Category: Stour Valley

Valley Farm Kitchen Garden, National Trust, Flatford by Brian Willis

Rhubarb growing in plot number 2, Valley Farm Kitchen Garden at Flatford, Suffolk.

About ten years ago, when the National Trust leased Valley Farm to The Field Study Council, it was discovered that a completely overgrown piece of ground behind the farm building had clearly once been a kitchen garden. A grant of £1,000 was awarded in 2010 towards the restoration of this garden, as part of National Trust’s ‘Eat Into Green Living’ initiative, a task undertaken by National Trust volunteers. During the restoration, original brick paths and box hedges were uncovered.

Ever since, volunteer gardeners have worked to maintain and develop the garden – or gardens, to be more precise. As far as possible, we try to maintain the gardens in as traditional way as possible, respecting the garden’s heritage. At the moment, we have four teams of gardeners, working on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

It is an idyllic place in which to work, set, as it is, in the heart of John Constable’s beloved countryside, in the beautiful and historic hamlet of Flatford. Tucked away, the garden remains unknown to many, even locals, some of whom, when they do discover us, remark that they’d been coming to Flatford for years, without realising we were there!

Valley Farm at Flatford, Suffolk. Valley Farm is a mid-15th century, medieval Great Hall House that was home to wealthy yeoman farmers up until the early 1900s.

Photo credit: Jemma Finch

We grow, organically, a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, much of which is used by the Tearoom in their recipes. Two of my all-time favourites are the rhubarb and ginger, and the raspberry and white chocolate scones! Produce which is not needed by the Tearoom is offered for sale to the public on our market barrow outside Bridge Cottage.

What do we grow?

Broad beans, runner beans, French beans, potatoes, red and white onions, Spring onions, garlic, leeks, courgettes, squashes, rhubarb, herbs, salad crops, including lettuce, beetroot, tomatoes and cucumbers. Have you ever tried ‘Crystal Lemon’ apple cucumbers? They’re delicious!

We also grow flowers, such as Sweet Peas, Dahlias, Cornflowers, Sweet Williams and an interesting variety of poppies. We collect seed from some of the flowers, including from our spectacular poppies, which we also offer for sale on the barrow. We also have a soft fruit garden, in which we grow raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, loganberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries.

Visitors exploring Valley Farm Kitchen Garden at Flatford, Suffolk.

Photo credit: Trevor Ray Hart

On Open Days, we organise activities for children, and, among new schemes in the pipeline, we are planning to set aside two of our raised beds for children to tend, grow crops, and learn about gardening and nature.

The gardeners are always glad to welcome visitors to our garden between 10 am and 12 noon on our working mornings. The entrance to the garden can be found just past Willy Lott’s House.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Brian Willis, volunteer gardener
National Trust, Flatford

Notes from a riverside garden – April 2021

Sunrise over the water meadows on a frosty, April morning

The garden is a hive of activity with nest building in progress or completed in numerous locations. A pair of starlings have found an opening under the eaves of our garage roof and are busily darting in and out. This space has been used by bees in the past.

Adjacent to the garage is a Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ where a pair of blue tits have taken up residence in a nest box affixed to the trunk of the tree. Close to the mill pool ivy has completely covered a pollarded, dead ash tree and this provides an excellent nesting site. We are suspicious a duck is nesting in there. It is a sizeable area of dense habitat, with a pigeon nesting, and probably other birds we have not noticed as yet.

I have been watching a pair of goldfinches building their nest in the top of a small Holm oak from our bedroom window. The pair fly off together each time searching for nesting material but only one returns with a blade of grass or a small feather (the materials I have observed so far) and disappears into the tree, while the male sits waiting in a prominent position close by. I have read that the females construct the nest so I assume she is the one conveying the nesting materials. Within a very short while she flies out and off they go together in search of the next item. They are back and forth within minutes. Such industry is admirable.

Evening at Henny bridge over the Stour

Evening at Henny bridge over the Stour

The pair of swans were mating in the mill pool during the Easter weekend. Such an elegant and rather beautiful bonding ritual takes place prior to mating with mirrored neck movements. I have observed this several times over the years, and I am always stopped in my tracks if I am fortunate enough to see this delightful display taking place. The aggressive and territorial nature of the cob swan has also been on display with two or three violent confrontations taking place in the mill pool with an interloping cob. The necks being used as a weapon as they entwine and beat each other with their wings in fights that can continue for some time. Eventually the loser manages to extricate himself from the relentless pecking and pounding of the resident male and makes a hasty retreat, usually across the island and to the river above the mill pool sluice gates. The female circles around the battling males giving the interloper the occasional peck too! We think it is the same cob trying to take over the mill pond territory but so far he has always been driven away minus a few feathers!

We were so thrilled to see a kettle of eight swallows swooping and circling over the river early on Easter Monday. Snow was in the air! Their visit was brief but a fabulous way to start the day. Other sightings in the garden include the blackcap, reed bunting and several chiffchaffs filling the air with their song. A pair of Egyptian geese also made their presence known for a few days as they surveyed the island as a possible nesting site. Being of an aggressive nature they chased off the mallards from a wide area around them. Calm has now returned as the geese seem to have moved on.

The paving on the terrace outside the kitchen window has been there for many years and gaps have appeared in places adjacent to the low brick wall and these are where the bank voles access their underground world. They dart out and make off with any seeds that fall from the bird feeders above. Recently we saw a stoat exiting a larger gap with a rodent in its mouth! It happened so fast it was impossible to identify the rodent, most probably a vole but maybe mice live under the terrace too.

In the same area, only two or three yards from our kitchen window, and where we walk past several times each day is a clump of long established thyme. It has become quite woody and about a foot high. I just take the flowerheads off with shears once they have finished flowering later in the year. The low brick wall extends around behind it. We have had ducks sheltering in the middle of this clump with their ducklings in the past. They are so well camouflaged and can sink down into the slightly open middle of the clump but still be hidden from view. This year we have discovered a duck nesting in this spot! She currently has six eggs. It is so hard to see her as the excellent camouflage her feathers provide merge completely into the stems and thin foliage of the thyme. In some ways it is the perfect nesting site. We put out grain and there is a water tray where she washes and drinks. She is also safer regarding the drakes who will chase any female that ventures from the safety of her nesting site. She is tucked away so not so visible to them. Yesterday she flew up onto the wall and within seconds was in flight being pursued by three or four drakes. When she does leave the nest the eggs are all carefully covered with a mossy layer so completely invisible to any predators from above. Nesting at ground level is a danger however, as we have badgers, foxes and a domestic cat as nocturnal visitors plus, of course, the resident stoat. We shall have to wait and see what happens. It is a hard time for the females, laying and sitting on eggs, avoiding the unwanted attentions of the opportunist drakes and later trying to raise their broods.

Thirteen tiny ducklings were on the terrace with their mother over the Easter weekend. They haven’t returned again but some ducklings have been seen in the lake on the island so hopefully the family have found a safe place there.

This morning there were four mallard ducks sitting on the ridge of the house roof. A good spot to keep an eye on all that is happening around them!

This morning there were four mallard ducks sitting on the ridge of the house roof. A good spot to keep an eye on all that is happening around them!

Growing Barley by Cliff Jordan

Plot at Old Hall with Barley crops just beginning to germinate

Many people who want to grow their own food start with herbs, and then vegetables and fruit. Some are ambitious and keep animals for meat and milk. But an enormous part of our diet is made up of cereals – grains such as wheat and oats – virtually all of which are produced by industrial scale monocrop agriculture, with huge fields and huge machines. I became curious – what would it take to grow just enough for a household’s
consumption?

In the UK, we each eat an average of nearly 50kg wheat in a year. Say you want to produce enough for a household of four: that would require maybe a tenth of an acre – a plot 50 yards by 10 yards in size. Way bigger than your usual garden, but miniscule compared to modern arable fields. I live in a community by the River Stour where we collectively farm 70 acres, within which I found a strip of land about half that size to experiment with.

Modern industrial agriculture is amazing; its constant leaps in productivity rely on new and better machines, new techniques and continual improvement of varieties. These are bred repeatedly to provide a crop that the machines can handle well. But unless you have half a million pounds worth of combine harvester, new varieties may not suit you. They tend to be fussier than old varieties, needing the right nutrients and weed control regime to produce optimum results. Partly fuelled by artisan bakers, and many people discovering intolerances to contemporary wheat, there has been a resurgence in interest in recent years in old varieties of wheat, and in landraces – a mix of different varieties grown together, rather than a field full of plants each with an identical genetic makeup.

You might be familiar with pearl barley – this is a barley grown for human consumption (most barley grown in this country is for feeding animals and for brewing beer) that has been through a machine to remove the hulls – a hard outer casing on each and every grain. Pioneers in this country have started in the last three years to grow ‘naked barley’ again. The yield is thought to be lower than modern barley varieties, but it does not require that stage of processing to make it good for human consumption. This is what I decided to experiment with.

I waited until the winter rains had finished, and the ground had dried out enough to work and then cultivated my plot (with a tractor and power harrow, because we have that equipment and it would be purist and perverse not to take advantage of it. That said, I spent as much time attaching the harrow to the tractor, and turning at the end of each row, as I did actually cultivating the plot.) I marked out some lines with sticks and string, and used a manual push- along seed dispenser to sow each row of barley seed. I did this during that magical week in late March when it seemed summer had arrived. It has been cold ever since and no rain has fallen. I look each day to see if the seed has germinated. If I were a subsistence farmer I might be praying by now, or sacrificing to the gods.

My hope is that the soil will warm up and that April showers will cause tiny roots and shoots to burst out of the buried grains, and I will have rows of barley popping up. I imagine having to hoe between the rows once or twice, to hold back the weeds that I know are lurking, but I hope that, once established, the barley will out-compete them. I can already picture a golden summer’s day with scythes, harvesting the barley and gathering it into stooks to dry out, and then bringing it into a barn to thresh and winnow. All being well, we will harvest a hundredweight or two of grain to last us the year. Even if reaping, threshing and winnowing with hand tools prove too difficult for us, we have chickens that will gladly glean the plot for us, so the efforts will not all be wasted.

Fingers crossed.

Cliff Jordan. April 2021

Lincoln Longwool by David Hodgson

Head shot of Lincoln Longwool Sheep

Not everyone eats meat but only vegans don’t wear wool. That leaves the vegan a choice of cotton, linen, and fossil fuel based textiles for their fashion choices. Even silk is out. If one was to source their textiles from within thirty miles of the Stour Valley in order to meet with the theme of this year’s River Stour Festival then the vegan would be strolling around in the altogether. Clothing made from wool, leather, suede and felt would be our main choice.

Two Lincoln Longwool Sheep in a field

Two Lincoln Longwool Sheep in a field

The Lincoln Longwool is one of the world’s rare breeds of sheep. Originally an Eastern Counties breed that had been around since before the middle ages. Lincolns were the backbone of the wool industry right through to the seventeenth century and East Anglia and areas around the Stour Valley was the centre of that industry. Indeed at the time the town of Lavenham in Suffolk was said to be one of the wealthiest towns in England despite its small size. East Bergholt would have been close behind too and Old Hall was, at that time, the largest estate around. At the wool trade’s height the Lincoln Longwool were exported as far away as South Africa, New Zealand and Australia because their fleeces were the longest fleece and good for spinning. The quality of their meat was also exceptional. Actually people who have tried spinning the fleece of a longwool say that it is hard and difficult. Perhaps the spinning techniques in the middle ages were different to the current methods, who knows. Felt clothing was common in those days too. However the wool trade declined in the seventeen century and the Old Hall estate began to be owned by a succession of London based gold traders, pawnbrokers and bankers. The wool trade in East Anglia was dying.

A flock of Lincoln Longwool Sheep feeding

A flock of Lincoln Longwool Sheep feeding

Jump forward two hundred and fifty years and the pre world war two development of synthetic fibres, nylon, spandex, acrylic and the like, made from fossil fuels, were becoming mainstream by the 1960’s and by 1970 the Lincoln Longwool breed was at the point of extinction. In fact there were only a few flocks left and their survival was down to the dedication of only three breeders. When Old Hall Community started in 1974 a decision was taken to start our own flock. We searched around and purchased nine ewes and one ram from a breeder in Rutland and with limited knowledge, began to save the breed. Now nearly fifty years later we have one of the oldest flocks in the country and there are now over 100 flocks elsewhere. The Lincoln longwool is still on the endangered species list however and the continued nurturing of this East Anglian flock is paramount to its survival.

Jake, a founder member of Old Hall Community now retired, who’s initiative it was to buy lincolns, has handed over his shepherding to Chris Eldred, one of our younger members of some five or six years who has learned from Jake’s experiences. Chris is being helped more and more by another member also called Chris who has lived here almost two years. Both have taken an enthusiastic interest in the flock and between them the Lincoln longwool here at Old Hall is assured to survive on into the future.

Notes from a riverside garden – March 2021

Helleborus Orientalis in bloom.

The remaining pools of flood water on the water meadows are slowly disappearing but are still attracting large flocks of seagulls, Canada and Greylag geese amongst others, to the area. It is a joy to observe the abundance of wildlife in the valley. Of particular note was the sighting for a few days of a Great White Egret along the riverbank. A stately bird, of a similar size to a Grey Heron, with a slow and deliberate flight as it progressed across the meadow. A birdwatcher walking the footpath was keenly watching it with his binoculars on one occasion. More birdwatchers are seen on the meadow due in part to the variety and number of birds present at this time, we suspect. It is good to see people appreciating the wildlife in our area.

With the warmer weather the number of folks out walking their dogs on the water meadow has increased. Most stick to the footpaths but a number wander wherever the fancy takes them, with their dogs usually off the lead. We witnessed one of the well known resident swans in the village so nearly being mauled or worse by two large dogs, off the lead. The dogs streaked away from their owner, oblivious to his frantic calls for them to come back, heading straight for the swan who was grazing on the riverbank. By some miracle the swan just managed to get back into the river as the dogs slid to a halt at the waters edge. For a moment it looked as if one of them was going to plunge into the river after the swan. I have to say I was so angered by what we had witnessed that I yelled across the river and the noise of the weir at the owner to keep his dogs on a lead, in fairness to him he did put them on leads after the incident.

On a cold February day I was most surprised to see two ladies, only clad in swimming costumes, not wetsuits, swimming past the house! It was some while before they came swimming back, climbed up the bank and left the meadow wrapped up in warm coats. I admire their mettle!

The wet and muddy area along the footpath on the meadow brought a smile to our faces when a young woman, faced with getting muddy shoes, pulled a carrier bag out of her rucksack and then stepped inside the carrier bag. What happened next was so hilarious as she tried to take minute steps, her feet confined in the bag, across the muddy section of footpath! Of course, the bag soon fell apart, she had almost fallen over several times and despite her ingenuity she still got muddy shoes/wet feet!

Reedmace (also known as bulrush) in the river

Reedmace (also known as bulrush) in the river

A clump of reedmace (commonly known as bulrush) is looking rather impressive as the brown seed heads have “exploded” resulting in a froth of soft, cottonwool like seeds hanging in readiness to be blown away on the breeze.

Most of the female ducks are on their nests now (early March) and the drakes are idly passing the time of day. We have a pure white duck resident in the garden, who patiently sits in the same area of river for most of the day. We assume his mate is not far away on her nest and periodically we see them briefly together when she emerges to feed. This morning when I was looking out of the bedroom window a duck flew down from our roof onto the high Leylandii hedge, the top of which is on a level with our bedroom window. She looked around for a moment or two and then disappeared into the top of the hedge. She must have a nest tucked away inside. We have seen ducklings tumbling down from the top of this hedge in the past. Ducks tend to nest off the ground hidden away in tree stumps, log piles, on the pillbox in the ivy and in the Leylandii hedge.

At night the otters can be seen in the river, silently making their way through the water. Geese fly overhead in the pitch dark, calling to each other as they progress. Tawny owls are frequently heard communicating through the darkness.

We have coppiced our hazels, taking a few branches from each to be used later in the year as runner bean poles and the tops for pea sticks and plant supports. The tops make excellent plant supports as they soon merge into the border and have many twiggy branches for plants to grow through.

Puschkinia Libanotica in full bloom

Puschkinia Libanotica in full bloom

The garden is bursting into life with exuberant daffodils, crocus and anemone blanda lifting our spirits. One of our many willows was alive with large bumble bees all feeding from the catkins of the hoary willow, Salix elaeagnos, on a recent sunny day. I also had a fleeting sighting of a Brimstone butterfly – a sign that spring has arrived. SB

A Place, and Time for Everything by Stuart Bowditch

A Place and Time For Everything flyer image

A Place, and Time for Everything

CAMP Radio (Quarterly)

In 2020 Stuart Bowditch was invited to contribute a regular show to CAMP Radio, an internet radio station run by CAMP FR from their base in the French Pyrenees mountains. His previous shows/DJ residencies were music based so he thought it would be a good opportunity to broadcast some of his field recordings of the natural, urban and suburban environments instead of playing the creations of others.

Each edition is representative of a particular location, whether Stuart’s time there has been part of a project or on his travels around the world. Episode 1 features 2 hours of field recordings from the River Blackwater in Essex, where Stuart visited between November 2019 and April 2020 as part of his Resounding project, (funded by Arts Council England). Resounding followed in the footsteps of JA Baker, author of The Peregrine that was published in 1967, and documents his endeavours to spot and understand the elusive bird of prey. Listen to Stuart’s recordings made near Tollesbury, Osea Island, Goldhanger, Maylandsea, Stone and Bradwell. Resounding here.

Episode 2 captures a visit to Palestine and Israel in 2019 with Ruth Philo, and includes recordings made in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dormition Abbey, Tomb of the Virgin Mary, St. Anne’s Church, Church of Condemnation, The Western Wall and St, James’ Cathedral Church, all in Jerusalem; The Milk Grotto and Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; St. Joseph’s Church and The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, as well as streetscapes from each of those cities. Listen to Palestine and Israel here.

Episode 3 documents a month-long trip around China conducting research for the Fabric:Silk Road project with Ruth Philo (funded by British Council). Fabric:Silk Road is a cultural and ethnographic exchange making connections between the silk mills of Sudbury, Suffolk and the silk industry and traditions in China. During their time there they visited the cities of Yantai, Xi’an, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai researching and meeting silk designers, shops, mills, historical exhibits and a sericulture plant. As well as streetscapes, buskers and religious ceremonies you can listen to several different silk mills and even hear silkworms munching mulberry leaves. Listen to China here.

The River Runs Through Us film still

The River Runs Through Us film still

Episode 4 will be broadcast on 15th March and will feature recordings made along the River Stour between 2016 and 2018 as part of the project The River Runs Through Us with Ruth Philo (funded by Arts Council England/Dedham Vale AONB). The film from the project has been screened at 7 pubs and galleries in the Stour valley as well as in China, Berlin and Venice Biennale 2019, and Stuart played a selection of the field recordings between bands at a Daylight Music event at the Union Chapel in London in 2019.

Further information can be found at:

CAMP Radio http://listen.camp/#shows

The River Runs Through Us http://www.theriverrunsthroughus.uk/events.html

Stuart Bowditch https://www.stuartbowditch.co.uk/live-dj/

 

Carrots by David Hodgson

A crop of early organic carrots at Old Hall

There is a common myth that carrots are good for your eyesight and in particular for
night vision. Indeed the RAF pilots were persuaded to eat copious amounts of carrots
every day during the early years of the Second World War as were all service
personnel. The myth was created, not because eating them improved your night vision
when you were out on bombing missions, but because the government had mistakenly
set such a high price for carrots in 1941 that farmers produced a huge glut to capitalise
on the inflated price. The armed forces were forced to eat the lot.

Mind you, carrots are good for you and if you have ever taken a supermarket carrot and
eaten it raw alongside a fresh home grown organic carrot you might never want to
waste your money buying supermarket carrots again. The difference is truly a
gastronomic delight.

Which brings me on to growing your own. Here in the Stour Valley, here at the Old Hall
community, we have been growing our own organic carrots for more than forty five
years. I have only grown them for twenty of those years however. If you want some
figures we grow about eight rows and each row is about eighty metres long. That is
enough carrots to feed 60 people from early June one year to February the next year
assuming the carrot fly don’t get to them first.

Carrot fly love carrots. They travel several miles in search of carrots and can smell them
from a mile away. Considering that they are poor fliers and cannot fly higher than
eighteen inches, 450mm to you millennials, that means one hell of a sensitive nose for a
creature smaller than a small fly. When they find your carrots in early spring they will lay
their eggs in the ground around the carrot heads. The larvae hatch and burrow their way
into the carrot, where they eat, live and grow. Rendering them inedible to you and me.
Job done.

Four tips to avoid carrot fly.
One. Never plant your carrots in the same place year on year. Rotate your site on a four
year rotation if you can. There may well be larvae left in the ground over winter.

Two. Companion plant carrots alongside your onions and garlic. The smell throws them
into confusion. A sensory overload so to speak.

Three. Cover your carrots in carrot fly netting once the shoots appear, or better still, as
soon as you have sewn them. Carrot fly are a bit predictable, they hit carrots twice a
year. Once in early spring and then again in late summer. So avoid the early spring by
planting late April and May when the first wave offensive has waned. I usually plant my
Early Nantes on the first May bank holiday and my Autumn King on the last May bank
holiday. Or I pick the full moon closest to these dates. But that’s just the old hippy in me.

Four. Stop thinning and weeding your carrots once the onions have been lifted and
keep the netting on all the time after that. This way you will avoid the autumn attack.
Remember digging up or thinning or weeding around a carrot increases the smell. Push
the soil back around any carrots disturbed by this process to avoid this. Most important
in the autumn when the onions are gone.

Long rows in a garden ready to be planted with carrots

Rows at Old Hall ready to be planted with carrots

Carrots seeds love a warm sunny sandy soil. Do not plant in clay. Dig, rake to a fine tilth
before planting, removing stones and weeds. Do not compost. April is a good time to do
this. Not once, not twice, but three times over a couple of weeks and your bed should
be perfect, ready for planting. Shallow drills, half inch deep should do it. If you want, mix
your seed with five times as much dry sand or bone meal. This helps spread the seed
more evenly and sparingly along the drill resulting in less thinning, therefore less
exposure to the squadrons attacking your carrots while you remove the netting to weed
and thin them. Watering twice a day is a must, early morning and again at sunset.

The River Stour Festival this year has a theme which encourages us to source our food
from as local a source as is possible. Eat all your food for thirty days from sources
grown no more than thirty miles away. Food miles being important factors. The best
thing you can do is to grow your own organic fruit and vegetables. Healthy eating, zero
carbon footprint, healthy planet.

David Hodgson

Notes from a riverside garden – February 2021

A bend in the River Stour in the snowy landscape

The river continues to run at a high level with a few days of flooding following a spell of rain. Even relatively small amounts of rainfall propel the river level upwards. Pools of floodwater linger, reluctant to drain away, on the water meadows. The bomb crater, within the water meadow, now resembles a large pond. Debris, left high and dry following the flooding, is caught up in the sheep fence running across the meadow. Sadly this includes an assortment of discarded packaging, plastic bottles etc which have been, at some point, tossed into the river. This mound of debris has been of some assistance to walkers during times of flooding. We have seen them precariously balanced on the debris, hanging onto the barbed wire top strand of fencing for extra support, as they try to negotiate the deep flood water at a higher level. I must say we have had some entertainment observing the antics of walkers. Two men were seen with trousers rolled up, carrying their trainers and wading through the knee high flood water with bare feet. Not an enviable option given the temperature of the water! Two young women were in fits of giggles as the water spilled over into the tops of their wellington boots as they struggled across.   Others have prodded fearfully into the depths with their walking poles and decided to turn back. Dogs have had great fun charging about, spray flying in their wake.

A few days have passed since I wrote the previous paragraph, a blast of very cold weather has arrived with snow, ice and very low overnight temperatures. The temperature last night was forecast to dip to minus ten degrees, the coldest night for ten years. Outside the snow that fell earlier this week still lingers in places. The view across the water meadows is akin to frozen tundra! Our terracotta pots now resemble giant cupcakes with a liberal topping of royal icing!

The bird table has been a hive of activity with a constant flurry of visitors. The robins and blackbirds appear to expend a vast amount of energy chasing each other away from the food supply. In addition to the usual offerings of bird seed, fat balls, insect suet squares (much preferred to the fat balls) and peanuts, I add mealworms and also handfuls of wheat during harsh weather. The wheat is for the pheasants and dare I say for the four pigeons who visit the feeding area. My father, a farmer, would be horrified to know that I feed pigeons!! There is quite a squabble between the pigeons and collared doves if they arrive at the same time. The collared doves usually win and drive the much larger pigeons away.

A beacon of golden yellow at this time is the Hamamelis (witch hazel) on the millpond bank. It is a large specimen and looks fabulous against a clear blue winter sky. We recently planted three young witch hazel’s on the island but due to all the recent flooding they have spent a while with their roots underwater. In flower at the moment but not sure what the long term repercussions of being so water-logged will be. It is relatively fleeting however.

Snow on a flowering bush

Snow on a flowering bush

The intense cold has created some incredible ice sculpture around the garden. Beside the sluice gates spiral formation icicles encase overhanging branches. Further into the garden a truly magical natural wonder awaits where the spray from the weir has created a multitude of extraordinary icicles. The photos below illustrate some of them.

Icicles hanging from a tree by the River Stour

River Stour icicles

Icicles hanging from a tree by the River Stour

River Stour icicles

SB

The Essex bank of River Stour estuary becomes part of AONB

 This week has seen England’s first extension to an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) in nearly 30 years .

The Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB has been expanded by about 38 sq km (14.6 sq miles) – almost a tenth of its size – to include the Stour Estuary, stretching from Manningtree to Harwich in Essex, and a tributary of the estuary called the Samford Valley. This means that both the Suffolk and Essex banks of the Stour estuary are now part of the AONB.

The map shows existing parts of the AONB in light pink, with the new additions in darker pink, taking in the Essex bank of the Stour, woodland at Freston and Samford Valley between East Bergholt, Brantham and Stutton.

The northern banks of the River Stour, in Suffolk, already had the designation and campaigners have pressed for it to be extended to Essex for decades. The expansion will enable businesses and tourist sites to promote the area as an AONB and access relevant grants.

David Wood, chairman of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB Partnership, said: “We are delighted that this order has been confirmed. The AONB partnership, made up of public private and third sector organisations, has had an aspiration to bring the benefits of the designation to a wider area for over 20 years. Locally we have always known that the area identified in the order was outstanding, and with this news we can be confident that the natural beauty of the area will be conserved and enhanced for future generations.”

Read more from BBC news website    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-53308890

 

 

Notes from a riverside garden May 2020

Due to coronavirus, the country is in lockdown but the countryside in the Stour Valley is full of activity and growth. SB brings us the latest observations from  her beautiful garden on the banks of the River Stour. 

May Garden Clippings 

The garden has been a great help to us during this time of lockdown, providing a calming environment and a place to enjoy the fresh air and knuckle down to tasks whether it be weeding, mowing or pricking out seedlings, there is always something to absorb oneself in.

A pair of swans have now built a nest in the reedy mere on the island. We were doubtful this was going to happen but delighted when construction began. It is a laborious task with reeds having to be pulled up and painstakingly assembled to create a large raised structure. Reeds and other vegetation need to be continuously added during the nesting period as the lower level turns to mulch and sinks in the damp environment. No eggs so far. The swans are very partial to the emergent weeping-willow leaves and nibble away at the level they can reach of the trailing branches, leaving bare twigs at an even height all round.

We have two or three families of ducklings. The surviving broods are few in number but the ducklings seem to be thriving. A duck brings her three ducklings up to the terrace outside our kitchen window for the food we provide followed by a drink and a quick swim in a tray of water nearby. It is so amusing watching them tuck into the food then all clambering into the water tray. A step had to be provided initially but now they can access the water with ease. Mother duck sits nearby as they entertain themselves. On colder days they tuck themselves under her wings for warmth.

We have been waiting to hear the melodious song of the reed warbler in the garden. On the 2nd May we heard them in two locations. They return to the dense stands of bamboo each year and their fabulous song bursts forth and fills the air. Spring has truly arrived! We have heard the cuckoo but to date no sign of swallows, swifts or martins. Our small flock of sparrows seems to have disappeared. We are not sure why, perhaps a better food source elsewhere or due to predation, though the later is not explained by the abundance of chaffinches, goldfinches and greenfinches still present.

A small common lizard was spotted sunning itself on a leaf in a border close to our front door. It seemed unperturbed when we walked past. We discovered the discarded skin of a large snake on the island, probably a grass snake as we do see them from time to time basking in the sun on warm days.

We have planted a clump of dark blue camassia on the bank of our water garden. They do look impressive and the bees enjoy them too. A pale blue variety is not looking so vigorous planted in a different area of the garden.

Elsewhere one of our wisteria, with a double mauve flower is in full bloom. The white wisteria on the pergola is covered in flower buds and we eagerly await the spectacle to come. It really is magnificent and a joy to walk beneath the racemes suspended from above.

             In the walled garden

We are always on the lookout for scats around the garden which gives us a good clue as to who is visiting. Having not seen any evidence of hedgehogs for some time, we were feeling rather despondent.   However, we recently spotted fresh hedgehog droppings! They are still with us, albeit in a different area of the garden. We were concerned as we do have regular visits from badgers but given the abundance of other food sources we are hopeful they will leave the hedgehogs alone.

Across in the meadow the first pinpricks of yellow are appearing as the buttercups start to make their vivid entrance. A meadow full of buttercups is a fabulous sight. In the distance, there is a froth of white May blossom delineating the route of the branch line.

I have been trying to identify the wildflowers as they emerge in the area of lawn we are leaving uncut. Nothing particularly unusual so far but we have had several Lady’s Smock/Cuckoo Flower ( I prefer to use the common names) a food plant of the orange tip butterfly caterpillar. Ground Ivy, Common Mouse-ear, Jack-by-the-hedge, Plantain, dandelion, buttercups and daisies. The area is busy with bees and butterflies, which is exactly what we intended it for. SB