Meadow making the low-tech way

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sward in need of a shave
Sward in need of a shave

It’s year two of the big biodiversity push in the burial ground, conceived as a strip of meadow grass around two edges.  Advice about establishing meadows is as diverse as the list of flowers that you might find in a well-managed sward but the underlying principles are always the same, always based on what is going on ecologically speaking.  Crucially, managing a meadow for diversity is all about reducing the dominance of coarse grasses and broadleaved weeds so that more tender herbaceous plants get a chance to shine.  And possibly counter-intuitively, the more fertile the soil, the harder that is.

Last year, we planted plugs of Primroses, Red Campion and Ragged Robin – mainly because those were the wildflowers people had growing in their own gardens than for scientific reasons.  After flowering I collected seed from the Campions and scattered it throughout the strip – to little effect, as only one campion flower was spotted this year.  But the Primroses were out in force in the spring and more recently Ragged Robin has graced a number of areas.  This year we’ve plug-planted Foxgloves and Teasels; come autumn I’ll sow Yellow Rattle to weaken the grasses and make space for more flowers.

This is all a bit of an experiment and one important variable is the timing and number of cuts.  The time of the first cut of the year determines what plants can grow to maturity – earlier cuts meaning that spring flowers are promoted whilst summer flowering plants are excluded.  We’re interested in establishing a diverse sward that peaks in mid-summer, so July is the earliest cut.  The factor that governs the rest of the year is a deeply practical one: I’m using a scythe and as a novice am rather slow about it, so a couple of cuts per year is about all I can spare time for.  The second cut, made at some point in late summer, is the last bit of attention the meadow will get before winter closes in.

Agrostis capillaris
Common Bent – a constellation of seeds

It may not be scientific but what emerges over time will be of interest in and of itself.  As things stand, the grasses are still thick and strong, mining what is clearly a richly fertile soil – so in the long run we may be on a hiding to not very much.  However, this is an easy disappointment to bear, if indeed one at all.  For the grasses themselves, now in full flower, make a beautiful backdrop of their own to the burial ground: a tapestry of stalks and fronds in all heights and textures.  Quite unlike the lowly green carpet their neighbours in the lawn are kept to, their different personalities are expressed in all their glory.  My particular favourite is the smallest – a delicate tracery of seed heads frothing through the border like a murmuration of tiny starlings, Common Bent (Agrostis capillaris) is much prettier than its name suggests.

Holcus lanatus
All in a fog – a Yorkshire Fog

Then there’s the soft, flouncy heads of the Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) and the rough sawtoothed Ryegrass (Lolium perenne), the bottle brushes of Timothy (Phleum pratense) and the graceful arching heads of Hairgrass (Deschampsia sp.)

But for me it’s the action of scything itself that is its own reward.  There’s something tranquilising, even peaceable, about the rhythmic swinging of the blade, as the weight of the snath (the main length of the scythe) draw it firmly and – with practice – evenly through the sward.  The feel and sound of the stroke, combined with the sense of bodily rhythm and control are themselves a meditation; the gradual, transformative progress through space lends purpose and satisfaction to the task.  This is not an activity to be carried out in haste or anger – rather, with patience, concentration and a still mind.  Tiring it may be but no sooner have I put the scythe away I’m looking forward to the late summer cut, when it’s year’s work will be completed.

job half done

The peace for which we all struggle

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Artwork by Quaker artist Cath Riley

In this centenary year of remembrance I had intended to create an impressive display of poppies grown on a patch of recently disturbed ground in the Meeting House gardens but for whatever reason they failed to appear.  Perhaps the seeds I scattered in the summer’s dry earth fell prey to birds and beasts before they had the chance to germinate.  Still, a handful that had grown up in one border persisted later than expected, almost to remembrance day itself, still blooming in late October.

Earlier this year a request by the mayor of Skipton to permit the inclusion of white poppies in the remembrance wreath to be laid this week was rejected by the town council’s finance and policy committee.  Using words such as ‘shocking’, ‘disrespectful’ and ‘pseudo-populist rubbish’, the committee’s Councillors blocked the mayor’s proposed gesture, intended in his words to recall the celebration of peace rather than victory at the end of the first world war.

As controversies go, differences of opinion about which poppy is appropriate to wear seems both tiresomely regular and, in my view, wholly unnecessary.  Created respectively in 1921 and 1933, the red and white poppies simply symbolise different aspects of remembrance – the first, honouring the courage and sacrifice of combatants; the second recalling all victims of war and calling for a culture of peace.  Each achieve further practical goals, the sale of the British Legion’s red poppies funding support for injured veterans and the families of military casualties, whilst the white funds the Peace Pledge Union’s promotion of ‘non-violent approaches to conflict and challenging militarism’.

white poppies available in Airton Friends Meeting House

These goals need not be mutually exclusive.  Whilst it’s true that by the 1930’s the originators of the white poppy, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, felt that the red had become associated with a growing militarisation of Remembrance events rather than a symbol of peace, 80 years on the context in which we remember both the 1914-18 war and all subsequent conflicts has altered radically, calling for and de facto resulting in new understandings and perspectives on what remembrance can mean.  On the one hand, historic detachment from the events of a century ago makes it easy to forget the intentions of those who devised the first acts of remembrance – who constructed what they termed ‘peace memorials’, not war memorials as later re-expressed.  On the other, the diversity of our present-day society, the growing depth of experience in non-violence and peace-building and conversely the support for arms exports by governments as a key component of our economy, mean that there must be room for acts of remembrance challenging political orthodoxies that lead to bloodshed, whether suffered by combatants or civilians.

Many people, myself included, want to support both causes – help for those who have made bitter sacrifices on our behalf; and challenge to the validity of the political decisions that placed them in harm’s way.  But this is also not the only possible perspective.  Whether one or more poppies are worn is an act of individual conscience and the decision to wear the red in particular is a gesture of charity.  To make either a matter of uniform is to remove volition and ultimately the value of this gesture.  Further, a refusal to accept the validity of this choice undermines the very freedoms that those who struggle through war, in whatever capacity, believed they were fighting for.  Finally, to condemn another person’s means of honouring the dead of war as ‘disrespectful’, hence refusing to afford that person and any holding a different view to one’s own the same dignity claimed for another group, could itself be considered disrespectful in the extreme.

If we are unable to cope with the presentation of two colours of poppy in a wreath intended to express the response of our whole society to the losses incurred in war then the gesture is an impoverished one, sad, monochrome and unrepresentative of who we are and of what modern Britain has always been: democratic, politically diverse and above all a country in which alternative expressions are not only tolerated but celebrated.

photo: Matthias Süßen via Wikimedia Commons

Of Nettles, Cottongrass and Orchids

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I’ve been waiting for the right time to explore Pendle Hill – that charismatic whale-back commanding the western horizon in views from pretty much everywhere skirting the south-western foothills of the Dales.  An inspiration to George Fox  as it was (see my previous blog, November 27th 2016), perhaps climbing it will spark a few more modest thoughts of my own.

In the middle of a heat wave the outlook is likely to be hazy but with overnight rains I’m hopeful that the air will have cleared and I’ll have a good view back towards Settle Moor and the hills east of Malhamdale.  Starting from the cheerful village of Barley I soon pick up the well-signed Pendle Way and begin what becomes before long a relentless ascent.  The early stages are marked by appealing encounters with gnarled, hollowed out ash trees, well-kept cottage gardens and I even find a patch of Nettles in full flower attractive.  Well, if you ignore the stings it’s quite a pretty plant really – and useful!

at their peak – a pretty patch

Hills and the views from them are irresistible if hackneyed metaphors.  Nonetheless the logic works: amongst the many reasons for climbing a hill is to achieve a sense of more than physical distance from the humdrum tangle of everyday matters and their accompanying controversies; to see the bigger picture internally just as the external view unfolds in all its glory.  However, my hopes of a clear view soon dissipate: far from clearing the air, the rain was just the vanguard of a blanket of cloud washing out everything further than a couple miles away from sight.

Just as the weather foils my attempt to look back towards home it provides an equally significant metaphor to the hoped-for sense of clarity: although I might not be able to see the whole picture as clearly as I wished but I can at least see what it is that’s blocking the view; and to decide whether it’s possible to sweep it away, or whether there’s nothing for it but to sit it out and wait for the prevailing wind to disperse it.

no clearer for the rain – part way up Pendle

Up here on the summit of Pendle, it’s not only my own challenges that come to mind when I’m looking for clarity.  It seems to me the current state of the country is no less cloudy than this view.  It would be enough that we are faced with the biggest political, economic and legislative upheavals in several generations in the form of our exit from the EU, profound questions over how our role in world affairs should be played and fractious, wavering governance at home; but the terror and cyber-attacks of recent weeks, the deplorable tragedy of Grenfell Tower and the reports of failing public services all serve to disorientate and prevent objective assessment of how we should be as a society in 2017.  I’m reminded of a slogan deployed optimistically by a certain political party during the 2010 election: ‘We need to heal our broken society’.  I wonder how that’s going?

I have no answers of course; but about the current state of politics I do wonder what might happen if, given the divisive nature of the ideologies behind each party’s approach, instead of any one party attempting to represent the whole country’s aspirations in the uniquely challenging task of Brexit, the government were formed of ministers from every party in parliament?  Forced by the need to overcome differences in the national interest those involved might be led to search for a sense of how best to proceed rather than constantly fighting their predetermined corners in a rearguard action against hostile opposition at home and abroad.  I know this isn’t the cricket we’re used to in UK politics but Quakers can vouch for non-confrontational business methods to resolve the most controversial of subjects; and yes, we do occasionally encounter some very interesting controversies even within what is in essence a highly progressive movement.

Through a cotton-grass carpet

Such are my less than conclusive thoughts as I leave the summit, following by whim an inviting flagged path winding down the back of the hill between endless stretches of cotton-grass.   Now there’s one of my favourite things: for some reason, cotton-grass really cheers me up.  In fact it’s up there with halloumi cheese, Chopin’s piano concerto in E minor and Edinburgh.  And I might have gone on thinking that was the best result I could have hoped for from this walk on a dreach day until lower down in the valley I come across a swathe of exquisite orchids dotted about in a fabulous meadow.  It really was worth the trip just for that.  After all, looking closely at the details is just as valuable as seeing the bigger picture – there being, of course, a right time for both.

perfect clarity in miniature

A cry for Manchester: when words fail

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Sometimes there are simply no words.  Thoughts and sentiments beat the exits of the mind, jumbling together in an incoherent mess.  For the time being, no thought, no idea remotely helpful can be formed.  There is no response but shock and no help but silence.

Such is the reaction I find myself locked into this week.  Appalled and stunned along with the rest of the nation, I watched and listened in tears to the news as the awful experiences of ordinary people were described.  Innocent people caught up in the consequences of one of the most disgraceful acts of barbarity ever committed on these islands.  I’ve struggled to comprehend what could make it possible for any person, let alone one born into our own tolerant, multi-cultural society, to destroy the lives of dozens of people including children, wrecking their families, obliterating their potential.  I’ve rallied to the sight of thousands gathering in Manchester’s Albert Square determined to express their solidarity and strength, their willingness to come to each other’s aid and to fight hatred with the far more powerful common bonds of love.  And I’ve asked myself how it’s possible that these two extremes can so evidently co-exist amongst us; and which will ultimately shape our future most strongly.

In struggling with these questions I quickly realise that even if there are answers, I’m the least capable of finding them.  These events are far from not only my experience but mercifully, perhaps that of most people.  We who are spared exposure to this kind of suffering can only watch in sorrow, mourn with the bereaved, support those whose work it is to rescue and relieve, and calmly and rationally assist those whose responsibility is to prevent and protect.  But perhaps the most useful thing for the majority to do is to give space to real discussion about the things which threaten peace, educating ourselves about the whole society in which we live and move and in our public conversations and debates allowing all issues to be examined that might influence the decision of a person to commit unspeakable crimes.

For now, however, I return to silence: a space in which I can by feeling the mix of horror, pity, despair, solidarity and hope reaffirm the connection I have with the communities in Manchester and everywhere scarred by brutal acts of violence.  They it is who will rebuild their own cities but they can do so in the knowledge that people around the world stand with them, pray with them and will support them in peace and friendship as they strive to overcome their present darkness.

A ride around Malham Tarn

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not as mild as it looks - a snowless Malhamdale in January
not as mild as it looks – a snowless Malhamdale in January

It’s an unpromising looking morning of the sort that in many locations would inspire me to stay in and do precisely nothing; but in the Yorkshire Dales landscape there’s no such thing as a lack of promise, be the sky leaden and the prospect ever so bleak.  The late dankness has been replaced by a spell of dry weather, though the clouds still loom low over the hills.  So, with no pressing engagements I set off on a cycle ride, determined to reach Malham Tarn – amazingly for the first time.

The great wall of landscape centred on Malham Cove and stretching to either side taking in Pikedaw Hill to the left and Gordale Scar to the right is an imposing barrier approached on a bicycle in the best of weathers.  In the lowering cloud cover on this January Saturday it’s enough to make me contemplate turning this into a little jaunt to the Old Malham Café for a relaxing brew and a slice of their fabulous Yorkshire Curd.  However, dogged determination to make the most of a rare dry day spurs me on to tougher if not greater things.

I’m no sports cyclist by any means, normally using the bike to get from A to B with a maximum range of a few miles – so I have to grit my teeth to make the ascent out of the village along Malham Rakes – a climb almost as demanding as High Hill Lane out of Settle and at least as long.  Before long I realise I’m making slower progress than a very nonchalant looking hiker a few dozen yards ahead, especially as I keep stopping – to admire the view of course…  That view fades and bleakens gradually as I climb into cloud so that as the gradient finally flattens out the cycle ride and in fact whole landscape take on a completely different complexion.  Up here on the moor, the moist air is still, silent and bitterly cold.  Everything is either grey or a bleached brownish green.  Few trees and even fewer boundaries structure the landscape which seems to be framed only by low hilltops clothed in rough grass and sedges.  It may not sound convincing as a beauty spot but actually this eerie emptiness is one of the things the north of England does really well; and to the busy soul drunk on the bustle of urban life (as I suppose I used to be before moving to Airton), a bit of isolation goes down quite nicely.

Malham Water winding to oblivion
Malham Water winding to oblivion

I plan to circumnavigate the Tarn and choose the clockwise route, bearing left to stay on the tarmacked road past the watersinks car park.  Watersinks is a prosaic and aptly descriptive name for the spot where Malham Water peters out in the grass on its journey to the base of the cove where it re-emerges as Malham Beck – a strange surrender of a river to the ground which only adds to the mystery of this wild place.

Looping north along Cove Road I still haven’t caught sight of the Tarn, which as waterbodies go seems remarkably well concealed.  Not until passing through the edge of some woods along the Pennine Way bridleway does the shoreline appear between the trees.  It’s an entrance to beguile the most cynical of travellers (if there are such people…).  Having climbed a thousand feet up a seeming vertical highway, here in the clouds I find a lake of tranquil beauty surrounded not by peaks but gentle shores of an almost fenland character.  It’s as though the world has quietly reorganised itself while I was looking at the road, putting things the opposite way around to where they ought to be.  But it’s all real – as is the bird hide I take shelter in to drink in the amazing serenity of it all.

horizontal world
horizontal world

As for the birds, apart from a few tufted ducks and coots near the opposite shore, most of the many species of wildfowl that habituate the Tarn are keeping out of sight – possibly not very impressed by the temperature.  And were it not for the cold I could stay here all day with a good book and a pair of binoculars but there’s something else on this ride I’m quite looking forward to: freewheeling more or less all the way back down to Malham – about the most fun you can have on a bicycle, due deference to oncoming walkers & vehicles excepted.  And this being a bike ride rather than a walk, I’m back in Airton in time for a warming lunch of soup & home baked bread by an open fire.

Malham Tarn: a place out of time
Malham Tarn: a place out of time


A time to welcome the outsider

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Opinions differ on whether we’re to have a cold winter or a repeat of last year’s dreary murk.  In the cities, where roads are well gritted, gas mains reach every household and there are hundreds of corner shops and supermarkets to hop into when the milk runs out, a blast of snow in early November might have seemed like reassurance that climate change hasn’t had the last laugh – at least yet.  Out here in the Dale, a deep freeze would be somewhat more inconvenient.  Either way, whatever winter throws at us we’ll need to be prepared.

In this year of upheavals in the national and international political climate it can be tempting to take on the uncertainty of the world in our lives, by putting off decisions perhaps, tightening our belts and focussing in on our own immediate concerns.  I know that can happen in my case anyway.  But turning inward doesn’t stop the problems of the world from building up.

A few days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre nearly two years ago I was reviewing papers on a breakfast radio show.  Pressed by the presenter for some kind of response I reached for the nearest cliché, saying that at these times instead of turning away in suspicion from people we think we have little in common with we need to reach out to exactly those people.  It wasn’t especially profound but it was said as much to myself as to the listeners.  Those people are the newcomers, people in other ethnic or cultural groups, people in our workplaces we thought we didn’t like, the side of the family we don’t see any more, neighbours with alternative political views, refugees…  Looking people in the eye and thinking ‘you’re as valuable as me, and what hurts you hurts me’ can be challenging when we’ve our own worries; but it’s what makes communities and society at large work.  If only we could manage that at a global level too we might start looking for and really committing to the solutions to economic degradation, extremism, environmental destruction and climate change.

journeys-endWriting this in mid-December I could hardly blame readers from wondering why I haven’t explicitly mentioned Christmas yet – in fact at this point you might be forgiven for imagining saying ‘bah humbug!’  But perhaps I have been talking about just that…  Experienced by probably the majority in this country as a time for families to draw in together, huddling round a hearth or its modern equivalent, the 42” TV, the message of the Christian Christmas is at least in part almost the exact opposite of that cosy vision.  It’s a message that I’m reminded of whenever I greet visitors to the Meeting House or Barn.  It’s that the outsider sometimes holds something far more valuable than we can supply on our own or from our innermost circle: the invitation to look outwards and upwards to the wider world, to sound the depths of our humanity and realise the potential for human communities when all people are included.  Now that’s something really worth preparing for, winter or summer.

Quakers may not mark Christmas in their worship but as individuals we do join in with the seasonal fun & festivities… so if you’re reading this in December, have a very happy and restorative Christmas – and we’ll look forward to seeing you in 2017!

In the third and final blog of this autumn walking series, Simon explores Weet’s Top on a frost-bitten November day

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frosted stems
frosted stems

It was the morning stroll that turned into a day-long ramble.  Intrigued to discover the secrets laid by the night’s frost, I set out with camera to the riverside, snapping rime covered seed heads and fronds of fern, swapping lenses between close-ups and landscapes with frigid fingers unused to the sudden cold.

The magical beauty is unsurprising to anyone who has seen ice before; what draws me on are the striking patterns of ebb and flow on the hillside opposite.  Parallel rises and falls strafing the surface of the ground, these ‘lynchets’ were caused by the transverse ploughing of a slope by a single farmer, unlike the multiple parallel land holdings indicative of ‘ridge and furrow’ elsewhere.  Now in the relief of light and shade thrown by the low sun on the frozen earth, the sculpted hillside tells its history more clearly than in any other kind of weather.

ancient patterns in sharp relief
ancient patterns in sharp relief

Exploring these undulating fields rising east of the river leads to the hamlet of Calton and a decision point: do I turn clockwise back home for elevenses and to get on with the day or make a longer loop anti-clockwise to see what lies beyond?  There’s an enticing high point on the map not far away and the views on a clear late autumn day would be stunning… There is no contest, so I turn north-eastwards to the bridleway up to Weet’s top.

It’s not long before the decision is vindicated.  Rising above the tree line not far from Calton, the view opens out to envelop most of Malhamdale, the grizzled southern edge of the Dales and the Aire valley around Skipton, reaching beyond to the hills of West Yorkshire, south-west to the magnificent gritstone plateau of Pendle Hill and west to the rolling horizon of Bowland in Lancashire.  This skyline is familiar but what is breath-taking today is the spectacular temperature inversion that has spread mist like white butter on the valley floors, punctuated only in the foreground by tree tops and rises, so that the landscape unfurls below like the dishevelled humps of an unmade patterned duvet.

Pendle Hill: a dark island in a frozen sea
Pendle Hill: a dark island in a frozen sea

From here upwards there is little shelter, so that the sun has thawed most of the frosted ground; but in places walking alongside minor ridges I find my right foot connecting with hard, frozen ground while my left lands on soft, sun-soaked earth.  It’s the line between autumn and a winter that’s all too eager to establish itself here by late November – perhaps the reason why I meet so few walkers on what is a perfect day to be out on the hill.

The path to Weet’s Top is long and straight, rising gradually and easily across the rush-flecked moor.  It’s such an inconspicuous peak that unless it were marked by a trig point I might have walked on past.  But it’s the highest point for some distance, giving a panoramic view of the southern Dales and the farther peaks and troughs of the region.  Pendle Hill is an ever-present companion on this walk and it’s easy to understand how it caught the imagination of early Quakers as a place inspiring vision and far-sightedness.  Other peaks have no less character, each uniquely contributing to a visual feast: Flasby Fell to the south with its jagged ridge line; Thorpe Fell, south-east, with a war memorial marking its summit; the impressive snow-covered flank of Great Whernside closing the view north-west and the grit-strewn slops of Hawksmill Clowder closer to hand in the north to name a few.

On a day that began in the frigid belly of the wintry dale it would be reasonable to expect this exposed spot to be impossibly uninviting; but the sun is strong enough here well above the misted valley to have warmed the still air sufficiently that I’ve been obliged to pack up my outer layers, only replacing my pullover after a brief lunch stop.  I retrace some of my steps, hiving off to the right to make a loop of this increasingly extended morning stroll.  Up on the moor, away from most boundaries and waymarker posts it’s easy to misjudge one’s direction by a degree or two; I manage to find myself on the wrong side of a steeply sloped gill but notice soon enough to avoid too much of a detour.  Veering too far right again it’s on turning back towards the sun that possibly the most exquisite sight so far is revealed: a field of gossamer stretched between the blades of rushes twinkles, vacillating in the light breeze caressing the hillside, its million tiny authors blown away to make their spidery fortunes somewhere else.


I soon find the track leading down to Hanlith and before long have to replace coat and scarf – the temperature inversion having held all day, it seems as though the air cools by a degree with every step.  At the bottom I’m contemplating whether to stop for tea and cake at the Town Head Café in Airton when I slip, not on ice but mud – a reminder that it’s still not quite as cold as it might be in a week or three.

There’s one more delight in store before I get to clean up though.  Following a group of three gents with some serious looking binoculars I catch them up at the riverside near Airton where they’ve stopped, looking intently at the trees in the near distance.  When asked what’s piqued their interest, they reply ‘the Fieldfares’.  Sure enough, hundreds, perhaps thousands of small birds that my untrained eye might have taken for Thrushes are decorating the nearby tree-tops, periodically flitting from one tree to another.  Unlike Starlings who appear to act as one organism pulsating in the sky at dusk, these white-bellied birds alight from the trees one by one, the whole troupe unpeeling chaotically from each tree, landing, then moving on soon after in a delicate dance that flecks the air like glitter in a snow globe.  Deep in thoughts of hot tea, setting the fireplace and sifting through the photos of the day, I might well have missed this, the last and best sight of the day!

tree of Fieldfares
tree of Fieldfares