Nora and I went for a little walk along the Thames Path from Chiswick to Barnes today. It could have been somewhere quite rural at first but it got more urban as we went along. So we just turned around and went back again. London’s full of these quiet little spots. You just have to go a little off the beaten track and explore.
Posts Tagged ‘UK’
I’ve always longed for a garden trug but new ones are really expensive and it’s something you can easily do without. After all, a cardboard box or a plastic basket of some kind work just as well for holding picked flowers until you bring them indoors. Also, until I came to Spring Cottage I didn’t really have any flowers to pick so a trug had to wait. Now, however, Spring brings loads of daffodils and other narcissi, and I also plant all kinds of seeds in my cut flower beds specifically to grow things to bring inside. So I’m enjoying a clapped out old trug that I bought last summer at a car boot sale for three quid. It’s a bit brittle and won’t last for ever but I’ve waterproofed it a little by painting it with Danish oil and it now looks as thought it’s a family heirloom, which I much prefer to things being brand new. It kind of goes better with the ancient nature of the cottage, looks suitably rustic hanging in the woodshed, and I can spend the money saved on seeds instead.
The main flowerbeds here are in the front garden, which is at the side of the cottage, if that makes sense. Being at the side, at the gable end of the house, there is no window overlooking it. So I have to bring flowers in if I want to see them more than in passing on the way to the car. Many of the daffodils have also been planted under the various hedges. Well, they would have originally been under the hedges but now they are in the hedges, the hedges having grown widthways as well as in height over the years. So the daffs need rescuing before they are forced to bend over by the branches sprouting above them.
I love allotments; those little patchwork plots in cities, like here on the edge of Bridgwater in Somerset, where people grow vegetables and flowers; where they build sheds and scarecrows out of discarded materials; where they go to relax and unwind by toiling on their actually not so little patches of earth. Turning the overgrown, run to seed dirt into neat rows of sprouting vegetables and fruit.
I think it’s the variety that you find on allotments that appeals to me: neatness, abundance, rot, abandonment and nurture side-by-side in equal measure. I love the textures of the ground, of the buildings, and of the things that are grown. I find them just as satisfying to look at at this time of year as in the fullness of harvest time.
I don’t have an allotment or even aspire to having one, having just one mouth to feed these days, but they’re still very pleasing to look at. It’s like looking at a microcosm of the countryside: tiny little fields, sharing water, battling to outdo each other yet doing completely different things, their keepers annoying each other with their varied methods of cultivation and outcomes.
What do you think? Have you got an allotment or do you want one? Or are you one of those who find them a messy eyesore on their horizon? Are my glasses totally rose-tinted?
When Nora arrived she was small enough to slip under the gate to the back garden from the little contained area immediately around the house. Fortunately, that didn’t last long and for a few months it was safe to let her out of the back door knowing that she wouldn’t be able to run off and get lost.
Then she became a teenage dog and discovered exploring. Through the hedge she would go, unerringly finding the one section where there was a break in the ancient wire netting embedded in it. Terrifyingly, she would run out into the lane and then stand stock still in the middle of the road ignoring all calls for her to return. Heart stopping, knowing that people bomb down here fairly fast, although it’s often quiet for hours, lulling you into a false sense of security. Then she got even naughtier and started to jump over the ridiculously low back fence and go off foraging for things in the field behind the cottage. The fence was deliberately low, having been put up by my predecessor who favoured the view. Oddly, at that time the field was used for cattle grazing, which was brave or foolhardy of her, depending on your point of view, as she might have had a ton of cow land on her while she was sitting out in the sun. Worse than the possibility that Nora would leave an occasional poo among the growing crop was my fear that she would be seen. In the hills, you can see an animal from a long way off when it is the only moving object in a field, so I worried that the farmer would be annoyed that I’d let the dog loose on his land.
So, off I went to buy some wire fencing to temporarily (I hope) constrain her adventurousness until she is old enough to listen when she is told to wait and come down. It’s ugly, much harder to put up than I thought and knackered my hands completely, but it does the job and I hope to be able to take it down in about eighteen months or so.
As a child I visited Boston Manor Park frequently with my father but nothing apart from the children’s playground had stuck in my memory. I often catch sight of the Jacobean manor house when driving along the M4 motorway’s elevated section; the bit that links Heathrow airport with London. If you’re travelling towards London, the house is visible on the left-hand side at around the same time as the shiny GlaxoSmithKline monolith appears ahead of you on the right.
Curious to see what it’s like, I decide to take Nora for a walk there. Expecting more or less an ordinary park, I am first rather disappointed and then surprised. Disappointed because the grounds appear very small, with only a small lawned area and a large pond immediately behind the compact house and stable block. I almost regret having paid for an hour and half’s parking. But we are surprised and rewarded by the discovery of a ‘nature trail’ leading down under the motorway into a mysterious other world that co-exists with the impatient roar of the traffic over our heads.
The trail is really only a hint of a dirt path that descends out of a flowerbed into a boggy, overgrown mass of ivy and untended greenery. It’s quite off-putting. However, we persevere, with me cursing a lack of waterproof footwear, until we see what I suspect is the Grand Union Canal but turns out later to be a canalised bit of the River Brent, complete with barge and lock (I’m not showing you the side of the lock with the graffitied penises all over it).
Despite the filthy water, a swan swims up to greet us and we are surrounded by the echoing calls of hidden waterfowl. Nora finds the inevitable pile of human poo and what looks like the skin of a fish and evades my attempts take it away from her. The smell makes me gag and I worry that she will get ill from eating it.
A cyclist passes on the other bank where there is a well-maintained path but our side seems utterly desolate until a brown-haired man in his thirties wearing a striped tee-shirt wanders by looking aimless. I wonder if he’s a part of this place where nothing looks official or managed. There’s a ramshackle, padlocked, chicken wire gate that leads to more wasteland littered with old bits of tractor and more rubbish. It seems odd to fence in such abandonment. I wonder if the barge people have claimed it for their own since no-one else seems to care.
Beneath the motorway itself stretches an underworldly tarmac paradise, spacious and deserted. It feels strangely liberating to be somewhere so hidden from the mainstream of city life. It occurs to me that I should feel frightened but I don’t. However, I also don’t investigate further under the motorway. Not on my own with a rather unpredictable young dog.
Looking at a map later, it appears that we might have found more open parkland had we gone on further towards the Glaxo building but, drawn in by the atmosphere of dereliction and isolation amid the busy-ness overhead and in the light industrial areas round about, this seems enough for one day.
We resurface and return to the car, feeling mildly astonished to have been so close to tennis courts resounding to the noise of a game and council employees working in the children’s play area.
It turns out that I don’t even actually remember the playground.
Today Nora and I went on a walk with some Twitter friends. How very modern, don’t you know. We’d already met at a tweet-up in Birmingham a couple of years ago and then, last summer, we realised that we were getting black labrador puppies at around the same time.
Having someone to share your concerns with during those early weeks when your puppy is a widdling mystery that seems to have ruined your perfectly nice life, is a real support and I was keen to meet Lucca in person and spend some time with his humans.
Like any individuals, the dogs turned out to be both different and similar. Nora (above left) is from a working background, while Lucca is a traditional ‘show’-type labrador. Even allowing for one being a bitch and the other a dog, Nora has a lighter build with a more delicate facial structure and a thinner tail, as you’d expect from the gundog strain. Both are typical boisterous, often clumsy, selectively deaf, giant puppies who had a great time play-fighting, sharing sticks and finding some inevitable water along the way. Both are totally gorgeous.
The walk, around the Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey, was about halfway along the A3 between our respective homes. There was enough tree cover that we weren’t out in the sun the whole time (which would also be good for rainy days) and the gradients were just about right for chatting humans and juvenile dogs on an unusually clear and warm March day.
The area is owned by the National Trust, which means that historic landmarks like this milestone that was found by the contractors when the old route of the A3 was being dug up, are well-explained. Seeing traditional woodland activities, like coppicing and charcoal burning, make it only a slight stretch to imagine yourself travelling along here between Portsmouth and London in a stagecoach a couple of hundred years ago. The views reach as far as London forty miles away and, with a café and a large car park as a base, I’d highly recommend this as a spare afternoon’s activity with or without canine companions.
I don’t know about Lucca but Nora got home dusty and exhausted, and has barely moved since, other than to wolf down her supper.
Yesterday I noticed that it wasn’t windy or rainy for once. What a relief it is to see things drying out, even a little! The leak that began after Christmas seems to have stopped (my fingers are tightly crossed). Despite two professionals from the building trades coming to look at it, neither noticed nor pointed out that one of the tiles on the porch had slipped down a little – both were perhaps focused closely on their own line of work and source of income.
But the other week, I was staring up at the porch wondering how it could have sprung a leak so suddenly, when I noticed that the tiles in the top row under the flashing weren’t quite aligned, so I got up on a kitchen chair with Nora bounding around my feet with excitement, and tapped the tile back into position. Since then things have improved. I won’t say more than that as it hasn’t rained particularly heavily since then and it may be premature. But I’m hopeful that this will have fixed it. It makes sense: the porch was used as a support for one of the scaffolding poles during the chimney repairs last year and this may have loosened things.
This morning the clouds were gathering again as we walked up on the coast at Stolford. We walked along the sea defence, the Bristol Channel on one side and flood water on the other. A couple of fishermen crouched behind a bright red windbreak on the top, patiently tending their rods and lines, obviously made of stern stuff.
To get out of the wind’s buffeting, we headed down onto the beach and strolled along the shingle, noting an outflow pipe pouring into the sea. The concrete construction bears the initials S.D.B. – Somerset Drainage Board perhaps?
Sandy brown waves churned back and forth as the tide went out. The waterline showed it had been right up to the top of the defence but hadn’t overtopped it. Very little manmade detritus had made it onto the beach today, which was good, but I really needed my “leave it!” command when I was photographing this washed-up sheep’s carcass and Nora bounded up intent on examining it. I wonder how it came to be in the sea, poor thing.
And here’s a fairly unremarkable fossil, which I’m always pleased to find, although I leave them behind where they belong.
Postscript: if anyone is having trouble seeing the pictures, or enlargements of them, please let me know and I’ll see if I can report it. One reader reports not being able to open them. Thanks.
Walking uphill slightly, we cross the lane, stepping across the stream of water that runs down its length almost all the time now. An undulation in the asphalt further up the road has made the run-off miss its destined drain, so it flows down along the road’s surface, much of it also by-passing the gulley outside the cottage where the tarmac has been scarred by the tread of lorry and tractor tyres.
Turning the numbers to align, I throw back the padlock in its sodden nylon sheath and heave back the lever to release the gate. We head into the field, to its highest point, to check if there is any livestock around. Nora goes running off to find some good smells, her ears blowing back in the breeze, while I trudge around the field’s edges. Instinctively anti-clockwise, never clockwise.
The meadow must be the size of our local park; yet it feels much smaller. A single young tree has been planted in the centre, protected by sturdy, stock-proof fencing. By the gate, there is an old barn that has been partly converted into stables and then abandoned. I heard the money ran out but I know to expect its conversion into a holiday let. A laminated planning notice, torn loose from its moorings, lies almost lost in the hedge.
The stable doors hang loose on their hinges, blown to and fro by the wind. The half-roman roof tiles – traditional around here – have slid away from their moorings here and there, and the new concrete floor is stained and patchy. A bath sits upended on a pile of discarded timbers. It is all wet. So wet.
As I continue to walk the margins, heading uphill now, a mist rolls in, obliterating Cothelstone and Lydeard Hills, and my focus is drawn to the ground. The field has lost its place in the landscape. Maybe this is why it feels so small today.
The ground is saturated even here in the uplands. Hoof-prints hold little pools of soil-reddened water. The grass, still green last week, is yellowing, not exactly flooded but oozing water around its longer tussocks, anything at ground level slowly asphyxiating. The remains of one of last summer’s corncobs, blown in from the field over the lane at harvest time, lies among the decaying cowpats. The grain has been eaten but the cob is here to rot. It is hard to imagine that this meadow was full of rabbits and yellow buttercups only last May.
This is Seven Sisters on the top of Cothelstone Hill in the Quantocks. I can see it from my bedroom window and when I’m up there I can see the cottage in the distance, poking its roof up over the hills.
The view from Cothelstone is wonderful; a full 360 degrees, on a good day, of fabulous countryside in all directions, with sights ranging from Minehead and Exmoor to the Bristol Channel and Wales on the other side.
Seven Sisters itself is a very useful local landmark by which to orientate yourself as you move around the Quantock area. You can see it from so many places and it makes it very easy to tell in which direction home lies. Comforting even in these days of GPS.
Only three of the original seven ‘sisters’ remain – they’re the big trees on the right of the picture. Exceedingly tall for this exposed location, they are very old and bend distinctively away from the prevailing wind. They will eventually die or be uprooted in a gale as is the way of things. The plan was that when they did, the smaller beech tree circle would be left to replace them… only now that won’t happen. For the mound of earth on which they are growing is special. It’s called a ‘pillow mound’. That means it’s thought to be an ancient rabbit warren (presumably from medieval times when large rabbit warrens were cultivated as a source of food).
English Heritage have decided that this unremarkable low, grass-covered rise is more important than the newer group of trees, planted some 40 years ago to augment the older tree circle. They will therefore be removed over four years to protect the mound on which they’re planted.
How the newer circle of trees is to be taken out without damaging the precious ground hasn’t been explained, but I noticed this morning that one of them has already been cut down. Presumably once the stump and root system have rotted sufficiently, they will be pulled out carefully. Then, eventually, there will another blank grassy mound with a wooden fence around it, as there already is a little further along on the hill, and that will be ‘history’.
New trees will be planted slightly somewhere else and it will be many, many years before there’s another Seven Sisters up on the hill big enough for people to remark upon from a distance.
I can’t help thinking that a living monument is being sacrificed for one that has been long gone. Let’s just hope that the original trees survive long enough for the latest circle of trees to establish itself, or else this familiar landmark will vanish for more than one generation. By then, those of us who love this place will also be history and its memory lost forever.
Postscript: An informed view – http://www.quantockhills.com/blog/view/conservation_conversations/
Rather like when a new baby is brought home, a puppy requires adjustments to your lifestyle that can sometimes be frustrating, even though the new arrival is longed for. We’ve worked out how to do most things now but I’ve only managed to go riding once and, when I got home again, Nora didn’t seem very happy. So I haven’t ridden since and I really miss it. It’s one of the only times I get together with anyone local and it’s a wonderful way of being in the countryside.
Even when it’s cold and rainy, riding through the woods under a canopy of beeches and oaks festooned with long strands of ivy that damply brush your face is very special. It’s so quiet when you ride along bridle paths, the ancient green roads that linked villages before wheeled transport, that the modern world recedes and it’s possible to imagine how life might have been in the past. On horseback you can also go much further than you would on foot and penetrate areas inaccessible to cars or bikes. In the relative isolation that this brings, the countryside’s smells and sounds become clear and vibrant.
Without riding to look forward to I have sometimes felt reluctant to leave London and come to Somerset ‘just to be in a different place’, especially in winter. Of course it never is just being in a different place, as I’m always busy with things like the hedge-cutting once I arrive and happy that I came. But with the amount of effort involved in getting two cats and a dog and all our bits and pieces here, I do sometimes feel like not bothering. Yet while I’m always trying to resolve the tension between the two places, I think I also thrive on it because I both depend on familiarity and need new things to learn about.
Anyway, to get back to the point of this waffle, tomorrow I’m going to get up extra early and let Nora have a big run outside to exercise her properly before I go riding. I’ve cooked her some mashed potato which I’ve mixed up with some softened kibble and squished into her Kong toy and frozen, so that she has this to play with and eat in her crate while I’m out. This sounds disgusting but she loves it. This is after all an animal that thinks nothing of eating cat poo.
Today’s photos were taken at Hawkridge Reservoir, a couple of miles away, where we went for a walk today and Nora discovered duck poo. Yum.
Having a puppy around means that taking photographs has become rather difficult, even when Nora is off the lead when we’re out. Many of my pictures now look something like this:
Almost inevitably, in the logistical nightmare that is leaving the house with a puppy — patting myself down for the whistle, treats, poo bags, gloves and, oh crikey, noticing I’m still wearing slippers — I usually forget to take the big camera and end up taking photos with my agéd phone. Combined with the wintry low light, this is a recipe for disaster. And, as my point-and-shoot has gone to Brazil and I’m not up to playing with the Leica-like, even though it is small, I just have to make the best of it.
There’s also not much variation to blog about as I spend most days walking, tiptoeing around or talking about the dog, but this is slowly getting better. But today, after a trip to Taunton and a walk up the road in Broomfield on the way home…
I returned to my pre-puppy self and did a spot of impromptu hedge trimming, spurred on by the beautiful, freezing weather. I say ‘spot’ but the hedge is very, very long and my electric trimmer runs out very, very quickly, meaning that a lot had to be done with the manual clippers, so clearing up will have to wait until tomorrow. But it’s wonderful feeling to have done something practical again. It’s been an awfully long time of me fitting around Nora, rather than the other way around. And Nora loved it too, bounding around safely inside the gate, while I was on the outside of the hedge, and clearing up (ahem) my clippings when I was doing the inside.
I’m not even going to look at what’s happened to the flowerbeds.
Bad luck, chaps, it appears that I’m going to write a blog post every time I go for a walk with Nora, the puppy.
My preference would always be to walk to the local park, Ravenscourt Park in Hammersmith, when we’re in London, rather than drive somewhere. The trouble is that, at the moment, Nora isn’t very good at walking on the lead. Everything is so new to her that she has to look at every discarded cigarette end, bit of dog poo, and sniff every smell going. This means zig-zagging back and forth across the pavement so that I end up going round and round in circles trying to disentangle myself from her lead. It’s very slow. She also greets everyone we meet and is often a little offended – or perhaps I am – when people don’t find her utterly charming and want to say hello back. But for every person who recoils from her, there’s another who says how lovely she is and stops to chat about her.
So, I’ve taken to driving to places where the parking is free and we don’t have to walk very far to where Nora can run about. She’s only allowed about 15 minutes’ exercise at the moment (to prevent the development of arthritis in later in life, although this is just a theory), so it’s nice if she can spend that time actually in a park rather than on the way there.
Today, we had a lovely time. The sun shone again, although it was chilly, and I rediscovered Gunnersbury Park in Ealing, which I haven’t been to since my children were small and I was equally in need of somewhere that would divert them.
I’d really forgotten how lovely it is there. The position of the house on the hill and its breadth reminds me very much of Kenwood House in Highgate although I haven’t been able to find out if they are in any way related yet. We met lovely people while we walked: a chap with a dalmatian puppy and a woman walking an old, grizzled labrador, who asked Nora to sit and then gave her a treat.
By the way, I refuse to capitalise the names of dog breeds that are named after places. They aren’t proper nouns in that sense – you wouldn’t capitalise spaniel, would you? Or perhaps you would?
Much was said about the storm, called #storm2013 on Twitter as though there could be no other this year, that gripped southern England overnight; including a lot of hyperbole and speculation. It was, in fact, pretty dramatic and disrupted many people’s journeys to work, bringing trees down onto power lines and across railways. Although there was a lot of overblown verbiage out there, there were four deaths, so it was a relief to emerge unscathed, although I have yet to see if there’s any damage at Spring Cottage.
By late morning the high winds had passed, clearing the skies and as Nora and I made our way over the rough grass of Richmond Park in London, the sun was shining brightly. A huge open space in south-west London, the royal park is one of King Henry VIII’s hunting grounds, untouched since the sixteenth century, more or less, save for the addition of a few lodges and car parks.
There seemed to be deer everywhere today (which there aren’t always), including a very impressive stag sporting some huge antlers. Perhaps they had come down closer to the roads than usual following the bad weather. Not wanting a repeat of last year’s Fenton dog chasing deer video, I was quite careful to pick a spot to walk where there seemed to be no wild animals, although the vibrant green parakeets that inhabit most of London’s parks these days chattered loudly all around us.
On our brief 15-minute walk, as required by Nora’s tender puppy joints, we came across a literal windfall of sweet chestnuts, shaken loose from the trees by the winds but quite ripe enough to be gathered and eaten. My first thought was to wonder why there were so many tennis balls under the trees.
I collected only a few, feeling sorry for Nora, who kept following me into the spiky mass that pricked her feet and made her run out again quickly onto the grass. There was a warning notice in the car park about not taking any mushrooms but nothing about chestnuts, so we nabbed a few, and there were plenty left behind for the other animals to feast on.
Postscript: Feeling guilty today (18 November) after another visit to Richmond Park. Posters have now gone up on some sweet chestnut trees asking people not to take the chestnuts as the deer need them. I won’t do it again!
Coming up to the coast clears my mind whenever I doubt what on earth I’m doing here in Somerset – just me and various animals. It’s not exactly sea air but there’s something about being by water that’s relaxing. Its skies are wide and bleakly bright and, over the other side of the Severn Estuary, you can make out the Welsh coast on a clear day. While England isn’t very big and you’re never further than about 70 miles from the coast, it’s nice to have it within 20 minutes’ drive.
The nearest spot I like is Stolford; a hamlet of a few buildings clustered at the point where the tarmac road ends. You can drive on but only as far as the beach car park or down an unpaved road leading to a couple more cottages. As so often around here, hens and duck eggs are sometimes for sale at the side of the road, alongside other bits of surplus garden produce. Around the backs of the cottages, small herds of cows graze in fields that are sit low down alongside the grey stone of the sea defences and someone keeps a couple of Shetland ponies in what looks more like a large garden than a paddock; perhaps in place of a lawnmower. There used to be a chap here who sold fish and prawns from a garage that opened onto the road but this was closed and I wondered if he had given up fishing but I hope he was just out for the day.
There was also a beautiful dovecote in one of the front gardens, but I couldn’t spot it this time. I snapped it on the day I first visited Spring Cottage, while I was trying to get a feel for the lie of the land.
Other changes round here are of more than local importance. There’s been much in the news in recent weeks about Hinkley Point, site of one of the UK’s nuclear reactors, a couple of miles along the coast. The government has taken the decision to permit development of a new nuclear reactor, Hinkley C, to be built up here, temporarily providing jobs and creating a lot of traffic in and around Bridgwater, virtually at the junction of the M5 motorway. So Stolford and the whole of the surrounding area will continue to be dwarfed by its vast building blocks and the huge chain of pylons taking the power away for consumption by us and the rest of the country.
Nora and I got into trouble today on the M5 motorway, which was closed for six hours following an accident. So, desperate to give her something to eat and let her out for a wee, I took the exit for Clevedon, intending to find a different route through to the Quantocks.
Nora didn’t seem to mind having her lunch on the pavement and she enjoyed a short walk along the promenade overlooking Clevedon Marine Lake. It was very sedate and a little faded but sweet; full of pensioners having lunch in the windy sunshine and walking their dogs.
P.S. I should probably mention that Nora is a dog.