Ladybird, ladybird…

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for ladybirds. I can’t remember now whether I just enjoyed seeing their bright shiny toy-like bodies on plants in the garden when I was a child, or whether I was influenced by my beloved Ladybird book collection – probably a bit of both!

Ladybirds are generally considered useful insects – nature’s own ‘pest’ controllers – and far more effective than poisonous chemicals. A few species feed on plants or mildew but most ladybirds eat aphids, like greenfly, or scale insects. Both are garden pests and this is why gardeners love to see ladybirds. The seven-spot ladybird can eat 5000 aphids during its year-long lifespan – not bad! 

Their bright colour and pattern not only make them attractive visitors to the garden, but also help to protect them by warning potential predators of their distastefulness. Their colouring is a reminder to any animals that have tried to eat their kind before: ‘I taste foul’.

They come in a range of colours, most commonly yellow, orange, or scarlet with small black spots on their wing covers. There are 2-spot, 5-spot, 7-spot… and so on right up to 24-spot! One does have to wonder, with so many spots whether there is any room left for any non-spotty bits and it just actually a black ladybird! And then, of course, not all ladybirds have spots – some are striped. There are heather ladybirds and pine ladybirds and the rather wonderful sounding Adonis ladybird, and many more…

A 7-spot ladybirdThe most common species of ladybird in Britain is the 7-spot ladybird. This bright red ladybird has seven spots (of course) and is thought to have inspired the name ladybird: ‘Lady’ referring to the Virgin Mary (Our lady) who in early paintings is seen wearing a red cloak; the seven spots are symbolic of the seven joys and seven sorrows of Mary.

They have many regional names, sadly now mostly lost, such as lady-cows, may-bug, golden-knop and golden-bugs. I must remember to casually remark that I have just seen a lady-cow in the garden and see if Richard runs out with a broom to shoo it away – no, perhaps not. 

A common myth is that the number of spots on the insect’s back indicates its age, it doesn’t. Throughout the world, superstition states that it is unlucky to kill a ladybird and there are myths surrounding their good fortune… which is odd when you recall the nursery rhyme that many of us learnt as children: 

‘Ladybird, ladybird,
Fly away home,
Your house is on fire
And your children all gone;
All except one
And that’s little Ann,
And she has crept under
The warming pan.’ 

… which wasn’t very lucky for the poor old ladybird!


Happy National Cream Tea Day!

Happy National Cream Tea Day! Yes, 26th June is officially the national day for celebrating our traditional cream tea. While I am (very much!) in favour of tucking into a cream tea… do we actually need a day to celebrate it?

The introduction of ‘awareness days’ and ‘national’, or even ‘international’ days or weeks, seems to be a growing trend, which I am guessing is fuelled by Facebook, Twitter and the like. If you search online, there is virtually an event on every day of the year – amazing! I have had to chuckle at some of the ones I have come across lately.

One of my absolute favourites and, to be fair, it has been around a while now, is ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day’, always held on 19th September and a great example of the British sense of humour! 

Other gems I have stumbled across include: 

Obviously, some of these appeal much more to me than others!

Generally, there is a difference between national days and awareness days. Usually awareness days are health related, and help raise awareness of particular conditions and usually involve raising money for associated charities. International days often aim to raise awareness of important humanitarian, cultural, social and political issues around the world. 

National days generally have a fun or quirky side to them and are, in some cases, run by commercial organisations to help promote their products and services. These national days are often fundraisers for associated charities and can be a very successful way or raising both money and awareness in a fun way.

Have you taken part in any of these special days or weeks? If you have, we’d love to hear more!


Veteran trees – a link to our past

The magnificent ‘veteran’ oak tree.My partner in crime writing, Julia, met a man recently who could be termed a bit of a ‘tree hugger’! But it is not as daft as it sounds as you will find out… 

“Look at that – absolutely perfect!” It’s a blustery afternoon and I am standing in a field on the edge of the moorland town of Chagford, with Mike Palmer, one of the Dartmoor National Park’s volunteer Tree Wardens. And Mike is a very happy man.

“A prefect specimen! Look at the shape of it – lovely!” Mike is almost hopping up and down with excitement as he rummages in his rucksack for a piece of string to measure the size of the tree’s trunk.

As tall as a house, its canopy spreading wide above us, it is a very beautiful oak. The bark is incredible, twisted, deeply ridged and speckled with lichen. How many years has this magnificent tree stood here, I wonder?

Estimating the age of a tree is more art than science. Having measured a metre and a half up from the base of the tree, Mike asks me to hold one end of the string while he disappears around the other side of the trunk. 

Mike measures the girth of the huge trunk with his faithful piece of string!With age, the height and spread of a tree reach a maximum, and then decline. So this means it’s really difficult to estimate the age of a tree but as the trunk itself increases in circumference throughout its life this can be used as a measure of age.

Mike, re-appears next to me and marks where the two pieces of string meet, and then we measure it. We guess the trunk is about 12 feet round, but it is actually 17ft! Most trees reach a point when fully mature, with a full crown, when the circumference is one inch for each year of growth. So a tree, like this one at 17 feet, measured at chest height, is over 200 years old. Wow!

“The trouble is, the only way to date a tree accurately is to cut it down and count the rings, which defeats the object really,” says Mike. He has a point!

Veteran trees are defined as: ‘Trees which, by virtue of their great age, size or condition, are of exceptional value culturally, in the landscape or for wildlife’. 

Veteran trees are a link to our past and have stood for many hundreds of years. Some veteran trees are well known such as the Meavy oak on the south side of Dartmoor, but there are many others, often in isolated locations, which have not been mapped. Tree Wardens with their local knowledge are ideally placed to locate these valuable trees.

Beautiful ancient bark.“In general terms, you can say an oak will grown for 300 years, rest for 300 years and then decline gracefully for 300 years. Often, the crown will die and blow down which can make the rest of the tree grow even more vigorously,” says Mike.

A dead tree is also of enormous value, he adds. Often supporting over 100 different species of insects, mammals and fungi, it puts a great deal back into the environment as it rots away. We would do well to take more notice of trees.

Now thoroughly chilled in the late afternoon, Mike and I set off back to Chagford for a warming cup of coffee. As we start to thaw out, he tells me that he is a retired bank manager from Sussex who loves his new life and the chance to be outside for so much of the day rather than stuck behind a desk. I instantly think of a range of daft jokes about him becoming a different sort of branch manager, but decide I’d better just drink my coffee instead…


The Ethicurean

It is rare that I go out for a meal with friends or family and come home bouncing and raving about how fabulous it was both as an experience and as a delicious meal. Well this week I did just that. We had two American friends to stay and to contrast with their fast, flashy Los Angeles lifestyle, we went to The Ethicurean in Barley Wood Walled Garden near Bristol.

I can honestly say that the food was something I will remember for a very long time and the view, wow! It just stretched for miles! Basically, this is a garden designed and built in the early 1900s for the Wills family (of cigarette fame). The old orangery has been turned into a restaurant and some of the outbuildings converted into craft workshops. The decor in the orangery is gentle, reminiscent of times gone by, and just wonderful.

The enthusiastic waitresses were both charming and very sweet – for example our waitress gently said to my American friend when he tried to add a 20% tip onto the bill, no sir, that’s too much just half that would be very generous. Well, how many times have you heard that?

Everything – and I mean everything – is home grown or raised by friends and locals. Home made drinks, bread, food – all from garden to table – yum! I had a welsh rarebit for starters, then some Cornish hake followed by local blue cheese with quince jelly. Richard chose beef followed by a sticky toffee apple pudding that I suspect he will mention over and over again (sigh) and yes, they do a cookery book and, no, I don’t know if the recipe is in there!

I took a few pictures, my apologies if my camera skills aren’t quite what they should be but you can get the gist of it – I just wanted to share with you all! Contented smiles!

PS. An ‘ethicurean’ is someone who attempts to combine ethical food consumption with an interest in epicureanism, eating ethically without depriving oneself of taste – and yes, I had to look it up!


Kitty Jay’s grave – the making of a Dartmoor legend

Hound TorThere is a very pretty drive that I enjoy up over Dartmoor that is especially lovely just now with primroses and gorse in flower. It takes you down winding narrow lanes and then up over wild stretches of moorland, and past some of the best know tors such as Haytor and Hound Tor. Abount a mile from Hound Tor, I always glance to my left as we go past a small junction to check that there are flowers on the grave… and there always are! This is Jay’s Grave (or Kitty Jay’s grave), supposedly the last resting place of a young woman who is thought to have died in the late 18th century. It has become a well-known landmark and is the subject of local folklore, and several ghost stories…

Since it was first set down in the late 19th century, the story attached to the grave has changed and been greatly embellished, as these things so often are. An early newspaper account of the discovery of the grave appears in the North Devon Journal for 23 January 1851, under ‘County Intelligence’: 

Kitty Jay’s grave, complete with flowers, when I drove past earlier this month…“In the parish of Manaton, near Widdecombe on the moor while some men in the employ of James Bryant, Esq. of Prospect, at his seat, Hedge Barton, were removing some accumulations of way soil, a few days since, they discovered what appeared to be a grave. On further investigation, they found the skeleton of a body, which proved from enquiry to be the remains of Ann Jay, a woman who hung herself some three generations since in a barn at a place called Forder, and was buried at Four Cross Lane, according to the custom of that enlightened age.”

There are numerous other reports, with the name changing from Betty Kay to Mary Jay and then Kitty Jay. But the unchanging fact is that it is the body of a young woman who took her own life in tragic, if sadly predictable, circumstances.

As told by one ‘Granny Caunter’ the sorry tale was:

“Mary Jay was the poor maid’s name. I heard my mother tell of it, when I was a li’l maid. Her was an orphan from the workhouse, ‘prenticed to Barracott Farm between Manaton and Heatree. One day, when her was quite young, her tooked a rope and went to the barn there on the Manaton Road, and hanged herself from a beam. Her was quite dead when the farmer found her. Us reckoned ’twas the same old story – a young man, who wadn’t no gude to her, poor maid.”

HaytorBy 1965 Jay’s Grave had become a major Dartmoor attraction, with tourist coaches stopping there while the driver related his own version of the story. The mysterious appearance of fresh flowers upon the grave was always mentioned. 

Recent versions of the legend include embellishments such as the orphaned baby being taken into the Poor House in Newton Abbot where she was given the name Mary Jay. She sometimes acquires the name Kitty after being sent to Canna Farm as a teenage apprentice. In one version she is wronged by a local farmhand, in another, she finds romance with the farmer’s son. Either way she becomes pregnant which results in her being thrown out of the farm. Such is her shame and despair that she hangs herself in a barn, or perhaps from the great kitchen fireplace lintel, or else she drowns herself in a shallow pool.

It is said that the three local parishes of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, North Bovey and Manaton all refused to bury her body within consecrated ground, so she was buried at a crossroads, which was standard practice for suicide victims at the time.

There are always fresh flowers on the grave, but how they get there is the subject of local folklore – some claim they are placed there by pixies. By 2007 the placing of flowers had expanded into all sorts of offerings: coins, candles, shells, small crosses and toys. Motorists, passing at night, claim to have glimpsed ghostly figures in their headlights, others report seeing a dark, hooded figure kneeling there.

All I know is that whenever I have driven past, and that is quite a few times in the past 25 years or so… there are always fresh flowers there. So who knows, perhaps it is the Dartmoor pixies looking after the poor girl…