Sunday, 14 March 2021

Novel-writing and wildflowers

It’s over a month since I posted here and I wanted to explain why. You may not have noticed my absence, but I feel bad leaving without a word.

The reason I've been silent is that I've received a positive report on my novel (hooray!) with lots of helpful advice for improvements which I'm busy putting into effect.

I’ll try and keep you posted with any further progress.

In the meantime here are some photographs of wildflowers which have appeared recently – in spite of the rain, wind, frost, hail and sleet. 

First, Greater Stitchwort which I saw yesterday (Saturday). Unfortunately, it was hailing at the time, so I didn’t dare get my camera out, and these pictures are from my first sighting last year on 7 March (almost a week earlier).
I see a note in my wildflower book which says that in 2005 I saw it on 20 March, a week later than this year. 
I always rejoice to see it as it’s the first of the hedgerow plants to appear.
The flowers are about half an inch across.


Greater Stitchwort, Devon, 7 March


Greater Stitchwort, Devon, 7 March

Greater Stitchwort

Second, Marsh Marigold, which also goes by the lovely name Kingcup. I saw the first ones out the day before yesterday (Friday). It’s a giant fleshy buttercup that grows in boggy places like watermeadows or the edges of ponds. 

This picture is slightly lacklustre as I couldn’t get close, and only a few of the flowers were out as yet. If I get a better one, I’ll put it here instead. En masse they are a glorious sight.

Marsh Marigold, Devon, 12 March

Marsh Marigold (the small yellow blobs in the foreground)

Friday, 5 February 2021

Wildflower watch

It’s about this time that I start spotting wildflowers as they begin to appear and – in an anoraky way – making notes in my diary so that I can compare first-sightings over the years.


All wildflowers now appear much earlier than they used to as a result no doubt of global warming. Primroses for instance, which I used to think of as a February flower, now appear before Christmas.

Here are some that I photographed today along the edge of our garden. (I do regret the fence, as it’s not good for wildlife, but it is essential at the moment to stop Ellie squeezing out through the hedge and chasing vehicles, the varmint.)


The flower won’t however come into its massed glory for a couple of months, such as these that I photographed in April 2017 along a nearby path.


I remember as a child going on primrose-picking picnics (try saying that a few times) with a friend and her mother, but I would never pick wildflowers now, not even if there appeared to be lots of them. They need all the help they can get, with habitat loss to my mind a far greater threat than rising temperatures.
As I said to Frog as we walked along the canal two days ago and I looked longingly at a scruffy and forgotten field-corner, ‘I just hope I live long enough to see large parts of the country rewilded.’
Scruffy and forgotten corners are all we have left of real nature - the rest is a green desert – and I can’t begin to count the number of scruffy and forgotten corners where I used to sit and dream that have since disappeared.
Europe is in part to blame because it rewards farmers for the amount of land they cultivate and, although I voted to stay in Europe, I may be changing my mind because the British government has plans to reward farmers for the good they do for the environment instead. God willing, those plans will come to fruition. (They could scrap the HS2 railway as well while they were about it.)

Wild Daffodils

Wild daffodils are a case in point. Back in the 1980s I used to see fields of them but those fields have gone, no doubt ploughed up and ‘improved’. The only ones I see now are these that I planted myself at the entrance to our house, which have been flowering for nearly a week and bringing joy to my heart every time I pass them.

Wild daffodils

They’re not the same as the cultivated daffodils which have ‘escaped’ to live wild, being smaller and paler. They come out earlier too. My wildflower books say March but I made a note in 2005 that they’d come out on 1 February, so even sixteen years ago their season had shifted by a whole month. They are the daffodils that Wordsworth saw and wrote about.


Snowdrops on the other hand have been late this year, perhaps because it’s been a cold winter. I usually see them at Christmas in a small bed outside our back door but my first sighting this year was in the wilds of Mid Devon on 22 January on a freezing and wet day. It was so dark that my camera flashed as I took the picture.


Snowdrops are probably not native, as they weren’t recorded growing wild in this country until the 1770s, but they certainly look at home now, growing in swathes through woods, and here at the bottom of our garden (photographed a few days ago).


I seem to remember at one time that when you were buying snowdrop bulbs you had to be sure they came from a reputable source and hadn’t been lifted from the wild, but I can’t find anything about that now so perhaps it was a different plant. (Incidentally, it’s illegal to dig up any wild plant except on your own land or with the landowner’s permission.)

(Lesser) Celandine

This for me is the real harbinger of spring. Its flowers are like miniature suns, gleaming out of bedraggled hedgerows. One day they’re not there, and the next they’re everywhere. This year that day was Tuesday (2 February), again a month earlier than The Books say.
Lesser celandines

I love their perfect trowel-shaped leaves.

I may continue with this wildflower watch as spring unfolds. I keep looking for my blog’s raison d’ĂȘtre, or USP (unique selling point) as Frog would say, and wildflowers are as good as anything. After all, as I’ve said before (and will say again), no one else in the media seems to care about them. Do please feel free to contribute your own sightings and experiences. I'd like to know about them.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

A day of magic

A few miles away from us on top of a hill is something marked on the map as ‘fort’. I was vaguely aware that it was something prehistoric but in all my forty years of living in this part of the world had never visited it. Frog hadn’t either and he loves things prehistoric. So yesterday, in line with our new policy of avoiding all beauty spots (and as per local Lockdown guidelines) and instead exploring Devon's unknown hinterland, we set off to climb it.

It was a short drive cross-country on icy back roads, so we took it carefully, only for me to nearly lose my footing on sheet ice as I climbed out of the car.

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Frog then spent a long time deciding where best to park so as to keep out of the way, eventually backing uphill on to a grassy verge opposite the church. 

Cadbury Church, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

He had to crawl into the passenger seat to get out of car, which he did head first, falling into the frosty grass, while the dog watched, puzzled. Parking is always a problem when you venture where others don’t.

There were only a few scattered houses – no village - but the church was huge.

Cadbury Church, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

We made our way down the lane to the start of the footpath, me hanging on to the dog lead and trying not to slip as Ellie surged forward, panting with excitement. It’s always surprising how strong she is.
Most of the path was uphill through trees where the mud was frozen into ruts and snow lingered. It was the first snow we’d seen as ours at home hadn’t settled. I began to feel excited. I love snow (unlike Frog).

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

I’d done some research and discovered that ‘hill forts’ are Iron Age villages protected by ditches and banks, but I didn’t hold out much hope for this one as any I’d seen before were hidden in undergrowth and more imaginary than real.
We came out into the open. The sun blazed down, and ahead of us was the unmistakable outline of something.

Cadbury Castle, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

As we came nearer, we could see massive banks and massive ditches.

Cadbury Castle, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Cadbury Castle, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

We went through a massive opening . . .

Cadbury Castle, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

. . . into an enormous arena whose ramparts were almost completely intact, stretching all the way round in a circle.

Cadbury Castle, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Cadbury Castle, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Cadbury Castle, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

It was extraordinary, perfect. Like Avebury without the stones. I was gobsmacked. How come I never knew?
The dog was, if anything, even more intoxicated by the place and the snow than I was. She threw herself on to her back and wriggled in ecstasy, pedalling her legs like an upturned beetle.

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

She then sicked up her breakfast next to the sign board. Oh dear.

The views were 360 degree, with a snowy Dartmoor to the south-west and a snowy Exmoor to the north. It was stunning. There was no one there but us.
I followed Ellie to have a look at a snowperson someone had built, only to realise afterwards, when I downloaded the photo, that my shadow – and the snowperson - and the fort’s northern gateway - were in a line and that I’d probably taken the picture at about midday. Spooky. And I normally try not to have shadows in photos so how this one got there, I don't know. 

Cadbury Castle, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

It made me wonder whether, like Avebury, the site dated back to the Stone Age when people erected stones in circles - and rows and singly - related to the movements of the sun and/or for spiritual purposes (or at least that's what we think they're for. We can never know for sure. I find that tantalising). That would make the site thousands of years older than the 500 BC to which the Iron Age village was said to date. It certainly felt like it. 
Frog needed his lunch, so we propped ourselves on a section of bank, Frog at the top in the wind and Ellie and me hunkered further down in shelter.

Cadbury Castle, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021
I think that’s a fox earth next to us. I hope we didn’t disturb the occupant.

Incidentally, there should be a line of snowy hills on the horizon in most of these pictures, but it hasn't come out. Pity.
A family appeared in the circle and Ellie raced off to say hello to the child who squealed in terror. She wouldn’t come back when we called and we felt very bad although the child’s mother and grandmother told us not to worry.
We retreated to the snowy north ditch with the miscreant.

Cadbury Castle, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

There was no round walk so we had to retrace our footsteps. Back at the car, while Frog changed his walking boots for shoes he could drive in, Ellie and I toured the graveyard with its snowdrops.

Graveyard with snowdrops, Cadbury Church, Devon. Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Many of the stones bore the name of the family who owned the nearby historic house – somewhere else I’d never visited. Another day perhaps (not that I’m that keen on historic houses) as Frog wanted to go home. He’d had enough trauma for one day, what with the ice and the snow, the worry about where to leave the car, a new walk where we might have got lost, and the dog. He’d shouldered it all, while I’d had a day of magic. Thank you Frog.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

New moon, new broom

At 4.44pm on Wednesday the 13th, the moon was new. I know this because of our moon calendar.

I get one every year by post from Mystery Arts in Brighton. It’s lovely to look at and, as well as keeping us up to date with what the moon is doing and telling us about eclipses and astrological signs, it helps me with my veg garden. I sew and plant out when the moon is new and waxing. This does make a difference. They’ve proved it on ‘Gardeners’ World’! (For more on this fascinating subject, you could do worse than investigate ‘biodynamic agriculture’.)
And if the moon affects plants, it might also affect us, which might account for my recent flurry of cleaning and gardening. Other factors of course are the new year, the lockdown, a few fine days and the fact that I don’t have a big writing project on at the moment (for various reasons which I might go into another time) and so am twiddling my thumbs looking for things to do.
First up (as they say) was my workroom. I can’t remember when I last cleaned it and the floor was beginning to scrunch underfoot with a mixture of shredded paper, sewing debris and dead flies.

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Dust covered the surfaces.

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Ropes of cobwebs decorated the ceiling.

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

The filing tray overflowed and the storage system under my desk had descended into chaos.

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

The only neat area was my collection of reference books.

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Two bin bags of paper for recycling, several buckets of dirty water, a rattling vacuum cleaner, one visit to the tip and three days later and my room shone with order and cleanliness.

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Next on the list was the garden. I tore Frog away from the Mini kit car he’s rebuilding (also another story) . . .

Hustler kit car. Exeter University Rag 1985
Frog's 'Hustler' in 1985 decorated with records for Exeter University Rag Week
. . . and we tackled what we call ‘the big bed’, a shrubbery which had become infested with brambles  and grown so tall it obscured our view. (There were no blackberries left so it was a good time to make some changes: we wouldn't be depriving the birds.) Frog wielded chain-saw and bill-hook and I pulled with my new bramble-proof gloves. Two days' work later and we had three large piles on the lawn.

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

What we do with them now we haven’t yet decided. The birds are loving them, using them as a waiting area for the bird table and investigating them as sources of nest material.

We can now see what we actually have left in the bed and through to slices of our lovely view. . . 

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

We left this leggy mahonia . . .

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

. . . because the flowers were turning into berries and apparently (I checked) the birds love them. (Humans can eat mahonia berries too, but I’m not sure I’ll try.)
Likewise this ivy on a dead apple tree (left).

Elm saplings

The spindly trees you can see in the centre of the picture above and in this one below . . .

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021

. . . are elms, which have grown as suckers from a tree which used to live here until it got too tall, contracted Dutch elm disease and died (the beetle which spreads the disease only flying above a certain height). We've since cut their tops off, both so that they survive and in the hope that they will bush out and help fill our now rather sparse shrubbery. I'm all for native species.*

I wanted to do this post last weekend for Kate’s blog link-up party on the theme of ‘new’ but it wasn’t ready. Instead I’m doing it in advance for this weekend's (22nd to 24th) on the theme ‘moon’, and sneaking in the ‘newness’ that should have been there last week. Do take a look the party and maybe even upload something of your own - it's very easy.

*I had a feeling elm wasn't native so I checked and here's what I discovered (from various sources). There are two sorts of elm - Wych elm and English elm. Wych elm is the only true native, but grows naturally only in the northern half of the UK. The English elm is thought to have been introduced by Bronze Age people from southern Europe, and this is the version in our garden. I find these elms easy to distinguish from other trees by their ultra-knobbly bark and the strange thickness at the bottom of small branches. (Wych elms on the other hand have smooth bark.)

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021
The ultra-knobbly bark of English elm

Photograph copyright © Belinda Whitworth 2021
The strange branches of English elm

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Nature washing over you

Here are three recent walks that I didn’t want to go on because of the weather – and the time of year – and the global pandemic - but which turned out to be full of fun and interest. As Kate of ‘I live, I love, I craft, I am me’ says, ‘Sometimes it is hard to get past that initial ‘grump’ then suddenly you feel nature washing over you and you feel so much better.’ Thank goodness for dogs who drag us out.

Ten days ago

Two noisy collies used to race over this stream and nip your ankles. It was a little unnerving and one friend wouldn’t even walk this way because of them, so one day I wrote a letter to the farmer explaining what was happening and saying that I didn’t want his dogs to cause severe injury and get into trouble. I had a very nice letter back, the farmer promising to fence his side of the stream and put a gate on the bridge, which is exactly what he did. Peace now reigns - for which I'm grateful (in spite of my opinions on fences).

Mid-Devon, January
The stream, the bridge and the gate

Oh dear, here’s one of those signs that make me see red. It’s children I worry about. Do they ever get the chance to be out in the countryside by themselves, to explore and play and use their imaginations?

Mid-Devon, January
The unwelcoming sign

There are lovely views, however, a little further on. I’ve seen red deer here twice and there’s a heronry in the trees below. In spring, you can watch the birds coming and going from their tangled-twig nests in the treetops. There’s not much life in evidence today though, in the depths of winter on such a cold day.

Mid-Devon, January
Lovely views

And there’s plenty of woodland here accessible from the path.

Mid-Devon, January
Accessible woodland

Oh dear. Here’s a new fence.

Mid-Devon, January
A new fence

 And what about this? I call this sort of footpath a ‘gulag’. (The bridge is for the animals.)

Mid-Devon footpath, January
The gulag

We come to a fork and I say to Frog, ‘We can either take the easy but boring top path or we can take the interesting lower one which goes through the watermeadows. They’re much prettier but they’re wet at the best of times.’ 

Watermeadows, Mid-Devon, January
The watermeadows

He surprises me by choosing the second option.
We hang on to each other and try to negotiate the mud without falling flat on our faces.
Mud, Mid-Devon, January
Negotiating the mud

As we reach dry land, I say to Frog, ‘I’m so glad you chose the lower path. That was the best bit of the walk. It was an adventure.’
He surprises me again by agreeing.

Two days ago

It’s Sunday and lockdown and people stream round the lanes and paths which I’ve had to myself for four decades. I don’t know where they all come from but I suspect Exeter, whose new housing estates are spreading our way, and from a new town which has sprung up a few miles to the east of us.

Nevertheless I’m charmed by a clump of gorse in flower as ever, some bedraggled left-over red campion and some toadstools projecting horizontally from the hedgebank. What on earth are they? They look like felted drumsticks.

Red campion, Devon, January
Red campion

Toadstools, Devon, January
What are these toadstools?

We’re in what I call ‘Deliverance country’, Devon’s interior. As a neighbour says, herself a farmer, ‘You wonder if some of the people who live there have ever seen another human being before.’ The countryside is what I imagine most of Devon once was: rushing streams, tangled woods and small steep fields.

Mid-Devon, January

 We descend to one such stream and find a brave primrose shivering in the leaf litter.

Primrose, Mid-Devon, January

Now we have to cross the stream, well churned by cattle. Ellie charges through, splashing mud up our trousers. Frog treads warily. He’s wearing walking boots which reach only to his ankles. I’m wearing wellies so I wade over, trying each foot before putting my weight on it, remembering a time when I sank into quick-mud and had to abandon a wellie, throw myself forwards and crawl out (then walk home filthy and one-booted).

Muddy stream, Devon, January

Next we have a muddy slope to negotiate. Frog chooses this route, the long less-steep one. Just to be different, I choose the short precipitous one, the other side of the bramble clump, thinking that I see well-worn footprints that I can use as steps. I can’t. The whole area is treacherous and, with only brambles to hold on to, I imagine myself hurtling down backwards, head over heels. I have a few nasty moments.

Mid-Devon, January

At the top, we decide it’s time for lunch and get out our egg sandwiches, tangerines and coffee. Ellie whimpers under her breath, hoping we’ll take pity on her and share our food. We don’t. We’re wise to her by now (after ten and a half years).
We wonder about the green pimples all over the grass.
‘Perhaps they’re fairy houses,’ I say whimsically.
‘Maybe,’ says Frog. ‘I did think I saw a door in one.’
I suddenly feel terribly excited. ‘Where?’
It turns out to be a leaf.

Mid-Devon, January

We have a choice of routes, but there’s not much in it. Each is as muddy as the other.

Mid-Devon signpost, January

Unmetalled road, Mid-Devon, January
The unmetalled road

The bridleway (right)

A blue waterpipe dangles through the trees, reminding us of Greece where utilities are hit and miss, especially on the islands.
We descend to a hamlet, so damp and deep that the lichen on the trimmed hedge looks like a forest of miniature Christmas trees.

My back’s beginning to ache so we rest at the gateway to a farm. Two muscular collies charge out barking, look us over, and then wander off, having decided that we’re OK. I feel honoured.
A man on a tractor raises his hand to us in greeting. He's the only person we've seen all day.
A speckled grey collie who I remember as snarly from a previous visit, potters out to see us in silence and then hangs about shyly as if she remembers us.
I love it here. It’s my sort of place.