After a monochrome walk into Chagford yesterday under solid grey skies; today patches of blue sky and sun helped bring back some colour.
Neighbours had been telling us that it hadn't snowed properly in Murchington for 7 or 8 years, so we were probably a bit naive to think we had got through our first winter unscathed just because it was nearly March.
Last Tuesday although it was still only mid-February it felt like spring. The sun shone all day, the daffodils started to bloom and the frogs were mating in the pond. A week later, the sun is still shining but it is about 10 degrees colder
Not all piles of stones are equal as we discovered today…led by Dartmoor ranger, archaeologist Simon Lee, we worked with around 20 other volunteers to clear the gorse from a ring cairn just south east from Haytor.
At the end of January we got help to mend the broken panes in the main greenhouse and took the plunge by buying our first ever thermostatically controlled seed propagator. Our aim was to get a head start growing chillies and tomatoes.
On the morning after Boxing Day we did the fairly steep walk from Chagford across Padley common up Meldon Hill and back down into Chagford
Feeling exhausted but pleased to have had such a great day learning the basics of green woodworking on a Little Acorn course.
The aim is to make a shave horse over the weekend. This is an essential piece of kit if you want to enter the world of green woodworking.
I recently visited Sidmouth for the first time, spending a pleasant late Autumn Sunday having lunch with friends and walking the cliff tops and beach.
6 miles - 835ft ascent - 3 hours
Determined to make the most of the forecast sunshine, we set off early on Sunday morning, parked in the centre of Throwleigh and had a good look round the church before setting off for our walk
St Mary's church Throwleigh apparently dates back to the13th Century. The first recorded rector was in 1248, but most of the present church dates fromthe 15th and 16th centuries. It has some interesting wooden carved roof bosses in the North Aisle. One of the three hares and one of the green man. The image of the three hares is found in a number of Devon churches. The three hares are joined by their ears and are said to represent the holy trinity. The hare was also believed at one time to be able to conceive without a mate giving it an affinity with the Virgin Mary.
The green man (a man's face surrounded by leaves and branches) is often found carved in wood or stone in medieval European churches and cathedrals, and is usually interpreted as a symbol of rebirth or the cycle of growth each spring. In the 20th Century the symbol has become more associated with folk traditions and has been interpreted as an ancient pagan spirit of nature. However it is unlikely that an image with this meaning would have been included prominently in the building of a church.
Our walk then took us through the church yard and past an huge old Oak tree, through an orchard with grazing sheep and a small sign explaining the principles of forest gardening and then on through two very muddy small fields to join the road skirting the moor.
We climbed up a steep track and picked up a fairly major path, persevering until we reached the triple stone row just to the left of Cosdon Hill. This stone row was apparently partially restored in 1896 and put under the protection of the local land owner (Charles Farsdon, Esq., as lord of the manor of South Zeal). Taken together, the configuration of stones is impressive but none of them is large and so they were very vulnerable to being moved and used for local walls and gateposts.
Stone rows are thought to date from the Bronze age i.e. around 3000 BC and to have been connected to ceremonies or burials. However another theory is that each new generation added an additional stone to the row. There are a total of around 71 Stone rows on Dartmoor.
From the stone row nestling on the East side of Cosdon Hill, we headed back down hill and explored the possibility of crossing Blackaton Brook. However the water was too high for the ford or stepping stones to be manageable, so we headed back down a bridleway to rejoin the road from Great Ensworthy to Week, and then on back to Throwleigh.
There were plenty of apples on the trees in the small orchard when we first moved into St Olaves in August. However, the previous owners had warned us that we would be in competition with the deer, who had a knack of waiting until the fruit was just ripe before bothering with it.
So began the waiting game - apple roulette. Nine of the trees are on dwarf rootstock, making the apples easy to pick but also very accessible to even the smallest fallow deer.
We saw our first deer in the large field to the west of the garden in early September. Three animals - probably roe deer- in the early morning light, alert and bounding away across the field once they sensed our movement. A couple of weeks later in the late afternoon we glimpsed a couple of young deer bounding through the undergrowth on the hillside, just above the river.
As the September days shortened into October we gradually picked more and more of the apples. Some fell as windfalls and started to be eaten by slugs. Sunset was the variety that had the heaviest crop this year - well over 100 small eating apples on a tree with five main radiant branches. The Egremont Russet only produced about a dozen fruit, but they were delicious.
With storm Ophelia predicted for Monday 16th October we harvested nearly all the apples rather than losing them to the strong winds. Three large bags in total - around 14 Kg. But a few apples were left on the trees, the slightly more inaccessible ones and some small misshapen fruits. By now there were also plenty of windfalls littering the grass.
Earlier this week, (probably 1st November), we were walking back through the orchard when we realised that there was not a single apple left on the trees and that all the windfalls had also vanished - spirited away by the deer the night before.
For coppicing read tree-felling. As we quickly learned, Wandlebury has had only limited woodland management in recent decades so that rather than help with the annual coppicing cycle, our group of volunteers was really working on a section of neglected woodland to re-establish a regular cycle of coppicing.
I hadn’t done my homework on this one and it took a few minutes to realise that we weren’t there to plant a hedge at all. Fortunately, laying a hedge is much more interesting than that. Handed a range of hand tools including pruning saws, handsaws, billhooks, axes and loppers, our job was basically to turn an existing hedge on its side. The hedge in question had been planted about eight years earlier and consisted of a mix of native shrubs and small trees including hazel, dogwood, hawthorn, blackthorn and alder. Planted between two lines of low, rabbit fencing, the hedge had grown decidedly unevenly. In places plants towered meters above us, but especially in the shade of a randomly sited beech, they barely reached above the rabbit fence. Using billhooks and saws, our job was to remove weak or damaged shoots and to bend the rest through about sixty to seventy degrees, so that they were almost parallel with the ground. To do this it was necessary to cut deep into the stem of each plant, just above the ground, leaving just enough sapwood beneath the bark for the plant to continue sending nutrients to its upper branches. Thanks to centuries of evolution the billhook, with its heavy, partially hooked nose, was weighted perfectly for the job of slicing just the right amount of wood from the hedge plants, almost regardless of their size. At first it seemed a daunting prospect, to slice away just enough wood that a stem could be bent on its side, without chopping through completely. But gradually the tools came to feel more like extensions of the body, and the cuts came easier and cleaner. There was something primeval and strangely satisfying about the whole process.
For the first few metres we were simply laying plants either side of stout stakes that had already been driven into the hedge line at roughly two to three foot intervals. This, we were told, was the traditional south country technique for laying a hedge, whereas in the Midlands all the hedge plants would be laid on the same side of the stakes in order to encourage the sharp, spiky plants to grow into the field, deterring cattle from breaking out. But soon we had to start making our own stakes from recently pollarded tree trunks. It was here that the axes and saws came into their own. The base of each trunk had to be whittled to a point with the axe and then sawn to roughly the right length. It was like making giant pencils. Then, held firm by well-gloved hands, they had to be driven into the cold ground with mallets. Once a good section had been suitably staked the hedge laying could continue.
A team of eight, we worked in pairs on different sections of the hedge for about four hours, with a short break for lunch. It was cold, barely above freezing, but beautifully sunny. There was no time for serious conversation, but the atmosphere was warm and collegial. We were bound together by the task and by a shared sense of our good fortune to be in the open air on such a fine winter’s day. It helped that our efforts were frequently punctuated by the cries of jays and woodpeckers deep in the adjacent wood, and by the quizzical attention of Wandlebury’s Highland cattle grazing in the field opposite. It also helped that everyone found they were good at something. Those who found the billhooks and mallets hard to wield turned out to be much better at topping the hedge by weaving fine branches of hazel and lime between the vertical stakes. Visually, it was this weaving which tied the hedge together. Until the newly horizontal plants sent out their side shoots, and the pollarded stumps sent up new, strong plants, these finely interwoven stems would give the hedge its strength – they would be the hedge in many ways. For sure they would not be keeping out Midland cattle, or any other livestock for that matter, but aesthetically they were a triumph. To the casual observer it was these toppings – called heatherings - rather than hacked and prostrate hedge plants, that proclaimed most loudly the continuation of an ancient English tradition.