A midsummer garden

I’ve got some good news to share.  But I plan to do so in another couple of days…. you’ll see why.

So today I’ve decided to follow American blogging friend Clay’s suggestion, and share a few pictures of an English garden in midsummer.

We are lucky.  We rent a property attached to a large house. Surrounding this house is a large garden, which we’re encouraged to enjoy.

Here you are.  Enjoy it with us.

Here’s a town we Brits should know.  It’s where 1066 And All That really began.  William of Normandy and his troops set sail from here, landed on the English south coast and won the Battle of Hastings.  William became King of England, introduced a whole new French vocabulary into the English language (‘Pork or beef, madam?’), and his brother Odo commissioned the first strip cartoon, the Bayeux tapestry, to record and commemorate the event.  Later though, in 1431, the English held Joan of Arc captive here, before conveying her to Rouen to be burnt at the stake.

En route from France to England: a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry (Wikimedia Commons)

En route from France to England: a detail from the Bayeux Tapestry (Wikimedia Commons)

Even without those compelling reasons to make a pilgrimage, Saint Valery is worth a detour.  It was and is a harbour and a fishing town with a picturesque mediaeval centre.  Like many pretty towns on the coast, it’s popular with writers and artists: Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Alfred Sisley and Edgar Degas  all had homes here, and we spent a pleasant day exploring, poking round the (rather touristy) Sunday market, choosing a restaurant-stop, and generally enjoying the pleasures of a seaside town.

While we were there, something special happened.  After lunch (moules, what else?) we wandered down to the beach.  There, on the other side of the estuary, were sheep, paddling.  Dozens of sheep, scores of sheep, hundreds of sheep.  They’re unique.  They’re bred from English Suffolk and Hampshire sheep, and they spend their lives grazing the salt marshes., which gives them a highly regarded flavour, rich in mineral salts, and the name ‘Estran salt meadow lamb’.  The life of those sheep, and their shepherds, and sheep dogs, is an energetic one.  They have to keep moving each and every day to avoid getting stuck in the damp and boggy sand.  Their shepherds keep an eye on them, oiling their feet to prevent foot rot, and every night the flock returns to pens with fresh straw via a special tunnel under the road.

Sheep grazing at the estuary.

Sheep grazing at the estuary.

Before we left, we wandered through the harbour, and up to the Chapelle des Marins, a neo-Gothic building, built on the site where the hermit-saint Gualaric, who gave his name to the town, once lived.  It’s a good place from which to say ‘Goodbye’ to the town and get some final views of the bay.

Farmland outside Saint-Valery-sur-Somme.

Farmland outside Saint-Valery-sur-Somme.

No it’s not.  But before we went there last week, we were inclined to agree with Noel Coward’s judgment.  We’d decided to go to north Norfolk for a week off from the twenty-first century: no wi-fi, no TV, no motorways, but instead wide open countryside and sea, small uncluttered villages with a parish church worth exploring, market towns, and a night sky unspoilt by light pollution.

The village of Cley-next-the-sea, seen from the nature reserves on the marshland between the village and the sea.

The village of Cley-next-the-sea, seen from the nature reserves on the marshland between the village and the sea.

We stayed near South Creake in North Norfolk, in the delightful bed and breakfast accommodation of Sara and Bob Freakley.  Here is the view from their front gate.

Leicester Meadows: the view from the garden.

Leicester Meadows: the view from the garden.

You can see that it’s not flat.  It’s quietly, comfortably, gently hilly, with woodland and meadowland nearby.  South Creake is the kind of village where any number of ducks raise their families on the village green.

And like so many Norfolk villages, it has a grand church far in excess of its apparent needs.  We loved St. Mary’s church, as so many in the area.  Landowners spent money outdoing their neighbours when it came to church commissioning and building.  Get it right, and royalty might come to stay – they never did.  But wooden angels soar among the rafters of splendid wooden-vaulted roofs.  Some churches are tall and stately, others rustic, with flinty walls.  A few have chunky cylindrical towers, because flint doesn’t lend itself to crisply finished corners.

And then there are the stately homes.  Oxburgh Hall – once seen, never forgotten.  It’s a romantic, moated 15th century manor house which almost came to the end of its life in the 1950s.  This was a period when many landowners, crippled by debt,  felt they had no option but to throw in the towel, and dozens of ancient manor houses in Norfolk alone were quite simply pulled down.  The auctioneer charged with disposing of Oxburgh declined to allow the winning bid from someone who wanted only the sturdy roof timbers, proposing to leave the rest of the house to tumble down.  Members of the family came to the rescue, as did the National Trust.  Now it’s one of Norfolk’s best-loved tourist attractions.  Here’s why….

Holkham Hall is overwhelmingly big.  We decided we couldn’t do it justice and confined this visit to its four-acre walled kitchen gardens, with its vines, peach trees, vegetable gardens sufficient, back in the day, to support everyone who lived and worked in this sizeable community.  Many English readers probably remember all about school history lessons featuring Coke of Holkham, early 19th century politician and agricultural reformer, credited with promoting crop rotation and pioneer experiments in sheep and cattle breeding.  Holkham Hall was his home and family seat.

Holkham Hall.

Holkham Hall.

I’d tell you about Peckover House, suggested by friend and fellow-blogger Sharon and her husband Andrew.  But it’s just over the border in Cambridgeshire, so not this time.

And then there’s the sea…and the wildlife.  But I’ve told you about them already.

*Noel Coward, ‘Private lives’.

The sea, the sea

We’ve just had a brilliant few days away.  First of all in Norfolk, then the Baie de Somme.  I’ve realised I love the sea.  Not sun-kissed beaches, though.  Not  ‘miles and miles of golden sand….’ *.  Definitely no lying around sun-bathing for me, and building sandcastles is only fun for the first ten minutes.

No, I love the kind of seaside we’ve enjoyed this week.  In north Norfolk, we seemed to be on the coast whenever it was low tide, squinting at the distant sea in retreat, as it left behind belts of shingle, mud, scrubby dunes and sand.  We’d get a convincing work-out crunching along a stony,pebbly beach, taking in the views across a flat but ever-changing landscape in subtle shades of mossy greens, grey and beige, and across a sea foaming white as it crashed to the shore, but with its own varied palette of bands of blue and grey from the shore to the distant horizon. The sky went in for moody tones, too, rather than clear summery blues, with feathery scudding clouds chased along by the rather challenging winds.P1200181

We weren’t there just for the landscape though. Birds come here to live and breed, and as birds of passage too.  There are supposed to be as many as 420 species here.  We knew that while the birds are nesting they are less visible than at some other times of the year.  Though we’ve just got ourselves pairs of binoculars, we haven’t yet got the skills to identify everything we see.  But we still wanted to be down on the seashore, every chance we got.

Then it was the Baie de Somme, a mere 90 minutes from Calais.  We all know about the Somme and the bloody, ceaseless, pointless battle that took place some distance inland during WWI, in 1916.  But the Somme estuary is a peaceful place.  Like north Norfolk, it’s an area of marshland, water and sky.  It offers fresh, brackish and salted water as a rich habitat for a huge variety of birds – and seals. We weren’t very successful bird watchers here either, but it didn’t stop us trying.

*’…in Whitley Bay, Northumberland’.  Travel slogan, Whitley Bay,   February 1964

Five quarters


I’ve just bought a cookery book.  This is not a newsworthy event in this house, despite the fact that I turn increasingly to the internet when trying to come up with something fascinating to do with a handful of leftovers discovered at the back of the fridge.

In fact it’s the internet that’s brought me into a relationship with this recipe book.  No, actually, it’s this blogging business.  You know how it is.  You discover someone’s blog.  And through that, you discover someone else’s.  And you end up following it (whilst trying to hang on to a sense of proportion: following blogs is not a substitute for real life).  Kath, the far-from-ordinary The Ordinary Cook was responsible, quite a few years ago now, for introducing me to racheleats.

I love Rachel’s bogs.  She’s an Englishwoman who found that a short visit to Rome turned into a longer one.  Then she found that she was no longer visiting, but living there.  She had the luck to live in a busy, ordinary, un-touristy district with a bustling market just down the road.  This market in Testaccio became central to her life there.  I guess she’s always cooked.  But she made it her business to buy local ingredients, to ask questions, to get thoroughly in touch with the ingredients and recipes of her new life in Rome.  And she started her blog.

There’s always a story to be told in her posts.  She’ll write about shopping for the ingredients, or how her version of the dish she’s writing about has come into being, or some other anecdote.  She has the knack of making you feel you’re sitting at her kitchen table, watching and learning while she chats as she assembles her ingredients and starts preparing the vegetables.  Because then there’s the recipe.  After I’ve read it, I want to dash into my kitchen and cook immediately. There’s just a small matter of not having that market to hand, with all its local stallholders and ingredients….

I wasn’t alone in loving her writing.  A couple of years ago, she was approached to write a cookery book, using the same personal lively style that characterises her blog posts.

And last week, the book, written whilst juggling her busy life as a mother, teacher, partner, recipe-chooser-and-tester, was published.  I ordered a copy immediately, from The Little Ripon Bookshop, and as soon as I got it, I started to read….  It’s a page turner.  She explains how it is that the book got its title ‘Five Quarters’..  She writes about the path that led her from London to Rome, from a career as an actress to the one she has now.  And she writes about the food she cooks.  Simple food, food made tasty by careful cooking of (to her) readily available ingredients: the dishes of the working people who lived –  and live –  in Testaccio.  The stories she weaves round the dishes she writes about make you want to cook, and eat, and go on reading this inspirational book.  If you like Italy, or food, or eating or cooking – or even better, all of these things, you’ll love this book, and want a copy to read and use and make your own.

If you’re English, of rather mature years, and of a rural disposition, you won’t turn down the chance to snoop round somebody else’s garden.  That’s what Open Gardens is all about.  And early summer is open season for Open Gardens.

The other day we chose to go to Old Sleningford Farm, only just down the road from here.  We knew we’d get the chance to stroll round a country house garden, with informal parkland and rather more formal borders and flowerbeds.  We knew there would be a productive kitchen garden.  We knew we’d be offered afternoon tea, with far too many delicious home-made cakes to choose from.

What really interested us, though, was the Forest Garden.  A what?

Here’s what they say on their website:

‘A Forest Garden is a planting which mimics an immature woodland, in which everything is edible or useful. Plants are grown using every available space – under the ground, on the ground, as bushes, trees and climbers. It requires minimal maintenance once established as all the plants are perennials or self seed easily and the ground is permanently covered.’

As you approach it, it seems you’re just going to enter a patch of woodland, albeit well-gated against pesky rabbits.  Simple paths mown through the undergrowth send you on a winding route that meanders through the two acre site.  Gradually we realised that there were things to eat here: fruit trees, certainly – apples, plums, gages, pears and so on – but also fruit bushes growing hither and yon.  Raspberries; currants red, white, pink and black; gooseberries.  Strawberries extended their runners along the ground.  Then we noticed herbs, and then some vegetables: chard, kale, leeks, onions…..

This is a garden that has required hours of work from everyone at Old Sleningford, from volunteers who come one Sunday every month and from wwoofers.  But over time, the garden will to an extent manage itself, as the desirable, productive plants take proper hold and leave no room for any plant not prepared to earn its keep.

We didn’t have long enough to explore as much as we’d have liked.  But we found a moment or two to relax in the summer-house at the forest garden’s centre.  Here was a simple wooden structure, with a roof of sempervivum  –  house leeks – equipped with a chair or two, a book or two.  Here, with only bird song for company, surrounded by productive woodland, was the perfect place to spend a summer’s afternoon.

Forest Gardens, via Graham Burnett, Wikimedia Commons.

Forest Gardens, via Graham Burnett, Wikimedia Commons.

Appleby Horse Fair


I love Appleby Horse Fair.  In truth I’ve never been there, nor am I likely to go.  But we know it’s happening, very soon, and here’s how we know.

Every day for a week or more, we’ve seen sturdy shire horses, or work-horses in any case, plodding steadily up the main road out of Ripon, drawing behind them colourful and traditionally decorated gipsy caravans, or vardoes.  That’s how we know that it’s the horse-fair at Appleby pretty soon.

Here in Ripon, we’re a good 65 miles from Appleby, avoiding motorways.  But some of those caravans are travelling from much far further away than that: travellers coming up from as far away as Wisbech in the Fens have made the news this week.  This fair is a huge occasion.

Every year in early June 10,000 – 15,000 English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish gypsies and travellers gather there to buy and sell horses, meet friends and celebrate their culture.  Originally, when it started in 1775, the fair was held on unenclosed land just outside the town boundaries of Appleby.  It was quite a different affair then,  Sheep and cattle drovers and horse dealers met to sell their stock.  Only gradually did it evolve into its present incarnation as a celebration of the Romany gypsy and traveller way of life.

People tell stories that the fair evolved following the granting of a Royal Charter by King James II in 1685.  Others say that the fair continues the tradition of Appleby’s mediaeval borough fair, once held at Whitsuntide.  But no.  The fair exists backed by no royal charter, no civic tradition.  It was and is a people’s fair which nobody owns, and to which nobody charges admission.

Overnight camp at the roadside.

Overnight camp at the roadside.

I wonder about these colourful travellers and their even more colourful vardoes.  At night, they’ll tether their horses on the lush grass verges, and set up camp. Everything bar sleeping has to be done in the open air, since these vardoes seem to be no larger than the average single bed.  By day, these horse-drawn caravans hold up traffic in long slow-moving tailbacks as they advance slowly towards their destination.  Nobody seems to mind.  But when do we ever see these sights except in the days leading up to and away from the fair?  What happens to the caravans, and even to the horses in between times?  Every gypsy and traveller encampment I’ve seen in recent years has featured large modern caravans and a motley crew of vehicles from state-of-the-art Mercedes to clapped out old Fords.  It must make life more comfortable.  I wonder if older traveller folk mourn the passing of the old days, or whether they’re quite simply grateful to have a home featuring all mod. cons?

A short convoy of vardoes.

A short convoy of vardoes.

I know I promised another post on the National Trust.  That’s coming soon.  Really.


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