A low winter sun squints lhrougn my window as I write and our resident kestrel sits on the roof of lhe old stable awaning his cnance. Aconites have now joined the emerging buds of snowdrops and cock a snook at winter while the farm sleeps on. Christmas is over and the sprng is yet to come, a time of rest and recuperation. Although the Chnstmas festivities will have receded even further into the past by the time you read this, I am enjoying lhe pleasures, in early January of browsing through some books which I recieved as presents. One of these was by Gyles Brandreth, (Dancing by the Light of the Moon) and is all about the pleasures of poetry but, more rmportantly, about the amazing benefits to be gained from learning it by heart. If you think that your memory is failng fast do not despair, comfort and remedy reside on these pages beside an excellent anthology of our priceless national heritage of verse and above is a nice little poem by Ezra Pound which we might contemplate (even I could leam this one) as we set out into a new year
Recently when looking lhrough some Wiltshire, books on my shelves I revisned e bound manuscript which I acquired many years ago. The title page snows the name Thomas Little of Lanhill and is precisely dated to July 13 1859 although the first page or text is headed 'Farming of Wiltshire' by Edward Little of Lower Sheldon Farm Chippenham. It is tit1ed 'Prize Report', over 65 pages it gives a comprehensive and detailed account or farming in our locality in mid Victorian times. Written in a spidery slopng hand it is easy lo read and contains few blemishes or corrections. Perhaps it was a fair copy made from a draft. The report appears to go back to a previous one made by a Mr Davis in 1811 and highlights the huge changes in farming practice which had taken place since that time, one of which was in the popular breeds of cattle and sheep: "the long horn cow" which in that period (1811) were me universal breed of the county have become nearly extinct and the shorthorn for some years past have been preferred. The Wiltshire horned sheep which were then the bfeed of the county have entirely given way to Southdowns Ths was indeed one of the biggest penods of change which farming has gone through in modem tunes and it highlights the trauma brought about by the abolition of the old common field systems and the enclosure of the open pastures. Under wages of labourers' it tells us that these were dependent on the price of wheat although they averaged about 8 shillngs a week.
There were perk's and many farmers provided, for permanent staff, 10 to 20 perches of land ploughed and manured for Potatoes 160 perches = 1 acre (This practice continued on our farm, at Fifield Bavant up 10 the 1970's). Labourers were also provided with a cottage and a good garden (for growing vegetables) at an annual rent of 30 to 50 shillings per annum. (About six weeks pay). Shepherds and carters earned an extra 2 shi11ings a week or its equivalent in perks. Free beer was one of the perks in North Wilts, usually 2 Quarts a day becoming ad lib during haymaking and harvest. Womens wages,inevitably lower than men's, were 7 to 10 pence per day. Life was sustainable as long as prices stayed firm bul in bad times starvation and lhe wor1khouse were never far away. There was absolutely no security of tenure. JSR
We are coming up to the pantomime season and I am always delighted to see that this old tradition seems to keep going despite various degrees of modernisation. Going to the pantomime was atways a highlight of my childhood Christmases and our local one was at the Theatre Royal Windsor. The 'Pnncipal Boy' was always played by an actress rather past her prime but with fabulous legs and a good singing voice, while the Dame was for many years played by a comedian. Duncan Lewis. who was much loved by the regular audience with which he established a wonderful rapport. It was all done to a tight budget and the chorus of dancers, male and female, were obviously not the most glamorous on the agencies· books and some of the fishnet tights had holes in them. But it was all good d ean family fun with absolutely no smutty jokes although the odd daring double-entendre sometimes crept in. All far too unsophisticated for modern audiences which, I am afraid, often find innocence just too boring for words.
I am about to resign my me11bership of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) which is a shame because I have been a member since I was a teenager which was a long time ago. The RSPB is not alone among large national organisalions like the National Trust and RSPCA which seem to have been taken over by groups of people wrth specific political agendas and who use the weight of membership to force through policies often far removed from the wishes of the rank and file. And I cannot come to terms with the RSPB's seeming obsession with raptors which certainly need protection but not so much that they are valued above all else. There is certainly a national fascination with 'top of the chain' predators and this is evident from TV wildlife programmes which often seem dominated by chilling footage of animals killing each other.
Tom, who is one of our grandsons and is in his second year at York University, spent a day with us recently to tell us about a trip which he went on with a friend last summer. Having worked hard to raise sufficient money they flew out to Georgia on the Eastern shores of the Black Sea and then travelled east, crossing the caspian Sea at Baku (where Tom's great, great, great uncle Tom Cruwys died after a particularly nasty and long forgotten battle right at the end of WW1 ). then on through Turkmenistan and a great many other 'Stans' to the Chinese border. They travelled by train and on foot through countries totally unprepared for tourists where hardly anybody spoke English. They had numerous adventures and food was often difficult. Horse meat seemed to be the staple but everywhere they went they met with kindness and tolerance. I had no idea that there were still parts of the wortd where such journeys could be undertaken and imagine that they were fortunate not to fall foul of the volatile politics of those beautiful regions once dosed and inaccessible parts of the former Soviet Union. I hope that Tom writes an account of his journey although he would be doing well to equal the stories of Patrick Leigh Fermor who travelled through Europe on foot in the 1930s. His books are a fascinating and brilliantly written insight into a world now entirely lost. They are still in print and the best perhaps is 'Between the Woods and the Water' published by Penguin. He enlisted in the Irish Guards in 1939 and operated under cover in German occupied Crete during the war living for over two years in the mountains organising the resistance and in 1944 the legendary capture and evacuation of the German Commander, General Kreipe. JSR
Towards the end of July we were fortunate enough to be able to join a small group of Friends of Penlee Gallery (in Penzance) who had been invited by the artist Ken Howard to spend an evening with him at his studio in Mousehole. It was amemorable occasion for at the age of 87 he has been one of our foremost British artists for a great many years and a senior RA member. Despite his years he is full of energy and speaks with enthusiasm and great good humour and with a wonderful fund of stories about his progress in the rough and tumble of the art world . His studio was full of artist's paraphernalia and scattered with paints and brushes and easels and complete with works in progress and the chaise long and old two-bar electric fire to accommodate the models who feature in some of his paintings. But his great love, he told us, was painting 'en plein air' out of doors in the Cornish fishing villages and in London and Venice where he also has studios. It was a real privilege and rather a humbling experience to be in the presence of a great artist and a modest man at ease with himself and his world. He had some small oil studies on the walls of the studio and offered to sell, at a modest price, any one which his guests cared to select, an opportunity which we grasped without hesitation. 'Just put a cheque in the post' he said and did not even bother to ask our name or address but we had a charming letter of thanks when he received it.
Snapshot. Late July at bedtime looking out of the window of a brightly lit room into the darkness of the night. The glass panes were covered on the outside with moths of all shapes and sizes and colours. A heartening sight bringing back memories of childhood when, if you left a window open in a room at night with a light on, it would be filled with a cloud of insects and any light outside would be encircled by a whirling halo of these mysterious and secretive creatures. Like so much wildlife, if you don't see them it does not necessarily mean that they are not there.
I don't know, of course, how many of you read Wiltshire Life but it is a monthly magazine celebrating all things Wiltshire and, although it is rather 'glossy' and not cheap, its beautifully illustrated articles are informative, sensible and well written. The September issue has an excellent article on the farm clusters projects which I have told you about before and which we have been involved with in South Wiltshire. These entirely farmer led conservation initiatives are providing large joined up tracts of countryside for numerous projects and with generous winter-feeding programmes, amongst other things, they benefit wildlife of all sorts, particularly our hard-pressed farmland birds.
I don't think that the burgeoning population of Great Bustards is going to expand to our Downs anytime soon but, following another good breeding season, the reintroduction project on Salisbury Plain will soon reach its interim target of 100 birds and stand a good chance of becoming self-sustaining. The Great Bustard Group (GBG) has just been awarded the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service. I cannot say that I approve of all reintroduction projects because of the danger of heavily protected species getting out of control. I make no apologies for returning to the subject but Kites are a case in point. They are now spreading rapidly out from the Thames Valley where they were reintroduced a few years ago. This Spring they arrived in our part of Wiltshire in force and, to judge by the numbers seen around the farm , have bred successfully. Magnificent birds though they are our fragile wildlife populations are scarcely in a position to withstand the onslaught of yet another voracious predator and I fear particularly for ground nesting birds such as skylarks, plovers, corn buntings and grey partridge as well as hares and rabbits all of which a e already hard pressed by buzzards, badgers and foxes. Our Swallows and House Martins, despite having returned home in greater numbers than usual, have had a poor breeding season with many vandalised nests. Here our Summer skies, usually alive with squadrons of these brave and beautiful birds, have been horribly emptyAs I write this in early August the combine cowers in a barn lashed by Summer storms and our bread wheats are rapidly losing the premium quality we need for a good price. Such is farming; there is always next year. King George 2 was right when he referred to August in the 1730s as "three fine days and a thunderstorm". So, little changes and nobody was blaming 'global warming' then. JSR
While browsing in a large London bookshop recently I came across a truly massive volume which stopped me in my tracks for nearly half an hour. There was a conveniently placed table on which to open it and I knew that nobody would disturb my complete absorption in the story which it had to tell. The book, entitled 'The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939 - 45', reproduced in colour facsimile, a complete set of large scale (1 :2,500) maps of Greater London as it was in the early 1940s. Marked on these maps and carefully colour coded, was a record of where every single bomb and rocket fell during WW2. Black showed a building entirely demolished, red severely damaged, orange areas of blast damage etc. As I turned the pages I knew that nothing I had ever seen or heard of the London Blitz had ever brought home to me so poignantly the horrors of that time, black and lifeless statistics vividly translated; each individual scene of tragedy exposed for all to see. Some areas were completely wiped out, as in the City of London all round St Pauls' Cathedral, in others you can see the line of the fall of a stick of bombs and in others a seemingly random scattering of damage.
The maps were accompanied by•a large number of carefully annotated photographs which graphically illustrate the scale of the devastation and the mountains of rubble, timber and twisted steel which had to be cleared. Fourteen million tons by the end of the war, according to the statistics quoted, a massive task accomplished with what, to us, would seem to be the most puny of machinery. One photograph showed the Street off Buckingham Gate where Sally had lived with her parents, fortunately moving away before a V2 rocket filled it with rubble. The neatly tabulated official statistics show that 29,890 Londoners were killed by bombs and rockets out of the total number of such deaths in the UK of 60,595. A further 50,000 in London were seriously injured. After a terrible night of raids in Plymouth a Priest clambered over the smoking rubble of his Church and nailed over the battered door a wooden board with one word in Latin painted on it, Resurgam (I shall rise up again). And it did and so did London.
Wiltshire's own super-bird and county emblem, the Great Bustard, has been in the news again recently. The decision to reintroduce it to Salisbury Plain in 2004 was greeted with a certain amount of derision in view of its enormous size (it is said to be the largest flying bird in the world) and its unknown temperament. In fact through the dedicated work of a handful of enthusiasts of The Great Bustard Group it has not only gained a toehold in its old territory but is now flourishing with up to one hundred birds expected to be established by the end of this year; they can even be seen flying about in flocks. There are wild populations throughout parts of Europe and Asia and our stocks have been built up by importing eggs at first from Russia but more recently from Spain after their population was found to be genetically much closer to ours, and that strain has been doing really well over here.
The mothers take several years to get the hang of chick rearing and need some help if the maximum number of young are to survive which is not easy because they will only take food from what they think is one of their own. This results in volunteers being dressed up to resemble the mother and equipped with a large wooden beak with which to feed the youngsters. But all this dedication has worked and we now have birds breeding in the wild and a large enough population to become self-sustaining. A real conservation success story.
I hope that I am wrong but I get the impression that the old custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday seems to be on the wane. Many years ago it was the only time of year when you could buy a lemon in the village shop. It is certainly a good way of marking the start of Lent and encouraging us to launch into a period of self-denial often of benefit to both body and soul.
As dairy farmers we naturally look with some concern at the current tendency, by some people, to move away from cow's milk. However it seems that there is nothing new about alternative milks because I read recently that, in medieval times, to get around the severe· restrictions which the Roman Catholic Church put on what could be eaten on fast days (of which there were 200 or more per year), those who could afford it replaced cow's milk with a pseudo-milk made from ground almonds. It is recorded that in 1286 the household of King Edward I got through 28,500 pounds of almonds. Eggs meat and milk were forbidden but fish was permitted and, in some places to this day, Friday is fish day. Even after King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, Queen Elizabeth I banned meat in favour of fish , not only on Fridays, but Wednesday and Saturday too. However it is said that the real reason for this was that a big fishing fleet in time of peace meant a strong navy in time of war. The abandoned medieval fishponds in Compton Bassett are witness to this demand.
The dairy sector is not the easiest in which to operate at the best of times and a shrinking market brought about by current trends towards the exclusive reliance on plant based foods not only brings financial dangers but health ones as well and it is sad to see that it is children's health being compromised. A recent interview with a nutritionist on a television programme exploring this issue highlighted the dangers of withholding cow's milk from adults as well as children and also stressed the health risks to be found in many of the vegetable alternatives. However, people must be able to make their own choices, although this does depend on them being well informed and it seems to me that a large part of the problem is that social media is frequently awash with information which is often ill informed.
As we know, one of the issues driving some people away from animal based foods is the belief that the methane produced by farm animals is a major contributor to global warming. But it has recently been shown that this methane breaks down quite quickly over a period of a few years in the atmosphere and does not continuously accumulate like the carbon-dioxide coming from industrial pollution and is not the danger it was once thought to be; a fact which is being studiously ignored by the ante-cattle lobby. Our climate and geology means that large swathes of our land are only farmable as grazing and Britain without farm animals scarcely bears thinking about. Imagine our lowland pastures reverted to scrub, the glorious green fields and scattered farms of Devon and Cornwall abandoned and the whole rural economy dismantled.
Encouraged by the rather mild weather throughout much of January some of the more adventurous amongst our large population of rooks set about nest refurbishment and repair rather earlier than usual only to find all of their efforts wasted when severe gales at the end of the month swept bare the tree tops once again. The disconsolate birds now sit idle among the branches with their shoulders hunched up waiting for a change in the weather.
February fill dyke has happened early in the month and the streams and ditches on the farm are alive with torrents of water. We have to make sure that the drocks don't become blocked with debris so that nothing impedes the flow as it flushes down last year's accumulated mud and litter. When it has gone we can once again walk along the original hard floor of the ditches and check that the land drains are flowing freely again having been dry for many months. There is nothing to beat messing about in ditches and playing with water no matter what your age, and on our lower land we know that the farm would quickly become a swamp if drainage is neglected.
I was walking in the garden on a beautiful frosty evening in December just as it was getting dark. There was no breath of wind and it felt as if you could hear a pin drop a mile away. A Tawny Owl was nearby and, deciding to take advantage of these conditions, was holding forth with that unique primeval sound that conjures up such a range of emotions in all who hear it. She was answered immediately by another, two or three fields away, and then I heard another perhaps a mile away in Home Wood near the Church and then, very faintly, another joined in much further away than the last. And I had this thought that perhaps every Tawny Owl in the land had decided to have a conversation and to pass the time of night together with an exchange of news and views. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is carrying out a survey of our five native species of owl starting with Tawnies and is asking for volunteers to listen out for them for twenty minutes once a week in spring and autumn.
Our Christmas services at St Swithin's were wonderfully well attended with lots of children and young people who don't often have the chance to join us. The carol service was close to 'standing room only'. The White Horse was packed out for 'Carols in the Pub' with Matt doing a valiant job of keeping order, and Tea for All had every table full. What a lovely time of year it is, let us pray that, with a little 'love and understanding', the re-awoken spirit of peace and goodwill will live on through the New Year.
I have recently been reading 'To Catch a King' a new book by Charles Spencer about the escape of Charles the Second after the defeat of his rag-tag army of Scottish Highlanders at the battle of Worcester in 1651. His father King Charles the First had been beheaded in 1649 and his son knew that if captured after this failed attempt to reclaim the throne from the Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell he would suffer a similar fate. He came so close to discovery so many times that his eventual escape to France seemed almost miraculous and indeed he thought that it was so. He was not helped by being unusually tall at well over six foot and the fact that there was an absolutely enormous bounty payable to anybody who discovered him. But the part of the escape story best remembered is the time he spent hiding in a great pollard oak tree in woodland near Boscabel House a few miles north of Worcester. After his restoration in 1660, May 29, which was his birthday, was celebrated as a nationwide festival as Royal Oak Day and the Boscabel Oak became a major tourist attraction until, in the Eighteenth Century, it was finally destroyed by souvenir hunters. The oak which remains is an offspring of the original but it is still almost 300 years old. A few years ago I was given an offspring from this tree which is growing on vigorously in the little valley below our house. But if you are interested in history which reads like a nail biting novel then do give this book a go.
Snapshot. A survey has found that the fox population in various parts of centralsouthern England and Wales has fallen between 20% and 50% in the last twenty years. It looks as if the hunting lobby were right when they warned that a ban would be bad news for foxes.
Snapshot. Thirty members of Lingmara Choir from Chippenham standing in front of the beautiful stone screen under the chancel arch of St Swithin's Church. Thirty good people of Chippenham, a wonderfully mixed group, men and women, young and old they wait tense and apprehensive; the conductor raises his hand and then, as if a floodlight has been switched on, they relax and light up and burst into song. We are in a Church and most of the songs are secular but all the world loves tosing. In the words of Psalm 100:
0 be joyful in the Lord all ye lands
Serve the Lord with gladness
And come before his presence with a song.
Pigeon pie. There are going to be a lot of fat pigeons in the countryside this autumn. The beech trees, certainly in this part of Wiltshire, have produced a fantastic crop of seed which carpets the ground beneath them . There seems to be a small flock of pigeons under each one, hoovering it up as fast as they can. I think that I have told you this story before but our old gardener Reg Rumming always said that pigeons only pick up good seed, so when he wanted some in order to grow plants for a new beech hedge, he asked for some recently shot birds knowing that their crops would be full of the quality of seed he wanted. Fifty years later we have some magnificent hedges to bear witness to his wisdom. I can remember that as boys we used to pick up beech mast and peel off the stiff sharp husks in order to eat those tiny but delicious kernels - hard work for a small reward but it was worth it. And writing in early October, I can see that we are in for a magnificent display of Autumn colour, hedgerows and gardens alike are working up for some real pyrotechnics. No doubt before winter is out our wildlife will be only too grateful for that abundant supply of fruits and berries.
When I was a teenager in the early 1950s I became keenly interested in local history and particularly that of Buckinghamshire, the county of my birth. One summer, rather than go with my parents and two sisters for a seaside holiday inNorfolk, I hired a bicycle and toured round the villages and small market towns of north Buckinghamshire and, all immersed in the abundance of high summer, I discovered derelict watermills and windmills and tiny but exquisite parish churches, every one so different and every one a joy.
This was, in those days, still a rural backwater. Milton Keynes was a group of thatched cottages at a crossroads and London was still held in bounds and the countryside rested content with its ancient roots. I eventually came to the little town of Olney with its lovely Church whose chunky spire rises high above the old market place where the first pancake race was run, the river Ouse meandering modestly through the lush green meadows which surround it.
This was the home in the 18th century of William Cowper (1731-1800) and John Newton (1725-1807) who collaborated together to produce The Olney Hymns. First published in 1779, the book became enormously popular and ran to 37 editions. Many of its 348 hymns are still popular today including such favourites as Amazing Grace and Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken
The 1807 edition is beside me as I write. William Cowper, I imagine, is seldom read today but his poetry has a charrn and sincerity rooted in his deep religious faith and it has always struck a chord with me. It is as a hymn writer that he is best known. The next time you are singing an old favourite in Hymns A&M glance up at the name of the author, perhaps it will be William Cowper or John Newton.
Cowper lead a quiet if rather sad life but his friend John Newton, who was Rector of Olney, led one so colourful and full of action that he could be the hero of a major Hollywood epic.
A drunken youth , he was pressganged into the Royal Navy, rose to be an officer, reduced to the ranks for desertion and later sold into slavery in West Africa by a disaffected crew.
He was rescued by a ship sent out by his father to look for him, converted to Christianity after surviving a catastrophic storm, but later captained slave ships before seeing the light and becoming one of the chief architects with Wilberforce of the abolition of slavery. He did well to reconcile his rather radical views with the Church of England and be allowed to serve as a parish priest, but no doubt his congregation never had a dull moment.
Snapshot. A party of rooks are excavating the lawn in a quest for leatherjackets. It is beginning to look rather like a WW1 battlefield. Small rook is on to something and is digging away furiously. Large rook, a rather desperate looking character that I would not want to meet down an alley on a dark night, sidles up to small rook and stands nearby all nonchalant, as Cpl Jones of Dad's Army would say. He turns his head away and looks at the ground. Small rook stops digging and stands motionless, head bowed, also looking at the ground away from large rook. Nothing is said, nothing is done and a couple of minutes pass. Then small rook capitulates and flies away. Who says that there are no politics in the animal kingdom?
We enjoyed a really good Village Fete in Compton Bassett in early September which I am sure will be reported upon elsewhere but it was wonderful to be able to have a leisurely chat to so many friends and neighbours who we so often hurry past in our busy lives. And to reminisce with some old villagers who had come back for the occasion. And it was good to be able to welcome our new Rector Matt with his wonderful whirlwind of a family who all entered into the spirit of the occasion with great gusto, Matt pulling above his weight in the tug-of-war which was a good sign for us all.
Following the graduation of one of our Grandsons who was reading architecture at Bath University we visited his degree show and marvelled at the amazing quality of work produced by these young people. Four years into a seven year course they have now to work for a year in an architectural practice before completing the last two years at another university. The relentless hard work and dedication which they produce filled us with awe. What a contrast to the wider experience of my own university days when we absorbed a rather different sort of education from the heady atmosphere of the ancient stones surrounding us while doing the minimum of work and revelling in the first moments of real freedom in our lives.
It makes me so sad to see the impunity with which the Christian Religion is denigrated and side-lined in the press and to see the Western World so caught up in its prosperity that it thinks that it can achieve peace and happiness on its own apart from God. As C S Lewis said, 'if you run a car on the wrong fuel don't be surprised if it conks out'. As a Christian I owe a great deal to the works of C S Lewis and particularly to 'Mere Christianity' a truly life changing book which he wrote just after WW2 based on an enormously successful series of talks which the BBC commissioned him to give on the radio during those dark days. The talks brought untold comfort to countless thousands facing sudden death on a daily basis. Lewis, who was a man of huge intellect, grew up an atheist but while at Oxford he found the arguments for Christianity so compelling that, despite his extreme reluctance, he had to accept the overwhelming evidence that Jesus Christ was the only son of God. His book, in a very readable way, lays out the evidence for that and instructs us in how to grow in the Christian life and to have the faith required to reach the final goal. He argues that everybody has a God given spark of spirituality within them no matter how sceptical they feel. He urges them to blow upon that spark and by reading this book, which has never been out of print, start down the road leading to everlasting life. What is there to lose?
At the end of July we visited Philip and Anna Bromiley and their family at Durrington near Amesbury and were glad to see them flourishing in their new Parish. Philip admitted to feeling rather nervous at the prospect of having to officiate, on the following Monday, at the funeral of the unfortunate Novichok victim Dawn Sturgiss whose father lives in Durrington. He had been warned that he would have to deal with considerable media attention. However he coped very well, as one would have expected, and perhaps you saw his kindly light shining forth in interviews on both national and local television news and in the national press.
We spent three nights at Sidmouth in Devon at the beginning of August - which was breaking new ground for us. It is a really charming little town making a brave job of balancing its roles of seaside resort and local market centre. The little river Sid, from which it takes its name, ambles into the sea on its eastern side but only after lending it to numerous other local places including Sidford and Sidbury a little way to the North, and the village and Abbey of Sid close by. The sea shore on both sides of the town is bordered by long sections of the famous Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage site. The great crumbling red cliffs impose their colour on the waters beneath and exhibit frequent evidence of the rock falls which have so often exposed the remains of Dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters. It is a tidy little town with a pleasing air of prosperity and escapes entirely the atmosphere of seedy decay which pervades some of its neighbours. Smart Regency terraces face the sea along the Esplanade and their atmosphere of quiet gentility lingers on. There are butchers and fishmongers and greengrocers and bakers and a small repertory theatre with a· company offering a new play every week for twelve weeks. Bordered by its towering cliffs and wooded hills the little town shrugs off the bustle of the modern world and hosts its visitors with gentle charm.
I wish that I knew what the weather had in store in the month or so between my writing this and its delivery through your letter box in early September. The exceptionally high temperatures and the drought which has accompanied them have caused serious problems in the farming world although, so far as we are concerned in Compton Bassett, it is the grassland rather than the cereal crops which has suffered most. Normally the grass grows strongly throughout the Summer to provide grazing and a substantial surplus to cut for winter feed. This year the grazing pastures have dried up and failed completely and there are no second or third cuts of silage to top up the barn. Winter feed ensiled in May has now to be fed to keep the cows going and since we can only buy in organic forage, which is in short supply at the best of times, we are heading for a very difficult Winter. And to think that only last Spring we thought that things were going rather well and were considering some much needed investment in infrastructure. Such is farming, an occupation which is not for the faint hearted.
If you want to know everything about hares, and I mean everything, then get a copy of The Way of The Hare by Marianne Taylor which is just out in paperback. It's a good read.
Snapshot: Attached to the bath stone .canopy of an outside doorway on the house is an enormous wasp nest the colour of which exactly matches the stonework. It hangs there looking like a Roman amphora and so far its inhabitants have given us no trouble at all.
Snapshot - a green woodpecker feeding on the lawn not far from the open doorway of the Old Stable where some swallows are nesting. The swallows, who have never been seen to object to any other birds feeding nearby, form up into a squadron and peel off one by one to carry out a low-level attack on the perceived intruder. He, a picture of nonchalance, ducks down a little as each one passes within millimetres of his head while carrying on feeding as if nothing was happening. All of this leads me to wonder why swallows have such a strong instinctive fear of woodpeckers. They would certainly have the ability to cling on to any structure where a nest built while robbing it of its contents but has anybody actually seen them do this?
I was reminded recently of yet another celebrity connection with Compton Bassett, when I read the obituary of Lord Norwich or John Julius Norwich as he liked to be known, who died on June 1 aged 88. He was a charming and charismatic character who became something of a 'national treasure' rather in the mould of John Betjeman. He was a prolific historian and took a particular interest in Venice, playing a majot part in campaigns to stop that fabulous city from drowning, visiting it more than· 200 times. For some years he was a popular television personality and, to quote from his obituary; "hjs wit and self-deprecating good manners made him a star of the London drawing-room circuit and his facility with quips and quotations made him a favourite with broadcasters in the days when an upper-class accent was seen as no impediment" to a career on the airways". We were lucky enough to meet him at a local dinner party a few years ago when he told us of the happy times he had spent in his childhood staying with his Aunt, Lady Violet Benson at Compton House. Her father (and his grandfather) was the 8th Duke of Rutland.
We have just returned home from a trip to North Yorkshire where that absolutely magnificent landscape shimmered in the succulent green of early Summer. It always seems to go on endlessly from horizon to horizon, a big country in every sense of the word, its obvious wealth and prosperity rooted in the fertile sandy soils. If ever you get depressed about Britain disappearing under bricks and concrete a trip up there makes a wonderful antidote. Those beautiful villages with immaculate houses and gardens all seem a bit too good to be true; therural idyll brought near to perfection.
Bird feeding has become quite a major industry. There are pros and cons but the birding organisations like the RSPB and the BTO support it. It certainly brings wildlife close to people even if that sometimes includes rats and squirrels. I read recently that in Britain an estimated six million loaves of bread are fed to ducks every year which is not very good for the ducks, pollutes the water and attracts rats, all of which can be witnessed on the banks of the Kennet at the bottom of the Waitrose carpark in Marlborough.
The farm conservation movement has been doing some interesting things recently and the cluster of farms in South Wiltshire which we belong to has been carrying out a Winter bird feeding programme on a field scale which it is hoped will help to halt the decline in bird populations, especially yellowhammers. We have also been trying to re-establish elms on the cluster farms by planting varieties resistant to Dutch Elm Disease. It is hoped that this might help to save a very rare butterfly, the White Letter Hairstreak, which is-found in our area and particularly likes to have elms in its territory. And there have been training days where local farmers can sharpen their skills in identifying the rarer bird and butterfly species which we are seeking to encourage and we have been learning how to manage fallow plots to provide ideal nesting habitat for lapwing and stone curlew. JSR
Writing this in the warm sunshine of a beautiful early May I hope, most sincerely, that by the time you read it, the anonymous composer of those lines will have been proved to be wrong.
Snapshot. Behind Pendower Bay on the south coast of Cornwall with half a gale blowing in off the sea. A kestrel hovers head to wind absolutely motionless, an almost miraculous feat of aerodynamic control.
Not being of sufficient inteltigence to follow the tortuous story lines of modern television drama I was comforted to read recently that the mystifying use of constant, if irregular, flashbacks is now officially described as 'non-linear narrative': apparently I must get used to it and admire its subtlety. But I can't.
In this centenary year of the end of WW1 many of us will be giving some thought to that horrifying conflagration. 1 have been re-reading Siegfried Sassoon's classic account of the war, 'The Complete Memoires of George Sherston', in an old copy which belonged to my parents. My mother had cut out an obituary of Sassoon from the Sunday Times of 3 September 1967 and folded it into the pages. (A rather charming habit of hers for which I have often blessed her). He lived his later years in Wiltshire at Heytesbury House on the Southern edge of Salisbury Plain where he died aged 80. (Some of you may have read a piece which I wrote recently about Tom Harris, a colourful local character who had worked for Sassoon as farm manager). Many will know him for his poetry but this beautifully written account of his experience in the trenches must be one of the best personal testimonies to what it was really like to be there. To quote the obituary' ... he was such a many-sided man, he escapes all labels. Foxhunter and poet, infantry officer and pacifist, satirist and conservationist - he eluded in his life and work all glib attempts to pin him down. The white-hot poetry of protest which was lit in his sensitive soul made him famous overnight. But he also won the Military Cross and was wounded more than once. He knew the reality. He loathed the callous incompetence of generals and politicians because he had served alongside the common soldier ... .'
He's a jolly old stick,
Said Harry to Jack,
As they slogged up to Arras
With rifle and pack.
But he did for them both
With his plan of attack.
I seem to have a few lines left so perhaps I may share the following quotation with you since this is a Parish Magazine: "God's love is absolutely unconditional, there is nothing you can do which will make him love you more and there is nothing you can do which will make him love you less. But remember that, if you don't look both ways before you cross the road, it is very unlikely that he will stop you being run over". JSR
As I was walking in the woods at dusk one evening towards the end of January I heard a sound overhead like the passing of a squall of wind. On looking up I saw a great flock of starlings circling the trees. Quite suddenly the whole party, of what must have been several hundred birds, descended into the canopy and immediately set up a loud and continuous chattering. It was easy to understand why the collective noun for these birds is 'a murmuration'; it so aptly describes the sound. It was a particular privilege to see them because, although once common in these parts, they are now quite a rarity and I miss seeing them close at hand on lawn and bird-table with their beautiful iridescent plumage and sharp black eyes and confident bearing. When Sally and I were first married, in the early 1960s, we lived in a remote village in the depths of the countryside between Aylesbury and Oxford. The cottages were scattered among large tracts of woodland. That autumn in 1961 almost every evening we wen~ treated to one of nature's most spectacular sights; huge flocks of starlings, which must have contained tens of thousands of birds, would treat us to jaw-dropping displays of formation flying and aerobatics before suddenly dropping down into lhe tops of the trees below them to roost for the night. The area which they had chosen was not more than a couple of hundred yards from our cottage and the noise they made, until darkness finally fell , could become quite overbearing. I would sometimes go outside and clap my hands; silence was instantaneous, but in less than a minute the chattering would start once more.
I have reached that time of life when I have to realise reluctantly that some of the things which I have always put off doing are now never going to be done. And that includes taking time to pursue so many interests. One of these has been the study of old clocks. I have always been fascinated by the really quite sophisticated technology of clock mechanisms going back to medieval times and earlier when the interaction of cogwheels was also used widely in the construction of watermills and windmills something totally out of kilter with the peasant culture of the age. Many years ago we bought, in a junk shop in Bicester, an old weight driven bracket clock which had no case and a reused brass face with a single hand and a crude alarm mechanism said to have been made by an early member of an old family of hereditary blacksmiths in the village of Oakley in Buckinghamshire. It almost certainly dates back to the 18th century. I set it up again recently on a brass hook on the wall of my old office where the comforting heartbeat of its tick reproduces exactly a sound first heard more than 250 years ago. And it keeps remarkably good time.
Most farmers, immersed in the countryside as they are, have always involved themselves in a wide variety of conservation projects and have welcomed the current policy of government sponsored schemes, although rather bemused by the need to grow wildflowers rather than food when half the world is starving; a sure sign of the affluence of Western Society. We happily give up quite large farm acreages to various schemes but are involved in South Wiltshire in an interesting experiment where we are part of a cluster of 20 farms covering over 8000 hectares, working together, on various projects including the provision of special habitat for rare species, such as corn b1:1nting. And it is working. More next month. JSR
"Children need love especially when they don't deserve it"
That quote has nothing to do with anything which follows but I think it is rather perceptive and hope that it strikes a note with you too.
On a recent trip to London I was delighted to hear the raucous call of a jay and caught sight of him briefly as he moved between trees in the large gardens which adjoin the little mews house in Chelsea where we were staying. Secure from human predators they flourish in that part of the city. It always saddens me that their numbers have reduced so much in our part of Wiltshire and no doubt elsewhere in the countryside as well; partly, I think, because their membership of the crow family makes them a target for game keepers. But they are shy and difficult to see which is a shame because their pink colouring and distinctive white rump and patch of bright blue wing feathers makes them one of the most beautiful of our larger birds. Apart from the noisy and colourful contribution which they make to the tapestry of our countryside, jays are said to have had a substantial effect on the spread of oak woods in Britain over many centuries owing to their habit of collecting and burying acorns in the autumn in order to provide a winter food store. Their gullet is adapted to carry up to nine acorns although apparently they normally carry two or three with another in their beak. These are buried in soft moist ground and, although these birds have a legendary ability to remember exactly where they have left them, any forgotten acorns will be in ideal conditions to allow them to germinate and flourish if undisturbed. A couple of years ago, in the spring, the edge of the field adjoining the old oak wood at the bottom of our garden was covered in hundreds of seedling oak trees. Sadly all were eaten off by the cattle when they were turned out to graze the lush new grass. I still regret that I did not dig some up and transplant them. A few were perhaps planted by squirrels but I am sure that jays had a lot to do with it; it is said that one bird can bury as many as 5000 acorns in a season.
Up until the middle of the last century many of our villages still retained the remnants of a social structure which had remained largely unchanged for.hundreds of years. It is only within living memory that many have suffered fun�damental change, very often becoming dormitories for wealthier urban dwellers, very understandably, seeking a rural idyll. The old village families can no longer afford to live there and the chain is broken. Much has been written about rural life in the 'old days' but should you wish to be transported back to village life in the second half of the 18th Century then do get hold of a copy of The Diary of a Country Parson 1758 - 1802 by James Woodforde. He was eighteen when he started the diary in 1758 and scarcely missed a day until shortly before his death in 1802. It was first published in the 1920s in five volumes with an edited version by John Beresford in 1935. All still obtainable 'on line'. Extraordinary and minute details of village life are lovingly recorded. Humorous and unpretentious he comes across as a good Christian who, with the local squire, looked after his parishioners with the greatest care in the days before any sort of welfare state. A system of benevolent feudalism which often worked very well; far better than the much hated and feared system of workhouses soon to emerge. I would love to tell you more but have run out of space. Perhaps next time. JSR
Just above the reach of the tide at the back of Pendower Beach, a remote and beautiful spot on the South Cornish coast, the low sand dunes are clothed with a variety of, what are to me, exotic and unusual plants adapted to that habitat. A freshwater stream flowing down through a steep and wooded valley runs into the sea nearby. And there, one day in late April, we noticed that those plants were covered by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny snails, each one no bigger than my little finger nail.
I had never seen anything like it before and the plants remained quite undamaged by their unusual burden. And by curious coincidence we were walking along the beach at low tide on the next afternoon, the gentlest of seas lapping at the shore, when we noticed that the edge of the water was dotted with numerous little hermit crabs, a large number would be stranded each time a wave receded and immediately set about burying themselves in the sand until, moments later, when the sea returned, they popped out again and made for deeper water.
Since they live in the discarded shells of any variety of mollusc which happens to fit them they are clothed in a wonderful variety of overcoats ranging in colour from dark brown through bright green to pure white. How common is this appearance of hermit crabs I don't know, perhaps it is seasonal; I must find out but I do hope that they got back into deeper waters before too long because the seagulls were having a feast day.
Philip's pastures new. Desperately sad though we were to see our Rector, Philip Bromiley, move away to take up a new challenge elsewhere in Wiltshire it has at least had the benefit of introducing us to another part of our beautiful county. As you will know Philip has taken up the post of Rector of the Avon River Team, a string of parishes along the valley between Upavon and Amesbury.
The river valley is like a lush green tongue between the dry lips of Salisbury Plain which rise up on either side of it. It is steeper to the West so the villages are mostly sited just above the narrow flood plain to the East. Ancient churches, each one exhibiting the chaotic kaleidoscope of styles and periods which we love so much, are dotted along the meadows, the fine manors and farmhouses witness to the prosperity of the region.
The occasional bridge over the little river offers the walker a chance to watch the gently flowing chalk stream, one of the rare wonders of nature which we are so privileged to have on our doorstep, and to watch the trout for which the Avon is so famed feeding in the flow or darting into the shadows if alarmed.
The A34 runs down the Western side of the valley on its way to Salisbury but to the East the villages are linked by a network of quiet and secluded bye roads the pursuit of which affords the best means of exploring this beautiful landscape. But the army has made its mark and Philip's rectory is in Durrington which, with nearby Bulford, Larkhill and Tidworth camps, houses a substantial population of the military. But it is well worth a visit and if you turn off the A4 at West Kennett and drive south across the Vale of Pewsey through Honeystreet and Woodborough to Upavon you could call at the Red Lion at East Chisenbury for some lunch and then on down through Philip's new parishes to Durrington.
A worrying time for the farm. As I write in early May we are faced with having to deal with the results of a prolonged period without rain on the farm. This is a time of year when the cattle can normally enjoy lush new spring grass, enabling them to produce abundant supplies of milk without any supplementary feeding, but today the pastures are bare and silage crops, due to be cut soon for winter feed, have almost stopped growing. It is a 'double-wammy', one of the worst possible farming scenarios, and with Spring planting likely to fail too, it will cost us dear. JSR
Looking back over the years one comes to the sad and sobering conclusion that many of the people who once formed the very centre of the village community are now forgotten so comprehensively that there is scarcely anybody left who remembers them at all! One such character was old Tom Harris or, at least, he was old when I knew him, in the 1960s when he lodged with Sheila McKnight at Breach Farm, having previously lived in one of the estate houses at Bowood. Wiry, weather-beaten and rather wizened In his rough tweeds, he had been a keen hunting man in his younger days and later acted as 'poultry officer' for the Beaufort Hunt. It was a time when most farmers' wives kept a flock of completely free-range chickens to provide a welcome supplement to meagre farm incomes. The Hunt, knowing that these birds were extremely vulnerable to the foxes on which their sport depended, offered generous compensation should an attack take place, in an attempt to prevent the farmers taking the law into their own hands with their shotguns. It was Tom's job to call at the farm, assess if it was a genuine claim, and negotiate a deal. His preferred mode of transport was a pony and trap which would be seen frequently clattering through the village often with a cargo of delighted children.
In his younger days Tom had been farm manager at Heytsbury House on the southern edge of Salisbury Plain for Siegfried Sassoon the poet, writer and acclaimed hero of WW1. Although he was a member of the famous Harris family whose bacon factory dominated the economy of Caine for so many generations. I am not aware that he was ever Involved in the business himself. During the last war he had the dubious distinction of being the only casualty of a bomb dropped on Caine, at the cattle market in Wenhill Lane. He was quite badly injured losing the sight of one eye. But he was a kindly man and a great countryman and above all he was a brilliant raconteur. His fund of stories about Wiltshire country life seemed endless although in later life a tendency to repeat the best ones to anybody willing to listen did rather detract from their freshness. But I still berate myself for not recording any of them, for they told of a lost way of life In our countryside.
Last year I wrote in John's Journal about two new rookeries which had appeared in Compton Bassett behind the Village Pond and in a spinney bordering Street Home Field. At that time they had 7 and 1O nests respectively. This year I counted them again in mid- March and it was interesting to see that numbers had increased substantially to 25 and 51. Whether this reflects an increase in population or a decision to relocate I don't know. Perhaps our supply of organic leatherjackets and wireworms has proved an irresistible temptation. And it has also been interesting to note that new rookeries have appeared near the T junction at Hilmarton with the Caine to Lyneham road. What a comfort to see that these wonderful birds, which personify the essence of the countryside, seem to be thriving when so many species are in decline.
It is not often that I have been able to report the arrival of our swallows and martins in time to get the news into the May Villages but this year they have made it on time. It was on 5 April that we saw our first house martins and swallows, in reasonable numbers too, and it looks as if they will stay. We have often noticed in the past that they arrive and then go off again for a week or two. Perhaps the warm weather this year will encourage them to set about nesting without too much delay, although the lack of rain means that the much needed mud for repairs might be in short supply. And a chiff-chaff arrived on that same day. If only we could hear a cuckoo, our Spring would be complete. We have also seen far more butterflies than usual at this time of year with numerous brimstones and orange tips; the odd red admiral and peacock and even two mating tortoiseshells; and best of all, one comma which appeared towards end-March. JSR
There is a little watercolour picture in my office hanging by the door and I often pause to look at it for it depicts an idyllic, long vanished, rural scene of sheaves of corn stooked in a greening stubble, the hedgerows behind lined with elms, unmistakable, like wine glasses with shaggy stems.
A glimpse of a world long gone it was painted over 100 years ago near the once beautiful village of Denham in Buckinghamshire, now crushed beneath the concrete tentacles of London. But what memories it revives of what was once an almost universal rural scene.
It is over fifty years since Dutch elm disease changed the look of our landscape for ever. I know that I have touched on this subject in these pages before but it is good to reflect on what we have lost. It was a fundamental change in the countryside and hundreds of magnificent mature trees were taken from our farm alone and lost too was the habitat of countless thousands of creatures of all kinds. But nature is resilient, as we know, and along the hedgerows where the great trees once stood, suckers continue to shoot up from the old roots which lie dormant but not dead. These grow on into young trees, vigorous and strong, for fifteen years or so, reminding us of what we have lost but then, as their bark begins to mature, the dreaded beetle attacks again and suddenly they die in the full vigour of their youth. If the beetles died out our elms would return.
As you drive out of Compton Bassett going towards Hilmarton and past The Old Forge there is a long hedgerow on the left where once stood a magnificent avenue of elms (see CB Old Photo Collection) and this hedge is made up mostly of elm which, because it is cut every year, never matures sufficiently to be attacked by the beetle. So the elms live on and let us hope that future generations may see them in all their glory once more.
We have just returned from a trip to Rye, a truly picturesque and beautifully preserved little port where the river Rother reaches the sea on the borders of East Sussex and Kent.
Fortified against the incursion of French pirates, it is built on a rocky prominence with old stone walls and a castle keep and cobbled streets lined with ancient houses, each quite different from its neighbour, the result of seven hundred years of random growth. And from the ramparts one looks out across the saltmarshes to the sea and the low lying land all around, bisected by muddy channels, provides lush grazing for some of the best lamb to be found in England.
The tile hung houses and white timber boarded cottages which populate the countryside throughout the region mark it out as yet another gem in Britain's crown.
It seems a long time ago now but one of the most wonderful things we did over the Advent and Christmas season was to attend a �Darkness to Light� service at Salisbury Cathedral at the end of November. The massive interior, filled to capacity with people, was plunged into darkness and in utter silence we all waited for the service to begin. Then a small light, a single candle flame, appeared and pierced the darkness. And the darkness was overcome by this one small light. And then we heard the crystal clear sound of a chorister singing and a great procession set off from the West end of the Nave, gradually moving towards the East, and as it moved more and more candles were lit until the whole space was filled with burning light. A more poignant evocation of the coming of Christ into the world could not be imagined. Both the boys� choir and the girls� choir sang with the voice of angels and the great organ thundered out like the voice of God and we were caught up into the great mystery of the incarnation.
It is wonderful to think that this great Cathedral belongs to us and we belong to it. One of the most magnificent buildings in the world in its matchless surroundings of The Close, we must not ignore it because it is so close to home. Preserved within it are many ancient things; tombs and monuments, clocks, stained glass and one of the surviving copies of Magna Carta. However I was intrigued to find, while waiting in the choir stalls for a service to start, among the hymn books and prayer books in daily use, a worn and much repaired leather bound Book of Common Prayer. And printed inside, in those places where prayers for the royal family are to be found, were the names of King George V and Queen Alexandra. So this book had been lying there, in daily use, for over one hundred years, a silent witness to the continuity of worship in this place.
I love this time of year with the land resting from its labour of providing for us; undemanding at last. But even now there is the joy of finding the very first signs of new life. Primroses then snowdrops and aconites and the first crocuses and the emerging leaves of daffodils. Are they earlier or later than last year? We get a curious pleasure from finding things earlier than before � perhaps it harks back to a time when our primeval ancestors were not confident that the world would wake up again after the winter sleep. This year, alternating warm and cold, wet and dry, is keeping the natural world on its toes as well as us as we look for �the signs�.
As many of you will know we are planning to put a handrail up one side of the steep path leading to the Church which can be a dangerous climb for our less nimble parishioners, especially in wet and icy weather. I have, for my sins no doubt, had the job of obtaining the required permissions from the Diocese to enable us to perform this seemingly simple task. However, simple it is not and the process has, over the years, become a bureaucratic exercise of quite mind boggling complexity although logical in so far as it does protect our Churches and Churchyards from acts of well-meaning vandalism. First of all one has to apply to the Diocesan Advisory Committee for their Formal Advice on the project. They are a diverse and venerable body made up of architects, archaeologists, historians and clerics who, not surprisingly do not always agree with one another. They will often suggest or insist upon changes to ones plans but eventually issue a Formal Notification of Advice and Recommendation for Approval. One is then free to petition the Diocesan Registrar for a Faculty, the legal document which finally enables the work to proceed. This last process requires the assembly of plans, photographs, permission from English Heritage, Wiltshire Council planning permission and evidence that notices of the proposals have been displayed in the Church. There is then a delay of 28 days in case any objections are received from the public before the Faculty is issued. If all goes well we should be able to start work on the handrail soon after Christmas.
Clouded Yellow. In mid- October, while walking along the cliff path bordering Veryan Bay on Cornwall�s South Coast, we saw a lone Clouded Yellow butterfly. This was the first that I had ever seen . They are wafted across the English Channel from Southern Europe and according to the book arrive most years, in varying numbers, if the winds are in the right direction, but seldom make their way far inland. In common with several of our butterfly species they are quite unable to breed here because they cannot survive our Winters; Cornwall comes up trumps again!
Spies, Saboteurs and Matchboxes. While looking for something in the attic recently I came across my old matchbox collection, a relic of my teenage years, and I found a half forgotten gem amongst it, a very interesting gift made to me by a friend of my father in 1951. This was a brown envelope which contained some sheets of matchbox labels from several different countries. There was a message on the envelope which read ��.these matchbox covers are all forgeries and were printed by one of my workshops during the last war. These were made complete with box and contents and issued to saboteurs or �agents� who were dropped into enemy occupied territory.� There is a signature after the note but unfortunately it is quite undecipherable. I have been doing some research to find out more and this has led me to a remarkable book by Mark Seaman entitled �Secret Agent�s Handbook of Special Devices� published by the Public Record Office in 2000. This gives a fascinating insight into all the equipment and gadgets used by SOE (Special Operations Executive) for their espionage and sabotage work, complete with a facsimile catalogue, as well as details of their organization. It illustrates some matchbox covers similar to mine.
We are used to TB breakdowns in the dairy herd, they have been going on since the 1970s but it doesn�t get any easier. Last month we lost another ten cows, these kind and gentle animals led off to slaughter through no fault of their own. That is over twenty in the last year alone. They are tested every sixty days, long before they become infectious, so there is absolutely no way that the cows can be catching the disease from each other. Sadly the test is now so severely interpreted that many reactors are found, on postmortem, to be entirely free of the disease. There has to be an outside source and we all know what that is and I am not going to go through all those arguments again. But we really do question our willingness to carry on in the face of such odds although Charles and Peter and Simon love their herd of cows, many of which are the proud result of generations of careful breeding, and each one known and recorded with all their individual personalities and traits of character. A herd of cows may look all the same to an outsider but it is a heartbreak for their keepers to lose a single one of them.
We are sticking with it but each dairy herd that is closed down has a profound effect on the ecology and wildlife of the area, providing as they do food and habitat for numerous species of bird and insect and animal. Where would the swallows and martins nest and find a ready source of flies?
A warm and open Autumn has provided well for wildlife, all now busily stocking up for winter. Bird numbers are much reduced with the Summer migrants all gone and the Autumn migrants yet to arrive. But we still hear the Robin�s wistful song in the garden and the old Raven croaks away in the Beeches behind the Church. I always eagerly await the first Fieldfares and Redwings, fussing and chattering in the hedgerows, bringing new life to the countryside and they certainly won�t be short of food this year. It has been a good Summer for the birds, most of our regulars being present and correct and the little flock of sparrows at Street Farm continue to hold their own. Our highlight, perhaps, was the arrival of a pair of Spotted Flycatchers who took up residence in the garden where they delighted us with their insect catching antics. And there were some Yellow Wagtails on the lawn a few days ago.
If you are interested in hedgehogs and would like to understand a bit more about these fascinating creatures and why, in many areas including ours, they have become more or less extinct, then I can heartily recommend a very readable and quite amusing book about them written by the ultimate expert. The New Hedgehog Book by Pat Morris. In the British Natural History Series published by Whittet Books. I am sure that you can find it on �The Web� but why not visit the fantastic newly refurbished �White Horse Bookshop� in Marlborough?
We all regret changes to the countryside and when they occur feel that some very ancient part of our heritage has been lost. In living memory, apart from land taken for building and development, we have seen the effects of changes in farming practice, often dictated by economic necessity and national emergency such as the desperate need in the last war to maximise food production.
Increases in agricultural wages although long overdue meant that farms had to cut staffing and invest in the new machinery coming in from the USA. Economies of scale had to be found, small family farms went out of business, fields had to be enlarged to allow the machines to work and hedges were removed and the old building became unusable for the new way of farming. The countryside changed and most people regretted the passing of the old ways. However, it is worth remembering that these changes were as nothing to those seen by our forefathers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
From medieval times onwards, in much of England, the rural economy was based upon the division of the land of each village into large open fields, usually three but sometimes five (hence the place name Fifield or Fyfield). Because the quality of the land varied, those villagers eligible to have a share in the land were awarded strips dotted about the fields. These were ploughed round and round to produce the corrugated effect still seen in parts of the country. There are some of these field strips just visible on our farm in Compton Bassett. Those areas too wet to plough were kept as common grazing and the rough areas were designated �waste� and often covered in gorse and scrub, which at least provided some firing for the poor.
There were hardly any hedges; no hedgerow trees and a serious lack of wood. Birdlife would have been completely different. But starting in the 1700s and continuing until the 1850s there was a move to enclose the Open Fields and divide the area among those who already held land there. They were often divided into parcels of about ten acres although it varied enormously. All was carefully regulated by private acts of parliament for each village. This meant that the poorer villagers, who had just been able to eek out a living from their right to graze the commons and wastes, lost these; many families quite simply starved to death.
The result of these enclosures was to produce much of the landscape which we see about us today. All new enclosures had to be hedged or fenced round within a year of the award and trees planted in the hedges to provide for the future need for timber. Hawthorn (quickthorn) was the preferred hedging plant but the need for fencing material must have almost completely denuded many areas of trees. The commissioners who made the awards carefully laid out the boundaries of the new fields and often totally changed the system of roads and tracks in a village, very much favouring straight lines and requiring a minimum width to allow wagons room for manoeuvre in muddy conditions.
All of this can be seen around us in Compton Bassett; the largely square hawthorn hedged fields of ten or twelve acres, the new straight road of regulation width (Blacksmith Lane, behind the Old Forge) going up to the �wastes� on the Hill. The straight roads meeting at Freeth Corner and skirting the Park (omitted from enclosure). All this is very recent but walk up above the village and see the Celtic fields cut into the shoulders of the downs over two thousand years ago and then on up onto the open chalk lands still scarcely tamed. Our landscape is ever changing; just let�s not lose it to rubbish dumps and unnecessary new railway lines.
It�s been a wonderful Summer so far, although as I write, in early August, it seems to be breaking up rather dramatically. Which is worrying because we still have quite a lot of combining to do at Fifield Bavant. The crops have been good and the barns should be well filled although a slump in world cereal prices means that the grain is worth not much more than half of what it was a year ago; but such is farming.
Bird life here has been as unpredictable as ever. Having started with very few swallows and house martins we were amazed and delighted when a lot more nesting pairs arrived in early July and the sky in the evenings has been alive with their swirling forms re-enacting a kind of miniature display of �dog fights� in the �Battle of Britain�. And thrushes; there have been more than ever before in my memory. The big Mistle thrushes have been back again but the smaller song thrushes have been nesting for the first time for years, attracted perhaps, by the profusion of snails in the garden which they smash open on a convenient stone or tile. It has been such a pleasure to see these �anvils� dotted about in secluded places, surrounded by heaps of broken shells.
There are fewer hares about this year but I have seen a stoat in the garden; a beautiful but deadly creature of which there are more than we realise. Squirrels are in profusion as always and the local hazelnut bushes stand surrounded by the green debris of their unripe crop, taken by these horrid creatures in its entirety before it is ready to be harvested. There have been several grass snakes seen locally and I disturbed a slow-worm sunning itself close to a clump of lilies.
There seems to be a ready appetite for anything in the media which deals with countryside matters and we have become somewhat inundated with countryside programmes on television; some better than others. All too often they are presented by very young and beautiful people with urban backgrounds who have recently studied such subjects as �environmental management� at university; their lack of any real understanding of rural life is sometimes staggering. And it is always a shame when politics and political correctness are allowed to come in to the discussion. But there is nothing new about all of this. The Victorians, following the Industrial Revolution, had as keen a sense of the loss of countryside and old country ways as we do and often wrote eloquently about it. The difference being that their writers were born and bred countrymen who really understood what they were writing about. Just such a one was Richard Jefferies. A Wiltshireman, he was born, the son of a farmer, at Chiseldon near Swindon in 1848 and has left us some wonderful books, many still obtainable, with the most minute and detailed descriptions of the countryside he knew. From some of them we gain the comfort of finding that things have not changed too much but we also learn of what we have lost and, despite the efforts of the Victorian gamekeeper who brought many species close to extinction, it is the abundant profusion of wildlife in the late 19th century which is most noticeable. But it was a countryside inhabited by totally different people, often living in abject poverty, struggling to survive and only too keen to move, from what to us seems to be a romantic paradise, to find work in the new industrial towns where, hellish though they were, at least a living wage, or something close to it, could be found.
It has been wonderful watching all the newly fledged birds taking their flying lessons before launching into the unknown world so full of dangers. The number of birds in the countryside at this time of year must at least quadruple although the predators are out there waiting and they will have to keep their wits about them. It always amuses me to watch the rooks feeding their young on the lawn in the early mornings, young which have grown nearly as large as their parents but squawk and squirm shaking their wings to call attention to themselves in a most ridiculous way. It can also be a confusing time for birdwatchers since many fully grown young still retain juvenile plumage quite different to their parents. We are all familiar with the temporarily spotty robins with no red breast and blotchy brown blackbirds as well as the brown herring gulls at the seaside which take a year to gain adulthood.
A recent trip to stay with our daughter in North Yorkshire reminded me of how stunning the countryside is up there. Mile after mile of country lanes ramble through the fertile farmland and pretty villages immaculately kept are a testament to the prosperity which this fertility has given the region over hundreds of years. And, as a sharp contrast, the moorlands rise up from the plain with rocky outcrops and wooded valleys and views over such a wide horizon that all your worries about the devastation of rural England can be forgotten for a time. There is just so much more space up there. I saw no wind farms and the well surfaced roads down to the narrowest lanes were quite free of potholes. But isn�t that the wonderful thing about this beautiful land we live in? There is such variety. I wax lyrical about Yorkshire but then what about Devon and Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly or our own Wiltshire Downlands or Sussex or Wales or the Lake District or the Peak District of Derbyshire? All different, all precious. And I would add to my favourites the Chiltern Hills of South Buckinghamshire amongst which I grew up. No wide horizons here but gentle hills clothed with ancient beech woods and narrow lanes linking the hamlets and villages. Too close to London for comfort they have been under pressure for a very long time but the region is still an iconic part of England. How desperately sad it is then to find that The Chilterns are to be quite literally devastated by the proposed new high speed railway line to the North � HS2. This countryside of ours has been created as the result of man and nature working hand in hand together for centuries. Once lost it is irreplaceable. Decisions made by our urban masters purely on grounds of economic expediency treat such considerations with contempt; if the economy will benefit then all must fall before it.
Walking over recently ploughed or cultivated fields is always a great pleasure but if you keep your eyes firmly fixed on the ground there is also the chance of finding some previously buried treasure. Over the years I have picked up so many objects of interest that I could open a museum covering life in Compton Bassett over the last four thousand years or so. Great horse shoes shed by long forgotten beasts of burden, some of immense size are often remarkably well preserved and one thinks of the ploughmen and blacksmiths of the day who were the last to see them. Some years ago I picked up a huge blacksmith-made door key lying in the bottom of a furrow and thought of the poor cottager who had dropped it in the field and all the trouble that would have ensued � too late to give it back to him now! At one time I used to pick up broken clay pipes quite frequently and have a good collection of them; always broken, for that is why they were thrown away, the long stems reduced to fragments but the bowls being thicker and stronger often much better preserved. Their shape and size often enables them to be dated and many have makers marks stamped under the bowl. Fragments of pottery abound. Broken dishes were thrown on the dung heap with all the rubbish which was eventually carted out into the fields and tipped in heaps to be roughly spread by hand using dung drags (a useful tool which you can still buy today). In this way all sorts of household rubbish, going back hundreds of years, can still be found if made of resilient enough material. We have discovered roman coins in the garden and roman pottery in one field which was so abundant that local archaeologists were able to find the site of a kiln which they thought might have been used for making pots for the Roman army of occupation.
Because there are no flints in Compton Basset (they do not occur in the Lower Chalk) those flints found lying in the fields have not come there naturally; somebody put them there and so they are always of interest. Arrowheads, flint knives and hand axes are not uncommon and the small flakes of flint expertly struck off from a suitable core, perhaps four thousand years ago, are as sharp now as the day they were produced. I keep one in the pocket of my gardening jacket which is ideal for cutting string and nothing will blunt it. For objects that are not on the surface there is always the possibility of using metal detectors. This is a difficult issue; few finds are properly recorded and while there have been occasions when important discoveries have been made because of them there is a grave danger of important sites being destroyed and valuable archaeological evidence lost. They are an archaeologist�s nightmare.
About forty years ago a tractor driver ploughing on the downs, in the field behind Roach Wood, picked up something rather more dramatic which he thought at the time was an old starter motor from a car. He put it in the tool box of the tractor and carried on working. The next morning when I went out into the yard before the day�s work started he asked me if I would like to have a look at this object which he had found. It didn�t look �right� at all and I put it out of the way and phoned the bomb squad. They confirmed that it was a mortar bomb and blew it up at the base of an ash tree which bears the scars to this day. Some older villagers confirmed that the home guard had a practice mortar range set up just below Starve Knoll and fired the projectiles at targets in the field above. History repeated itself a couple of weeks ago although not in Compton Bassett. A WW2 rifle grenade was picked up in a field on our farm at Fifield Bavant near Salisbury much to the delight of our Grandson Tom who wanted to take it back to school. Photos show it to be fully primed with the pin in place. The bomb squad dealt with this one as well and thanks to the wonders of mobile phone technology there is a piece of video recording the event. Tom�s standing at school has, I am sure, risen to new heights.
I cannot begin my journal this month without mentioning the death of Serena Henly. She is sorely missed in so many ways and by so many people. Indeed it is a wonder that I am sitting here writing this now without having received my regular phone call, gently urging me not to miss the deadline. Her obituary appears elsewhere in the site.
I heard the first chiff-chaff on the day of Serena�s funeral. It is always a relief to hear the sounds of our returning migrants in the Spring. They face so many dangers; it is rather like watching for the return of a flight of bombers to their airfields after being out on a raid during WW2. How many have survived the awesome dangers? A recent trip to Malta highlighted the problem. To quote from one guide book: �Malta has more than 16,000 hunters and trappers in a population of under 400,000. They kill 2-3 million birds a year including endangered species protected under European and Maltese law, ignoring hunting seasons and protected areas�. The taking of birds irrespective of size or species is deeply ingrained in Maltese culture and the right to do so is as fiercely defended as �the right to bear arms� is in the USA. The islands are a focus for migratory birds in Spring and Autumn whose numbers are already under serious threat from many other quarters as well. And it is not only Malta. France, Spain and many of the Mediterranean islands have a similar tradition. If this could be changed it might just make the difference between survival and extinction for many species.
I am sure that I am not alone in being fascinated by the phenomenon of Saharan dust being blown all the way from North Africa and deposited in Southern England. We were driving up the M4 at the end of March and I found that in the drizzle that was falling I had to keep on using the windscreen washer because the car was being covered in a fine yellow spray. I thought that the road had been gritted the night before. But the next day in London as in many parts of the South everything was covered in a yellow dust, most obvious on parked cars. I am sure that many will remember this happening on previous occasions and there are well recorded instances of it going back for centuries. There was an instance of it in the eighteenth century when it fell so thickly in some places that it was like a covering of snow. In some parts of the world it provides extremely fertile soils and over the millennia settles into rock formations. And no, it�s nothing to do with �global warming�.
One of our young grandsons, aged 7, was staying with us recently and I found him wandering about the house muttering to himself: �I know that I put it down somewhere but I just can�t find it anywhere��� That was an enormous comfort to me who always puts this familiar problem down as a sign of advancing old age.
On a recent trip up to London we visited Westminster Abbey. I hadn�t been for some years and it was sad to see that now you have to queue up and pay a large sum in order to get through the doors (although attendance at services is, thank God, still free). One of our greatest British Churches, particularly connected to the monarchy, richly adorned and superbly restored, it has a peculiar atmosphere all of its own. Ropes and barriers shepherd you around this iconic building, heavy with the tombs of departed kings. But don�t miss the vaulted ceiling of the Lady Chapel and the coronation chair, despite having lost the Stone of Scone, has been magnificently displayed under a new canopy. The poppy wreathed Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remains a poignant and silent testament to the folly and waste of war. Poet�s Corner in the South Transept continues to be adorned with memorials to the best of British poets, writers and artists and I was glad to see the new stone carved with C S Lewis�s name in the form of his signature and with some words of his around the edge: �I believe in Christianity as I believe in the rising sun. Not only do I see it but by it all other things are seen�. C S Lewis through his works reflected that light so brilliantly that countless thousands have come to find the Christian Way through him.
Tempted as I am, I will spare you my views on the weather endured by us all this last winter. I am sure that we are fed up with it dominating our lives, although here in Compton Bassett we are grateful that we have come out of it far better than most. I am sure that one day it will dry up enough for us to get the cows out onto all that grass which has kept on growing without a winter pause. Perhaps by the time you read this we will be into The Great Drought of 2014.
I think that we all tend to take our Churches for granted. After all they have been there for a long time and, for those who do not regularly attend services, they seem to continue by some miracle to be maintained, cleaned and heated and decorated with flowers whenever we happen to need them. All this, of course costs a lot in money and effort, all provided by a dwindling number of people. However our Grade 1 listed building set as it is rather out of sight and apart from the rest of the village is certainly cherished by many who are not regular worshipers and indeed I think that some of them look at their occasional involvement through cleaning etc as a form of worship in itself.
Most people will agree, if it is put to them, that these magnificent buildings should be cherished for their historical and architectural worth by both Christians and non Christians. It is such a pity then that the substantial cost of upkeep almost always falls entirely on the local Church membership. No government money is available for these national treasures although some grants, usually very small, can be obtained from national bodies such as English Heritage if one is skilful or persistent enough to know how to operate the system.
Our Church is in reasonably good repair but we have to look forward to the years ahead. In no way are we planning for retrenchment in the face of the secular tide which threatens to engulf us but are planning for a new burgeoning of faith in our communities which, by the Grace of God, can be brought about. But these iconic buildings have got to be approachable by new generations and as part of that process must be made available for a wide variety of uses; as meeting places and concert halls amongst others. At St Swithin�s Compton Bassett we are starting that process by planning to install WC facilities. A long, complicated and expensive road lies ahead and we need help.
Recently, I was looking through my collection of old �Wiltshire� books, gathered over many years, and I turned to some volumes of the works of Alfred Williams. Largely forgotten now he was, in his day, something of a literary hero of North Wiltshire; it gave me much pleasure to dust him off and read him again and to remember this remarkable character. He was born in 1877 at South Marston near Swindon the son of a carpenter who ran off and abandoned his wife and eight children to a life of abject poverty.
Young Alfred became a farm labourer at the age of eleven and then, when he was fourteen, walked the four miles to Swindon Railway Works every day where he worked as a steam hammer operator for the next twenty three years. Scarcely educated but with a keen interest in literature he embarked on an intense course of self education immersing himself in Milton and Shakespeare and the poets and eventually learning Latin and Greek.
All this was done before five in the morning, when he had to leave for work, and in the late evening after his return. Soon he began to write and published six volumes of poetry and a series of prose books on rural life in this part of Wiltshire which are extremely interesting. He also collected, into a book, the local songs and ballads once part of the very fabric of rural life and now totally forgotten. He achieved some fame and recognition in his lifetime but died in poverty in South Marston in 1930. I will gladly lend copies of his books to anyone interested.
Farming has a tendency to face those foolhardy enough to engage in it, with a wide range of problems to solve and some are easier than others. The farmer often comforts himself with the thought that, at least next year, there will be another chance to get it right. But just now many must be wondering if even that chance is fading away. The wet spring and summer last year made for mediocre silage and hay and a near disastrous harvest, but it didn�t stop there. The rains continued through the autumn bringing the cows in early and making the planting of winter crops almost impossible on many farms. But still, we told ourselves, there is the spring to come, it will dry out and the sun will shine at last and the cows will be out onto lush new pasture and we can get some planting done in good time and make up the losses. Oh dear, it was not to be. The wet and the cold goes on, the grass isn�t growing and the fields lie wet beneath a leaden sky. It is the middle of March as I write and there are frosts most nights, we had snow yesterday, and there is more rain to come. Farmers love to complain perhaps, but they do learn one thing, and that is patience. You can�t alter nature so you must wait for things to come right and be ready to get out there the moment that they do. There is nothing else for it. At least the largely misguided �global warming� lobby has quietened down and we are not so often getting every vagary of our fickle weather put down to that. However, as a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph so aptly asked: �exactly what do we need to do to accelerate global warming?�
April can bring many joys in the countryside and one of those is certainly the flowering of cowslips. We are fortunate to have cowslips growing in some abundance in Compton Bassett, mostly up on the downs, although as with much of the flora to be found there, the plants have adapted themselves to the thin chalky soils and are small and delicate and with very short stems. Please, please don�t pick them, they need all the protection that they can get. In Victorian times children used to make cowslip balls or �tossies� tying great bunches of the flowers tightly together just below the heads. And cowslip wine was a firm favorite.
Shakespeare, of course, had a lot to say about cowslips, most famously perhaps:
�Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip�s bell I lie���
Most of us love badgers. They are attractive animals, heroes of childhood literature and seemingly secure in our affections, but their numbers have been increasing by leaps and bounds since they became a protected species. They are quite unable to hide their presence and in many country districts have been persecuted in various ways and for various reasons, the worst being for the �sport� of badger baiting, where they were dug out and set upon by dogs, in an enclosure, while the assembled company placed bets on the outcome. This went on in a very secretive way up until the last war and often beyond that. It certainly happened in the region of Compton Bassett.
I have seen a pair of brass badger tongs hanging on a cottage wall not too far away, a relic of those days. We have always had a huge population of badgers with setts dotted about all over the farm. There are some in Roach Wood which are many centuries old. I have always been fond of these iconic creatures and would be sad to see them fall victim to disease or destruction but their numbers are increasing dramatically and In view of the rapid spread of TB in both badgers and cows there is an urgent need for something to be done.
The problem is an emotive one and has become very political. I don�t wish to go into all of that here but perhaps since it has affected the farms of Compton Bassett for many years it might be worth reminding ourselves of the options. We had our first breakdown in 1975 and lost about 10% of our herd. In those days the Ministry undertook exhaustive tests and investigations even including the health of the herdsman but even then the finger was pointing at the unfortunate badgers, living close together underground in ideal conditions for the spread of the disease.
A number of animals were trapped and many of them proved positive to the infection. There is no easy answer to the problem and the same options are still being debated. Culling, unless over a very wide area and rigorously maintained, would only be a temporary measure. Badgers would soon be back again. Vaccination of badgers would be a good thing but very difficult and costly to implement and maintain. Vaccination of cows would, again, be a good idea but once done the TB test would not work and British livestock would never again be able to be exported; public health would be in danger. Badgers, cows and farmers are all losers here. Some of our best cows were taken for slaughter last week; it is extremely depressing trying to farm under these circumstances and the solution to the problem seems no nearer now than it was in 1975.
The wet weather which we have experienced over the last few months has affected all aspects of life in the countryside and not least the poor unfortunate creatures that live under the ground. Few can survive the flooded fields and hedgerows that we see so often on our television screens. It will, surely, take many years for the populations to recover from the devastation. However in areas nearer to home where, by great good fortune, we do not flood, the ground is still completely saturated, with the water table only just below the surface. This has forced many creatures up into the surface layer to survive. Have you noticed how many worm casts there are in some places? In order to avoid drowning the worms have been forced upwards and, no doubt, many birds are taking advantage of easier meals. And another creature that very much depends on the supply of worms is our friend the mole. He has been forced to live just under the surface as well and has, no doubt, been delighted to find a lot of worms there too. Our garden is criss-crossed by his new shallow tunnels. The one thing he hates is firm ground . If you give the lawn a really good rolling when the soil is damp he will go and look for easier digging elsewhere. I saw a good illustration of this a few years ago when I noticed that in a field being grazed by the dairy cows there was a line of molehills following all the way along under an electric fence which divided it. It was the only part of the field that had not been firmed down by the cows� feet.
As with many other wild creatures man has always had something of a love/hate relationship with mole. Children�s fiction depicts him as a gentle, loveable creature with poor eyesight who would be a perfect guest at a tea party. However, in truth, he is a rather vicious loner who will engage any other mole that he meets in battle to the death. Unless, of course, it happens to be a female in the breeding season. Otherwise he spends his life patrolling his tunnels in search of worms and foraging on the surface in the fields and woods at night. He is not entirely without value to man. His tunnels in normal times help drainage and molehills, while being a perfect menace in many ways, do provide the most wonderful friable soil for potting compost in the summer. In the past, soft velvety moleskins were much sought after for the clothing trade and many a gentleman sported a fine moleskin waste coat. Huge quantities were required and buyers would travel round the villages purchasing all the skins they could find, a useful boost to the meager wages of the farm labourers. Indeed, I can remember, in Compton Bassett in the 1960s, old Reg Mathews telling me how, thirty years before, he had saved up enough money to get married by selling moleskins. The trapping of moles is an art not easily learned and requires considerable skill. Fear of the editor prevents me from taking the space to enumerate here the various types of trap and methods of trapping, for they are many. It is not the trap but the care with which it is set which leads to success. No hint of human scent must be detectable and the trap must be squarely placed in the run with no gaps around it to let in the light. Mole is no fool and the trap will often be bunged up with soil or neatly bye-passed. But, since he is a loner, there is usually only one to catch even in an area full of new molehills; so once you have him your problems are over, at least for a few weeks until another one finds the network of tunnels. Reg Waite is our mole trapper now and his battle with the elusive foe sometimes becomes very personal. His cry of joy and triumph when he finds a sprung trap can be heard over the whole farm.
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