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Heather and gorse – moorland beauties

From a distance, Dartmoor can seem rather gloomy and forbidding as Autumn draws in, but pause to look closer, and you’ll see that it is carpeted in the most lovely shades of purple, pink and yellow as heather and gorse combine to create a stunning patchwork.

Heather is also known as ‘Ling’ and you’ll find it on heathland, moorland, bogs and even woodland with acidic or peat soils. Its delicate pink flowers appear from August to October with the plants growing tightly packed together. Surprisingly, given the tough areas they seem to thrive in, heathers can live for up to 40 years or more!

Historically, heather has been used for many purposes, such as fuel, fodder, building materials, thatch, packing and ropes. It was also used to make brooms, which is how it got its Latin name – Callunais derived from the Greek word meaning ‘to brush’.

People have lived and worked on Dartmoor for thousands of years and managed the vegetation to produce what they need. Swaling (or burning) has been carried out by farmers from earliest times, as a way to clear scrub and improve grazing for sheep, cattle and ponies. Today, laws and regulations stipulate the time of year and even the time of day that swaling can take place – so very different from times gone by. An old farmer friend of mine recalls being sent out with a box of matches to swale nearby moorland with three friends, the oldest being 12 and the farmer himself 5! He said they did it every year without mishap and their parents trusted them to get on with the job, it wasn’t a game, and they all knew how to manage the burn – quite extraordinary!

The other star of the moorland landscape is gorse. Its vivid yellow flowers create a real splash of colour and, although I wouldn’t normally think to put pink and yellow together, in nature they look stunning against the dark green foliage. Gorse is a prickly character and can leave you with scratched legs should you walk through it, even in thick walking trousers!

Common Gorse can be seen in all kinds of habitats, from heaths and coastal grasslands to towns and gardens. Western Gorse, which is abundant on Dartmoor, flowers from July to November. Gorse provides shelter and food for many insects and birds, it’s spiky leaves creating an effective deterrent for even the nosiest dogs!

Traditionally, gorse was regularly collected from common land and, like heather, had all sorts of uses – including fuel for firing bread ovens, fodder for livestock and was used as a dye for painting Easter Eggs.

Common Gorse flowers a little in late autumn and through the winter, coming into flower most strongly in spring, while Western Gorse and Dwarf Gorse flower in Autumn. Between the different species, some gorse is almost always in flower, hence the old country phrase: “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion”!

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Moorland and paws – a winning combination!

Rachel, one of the owners of Moorland Paws, with Moss and her friend Ziggy at the opening event.

At a time when so many high street shops are closing, it’s great to hear about a new business opening up. I like to visit Chagford for a mooch around the shops and perhaps a visit to a tea shop, it’s a pretty little town up on Dartmoor, and a great place for walking especially if you have a dog. My friend Julia’s dog, Moss the Dartmoor Dog Blogger, was invited to the opening of a new shop in the town called Moorland Paws that caters for both dogs and people!

The shop (a former bank – not many of those left on any high street, sadly) has been kitted out to sell just about everything a dog could need from bowls to beds and from leads to treats. It specialises in ‘natural’ pet care and all the products are made in the UK, contain no chemicals and are cruelty-free. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a dog grooming studio spa for all their health and beauty needs!

Nordic walking poles to keep you fit!

For humans, there’s a range of Nordic walking poles, which are a great way to help keep you fit and make walking on the moor (or anywhere else) easier.

Moss attended the event with her friend, Ziggy, and they had a lovely time, sampling treats and saying ‘hi’ to lots of their doggy friends. Moss is quite a rufty tufty outdoor girl and didn’t much fancy a trip to the spa, but she was very keen on a nice new bed (which she didn’t get as she tends to chew them!) and some tasty snacks!

These dog treats look good enough for humans to eat!

The shop has been set up by two enterprising local ladies, Denise and Rachel, and their respective dogs (of course) Winnie and Bailey. Judging by how busy the opening night was, the new shop should be a great success.

 

 

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The weather is looking a bit blenky out there…

I suspect we’ve all been a little obsessed with the weather over the past couple of weeks as we have swung from a mild February into a ferocious and freezing March… and then back to balmy spring days again – I know I have! I’ve been glued to the Met Office App and avidly following weather stories on the BBC website.

After witnessing a stunning weather phenomenon – a sort of universal ‘glazing’ – down here on Dartmoor last week, a post on Facebook drew my attention to ‘Ammill’, the official term for this rare event. As ever, this set me thinking and I started looking for other unusual or forgotten weather terms – and was delighted with what I discovered! I suspect that, years ago, the weather had so much more direct impact on our lives that we had many more terms to describe it. I am going to start a crusade to reintroduce some of these gems into regular use. So, the next time we are stuck with drizzle and strong wind, be sure to tell everyone it is hunch-weather!! Enjoy…

BLENKY

To blenky means ‘to snow very lightly.’ It’s probably derived from blenks, an earlier 18th-century word for ashes or cinders.

A perfect Drouth day.

DROUTH

This is an old Irish-English word for the perfect weather conditions in which to dry clothes.

FLENCHES

If the weather flenches, then it looks like it might improve later on, but never actually does… we have a lot of that in Devon!

FOXY

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, if the weather is foxy then it is misleadingly bright’ — or, in other words, sunny, but freezing cold.

Hunch weather.

HUNCH WEATHER

An old 18th-century name for weather — like drizzle or strong wind —that’s bad enough to make people hunch over when they walk.

HENTING

A Cornish word for raining hard, as in “ee’s henting out there!”

BENGY

Pronounced ‘Benji,’ this is an old southeast English dialect word meaning ‘overcast’ or ‘threatening rain.’

MESSENGER

A messenger?

A single sunbeam that breaks through a thick cloud can also be called a messenger, rather lovely, I thought.

SWULLOCKING

An old southeast English word meaning ‘sultry’ or ‘humid.’ If the sky looks swullocking, then it looks like there’s a thunderstorm on the way.

HEN-SCARTINS

This is an old English word for long, thin streaks of cloud traditionally supposed to forecast a rain. It literally means

Now that’s what I call a Twirlblast!

‘chicken scratches.’

TWIRLBLAST AND TWIRLWIND

Two lovely old 18th-century names for tornados – much more fun!

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Simple pleasures…

As we get older, I think we become more aware of ‘simple’ pleasures’, well I know I do! The smell of coffee brewing, freshly cut grass or hearing an owl hoot – all simple things that give immense pleasure.

I read the other day that Vita Sackville-West (she of Sissinghurst Garden fame, amongst other things…) used the term ‘through leaves’ to describe simple pleasures enjoyed by her family. She coined the phrase after “the small but intense pleasure of kicking through leaves while out walking”, which I thought was rather lovely.

Another classic, that I expect almost all of us know, are the lyrics to the song ‘My favourite things’ from the Sound of Music, including whiskers on kittens, warm woollen mittens and brown paper packages tied up with string.

It’s so easy to think that pleasures have to be big and expensive, like holidays, or fancy clothes… but I think we start to appreciate the simple things the more we experience life. You often hear people who have survived cancer, or cheated death in an accident or natural disaster, say how they appreciate every day, every moment, and are more aware of what’s around them.

I had a think about my ‘through leaves’ moments, and came up with the following list:

  • The smell of baking bread (thanks to Richard and his bread maker!)
  • Little Grace running towards me with her arms open
  • A beautiful sunset (or dawn, but that’s rare!)
  • Hearing my daughters say a casual I love you
  • Finishing a card and sitting back and thinking – that’s a keeper!

My co-author Julia was here (we were busy having a book signing session!) and I asked her, for her ‘Through leaves’ moments and she said:

  • Standing in the middle of her runner bean arch(!)
  • Being greeted by her dog, Moss, in the morning
  • Watching beech leaves unfurl in spring
  • Walks on frosty mornings
  • Birdsong

So what are your ‘through leaves’ moments? Do let me know… smiles, Joanna

 

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Moon gazing…

As a child, I was never quite sure if the moon was made of cheese, or whether there was a man living in it, these were both tales I remember being told on numerous occasions! Despite being old enough to watch the moon landing in 1969, I think I still harboured a romantic dream that there just might be cheese up there… or that there was an old man hiding in a crater!

I am sure we have all gazed at the moon, enjoyed its beautiful silvery light on a clear frosty night, or marvelled at how huge a supermoon appears to be. But the moon is a lot more than just a pretty face, it affects our everyday lives – our very existence, in fact. The moon’s gravitational pull produces the ocean tides, something I always find fascinating.

I didn’t realise that there was still so much mystery surrounding the moon. Scientists think it was formed from debris left over from a huge collision between the Earth and another body, but they don’t know for sure. But we do know it is egg shaped, not round, and is moving very slowly away from the Earth…

The moon plays a part in many ancient cultures that developed lunar calendars, Christianity being one of them. Originally, the moon was regarded as being a symbol of wisdom and justice but this later changed to signify madness, or lunacy – from ‘luna’ the Latin word for the moon. Ever since the Middle Ages, epileptic fits were believed to be triggered by the full moon. There is also an old wives tale that warned people not to have surgery around a full moon, as they would bleed excessively – ugh!

There are many myths and tales about the moon and its influence, but no real scientific evidence to back them up, sadly. Dogs are often said to howl at a full moon (I can’t say any of mine have!) and then of course, there’s the whole werewolf scenario! People are still fascinated by the effect of the full moon on human behaviour and it even has its own term, ‘Transylvania Hypothesis’!

There are so many romantic moon-related terms, I thought I’d list a few of them here. The lovely sounding ‘harvest moon’ and ‘hunter’s moon’ are traditional terms for the full moons that we see during late summer and in the autumn, and nowadays we also talk about a supermoon – a full moon or a new moon that coincides with the closest distance that the moon reaches to Earth giving a larger-than-usual apparent size of the lunar disk. The Americans, however, seem to have made an art out of romantic-sounding moon terms, so here are some examples for you:

  • January: Wolf Moon, Old Moon
  • February: Snow Moon, Hunger Moon
  • March: Crow Moon, Sap Moon
  • April: Pink Moon, Egg Moon, Fish Moon
  • May: Milk Moon, Flower Moon
  • June: Strawberry Moon, Rose Moon
  • July: Hay Moon, Thunder Moon
  • August: Corn Moon, Sturgeon Moon
  • September: Harvest Moon, Full Corn Moon
  • October: Hunter’s moon, Blood Moon
  • November: Beaver Moon, Frosty Moon
  • December: Cold Moon, Long Night’s Moon

I love the idea of looking up in the middle of a barbecue and saying, sagely: “Ah yes, it’s a Strawberry Moon tonight!”

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