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I Declare an International Day of Inefficiency

Swallow 2

pic CHOG

Today we call M and tell him the first Swallow has arrived. It’s a moment of joy, admiration and awe for its arduous cross continental journey. Now it is perched on the telephone wire which stretches across part of the front yard, preening each wing in turn. Not long before, it was whooping and swooping above the pond and flying low, in and out of the shippen. Its song is peppered with dolphin like clicks. I am sitting on the top step, the slate warm, feeling the sun on my face, my body slowly unwinding, finally released from being huddled, bundled and wrapped. There is a delightful din of a world waking up. Ten years ago there were almost thirty Swallows lined up on the wire by the end of the summer; each subsequent year there have been less and less.

I abandon the ‘to do’ list. I think, today will be a day of inefficiency

I experience anxiety as I hope and wonder about a mate for the Swallow arriving. And if they breed successfully will there be enough insects for them to feed their young?

The massive decline in bee populations catches the public imagination, but all insects are being put under similar pressure by loss of habitat and pesticides. In a farmland setting, loss of habitat means less wild flowers, the planting of monocultures of rye grass or other crops without provision for invertebrates. And why does this matter? Well, in a nutshell…

Biodiversity means the variety of life, in all its forms. It includes the variety of species and ecosystems (communities and interrelations of species) in the world, and also genetic variation. Human beings are dependent for their sustenance, health and well-being on fundamental biological systems and processes. This includes all of our food, many medicines and industrial products, as well as the air we breathe. Without insects and other invertebrates, human life on this planet would be impossible. The enormous diversity of life is of crucial value, providing resilience to organisms and ecosystems.

Why thank you for that, the Amateur Entomologists’ Society!

I go over to the cow field. I can hear sheep and lambs from across the valley, plaintively calling to one another. Standing there, the sky a bowl of blue, I count fourteen Buzzards above, wheeling on the thermals and crying their eerie cries. I don’t know, but I would hazard a guess that they are simply, like me, having a good time. Rabbits run in and out of the gorse bushes down the centre of the field, flashes of white and brown amongst the acid yellow and though their numbers are too plentiful (breeding like…! and no serious predators, apart from a ginger cat) who could begrudge their hoppity heaven today?

The cows are looking pretty, their ruddy coats shining in the sun. After a while they approach and both Lucy and Mary-Rose ask to be scratched. They stand happily either side of me, while Belita tentatively sniffs my face with her gentle pink nose. To think they were so terrified when they arrived and now this. Happy.

Traditional Hereford Heifers

Coming back I meet Mr. Pheasant who has made regular visits this winter. A little Wren dips in and out of a thicket, and a Wagtail, the first I’ve seen this year, sits atop the shippen roof surveying the scene.

Male Pheasant

Violets, Stitchwort and Celandine are beginning to peep out from the hedgebanks. Dandelions are waiting for the bees. Where are the bees?


I’m waiting for you bees…

I nibble on a disc of Navelwort.


I could be salad material

A bout of spontaneous seed sowing comes on…

Orlaya grandiflora

Nicotiana sylvestris

Nicotiana Lime Green

Seed sowing

Ammi majus

Cosmos sulphureus Cosmic Orange

Rudbeckia hirta Prairie Sun

Seed Sowing

Then I admire B’s artwork…

Barbed Wire Ball Artwork

Later, I lie on the grass under the big sycamore. The still bare branches reach toward a pale moon, bursting with shimmering buds. I can feel the earth is still damp and cold but the warmed grass is an eiderdown beneath me. I am lost. My eyes close.

Sycamore Buds

Sycamore Buds & Moon www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comLooking Up through a Sycamore

What about an International Day of Inefficiency? Come on, we can do it!

Perennials – from Thatcherisms to Helping Those in Need

With the death of we are a grandmother Margaret Thatcher last week, it made me think of one of her other classic statements there is no such thing as society, which both epitomised her style and enraged so many of us. These are the quotes which will keep on coming around. Sadly though, what seems to have had staying power since those days is a pervasive acceptance of self interest at the heart of life – and I don’t excuse myself entirely from this malaise, though I am trying.

While not many people would argue that it was all fine before Thatcher, the ideological hatchet job her government did on the Trade Unions was done with scant regard for the long term consequences of that bitter savagery on the actual communities it affected.  I’m no economist, but surely a gentler slower way could have been found to cope with the decline of traditional industry, creating new and solid industries in its place.

While individual responsibility is necessary to life and not something to be frowned upon, society should also mean that there is something actually there when people fall, a cradle of compassion if you like, a sense that the fortunate amongst us will help the struggling, for whatever reason.

I’ve always subscribed to this belief, though without really thinking that one day we might need some help ourselves. A socialist would say this work should always be the responsibility of the state and carried out by the operations of government in order to shape a fairer, more redistributive society. This was always a great excuse for liberals such as myself to hope that it was being done by someone else, somewhere else.  But in the absence of these made-up utopias, charities do have a big part to play.

However I don’t buy the Big Society twaddle – empty words Cameron, empty words. In practice it means things like my friend, a speech therapist in the NHS, has been told that there is only a budget to treat the most acute emergency cases, while the valuable work she was doing with severely autistic babies has been cut and she is having to tell new parents whom she was working with that they are now on their own.

I am sick to death of the rhetoric abounding about at the moment which vilifies the poor and the vulnerable. Have you counted how many times the phrase hard working families has been bandied about? Almost as much as benefit scroungers and workshy cheats. Like brainwashing. If you say it enough times people will start to believe it. Sure, there are people who take the piss, but compared to the amount that the treasury is losing from tax evading companies, its peanuts. Interestingly I heard on the radio this morning that it was actually in Thatchers time that so many people went on to incapacity benefit, the thousands of people who had lost their jobs as a result of the closures, as she wanted to fiddle the unemployment figures – running at nearly 4m, remember that? That’s what I’d call how to give people hopelessness not hope.

We’re certainly not all in this together. While the poor are being capped left right and centre, it’s totally ok that huge companies don’t pay their tax and chief execs have unlimited bonuses for banks in public ownership. Places like London have become playgrounds for the super rich while the differential between the haves and the struggling is getting wider and wider. Something is seriously at sea here.

But my post today is also about the charity Perennial, (patroned by the real Queen!) with whom I do some volunteering. I discovered the charity through the website which a lovely friend (the one above, thanks M)  told me about when illness struck my husband. We were fortunate in the sense that we didn’t need financial assistance but we found ourselves reeling from the impact of what was happening ie: our world being turned upside down. We were assigned a case worker and just having someone visit us who had an inkling of what we were going through and understood the turmoil that ensued was incredibly comforting. They also helped with the minefield of long forms which needed to be filled out in great detail and were pretty distressing. And 0ur case worker has continued to support us. Of course it’s possible to empathise with people who are going through difficulties, but until it actually happens to you, you’ve really got no idea.

So this is to say thank you to Perennial and to hopefully help promote the excellent work it does and spread the word, both to people who are in the outdoor industries who might need help and to people who may want to support it.

Anyway, we raised £1082.84 recently at the Cornwall Garden Society’s Spring Flower Show at Boconnoc House and Gardens. The success of the Cornwall group is due in the main to George Kestell, who despite being a gardener and lecturer  gives up tons of free time to organising and attending all the Perennial events, as well as appearing regularly on a gardening programme on local radio.

Another freezing day,  at least on the Sunday, when I was there, but the plucky public turned up to peruse the exhibitions and buy the wares on sale. Check out those coats!

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Flower Show

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Sharon, a fellow volunteer

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George, on the left.

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If you know anyone who might have a need of Perennial, now or in the future, please share this information. Or indeed if you’d like to help, donate or whatever…actually they have lots of gardening type information on their website and run workshops, tours and have a volunteer pool of speakers for gardening clubs etc.

Oh ok I know you’re missing the cows…they’re missing you too…

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Hello, they say

Moor Starlings

March 2013 is really really cold; the coldest March since 1962. By this time in 2012 the migratory starlings were already on their way back to their summer places, northern Europe and Russia. But now they are staying put for the time being, hanging out with their English cousins until the wind changes and eases their passage on the long journey north, a warm south westerly ruffling their rainbow sheen feathers.

Last week we made the journey to see them fly in to the massive night time roost on Bodmin Moor. At sundown the birds just keep coming and coming, a million plus. This time we saw birds of prey, possibly a hen harrier and a merlin, going in for their supper.

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The murmuration of starlings did a bit of their aerial dancing at the beginning which was amazing but I was absorbed enough to miss capturing it on camera.  As it turned out they didn’t do any more.

I’ve posted this link before, it is such a lovely short film of the starlings doing their thing – breathtaking and sweet. Enjoy!

And this is the direction most of the starlings come from.

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Also, if you’re into birds and the need for good habitat in general,  this is an amazing blog post from Wolf Tree Farm, a farm not far from here, in which she describes their valley over decades.

Travelling the Withered Arm

Egloskerry, Tresmeer, Otterham, Camelford, Delabole, St Kew Highway and Wadebridge.

These are just a few of the railway stations, no longer in existence, which lined Southern Railways’ network of train tracks built west of Exeter in the late part of the nineteenth century. Relatively under used, they came to be known as ‘The Withered Arm’.

The Withered Arm

Camelford Station 1972 by Peter Howie

Imagine though, in the golden age of the railways and before getting into a car was possible for most people, how wonderful it would have been to climb aboard a train in Waterloo, London and travel the two hundred and sixty miles to Padstow on the North Cornish Coast in six hours. Before rail, Cornwall really was the wild west, long before tourism began.

The Withered Arm

Towards the end of the journey the train had to traverse the rugged terrain of North Cornwall, surmounting some incredible gradients, rising from 200ft at Launceston to a peak of 800ft above sea level between Otterham and Camelford. To make it relatively smooth for the passengers  there were forty three cuttings made between Launceston and Wadebridge, before the final flat journey of nine minutes alongside the stunning Camel Estuary.

Once arrived, I bet a fish and chip supper would have tasted divine.

The Withered Arm

Got to be in paper

Last week, with a couple of friends who had suggested the expedition, I set out with them to find and explore one of these cuttings on the abandoned line. The tunnel under the village of Trelill is clearly marked on the OS map. Armed with this and some homemade biscuits made by B’s gran we set off:

It is another cold cold day, with a finger hurting north east wind. We park up in the village and at first approach the tunnel from the southern end, scrambling down a steep bank onto the line near a curved brick road bridge, grabbing hold of ivy and the whips of young trees as we go down. The rails are long gone and it is surprisingly muddy considering they must have been laid on ballast. I’m glad I’m wearing wellies. We can see the tunnel entrance some 100 metres away and make our way down towards it.

It is not clear to whom this land now belongs; there are no signs of warning about trespass, yet for some reason it feels like we are doing something illegal. I am conscious that any minute now, the long arm of the law will make its presence felt. However, quite soon I am more concerned about where I’m putting my feet as the going is a little treacherous, with seemingly solid ground melting into deep quagmires of sticky mud. We pause to admire the curve and clever engineering of the road bridge from below.

The Withered Arm

The Withered Arm

Curving stonework

From this distance we can see that the entrance to the tunnel is gated but we press on to check it out. We are having to pick our way really carefully, trying to get some purchase on the sides of the cutting. On the way a bright button of red fungus shines from its damp bed.

Red Fungus

We eventually reach the entrance and there is no way we can get in this end, as this unbending gate has evil looking prongs on the top. I poke my camera through the bars.

Trelill Tunnel

We make our way back to the road. The thought flits across my mind that this expedition may have been better undertaken in the summer; the next second the anaerobic slime is over the top of my boots.

We walk back through the village to find the other end of the tunnel, which according to the map is bordered by a footpath. The Bull in Field sign doesn’t deter us and we fuel up with a biscuit, intrepidly going forth. From the top we can see the field path dropping away steeply and the overgrown wooded railway cutting to the left snakes across the landscape into the distance like an insulated wire, not even a hint of green glinting on the branches.

At the bottom we climb through the fence and slide down another steep bank onto the line. This side seems to be firmer underfoot but the way through is harder.

The Withered Arm

The Withered Arm

The Withered Arm

Trelill Tunnel The Withered Arm

The entrance is glimpsed

We manage to squeeze in through the flimsier gate and get inside the tunnel. Bats fly out as we get in, accustoming our eyes to the dark. It is very cold and damp but there isn’t any smell which surprises me. With torch at the ready we make our way down the curved tunnel, marvelling at the amount of work it must have taken to make the railway and its forty three cuttings through solid rock.

Trelill Tunnel

One of the safety alcoves along the tunnel which you can get in when the train comes – you can see the bedrock behind the brick work

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It’s quite exciting being in the tunnel, a forgotten place which was built so long ago.

Trelill Tunnel The Withered Arm

B shines her torch

We reach the other end.

Trellill Tunnel

The gate with the evil prongs

I felt the adrenalin of our adventure for the whole day.

There is still a small stretch of this particular railway still in use, run by a dedicated bunch of steam enthusiasts. You can catch a train from Launceston to New Mills and back, a fun outing. There is also a vintage transport and machinery museum and a café at The Launceston Steam Railway Company

A section between Bodmin, Wadebridge and Padstow is now The Camel Trail, for cycling and walking.

Visiting loco Gertrude at the Launceston Steam Railway

Visiting loco Gertrude at the Launceston Steam Railway

And for those of us who live in hope.

Sign at the Launceston Steam Railway for the visit from a Darjeeeling loco

Sign at the Launceston Steam Railway for the visit from a Darjeeling loco

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