An Occasional Series Of Rural Observations

E-mail Bumpkin

May 2008

Mr Constable was in a lather the other day.  "Bumpkin, someone or something's been at the innards of the car." he declared.  He and Joan were setting off for an afternoon motor when he spotted something amiss. Little teeth had eaten away at the rim of the washer bottle, and had worked their way downwards, chewing away completely at the fine mesh filter.  "Bloomin mice!" grumbled Mr Constable, then added, (rather uncharitably I thought),  "Hope the washer solution gave 'em a good old belly ache!"  Here's a picture of the damage, though I had to work hard to persuade Mr Constable to take it.

My poor dear old friend has been getting more than his fair share of surprises from Mother Nature of late.  The other evening Mr Constable was out taking the air near Mount Segg and was a little puzzled to see signs of movement in what he had thought was a pile of horse dung.  His jaw dropped fully when the "horse dung" uncoiled itself and slinked off into the undergrowth. 

He wasn't immediately sure what type of snake he'd seen, for it measured a good yard and a half (150cm to our younger readers).  He checked his reference books once he returned home, and decided it was nothing more alarming than a grass snake.  These creatures can grow up to two yards in length (the female is generally larger than the male) and they love nothing more than basking in the sun, which is what Mr Constable's snake was probably doing.  Grass snakes are harmless as far as humans are concerned, but they do produce a venomous secretion that's toxic to small animals.  Especially, I pointed out to Mr C, small mice, with a taste for plastic washer bottles.  That cheered him up.

'Ara Best Bumpkin

The season of rebirth has returned, and with it a 'spring' in Mr Constable's step! He has been mightily productive with his camera, and here are the results in our latest posting to 'Country Meanderings'.

Who would have believed we should wake up to snow just a couple of weeks ago? Sadly for the children it had all but disappeared by lunchtime. The scene was glorious nonetheless, and Mr Constable was forced to amend his early morning walking plans.

Have you seen this cheeky little chap at the Ladies' Pool dam? I've heard of robins becoming tame in people's gardens, but this fellow takes the biscuit. He'll happily come within inches of you and seems quite at home with all the comings and goings of people, horses, dogs and ducks at this much frequented beauty spot. One lady of my acquaintance brings little edible offerings to entice him down, but they hardly seem necessary!

Mr Constable reported to me on St George's Day (23rd April) that he had heard his first cuckoo of the year.  Jolly patriotic say I, and a much earlier occurrence than last year.

A reminder, should you need it, that the bluebell season is almost upon us. Mr Constable snapped some early examples the other day in Hurcott Wood, our local bluebell haven. The rangers here have taken precautions to make sure the plants aren't trampled on, and have placed notices asking you to keep your dog on a lead in the more heavily-used areas, and to keep to the paths. Very sensible advice.

Which brings me to news of a most excellent event due to take place on Saturday, 10th May. There is to be a guided Bluebell Walk through Hurcott Wood, in the company of one of the very knowledgeable Wyre Forest rangers, and Inca. You may already know Inca, a Golden Retriever from Blakedown, whose job is to help his owner Dave, a wheelchair user. The pair are frequently to be seen around the village. There is an extremely reasonable charge for the event, which includes not only a hearty 'brunch' at the Swan in Blakedown before the walk, but also a donation to Canine Partners, the charity which trains dogs like Inca.

The event starts with 'brunch' at 10.30 at the Swan, then everyone repairs swiftly to the Perry Ford Lane entrance to Hurcott Wood to begin the guided walk. Places cost £7 for adults, £4 for children under 12, and you can book directly with the Swan (01562 700229).

Incidentally the Natural History Museum has undertaken a survey of British bluebells, of which there are three different types. You can find out all about it at See how many varieties you can spot in Hurcott!

Country Meanderings' trusty correspondent Deanna writes a cheering note to Bumpkin: ‘Delighted to see that you are carrying on with your ‘musings’. So nice to read something interesting, refreshing and sane, after the newspapers full of gloom and doom. Let us hope that the weather this year is better for your meanderings, and will enable Mr Constable to take more of his lovely photos.’

Dear lady, your encouraging words are most welcome, and I’m flattered at your high estimation of my sanity!

'Ara Best Bumpkin

5th March 2008

You’d be forgiven for thinking Bumpkin had emigrated, or at least hibernated, but here I am still, tramping along our highways and byways.

Spirits were lifted spectacularly on a recent visit to the Wyre Forest. Not a mile from the excellent Visitor Centre Mr Constable stopped dead in his tracks and did an about turn. I thought it was the cramp bothering him again, but soon realised the cause. He’d spotted six fallow deer, grazing in a hollow, not a hundred yards away! There were two stags in the group and Mr Constable explained that one stag would be the top dog, so to speak, and the other would be a young pretender, hot on his heels, and keen to challenge for the mantle of power. On this day, however, all was calm, and we watched for a good few minutes until they caught our scent and were off. No photograph from Mr C, unfortunately, but here’s another picture of a fallow deer to give you the i-deer. Oh dear!

You could always go and have a look for yourself, and I see that the rangers are offering a guided deer ‘hunting’ event on Saturday 8th March at 4pm. You’d need to book though as the places are limited.

Despite a hardy exterior, Bumpkin is a soft-centred fool, and was delighted to spot two swans, gliding majestically across Ladies Pool this week. Last year, there was only one magnificent swan to be seen, and I’d fancied him somewhat lost and lonely. Now there’s a pair, and a fine couple they make. Perhaps we shall see some young in due course. Well I’m assuming we’ve got a breeding pair, though I confess I’m not sure how one would tell the difference. Let’s hope the swans know what’s what!

(29th November 2007)

As the nights draw in and winter creeps towards us it is heart-warming indeed to receive news that one is appreciated in some small way. I received an electronic communication from Deanna who writes: ‘I have just come across your web page, courtesy of a friend. How delightful to hear your musings and share in your meanderings. Lots more please.’ Dear lady, thank you for your kind words, and though the damp weather does not favour my arthritic old limbs, I will try to oblige.

Another correspondent, Nigel Preston, was interested to read about Monkjack deer in one of my previous Meanderings, and asks 'Do you know what the monkjack deer are fond of? We have a few visiting our garden.’ Well I’ve done a bit of investigation on your behalf and I can tell you that the Reeves’s Monkjack, which is the species we have in this country, loves nothing more than herbs, blossoms, succulent shoots, grasses and nuts. So perhaps you have plenty of those in your garden, Mr Preston?

You might also be interested to learn that the Monkjack is not a native to Britain, no sir! It originated in Taiwan I’m told, and was introduced at some point in earlier part of the nineteenth century. It obviously likes conditions in dear old Blighty as it’s become the most numerous type of deer we have. It gets its name from a chap called John Reeves, who in 1812 was appointed as an Assistant Inspector of Tea for the British East India Company. Now there’s a job that would suit Bumpkin!

Christmas is fast approaching, and thoughts turn to decorations. If you’re thinking of using holly in your adornments this year, please do take care how you gather it. Yesterday I was saddened to see a large holly shrub in a field near Churchill. Someone had hacked at it most viciously, leaving a ravaged mess behind. So, if you’re holly gathering, remember to take only a little from each tree or shrub, and always leave berries behind for the birds, and to ensure the continuation of this ancient native species.

'Ara Best Bumpkin

(27th September 2007)

My my, the golden hues of Autumn have descended upon us, and despite the gorgeous sunshine, there’s a definite chill in the air! A good excuse to wrap up, get out and pay homage to the glory of this new season.

Mr Constable has been surpassing himself recently in the photographic department. He arrived all of a fluster the other day, garbling something about having ‘bagged a buzzard’. Initially I was perplexed, as Mr Constable isn’t known for his shooting prowess, besides which I feel sure one isn’t, in fact, allowed to shoot buzzards. All became clear when he displayed this picture of a buzzard in flight, which he snapped above a field along Deansford Lane. These glorious hunters can occasionally be seen swooping down from the National Grid’s pylons, which they use to good advantage as look-out posts. How wonderfully adaptable is Nature!

You wouldn’t mind finding the treasure trove at the end of this rainbow! It’s rare you see a full rainbow, and this must mean double the cash if I’m not mistaken.

I’m grateful to the owners of this garden on Forge Lane in Blakedown, who have brought a smile to my face on many a recent morning. The display of sunflowers they have carefully tended these past few months is nothing short of magnificent. And they’ll have another appreciative audience in a few weeks, as the birds tuck in to a feast of delicious seeds on the flower heads.

'Ara Best Bumpkin

(4th September 2007)

Perusing my copy of that excellent organ 'Broadcast' I came upon a query from Chris Syner who saw an animal dashing across his path near Ladies Pool in Blakedown. Mistaking it at first for a whippet or something similar, Mr Syner then realised it was a small deer, but he doesn't know which type. Mr Syner, relax! I think I can enlighten you. What you saw was a Monkjack deer, a delightful little creature sometimes referred to as the Muntjac. Lucky folk can sometimes catch a glimpse of these shy creatures in the early morning or the dusk. Mr Constable loves pointing out to me their tiny footprints, with a two-toed cloven foot. He thinks he can lay claim to some sort of Red Indian tracking instinct, bless him.

Blackberries abound in the hedgerows! There's a rich harvest this year, and you won't regret taking the trouble to boil up your own bramble jelly. Joan, as always, has provided me with a foolproof method.

Bramble Jelly

1 lb (450g) ripe blackberries
6 fl oz (175 ml) water
1 lb (450g) granulated sugar
juice of 1 lemon

Wash berries and stew very gently in a thick-based pan with the water for 20-25 minutes.
Mash 'em up good and proper!
Add the sugar and lemon juice to the pan, keep heat low and let sugar fully dissolve (About 15 minutes)
Turn up the heat and boil rapidly for 10 minutes
Using and sieve and some gauze, strain the mixture into a bowl, pressing it with a wooden spoon to squeeze the juice through.
Pour into a warmed jar, cover with a waxed disc and seal.

Have you spotted any of these early indicators of Autumn? Red hawthorn berries, purple vetch and hazelnuts. The hazelnuts are vulnerable to early raids by the grey squirrel before they ripen, and that's one of the reasons red squirrels have been driven out in most places. I'm wondering if we're in for a welcome Indian summer followed by a hard, cold winter. The signs are certainly there.

Mr Constable took this lovely photo of bindweed - its lily-like flower is rather beautiful I think in the hedgerows, though I wouldn't want it taking over my garden!

'Ara Best Bumpkin

(19 July 2007)

At last it seems we may be emerging from under the black rain clouds that have haunted us these many past weeks. Lately I've been humming a mantra to myself from the words of an old song, 'I don't care what the weatherman says, 'cause the weatherman says it's raining'. I never take any notice of weathermen or women, who invariably get it wrong. Bless 'em, it's a thankless job.

I don't know about your garden but my patch is bursting to the gills with greenness thanks to the abundant precipitation. It looks a picture in the sunshine as I write.

The old damson tree at the bottom of the garden is laden with fruit. Here's a peculiar thing. My chum, who lives but a stone's throw away, has a tree that
fruits a month or so after mine. I can never work that one out. This picture of the damsons was taken by yours truly as Mr Constable and Joan are at present away on a Mediterranean cruise. Joan thoughtfully left me her recipe for Damson jam, and I award this my highest seal of approval. You'll have to travel a long way to find a fruitier or richer jam than this. As they say, you can't buy this in the shops!

Joan's Damson Jam

You'll need the biggest pan you can find, preferably a jam pan

3lb (1.3kg) damsons, washed
2¼ lb (1kg) sugar
15 fl oz (425ml) water

Don't bother stoning the fruit. Simmer it in water until soft.
Whilst this is cooking, put the sugar in an oven-proof bowl in a medium oven.
Then tip the hot sugar into the fruit and stir gently.
Leave on low heat for about 15 minutes until sugar has completely dissolved
Turn the heat up high and boil rapidly for 20 minutes
Scoop out the damson stones with a slotted spoon (this is a fiddly job but better than taking out the stones before you start)
Leave jam to settle for 15 minutes, then pour into hot jars, cover and seal.
Makes about 5 lb.

As a nipper I remember being allowed a tipple of Uncle Dougie's Damson Wine. A powerful nectar this was, with an unknown alcoholic content. Dougie's long gone now, and to many people's regret, he took his recipe with him. So here's a shameless appeal to readers of 'Country Meanderings'. Can you supply a tried and tested method of replicating Dougie's concoction? I've a yearning to taste Damson wine once more. Please email me at the link below, and don't delay - these damsons are ready for using!

'Ara Best Bumpkin

(26th June2007)

Have you noticed the house martins and swallows, skimming the tops of the crops in the fields and nearly being caught for six by the gentlemen on the Sports and Recreation Ground? Well when these birds rise towards the cloud base and then high into the sky beyond we will know for sure that better weather is on the way. And my goodness we could do with that I think. High-flying swallows are a sure sign of good weather. But even if the day is fine, watch out if they drop low over the ground, swooping over the grass and not even making the tops of the trees. This means we're in for a change to less settled and wet weather. They are hard to catch in a photo, as Mr Constable often grumbles. Don't tell him, but I have managed to obtain a photograph from a more dedicated twitcher than he.

Mr Constable and I were taking the air, and dodging the showers, last Friday evening when all of a sudden my good friend stopped and cocked his head as if to catch the sound of something. 'Do you hear that Bumpkin?' he queried. 'I think that rumble would register somewhere on the Richter scale'. The silly old fool hadn't realised that it was the evening of the Blakedown Bolt, and sure enough seconds later dozens of mud-splattered runners appeared. They passed us in a flash, and I could have sworn I caught sight of my nephew Cornelius amongst the crowd. He's a dark horse that one, as his usual Friday evening exercise is confined to lifting a pint pot.

Has anyone managed to capture the glorious poppy displays that are now coming to an end in some of our fields? I only ask because Mr Constable's excuse was that his camera has been temporarily indisposed, and I should so like to include a suitable photograph in a future posting to 'Country Meanderings'.

'Ara Best Bumpkin

(21st May 2007)

Well now, I've found out something to beat 'em all. We are, apparently, slap in the middle of National Be Nice to Nettles Week. Joan told me this yesterday as we took tea together. Mr Constable was sawing logs for next Winter and I felt quite exhausted watching him, though revived somewhat thanks to a second slice of Joan's fruit cake.

According to Joan the poor old nettle has been getting such a bad press that we're to be encouraged to love it. I refrained from sniffing loudly but later that evening settled down to some research. You might be surprised, as I was, to learn that nettle stings are rather similar to hypodermic needles, as each one is actually a hollow hair containing venom. The tip is very brittle, and breaks off when you brush against it, to expose a sharp point. This is the bit that does the damage as it pierces the skin and sends out the venom. Now I don't suppose knowing all this will in any way lessen the pain, but as any Boy Scout worth his woggle knows, the remedy is always close at hand. Dock leaves neutralise the sting and cool the skin. There's a lot more fascinating stuff on the wonderful world wide web

Mr Constable kindly took the nettle pictures the other day, and found time to tell me that, at long last, he has heard a cuckoo! He was making his way to an old chum's place along a little path off Waystone Lane in Belbroughton, when he heard the unmistakable call. Mr Constable says be sure to look out for cuckoo spit which will soon be appearing on grass and leaf stems. But don't think it's anything to do with real cuckoos! As they say, watch this space for the full story…

'Ara Best Bumpkin

(14th May 2007)

I have a confession to make. Nothing too shocking, but there's something I must tell. I have developed an addiction to other people's front gardens! And why not, for looking's free, and there's plenty of inspiration to be had right under our noses. Just don't extend your interest to staring in at the windows, because, as you know, that would be rude!

Ambling around Churchill and Blakedown the other day with my good friend Mr Constable, we spotted many lovely displays. Most of the gardens are just starting to come into their own, with the promise of lots more to come. The downpours of the past few days have done their bit too, and everything's lush and green, just as it should be. Fortunately Mr Constable had brought along his camera. As he snapped away merrily, I recalled something my Great Aunt Maud once said. 'You know, Bumpkin' said she, 'one's front garden is one's gift to the world'. What a wise old lady she was.

'Ara Best Bumpkin

(4th May 2007)
((& for all you Star Wars fans out there - May the fourth be with you. ....webster))

Has anyone around here heard a cuckoo yet? I'd have thought, with all the good weather we've been getting, they'd have started up their call by now. Mind you, my ears are not exactly all they used to be. Here's a country rhyme I remember from childhood:

The cuckoo comes in April
Sings its song in May
Changes its tune
In the middle of June
And then it goes away

I was clearing out some old papers from the attic the other day and came across a copy of 'The New Naturalist' from Spring 1949. It reproduces a fascinating account of Mr Marsham's Indications of Spring. This dedicated chap lived in the 18th century, and took all kinds of detailed observations. For example, over a period of 51 years, he recorded the dates on which he first heard the cuckoo. The earliest was in 1752 on April 9th, the latest in 1767 on May 7th. No doubt, this is the sort of thing we'd all be doing without the infernal distractions of television and the world wide web.

Do let me know when and where you hear a cuckoo.

'Ara Best Bumpkin

(20th April 2007)

What a joy it is right now to be striding out along our beautiful lanes and across the fields in this fine weather! There are a few mutterings here and there about how the seasons are getting all mixed up, and so on. 'Carpe Diem' I say, which sounds like something to do with fish. 'No, Uncle Bumpkin' re-assures my nephew Cornelius, 'It means, like, live in the now.' What a quaint turn of phrase these young folk have.

Many of the woodlands around Churchill and Blakedown are putting up a spirited display of bluebells this week. Our native English variety is so delicate compared to the lumpen Spanish imports we put in our gardens. My good friend the amateur photographer Mr Constable tells me some of these are escaping the garden boundaries and may pose a threat to the natives. I shudder at the thought. If you want to enjoy the bluebells at their best, don't delay. The jewel in our local crown is Hurcott Woods just off the dual-carriageway before you get to Kidderminster.

The blossom is in its full glory, and you can see the pollen drifting off the trees whenever the wind picks up. Time to stock up on hayfever remedies perhaps, but don't miss the sheer wanton delight of it all. Mr Constable's wife, Joan, tells me of an old country cure for hayfever. 'Eat the honey of the thing you're allergic to,' she counsels. I'd not object to any sort of honey, provided it came on a slice of Joan's freshly baked bread.

Mr Constable took this picture the other day, looking across Ladies Pool. The views are clear, but it won't be long before the foliage has come and filled everything in. This is the real joy of living in this country. Everything changes and nothing stays the same.

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