The Nature of the Land

Click to a larger version of Frensham Little Pond, Surrey (National Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

Frensham Little Pond, Surrey (National Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

In the Surrey Hills AONB lies Frensham Common, a rare and valuable area of open Surrey heathland with some woodland, scrub and ponds. This, and Frensham Great Pond, were drained during World War Two to deprive enemy bomber crews of such large and useful location markers. The Great Pond, west of the A287, was artificially enlarged in the 13th century to create a fishpond to supply the Bishop of Winchester’s Court when in residence at his palace in nearby Farnham. The Little Pond, east of the road, was also man-made in the same period, formed by building a dam across a tributary stream of the River Wey. Frensham Common is an SSSI, the pond, partly managed as a bird sanctuary, is important for its fen habitats, willow and alder carr, and populations of grebe, water rail, redshank, snipe, reed buntings and warblers. Common reeds catch the sun of a February afternoon, later in the year the flowers of yellow iris will brighten the days. Sweet flag also grows here, once spread on medieval earthen floors to sweeten the air with the tangerine-vanilla scent of its crushed leaves.
Click to a larger version of Braunton Burrows, Barnstaple, Devon: photo © Jean Williamson

Braunton Burrows, Barnstaple, Devon: photo © Jean Williamson

Braunton Burrows is a national nature reserve, an SSSI and the largest sand dune system in the UK. Behind the long sandy beach of Saunton Sands, it is within the North Devon Coast AONB and at the heart of the first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Britain. This area of high dunes, wetland hollows (‘slacks’) and scrub is internationally renowned for the abundance and diversity of its plants, having at least 400 different species including orchids and the very rare great sea stock. The roots and underground stems of specially adapted grasses such as marram, help to hold the wind-formed dunes together, but in December 2004 a storm had caused a ‘blow out’, stripping the foliage and pushing a high wall of sand backwards into the scrubland. The Tarka Trail and South West Coast Path pass behind the Burrows, while a little further inland is the 350-acre (142ha) Braunton Great Field, a remnant of the medieval system of communal farming using numerous unfenced cultivation strips within a large open field. There are military Danger Areas in the Burrows and some evidence of the American troops who trained here for the Normandy landings during World War Two.
Click to a larger version of Farndale, North Yorkshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Farndale, North Yorkshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Farndale, along with the adjacent valleys of Rosedale to the east and Bransdale to the west, is marked on Ordnance Survey Landranger maps with the blue background and slanting stripes denoting a ‘beauty spot’. Situated in the middle of the North York Moors National Park, it is undeniably beautiful with the peaceful River Dove flowing through a patchwork of green fields defined by weathered drystone walls. The valley was formed by meltwater pouring southwards from overflowing glacial lakes. The torrents cut through deposits laid down around 150 million years ago by the great meandering rivers and tropical swamps of the Middle Jurassic period. These silts and sandbanks formed the sandstones which provide such distinctive materials for the area’s buildings and field walls. The glacial waters cut through the riverine deposits to uncover earlier marine deposits from the Lower Jurassic, some 190 million years ago, which provide the richer soils of the valley bottoms. The dale is home to a scattered farming community making a living mainly from sheep, cows, the Farndale Hunt and tourism. Dinosaurs once roamed the area leaving fossil footprints for the future. Now, instead of the giant horsetails, cycads and monkey puzzle trees of the Jurassic, wild daffodils flower beside the Dove in such numbers that every April the winding lanes are clogged with tourists’ cars.
Click to a larger version of Ingleborough Hill, Ingleton, North Yorkshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Ingleborough Hill, Ingleton, North Yorkshire: photo © Jean Williamson

The valley of the River Doe has a more austere beauty than Farndale, its stone extensively quarried, and mined for lead. Gouged out by a glacier some two million years ago, the landscape bristles with the fins, spines and terraces of water-eroded limestone. Drystone walls criss-cross the grazing areas provided with stone barns at regular intervals. Amongst the debris of geological forces, mining and quarrying are to be found the more rounded earthwork remains of trackways and boundaries. Above it all rises Ingleborough Hill, a sacred mountain dedicated to the Celtic goddess Brigantia: the High One. With its magnificent position and distinctive shape - a cap of millstone grit overlying its limestone bulk - it is a major landmark and formed a rallying point for Iron Age tribes resisting the Roman advance. The summit fort is defended by sheer crags and a single wall up to 4m (13ft) thick made of millstone grit blocks lined on the inside with large upright slabs.
Click to a larger version of Fron Uchaf Foxgloves, Bodfari, Denbighshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Fron Uchaf Foxgloves, Bodfari, Denbighshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Foxgloves flowering in June, amongst bracken in rough, open pasture on the lower north-west slopes of Moel y Parc, one of the hills of the Clwydian Range. A remote spot at 225m (738ft) OD, but close to a ruined dwelling, near the head of a stream flowing down to Ty-draw farm, and beside the course of an old road which may have served as a pilgrim route. This off-the-cuff display, arranged by accidents of nature and environment, knocks spots off most of those rather overblown, seed-company foxgloves artfully sown in gardens. The crushed leaves of ‘witches thimbles’ or ‘fairy bells’ have long been used in folk-medicine, even though their unpredictably lethal toxicity was widely known. The astrologer-physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616-64), considered the plant to be under the dominion of Venus and of a gentle cleansing nature, useful for healing wounds, bruises, swellings and sores. Infusions were given for sore throats, tough phlegm and to relieve water retention or ‘dropsy’. Study in the 1700s, by William Withering, of the plant’s diuretic effects led to his discovery that despite its ability to kill, small accurately measured doses of dried foxglove leaf or ‘digitalis’ could successfully treat heart failure. I’ll leave the final word on digitalis purpurea to Culpeper: ‘I am confident that an ointment thereof is one of the best remedies for a scabby head.’
Click to a larger version of Coed Elernion, Trefor, Gwynedd (Woodland Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

Coed Elernion, Trefor, Gwynedd (Woodland Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

Overlooked by Tre’r Ceiri hillfort on the north coast of the Lleyn peninsula, three secret meadows lie within an area of semi-natural broadleaf woodland - some of it ancient - with a wide diversity of species and habitats. The meadows are cut for hay each year to help maintain their botanical mix. Rushes dominate in the acidic, marshy pasture, but yellow rattle is king of the drier, semi-improved neutral grassland. ‘Rattlebaskets’ is a partial parasite of the grass and can form large colonies: it flowers here spectacularly in early June. When the riot of cadmium yellow has died away, the ripe black seeds rattle inside their little brown purses.
Click to a larger version of Sorbie Tower Woods, Dumfries and Galloway (The Clan Hannay Society): photo © Jean Williamson

Sorbie Tower Woods, Dumfries and Galloway (The Clan Hannay Society): photo © Jean Williamson

Woodland beside the 16th-century tower house, or Old Tower, hides the Norman motte which preceded it. In May, the sombre woodland floor comes to life, glows and exhales, filled with the sight and scent of broad-leaved wild garlic in full, exuberant flower. The fuming ramsons love nothing better than a damp wood, so Sorbie’s original name of Sourby, meaning ‘a dwelling amid swamps’ gives a clue to the plant’s success here. Like foxglove, Culpeper considered wild garlic a good diuretic and remover of phlegm from various parts of the body. He also recommended taking it to clear obstructions of the kidneys, open the lungs and give relief from asthma, but warned that it was a powerful ‘opener’ under the government of Mars. The leaves, tasting milder than they smell, may be used sparingly to add zest to a variety of dishes.
Click to a larger version of Coed Bryn Meurig, Bethesda (Gwynedd County Council): photo © Mick Sharp

Coed Bryn Meurig, Bethesda (Gwynedd County Council): photo © Mick Sharp

Sunshine bursts through the canopy to light up the mosses, ferns, lichens and bracken of this oak wood beside the River Ogwen. Some of the trees are genuinely old, and the whole wood, with its moss-wrapped stones and mysterious shadows, has an ancient, ‘Celtic twilight’ feel to it. In the early 1990s these woods were under threat, on the route of the proposed Bethesda bypass; today (April 2010) they are being managed by Gwynedd County Council as community woodland. It can be hard work driving through Bethesda, and some people would like a bypass, but the otters and the other wildlife much prefer that the woods remain.
Click to a larger version of Creag a’ Ghaill, Balmeanoch, Isle of Mull: photo © Jean Williamson

Creag a’ Ghaill, Balmeanoch, Isle of Mull: photo © Jean Williamson

Basalt cliffs are a feature of the Ardmeanach peninsula on the west coast of Mull, where Loch na Keal opens out to the sea. When the North Atlantic was forming around 60 million years ago, Mull was torn apart from Greenland, and the separation of the Eurasian and North American plates was accompanied by a long period of volcanic activity. Flows of lava poured over extensive areas of Mull’s ‘basement rocks’ which had been formed in a multiplicity of environments as Mull’s landmass journeyed north from the Tropics. This volcanic activity has virtually stopped in Scotland, but continues along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and through Iceland, as we have just witnessed in April 2010. The lava flows formed huge basalt plateaux or ‘stepped tablelands’ which were then eroded by glacial activity which continued into Mesolithic times, some 10,000 years ago. The handiwork of the glaciers can be seen in the long lochs, U-shaped valleys and dramatic cliffs of Ardmeanach. In places, the lava has been stripped away to reveal some of the older rocks such as sandstones formed in latitudes and climates similar to modern-day Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The glaciers also created moraines - dumps of rocks and sediments - on the plains before the cliffs, and post-glacial landslips formed sloping skirts of debris at their bases. On just such a landscape beneath Creag a’ Ghaill, crofters have built a stone-walled fold or ‘fank’ for the management of sheep, and piled up long mounds of soil and seaweed to form ‘lazy-beds’ for the growing of potatoes.
Click to a larger version of Llangynhafal, Clwydian Hills, Denbighshire: photo © Jean Williamson

Llangynhafal, Clwydian Hills, Denbighshire: photo © Jean Williamson

This small field of barley, vivid against the darkling sky, straddles the 150m (492ft) contour, with the Vale of Clwyd below to the west and Offa’s Dyke path running along the bare, rounded hills of the Clwydian Range to the east. It is unusual to find a patch of gold in this upland area devoted mainly to grazing, but barley is hardy, grows faster than wheat and does well in light, lime-rich soils. It is good in soups, will make a rather sweet, heavy bread (much better mixed with wheat and/or rye), or unleavened barley-cake biscuits, but is chiefly grown for use in brewing and to feed stock on both its straw and grain. Malting the barley - making it sprout in warmth and moisture - converts the starch to sugar and provides more taste and alcohol. The sprouting process is then halted by killing the grain in a kiln, the amount of roasting determining the colour and flavour of the end product from pale ale through to black stout. This crop is just uphill from St Cynhafal’s church and the timber-framed Plas yn Llan house which abuts its graveyard. In the late 1790s William Wordsworth stayed at Plas yn Llan, describing the valley of the Clwyd as that ‘most delicious of all Vales’. I don’t know if he wrote a poem about ‘a host of golden’ barley, but Robert Burns was certainly a fan of barley fields and their products. After spending an ecstatic evening with Ann Rankine, Burns declared that, should all the pleasures he had ever known be ‘three times doubled fairly / That happy night was worth them a’ / Amang the rigs o’ barley.’
Click to a larger version of Holy Island, Lamlash Bay, Arran, North Ayrshire (Rokpa Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Holy Island, Lamlash Bay, Arran, North Ayrshire (Rokpa Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Certain conjunctions of geology, location, climate and ‘something’ impart a special aura to a place. Unusual individuals are drawn to them, remarkable events occur and are woven into the story of the locale which becomes all the more attractive because of them. There can be something particularly alluring about the miniature world of a small island. St Molaise (Laserian) was born into an Irish royal family around the year AD 566. In his twenties, he lived for a while at the cave-hermitage and holy well above the island’s western shore. The belief that he had voluntarily accepted illness from thirty diseases at once, to cancel out his sins and give him a direct route to heaven, ensured that the cave became a destination for pilgrims. A medieval monastery was founded as a hospice for them, near the pier at the north-west of the island. Since the early 1990s, Holy Isle has been owned by Tibetan Buddhists from the Samŷe Ling monastery in Dumfriesshire: a Centre for World Peace and Health has been built around the farmhouse close to the site of the old monastery. Molaise’s cave continues to be venerated as a sacred place, and paintings of Buddhist teachers can be seen on rocks beside the pathway: enlightened, compassionate, holy men whose ways share many similarities with those of Christian mystics and visionaries.
Click to a larger version of Glastonbury Tor, Somerset (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Glastonbury Tor, Somerset (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Glastonbury Tor used to be an island in a watery realm of lakes, marshes and floods. The Somerset Levels are now drained by a network of channelled rivers, rhynes, dykes and sluices, but the Tor still seems to float with an otherworldly beauty, especially when swathed in mist. Made up of horizontal Jurassic layers over 100 million years old, this conical hill has evoked spiritual responses from humans since at least Neolithic times. To some, the Tor is a spiral maze-mound, symbol of the Mother Goddess, part of a vast, hidden symbolic landscape of enhanced natural features and designed structures incorporating magical numbers, relationships and shapes. A key point for ley lines and other earth forces, a centre of electromagnetic, supernatural and extraterrestrial activity, and part of the land-form representing the sign of Aquarius in a topographical zodiac. Romano-British burials suggest a pagan temple on the summit, there was a timber building of some sort in the Dark Ages, and in the later Saxon period a Christian monastery with a wooden church. The present St Michael’s Tower dates from medieval times when at least two successive stone churches were built, the first being destroyed in an earthquake on 11 September 1275. Glastonbury is also regarded as Avalon - the ‘Isle of Apples’ in the ‘Summer Country’ - haunt and burial-place of Arthur and Guinevere, and location of the Holy Grail, brought here by Joseph of Arimathea who had been accompanied by Jesus on a previous visit. And finally, an ‘island of the dead’ with an entrance to Annwn, the Celtic underworld, a place of eternal youth, beauty and delight. Glastonbury is a supreme example of a physically remarkable landscape possessed of a long, complicated, contradictory history and the extra dimension of spirit.

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