Judging at a local Show

by The Curious Scribbler

Before the show opens, stewards calculate the number of points scored by winning contestants at the Llanfarian Show

 

The Vegetables occupy a separate tent

This is a part of the world where, bucking the trend, the Village Horticultural Show is alive and well, as it has been for most of the last century.  It is an extraordinary co-operative effort which unites communities.  Everyone has a vital part to play: Committee, competitors, judges, spectators.  For just two hours or so a thousand or more exhibits are collected under a marquee or village hall roof, and then, tea taken,  the prizes distributed, and old friendships renewed, the whole is dispersed once again leaving no imprint other than the carefully assembled list of winners in the following week’s paper.

I judged the Flowers at Llanfarian Show last Saturday.

It is a heavy responsibility.  For me the morning began at 11-30am when I presented myself at the primary school to join eleven other specialist judges, many accompanied by their husbands or wives.  We sat on the miniature pupils’ chairs and consumed ham salad with hard boiled egg, coleslaw, beetroot and pickles and thiny sliced brown bread, trifle and strong tea.  Conversation was sporadic and a little tense. Judges are mainly recruited from a little farther away, so they know each other less well than the Stewards, all locals who, having presided over the staging of the competitors’ entries, congregate on a separate table for their meal at noon.    Judges are also tense at their impending responsibility, some are faced with ranking the merits of widely diverse objects, ( Any item in Applique,  An Item of Pottery) others with judging the quality of a slew of extremely similar cakes, jams or flowers.  Entries must be rigorously as per schedule – woe betide the judge who fails to notice that an extra bloom found its way into the class for six sweet peas, or who allows a Decorative dahlia to insinuate itself amongst the entries in the Waterlily dahlia class!

The Floral Art judge has perhaps most to fear.  Tradition demands that she produce a written critique of each exhibit, which is propped up for all the public to read during the afternoon.  These critiques are traditionally encouraging in tone, but nonetheless must expose weaknesses in order that basis for winning entries is generally understood.  And the first prize may not go to the arrangement most pleasing to the untutored eye, but to the one most interpretative of the arrangement’s set title. Little wonder that we judges scurry home before the competitors stream in at 2-30pm.

Many locals enter just a few classes with their home grown produce, for the fun of the chance of a prize, but there are also the titans of the show bench who compete at a local show almost every weekend of the summer season, and whose targets are the cups.  Special Cups for most points in a class may be won outright through three consecutive wins ( or five spread over time).  The big names in local showing have display shelves at home crammed with trophies, some on one year placement, many others  won outright, their gleaming sides inscribed with the names of the annual winners of their past.  Other cups are Perpetual Cups, returned every season to their awarding show.

The Cups, some are awarded annually, others can be one outright for repeated winners.

One such competitor is Buddug Evans, whose carefully managed garden yields roses, gladioli, geraniums, african marigolds, spray chrysanthemums, petunias, pansies, sweet peas, asters, dahlias and potted plants just as the show schedule demands.  It is among the dahlias that competition is particularly hot.  Half the length of the hall is devoted to competition in seven distinct subgroups of dahlias, glorious matched trios of strong straight blooms staged in the tall green metal vases which professionals favour.  There were up to eight good entries in each of the dahlia classes, so she did not go unchallenged by other skilled growers.  Beating Buddug in any contested category has become a target in itself. For total points she was the clear winner.

The Flower Section, dominated by seven classes of dahlias and three of chrysanthemums

At the end of awarding thirty Firsts, Seconds and Thirds in 30 Classes it fell to me to select the Best Exhibit from among the Firsts.  Often this falls to trio of dahlias or to a gigantic single chrysantheum bloom the size of a newborn baby’s head.  But this year, among the entries in Class 60, ‘Vase of Garden Flowers from Own Garden’ nestled an outstanding fanned display of huge creamy gladiolus spikes, the smaller gladiolus ‘Dancing Queen’ with red blotched throats, creamy decorative dahlias, pure white ball dahlias, spray chrysanthemums and huge white snapdragons.  Judging is done while the competitors’ cards are concealed, so it was the final revelation to turn over the label and find this blaze of perfection, and worthy winner of the Best Exhibit Perpetual Cup was the work of another veteran competitor Gwyn Williams.

Best Exhibit – Gwyn Williams’ garden flowers

I left as Councillor Rowland Jones of Llanilar arrived to open the Show, and the public, including Ceredigion MP Mark Williams and his family arrived to scrutinise the tables.  I passed the winning exhibit in Class 126 Best Misshapen Vegetable where it lay outside the tent.  If winner, farmer Ieuan Jones plans a long flight or coach journey, it seems he has grown the ideal marrow!

The winner in ” Misshapen Vegetable” was Ieuan Jones

 

 

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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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Hafod – A garden in the wilderness

by The Curious Scribbler

Few scenes could be more unexpected than the appearance of a marquee in a manicured garden in the middle of a forestry estate in upland Ceredigion.  Even more improbable, perhaps, is that on 2 June the sun should blaze in a cloudless sky, while the midges were banished by a gently cooling breeze.  Converging from the local community and from far flung corners of Wales were some 150 guests assembled for a traditional Welsh tea and to celebrate the restoration and re-planting of Mrs Johnes’ Georgian flower garden.

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Guests arriving for the opening of the restored Mrs Johnes’s Flower garden

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A Victorian-style afternoon tea was enjoyed by 150 guests

The location was Hafod Uchtryd, the pioneering Picturesque landscape created by Thomas Johnes in the late 18th Century in the then barren landscape of the Upper Ystwyth valley 15 miles inland from Aberystwyth.  His story has been told many times: how he settled here with his second wife Jane Johnes and steadily poured his massive wealth from other properties into creating his personal Xanadu, a Gothic house by the architects Thomas Baldwin and John Nash, a model farm, huge plantations of oak, beech and larch, miles of carefully graded walking paths leading the visitor through the landscape of gnarled trees, pools, cascades and rock cut tunnels and viewpoints.  All the aesthetic cognoscenti came to visit Hafod and like other great houses the gardener could, for a consideration be persuaded to allow a visit to the gardens and the long conservatory before pointing his charges off onto one of the two circuit walks: the Lady’s Walk which took in the Church, and the more strenuous Gentleman’s Walk on the contours of the southern flank of the valley.

Johnes and his wife had one child, Mariamne, something of a child prodigy with a great flair for botany and a crippling infirmity which caused her to be at times encased in a gigantic metal spinal brace.   Notwithstanding this, she had her own private garden, an alpine garden perched on a crag east of the house, while her mother had a flower garden near the carriage drive out of sight of the house.  As early as 1788 Jane Johnes was writing to her brother “this place is in higher beauty than ever I saw it, my flower garden full of flowers”.  Among the many records by 19th century tourists I offer a quotation from B.H. Malkin (The Scenery, Antiquities and Bibliography of South Wales published 1804) “A gaudy flower garden, with its wreathing and fragrant plats bordered by shaven turf, with a smooth gravel walk carried around, is dropped, like an ornamental gem among wild and towering rocks, in the very heart of boundless woods. The spot contains about two acres, swelling gently to meet the sunbeams, and teeming with every variety of shrub and flower”.

 

Hafod has had a chequered history since those glory days, and by the mid 20th century the landscape was being planted with serried ranks of conifers, its gardens long forgotten and the great mansion stripped of its fixtures and reduced to rubble with dynamite.  Many British country houses met a similar fate in those years.  The circular wall of Mrs Johnes garden was breached by a forestry road, and its interior became a plantation of Sitka Spruce. When I first saw the garden it was through one of the two arched doorways to the garden, wreathed in brambles and dwarfed by the gloom of the densely planted 40 year old trees.   It seems inconceivable that in the last six years the road has been moved outside the original perimeter, the trees felled, and their stumps plucked from the soil by a giant yellow machine shaking the soil off the roots like a human hand weeding groundsel!

 

Uprooting the tree stumps in Mrs Johnes’s Garden in March 2009

The wall was rebuilt, the cleared ground graded, and the path reinstated close to its original route. In 2012 we saw the first planting, of carefully selected shrubs and herbaceous plants which would have been available to Jane Johnes in 1788.  Several contemporary commentators called it an American Garden, and a number of gentry gardeners, some of them Jane’s friends and correspondents were creating American gardens at this time.  The new planting, designed by landscape architect Ros Laidlaw, reproduces the American flavour of the time, with shrubs, chiefly from the eastern seaboard of North America which were known to have been introduced to British gardens in the 18th century.

Leucothoe fontanasiana ( Fetter Bush) was introduced in 1765 from the USA

Calycanthus floridus ( Carolina Allspice)  was introduced in 1726 from the USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a proud day for the Hafod Trust, which over the past twenty years has co-ordinated a partnership with the Forestry Commission to reinstate the ten miles of paths, the bridges, the viewpoints and the gardens.  Grant aid for Mrs Johnes’ Garden has come from the Cefn Croes Wind Farm Community Trust, The Finnis Scott Foundation, Tidy Towns Wales and many individual donors.  In future you could hold an afternoon tea party or a champagne reception in this tranquil enclosure.  You could even get married in the picturesque little church, Eglwys Newydd, just up the streamside footpath, or in the Hafod Stables meeting room, which is now licensed for civil ceremonies.

The mansion is unlikely ever to rise from its ruins, but the modern visitor with a taste for solitude, silence and starlight can spend a short or long break in the heart of the estate in the comfortably furnished Hawthorn Cottage ( Pwll Pendre) which overlooks a pool on the meadow between the mansion site and Mariamne’s garden.

Hawthorn Cottage ( Pwll Pendre) at Hafod is a furnished holiday cottage

For more about the Hafod Estate  visit www.hafod.org

 

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High on Henbane? The Welsh Witch and her broomstick

by The Curious Scribbler

Simon Goodenough, the new Curator of the National Botanic Garden of Wales came to speak this week to the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society.    For my less local readers: Cardiganshire is the old County name for this county, now properly known as Ceredigion.  Dyfed, a mystifying administrative amalgam  of Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire was created in 1974 and abolished in 1996, but lives on in address databases and in the title of the police force.

Anyway, the Cardiganshire Horticultural Society ( or CHS) was founded in 1968 before Dyfed was invented and is a flourishing local society bringing together some 200 members of wide and often learned interests.  The National Botanic Garden is over our borders in Carmarthenshire, and was a major millennium project, 507 acres of historic landscape now centred on Norman Foster’s famous glasshouse, nestling like a giant insect’s eye in the rolling green landscape.  We have always maintained a keen interest in its progress.

Norman Foster's Great Glasshouse at the centre of the Middleton estate

Norman Foster’s Great Glasshouse at the centre of the Middleton estate

Simon described his many plans for the enhancement of the gardens.  One theme concerns pharmaceutically useful medicinal herbs, currently represented by the Apothecaries’ garden, which celebrates the traditions of healing attributed to the Physicians of Myddfai, three brothers living in the nearby hamlet of Myddfai in the 13th century.  While he is enthusiastic about the ancient traditions of herbal cultivation in this area, known to reach back to Roman times and beyond, Simon was sceptical about the Myddfai story.  Scholars have suggested it may well be something of a folk fiction of fairly recent origin. This would not surprise me: we have quite a tradition of embellishing the facts in Wales.  Iolo Morgannwg , for example is, now recognised to have been a most prolific inventor of druidical history, while Lady Llanover can be credited with singlehandedly creating the picturesque Welsh peasant costume we still dress children in to celebrate  St David’s day.

Simon went on to show us a picture of henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), a British native herb with powerful psychoactive properties which crops up in coastal locations and on disturbed ground.  It is in the garden’s collection and may well have been utilised in Myddfai

The poisonous and psychotropic herb, Henbane

The poisonous and psychotropic herb, Henbane

Apparently henbane can make you feel you are flying.  According to tradition it was pulped and mixed with porkfat, smeared upon the end of a handy broomstick, and applied vaginally where the moist skin and rich capillary bed allowed the active chemicals to reach the bloodstream and the brain.  This, we learnt is what was really meant by witches flying on a broomstick.  I do not know the origin of this scholarly insight, and can only speculate as to where wizards might have put their broomsticks.  If true, it is most satisfactory, and if false it joins the ancient tradition of tall tales in Wales.

 

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