Old Woodland at Rannoch

It’s interesting seeking out bits of Scotland’s Old Caledonian Forest. Not that there’s a lot left, but what there is is worth seeing. Much has vanished entirely, more has been well-hidden by the conifers of the Forestry Commission and independent foresters.

Woods near Carie (c) John Bainbridge 2018

But still interesting to find those traces…

After our walk from Kinlochleven up to Craig Varr (see last blog), we drove round the south side of Loch Rannoch to the Forestry Commission’s car park at Carie. A good and pretty start to forest walks, with a rather splendid campsite.

A magnificent wooden footbridge led to a walk up through the wood. Certainly some older hardwood trees at the start, but as you get higher you find yourself amid the same old conifers – though relieved by lovely views up towards Schiehallion.DSCF0531

We were amused by the “grave” of the unknown forester – glad to see the guys have a sense of humour!

Much of the original Caledonian Forest around here was sacrificed after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, under the powers of the Forfeited Estates Commission, who built a sawmill here to take down the trees.

There are some very lovely trees left, descendants of the originals, but you have to seek them out.

It was hereabout that fugitive Jacobites hid after Culloden – and wild country it must have been. Reputedly, the last Scottish wolf perished hereabouts too. There are capercaillie, deer and red squirrels resident, though we didn’t see any, but then it was the middle of the day.

“Grave” of the Unknown Forester (c) John Bainbridge 2018

We drove down to Aberfeldy afterward, passing through the little settlement of Dull (twinned with Boring, Oregon) as we went.DSCF0535

This brief stroll inspired a lot of thoughts about Forestry along the way.

But I’ll save those for the next blog.



From early summer the countryside is punctuated by one of our most flamboyant and easily recognised wild flowers, the foxglove. Their tall purple spires catch the eye against a background of greenery. The velvety tumbling bells take many of us back to childhood. Thought to be indigenous, this lovely wayfarer grows widely throughout Europe and the forests of North America.Foxgloves 3 Howard.JPG

Though growing in profusion amid hedgerows, heaths and hillsides, foxgloves are often found far within woods. Scattered along footpaths and rides, they seem to entice the rambler deeper beneath the dappled shade and indicate the way like fingerposts.

Even before the stems shoot skywards, the foxglove’s cabbage-like leaves are an attractive sight. They are the source of digitalis, the drug well known to combat heart disease. Though it helps many people today, few know they owe their thanks to the tenacity of William Withering, an 18th century Shropshire doctor.Foxgloves 4 Howard.JPG

Born in 1741, Withering was the son of a surgeon and started out as his father’s apprentice before studying at Edinburgh University. He was known to be interested in the properties of plants and published two volumes on A Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain.

Dr Withering had a patient expected to die of a failing heart. There was no treatment. However, the patient sought a herbal remedy from a Gypsy woman and recovered. Withering found the old woman in Shropshire and learned the concoction of herbs she used, which included foxglove.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

At the time foxglove was a traditional cure for dropsy, which was often a symptom of heart failure. Knowing the extract was potentially poisonous, Dr Withering spent the next decade experimenting to find a safe dosage, sometimes trying infusions on himself and fellow physicians.

In 1785 he published An Account of the Foxglove and Some of its Medicinal Uses. This became a classic reference work and an extract of the powdered leaf was introduced into medicinal use. When Withering lay dying in 1799 a friend supposedly commented: The flower of English physicians is indeed Withering.

Tradition has it that Withering wrote the following lines:

The Foxglove’s leaves, with caution given,
Another proof of favouring Heav’n
Will rapidly display;
The rapid pulse it can abate,
The hectic flush can moderate,
And blest be Him whose will is fate,
May give a lengthened day.

A century before Withering, foxgloves were recommended by herbalists for a variety of ailments, especially skin complaints. The leaves were bruised to make ointment or applied directly to wounds as a poultice. Nicholas Culpepper wrote in 1653:

It is of a gentle cleansing nature… I am confident that an ointment of it is one of the best remedies for a scabby head that there is.Foxgloves 2 Howard

The foxglove family name Scrophulariaceae refers to its use in treating scrofula or the King’s Evil.

Foxglove was said to be effective for both green and old wounds. In Ireland it was traditionally used to heal skin complaints such as ulcers, bruises and boils. John Gerard even advocated it as a cure for “those who have fallen from high places as well as for cleansing the body of clammy and naughty humours.”

The name foxglove is thought to be a corruption of ‘folksglove’ meaning glove of the fairy folk, possibly as fairies were believed to dwell hidden in woods and hollows. Its Latin name Digitalis purpureais ‘purple finger’. Only in Scandinavia is there a link with the fox. Their legend tells that mischievous fairies gave him the flowers to muffle his paws as he prowled village henhouses.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

Irish legend has it that the distinctive markings on the corolla are where the elves touched them to leave warnings that the plant was poisonous. These tales are reflected in its other colourful names such as glovewort, fairy’s thimble, dead man’s bell and bloody finger.

According to country lore, foxgloves stimulate the growth of neighbouring plants. Apples, tomatoes and potatoes are said to keep longer if they are grown nearby. Worth a try maybe, for this beautiful plant has already proved to be of remarkable use.

Text and pictures (c) A and J Bainbridge

My Walking Book

My walking book Wayfarer’s Dole is now out in paperback and as a Kindle eBook…

In a series of solitary journeys on foot the writer and novelist John Bainbridge explores the ethos of rambling and hiking in rural England and Scotland.Wayfarers_Dole_Cover_for_Ko

On his journeys he seeks out the remaining wild places and ancient trackways, meeting vagabonds and outdoors folk along the way and follows in the footsteps of writers, poets and early travellers.

This is a book for everyone who loves the British countryside and walking its long-established footpaths and bridleways.

And for the armchair traveller…

Wayfarer’s Dole takes its title from an ancient tradition – In medieval times pilgrims travelling the road through Winchester to Canterbury would halt at the St Cross Hospital, a place of rest and refuge for those on holy journeys, and demand the Wayfarer’s Dole – small portions of ale and bread to ease the hunger and thirst incurred on their travels.

Walk Magazine Reviews Wayfarer’s Dole:

“This engrossing book by writer, novelist and one-time chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, John Bainbridge, explores the ethos of rambling via a series of short essays. The book takes its name from the medieval tradition of offering help to pilgrims on foot, but John’s own adventures take him deep into the moors, downs and mountains as he muses on everything from maps, roadside fires, stravaiging and the protection of our ancient footpaths. It’s a very personal but informed and intelligent journey that will resonate with inquisitive ramblers everywhere.” WALK MAGAZINE.

Just click on the link here for more details or to order: https: //www.amazon.co.uk/Wayfarers-Dole-Rambles-British-Countryside-ebook/dp/B019B4Y4HU/ref=la_B001K8BTHO_1_15?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1523802741&sr=1-15

The Charm of Birds: Grey of Fallodon

I find that there is something rather sad about the fact that May is slipping away for another year. Northumberland 231

It is, I think, my favourite month. I relish the fresh green of the countryside, the sweep of bluebells under the trees and across open hillsides. The beech tree does two great bouts of magnificence in the course of a year, with its untainted green leaves in May and its beautiful brown and gold in autumn.

And May is the month of full bird song, when the dawn chorus is at its height. When we stayed at Rock, in Northumberland, the dawn chorus was quite stunning – as was the late evening singing of the birds.

I know that I am not alone in this feeling about the month of May.

During a visit to Barter Books in Alnwick, I found a book I had been searching for for quite a while. I had a copy many years ago and it was lost. I was pleased to get it again.

The book is The Charm of Birds by Viscount Grey of Fallodon. The Sir Edward Grey who was the British Foreign Secretary at the 1914 outbreak of the Great War. If you have never read it I urge you to seek it out. Grey was a considerable bird watcher, in the sense that he appreciated them when out for a country walk.

His book is a hymn to all that is best in our country’s nature. You don’t have to be a birder to appreciate it. You just have to love our countryside. He devotes a whole chapter to May.Northumberland 007

But in May we are overwhelmed. New green is spreading everywhere… neither eye nor ear, nor outward nor inward ear of man is equal to it. Each of us can select for especial and particular enjoyment a few things: the tender green of young beech leaves; the scent of mass in whin; a glade of bluebells; a wide field of buttercups under the sun: but when we have done our best, we are yet oppressed by a feeling that we can but take in a small portion of the abundant beauty. There comes upon us also, not only a sense of abundance, but of haste; it is all passing; the leaves darken from day to day; luxuriance remains, but tenderness and delicacy are fleeting. It is only for a short time that new beech leaves are so soft that the wind stirs them without sound. In early spring we long to hurry the season; in May we would say to it, “stay! thou art fair.”Bluebells at Derwent Water 013

And it cannot be stayed…in later years, as the season approaches, experience and age qualify the confidence with apprehension lest clouds of war or civil strife, or some emergency of work, or declining health, or some other form of human ill may destroy the pleasure or even the sight of it: and when once again it has been enjoyed we have a sense of gratitude greater than in the days of confident and thoughtless youth.  Perhaps the memory of those days, having become part of our being, helps us in later life to enjoy each passing season. In every May, with the same beauty of sight and sound, “we do beget the golden time again.”

Despite incredible efforts of diplomacy, Sir Edward Grey could not stave off the Great War. His world changed for ever, though he continued to enjoy his experiences with birds and nature.

On the eve of that war he made his famous remark: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time“.

Sadly, I think they have never been re-lit since.

Bluebells at Flakebridge

Nothing symbolises spring in a British woodland as much as a profusion of bluebells – a rather beautiful flower individually, but positively mind-blowing when you see great masses against the green of the forest floor.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

We went out early this morning to walk from the Cumbrian village of Dufton down into Dufton Gill and across the meadows to Flakebridge Wood.

We’d heard that Flakebridge has some of the best bluebells in the county and this stretch of woodland certainly does.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

We did this walk a few weeks ago on a mizzly day – but today, in the sunlight, the bluebells were not only out but magnificent.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

So, if you can do, make the journey to Flakebridge Wood this week and see woodland bluebells at their best – take the middle footpath which runs roughly north to south to see the best displays.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

We walked there from Dufton via Greenhow Farm and returned by way of Esplandhill Farm – all on public rights of way.

And please do support campaigns to get more free access in Britain’s woods and forests.

All pictures (c) A and J Bainbridge

Till May Be Out…

‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

The old saying comes to mind as we walk through the English countryside in the struggling days of our long-delayed spring. Many think this adage refers to not shedding clothes until the warmth of the month of May finishes, though in fact, it almost certainly refers to the blossoming of the May tree – the Hawthorn or Whitethorn.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

The Hawthorn takes its name from its fruits, the haws. It features regularly in the hedgerows of England, mostly because of its ability to keep livestock in fields – its young leaves known so familiarly as ‘bread and cheese’.

This tree’s name roots back into the earliest days of the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) language, haegthorn is the word our ancestors used, though pronounced not unlike the more modern hawthorn. The word means, literally, hedge-thorn, indicating its ability as a boundary plant.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

You often find the May, the Whitethorn, lining the routes of our ancient paths and tracks, the old ways often running alongside some ancient boundaries.

At the village of Salcombe Regis in east Devon, a stone marks the site of the old thorn tree which was just such a boundary, by the appropriately named Thorn Farm. The original tree marked the cultivation boundary between the manor and common ground. I well remember the old tree that stood there, close by a stone describing its original function. The tree, sadly, was lost some years ago, though a replacement was planted.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

If you see large hawthorns growing close to a path, you are probably seeing evidence of a very ancient boundary, and the chances are that the path you are following is of great antiquity.

The boundaries were, according to folklore and tradition, not necessarily just physical.  May trees lining your surrounding were said to protect you from demons and malicious fairies. Cutting down a hawthorn was said to bring bad luck, though bringing a few sprigs into your house allegedly brought good fortune. Wearing a sprig in your hat supposedly protects you from being struck by lightning.

Because of its links with Christ’s crown of thorns, the power of the thorn to do good gave the hawthorn a popularity with Christians too. The famous thorn tree at Glastonbury, which flowers every Christmas, was said to have grown instantly when Joseph of Arimathea, stuck his walking staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill as he journeyed there with the boy Christ.Hawthorn, East Devon coast

And should you get pricked by a seemingly immovable thorn – well, there’s an ancient Dartmoor charm to solve your problem and prevent infection which goes:

“When Christ was upon middle earth, he was prick, his blood sprung unto heaven, it shall neither runkle, canker or rust – neither shall they blood (then name the person’s name) they do it for and say in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy ghost.”

Well, worth a try, I suppose…

So, when you’re out walking on these May days, take a look at the Hawthorn tree – there’s quite a lot of history and myth there. And the May blossom is a delight at this time of year.

All of the pictures above were taken of May trees in East Devon. 

Pictures copyright A and J Bainbridge



Dufton Gill and Flakebridge Wood – A Good Old-Fashioned Country Ramble

Most ramblers use our old paths by linking them together in a circular or linear route, taking the walker through a wide variety of scenery. And that’s what we did the other morning, from the village of Dufton high on the slopes of the North Pennines.

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The Path to Dufton Gill (c) John Bainbridge 2018

A grand walk through some very pretty scenery and on good paths too. I’m often critical of the state of the path network, which has paid a high price with the government’s Austerity obsession.

But not here: The paths around Dufton are in immaculate condition – all well-signposted and waymarked, bridges and stiles in good order, paths kept clear by the farmers and well restored after ploughing. I commend the farmers whose lands we crossed on this walk – a shining example to others.

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Dufton (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Dufton – the village of the doves – stands on the edge of the Pennines and is a staging point on the Pennine Way. But our walk lay away from the high ground, through the fields and woods that tumble down towards the Eden Valley.

Hidden below the village is Dufton Gill, a dramatic gorge of St. Bees sandstone. And very lovely it looked too with the fresh green leaves at last appearing on the trees and a host of golden daffodils. The bluebells are not out yet, but we hope to return in a few weeks to see what will be a splendid display. The sandstone cliffs, geology that’s older than the neighbouring Pennines, give a wild setting to such floral beauty.

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In Dufton Gill (c) John Bainbridge 2018

A good path runs through the Gill to Greenhow Farm, where a footpath leads to Keisley Beck. A really good farmer here – who’d provided a very wide headland path along the edge of a ploughed field. Superb.

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A properly restored headland footpath (c) John Bainbridge 2018

To the sound of curlews and the sight of two overhead peewits, we followed the path to Flakebridge Wood, which looks as though it’s going to be particularly dramatic come bluebell time. Though much of the wood’s access is restricted, there are a couple of rights of way crossing it and another running along the edge. We shall try to get back there when the bluebells are out.

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Ancient Ford on the Brampton Beck (c) John Bainbridge 2018

We wandered along the path to Esplandhill Farm. We’d come this way a few weeks ago in a snowstorm, but now we walked it in just a few drops of rain. Then past the Mill below Brampton, crossing the pretty Brampton Beck at a footbridge. There’s a ford of some considerable antiquity nearby…

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Wood Lane (c) John Bainbridge 2018

A long green lane – Wood Lane – led back to Dufton Gill and the village. One of those wide, hedged lanes that history never converted into a surface road, a shorter route than the present road between Brampton and Dufton.

In these days of busy, fast traffic, it’s a joy to get away from the noise, smell and visual intrusion of the motor car. Although I often envy the road-walking trampers of past days who undertook long walks across Britain along what is now the busy road network. Some of their routes would be unpleasant these days.

Another reason we need to preserve the alternative network of public rights of way. And one of the best ways of keeping them open is to walk them regularly on country rambles.