Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Pictorial Meadows in Campbell's Kingdom

Wild flowers come and go, mainly in the early part of the summer, but my mix from Pictorial Meadows just keeps on coming. It should still be blooming up till the first frost in November.

I seeded six sections of the veg patch at different times and with varying success. A length on rich soil behind a row of peas was the first to get going, it took off really fast. Was that because it was on a slight slope, angled away from the sun, and did that mean they didn’t go too thirsty?

Other sowings thrived but some were patchy. Seedlings close to stone walls and compost heaps were probably most vulnerable to slug attack. In some areas a mix of seedlings sprouted but only a couple of species went on to survive. Was that because the slugs didn’t like them? Areas that were initially devastated by slugs are still pushing up tiny seedlings and these look like they might survive. Are the slugs sick of the plants?

The seeds had to cope with initial drought and my sporadic watering through a hosepipe from the stream above.

The supplier had stressed the need for weed free beds, which they were when I sowed the seeds. But other seeds have been trespassing or rising out of the seedbank. So what I thought was going to be a low input project has turned into an obsessive, time consuming but satisfying labour of love. Next year I might plant narrower beds so that I can reach across and weed. With the current set up I need to use a scaffolding plank resting on stools – lying face down in a flower bed causes the occasional passer-by to ask if all is ok.

It was the new head gardener at Bodnant who gave me the idea. He had a border on one of those immaculate terraces which was plagued with a particularly pernicious weed; by sowing a mix of annual seeds he’d be able to inspire the visitors and keep the weeds in check ready for planting perennials next year.

If you’d like to have a go you should visit the Pictorial Meadows website. I got a bit carried away with ordering seeds and opted for 500g at a cost of just over £150. I chose the original Pictorial Meadows mix which is said to produce stunning displays until late October / November, starting out with white, blues, pinks and reds, turning to reds, orange and yellow in the autumn. The mix has been carefully balanced for colour and succession of display. Components include: Shirley Poppy, Pavader Rhoeas Californian Poppy, Eschscholzia Californica Cornflower, Centaurea Cyanus Fairy Toadflax, Linaria Maroccana Tickseed Coreopsis Tinctorial Red Orache Atriplex Hortensis and Larkspur. Delphinium Ajacis General Height: 60cm.

So far it’s done what it says it will do on the packet which is not always the case with my gardening attempts! Should I collect the seed at the end of the summer or buy more for next year? Needless to say the supplier strongly recommends buying new so that you get the mix in the right proportions.

Photos struggle to convey the effect, the swaying in the breeze and the buzz of the bees. This YouTube is better but still a poor substitute for the real thing.


Friday, 22 July 2016

Full Steam Ahead BBC2

The first episode of the 6 part series was on BBC2 on Thursday 21st July. The TV crew were filming on the Ffestiniog and at Llechwedd for 3 days in mid February.

Historians Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn bring back to life the golden age of steam and explore how the Victorian railways created modern Britain. In particular they ride the Gravity Train past Campbell's Platform and Tank Curve. If you know the line you can see a few continuity glitches! Here's the preview to that ride on the Gravity Train:

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Gathering

Mid July and ours is the last farm to gather its sheep off the mountain. The sheep have been enjoying the mountain grass for the last couple of months, since the moment our farmer thought the weather was OK to send them up. But now it’s time to come down for shearing.

We meet outside the farm at 5:00 a.m. The plan is to get up and down before it gets too hot. One by one the gang assembles. It’s a mixture of young and not-so-young, family, other farmers, and me the neighbour. They’ve done this many times over the last three weeks, taking it in turns to help each other, but for me it’s full of fresh excitement.
Just above the mountain wall
The gathering gang seems a bit subdued. One of the older men has stretched himself out on a sack of wool and seems to be asleep. There’s a lot of muttering and cursing about the weather. It’s fine where we are, but clouds are covering the top of the mountain.

Most farm jobs carry on whatever the weather, but cloud on the mountain is a no-no for gathering the sheep. Fluffy grey sheep blend in perfectly with the clouds, making them impossible to see at any distance. You can’t see your colleagues as you sweep the mountain from different directions. You can’t see the dogs to guide and control them. Apart from these complications there is also the safety hazard: there are many cliffs waiting to catch you out.

From where we are by the river, we are right up against the foot of the mountain and can only see the first ridge. Dafydd phones his wife, who has a good view from her kitchen: 'Yes, you can see it now. Hold on. No, it’s gone again. I think it’ll clear soon. ...' Geraint gets into his van and listens to the weather forecast. It’s too general, whilst what’s happening on our mountain right now is a bit too specific. The farmer takes off in his Land Rover and watches from the other side of the valley as we kick our heels in the farmyard. There’s only so much small talk welcome this early. 

 The dogs are getting restless and are let out to stretch their legs. What a canine social event this is. So many tyres from so many farms to be sniffed and cock a leg against. There’s a lot of competition and status amongst the assembled pack, and some need reminding who’s top dog.

At ten o’clock, the farmer comes back from yet another recce. 'Amser paned' … let’s get a cup of tea. Ten of us squeeze into the farmhouse and are made very welcome. Tea, sausage rolls, bread and cake … great, feel fit to tackle a mountain now.

It’s decided that now is the time to go. I climb into the back of a 4x4x4 where the last 4 indicates the number of sheepdogs I have for company. Three of us and the four dogs are taken to the west, whilst the larger group of seven with eleven dogs are dropped off to the east of the mountain.

We climb part-way up a ridge before splitting up. I’m to make my way to the point where the wall comes down from the mountain and ignore the blue-marked sheep – they’ve crossed over the top of the mountain from another farm. I can hear the dogs being worked above me but otherwise it’s peace and quiet. Not many sheep here, just a few wild goats watching on.

I make it to the wall, driving just a couple of sheep ahead. The man above is now in position with his dogs and shouts down. It’s going to be a long wait, as the cloud has come down again whilst the farmer is out of sight scouring the top. Eventually the cloud lifts and we’re on the move again. Sheep that were in twos or threes are now in tens or more, moving cautiously downwards and towards the centre of the mountain.

The rounded mountain in the background is Manod where
the contents of the National Gallery were hidden in WWII
Gathering is never an exact science nor a complete sweep, there’s always one or more that gets away. A shaggy one with the front of her coat hanging down stands defiant in front of two dogs. She stamps her feet and snorts at them, before dashing recklessly diagonally down the mountain in the wrong direction. The dogs follow as the sheep rebounds off a stone wall and carries on relentless. This sheep is too determined and gets left behind; so much for the parable of the lost sheep.

By now the sun has burnt through the early morning clouds and is beating down with a vengeance. The lower we get the hotter we get. Sheep, dogs and shepherds are converging downwards from all directions. Just below me a sheep is trying to hide in the undergrowth, too exhausted to go any further. One of the men carries her on his shoulders - hardly a ‘piggy-back’!

As we descend we move from the cliffs, through boulder fields into the heather belt, the bogs and thence into the bracken. If the sheep kept silent and still, thousands could hide away beneath this tall green camouflage. It’s an exhausting job for dogs to break through the forest of bracken.

Having undergone all kinds of natural hazards, we are just about to cross the Ffestiniog Railway line when an unscheduled train comes past. A couple of minutes later and there would have been either an emergency stop or a few lamb chops.

More or less back at the farm and the dogs take a muddy bath and a few mouthfuls of brackish water. Their work is almost done, whereas the shepherds have many hours of shearing ahead of them.

What sort of future lies ahead for this type of farming? 

A Feast of Strawberries and Bilberries

June was good with strawberries cropping at 5 kilos a day, double my weight in the month. We ate them as we picked, served with cream or as smoothies over ice cream. Some went into jam, others got pickled in sherry or vodka. Our neighbours had their fill and some were swapped for shiitake mushrooms cultivated by a friend.

Then came the bilberries from early July to late August. With the help of bilberry combs from the Ray Mears website, we can pick 3 to 4 kilos in a session. In the good old days, there would have been lots of people picking the bilberries, but it seems we have the whole mountain to ourselves, apart from the choughs and other creatures that share our taste.

Purple lips are a bit of a giveaway as to who’s been eating on the job. Useful in all sorts of puddings and perfect for freezing, on a tray, and then poured into a bag. First up makes the tea and thaws a bowl of berries. We should have enough to purplify our muesli until at least Christmas.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Brythoniad Male Voice Choir

The Brythoniaid is one of the two male voice choirs in Blaenau and Thursday is practice night. Everyone is welcome to watch and listen which is what we did as the choir prepared for its upcoming appearance at Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion.

It was a bit daunting as we sat on the three seats in the middle of the assembly hall in Ysgol y Moelwyn. In front and facing us were the 45 members of the choir; there would have been more but several members are farmers and this is a busy time of year for them. It was almost like being the X Factor panel but without the buzzers.

If you’d like to go along they start singing at 7:30 and continue until about 9:30 with a leg stretch in the middle. Full details of the choir can be found on their website. Below is a recording from their performance for the 2015 Festival No. 6 in which you can see them singing; on an open top double decker London bus, outside Euston Station, on Virgin Trains to Bangor and of course at Portmeirion. Have a look and listen - you won't regret. It's a fabulous rendition of the Pet Shop Boys 'Go West'.