Friday, 30 May 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream

"Where is Cobweb" illustration by Arthur Rackham
So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm
O! how I love thee; how I dote on thee!
(William Shakespeare)
From: All the World's a Stage
(Written in calligraphy and illustrated by Dorothy Boux)
Midsummer Night's Dream - the most magical of Shakespeare's plays and most often performed in open air theatre's. I have seen it just once at Regent's Park in London and now, with midsummer almost upon us again, I find myself wanting to see it performed again, to watch and listen with clearer vision and greater appreciation.
Here are a few more evocative lines:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxslips and the nodding violets grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine:

Sunday, 25 May 2008


The flowers of the elder. The elder has thirteenth place in the Ogham cycle and governs November 25th to December 22nd.
There is much written in folklore about this hedgerow tree. It is highly valued by herbalists and is often referred to as the medicine-chest of the country (it was used to cure the bite of adders). Today it is used in cosmetics and to make eye lotions.
Superstition about the elder existed in some parts of the country where it had associations with witchcraft and death and was considered unlucky to burn. However, in other parts it was thought to give protection against evil and was often planted near to houses or near to the larder window to protect against flies.
Elderflowers are used to make fragrant wine, non-alcoholic cordial (a personal favourite) and herbal tea. Various parts of the elder can also be used for dyes - the leaves give a green one, the berries a blue-lilac and the bark, black.
In country folk-lore the Elder is associated with the rook which is symbolic of the British countryside.

Arches and Crescents

Wandering around Bath is always a pleasure - the architecture so pleasing to the eye. Today it was damp and drizzly though in the sunshine Bath's beautiful sandstone buildings shine.

The Crescent

The Colours of the Market

A bank holiday weekend and yes, wet and chilly. Here are a couple of images from an International Market in Bath today.

Porcelain Poppies

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Fyfield Down and the sarsen drift valley

Greywethers - the sarsen drift

Fyfield Down is situated between Avebury and Marlborough. It is the site of the largest naturally deposited collection of sarsens in the country.
Today I met up with a friend and we headed for the long uphill track known as Green Street (or Hare Street). We walked at a fairly leisurely pace spotting the occasional peacock butterfly and blackcaps chattering on the fenceposts. The chalk track, which was dry and deeply rutted (quite dangerous for cyclists) took us up to the Ridgeway, through a gate into the start of Fyfield Down.
The scenery changed from undulating downland to something much wilder and timeless. It was a beautiful warm day and the sheep dotted around on the slopes seemed content. We followed the trail down to the sheltered valley and made our way along through the drift of sarsens. The air was still, nothing moved around us save for the occasional pheasant that blustered up out of the grass. There truly was a sense of being in a landscape that hadn't altered for thousands of years an it was quite thrilling just to be there. I love solitary walks around the Avebury landscape, however, on this occasion I was glad to have a companion with me - the sense of isolation, whether real or imagined, was strong.
The walk back to Avebury was downhill and very pleasant. Looking down on the farm buildings and the village within the sarsen stone circle it felt as though we were looking at a community that is on an ancient crossroads where realms of time overlap and merge. Perhaps we were walking in the footsteps of our ancestors.

A place to shelter
This is hawthorn tree provides natural shelter for the sheep - strands of wool are visible on the branches.
A massive sarsen stone similar in size to those at Avebury
PeteG a local expert on Avebury and Stonehenge has told me that this stone is known as the Monster Stone

Wayside wild flowers

Common chamomile
Just growing at the side of the road, chamomile is the most beneficent of herbs. Used to relax and calm it can be dried a tea or distilled into essential oil (a few drops in the bath are great for a laid back approach to whatever the day throws at you). It is also used to lighten fair hair.
In herb-lore chamomile is is the 'patron herbe of gardens' as it promotes healing energies which are good for other plant species. It is used in some old traditions at midsummer to give honour to the Father of Nature.
Wild Poppy
Growing next to the chamomile, the wild poppy has less benign reputation. In mythology it belongs to the gods of sleep - the Roman 'Somnas' and the Greek 'Hypnus'. The plant has also been used from as far back as Roman times for its opium content and was widely used as laudanum up until the end of the nineteenth century.
With the possible exception of William Wordsworth, it was used by the romantic poets and the pre-Raphaelite artists often with addictive and sometimes tragic results.
Meadow buttercups

This little meadow alight with golden buttercups will probably disappear in the near future. On the edge of another housing development it will almost certainly swallowed up as 'real estate'. So here it is on record in all its unsung beauty. Buttercups are apparently poisonous, I didn't know this until I was researching ragwort - buttercups should be avoided by cattle are are sometimes known to country people as crazy as they were believed to cause madness. Another example of the duality of nature. They still, however, give so much simple pleasure to gaze upon.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008


Maclean's Cross - erected around 1500 - the tiny 'St Ronan's Chapel' is in the background. This is built on the site of Teamull Ronain which is believed to date back to the days of Columbo though rebuilt around 1200 where it stood until the sixteenth century when it was destroyed in the Reformation.

This picture was taken as the small ferry drew up to the silver-sanded beach - hence the slightly odd angle.

The mystical island of Iona
(picture courtesy the Historic Scotland Official Souvenir Guide)
Last July, the day after the floods struck in the south of England, and not some without difficulty, I set off on the long journey to Oban in the West Highlands of Scotland. The highlight (and main reason) of the holiday was to go over to the small island of Iona. Getting to Iona from Oban involved a ferry trip to Mull, then a coach journey along a single track road to Fionnphort and another smaller ferry across to Iona.
Iona is reputed to be a place of pilgrimage for Christians, though I have to say here that this was not my reason for going. The name Iona comes 'eo' the old Irish word for yew tree and Iona was settled by iron-age people before Columba landed and established his monastery in AD 563. Dun Bhuirg is the 'hill of the fort', the only hill-fort on Iona. There is a strong connection between the early monks and the druids and it is thought that the druids became absorbed into early British Church to form the Culdees.
The Peace of Iona (the song which was the inspiration for my trip)
peace of the dancing, glancing waves
peace of the white sands
peace of Iona
peace of the singing wind
peace of the stones
peace of Iona
peace of the crying gulls
peace of the humming bees
peace of the noontime stillness
peace of the dreaming hills
peace of the breath of angels
peace of Iona
by Mike Scott and The Waterboys from the cd Universal Hall (first two verses)

Sunday, 18 May 2008

The Book Of Kells, 'Chi-Rho'

The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript, sometimes known as the Book of Columba, held in the Trinity College Library, Dublin. Made in 800AD by the monks belonging to the Columban movement, it is probably Ireland's greatest national treasure. The illumination above shows the symbol for the word Christ: Chi and Rho are two letters from the Greek alphabet, Chi gives the Ch sound and is written as an X. Rho is R and is written in a P shape. The letter Iota which is I also appears. (ref: Tom Lubbock, The Independent 16/5/08).
However, the Chi-Rho monogram originated in pre-Christian Pagan papyri where scholars used it as a sign to mark prophetic passages with Chi-Rho, standing for the Greek chreston, meaning 'auspicious'. With the spread of Christianity it became an abbreviation for the word Christ (ref: The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy)

It has been described by some as the most beautiful book in the world. For many years it was believed to have been written by angels. This belief was asserted by Welsh historian Giraldus Cambrensis in the late twelfth century. This assertion was due to the extraordinary detail that the book entails. For example, one, quarter-inch illustration was examined under extreme magnification and found to contain 158 interlacements, ten rare and expensive colors (current printing schemes only use four) and no errors. Modern draughtsmen have attempted to replicate the artwork in the Book of Kells and have abandoned the task as hopeless. (ref: Ian Hackman)

The origin of the Book of Kells is debated, but there is strong evidence that the original work began in the Iona Monastery in Scotland by the Irish under the commission of St. Columba and it is estimated that it took no less that thirty years to complete.

I have only visited Dublin once and on that occasion I wasn't able to get to Trinity College, in fact at that time I didn't know about the Book of Kells. Since then I have been to Iona and learnt about the Culdees and their links to the Druids. The Book of Kells is on my 'visit in the near future list' along with Lindisfarne and ..... probably another visit to Iona, a difficult place to get to as an island off an island (Mull) but well worth the effort.

Saturday, 17 May 2008


Just out for a stroll today and contemplating the beautiful mauve of this late blossoming lilac.

Until comparatively recently in terms of history most dyes came from plants (see posts on nettles and ragwort). Dyes that came from animals tended to be extremely expensive. The dye that made purple came from the glandular mucus of snails. Purple was therefore a colour of wealth and privilege - in Ancient Rome only the Emperor and his household were permitted to wear purple.

Text from Internet (Scarlet Pixel)
Chance events can completely alter the course of history, and one such event took place in the Summer of 1856. A young student called William Perkin was working at The Royal College of Chemistry in London. He was trying to synthesise the drug, Quinine, from coal tar. The result of his work was a black residue - not what he wanted at all! He was on the point of discarding this residue, but he decided to add liquid to it. The solution that resulted was 'Strangely beautiful' - MAUVE had made its debut! When William Perkin further discovered that this new solution would stain cloth, this entrepreneurial young man took out a patent and contacted a dye-works with his new product.
Queen Victoria was seen wearing mauve at her daughter's wedding in 1858, mauve also became the colour sensation that women of taste had to be seen wearing in England.

The Old House at Coate

Wood Engraving by AGNES MILLER PARKER - taken from The Old House at Coate

"On a dry summer night, when there was no dew, I used to lie on back at full length (looking to the east), on the grass footpath by the orchard, and gaze up into the sky. This is the only way to get at it and feel the stars: while you stand upright, the eye, and through the eye, the mind, is biased by the usual aspect of things: the house there ; the trees yonder; it is difficult to forget the mere appearance of rising and setting. Looking straight up like this, from the path of to the stars, it was clear and evident that I was really riding among them; they were not above, nor all around, but I was in the midst of them. There was no underneath, no above: everything was level with me; the sense of measurement and distance disappeared."

From "The Old House at Coate" Chapter 2: The Seasons and the Stars - by Richard Jefferies

Richard Jefferies was born at Coate Farm near Swindon on November 6th 1848. He lived there for the first 29 years of his life, studying, writing and working for the local newspaper. His writing was prolific. He wrote a very personal account about his love the Wiltshire countryside and the joys of nature in The Story of My Heart.
(Died on 14th August 1887 at the aged of 38 and is buried in Broadwater Cemetery, Worthing).

The Old House at Coate still exists on the corner of Dayhouse Lane by Coate Water Country Park in Swindon and is now the Richard Jefferies Museum.
The house and garden are maintained by a small dedicated group of volunteers and open to the public on the first and third Sunday during summer months.

Friday, 16 May 2008

The Duality of Nature

Many creative and visionary people have attempted to express the rapture of Nature - William Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge in poetry, Samuel Palmer in painting, Richard Jefferies in prose, Vaughn Williams, and Herbert Howells in music (to name just a few of my favourites). Others, like myself just observe in quiet wonderment as spring unfolds to birdsong and the lengthening of the day.

However, duality is inherent in all things, including Nature. Life is one side of decay, light cannot exist without dark, night gives way to day. So it is in the hidden world of plant life. Nettles are 'beaten back' or cut down even though, in spite of their sting they have numerous beneficial qualities as a herb.

Wild flowers on the other hand, can be deadly. On a beautiful warm May day earlier in this week I spotted this seemingly inoffensive bright yellow plant shining in the sunlight - it turned out to be ragwort which I later discovered causes slow and painful death to horses if they eat it. There are in fact many, many plants that are poisonous to horses, other animals and even humans. Here are a few examples:- bracken, black bryony, buttercup, cowbane, foxglove, laburnum, yew, heliotrope, rhododendron, to name just a few. Some of the brightest flowers are also the most poisonous; though plants like ragwort also have curative properties and it has been used in the past by herbalists for healing wounds and as a mouth wash for sore throats. Plus it is sometimes used to produce a yellow dye.

Thank you to SteveM for the information about the toxic effects of ragwort if eaten by horses and also advising that under the 1959 Weed Act, which classifies ragwort as injurious, local authorities and highway agencies have an obligation to remove this plant before it 'seeds'.

Monday, 12 May 2008


The word nettle comes from the Old English noedl, derived from a word meaning needle.
An under-rated herb, the young shoots can be boiled and eaten much as spinach is. Nettles are much valued by herbalists and an infusion it is used to treat a variety of complaints, also as a tonic to enrich and cleanse the blood.

Because of their sting, nettles have a natural defence against grazing animals, making them ideal habitat for insects. They apparently support over 40 different species, including many colourful butterflies.

Nettles have been used to provide green dye and are sometimes associated with spring both in folk practices and in some Christian cultures (ref: Paul Beyerl in his compendium of Herbal Magick). He goes on to say that in some parts of Russia, it is the custom to use nettles as one of the dyes to stain eggs on Maundy Thursday in preparation for Easter Sunday.

Ancient Hedgerows

Cow parsley and nettles
There are remnants of ancient hedgerows in the most unexpected places, not necessarily always in the countryside. My lunchtime walk takes me along a cycle path that crosses a small river. The hedgerows contains elderflower (about to blossom), hawthorn, crab-apples, wild-roses, nettles, cow parsley, wild flowers, a variety of butterflies and many different birds. This little tucked walk was the inspiration for my Hidden Swindon blog and each foray brings a new discovery. The empty nest that I spotted in the bare branches of a hawthorn hedge back in January had a pigeon nesting in it a couple of weeks ago - I don't know if there are any fledgling pigeons as someone once said that you never actually see baby pigeons.

May blossom

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Dandelion clocks and buttercups

Last week on the first day of May, I took a photograph of the the dandelions at the foot of Waden Hill which were then a blaze of golden yellow (see May-day in Avebury) . Today, just ten days later the same meadow is a field of dandelion clocks, quite astonishingly ethereal and delicate. The ever changing face of Nature is always a joy to observe.

The Avenue at Avebury - today alight with buttercups, dandelion clocks and daisies

Look at the Grass
Look at the grass, sucked by the seed from dust
Whose blood is the spring rain, whose food the sun
Whose life is the scythe takes ere the sorrels rust,
Whose stalk is chaff before winter's done.
Even the grass its happy moment has
In May, when glistening buttercups make gold;
The exulting millions of the meadow grass
Give out green thanksgiving from the mould.
Even the blade that has not even a blossom
Creates a mind, its joy's persistent soul
Is a warm spirit on the old earth's bosom
When April's fire has dwindled to a coal;
The spirit of the grasses' joy makes fair
The winter fields when even the wind goes bare.
John Masefield (1878 - 1967)

The Hawthorn

This is the time of the hawthorn blossom - may. Held as sacred by the ancients and still shown great respect by country folk. It is considered unlucky to chop a tree down or to bring cuttings into the the house.

In the Celtic tongue it is uath and takes sixth place in the ogham cycle (covering the period May 13th - June 9th). The bird associated with the sixth ogham month is the night-crow. However, none of the birds of the crow family fly at night so night-crow is either a creature of folk-lore or a nickname for a nocturnal species.

(Ancient Myth)
The answer to the above lies in the myth of the Wild Hunt, the ghostly procession of spirits, faeries, spectral hounds and witches which is believed to hunt the night sky. Led by the local god of the dead, Herne the Hunter, King Arthur, Bran or Odin. In Denmark the outrider for the Wild Hunt was the night- raven. Both Bran and Odin are associated with ravens and it was the cry of this bird heard at night which was believed to presage a passing to the Otherworld.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Silver Lady

This is Eileen, a very special lady. Yesterday she was 90 (sshhh), she has three children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren (well almost, number 3 arrives in July).

She was married for 58 years, to the same man who she met during the war and waited for even after receiving telegrams saying he was 'missing in action' - he was in fact taken prisoner of war. He too was a very special person named Samuel - they were devoted to each other until he died in 2000. She misses him every day.

Raise your glass to Eileen, a silver lady.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

The Old Silver Birch

I love this silver birch, a very mature tree that stands in the garden of someone I love very much - my mother, whose birthday it was today. This tree gives her much pleasure as she watches from her window its leaves change from green to falling golden and back to fresh new green again.

The birch is the first tree in the Ogham cycle (an ancient 'alphabet') and was known in Celtic as Beth. It corresponds with the sun moving through Capricorn and is the tree of inception and driving out evil spirits.
Coleridge called the birch the "Lady of the Woods".

To Nature
It may indeed be phantasy, when I
Essay to draw from all created things
Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings;
And trace in leaves and flowers that round me lie
Lessons of love and ernest piety,
So let it be; and if the wide world rings
In mock of this belief, it brings
Nor fear, nor grief, nor vain perplexity.
So I will build my alter in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flowers yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to Thee,
Thee only God! and thou shalt not despise
Even me, the priest of this poor sacrifice.

A poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

A Masque of May Morning

Winter surrenders to May and kisses her farewell

April and the cast of spring flowers prepare the way for May

This beautiful old book has sat on my book shelf for quite a few years. Written and illustrated by W. Graham Robertson it was published by John Lane The Bodley Head and printed by Ballantyne, Hanson & Co on the most beautiful thick handmade paper. It is not dated, I think however, it was published in the early part of the 20th century. Masque is a now little used word for an amateur dramatic and musical entertainment. The cast of players in this Masque are: Winter, the Snowdrop, the Primrose, the Violet, the Celandine, the Anemone, Three Personages in Green, April, May, the Spirit of the Rose, Voices of the Snow, and Chorus of the May Dew Gatherers.
It is set in a woodland clearing and the first song is The Song of the Snow-flakes
Down through the air we softly sweep
Feathers that fall from wings of sleep
Bearing the kisses of clouds and sky
To hush the world with lullaby.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Red Campion

The Red Campion growing among the bluebells, it is also a hedgerow flower. It is sometimes called champion and may have been named because the flower was used to make garlands or chaplets for the victors in public games or tournaments.
In folklore the red campion is dedicated to Robin Goodfellow and was sometimes called Robin Hood or Robin's flower.

(Illustrated Plant Lore by Josephine Addison)

Bluebells in Poetry

The Bluebell - by Ann Bronte

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.
Yet I recall not long ago
A bright and sunny day,
'Twas when I led a toilsome life
So many leagues away;
That day along a sunny road
All carelessly I strayed,
Between two banks where smiling flowers
Their varied hues displayed.
Before me rose a lofty hill,
Behind me lay the sea,
My heart was not so heavy then
As it was wont to be.
Less harassed than at other times
I saw the scene was fair,
And spoke and laughed to those around,
As if I knew no care.
But when I looked upon the bank
My wandering glances fell
Upon a little trembling flower,
A single sweet bluebell.
Whence came that rising in my throat,
That dimness in my eye?
Why did those burning drops distil' --
Those bitter feelings rise?
O, that lone flower recalled to me
My happy childhood's hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers,
Those sunny days of merriment
When heart and soul were free,
And when I dwelt with kindred hearts
That loved and cared for me.
I had not then mid heartless crowds
To spend a thankless life
In seeking after others' weal
With anxious toil and strife.
'Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!'
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.

Ann Bronte is the less well known of the Bronte sisters though the only one to be published in her own life-time, having written The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey. Ann's life was a short one - she was born on 17th January 1820 and she died of consumption whilst living in Scarborough on 28th May 1849.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

May-day in Avebury

The view from West Kennet Long Barrow, looking north.

The sky and landscapes merge into each. What the photo doesn't convey is the song of the sky-larks or the feel of the wind as it dried me off from a hail shower I was caught in as I made my way over there. Nor does it convey the peace and harmony of solitude in a sacred landscape, a peace I was able to take that back with me to my town life - until next time.

Cowslips growing in profusion at the end of the barrow

Two views of West Kennet Long Barrow

The Winterbourne at the start of a hail storm

Silbury Hill, peace at last - the conservation project officially completed today

Waden Hill - meadow land (dandelions)
May-day at Avebury, also my day off so I headed out on the 49 bus. Once past Wroughton the downs became a blaze of colour with lots of baby sheep running about.

On arrival at Avebury I set off towards the West Kennet Avenue. The yellow rape-field was dazzling and even the dandelions spread out at the foot of Waden Hill seemed so exceptionally bright. As I walked up Waden Hill what at first sight seemed to be giant hare ran past at the edge of the rape field - it was, however a small deer or a muntjac.

Viewed from the top of Waden Hill, Silbury looked very peaceful, a pair of buzzards hovered high overhead. As I made my way over to West Kennet Long Barrow a hefty hail storm blew in. I managed to get to the first oak before the Kennet which gave some shelter - when I finally reached WKLB I had the rare treat of having it all to myself. The hail stopped and the sun came out, I walked to the end of the barrow which was covered in cowslips.

Coming back, I stopped by the bridge over the rive Kennet to watch the swallows show off a bit.
It was all just stunning.
Happy May Day!