Bluebells at Rannerdale

The bluebells at Rannerdale are some of the very best in the country, featuring quite regularly in even the national media. And quite rightly. These open hillside bluebells are stunning and now is a good time to take a look at them, though the area does tend to get crowded later in the day and particularly at weekends.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

We are early risers and were there well before any crowds on Friday. We set out for just a stroll from Buttermere, in driving rain, which stopped even before we reached Butterdale Hause, giving way to beautiful blue skies, playful summit clouds and clear views over Crummock Water and Buttermere itself.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

A simple little stroll, for we were on our way to Keswick. But I don’t measure walks in distance. And the bluebells of Rannerdale deserve their fame. And leaving the bluebells aside, this is a beautiful place to be. So we wandered up through the valley along the Squat Beck before circuiting Rannerdale Knotts back to Buttermere.  The scent of the bluebells and the may was quite intoxicating – and it looks like the foxgloves are going to be magnificent in a while.

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Legend has it that it’s the site of a battle – the Battle Of Rannerdale. The tale goes – there’s not much evidence for it – that fifty years after the Norman invasion of 1066 – the Normans tried to grab this bit of the far north. It took a long time for Cumberland and Westmorland to succumb – one reason that most of this land is not included in the Domesday Book.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

Anyway, the dastardly Normans were given a sound thrashing – the bluebells are said to grow in such profusion because of the spilt Norman blood.VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

A grand tale, and even if there’s a shred of truth in it, Rannerdale’s a peaceful place now. Do go and see them if you can…VLUU L110, M110  / Samsung L110, M110

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Pictures and text (C) A and J. Bainbridge

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Mostly about Bluebells

What is it about bluebells?DSCF1151

Around this time of the year they appear, and draw crowds of admirers. And I’m one. I look forward to seeing the bluebells and can’t wait until they make their first appearance of the year.

They are a stunning sight, whether as part of a woodland floor, or covering bare hillsides.

On Sunday we walked up to Flakebridge Wood, near to Appleby in Cumbria. A pleasant walk up Well House Lane, a quiet no through road, its own banks lined with the flowers. Flakebridge has some of the best bluebells in Cumbria and it is worth the trip if you are nearby. You can walk out the way we went, or start from Dufton, rambling through the bluebell-rich Dufton Gill on the way.

If you are in Devon, at the other end of the country, try looking at the lower banks of the River Mardle on south-east Dartmoor, or the southern slopes of Fire Beacon above Sidmouth.

Why are we so stunned by the sight of flowers? Why do we pause for a while to admire that great view across the countryside? What is it in our human make up that makes us appreciate such things?DSCF1150

I don’t have any answers. Only that life would be poorer if there were no bluebells. If they were about for much of the year, perhaps we’d take them for granted. It’s the brief glimpse that makes us admire them and miss them when they’ve gone.

So get out there into the countryside and enjoy them while you can – and fight to preserve the woodlands where they grow. The thought that future generations might not see such sights is thoroughly despairing – yet many of our ancient woodlands are under terrible threat from developers and exploiters.

Britain has lost much of its ancient woodlands – we should make sure that this destruction ends. So please support at least one group that is fighting for our countryside.

Over the next couple of weeks we are going out to seek more bluebells.

 

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.

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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.

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“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.

Foxgloves

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