (1620-31), and later to Thomas Bushell (1637-42) and both men leased the house at Lodge Park from the Pryse landowners.  It must have been galling for the Pryses of Gogerddan to receive only their rent, while riches in lead and silver were extracted on behalf of the king.  Eventually Sir Carbery Pryse, 4th baronet, was influential in bringing to the statute book the Mines Royal Act of 1693.  Thereafter Cardiganshire experienced its own “gold rush” as landowners could exploit and profit from their lead and silver mines themselves. One of the great legends of the county is Sir Carbery’s ride, virtually non-stop and at a gallop from London to Gogerddan to bring the news home and commence the exploitation of his lands. Mining villages sprang up to meet the demand and a great influx of Cornish migrants brought their expertise from the tin mines of home.

Another legend perhaps arises from the hasty disappearance from Wales, during the Civil War, of the royalist mining engineer, Thomas Bushell.  Later he made peace with Oliver Cromwell, and also mined in England for the protectorate and for Charles II.  But his name remains linked in local folklore with a rock cut spring on the north flank of Lodge Park, “Bushell’s Well”.  Considering the number of mines which Bushell opened, driving adits into the hills and retrieving others from flooding, this seems a very slight structure to bear his name.  But in Bushell’s Well, the oral history goes, Bushell drowned a woman, variously a maid servant or his wife.   It is a tidy drinking place, cut into the living rock in the manner of a mine entrance, the clear water pooled by an 18 inch lip of rock at the entrance to the recess.  No one could drown in such a well unless they were held down in the water.

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The shallow drinking pool in which Bushell is alleged to have drowned a woman

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The well is rock cut in the manner of a mining adit and probably dates from the mid 17th

 

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Otter Hunting on Cors Fochno

by The Curious Scribbler

It is difficult to engage with the mindset of the past, but my recent reading of The Otter’s Story by Dorothea Jones has given me a some fascinating insights on a now distasteful topic.  It is otter hunting, a pursuit which was not fully abandoned in rural Cardiganshire until the mid 20th century.  There are nice, cultured people alive today who will admit to having taken part in otter hunts in their youth.   Otters heads – the mask – turn up mounted in country houses and salerooms and their paws still surface as Victorian jewellery.   Not too long ago otter hunting was an accepted part of rural life and most people do not readily question what is normal in the society in which they grow up.

The cover of The Otter’s Story Etc by Gwynfryn
Published in London in 1880

The Otter’s Story was published in 1880 by Dorothea Jones, sister of the Bishop of St David’s, and author of a campaigning tract dedicated to the reform of British workhouses.  She was by then aged 52, an established author of articles in The Monthly packet of Evening Readings for Members of the English Church, and of two books.  Her pen name was Gwynfryn. She is an adept writer, well able to conjure up the beauty of a day or the drama of a scene in prose. It is perhaps the more shocking then, that from such an unimpeachable middle-class Victorian should come such a piece of writing.  Prose which is by turns cosy, lyrical, bloodthirsty and sexually charged.

If you want to understand what previous generations got out of pursuing a small cute fish-eating mustelid this is a remarkably good place to begin.  It can be read online via Open Library http://openlibrary.org/      (search for The Otter’s Story, Jacobs Story),  or on Nigel Callaghan’s estimable local site  http://www.lloffion.org.uk/newdocs/the_otters_story/intro/display

She starts her account with several narratives about tame, pet otters.  Just as Gavin Maxwell made clear in Ring of Bright Water 80 years later, they make engaging pets.  The story potters along with captured otter cubs suckled by a domestic cat, otters reared with dogs, and grown otters catching fish for their masters.  You are in little doubt, the author likes otters.

But  the introductory pages have left a clue, like the pre-credit sequence to whet your appetite in the movies.  The scene was opened upon a glorious early May morning on Cors Fochno ( Borth Bog) “with the hedgerows greening over and sparkling with dewdrops in the level sunshine”, the dark river “blue in the shadow, silver in the sun” flowing off the mountains.  At the end of her anecdotes of captive otters, she rejoins this scene: to introduce the gathering of the hunt, the red and blue clad huntsmen some on horseback, the seething mass of excited hounds, and the hunt followers, “Welsh farmers in their old blue or grey coats, a rabble of wild hill boys awed by the novel sight of their betters” and two gaily clad village girls, one a smouldering Celtic beauty, the other, plain.

I won’t linger of on the details except to say that it is as sexist and gory as an episode of the popular historical fantasy drama Game of Thrones.  There is agony, blood, demoniacal screams and lots of whipped dogs. “How could hunting be hunting without lashing of hounds and cries of pain from writhing creatures, round whom the sharp whipcord is cut with all the force of a thick lash and a strong man’s arm, roused to passion by excitement?”  Men are men –standing tall and strong, violent, striding, shouting, digging out the otters holt to capture the cubs within.  Women are egging them on – there is a moment when the she-otter and her cubs might have been spared and the hunt called off early.  The master hesitates, and the pretty girl, like a spectator at a gladiatorial fight, seals the animals’ fate by her strident encouragement.

There is plenty of graphic death. In an early skirmish we meet the huntsman’s own terrier, Vermin,  who “with his large soft eyes looking up through his long hair might have sat for the begging dog in Landseer’s portrait”.  Vermin is unfortunately mistaken by the hounds for an otter, as he emerges from a hole in the bank into the water. He is torn to shreds before the men can rescue him, and his body is casually discarded.  The dog otter is caught and killed, “screaming in an excruciating minor key”, soon afterwards.

The female otter escapes upstream with hounds in pursuit while some of the men set to work to dig out her young.  One is mortally injured by the spade, two captured in a sack, one escapes to starve alone in the river. Gallant Mrs Otter comes back down stream where she is eventually speared on the two pronged pitchfork which otter hunters carry for this purpose.  Even then in her desperation she twists and turns and prises her impaled body off the tines and drops back into the water, to be eventually grabbed by the hounds. It is an unsparing account of gore and death.

At the end of this celebratory tale the female otter hangs skinned from a tree and the master of the hunt bestows one of its severed pads upon the pretty Welsh girl.  She colours prettily – “no charm, no jewelled gage-d’amour, could hold her with a sweeter spell than did just then that flabby, webbed, and mutilated foot”.  But the man, on the point of making his move, has second thoughts.  She is a bit too eager, “strangely hard…also she had been too conspicuous that day”, and he turns away.  The final words of this psychodrama are four italic ones. “The otter was avenged”.

It would be nice to imagine that this was a pro-otter polemic – a wake-up call for people so unthinkingly cruel.  But it was not written as such.  The messages it carries are about the beauty and excitement of an otter hunt on a beautiful day and about the heady excitement of a testosterone-fired mob of men crazed by the hunt.  There is only one lesson.  The forward hussy does not get her man, and that is natural justice.

 

 

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