Blooming marvellous

MayblossomWhen I sit down and think what to write about in my blog, I sometimes have to chew the end of my pen for a bit… but this week, I had no hesitation! Everywhere we have been in the past week or so, we have been ‘wowed’ by the blossom in this extraordinary spring!

We are very lucky in Devon that we always have a profusion of wildflowers, but this year is a truly bumper year. Last year, when we wrote ‘A Violet Death’ I can remember my partner in crime writing, Julia, struggling to find violets to photograph for the cover… this year, you cannot walk through woodlands or meadow without treading on the gorgeous things, they are everywhere! Coloured from deepest purple to pale lilac, wild violets abound. Primroses, wood anemones and celandines have also been amazing this year.

Currently, the biggest ‘wow’ has to be the may blossom, or hawthorn. In this area of steep hills and small fields, we are blessed with plenty of hedgerows and I don’t think I have ever seen such clouds of white may blossom as we have right now. The blossom is so thick it looks like snow! If you look at the flowers close up, they are so pretty.

Top to bottom – wild violets absolutely everywhere this year! Delicate wood anemones and primroses and primulas in profusion.I must just ramble on for a moment about hawthorn as it is a rather wonderful plant, but one that tends to get overlooked as being rather commonplace. It is used extensively for hedging and its spines and many tangled branches make it pretty much animal and human-proof. When you have a garden bordering a field used for cows or sheep… you will find a hawthorn hedge extremely useful! The traditional practice of hedge laying (which we still see a great deal of down here in Devon) works very well with hawthorn. It is also a good firewood and burns with a good heat and little smoke.

The fruit of the hawthorn, called haws, are edible raw but of course we mostly cook them and use them in jellies, jams, and syrups. They can also be used to make wine, or to add flavour to brandy. Even the petals of the may blossom are edible, as are the leaves, which if picked in spring when still young are tender enough to be used in salads. So all in all, a pretty wonderful thing!

With so much splendour in the wild, my garden almost seems a poor second at the moment. But, luckily for me, it has also been a bumper year for one of my most favourite plants ­– hellebores – and mine have done really well, so I am happy.

Sadly, the forecasters are saying that this recent spell of hot and dry weather will end soon – can you believe they are already talking about drought conditions?! Regardless of the change, it is thrilling to see that first few bluebells and sprigs of wild garlic are just emerging, ready for their displays next month. I can hardly wait!

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Puppy time!

As many of you will know, we lost our beloved Wellington before Christmas. Sadly my partner in crime writing, Julia, then lost her dog Tilly in February this year. Richard and I have decided to take a little break and think about our possible future doggy companion… But Julia decided she couldn’t bear to be without a four-legged friend, and so here is the story of her new puppy. You will never guess what she is called…

“I am lucky enough to live on Dartmoor, with access to farmland, open fields and small sheltered farm tracks. Walking every day with my dog and watching the seasons change was always a very important part of my life. When Tilly went, I felt bereft. Knowing that I would never be able to replace the two wonderful collie cross dogs that had been my companions for the past 18 years, Tilly and her predecessor Rosie, I decided it might be wise to go for something completely different. Good friends of mine have had two delightful German pointers, the latest one being wirehaired. She is a particularly delightful dog so I decided this would be the breed of choice.

After much searching, and a very long trip to south west Wales, I arrived home with a gorgeous little bundle of fluffy puppy! Rather predictably, she has been named Moss. Yes, the same name as the dog in Joanna and my novels but of course that Moss is a dog, not a bitch, and he is a collie cross. 

Choosing a name that suits the personality is important, so although I was pretty sure I wanted to call her Moss, I would only know if it was right for her once I actually met her. The first time I gazed into her bright little eyes I realised it was definitely the right choice as she has the most beautiful moss green eyes and not the normal soulful brown of most dogs. She is officially coloured liver (brown) with white ticking which makes for an extremely pretty speckled coat.

It is 18 years since I last had a puppy and it certainly makes you realise how much younger and fitter I was in those days! Having a puppy is very like having a toddler suddenly thrust upon you in your comfortable middle age, a mixture of sheer delight and utter exhaustion all at the same time.

We realised quite early on that Moss possesses extremely large paws… Which could only mean one thing – in due course we are going to be the owners of a rather large dog! When I first brought her home at 10 weeks she weighed a not insubstantial 5 kg. She was easy to pick up and wonderfully soft and cuddly. Now at 15 weeks she weighs a very hearty 9 kg and is getting quite difficult to pick up! However, I am pleased to say she still remains a delightfully affectionate little dog, well, quite a big dog actually.

She is doing us good too as we are enjoying long walks in the lighter evenings in the beautiful countryside where we live up here on Dartmoor. Pointers need a lot of exercise, so there will be no slacking! Introducing her to water in the rivers and streams that abound around here is great fun and her energy and enthusiasm for life is wonderful to behold. She is currently very gangly, rather like a foal, and watching her gallop about, quite often falling over her own feet, has us in stitches. Like a young child, as soon as she has used up her energy – that’s it – she falls sound asleep, and that’s when we get to enjoy wonderful snoozy cuddles!

Apart from chewing everything and everybody at the moment, she is turning out to be intelligent, energetic, brave, enthusiastic and extremely lovable. Rather like older doting parents, we are completely besotted and convinced that she is a future Crufts best in show or possibly canine Mastermind champion. But most of all, she is just our adorable and loyal companion.”

 

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The wonders of seaweed!

Julia with her lovely terrier appropriately named Seaweed!I first met Julia Horton-Powdrill on a writing course, some six years ago. I was there with my partner in crime writing Julia Wherrell (you don’t meet a Julia for years and then two come along at once!) and we have stayed in touch ever since. Julia H-P lives in St David’s in Pembrokeshire where she runs foraging courses, writes novels and runs the ‘Really Wild Food Festival’ – one busy lady! Julia W went to visit earlier this month as she was collecting her new puppy from the area (and that’s another blog coming soon!), so she thought she’d ask Julia H-P about foraging and one of her major passions – seaweed!

While I enjoy growing my own veg and picking the odd mushroom and wild berry, I really am not very knowledgeable about wild plants and food for free, so I was interested to hear how Julia H-P first got into foraging.

“I was pretty much born to it!” she says. “My father studied botany and zoology at Cambridge, and then became a GP in a rural practice in south east Wales. In those days, GPs still ‘did the rounds’ and had time to pause and appreciate their surroundings so my father would often come home with foraged plants and mushrooms for our tea. I remember him bringing home elvers fresh out of the local river once, but mother thought they were revolting, so that was not one of his better efforts!

“He was also very keen on seaweed, as am I, but it wasn’t until after he died that I made a rather significant discovery. I was going through his belongings when I came across a wonderful collection of seaweeds that he’d gathered from around Anglesey back in the 1930s. It is quite probable that some of these seaweeds no longer grow in the area, so I plan to donate them to the National Museum of Wales. They already have his beetle collection anyway!”

So what is it that’s so marvellous about seaweed, I wondered? Julia’s lovely country-style kitchen is draped with the stuff – all different shapes and sizes and colours, she breaks off bits and chews them as she talks and describes how she uses them in soups and stews. Her pantry is neatly stocked with jars of it too, and there are packs stored in the freezer.

“I use it a lot adding bits here and there to dishes as different seaweeds have different flavours and textures and, of course, being Welsh, I make lava bread! It takes some time to identify different seaweeds and to know how to clean and dry and store them, but if you are interested, you can buy books on it, or look it up – it’s all there online these days. And one of the great things about seaweed is you can just stop and try a bit – have a nibble on the beach if you want to – it is never going to harm you, none of it is poisonous.”

As well as appearing on the BBCs Countryfile earlier this month, Julia has been on other TV shows and, perhaps most memorably, been filmed sitting in a seaweed bath with The One Show presented Alex Jones! “Seaweed is terribly good for your skin,” Julia explains. “It is full of all sorts of vitamins and minerals, so run a good hot bath, stick in the seaweed and hey presto – a wonderful natural beauty treatment!” 

Multi-skilling seaweed!
We come across products containing seaweed quite often but are usually completely unaware of it. You will find it in some brands of cosmetics, ice cream, toothpaste and various food stuffs. It is also in bath preparations and is widely used as a fertilizer.

You can follow Julia’s foraging exploits here.

Her wild food festival here. 

Her new novel here. 

 

 

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What’s in a name…?

Here’s a ‘Rose Cottage’ © Copyright John BrightleyAs you know, I am a bit of an old softy and tend to like old-fashioned, traditional things. It was great fun when we began creating the characters and places for our Swaddlecombe novels. Julia and I had many giggly hours coming up with characters’ names and inventing our own little world with the town of Westerly and the village of Swaddlecombe. We also managed to squeeze in an ‘April Cottage’, a ‘Primrose Cottage’ and a ‘Hill Farm’.

House names always interest me and I love quaint names like ‘Wisteria Cottage’ or ‘The Hollies’ or something grand like ‘The Rookery’. I think something with a peculiar name would actually put me off! A few years ago now, we used to exhibit at the NEC next to a company that made house signs and they always said ‘Rose Cottage’ was the most popular. Well, I had a bit of a search online and it seems that names change with the times and today ‘The Cottage’ is the most popular, with ‘Rose Cottage’ in second place.

A barn next to co-writer Julia’s house is called ‘The Shielings’, which was a bit of a puzzle. Apparently this means summer grazing place or hut in a wild and remote place, often in Scotland. So, one assumes it was chosen as a reminder of a previous home further north. 

An ‘Old School House. © TripAdvisorPeople quite often transfer place–names to houses, there’s a ‘Taplow Cottage’ not far from me and I am sure we have all seen examples of this. I have friends near Salisbury who live in a very old house called ‘Ilchester Cottage’… Ilchester being a village some 50 miles to the west, so someone was very ‘mobile’ a few centuries ago!

Names often reflect a nearby feature and trees are popular. ‘Orchard House’ is high up the list, as are ‘Yew Tree Cottage’, ‘The Beeches’ and ‘Pear Tree Cottage’. ‘The Elms’ used to be popular but, sadly, the decline of those lovely trees means the house name has died off in popularity too.

I like houses with wild animal names – imagine what fun it would be to live in ‘Fox Hollow’, ‘Deer’s Leap’ or ‘Badger’s Holt’! 

Changes in our society are reflected in house names and today many old schools, chapels and barns have been converted to residential use so you will probably have an ‘Old School House’ or ‘Old Chapel’ in the village. While on the one hand, it is nice to pay homage to a building’s origins, it is also sad that so many communities have lost important parts of their traditional make up. 

Do you live in a house with an interesting name? If it’s unusual, have you ever tried to look up its origins…?

 

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A sign of the times…

If you live in Devon, you can get a bit obsessed with signposts. We still have lots of lovely old-fashioned white fingerposts at junctions in our narrow lanes displaying what we often refer to as ‘the Devon mile’ – a curious ‘elastic’ measurement. Let me explain. You set off following a fingerpost that says ‘Stokeinteignhead 3¼’ miles and then, after driving a good couple of miles, you’ll find another one that says Stokeinteignhead 2½’ miles. You frown, scratch your head and go on for another two or so until you come to another signpost that says ‘Stokeinteignhead 2¼’. You will get to your destination on the end, but a Devon mile is a funny thing and usually much longer than you expect…

Traditional direction signs, or ‘fingerposts’, are as English as red post boxes and the old-fashioned red telephone box and very much part of the ‘traditional’ English look’ that so many foreign visitors love to see. These days, many fingerposts are falling into disrepair but, where they do still survive, they come in a wide variety of regional and local designs. Some have finials on the top, others have proper pointing ‘hands’ like white gloves, while others even have lanterns on the top. Amazingly, the oldest fingerpost, in the Cotswolds, dates from 1699!

To try and standardise this mishmash of designs, in the 1920s the Ministry of Transport stated that direction signs should use standard black upper case lettering on a white background and specified that the name of the authority should also appear in the design. While following these guidelines, local authorities still had plenty of leeway over the exact design of posts, arms and finials and this led to a wide variety of local styles.

Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall boasted red posts with white lettering (no one is sure why!) while others had finials in the form of discs, rings, balls and pyramids marked with county names and sometimes even a map grid references. Over the years, further reviews have been carried out to try and standardise the signs, and again, local authorities were encouraged, but not forced, to remove traditional fingerposts. But, as is so often the case in this wonderfully eccentric country of ours, they wanted to maintain their regional identities, so did nothing. And that’s why there are still lots of weirdly designed fingerposts pointing all over the country to this day.

Being an old romantic, I think it will be a sad day when fingerposts eventually disappear and all anyone does is listen to their boring old sat nav bossing them about. In the Westountry we have wonderful, romantic place names – as well as some really funny ones. I still get a thrill when I drive past signs in Cornwall to ‘Demelza’, the name of a village borrowed by Winston Graham for the heroin of his Poldark books – and a steamy TV drama from my teens (Robin Ellis in tight breeches!!)! And on a back road way down in the south of Cornwall, you’ll come across one of my absolute favourite signs pointing to ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, the setting for, and name of, the impossibly romantic historical novel by Daphne Du Maurier.

Long may the fingerpost continue to show us the way!

 

 

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