Signs of spring in Grovely Wood and elsewhere

These sheep were busily eating up their greens on the way into the wood.

These sheep were busily eating up their greens on the way into the wood.

IF there is one thing that keeps The Happy Moonraker going through the winter it is the thought of spring. It is so heartening now to see signs of spring all around.

In Grovely Wood near Salisbury at the weekend I saw bluebell leaves through the brown beech leaves underfoot. In sheltered spots there are daffodils that have been around for at least a month, and snowdrops are still shaking their little white heads in the chilly breeze. Catkins adorn the naked branches of hazel bushes and there are plenty of hellebores in gardens and parks.

A river of mauve crocuses outside Salisbury Museum is now past its best but more will be flowering in exposed rural areas.

A puffball at Grovely.

A puffball at Grovely.

Fungus well established on the stump of a beech tree.

Fungus well established on the stump of a beech tree.

A beech tree with a troubled past.

A beech tree with a troubled past.

Tilly is not bothered by signs of spring: she decided to dig to Australia when she was in Grovely Wood.

Tilly is not bothered by signs of spring: she decided to dig to Australia when she was in Grovely Wood.

Snowdrops on a roadside verge in the Woodford Valley near Salisbury.

Snowdrops on a roadside verge in the Woodford Valley near Salisbury.

A rare bird

Tilly wonders if other people like looking at this painting of a stone curlew.

Tilly wonders if other people like looking at this painting of a stone curlew.

I WALK past here with my Moonraker Mum and I know she loves this painting of a rare stone curlew. We watched the chap put the finishing touches to it last autumn, and we stop and study it quite often.

My mum says it is amazing how cleverly the man has managed to make the paint look like feathers. By then, of course, I’m ready to move on, in case there is a whiff of squirrel in the park nearby.

The painting is on the west side of the public lavatories in Crane Bridge Road, Salisbury, and there is a notice that says it came about because of collaboration between Salisbury City Council, the RSPB and ATM street art.

My Moonraker Mum says that there are some stone curlews on Salisbury Plain but they are an endangered species. I don’t think I’d be too happy if I saw a real bird as big as that painting. After all, that is a lot bigger than those big white birds that I see on the river, and they are big enough.

 

Chelsea Physic Garden, a hidden jewel

Chelsea Physic Garden contains the oldest man-made rock garden in Europe. It has Grade II* status.

Chelsea Physic Garden contains the oldest man-made rock garden in Europe. It has Grade II* status.

THERE are probably thousands of people living and travelling nearby who don’t even know it exists.

They go about their daily lives, thundering past in buses and cars, sometimes looking out of a top-floor window, unaware of the verdant jewel in their midst.

The Chelsea Physic Garden is one of those places that you may have heard of but have never got round to visiting.

It’s not the easiest place to reach by public transport but it more than justifies the effort.

Pick a warm day for your visit and you will appreciate the greenery, the calm and the atmosphere. It really is an oasis next to Chelsea Embankment, hemmed in on three sides by flats and by two- and three-storey houses.

Thanks to a charming and knowledgeable volunteer guide,, we emerged with a clear idea of how and why the garden came about. Although she immediately confessed that she was not a botanist, that didn’t matter.

She knew the names of enough plants in the beautifully organised beds to fool me. She had mugged up the garden’s history, ancient and modern, to ensure that her group of visitors went away well briefed after more than an hour of gentle walking.

Our attention was drawn to treasures like the largest olive tree growing out of doors in this country. We saw the pomegranate tree, we saw individual beds of plants cultivated for all kinds of purposes, medicinal, nutritional and practical.

Among them was the fibre bed which contains plants grown for use in the textile and rope-making industries, along with a border of plants used in the cosmetic and perfumery industries. Visitors are shown the garden of world medicine, systematic order beds, the history beds, the North American beds, the pharmaceutical beds, and many more.

The garden is laid out on 3.8 acres of prime real estate. Just imagine what a piece of land of that size in Chelsea could fetch on the open market for housing of the more up-market kind. However, that will never happen.

Since Sir Hans Sloane, as Dr Sloane, bought the manor of Chelsea from Charles Cheyne in 1712, the freehold of the garden has been safeguarded.

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries had founded their Physic Garden in 1673 but were finding it difficult to maintain.

Sloane, who had studied at the garden as a young man, granted the Society a lease in perpetuity, in return for a rent of £5 each year which, even to this day, is paid to his descendants. Not surprisingly there is a handsome statue of Sir Hans prominently positioned in the garden. It is a replica of the 1733 original by Michael Rysbrack.

It was in 1983 that the Chelsea Physic Garden was set up as an independent charity and opened to the general public.

You certainly can’t argue with its description as a centre of education, beauty and relaxation. It was a disappointment, though, to have chanced to arrive fairly late in the day, at a time when the café had closed prior to re-opening for the evening session.

But that was our fault, not theirs. Among their specialities were the delicious-sounding lavender scones, probably made using lavender grown just yards away from the door.

Do visit if you have the chance – the Happy Moonraker found it magical, but check opening times carefully. http://chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/

1.A replica statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Chelsea Physic Garden. The generosity of Sir Hans in 1722 ensured that the Society of Apothecaries could keep their garden in perpetuity. They had founded it in 1673.

A replica statue of Sir Hans Sloane in the Chelsea Physic Garden. The generosity of Sir Hans in 1722 ensured that the Society of Apothecaries could keep their garden in perpetuity. They had founded it in 1673.

 

A trip to see the Percherons

Some of the Sampson family’s Percherons and Percheron crosses out in their paddock on a sunny morning.

Some of the Sampson family’s Percherons and Percheron crosses out in their paddock on a sunny morning.

PERCHERON draught horses are bred and trained by the Sampson family at Ellingham, near Ringwood. Originally from Western France, Percherons have been reared and worked on the family farm in Hampshire for the past 60-plus years. Traditional farming methods and horse-drawn equipment are used.

It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to go and see some of these gentle horses out in their paddocks. A bright, crisp and chilly morning, it proved to be an ideal time to see the horses as they ate their hay and wandered about in the sunshine. It will be a few weeks yet before the first spring grass comes through and before any foals are born.

With their thick winter coats, enquiring natures and soft noses, the horses seemed to welcome a visitor or two. Some of them were obviously crossed with other types, such as New Forest ponies.

02 Percherons grey group 2 15

Tilly soon got bored and wasn’t even interested in looking at this bracket fungus. She was far keener on investigating the hole in the roots of the oak tree. “I’m quite happy looking at horses with my Moonraker Mum,” thinks Tilly, “but if there are good smells to follow, or even a rat to dig out, that’s where you’ll find me every time.”

Tilly soon got bored and wasn’t even interested in looking at this bracket fungus. She was far keener on investigating the hole in the roots of the oak tree. “I’m quite happy looking at horses with my Moonraker Mum,” thinks Tilly, “but if there are good smells to follow, or even a rat to dig out, that’s where you’ll find me every time.”

 

A snowy morning in The Close

We were all just a bit surprised when we saw the snow but we stuck to the plan for the morning which was to meet one of Tilly’s good friends for a walk. Going into the Close seemed the obvious thing to do, taking a rare opportunity of seeing the peaceful surroundings under an even-more peaceful shroud of snow. Any sounds were muffled.

Later, someone said that Tilly should have been wearing a coat but I politely disagreed. She has thick fur, especially at this time of year, and she is not a human even though she often thinks she is. Sometimes she might appear to shiver, but that only happens if we are standing still for too long. On the other hand, her teeth chatter with excitement while she watches me preparing her breakfast.

Tilly says: “Here I am in the snow in the Cathedral Close with one of my many best friends. The other person in the photo never says anything. I’ve heard my Moonraker Mum say that it is a sculpture by a famous man called Lynn Chadwick. She says he died in 2003 and became famous for his semi-abstract bronze and steel sculptures.”

Tilly says: “Here I am in the snow in the Cathedral Close with one of my many best friends. The other person in the photo never says anything. I’ve heard my Moonraker Mum say that it is a sculpture by a famous man called Lynn Chadwick. She says he died in 2003 and became famous for his semi-abstract bronze and steel sculptures.”

Surrounded by snow: Salisbury Cathedral from the south-west.

Surrounded by snow: Salisbury Cathedral from the south-west.

On our way into the Close we spotted this lovely window of real snowdrop plants in the High Street Post Office. Such a pretty idea!

On our way into the Close we spotted this lovely window of real snowdrop plants in the High Street Post Office. Such a pretty idea!

Trip of a lifetime – but no Caribbean holiday

Tilly was not a member of the household when I went on a tall ship sailing holiday in the Caribbean. Actually, not a lot of it was holiday, as you’ll see.

High-level training while still in port

High-level training while still in port

JUST say two words – pipe-cot – and I’m likely to run away screaming.

In case you don’t know, a pipe-cot is a type of bunk or hammock on a ship and consists of a piece of canvas slung between two scaffold poles.

It was my bed for the ten days and nights I spent on the square-rigged Stavros S Niarchos, one of the Tall Ships Youth Trust’s training ships.

My pipe-cot was neither easy to get into nor out of, but its shape ensured that I wasn’t thrown out of it when the going got seriously rough.

As a member of the voyage crew on a trip that started and ended at Bridgetown, Barbados, I had already gleaned from the literature that it wouldn’t be like any ordinary holiday on a cruise liner.

It wasn’t.

From the moment we arrived on board and were shown our cabins (designed for up to eight people, but mercifully there were only three in ours), this was certainly a trip with a difference.

We spent the first hour or so forming a human chain to load the ship with stores from a truck parked on the quayside.

Someone was heard to mutter: “That truck couldn’t be much further away if it tried.”

From frozen chickens to boxes of ginger biscuits, cartons of fruit juice and frozen joints of beef, it all had to be brought on board and stowed.

Once that task was completed, we were supplied with waterproof jackets and harnesses, divided into one of three watches – there were eight of us in White Watch – and I was rapidly reduced to a jabbering idiot, unable to remember where I was meant to be and when, forgetting who was who, and incapable of remembering more than one knot.

I completely funked climbing up to the yards, but others shot up, as to the manner born.

I had no problems with scrubbing, cleaning, disinfecting heads (lavatories) and showers but it wasn’t much fun when you had already been on watch from midnight until 4am and had had about three hours’ sleep.

Putting the psychological games to one side, with watch leaders adopting the “good cop, bad cop” persona on the odd occasion, arriving at each of the islands we visited was wonderful.

On going ashore it was always tempting to drop to my knees and kiss the ground.

The real problems became overwhelming when we headed out 140 miles into the Atlantic so that Stavros could approach Bridgetown under sail.

She effectively demonstrated rock ’n’ roll, with disastrous effects on me and on about a dozen others.

As you suffer 36 hours feeling like death in your pipe-cot and longing for the agony to be over, you have to remind yourself that, by suffering, you are also doing a little good.

A proportion of the money you have paid to be bullied, trained, teased, cajoled and exhausted goes towards enabling disadvantaged young people aged between 16 and 25 to have the same experience.

Would they thank me?

I think most probably would, as long as they didn’t suffer from seasickness and didn’t mind doing as they were told.

The whole experience is designed to be character-building, to help people of any age to forge new friendships, to work as a team, to endure physical and mental tests.

It was all that, and more.

What can be better than approaching Caribbean islands from the sea, exploring tropical forests on foot with a local guide, watching humming birds, swimming at the foot of a waterfall, eating grapefruit straight from the tree, seeing exotic flowers in their natural habitat?

Our route took us to Bequia, one of the islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines, to St Lucia, Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) and to Terre de Haut, one of the French Isles des Saintes, near Guadeloupe.

We swam in sapphire blue sea from the side of the ship but I have to confess that I had to be hauled back on board in a canvas sling pulled by two strong males because I didn’t fancy my chances at grabbing the rope ladder.

There were dolphins, flying fish and, on Bequia, a small reserve where we saw the work done by a local enthusiast in conserving the endangered population of hawksbill turtles.

There was the surreal sight of metre-long, grey iguanas fighting on scrub land at the edge of the town on Terre de Haut.

And I wasn’t bitten by any mosquitoes during the whole trip.

It’s not the sort of holiday where you can expect to sit about on deck with a book when you are not on watch because you are more than likely to be detailed to help the boatswain with some routine task like chipping off old paint or polishing the ship’s bell.

Or it could be your turn on mess duty, handing out bowls of porridge (very popular, even in temperatures of 30 degrees), plates laden with full English breakfasts, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and so on.

Food was wholesome, generous and traditional and the atmosphere in the galley was always cheerful, no matter what disaster had befallen the soup as Stavros swung and lurched.

The permanent crew, augmented by the volunteer crew of people with suitable experience and skill to supervise us, were heroic.

How they kept patience with such a motley band of paying “guests” was indeed admirable.

Sadly I was not the only one who proved that pressure bands, anti-seasickness pills of various kinds, staying in the open air in the middle of the ship, and eating ginger are completely useless.

Cries of “two six heave” as we hauled on ropes took on a new meaning once I had my head over the vomit pot.

However, for every two people who said “never again”, there were another dozen who couldn’t wait to book their next voyage on Stavros.

Beaches of fine silver sand, the 18th century Shirley fort on Dominica, trees laden with bananas, drinks with new friends and the star-spangled night sky remain highlights of a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

No, I wouldn’t do it again (ever) but I’m glad I did it once.

 

View of the bay off Isles des Saintes

View of the bay off Isles des Saintes

3.A turtle in the reserve on Bequia

3. A turtle in the reserve on Bequia

4.Carob tree on Dominica

4. Carob tree on Dominica

5.Cabrits Garrison, Dominica.

5. Cabrits Garrison, Dominica.