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!