Photography: Credit Here; Credit Here; Credit Here
Our landscape: an autumn feast The hillsides rise like piecrusts in late autumn’s oven. For us it’s one of nature’s most nourishing sights but this year it’s much more so for the thousands of creatures that hide amid the crags, brooks and branches of this tranquil Lakeland scene. For this year is a ‘mast year’ – one of the landscape’s lesser understood phenomena, which sees an apparently co-ordinated effort on the part of trees to deliver a superabundant crops of nuts that can leave woodland floors carpeted with acorns and other
seeds. The effect can be synchronised over an area of 60,000 square miles. “It’s a pulse of resources that will cascade through the ecosystem, affecting mice, birds, deer and other wildlife for years to come” says botanist Walter Koenig. The effort will have taken a lot out of the trees, but as the benefits trickle down the food chain, more species successfully overwinter and the trees themselves ensure some seeds are for once left over to spawn their successors, they can rest easy for the next few years.
The delicate pink Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ flowers throughout the winter months
Cold comfort Hidden among the muted garden’s bare branches, the intensively fragranced viburnum is bursting into life
magine hurrying through a garden on a cold winter day and seeing a flowering shrub in full bloom, each bare branch smothered with clusters of tiny pink or white tubular flowers and an overwhelming waft of fragrance coming from it. The effect is magical. Flowers and exquisite perfume are not attributes immediately associated with the late autumn and winter garden, but there are a handful of shrubs that save their finest display for exactly then. Among them are the deciduous viburnums. View these wonderful plants in summer at the nursery or garden centre and they are handsome enough, with sturdy stems clothed in bronzed green leaves, but in winter the plants take centre stage. Just as most other plants prepare to hibernate these fabulously scented viburnums put on their magnificent display. Viburnums were once classified in the same plant family as honeysuckles and although not all viburnums are sweetly scented, the deciduous viburnums all share that same, powerfully sweet, honeysuckle-like perfume. Deciduous viburnums including Viburnum farreri, Viburnum grandiflorum and Viburnum x bodnantense bear flowers that are so sweetly scented their perfume can fill a garden. Cut a few branches for a vase indoors and they will scent the house. ›
Viburnun tinus ‘Gwenllian’ blooms from late autumn to early spring
Flowers continue to come even the depths of winter
Frost can affect the flowers but it rarely harms the plant
The long stems put the flowers’ perfume within easy reach
Flowers will continue to come even the depths of winter
With a young plant you may smell its perfume long before you see the plant responsible, but established plants are easier to spot with clouds of scented flowers too showy to miss, on imposing upright stems some reaching 10 feet or more. The small trumpet-shaped blooms emerge in clusters; bursting from bare stems, they are pink or white depending on variety and fade as they age. Flowers start to appear from late autumn and flowering continues often right through to spring, even in the depths of winter – though they are produced most abundantly in mild spells. Frost can affect the flowers but it very rarely stops the display or harms the plant except in the most severe conditions, and in sheltered gardens the flowers will often continue to bloom in snow. Scented winter-flowering viburnums have been grown in Britain for over a century. We owe their discovery and introduction into Britain to dedicated plants man Reginald Farrer and their subsequent hybridisation to Edinburgh botanist Charles Lamont, and to the gardeners on the North Wales estate of Bodnant who carried on his work. Plant hunter Reginald Farrer was born in 1880 in Clapham, North Yorkshire. He was already a passionate botanist by the age of 10 and became an eccentric, ebullient and talented plant hunter. His first love was alpine plants but he introduced many other plants to Britain, including bamboos and rhododendrons, and in the early 1900s he introduced the fragrant viburnum that now bears his name. Thirteen years later, in Edinburgh, the assistant curator at the Royal Botanic Garden, Charles Lamont, was experimenting, crossing Viburnum grandiflorum with Farrer’s viburnum (known then as V.fragrans). At the time he wasn’t convinced enough of their merits to propagate the resulting plants, but at Bodnant a year later the same cross was done; and then propagated to give
The Garden Collection; Garden World Images; GAP Photos; Jacqui Dracup; Marianne Majerus
Viburnum davidii ‘Ligustrum’ planted with ceanothus and taxus
the superb hybrid we know as Viburnum x bodnantense. The familiar and fabulously scented Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ was the first hybrid to be introduced commercially. Still one of the best available, it has dense clusters of dark pink flowers that open from darker pink buds. This was followed by the white-flowered ‘Deben’ with buds the colour of apple blossom. Finally, after its namesake’s death, the silvery-pink flowered ‘Charles Lamont’ was introduced – named to honour the man who had carried out the first pioneering breeding work. The original parent plant from those first crosses, Viburnum grandiflorum, is still grown and it will tolerate heavier clay soils where some viburnums might suffer. The hybrids have largely superseded it, however, with all three hybrids receiving the RHS Award of Garden Merit as outstanding garden worthy plants. Team the scented deciduous viburnums with spring-flowering Viburnum carlesii that has lovely autumn colour, or with the evergreen Viburnum tinus – this too blooms from November to March although the flower heads are unscented. Look for ‘Eve Price’ and ‘Gwenllian’ that open from dark pink buds or white-flowered ‘French White’. One of the newest and longest flowering is ‘Lisarose’, with pink buds that open to flat clusters of white flowers. Most Viburnum tinus are compact shrubs that grow to around a metre. Both evergreen and deciduous viburnums work with plants grown for their winter stems, such as any of the red-stemmed cornus (dogwood) or white-stemmed birches. Under-plant scented deciduous viburnums with autumn crocus and early spring bulbs to introduce colour at their feet and extend the season. • Words: Pam Richardson
Growing viburnum Andrew Lodge, garden manager at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex, has a special affection for the viburnum in his care. “They are very dependable and easy-to-grow shrubs which aren’t too fussy in terms of soil conditions,” he says. “They’re diverse in shape and foliage, and the scent and flowers of deciduous viburnums mean they are an excellent addition to the winter garden.” Andrew’s favourite is Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. The small clusters of flowers fade from pink to white and are most abundantly produced during milder periods. “It’s a great value shrub because it flowers from autumn right through to spring,” he says. “I can’t think of any other plant that matches the strong intoxicating fragrance of ‘Dawn’, and its perfume transfers successfully from garden to vase.” He advises to plant in a moderately fertile well-drained, soil in full sun or
partial shade. The winter-flowering species should ideally be planted where their flowers can be displayed to maximum effect in winter, maybe against an evergreen hedge. “Alternatively, he says, “plant them where the fragrance can be truly appreciated, say beside a frequently used path or in a pot by the door.” The plants are generally disease free but the viburnum beetle is a significant pest. The deciduous types are no more susceptible than any others and some are known to be quite resistant including ‘Dawn’ and ‘Aurora’. Pruning may be required after a few years to encourage new growth and vigour. Andrew’s advice is to prune just after flowering and to remove any dead, diseased or damaged wood. A dose of fertiliser high in nitrogen in late spring promotes healthy growth throughout the summer, and mulching will also help to retain moisture and suppress weeds.
Silver ghost (Eryngium giganteum) The ghostly shape and form of giant sea holly lingers long after its silvery sheen has faded to brown. Let this striking biennial self-seed to provide more plants year after year
A stark beauty The emergence of delicate, skeletal seed heads signals that winter dormancy approaches 26
Aster Michaelmas daisies will flower well into autumn before developing their delicate fluffy seed heads – a valuable food source for goldfinches and other garden birds
risp days and cool nights herald the beginning of the end for summer-flowering plants. Late summer favourites such as asters, rudbeckia and sedums will happily flower well into autumn in a good year, but a fall in temperature is their signal to switch to seed production so they can survive and multiply during the coming seasons. The landscape designer Piet Oudolf once said “a plant is only worth growing if it looks good when it’s dead”, a clear if somewhat exaggerated reference to those plants that produce attractive seed heads as well as ornamental flowers. While this attraction may be muted and skeletal rather than colourful and full bodied, there’s no denying the stark elegance of many plants at this time of year. As well as their obvious visual appeal, many seed heads are of particular value to wildlife. Goldfinches, greenfinches and siskins feed on the seed of perennials such as echinops, verbena and fennel while ladybirds and lacewings make their winter homes in the hollow stems. To appreciate the value of seed heads, hold back from wading in with secateurs to clear fading flowers. Instead, leave them to develop their structural beauty and character, which look even better with a gilding of frost or a misting of autumn dew. The feathery, gold-tinged seed heads of miscanthus and stipa positively glow in low autumn sunlight, while burnished cones of rudbeckia and echinacea appear as bold punctuation marks in the border. Let the bold, flat seed heads of sedums stand through autumn and winter and they’ll provide valuable structure and interest and protection for spring’s new shoots. ›
Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza yunnanensis) This tall, graceful member of the liquorice family is grown more for its attractive blue flowers and russet red seed heads than for its aromatic roots
Smyrnium The acid green flowers of this eye-catching biennial look a little like cow parsley and are much loved by flower arrangers. In autumn they turn into rich brown seed heads held on tall hollow stems
A new light November brings changes in colour, scent and form in a variety of plants that can be seen at their very best in this Hampshire winter garden
Pennisetum Sectaceum ‘Purpureum’, a perennial grass, provides superb winter interest
In autumn, Wood’s Dwarf (Nandina domesitca) develops a striking red-tinged foliage
ate autumn can seem an unpromising time for garden visiting, but at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens on a frosty November morning, the rewards are plentiful. Within the 180 acres of these grand formal gardens in Hampshire, is a dedicated winter garden, home to more than 650 plants chosen for their winter beauty. Colours, textures, fragrances and strong architectural shapes greet the visitor at every turn and, while elsewhere, deciduous trees and shrubs cast off their leaves and herbaceous plants retreat below ground in wait for spring. Here the season at its most beautiful. The Winter Garden is just a small part of the gardens planted by Sir Harold Hillier. Born into a family of horticulturalists and an avid collector of trees and shrubs, he purchased Jermyn’s House in Ampfield in 1952 with 65 acres of land as a permanent home for his collection. By his own admission Sir Harold considered the garden to be a home for his plants rather than a landscaped garden. As Andy MacBean, senior horticulturalist at the gardens explains, the Winter Garden was established specifically to dispel the perception of winter as a horticulturally dreary season. “Some deciduous species take on a completely different character in winter,” he says. “With the shrubby dogwoods, for instance, they have magnificent, exotically coloured, stems, but they aren’t revealed until all their leaves have dropped.” As you might expect with their vibrancy at this time of year, dogwoods are a vital element of the Winter Garden – their colours ranging from striking lime greens, through to oranges, reds and deep purplish crimsons that can look almost black. One of the most stunning reds is Siberian dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’), its vivid stems rising from a mass of green and white striped sedge, Carex morrowii ‘Fisher’s Form’, which is planted beneath it. Come January, the acid green Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ will be illuminated by a carpet of gleaming snowdrops that emerge at its feet. Similarly, the spreading bramble Rubus cockburnianus ‘Golden Vale’, which is a soft mound of bright ferny foliage in summer, will by late autumn have metamorphosed into a
The showy witch hazel Hamamelis ‘Danny’ emits a delicious spicy fragrance
The gardens’ founder, Sir Harold Hillier, who died in 1985
dense thicket of prickly crimson stems smeared with a chalky white bloom. This sculptural shrub is teamed with black-leaved Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, a tough, grass-like member of the asparagus family, and the narrow, upright yellowy green stems of Cornus stolonifera ‘White Gold’, a thrilling combination. Tree bark is another source of vital colour. “Deciduous trees with strongly coloured or textured bark are invaluable in the winter garden,” says Andy, “particularly the white-stemmed birches. These are good for reflecting light and particularly effective when planted with brightly coloured neighbours.” Acer griseum, the paperbark maple, creates a spectacle by itself, when its rich copper and chestnut-coloured bark begins to peel from the trunk, catching the winter sun as its loose ends of that resembles licking flames. Surprisingly decaying plants play their part too as an effective pairing of neatly clipped box balls against the tall,
bleached leaves of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’ proves. The spent flower spikes of herbaceous plants including Phlomis russeliana and forms of Sedum spectabile also remain in situ to catch frost and snow until the garden staff judge that they look too far gone, and then cut them down. In terms of wider maintenance, late autumn and early winter are not busiest time for the teams of gardeners. “Most of the critical jobs are done either before or after,” Andy explains. “During early autumn we remove fallen leaves and dead herbaceous material. We also cut down hellebore foliage so the new flowers can come through unhindered and mulch them with a mix of compost and manure. We also defoliate the bamboo to a height of about 1m and remove any weak or damaged canes so it looks good for the winter season.” Winter itself is a time for planting while spring is the busiest period. ‘The dogwoods and rubus are cut hard back in March or April because it’s the new growth that provides really strong stem colour for the following winter’s display,” ›
Andy MacBean’s recommended winter plants: West Himalayan birch (B. utilis var. jacquemontii)
Siberian dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’)
Daphne ‘Jacqueline Postill’ (Daphne bholua)
Striking white barked tree bearing catkins in early spring and graceful foliage that turns yellow in autumn
Upright deciduous shrub grown for its crimson stems, with dark green summer foliage and white flowers in spring
Evergreen winter-flowering shrub with very fragrant pink and white flowers opening from deep purpley pink buds
Pick the hips when they are almost fully coloured and before they start to shrivel
â€˘ Photography: Richard Faulks
Raising hips Now is the ideal time to germinate the seeds of this yearâ€™s rose hips and cultivate new plants
Photography: GAP Photos
rowing roses from seed is all about timing. Inside each osehip lies a cluster of seeds ready to burst into life. But these delicate seeds need to be exposed to the frost before they germinate. This process is called stratification, the practice of pretreating seeds to simulate natural winter conditions. This technique is useful should you want to raise a new generation of a special variety or rose, or one you have deliberately cross-pollinated.
Step 1: To begin gather your rosehips when they are almost fully coloured butmake sure it is before they have started to dry and shrivel.
Step 2: Bury the rose hips whole in a potful of moist sharp sand or grit and keep in them a warm place indoors for 3 to 4 weeks.
Step 3: Next, stand the pot outdoors and protect the surface from mice and birds, but not from frost. Seeds need exposure to frost to germinate.
Step 4: In late winter, bring the pot indoors and squeeze the seeds out of the hips into a bowl of water. Make sure you discard any that float.
Step 5: Sow the remaining seeds in pots. Lay your seeds on the surface of a pit filled with seed compost and cover well with a layer of grit.
Step 6: Place back outside under glass. In a few weeks, the seedlings will start to come through. Prick out into final pots when the first true leaves appear.
Walnuts (juglans regis)
Green walnuts can be picked in summer but it’s not until late autumn that the brown nut is ready to pick. From early November their wrinkled shells can be seen emerging like a chrysalis from its hard green husk. Tip: Make your own candied walnuts by toasting them in the oven for 5 mins then in a saucepan melt some sugar until it turns amber. Stir in the toasted walnut halves until covered and leave to set on baking paper. Sprinkle with sea salt and serve.
The late-autumn kitchen is defined by root vegetables, deep leafy greens and fruits and seeds ripened by frost
Celeriac (Apium graveolens var. rapaceum) Celeriac rises from the ground like a barnacled octopus with tangled tentacles, yet despite its strange appearance this is one of this season’s tastiest vegetables, with a subtle, celery-like flavour with nutty overtones. It’s a relative newcomer to our kitchens even though it has been growing in Britain for over 300 years. The first mention of celeriac in Britain was by the garden designer and writer Steven Switzer in 1728, and though for some reason it was largely overlooked in Britain for hundreds of years, it is now enjoying a real culinary renaissance. Tip: Celeriac discolours quickly when cut so immerse in a bowl of water, after chopping to size, with a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of white wine vinegar.
Beetroot (beetroot vulgaris) With their red tinged leaves standing proud above the soil, the beetroot plant offers a mere hint of the intensely sweet, deep purple, juicy bulbs that lie beneath the ground. It needn’t be confined to pickling either, it can be roasted, baked, fried and used in cakes. Even the leaves can be eaten. Tip: If you don’t like the bitter taste of beetroot, choose younger and smaller beets – the younger it is the sweeter the taste. Choose well-shaped, firm roots with fresh green tops. Misshapen roots can mean the beetroot will have a poor flavour.
Kale (Brassica oleracea)
Quince (cydonia oblonga) Like a Botticelli nude, the quince is a voluptuous, generously curved fruit with slightly puckered dimples – its rose-like fragrance strong enough to perfume an entire room. Although it’s impossible to eat raw, when baked or stewed in sugar the quince’s flesh becomes soft and sweet transforming into a translucent shade of pink. Tip: Add the chopped flesh of one quince to an apple pie to impart a delicious hint of honeyed perfume to the dish.
The blue-green or sometimes purple curly crimped leaves of kale is a winter kitchen staple – its tightly gathered fronds are perfectly formed to hold rich sauces and gravies. Descended from the same ancestor as cabbage and originally known as ‘cole’ or ‘colewort’ in England, it’s now most commonly called by its Scottish name, kale. This veg is able to survive harsh winters and grows in places where cabbage often can’t. It’s also a real nutritional powerhouse, being extremely rich in iron, antioxidants, calcium, vitamins A and C. Tip: You can make your own healthy kale crisps by removing the leaves from the stems, tear into bitesized pieces, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt, then bake for 10-15 mins in a 200°c oven.
Illustrations: Steven Hall
Oysters (ostrea edulis) Each British region produces slightly different tasting oysters. Loch Ryan oysters, for example, have a pure flavour and are particularly firm, while the West Mersea is lauded for its saline, silky plumpness and the Colchester oyster has a herby, sap-like taste. Native oysters, unlike the Pacific variety, are not best to eat in the summer months while they are spawning. The best time of year to eat them is September to April. Tip: If you’re serving oysters at home, microwave them for a few seconds to prize the shells open so you can easily insert a knife.
Buried treasure The simple staple that’s full of surprises, a haul of freshly dug potatoes is one of autumn’s best pleasures
ven at their most simple – boiled and salted with a freckling of butter – a serving of freshly dug maincrop potatoes is one of the best, understated delights of the autumn kitchen. A vital part of the British diet for more than 400 years, their versatility is matched by their nutritional value – abundant in carbohydrate and containing the highest protein content of any root or tuber. In fact, no other crop produces such quality nutrition more quickly and in a smaller space than the potato – up to 85 per cent of the plant is edible. They are also the star of some of our best-known regional recipes, from hot pot to pasties, and floddies to tattie scones. For instructions on how to make the latter, turn to page 39. ›
Winter potato salad Serves 4 800g small salad potatoes 3 tbsp cider wine vinegar 4 tbsp cold-pressed rapeseed oil 1 tsp wholegrain mustard Â˝ tsp caster sugar 2 tbsp chopped gherkins 2 tsp capers Salt and freshly ground black pepper 4 tbsp chopped fresh dill or chives 350g hot smoked trout Cut the potatoes in half and cook in a large pan of lightly salted boiling water until tender. Drain thoroughly and tip into a serving bowl. Whisk the vinegar, oil, mustard and sugar together. Add the gherkins and capers then season to taste. Pour the dressing over the warm potatoes. Sprinkle over the dill or chives and gently stir to mix. Flake the trout into bite-sized pieces and arrange on top of the potatoes. Serve immediately.
Potato, cabbage and caraway soup Serves 4 25g butter
1 litre vegetable stock
1 tbsp oil
250g green cabbage, finely sliced
400g floury potatoes, peeled and diced 1 onion, peeled and chopped 1 stick celery, chopped
1-2 tsp caraway seed Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melt the butter, along with the oil, in a large saucepan with a well-fitting lid. Add the potatoes, onion and celery and stir to coat in the oil and butter. Cover and cook over a gentle heat for 10 mins, stirring occasionally. Add just enough stock to cover the vegetables, cover and simmer for 15 mins. Remove from the heat and blend until smooth. Return to the pan and add the remaining stock. Add the cabbage and caraway seeds to the potatoes and gently reheat, stirring occasionally. Simmer gently for 10 mins, season to taste then serve.
Photography: Food & Foto; GAP Photos Recipes: Jacqueline Bellefontaine
Tattie scones Makes 6â€“8 100g plain flour, plus a little for rolling 1 tsp baking powder 400g cold mashed potato 60g melted butter, plus extra butter for greasing 3 tbsp snipped chives Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Make the mashed potatoes in advance and refrigerate until cooled. Sift the flour and baking powder together. Add the mash, butter, chives and a little seasoning and mix together to form a dough. Shape into a ball and flatten into an 18cm round. Cut into 6 or 8 wedges Lightly grease a heavy frying pan or flat griddle with a little melted butter and place over a moderate heat. Cook the scones for about 4 mins on each side until golden brown, then serve.
Flavour to savour Come in from the cold to a luxurious home-made pie, thick with filling and parcelled in buttery, melt-in-the mouth pastry
Individual beef wellingtons Makes 4 1 quantity of butter puff pastry (see pg 49) 4 x 3.5cm-thick centre-cut beef eye fillets salt and pepper 1 tbsp butter 2 tbsp truffle oil 4 large mushrooms, thinly sliced 1 shallot, finely chopped 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped 4 tbsp Gorgonzola 1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp water, to glaze
Make the butter puff pastry ahead and rest it as required. Preheat the oven to 220°C/gas mark 7. Season the beef with salt and pepper, then in a shallow roasting pan, roast the fillets in the middle of the oven for 10mins. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. In a heavy saucepan, the melt butter and truffle oil. Add the mushrooms, shallot and garlic, and stir until the mushrooms are lightly browned. Season, then transfer to a bowl to cool completely. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry into a 35cm square, then cut into four equal pieces. Put 1 tbsp Gorgonzola in the centre of each pastry square and top with one-quarter of the mushroom mixture. Top with a beef fillet, pressing it down gently. Wrap two opposite corners of puff pastry over the fillet, overlapping them. Seal seam with egg wash. Wrap remaining two corners of pastry over fillet and seal in same manner. Seal any gaps with egg wash and press pastry around fillet to enclose completely. Arrange each beef wellington, seam-side down, on a non-stick baking tray. Chill, loosely covered, for at least 1 hour. Cut two slits in the top of each pie using a sharp knife and brush with egg wash just before baking. Bake in a preheated oven 220°C /gas mark 7 for 20mins.
Steak, caramelised onion and red pepper mustard pies Makes 4 pies
1 tsp mustard powder
1 quantity of butter puff pastry (see page pg 49)
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper and 1tsp salt
1 large onion, peeled
400g beef topside, cubed
15g butter for caramelised onions
80g wholegrain mustard
10g light soft brown sugar
2 small cloves garlic, crushed
50g butter for the filling
120g chopped red pepper
70g standard plain flour
1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp water to glaze
350ml milk Make butter puff pastry ahead and rest as required. Divide the pastry in half and roll one half out to 2–4mm thick. Line 4 individual pie dishes with the pastry. Roll out the other half of the pastry to 3mm thick and cut into four equal pieces for your tops. Lightly dust each with flour, put between clingfilm, cover and place in the fridge until required. Slice the onion. Melt the butter in a frying pan and add the sugar. Add the onion to the butter and sugar mixture, and allow to soften. Leave to cool. To make the filling, melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and blend until a firm ball of dough is formed and the saucepan is left clean. Slowly add a little milk and mix in thoroughly. Keep adding small quantities of milk, mixing in thoroughly to prevent lumps. Once all the milk is added to make a sauce add the mustard powder, freshly ground black pepper and salt. Mix together and set aside until required. Cook the beef cubes in a saucepan. When the meat is cooked, add enough flour to soak up the juices. Heat the sauce over a moderate heat, stirring until it thickens. Add the mustard, garlic and red pepper. Mix until all the ingredients are blended. Add the sauce to the meat and allow to cool. Place some beef filling into each pie base and fill to three-quarters. Add a layer of onion, then brush the edge of each base with egg and place the lid on top. Seal edges and trim away any excess pastry. Cut slits in the top of each pie and brush the top with egg wash. Rest for an hour before baking. Bake in a preheated oven 220c/gas mark 7 for 30mins. Allow to cool for at 30mins before serving.
Salmon and wild rocket pie Serves 6 1 quantity of butter puff pastry (see pg 49) 700g piece of fresh salmon, skin and bones removed 150g wild rocket leaves 4 tbsp olive oil 120g chopped pancetta 1 onion, finely chopped 6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped 8 anchovy fillets Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, 140g orzo pasta Zest and juice of 2 lemons 200g feta, crumbled 40g flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped 1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp water, to glaze Make the butter puff pastry ahead and rest it as required. Roll out pastry to form a rectangle, approximately 5mm thick and the same length as the salmon. Place the pastry on a lined baking tray and refrigerate for 30 mins. Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil. Add rocket and blanch for 1min, then drop into a bowl of ice-cold water to refresh. Drain, squeeze out excess water and finely chop. Heat half the olive oil in a frying pan, adding pancetta and onion and stirring occasionally until soft. Add garlic and anchovies; stir until anchovies melt. Transfer to a bowl to cool slightly and then add rocket. Season with salt and pepper and set aside until required. Cook the orzo until al dente. Drain and return it to the pan adding lemon zest and juice, feta, the remaining olive oil and chopped parsley. Season to taste. Arrange orzo mix in an even layer lengthways along centre of rolled puff pastry. Sit salmon on top then place the rocket mix on top of the salmon. Brush one long edge of pastry with egg wash. With longest side facing you, roll pastry over to form a cylinder, joining longest sides together and rolling so the seam lies underneath. You can use any excess pastry to create a lattice pattern on the top, or simply brush pastry with egg wash, score the top with a knife to create portions and allow steam to escape. Chill for at least 10 mins. Bake in a preheated oven 230Â°C/ gas mark 8 for 20â€“30mins or until the pastry is crisp and golden-brown in colour.
Leek, potato and vintage Cheddar pie Makes a 22cm pie, serves 6
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 quantity of toasted walnut short pastry (see pg 49)
350ml soured cream
4 medium waxy potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
1 tbsp butter
180g vintage Cheddar, grated
4 large leeks, cleaned, halved lengthways and chopped into large pieces
1 bunch chives, finely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped Make toasted walnut short pastry ahead and rest it as required. Roll out to approximately 3mm thick to line a 22cm spring-form cake tin. Lightly oil the tin, then line with pastry. Place in fridge to chill. Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil, add the sliced potatoes, cook for 3–4mins until beginning to soften. Drain well and set aside. Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan. Add the chopped leek, season with salt and pepper and cook for 2–3mins. Add the garlic and cook for a further 3mins. Remove the pan from the heat and leave the leeks and garlic to cool. Mix together in a large bowl the soured cream, eggs, mustard, most of the Cheddar (reserving some for the top), the chives, parsley and a good pinch of salt. Stir in the cooled leeks and garlic. Remove the pastry-lined tin from the fridge. Cover the base of the pie with a single layer of potato, then spoon the creamy leek mixture over the potato, repeating until the potato and leek mixture is used up, with the last layer being the potato. Place the pie into a preheated oven 190°C/gas mark 5 and bake for 40–45mins. Scatter the remaining Cheddar over the top and return to the oven for 5–10mins.The filling should still be gooey, but hold its shape when cut into wedges.
Cornish pasties 3 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
500g standard plain flour
125g butter, chilled and diced
5 tbsp cold water
125g lard, diced
450g skirt or chuck steak, finely chopped
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper and 1 tsp salt, for the filling
Good pinch of salt, for the pastry
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 egg, beaten, to glaze
In a large mixing bowl, rub the butter, lard and salt into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Mix in the cold water to make a firm dough. Knead for 2 mins on a lightly floured surface. Cut into four equal pieces, mould each into a ball, cover with clingfilm and chill in the refrigerator for 20 mins. Mix together the filling ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. Roll out each piece of dough on a lightly floured surface until large enough to make a 23cm-diameter circle â€“ use a large dinner plate to trim it to shape.
200g swede, peeled and finely diced
Firmly pack a quarter of the filling in the centre of each circle. Brush the pasty all the way round the edge with beaten egg. Carefully draw up opposite sides so that they meet at the top, then pinch and crimp them together to seal. Lift the pasties on to a non-stick baking tray, cut two slits in the top of each pasty with a sharp knife and brush with the remaining egg to glaze. Bake in a preheated oven 200Â°C/gas mark 6 for 10 mins, then lower the heat to 180Â°C/gas mark 4 and bake for a further 45 mins until golden.
Making the pastry Puff pastry 300g strong flour 50g chilled butter 225g chilled butter for layering
Fish pie Make a 600ml pie dish, Serves 6
Half quantity of butter puff pastry
15g capers in brine, well washed
30g gherkins, finely chopped
1 tbsp sunflower oil
bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 leek, finely chopped 75g chorizo sausage, peeled and chopped into small cubes
250g white fish (such as cod, haddock, skinned and de-boned, cut into bite-sized pieces
150g cooked peeled prawns
20g plain flour
1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp water, to glaze
Make the butter puff pastry ahead and rest as required. In a large pan, heat the oil then cook the leek until softened. Add the chorizo and fry gently for 1–2 mins. Remove the pan from the heat and place the leek and chorizo on to a plate to cool. Set aside. In the same pan, melt the butter then add flour. Stir to a paste and stir in the milk a little at a time, to make a smooth white sauce. Roll out the pastry lid to fit the shape of the dish. Place the pastry on a tray and leave to cool in the fridge for 15–20mins. Add the capers, gherkins, parsley, fish and prawns, leek and chorizo to the cooled sauce. Stir through and pour the sauce into the pie dish. Wet the edges of the dish and position the cooled pastry lid on top. Seal the edge, trim off any excess and, using a fork, create a crimped pattern on the edge. Brush the top with egg then cut two slits in the top to allow steam to escape. Bake in a preheated oven 220°C/gas mark 7 for 20–25mins. • Recipes from Pie by Dean Brettschneider, published by Jacqui Small, £25.
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1 tsp lemon juice 150ml ice cold water pinch of salt
Sift the flour into a bowl and rub 50g of the butter into the flour. Stir the lemon juice into the water and add to the flour. Mix with a blunt knife and gradually add enough of the remaining water to form a soft dough. Lightly knead, for 2-3 mins to form into a round, cover with clingfilm and allow to rest for 5-10 mins. Roll out the dough into a 25cm square, approx 1cm thick. Place the chilled butter for layering between 2 sheets of greaseproof pastry and pound with a roiling pin to soften and squash into a 17cm square. Place the butter in the centre of the dough and fold each corner of the dough into the centre to encase the butter in an envelope, obtaining two layers of dough and one layer of butter. Roll the dough into a 30x15cm rectangle fold the ends of the dough into centre so that they meet and then fold in half again so that you have 4 layers. Seal the edges with the rolling pin and chill for 20 mins. Repeat the rolling and folding process 4 more times, chilling the block after each rolling.
Toasted walnut short pastry 50g walnuts, shelled
160g plain flour
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp caster sugar
50ml cold water
Preheat oven to 170c/gas mark 3. Place walnuts in an oven tray and lightly toast until amber in colour. Finely chop and set aside. Place flour, sugar, toasted walnuts, butter and salt into a large mixing bowl. Using your fingertips rub ingredients together until they resemble rough breadcrumbs. Add water and mix until a dough is formed. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for 30mins. Gently re-work pastry before using.
Sloes, also known as blackthorn berries, can be picked until the end of November
A season of sloes Adele Nozedar, author of The Hedgerow Handbook, on the seductive sloe and how to make the most of these surprisingly versatile autumn berries
ne of THE last fruits of autumn, sloes are the small, dusty purple berries or ‘drupes’ that grow on the blackthorn tree. Its plump, bluish form has ‘eat me’ written all over it, but you only try a raw sloe once – the astringent flesh of this tart little relative of the plum isn’t what your tastebuds had in mind. Like many of nature’s prizes, its pleasures are harder won than that. Infused in gin to make the eponymous liqueur, sloes sweeten and deepen the alcohol’s flavour, rendering it a most seductive and warming tipple. Sloes can be harvested into November and will last a good few months when they’re frozen. You’ll need to wear gloves to protect your hands from their savagely defensive thorns though – blackthorns were used extensively as peasant-proof field boundaries during the Enclosures in the 16th century for this reason – and be sure to discard any
fruits bearing holes or showing signs of excessive wrinkling. Sloe gin is simple to make by steeping 450g of the fruit (frozen for a couple of days to split the skins and let the juices and flavours through) with 350g of sugar in 750ml of the spirit. Just combine the three in a wide-necked bottle or jar, seal it and put it somewhere cool and dark for 8-10 weeks, turning occasionally and shaking weekly. But sloes can also be used in puddings, chutneys and even to flavour cheese. Gin-soaked sloes also make lovely chocolates or can be used again to make port. For a twist on sloe gin, sloe vodka uses exactly the same method. The sloe has long been part of our diet, but our ancient ancestors had to rely on burying theirs in straw-lined pits to ripen and sweeten them (they had to wait as long as we do for our gin). But it worked – a pit full of sloe stones was found near Glastonbury, left by satisfied Neolithic sloe-eaters.
Sloe port Makes 500ml 250g gin-soaked sloes 325ml red wine 100ml brandy 50g sugar Put all the ingredients except for the brandy into a clean wine bottle. Stand in a dark place for 8 weeks, and give the bottle a shake from time to time when you pass by. Taste every week, adding sugar if necessary. At the end of 8 weeks, add the brandy, mix well, and decant into a container. This tastes superb poured over ice with a splash of soda.
Sloe apple crumble Serves 6-8 150g sloes 150ml apple juice (approx) 1 tbsp golden caster sugar, plus more to taste 8 apples, peeled, cored and sliced 60g plain flour 40g crushed assorted nuts (leave some lumps) 100g dark brown soft sugar 110g unsalted butter, at room temperature 1 tbsp ground cinnamon or ground ginger Preheat the oven to 190Â°C/gas mark 5. Place the washed sloes into a saucepan and cover with apple juice and a little water. Bring to the boil, simmer for 15 mins until the berries break down, then sieve, removing all the stones. Add a sprinkle of golden caster sugar to taste Places the apples in the bottom of the dish, top with the sugar and the sloes. In another bowl place put the dry ingredients for the crumble, including the spice if using, and mix well together, then rub in the butter. Sprinkle the crumble over the top of the fruit and berries, top with more golden caster sugar, then bake in the oven for half an hour. â€ş
Fresh herbs and spices used with other natural ingredients have medicinal as well as culinary uses
Nature cures for winter Fragrant herbs and spices can create remedies to warm and heal
loves, cinnamon, ginger, pepper and cardamom have been valued for their medicinal as well as culinary qualities for generations. Rowan McOnegal, who runs courses in practical herbal medicine-making, is a firm believer in their effectiveness. “There is evidence that spices have been used in England since the Bronze Age,” she says. “There are words for ‘ginger’ in Anglo Saxon and Middle English and they were especially valuable as a way to keep warm in a damp climate.” After the Norman Conquest, spice consumption in Britain increased hugely. Spiced wine was taken as a digestive aid in the 16th century, and the spicy, alcoholic ‘wassail cup’, traditionally drunk in the
deepest winter to warm and cheer, has a similarly long history. And, with the exception of the Puritan era when all spicy foods were discouraged, they were established as a part of British cuisine. “Historically, spices have been used to aid digestion, help bowel function and ward off infections, colds and fevers,” says Rowan. “Often there was no clear distinction between their medicinal and culinary value. “In recent years,” she adds, “the increased appetite for highly spiced cuisine has led to a greater awareness in the value of spices in traditional, natural medicine.” Here, Rowan shares some of her own remedy recipes, from creams and oils to delicious teas.
Ginger, rosehip and orange cordial This warming cordial has decongestant properties and is packed with vitamins A, C, D and E. It will help the body to clear toxins, and is an excellent tonic for coughs, colds and sore throats. You can use different types of rosehips; usually Rosa canina (wild rose) are used, but Rosa rugosa and Rosa moyesii are popular too. Rosehips also have anti-inflammatory properties, so can be useful for osteoarthritis sufferers. 900g rosehips (mixed with hawthorn berries, if you like) 100ml orange juice (optional) 6 tbsp of runny honey 10 cloves 5 slices of ginger 1 tsp ground cinnamon Cover the rosehips (and hawthorns, if using) with enough water to cover them. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 20 mins. In order to ensure none of the tiny hairs from inside the fruit get into the syrup, pour into another pan through a sieve lined with muslin, and discard the pressed hips and haws. Add the honey and spices. Heat the mixture slowly, stirring until the honey is dissolved. Simmer very gently for 5 mins. Add the orange juice, if using. Leave to cool. Take a small cupful every 2 hours, adding hot water as you like to make a delicious soothing drink. This cordial is also is also tasty drizzled over ice cream and other desserts, or added to fruit in crumbles and pies. ›
History by hand Donald Jackson, one of the world’s most eminent calligraphers, shares the secrets and intricacies of an ancient skill that continues to create history
A Donald Jackson (above), the Queen’s senior illuminator for almost 50 years, at work on the first entirely handwritten and illustrated bible since the invention of the printing press
t around nine each morning, Donald Jackson walks the few yards from his home to his studio in Monmouth, in the Welsh borders. The whitewashed stone building where he works, The Forge Workshop, was once where Rolls-Royce owner Charles Rolls tinkered with prototypes for the aircraft engines he developed at the turn of the 20th century. The view from the workshop over the meadows is the same now as it was then. Donald Jackson is a calligrapher who makes his living from lettering and illustrating by hand. He is also the Queen’s senior illuminator, which means that for almost 50 years he has created the handwritten and illuminated documents for the Crown Office presented to each person who receives a peerage. The tools of his trade, in boxes, bottles and pots, cover his desk, and most have changed little over the centuries since the Middle Ages, when the use of calligraphy was at its most prolific. There are sticks of 100-year-old ink, phials of paints and incredibly thin and glossy sheets of 24-carat gold leaf so delicate it crumbles to the touch. There also lots of quills, made from the strong and supple feathers of geese, turkeys or swans. Each bird’s quill has a ›
A selection of Donald’s vibrant and vivid inks and paints
Delicate and precious, gold leaf is a vital part of the illuminating process
distinct characteristic: goose is the best for writing and swan for creating large capital letters. A turkey quill creates a more rigid pen, used for certain styles of drawing. For writing, Donald, who is right-handed, prefers a quill from the left wing of a domestic goose. “The wing curves into the wind,” he explains, “so the left wing sits more comfortably in the right hand because of the curve.” When he was an art student in the 1950s, Donald could buy goose quills from a London supplier, but today he makes his own. Local farmers drop round wings or bunches of feathers; the best quills, he says, come from old breeding stock geese because they are larger and tougher. The process of hardening quills involves soaking them overnight and covering them with warm sand, heated in a frying pan, until they turn clear. Using these same, ancient types of quill in calligraphy isn’t just a quaint, old-fashioned affectation. “Nothing else will make the same kind of mark as a quill,” Donald explains, “in the same way that nothing works as well as catgut for the strings of a violin.” So he cuts his own quills and mixes his own hand-ground pigments and paints, sometimes with egg yolk added to vermillion to give a depth and sheen that reflects the light with more intensity. For most projects, Donald works on specially made vellum (stretched calf skin) that has been rubbed – a dusty process known as “scrutching” – to make it smooth and silky. Vellum undulates, which means it isn’t flat the way paper is, and so any gold embellishment applied to its surface captures the light beautifully.
Each quill is cut to size by hand
All in the detail The margins of medieval bibles were often decorated with plants and animals with symbolic meanings. In The Saint John’s bible, all the species of flora and fauna depicted in the margins are native to the woods surrounding St John’s University or to the Welsh countryside near Donald Jackson’s home.
This lemur is actually a correcting device that recalls a technique used by early calligraphers. The animal is “pulling” a missing line, inserted later in the copy, to its correct place in the verse Only strong sturdy feathers are used. Those from goose, turkey and swans are best
Butterflies are a common Christian symbol. The stages of its life – caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly – corresponding to life, death, and resurrection
The jewel-like colours of the margin illustrations, like those in this chameleon, make stunning use of the traditional ink colours used in calligraphy
Terry Smith at his smokery in Friskney, Lincolnshire. Opposite: the weighted nets sunk in the water to catch and trap the eels
Great lengths Mysterious, fascinating and highly sought-after, eels flourish in the waterways and history of eastern England. For Terry Smith, fishing them is a way of life
Crabs and crayfish also thrive in these waterways
of miles away in the Sargasso Sea, half way between Bermuda and the West Indies (“although no one really knows where,” says Terry). The elvers (baby eels) are carried around 3,000 miles to Europe on the Gulf Stream, entering river estuaries and swimming upstream. Still only about 8cm long, they live in pools, streams and rivers and can survive, undisturbed, for up to 40 years, hibernating in the mud in the winter months before heading back to the Sargasso Sea to breed. But they have many natural predators – herons, otters, and pike – and the modernisation of drainage sluices means their passage is not as easy as it once was (although eel ‘passes’ are now
being installed in weirs, locks and sluices). Terry started selling eels at London’s Billingsgate Market in 1975. He made a reasonable living, but when farmed eels from Europe began to flood the market, the value dropped by a half, so he branched out. “Around 1990, I delivered my first load of eels to Holland, where they were going to be smoked. I saw the techniques in the traditional smoke houses at first hand. I was being asked for smoked eel all the time in England, so in 2001, we started Smith’s Smokery.” The smokery is a small wooden outbuilding with three kilns, next door to the neat bungalow where Terry lives with his wife Ann (who keeps the books).
“The kilns are very basic,” says Terry. “You light a fire with logs and sawdust, bring the temperature up high, then reduce the heat to let the eels ‘simmer’ and allow the smoke to flavour them.” Fish has been smoked or cured in Britain as far back as Anglo Saxon times as a means of preserving. Now of course, there are more efficient ways to keep produce fresh, but smoking has retained its popularity for its robust flavouring. Terry uses beech wood for smoking eels, and oak for other fish, such as salmon. “We don’t use any other flavouring or preservatives, apart from salt,” he says. Once the eels have been caught, Terry stores them alive in large tanks of clear ›
After cleaning, the fish are cured in salt
Beech wood is loaded into one of the smokery’s three kilns
Frequent checks are made to ensure the temperature remains steady
running water, to clean them through for two to three weeks. Before they are smoked, the eels are cured in salt, before being threaded whole on to long rods, which are suspended in the smoking kiln. They smoke 50 large ones, or up to 150 smaller ones at once. The process takes around three hours and requires frequent checks to make sure the temperature of the kiln remains steady. The smell is delicious: a combination of wood smoke and briny sea air. Once cool, the eels are sold whole, or filleted using a sharp knife to lift the flesh away from the surprisingly thick skin. For selling at farmers’ markets, the fillets are portioned and packed up, then transported
by the Smith’s team of three local staff. “Eel has a very rich flavour. For me, the best way is to slice it thin, and eat it with pepper and some lemon juice, or horseradish sauce, with salad and warm brown toast.” Terry fishes a wide area, from The Humber estuary to the Broads. “The East coast is a great area for eel fishing because of the sheer amount of water we have here,” he explains. “We fish in every type of water, from knee-deep fishing drains as wide as my kitchen, to the open seas.” One reason to vary the locations is to prevent the over-fishing of wild eels. It’s a controversial topic, but stocks are quoted as having dropped by 80 per cent since the
A freshly smoked batch is removed from the kiln
1980s, prompting the introduction of restrictions such as the type of nets used and their location, as well as close monitoring by the Environment Agency. Terry is not convinced by the gloomier figures: “I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and we’ve always had bad seasons. Last year’s rainy summer was one of the best I’ve ever known because eels love to move around in high, coloured water and there was a lot of it around. But we are very careful how we fish – I’m not here to catch every last eel. “We fish more than one area at once, and when numbers dwindle, we move on. Also, we do not catch elvers so this allows the water ways to remain well stocked.”
The spectacular parkland of Highclere Castle offered a peaceful retreat for injured soldiers sent back from the trenches
The Countess of Carnarvon and a group of recuperating soldiers relaxing at Highclere Castle in 1915
The call of duty For many of our historic houses, November’s Armistice Day commemorations recall the valuable contribution they made to Britain’s war efforts during WWI
ong, low-lit and impeccably grand, the library at Highclere Castle is a room designed for silence and solitude. Inside its walls, lined with ornately carved shelves and more than 5,000 leather-bound books, the sound of even a whisper is absorbed into its thick Oriental carpets and heavy velvet curtains. On either side of the magnificent fireplace are two large luxurious crimson sofas inviting you to sit, light the fire and spend a winter’s afternoon cocooned in the room’s comfort and ambience. Situated in 1,000 acres of wooded valley on the Berkshire/Hampshire borders in parkland designed by Capability Brown, Highclere has been the seat of the Earl of Carnarvon since 1679. And though this turreted Gothic castle with its huge, magnificent cedars may be familiar to many as the setting for the television drama Downton Abbey, this is a house with its own story to tell. Though its décor would have looked much as it does today, following the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Highclere became a very different place – a fully operational hospital treating wounded army officers sent home from the front. The library was allocated as the patients’ day room, and so here, under the same shelves of these old, heavy books, was
where patients would read, chatted and imbibe the room’s relaxing pleasures. The majority of injured troops during World War One were treated close the frontline, but many were sent back to Britain to receive further treatment or to convalesce, usually before being sent back to their battalion. But it soon became evident that the country’s hospitals were not equipped to cope with the escalating numbers of patients. To ease the burden, the war office requisitioned around 3,000 properties around the country, including some of England’s finest country houses, to turn into hospitals and convalescent homes – their multiple rooms able to provide vital bed space. According to the architectural historian Matthew Beckett, the therapeutic benefits these country estates provided were seen as crucial in the patients’ recovery. “The clean air and vast green space of their grounds were regarded as conducive to helping rest and recuperation,” he says. “Their peaceful, rural locations offering solace and respite from the horror of the front.” The majority of these emergency auxiliary hospitals were set up and by the Red Cross and staffed by volunteers, though not all the hospitals were government requisitions. ›
• Words/design: Emma Kendell • Photography: Tom Bailey
Garden lodgings An insect ‘hotel’ made from boxes stuffed with natural materials offers a safe place for winter hibernation
nsects are a crucial part of the garden’s ecosystem: without them most fruit wouldn’t crop, flowers wouldn’t seed and many birds would go hungry. A typical garden supports about 2,000 of Britain’s 27,000 insect species, and an insect ‘hotel’ built from wooden boxes filled with natural materials will provide them with more of the habitat they need to safely over-winter, nest and shelter from predators. But this isn’t just a benevolent project: as well as enriching the web of life within your garden, by creating environments favoured by beneficial insects – particularly solitary bees, ladybirds and lacewings – your plants will benefit from increased pollination and natural pest-control. The hotel will afford your family some up-close wildlife-watching opportunities too.
Building an insect hotel Most of the materials needed to fill the insect hotel can be gathered on an autumn walk
Gather materials Old wooden boxes create a strong skeleton for the hotel: junk shops are the best source if a search of your shed doesnâ€™t yield a forgotten stack. The majority of the other materials needed can be gathered from the countryside. Pinecones, teasel heads, sticks, bark, old wood, dried grass and dead leaves will all be found on a winterâ€™s walk. The golden stems of last summerâ€™s hogweed provide the necessary hollow tubes. These sturdy cousins of cow-parsley are easy to spot on
road- and field-side verges at this time of year, their distinctive seedheads reaching above the undergrowth. Do remove some heads in situ so seeds are left to grow future generations. Any other natural materials that will create a cranny or crevice are also suitable: a wide variety will attract a diverse range of residents. A hunt around the garden or a reclamation yard will offer further habitat matter such as old planks, logs, ventilation bricks, drainpipes and roof slates.
Who will inhabit your house?
Hollow stems cut to the same length and holes drilled in logs provide nesting sites for solitary bees
Holes of varying diameters will attract different bee species. Sealed ends signify occupation
Teasel seedheads provide a wealth of individual chambers for a variety of tiny insects
Maggie Hambling’s ‘Scallop’ sculpture (2003) was erected on Aldeburgh beach as a tribute to Britten
Stories from the sea Benjamin Brittenâ€™s music was shaped by the landscape and temperament of his beloved Suffolk coastline, a place where his legacy remains embedded a century after his birth Benjamin Britten, photographed on Aldeburgh beach, 1964
Photography: Alamy; Getty Images; Visit England; www.britten100.org-Hans Wild; Matthew Wilkinson
Below: John Piper’s Benjamin Britten memorial window in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Aldeburgh. Right: in rehearsal with the London Symphony Orchestra, 1963
putting their work on at home. “Why not make our own festival?” said Pears. “With a few concerts given by friends? Why not have an Aldeburgh Festival?” The inaugural festival took place in 1948 and would be held every year in June since then. Its main venue was the town’s Jubilee Hall not far from Britten’s home, where his latest opera Albert Herring, set in a fictional version of the Suffolk village of Yoxford, was staged. The ensuing years found the festival expanding into neighbouring villages, including Orford and Framlingham. Britten wrote many new works for these local venues. His trio of operas Church Parables were composed for Orford Church, while his children’s opera Let’s Make An Opera was staged in the village of Iken. Eventually Britten overcame the lack of a venue befitting these compositions by converting an old malthouse into a concert hall in Snape. The Snape Maltings venue burnt down in 1969 but was rebuilt within a year and saw the premiere of Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice, in 1973. For the past 65 years world-class musicians have flocked to the festival – Janet Baker, Rostropovich, Previn, Rattle, Brendel – while countless new operas and other masterpieces have had their first airing in a little pocket of the English coastline. There is no more powerful testament to Britten’s intense connection with the surroundings into which he was born.
Britten died in 1976 and is buried in the graveyard of the Aldeburgh parish church. In a way he has never quite departed. The Red House, to which he and Pears moved in 1957, is open to the public, and the music is annually reinvoked by the festival. And his spirit lives on in the constant interplay of water and shingle that will have been the familiar sound of his childhood. The beach which was the setting for the Aldeburgh Festival’s open-air Peter Grimes in this centenary of his birth, but a few hundred yards to the north there is a more permanent memorial not of Britten’s making. The sculptor Maggi Hambling, also from Suffolk, was commissioned to create a tribute to the town’s most celebrated resident. Scallop stands four metres high on the shingle to the north end of Aldeburgh, evoking the sea like a ship’s sail. On it can be read the words from Britten’s most local opera: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.” • Words : Jasper Rees
Contacts For more information on the centenary celebrations of Brittens birth, visit www.brittenaldeburgh.co.uk
Benjamin Britten’s music was infused by the landscape and temperament of his beloved Suffolk
“In ceaseless motion comes and goes the tide, flowing it fills the channel broad and wide Then back to sea with strong majestic sweep, it rolls in ebb yet terrible and deep” Montagu Slater, Peter Grimes
Bass Rock, Firth of Forth, East Lothian Bass Rock, a mile and a half off shore in the Firth of Forth in East Lothian and just seven acres in extent, has been home to a hermitage, a chapel, a castle, a garrison of 100 soldiers and a feared prison. Robert Louis Stevenson spent several summer holidays at a farm opposite the Bass as a youth, and in his novel Catriona had his hero David Balfour
imprisoned there. The Stevenson family connection with the island was cemented in 1902 when its lighthouse was built by Robert Louisâ€™ cousins Charles and David. The last keepers left in 1988 when it was automated, since when the island has been left to the birds â€“ 55,482 pairs of northern gannets, at the last count in 2009.
Bass Rock North Sea
An island of islands A winter expedition to one of Britain’s 800 tiny islands offers a unique insight into the breadth and depth of character in the archipelago, says Dixe Wills
HERE’S NOTHING LIKE the quickening of the pulse that comes from leaping from a diminutive ferry on to a barnacle-covered quay, or ambling across a seaweed-strewn causeway to explore a brand new world in miniature. The sense of freedom and escape that a tiny island can imbue upon the visitor is almost palpable. It’s fortunate then that Britain is not only an island nation but a nation of islands. According to the Ordnance Survey, the country boasts no fewer than 6,289 islands. Many of these, of course, are mere rocks poking out from the waves but that still leaves just over 800 that are proper fully-fledged isles (though the vast majority of those are still rather bijou). The surprise is that so many of them are accessible to the public. And the good news for those who live far from the coast is that they’re ›
not all in the sea either – you can land on some fascinating little islands in the middle of lakes, lochs and rivers. Earlier generations have also felt the pull of the tiny island, which is why so many of them have come to be adorned with castles, abbeys, chapels, standing stones, ancient tombs, smugglers’ tunnels and other romantic embellishments in various states of ruination. Along with our forebears have come treasure chests of tales – some woefully improbable, others too bizarre not to be true. Who would have guessed, for instance, that Scotland was briefly ruled from an obscure island on the River Dee once owned by someone called Archibald the Grim? Or that Jesus was said to have spent time on Cornwall’s Looe Island while his great uncle conducted some business with tin miners? Then there’s the extraordinary wildlife that often graces tiny islands. Suﬀolk’s Havergate Island is famous for its avocets and hares; inquisitive puﬃns hang out with visitors on Lunga in the Treshnish Isles; while Bass Rock near North Berwick plays host to 55,000 pairs of gannets, making it the bird’s largest single-rock colony on the planet and turning the dark rock as white as snow. Seal lovers can head for any number of little islands around the coast from Samson in the Isles of Scilly up to the Holm of Papay in Orkney (breaking only for a nose around the island’s 5,000-year-old burial cairn). While you may think that the latter months of the calendar are not the time of the year to be jumping into a boat and going on a tiny island adventure, there are many reasons why autumn and winter make for excellent seasons in which to visit one. By avoiding the summer rush, you increase the chances of having the place all to yourself. You may still catch the tail end of summer flocks, and in winter birds from Scandinavia, Siberia and all points north can often be found on islands, preferring their relative quietness to the mainland. Wait until winter to visit Cribinau oﬀ Anglesey, Piel Island on the Cumbrian coast or Inchcailloch on Loch Lomond and you’ll be rewarded with views of snow-capped mountains. And who can resist the timeless allure of an isle rising out of an autumnal mist? Here’s seven possibilities to get you started. ›
Piel Island, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria Not every tiny island has its own royal family but a tradition going back to Victorian times invests Piel island’s pub landlord and landlady with the titles king and queen. They reign over a 52-acre isle whose castle was once the second-largest building in Britain after the Tower of London. The fortress has seen a good deal of history pass this way, including the last full-scale invasion of England, when several thousand mercenaries landed here in 1487 in a doomed bid to put the pretender Lambert Simnel on the throne. In recent years the only way of staying on the island was to camp here – a glorious option since you can pitch your tent in the outer bailey of the castle. But after years of careful renovation, the pub has recently re-opened, meaning there are now cosy well-appointed rooms to hole up in on chilly winter evenings. Most would agree though that the true glory of Piel comes from its view. The astonishing panorama stretches from Barrow up to the Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District and around the Fylde coast all the way to the Blackpool Tower. Double bed and breakfast £85; bunkhouse (sleeps 4) £40; pielisland.co.uk; 07516 453 784
Left: the writer at her home, near Ambleside, circa 1900
The lost art of Beatrix Potter Hidden for years and revealing groundbreaking achievements in natural history, a remarkable collection of illustrations by the children’s author has finally gone on show A watercolour by Beatrix Potter of flammulina velutipes or velvet shank, from a specimen collected at Strath Braan, Perthshire, 1892
e remember her as a story teller and an artist. We recall her endearing characters, the charm and vibrancy of her watercolour illustrations and the affectionate absorption with which we leafed the stiff pages of her “little books”. It was Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and Squirrel Nutkin who made Beatrix Potter famous – she complemented her 23 “little books” with marketing genius, the management of 17 Lake District farms and unprecedented success in breeding Herdwick sheep. Now, 70 years after Beatrix’s death, we learn that she was also a scientist ahead of her time, making observations of the natural world, specifically fungi and lichens, which although unrecognised for half a century are now hailed by experts as groundbreaking. “She had an enquiring mind and excellent observational skills,” says Dr Elizabeth Rollinson, the executive secretary of London’s Linnean Society, the UK’s foremost natural history society, to which Potter submitted her one research paper. “She was drawing things that other people only discovered 40 or 50 years later.” Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866 and had a straight-laced upbringing, according to biographer Judy Taylor. Her parents were keen Unitarian church goers and
A fossil of giant water scorpion, from a specimen collected at Lennel, Berwickshire, 1895
Watercolour of Psathyrella conopilus, from a specimen found at Ford, Northumberland, 1894
“Most people, after one success, are so cringingly afraid of doing less well that they rub all the edge off their subsequent work” Beatrix Potter largely left their daughter to solitary amusement. “As with all Victorian girls of her class she was taught at home by a governess and had no contact with other children,” Taylor says. “What’s so strange is that she and her brother Bertram were allowed to keep pets, newts, frogs, bats, a snake and a rabbit Beatrix called Peter Piper, in their nursery.” Summers were more interesting, spent with the family in Perthshire or Cumbria, and a sketchbook dated 1875 contains what are thought to be her first illustrations of wildlife. By the age of 19, Potter was painting from a microscope and would spend hours observing and drawing animals including her collection of insects, a hedgehog and her pet rabbit Benjamin Bouncer. Her earliest known drawing of a fungus – the verdigris toadstool – is dated 1887. It was fungi that fascinated Potter most.
She was attracted by the colours and fungus’ fleeting nature – the way mushrooms, toadstools and lichens appeared overnight apparently from nothing. She drew specimens sent to her by the naturalist Charles McIntosh, who was impressed with her talent, and sought his expertise to make her drawings as accurate as possible. She depicted specimens she collected herself, including what are thought to be the first drawings of the fungus responsible for larch canker. Through illustration she also identified the asexual reproduction of fungi – a major breakthrough in mycological research not recorded officially for another 100 years. Scientists knew that spores were dispersed by wind but not that the mycelium of a fungus – its generator – could break up into smaller parts enabling it to spread on the backs of insects and create new colonies. ›
A Walk at Milk Wood It was in the sea-sprayed streets of Laugharne that Dylan Thomas wrote his magical and best-known poem
n the milky sunshine of a winter’s day the Carmarthenshire town of Laugharne – pronounced larn – is a sleepy place. Quiet streets drop to the River Taf as it rounds a final curve before reaching the sea. A gentle mist clings to the wide estuary and the only sounds are the calls of oystercatchers and curlews. The poet Dylan Thomas, who died 60 years ago this month, aged just 39, made this landscape famous and a five-mile, figure-of-eight walk explores the town and “heron-priested shore” that inspired his work. The route starts by Laugharne Castle and as you leave the car park the fort’s stone walls, described by Thomas as “brown as owls”, rise to your left. There’s been a castle here since 1116 but the crumbling ramparts you see now date ›
Clockwise from left: The Boathouse, Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas spent the final four years of his life; Laugharne Castle, the starting point of the walk; Dylan Thomas photographed in 1946
Right: a map of the walkâ€™s circular route. Below: the Boathouse offers wonderful views of the Taf estuary and the Gower beyond
Below: The interior of Thomas’ ‘writing shed’, where he wrote Under Milk Wood. Below right: Laugharne, said to be the inspiration for the fictional town of Llareggub in Under Milk Wood.
“Quite early one morning in the winter in Wales, by the sea that was lying down still and green as grass after a night of tar-black howling and rolling” Dylan Thomas, Quite Early One Morning from building in medieval and Tudor times, most notably by Sir John Perrot. Rumoured to be an illegitimate son of Henry VIII, whom he strongly resembled, Sir John also lends his name to the wooded hill visited later on this walk. Set into the castle walls is a gazebo where Thomas composed a collection of stories called A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog. Born in Swansea in 1914, the writer’s first book, 18 Poems, was published just before his 20th birthday – the same year that he first visited Laugharne. He described it then as “the strangest town in Wales” yet for the rest of his life he returned again and again. A left turn uphill from the riverside path leads to Seaview, where Thomas once lived with his wife Caitlin. They married in 1937 and lived at Eros on Gosport Street before moving here, but it was their third and final home in Laugharne, the Boathouse, that is most famous. A lane called Dylan’s Walk leads along the cliff side to the Boathouse and on the way you’ll discover the poet’s Writing Shed. Built as a garage in 1925 for the town’s first motorcar, Thomas turned it into a “bard’s-bothy” by installing a desk, bookcase and stove for chill winter days. He described it as “his house on stilts high among beaks, And palavers of birds” and the views across the estuary and to Sir John’s Hill inspired many poems. Through a pane in the door you can see the “wordsplashed hut” as it looked when Thomas wrote here, with a jacket
slung over the chair, screwed-up paper strewn across the floor, and a beer bottle on the table. The poet had a legendary appetite for alcohol, developed during his reporter days in Swansea, and he once declared, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record”. Thomas worked on some of his most popular pieces here, including Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices. It depicts a day in the life of a cast of colourful characters in the fictional town of Llareggub, where “The sea lolls, laps and idles in, with fishes sleeping in its lap”. A number of Welsh seaside towns shaped Thomas’ ideas for Llareggub – Mumbles near Swansea, Ferryside in Carmarthenshire, New Quay in Ceredigion – but it was the “timeless, beautiful, barmy (both spellings) town” of Laugharne that was his strongest influence. A short walk later, the roof of the Boathouse appears below. Steps descend to the whitewashed cottage, tucked low into the sandstone cliffs with an unbroken panorama across the Taf estuary. The building dates from the 1800s and what is now the back terrace would once have been a small harbour. A generous patron, Margaret Taylor, bought it for the writer and in 1949 the Thomas family moved in to the “seashaken house, On a breakneck of rocks”. Caitlin was pregnant with their third child, and their son Llewelyn and daughter Aeronwy soon had a new brother, Colm. ›
There are now around 500 wild ponies living on Exmoor – their existence was first recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086
Wild guardians They have survived the harshest winters and near extinction, and now Exmoor’s ponies are a vital, thriving asset to its landscape
or those whose only experience of Somerset and Devon is during the summer holidays, winter on Exmoor presents a striking contrast. In his 1869 novel Lorna Doone, described as “a romance of Exmoor”, RD Blackmore described the typical winter conditions as “a frost beginning with a black east wind, after days of raw cold fog, and then on the third night of the frost, at this very time of year [December], such a snow… as killed half of the sheep”. This is the environment in which the Exmoor ponies contend, and the conditions for which hundreds of years of breeding have left these animals exceptionally well-equipped. “You’ll see ponies standing out on the moor, absolutely covered with snow,” says Sue McGeever, secretary of the Exmoor
Pony Society. “They’ll be quite happily pawing at the ground and finding herbage such as heather and rushes to eat.” Exmoor Ponies have been living and breeding on the Exmoor uplands since at least the days of the Norman Conquest; there are records of their presence here in the Domesday Book of 1086, though legend has it that Exmoors pulled the chariot of Boudica. A later landmark in the breed’s history came in 1818 when Sir Richard Acland, the last warden of the Exmoor Royal Forest, brought a herd of 400 ponies to Winsmoor Hill. Some of the descendants of this so-called ‘anchor’ herd of Exmoors still live in the area. As a breed they have faced serious challenges. The Second World War in particular had a devastating impact on numbers – when Exmoor became a military training-ground, many were ›
killed by gunfire or shelling. As food shortages started to bite, others were stolen and used for meat. By the time war ended in 1945, only 50 Exmoor ponies remained. These days, around 500 ponies inhabit the moors in 20 ‘free-living’ herds, each owned by an Exmoor farmer and with specific grazing rights to particular areas of common. What makes the Exmoor distinct from other breeds, such as Dartmoor ponies, is their homogeneity – they share a common lineage. They have a number of key characteristics: dark legs, an absence of white markings and the so-called ‘mealy nose’ (“just as if she had dipped it in a bucket of meal,” as the writer Muriel Wace put it). Other features are more obviously environmental responses; the fan of shorter hairs at the top of the tail that act as a ‘snow-chute’; the hooded eyes that offer protection from rain and wind; and the double-layered coat, with a greasy outer that Sue likens to a wax jacket with a soft, warm inner (“like thermal underwear”). While the ponies are clearly a product of their environment, to a certain extent, the reverse is also true. The ponies that Exmoor made also helped to make Exmoor. “They’re exceptionally good conservation grazers,” Sue explains. “Exmoor is like it is now because of the way that the ponies have grazed it.” The animals have very strong teeth and undiscriminating appetites – they will happily tuck into gorse, purple moor grass, soft rush brambles and thistles. Much of what they don’t eat, they helpfully trample underfoot. A herd will typically comprise
one or two stallions, a number of breeding mares, older mares that are primarily as grazers, and the younger ponies who represent the herd’s future breeding stock. By keeping tough grasses and scrub under control, a diverse range of plants and animals are able to flourish in the undergrowth. The longevity of these herds is no accident: the Exmoor Pony Society has carefully managed breeding since 1921. Monitoring bloodlines and genetic analysis is on-going, and they now advise breeders wishing to safeguard or re-introduce certain bloodlines to their herds. “It’s very important that we keep all the traits, characteristics and survival instincts that the ponies have,” explains Sue. “For example, you may get what would be termed a ‘parrot-mouth’ (a condition in which the pony’s jaw isn’t straight). In normal circumstances, left to their own devices, those ponies probably wouldn’t survive on the moor.” As the animals are fundamentally wild, keeping track of breeding matters can be a challenge. As such, the society uses DNA sampling to verify the parentage of each foal so their stud-book is as accurate as it possibly. “There’s about 4,000 [Exmoor] ponies in the world now,” says Sue McGeever. “We now have free-living herds not only on Exmoor but also on areas of moorland around the country. “From a conservation point of view, if ever an illness of some type struck Exmoor it’d be very important that we had ponies that knew how to live free and could be
brought back to Exmoor to re-establish the blood-line. And there are ponies being bred in Germany and Sweden and Canada – that is really important.” Ponies that aren’t returned to the moor are re-homed, typically as conservation grazers elsewhere or as riding ponies. The Moorland Mousie Trust, founded in 1998, helps to find homes on grazing sites for those ponies – mostly colts – who can’t be accommodated by the moorland herds. They also provide visitors with an opportunity to meet and ride the animals at the Exmoor Pony Centre in Dulverton. The ponies are a popular draw for visitors to the region, and Sue is in no doubt as to the secret of their appeal. “Firstly, they are absolutely super-looking ponies. They’re full of character. To see them on the moor, it’s just spectacular. And they’re infectious. It’s very difficult to have one of them – most people will say well, we’ll get an Exmoor pony, and the next minute they’ve got two.” It’s hard not to agree. The charismatic Exmoor is an icon of south-west England; more than that, it’s part of Britain’s natural heritage. The Exmoors have endured thousands of bleak and beautiful winters on those dramatic uplands. May they endure many more. • Words: Richard Smythe
CONTACT Exmoor Pony Society, www.exmoorponysociety.org.uk
Photography: Alamy, Getty, Bob Langrish
The tale of Moorland Mousie The charm of the Exmoor pony was famously captured in the 1929 children’s book: Moorland Mousie, the ‘autobiography’ of an Exmoor pony. Written by Muriel Wace under the pseudonym ‘Golden Gorse’, it introduced a generation of boys and girls to the breed – and to the severe beauty of Exmoor itself. “The wide, rolling hills of heather, grass and bracken; the deep combes, each with its own busy little stream
hurrying down to the lowlands; the huge, ancient oaks; the high sheltering beech-hedges – how much happiness we ponies got from them all,” ‘Mousie’ recalls. Even in midwinter, Mousie finds the landscape enchanting (“every shade of brown and grey, a beautiful harmony”). “It is hard to pick up a living on Exmoor,” the young pony notes gravely. “Of animals cared for by man, only the sheep and the ponies can do it.”
voices “The fen ﬁelds seen from my village are a soft and glistening skin, an oﬀering of earth, thin and damp but vividly alive”
A fascination for fields
Photography: Alamy Illustration: Steven Hall
Tim Dee, author of acclaimed new book Four Fields, reflects on the patch of ground where his obsession began
flat field in eastern England on a winter’s day. The ruined grass of the year snapped and broken to the ground. The wind wolfish from the east blueing my knuckles. Next to nothing to look at – but here I am again, looking. I hardly know a wild place. I’m not actually sure that you can know a wild place. Not knowing how to be in a rainforest, I couldn’t wait to get out of the only one I have ever been in. I am equally frightened of the open sea. The places where I find myself are the fields of southern England. My plots and theirs overlap. I have fallen deeply for one that begins at the bottom of my garden in the Cambridgeshire fens. For most of us, fields are where the non-urban world is most manifest. Fields are obvious in this way but being obvious they are also overlooked. Because they are everywhere we often don’t notice them. The word field is almost as big and elusive as its neighbour nature. In their ubiquity and endless difference, they are places of continuity and of security but also of risk and of transformation. Fields are ordinary, universal, tamed and practical, but they are also none of those things or their opposite; they are strange, particular, wild, and as far beyond money as human-inflected things can be. Kept places keep us in all sorts of ways. Fields are pay dirt but also the greatest land art on the globe. There is a story that John Ruskin once took a plough into an art lecture at Oxford to ensure his students – who, like me, might have known the plough of the night sky better – would recognise what one of the
most effective sculptural tools ever invented by man looked like. The fen fields seen from my village are a soft and glistening skin, an offering of earth, thin and damp but vividly alive. The green squares of the farms of Burwell, Reach and Swaffham Prior are chopped and trimmed by their hedges and ditches and, rolled hard under the wide sky, they recede like Euclid’s geometry or Alice’s chessboard. Descending towards them from my home on the slightest of rises, you arrive feeling as if buried by the near edge of things. I have spent the last four years visiting this and other fields and writing about them. As you approach the field at Burwell Fen there is not much to look at. It is the same closer up. A flat and surrendered run of ground. But the field, once a stretch of fenland, has worked its way into my life, and its hundred acres or so have come to stand for the world. Fields can be walked, mapped, mown and known. Each has lived, at least for some time, as an apparently plain place but also as a living sheet on which people sketched or screened various dreams for a while. Yet regardless of their fieldworkers’ attentions, each also holds on to its own life, and remains itself even as it is harvested or grazed, preserved or abandoned. All fields are places of outlasting transience. They reset time. Each has a past but each lives in the present; each has a biography but is still a work in progress. Even in the winter, because of the lifting and carrying of water away, the once great swamp of the fens is now mostly dry. Slub – the evocative fen word for mud – is not what it once was. Drains beneath the grass vein the ground, while pumps and ditches and a thousand cuts
Ruskin once took a plough into a lecture to ensure his students would recognise one of the most effective sculptural tools invented
(reaches, eaus and lodes, conduits and leams, fosses and sewers, washes and sluices) fetch rain and river water from the fields and beyond and bear it away. For the fens to function as farmable land, their water must be sent somewhere else and turned into the sea’s problem. The pumping is non-stop; this country must bail itself out forever if it is to remain country; if the sea broke in and came down from where it rides now, fifty miles to the north, all would drown. To walk on the flat worn grass of Burwell Fen in the winter is to cross a seabed. Both the North Sea at the Wash and the nearby water are over my head. The zero contour circles the fen and the land dips further at its centre to lie six and a half feet below sea level, the lowest place for miles. To step below the waterline in these fields is to sense a keeping back of a wetter truth across the wider fens: it was once sea here and then was kept from being always-sea by being sometimes-sea, and part of the great porous edge-of-sea that the fens were until we bested them, or tried to. The flat field grows more interesting. The wringing of water from the spongy fens and its portage away has put them further under. After hundreds of years of drainage the land has shrunk and lies against nature, below the sea but also below the rivers and drains that take its water away. The soil is drying and wasting, six feet every sixty years: ‘by the height of a man’ it was said sixty years ago, ‘in the life of a man’. Yet even in the time I have known them, the fens ran wet for part of every year and spread their own inland floodlit waters. That we still think of them as fens declares the dripping fact. And this is still a wet place in waiting. As fast as we build our dams the fens run back, rippling without contours, flat but edgy, a place where planned outcomes never quite happen and where human intentions forever come up against falling water. No one has nailed them. In an otherwise locked-down southern England, they seem unfinished, you might say, or unfished. Four Fields is published by Jonathan Cape
The poet, playwright and broadcaster Ian McMillan introduces and reflects on a favourite poem for the time of year Introduction – The great Scottish poet George Mackay Brown knew the value of staying put, of knowing where your horizons are, of being able to tell simply by gazing at the sky when the seasons are beginning to change. Except for few sojourns to the mainland he lived all his life in the town of Stromness on the Orkney Islands, and his poems reflect the way Orcadians speak, and think, and understand their lives as part of a continuum with the sky and the sea. One of his great outdoor poems is The Hawk, from The Year of the Whale, published in 1965; a poem that for me seems to be bathed in an autumnal light.
The Hawk On Sunday the hawk fell on Bigging And a chicken screamed Lost in its own little snowstorm. And on Monday he fell on the moor And the Field Club Raised a hundred silent prisms. And on Tuesday he fell on the hill And the happy lamb Never knew why the loud collie straddled him. And on Wednesday he fell on a bush And the blackbird Laid by his little flute for the last time. And on Thursday he fell on Cleat And peerie Tom’s rabbit Swung in a single arc from shore to hill. And on Friday he fell on a ditch But the questing cat, That rival, rampant, fluttered his flame. And on Saturday he fell on Bigging And Jock lowered his gun And nailed a small wing over the corn. George Mackay Brown, 1921 – 1996
Reflection – The poem wraps itself around a week in the life of the hawk and, as ever, the images, visual and aural, are what stay in the mind: the little snowstorm, the blackbird laying by his little flute, and the rat concentrated into the eye and the tooth. The hawk here is busy one, a hawk with industry rather than majesty. This isn’t Dylan Thomas’s bird from Over St John’s Hill: “Over St John’s Hill the hawk on fire hangs still/in a hoisted cloud at drop of dusk…” This hawk swings a rabbit “in a single arc from shore to hill”. Behind Mackay Brown’s few lines the Orkney Islands wait, looming. Simple lines like “moor” and “bush” and “hill” ring with promise, and they come alive when the hawk flies over them, and falls on to them, and avoids the guns. It seems to me that real life is more concentrated on an island; the landscape seems sharper, the seasons turn more sharply, the humans are small and in the grip of the stone and the water and the endless weather. The hawk defines the place as it flies, and as it falls. And the final act of cruel kindness by Jock, after the cat injures the hawk, defines the bittersweet lot of autumn, and of life.
Reproduced with the kind permission of the estate of George Mackay Brown
A song for the season