Fieldfares

Winter on Dartmoor is characterised by days of rain, strong winds and lots of mud.  Hail, sometimes the size of large capers, can slap and exfoliate your face, an unpleasant experience as if a cruel dermatologist was having a laugh.  Occasionally we get snow.  All of this conspires to delay certain projects, some of which we do need to urgently address.   On the few days we’ve had a break from the wet and windy stuff, I’ve managed to get out into the garden to assess and tidy.  I observe for signs of growth and areas that need repair.  I noted last week daffodils are starting to break the ground, which seems early, but I know in our climate it isn’t.  They are hearty enough to withstand a frost or snow in February.  I look at our raised vegetable beds knowing some attention is needed.  We will be hoisting a few fallen stones back onto our dry stone walls as well.  I examine with pride our young hedge.

In 2016, Roger and I planted 150 hedge plants.  The following year, we added 100 more, doubling the thickness.  We’ve positioned a mix of native hedge plants along the south and west parts of the garden:  Guelder Rose, Dog Rose, Hazel, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Maple, Holly and Alder.   Apart from providing an alternative boundary to stock proof fencing, our hope for these hedges is to provide greater habitat for the wide variety of animals and plants.  A happy foraging place for birds, small mammals and pollinators.  Perhaps too, we can create a bit of a wind break from those strong prevailing storm gusts coming up from the south.  Attractive and purposeful.

Hedge Planting

Part of our hedge in 2016.

The other day we had a much needed break from the rain.  A day of sunshine with puffy clouds like giant spun cotton candy in the sky.  It was a short lived reprieve.  The next day our grey skies returned like a dirty plastic tarp on the wind.    The ground remains saturated.  The mud is everywhere.  And the smell of wet dog has become all too familiar.

Today promises a mixed bag.  Sun streaming through a rupture in the clouds and into the windows, brightening up this old stone farmhouse.  Bright blue skies peak through from down the valley.  Roger and I put on our winter-wear to take the dogs for a walk along the river, one of their favourites.  No sooner are we all set to head out when we spy a wall of filthy boiling clouds traveling fast up the valley from the south.   We dash back inside and wait for this patch of weather to move through.  We watch the cold sleet pelt the old slate of the barn.  The grey stones of walls meet the grey air passing through.  The greens and browns of grasses and mosses are lost in the precipitation.  The red berries on the hawthorn bushes strike brightly against the back drop of winter’s monochrome.

And as soon as this weather system came, it’s gone, a day of many atmospheric conditions.  No wonder the British love talking about the weather, it is constantly mutating.  Sunny with rain is an all too common forecast.   Speaking of which, here it is, the sun again.   As we stroll down the track, Millie and Brock, with tails aloft, trot on the hillside in search of scents and sticks.  Roger recently spotted a fox in the mid-afternoon up on this hill, so no doubt our two canines will catch the occasional whiff of this sly creature.   As we carry on, a flock of Fieldfares, perhaps fifty or sixty, suddenly take flight.  Their hideout, a bunch of riverside willows, disturbed by the approach of two enthusiastic collies.

I like Fieldfares.  They stand upright and move with purpose.  They are gregarious, roaming the winter countryside in large flocks.  When they perch in the open on gorse bushes or in the high branches of a Rowan tree, the air is filled with their constant chatter.  In winter when they visit us, groups of them are found on the open moorland, they seem to like the rough grasses and gorse which surround us.  Their presence indicating where berries and insects are to be found.   They like hedges, feeding happily on Hawthorn berries.  We’re glad our hedges are thriving.

Cloud cover at this time of year can sometimes be so thick I am only able to see a few feet ahead.  When that happens, my hearing becomes more acute.  Sometimes, the collective flap of Fieldfare wings can be heard through the mist.  As Virginia Woolf wrote, “The sound floated out and was cut into atoms by a flock of Fieldfare flying at an enormous speed – somewhere or other.”  However, I prefer to see Fieldfares diving about in their formation flock.  They are part of the winter scene.

Winter can be a time of scarcity, when wildlife ventures further in search of food.  We keep food and water out for the birds.  Fieldfares don’t come close into our garden to feed, preferring to feed on berries in the hedgerows and trees.  They migrate here, arriving in November and spend winter with us before flapping on.  Almost all will likely leave before they breed.   This spring, we hope for a big return in our Swallows and House Martins, numbers having been inexplicably down the past few years.

We do have a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  They have started pecking holes in search of bugs in a section of the Sycamore tree which shades Gin and Tonic Hill.  We like the idea this pair is so close to Crockern.  We hope they have a brood this spring.

Wickipedia photo 800px-Fieldfare_flock

Fieldfare flock (photo found on Wikipedia).

Well, You Can Cry Me a River (part two)

It ruined mothers (and fathers) and was an early harbinger of binge-drinking Britain:  Gin.   It also has been described as “the magic that happens when you combine a base spirit with unique combinations of aromatic botanicals.”  Magic may also be finding the Plymouth distillery without a map when you don’t know your way around the city.  Running late, circumnavigating the old city in search of parking, Roger and I catch a quick glimpse of the historic quarter of Plymouth as we dash around the corner to find ourselves standing before the whitewashed Blackfriars Distillery.   We arrived somewhat late for our tour.  Shaken, but not stirred.

Plymouth Gin

Our tour began with a history of The Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth.  This is one of the oldest working distilleries in England and has been making this famous hooch since 1783.  The building dates back to the 1400s, once serving as a monastery inhabited by the Black Friars and is allegedly haunted.  I hear this and think — don’t be silly, of course there are spirits inside.

We quickly discover there is a good deal more than that at this distillery.   There is a fabulous lounge bar, The Refectory, which is apparently where the Pilgrim Fathers gathered before they set sail on the Mayflower for America in 1620.  I wonder:  would they have imbibed some of this local tipple?

Gin may have once been seen as the choice of grannies, but according to our guide, we are entering the biggest gin craze since the days of William Hogarth!  In the early days of gin, it was a relatively cheap alcoholic beverage, easily produced at home.  It was purchased and consumed in ruinous amounts by the poor, contributing to any number of social problems.  Then came the British Royal Navy who both consumed and introduced gin, specifically Plymouth Gin, throughout the world.  In India, gin was mixed with the tonic water consumed for the anti-malarial properties of quinine, thus leading to one of my favourites:  the Gin and Tonic.

Plymouth Gin is also the only UK gin to have a Protected Geographic Status, sharing place with Scotch Whisky, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, and, The Cornish Pasty to name a few.   This status resulted from legal decisions in the late 1800’s when London distillers began producing a Plymouth gin.  The then owners legally established Plymouth Gin could only be made within Plymouth’s city walls.  Still today, Plymouth Gin can only be produced in the old part of Plymouth in Devon.

With our history lesson over, we moved into the distillation room to understand how gin is made.  This is no bathtub-in-the-barn operation.   The still, with its elegant swan neck high above our heads, has not been changed for over 150 years and this is largely to do with the local water.  That’s right, the pure water from Dartmoor, some of which is running past our house, is softer than a lot of the calcified waters found elsewhere in the UK.  As such, it is credited with the unique flavour of Plymouth Gin.  My affection for Plymouth Gin was growing exponentially.

Full of cultural, geographic and historical information, Roger and I are then taken to sample gins.  And of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world we walked into what I would like to dub The Inner Sanctum, an underground Gin Palace of sorts, to begin our tasting tutorial.  On the shelves there appeared to be a bottle of what may well be every gin produced anywhere in the globe.  We took our perch at the bar.  Before us appeared five unlabeled popular gins next to a tray of seven botanicals – juniper, coriander, sweet orange, lemon, cardamom, angelica and orris root.  We smelled botanicals, we smelled gins, and we tasted gins.  In short, it was a tour de force of flavours!  In our blind tasting, we both chose Plymouth Gin.  What a relief.  It would feel like an act of betrayal to select a competitor.

As our tour was nearing the end, we thanked our guide and made our way to The Refectory lounge, complete with plush sofas, a piano, a long curved bar and a long list of classy cocktails on the beverage menu.  We nestled into a corner sofa, placed our order and looked above at the spectacular hull-shaped timber roof of the medieval hall.  Before leaving, we purchased a bottle.

Sitting by the fire, sipping my lovely new gin and writing this blog, I’ve uncovered the Ginstitute, a new gin museum in London.  Clearly, this is a must see when I am next in the Big Smoke.  For now, I will turn my thoughts to spring and our gardening efforts.  Our hardy winter garden is bravely holding up against the recent frosts, down pours of rain, and the forecast for snow this week.  Hey bartender….

On the bottle there is an image of one of the monastery’s friars.  It was said when the monk’s feet “got dry”; it was time for a new bottle.  Despite many bottle redesigns, this little monk icon remains on the back.  We shall not let his feet grow dry.

On the bottle there is an image of one of the monastery’s friars. It was said when the monk’s feet “got dry”; it was time for a new bottle. Despite many bottle redesigns, this little monk icon remains on the back. We shall not let his feet grow dry.

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A NoTORious Challenge

It’s mid-may and we have lit a fire just to take some of the chill out of the air.  As I sit inside warm, dry and questioning the logic of this season called spring, I can’t help but wonder how those teenagers managed the Ten Tors Challenge which brought many of them walking past our house this past weekend, some hiking over 55 miles in two days.

Every May, 2,400 teenagers, in teams of 6 people, aged between 14 and 20, take part in an annual two-day event across the forbidding terrain of Dartmoor following one of 26 different routes.   Without adult supervision, the groups set out to face the challenges of navigation, bivouacking and field cooking all the while, attempting to visit the checkpoints of Ten Tors that are staffed by volunteers in order to get their route cards stamped.   These kids have to be self sufficient while on the moor and so each team member carries his or her own tent and provisions, such as food, clothing, stoves, fuel, navigation equipment, maps, emergency rations and first aid kits.

The event is organized by the British Army and is about more than just physical endurance and hardship; it’s about teamwork!  And it would have to be as there is no satellite navigation, just an Ordnance Survey map, compass and good sense.  Even on a clear day, navigation is difficult on Dartmoor, let alone the challenges faced in low cloud or at night.

Dartmoor

Sam heading towards a tor on Dartmoor

Dartmoor is one of the last wildernesses in England and this national park occupies 368 square miles of hills, many of which are topped by spectacular granite outcrops called ‘tors’.  At its lowest point Dartmoor touches 325 feet and 2,018 feet at its highest. The valleys between the hills carry streams and rivers that can rise swiftly following rain.  The land is peppered with bogs that can trick the unaware walker into danger.

In addition to the challenging terrain, the potential of the extreme weather conditions Dartmoor has on offer is significant.  While the sun may help navigation, it drains energy and burns exposed body parts.  The mist hides landmarks, easily disorientating the less capable navigator.  Gentle rain can be refreshing, but, when it becomes heavy, it can swell rivers so that they cease to be fordable and, when accompanied by dense mist and gale force wind, can even become life threatening.  During the 1996 Ten Tors Challenge, a snowstorm and sleet showers resulted in poor visibility and freezing temperatures, necessitating a mass emergency evacuation of the teams.  In contrast, in 1998 the temperatures rose above 26ºC and many of the teams suffered from dehydration.  While I sit inside with the wind and rain hammering our newly planted vegetable garden, I am mindful of the group of seven boys from Wiltshire who were airlifted off the moor after becoming disoriented and lost in low cloud and worsening conditions in April this year during a practice trek for this challenge.

Dartmoor

Fog Rolling in on Dartmoor

This past autumn, I set out with Sam to do a long hike in an area I hadn’t yet explored.  This was not going to be anything like the Ten Tors experience mind you, but still a small challenge, as I prefer to explore with Roger who is an excellent map reader!  The weather prediction was “cloudy with sun” and not too cold.  Given that the previous few days had seen heavy rain, the promise of a dry day held out hopes for a good walk.  With a positive forecast, I packed provisions, including the OS map, and headed a short distance away by car to begin my walk.

I’ve never been fabulous with directions, but I do okay.  My straightforward plan was to head north for about 4 miles along a bridle path and then circle round a valley back to where I parked.  Generally bridal paths in Dartmoor are friendly under foot, clearly marked and often have groups of all ages walking along them, many of whom have no intention of consulting a map.  About 30 minutes into the walk, I noticed that what should have been a clear path seemed faint to the point of being non-existent.  I stopped to consult the map.  What I discovered is that somehow, I had lost the path and Sam and I were on the wrong side of the river.  Oops.  Heading down a steep and rocky hill, I elected to not retrace my steps and instead, cross the river.

Rivers in Dartmoor are bipolar when it comes to rain.  One day a river is a beautiful babbling bit of water, spilling over boulders, accompanying the birdsong in the air.  On another, that same body of water becomes a raging torrent of deep, cold, fast moving power.  Crossing the river seemed a sensible decision at the time.  After all, it would save me time and get me quickly back on the right path.  As Sam and I cautiously made our way through the deep water, I slipped on a moss covered stone and got soaking wet.  What had seemed such a good idea quickly became a misery and we were forced to abandon our walk and head back to the car.  By Ten Tors standards, this was not an auspicious start.

The great thing about the Ten Tors Challenge is that it is a walking activity.  But, it is also a team event that demands strong leadership, spirited companionship, fitness, skillful navigation, focused determination, and a dose of luck.  Every year teams of teenagers join the Ten Tors challenge and it is an impressive accomplishment, I think, to decide to participate, let alone complete it.   When we moved to Dartmoor and took on the projects at Crockern, we knew we were moving to a wild and rugged landscape that would provide challenges.  The team approach is key and I don’t think Roger or I could pull this off without the other.   For me, when Roger is around I know if I get soaked from a misstep in the river, he’ll listen to me moan and then prepare me a nice hot beverage while I dry my socks.

After a fall in the river

When Roger fell in the river in Scotland, I took this picture!