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Wildflower of the Week: Blackthorn

The frothy white blossom of the blackthorn has been in flower for the last month, standing out against the blackish twigs and branches, which have yet to come into leaf.

This shrub can grow to 4m or more and can be found in woodland or scrub, practically anywhere that the soil is not acid, but mainly grows in hedgerows, where the dense, thorny growth makes it an impenetrable barrier and protective nest sites for birds.

A member of the rose family and closely related to the plum and damson, the blackthorn is a native to Europe and Western Asia.

The flowers are hermaphrodite, each bearing both male and female parts and with five petals. They are the first flowers to appear in our hedgerows, arriving before the leaves and a welcome source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects early in the year.

The small leaves are narrow and oblong shaped, tapering to a point and with toothed edges. They are the food plant for the caterpillars of several species of moths and butterflies, including the rare black hairstreak butterfly. In autumn they turn bright yellow.

Also appearing in autumn are the sloes, round purple-black fruit with a bloom that gives them a blue tinge, each about 1cm in diameter. The sloe has a large stone and little flesh, but they do provide a valuable food source for birds, particularly for members of the thrush family.

Sloes are incredibly sour, but sweeten slightly after the first frosts. In years where frosts damage the flowers and prevent the fruit from setting (or it is too cold for pollinating insects) the sloe crop is scarce. The fruit are used in sloe gin and can also be made into jams and jellies. You can read about how we make our own sloe gin here . If you have the patience to remove the stones from the fruit after they have been strained out of sloe gin (by which time they have absorbed a fair amount of alcohol, the flesh can be stirred into melted chocolate and left to set on a baking tray: delicious!

The wood of the blackthorn burns well and as it grows straight is used for walking sticks and tool handles. It was also said to be the wood of choice for witches’ staffs and wands and had an association with witchcraft.

Traditional medicine has used preparations of the plant used for cleansing the blood, for digestive disorders and rheumatism.

I always look out for the first blackthorn blossom to appear every spring, with the hope of a good crop to make sloe gin later in the year.

Don’t forget the following when picking any parts of a wild plant.

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

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More Music: Peter Hook and the Light

Spurred on by a recent spate of gigs, we went to another on Saturday, at the Boiler Shop in Newcastle. it’s a venue we’d not been to before. It is a Grade II listed building, dating from the 1820’s and was the world’s first locomotive works, Robert Stephenson & Company, famous for the pioneering locomotive, the Rocket. It was restored as an entertainment/function venue in 2016: a large space with a standing capacity of 1000.

The only drawback with the venue is that there is little or no nearby parking. I used my scooter and we parked in the Stephenson Quarter Car Park (a multi-storey -with no free disabled parking). I’d previously contacted the venue and booked a place on the wheelchair platform. Apart from the step off the kerb by the entrance the access into the venue was level (a little bumpy by the door but no steps). There was great professional stewarding and the staff member responsible for the platform was excellent – she really looked after us.

Peter Hook was the bass player with Joy Division, which reformed as New Order following the death of lead singer, Ian Curtis. He now performs with his band, The Light.

Hooky developed a very individual style of playing the melody high up on his bass, leaving to bass line to keyboard or guitar.

This was K’s choice (I always found Joy Division a bit depressing) but I really enjoyed the gig – three sets and an encore over about two and a half hours, including all the Joy Division and New Order hits, including Love Will Tear Us Apart, Atmosphere, Blue Monday and Temptation.

There was a great atmosphere too with lots of singing going on in the audience.

We haven’t got any other bands to see until July now…..unless something else comes up!

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Dry Stone Walls in the North Pennines

Today was a “because we can” day: a midweek day out simply because we are retired and we can. After a bright start at home a fret came in (that’s the local name for coastal fog). It seemed like a good idea to drive inland search of clearer weather, so we packed a picnic and headed to Alston and on to Nenthead, Allendale, Hexham, then home again.

As we reached the summit beyond Nenthead the views were stunning. It was a beautiful day to be up in the hills. We heard the eerie call of a curlew and one flew past.

One of the most striking features of this upland landscape is the dry stone walls and there was a good example where we stopped. It took me back some years to when we were both involved in the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers and learnt this ancient craft.

Dry stone walls are built without any mortar but when properly constructed can last for hundreds of years. They are typically wider at the base than at the top. Using an A-shaped wooden frame to act as a guide for the height and width of the wall and keep it even, courses of stone are laid along the outer edges (with the larger ones nearer the base). The stone used on this wall was split into easy to lay, flat pieces. Each stone is laid carefully over the join of the layer below, ensuring that it is perfectly stable and does not move or rock. Small stones are used to fill in the space between the two outer walls as it is built. Every so often a larger stone is placed across both courses to add strength. Stiles can be incorporated into the structure by adding extra-long slabs that protrude from the sides of the wall, forming steps.

Finally, a single row of large cap stones is added, packed together along the top.

The gaps between the stones provide shelter for wildlife: insects and even lizards hide in the crevices and small birds can nest in the larger spaces.. As well as being a stock-proof barrier, they act as a windbreak and sheep can often be found sheltering by a wall in stormy weather.

These hills would not be the same without their magnificent dry stone walls.

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Wildflower of the Week: Gorse

Gorse (Ulex europaeus) is a member of the pea family that grows as a shrub up to 3m tall, and is found on rough ground, moor, heathland and coastal areas. The plant is native to Europe and North Africa, but has become an invasive weed in parts of the USA, Australia and elsewhere. It is also known as furze or whin.

The plant is covered in sharp spines up to 3cm long and can be seen in flower all the year round but is at its peak right now, covered in golden yellow blooms with a keeled structure typical of the pea family. They have a sweet coconut scent and are a valuable source of nectar for bees, butterflies and other insects.

The country saying  “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion” comes from the year-round flowering habit. A sprig added to a bridal bouquet symbolises fertility.

The flowers are followed by dark brown hairy pods, each carrying about three seeds, which are ejected as the pod splits open.

The spines (which are modified leaves) make gorse an effective hedging plant, forming a dense impenetrable barrier to livestock, but also protective cover for wildlife including nesting birds.

In traditional medicine a tea made from gorse flowers has been used as an antidepressant. 17th Century herbalist, Thomas Culpepper described a decoction of the flowers as effective against jaundice and as a diuretic and cure for kidney stones. The flowers also yield a bright yellow dye. Being edible they can be used in salads and to make a tea or syrup.

The straight stems of gorse wood make good walking sticks. it has also been used to make brooms and chimney sweeping brushes.

The plant burns fiercely with a great heat and was popular for firing bakers ovens and kilns. Gorse fires spread quickly but even when burnt to the ground will regenerate quickly from the roots.

On warm spring days a walk past a gorse hedge certainly fills the senses, with those vivid yellow flowers alive with buzzing bees and the air suffused with that coconut fragrance.

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Strange Bird

I saw a very unusual bird in my village last week. K had seen it around the area when he’s been out with the dog. A couple of days later he managed to take this photo.

It’s a leucistic jackdaw (normally they are all black with grey at the back of the head like the other bird in the picture). Leucism is a mutation that affects the production of melanin , the pigment in the feathers. It can result in anything from just a few white feathers to a completely white bird. This individual is speckled all over, with a mix of black and white feathers.

Some people refer to this condition as partial albinism, but there is actually no such thing. It’s rather like saying someone is partially pregnant!. An animal can be either albino or not! True albinism is characterised by having no pigment anywhere , including the eyes, giving them a pink appearance. Leucistic birds’ eyes are of normal colour. Such creatures rarely survive in nature. The lack of eye pigment impairs their sight, making it harder to find food or spot predators (to which they are a very visible target).

Our local speckled jackdaw is not the only unusually coloured bird in the area. There have been sightings of white pheasants in neighbouring villages and I saw one a couple of weeks back. I wasn’t quick enough to photograph it, but it looked just like these, posted on Facebook recently. These pheasants may be captive-bred ornamental escapes.

Photo credit M D Ashby

The red wattles really stood out against the white plumage: it was a very beautiful bird indeed. I felt quite privileged to have seen it. I didn’t get quite close enough to see the colour of its eyes though so I’m not sure if it was a true albino or leucistic.

Have you ever come across a wild bird with leucism or albinism?

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Disability Access: The National Trust Must Try Harder.

The Northumberland Coastal Path comes through Newton-by-the-Sea. We were there recently with some friends, one of whom is a scooter user. She has a beast of a machine – it’s called the Tramper and it will drive on sand (unlike mine).

Even though both machines could take the paths to Newton Point and Football hole without problems, access is either via cattle grid (no good for small wheels)…

…or kissing gate (no way)!

The path to the accessible hide behind Newton Dunes is too narrow in places for my friend to get through on her scooter.

There are a couple of designated disabled parking bays at Low Newton – they aren’t extra wide to allow for wheelchair transfer, but that’s not the worst of it. This is what you have to negotiate to access the disabled parking bays at Low Newton. Useless!

Come on National Trust. Get your finger out. Disabled people want to access the countryside too.

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Accessibility: Live Music

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’ve been to a few concerts at venues of different sizes over the last few months and I have to say it’s been a pretty good experience, with staff really going out of their way to help. In most cases there has been a designated viewing area with great views of the stage and plenty of space.

My favourite small venue, The Cluny, is not the most accessible but does pretty well considering that it’s on one of the steepest streets in Newcastle! Before I ever bought tickets there I visited to check out the access and was given the full tour by a lovely member of staff. I now have an arrangement to email the manager to make sure a seat is left out for me on the balcony. It does make me feel like a bit of a VIP! He’ll also take me through a different way that involves the fewest stairs. I can park nearby so manage with sticks.

One thing I have noticed is that once you are sat down in a standing only venue you become invisible to other people. If I had to rely on my scooter or a wheelchair and take my chances on the floor in front of the stage I’m not sure whether my experience would be as positive. Even in my reserved position I’ve seen people hanging over the balcony impeding my view or even thrusting their mobile phone in front of my face to take a photo.

Most people are lovely though. At one gig recently two men who were standing next to me on the balcony asked if I could see ok. I said I could and thanked them but pointed out that there was another reserved seat so they might be in the way of whoever was going to be there. The concert was just beginning when this person arrived and the two men hadn’t noticed. She leaned across to me and commented about us living in an “Ableist Society”. I have to say this annoyed me a bit as she was pointing at the two guys I’d spoken to earlier. She seemed reluctant to ask them to move, even when I said they’d be perfectly fine about it – as soon as I attracted their attention they stood aside and even helped her move her seat to a better position. Then, she thanked me, not them! It almost seemed like she was making herself into a victim unnecessarily.

It made me think. In my experience, if you ask people for help they are generally delighted to do so. In most cases, problems are down to lack of awareness and if you point out what’s wrong it can be put right. When people see me struggling and offer to help, whether I accept their help or not I’ll always thank them – being gracious costs nothing. But I won’t just wait for someone to offer the help I need either. How can anyone help you if they don’t realise there’s an issue? Rant over!

Back to access. We were at a completely different venue last week (Newcastle Utilita Arena) ,huge by comparison and with a much bigger budget, more staff and extensive ramped accessible platform areas.

It’s quite a walk (even from the disabled parking area) so I used my scooter and drove it straight to my seat: perfect! And there was plenty of space with no-one to block my view. I’d been able to book accessible seats online and there is plenty of information about accessibility online.

I’ve learnt that if you do your research and check out online info or better still speak to venue staff and visit beforehand you’ll get a much better idea of the space and facilities, so there’ll be no nasty surprises when you get there. Information is power!

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Wildflower of the Week: Lesser Celandine

The Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) is a true harbinger of Spring, carpeting shady damp places with with starry bright yellow blooms during March and April. The blooms pale and whiten as they age.

The flowers are 2-3 cm across, each with 8-10 glossy narrow petals, and are carried above rosettes of fleshy heart shaped leaves, growing up to about 15cm tall. Although the flowers produce seed, the plant mainly reproduces vegetatively. Bulbils form at the stem bases and these and the tubers easily break off to form a new plant.

This perennial is a native of Europe and North Africa and is a relative of the buttercup.A number of cultivated varieties with white or orange flowers, double blooms, bronzy foliage and so an have been developed as ornamental garden plants. In North America however it is seen as a serious weed. It outcompetes and smothers out native ground cover plants and, as it dies back to spend six months of the year in dormancy, it leaves bare earth, vulnerable to soil erosion.

The plant is toxic, causing skin irritation on contact with crushed plant material and nausea, with possible paralysis and liver damage if eaten. it is also harmful if eaten by grazing livestock. The toxins disappear with cooking and the plant has been used in herbal medicine for centuries.

Historically, herbalists used the “Doctrine of Signatures” , believing that if a plant (or part of a plant) resembled a part of the human body, then it could be used to treat disorders of that body part. As such, the tuberous roots of Lesser Celandine were thought to resemble hemorrhoids or piles. This gave rise to the plant’s other name – pilewort. Thomas Culpeper describes in his 17th century herbal how he cured his own daughter of the Kings Evil (scrofula or tuberculosis of the neck) using a decoction of Lesser Celandine. He writes that it “broke the sore, drew out a quart of a pint of corruption, cured without any scar in one week’s time.”

The plant and its associations with Spring give rise to its place in literature. William Wordsworth wrote an ode to to the flower.

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

The Lesser Celandine is also mentioned in CS Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” and D H Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers”.

The Lesser Celandine is certainly a welcome sight after the cold drab winter months.

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Spring at Druridge Bay Country Park

I took my scooter round the park last weekend, along with K, Buddy, Daughter and her dog, Wren. It was a dull day, but not too cold and it was good to see some signs of Spring.

Coltsfoot, Lesser Celandine and the first Cowsllips I’ve seen this year were all in flower.

The Blackthorn is in blossom. Hopefully the frost won’t damage the flowers before they set fruit and we will get a good crop of sloes this autumn. The Hawthorns are covered in new lush green growth and will flower next month.

There were lots of waterfowl on the lake, mallard and tufted duck are breeding now as are coots. There were also mute swans and a solitary Canada goose on the water.

The park suffered extensive storm damage over the winter and was briefly closed to make it safe for visitors and to clear fallen trees from paths. The damage can still be seen in some areas but in others the cut logs have been stacked to form ‘habitat piles” providing shelter for insects and other creatures.

We spent a while watching some Newfoundland dogs in training. These huge but gentle animals were traditionally used to tow fishing boats ashore – they are strong swimmers with webbed feet and a thick double coat. They are now being trained for water rescue.

Wren’s training continues and Daughter has been taking her to gundog classes. She’s been working with tennis balls, finding them in deep undergrowth. Wren willl follow Daughter’s directions to find the ball and will retrieve up to two balls after memorising their position, walking away, then returning to the spot. It’s quite impressive to watch her work.

She’s still a playful pup most of the time but when it’s time to do her retriever training she instantly focuses on the job. She’s so good at it that she regularly finds balls left behind by other dogs, She’ll certainly never run out! –

Good girl, Wren!

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More Music: Simple Minds

On the strength of our “Month of Music“, in which we went to four gigs, I booked some more tickets and last night we went to see Simple Minds at Newcastle’s Utilita Arena.

This was on a completely different scale to what we saw last month at The Cluny, which is tiny with a capacity of only 300. The Arena accommodates over 11,000 people. It was a completely different experience, with a massive stage in a very tall space which gives plenty of scope for some pretty spectacular staging.

Simple Minds formed in Glasgow in 1977 and gained popularity in the 80s with hits including “Promised You a Miracle”, “Alive and Kicking”, “Glittering Prizes”, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and the atmospheric “Belfast Child”.

Only front man Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill remain of the original line up, but they have recruited some great musicians – standout performer for me was dynamic drummer Cherisse Otei.

Add state-of-the-art light lighting effects and an adoring audience, eager to sing along to those 80’s anthems and we had the whole package. Even K (who is known to be critical if the sound engineer is not up to the mark) couldn’t fault the mix. Jim Kerr’s vocals are as powerful as ever and he really held the crowd for what was a very long show – well over 2 hours, divided into two sets, with a short break in between.

We had a great night. No more gigs now until July for us…unless something else grabs my attention!