27 April 2015

Auckland: a celebration in clouds

Who doesn’t like to moan about the weather? Yet, despite my initial grumblings about arriving back in Auckland to gale-force winds and driving heavy rain, its weather is one of the things I love about this maritime city.

Yesterday's weather
Perched as it is on the narrowest isthmus of the North Island – so narrow, in fact, that you can walk the 16 kilometres from coast to coast in just a few hours  Auckland enjoys a multitudinous palette of weather. Indeed, there’s a standing joke that in Auckland you can experience all four seasons in just one day. Both a rainproof jacket and sunscreen are essential at all times of the year!

Fierce tropical storms blow down from the mighty Pacific Ocean, bringing hurricane-strength winds and torrential downpours, and ice-chilled Antarctic gales blow up from the Roaring Forties, their fury funnelling north through the always wild Tasman Strait. Yet, despite being exposed to these climate extremes, Auckland’s climate is, for the most part, mild but also, invariably, damp – humid in the summer, and with frequent rain in all seasons.

The good thing about all that rain is the clouds that carry it. The clouds that light up in magnificent shades of pink, purple, orange and red at the breaking of the day and as the sun sets. The clouds that look like enormous clumps of cotton wool and can be imagined as faces or characters or scenes. The clouds that grow dark and angry and threatening then bring us the magic of lightning. And don’t even get me started on rainbows. How impoverished our lives would be without the glory of rainbows.

To show you the infinite diversity of Auckland’s weather, I have photographed the same scene – one of the views from my inner-city apartment, looking towards the extinct volcanic cone of Mt Eden – at different times of the day and the year. Inspired by yesterday's clouds, here then is my celebration of Auckland’s weather.

24 April 2015

Cheshire: pubs and their signs 6

I spent a couple of hours recently exploring Nantwich: so many beautiful old black-and-white buildings, so many pubs which, of course, means pub signs! So, here’s a little history of Nantwich told through its public houses.

The biggest thing that ever happened to this Cheshire market town was the Great Fire on 10 December 1583 and, wouldn’t you know it, it was caused by a brewer who accidentally set fire to his kitchen. Chaos reigned as a bucket-passing human chain tried to quell the flames with water from the River Weaver, all the while dodging the bears that were running through the streets – a landlord who provided the horrendous entertainment of bear baiting had let his animals loose when the fire got near his premises.

The townsfolk’s efforts were in vain and much of the town was destroyed but their misery has become our delight. As Nantwich played an important role in the Cheshire salt industry, good Queen Bess organised some national fundraising and herself contributed wood from nearby Delamere Forest so many of the beautiful old taverns we can see today date from the time of town’s rebuilding.

The Cheshire Cat, Nantwich
Let’s start with the pub with the cutest name, The Cheshire Cat. The black-and-white part of the pub was originally built in 1637 as three cottages. In 1676-77, in memory of his beloved wife, local man Roger Wilbrahamhad the cottages converted to almshouses, to house six impoverished local widows and so they remained until the 1930s.

In 2002, the buildings were redeveloped for their current use as a pub, restaurant and small hotel, hence the rather modern cat sign – the Cheshire Cat artwork is by local artist Tori Chantler. I’m not sure I’d want to stay there though – apparently, the building has its share of ghostly inhabitants!

The Malbank, Nantwich
Malbank was the name of the family that owned Nantwich and much of the surrounding area in Norman times. Although the Romans had settled here earlier, in order to mine the extensive local salt deposits, William Malbank, third Baron of Wich Malbank (an earlier name for Nantwich) is credited with putting the town on the map.  

This building wasn’t always a pub – I found a photograph dating from around 1910 which gives its name as Acton’s Stables, and the pub sign appears to be a modern artist’s rather fanciful interpretation of how William Malbank may have looked in full battle armour – not exactly historically accurate, if the Bayeaux tapestry is anything to go by.

The Oddfellows Arms, Nantwich
As you may know, the Oddfellows is a Friendly Society, formed in 1810 but derived from the trade guilds of medieval times, which has the aim of ensuring that their large, 280,000-strong membership ‘join[s] together to enjoy the social side of life, as well as providing care advice and support in times of need’. Though the building occupied by the pub dated from the early 19th century and the arms displayed in the pub’s sign are those of the Oddfellows Society, I’m not sure if there is any connection. Perhaps the building was originally constructed for the society.

I particularly like the additional sign for Oscar’s Bar on the wall adjacent to the pub itself. Oscar was obviously a much-loved patron!

The Black Lion, Nantwich
Not far from The Oddfellows Arms is The Black Lion. Built in 1664, it still retains many of its original architectural features (stone floors, beams, and wattle and daub construction) and is the longest-running public house in Nantwich. No surprise then that this is another pub that’s said to be haunted.  

Though I’ve not found anything on the history of The Black Lion’s name, animal names coupled with colours are often heraldic references – The Red Lion, for example, is the most common pub name in England.

The Red Cow, Nantwich
According to their own website ‘The Red Cow is a charming 15th Century traditional pub close to the centre of Nantwich Town’, which underwent ‘a full and stunning refurbishment in March 2013’.

I found a wonderful snippet about The Red Cow’s history on a website quoting local historian Andrew Lamberton:

There is information regarding the public house in the booklet by Dr A.J. MacGregor called the ‘Inns and Innkeepers of Nantwich’. The address was 9 Beam Street, and it was originally an alehouse in 1792 called the Red Cow. In 1830 it was known as the Old Red Cow to distinguish it from the new one which was further down the street, the proprietor having taken the name with him when he moved to the new premises. The "new" Red Cow is still a public house in Beam Street.

The Crown, Nantwich
This wonderful old building was built in 1584, soon after that disastrous fire had decimated the town, and still has many original features as you can probably tell from its rather wonky shape. No wonder it’s Grade I listed. An inn named The Crown and Sceptre was referred to in the Domesday Book of 1086, and there is speculation that this was the original site of Nantwich Castle, which was built prior to 1180, so this location has seen a lot of history. You can read more on Wikipedia.  

Pub names like The Crown, which refer to royalty, have long been popular and are thought to have indicated the landlord’s loyalty to authority (at least publicly). The Inn Sign Society’s website also notes that ‘The sign of the crown has been used as an inn sign for hundreds of years as it was easily identifiable for the majority of the population, most of whom were illiterate.’

The Talbot, Nantwich
I was fascinated to learn that The Talbot’s name ‘comes from a breed of dog first put on their coat of arms by a family called Talbot’. Apparently, ‘the dogs were used for hunting (like a fox hound) or for running alongside stage coaches’.

Though it was originally named The Talbot, former owners changed the pub’s name to The Frog and Ferret – a rather bizarre combination of creatures. Locals celebrated when the name was changed back to the original in 2007. Photos of some of this pub’s previous signs can be seen on A Dabber’s Nantwich’s website – I think I like the current sign best.

20 April 2015

Spring wildflowers: the yellowing of the countryside

Yellow is the colour of happiness, optimism, enlightenment, creativity, hope, cheerfulness, sunshine … and the quintessential colour of Spring.

Yellow is also the most luminous in the colour spectrum – the colour that most easily catches our eye and the eyes of bees so it’s no surprise that yellow is the most common flower colour. Here in Cheshire, after my first experience of a British winter in thirty years, I have been spellbound by the coming of Spring, and both charmed and uplifted by the yellow wildflowers everywhere. Here are some I’ve seen.

Cowslip (Primula veris)
How many common names can one small plant have? Well, the Cowslip boasts of this numerous and delightful collection: fairy cup, galligaskins, gaskins, herb Peter, key flower, keyword, lady's bunch of keys, lady's candlestick, lady's keys, lady's seal, luck flower, paggles, paigle, paiglewort, palseywort, paralysis, petty mullein, primerole, primet, and St Peter's wort.

As you can probably tell from its appearance, the Cowslip is related to the Primrose. It has close associations with English folklore and traditions, including being scattered on church paths for weddings and beautifying garlands for May Day celebrations. 

And, if you remember your high school English lessons on Shakespeare, Cowslip flowers were the bodyguards of Titania, the Fairy Queen, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 1, Scene 1).

Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Primroses are one of the first Spring flowers, blooming as early as December when the weather is mild and continuing on until May. The Primrose was, supposedly, the favourite flower of former British Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81) and so was used as the emblem for the Primrose League, an organisation founded a couple of years after Disraeli’s death and active until the 1990s, whose purpose was to promote the ideals of the Conservative Party throughout Britain. I can’t quite imagine Britain’s current Prime Minster, David Cameron, wearing a Primrose flower in his buttonhole!

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)
Though it looks a little like a dandelion, Coltsfoot is actually a member of the sunflower family. It is favoured by herbalists as its leaves and flowers apparently make an effective cough remedy. However, it has been found to cause problems with the liver so long-term use is definitely not wise.

This is another wildflower with a multitude of common names, including tash plant, ass’s foot, bull’s foot, butterbur, coughwort, farfara, foal’s foot, foalswort, horse foot and winter heliotrope. It seems that all those references to ‘foot’ result from the fact that the leaves are a similar shape to animal hooves.

Wild Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus)
Most of the Daffodils I’ve seen brightening the lane and roadside verges in Cheshire have been purposely planted there but occasionally I’ve come across small clumps of these golden blooms in more remote spots, in small woodlands or areas of rough scrub. These are the more precious Wild Daffodils – their pale yellow petals and darker yellow trumpets give them away.

The website for Kew, the Royal Botanic Gardens, reports that the Daffodil’s Latin name Narcissus refers to the figure of the same name in Greek mythology. Narcissus fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water and ‘The nodding head of the Daffodil is said to represent Narcissus bending down and gazing at his reflection’. 

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
Everyone associates poet extraordinaire William Wordsworth with daffodils – ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud …’ – but Wordsworth’s favourite flower was, in fact, the Lesser Celandine, as witnessed by the bloom carved on his memorial plaque at the Church of St Oswald in Grasmere.

I’m not sure what ailments Wordsworth suffered from but perhaps he favoured the Lesser Celandine because it has long been considered a treatment for haemorrhoids, hence its old English name of Pilewort. According to the Ancient Greek physician Galen, sniffing a mixture of the juice of the roots with honey was also good for clearing the head of ‘foul and filthy humours’, though I wouldn’t recommend sniffing anything that also cured piles!

Yellow Archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon)
The Yellow Archangel I’ve seen is flowering early this year – it doesn’t usually flower till May and June. There is also a variety of Lamiastrum with variegated leaves, which has been labelled a noxious weed due to its over-zealous invasiveness and should be avoided at all costs – it will sprout from the smallest snippet and has been shown to spread easily from the garden to wilderness areas.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
As its name implies, this wildflower likes the dampness of marshes, fens, ditches and the wetter areas of woodland. According to Wikipedia, it ‘is probably one of the most ancient native plants, surviving the glaciations and flourishing after the last retreat of the ice in a landscape inundated with glacial meltwaters.’ 

The Marsh Marigold is commonly known as Kingcup – its Latin name Caltha comes from the Greek word for goblet and its large golden cup-shaped flowers certainly look glorious enough to adorn the table of a king.  

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Perhaps my favourite yellow wildflower – some might call it a weed – is the humble Dandelion. In places, its flowers are so profuse that the ground appears to be carpeted in yellow.

Not only is it cheerful to behold, it is also a wonderfully useful plant. As it is a good source of beta-carotene, is rich in Vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins and also high in protein, the Dandelion has been used for thousands of years to improve the functioning of the liver, the gallbladder, and the urinary and digestive systems.

And, although I’ve never tried it, dandelion is also widely used to make wine. So, the next time you’re tempted to eradicate these ‘weeds’ from your lawn or garden, think again – and, instead, make use of Nature’s bounty.

There are a multitude of websites if you want more information on British wildflowers, including those of Plantlife, the Botannical Society of Britain and Ireland, Wildflower Finder, and many more.

15 April 2015

Cheshire walks: Around Arley

During my six months in Cheshire wending my way around magnificent Arley estate has been one of my favourite pastimes. From my home near Pickmere it’s about 15 kilometres there and back, depending on which paths I tread, and every time I venture there I’m rewarded with a treasury of sights and sounds.

The path ways are numerous – one forms part of the North Cheshire Way, another is a bridle way, others are simply footpaths along which people have walked for generations. I try to avoid the roads as most are unpleasantly busy (Cann Lane, in particular, is one to avoid) but the smaller lanes are less trafficked and prettily lined with trees.

Rather than describe the various walking options, I’ll let my camera do the talking. The green dots on the map show most of the lanes and footpaths I’ve explored, and the red-dotted path indicates the North Cheshire Way – you can find out more about that on the Long Distance Walkers website. The numbered blue dots pinpoint where my photos have been taken. You can click on the map and images to see them full screen.

As my photos have been taken during winter and early spring, I’m sure the views will be much greener and leafier as spring progresses into summer. I hope my images convince you to don your walking shoes and explore this small part of the beautiful Cheshire countryside. You will not be disappointed!

And don’t forget to visit the grandiose Arley Hall and its superb gardens while you’re in this neck of the woods. You can get a glimpse of my earlier visit to the gardens here.

(1) Arley Road is the main entrance road for most people driving to the Hall so a little busy for walking but with lovely trees.

(2) Much of the long straight section of the North Cheshire Way that leads to Arley is now a concreted farm track
but signs of  its antiquity can be seen in the gnarly old hedgerows and the pretty wildflowers growing by the ditches.

(3) A third approach route is via Arley Mossend Lane. The road sweeps round to the left past attractive Willow Lodge, with its elegant topiary hedges, and to the right is a bridle way (see below) that connects to Budworth Road.

(4) Though it gets a bit muddy after rain, this bridle way can also be used by walkers and provides access to a footpath leading through the grassy fields to Arley Green.

(5) Arley Mossend Lane is edged partly by woodland and partly by open fields, providing expansive rural views - perfect for photographs of impressive cloud formations. Friendly horses are frequently to be found in the fields - bring apples or carrots!
(6) This tiny brick shed sits just outside the boundary of Arley's award-winning gardens - the greenery beyond provides a hint of the horticultural treasures to be discovered within.
(7) Back Lane runs along the northern side of Arley Hall's grounds. Lined with stately old trees, it provides tantalising glimpses of the Hall and its woodland garden.
(8) Photos above and below. At Arley Green the brook widens out to form a small mere, which is home to a variety of water birds - you can just see some swan in the bottom right of the above photo. You can also catch a glimpse of the beautiful old buildings to be found here, including a stunning black-and-white gem. On a calm day, the mere provides stunning relfections.

(9) Photos above and below. Sack Lane is a private road and public footpath, connecting Back Lane with Cann Lane. It is bordered on the northern side by luxuriant old woodland, which is currently (April) awash with wildflowers (the white flowers shown above are wood anemone). On the southern side the fields are also presently dotted with white - the somewhat larger white of ewes and their very cute lambs. The trees on the field boundaries produce nice silhouettes in the winter months.

(10) Another view of Sack Lane, taken in early winter, just because I love these trees!

(11) A cottage and a gatehouse sit half-way along Sack Lane, marking the boundary into Arley. Walkers can also take the lane to the right here and do a circuit back to Back Lane, as shown on the map. There was once a mill on the brook here but few signs now remains of its presence.

(12) This is probably my favourite route to and from Arley, along the footpath that runs across the fields. I'm guessing there was once a hedgerow connecting these old oak trees but that has been removed for easier farming access. A note of caution: one of these fields is edged with an electric fence that must be stepped across, and the fields sometimes contain cows that can be a little overzealous in their curiosity, which some people might find intimidating.