The quest for the perfect Christmas tree took me south this year, to a secluded valley between Talgarreg and Pontsian to select my tree on the root. Here we roamed the field and eventually chose a beautifully columnar dense-foliaged fir, which has fulfilled its promise, barely dropping a needle during nineteen days indoors without water. This is the promise of a fir rather than a Norway spruce, but when the trees have been cut some weeks earlier even an expensive fir can be disappointing.
The trees were growing on a north-facing valley side, surrounded by a particularly thick carpet of Polytrichum commune, the Common Hair Moss. This is the deep cushiony moss which is not sphagnum. It is a stiffer drier moss which does not hold copious amounts of water and would be of no use for wound dressing ( think First World War!) or hanging baskets. Its long stems are thin and wiry, as much as 14 inches long, brown at the base, and green with narrow leaves at the upper end. Its medieval uses included stuffing mattresses or making twine and woven baskets.
Strands of Polytricum commune
I set about the latter task with the handful I had brought home and found that it plaited into a long and serviceable string. So pleased was I with the result that this year the mistletoe has been tied up with my hairy polytrichum twine rather than the usual ribbon or string.
Polytrichum twine hangs up my mistletoe
There is the potential for a home industry here. Cleverer hands than mine could make all sorts of woven novelties with this free raw material. And there are many people with artistic and craft skills in this county.
Another outstanding ornamental use of natural resources may be seen by anyone who pauses and looks right on the Llanilar to Trawgoed road. Gary Taylor has given full reign to his creativity in building his woodpiles. Personally I have always felt pretty satisfied when my woodpile is just neatly stacked with all the cut ends facing outwards, but here is a man whose woodpile is inlaid with the Tree of Life! His other woodpile sports a Welsh dragon. Each outline is traced in stained split logs, set in the face of the traditional stack.
The Tree of Life at Llidiardau. Log pile 2017, Lolly Stalbow and Gary Taylor
Will he have the heart to demolish these huge artworks to heat the hearth? I suspect this may be a wrench. But knowing Gary and his immaculate large garden, he probably has another everyday log pile round the back!
And for those who don’t know their mosses: two pictures are below:
A bit like those pairs of photos they publish in Private Eye?
Early last month I lamented the loss of the shrub planting below the Hugh Owen building. Never have I had so many readers, 1600 within 24 hours of posting, and the cries of anguish echoed far and wide. But the destruction continues. Gardening, according to the Aberystwyth Estates Department, is an activity best performed with a mechanical digger.
In the last two weeks whole shrub borders have scraped from the ground. Adjoining the Student Welcome Centre were three trees, two phyllyrea and a griselinia, and a border of hydrangea, fuchsia, escallonia and evergreen olearia species. Now only the trees remain. The border has been grubbed out entirely. Viewed from the Llandinam concourse there is little to see now, but an unkempt lawn with a circular bed containing a dead tree, and, beyond it, a large green painted metal box.
Recently uprooted border at the Penglais campus
The border on 7 October before its destruction
The border needed some weeding and maintenance it is true, but it formed a handsome screen at the top of a concrete retaining wall outside the Llandinam building concourse.
Where the steps lead down towards the Cledwyn building, a broad swathe of ground hugging cotoneaster and vinca on either side of the descent was badly invaded by brambles. A gardener might have dug these out, or cut them and poisoned the stumps. Instead a few hours with a digger have obliterated the lot, and the bramble roots will be the first to recover in the broken earth.
Formerly a bank clothed in prostrate and low growing cotoneaster?
Further down, the iconic view of the terracotta-coloured end of the Physical Sciences building is framed by some freshly mangled trees, chopped off at some 8 feet above ground.
Crude pruning of a group of mature shrubs
Border on the corner between Biology and Physics on 7 October
A distorted, one-sided Myrtle, Luma apiculata reaching over to the left (one of many seedlings on the campus), echoes the space formerly occupied by a large cotoneaster and a purple berberis beside it. This was all looking quite tidy as a group at the beginning of the month, though it adjoined a building site. Now the designed planting has been hacked away, and the accidental incomer has been preserved. It was the same below the Hugh Owen, where randomly spared trees include self seeded willow and ash.
There is some fine planting further up the slope on the terrace leading to the Physics entrance. I wonder whether that will survive.
The triangular bed at the west end of the Biology building used to contain big evergreen daisy bushes Olearia avicenniifolia. This tender New Zealand species first came to Tresco in the Scilly islands in 1914 and according to the RHS Plantfinder is available at just one nursery in the UK today. It’s gone. But we get a marvellously unimpeded view of the connecting glass corridor which seems function principally as a box store.
One of the uglier features of the Biology building is exposed to view
Adjoining the end of the building was a Crinodendron hookerianum, the Chilean Lantern Tree, approaching its mature height of 20 feet. This slow-growing narrow tree dangles fleshy crimson flowers about an inch long from summer till autumn. It has had its top cut off, though an adjoining dead tree cloaked in ivy has been spared.
Continuing down the road between the Sports building and Biological Sciences, the corner has been cleared to display a few stumps and a manhole cover. The metre-wide strip adjoining the road was cleared back a year ago and has been seeded with teasels and foxgloves which will look quite pretty next spring. Not for long though. Foxgloves are biennial, so the current crop will die next summer, and dock and creeping buttercup will take their place. Soon we can call this teasel corner.
The corner between Biology and the the Sports Centre
There are shrubs on the campus so choice and rare that one would be hard pressed to find them anywhere else. As a random illustration I include a picture of one of the Australia acacias planted against the Biology building. It displays most elegant heterophylly. The long leathery Mistletoe-like leaves are born on the same stems as the feathery new growth. ( Students generally learn about heterophylly by studying water crowfoot. How much more magnificent in a tree!)
Heterophylly in an Australian acacia
The hackers and diggers may be there soon too, destroying more botanical heritage. There is also a Hoheria sexstylosa nearby, a rare Berberis and another rare daisy bush Olearia rotundifolia flourishing far from its native habitat the southern alps of South Island, New Zealand. The list could go on. But no-one making the decisions about the contractors’ actions seems to know or care about plants. I doubt any future planting will be more than commonplace.
My final picture is of one of the recently completed works. An extensive border was removed and bark chippings laid to frame these unattractive pipes and utility sheds beside an arterial path to the Student Welcome Centre.
The future gardening style for the Aberystwyth University campus
The is not the style for which the gardens were listed Grade II* by Cadw just fifteen years ago.
Last September I visited an intriguing garden at Treffgarne Hall, near Wolf’s Castle. Here stands a large plain two-storey country house built in 1824 and virtually unaltered by its subsequent owners. It stands on the Landsker line: the division between Norman and Welsh Pembrokeshire, on a windswept hilltop.
The south frontage of Treffgarne Hall, unchanged since 1824
The south facing house looks right out to distant refinery stacks at the coast at Milford Haven 16 miles away. By the 1960s its fortunes were shabby, with rotten floors and an overgrown garden. The land, the farm, the outbuildings were serially sold off, until just the house and four acres remained, an unsuccessful country hotel. This was bought in 2003 by Martin and Jackie Batty and a transformation began.
The walled garden on the hilltop had been embellished by the former owners to contain a hard tennis court in the farthest third, which looks sadly decrepit today. The rest was, in 2003 a blank canvas of weeds. But when I passed through the stone garden doorway west of the house I seemed to step into a Chelsea show garden. I found an immaculate formal space of slate paving, parallel rills and four symmetrically planted paulownias, flanked by huge oak pergolas trailed with Clematis armandii. The design was created with advice from the Julian and Isabel Bannerman, the designers who used to garden Hanham Court near Bristol.
Within the old walled kitchen garden is a remarkable formal garden
It feels highly improbable to step from rural Pembrokeshire into such a space. Martin Batty described how it reflects his enthusiasm for exotic and tender plants. His plantings in 2003 included tender South African Proteas, Leucodendron argenteum (the silver tree) , Mexican cactus and giant echiums. The first few years were encouraging, but many were lost in the severe winters of 2009 and 2010. The Echiums have come back from seed, and many other of his barely frost-hardy plants have flourished. We saw many Southern hemisphere plants, Bailey’s Purple Wattle from Australia, which flowers here in February, the Rice paper plant Tetrapanax papyrifer, and the frothy foliage of Melianthus major.
The Rice Paper Plant Tetrapanax papyrifer
A curiousity was the weird saw-like leaves of Pseudopanax ferox. The lower leaves of this columnar plant are hard and rigid, higher up the plant they will grow soft and untoothed. Apparently this heterophylly evolved to protect the leaves from the attentions of the now extinct Moas of New Zealand.
There were other unfamiliar plants: the blue dangling bells of Iochroma grandiflora from Peru, the floppy green fans of leaves of Iris confusa ‘ Martin Rix’ and a Muehlenbeckia (maidenhair vine) not scrabbling uncontrolled through native trees as we saw it on Herm Island two years ago, but disciplined into a neat tight green mound. There was even a Norfolk Island Pine, Araucaria heterophylla – more familiar in Canary Island and Florida tourist developments. I wonder how it will fare when it rears its head above the protective wall.
The rest of the garden is less startling, with lawns and borders, a broad terrace on the south side of the house, and a nice array of low-growing foliage plants in a gravel garden outside the walled garden. However the Battys have enlivened these grounds with some interesting uses of wood. There is an inviting summerhouse, and what appear to be a pair of elaborate Palladian ashlar gateposts on the drive.
A quiet drive through conventional gateposts? Hardly:
Closer inspection shows them to be carved of timber. Panels are inscribed as mileposts: Doncaster 350 miles; Japan 4000 miles, which reflect the origins of the owners. Pausing between these posts one reads the enigmatic inscription THE RUINS OF TIME BUILD MANSIONS IN ETERNITY.
Treffgarne timber gateposts. Doncaster 350 miles, Japan 5000miles
There is also a totem pole, a stack of four animals carved out of the trunk of a former beech tree and erected as a focal point west of the house. Another, multi-trunked dead beech has been carved in situ in the likeness of a four headed dragon.
Carved in situ, a multi-trunked dead beech
Here nature has embellished the chiselled scaly necks with bracket fungus and elegant frills of turkey tail fungus. This colonisation is also the harbinger of the sculpture’s destruction. But for a few years before the inevitable collapse, art and nature are most harmoniously combined. Gardeners go to so much trouble for such fleeting returns.
The bracket fungus Pseudotrametes gibbosa favours beech trees
Turkey tail. (Coriolus versicolor)is now properly known as Trametes vesicolor and apparently the source of a potent anti tumour drug.
The garden is open on certain days under the National Garden Scheme. See the Yellow book and the free regional pamphlets which will soon appear.
I have been reading the transcript ship’s log written by a distant relative of my husband, a navy captain named Lieutenant Edward Riou. In 1789 this gentleman was given command of the naval frigate HMS Guardian, a fifth rate frigate built to carry some 250 men and 44 big guns. But his voyage was not a military one: immediately before his command, the ship had been returned to dock in 1787 and refitted as a transport ship, to carry stores and convicts to the newly established penal colony at Port Jackson, now Sydney, Australia. Founded with the arrival of the first convicts in 1788 the colony was little more than a tented village set in sandy scrub. Nothing edible was growing there, and all supplies must therefore be brought in by ship until such time as agriculture could be established. The navy was charged with delivering every possible necessity, and more convicts, both male and female in the following months.
Riou’s journey was not a success. On leaving the Cape of Good Hope he met with a gigantic iceberg in the South Atlantic and later on Christmas Eve collided with it in the fog. In the ensuing disorder on Christmas Day the boats were launched and some of the crew disembarked on a launch. Others drowned in the attempt. The capacity of the boats was nowhere near sufficient for the entire crew and the 25 convicts. Riou and 60 men and a 10 year old girl remained on board the severely leaking and rudderless ship and after an extraordinary eight weeks at sea, pumping and baling constantly with the lower deck filled with water, they limped into Table Bay, Capetown. The ship proved to be irretrievably damaged, and most of the contents rotted or destroyed. Only a quantity of salt pork, salt beef and the convicts and their superintendents were eventually transported by other ships to their Australian destination. Not till the summer of 1791 did Riou and the last of his crew make their way home.
A fascinating detail of the account is the lists of goods, food and livestock which was packed aboard the Guardian for the use of the nascent colony in Australia. In London no less a figure than Sir Joseph Banks involved himself in the design and construction of a greenhouse on the deck of the Guardian, to accommodate 100 large plant pots on shelves, and fertilizer, mulch and all necessities for the use of the ship’s gardener, James Smith. He itemized his charges as follows:
Artichokes 2, Horseradish, Sorrel 2, Balm 2, Sage, Aloe, Mint 2, Tea Tree 2, Chives 2, Tarragon 2, Camomile, Hyssop, Marjorum, Tansy, Penny Royal, Rumbullion Gooseberry, Greengage Gooseberry, Red Dutch Currant, White Dutch Currant, Filberts, Raspberries 2, Large Blue Fig 2, Large White Fig 2, Almond 2, Mulberry 2, Walnuts 2, Pomegranate, Ginkgo biloba, Roman nectarine 2, Red Magdalen Peach 2, Royal George Peach 2, Newington Peach , Brussels Apricot, Cherry 3, Morello Cherry 2, Early May Cherry, Orange Tree, Lemon Tree, Shadock, Royal Muscadine Vine, Syrian Vine, Muscat of Alexander Vine, White Fronteniac Vine, Gibraltar Vine, Black Hamburgh Vine, Claret Vine, St peter’s Vine, White Muscadine Vine, Black Fronteniac Vine, Blue Morecils Vine, Black Sweetwater Vine, Red Fronteniac Vine, Burgundy Vine, White Sweetwater vine, Grisley Fronteniac Vine, Black Orlean Vine, Uruge nectarine, Italian Nectarine, Brugner Nectarine, Nonesuch apple 2, Dutch Codlin apple 2. 93 pots under my care.
Most of this list is of herbs, fruits and vines which could form the basis of productive farming in the colony. The superintendents and the convicts had themselves been selected for those with some agricultural experience or skills which could be put to use. Banks clearly envisioned a Mediterranean style settlement of vineyards and orchards in sunny Australia. But there is one remarkable exception – The Ginkgo biloba.
A look around the eighteenth century mansions of Britain is enough to demonstrate the social significance at the time of this newly-discovered Chinese tree. Kew Gardens has one known to have been planted in 1762, Blaise Castle House ( built 1796) in Bristol has a huge one adjoining the mansion and the picturesque dairy by John Nash. Ashton Court, another wealthy Bristol merchant’s estate, has three.
The ornamental Dairy (1806) adjoining Blaise Castle House. and a large Ginkgo to the left in view
Nanteos mansion here in Ceredigion boasts a group of three of which one is the largest in our county, standing in the pleasure ground adjoining the mansion and screening the garden wall. Significant houses have at least one of these exotica placed as specimens close to the house. Towards the end of his career ‘Capability’ Brown routinely included a Ginkgo, a Cedar of Lebanon, and perhaps an Oriental Plane or a purple beech in plantings viewed from the mansion.
It is reasonable to conclude then that the Ginkgo was destined to complement the Governor’s residence at Port Jackson, though this was probably little more than a shed at that time. It ended its days cast overboard from HMS Guardian along with the cattle, sheep, horses and pigs taken on board at the Cape. Governor A Phillip of the new colony reported to the Admiralty that in the absence of the expected supplies much of the colony’s small stock of livestock had to be slaughtered for food, and that the convicts, on half rations, were too enfeebled to make much headway with building the store houses and accommodation. With 1000 convicts shortly to be dispatched to his jurisdiction, the loss of the ginkgo was probably the least of his worries.
Source: HMS Guardian and the Island of Ice compiled and annotated by Rod Dickson. Hesperian Press 2012
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
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.
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.
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
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.
I ventured south to Monmouthshire recently to visit a garden near Usk, in the tiny rural hamlet of Llangwm Uchaf. Reaching, in anticipation, for my Pevsner guide to Monmouthshire (published 2000) I was not encouraged. The old medieval farmhouse is described as ” now miserably derelict” its “towering three storey parlour block of 1599 and its crown of lozenge shaped stacks in the last last stages of collapse”. But for a line drawing detail of a medieval door head, there were, understandably, no pictures.
So there was little to prepare one for the scene which suddenly unfolds at the end of a narrow and diminishing country lane. The first clue came when the hedgerow gave way to a geometric, three tiered topiary beech and beyond it a topiary dome of hawthorn. The sight line along the curving road led the eye to some further pathside trimming, small domes of copper beech and green on the left. Then Allt-y-bela was revealed.
The owner explained the amazing change of fortune for the house since the millennium. Terribly derelict, its principal rooms serving as a shelter for cattle, this amazing house had been brought low by the provision of its 16th century owner and builder, Roger Edwards, landowner and founder of the Usk Grammar School. In his will he left his house and land as an endowment for the school, and over the centuries the huge building became less and less useful to the tenant farmers, while the land remained a source of income for the school for around 400 years. Originally close to the road from Usk to Chepstow, Allt-y-bela had once been something of a hub. Now the route bypassed this tranquil spot, and but for the intervention of the Spitalfields Trust it would have completed its collapse. They bought the house and a little land around it, and for seven years conservation experts and SPAB scholars painstakingly restored it to its historical best, a II* listed building. At least there were few layers of alteration and improvement to be stripped away. It was then for sale, a pristine restoration standing on an apron of builder’s gravel and surrounded by grass. What better purchaser could there be than a renowned garden designer?
Arn Maynard is remembered for his RHS Gold for the Laurent Perrier Bicentenary Garden in 2012 and has an extensive garden design practice. Here he had a blank palette and has created a modern garden which in part evokes the styles of the house’s history.
Bringing in large ready trimmed topiary trees from Holland, and sculpting the land with diggers and drystone wallers has enabled him to present his vision of Allt-y-bela, as a pearl set upon a cushion of green. As so often in rural settings, one of the challenges is to integrate a garden into the wider setting, and this is achieved by allowing the mown and lawned garden to expand into wildflower meadows, rich in ox eye daisies, orchids, ragged robin, campion and yellow rattle. It is difficult to believe that such a sense of permanence has been achieved in just seven years, but then his Laurent Perrier show garden featuring a huge pear tree and pleached fences was created (with a lot of pre-planning) in just 17 days.
An assortment of geometrically layered and domed trees frame the approach to the house, and a simple concentric labyrinth of copper beach leads one to an urn, and out again. There are also choice trees like Magnolia and the service tree which are spared the shears.
Arn Maynard expounds his vision for the copper beech labyrinth
The spiral of copper beech leads to a central urn, and then out again along a parallel arc.
At the back of the house, the land has been gently shaped into a terraced lawn, while close to the house a criss-cross stitching of clipped box creates intimate compartments for old fashioned flowers, and a lattice of hedgerow poles creates a trellis up the walls.
The rear of Alt-y-bela
Further beyond the lawn is an exquisite vegetable garden, with pear arches overhead, and stepover cordoned apples such as were not dreamt of in the 16th century. There are fruitful gooseberries, currants and raspberries, alpine strawberries, broad beans and peas.
Arn Maynard’s exquisite vegetable garden
The house had a separate stone built kitchen and granary facing the front facade, and these and all other outbuildings have also been carefully restored. It is on this side that the land art is particularly striking: the trickling natural stream has been canalised between immaculate dry stone walls to curve around behind the granary. Further low drystone walls contour the slope above to create an outdoor auditorium, looking down to a small stage of lawn trapped between the stream and the building. The first performance held here was The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The canalised stream and amphitheatre were built last year
There is more to describe:- the tall screen of pleached crab apples in front of the house, the wandering bantams in their timber house, the auricula theatre and the stately Bengal tomcat. No medieval home was as exquisitely elegant as this, but if it had been, Roger Edwards would have been proud.
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
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!
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.
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.