It’s equinox season: that blessed time of year when day equals night, and when, for us, the days are getting longer.
It’s transition time in so many ways. Those wonderful winter trees, their tracery of twigs and branches transcribed against the sky are skeletal still: but only just.
This morning, on my way out, I noticed tightly furled leaf buds, glossy and taut on shrubs in the garden. Two hours later, coming back, the tender leaves had burst out, tiny and delicate, waiting to be toughened up and to grow in the mild spring air. It was very windy too – hence no photos.
On Christmas day I posted a scene from our days living in the Ariège. I felt very nostalgic for the Pyrenees, for snowy peaks silhouetted against clear blue skies, for cold clear air.
Today gave me the chance to remember that our countryside, though so very different, has its own charms and pleasures. We walked from nearby Masham and past the gravel pits of Marfield, now home to water birds of every kind: though only Canada geese and a few proud swans got a look in this morning.
We passed stands of ancient oaks, saw stark lines of skeletal trees marching along the horizon, watched the sky turn from Pyreneen blue to moody grey and purple then back to cheerful blue again. Sheep in late pregnancy cropped the short grass. We stopped to chat with fellow walkers walking off a calorie-laden Christmas. The River Ure was never far away. A pretty good morning’s work, actually.
Back in England, it’s time to dust down our walking boots again. As we stepped out today, on a beautifully fresh and clear early Autumn morning, we contrasted our walk from nearby Masham with hikes we’d gone on in Korea.
It was the weather we noticed first. Probably it’s colder there now too, but then, we wore t shirts and battled against the humidity. We wore fleeces today. We tramped through fungus-laden woodland in both countries. Here though, as we glanced at the tussocky meadowland near the River Ure, we saw sheep, sometimes cattle . There, valley floors were terraced with paddy fields, citric green with young rice.
Here, there were distant views of solid stone barns and farmhouses – even a country house, Clifton Castle. There, we were more likely to come upon a hidden Buddhist temple, its solid, yet graceful wooden form painted cinnabar, blue-green, white, yellow and black.
In Korea, woodland in the countryside is dominant once you get away from ‘civilisation’. Here, we drifted between woods, meadows, ploughed fields and ground by the open river .
We enjoyed the lot. But today, we appreciated saying ‘hello’ again to our familiar local landscape.
During the 19th century, travelling botanists brought seeds of all kinds back from their exotic travels and often gave them to curious gardeners, who would try out these novelties as fashion-statements. In 1839, Himalayan Balsam was introduced and became Quite The Thing. It was so invasive (yes, we know) that it was great for making a huge and spectacular pink display at the back of the garden.
Then there was a certain Miss Welch, who in 1948 was so enamoured of the plant that she took seeds from her home in Sheffield and scattered them all over the place on the Isle of Wight. Or Mrs Norris of Camberley in Surrey who broadcast seeds far and wide, not only in Surrey, but in Ireland, France and Spain, and offered seeds to anyone who would accept them.
Now, apart from a few bee-keepers who recognise that their bees adore its nectar, nobody has a good word for this wretched plant. It marches along river banks and masses into surrounding woodland. It smothers any other species it meets on its relentless progress. It projects its seeds (800 per plant) by entertainingly popping open its seed pods and projecting them several metres away. It’s a bully.
And bullies have to be stopped in their tracks. All over England and beyond at this time of year you’ll find bands of Army Cadets, boy scouts, environmental groups, country lovers and villagers gathering in their local Himalayan Balsam Problem Spot to do battle with this tyrannical species.
We were part of one such band this morning. Our local nature reserve, High Batts, is practically our backyard. It’s a fantastically diverse small habitat for a whole range of birds, plants and other wildlife, and the River Ure courses through it. To the delight of Himalayan Balsam, which chokes the river banks before trying to spread itself all over the reserve. Today, a gang of us got on our dirtiest clothes, found protective gloves, and marched off to show the stuff we meant business. One of our number strimmed the worst affected areas, and the rest of us pulled out plant after plant after plant by its roots, until our hands were sore and our backs ached. I used to think breaking the flower heads off was enough. But no. These plants are many-headed hydras. Wound them and they’ll simply sprout forth ever stronger.
Colin gives a few tips on Himalayan Balsam Management.
Strimming the stuff.
Hard at work uprooting balsam.
Army cadets and other volunteers had worked hard before us. Others will need to continue another day. But we did a pretty good job. And we were rewarded with elevenses of pork pie and three kinds of home-made cake, and the sight of those exclusively pink-flowered zones restored to satisfying diversity . Definitely worthwhile then.
Step out into the garden, and the countryside beyond at the moment, and you’ll find snowdrops doing what they do best in January – piercing the barren earth, colonising grassy patches, nestling under trees and marching across gladed hillsides. Untroubled by unseasonal weather, their inner clocks direct them to grow, multiply, and cheer us all up in an otherwise gloomy, un-festive sort of month. That’s Nature for you: ordered, seasonal and predictable.
But Nature has another face. Come with me beyond the garden, past the fields slickly shimmering with surface water, to the banks of the River Ure. Just two minutes walk from here, it makes a wide sweeping curve away from its route from West Tanfield, and (normally) meanders gently into Ripon. That was before this winter, this rain, this unending water.
Once the rains came, and once it reached town, the River Ure rather wanted to swamp people’s gardens and make a bid to enter their houses. Recently-built flood defences put paid to that idea. The River Ure took its revenge on us, or more specifically, on the farmer whose fields adjoin us. Up in the hills, waters from streams and rivulets in the Dales cascaded into the Ure, which gushed and surged along its course, rising higher and higher, tearing at the banks, ingesting great clods of earth and forcing them downstream. The water levels are falling now. The damage remains.
Look. Here’s a chain link fence which marks a pathway running along the edge of the farmer’s field. It should be on terra firma, with a nice grassy margin between the fence itself and the river bank. Now it has nothing to hold onto. The bank has been snatched away, and the fence is hanging crazily and directly over the swelling waters below. The earth has slipped, and continues to slip. The farmer is losing his field, and the river is changing course. There’s not much anybody can do about it.
We’ll watch the water awhile, and frighten ourselves witless at the prospect of falling in and being swept mercilessly away. Then we’ll wander back though the woods, and enjoy the snowdrops and aconites once more. Nature takes its course.
Not much more than a mile up the road is West Tanfield. It’s an ancient village that already existed when the Domesday Book was written in 1086. Its inhabitants might say though that the most recent chapter in its history was written only last year, when the Tour de France passed through the village. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge dropped by in a helicopter to watch the riders hurtle down the hill from Masham, over the old bridge and on to Ripon. They took the time to walk through the village talking to as many people as they could. It’s a memory many locals treasure (I’m thinking of you, Penny!)
As you walk through the village yourself, you’ll notice a tower next to the 13th century parish church. That’s the Marmion Tower. It’s a 15th century gatehouse, and is all that is left of a vanished manor house that belonged to the Marmion family. As the direct line of this family ended, the succession passed first to the FitzHugh family, then the Parr family. You’ll have heard of them. William Parr was brother to Catherine, the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII.
It took me till yesterday to go and explore the remains of this tower. It might look like a castle, but there’s no evidence that it was ever designed to offer real protection. There’s no portcullis to the gatehouse, no narrow windows through which to loose offensive arrows. It’s a three-storey tower, which provided accommodation of reasonable comfort for the time, though the extremely narrow twisting staircase is a bit of a challenge. Although large, the rooms are domestic in scale. They offer splendid views over the River Ure and the fields and woods beyond, and on one side, over the village itself. One of the windows is a beauty in its own right. It’s an oriel window – a kind of bay window – projecting from the first floor of the tower.
The church seen from the tower
West Tanfield seen from the tower,
It’s ‘worth a detour’. And afterwards, you can go and sit in the gardens of the pub next door, the Bull, and relax over a drink in the picturesque surroundings of the river with the church and tower beyond.