At last, November 2nd, a dense grey scene greeted me as I drew the upstairs bedroom curtains. But not without hope, as it had the faintest hint of colour seeping through, due East. As always, the next job in my early morning circuit of routines, before the tea gets made, is nipping outside to use the watering can. I could feel the chill in the still air, but it was as I grabbed the plastic handle, that it was confirmed – tiny ice crystals coated the surface. Our first, and later than often, frost of the year. Autumn, or is that winter, proper has begun.
This has coincided with a short run of a few days of lovely weather, for the time of year, with fabulous cloud scenes and sunrises. Wonderful for finishing off the big garden tidy up, and leaf removal from yard and paths, although this year, this will extend beyond bonfire night, as increasingly happens these days. October has followed in September’s footsteps and been significantly warmer than the rolling 30 year average.
We missed the heavy deluges of October’s penultimate week, having nipped up for a wonderful 3 days of walking around Clun. Although we’re both a Shropshire lad and gal, we’ve only ever driven through this scenery, and it was a delight to discover that walking from our cottage base, we could be up and onto Offas’ Dyke in around 30 minutes, and the whole area is (still) wonderfully quiet and peaceful. The fact we managed 4 separate longish walks along paths and country lanes, totalling maybe 9 hours, without seeing another walker, or cyclist, and only being passed by 3 cars, confirmed that it’s still exactly as A.E. Housman famously recorded in one of his poem’s from “A Shropshire Lad”, published in 1896, before the era of the motor car. Housman wasn’t himself a Shropshire lad, though he is buried in a Ludlow church graveyard. Being an evidently fearsome Professor of Classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, during his later life he wrote thus, in his paper “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” (1921):
“A textual critic engaged upon his business is not at all like Newton investigating the motion of the planets: he is much more like a dog hunting for fleas”. He declared many of his contemporary scholars to be stupid, lazy, vain, or all three, saying: “Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding, in your head”.
One of his later scholars at Cambridge was the super intelligent, and divisive politician Enoch Powell, whom I remember as a lad for his clarity of thought and precise analytical oral debating skills, on the radio in the late sixties. Housman evidently ranked him above most of his students in ability. Housman’s collection of 63 rural themed poems took a while to become popular, but has rarely been out of print since. Most of the poems were apparently written in 1895 whilst he was staying at Byron Cottage in Highgate, London, and he spent very little time, ever, in Shropshire itself.
Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.
In valleys of springs of rivers,
By Ony and Teme and Clun,
The country for easy livers,
The quietest under the sun,
We still had sorrows to lighten,
One could not be always glad,
And lads knew trouble at Knighton
When I was a Knighton lad.
By bridges that Thames runs under,
In London, the town built ill,
‘Tis sure small matter for wonder
If sorrow is with one still.
And if as a lad grows older
The troubles he bears are more,
He carries his griefs on a shoulder
That handselled them long before.
Where shall one halt to deliver
This luggage I’d lief set down?
Not Thames, not Teme is the river,
Nor London nor Knighton the town:
‘Tis a long way further than Knighton,
A quieter place than Clun,
Where doomsday may thunder and lighten
And little ’twill matter to one.
Although we couldn’t comment on whether this landscape is still so quiet in sunnier conditions, the skies staying steadfastly grey for the whole of our time there. But at least it was largely dry, and blowing enough of a gale on the ridges to shift any lingering cobwebs.
Inspired by all this, (or maybe the bore hole water, which our hostess Ursula explained came from deep below the ancient rocks, so that if you ran the tap for long enough you’d be mainlining it, from thousands of years past), a couple of bookend poems entered my consciousness.
I left my camera behind, intentionally, so have Fiona and her phone to thank for these glimpses of the stunning local Borders/Marches scenery.
Ninety two. Six fifty. Four eleven.
Numbed time – balaclavas, bats, raised voices,
Shocked screams, burst doors and bruises.
What if’s? What then’s? What changes?
Ridgebacks, codes and ruses.
Later, beneath the agent’s gaudy sign,
One caught my eye – “unique potential”.
A trip, a scribbled sum, exchanges.
Predestined, fate, free will?
An Immaterial Rhapsody
Weigh this –
Each step, each stride,
Each smile, each frown, each kiss.
Each day, week, year,
Each love, hate, fear.
Each tack, run, reach
Each hill, stream, beach
Each thought, truth, lie,
Each moth, bee, fly,
Each seed, plant, team,
Each joy, grief, dream.
Unscripted, unrehearsed, as thee,
An immaterial rhapsody.
Back home, a ram lamb arrived, was raddled, and the daily check and recording of numbers served, has been aided by my camera on maximum zoom to record ear tag numbers. Next year should, hopefully, be the first year in several that we’ve had any lambs, as a necessary route to rejuvenating and replacing our ageing and diminishing flock.
For any readers with an outside electricity transformer supplying their property, here’s a nugget of information about an unusual power cut we experienced on Monday, the day after Halloween. We’d had a few recent unexplainable power trips of our ring main in part of the house. The main circuit trip device had been changed, but the issue recurred a couple of times. Then, midday on Monday, the power seemed to go. Except not completely! Some lighting circuits worked, but just dimly, some didn’t work at all, some even flashed, dimly. As did the light in the fridge when the door was opened! Checking with our neighbours confirmed that this was a property specific problem, and having no competence in anything electrical, we rang the excellent folk at Western Power. A detailed list of the issues was recorded, and we were give an emergency priority rating. A couple of guys in a gear laden Land Rover arrived within an hour or so, and by tapping into the main meter and fuses, they quickly established the problem was between the house and the pole mounted transformer, 80 yards down the track. Thank goodness the issue turned out to be a faulty connector which was causing a voltage leakage, rather than a complete outage, which caused the odd light dimming and flickering.
Problem sorted, I asked what would have happened if the fault had been in the underground cable? Deep sucking in of breath – a separate team would have had to be called out, test voltages, and then estimate where to dig down to locate the problem and joint the cable. Good luck to them, and us, since this is roughly where the cable runs, beneath our meadow copse.
For over a week I’d walked into our copse garden and smelt a different, strange, slightly sickly sweet smell, which I was certain was probably of fungal origin, but couldn’t place exactly where it was coming from. Then I spotted the huge, larger than football size, fungal fruiting body to the base of our ancient oak tree. This fungus, which I think is Grifola frondosa (also known as hen-of-the-woods, maitake – “dancing mushroom” in Japanese, ram’s head or sheep’s head) is an annual autumnal sighting around the base of this tree, although the actual site of the huge fruiting body seems to shift each year. It’s described as being uncommon, in the UK, and potentially edible, although I suspect it’s always past its best when I manage to smell and spot it. Evidently in Japan it’s one of their most highly prized culinary fungi. I’ll have to remember to look for it in future years, just as we begin to think about booking our ram lamb.
Walking up the simple stone steps, past this tree takes you onto our mossy croquet lawn. I’m guessing it’s one of the highest, and mossiest in the land, but also perhaps, the most fungally diverse?Serious gardeners, or pristine lawn devotees would be appalled by it, particularly at this time of the year, but following on from the recent wide ranging presentation by Bruce Langridge from the National Botanic Garden of Wales, for the Carmarthenshire Meadows Group, (click here to watch on the CMG You Tube channel), I thought it would be worth featuring some of the many different mushrooms which now make this small mossy/grassy patch their home, and outline the history of this “lawn”. Since it gives a rare insight into the ‘speed’ of colonisation of such an area of grass by fungi.
When we acquired Gelli Uchaf in 1993, this area was the site of a decrepit Dutch style pole barn, complete with a thick base of years of built up dried cow/sheep manure and straw, well rotted down over time. Whilst the initial phase of building works made the main cottage uninhabitable, this is where we pitched our tents on our forays down to view the initial major building work progress, and get stuck into all the necessary jobs which we could tackle.
A couple of years later, our elder son and a school friend took the barn down during the summer holidays, (narrowly avoiding decapitating himself as one of the roof sheets crashed unexpectedly just past his ear). After we’d gradually dug out the dried manure base, to use in various locations around the developing garden, the area beneath the barn was then just raked over, and a commercial local rough grass seed mix was scattered.
Over much of this area there is therefore very little actual soil – you’d be hard pressed to stick even a hand fork deeper in than an inch in many places.
Many years later, probably around 2008, a hyper-mature, dying ash was removed from the Northern edge of the long bed which stretches beside the lawn to the right of the top picture. Quite soon after this was removed, mushrooms typical of honey fungus, Armillaria species, began to appear both in the neighbouring meadow and dotted around the croquet lawn, but this year they’ve formed a spectacular curving crescent from the North Western corner of the lawn, right round to nearly the North Eastern corner. Although the actual emergence of the mushrooms along this crescent has varied slightly – those to the West emerging a few days earlier than those to the East. I’m assuming this reflects slightly sunnier and warmer conditions over the more Westerly part, and that the crescent marks the limit of the ash’s root system.Most gardeners dread the mention of honey fungus, fearing doom and gloom. However things aren’t quite as bleak as some assume. To quote from the website of SASA :
Armillaria (also known as the honey fungus) is a common pathogen/saprophytic fungi found in broad-leaved woodland and mature gardens. Six species (A. borealis, A. Cepistipes, A. gallica, A. mellea, A. ostoyae and A. tabescens) commonly occur in the UK but of these only two (A. mellea and A. ostoyae) are considered to be pathogens that can infect and kill healthy trees. Identification of the separate species using traditional techniques is very difficult and even the use of modern DNA based methodologies has not lead to the development of a rapid, cost effective assay.
For more details, and images and descriptions of the different species, see Pat O’Reilly’s excellent First nature website.
It’s also interesting to reference Suzanne Simard’s groundbreaking research into the interconnectedness of plant life, and in particular trees in forests, through the many unseen fungal networks, which underpin them. Part of this work has shown how trees, sometimes even different species, are capable of resisting the attacks of Armillaria, providing they’re growing in more of a naturalistic forest, rather than the typical monoculture beloved by modern commercial forestry. Fiona has just read and listened to the ‘audible’ version of her long autobiographical book, “Finding The Mother Tree”. I tried to get going, but struggled both with her lengthy background and her interweaving of aspects of her personal life into the narrative. However, I’ve just discovered an in depth interview with her, where her work is discussed, and she managed to communicate in a much more animated style. Well worth a watch sometime, if you want to grasp how little we know about how our plants are really connecting and communicating, unseen, beneath our feet.
Or for a more succinct but equally gripping delivery, there’s her shorter TED talk, below. I hope you watch it, and find it as revelatory as I did, and if so, do pass it on to others who you think might enjoy it.
The next most significant fungal species to appear in this lawn were the Scarlet Caterpillar Clubs, Cordyceps militaris, which I first found in our upper hay meadow in late September 2018 and later, 9 specimens in this mossy croquet lawn. Interestingly, after 3 years of finding at least one example, this year I’ve yet to see any. As the name implies, this fungus invades and consumes an underground moth larva, before fruiting with the orange club shaped structure, above, in late autumn.
Then the following year in 2019, the first Earthtongues appeared, which I first noticed in October 2019, so by my reckoning, they first fruited about 24 years after grass would have established. They’ve returned each year since, and I estimate that this year, there are around 400 to 500. Although interestingly the vast majority are located in the Southern aspect of this croquet lawn. In other words, the area which had no grass at all, and was dung covered until about 24 years ago. I should also say that, unsurprisingly but critically, this lawn has never received any chemical treatments at all. Just regular mowings throughout the year, with the clippings removed. Bruce mentioned that one of the site’s he’d found Earthtongues was in a cemetery, in front of a single gravestone, which locals explained had always had the grass cut and removed from the site – unlike the rest of the grassy areas on this site, which had been simply cut and left.
This year, yet more fungi have appeared, some of which I’m certain are species we’ve already recorded in our upper hay meadow, though these examples are much smaller. Orange-red Fibrous waxcaps, Hygrocybe intermedia, (possibly),
And a couple of as yet unconfirmed species, and it demonstrates how with no management other than nutrient reduction, through regular cutting and removal, and given the very dominant mossy substrate, which will clearly impact on ground level humidity and temperature, these rare mushrooms can establish. Albeit taking a generation for this to really happen!
In addition, I even found 2 examples of star jelly. Slime mould, meteor debris or the remnants of a killed frog? Take your pick, since the jury is clearly still out on this occasionally seen, centuries old, natural phenomenon, below.
Part of the annual management has also always been removal of windblown leaves from the large oak, but in years to come I’ll try to leave this, or only take very high cuts, to avoid damage to the early season mushrooms which are popping up, from late September onwards. Who knows, the holy grail of purple coral may appear one day?
It’s hard to think that it’s been a year since I (probably) spotted a salmon in our stream. On a glorious sunny day, I revisited the local scene we cycle past on several circular routes, to photograph the beeches, that feature in my poem.
I was struck by how equally striking, but completely different the aesthetic was, when viewed from opposite directions. Whichever way one views it, it’s still a very special line of trees bordering the small holding, Caermalwas Fach, which has recently changed hands as it’s to become a new site managed by the South West Wales Wildlife Trust.
Finally, although the annual, now reducing, big bulb plant was completed over 10 days ago, much of garden has now been cut back, raked off and mulched lightly with leaves and dried seaweed, in anticipation of the first spring bulbs.
In particular, the staggered leaf colour change of various Acers grown from seed, and the perennial delights of the late flowering Saxifage fortunei have been wonderful. The honeybees have enjoyed the latter, and given the forecasts, if we can avoid hard frosts for the next 2 to 3 weeks, it could be another year when viable seed may be dropped from these Japanese origin beauties.