29 December 2014

More of that F word: Fungi in Cheshire

Some of you will remember my fascination with the fungi I discovered everywhere during my strolls around Auckland last autumn – that blog is here.

Well, of course, I’ve done a spot of ‘shrooming since I landed in Blighty at the end of October so, now that the English autumn has well and truly passed over into winter – we had minus 3 degrees Celsius overnight, I thought I’d share some photos of the fungi I’ve encountered during my walks in Cheshire woodlands.

Many of these fungi varieties are the same as those I found in New Zealand, probably because they hitched a ride from here on native British tree roots. That quintessential mushroom the scarlet flycap, or fly agaric as it’s more commonly known here, is definitely more at home in England’s countryside and I’ve found several others that will look familiar to Antipodean eyes. But many more are unfamiliar and I’ve noticed the fungi here are often more colourful.

Here are some I’ve found …

Aleuria aurantia or Orange Peel fungus, so named because it looks just like orange peel that’s been thrown on the ground. It’s vibrant colour is a treat in the brown autumn landscape.

Ascocoryne sarcoides is commonly known as Purple Jellydisc or Jellydrops, making it sound a little like a sweetie though I wouldn’t want to eat it. Its purple colour provides another visual treat amongst the dead trees it inhabits.

Auricularia auricular or Wood Ear. This fungus can often be found growing on the elder tree and, according to wikipedia, the fungus got its original common name of Judas’s Ear from the belief that Judas Iscariot hung himself from an elder tree. Over time, the epithet Judas’s Ear changed to Jew’s Ear. I guess that’s not considered politically correct these days, hence wood ear.

The stereum hirsutum is one of the most common fungi in Britain and can be found in numerous colour variations. It’s also known as the Hairy Curtain Crust, from stereum meaning tough, hence crusty and hirsutum meaning hairy and I guess it does resemble the heavily draping fabric of a curtain.

Hypholoma sublateritium. Commonly known as Brick Caps, these little fungi like to cluster together on stumps and logs. I hope I’ve got this identification right as there seem to be a huge number of similar looking small round mushrooms!

Xylaria hypoxylon. You might think Candle Snuff got its common name from its physical resemblance to a candle but no! This tiny fungus is, in fact, bioluminescent – in a very dark place it can be seen to emit light because the phosphorus that accumulates within the mycelium reacts with oxygen and other chemicals in the fungus.

Collybia dryophila. Dryophila means ‘lover of oak trees’ so you can tell this fungi’s preferred tree but it can also be found on other broadleaf trees and on conifers. It has several common names: Penny Top, Russet Shank and Russet Toughshank.

Coriolus versicolor is a very common fungus, found throughout the world and, as the name implies, includes a wide variety of colours. It is often used in traditional Chinese herbal remedies and is commonly called Turkey Tail.

Commonly known as the Deceiver, laccaria laccata varies in colour from red and pinkish brown to orange so its looks are deceptive (hence that common name), making it hard to identify with certainty and meaning I have probably got it wrong!

Nycena galopus var candida (i.e. the white variety) is more often known as the Milking Bonnet and does a very good job at decomposing leaf litter.

I found this hypholoma fasciculare (or Sulphur Tuft) in its most typical position, growing in a tight clump on the side of an old tree stump. Apparently, it tastes bitter and is poisonous, causing vomiting, diarrhoea and convulsions so don’t be tempted to have a nibble.

Lactarius torminosus, also known as the Woolly Milkcap, varies in colour from pink to ochre and, as my image shows, it often has concentric rings of alternating bands of colour. It’s also quite shaggy when young. 

I'm very much an amateur when it comes to identifying the different species of fungi so if you think I’ve mislabelled something, please do let me know in the comments section below.

15 December 2014

Cheshire walks: Tatton Park

Fancy a walk? Okay, get your boots on and rug up warm. It's only 2 degrees Celsius outside so you'll need a couple of jumpers and a cosy jacket, a warm woolly scarf and hat, and don't forget your gloves. Ready? Then, let's go ...

We're going for a stroll through Tatton Park, on the edge of the charming little town of Knutsford. There are 1000 acres of parkland for Joe public to enjoy so we won't see everything but I can promise you lots of beautiful old trees, some large expanses of water, rolling farmland and almost certainly a variety of wildlife.

You can see we've had a heavy frost overnight – I reckon we hit minus 2. No snow yet, but Jack Frost still paints a pretty picture. I particularly like the grasses when they're coated in ice like this.

It's crunchy underfoot but that just makes it easier to walk over the muddiness caused by all that rain last week. Watch you don't slide on the icy patches though. And if you're still a kid at heart like me, no doubt you'll want to crack some of the sheets of ice on the puddles.

You can see we're not the only ones out enjoying the bracing air and clear, crisp morning. With Tatton Park being so close to the town centre, it's a popular place for the more serious power walkers and joggers, as well as those just wanting a gentle stroll or taking their dogs for a walk.

You can see how cold it must have been in the wee hours – one end of Tatton Mere has iced over. It would be amazing to see the whole lake frozen over and to have people skating on it, though I’m not sure that ever happens  -- it’s such a big expanse of water – and it wouldn’t be so good for the birds that live on it. Whenever I’ve visited, there have always been lots of ducks and coots about.

Even Joe Crow has been doing a spot of fishing in the lake today and either he caught himself a juicy fish or, more likely, he pinched it from someone else.

Oh look, deer! Tatton Park has been a deer park since 1290 and large herds of red and fallow deer roam the wide open spaces with us walkers. You can usually get quite close to them, though there are certain times of year when it’s best to stay well away – when the stags are roaring and when the fawns are very young. These are red deer and I’m sure we’ll see some fallow deer as we stroll on.

Yes, there are the fallow deer. You can see their spots quite easily and they look a little smaller than the red deer though I’m certainly no expert.

Don't you just love to see the resident swans gliding so elegantly on the mere. There were cygnets here in the summer too – I’m not sure if they’re still about. And aren’t the reeds looking lovely? They’re such a rich amber brown at this time of year.

If you look over the fields to your left, you can see the magnificent mansion. We won’t visit today but if you remember, I visited the house when I was here in the summer. It’s simply splendid inside so you really should go for a wander around.

Now, there's some birdlife I'm not familiar with. They're the size of geese but those markings are certainly unusual. Do you know them?

[When I got home I looked them up. These are Egyptian Geese, an introduced wildfowl species that escaped its domesticity and is now breeding successfully in the wild. I'm not sure if these are resident at Tatton Park or are just visiting for the winter.]

There are some more deer on the hilltop. You can see how close walkers can get to them.

And look over there at the huge swan on the bank of the mere. You don't realise what big birds they are until they're out of the water like that.

Well, it's beginning to cloud up and I've worked up an appetite from all this walking. Let's head back to Knutsford and have some lunch in one of the good range of cafes and restaurants they have in town. I hope you've enjoyed your stroll. I know I have! And thanks for your company. We must do this again soon.

08 December 2014

Cheshire: pubs and their signs 2

As I wrote in my previous blog about Cheshire pub signs and their intriguing histories, both of the pubs themselves and their signs, the public house is an institution in the UK, a much-loved and oft-frequented centre of its local community, where the publican is counsellor and confidant as much as businessperson. 

So many of these pubs, inns and taverns occupy historic buildings in locations steeped in antiquity and their signs often provide a clue to significant local events, characters and places. Alternatively, they may just have one of the more common pub names that can be found throughout Britain – did you know ‘The Red Lion’ is the most common inn name in this nation? So says the website of the Inn Sign Society – yes, there is even a society of people who, amongst other noble objectives, aim to research the origins of the many names given to inns. Perhaps I should join.

Here, then, is my second instalment about pub signs I have discovered in Cheshire.

The Penny Black, Northwich
As the plaque on its frontage reports, this stunning traditional black-and-white, a Grade II listed building, was ‘designed by H.M. Office of Works in 1914 as a purpose-built Post Office to serve Northwich and district’. That explains the pub name – the Penny Black was the world’s first adhesive stamp. The plaque also notes that this is Northwich’s ‘largest liftable building’, a strange claim to fame perhaps, but subsidence was a big problem during the 1800s when the salt extraction that was Northwich’s primary industry changed to the more viable brine-pumping method, thus weakening the land above the salt mines and causing many parts of the town to collapse. The Penny Black was converted to a pub in the late 1990s and appears to be fairly popular with locals and visitors alike, if online ratings are to be believed. I have yet to visit.

The Witton Chimes, Northwich
Just a drunken stagger away from the Penny Black is the Witton Chimes public house, located in a charming 17th-century building. You might think this pub’s sign is easily explainable – it’s situated in Witton Street and there is a church just up the street. However, that church, St Wilfrid’s Roman Catholic, is not the church depicted in the sign, which shows the impressive bell tower of the Parish Church of St Helen Witton, not far away in Church Road.

The pub’s website reports that the Witton Chimes used to be known as The Waterman’s Arms but was renamed after the church. ‘Perhaps the mostly famous publican was Ma Kenyon who owned the Pub during the [Second World] War and into the 1970s. Many a tale has been told [about] how Ma used to give free pints and 5 cigarettes to active servicemen from the area whenever [they were] on leave during the 2nd World War. Many still believe the ghost of Ma Kenyon walks the corridors upstairs with strange sounds often reported by regulars.’ Why is it that pubs feature so often in reports of ghosts, I wonder? Here’s another.

The Roebuck Inn, Northwich
Though it doesn’t feature in the Inn Sign Society’s list of Britain’s 20 most popular inn names, the Roebuck Inn does appear to be a popular name, judging by the number I located during a web search. That may be because the roe deer is widespread throughout Britain and it’s the most common deer species in Cheshire, according to the Cheshire Wildlife Trust. I’ve not found out anything about the pub’s history though it does have a reputation for being haunted. This from ghostpubs.com:  

Medieval history contains many stories of human beings making pacts with the devil for many riches in return for their soul. This is a modern day version of such an arrangement. The joint licensees of the Roebuck lost custom with staff through poltergeist activities. There is the appearance of a ghostly woman in the pub. The proprietor invited psychic mediums to investigate. This team reported that this was the ghost of Hannah Latham. She explained she had been part owner of the Roebuck in the mid-1800s when it had been a prosperous business. She threatened that her ghost will keep returning to make sure it is being properly run. Hannah agreed she had been responsible for the poltergeist activities of throwing pictures around, taking down stacked chairs. Through the mediums, she was advised that her presence was ruining their trade. Customers would leave in droves. Hannah agreed to reduce her paranormal behaviour. However, maintain a watchful eye from a distance.

The Green Dragon, Northwich
Just a short crawl further along Witton Street is the Green Dragon, for which I have Daniel Clark’s most excellent blog about Northwich history to thank for the following information: 

Records indicate that the original Green Dragon public house was built in the 1760s. The first landlord is listed as Samuel Swindells. The 1810 ‘Original Survey of Witton’ states that the Green Dragon once stood within three quarters of an acre of land off Witton Street, most of which was used as a garden, although a small stable was also noted. By the 1820s, the adjoining land had been reduced to somewhere in the region of one quarter of an acre. In 1828, the public house was sold to the Northwich Brewery for the sum of £5.

The original Green Dragon public house was demolished around 1870 with a new mid-Victorian building built in its place. Records indicate that the exterior of the new building is similar to that of the old building, however, a number of layout changes were made internally. The public house once housed two billiard rooms, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. In the early 1900s additional accommodation was added to the rear of the property along with new bathroom space.

The Smoker, Plumley
Please don’t think that, by including a pub of this name, I condone smoking. The sign is a giveaway – this 400-year-old thatched, former coaching inn is, in fact, named after a horse ... but not just any horse. The charger Smoker was supposedly bred as a racehorse by George, the Prince Regent (later George IV), and owned by the first Lord deTabley of nearby Tabley Estate. The Lord is famous for having raised the Cheshire Yeomanry against the threat of invasion by Napoleon and the horse is famous for having won 12 of his 19 races, as shown on the racing calendars for 1790 and 1793 that are on display in the pub.  

According to Paul Hindle’s book Northwich, Winsford and Middlewich Through Time, the pub is thought to have been built during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and became a coaching inn in 1611. It had a succession of names, The Bell, The Shoulder of Mutton and The Griffin, before being renamed The Smoker as a memorial to Lord deTabley’s horse. On 12 April 2007, the Manchester Evening News reported that ‘The cup he won at Richmond in 1792 was donated to the Tarporley Hunt and is now a challenge trophy in the Cheshire Hunt point-to-point races held at the neighbouring Tabley Estate.' The pub’s sign apparently depicts Lord deTabley astride Smoker when reviewing his troops on the beach at Liverpool, though it is certainly not the original sign.

Illustration from The Old Inns of Old England by Charles G. Harper

The Windmill, Tabley
Pub signs obviously deteriorate over time and need to be replaced. New signs for both The Smoker and The Windmill pubs were painted way back in the late 1800s by a local female painter and the fact that the artist was female appears to have been so noteworthy that it was reported as far away as Cincinnati, in the USA (The Billboard, Cincinnati, 25 August 1900, vol.XII, no.17, p.3) and in Brisbane, Australia (in the Brisbane Courier, 1 September 1897, p.6).

The artist was Miss Barbara Leighton, daughter of Eleanor Leicester Warren (who later became Lady Leighton and who had inherited the nearby Tabley Estate on the death of her brother, Lord deTabley). Some of Barbara’s paintings can still be seen at Tabley House and her pub signs were apparently very well received. The Cincinnati Billboard describes the sign for The Smoker as ‘a capital portrait in oils of Smoker, a famous race horse’, so perhaps it was similar to today’s pub sign, but that produced for The Windmill was rather different – it represented ‘Don Quixote tilting at a windmill’. According to the pub’s website, The Windmill was established in 1734 and is named after another of Lord deTabley winning racehorses, a Chester Gold Cup winner. 

The Spinner and Bergamot, Comberbach
As will have become obvious, owning and training racehorses used to be a popular vocation in this neck of the woods and several of the local pubs are named after them. This is yet another example. The Spinner and Bergamot was built around 1746 and originally named, simply, The Spinner, after a local spinning loom. The inn was the favourite watering hole of Sir Hugh Smith-Barry of nearby Marbury Hall, a gentleman who’d inherited the family fortune made in Northwich salt. Sir Hugh named one of his racehorses, a grey filly, after the pub, then, after the horse was victorious in four races during 1762, he bought the pub to celebrate. The horse went on to win the Ladies’ Plate in Scarborough in 1764. The name Bergamot was added to the pub’s name in honour of another of Smith-Barry’s horses, an even more successful racehorse that won the Chester Cup in 1794. 

The Slow and Easy, Lostock Gralam
Unfortunately, the owners of The Slow and Easy public house in nearby Lostock Gralam have allowed their pub’s sign to deteriorate to a very shameful state. It too is named after a racehorse, as you can just make out in the sign, though I’m not sure which Slow and Easy it was. The pedigrees of three thoroughbreds with that name can be found on the pedigree online database, ranging in dates from 1815 to 1922, though the most recent Slow and Easy raced, was at stud and is buried in the USA.   

These days the pub is better known for its proximity to the local Witton Albion football stadium, and for its Low and Sleazy summer music weekends. This time last year it was in the news because someone had stolen its safe. According to the report in the Northwich Guardian, ‘A spokesman for Northwich neighbourhood policing team said: “A wheelbarrow was found nearby, which we believe had been used to transport the safe to a vehicle. Due to the weight of the safe, we believe more than one person was involved.”' Very astute police here in Cheshire, wouldn’t you say? Now, if only the owners would respect and restore their lovely pub sign.

** Update February 2015
The Slow and Easy is under new management and I'm very pleased to report that one of the first things the new managers did was instal a new sign. And they're stayed true to the history of the pub with its depiction of a racehorse. Great to see the old tradition being maintained!

28 November 2014

Happy National Gutters Day!

Today is National Gutters Day here in the United Kingdom. Fascinating, right? Right?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I frequently develop ‘fascinations’ about things – see, for example, my recent blogs on Weathervanes, wind vanes and weathercocks and Turret toppings, amongst others.

Exeter Cathedral

Well, during my holiday here in the UK last summer, my insatiable curiosity led me to photograph the many and various designs of guttering, downpipes and hopper heads (those funnel- or box-shaped receptacles at the top of the downpipes) I noticed on the numerous historic buildings I visited. Now I’ve discovered this annual celebration of gutters so what better day to regale you with the engrossing details of these incredibly necessary objects and to share the photos I’ve gathered.

One of the lovely buildings at Port Sunlight

Left: Lyme Park; centre: John Rylands Library, Manchester; right: Chirk Castle

Guttering is, of course, a very practical invention – buildings do not survive long without the means to rapidly and effectively jettison rainwater – and it was the Romans who first brought the notion of good water management to Britain. They even had a goddess of the sewers, Cloacina (who, not surprisingly I suppose, also protected sexual intercourse in marriage!).

Following their successful invasion of England in 1066, the Normans instigated the construction of huge numbers of castles, manor houses, churches and more, throughout the land, and these buildings, with their stone roofs, towers and turrets, required gutters and gargoyles to throw the water clear of their walls. Though unverified, it is thought that the first downpipe was erected in Britain in 1240, to protect the newly whitewashed walls of the Tower of London.

Left: Tower of London,; centre: Dunham Massey; right: Westminster Abbey
The destruction of church buildings that began in 1536 after Henry VIII’s decree for the Dissolution of the Monasteries was, amazingly, a good thing for gutters because large quantities of lead became available. This lead was repurposed and reshaped into hopper heads for use on England’s many great houses, and the hopper heads were decorated with designs and dates, a fashion that continued when the use of cast iron replaced lead in the late 1700s.

Cast iron was cheaper and more plentiful than lead so gutters, downpipes and hopper heads became commonplace on smaller houses and the fact that the iron was cast meant it could also be patterned. During the Victorian period, hopper heads became rather ornate, their designs more detailed, and downpipes might have embossed motifs or barley-twist patterns. 

Battle Abbey

All Hallows by the Tower Church, London

Sadly, this fashion died out in the mid 20th century when cheap plastic guttering began to replace cast iron, and guttering is now mostly plain and angular, with no ornamentation. Fortunately, there are still some craftsmen manufacturing replica guttering for the refurbishment and restoration of historic buildings, and they maintain the old tradition of adding ornamentation and dates to their work, as can be seen from the more recent dates in some of my photos.

National Gutters Day does, of course, have a more practical purpose than simply celebrating the gutters of the past. The day came into being in 2002 and was the brainchild of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). It is the finale of National Maintenance Week, ‘an awareness campaign designed to encourage everyone who owns or looks after a building to take a few simple steps at the beginning of winter to ensure that their property is ready for anything that the season can throw at them, especially in these increasingly wet, windy and unpredictable days’.

Left: Hailsham Parish Church; centre: Church of St Peter and St Paul, Hellingly; right: Sidmouth Parish Church

All Hallows by the Tower Church, London

It’s an eminently sensible cause. For me, though, today is about paying tribute to the craftsmen who created all the wonderful designs to be found on the hopper heads of Britain’s glorious old buildings and celebrating the ornate guttering of centuries past. Happy National Gutters Day!

St Mary and All Saints Church, Great Budworth

St Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey, London

20 November 2014

Cheshire treats: The benches at Tatton Park

What finer pleasure can there be than sitting on a bench in a garden! 

The beautiful gardens at Tatton Park have some of the most charming benches I’ve ever seen in a garden. The diversity of their designs is exquisite and they have been perfectly situated. I guess that’s one of the benefits of a garden with over 200 years’ history. 

These are just some of the reasons I can think of to sit on a charming bench in a delightful garden: to admire the view; to rest your weary feet; to listen to the warbling of birds; to soak up the history and the atmosphere; to smell the flowers and the evocative scent of pine trees and flowering limes; to dream; to marvel at the various bench designs; to chat to friends; to imagine; to share gardening tips and advice; to appreciate the design and structure of the gardens; to lose yourself for a time; to glory in the sunshine; to escape from the outside world; to laugh at the antics of squirrels; to people watch; to smile at the fluttering of butterflies and the buzzing of bees; to feel refreshed by the delicate pitter patter of rain; to hear the rustling of the leaves in the wind; to read a book or write a poem; to take off your shoes and feel the soft grass beneath your feet tickling your toes… The people whose quotes I’ve featured below are rather more profound than me.

"Sitting in your garden is a feat to be worked at with unflagging determination and single-mindedness - for what gardener worth his salt sits down. I am deeply committed to sitting in the garden." Mirabel Osler

"Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still." T.S. Eliot

“I was just sittin’ here enjoyin’ the company. Plants got a lot to say, if you take the time to listen.” Eeyore

"To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment." Jane Austen

“Sitting in a garden and doing nothing is high art everywhere.” Michael P. Garofalo, Pulling Onions

“I don't generally like running. I believe in training by rising gently up and down from the bench.” Satchel Paige

“She was sitting in a garden more beautiful than even her rampaging imagination could ever have conjured up, and she was being serenaded by trees.” Lynn Kurland, Spellweaver

“Truly, the bench is a boon to idlers. Whoever first came up with the idea is a genius: free public resting places where you can take time out from the bustle and brouhaha of the city, and simply sit and watch and reflect.” Tom Hodgkinson

“A throne is only a bench covered with velvet.” Napoleon Bonaparte

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.” Maya Angelou

Read more about the gardens at Tatton Park on their website, then plan a visit. Whatever the season there is somewhere stunning to see and you can check out all these beautiful benches. And do let me know if you find some I've missed!