Alnwick Garden: A Rosy Treat

Last month Alnwick Garden invited bloggers to attend one of two days as part of their “Bloggers Week”. It was scaled down somewhat from the original event, but COVID – 19 had put paid to that. I was pleased that it had been rescheduled and it was nice to get a treat, so I booked my free ticket. I’ve been many times previously and used to have a members pass. I stopped that after they started a special offer which gave you entry for the year on a single admission ticket and haven’t been since, until this recent visit. It was also one of my first trips out to a public place since lockdown – it was going to be interesting to see what measures had been put in place and also how I felt about being in a busy location.

If you decide to visit, I strongly advise you to check the Alnwick Gardens website beforehand to check if advance booking is required and if there are any restrictions on opening hours or the facilities available. Everywhere is subject to quite rapidly changing guidelines in these difficult times.

As a disabled visitor I was able to show my blue badge use the designated forward parking area by the entrance. I had brought my own disability scooter, because the gardens own scooters and wheelchairs were not available for visitor use. A one- way system was in use to facilitate social distancing. which included a couple of small kerb bumps that in other circumstances I would have tried to avoid with the scooter, but they were not too bad and I got over them ok. As we approached the pavilion area it did seem more crowded, which did make me feel uneasy – Social distancing was just about manageable but I was still reaching for my mask! I think that this was mainly because the cafe was not open at the time, so more people were milling about – a couple of stalls were serving refreshments along the walkway to the left of the pavilion which seemed to add to the congestion. There were plenty of hand sanitiser points around.

The first sight of the cascade as you come through the pavilion courtyard remains as spectacular as ever. At regular intervals an additional sequence of fountains plays out, which is lovely to watch. Part of this is accompanied by the delighted shrieks of children trying to dodge the jets of water that shoot over the walkway in the centre of the cascade

The central cascade is flanked by hornbeam tunnels which have matured beautifully.

The one way system in the garden itself was not so easy to follow, especially when I’m used to following the easiest paths for the scooter . Most parts of the garden are reachable by scooter, with fairly gentle ramped paths throughout. Because of this we somehow bypassed the area of the garden which has a series of water features hidden from the rest of the garden by hedges.

July is my favourite time to visit when the Rose Garden is at its best. The scent is intoxicating. Out of interest I checked if I could still smell the roses with one my homemade masks on – I could not, so that’s an interesting test of their efficiency!. Until you visit a place like this it’s hard to imagine what variation in fragrance there is between different roses. Some are quite spicy, others have citrus notes. There are a stunning variety of different colours and forms too, from massive many-petalled blooms to sprays of tiny single flowers.

At the centre of the rose garden is a pergola covered in climbing roses and clematis, with an ornate urn. There are lilies here too.

in addition to the amazing planting and water features there are a few unexpected ornamental items, like this little frog statue, which I love.

Even the wrought iron gates are works of art

The path slopes upwards through the trees at one side of the cascade to the walled garden at the top. This is another feast for gardeners with stunning herbaceous borders that thrive in the shelter of the tall old brick walls. Earlier in the summer the delphiniums near the walled garden entrance are one of my favourite elements of this part of the garden, though the planting has highlights at all times of the year. They are past their best now but there are many other plants to enjoy, including a stunning bed of alstroemerias, in shades of red, orange and pink.

The centre of the walled garden has a formal layout with beds and paths bordered by clipped hedges, some low to show off the flowers inside, some high, like the ones surrounding this little secret garden with its central fountain

Following the path from here to the other side of the cascade we arrived at the cherry orchard, which is a vision of blossom in the spring. The path zig zags down through the trees (the corners are a little bit steep and the path is not a smooth as elsewhere in the garden but I managed (there is a steeper path with steps straight down the bank for those able to use it). In amongst the the trees are some swing seats for those whose want to stop for a breather here.

The path leads along past a large duckpond towards the poison garden, which has a fascinating collection of poisonous and medicinal plants. Visitors here are escorted by guides that begin their tours at regular intervals.

Between here and the pavilion there is another lovely border, planted in shades of blue and yellow. We grabbed a coffee from the stall here and sat watching the bumblebees visiting these electric blue and silver eryngiums.

The one-way system exited through the gift shop. I have to say this was the most stressful part of the visit. Even though my visit took place before masks became mandatory in shops, I felt safer wearing mine. Despite signage, few of those using the gift shop seemed to be observing social distancing and the route meandered through the shop displays and the shoppers, rather than directly to the exit door. The gift shop used to be in a separate building and visiting it was optional. It seemed ironic that we were corralled in this way at a time when social distancing is needed – rearrangement of shop fixtures would help.

With that exception, I enjoyed my visit. The gardens are as lovely as ever and there was plenty of space on the lawn for families to picnic and enjoy the space.

Just before we left we caught the climax of another fountain display. It ended with the large fountain in the lower pool getting higher and higher.

Have you visited the Garden? What did you think?

Welcome Misty: There’s a Horse in the Family!

We had an exciting evening yesterday, especially for daughter. She’s bought a horse! Meet Misty the grey mare.

Daughter only took up riding when she went to college and loves it. As her riding got more proficient it became more obvious that she would end up buying her own horse. She’s worked hard to make it possible and has taken her time looking for the the right horse. Misty fits the bill! Our friends at Clarke Equestrian, who have been so patient making sure that this was the perfect match of horse and rider, brought her over last night. After a short ride, daughter put Misty in the stable and she got stuck straight into her hay net.

Then she had a good look around her new home (she’s living with friends nearby who have a spare stable). There was plenty to see as everyone came over to meet her: including two children and three dogs, but Misty took it all in her stride. She is so chilled.

Daughter is thrilled. They are going to have lots of fun together.

Wildflower Of The Week: Meadowsweet

At it’s peak now, Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) flowers from June to September, and is common in damp meadows, ditches and road verges, by rivers and streams, growing to about 1.5m on reddish stems. . It is actually a member of the rose family, though the frothy clusters of cream-coloured flowers give no clue to this. Each tiny flower has 5-6 petals and male or female flowers are on separate plants. the flowers smell faintly of almonds and are an important pollen source for insects.

Found from Europe to the Middle East, the plant was introduced to America, where it has become naturalised.

The dark green leaves however are, more like those of the rose, set in pairs along a leaf stem, toothed and more heavily veined, with a silvery underside. When crushed they can have an antiseptic smell on top of the same almond notes of the flowers.

The plant has many names, some of which indicate it’s many uses through the ages. It was used as a strewing herb, thrown on the floor to cover the mud, provide insulation and a pleasant scent when trodden underfoot. The flowers were used to decorate banquets and for bridal garlands, giving rise to the name bridewort. The herbalist Gerard said that the scent “make the heart merrie, delighting the senses without headache or putting off meat”. Meadowsweet was said to have been a favourite of Elizabeth I.

Although the name Queen of the Meadow or Pride of the Meadow, would suggest that the plant is named for its habitat, the alternative of meadwort is thought to derive from the use of the flowers to flavour mead. It has been used to add flavour to port, claret and beer, gin, sloe gin, jam and various desserts – some sources recommend using it in the same way as elderflower to make cordials, liqueurs and “champagne”.The flowers and leaves retain a scent and flavour even when dried, enabling use all year round. The roots yield a black dye.

Herbalists have also found many uses for this plant. Culpeper used it for fevers, wounds and eye irritations. It has also been used for colds, bronchitis, upset stomachs, joint problems and for bladder infections. Modern science has found one of the reasons for its useful medicinal properties: it contains salicylic acid, also known as aspirin.

This really is a versatile plant with a fascinating history.Wildflower

August Wildlife Walk

During this crazy year, when time has either been standing still or passing us by, it’s quite reassuring to go for a walk and see the passing of the seasons. Whatever else happens, the wild plants still come into flower around the right time and the swallows migrate here. The farm year continues too and we see fields change as crops grow and reach harvest and spring lambs grow bigger.

Today I took my usual walk near the village and the first thing I spotted was that some of the meadows have been cut – the warm wet weather has really encouraged grass growth and hay and silage making.

The oilseed rape crop is ripening. The acid yellow flowers of spring have now been replaced by brown stems and seed pods.

The grain crops are ripening fast and combining has already begun in some places. This barley still has a greenish tinge. I love to watch it swirl about and ripple in the breeze.

The verges and hedgerows are now a dustier, darker green, with the creamy grass seed heads, thistledown and meadowsweet flowers and accents of purple from thistles, knapweed, meadow cranesbill and woundwort.

Purple Knapweed and Milk Thistle (top right) with creamy Meadowsweet (bottom right)
The brilliant blue-purple flowers of Meadow Cranesbill

The most dominant birdsong I heard today was that of the yellowhammer: a rising sequence of notes followed by a single, lower, longer one. They seemed to follow me and every so often I’d catch a glimpse of one on top of a hedge.

There were lots of butterflies today, mainly whites, including green-veined whites and also small tortoiseshells and red admirals. I also saw this beautiful pale moth – so far I can’t identify it.

As we turned, a roebuck crossed by the bridge. They are very common round here, but mostly keep themselves well hidden in woodland, especially during summer, so it was lovely to see one.

What aspects of nature characterise this time of year where you live?

Everything Tastes Better with Elderflower

As I sat here sipping on a refreshing gin and tonic with a dash of my home made elderflower cordial, I remembered I’d drafted a post the other week and not got round to publishing it. The elderflowers are almost over here, but when they were in full bloom……

I’d been meaning to make elderflower cordial for ages. I love the flavour and two of my favourite tipples are elderflower gin and Thistly Cross Elderflower Cider. Last year I got as far as picking and freezing the elderflowers as they were at their best just before we went on holiday. I promptly forgot about them! The other day we picked the elderflowers and finally made the stuff.

We gathered some from the garden, then went to find some more along the country lanes, sticking to the quieter ones away from traffic pollution. By the time we had enough the car smelt amazing!

I looked around for recipes (there were loads online) and I settled on this one because the finished product keeps longer. You can find the whole thing here with lots of additional tips. The most important of these are that you pick the elderflowers mid-late morning. This means that early morning dew will have evaporated and the fragrance will be at its best – the flowers develop an unpleasant taste later in the day. The flowers are just shaken and picked over to remove any insects, but not washed. Also you need to sterilise the bottles and anything you use to fill them (jug, funnel, ladle etc). I did this in the dishwasher on a hot setting.

In brief, add 15 large elderflower heads (more if they are small), 50g citric acid, two thinly-sliced lemons and 2.5l water to a large pan, bring to the boil, cover and leave to infuse for at least 4 hours (I left it overnight). You can get citric acid at Lakeland and Wilkinsons/Wilco.

When your mixture has infused and your utensils have been sterilised, strain through muslin into another large pan, squeezing all the liquid out to extract all the flavour- I used a jelly bag for straining, (more usually employed making preserves). Add 1kg sugar, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes, then immediately pour the hot liquid into the sterilised bottles and seal. Store in a cool dark place and it should keep for a year ( the heating and citric acid preserves it), but refrigerate once opened. I got three good sized bottles from these quantities.

I’m really enjoying this taste of summer!

Making Masks

As face coverings are required in shops from tomorrow, I’ve been busy making my own. There are loads of patterns available on the internet – there seem to be three main types: pleated, shaped and with a pocket for a removable filter. I made a couple of pleated ones a while ago, but decided I needed more. I now have enough use once before washing ready to use again and I can even co-ordinated with outfits! I’ve already noticed discarded disposable masks lying around – I’d far rather have reusable ones and not contribute to litter and plastic pollution.

There are lots of guidelines about using masks correctly. Of course they have to cover mouth AND nose, without gaps at the edges. They should be removed and handled with the elastics rather than the fabric and washed after use.

I experimented with some different designs and decided the shaped ones fitted me better. I used one of the the Big Community Sew patterns – The website includes a couple of patterns (one shaped, one pleated) and instructions, along with lots of videos of people from Great British Sewing Bee making them. I did modify the method though. My version includes 3 layers of fabric (as recommended by World Health Organisation) instead of two. This is how I did it.

I used an old sheet for the inner and lining and print cotton for the outer layer. I only used the lining pattern piece, cutting 3 pairs of pieces.

With a 1cm seam allowance, and right sides together, machine stitch the long curved edge of each pair, then cut notches in the seam allowance and press.

Next, stack the three sections together as follows to ensure the centre seams are hidden.

Bottom: outer print layer right side up

Middle: lining, right side down

Top: inner layer, right side down.

Then stitch the three sections together, 1cm from the top and bottom edges and turn inside out. Press.

Fold all the raw edges on both ends of the mask inside (1cm) and press. Measure how much elastic you’ll need. to fit round your ear, allowing 1cm at each end to stitch inside the open edge you’ve just pressed under. (I use about 18 cm each side, but it’s worth measuring – I’m having to redo the elastic on one I made for K as his was too small!). Insert the elastic to form ear loops at each side, pinning the ends of each elastic piece Icm inside the opening. Stitch all the way round, simultaneously closing the open ends, securing the elastic and top stitching the top and bottom edges.

And that’s it!

I now have a quite a selection, from florals, to pinstripe, animal print to nautical. Which one do you like best?

Wildflower Of The Week: Dog Rose

The blossom in the hedgerow shrubs has changed through the seasons, from blackthorn to hawthorn and now to elder and the beautiful dog rose, which blooms throughout June and July. Our dog roses are actually a collection of several virtually indistinguishable species. The large flowers, up to about 50mm across, are white or pink, with golden yellow stamens. They have a mild sweet fragrance.

The leaves are toothed and arranged in two or three pairs along thorny stems. The shrub is straggly and grows to 3m or more if well-supported by surrounding hedge plants.

The roots are used in the horticultural industry in the propagation of garden roses. Shoots of the cultivated varieties are grafted on to dog rose root stocks.

The flowers are followed by oval orange-red fruits or hips. These are rich in vitamin C and can be used to make a tea or syrup. As well as a vitamin source, the syrup has also been used to treat gout, dysentery and as a diuretic. The irritant hairs on hips have been used to make itching powder. The roots were used in folk medicine to cure rabies. The flowers are used in skin preparations.

The flower, or at least a stylised version of it is a common feature in heraldry, often seen on coats of arms. Also known as sweet briar, the rose has symbolised love and beauty for millennia. In Ancient Greece the dog rose was often associated with the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, who was depicted as wearing a rose crown. The Romans bestowed an association between the dog rose and secrets. Anything said under places where roses were hung, would remain secret, giving rise the the phrase “Sub rosa”.

Occasionally reddish fibrous tangles appear on the stems of dog roses. These are known as Robin’s pincushions. and are caused by a tiny gall wasp laying eggs in in the stem. The gall shelters larvae of the wasp, which feed on the gall over winter to emerge as adult wasps in spring.

The dog roses I see in the hedgerows are a sign that summer is most definitely here!.

Back On The Beach With The Boat

When K retired he fulfilled an ambition: he got a boat. The Ila Mia is a little motor launch. We didn’t use her much for the first couple of years but last year we acquired a mud mooring at Alnmouth, which is so much easier than launching from the trailer every time. At low tide the boat rests on the mud. We simply walk over to it, climb aboard and wait for the tide to come in. The boat floats off, we untie from the buoy and off we go!

Ila Mia comes out of the water for the winter and we were unable to retrieve her from where she is stored during lockdown restrictions. It was not an essential journey and K’s car, (the one with the towbar), needed the handbrake fixed when the garage was closed. As restrictions lifted, the car was mended and the boat was towed home for some pre-launch maintenance.

She was parked on the front lawn while the barnacles were scraped off, anti-foul paint applied and the engine serviced. Then, on a big tide, she was taken back to Alnmouth.

The launch process takes a while. The boat is towed across the hard sand and unhitched, then it’s the long wait until the tide comes in, when she can be floated off the trailer.

It’s good that she’s back in the water. We hope for some decent weather and calm seas so we can take her out, for fishing or simply to enjoy being out, watching the wildlife. We regularly see puffins, guillemots and even the rare roseate terns that breed on nearby Coquet Island.

Apart from having to wait for the tide, the other drawback at Alnmouth is actually getting out of the estuary. The river channel changes position from time to time and over the winter it moved significantly, now running all the way along the beach and out to sea at the north end of it. it looks pretty shallow too, so there will be a shorter window for trips over high tide.

It’s also difficult if there is some surf. We got drenched going out one day last year when a wave broke over the bows, soaking us both! – That was not our best trip. The spare outboard had already gone overboard in the channel when the mounting broke (fortunately retrieved later on when the tide went out) . We weren’t out for long. Despite reports of lots of mackerel, we couldn’t find any . There was a bit of a swell, which made the boat roll a bit when we cut the engines to start fishing – that left me feeling slightly queasy.

To add insult to injury, the following day K took a couple of friends out and there was no surf, a flat sea and lots of mackerel. They came back with quite a haul. That meant a busy evening of cleaning, filleting and smoking the fish. We have a home smoker, which is basically a glorified biscuit tin with a grid in it. The freezer was filled which meant that I had a plentiful supply to make my favourite smoked mackerel pate. Here’s the recipe.

Smoked Mackerel Pate

Ingredients:-

  • 2 smoked mackerel, skin and bones removed
  • a large tub of creme fraiche
  • juice and rind of one or two lemons (I like it lemony and use two)
  • 1 tablespoon horseradish sauce
  • salt and pepper to taste.

To make it you simply whizz all the ingredients together in a food processor. Use the pulse setting until it reaches the right consistency, processing for longer if you like it smooth. It’s delicious on toast or oatcakes. I can’t tell you how long it keeps in the fridge because it never stays around for very long!

With our stock of mackerel in the fridge running low, I hope we’ll be back at sea and able to catch some more soon.!

A Rescued Shirt

I’m a great believer in recycling, repurposing and upcycling. I hate throwing anything away unless it’s absolutely necessary. A case in point was this blue and white check shirt of mine. I’d spilt something on one of the pockets and much as I tried to get the little stain out it was still faintly visible, probably not visible to anyone else but I knew it was there and I didn’t feel right wearing it. Otherwise I rather liked the shirt and would have been quite sad to part with it. It just needed a little bit of a makeover to disguise the stain, so I decided to embroider a row of daisies across the pocket.

I began by making the daisy centres. Using yellow cotton yarn I sewed a row of equidistant French knots. to sew a French knot you bring the thread up through the material where you want the dot to be, wind the thread round the needle a few times then insert the needle very close to where the thread came out, holding the knot in place with thumb as you pull the thread through to the back of the fabric.

Using white cotton, I worked the petals in lazy daisy stitch (also known as single chain stitches). Beginning by bringing the thread up close to the flower centre, insert the needle close to the thread and pull it partially through to form a loop, then bring the needle up where you want the end of the petal to be, inside the loop. Pull the loop until it lies in the right position and insert the needle in the same place, stitching it down. These steps are repeated for each petal until the flower is complete.

I embroidered a row of six daisies along the pocket.

Of course I had to do the other pocket the same. I’m pleased with the result. My shirt has a fresh new look and a new lease of life!

Wildflower Of The Week: Hogweed

Wildflower of the Week is back on the blog with Hogweed, that has taken over from Cow Parsley as the dominant large wildflower of our hedgerows and road verges. Both are umbellifers, with white, umbrella-shaped flower heads, but Hogweed’s flowers are a creamier shade, sometimes tinged with pink, and the whole plant is sturdier.

Cow Parsley (left) is a much more delicate plant with frothy pure white flowers; Hogweed (right) has creamier flowers and is a much sturdier plant.

Hogweed, also known as Cow Parsnip or Eltrot, is a biennial or perennial plant and grows to 2m high. The shoots and flower buds are covered in a leafy sheath when they emerge, opening to reveal a rosette of large, divided hairy leaves.

The flowers are carried on hollow hairy stems. They are rich in nectar and pollinated by insects. They have a rather unpleasant “farmyards” smell, possibly a reason for the hogweed name. The outer petals of the flower cluster tend to be larger. The flowers are followed by flat disc-shaped seeds.

The plant has been used in folk medicine as a sedative and an expectorant … in parts of Eastern Europe it was also traditionally used to treat gynaecological and fertility problems and impotence. Foragers pick the young shoots to cook as a vegetable, reporting it to be tasty and rich in minerals. The dried seeds can be used as a flavouring said to resemble that of cardamon. All however advise extreme caution for a a couple of reasons. First of all the young shoots are hard to identify when the leaves are not fully open so it is easy to confuse the plant with similar looking and extremely poisonous members of the same plant family. Secondly, hogweed sap contains chemicals called furanocoumarins. If you get these chemicals on the skin it becomes highly sensitive to UV light and develops blisters that may leave severe scarring. Foragers advise the use of gloves when collecting hogweed. People using a strimmer to cut down hogweed have reported getting the rash of blisters even through clothing and appear to have been sprayed with the sap. Scything (using a well-sharpened blade) is seen as safer, producing a cleaner cut rather than pulverising the stems.

Cases of skin blistering around the mouth have been reported in children using the hollow stems as pea shooters – to be discouraged!

The hogweed’s big brother, the non-native Giant Hogweed, which grows to 5m, has higher concentrations of the irritant chemicals and should be avoided at all costs. Classified as an “invasive alien’ under the WildLife and Countryside Act, it is an offence to cause Giant Hogweed to grow in the wild – landowners may be compelled to remove it from infested areas or face penalties.

This all makes me rather relieved that our area is populated by the smaller, native version!

Is your neighbourhood troubled by any invasive species?

NB Always follow these guidelines when foraging

  • 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