Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Friday, April 23, 2010

St George's Day

This royal throne of kings, this sceptr'd isle
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars
This other Eden, demi-paradise
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...

These marvellous, stirring words are taken from the play 'Richard II' by England's greatest playwright William Shakespeare.

Today is also the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in 1564. So those of us who are English have two good reasons to celebrate - Happy St George's Day!

NB The lovely photo of the White Cliffs of Dover is taken from the internet and is not, regrettably, one of my own.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Damson Day

Saturday April 17th was Damson Day at Low Farm in the Lyth Valley near Kendal. The main point of Damson Day is to see the damson orchards in bloom but this year we were doomed to disappointment as the blossom is running two weeks later than normal and there was no sign of it at all. I looked on the internet for images of damson orchards and I hope the member of Keswick Rambling Club who took the above photograph last year will forgive me for using it:) Clicking here will take you to their site where there are some lovely photographs of the Lyth Valley. As ever, if you click on the photos in this post you can enlarge them and see them more clearly.

Damsons were originally grown in the area around Damascus in Syria and were brought to England by the Crusaders so they have been growing here for a very long time. There have been damson orchards in the Lyth Valley since the 1800s and the fruit was not only used in cooking but the skins were used to produce a purple dye.
They have a very tart flavour so aren't really suitable to eat uncooked but are perfect for the beginner at jam making as they are stuffed full of natural pectin and the jam sets easily. Damsons can be used in all kinds of pies and puddings, to make damson cheese, chutneys and wine and damson gin is just as good as sloe gin!
Unfortunately their popularity waned after WW2 and the orchards became neglected until a group of people decided to try and do something about it and formed The Westmorland Damson Association 1996. (The Lake District was in in the old county of Westmorland before the stupid politicians changed the old county boundaries and many of the old county names in 1974 - I have never forgiven them for that!)

The first Damson Day was held in 1998 and it is now a very popular annual event - more popular than we expected in fact! We arrived early and got a good parking spot at the top of the field quite near the entrance but by early afternoon there were hundreds of cars on this field. Mr B Baggins was with us of course and was looking as miserable as he always does on long car rides but when we opened the door and he jumped out I think he was under the impression that he'd suddenly arrived in paradise. The field smelled of sheep - in the world of Bilbo Baggins this qualifies as a 5 star environment! He cheered up immediately and things kept getting better.

As soon as we got through the entrance gate he met these alpacas and thought they were wonderful, his tail wagged furiously and he wanted to get an even closer look. These young males were all for sale and he suggested that we might like to get him a couple:)

He was even more impressed with the ferrets and kept wanting to go back to the enclosure where they were being displayed. It was made clear that he feels I should keep several of them. I wouldn't take much persuading actually, I've always liked ferrets.

There was plenty for two legged visitors to enjoy as well, the craftspeople here were real craftspeople like this young man using a pole lathe.

The high spot of the day for me was meeting Owen Jones who makes oak swill baskets, he appeared in an episode of The Victorian Farm series on BBC and I've wanted one of his baskets ever since. Until very recently he was the last remaining oak swill basket maker but he has now started teaching his craft to other people so hopefully it will be no longer be in danger of becoming another of our lost skills. I spent quite a while talking to him and he was very pleasant and informative. DH had disappeared temporarily and I wanted to look at the baskets more closely so Owen suggested that I loop B Baggins' lead round the leg of his bench so that my hands would be free. He settled down as though he'd known Owen all his life! And I never even thought to take a photo!!

This is the basket that finally came home with me. These are traditional Lake District baskets made by weaving thin strips of coppiced oak around a hazel rim. They had a wide range of uses from industrial to domestic but I like the association with farming where they were used for broadcast sowing, harvesting root crops and for feeding animals. Mine will be used as a weeding basket.

As you can imagine the damson featured heavily on various stalls and you could buy everything damson that you can think of from jam to gin to ice cream and you could buy your own little damson tree to take home if you wanted. I bought this recipe book which 60 pages of things you can make with damsons! In late September I shall go back and buy a good quantity of fruit and try some of the recipes out.

Dry stone walls are a feature of the Lakeland countryside as they are in Derbyshire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. It's another of the old rural skills that was in danger of being lost but is now enjoying a resurgence.

The domestic crafts were well represented, on this small stand you could watch this lady making a rag rug and there were others demonstrating spinning, knitting and traditional English patchwork made using paper templates. This reminded me that I have a half made doll's patchwork quilt begun when my daughter was a little girl - perhaps it's about time I finished it while my granddaughters are still young enough to appreciate it!

Another hit with B Baggins - I'm not sure of the breed but I do know that Jacob sheep often have two sets of horns so that may be what this handsome chap is.

There was plenty of entertainment to be had as well, this is an excellent folk group called Stooshie.

Morris Dancing is traditional English folk dancing that goes back to at least the 1400s. By the end of the 19th century it had all but died out except for a few 'sides' which survived here and there. At Christmas 1899 a music teacher called Cecil Sharp happened to see a Morris group performing in the Oxfordshire village of Headington, he was interested enough to write down the tunes and he began to travel the country collecting and recording the various dances and the tunes that went with them. He founded the English Folk Dance Society in 1911 and Morris Dancing gradually grew in popularity again. There was a long period after WW2 when most people regarded it as a bit of a joke but in recent years it has become popular once more and Morris Dancers can now be seen performing in towns and villages all over England during the Spring and Summer.

The Lakeland Fiddlers provided yet more music, all good traditional stuff and just right for the rural surroundings.

A little memento of a great day out, this little sheep was handmade using a black pipecleaner as a base to stitch the shape on. The lady who makes them has both skill and patience! Bilbo Baggins had a wonderful day and has asked if we can go again next year!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Lesser Celandine

Carpet of dazzling gleam and greenery.
A gift of splendour, dressed in a very
Yellowy gown, round as the midday sun,
Heart-shaped leaves, darkest of green becoming
Ablaze with Celandine's lustrous glazes.
Glossy appendage to early spring days,
A daffodil challenge for golden cheer,
Graceful competitor for early year.
'Lesser' is great, and is most amazing.
For such tiny gems it's good to give praise.

By Fay Slimm

I'd almost given up on seeing the sheets of gold that usually appear in early Spring but on a walk yesterday afternoon I suddenly came upon this lovely sight - you will need to click on the photograph to see the little celandine flowers clearly. So bright and cheerful but they only open when the sun shines and shortly after I took this photograph the sun disappeared and a chill wind sprang up.

I spotted the lovely bright green leaves of wood sorrel too with the first of the little white flowers just appearing.
This post is just to say that I'll be away for a few days, we're going over to our Lancashire house where I'm hoping it will be rather warmer and brighter than it is here at the moment! I'm taking my knitting just in case though....

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Woolly Rabbit and a Spring Outing

For the past few weeks my mind has been a total blank as far as ideas for writing blog posts, e-mails and letters were concerned. I've been busy doing things but the constant grey skies appear to have caused my mind to switch off completely. The last few days of lovely blue skies and sunshine have done the trick though and my e-mail in-box is now empty, all the letters are winging their way to various parts of the UK and overseas and here I am finally writing a post.

While I've been absent I've made a dozen jars of Seville orange marmalade. It's the perfect job for a miserable, grey day as working with all the lovely bright orange fruits is a very cheering task.

I've been knitting as well, a cardigan for Gabriel and a rabbit (top photo) for George. When my children were young I used to make a lot of these rabbits and also..

..this owl for the school fairs that were held at Christmas and in the summer. I made an owl for Gabriel last summer and have been intending to do the rabbit for George ever since. It was posted earlier this week and was, I gather,very well received:)

On Saturday afternoon I joined members of our local history group on a visit to Fanshawegate Hall. Several of us met up on Totley Hall Lane and walked up through the fields. There were no rabbits, woolly or otherwise, but there were lots of lambs enjoying a lovely Spring day.

I've visited Fanshawegate Hall many times before as it is open every year under the National Gardens Scheme, it was interesting to see it so early in the year when it wouldn't normally be open to the public. The top photograph was taken on Saturday, the one below is from a previous visit in the height of summer. It's a very old house and was owned by the same family, the Fanshawes,for nearly 700 years until it was sold in 1944.In its entire history only four families have owned it including Mr and Mrs Ramsden,the current owners. Most of Fanshawegate Hall is 16th century but parts date back to 1260 including the dining room and parts of the cellars. In the 16th century it was a substantial manor house but by the early 17th century a large part of the original hall had been pulled down and it became a farmhouse, still owned by the Fanshawe family but rented out to tenant farmers. Much of the stone and timber from the demolished part was used to build Woodthorpe Hall which still stands further down the lane.

The three storey medieval dovecote still has the original inch thick Elizabethan glass in its windows. It's a lovely building.

It is still used for its original purpose and is home to these beautiful white fan-tailed doves.

We were really here to see the house and learn about its history but there was also time to look around the lovely garden and spot charming inhabitants like this cockerel. Isn't he great?

There are many reminders of Fanshawegate's farming past around the garden, here you can see six beautiful old staddle stones topped by enormous stone beams and then wooden planks laid across the beams. This would have been the support for a great hayrick which would be built on here to protect it from vermin and to keep it dry.

I would give my eyeteeth, as the old saying goes, to have just one single staddle stone in my garden. At Fanshawegate they are all over the place, all the real thing, leftovers from its days as a working farm.

Other relics of farming days include this magnificent stone horse trough which has been turned into a water feature with a Green Man watching over it.

Behind the house is the stack yard complete with a marvellous medieval tithe barn, the photograph doesn't do it justice as on this side it was largely hidden behind the parked cars of members of our group and on the other side the sun was shining straight into the camera lens.

At the bottom end of the stack yard is the old farm pond complete with ducks.

A sight that would have been as familar 700 years ago as it is now, a comfortable looking hen pottering about in the sunshine.

The most thrilling part of this visit for me(apart from the scrumptious homemade cakes that Mrs Ramsden provided for us in the 13th century dining room!) was that I was able to fulfil a long held ambition. Every time I have visited the garden I have thought to myself 'I'd love to see what it's like inside the house'. The Hall itself isn't open to the public but on this occasion we were fortunate enough to be invited in and allowed to wander at will both upstairs and down. There are no photographs as it's a private house and I wouldn't want to abuse the privilege we were given but it's great to know that next time I go to a 'Garden Open' day I shall know exactly what lies behind those ancient stone walls!