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Archive for the ‘Places of Interest’ Category

I have lived the majority of my adult life in East Sussex and over the years have come to love the South Downs with their soft rolling beauty, their expansive views over fields and sea and their wide variety of wild flowers and grasses. As today is Earth Day I thought it would be a fitting time to pay tribute to a part of the Earth that I feel so connected to.

Our house nestles beneath the chalk hills of the South Downs on the clay of the Low Weald, with views stretching out to the sandy soils and remaining pockets of ancient woodland of the High Weald to the north. The variety of different soils and environmental conditions in this part of the world make for a fascinating array of plant and wildlife, all within a relatively small area, including heath, woodland, wetland, farmland, the coastal regions as well as the chalk downland itself.

The North and South Downs, with the Weald between them, lie across a good part of southern England, running east to west, forming a series of hills, ridges and valleys. Interestingly they were formed from one large upfold of the Earth’s surface which has eroded away at different rates due to the different rocks contained within it. This diagram (borrowed from the ever helpful Wikipedia) shows how the Downs have eroded away to form the furrowed landscape we know and love today. 

The dense clay soil of our garden changes to thin chalky grassland only a short walk up towards the Downs. As the soft clay was most easily eroded, these areas form the lowest points in the area and support different types of plants due to holding more water and nutrients. The old saying ‘as different as chalk and cheese’ comes from the distinction in areas like this between the thin, chalky soil of the Downs themselves, only suitable for rough grazing by sheep, and the dense clay which would support the lush pastureland suitable for cattle farming and therefore, cheese making.

As different as chalk and clay, or cheese.

The chalk of the Downs, laid down over some 20 million years, is made of a soft white limestone that is formed from the skeletons of long passed marine creatures, interspersed with bands of hard flint. It never ceases to amaze me how these hills that seem so solid and unchanging are made from the bodies of creatures that lived nearly a hundred million years ago. It is a daily reminder of inter-being and connectedness, how everything we see only is because something else was, how nothing and no one is alone or apart, how everything flows into one and we are all a part of each other. Above all it is a reminder that, in the scope of history, my own concerns are but small ones.

The escarpment that shelters our house is one of our favourite places to walk and we spend many hours gazing at its beauty, picking herbs and dreaming.

Walking up it you are rewarded for the steep climb with wonderful views of the surrounding area, mostly fields and small patches of woodland with reservoirs and waterways glinting in the distance.

You are sure to meet a curious sheep or some of the friendly resident wild ponies on route…

and at the top you are greeted by the sea, stretching away before you to the South.

Even though the soil on chalk downland is thin and dry, it is still one of the richest habitats in Western Europe. It is characterised by its springy grass, kept short by grazing animals, with patches of scrub mostly made up of hawthorn, blackthorn and gorse. Many wildflowers, including rare orchids, that do not do well in other conditions, thrive here on the lime rich soils. Poppies, cowslips, yarrow, scabious, round headed rampion, self heal, clover and bedstraw carpet the slopes at different times of year as well as a wonderful collection of native grasses. Many of these species are threatened which is why it is so important to conserve chalk grassland habitats. Much of the South Downs is now a national park and there are many conservation efforts underway which is heartening. My husband and I are both members of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, one of the 47 local Wildlife Trusts that cover much of the country. You can find out your local branch here.

These flowers attract a number of rare butterflies and insects too like the beautiful chalkhill blues.

The history of the Downs is rich and fascinating and archeological evidence shows they have been inhabited for thousands of years. Once upon a time they were covered in forest but it is thought the majority of trees were cleared as much as 3,000 years ago. Flint mines, hill forts like the one pictured below and numerous burial mounds have utilised and altered the landscape long before the Romans came.

Iron age hill fort

Though I have always found the Downs to be breathtakingly beautiful and a wonderful place to wander, it took time to feel really connected to them. Being first and foremost a lover of woods and glades, the high chalk hills with their incessant, pummelling winds felt somehow too intense and I would always seek out the most wooded areas to walk in.

Since moving to our current home however, I have come to see the very essence of Mother Earth in the sweeping lines and curves of the escarpment we view from our windows each day. Just like people, the land wears the forms of its history and narrative. It has been shaped by life and death, by rock and by salt sea winds, by wildlife and farmed animals and by the hands of many humans.

And it in turn has shaped our lives and our hearts in numerous ways, some of them too subtle to name.

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This weekend past I was lucky enough to attend the Springfield Sanctuary Herb Festival hosted by Sarah Head who writes the wonderful blog Tales of  A Kitchen Herbwife.

I am a great admirer of Sarah’s approach to herbal medicine which is practical, down to earth, community minded and well informed and the festival reflected these qualities perfectly. When we arrived we were met by Sarah and her father carrying a basketful of pears from their trees and the day’s proceedings kicked off in true herbwife fashion, with foraging, herb gathering and the digging of roots.

Sarah at The Sanctuary

The Calendula Flower Harvest

The Sanctuary itself is nestled amongst the stunning scenery of the Cotswolds and is an utterly magical place.

As the festival is small in numbers it gives you the chance to meet and share knowledge with many of the people there and a lovely community feel suffuses the event. Everyone I met was enthusiastic, interesting and friendly.

Fellow blogger Ali English was there giving a very interesting talk on British tonic herbs and selling her wares at the mini herb market. I couldn’t resist her beautiful natural scarfs, the one dyed with oak bark being an especially rich golden hue, perfect for these early autumn days.

Teas, scarfs, candles and handmade jewellery by Ali English

I gave a talk on using herbs externally which was lots of fun.

There was herbal dyeing down in the gardens and a lovely talk and demonstration by Charlie Farrow on making a Rowan Cross and its symbolism in folklore. One of Sarah’s apprentices, Ian, led a lovely wild food walk and spoke movingly of his passion for re-wilding.

Off on a wild food walk.

Last but not least, the non-herbal elements were also fantastic! Sarah’s husband and his partner stunned and awed us with their kite demonstrations and classical singer Heather Caddick wowed us with her sublime voice during a lunchtime recital.

Kite displays by Sky Symphony

All in all it was a wonderful event that contained so many of the elements I think are vital to working with herbs; passion and enthusiasm, a sense of community, practical skills and the joyful sharing of knowledge and talents. I’ll be back next year for sure.

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Henge Moon

We were lucky enough to have a Stonehenge access pass a couple of nights before the Autumn Equinox and enjoyed a magical evening of soaking up the atmosphere as the moon rose on one side of us, whilst on the other the setting sun cast golden light onto the stones and long shadows into the gloaming.

Stonehenge

Setting Sun

Stones framed by a pink sky

Golden light on the stones

Fire in the sky

Henge Moon

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Westonbirt Arboretum is one of the most beautiful places to admire the changing season with it’s spectacular collection of Japanese Acers and other trees from all over the world. Even though we were a little early to catch the display at its peak, it was still a delight to see the trees beginning to blush from green to yellows, browns, reds and purples, all framed by the bright blue Autumn sky.

When the weather begins to turn and we feel a little glum at the thought of oncoming winter, these fiery hues cheer our hearts and remind us that each season has its beauty and its lessons.

 

 

 

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Sarah Head from the lovely blog Tales of a Kitchen Herbwife, will be hosting a herbal festival this autumn at Springfield Sanctuary in the Cotswolds. It takes place on the 10-12th September and there look to be some great speakers and workshops.

Details can be found on the Springfield Sanctuary homepage here .

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I spent a lovely day at the beginning of the week at Hann’s Herbs Cookery School with my Mum and Sister who are both enthusiastic cooks. It was fun to spend a day looking at herbs from a completely different perspective to the medicinal and it gave me some good ideas for spicing (or rather herbing) up lots of my current recipes. Judith Hann is a passionate cook and herb gardener and soon to be president of The Herb Society. The course is held in a beautiful converted barn on her 40 acre farm in the Cotswolds and part of the time is spent looking round her wonderful walled herb gardens.

Beautiful Herb Gardens

Many herbs have both medicinal and culinary uses, though the course only looks at the later, so it got me thinking more about a particular interest of mine- incorporating more of our medicines into delicious foods. This can serve as both prevention and cure, something that is considered much more in the Eastern traditions of Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine than it is here in the West. Many of the recipes were heavy on the meat, cheese, butter and cream which, as a long term strict vegetarian, do not feature in my kitchen, but they were simple enough to adapt to herbal hemp creams, nut cheeses and vegan pestos. I’ll post some of my variations as I make them. My Mum and Sis are both baking queens so the ideas for cakes infused with scented Geraniums and Lemon Verbena got them very excited!

Lovage

Judith spoke a lot about her favourite herb, Lovage, which beyond a simple lentil and Lovage soup, hasn’t played a big part in my meals. I feel quite inspired to be a bit more creative with it now as I have some growing in a large pot on my patio. Medicinally it is an aromatic, so you can eat Lovage or take a pleasant tasting tea to calm the stomach and Mrs Grieve’s states that it can sooth colic and flatulence in children.

Sweet Cicely

Sweet Cicely was another herb I’ve been inspired to experiment with. Having a delicious sweet aniseed flavour it can be used in puddings or savoury dishes and is said to be nice cooked with tart fruits instead of sugar.

I particularly enjoyed looking round the gardens which are abundant and beautifully planned and perfect for attracting a variety of wildlife.

Mini Moth on Variegated Lemon Balm

Emerald Beetle on Apple Mint

Judith runs three different seasonal cookery courses throughout the year, details of which can be found here, and part of the money for each goes to Leukaemia Research.

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