Monday 5 May 2014

The New Inn, Coleford, Near Credition, Devon

I love their sense of irony down here in Devon. They call our local pub the New Inn. New Inn? It's a thirteenth century coaching inn ... so to my way of thinking there's nothing remotely new about it. Maybe the explanation is that it was just a little bit newer than the cave down the road where Bronze Age man used to brew up his fire water.

You can find it in Coleford, a tiny hamlet set amidst the rolling, green hills of Mid Devon. It's a picturesque, timeless sort of a place. In the old days it used to be on the main road, but these days it's an out-of-the-way spot that you're unlikely to stumble upon by accident.

They say that King Charles I passed through on 27th July, 1644 when the English Civil War was raging all around. He's supposed to have reviewed his mounted troops standing on the porch of the house at the end with the lamppost outside, and then he was on his way to spend the night down the road in the neighbouring village of Bow.

What's in a name? Who cares if the New Inn isn't that new? It's a fabulous little watering hole that looks like a traditional country pub and acts like a traditional country pub. It isn't one of those pretentious gastro pubs without a soul where they serve up fancy-pants continental-inspired food on weirdly shaped platesThe food is wholesome British fare, and full-on delicious at that. They source most of their ingredients locally. There's Clannaborough red ruby beef from a farm just 2 miles' away, Creedy Carver ducks from another farm 5 miles in the opposite direction, best Devon sausages from a rare breeds farm in the Exe Valley, fresh mussels from the Teign and Exe estuaries, crab from Brixham, seasonal salads and vegetables from West Country farms and, most wicked of all, Devon clotted cream in the desserts.

We tend towards the wine menu rather than the ales and beers, but they hold a Real Ale Casque Award and stock a selection of local ales on tap such as Stag Ale from Exmoor and Dartmoor Ale.

You can even bring your dog to dinner if he's a well behaved pooch. What's not to like? Nothing. That's what.

We've been coming here for years. We rock up when we can't face cooking at home. The landlord and landlady, George and Carole, are terrific hosts. We've spent a New Year's Eve in here partying. We've come to celebrate Halloween when they put on a spectacular display of carved pumpkins. When friends come down from London this is where we take them to see an authentic West Country pub. This is our local, and it always feels friendly, comfortable and welcoming whatever the occasion, whatever the weather.

In the cold depths of winter they've got a cosy fire burning inside, and for those balmy summer nights there's a terrace outside with a little steam running by, complete with weeping willows and a pretty little garden. If you're lonely they've even got an Amazon Blue parrot called Captain that you can talk to. He holds court beside the bar and greets all comers with a loud "Hullo".

On the last Friday of every month from April to October they do a special hog-roast, which is epic. The poor old porker is cooked whole on a spit, and served up with all the trimmings. It's usually a buffet service, and  everyone in the village comes along and queues patiently to load up their plates, and then the greedy folk sneak back for seconds.

The last hog roast of the season is usually a special Halloween party where everyone, guests and staff alike, comes dressed up as a ghoul or a phantom. And, as I've said, they display the most incredible carved pumpkins that I have ever seen.

And would you believe it they've even got a resident ghost? This being the English countryside you'd probably feel a bit short-changed if they didn't have one.  His name is Sebastian, and the word is that he used to be a monk way back in the old days when he was alive and mortal. I've heard two versions as to how spooky Sebastian met his personal Waterloo.

The first is that he overheard a gang of brigands arguing over their ale cups about how they would share the proceeds of their cattle rustling. Sebastian, being a civic-minded chap, intervened and threatened to spill the beans, whereupon they lured him outside and slit his throat to keep him quiet.

The second version features Sebastian as a clerical Lothario who had seduced a local girl. Full of passion, one dark and moonless night, he made his way for an illicit rendezvous with his lovely lady, took a wrong turn and tumbled headlong into the little stream that runs through the village. There his ardour was cooled and his life was lost. Although one of the barmaids told me that he didn't die in the stream. He was instead apprehended and put in a gibbet.

Whatever the way of it,  he's still supposed to hang out in room 3. Some guests have reported seeing him, and sensing a dreadful chill as his shadow passed silently by.

Now I must say, for the record, that we have spent several nights in the New Inn when we've had the builders in, and I am sorry to report that Sebastian has never had the decency to show up and give me something sensational to write about.

If you'd like to spend the night at the New Inn and link up with Sebastian there are loads of lovely walks that you could go on to work up an appetite for dinner. Just strike out in any direction, and you'll find yourself in wonderful rolling countryside. The Two Moors Way, which links Exmoor with Dartmoor passes close by. You can't go wrong.

Have a great time if you do decide to stop by.

All the best,

Bonny x

Thursday 1 May 2014

Bluebells in Osterley Park

If you go down in the woods today you're sure of a big surprise ... 

... cos all the bluebells are bluebelling ... and it's totally epic!

Yesterday morning, in the glorious sunshine, Maxi and I set out with some of our chums in search of a bluebell wood. We thought we'd check out Osterley Park as they were running an official guided tour of their bluebells later in the day - at a time that unfortunately didn't work for any of us.

And we weren't disappointed. We found loads of beautiful bluebells all over the place, their sweet perfume mixing with that of the hawthorne and the freshly cut grass on the lawns to create a scent that was the very essence of English springtime.

Did you know that we have more bluebells in Britain than anywhere else in the world? That's proper bluebells, or Hyacinthoides non-scripta, to give them their la-di-da botanical name. They only grow in North Western Europe, and here in Britain we have about half of the worldwide population of these little beauties. 

Please don't confuse them with their ill-mannered cousins, the Spanish bluebells. These larger, stronger impostors have no smell, and threaten the survival of our delicate native bells through hybridisation. 

You can tell a proper British bluebell by its pollen, which is creamy white in colour. All these other interloper bluebells have green or blue pollen. A true British bluebell can also be distinguished by its strong, sweet, heavenly fragrance. 

They are an indicator species used to evaluate whether or not a woodland can be classified as ancient. They love to grow in deciduous forests, where their bulbs give them a competitive advantage over rivals, such as the dandelion and cow parsley. With the nutrients that the bulbs contain they are able to germinate in colder conditions, and, hence to flower ahead of the others, taking advantage of the sunlight before the leaf canopy closes over.  One concern for their survival is that climate change will allow these rivals to germinate earlier in the year, robbing the bluebells of their early-start advantage. For the past 50 years the botanists at Kew have been making a note of when their first bluebell opens. This date can vary by several weeks, depending on how cold the previous winter has been. They think that the average first opening dates have advanced by as much as two weeks over the course of the past 30 years. Spring would appear to be getting earlier and earlier.

They're protected these days under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits landowners from removing wild bluebells from their land to sell, or anyone else from randomly digging them up when they're wandering around in the countryside. Bluebell bulbs may only be traded by those who have a special licence allowing them to do so.

I'm all for conserving them. They are the quintessential British flower. Moreover, they're greatly favoured by the fairy folk. According to old folklore the ringing of the bluebells is a means by which the little folk can be summoned, but woe betide any mere mortal who hears the bluebells ring, for they will surely be dead within a year. 

If you go down in the woods today you better not go alone
It's lovely down in the woods today but safer to stay at home ...

In the olden days people were scared of walking through the bluebells, believing that they were sewn together with fairy enchantment, kind of like a magical mine field, where anything could happen if you stood on a trigger point.

Maybe there was some point to all this folklore in that the lovely bluebells contain toxic glycosides, which are poisonous to humans. Lots of folk have felt very poorly when they've confused their bluebell bulbs for wild garlic down the ages, and even cows, dogs and horses have suffered digestive problems after having a munch on bluebell leaves. Their sap can trigger contact dermatitis, so maybe there was a good reason why people used to believe it was unlucky to pick the wild bluebells that grew in the woods. They must have felt pretty unlucky when their hands turned red and started to itch like mad before they'd even got home with their posy. And, in an earlier age, it's easy to see how the little folk might just have got the blame ... .

Down the years, however, some of the braver souls were able to get over their fear of the fairies and put bluebell sap to good use. Apart from being highly toxic, it's also very sticky. As a result archers have been using it to stick feathers on their arrows since the Bronze Age. The Elizabethans used it to make a glue for binding the pages of their books into the spines. It was particularly good in this context as all the poison kept the insects at bay that might otherwise have munched their way through the parchment - although it probably wasn't a good idea to lick your finger too often as you turned the pages way back then. The Elizabethans also crushed bluebell bulbs to make starch for their very grand ruffs and collars and sleeves. 

If you'd like to go and check out a bluebell wood over the bank holiday weekend the nice people at the Woodland Trust have put together a search engine that can find all the bluebell woods in your area. You just have to type in your postcode. You can find it here: Find a bluebell wood near you.

And, now, I think the last word on the subject should go to Emily Brontë:

The Bluebell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air;
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit's care.

Just remember not to linger too long or the fairy folk might get you!

Bonny x

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Operation War Diary ...

Would you like to become a Citizen Historian?

If so, the good folk at National Archives down in Kew need you now. They're crowd sourcing a project to map out one and a half million pages of war diaries from the First World War. The idea is to mark up dates, names and important details, so that they can be searched more easily by historians and interested amateurs.  You don't need any special qualifications, other than an ability to read and use a computer. You don't need to go along in person; they want your help on-line.

So what are these war diaries anyway? Well, the War Diary or Intelligence Summary, was a diary kept by each unit during operations with a view to compiling an official history of the campaign, and allowing the Top Brass to learn from any mistakes that might have been made for the benefit of doing it all better in future campaigns. They chronicle what took place on a daily basis, and give an immediate and dynamic window into the world of the regular Tommy fighting in the trenches of the Western Front. Life and death is chronicled. Sometimes individuals are named, but mostly it's kept on a general business-of-the-unit level.

Yesterday I volunteered an hour or two of my time to help out.

Recruitment poster for the Seaforths, which I strongly suspect post-dates WWI

After a ten minute on-line tutorial I was let loose on the war diary of the 4th Division, 10th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders. My boys had been mobilised on 23rd August, 1914 and sent out as part of the British Expeditionary Force to lead the charge.

Cap badge of the Seaforth Highlanders
(Their motto translates as "Aid the King")

I was hooked from the start. This was history recorded first hand by an eye-witness as it unfolded. In my mind's eye I could see the movie reel playing as I followed what they were doing, where they were (I was immediately off for my big road atlas of France to understand exactly where they were), who they were with and what the weather and conditions on the ground were like.

Moreover, it was humbling to read such a matter-of-fact account of what took place. There was no self-pity, no hyperbole, just a sense of honest, decent men trying to do their workaday best and get the job done.

Their War Diary was written in a neat, easy-to-read hand. I did not learn the name of the man that it belonged to, but he was evidently a compassionate, well-educated person. I dearly hope that he made it through the war.

Before I got started, I googled around to find out a bit more about the Seaforths. As it turns out they were involved in the retreat from Le Cateau, which was a tactical retreat in late August 1914 by the British to a more strongly defended front further West, where they could make a better stand against the Germans. This became known as the Battle of the Frontiers, and I'm pretty sure it's the background to the War Diary pages that I read.

I took up their story on 25th August, 1914 when they were pulling back from Viesly. They marched "a very tiresome and wearisome march" of nine and a quarter miles through the night to the village of Haucourt, which was serving as Divisional Head Quarters for the tenth and twelfth Brigades of the Highlanders. It was a cold, wet night. The roads were "greasy", and because there weren't any ambulances they were forced to leave the dead and wounded in a cottage near Viesly. When they arrived at half past four in the morning they discovered that their transport supplies hadn't made it, so they weren't able to have breakfast or draw their food rations. I can imagine they must have been cold, wet, exhausted, hungry and demoralised to have lost the comrades who had been left behind.

By this time the village was packed with soldiers. There was hardly room to move. Their supplies eventually showed up at six a.m., but before they could settle down to eat they came under enemy attack. There was some confusion as they had thought the French were watching the front. The enemy moved into position, occupying a ridge to the north of the village. My boys in the second battalion were held in reserve as their comrades came under heavy fire.

"The rest of the Brigade and the 12th Brigade were very heavily engaged in front and lost fairly heavily from shrapnel and machine gun fire - Tremendous artillery duels took place at intervals throughout the day, our gunners behaving splendidly and never ceasing their fire though far outnumbered."

At about 4:30 p.m. they were joined in their trench by 3 French cavalry divisions, who had come to relieve them. Then at 6:00 p.m. they were ordered to retire through the valley between Caullery and Selvigny with orders that the Brigade would assemble at Selvigny. However, in pulling out of the trench, they came under heavy shrapnel fire and were forced to cross ground that had already been blown to bits by the enemy artillery. One officer, Captain KDM Machlachlan and twenty men were wounded in the withdrawal. This was the first time that they had come under heavy enemy fire, but "the movement was accomplished in perfect order and with great steadiness".

C company "with whom were the stretcher bearers" had received orders to withdraw via another route, and as a consequence they were unable to take four of their seriously injured colleagues, who were left behind.

I only completed four pages as I was terrified of missing something. I felt  responsible for ensuring that their tale was told properly, even though each page is checked by seven volunteers to make sure that any mistakes are spotted. Later today I'm going to go back to find out what happened next.

Wherever you are, and however little you think you know about the conflict, I'm sure you'd find the war diaries totally gripping.  If you'd like to help out you can log on here: Operation War Diary.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

Monday 28 April 2014

Lucky Monday ...

Today I'm feeling very lucky, and it's all to do with technology. Normally technology and I enjoy a slightly fractious relationship, but not today. Today we are oscillating in perfect harmony, me and my technology.

Want to know what happened?

Well it all kicked off because I didn't frisk the pockets of my jeans very carefully before I did the laundry on Saturday. As a result, when I opened the washing machine door, the remote control for my camera tumbled into my laundry basket along with all the other soggy items that had just been through the spin cycle. Eeeek! I scooped it up feeling certain that it's next port of call would be the recycling bin, but then something made me pause and give it one last chance. I thought I'd let it sit on a shelf above a radiator to dry out ... just in case.

I wasn't holding out much hope. I spent all Sunday in denial, not mentioning what had happened to anyone. It's the sort of thing that my husband loves to take the Mickey over, but I held my peace, and didn't draw attention to what had happened to my little gizmo.

Then this morning, as I was doing a tidy-up, I thought I'd give it one last chance and see if it worked. I fired up the camera, pointed my remote control, pushed the button, and held my breath. Without any hesitation the autofocus whirred into action, the flash bulb lit up and the shutter clicked.

What a little treasure! It had survived the spin cycle!

Now that I'm on a roll, I think I'll go and buy a lottery ticket ... .

Happy Monday!

Bonny x

Saturday 26 April 2014

Chiswick House Kitchen Garden Open Day

Chiswick House has a rather splendid kitchen garden that isn't normally open to the likes of you and me. But today they opened their doors to let us have a look behind the high garden wall that normally keeps us out. We happened to be in the neighbourhood, cooling our heels whilst Emi went to a birthday party down the road, so we popped in to have a look.

For me there's something special about a walled garden: a secret place, where horticultural gems are preserved for the enjoyment of a select few.  And what's lovely about this garden is that the select few, who normally get to enjoy it are the local volunteers who maintain it. It's a place that's available for anyone who wants to enjoy a spot of therapeutic gardening. Today they were out in force, tending the beds, and they seemed to be a jolly little community of like-minded people who'd become good chums through their shared interest.

Now I have to say that the scale of this garden is daunting. It's huge: way bigger than anything I'd want to have to maintain. It was originally laid out by Sir Stephen Fox in 1682 as the garden for his adjoining property, Moreton Hall, which the sixth Duke of Devonshire purchased in 1812. The house was demolished and the kitchen garden was incorporated into the grounds of Chiswick House. So, back in the day, the garden was designed on a scale that would feed the many mouths that had to be sustained on an estate of this size.

What's nice about it is that it still feels very functional; it's a useful place that's also pretty. William Morris, the great mover-shaker behind the Arts and Crafts Movement, once said: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful", and I think he'd be jolly impressed by the way in which the volunteers, who work here, have taken that principle outdoors and applied it to their garden.

There are lots of apple and pear trees that have been pleached to grow along knee-high wires around the perimeter pathway: so pretty, and so useful. There's lots of space behind for growing other things, and the precious wall area is left free for growing figs and other soft fruit that need a little more help from the heat of the brickwork in the sun to ripen.

There's a lovely area for growing all the kitchen and medicinal herbs. Once again, it's not only pretty, it's also full of useful things.

They already have a number of harvestable crops, all ready for the kitchen.
From top left, going clockwise: rhubarb, Cavolo Nero cabbage, asparagus (not quite ready, yet) and Swiss Chard
And then there is a section of the garden given over to flowers: a cutting garden, from which they will be able to fill any number of splendid vases with glorious arrangements of cut blooms. The huge bed of irises will provide fabulous spikes of deep purple flowers for great architectural arrangements, or maybe they'll use their roots to make orris root powder, which is the traditional fixative used in making potpourri.

They have a little shop, where you can buy some of the produce that's in season, and plants that they've propagated in the garden. Today they seemed to be doing a brisk trade in rhubarb. The proceeds go to support the maintenance and further development of the garden.

Dogs aren't allowed inside, so we had to take it in turns to have a look as Maxi couldn't be trusted to behave himself outside on his own.

If you'd like to go along they'll be throwing the doors open on a number of other days throughout the year. You can check out the dates here on their events page: Events. It's a lovely garden to go to and browse for ideas, and it's always good to support a local initiative.

All the best,

Bonny x

As shared on Mosaic Monday