Garden surprise and heartbreak

Catching up on the gardening after a period of neglect, I came across this sunflower, growing in a hole in the side of the old apple tree. The seed was probably dropped in by a bird, from the nearby feeders.

I’d guess the tree is over fifty years old now, still producing apples. Age seems to have given it a new dimension as a nursery for other plants. Sadly autumn is rushing in, so there does not seem time for the sunflower to fully develop.

The apple crop was remarkably blemish free, unlike 36 years ago, when we first moved in. In those days there were always lots of bugs boring their way through the apples, as we never use pesticides, and lots of bird pecks in evidence. Just one measure of the dramatic decline in biodiversity around here over those 36 years. Less insects, less butterflies, less birds, less caterpillars, less beetles, less frogs, less hedgehogs, less owls… You can even grow brassicas without the then-inevitable cabbage white caterpillar, gooseberries without the then-inevitable sawfly larvae. Huge gangs of frogs are replaced by the odd survivor. Year by year things appear much the same, but this slow reduction in biodiversity is huge and heartbreaking.

What are we doing to our natural world?

Featured image is not my apples – from Ukraine by George Chernilevsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

French reflections

Along the French rivers Loire and Vienne are quite a few castles/chateaux that make good use of reflections on the slow moving waters. Those at Chinon and Amboise are particularly striking after it’s fallen dark – a great time for a walk with the camera.

Chinon chateau by the Vienne
Amboise chateau by the Loire

If you’ve seen the Amazon Prime series Bosch, this will remind you of the introductory scenes.

Featured image shows a bridge at Amboise.

Purple Emperor

What on earth is that butterfly doing on that jam buttee, I mused to myself, as I munched into my own. Then she-who-knows-a-lot-about-butterflies got really excited. It’s a PURPLE EMPEROR! Well, yes I did wonder if that might not be correct – it doesn’t look very purple, does it? But then apparently it is a female, and they aren’t purple.

Now, purple emperors usually swan around in the treetops and only come down to eat dung and rotting fruit – unlike most butterflies they don’t go for flowers and their nectar. So this was a most unusual event, and the females are even rarer than the males.

She stayed there awhile, sucking up jam, mostly with wings closed. They almost opened once.

Not a great shot, but then it is the first purple emperor I’ve ever knowlingly seen!

I double checked the jam – it was certainly not rotten.

The Elizabethan TV Age

My early childhood in the postwar years was in audio. We listened to the radio or read the newspapers for entertainment and news. The visual age began in 1953. I can date it precisely because that’s when, like many others in Britain, we got our first television set, to see the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. To my childhood eyes, the coronation only came second for excitement to the preceding Stanley Matthews Cup Final, on 2nd May when Blackpool thrillingly came from behind to beat Bolton 4-3 thanks to Stanley’s magical dribbling and Stan Mortensen’s hattrick.

The coronation on June 2nd was the only occasion I can remember my grandma coming over to our house from the nearby village where she lived – her induction into the television age. I remember the stunning opulence of the occasion on that small black-and-white screen, and the sonorous tones of Richard Dimbleby’s commentary, which set the benchmark for the BBC forever more. After the main event we walked into the centre of Lincoln along by the River Witham. At the Brayford pool I remember all the boats bedecked with celebratory flags.

After that, the TV became the focus for national events but otherwise life continued much as before, but with the added promise of new technologies. The second Elizabethan age had begun.

Most of my experience of Queen Elizabeth II was via the TV, but I did physically see her twice, once at a Royal Tournament on a school trip, and more memorably in 1957 when she was driven round Lincoln City’s football ground at Sincil Bank, packed with all the city’s schoolchildren. I was 12. It was quite exciting seeing the queen. Perhaps it’s significant that I remember her dressed as a princess, when the reality is revealed by the website of Lincolnshire Live (featured image) – she circled the playing area in a Landrover with Prince Philip on a rainy day. Funny thing, memory. 

Now, I am naturally inclined to be republican, as opposed to royalist. Elizabeth was around for most of my life and was clearly dedicated to doing her duty, but also to retaining the privileged position of ‘the firm’. She was probably the best monarch one could have wished for, and only put a few feet wrong, many of which were related to Princess Diana. But was all that killing of dumb animals for sport really necessary, setting the aspiration for generations of well-off wannabees. And did she really need all those palaces, riches and hangers-on – setting the example for the rich and powerful all over the world.

So it’s a mixed legacy, as it is for all of us. She’s part of our mental furniture, so it is taking a while getting used to “God Save the King”.

It really is a new age, dominated by the internet, smartphones, streaming, podcasts… rather than the TV. My grandma, a life lived in a rural village, would be a fish out of water.

We just have to make the best of it, and hope that King Charles III and the current alarming Conservative government do not damage the country too much along the way.

Fens 10 The Wash

Conclusion of our exploration of the Fens.

The Lincolnshire/Cambridgeshire/Norfolk Fens all drain into and were flooded by the sea of The Wash. A potted history: they were first drained by the Romans, reverted to a natural state after the fall of the Empire, and were again drained around 12C by monks, falling into disrepair around 16C after the Dissolution, and drained in on a larger scale in 17C, the period focused on in James Boyce’s book.

The Fens and their drainage machines are an ongoing enterprise to maintain a balance between sea and land, in this most fertile part of England. No wonder this part of Lincolnshire is called New Holland.

The Wash is now a major natural asset for migrating and indigenous birds. As a last hurrah for our explorations, we go close to the mouth of the River Witham at RSPB Freiston Shore. Again we stand on the sea wall looking out over The Wash – salt marsh on one side and fresh water lake on the other.

Along the sea wall at Freiston

A solitary cormorant stands in typical pose, amid black headed gulls and ducks.

On the landward side Boston Stump stands out proud (featured image), seaward there appears to be almost endless salt marsh, beach and then sea, with a misty Norfolk in the far distance.

I reflect that some of my ancestors played a part in this great drainage enterprise; the Fens are part of my own roots.

The dog was not impressed; there were cows on the sea wall. He dashed back towards the van.

Fens 9 Boston

Continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

Our next destination is Boston, near the mouth of the River Witham, and in the Middle Ages a major port of England, related to the wool trade.

River Witham and St Botolph’s church

Our main target is the church of St Botolph, commonly referred to as Boston Stump. This is one of the great churches of England, almost cathedral sized, funded during Boston’s glory days, made rich through export of wool and membership of the Hanseatic League. What a magnificent building it is! And the dog was welcome to enter with us.

Choir

I recall from childhood that we could see the tower of Boston Stump from the top of the central tower of Lincoln Cathedral, but we never actually went there. Boston did not have a great reputation. Today, the prosperity of Boston’s heyday is long gone, and the economy of the area appears quite depressed to us visitors.

I visit the dog-free 14C Guildhall, well preserved and containing a rather haphazard museum, with display boards outlining some of the key events in Boston’s history, particularly the role of local people in the nonconformist/ puritan movements, the emigration of those who became the Pilgrim Fathers, and the founding of the US city of Boston. 1 in 10 Bostonians emigrated to help form the new city of Boston, Massachusets.

Boyce’s book has a theme that Fen drainage was a colonisation project similar to what happened in Tasmania. It became clear here that the Fens were being colonised at around the same time as the Americas. This was the spirit of those times.

Not mentioned is Boston’s role in leading resistance to the drainage of fens in this area, described in Boyce’s book – such that the process was actually reversed. Drainage channels were destroyed and the process delayed for 100 years. Boston people resisted the trends in the rest of the Fens – a bloody mindedness that maybe continues to this day, as the area was significant contributer to the majority in the recent Brexit vote.

Fens 8 Wainfleet

Continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

After a washout day, we drive the short distance to Wainfleet All Saints, where friend Alf was born and lived his childhood, before escaping the Fens via Skegness Grammar School and Sheffield University. In a way, we were both escapees from the Fens, which may have been a contributary factor to our subsequent friendship.

As Alf always said, there’s little at Wainfleet apart from Batemans’ Brewery, the church and the Magdalen Museum. There’s also a station and crossing gates, on the line from Grantham to Skegness, reminding me of the day trips we made to nearby Skegness as children, on the similar line from Lincoln.

We explore the free museum, containing typical local memorabilia and historic items. The name indicates its link with Magdalene College, Cambridge. The van that transported Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown just happened to be parked outside for the Jubilee celebrations.

We find the cemetery and pay our respects to a good friend at the family grave containing Alf’s ashes.

A brief drive through holidaying Skegness crowds suggests that a promenade walk is not an attractive proposition. Instead, we drive down to the National Nature Reserve near Gibraltar Point and walk out over the natural barrier of sand dunes to see the salt marshes, offshore windmills (see featured image) and beach/sea of The Wash.

Here, the natural balance between land and sea is maintained. There are few people, and the scenery is immense and desolate.

Towards Gibraltar Point

Fens 7 Frampton

Continuing the story of our exploration of the Fens.

Our second base was another Premier Park – Long Acres, near Boston. Unexpectedly, the satnav takes us there via Crowland, zig-zagging northwards – using the major east-west cross-fen highways between Peterborough, King’s Lynn and Boston.  These seem to be the only decently surfaced roads in the area, and they are busy with lorries, tansporting the products of this fertile area to the rest of England.

We arrive at RSPB Frampton Marsh (featured image) and enjoy lunch overlooking freshwater marsh with a smattering of birds. The dog is more interested in the cows munching away at the grass, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

There are many more birds on the freshwater lakes we pass by to reach the raised barrier that constitutes the seawall. From this seawall we look out over huge salt marshes out into the Wash. This barrier is all that stops these Lincolnshire fens from being regularly inundated with seawater.

We are lucky that avocets are reasonably close to this side of the lake.

But we see rain approaching across the Fens, so make haste back to the van and on to our next base at Long Acres.

Out in the Fens, the sun slips slowly below the horizon.

Fens 6 Crowland

Continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

Next day we wend our bumpy way back up to Whittlesey (Whittlesea – it was once coastal), a place of conflict in the Fen wars described in Boyce’s book. Locals all over the Fens did not like their land being drained and given away to outsiders, just like indigenous peoples all over the world. There were many battles and acts of sabotage before the resistance was tamed. Even after that, the great lake at Whittlesey remained at around 8 square miles, but it was eventually drained in 19C.  Sadly, there is little evidence of all this in today’s slightly depressed looking town.

We went north to from Whittlesey to Thorney, once one of the five great abbeys that effectively ruled this area before the great Dissolution of Monasteries in 1539 (Peterborough, Ely, Crowland, Ramsey and Thorney). All the is left of the once-great abbey is a rather large parish church for such a small village, quite striking nevertheless.

Thorney Abbey church

More striking is our next stop, Crowland Abbey. I recall stopping here for a break many years ago on my cycle ride from Lincoln to Cambridge. The Abbey of memory is more delapidated than today’s impressive remains.

We are made enormously welcome by enthusiastic volunteers. All that remains of this once-great Abbey is the north aisle of the former church, now an impressive building in its own right. And with evocative ruined features attached. We are guided by the volunteers to see the highlights of the interior, including a striking Green Man, and then the exterior.

It is quite evident that the Dissolution in this area led to Fen drainage falling into disrepair – this job had been done by the monks. This was one factor setting up the situation where new forms of drainage were perceived as being necessary, and hence the new major drainage schemes less than a century later.

At the centre of Crowland is a unique 3-way bridge that once spanned the River Welland and a tributary. The waterways were diverted long ago, leaving this unusual structure high and dry.

3 way bridge in Crowland

Back at the campsite we spot a moorhen apparently nesting in the hedge above our heads – an unusual perspective on a moorhen.

Moorhen in hedge

Fens 5 Welney

The continuation of our exploration of the Fens.

The first large scale work on draining the Fens was completed in 17C by the Duke of Bedford and a Dutch engineer Nicholas van der Muyden. We drive along by one of the main drainage channels, called the New Bedford River (featured image), although it’s not actually a river but an extraction of some of the waters from the Great Ouse River.

The waterway is long and dead straight, with a high bank separating it from the surrounding lower ground. Nearby is an earlier parallel channel, the Old Bedford River. The land between these two channels, the Ouse Washes, is used as a flood relief area when the old River Ouse would have flooded. It’s also good for wetland bird conservation and bird watching, hence our visit here to WWT Welney, where hides that look out over the wetland.

We take turns to visit the hides as there is no provision for dog walking here. There is a fair bit of birdlife around, notably martins, avocets, lapwings. I also see a single black tailed godwit in the distance – evidence that the WWT project to establish a viable population here may be working. The avocets are particularly photogenic.

Following the channel towards the sea, via circuitous Fen roads, we arrive at our second destination, the Denver Sluice Gates near the Norfolk town of Downing Market.

Denver sluice

These sluice gates manage water flows both ways from here up to the coast near King’s Lynn – and specifically prevent the Fens from being inundated by high tides. It is salutary to realise that without these gates this whole area of the Fens would be under water at high tide.

Fens 4 Ely

We continue our Fens exploration after Fens 3.

It is Sunday and we again circle Ely to the south, this time to to the small village of Prickwillow and its Engine Museum. With a small group of visitors we learn more about the history the Fens and specifically the engines used to pump water, from an enthusiastic volunteer and video. It is remarkable that the whole area of he Fens would be inundated regularly by the sea without regular pumping. A marker at the museum shows that the high tide water level would be above our heads.

After the Fens were drained, the land gradually sank due to contraction of peat, so that the fields are now lower than the rivers that drain them – another incredible feature of this area.

The village of Prickwillow was established in 1830 as a tolling station on the River Lark. When steam power came along in 1860 a pumping station was established for drainage. The old pumping station has now become a museum, containing a number of old diesel pumps on display from around 1970s. Sadly there are no remaining steam pumps.

I note that several of the pumps on display are manufactured by the company WH Allen, for whom my father worked designing pumps. Maybe he had a hand in some of these!

After this education, we visit and savour the magnificent Ely cathedral, one of England’s great religious buildings. The medieval octagon tower is quite remarkable. Ely’s position as an island in the original Fens made it a natural focus for travel and trade.

Featured image shows Ely cathedral from nearby meadow.

Fens 3 Wisbech

We continue our Fens exploration after Fens 2.

Next morning, we drive north, past the pretty market town of March, following the River Nene up to Wisbech. The river here is straight and channelled, part of the great works that ensure continued drainage of the surrounding farmland. Coming into Wisbech there’s a pleasing arrangement of Edwardian-style buildings along by the river. 

River Nene at Wisbech

In the 18C, Wisbech was a prosperous Edwardian town, but now we get the impression of a struggling economy. There is evidently a large population of non-indigenous people, and some just hang around on benches smoking or drinking. Apparently 70% of the town voted for Brexit. This trip is not about Brexit, but this experience gives us a feel for why they might have done so.

A visit to the Wisbech and Fenland Museum gives us more insights into the history of life in the Fens over nearly 2000 years. The layout of the museum is just like the museums of my childhood 70 years ago, with a huge miscellany of historic items. We browsed for quite a while. Remarkably, this Museum claims to be the second oldest in the country.

Wisbech & Fenland Museum

Here was a real example of a 19C ‘punt gun’ – an obscenely large shotgun carried stealthily on a punt until it was close to a group of birds, before firing and killing up to 50 birds – a frighteningly efficient way of exploiting what must have seemed nature’s inexhaustible bounty.

There was also evidence of the heavy use of opium and laudanum in the 19C fens, reminding me of a story in my great grandfather’s diaries, where a child had accidentally died from laudanum poisoning. It seems that this was a common occurrence, the bottles being easiy confused with a popular childhood remedy.

Returning to our campsite via March, I recall cycling down that very road nearly 60 years ago, transistor radio dangling from the handlebars, on the way from Lincoln to Cambridge. The Beatles’ She Loves You had just come out. The headwind that day was seriously strong, it was hard work.

Back at base, we see an odd couple of a greylag with a Canada goose, with just a single chick.

The odd couple

There is a small group of modern windmills near the campsite. However, considering the reliability of wind in the Fens we saw surprisingly few such windmills. I suspect that the vested interests that control much of this land are the sort who don’t want windmills disfiguring their landscape!

To finish, yet another spectacular sky!

Fens 2 Wicken Fen

Our exploration of the Fens continues from Fens 1.

Next day we drive south, circle around Ely, and across to Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve – the National Trust’s first nature reserve, established in 1899. With some of the largest unspoilt areas of Fenland, this seems a good place to begin our explorations. The site is well marked, with a good range of information boards on wildlife and Fen history.

Unspoilt fen

We learn a lot about fen life – the great abundance of eels as a staple food, the techniques of mass murder used to capture much of the then-abundant birdlife; plover netting and a huge shotgun called a punt gun, both of which could kill or capture many birds in one go. They must have seemed wonderful wheezes, but of course this was never going to be sustainable.

The edge-of-fen area around Wicken is criss crossed by manmade watercourses called lodes, created during the Middle Ages primarily to prevent flooding, all draining into the River Cam.

Fen Cottage, a pretty, historic cottage and garden, suggest a glamour to the Fen life that I’m sure wasn’t always there. Information boards are more realistic about what life was really like in the Fens. After all, they were living in a large bog. But there was always lots of wildlife providing free food to those who could catch it.

The boardwalk (featured image) around the large reedbed is not accessible to dogs, so we take turns. But there are miles of other walks for dogs on stone tracks. Immersed in nature, we see a dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and birds, and listen to invisible warblers.

In the 18C the Fens were for some years drained by windpumps, inspired by Dutch experience; one of the few remaining specimens is here at Wicken Fen.

Back at base, the greylag family has enlarged, and the dog enjoys trying to chase geese, goslings and ducks, prevented by a short leash.

Finally, another fen sunset.

Fens 1 Whittlesey

I’ve written about the Fens on this blog previously in My Fens and about Tasmanian historian James Boyce’s story of the formation of the Fens in The Fight for the Fens. This was all a bit at a distance, so earlier this year we decided to spend some time there on a trip in our motorcaravan, really get the feel for the area. This is the first part of the story of our trip.

I was on a mission to understand the Fens better. I was brought up in Lincoln, less than a mile from the River Witham, one of the great Fen rivers. At the time I saw myself as a townie, not strongly associating with the Fens, which were ‘the sticks’ where my grandma and several cousins hailed from. In a sense, this trip was an exploration of my roots, inspired by Boyce’s book Imperial Mud, where he outlines the history of drainage and enclosure of the wild fenlands.

We drive in our ‘van with the dog from Cheshire, past Derby, over the rolling hills of the East Midlands. Picking up the Great North Road we skirt Peterborough and turn east. Suddenly, the land is flat as a pancake. We’re stopped by roadworks at Whittlesey, just by what is labelled the King’s Dyke, clearly a drainage channel. Welcome to the Fens!

Our first base is a campsite called Fields End Water, near the village of Doddington, which is right out in the sticks of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The drive there is like one long chaussée déformée, often with drainage waterways alongside. The land is flat, skies are huge, the wind is strong.

It turns out that all this is pretty typical of the Fens.

The campsite is very quiet, home to several families of greylag geese who wander fearlessly around the place – it’s evidently their home.

The flatness and big skies mean you can see the weather coming (featured image).

The sunset is quietly spectacular, and highlights a sprinkling of windmills.

To be continued.

The Messenger

Readers of this blog will know that I occasionally post poems by Steve Taylor, from his regular newsletter. Steve has a knack of getting to the heart of things, such as in the following poem, essentially about learning to trust our intuition, which is very consonant with James Hillman’s ‘acorn theory’ of the daimon (see this post).

The Messenger

It’s not for you to decide
the direction of your life.

It’s not for you to determine
whether your life has meaning.

It’s not for you to deliberate
over whether you’re following the right path.

It’s not for you to doubt
whether your efforts are worthwhile
then grow despondent and give up.

It’s when you deliberate and doubt
that you overrule your intuition
and confuse your inner compass
and lose touch with your purpose.

You have to step aside
and trust the wisdom that is guiding you
even if you can’t comprehend it.

You have to step aside
and let your purpose flow through you
even if you can’t see where it’s heading.

You have to step aside
and leave your channel empty and open
so that your message is clear and unbroken.

Then you have to remain open
through indifference and admiration
through failure and success
until the whole of your message is delivered.

Then your message will make sense
and your meaning will be manifest.  
 

Lime Hawk Moth

I just rediscovered photos from May of this large moth on the drive, maybe 1-2in long.

I think it is probably a lime hawk moth. The colouring, shape, time of year and location near a birch tree are all right. although the markings are not quite as in the examples on the web. Attractive pattern anyway!

Rambling roses

The rambling roses on the arch in our garden are now in their glorious second blooming of the summer. The individual flowers show a beautiful but subtle range of colours from pink/apricot/yellow through to pink tinged white and finally faded white – all in view at the same time.

This excellent variety came originally from David Austin Roses.

Photographs by Panasonic FZ1000, reduced to width 2500px.

Marcus Aurelius on today’s affairs

On impulse this morning, I reread parts of Marcus Aurelius’ wonderful classic book Meditations, which has sat on my shelves for many years. Marcus was of course one of the few ‘good’ Roman Emperors, but also at the same time a philosopher.

He actually has lots to say about matters that disturb us today. Fortunately, Goodreads has made an excellent selection of quotes from the book, so I was able to choose from these.

Consider our distress at the apparent downturn in world events (across many countries) and our circumstances:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

And what about our countries that appear to be descending into populism, lying politicians out on the make, even fascism.

“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.”

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”

Yes we need to witness what is going on, act where we can to mitigate against disturbing trends, but at the end of the day:

“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

Featured image is young Marcus Aurelius from the Musei Capitolini.