Enough mysteries...what about the garden?

Being side-tracked is sometimes fun, sometimes interesting, sometimes born out of necessity and sometimes just for the hell of it. But after a winter of musings mysterious I feel it’s time to return to matters horticultural. So here’s how the year began in the garden:

That was January in Westdean, a few hoar frosts, a smattering of snow but mostly mild and bright. Then came February: first the delicate snowdrops accompanied by the heterogeneous hellebores and then that extraordinary heatwave which advanced and confused plants just as much as the rest of us. And yet curiously the first daffodils in the paddock appeared on precisely the same date as the previous year though, to misquote Eric Morecambe, in a completely different place. But once they’d arrived was no stopping them and the early ones came and went in a flash because of the heat. Here’s a sample of the best of February:

Madame Frog was an early arrival in March together with her numerous offspring though lying in wait and circling hungrily were a couple of predatory golden orfe ready to gobble them up. It’s tough being a tadpole.

It’s tough being a trachelospermum too. Not only are you charged with providing winter colour but expected to produce the most divine smells in summer as well…see what I mean:

It’s also quite tough being a plant: at this time of year you’re aroused from your winter slumbers by being dug up, attacked by a couple of forks, split asunder and then plonked back often in a quite different bed. Here’s Rosie doing the dirty work while I was elsewhere, almost certainly still obsessing about ovens, circles and Friston Forest mysteries. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose as my old French master used to say while I was gazing out of the window. 

One enigma resolved (perhaps). Another looms.

Our strange circle has led us a merry dance. False trails came and went but in the end a feasible suggestion was provided by one of Rose’s friend’s husband Edmund - an architect and a self-confessed nerd who specialises in model train sets - who told of similar circles in Savernake Forest. That led to an email to the Forestry Commission whose reply corroborated Edmund’s thoughts and the final confirmation was provided by a Litlington local’s brother in law. For it was the base for a circular sheet metal fire pond, to be used in case of forest fires. Hope you’ve followed all that…in case you haven’t here’s a photo of a similar structure:

But just as I was congratulating myself and proudly updating a fellow dog walker on that mystery I was asked if I’d ever noticed the oven in the forest. Oven, what oven? Oh, it’s amongst the thickets and undergrowth not far from your circle…not easy to find but it’s there all right. And it sure is, but it’s not an oven. No scorch marks, and an earthenware water pipe (broken) connects it to the disused mains water pipe from the pumping station to the hamlet of Westdean. But what is it? Any suggestions?

Another Friston Forest mystery.

When we first moved to Westdean and I began walking our elderly dog, Inky 1, around Friston Forest I spotted what I took to be a threshing circle. Now in case you don’t know what that is, here’s a couple of photos of one being used in Crete in 1970:

Sorry about the quality but you can see enough to realise that it’s a primitive method of separating the grain from the chaff and was used before threshing machines were invented and long thereafter too in poorer countries or in inaccessible places. Before Westdean was surrounded by trees the Downs were used for sheep grazing and growing cereal crops as you can see below:

So it wasn’t unreasonable to think that my threshing circle was just that. However over the last eight years it has become even more overgrown with brambles and stuff so before it disappeared for ever I thought it ought to be uncovered and preserved as some sort of ancient monument. As is my wont I inveigled a couple of helpers and here are the before and after pictures:

At which point my theory was blown out of the water. Note the strange sump-like pit in the foreground…that would have tripped up any cloven-hoofed animal and rendered threshing impossible. But clinging desperately to my prognosis I turned to the internet and found this:

Maybe the pit housed a log and the stoops were manually thrashed. Or maybe not. At this point the mystery became an obsession and emails were bashed out in every direction to anyone that might have an answer. It was a dew pond (no, it wasn’t), the base of a charcoal burner’s oven (unlikely), an anti-forest fire water reservoir (not deep enough), something the military used in WW2 (possibly). The base for a searchlight, an ack-ack gun, a fuel storage tank perhaps. Sadly the nearest wartime aerial photo I’ve found (below) hasn’t revealed anything because it doesn’t quite stretch westwards enough, but it does show the temporary airfield at RAF Friston (https://www.blighty-at-war.net/raf-friston.html if you’re interested).

So the circle remains a mystery…the map reference is TV 53561 99136. To put me out of my misery any suggestions would be gratefully received.



The many riddles of Friston Forest.

Funny how dog walking leads quite unwittingly to things mysterious, sorrowful and touching. During the thirteen months we’ve had Taz (the dog not the postman) it’s usually a passing hello to Smudge, Mouse, Maisie, Willow, Roy, Claude and their owners (whose names one seldom knows) but it’s the little things one observes that are really much more interesting.

Why, for example, did a couple choose to declare their love like this?:

And who planted, and why, a trail of cyclamen corms that run alongside the mile-length of the Charleston Valley Ridge path all the way back to the forest car park?

Why do the elderly couple drive all the way from Peacehaven to tramp round the forest regularly? What about the lone gent who walks the same route every day and never says a word? And how sad it is to see the memorials left by relations to their loved ones.

Most touching and enigmatic of all though is a secret glade that was obviously once a favourite stopping point. It used to have a distant view of the sea but the trees have now grown too high. On one of the two benches is carved a tender message ‘Vo3 My Love 4 ever SJ’ and over the years around have been planted spring bulbs, polyanthus, cyclamen and a couple of hellebores. All lovingly if occasionally tended. But a few weeks ago another addition: a heart shaped scattering of human ashes. Today, as I passed, I noticed one more thing: carved in mirror form on the side of one of the benches was ‘Shine on you crazy diamond’. Click on this link, listen and wonder: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWGE9Gi0bB0

Who says dog walking is boring? And by the way, happy new year to you all.

A partridge in a pear tree.

Isn’t Instagram a useful tool. Much better than Facebook with its the asinine messages flitting back and forth between people who plainly have nothing better to do. Anyway, it’s run by that arrogant young man Zuckerberg and that alone is reason to be rude about it. Enough of that. It was thanks to Instagram that our very old - and I don’t mean very ancient - friend Kim Yashar-Bish alerted us to one of her latest finds, a small Persian Qashgai folk art rug. This one:

As you can see, the bird is a partridge (Keklik in Turkish and a funny squiggly thing in Farsi) and the Farsi writing (more squiggles) to the left says ‘welcome guest’ with the name ‘Ya Ali’ who is one of the 12 Imams and nephew of the Prophet. If you look carefully you can spot a hunting dog which in Turkish is called Tazı (note the lack of a dot over the i), which by a strange quirk is the name of our senior dog (though with a dot over the i). And all those trees are obviously pear trees so what with Christmas around the corner we had to buy it. For any of my readers who don’t know about Kim and Mahmut’s wonderful shop in the North Laines of Brighton just click on this https://www.yashar-bish.com. If you’re stuck for presents to give or receive it’s the place to look. Here’s a taster:

Amongst the many oriental rugs, runners, cushions and textiles you could also find patchwork and that’s what our newly re-turfed lawns now look like. This summer was so hot that great swathes of grass were killed off and re-turfing became the only answer. Fortunately a local firm - C B Winter and Sons from Berwick - not only supply excellent turf but do a re-laying service as well so I enlisted their services. Ian Winter and his pal Paul braved the elements earlier this week and here from start to finish is how the grass went from scorchwork to patchwork:

Happy Christmas everyone!

Climate change: fact or fake news?

A certain person - no names beyond saying he’s the lunatic President of our special ally - maintains that global warming is just a figment of the scientists’ imagination. Well, I went round the garden yesterday to see how many flowers were still flowering, albeit looking slightly knackered, before Jack Frost arrives to gobble them all up in a day or two. Here’s proof of how true winter seems to be starting later and later:

Mind you - and here’s where the Donald would say that nothing has changed in 24 years - we had a similar late autumn in 1994. That year, almost to the day, I also went round our garden (we were then living at Bankton Cottage on acid soil rather than the alkaline free draining stuff we have here) and this is what I photographed then:

So who’s right? A buffoon who can hardly read or the world’s most eminent scientists? I’d say no contest: but maybe that’s a bit contentious. Perhaps we should change the subject and talk about brexit.

Lynda Snell has a point.

The unctuous Lynda Snell - who regular listeners to the Archers would happily strangle - was recently on the search for a new dog. Scruff, her previous one, had been lost in a flood and she was discussing with her husband what attributes the new one should have. One that floated, he suggested. She wasn’t amused but did go on to insist that its rear view was perhaps as important as anything. After all, she said, on walks that’s what you see most of the time. And she’s quite right. Compare the elegance of our two with a couple of others I regularly follow in the forest:

Not that Lynda Snell has anything to do with ‘Views from our bathroom window’ which was my original headline but I just thought you’d like to know her thoughts on dogs’ backsides. Much more interesting are the photos that show how our paddock changes character throughout the year. Standing in my shower I see mown grass in the winter (with picturesque snow if we’re lucky) before snowdrops begin to appear in early February. Then week by week emerge the hundreds of bulbs we’ve planted - daffodils, narcissi, camassias, alliums, tulips, bluebells, byzantine gladiolas - to bring a wide variety of yellows, whites, blues and purples until in mid-April the grass begin to grow and the yellows of rattle, primroses, buttercups and dandelions take over.

 And by June, the whole area is alive with the buzzing of insects and bees and the fluttering of butterflies as the downland wild flowers and grasses run riot. 

Sadly, by mid August, the spectacle is over and everything needs a major haircut, but given decent weather even this hard task is an enjoyable one. Thereafter it’s a matter of keeping the grass short till autumn abdicates and everything stops growing. 

Which gives me the chance to plant a few more bulbs and wait till the whole wonderful performance starts again. 

Cue Louis Armstrong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWzrABouyeE

Haben sie gesehen eine Briefträger heute?

One of my occasional readers has contacted me to say I’ve not mentioned Taz the dog since my December musing. Well, that’s the trouble with being an occasional reader…Taz got a plug and a photo in January and another in July but I admit that other subjects have rather got in the way this year. So, to stifle any complaints and to update you all here’s a photo of, not only Taz but our latest addition, Inky the Second:

Inky is a greyhound lurcher, unlike Taz who’s a whippet lurcher. DNA tests, which our ever hopeful vet says we can do on the dogs (at a cost of course) would ascertain their parentage but we reckon Inky has saluki in her while Taz has the much more elevated genes of an Egyptian pharaoh. Both are rescue dogs but poor Inky comes from a gypsy background without any training at all and precious little love so is ridiculously grateful for now having a proper home. So much so that she began by dropping us smelly parcels of joy around the house but, even though she’s a bear of little brain, we think/hope/pray she’s starting to realise outside is better. It was of course very important that Taz took to her otherwise his royal nose would have been seriously put out of joint…here’s their initial introduction just over four weeks ago. 

Since then they’ve been getting used to each other in typically doggy ways: frenetic dashing around the garden and on walks at speeds that Usain Bolt would admire, wrangling over who sleeps where, squabbling over their toys, jostling for our affections and of course endlessly tussling to prove who can out-biff who.

One thing Taz the dog has taught Inky is to look out for Taz the postman. Taz the briefträger comes armed with treats, as all sensible postmen do, and it wasn’t long before Inky learnt to be first out of the front door whenever she hears the crunch of gravel.

In case your curiosity has been aroused I should explain that my attempts at learning German many years ago were greeted with a school report that told my parents that I was ‘Hopelessly at sea’, which I thought was remarkably unfair, even libellous. I have used the phrase ‘Haben sie etc’ many times over the years and it has served me well. I am now teaching it to the dogs.

Goodbye summer.

Well, it had to end eventually. Not that this weekend, down here on the south coast, was as chilly as Liam Dutton said it would be. Maybe the Nightmare from the North has yet to strike us but, though the wind had a bite to it, that made ideal conditions for the runners in Saturday’s Beachy Head Marathon. This masochistic pastime always coincides with the clocks going backwards and I daresay the competitors, after eighteen miles, felt the same by the time they passed our house. One local spectator held a banner saying PAIN IS TEMPORARY, PRIDE IS FOREVER but with eight uphill miles to go I wonder how many were convinced.

Anyway, last Friday, supposedly the last of our indian summer, we picked the final crop of courgettes. Fancy doing that on October 26th…usually the first frosts have demolished the plants by then. Autumn raspberries too have been going strong though probably the frosts over the last couple of days will have put paid to any more. Casualties already are the remaining french beans,  lettuces and the second crop of figs, while the pond side gunnera is struggling in the cold. 

Surprisingly the dahlias haven’t been blackened yet but they won’t last much longer. Here are three looking healthy specimens, from left to right: Cafe au Lait, Pontiac and Gerrie Hoek.

More harbingers of autumn: colourful leaves (the view from our bedroom window), wrapping bubble plastic around the terracotta statues, putting stuff in the greenhouse, the arrival of Greenthumb’s scarifying team and medlars in need of bletting.

So finally it’s farewell sunshine and heat. Auf wiedersehen open doors and windows. Adieu teeshirts and shorts. Bye bye home grown vegetables. But cheerio weekly mowing. And welcome central heating, log fires and crumpets. Who says autumn’s a pain (apart from the runners)?