Sunday 4 December 2016

Autumn into Winter

These are my last images of this year's glorious autumn, which definitely feels over now. In the young wood, close to the smallholding, the colours were beautiful;

The sheep were out grazing quite happily; there has been little rain to drive them into the shelter;

But in the late summer/autumn drought caused the water level to drop in the local reservoir and it's been a surprise to see the tree stumps of the old farmland revealed once again (this land was flooded by the new reservoir in the 1950s)

This autumn/winter I love that I'm on a commuter route - a geese commuter route. Every morning they fly over in great skeins;

And then at sunset they fly back again to their roost;

My own geese are never interested in the wild geese flying low overhead. They have their own preoccupations - such as the return of Cador. This is my 'young' gander who had to be re-homed on the farm next door because he kept picking a fight with his father. Well - he's now back, in disgrace, because of his bad behaviour there, too. So I have to make sure that I separate the two males on the smallholding, which is giving me extra work (and a large headache...) It's like taking back a difficult teenager into the home...

Meanwhile here's something I've found a lot more soothing than squabbling geese - discovering a foxglove in my garden that flowered in October and throughout November;

I love the striking sunrises and sunsets of this time of year. This sunset blazed behind a large bonfire David and I had just lit. We could feel the frost in the air, and see the lights of the house across the dark field;

Now it's definitely not my favourite season, but I have to admit that winter has its moments, too.

Saturday 19 November 2016

Autumn (and a Hermit) in an Old Forest

Mother and fawn
I like November. I like the beautiful, bright days of this month, sometimes with a frosty start, where the sun catches the red, copper and gold of the leaves. I always think that the beginning and middle of November are autumn while the end of the month is winter. And I don't mind early winter, because it's still a bit of a novelty (although this feeling doesn't last long - by mid December I'm looking forward to spring!)

On sunny days in November, I'm usually in a 'make the most of the outdoors' mood. I like to enjoy the autumn colours while they last - and so when I can, I squeeze in a woodland walk. I did this recently when I walked through Writtle Forest, which isn't far from where I live. Writtle forest is made up of different areas of ancient woodland - and a good description of it comes from the late academic and writer on the British countryside, Oliver Rackham:

' Writtle Forest is a wild and lovely place. Nearly everything one sees there is of the fourteenth century or earlier: the great assart surrounded by hornbeam springs and alder slades: the heathland. Pollard oaks, and woodbanks.'

I'd also add to this description the lovely sight of fallow deer because there are so many here, and it's wonderful coming across them...

In the Middle Ages, Writtle Forest had its own hermit. This was actually a job created for someone by the king; it seems it was the 'fashion' (so to speak) to place a hermit in a forest in this part of the country (Hainault Forest had one as well). In Writtle, Henry II (1133-1189) gave the job to a solitary Cluniac monk - later increased to two monks. Their main purpose was to pray for the soul of the king and for the souls of departed kings, and they were given a small farm (a hermitage), and an income.

I looked for a trace of the hermitage, but I couldn't see anything. From the maps, it appears it stood where there is now a small meadow. There's another 'lost' building around here, too - King John's hunting lodge. Sadly, there's also little trace of this here today.

Writtle Forest has a claim to fame as the birthplace of Robert the Bruce....but which Robert the Bruce remains a dispute among historians. Some maintain it was the famous King of Scotland, while others believe it was his father (Robert the Bruce or Robert de Brus, sixth lord of Annandale, born 1243) who had an estate here.

I love walking through all woodland in November, but there is something special about walking through an ancient forest. The old trees, with their thick, gnarled trunks, have so much character.

And I don't suppose it was a bad job being a hermit here either, all those years ago.

Friday 11 November 2016

Stow Maries Aerodrome: A Place of War (1916) and Wildlife (2016)

A few miles away from where I live, an aerodrome from the Great War is being conserved. From 1916 until the end of the war, the men and women of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) were based here, but in 1919 the squadron moved to Biggin Hill in Kent. After this time, the site - a few huts in a field - remained empty and in the following years the buildings were used to store farm equipment. The site was never developed and neither was the land around it - and the buildings fell into decay. Today, the recent conservation work has given the site some activity once again and it's beginning to look as it did a hundred years ago. No other near-complete Great War aerodrome exists in England.

As well as being a place of history and of commemoration, the aerodrome has become a place for wildlife. In fact, wildlife is encouraged here. So the empty huts and the surrounding fields of rough grassland and scrub land, have become the homes and hunting grounds of barn owls, tawny owls, and little owls, song birds and hares. There are also water voles at the pond on the site.

I've been there two or three times now and each time I've looked for the owls. But I haven't had any luck with them.  I was told by the volunteers on one of my visits that the little owls had been peeking out from their ruined building the previous day for TV presenter Chris Packham to photograph. I watched the building for a while, sitting outside the officers' mess (or cafe) with my mug of tea, but the owls didn't appear for me. I really needed some food to lure them out (or perhaps I just wasn't famous enough for them!)

But if I haven't seen much of the wildlife on my visit, there's plenty of history to see here. Not all the huts have been conserved yet, but many have. These include the squadron offices (housing the museum), the blacksmith's forge, the ambulance hut and the aircraft hangers.

The duties of 37 Squadron included defending London from aerial attack (from Zeppelins). In such a country area, the sound of these early planes flying to and from the site must have had quite an impact on local folk. Even today it's quiet here, and any noise from the vintage aircraft (when they fly) is very noticeable. Tragically, ten servicemen from 37 Squadron did lose their lives in the war. At least one lost his life in an accident close to the site when his aircraft crashed. All the deaths must have hit the community hard -  I imagine the pilots would have been known in the villages, drinking in the local pubs and attending the local church.

Remember the Tower poppies of a couple of years ago? Ten have been donated to the aerodrome by the bell ringers of a local church for the ten servicemen who lost their lives.

There are different events held here throughout the year - and these include a service here on Remembrance Sunday...

Stow Maries Aerodrome is a place I'll look forward to returning to. Hopefully I might even see the owls at last! But I'd also like to see how the conservation work is progressing and to learn more about the stories of the people who were based here.

For more info, I've included a link to the aerodrome website here.

Monday 24 October 2016

Jobs for Autumn: Charcoal Burning and Planting Spring Bulbs

'The charcoal-burner has tales to tell.
He lives in the Forest,
Alone in the Forest;
He sits in the Forest,
Alone in the Forest.
And the sun comes slanting between the trees,
And rabbits come up, and they give him good-morning,
And rabbits come up and say, "Beautiful morning"...
And the moon swings clear of the tall black trees,
And owls fly over and wish him good-night,
Quietly over to wish him good-night...

And he sits and thinks of the things they know,
He and the Forest, alone together -
The springs that come and the summers that go,
Autumn dew on bracken and heather,
The drip of the Forest beneath the snow...

All the things they have seen,
All the things they have heard:
An April sky swept clean and the song of a bird...

Oh, the charcoal-burner has tales to tell!
And he lives in the Forest and knows us well.


These are the signs of autumn on our smallholding; the changing colour of the beautiful, mature oaks around our boundary, the hedges heavy with berries and rose hips, apples in the orchard, the air full of wood smoke from bonfires and log fires. And then there is the list of seasonal jobs that we hope to get ticked off before the weather turns cold and wet and miserable and we don't really want to be working outside.

The first of these autumn jobs is charcoal burning. A traditional charcoal burner lived alone or in a small community of other charcoal burners in the woods, looking after a kiln, day and night. David has built a kiln here, but we only burn a small amount at a time, so we're able to keep an eye on it over a few hours. Our kiln is basically an old oil drum, with a lid and chimneys, that has been placed by our bonfire. To start the process, seasoned hornbeam logs are stacked carefully in the kiln so that there is a hole in the centre.  The hole has been left so that hot coals from the bonfire can be added. Then the logs are lit.

The fire starts to burn, with flames visible out of the top of the kiln and smoke mingling with the misty autumn air. It's important to judge at this point when to put the lid on - too soon and the wood doesn't turn into charcoal properly, too late and the logs turn to ash. The lid is then sealed with ash from the bonfire, so that oxygen doesn't seep into the kiln preventing the logs from being properly 'cooked'.

Hours later, the process is finished. The charcoal is removed and left to cool and then it's stacked by the barbecue, ready for a warm, summer evening in 2017!

Some of the finished charcoal, ready for a barbecue
As the charcoal burning is taking place, I'm planting spring bulbs and other flowers. Because we've planted so many trees and hedges here, we've inadvertently transformed open, sunny spots into areas of woodland garden. The plants I'll be introducing to these areas will be the plants that'll thrive in dappled shade; so, for example, I'll be planting more cyclamen as well as several clumps of lily of the valley that my godmother has kindly given to me from her own garden.

Gone planting...
In some of the remaining open areas I'm going to plant more daffodils. I like daffodils - I can't say that they're a favourite flower of mine, but they are part of the spring landscape and I'd miss them if they weren't there.

Actually, the truth is that I am missing daffodils because I discovered last year that we now have daffodil pests...

Our Suffolk and Cheviot sheep have never touched daffodils in their 14 or so years of being here, but our new Ryelands eat them as they come up, because they're incredibly greedy sheep and will eat anything. I was slow to realise what had happened, but I did twig, sometime towards the middle of last April, that I couldn't see the usual splash of yellow along the edge of the moat. What I did see was two very fat brown sheep. So - because we've recently doubled our number of Ryelands - I'll be re-planting daffodils this autumn to replace the lost flowers and they'll be planted in secure, sheep-proof areas.  And as for the Ryelands...fortunately they quite like stinging nettles, so hopefully, without daffodils to tempt them, they'll concentrate on the weeds instead.

Thursday 13 October 2016

Is King Harold Buried Here? The Ruins at Waltham Abbey, 950 years after The Battle of Hastings

Marking King Harold's Grave. The inscription reads: 'This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried 1066'.

'This was a fatal day for England, a melancholy havoc of our dear country brought about by its change of lords'
William of Malmesbury (1125) on the Battle of Hastings

This autumn, I've visited the ruins of Waltham Abbey, where the last Saxon king Harold Godwinson is supposed to be buried. Waltham Abbey and Church have long been on my list of places to visit and because - this week - it's exactly 950 years after the Battle of Hastings (it took place on 14 October 1066), now seems like the right time to do it.

The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross and St Lawrence, Waltham Abbey. 
There is a real mystery around the final resting place of King Harold. The familiar story is that after he was killed at Hastings (by an arrow in his eye? It's more likely he was killed by the swords of Norman knights), his body lay on the battlefield waiting to be identified. So Edith the Fair (also known as Edith Swan-neck) his mistress or second wife (Harold's martial situation is a bit unclear) was asked to do identify him - and she did - from 'marks known only to her'.

Statue of King Harold, Waltham Abbey Church
After this, there are several accounts about the fate of Harold's body. Different historical sources from the 1100s refer to Harold's burial at Waltham Abbey. But other accounts have him buried at sea or buried under a cairn on a cliff top, while from the 1950s there has been a suggestion that he was buried at Bosham Church in West Sussex, where a Saxon grave has been found. It seems that Edith also had a demesne not far from Waltham Abbey and so it's also been said that she may have arranged for the body to have been taken there.

The Church seen over the ruins of the Abbey
But in the Vita Haroldi (1177), Harold is said to have left the battlefield alive and ended his days living quietly afterwards. Historians have suggested, though, that this was written to draw attention away from Harold's grave at Waltham Abbey. A century after Hastings, Harold was still a problem for the Norman rulers and a rallying figure for disaffected, rebellious Saxon folk.

14th Century Gateway and Bridge, Waltham Abbey. The bricks on the left are Essex bricks
and are an example of some of the earliest medieval bricks in the country.
The church at Waltham Abbey was important to Harold because many years before he became king he was miraculously 'cured' from a form of paralysis while visiting there. He then became a benefactor of the church. There have been several churches on the site since the 7th century, and the church was raised to a status of an abbey in 1184, many years after Harold's death.

Rose Window, Waltham Abbey Church, showing the story of Genesis.
It was designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones
So, although there's a stone commemorating Harold at Waltham Abbey, his bones could be anywhere. If he is somewhere within the abbey ruins, he's likely to have been moved several times during the different building work and religious turmoil in the following centuries.  But wherever he is, Harold has become strongly associated with Waltham Abbey. Each year, a group called the Friends of King Harold hold a King Harold Day there. This is a Saxon/Medieval festival that takes place on a weekend close to 14 October - this year, it took place on 8th October.

Scenes from King Harold Day (Medieval musicians and archers).
There has been plenty of interest in looking for the bones of King Harold and this might be the time for finding lost kings - after all, Richard III was recently found in a car park, so Harold Godwinson may well be discovered in a quiet corner of Waltham Abbey.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

A Sky Empty of Swallows....and the Hornet's Revenge

Suddenly, the swallows have gone. They were here at the weekend, chattering on the wires and scooping up insects, but now they've all disappeared. The sky is empty of them.

These photos are of 'our' young birds earlier in the summer, when they'd just fledged. They'll now be on their journey south to Africa. Each year I silently wish them well and hope they come back safely. It'll be one of the best moments of next year when they do.

There's a sense here that most of the summer visiting birds have gone. I only wish the wasps and hornets had disappeared by now. They're still around, although maybe not for much longer, because the badgers have largely dug out the wasps' nest by our front gate. The badgers destroyed last year's nest, too - and I've started not to worry too much about the nests when I find them in the ground here. I know that the badgers will get rid of them for me.
Largely dug-out wasps' nest

I don't know if any of our native creatures would destroy an Asian hornets' nest. Fortunately, after the first UK sightings of the Asian hornet in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, a nest has been found and dealt with. That's the good news. The bad news is that today, there are reports that the Asian hornet is now in Somerset. Is it too much to hope that these are the only two locations?

Thankfully, the only hornets I've seen are the European hornets. Their nest is still active in the trunk of a nearby oak. I don't think they're doing very much damage to my bee hives, because I haven't seen them hanging around trying to attack my bees. And it hasn't really been a good year for wasps in my area, unlike last year, when many local beekeepers lost their bee hives to wasp attacks.  I wonder if - this year - the cold spring prevented the queens from establishing their nests.

But - just as I think the wasps and hornets are not bothering me here, they've given me a nasty surprise...

I discovered one in the airing cupboard at the weekend, as I was about to lift up a clean towel. How it found its way in there, when the door is almost always closed, I've no idea. Fortunately, I saw it straight away. I won't think about what might have happened if I hadn't!

Tuesday 27 September 2016

On Bats (Good), Dragonflies (Good and Bad) and Mosquitoes (Definitely Bad)

A rescued (and shy) Noctule Bat
Dragonflies and damselflies have been flying around the smallholding for weeks. From a distance, they're beautiful, like little jewels hanging in the air. I've been watching them in the meadow where the bee hives are kept where they dart around, hunting, their translucent wings glowing with light. But this is the problem - lovely though they are to look at, I think they're hunting my bees.

Female black tailed skimmer

I'm not an expert on the different dragonflies, but I'm having a go at the ID. I do know they are fierce little hunters that will use their large, bulging eyes to spot their prey. I think they're probably spotting my bees as they fly to and from the hives, so I really hope my bees are managing to outwit them.

Instead of my bees, I wish the dragonflies could have gone for the numerous mosquitoes we had here during the hot weather. We were under attack for about two or three weeks as they came buzzing in through the open windows at night - possibly from our moat. So I bought some citronella (known to repel mosquitoes) and scattered it everywhere, but I think its effect was limited. It has to be reapplied every few hours.  I got tired of the smell soon, too. I thought about a mosquito net, but I really didn't want such an cumbersome and ugly thing hanging up.

Common darter
It goes without saying that I'm very lucky I don't live in a malaria area. But a note on this; for a long time Essex (or rather the coastal marshes) was well known for malaria or, as it was known then, the 'ague'. There's one story that illustrates how bad it was - the 'Robinson Crusoe' author Daniel Defoe travelled through Essex in 1722 and he later wrote that when the men of the Essex marshes brought home wives who weren't local, the women would soon sicken of the ague (or they would 'decay' as he put it) and die. The men would then go and find another wife and it would all happen again. And again. According to Defoe, some men had married up to fifteen times (one farmer was on wife number twenty five). This sounds like a huge exaggeration, but there's probably some truth in it, so it's a wonder why these women kept taking the risk by marrying the marsh folk.

No one seems to be sure why the ague began to disappear in the late 19th century, but it may have been down to improvements in medicine. The last outbreak in this part of the world was recorded about a hundred years ago when soldiers from the First World War returned from the Mesopotamian campaign (where they had contracted the disease) to the Isle of Sheppey.

Anyway, there's no chance of the mosquitoes coming back now the nights are cooler.  But it has spurred me on to put up some bat boxes here. Bats hunt insects and they hunt mosquitoes. They're no threat to my bees because my bees won't be flying at night. I've hardly seem any bats around the house this summer and I don't know why, because soprano pipistrelle bats have been here in the past, and I do know they're roosting just over the fields. So I'm going to put up some boxes to encourage them back.  Will they control a future plague of mosquitoes? I don't know, but I really hope so.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Bad News about a Nasty Visitor - The Arrival of the Asian Hornet in Britain.

Like other British beekeepers, I've been on the look out the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina), which is a particularly nasty alien species.  Earlier in the summer, there were scare stories in the press about sightings of this 'killer hornet' in Britain, but fortunately none of these turned out to be true. A few weeks later, though, there was a confirmed sighting in the Channel Islands - and so beekeepers knew that it was just a few miles away from the British mainland.

Yesterday, it has been confirmed that the Asian hornet has been found in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.

Image result for asian hornet beekeeping uk
Asian hornet
This is bad news for honey bees and many other pollinators. European hornets kill honey bees, but these two species have evolved together. Strong honey bee colonies usually survive wasp attacks. The Asian hornet (thought to have entered France in 2004 on pottery from China) is a new and unfamiliar predator that is likely to have a terrible impact on honey bee colonies.

Asian hornets will attack honey bees as they go to and from the hive. They can kill them when the bees are returning loaded with pollen in their baskets. Then, when the colony is weakened, the hornets will enter the hive and attack the young bees. The Asian hornets can wipe out a honey bee colony very quickly.

So what can I do to protect my bees? Beekeepers have been encouraged to make special, DIY Asian hornet traps out of plastic bottles. Putting out the usual wasp trap would catch them, but in this case a trap needs to be made so that the Asian hornet can be clearly identified i.e. not the commonly used jam-jar trap that picks up lots of wasps together.

I found this European hornets' nest close to my smallholding this summer
I generally only put out wasp traps if I think my hives are being attacked (I haven't this year because the wasps haven't been a problem here). I don't want to catch wasps for the sake of it. But now I'll have to put out a wasp trap first of all in the spring, when the Asian hornet queens are about and looking to build a nest - and then keep it out throughout the summer. If I see an Asian hornet, I'll need to notify Defra at once through the Non-Native Species Secretariat (NNSS) at (there is a link to the NNSS on the Asian hornet here)

I'll also help to locate the nearby nest, although the advice is for the public not to destroy the nests themselves. In Gloucestershire, a three mile surveillance zone has been placed around the original sighting and the nest or nests is/are being sought and destroyed.

Obviously I hope all the early hornet nests are destroyed at once - and that this nasty visitor doesn't get the chance to survive and spread across the UK.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

The Hive at Kew and the Music of Bees

The Hive at Kew Gardens
I'm completely fascinated by the different sounds and movements honey bees make in the hive. They're constantly communicating with each other, whether it's by the 'waggle dance' (where a returning forager shows the others by a dance where a good source of food is) or whether it's a new queen bee 'piping' (as she emerges from her cell for the first time) or whether it's from the thousands of daily exchanges the bees make with each other that beekeepers see and hear but don't fully understand yet.

So when I heard about the Hive at Kew Gardens (designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress), I was very keen to see it as soon as possible. The Hive was opened earlier this summer and I eventually managed fit in a trip last week. Luckily (for me) there was a bit of break in the heatwave on that day and the weather was cooler and fresher - much more pleasant for wandering around the gardens.

The Hive has been constructed to highlight the importance of honey bees and pollinators to our food security and its design has been inspired by a traditional skep surrounded by a swarm of bees. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Hive is that it's linked to nearby honey bee colonies - and the intensity of sound and light in the structure is controlled by their vibrations.

This element of the design is based on the pioneering research by Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University into bee vibrations and communications. Dr Bencsik's work investigates the use of accelerometers in bee hives. These tiny devices can detect vibrations within hives as bees communicate and they help to predict behaviour, for example, sensing when bees are about to swarm.

Visitors to the Hive are able to feel four types of bee-vibrations in their heads by biting on a small wooden stick connected to a conductor. These vibrations include the queen's piping, begging - when one bee requests food from another, and the waggle dance. The overall sound in the Hive is the hum of a bee hive colony mixed with specially recorded music. This music is based on bees humming in the key of C. I found this gentle sound quite soothing. The only problem was the constant roar of planes flying overhead to Heathrow. I once lived for a while close to Kew Gardens and I'd forgotten how low, loud and distracting the planes are.

The ever-changing light in the Hive is from hundreds of LED bulbs placed within the 170,000 pieces of aluminium that make up the structure.

The Hive is surrounded by an area of wildflowers for pollinators, but I was obviously too late in the year to see the best of this, because most of the flowers had finished.  The bees were finding plenty of other flowers in the gardens, though, such as these alstroemeria;

After leaving the hive I went to look for 'real' bee hives and found them by the kitchen garden. These will be very lucky honey bees; they have so much forage in the gardens here all year round.

Honey bee and bumblebee hives at Kew. These colonies aren't linked to the Hive.
I do believe, then, that the Hive is worth a visit. I know I found it interesting to experience the behaviour of bees through a piece of art. The Hive also reminded me, once again, of the natural beauty of bees and how there's so much more to discover about them.

Here is a link to information on the Hive here  It'll be open until the end of 2017.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

After the Harvests and the Apple Thief

The honey harvest is over. I've taken all the honey I want from the hives and I'm now pouring it into jars, ready for sale. I'm not greedy; I've only taken a fraction of the honey I could take because I like to leave a lot for the bees. After all, this honey is the result of their hard work - not mine - and I don't want to raid all their food because they need it for winter stores.

I've been fascinated by this year's honey because it's much darker than usual. I'm really not sure what the bees have been foraging on, but they've loved something flowering locally that has produced honey with a deep, rich colour. And it's not only my bees that have been heading to and from this mystery source. I've been talking to a fellow beekeeper in the village and she's found exactly the same in her hives. We're both very keen to find out now where the honey has come from.

This year's honey ready to be extracted from the comb
The dark colour can sometimes mean it's honeydew honey. Honeydew is a sugary liquid secreted by sap-sucking insects on leaves - and honeydew honey has a strong, slightly bitter flavour.  As my honey is not as dark and is sweeter than this honey, I'm still none the wiser as to where it's come from.

So I'll just have look into what my bees have been up to this summer. In the meantime, they're foraging quite happily now with the bumblebees on some late summer flowers, such as single-flower dahlias, helenium, japanese anemones and verbana.

The other harvest has also taken place in the surrounding fields and we've collected bales of fresh straw from a local farmer for animal bedding.  I love the smell of fresh straw; it's a smell of late summer. The straw is now stacked in the barn with our winter logs.

Straw and logs stored for winter - and Harry watching a rabbit hole 
In the garden, we're picking plenty of vegetables such as tomatoes and courgettes, so there are lots of tomato and courgette-based meals here at the moment.  Some of the apples are ready to pick, too, but we've found we have a problem with our apple harvest, because apples in our new orchard are disappearing almost as fast as they're ripening. Why is this happening? Well, it seems we have a thief among us - and I've been watching him try his luck.

This is the technique. First of all try and knock the young tree to loosen the apples - and act casually, as though you're not up to anything...

Then rub up against a tree, which might be more successful...

Gaze up at the tree for inspiration...

Then just take a leap...

And success. you've grabbed an apple!

It's a good job the other sheep aren't following his bad example, otherwise I don't think we'd have any apples left.