Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Summer Break

Tomorrow is the first of June. Surely then it will be summer (though there was almost a frost a couple of nights ago). The blog is having a break, and so am I.

The breakneck pace of everyday change has started to slow down. The trees are fully green now, the hedges too. The rose and the honeysuckle will be here soon. The bryony and the hops and the brambles will keep on growing tying up the hedges in long twisting strains of creeper. But the changes will slow as the summer comes.

What should I have told you that I still can? The sorts of trees that were planted when the hedges were laid maybe. All native English species, hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, guilder rose, wayfarer tree (a sort of viburnum). This to add to the oak, ash, elm, hazel, dogwood, holly, elder and rowan that were there before. The hawthorn is standing 18 inches out of the tubes now and the guilder rose is in flower.

How old is the cut? Several hundred years for sure, probably as old as the huge oaks at the top end. It must have been used since there was a village at the bottom and a hamlet at the top. There's been a village at the bottom for a thousand years. At the top our house is the oldest building standing maybe 4 or 5 hundred years. The cut they say used to actually go through woods (by the look of the flora). Two hundred years ago there was a house at the bottom on and probably one at the top too. You can it from the fact that nettles grow there. Nettles only grow where man has been. They stay on a lot longer though. You can find Roman sites in the forest by looking for patches of nettles.

I haven't even talked about the people who use the cut, or the animals that live in the burrows or nest in the trees and hedges. I haven't talked about how the hedge was laid. (Here's a joke from Ashok. Good news - you can get a grant from the EU to get laid. Bad news - you only get it if you're a hedge.)

What are the beauties of the cut? The flowers (it used to be called Madeira Walk because of the flowers there.) The scent of the cow parsley. The changing sunlight on the leaves leaves, the feel of the curve under foot where thousands have walked before you.

The pictures today show the cut at the beginning of March bare and brown, then the yellow of the daffodils and celandine, the blue of the bluebells, and finally the cow parsley filled path of May now slowly going. Finally a picture of the oak at the top finally in full leaf.

The blog may change direction and follow me and my wife around England or it may just rest until autumn the next big season of change. Thank you for looking.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Buttercups are going mad in the field next to the cut. I remember the riot of buttercups was one of the first things I noticed when I came to our village. It's amazing.

When I was a small boy grown ups were always poking buttercups under my chin and saying "I see he likes butter." I used to think this was particularly stupid - and still do as a matter of fact. Buttercups are the "cuckoo buds of yellow hue" from Shakespeare's "Daisies pied abd violets blue" poem. But really I just thought you'd like to see the picture of the horses grazing amid the buttercups. Oh there's some chestnut spikes in the background so a good chance of linking to "This is the weather the cuckoo likes" by Hardy.

Incidentally this site has a "Poem of the Day" page which is fun to look at though today's is a poem by Robert Service who wrote Desperate Dan McGrew I think.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Good eating on the cut

There's good eating on the cut if you're a catterpillar. If you're a kid there are a few nice things to chew. But if your an ordinary person there is not much "food for free" in spring, and the plants you can eat, don't taste very nice. On the other hand the chances of getting poisoned are pretty low although Briony and (I think) Lords and Ladies' berries are poisonous. Also Hemlock, which looks very like Cow Parsley, is poisonous. Hemlock did for Socrates who was executed "on the grounds that" he offended the gods. I had to translate that into Greek as a boy and there was a special Gereek phrase for "on the grounds that" which I have long forgotten.

However I do remember the first sentences we had to translate when learning Latin and Greek and they have proved a constant source of joy to me throughout my life. (Though of course absolutely no use whatsoever.) The first word taught in Latin was "mensa" - table. And the first verb "Amo" I love. "I love the table." A very useful thing to say. What was really peculiar, if you were a boy, was that all the first declension nouns (those that end in "a" were feminine and the only man whose name ended in a was Cotta - some general of Ceasar's I think but will find out from Google, - yes he was Gaius Aurelius Cotta who fought some battle in Gaul). Yes I think "Cotta loves the table" really was a sentence we had to translate. There were a lot of sentences about Cotta so that we wouldn't get the impression that Latin was somehow effiminate.

The first verb in Greek was "luo" meaning I loosen. Lots of things were loosened. Well no, only a few things because there really aren't many things that can be loosened. "I loosen the belt of the judge" Surely I made that up, but I think I translated it. Certainly there was "He loosens the fetters of the goddess." A bit near the mark it seems to me in retrospect but of course as a child your expectation of anything you learn in class making any sense at all is zero. Notice how all the sentences are in the present making the whole thing seem even more non-sensical.

Back to eating. The favourite at this time of year must be "bread and cheese" the buds of May blossom. You can pick them and chew them. They feel a bit like little bits of cheese in your mouth and don't taste too bad at all. Kids used to pick them and eat them on the way to school. Sorrel leaves and flowers are nice to chew as well with a sort of lemony taste. You can chew on grass too, the soft ends that you pull out by pulling on the flower. Before the days of tins and frozen food people would eat "spring pudding" made from the spring shoots and mixed, I think with barley. It probably gave them much needed vitamin C after a long winter living on root vegetables. (My sister Jacky the Kew guide tells me about this and here Google really lets me down as practically every chef has a recipe for his or her "Spring Pudding" and so the information on the sort I am insterested in is burried somewhere in 30 million results. So I can't give you a sensible link.)

Enough waffle. On the cut if you're a person you can eat May buds, sorrel - the small leaves and the flowers, garlic mustard, best boiled, Celandine leaves for vitamin C, nettles - very nice boiled but hell to clean as the hairs trap the grit and they sting until cooked. (And make sure the nettles haven't been poisoned with weed killer - that would be deadly!) You could also eat cow parsley leaves as a substitute for chervil - probably best avoided as it is very like the very poisonous Hemlock. "Cow parsley may be distinguished from hemlock by its having hairy rather than smooth leaves and stems which, though sometimes purple-tinged, are never purple spotted".

In September there will be blackberries, a few apples off the very old trees, a few wild strawberries in June, and a few gooseberries off the bush near the top. But really there is not much "food for free" unless you are a caterpillar. Catterpillars are starting to eat away at all the leaves. See the photo of the hazel leaf at the top.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The old cut and the new

I got given a photo of the cut taken last November before any of the laying was done. It's hard to believe it's the same place, but it is. Last autum (and for the previous 20 years or so the cut was a mysterious dark tunnel while now it's a light, open, flower filled walk. Something has been lost. Something gained. Some people love the change, some people hate it. Me? I expect it will all grow up again in the next thirty years. European money won't last forever.

Most likely the cut has seen the cycle many times before. We know the path has been there for a couple of hundred years and more likely two or three times as long as that.

The photo came from Ian Stone of Forest Friendly Farming who arranged the funding for laying the hedges - (yes it did come from Europe). The Forest Friendly Farming website is at
I've also been talking to Peter today the local historian, and hope to talk to the man who actually did the hedge laying sometime soon, so this weeks blogging should be slightly more fact-friendly than usual. So to make up for it here's a link to a poem.

The picture of the cut as it was reminded me of Kipling's "They closed the road through the woods, seventy years ago" seems kind of appropriate when you look at the size of trees. Here's the link. I love Kipling and grew up on it. Here's the link to Road through the Woods. Ogden Nash was similarly devoted to him and wrote a nice little poem that goes something like this

When I a winsome boy did keep
I'm told that I was fond of sleep
And later as a handsome strippling
Gave up my life to sleep and Kipling.

I can't give you the rest because, for once, I know something that doesn't seem to be on Google.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Joy in the cut

I saw Tom running up the cut, and ran myself to get the camera. I got there as soon as he was past the kissing gate with his young cousin and grandfather. He was happy to run through the cow parsley again and let it tickle his face and brush against. The camera failed, and he did it again and again. He would have been happy to do it all afternoon I think.

Tom's young cousin was so small he was hidden in the flowers, but I got two of Tom.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Cow Parsley - see how it grows

Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is part of the carrot family and it's root can be eaten. So can its leaves and we had a chef living here who used to pick it and take it as Chervil to his restaurant. But the amazing things is how it has grown from a few little leaves in March to dominate the cut now in mid May.

See how it has grown in the series of pictures. A few miserable leaves at the edge of the path, next there are flowers here and there, then it is chest high as my wife walks through it, and yesterday, wild in the wind, it filled the cut with white foam.

The books say that another name is "Queen Anne's Lace" though I've never heard this used. It seems this is an American name. (Curses be upon Americans for inflicting "Rooster" upon us and calling the "Plough" the "Big Dipper".) It seems that Queen Anne's Lace is a slightly differentflower from cow parsley with one red flower at the centre. (I put this in to explain the poem I found - quite by chance about it it.) The poem is by William Carlos Williams. (Praise be upon the Americans for writing most of the best 20th century English poetry - the 21st century will be Indian for sure - there are already more English speakers in India than there are in all of the rest of the world so we'd better start learning to understand them.)

The line that caught me was "until the whole field is a white desire". Today the whole cut is a white desire. Here's the link to the Queen Anne's Lace poem - and here is another poem of his that I have just discovered. I really liked it for its everyday simplicity - I hope you enjoy it too.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The exotic sex life of lords and ladies

Hidden in the dark bottom of the hedge on the cut, strange sexual shenanigans are going on amidst the lords and ladies. Not the aristocracy. We have no real lords and ladies in the village any more though we used to have two sets before the war. (We also had the millionaire who invented Allan and Hanbury's Blackcurrant Pastilles in the third big house.)

No these are plants called Lords and Ladies or Cuckoo Pint. Both names refer to the penis like spike (Called "spadex" I think) that comes up as a shield for the flower. Cuckoo Pint because "pint" is short for "pintle" which was another name for penis. Lords and Ladies for the same sort of reasons. But all this was just the look of them, their method of reproduction is really pretty improbable. Flowers go to great length to avoid self fertilization and this is how Lords and Ladies do it.

At the base of the flower, one of the cells generates heat and the base of the flower is about 10 degrees hotter than the air outside. This generates the smell of rotten meat and along with the spots on the leaves attracts flies to come into the flower. Alas regardless of their doom the little victims play. They fly down into the flower brushing past the female part of the flower and down into the male pollen. No rotten meat at all just lots of pollen around the flies feet to prance about in while that delicious and deceptive mouldy meat smell drives them crazy with hunger. The plant can't release them until the female flowers have been polinated so they have to wait trapped by downward facing spikes.

Eventually a previously trapped fly brings male pollen to the female flowers and the downward spikes wither away to allow the trapped flies to escape and lured by more putrid meat smells go and fertilize another Lords and Ladies flower. When do the poor flies ever eat I wonder?.

You couldn't make it up, and I would take a big bet on it never working. But the lords and ladies come up regularly every spring and are bright with red berries in the autumn. Maybe they are secretly polinated by crazed botanists who want to keep this improbable myth alive. Seems a much more probable explanation to me.

Wether human Lords and Ladies really have a more exotic sex life than us commoners I don't know. Half of me hopes they do (what's the use of being so grand if you just have an ordinary sex life?). Half of me hopes they don't. Part of me hopes they hardly have a sex life at all. Here's a limerrick, often recited by Philip at the Friday sing song at the pub, which suggests this.

At dinner the Duchess of Bec Said "Everyone listen a sec, They've found a man's tool In the small swimming pool. So would all of you gentelmen check?"

On a similar subject there's a nice poem by John Suckling, the cavalier poet, about an aristocratic wedding which ends with the verse:

At length the candle's out, and now
All that they had not done they do;
What that is, who can tell?
But I believe it was no more
Than thou and I have done before
With Bridget and with Nell.
Here's the link.
It contains the nice lines
Her cheeks so rare a white was on,
No daisy makes comparison,
(Who sees them is undone),
For streaks of red were mingled there,
Such as are on a Catherine pear,
(The side that's next the sun).
There's two more nice poems there as well. Take a look.

While I'm droning on about poetry "Alas regardless of their doom the little victims play" comes from Gray's poem "On a distant prospect of Eton College". Seeing the doom of the Eton pupils was probably to become prime minister or something of the sort maybe they should have been more cheerful or maybe not. The poem also contains the line "Where ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise". Here's the link.