Saturday 26 October 2013

A Golden Forest, An Ancient Church and Charcoal Burning

The great beech trees of Epping Forest are beautiful at any time of year, but when I visited here in August I made a promise to myself that I'd come back to see their autumn colours.  I think mature beech trees are the trees of autumn; their leaves turn from green to gold to copper before forming a magic copper carpet on the ground.  As Epping Forest is reported to contain over 80% of all the UK's ancient beech trees, it has to be the best place to come and see this wonderful sight.

But when would be right time to make this visit? Looking at the trees where I am I've noticed that many of the leaves are still green - and this ties in with reports on the news that autumn is about two-three weeks later this year. So should I leave my forest visit until early November?

Well, I decided to go now - because with reports of gales arriving over the next couple of days, there's a good chance I could go all the way there and find only bare branches! But a visit this week did mean that instead of finding copper, I found a blend of green, copper and gold. In fact, gold was the true colour of the forest that day, because a lovely sun lit up all the leaves. So, although it was a different sight to the one I'd planned - it wasn't a disappointment at all. And I was still able to wander through the carpet of copper...

After I visited the forest, I called in at nearby Greensted Church. Greensted Church is reported to be the oldest wooden church in the world and the oldest wooden building still standing in Europe, so this fascinates me because of my love of wood. As we're completing our own, traditional, timber-frame barn at home, it's inspiring to see an ancient example of a wooden building...

Greensted Church

The first Saxon settlers here worshipped their gods in groves in the forest. But after they converted to Christianity, the first church was built on this site in the late sixth or early seventh century. Dendrochronological analysis of the timber walls indicates that the church standing today was constructed around 1060-1063 AD.  Changes have been made to the church over the centuries to preserve it, for example, around 1500, the thatched roof was replaced with tiles and the timber tower, clad in Essex weatherboarding, was probably built in the 1600s. Windows have been added, too, as the Saxon nave would have been windowless with the church lit by lamps...

Further restoration was undertaken in the Victorian era and this included shortening the base of the ancient timbers...

A Crusader's grave lies just outside the church.  It's possible that the Crusader was something of a local hero, because he was placed against the south wall, and his coffin lid was made of stone (not a local material.)

Back at home...

There are some signs of autumn in our trees (I had to include this pic to show off our extra long sheep!!)

We'll be using wood from our trees for charcoal burning - our new project.  As we're surrounded by hornbeam and sweet chestnut, this is the wood we'll use to burn...

Charcoal Burners

More on this when we get going!

Meanwhile a huge oak has come crashing down in a nearby meadow.  As you can see, the crown appeared to be very healthy (the whole tree appeared very healthy from the outside), but the trunk was rotten inside...

The crown

Fortunately, it didn't do any damage. It'll be moved, because the meadow is used, but I always find it fascinating when fallen, dying trees are left because they'll become a new home for lots of different insects.

Last of all, we've added a new spirit to our collection of carvings, gargoyles and grotesques. We recently bought this Green Man i.e. this isn't one we've made, and he makes us smile because his fierce expression reminds of someone we know!

So I'm waiting, now, for these gales. The '87 hurricane had a huge impact on our nearby wood - and there are still plenty of fallen trees lying around from that time. I wonder if these coming gales will change the local landscape dramatically, too?

Sunday 13 October 2013

Hares (Again), Experiments with Planting Parsnips and a Car Full of Bees

Just a note about the Hares because they're back in the local fields again. Unlike in May, when they were hidden in the wheat - this time they're right out in the open, because the corn has now been cut and some of the fields have been ploughed. So the Hares look very exposed - and I worry that they can be easily seen by their human and animal predators.

I walk close to the hedgerow so that I can see them and not startle them, and Harry is under strict instructions to keep right next to me. But, like before, he just isn't that interested in them - they're too much like Rabbits, which also seem to leave him a bit cold. He's more of a rodent-under-the-shed kind of dog...

I wonder if these are the Hares I saw earlier in the year, and if they've reared any young.  I don't think I've ever seen a Leveret.

There are fewer insects about now; I saw a Red Admiral butterfly yesterday battling against the wind, and my bees will do some flying in the sun, but once the temperature drops and the rain comes in, they'll stay put in the hive. There are a few, last Dragonflies and Damselflies settling on the decaying plants and leaves...

The recent strong wind has scattered plenty of leaves and twigs everywhere.  The Poplars outside the smallholding never seem very sturdy when the wind blows and there is a rustle of leaves all along the lane.  One story I've been told is that these Poplars were planted for matches, when farmers were given incentives to provide the wood, but they were left when there was no longer a demand for them. Well, whatever their origin, I'm keeping a close watch on the branches at the moment, because this is where the winter thrushes (Fieldfares and Redwings) usually appear first when they return...

Experiments with Planting Parsnips

Leaves are falling, too - all over the veg patch, where the autumn veg is coming through. I've mixed results as usual, here - my carrots wouldn't look out of place in a dolls house, but my parsnips are looking great.  And this is thanks to my lovely Dad.

Last year none of my parsnips came up in all that cold, wet weather - and I believe my seeds just rotted away in the ground. So Dad had a suggestion for this year. He has been gardening for decades - and as well as using tried and tested methods, he's also always keen to experiment with new ideas.  So his suggestion was that I could always try something different - by germinating the seeds outside the soil, in tubs filled with damp kitchen paper...

A few of the parsnip seeds germinating on the kitchen paper

And it's worked beautifully. All the seeds have germinated by this method and I was able to lift them gently out of the tubs and plant them into the soil a few weeks later.

Now I have lots of parsnips coming up in the veg patch, ready to eat after they've been sweetened by the first frost.  Here is what some of them looked like just before we went on holiday last month...

Guaranteed Parnsips - although, of course, this year the ground is dry!

A final word on bees...

I know it's happened to many beekeepers - and it has just happened to me.  I've quickly lifted some frames out of a beehive that were full of honey and placed them into some new plastic boxes to take away. Then I put them in the car.  After a quick glance, I didn't see many bees still clinging to the frames and so believed that there weren't many -and I thought that the few bees that were now in the boxes could be safely released at home. I also had too much faith in the sealed lids of the new boxes and completely missed the small, bee-size gap in the corner of them.

And, of course, I got it all wrong. There were more bees than I thought on the frames - and they all found that bee-size gap in the box. When I came back to the car after a only few minutes away the first thing I saw were lots of bees looking back at me through the car windows.  Thinking back, I was lucky that I wasn't already driving when they started to escape so I didn't suddenly have lots of buzzing passengers while I was on the road. But I did have to immediately open all the car doors and windows and watch them fly off - and then thoroughly search the car to make sure every single bee had gone!

Escaping bees are one of the hazards of beekeeping. I was recently told by a fellow beekeeper that he had once ordered a whole hive of bees and these had somehow all escaped in the local Royal Mail sorting office.  The first he heard about it was a call of panic from the local posties to come and do something about it.

Sometimes I'm glad that there is a seasonal break from the excitement of beekeeping...

Thursday 3 October 2013

Hedgerows and Hives (or Sloe Gin, Blackberry Gin & the Attack of the Wasps)

Being watched while I pick blackberries (by this curious Muntjac Deer)

I love a September holiday because it lengthens my summer. I tell myself that autumn doesn't arrive until my summer holiday is over - and so, in this household, autumn officially began this year on 22nd September. And it really does feel like autumn now.  The nights are drawing in, the Swallows have all left, and leaves are starting to cover the smallholding.  We've also begun to bring the logs in and light the fire each evening. I love the fires - but I'd still rather have the long, warm, summer evenings outside.

A downside of taking a September holiday is that I've already missed days of blackberry picking. We eat lots of blackberries throughout the year, so I have to find the time as soon I as come home to pick several tubs-full for freezing.  I also have to pick lots of sloes, too, for Sloe Gin, because we love to drink this at Christmas. I posted a recipe for this last September, but I've decided this autumn to make it sweeter by adding more sugar (by increasing the sugar to 1lb) - because each year we seem to like our drinks sweeter and sweeter...

Last year's Sloe Gin at Christmas

I've also made some Blackberry Gin.  I've not made or even drunk this before, but I like the sound of it. Blackberry Gin is made in a similar way to Sloe Gin, except the blackberries are strained first.

Blackberry Gin


4lb Ripe Blackberries
3lb Sugar


Place the blackberries and sugar in a bowl in a warm place until the juice is drawn from the berries (as a guide, this can take about 8 hours in an airing cupboard).
Strain through a jelly bag/muslin/strainer.
For every pint of juice add a pint of gin.  Mix well and bottle.
Store for around 3 months and drink at Christmas!

NB Apparently, if you add a touch of hot water to this it helps to ease a sore throat!!

Fortunately, there's been plenty of sunshine since I came home from holiday, so I've been able to go out into the fields and forage for berries, taking Harry with me. He does get bored by it all, but...lovely dog...he's very patient...

The fields seem so quiet now I can no longer hear the Swallows, Swifts, Chiffchaffs etc. And there are very few butterflies around, too - mainly a few Whites and Speckled Woods.  But I am seeing Small Coppers for the first time this year...

Small Copper Butterfly

After blackberries and sloes - apple picking is next - and there are lots of apples this year. We have a large apple crop in the orchard we planted a few years ago...

A corner of the new apple orchard

All our trees in the orchard are surrounded by pallets after we acquired lots for free some time ago. These protect the trees from our sheep and the local rabbits - and although they're a bit ugly, they've worked really well.

A few of our neighbours have also very kindly invited us to pick apples from their own trees (as they don't want them), so we're currently doing the rounds of gardens and orchards.  But now we have to find a place to store them all. We do have several stacked apple crates, but I'm not sure this will be enough, so the apples that are already beginning to spoil are quickly fed to the sheep, chickens and geese.  Most of the good apples will go to make apple juice.

Bees and Wasps

In late summer, wasps often attack weaker honeybee colonies to steal their honey.  All honeybee colonies have guard bees at the entrance of their hive to see off any intruders, but wasps are very persistent and aggressive. While the strong colonies will fight off the wasps, the weaker ones can become overwhelmed.

Unfortunately, this is what happened in my apiary this summer.
I had some bees in a nucleus hive (a smaller hive) because I was in the process of introducing a new queen bee to a colony - and according to beekeeping wisdom it's always best to introduce a new queen to a small colony first i.e. so they can become used to her - and then she can be introduced to a larger one.

But, this time, my small colony turned out to be a weak colony - and so it was unable to fight off the wasps.

I discovered what had happened when I lifted the roof off of my nucleus hive expecting bees - only to see a few wasps helping themselves to the honey.  I hadn't realised wasps were around the apiary because I hadn't seen them, but there must have been a nest nearby (I had seen them at another apiary and put out lots of jam-jar wasp traps, but I hadn't seen a single wasp around the nucleus hive).

I'm often told that wasps are good for the garden, and that everything in nature has its place, but like other beekeepers, I have another opinion of them altogether...