Start of the day

Start of the day

Gardening tools at the start of a day in Golders Hill Park

I was out for a walk in the fog this morning, photographing the usual suspects: trees against a background of mist. Yet, with all the obvious beauty of the familiar cloaked in unusual robes, I was drawn to this half-hidden collection of gardening tools, laid out for park gardeners at the start of the day. Would each person have a separate task – raking leaves, digging, hoeing? Or would everyone get a go on everything?

For a few moments I felt a pang of envy.  I wanted to do one of those jobs. It reminded me of meditation retreats I’d been on, where some of the most enjoyable hours were those spent doing manual work outdoors, like raking leaves, or digging damp soil, listening to the birds and finding meaning in small things.

Sixth Greenwich Annuale

Percheron dray horses with a girl from the Perche region of France (i.e. a Percheronne)
Percheronne with Percherons

The London Independent Photography (LIP) Greenwich group is holding its Sixth Annuale exhibition from 8 – 22 August at The Greenwich Gallery , Linear House, Peyton Place, London SE10 8RS. The private view is tonight from 6.20 pm – 8.30 pm and is open to all. I will be exhibiting my photo ‘Percheronne’.  It was taken in the Perche region of France (Basse Normandie, or Lower Normandy) where I spent a year in a cottage in Eperrais, a tiny village between Mortagne and Belleme.

Le Perche

Percherons are magnificent dray or cart horses and were once used as war horses. A Percheronne would be a female Percheron, but also a girl or woman from the Perche region.

The Perche region is famous for its mushrooms and also its salami sausages (saucisse sèche). There’s wonderful cider and organic cider vinegar to be had, too. The forests have wild deer and mostly maiden (i.e. straight, not coppiced or pollarded) trees (oak and beech). One oak, the Chêne de l’Ecole, is 42 metres high and is nearly 350 years old.  Most oaks of this age in Britain are pollards, with their gnarled fat trunks, so it was a surprise to me to see a very old but slim tree.

Chêne de l'Ecole, 350 year-old maiden oak
Chêne de l’Ecole, 350 year-old maiden oak

The forests and woodland in this part of France are managed very much as they used to be in Britain 200 or more years ago.  The forests are used for hunting game,  for mushrooms and for long, straight timber.  Elsewhere there are private coppice woods used to produce small lengths of wood for fencing, broom handles, firewood, etc.

Pinhole photograph of coppice wood with standard trees at Clinchamps in the Perche
Pinhole photograph of coppice wood with standard trees at Clinchamps in the Perche

In most coppice woods in Britain, like parts of Epping Forest, the trees haven’t been cut back (coppiced) for over a hundred years, so the ‘poles’, which would have been harvested every 15 years or so have grown into mature trees, sometimes in a circle around what used to be the stump of the original tree (see post on the Hornbeam in Highgate Wood).

When I came across the coppice wood in a little village called Clinchamps, with coppice stools mixed with maiden trees, I felt I was seeing a textbook version of the traditional coppice woodland described by Oliver Rackham in his book, Woodlands, but mostly disappeared from Britain.

Hibiscus

HIbiscus siriacus
HIbiscus syriacus

Hibiscus syriacus doesn’t originally come from Syria, but eastern Asia, probably China and Korea.  It’s been in bloom in our garden and others around here in northwest London  for the past few days. So popular with gardeners it might better be called Hibiscus suburbus. But I love it when our bush flowers as it goes from green leaves and pregnant buds to a mass of white and pink-tinged flowers almost overnight. And at last the bush is taking on a more natural form after the downstairs neighbour,  in love with his power tools and a  rectilinear decking aesthetic,  took a chain saw to it two years ago and made it into a box of twigs on a stalk. LIke a square lollipop. Since they left, I’ve been able to prune it and shape it by hand using secateurs and an eye for shape rather than any real knowledge of what I am doing.

Hornbeam

Old Hornbeam coppice, Highgate Wood
Old Hornbeam coppice, Highgate Wood – this is one tree, the ‘trunks’ growing from a now buried stump

Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, also known as iron wood, or yoke elm because the wood is so hard it can’t be worked easily. It was mainly used for ox yokes, cogs and cartwheels. The grown-out coppice stools like this one in Highgate wood would also have been used for firewood or charcoal, as it burns slowly and brightly ‘like a candle’.  It was used for the tall, dense hedges of the original maze in Hampton Court, although these have since been replaced.

The poet John Clare was fond of hornbeam, which is one of the principal trees in Epping Forest, where he spent four years in the High Beach asylum, from 1837-1841, suffering from severe depression. He was allowed considerable freedom to walk in the forest and, indeed, in July 1841  walked out of the asylum and followed the Great York Road  until he reached his home in Northborough, 80 miles away, four days later. That year, while at High Beach, he wrote  Child Harold, mentioning the hornbeam:

How beautiful this hill of fern swells on.
So beautiful the chapel peeps between
The hornbeams with its simple bell – alone
I wander here, hid in a palace green.

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Seeing the hornbeams, I was reminded of a three-trunked hornbeam in the Bois de Vincennes, just east of Paris, in whose shade for seven years, every Saturday morning, I learned tai chi with my friend and teacher Li Gui Sheng and fellow student and friend Claude.

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Every Saturday that is, until, in a few hours after midnight on 26 December 1999, a hurricane blew down the forest. Miraculously ‘our’ tree was spared, though it took us several hours to find it amid the tangled mess of fallen trunks. About a year later we cleared a space beneath the tree again, now sporting a mass of side shoots from its trunk in an all-out fight for survival. But it wasn’t the same. The squirrels had gone, replaced by pheasants, now the forest was more like heathland or scrub. And the dog walker who had shouted after “Whisky” and “Frisky”, as we fought invisible opponents in slow motion, had found another route.

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Don McCullin

In a documentary on BBC2, celebrated war photographer, Don McCullin, discusses some of the harrowing images of war and man’s inhumanity to man that still haunt him. He has turned to landscape photography as a way of forgetting.

I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to eradicate [these harrowing memories]. I’m just going to photograph landscape. The English landscape is my heaven. But the one thing that upsets me about it is that there’s always a threat surrounding the things you love. When I hear a chainsaw in the distance, I think a tree is dying. When there’s pheasant shooting I think there’s going to be some blood somewhere. The gunfire immediately switches on another part of my nervous system. I feel that as much as you try to run away from these things, someone always presses a button and says ‘here’s a reminder of what you used to do.’

Towards an Iron Age hill fort, Somerset, 1991. Don McCullin
Towards an Iron Age hill fort, Somerset, 1991. Don McCullin

 

 

sights and sounds

ImageOn a  walk around Kenwood this morning, the repeated notes of a song thrush were, for once, the first I heard, rather than the squawking of ring-necked parakeets that has started to dominate the birdsong in the woods around here.  The ribald laughter of a green woodpecker interrupted  the caws of carrion crows and  descending song of a chaffinch. Familiar sounds that seem  at home here among the old oaks and beech trees. But there are human parakeets today, dressed in fluorescent lycra, sweating as they jog or wade like space-age shepherdesses among flocks of spaniels, poodles and grinning labradors.

Far off sounds of an aeroplane, an ambulance siren.  By a pond, what I think is a fisherman under a large green umbrella turns out to be a homeless person lying on a sun-lounge, his bald head emerging from a sleeping bag. And in a car park in the Vale of Health, fairground people live in caravans called Monza and Barracuda, next to a jolly painted cart advertising Happy Falafels, in the shadow of bankers’ houses.

Vivian Maier

Extraordinary documentary on BBC2 last night about Vivian Maier, a nanny living in New York and Chicago who took stunning photos with her Rolleiflex. She never showed them to anyone, never exhibited them, never had any fancy prints made. She stored them in containers in a warehouse – tens of thousands of prints and negatives. They were only discovered when, in old age and without her job, she could no longer pay the rent for the storage space.  The contents were sold as job lots to a couple of dealers for a few hundred dollars. They didn’t know what they were buying…

Her website: http://www.vivianmaier.com

The BBC Imagine documentary is on iPlayer this week:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0366jd5/imagine…_Summer_2013_Vivian_Maier_Who_Took_Nannys_Pictures/

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midsummer

The longest day of the year / summer solstice.  There was a slight mist over the lake at Kenwood this morning, more reminiscent of Autumn. And it’s dull, shadowless. The sun is somewhere else today, not in London. Nine years ago on this day I was living in the Perche, a beautiful part of lower Normandy in France. A 15 minute car ride away was a 600 year-old oak tree, with a trunk that was over 4 metres around. I got up very early and stood under the tree waiting for the sun to rise, hearing owls hooting and little rustlings on the ground, realising how vulnerable small creatures like voles and mice are to hunting birds at night. The sky started to fill with light several minutes before the sun finally appeared in the east. It lit up a bead of water hanging from one of the oak leaves, silhouetted against the sky.

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