Picture of the week: 11/10/21

OUR picture this week takes us back to West Wales in the company of exiled Beaconsfield artist Tim Baynes, who moved to the town of Laugharne on the south coast of Carmarthenshire in May.

Tim explains how bus journeys on the busy A4066 out of town onto the A40 from Carmarthen to Fishguard had given him only fleeting glimpses of some extraordinary views.

The Road to St Clears I by Tim Baynes

That prompted him to get the bus to drop him off outside Laugharne, a mile or so up the road at Cross Inn.

“Most of the 2.6 miles has no footpath by the side of the road. I wore some hi-vis and fearlessly faced the oncoming traffic, art bag with board and paper and crayons in one hand. The other hand was free to give a thumbs-up approbation to each car as it passed,” says Tim.

“The countryside is wonderful. The ribbon of the Afon Taf is only seldom out of view, reflecting as it did yesterday the grey skies above. Further still and above the river is a ridgeline of hills which were shrouded in mist.

The Road to St Clears II by Tim Baynes

“Pylons march across this calm landscape. Close by, their offspring, the telegraph poles, take their wares to the farms and houses hereabouts.

“Breaks in the hedgerows, entrances to fields, provide wonderful views out across the landscape and the opportunity to use the top of a five-bar gate as an easel on which to rest my board.

“In these same hedgerows are the first signs of autumn. Plenty of blackberries, purple scabious, a few yellow dandelions, tangles of old man’s beard, the skeletons of sheep’s parsley, the seed heads of vergeside grasses and other colourful berries all are on parade.

The Road to St Clears III by Tim Baynes

“I make several drawings and, having forgotten my pen, my mark making was bold and colourful. I cross the Taf, the bridge is quite narrow for a pedestrian and a car. Drivers avert their eyes.

“Into St Clears and outside St Mary Magdelene I enjoy a good drink of water and soon the bus home pulls up for me.

“Once home I add some detail to my work. It is a great way to recall the excitement of what I have seen and the realisation that wonderful scenery can only be enjoyed on foot.”

Tweet of the week: 10/10/21

YOU don’t have to be an artist to keep a nature journal, but it’s always a delight to see a professional at work.

In her Drawn Into Nature blog, Bristol artist Jules Woolford explains how her love for the natural world led her to a career helping people to engage with nature and wildlife. And her @DrawnIntoNature Twitter account echoes that fascination.

ENGAGING WITH NATURE: Jules Woolford at work

“When I discovered the world of journaling, it was a natural progression to begin keeping a traditional nature journal, like my idols Edith Holden and Beatrix Potter,” she says.

Her beautifully illustrated journal is a personal, creative response to the natural world in which she shares stories of the flora and wildlife she encounters. But it’s more than that too, as we revealed in a feature earlier this year.

ON A MISSION: Jules encourages everyone to keep a nature journal

“My mission is to encourage as many people as possible to join me in creating their own journal,” she says. “I’m passionate about showing people the wonder of the natural world, literally ‘on the doorstep’. Gardens, local parks and green spaces, even roadside verges.

“You don’t have to live in an idyllic rural setting to engage with nature; part of my journaling patch is an ex-landfill site! My garden isn’t grand or landscaped, but it’s a wildlife friendly habitat full of native plants. We have a regular procession of daily visitors who keep us entertained….”

ATTENTION TO DETAIL: keeping a journal helps to fine-tune observation skills

And she is adamant that the life-changing benefits are not dependent on someone being a talented artist. “The good news is that it doesn’t matter,” she insists. “Improving your drawing comes over time, and keeping a journal is the ideal way to practise your skills.

“Looking deeply at nature helps you fine-tune your observation, and that helps you develop your drawing skills.”

Her blog came about through wanting to connect with others like herself who were interested in discovering the wonders of engaging more fully with the world around them.

She says: “Our lives are filled with noise, busy work, and negative stress. I’m on a journey to slow down and simplify; concentrate on experiences rather than things, try to worry less, be more grateful, and kind.

“Sometimes I take two (or three) steps backwards, but I keep going. Through my journals, I try to be an advocate for nature, caring for the planet and the life within it. I’m fascinated by the stories we’ve created about the natural world, and I love sharing these little tales from history, folklore and fable.”

TELLING TALES: Jules mixes stories from history, folklore and fable

If her mission sounds inspiring, take a moment to enjoy those wonderful pictures: in her occasional newsletters, Jules is frank about the fact that life can be an uphill struggle at times.

“I’ve been a bit lost with Notes from Nature in 2021,” she told her followers. “Life’s overtaken me, and I know from your kind messages and comments that many of you have felt the same this year.

“It’s been the kindness of friends and  the lovely folk who follow me online which has kept me going, so a huge thank you to you all.

UPHILL STRUGGLE: 2021 has posed unusual challenges for many

Back among the chittering grey squirrels scurrying to raid the hazel trees and cache their winter stores, Jules is only too well aware that this is the real world, where it is only too easy to overlook the important stuff: the autumn songs of blackbird and robin, the hedgerows decked in their autumn finery of deep red rose hips, crimson hawthorn and purple sloes.

She writes of her delight that a wonderful ‘ lost’ apple orchard on her patch has been brought back to life, full of old varieties with wonderful names such as Merton Charm, King of the Pippins, Gascoigne’s Scarlet, and Ashmeads Kernel.

But she’s conscious too that time spent on social media can be problematic, even when it brings so many positive benefits too.

AUTUMN SONG: portraits of some welcome garden visitors

“I learn something with every post I write and every drawing I do. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it,” she says.

“It’s easy to feel guilty, and forget about self-care when you seem to have so many responsibilities. I even begin to worry when I don’t post online – so this year I’ve tried to spend even spend more time than normal just being in nature; simply because that is the most important issue for me.

“I’ve not made as many journal pages as last year – but it’s fine.”

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Tweet of the week: 03/10/21

SUNDAY night is the perfect time for a moment of quiet reflection about the week past and the week to come.

But if you like to start each day with a similarly peaceful few minutes of contemplation, one unlikely social media feed is worthy of a much wider audience.

SISTERS IN FAITH: Martha and Mary Magdalene by Caravaggio © Detroit Institute of Arts

@ChristianArtTod is the Twitter feed of art expert and seminarian Patrick van der Vorst, a Belgian-born auctioneer and industry expert who featured as a winner on the TV programme Dragons’ Den when his antiques-valuing website Value My Stuff was backed by both Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis.

But the entrepreneur’s life took a new twist in 2019 when he enrolled as a seminarian with the Diocese of Westminster, studying at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome to become a priest.

EARLY MARTYRS: St Peter and St Paul as depicted by Cavarozzi © Galerie G Sarti, Paris

And it’s now a couple of years since he launched a new website linking daily Gospel readings with poignant and reflective works of art, accompanied by a short personal commentary.

From Old Masters to street artists, the website features an extraordinary range of artworks spanning the centuries, allowing visitors to consider the daily gospel reading from a fresh perspective.

Characteristically, this takes the form of a mini-homily where Patrick’s expertise helps him to forge a better understanding of both the art work and the Bible story it might illustrate – and while his Twitter followers get a link to the website, subscribers get the daily reading delivered straight to their email inbox at 6am every day.

If the 200+ Twitter following sounds modest, the website claims to be sending out 800,000 emails a month, so the offering is not as low-key as it may first appear.

In case you missed them, here are some other favourite “Tweets of the week”:

@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.

@A_AMilne: With 73,500 followers, this celebration of the wit and wisdom of the much-loved author and playwright taps into the timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood.

@woolismybread: Solitude, sheep and collie dogs in the company of Yorkshire shepherdess Alison O’Neill, whose 38,000 followers appreciate her straight talking and love of life’s simple pleasures.

@fenifur: Dartmoor wanderings with “Sea Witch” Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

@HenryRothwell, whose morning and evening tweets pay tribute to artists like Eric Ravilious, and celebrate some stunning English landscapes.

@BooksAlbans and a string of other local independent bookshops whose tweets, podcasts, signings and author interviews delight book-lovers across the Chilterns.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 04/10/21

IF ONLY trees could talk, what stories they could tell.

And nowhere is that truer that at Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve and site of special scientific interest where one can feel pretty insignificant surrounded by trees which have been towering over visitors for hundreds of years.

Wandering through these woods, it’s hard not to be swamped by images of the past, especially given that the landscape is dotted with ancient monuments like Hartley Court, a medieval moated farmhouse built in an age before the Black Death ravaged the land.

A long-term Beyonder haunt, this is a place which has provided a welcome refuge for families throughout the more recent pandemic – so much so that additional parking restrictions have been in place for most of the past year to prevent damage to the sensitive habitat.

This is the home of wood ants, owls, hornets, moorhens and an array of other woodland creatures, not to mention grazing cattle and ponies; a place where fungi flourish and a huge array of mushrooms and toadstools can be discovered.

And at this time of year, of course, it’s also the perfect place to take pictures of the annual autumn fireworks display as the greens of summer start changing to a stunning area of browns, reds and golds – which explains why it’s our picture choice of the week.

There’s even a rare chance to pick up a few tips from one an expert photographer whose portfolio of shots taken in these woods is simply stunning. Although Paul Mitchell moved away to the Dorset/Hampshire border about 18 months ago and has swapped Burnham Beeches for local woodlands nearer his home, he returns to his old stamping ground to share some of his secrets on a three-hour wander in November.

We can’t compete with Paul’s startling landscapes, but those same tree-lined paths provide a constant and ever-changing source of delight to ramblers, dog walkers and amateur photographers alike.

Balmy month bows out with a bluster

SUDDENLY, it’s easy to forget that September heatwave that saw temperatures soaring around the country.

Overnight, it seems, there’s a chill in the air and blustery showers are setting the autumnal mood.

It’s the time of year we dust off our warmer coats and cardies, bemoan the loss of those long summer evenings and slowly begin to adjust to the idea that autumn is definitely upon us.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: following a footpath outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Days have been shortening since the summer solstice but it’s now that we start muttering about the nights drawing in and winter being around the corner.

The children have settled into the new school year after the long holidays, universities are reopening their doors and dramatic skies are warning us of more changeable weather to come.

CHILL IN THE AIR: sunset over Chesham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

The colour palette is subtly changing too, the greens gradually giving way to golds, russets and browns. Deep in the woods, it’s conker season for pupils wandering home from school and foragers are out looking for mushrooms, berries and other edible delicacies.

SHARP CONTRAST: thistles on the Misbourne PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Not that that’s such a great idea for the uninitiated: start nibbling the fly agaric, destroying angel, death cap or white bryony and you could face vomiting and diarrhoea, stomach cramps, hallucinations and even death.

NATURAL PATTERNS: a study in textures PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Although we have basked in some balmy weather this September – the month was the second-warmest on record in the UK and the warmest ever in Northern Ireland – it doesn’t take us long to forget those temperatures once the chillier nights set in, especially as we face soaring fuel bills and long waits at the petrol pumps if we can find a garage actually open.

WIND OF CHANGE: Pitstone Windmill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

But aside from the moans and groans about fuel prices and petrol shortages, September was a spectacular month for getting out and about, especially now that so many local destinations have emerged from lockdown restrictions.

FRESH HORIZONS: the view from Pitstone Windmill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

September is the month when thousands of volunteers across England organise events to celebrate the country’s history and culture for the Heritage Open Days Festival, opening hidden places to the public in thousands of events spread over 10 days.

For art lovers it’s the month of the Herts Open Studios event too, although this year there are more online galleries to view than ever before, and a chance to catch up with artists you may have missed from similar events in Bucks and Oxfordshire earlier in the year.

EVENING LIGHT: the sun casts a warm glow over farmland PICTURE: Sarah How

This Sunday is harvest festival time too, a thanksgiving ritual dating from pagan times and traditionally held on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox.

As we mentioned last year, in days gone by the festival was a matter of life and death that would involve the whole community working together, including children. A prosperous harvest that would allow a community to be fed throughout the potentially barren winter months would be cause for much celebration.

LAND OF PLENTY: harvest was once a matter of life or death PICTURE: Sarah How

As an occasion steeped in superstition, it’s no surprise that so many ancient customs and folklore pre-date Christianity but still reflect the importance of crop gathering and the reverence in which the harvest was held.

Meanwhile it’s still getting light early enough to be woken by the reassuring honking of geese flying past in perfect formation – just one of some 4,000 species of birds around the world migrating in search of milder weather and more plentiful food.

NIGHT OWL: a little owl silhouetted against the moon PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

The geese aren’t the only ones of the wing. The skies are hectic with criss-crossing migrants and down at the local gravel pit the numbers of gulls and cormorants will be building.

Bats and owls are busy too, while baby birds like tits, robins, blackbirds and starlings are beginning to look a lot less scruffy as autumn approaches.

SHOWER TIME: baby blue tits get spruced up PICTURE: Nick Bell

Baby squirrels are dicing with death on the back roads, ants and hornets are busy building their nests in the woods, while the baby moorhens are skittering around on their lily pad rafts.

RICH PICKINGS: hedgerows are bursting with berries PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Hedgerows, shrubs and trees are bursting with berries, fruits and nuts, providing a welcome feast for birds and small mammals and a welcome splash of colour in the woods.

INNOCENT LOOK: squirrels can appear disarming PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Some babies are still being looked after carefully by doting parents, while others are getting their first taste of independence ahead of the harder winter months.

MUM’S THE WORD: mother and fawn enjoy a family moment PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Fungi are springing up on dead trees and fallen branches to the woodland floor and spiders are out in force, spinning their elaborate webs, intricate patterns glistening in the morning dew.

Some dragonflies are still on the wing too for those photographers with the patience, stealth and a zoom or macro lens for close-up shots.

ON THE WING: a migrant hawker dragonfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But as September moves into October it’s the changing colours of our deciduous trees that provide one of the big natural spectacles of the year.

Coupled with the bright red flashes of the berries and fungi, the glow of those dramatic sunsets and the spectacular hues of our birds and insects, it’s the perfect time to venture back into the woods and soak up some of that autumnal sunshine before winter really takes a grip.

As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for October, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Picture of the week: 27/09/21

AHOY there, pirates! This week’s choice is not about the quality of the picture itself, but all about the place Ruislip Lido, to be precise and the childhood memories associated with it.

For a more fastidious modern parent stepping over the bird poo or wrinkling their nose at the prospect of toxic algae in the water, the sandy beach at the edge of this 60-acre lake might not immediately look like the perfect place for a picnic, but for generations of Londoners the Lido provided the most memorable of playgrounds.

Those childhood days are firmly etched in the minds of locals sharing their recollections on the official Lido website.

Built as a reservoir in 1811 to feed the Grand Union canal and provide water for Paddington, it became a “lido” in the 1930s, offering boating, swimming and fishing.

Almost a century later crowds still flock to that beach on the summer to enjoy a woodland walk or picnic, visit the playground or have a ride on the miniature railway.

But while locals had used it in the 1920s for skating in the winter and swimming in the summer, it was only in 1936 that it was officially opened as the Lido, complete with art-deco style main building and a concrete swimming area flanked by piers in a horseshoe shape.

With a cafeteria and changing rooms in the main building, the lido boasted rowing and paddle boats as well as the children’s playground, beach and miniature railway. It even became known as a base for water skiing, with the world championships being televised from there.

In its heyday during the 50s and 60s, the place attracted visitors from across West London and the setting was even immortalised in the 1961 film The Young Ones, the first of a string of musicals which would shoot Cliff Richard to stardom.

Musician Vince Cox even used his Youtube channel to show “then and now” shots from the film (as well as carrying out a similar exercise for the 1968 musical fantasy film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).

Fond memories date back to the earliest days of the lido, with one local recalling: “My first memory of visiting the Lido was in the big freeze of 1947 when I, as a nine-year-old, walked across the reservoir with my father to the beach area, where shortly my father was to be responsible for importing hundreds of tons of sand.”

For youngsters escaping the war-torn city of the 1950s, this was truly a place of adventure, as another visitor explains: “You have to understand how poor the country was in the aftermath of the war. Rationing was still in force, TV was a rarity and very few people owned cars so having an amenity like the Lido close by was a wonderful treat, especially for us children.”

From donkey rides to picnic sandwiches, waiting for the 158 bus at Ruislip Manor Station or sneaking through the woods in the hope of bypassing the turnstiles, locals vividly recall the highs and lows of lido life during those halycon days.

From first fishing or birdwatching expeditions to rinsing off lake water under freezing cold water taps on the beach or falling through the ice in winter, from watching American servicemen playing their portable radios at the lakeside to Saturday night dances before the war, this was a place which played a formative role in many young people’s lives.

“It was an incredibly fantastic place to grow up in,” one woman recalls. “My brother and other friends in the road would all take to our bikes and cycle through the woods, damming up little streams, climbing trees, haring around like kids do. Going to the Lido was a regular thing, either on foot or our bikes.”

Not that all memories were happy ones, of course. The cleanliness of the water – or lack of it – had always worried some parents, and the polio scare of the mid-1950s deterred all but the most hardy from swimming for a while.

By the 1970s the lido was in serious decline. There were stories of drowning accidents and youngsters shared terrifying tales of encountering “Naked Norman” running naked through the woods. Traders deserted the lake and the beach became litter-strewn.

As one Twitter user recalled: “Was talking about open-air swimming with my 87-year-old father this week. ‘We took you to Ruislip Lido once,’ he mused. ‘It was Hell.’

But although the main building was damaged by fire and knocked down in 1994, the lido got a new lease of life in the 1990s and more investment since then. There may still be no swimming or boating, but there’s still a sandy beach, railway, play areas and pleasant views and walks through the surrounding woods.

On the lake, overwintering birds include wigeon, common pochard and gadwall ducks, with a dozen other species from geese and swans to moorhens, grebes and egrets.

Meanwhile Ruislip Woods National Nature Reserve is ‘ancient semi natural woodland’ and some parts are a remnant of the Wildwood that once completely covered England after the last ice age, about 8,000 years ago.

There’s no admission charge to Ruislip Lido but there is a charge to ride on the railway and to park your car, which can be tricky at busy times. Although access is available 24/7, certain facilities like the cafe, railway and toilets are normally only open during official opening hours, from 9am to 4-9pm depending on the time of year. The Water’s Edge pub operates normal pub hours.

Tweet of the week: 26/09/21

IT’S not a single Twitter account that’s in the spotlight this week, but a small supportive group of independent booksellers doing their bit to brighten the lives of avid readers across the Chilterns.

Books on the Hill in St Albans encourages younger readers

Booksellers have faced a rollercoaster ride over the past 18 months, but there’s no hiding their delight at seeing eager customers browsing the shelves again.

From Wallingford to St Albans, Thame to Tring, small shops across the region did their bit to boost people’s spirits during the long weeks of lockdown.

And they were only too keen to welcome the explosion of interest that marked their reopening last June, with almost four million books being sold in the first six days.

The Wallingford Bookshop boasts a lively Twitter feed

After so long having to rely on online or click-and-collect services, retailers were clearly relishing the chance to meet customers face to face again, in spite of all the social distancing and hand sanitising.

Chilterns Bookshops has outlets in Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood

While the amount of time people spent reading books almost doubled during lockdown, much of that custom was picked up by online retailing giant Amazon.

But independent bookshops have been flourishing in recent years and many took to Twitter to maintain that daily contact with customers during the darkest days of lockdown, including newcomers like Our Bookshop in Tring and Books On The Hill in St Albans.

The Tring bookshop opened in September 2019, initially as a way of supporting the town’s book festival in November, but becoming a permanent fixture, complete with online author interviews and even its own Youtube channel.

Our Bookshop in Tring hosts book launches and has its own Youtube channel

With more than 2,000 followers already on Twitter, the bookshop is also home to the Tring Comedy Festival and the town’s comedy club.

Another new arrival on the local bookshop scene is Books On The Hill in St Albans, a family-run shop which opened its doors in November 2019 with the dream of creating a “warm and inviting, old-fashioned bookshop” which would provide a haven for busy lives and a meeting place for readers, writers, poets, talkers, speakers, thinkers and dreamers. 

Books On The Hill in St Albans aims to create a warm and inviting atmosphere

Antonia Mason, who runs the shop with her mum, Clare Barrow, and saw the shop plunged into lockdown just months after opening, said they had been “overwhelmed with our community’s kind words and support”.

Antonia’s tweets have quickly won her more than 1,000 followers online, and the shop also hosts podcasts of author interviews, as well as recommendations and reviews.

Another local bookshop with a lively Twitter presence is Wallingford Bookshop, which has been active on social media since 2011 and boasts more than 6,800 followers.

First opened by Mary Ingrams in 1983 and now owned by Ali Jinks, the shop is an integral part of the the local community, with more than 6,000 books in stock and a website which claims: “The only thing we love more than helping you to find your perfect book is a challenge.

“So whether you’ve forgotten the name of a book, an author or both come and test us – we’ll do our darnedest to find the book for you!”

Staff at The Wallingford Bookshop relish a challenge

When bookshops reopened last year, books worth £33m were sold in England in the week to June 20, the best performance for that week of the year since the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix back in 2003.

The Booksellers Association’s managing director Meryl Halls described the increase as “heartening” and predicted bookshops would roar back once the coronavirus pandemic had passed.

The Book House in Thame dates from 1973

Speaker in a live Twitter chat hosted by The Bookseller, she said: “Book lovers will return from this crisis hungry for human connection, desperate for conversation, stimulation, inspiration. Booksellers will be there, arms open.”

Another Oxfordshire bookshop with a long history is The Book House in Thame, which dates from 1973 and is active on both Twitter and Facebook.

The bookshop was even mentioned by author Claire Fuller in a Penguin Books feature celebrating independent bookshops.

She recalled: “I lived in Thame when I was teenager, and The Book House (or The Red House Bookshop as it was called then) was a favourite place to visit. For many years in a row, I won the art prize at school, and the prize was a book token. I can still remember the shop’s newly printed books smell, the little corners to sit in (it is a beautifully higgledy-piggledy bookshop), and the amazing crazy fact that any of the books on any of the shelves could be mine.”

Outside seating at The Book House in Thame

The shop even boasts a small outside area where browsers can sit on a summer’s day.

Meryl Halls spoke of the profound emotional attachment which readers have for their local bookshops. Speaking about the impact of the pandemic, she responded: “We will return from this with a new appreciation for each other, for human endeavour, for writing, for community. There will be lots of hugging. Lots of tears. Some wine. Many parties.”

Back in April on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Waterstones managing director James Daunt echoed Halls’ assertion about the importance of books and bookshops.

He said: “Books are important, they help people isolate, they help mental wellbeing and we are in fact experiencing huge numbers of sales, particularly of children’s books and educational books.”

The Marlow Bookshop

Since then bookshops around the country have shared their delight that “lovely customers” have come back in their droves, despite initial concerns about reduced opening hours, social distancing challenges.

In the meantime, many of them have also learned how to use social media to great effect, adding podcasts, author interviews and online shopping to the delight of actually being able to sit in the corner of a bookshop and turn the pages of a freshly published volume.

In case you missed them, here are some other favourite “Tweets of the week”:

@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.

@A_AMilne: With 73,500 followers, this celebration of the wit and wisdom of the much-loved author and playwright taps into the timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood.

@woolismybread: Solitude, sheep and collie dogs in the company of Yorkshire shepherdess Alison O’Neill, whose 38,000 followers appreciate her straight talking and love of life’s simple pleasures.

@fenifur: Dartmoor wanderings with “Sea Witch” Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

@HenryRothwell, whose morning and evening tweets pay tribute to artists like Eric Ravilious, and celebrate some stunning English landscapes.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 20/09/21

RAILWAY enthusiasts may have a particular affection for Andrew Keenleyside’s gloriously colourful paintings of the countryside in and around Harpenden.

For one of his favourite sources of inspiration is the “Nickey Line” – a long disused line which once linked the towns of Hemel Hempstead and Harpenden, but much of which has been redeveloped as a cycle and walking path.

One of a series of portraits of the Nickey Line, by Andrew Keenleyside

The Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead branch railway ran for almost nine miles between the West Coast main line from London to Birmingham and the Midland main line from London to Leicester.

With a nickname shrouded in obscurity – there are numerous theories about its origins – passenger demand was never high and further declined in the years between the wars.

By the end of 1946 the only regular passengers on the Harpenden train were a handful of schoolchildren and when passenger services were “temporarily” suspended because of national coal shortages, the service was never reinstated.

A wintry scene on the Nickey Line, by Andrew Keenleyside

Although the last passengers travelled on the line in June 1947, the route remains popular with cyclists and walkers, as reflected in Andrew’s paintings, which use vivid colour and expressive impasto textures to try to capture the essence of the changing seasons.

“I admire Pissarro and Sisley in terms of their compositional themes, along with Henri Mattise and the Fauves with the vivid and exciting use of colour in their palette,” says Andrew, whose work has been exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and is also represented in private collections in the USA, the Far East, South Africa and Europe.

Freight services continued to run over part of the route until 1979, but while some of the line has disappeared under houses and roads, sections of the route remain recognisable, including some bridges and sections of embankment which feature in Andrew’s pictures.

Back in August 2020, it was one of his paintings which was used to kick-start our Picture of the Week series. He is a regular exhibitor at the annual Herts Visual Arts open studios event, which this year again includes a wide range of virtual galleries and demonstrations.

Events run from until October 10, with more than 60 venues opening their doors to visitors. The full programme can be found on the Herts Visual Arts website.

Tweet of the week: 19/09/21

OUR Sunday night social media reflection this week plunges us into the art world, and particularly landscapes from the 1930s and 1940s.

Our host is @HenryRothwell, whose morning and evening tweets pay tribute to artists like Eric Ravilious, transporting us to that unsettling period between the wars when the outstanding British painter and designer, best known for his watercolours of the South Downs, was at the height of his creative powers.

Chalk Paths by Eric Ravilious, watercolour on paper, 1935

Rothwell’s favourite featured artists include John and Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and George Clausen, but range from 19th-century works to contemporary artists like Anna Dillon, whose ongoing Wessex Airscapes exhibition at the Sewell Centre Gallery highlights her collaboration with aerial photographer Hedley Thorne based on their shared passion for the landscapes of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. 

The Dryers by Anna Dillon from her Wessex Airscapes exhibition at Radley College

Rothwell’s own Twitter identity is slightly cryptic, but the “recovering” archaeologist is based near Wells in Somerset and has a particular interest in using digital media in the presentation of archaeology, spending much of his time developing a digital map of the hillforts of Britain.

But it is his fascination with art which has won him more than 30,000 followers on Twitter over the past decade and which translated into a small family business in February 2021, when Rather Good Art was launched, offering postcards and greetings cards based on the work of those favourite artists.

From small beginnings the number of cards on offer is steadily increasing, with the range of featured artists now extending to Van Gogh and Klimt.

Piquet Hill by David Alderslade, watercolour and gouache

Back on his Twitter feed, Rothwell’s enthusiasm for English landscapes allows him to sweep around the country, from Norfolk to Cornwall, from Kent to the south-west of England, perhaps pausing for a moment to study a favourite work by the contemporary artist David Alderslade, for example, based in his caravan on the edge of Salisbury Plain.

He does stray further afield on occasion, to Scotland, France or even Canada, and to coast and city scenes too, but his roots are firmly in the English landscapes of Ravilious, Nash and contemporaries like Claughton Pellew.

The Train by Claughton Pellew, 1920

Away from social media, Rothwell reveals yet another range of interests on his Notes for the Curious website which, alongside book reviews and occasional essays, features a score of Grave Goods interviews with a range of writers, historians, musicians, comedians and others deciding which items they might like to accompany them to the afterlife on their final “great adventure”.

Highlights include interviews with mudlark Lara Maiklem, comedian Isy Suttie and nature writer Melissa Harrison.

Like our other Tweet of the Week selections, Henry Rothwell is able to lift our spirits and transport us into a different dimension – and who can ask for anything more from their social media friends?

In case you missed them, here are some other favourites:

@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.

@A_AMilne: With 73,500 followers, this celebration of the wit and wisdom of the much-loved author and playwright taps into the timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood.

@woolismybread: Solitude, sheep and collie dogs in the company of Yorkshire shepherdess Alison O’Neill, whose 38,000 followers appreciate her straight talking and love of life’s simple pleasures.

@fenifur: Dartmoor wanderings with “Sea Witch” Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Tweet of the week: 12/09/21

AFTER last week’s trip to the Westmoreland fells, this week’s social media feed finds us at the opposite end of the country, exploring the wilds of Dartmoor.

And in the same way that shepherdess Alison O’Neill’s @woolismybread account offers followers a welcome escape from the pressures of city life, our social media host this week is equally rooted in the great outdoors.

Sea Witch is the Twitter monicker of @fenifur or Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

An able writer and photographer, she launched a modest blog in 2018 dedicated to encouraging people to make the most of nature – without feeling under any pressure to document it beautifully or do something unusual in order to really be experiencing it. 

“I spent the first half of my life almost permanently submerged in the sea or out on long walks on the South Downs, but even then I recently began to feel anxious that I wasn’t doing nature ‘right’,” she writes.

“I can only imagine how unsure some people who have grown up in urban places who have not had access to wild spaces for one reason or another may feel. Perhaps especially so when we are told that nature will ease our anxieties, yet taking part seems to involve additional uncertainties and planning.”

As somebody with ADHD, insomnia and chronic pain from hEDS and autoimmune conditions, Jenny understands that getting to grips with the natural world may not always be as easy as it sounds.

Yes, we know it can be beneficial for our mental health and how gardening or rambling can alleviate depression or anxiety. But what if you have a chronic pain condition that doesn’t mix with the bending and kneeling of gardening, or find it stressful trying to keep several things alive, or can’t afford compost and seeds?

If growing up in the south coast cathedral city of Chichester gave Jenny a lifelong love of the sea, it’s Dartmoor which has in recent years provided her and partner Pat with a place of respite and relaxation, as well as exploration and discovery.

When a serious illness left her with post-viral fatigue, exacerbating her joint pain and autoimmune problems, exploring the moor seemed to provide the perfect challenge to help her regain her strength, using John Hayward’s classic 1991 book Dartmoor 365 as an inspiration.

His book highlighted interesting features to be found in each of the 365 square miles of the park, prompting Jenny to follow in his footsteps, using a separate @DartmoorSquares account and her Instagram feed, @jennynaturewriter to build a photographic map of her walks.

“I put a pause on this during lockdown because Dartmoor was really suffering with an excess of visitors and it didn’t seem right to post walks to some of the less well trodden places,” she says. “Hopefully my posts will encourage people to appreciate and enjoy Dartmoor respectfully.”

Jenny’s explorations are about the simple pleasures in life, from picnics and river swims to foraging for mushrooms, elderberries, sloes or wild raspberries, following deer paths, watching the ponies or soaking up the last rays of a particularly spectacular sunset.

Her rambles also immerse her – and us – in the history of the place, and allow us to savour those discoveries too, from the abandoned villages and tin mines to remote “letterboxes” where visitors can still leave a calling card to show they have found the spot.

Back in Victorian times no one was better known to visitors to the district than James Perrott of Chagford, who for more than half a century acted as guide to tourists wanting to explore the wild landscape, and became known as the “father of letterboxing” – after setting up a cairn and bottle for calling cards at Cranmere Pool in 1854.

Here, luminaries of the day like Charles Dickens could leave proof that they had accompanied Perrott on the arduous 16-mile round trip from Chagford, and it remains one of two permanent letterboxes on the moor, though hundreds of others exist, hidden from view from all but the most determined explorers.

Those weekend “route marches” across the South Downs as a teenager may have given her a certain level of confidence about going out alone into spaces away from towns as she got older, but chronic joint pain and a year almost bed-bound with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome means she has a particular understanding of those who find such feats difficult or impossible.

Her six-part blog is a work in progress but provides a lively introduction to walking, wild swimming and foraging, with the promise of more posts to follow.

Her @DartmoorSquares and Instagram feed provide a pictorial record of rambles around bogs, tors, and ancient settlements, capturing some fascinating places of interest along the way, like Crockern Tor, where the ‘Great Parliament of the Tinners’ would meet from the early 14th century to legislate in relation to stannary law, regarding tin-mining.

But immersed as it is in the wonders of nature, there’s nothing cutesy about her personal Twitter account, which sometimes feels as wild and untamed as the landscape she loves so much.

“I would LIKE my Twitter feed to be a way for people to learn more about nature and the environment in general, Dartmoor, history, walking, maybe a place to inspire people to go out exploring,” she says. “However it is also my personal account so this can turn into vents now and then! Everyone who has met me in person knows that I rarely take myself seriously, though my humour is very dry and that doesn’t always come across online.”

Perhaps it’s the intensely personal nature of the account which makes it so appealing to her 2,800 followers. She has certainly proved to be no fair-weather friend, with more than 54,000 tweets since her account was launched in 2010 maintaining an almost daily presence, many clearly posts shaped by her health issues and her decision after a few years working in wildlife charity and university admin to retrain as a medical herbalist.

“Without trying to sound dramatic, Dartmoor literally saved my life,” she says. “I got sick all the way back in 2016. I’d been in hospital with liver adenomas and heart issues, and had been given four types of intravenous antibiotics, so my system was defenceless when I got a norovirus a week later.

“I had to go to part time, sleeping in my lunch break on working days. I had an eight-month wait to see a specialist, so spent that time researching on my own. I was eventually diagnosed with various things which the PVFS had exacerbated. Before the specialist I’d been seeing my GP who didn’t ‘believe in’ PVFS though, so I spent a lot of time worried I was dying with some kind of rare disease.”

Depressed and ill, daily visits to Dunsford nature reserve provided a change of scenery, but did not offer a linear recovery. “Some days I could only manage a mile, and that could take me two hours,” she recalls. But one day she made it the two miles to a meadow which was full of meadowsweet, a plant used by medical herbalists to treat stomach issues.

“I couldn’t tolerate omeprazole or ibuprofen and was desperate not to be on codeine or tramadol, so I tried meadowsweet tea twice a day and it changed everything! Suddenly I could eat without searing pain every time, it was the glimmer of hope I needed.”

More years of ups and downs were to follow, but the Dartmoor walking challenges would help immensely. “Having a challenge to complete helped motivate me to get up when it felt like the last thing my body wanted, and I had the privilege at the time of having savings in the bank to live on, which meant I could just do temp work and volunteering when I was able for a whole year,” she recalls.

That’s when she chose to qualify as a medical herbalist – although taking that leap in the dark with another two years to qualify has brought its own anxious moments.

“With 150 clinic hours under my belt I’m qualified to treat ‘self-limiting’ conditions under my own insurance, and any patient with supervision in my course’s clinic,” she says. “It’s evidence-based plant medicine, and for me the gentle, holistic approach is much more friendly towards bodies and systems that are in distress and attacking themselves.

“It’s my aim to help people with chronic illness live with less pain and if possible get back some if not all of their physical health (and therefore improving mental health).

“I live every day in pain and I have to watch out for flare-ups, but without Dartmoor and the plants I found there to help my body heal, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

It’s doubtless that searing honesty, as well as her compassion, wit and irreverence, which makes Jenny a welcoming online presence.

In the same way that we know how much she hates drones, waste and noisy neighbours, we can also relate to those flashes of impatience over family expectations, gaslighting by doctors and her ferocious reaction to injustice or unfairness.

“Dartmoor saved my life” could be her mantra – and long may she continue tramping through the bogs, streams and prehistoric sites that make her beloved moor such a place of discovery and adventure.

Thanks to Jenny for permission to reuse pictures from her Twitter feed.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 13/09/21

HERTS Open Studios returns this week, the event which prompted the launch of our weekly Picture series just over a year ago.

And to celebrate the anniversary, today’s picture choice seems particularly appropriate as it features a self-taught oil painter who only rediscovered the love of painting during lockdown.

Blue Birch Waters by Leon Barnes was inspired by the work of TV art legend Bob Ross

The work itself is a homage to Bob Ross, the soft-spoken American art legend whose Joy of Painting TV series still enthrals millions today on Youtube.

And Stevenage artist Leon Barnes has even produced a video tutorial demonstrating the trademark wet-on-wet technique of the man whose “happy little trees” proved an inspiration to so many.

As a DJ and karaoke host for the past 16 years, Leon found his business swept away overnight by the lockdown restrictions.

Feeling lost and depressed, and lacking funds for a family birthday present, he stumbled across a stored loft gift from 2009 of an oil painting set and some old canvases, and embarked on a new artistic journey.

“Thanks to Bob Ross and The Joy of Painting, I found a new purpose, a hidden talent and lifeline,” says Leon.

Sunset Lake, an original oil on canvas landscape by Leon Barnes

This month, Leon is one of dozens of artists featured in this year’s Herts Open Studios event, which brings artists, artisans and art-lovers together for three weeks of inspiration and discovery in communities across Hertfordshire.

Events run from September 18 to October 10, with more than 60 venues opening their doors to visitors and a variety of local area art trails offering a range of free events from working studios and demonstrations to group exhibitions.

Running for more than 30 years, it is the largest county-wide art event with every venue free to enter and offering visitors a unique opportunity to meet artists and to enjoy and discuss their work.

Sunset Stream, an original oil on canvas landscape by Leon Barnes

Artists also offer online demonstrations and tours, allowing virtual visits to take place 24 hours a day.

“With many new artists joining our event alongside long-standing participants, there is just so much to explore,” said Herts Visual Arts chair, Sally Taylor. The full programme can be found on the Herts Visual Arts website.

Rich pickings signal the end of summer

AUGUST is a time of plenty, when gardens are in full bloom and the combines are rolling across nearby farmland.

FRIENDLY FACES: sunflowers put on a show near Aylesbury PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Ironically, Britain’s farmers may have an unlikely source to thank for thousands of us watching those crops being harvested with a new and more knowledgable eye this year.

For amid all the mysterious talk about spring beans, oilseed rape and winter wheats, moisture content and disappointing yields, it seems that the belligerent “petrolhead” Jeremy Clarkson was responsible for introducing a new generation of TV viewers to the trials and tribulations of farming life.

FARMING LIFE: harvest time at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

The success of Clarkson’s Farm offered some unexpectedly revealing insights as our Jeremy took personal charge of the management of the 1,000-acre Cotswolds farm near Chipping Norton that he bought back in 2008.

And amid all the hapless bumbling and frustrated swearing at the continual setbacks, we were treated to a warm-hearted gem of a series that potentially taught us more about farming than any other agricultural programme on the box.

WINTER FEED: hay bales outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Farmers are a notoriously tough audience, but many were won over by the TV star’s hard-hitting commentary about bureaucracy, pricing policies, Brexit challenges and bad weather.

“I think the show is absolutely brilliant,” Redditch-based farmer George Beach told Birmingham Live. “Clarkson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but everyone seems to agree about what he’s done.”

Even Sutherland hill farmer Joyce Campbell, who proved such a popular character on BBC2’s This Farming Life that even her collies get fan mail, tweeted: “I love @JeremyClarkson on his farming. The best TV ever.”

SUNNY SIDE UP: a sunflower crop near Aylesbury PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

From cultivation to harvest, misty dawn starts to exhausted night shifts, this was Clarkson as we have never seen him before, in a world where failures have real emotional and financial consequences.

The whole experience also gave him a new respect for farmers, he confessed. He told monthly magazine Farmers Guide: “I get annoyed with what people think about farming. It’s either the huge barns in Texas where they brutally grow pigs or cows, or Kate Humble with a freshly scrubbed baby lamb on a clean bed of hay. Farming is somewhere in between.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: overlooking the Misbourne PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

“Farmers are trying to fill the supermarket shelves with cheap good food, and at the same time look after the countryside. Every one of them I talk to is responsible and doing this all the time, despite what is going on with Covid, Brexit or idiotic political decisions.

“We should give farmers a lot more respect. We’re all eating what they produced.”

SPLASH OF COLOUR: heather in bloom on Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Away from the arable farms, it’s been a colourful month on local heathland like that at Stoke Common, where the heather and gorse are at their finest.

Pockets of heathland like this provide a marked contrast to the large ploughed fields of the scarp foothills where medieval open fields were divided into regular parcels through the process of enclosure. From the 1750s onwards, enclosure by parliamentary Act became the norm, affecting more than a fifth of the total land area of England by the First World War.

EVENING LIGHT: a Chesham sunset PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

The majority of Chilterns crops are cereal crops like wheat and barley, used in a variety of foodstuffs from bread, cakes and biscuits to beer and whisky. One of the most familiar crops is oilseed rape, with its distinctive yellow flowers and pungent aroma, the rapeseed being crushed and the oil used for cooking or food processing, or as an industrial lubricant.

But you can also find peas and beans, alternative crops such as linseed, borage and poppies, and of course thousands of cattle, sheep and pigs, not to mention the occasional less familiar livestock like red deer, emus or alpacas.

POLLEN COUNT: a bee gets busy PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Parts of the Chilterns have a long history of orchards, particularly those growing cherries, while there are also several vineyards producing quality wines – and while the arable farmers are busy with haymaking and silage collection, insects, birds and baby mammals are abundant too, the annual wildlife population at its highest this month, even if the birds are too busy moulting to make much noise.

DISTINCTIVE CALL: the green woodpecker or “yaffle” PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

Lambs born in the spring are back out in the fields, reptiles can be spotted basking the sun and baby squirrels are beginning to put on weight and bully the young birds at garden feeders.

But according to meteorologists, August 31 marks the end of summer, and although it’s too early for the real golds, reds and browns of autumn, there’s a definitely chill in the morning and evening air that hints at the start of a new season, even if we are hoping there are plenty of sultry September days still to enjoy.

COLOURFUL CHARACTER: an Egyptian goose PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

September is a big month for bird migration, with the British Isles a crossroads for millions of arrivals and departures, but the first to head south are already on the move in August.

ON THE WING: a swallow skimming over the river PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

Swallows, house martins and swifts are all migratory birds that winter in Africa. Swallows and house martin arrive back in the UK in late March to early April and leave again in September to October, but the swifts are first to leave, and young swallows and house martins are honing their flying skills and enjoying the abundance of insects before joining the exodus.

Fruits, berries and nuts are plentiful, the game season is under way for meat eaters and the list of vegetables in season is quite overwhelming, from beetroot and broccoli to parsnips, peas and peppers.

TOUCHDOWN: Canada geese coming in to land PICTURE: Nick Bell

Home-grown herbs are also in plentiful supply, and from bilberries and crapapples to wild damsons and mushrooms, there’s plenty to keep foraging enthusiasts busy too, as well as ensuring a fertile feast for many species of birds, eager to gorge on berries before their long migration and helping plants propagate in the process.

Across the Chilterns, it still feels as if summer is with us, with warmer temperatures marking the opening weeks of September. But this is a time when the leaves are beginning to dry out on plants and trees, flowers are fading and days are becoming shorter.

Whisper it quietly, but autumn is sneaking quietly in. We haven’t had the dramatic drop in temperature yet, or the growing awareness that the leaves are beginning, ever so gradually, to change colour. But it won’t be long, so enjoy that September heatwave while you can, as temperatures briefly push close to 30 degrees centigrade before autumn finally makes its presence felt.

GROW WITH THE FLOW: the river Misbourne at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for September, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Tweet of the week: 05/09/21

TWITTER accounts don’t come any more dramatic and enticing than that of Alison O’Neill, a shepherdess in the Yorkshire Dales whose @woolismybread account offers thousands a welcome escape from the pressures of city life.

Not that anyone would claim running a small hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales is an easy task, but living in nature amid the spectacular scenery of the majestic Howgill Fells in Westmoreland makes up for any harsher challenges life throws at her, she insists.

OPEN OUTLOOK: Alison’s pinned tweet features her beloved fells PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“I am blessed with a rare freedom,” she writes. “I work quietly in the old way, woven to my landscape, betrothed to the life of a shepherdess.

“I don’t like sheep, I love them and I always have. I care for my flock and in turn they provide for me. I fashion their wool creating beautiful products, offering provenance and heritage as hallmarks for every item I produce.”

That love of nature shines through her posts from the fells, but it’s the lifestyle as much as the scenery which her followers find both restful and inspiring, from the homely sound of clucking hens around the farm to the sight of a bulging breakfast tray or the reassuring company of Shadow the sheepdog.

Alison enjoys sharing her world, guiding walks and holding talks about my life on the fells with her beloved sheep, amid the whirling swifts and restless winds.

HOME COMFORTS: Sunday breakfast on the farm PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

Born into a shepherding family, she recalls: “Life for me was practical and everyday, sometimes harsh in a northern way. I was lucky and thankful to be reared on fresh air and freedom, a country girl whom inherited an instinct to nurture and a desire to care.”

When in the late 1970s her grandparents and parents sold their farms, she vowed that one day she would have her own farm and follow in their footsteps, despite the warnings about the impossibility of making money from small-scale hill farming.

Come the run-up to the millennium, and she was taking on the tenancy of Shacklabank Farm, a 37-acre plot which would be home for the next 20 years: where her daughter Scarlett would be born and where unhappy memories of the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic and a divorce would be offset by the rewards of farming in one of the country’s most stunning landscapes.

Thanks to that “sheer Dales-woman grit and determination”, she has managed to remain at the farm on the hill, offering an antidote to fast fashion and intensive farming.

LABOUR OF LOVE: Alison has farmed at Shacklabank for 20 years PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“Rather than selling my wool for next to nothing I found a way of turning it into highly desirable tweed clothing. And rather than pushing wildlife back on my farm, I have encouraged it to flourish. My labour of love is a way of life and one that I am most grateful to have,” she says.

Certainly her 38,000 Twitter followers appreciate her straight talking and love of simple pleasures, like the smell of autumn in the air, the company of the loyal Shadow or nurturing her beloved Rough fell, Swaledale and Herdwick flocks, using their wool to produce a range of natural tweeds that capture the “spirit of the place we all call home”.

It’s a lifestyle that has made the Yorkshire shepherdess something of a media star, but for her Twitter fans it’s her ability to “keep it real” that continues to delight and inspire.

Alison’s website, shop and media and video links can be found here.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 06/09/21

OUR picture of the week this week takes us back to the fair, and the lost skill of fairground art.

As we revealed last October, although the coronavirus lockdown hit travelling funfairs hard, Joby Carter of Carters Steam Fair wasn’t prepared to sit back and do nothing over the long summer months when shows had to be cancelled.

Instead he launched a series of online courses passing on his traditional signwriting techniques to people from over the world from his paint shop outside Maidenhead.

Flash forward 12 months and once again people can enjoy at first hand the wonderful old rides, vintage heavy lorries and magnificent living wagons with their cut-glass windows, lace curtains and gleaming wood interiors.

With the show’s famous 1890s gallopers and other rides once again open to the public at a series of local venues until mid-October, visitors can see for themselves what the fuss is all about – and why this unique “steam fair” has earned such a warm place in the hearts of local communities for the past four decades.

Details of Joby’s online signwriting courses can be found here.

Woodlands echo to hoots in the night

THERE’S no sound which better captures the atmosphere of the woods at night than the hoot of an owl.

NIGHT OWL: a little owl silhouetted against the moon PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

But even when they are at their loudest and most active, these nocturnal hunters are not always easy to spot – and there are even some popular misconceptions about the noises they make too.

LOCAL FAVOURITE: a little owl poses for the camera PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Like that “twit – twoo” we so often mimic, for example, is not one owl, but two different owls calling – the high-pitched “kee-wick” of the female tawny owl, which is responded to by the “hoohoo” or “twoooo” note of the male.

Owls have evolved as specialised hunters with a wide range of skills to help them locate and catch their prey. Each species has a range of incredible “superpowers” that many other birds do not possess, but which give owls the ‘tools’ they need to survive.

Different species can see in almost total darkness, have soft feathers with a comb-like ‘fringe’ on the flight feathers which aids silent flight, have round facial discs with special feathers to ‘catch’ sound and a toe that swivels so talons can be used in different ways when squeezing prey or gripping a branch.

PERFECT CAMOUFLAGE: a tawny owl hides in the trees PICTURE: Andrew Knight

But for most of us, spotting any of the five species of UK owl can be tricky. They can be notoriously difficult to track down, are very well camouflaged and tend to set up home in some pretty hard-to-reach places.

The calls may echo around the woods on an autumn evening when pairs begin courting, ready for nesting around February, but can you tell your tawny owl from a barn owl or little owl?

DAYDREAMING: a little owl appears to yawn PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

For Steve Gozdz and partner Billie O’Connor, relocating to the Chilterns in 2019 to be closer to nature has sparked an ever-evolving fascination in the wildlife to be found near their home base where the ancient villages of Goring and Streatley straddle the Thames, the meeting point of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs).

From here, Steve’s Owl Walks over the past couple of summers have introduced locals and visitors alike to the range of owls to be found in nearby woods.

EVENING RAMBLE: owl walks have proved popular with locals PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Says Steve: “We are really lucky to live in an area which has four different types of owls all sighted in a small radius. Whilst the short-eared owls and barn owls are a less common sight for most, it’s been delightful to show a number of local residents the families of little owls we have nesting and breeding here in Goring & Streatley, and to help them learn more about them and the tawny owls we so often hear and sometimes also get to see too.”

Steve’s business, GG Wildlife Experiences, was born out of lockdown and his long-standing interest in wildlife.

“I think there really is a growing interest in the countryside and appreciate of the wildlife within it,” he says. “The difficulties of Covid-19 have been numerous, but during these hard times we have seen a positive by-product – the growing love and appreciation of our countryside and wildlife.”

FEATHERED FRIENDS: little owls nest and breed locally PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Billie adds: “We already know we are incredibly lucky to live in such a beautiful location, of scenic countryside and amazing wildlife. Many of us might hear the evening and night-time calls of different evening creatures, the most recognisable for some being the tawny owl.”

Steve started Goring Gap Wildlife Walks back in 2019, but the broadening into a wider range of experiences was a natural step, says Billie. “We now offer guided wildlife spotting boat trips, and even nature breaks, so expanding the business and rebranding made sense, to show we now offer so much more.”

The pair believe that helping people understand local wildlife better will encourage them to want to look after it. “The more people understand, the greater their interes, and then a lot of people want to know about how to protect it, how to create good habitats in their garden or on their land to allow wildlife to flourish – which is a great way to protect and grow those species we really want to see thrive,” says Steve.

BIRD IN THE HAND: wildlife photographer Steve Gozdz

So much so, that last year Steve turned his woodwork skills to good use and began creating and installing custom handmade owl boxes for those in the local area.

“You can’t just put any box up and hope for the best. Different Owls require different habitats and very different homes; it also depends if you are creating just a roost, or are creating a nesting location,” he says.

Steve will check out the garden or land and advise on the most appropriate box for the owl type that is likely to frequent the area. And in some cases, he has advised against buying one, as the habitat just hasn’t been right. “The environment needs to be suitable for a long-term habitat in order for the wildlife to flourish, and so I want to ensure we give the right advice, and give the wildlife the best chance,” he explains.

HOME TO ROOST: owl and bat boxes have proved increasingly popular PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

A new request at the end of last year was bat boxes, and Steve began installing these for customers who enjoyed seeing bats in the garden and wanted to provide a safe haven for them.

As the guided owl walks season comes to an end, Steve is now busy with a series of owl box orders in the run-up to the roosting wintering period, ready for the next year’s mating period when new pairs will need to find new homes……

You can contact Steve at info@ggwildlifeexperiences.co.uk or visit his website for guidance or advice on your garden’s suitability for different wildlife. Guided Wildlife Experiences run all year round.

Village tales are stranger than fiction

WHAT connects the Wall Street Crash and Benjamin Franklin with Hollywood stars and an English rake with a reputation for arranging underground orgies?

The answer lies in a picturesque village of wobbly roofs and hidden passages where time seems to have be standing still for centuries.

FROZEN IN TIME: the picturesque village of West Wycombe PICTURE: Mary Tebje

And as Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje discovers, the story behind the extraordinary village of West Wycombe really is stranger than fiction.

Today it looks like a film set, though it was once an important stop for stagecoach travellers heading to and from London, with more than a dozen public houses vying for the custom of weary passengers.

Yet this is a place of scandal and innuendo, thanks to the antics of an 18th-century politician whose Hellfire Club was notorious for orgies and black magic.

RUMOUR AND INTRIGUE: history comes alive in West Wycombe PICTURE: Mary Tebje

In the latest instalment of her “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns, Mary finds out more about Sir Francis Dashwood and the story behind his parties, his wonderful park and his imposing mausoleum, which still dominates the landscape after 250 years.

It’s just one of a continuing series of stories about the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Vivid memories of a year in pictures

IT’S been a year since we launched our Picture of the Week series – and what a year it’s been.

Inspired by the open studios events staged across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire each year, the series was launched at a time when months of lockdown had prevented artists from getting out and meeting potential customers face to face.

Such events offer a great opportunity for artists and makers to throw open their doors and showcase their work, but if the lockdown put paid to such intimate contact, it certainly did not the cramp the enthusiasm and ingenuity of creative souls from all over the Chilterns.

MAUREEN GILLESPIE
LOCKDOWN WALK: Blenheim by Maureen Gillespie

Some turned to local walks near their homes for inspiration, while others took the opportunity to go back through old sketchbooks, sort out old photographs and revisit settings which had never quite made it on to canvas.

STOCKTAKE: Beaconsfield artist Tim Baynes searched old sketchbooks for inspiration

And many seized the chance to improve their virtual galleries and reach out to customers through blogs, instagram posts and online shops.

PERSONAL TOUCH: Dorset artist Sam Cannon launched a monthly newsletter

Of course that’s not quite the same as getting to meet your customers in person, but as lockdown restrictions started to ease, those exhibitions, pop-up displays and working studio visits soon began to emerge again.

PERSONAL TOUCH: self-taught artist Sabbi Gavrailov from Hemel Hempstead

For wildlife and nature lovers, highlights of the weekly series have included many works inspired by or reflecting the natural world, including animal portraits and sculptures, and paintings rooted in the local Chilterns landscape, from the Ridgeway views of Anna Dillon and Christine Bass to the colourful Oxfordshire scenes captured by Alice Walker, Jane Peart and Sue Side.

VALE VIEW: Inchombe Hole, Buckinghamshire by Anna Dillon

We have ventured out into the parks of Harpenden with Andrew Keenleyside, explored the wetlands of Oxfordshire with Jane Duff and delved deep into Wytham Woods with Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley.

ROSIE FAIRFAX-CHOLMELEY
WOODLAND FORAY: a reduction linocut by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley

A score of those local artists can be accessed through our Local Landscapes page, and their subject matter ranges from portraits to seascapes and abstract works.

SUE GRAHAM
CORNISH VISIT: Sundown, St Ives by Sue Graham

Further afield, Chilterns artists have taken on us on journeys from Cornwall to West Wales, while guest artists have hailed from as far afield as Dorset and the Lake District.

Photographers have featured too, patiently waiting for the perfect wildlife shot, whether otter or kingfisher, red kite or dragonfly.

FAIRGROUND FUN: handpainted gallopers at Carters Steam Fair

Over 52 weeks, the collection has grown into a formidable showcase of local talent, punctuated by occasional more unusual contributions, ranging from the fairground art of Joby Carter and family to a step back in time to enjoy the 1930s art of Eric Ravilious, the “happy little trees” of TV art legend Bob Ross or the stunning works of Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon.

Do you have a nomination for an artist who should be featured in our weekly series? Write to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk explaining the reasons behind your choice.

Fairground favourites thrill the crowds

IT’S BEEN a pretty special bank holiday weekend at Pinkneys Green for Joby Carter and his family.

Here, to the sound of fireworks, steam engines and fairground organs, Carters Steam Fair has been celebrating its 40th visit to a favourite local venue in grand style.

The largest travelling vintage funfair in the world, the steam fair has delighted generations of local youngsters with lovingly restored rides dating from the 19th century to the 1960s.

And after being forced off the road by the pandemic, as we reported last year, the fair is back on the road for 2021, delighting families at a series of local venues until mid-October.

The vintage rides have featured in films ranging from Paddington 2 to Rocketman, and as dusk falls on Pinkneys Green, the screams of delight are a testimony to the enduring appeal of the fair, which offers rides suitable for toddlers, teenagers and the young at heart.

Set against a backdrop of flashing lights and pounding pistons, the fair provides visitors young and old with a sensory overload, as the scent of hot doughnuts mingles with the oil and steam of machines which are a triumph of mechanical engineering.

Part of the fair’s popularity lies in the extraordinary attention to detail with which vintage rides have been restored, from the precision engineering required to maintain moving parts to the artwork which has all been done by hand.

Says Joby: “I encourage anyone visiting to take a close look at the lettering and artwork at the fair. It has all been done by hand using traditional signwriting skills and techniques – no computers or fancy software programmes!

“Stand next to our brightly coloured trucks with huge lettering over 1 meter high and see if you can figure out how we manage to paint it all by hand!”

It was back in the late 1970s that show promoters John and Anna Carter first started their collection by buying a set of 1890s Jubilee Steam Gallopers that they could take to steam rallies and fairs.

As their passion for vintage fairgrounds grew, the Carters added more rides to their collection, with Anna’s artistic talents in restoring rides to their former glory helping to establish the fair’s specialism in vintage rides.

Joby was just a child at the time but soon followed in their footsteps. Now, with more than 20 years’ of signwriting experience, he even ended up teaching creative online courses on lettering and fairground art which helped the fair to survive a year of lockdown.

Those iconic gallopers are still going strong too, most of the horses having been carved from wood by Andersons of Bristol around 1910 and all subtly different from one another.

They are all named after friends and family on the fair, and the 46-key Gavioli organ bought from Roger Daltrey in 1979 helps to provide that unmistakeable fairground atmosphere.

Being based in Maidenhead, the Berkshire family has a particular affection for the Pinkneys Green venue where they have worked for four decades. But several other local favourites are on their 2021 itinerary too, including Hemel Hempstead, Holyport Green and Reading.

The same loving attention to detail is visible everywhere at the fairground, from the steam-driven yachts of the 1920s to a 1910 roundabout featuring an eclectic collection of creatures from running cockerels to hungry-looking pigs.

Restoring the worn-out 1960s dodgems cars has been a long labour of love for Joby and his team: a restoration process that took 25 years of on-and-off work, with a few finished just in time for them to enjoy a moment of Hollywood fame with the launch of the award-winning movie Rocketman about the life of Elton John.

From a coconut shy to duck- and fish-hooking games and test-your-strength “strikers”, the funfair has all the traditional elements of a country fair that would have delighted our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors and it provides fascinating insights into British social history.

“When a ride comes into our care, we research as much as we can and try to trace its ancestry,” says Joby. “If we’re lucky, we can even find photos of it from its heyday.”

Traditionally everything in the fair is moved around the country using vintage heavy lorries and magnificent showman’s living wagons. Like the rides, each of the fleet of lorries, some dating from the 40s, 50s and 60s, has been lovingly restored to its former glory and repainted in the distinctive red Carters livery.

Every bit as impressive are the beautifully decorated living wagons with cut-glass windows, lace curtains and premium wood and veneer inside, each with their own story to tell and many previously owned by well-known showmen or circus owners.

More information about the fair’s history and the background to individual rides, sideshows and vehicles can be found on their website. Details of Joby’s online signwriting courses can be found here. The fair moves to Hemel Hempstead for the next two weekends and future venues can be found here.

Tweet of the week: 29/08/21

IT’S hard to believe that Winnie the Pooh is almost a hundred years old – and yet the amiable, bumbling, honey-loving bear remains as popular as ever with children and adults alike.

And one Twitter account which taps into that rich seam of affection and timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood is our Sunday evening Twitter choice of the week, @A_AMilne.

With more than 73,000 followers this account has been active since the summer of 2018, offering a daily Tweet taken from the famous children’s books or appropriate words of wisdom from the author and his son, on whom Christopher Robin was based.

While the famous wood was modelled on Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, a landscape itself facing numerous challenges at present, the spirit of Pooh seems alive and well in the Chilterns, where in woodland from Black Park to Burnham Beeches it never feels as if Pooh, Piglet and Tigger are too far away, as we wrote last October.

From den-building in the woods to a noisy game of Pooh sticks on a small wooden bridge over a stream, it’s clear that new generation of children has every bit as familiar with the adventures of the gloomy donkey Eeyore, meddlesome Rabbit and the rest of the gang as those first excited readers of almost a century ago.

The upbeat daily Tweets celebrate words written or inspired by the author and incorporate quotes from Christopher Robin Milne, whose relationship with his father inspired the 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin.

The “real” stuffed toys owned by Christopher Robin may be a long way off – they have been on display in the New York public library since 1987 – but this is one voice on Twitter that manages to capture some of the magic of those innocent adventures, whether in search of a Heffalump, getting stuck in a rabbit hole or floating away on the string of a balloon.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 30/08/21

OUR picture spotlight this week is not an individual artist or photographer, but a very special and unusual place.

Stoke Common is a remarkable patch of ancient heathland that comes to life in the summer and autumn when the heather and gorse are in full bloom.

There may be times of the year on a drizzly day when this landscape can seem a little bleak, but when the butterflies are dancing and the blackberry blossom is blooming, it’s a very different story.

Yes, there may be a rumble of distant traffic from the motorway if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, or the roar of boy racers testing out the surrounding back roads, but for many this 200-acre oasis is a reminder of what much of Buckinghamshire might have looked like in centuries past.

Owned and run by the City of London Corporation, with the help of volunteers and supporters like the Friends of Stoke Common, the common is a perfect retreat for walkers and runners trying to get away from it all.

Since many of the plant and insect species recorded here are rare, visitors need to stay on the signposted paths, which means youngsters wanting to explore and build dens are better advised to head for nearby Black Park or Burnham Beeches.

But for those who enjoy the chance to escape the crowds, there are few better places to “get back to nature” among the spiders and stonechats, cinnabar moths and butterflies.

After last month’s explosion of ragwort, now it’s time for the common to start looking more like a Scottish heath than somewhere a stone’s throw from Slough, as reflected in our Beyonder blog entry last summer.

It’s also the perfect place for dramatic sunsets and fascinating cloud formations, as we reflected in another summer postcard a year ago.

There’s even the faint chance of spotting an elusive adder, though a lot more likely that a dusk rustle in the gorse is actually one of the score of burnished brown Sussex cattle that do their bit to protect the heathland by grazing the common, and look very smooth, velvety and healthy on their prickly diet.

Created by a combination of poor, acidic soils and careful land management, the heathland is designated as an important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Its beauty may not always be immediately obvious to the casual visitor, but catch the sunlight on the heather at this time of year, or the cloud formations at dusk against a spectacular sky, and you could be in a far distant land.

Tweet of the week: 22/08/21

SUNDAY night seems an appropriate time to enjoy a quiet moment of contemplation about the ups and downs of the past week, and to prepare to make the most of the week to come.

So what better time to launch a new regular feature highlighting some of the more stimulating, thoughtful and thought-provoking material to be found on Twitter?

Social media may not seem the natural place for a relaxing read, but perhaps that’s the point of taking time to focus on the best that it has to offer, rather than the worst.

We know that some people find Twitter a dangerous place, filled with harassment and abuse. The company has been roundly criticsed for failing to act quickly enough to remove rogue users and prevent menacing and threatening behaviour.

But the platform also provides an excellent opportunity to communicate with a worldwide audience of readers who share similar concerns and interests, so of course it makes perfect sense as a complementary platform that allows us to spread the word about our website’s content to a broader audience than our core Facebook membership group.

Reaching new audiences can be a mixed blessing, of course, as we discovered when Jeremy Clarkson responded to our recent Tweet about queues outside his Cotswold farm shop, prompting “likes” from more than 10,000 of his followers, not to mention a fair share of acerbic remarks.

But having been on the platform since June 2018, we have been protected from most of the worst aspects of online interaction, and instead have been able to savour the posts of the 1,000-odd people we have chosen to follow, from naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts to farmers, growers and local groups with a special interest in what the Chilterns has to offer.

Back in July 2018 we wrote about the benefits of positive thinking online, of attempting to surround yourself with engaging and upbeat company rather than become depressed by the unrelenting misery of negative news feeds and toxic exchanges which sap our energy and undermine our peace of mind.

With that in mind, our new feature is very much focused on finding the positive online and seeking out those voices that provide us with joy – particularly when that takes the form of accounts which celebrate wildlife and the great outdoors.

It might be a joke, cartoon or nature clip, or perhaps a thought-provoking commentary or personal experience that chimes with the magazine’s aims.

In our own posts we have attempted to be uplifting in output, deliberately restricting the number of weekly tweets and trying to provide our 450+ followers with pictures and links which brighten their day rather than the reverse, as well as linking to the content of our regular and one-off features.

Local photographers have been out and about capturing the magic of the Chilterns landscape for our monthly calendar feature, while artists across the region have featured in our Monday Picture of the Week series, which has been running for the past year.

The magazine’s Twitter feed is slightly more political than our Facebook group page, reflecting growing concerns about climate change and the state of the planet. But at the same time as highlighting unavoidable concerns, the mood of the feed has always tried to remain upbeat and positive.

Whether that means singing the praises of moths or slow worms, highlighting colourful characters who adore the Chilterns countryside, exploring our fascinating local heritage or spotlighting dozens of top local attractions for family days out, the focus has been on celebrating the very best our region has to offer, and hoping to encourage readers to spare a moment to peruse the magazine’s main website in a little more detail.

With almost 300 articles to choose from, we hope those who find their way to the website are able to find something to hold their interest, from characters with interesting stories to share to stories steeped in the history of the extraordinary Chilterns landscape.

So do join us over the coming weeks as we try to seek out some of the most inspiring, entertaining and informative Twitter users who prove social media can be a powerful force for good, and not just a place for division, gossip and abuse.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Picture of the week: 23/08/21

AFTER two weeks “on vacation” in Dorset enjoying the striking wildlife paintings of Sam Cannon, it’s almost time to return to the Chilterns.

However there’s still time for a final quick visit to an extraordinary oasis of tranquillity which we featured in our Further Afield section last month.

Here, you can enjoy a picnic with friends in glorious countryside and take in an extraordinary exhibition of modern sculpture at the same time.

The 26 acres that provide the setting for Sculpture by the Lakes have allowed sculptor Simon Gudgeon and wife Monique to create an environment for enthusiasts that blends nature’s beauty with inspiring works of art, free from the space constraints of a traditional gallery.

Carefully landscaped the aim of enhancing the aesthetic qualities of each sculpture, the park features paths which meander round the lakes, each turn revealing a different vista and new work of art, many by Simon and some by guest exhibitors.

The park at Pallington opened in 2011 and is home to some of Simon’s monumental finished pieces, as well as housing studio workshops. He sculpts primarily in bronze, and occasionally in marble, granite, glass or stainless steel.

For more information about the park and the range of sculptures to be found there, see our full feature here and Simon’s website for details about entry, upcoming exhibitions and other news.

Flower power proves a home-grown winner

IS THERE anything more beautiful than a bunch of home-grown, lovingly nurtured British flowers, freshly cut and carefully arranged?

Melanie Jones-Bharadwa doesn’t think so. And her love affair with British blooms really started to blossom once she started planning her wedding in 2015.

“Living in London but with my family in the north west, my mum mentioned that she felt a little left out of the day-to-day planning of the celebrations, so one day when I was sat in my little allotment thinking ‘wouldn’t it be great if I could use a few flowers I’d grown myself for the wedding’ it suddenly came to me that my mum could grow a few flowers for us in her garden,” Melanie recalls.

After studying textile design at university, Manchester-born Melanie worked in textile homeware development for Designers Guild and Laura Ashley and saw designers drawing inspiration from the textures and colours of British-grown flowers that were brought in for them to see and draw.

Starting to grow the first few wedding flowers soon sparked plans for something a little more ambitious, Melanie remembers: “A few quickly turned to a lot as we experienced just how obsessive it is to sow a little seed and experience the joy of watching it grow with your nurturing, and finally being rewarded with beautiful blooms all summer.”

As vegetables began to be replaced by flowers on her allotment, she was shocked to discover that as much as 90% of the UK’s £1.3bn cut-flower trade relies on imports from other countries – mainly the Netherlands, but from as far afield as Kenya and Ecuador.

“A lot of people are becoming aware of British-grown flowers and the impact of imported stuff,” she says.

Given her love of being outdoors, could this provide the basis of a business idea?

“I always wanted to grow more to be able to share with other flower lovers and during lockdown I decided to take the plunge and start growing on a larger scale,” she says.

Having located an allotment in the Chalfonts where she could produce beautifully scented seasonal blooms, Melanie set to work – and Gathered From The Garden was born.

Avoiding pesticides brings its own challenges, she admits, and getting her micro-scale artisan plot up and running has been both a labour of love and a process of trial and error to work out what grows well.

“I don’t use chemicals or pesticides, but I had a massive problem with rabbits,” she admits. “I had a particular type of flower destroyed by flea beetle. But everything has its place in the eco-system. And growing a wild mix of flowers makes it manageable.”

Growing everyday things like strawberries, beans and pumpkins, as well as flowers, has always been a delight, but time spent outdoors has become even more important now that her daughter is nearly three. “You look a life at little differently,” says Melanie. “It’s important for me to show her the growing cycle and how to grow things from seed.”

Whereas commercial supermarket flowers have to be “perfectly straight, or identical”, home-grown blooms can be unique and unusual, she says. “There are flowers which don’t travel well and which you just don’t see, so if you want that type, you need to grow it.”

Starting on a small scale, Melanie sells dried flowers and natural confetti as well as bouquets, with some of her bouquets available at The Hatchery farm shop outside Beaconsfield. This year, her first season will run from June until the first frosts of October / November, but she’s already planning bulbs which will flower in the spring.

She is also a member of Flowers From The Farm, an award-winning membership association which champions artisan growers of seasonal, scented, sustainable British cut flowers and which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The fact that the association has grown in size during the course of the pandemic from 700 to more than 1,000 members is an encouraging sign of people’s growing concern about sustainable growing, Melanie believes.

“The amount of information that people are willing to share is amazing, ” she says. “I am passionate about growing British flowers that are not only beautiful but that are also environmentally friendly. To me this means growing without the use of chemicals and following the principles of organic growing. In addition to this all packaging is either recyclable or reuseable.”

Husband Kalpesh works in IT and is no gardener, but he does help with petal-picking for confetti and has been very supportive, she says – even fashioning a mud kitchen on the allotment where their daughter can play when there’s work to be done.

“She’s fascinated with bees but wants to touch them all the time,” says Melanie. “It’s nice having her there although she does tend to pull leaves off plants or end up trampling them.

“I love my little plot and the tranquillity it brings. Being situated within a small holding I saw all the wildlife buzzing around and knew that I wanted to do my bit to protect them all, meaning not only do I grow with no chemicals, I also have a dedicated patch of native wildflowers growing for the pollinators, along with a selection of bee-friendly flowers, left for their benefit.”

Unlike a florist, it’s that fascination with how things grow that drives Melanie. “You are constantly learning but I’d rather be doing the growing than the arranging,” she says.

“My dream is to have a pick-your-own farm. It’s nice to have an area to wander through beautiful flowers and taken them home and arrange them yourself.”

Gathered From The Garden offers A range of seasonal bunches and dried flowers are available from Melanie’s Gathered From The Garden website.

Hidden villages with surprising secrets

DAPPLED beechwoods and ancient churches dot the landscape around the Domesday Book villages of Great and Little Hampden, outside Princes Risborough.

In this tucked-away parish, travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje discovers classic Chilterns countryside where difficult geography has protected the landscape from the worst intrusions of road and rail.  

GOTHIC REVIVAL: Hammer horror films were set at Hampden House PICTURE: Mary Tebje

From ancient earthworks and picturesque churches to a manor house where Hammer horror films were set, there are some unexpected surprises to be unearthed in these quiet valleys and hilltop hamlets, as Mary discovers.

LIVING HISTORY: Little Hampden church PICTURE: Mary Tebje

The article is one of numerous entries in her “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of her adventures here.

Picture of the week: 16/08/21

OUR picture choice this week provides a postscript to our recent article about Dorset artist Sam Cannon and her extraordinary wildlife paintings.

Last week we wrote about Sam’s art, and how her decision to include lettering in some of her paintings had prompted an explosion of interest in her work, which nowadays attracts a substantial and enthusiastic following on Facebook and Instagram.

Shepherd’s Hut by Sam Cannon

Howver the artist, based near Lyme Regis in Dorset, still talks of herself as “just being a mum who also paints in between all the other things life throws at me”.

Despite her modesty, it’s clear that her paintings provide a source of solace and inspiration to many, not least her remarkable Shepherd’s Hut, a moonlit woodland scene which incorporates a quote from the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.

The words are those of Sonya in Chekhov’s 1898 play Uncle Vanya: “We shall find peace. We shall hear angels. We shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.”

The words are beautifully juxtaposed against a peaceful woodland backdrop, the cool blues and greys of the moonlit shadows offset by the warmth emanating from the shepherd’s hut and the brown-and-white forms of two late-night visitors.

Like most of Sam’s paintings, the work combines her love of wildlife with an understanding of tyopgraphy honed during her years of study at Reading University.

When Sam referred to our original article in a post to her 43,000 followers on Facebook, along with her reflections about her week and current difficulties in selling original work, it prompted an outpouring of affection and support from her fans.

Reflections by Sam Cannon

Despite the satisfaction of working as a full-time artist, setbacks range from a summer slump in the market for original pieces to export problems when dealing with customers in North America.

Sam stopped shipping to North America earlier in the year because of the hit-or-miss nature of dealings with customs and the US postal system.

She wrote: “Every time an item is severely delayed or lost, it all falls back on me. I lose customers and money. I’d rather offer no service than a hit-or-miss one.”

She has had similar doubts about spending 30 to 40 hours working on a painting just to see it sit in a folder, instead deciding to concentrate on smaller tasks. “I’ve been painting wooden hearts,” she posted. “And whilst things remain so quiet for me, I’ll be continuing to focus on small things like wooden hearts, slates and pebbles in the hope that my paintings will once again start to find homes.”

Her fans have been quick to offer their support, with hundreds of likes, shares and comments responding to her original post, many of which Sam has responded to in person. Among the words of encouragement are those who appreciate her honesty in talking about such matters on her site.

“Your words are beautiful and calming . . . just like your painting,” wrote one. And, with reference to Reflections, another wrote: “It’s a beautiful painting Sam, one which will help many people reflect on the last year or so.”

Sam Cannon’s painting can be found on her website and instagram feed. As well as original works, she also sells limited edition giclée prints, greeting cards and calendars.

Picture of the week: 09/08/21

ANIMALS feature hugely in the life of Dorset artist Sam Cannon, so it’s not surprising they should become the central focus of her art.

Her daily routine starts with a trip round the field clearing up horse poo and checking on her beautiful piebald cob, now 28 and needing feeding every four hours to keep his weight on.

“I do this with my mum and generally by the time we’ve finished we’ve put the world to rights, got out our frustrations with the males in the family and fully woken up,” Sam told readers in one of the short newsletters she started producing last year.

But it’s not only horses that Sam cares about. Badgers and foxes feature prominently in her paintings, along with birds, bumblebees and mice – well, all kinds of wildlife, really.

Fox and badger by Sam Cannon

Living in the Marshwood Vale, close to Lyme Regis in Dorset, Sam is self-deprecating about her work, despite its popularity.

“I’ve always thought of myself as just being a mum who also paints in between all the other things life throws at me,” she says.

She had always loved drawing, encouraged by her grandad, but after A levels enrolled on a course at Reading University in typography and graphic communication.

“It’s an amazing course, the only university course like it in the country,” she explains. Four years on and she knew all about typographic design, the history of printing and typography, and had been on trips to Rome, Florence, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany – but drawing wasn’t a part of the course.

Having worked in a variety of office jobs, including the family business, she spent a couple of years trying to be an artist back in the 90s, specialising in horse-racing pictures, but struggled to make a living, and returned to office work.

But in 2010 when Sam and her parents moved to Dorset she decided to to give art another go. After a couple of years of painting various subjects without success, she decided to incorporate some lettering into her work.

The trees began to whisper by Sam Cannon

“And as it turns out, it’s the lettering that turned things around for me,” she recalls. “It was only when I started combining lettering with paintings that things started to change. And my pictures with words are nearly always my most popular ones.”

Not that everyone likes this style – and in her posts on Instagram and Facebook, Sam has spoken of the hurt that a chance remark or email can cause.  

“I know that some people hate that I combine them – lots have told me so and it is disheartening. But I can’t please everyone,” she says.  

Deep Peace by Sam Cannon

“I love painting and I really enjoy painting letters. Planning them out, changing shapes. I spent four years studying letterforms: I’m grateful I get to use them in this way.”

And it’s since then that things have got busier and busier for Sam.  At last she is a full-time artist, living near the sea close to Lyme Regis, painting and drawing pictures and turning them into greetings cards, prints and calendars to sell online or through shops and galleries throughout the UK.  

Her son is soon off to university and she’s looking forward to learning about how best she can continue to transform the eight acres where they live.

Colmers Hill –The owl and the badgers by Sam Cannon

“We’ve been gradually learning about this amazing place where we are located. We’ve stopped taking hay from the field and year on year, seen the orchids flourish,” she says. “The wild flowers are growing back thicker year on year (yarrow, bird’s-foot trefoil, fleabane, honeysuckle, vetch, meadowsweet etc).

“The butterflies and solitary bees are increasing in numbers. We are only cutting the hedges every three years and then sparingly (and in places where the horses eat them, not at all). We’ve introduced red mason bees and seen terrific harvests of fruit on our trees. And apples are left on the ground in abundance for the birds to feed on over winter.

Balance by Sam Cannon

“Bird numbers have really increased too. More blackbirds and thrushes. More of the birds that love the thick hedgerows and dive down into our wild flower meadow to eat the grasshoppers and beetles that are thriving there. Eight acres isn’t a lot but we’ve seen real change. And it inspires my work every day.”

Sam’s time is spent juggling various priorities: running the business, painting new work, nurturing the beautiful place where she lives, and of course, caring for Dylan. “Though not necessarily in that order,” she says.

Part of the steep learning curve has been learning when to say “no” to commissions, exhibitions or other commitments which are simply too much to handle without taking on staff or becoming a much bigger business.

“It doesn’t get any easier to say but if people are kind and understanding, they get it,” she says.

Her subject matter has developed too. “When I first started these lettering pictures it was all about the local Dorset locations. But now, more and more, it’s about nature. I love animals and I’ve tried really hard to get better at watercolour painting and learn new things all the time.”

It would come as no surprise to those who know her that spotting a young seagull entangled in netting above a Bridport shop would end in an avian rescue mission that involved long days of two-hourly feeds, bandages and pecked arms and legs.

But a few weeks later the juvenile was ready to be socialised with other rescued gulls before being released.

Says Sam: “On our way back from taking him to the very kind chap who does this work, we then found a dog lost on the roads too. The whole trip (including reuniting the elderly dog with its owner) took just over five and a half hours. This is why I struggle to get things done!”

Fox Family by Sam Cannon

Sam Cannon’s painting can be found on her website and instagram feed. As well as original works, she also sells limited edition giclée prints, greeting cards and calendars.

Magic of a midsummer night’s dream

THE magic and mystery of midsummer day is already behind us, but July was a month of scorching days and sultry evenings, packed beaches and dramatic sunsets.

Last month we featured a brief quote from Laurie Lee about the wonders of summer, but it’s a subject that really highlights the poetry of his prose – as well as recalling a lost boyhood world from an age before the Second World War and the invasion of the petrol engine.

SCENTS OF SUMMER: hay bales outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Lee’s portrait of the country lanes of sleepy Gloucestershire at the tail end of the First World War was already a history lesson by the time his famous Cider With Rosie was published in 1959, yet there is an easy familiarity to many of his images that still manages to bring the countryside vividly to life.

He wrote: “Summer was also the time of these: of sudden plenty, of slow hours and actions, of diamond haze and dust on the eyes, of the valley in post-vernal slumber; of burying birds out of seething corruption; of Mother sleeping heavily at noon; of jazzing wasps and dragonflies, haystooks and thistle-seeds, snows of white butterflies, skylarks’ eggs, bee-orchids, and frantic ants; of wolf-cub parades and boy scouts’ bugles; of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass-blue in the sun; of lying naked in the hill-cold stream; begging pennies for bottles of pop; of girls’ bare arms and unripe cherries, green apples and liquid walnuts; of fights and falls and new-scabbed knees, sobbing pursuits and flights; of picnics high up in the crumbling quarries, of butter running like oil, of sunstroke, fever and cucumber peel stuck cool to one’s burning brow.

SUNSET SONG: dusk over Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

“All this, and the feeling that it would never end, that such days had come for ever…”

Of course the whole thrust of Lee’s memoir is that change was just round the corner: a way of life which had survived for hundreds of years would be altered forever by the arrival of motor cars and electricity, the death of the local squire and the declining influence of the church.

But he manages to freeze a moment in time for us with his mesmerising descriptions, not least that of his unforgettable encounter with the bewitching Rosie of the book’s title: “She was yellow and dusty with buttercups and seemed to be purring in the gloom; her hair was as rich as a wild bee’s nest and her eyes were full of stings.”

COLOURFUL CROP: poppies outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

The “real” Rosie, Lee’s cousin Rosalind Buckland, died in 2014 just days before her 100th birthday. But for generations of readers, she will always be remembered as the intoxicating Rosie Burdock, sharing a stone jar of cider under a hay wagon in the Cotswolds all those decades ago.

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We may not live in Gloucestershire but Lee’s portrait of summer still resonates in the Chilterns, especially after a month of warmer temperatures and long golden evenings.

MAKING HAY: out on the farm PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Arable farmers are out and about haymaking and collecting silage which will be used to feed sheep and cattle during the winter months. July is the start of the combine season for cereal crops, so larger machines are an increasingly common sight in fields and on country roads.

For nature lovers, it’s the season to enjoy the antics of baby birds and squirrels, and probably the best month of the year for butterflies and moths.

BUTTERFLY SEASON: a dark green fritillary PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Butterflies that usually fill meadows and woods this month include the ringlet, marbled white, dark green fritillary and silver-washed fritillary.

Last year was hailed as the best summer for butterflies for 25 years, so there’s a lot to live up to, but a survey in 2015 found 76% of the UK’s resident and regular migrant butterflies had declined in abundance, occurrence or both over the last four decades, so there is little room for complacency.

MOTH MAGIC: the six-spot burnet PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The UK has 59 species of butterflies – 57 resident species and two regular migrants (the painted lady and clouded yellow). Moths are much more numerous, as our recent post explained – and they can be equally colourful.

It’s not only moths which are colourful, either. The distinctive striped cinnabar caterpillars turn into equally colourful pinkish-red and black moths, and they’ve been seen in abundance across the Chilterns this month as ragwort has flourished across the countryside.

TASTY TREAT: cinnabar moth caterpillars PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Detested by horse and pony owners for its poisonous attributes, the “toxic weed” has many supporters among conservationists as a native wildflower vital for pollinating insects, as our post from Stoke Common last summer explained.

But then July is the month of plenty, from beetles to baby hedgehogs, spiders to hairy caterpillars, all popping up against the glorious backdrop of a countryside in full bloom, where meadows are full of wildflowers, the woods are rustling with baby squirrels and the skies resound to the whistles of red kites.

HAIRY HORROR: a vapourer moth caterpillar PICTURE: Roy Middleton

Poppy fields are still pulsating with colour across the Chilterns, the fields of red heralding the arrival of summer across western Europe, as we highlighted last month.

STUDY IN SCARLET: a field of poppies at Pednor PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

But away from those startling reds, a short drive might replace the colour scheme with the rich blue of linseed, or flax – the stems of which yield one of the oldest fibre crops in the world, linen. The flowers would have been familiar to the ancient Egyptians, and the trade played a pivotal role in the social and economic development of Belfast, for example.

BLUE CARPET: linseed flowers outside Chesham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Or stray into north Hertfordshire and on the rolling slopes of Wilbury Hills, the family flower farm at Hitchin Lavender has become something of a local landmark over the past 20 years, providing a pick-your-own experience over 30 acres of lavender where visitors can also find sunflowers, take photographs and enjoy a family picnic.

PURPLE HAZE: lavender fields outside Hitchin PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Away from the woods and meadows, there’s the Thames and its tributaries to explore too, or a quiet stretch of canal towpath providing a welcome change of pace from the hustle and bustle of busy high streets.

GO WITH THE FLOW: the Thames at Bourne End PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Mind you, you may not need to go far to come face to face with an exotic visitor: it could be that a glance out of the window reveals a young parakeet struggling to work out how to use the bird feeders.

TABLE MANNERS: a young parakeet struggles with the feeder PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

And of course nature has the habit of springing surprises on us in the most unlikely places…even when you think you’ve managed to find a safe, quiet corner to park the car.

ROOF WITH A VIEW: a heron at Wycombe Rye lido PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Ah, glorious summer, with the whole world “unlocked and seething”, as Laurie Lee put it. Or, to quote another famous author, this time Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited: “If it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe…”

RAY OF SUNSHINE: a peaceful moment in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for August, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Picture of the week: 02/08/21

LAST week’s picture choice provoked such a reaction that it was inevitable that we’d want to find out a little more about artist Jo Grundy.

And where better to start than by featuring another of her most popular prints, A Place By The Sea.

A Place By The Sea by Jo Grundy

Her mention of last week’s article on her Facebook page prompted more than 600 likes and 60 shares, but it was the warmth and range of the responses that was most inspiring.

Our selected image, Moonlit Bay, obviously resonated with dozens of her customers, many of whom spoke of receiving it as a present or of having it on their bedroom wall.

“Wonderful evocative work. I could lose myself in it,” wrote one. “I love it. I could look at it for hours,” said another.

Poignantly, another added: “This is in my bedroom wall to urge me on to my future home by the sea.”

By Dusky Lake by Jo Grundy

Jo’s prints span all four seasons and reflect landscapes from the Chilterns to the Scottish Highlands, but what is it exactly that makes the vibrant paintings so popular?

“A lot of people remark about the sense of calm they feel when looking at my paintings,” says Jo. “I think they have developed quite a therapeutic appeal. People say that they can walk right into them and imagine themselves there, listening to the birds singing or the waves crashing against the shore.

“They also seem to provoke a sense of nostalgia too, bringing back memories of paths walked and views seen. This therapeutic value has been further enhanced during the last couple of years with all the stress around the pandemic.”

Blossom Meadow by Jo Grundy

Jo was born and brought up on a farm in West Berkshire, which she believes gave her a love of nature and the English landscape. She worked in graphics for 14 years but began creating home-made greetings cards after taking time out to have her two children.

“As this brought in only a small income, I started to work on developing my painting style,” she says.

Nowadays she uses mainly acrylics, in particular a brand of decorative paint which boasts a vivid and distinctive palette. Her Etsy shop has become her main source of income, alongside custom orders, original sales, and licensing.

So how has her family reacted to the increasing demand for her art? “As my business has grown my family are my Number One fans, especially my sister who is collecting my canvas prints with a view that if she covers her walls with them then there is no need to re-decorate,” says Jo.

Harvest Song by Jo Grundy

“My mother-in-law and her friends delight in spotting my licensed products in the shops such as my cards and calendars. Unfortunately, both my parents died some years ago now so never saw my success as an artist, but I am sure they would have been very proud.

“I think my husband has been pleasantly surprised by my success as he was quite sceptical at first.”

Lockdown had an enormously positive affect on her business – perhaps because of the therapeutic appeal of her pictures. It has also meant more time spent processing and packing orders, although she does try to paint as regularly as she can.

“I also have family commitments which must be juggled around my business,” she says. “I really love working for myself as the flexibility means I can still be there for my family. I paint at my easel in my conservatory which provides amazing light but for a few weeks in the year becomes too hot to paint in as the paint dries before I even get it on the canvas. I then decamp to my kitchen table to paint on slate panels.”

Garden Beside The Sea by Jo Grundy

Life’s ambitions? “I have never really painted au plein air and this is something I wouldn’t mind trying as I would have to work quickly and observe more,” she says.

Many of her striking originals are on sale as prints in her Etsy shop, while others have been licensed for greetings cards, prints and more recently cross-stitch kits and objects ranging from aprons to lampshades.

“I never initially thought about licensing but it is a direction that found me and it’s lovely to see my work as cards and other products,” she says.

Jo’s portfolio, including original paintings and a range of prints and other products can be found on her website.

Misunderstood moths are little marvels

MOTHS get a bit of a bad press, it seems, at least in comparison with their colourful butterfly cousins.

But that’s more based on myths and misunderstandings than any hard facts.

Drab, furry and stupid, they fly at candles, eat your clothes and lack the apparent grace, colour and beauty that we associate with butterflies. Or at least, that’s the perception.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: the six-spot burnet moth PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But what about the delicate pale yellow colouring of the swallow-tailed moth, the gaudy attire of tiger moths, the unmistakeable markings of the cinnabar moth, or the six-spot burnet moth?

Some moths do have subtle colourings, but there are plenty which are every bit as beautiful as butterflies. There are some which fly by day and, of the 2,500 moths that live in Britain, only a few species eat clothes.

Some even have secret talents – like the death’s-head hawk-moth, which can squeak like a mouse or the Mother Shipton moth, which has a witch’s face on its wing. Spooky.

SHOW OF STRENGTH: an elephant hawk-moth in flight PICTURE: Roy Battell

One man with more than a passing interest in moths is Mark Scott, whose naturalistweekly.com website was launched in April 2021.

Based in America, the site seeks to build a community focused around engaging and connecting with the natural world through prose and poetry.

Says Mark: “From paranormal podcasts to poems by Virginia Woolf, the site seeks to blend research with personal observation in order to create opportunities for the reader to connect with the natural world.”

His starting point for a series of four blog posts about moths was a celebration of National Moth Week, which began in 2012 in New Jersey and stemmed from an initiative in New Jersey that has grown into a global event that seeks “to promote the understanding and enjoyment of moths and to raise awareness about biodiversity.”

There are some 11,000 moth species in America, and they are important pollinators and provide food for many animals, birds, bats and spiders.

ON THE WING: a barred sallow moth PICTURE: Roy Battell

Mark goes on to examine The Poetry of Moths in a separate blog post, before focusing in more detail on The Death of a Moth, a 1942 essay in which the author observes a moth as it moves about her window.

As she ponders the moth’s movements, she begins to draw parallels between the moth’s life and the human experience – a little moth who is the embodiment of life, can “show us the true nature of life”, but at the same time help us also to contemplate the prospect of death.

DUSK DELIGHT: a clouded silver moth on cherry leaves PICTURE: Roy Battell

Mark’s final post takes us to the role of moths at the movies, from the sinister Silence of the Lambs to The Mothman Prophecies.

In the UK, moth species outnumber butterflies by more than 40 to 1. They are closely related and, despite those myths, some moths are every bit as large and colourful as butterflies, the most dramatic being the hawk-moths: large, slow and fabulously patterned.

Some moths fly by day, some by night, and many use mimicry to protect themselves – around the world, moths resemble everything from wood slivers and broken twigs to bird droppings.

MELLOW YELLOW: a brimstone moth in flight PICTURE: Roy Battell

Their imaginative names, coined by Victorian naturalists, conjure up images of life in the ‘big house’, from satins, ermines and brocades to footmen and wainscots. But their numbers have been in sharp decline in some areas, sparking fears about collapsing eco-systems.

Back in 2013, Patrick Barkham highlighted concerns about declining numbers in southern England, with broadcaster Chris Packham, the vice-president of Butterfly Conservation, voicing concerns about habitat loss, light pollution and agricultural practices.

For more information about moths, see Butterfly Conservation’s website.

Crowds descend on Clarkson country

The outspoken TV presenter’s foray into farming is his most courageous on-screen challenge to date – but while taking him out of his comfort zone has produced an addictive and warm-hearted series, his Cotswold neighbours are a little less happy at the invasion of visitors the show has prompted…

LOVE him or loathe him, it’s hard to ignore Jeremy Clarkson.

Tall, loud and opinionated, he tends to stand out in a crowd – and the fact he’s also instantly recognisable guarantees no one’s going to miss his presence in the room.

ON THE ROAD: Clarkson in Series 3 of The Grand Tour PICTURE: Amazon

The ubiquity of Brand Clarkson, not just on TV but in bookshops too, ensures there can’t be too many people unaware of his existence.

Yet despite projecting an on-screen persona as an oafish petrolhead with views only slightly less forthright and controversial than those of Piers Morgan, Clarkson is becoming something of a legend, and even his harshest critics are likely to harbour a grudging admiration for what he’s managed to achieve.

SENSE OF ADVENTURE: Clarkson and colleagues in Mongolia PICTURE: Amazon

I have to confess I’m not by disposition a natural fan. As a former motoring hack myself I’ve bumped into JC and his cronies at launches around the world and while they are all individually charming, I’ve always found the laddish Top Gear brand of tarmac-burning tomfoolery on screen a little hard to stomach.

But there’s never been any doubt about Clarkson’s business acumen or his ability to entertain, and in his new Grand Tour series we’ve also seen the likeable trio tackling some genuinely gruelling and terrifying tasks, from the wilds of the Mongolian desert to muddy rivers that pass for roads in parts of Mozambique – not to mention rickety bridges that give you heart failure even on the small screen, never mind in real life.

FRESH FORMAT: The Grand Tour has posed tough new challenges PICTURE: Amazon

Even with a camera crew and support team to get them out of a fix, these death-defying Boy’s Own adventures are in a totally different league from the normal fatuous banter about power output and 0-60mph times, and certainly not for the faint-hearted.

The challenges are also gloriously entertaining, so kudos to the trio for once again reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Where once upon a time motoring enthusiasts talking about cars was seen as niche and nerdy, Clarkson and Co transformed Top Gear into one of the BBC’s most powerful global brands and the most widely watched factual TV programme in the world.

SINKING FEELING: James May gets bogged down in Mozambique PICTURE: Amazon

Now they have managed to do the same thing again for Amazon Prime, with the fourth series of The Grand Tour evolving to ditch some of the talk segments and other small features in favour of films dedicated to road trips and adventure specials taking us to exotic locations that range from Cambodia and Vietnam to Madagascar.

FRESH FRONTIERS: the trio take to boats to navigate the Mekong Delta PICTURE: Amazon

So far, so ingenious, but if that series allowed our larger-than-life adventurer to demonstrate he’s not just a boorish, irascible buffoon with a wicked sense of humour and a tendency to rant, the latest Clarkson vehicle takes us into entirely uncharted territory.

Back in 2019 Jezza, at 61, started to tackle his most ambitious challenge to date – taking personal charge of the management of the 1,000-acre Cotswolds farm near Chipping Norton that he bought back in 2008, with the whole unlikely experiment being filmed as an eight-part series called Clarkson’s Farm.

NOW IT’S PERSONAL: Jeremy tackles his biggest challenge to date PICTURE: Amazon

Now we’ve had feel-good, nitty-gritty farming series before like BBC2’s This Farming Life, which introduced us to real-life farming superstars like Sutherland hill farmer Joyce Campbell, who proved so popular that even her collies get fan mail.

What could the hapless Clarkson, who knows nothing about farming, teach us that characters like Joyce couldn’t? Plenty, it seems – and this is where you have to take your hat off to the irascible, irreverent, infuriating Clarkson, even if it is through gritted teeth.

FARMING LEGEND: Joyce Campbell in BBC Scotland’s Dream Job PICTURE: BBC Scotland

Because as Stuart Heritage astutely observes in The Guardian, if this had just been Top Gear with tractors it could so easily have been either a grievously misjudged and potentially tedious rejigging of the old formula or an embarrassing, self-indulgent vanity project.

Thankfully, it is neither of those things. Instead, we are treated to a hilarious, addictive, warm-hearted gem of a series that has potentially taught more people more about farming than a dozen other agricultural programmes.

That’s partly because Clarkson himself is actively willing to learn and not afraid to be made to look a fool by people who know far more about the business than he ever will, and partly because his closest advisers turn out to be so clever and capable – not to mention completely unfazed by their employer’s fame or bluster.

Now 23, local farmworker Kaleb Cooper may not be familiar with life very far from Chipping Norton or know much about the bible, but he is master of the quotable put-down and knows just how to quash the more fatuous ideas his boss comes up with.

HOME-GROWN TALENT: Kaleb Cooper gives as good as he gets PICTURE: Amazon

It’s Kaleb, along with the down-to-earth “Cheerful” Charlie Ireland, incomprehensible local dry stone waller and head of security Gerald Cooper and Jeremy’s industrious and long-suffering girlfriend Lisa Hogan who are the real stars of the show.

And it’s Clarkson’s obvious affection and respect for this farming “family” that turns the series into such a joyful and rewarding offering, showing a much more intimate and sympathetic portrait of the TV presenter as farmer than we might ever have expected.

CHEERFUL CHARLIE: farm business adviser Charlie Ireland pulls no punches PICTURE: Amazon

The agricultural press weren’t holding their breath that venture would feature too much real farming, but one of the biggest surprises was the host’s determination to reveal genuine insights about the challenges he faces, from frustration with insect pests, financial pressures, foul weather and endless regulations to the genuine risk of death faced by the farmers, not to mention some of the traumas involved in livestock rearing.

From cultivation to harvest, misty dawn starts to exhausted night shifts, this is Clarkson as we have never seen him before, in a world where failures have real emotional and financial consequences and where one of the world’s great blusterers is completely out of his comfort zone, forced to rely on other people as he struggles to grow crops, rear sheep and demonstrate his commitment to meaningful environmental projects.

HELPING HAND: girlfriend Lisa Hogan keeps Clarkson on his toes PICTURE: Amazon

Incredibly, Clarkson’s Farm does a great job of informing us about the impossible demands that face the modern farmer, and it comes across as a genuine labour of love. Even Jezza sounded a little bemused by the outpouring of affection when the show was screened, taking to Twitter to write: “I’m genuinely amazed at the response.”

He was also pleasantly surprised by just how much he enjoyed himself – and that obvious pleasure is one of the great delights for the viewers too. “It’s the happiest I have been at work for a very long time,” he said. “It was absolutely heavenly, I loved every single second of it.”

SURPRISE SUCCESS: Jeremy outside his farm shop PICTURE: Amazon

Funny, fuzzy and full of surprises, this is addictive television – and against the backdrop of Brexit and coronavirus, the series provides a timely and unvarnished look at the challenges facing the industry amid growing concerns about food supply chains, climate change, ethical farming and sustainability.

Of course, not everyone in the nearby village of Chadlington is delighted to have Diddly Squat on their doorstep. And Jeremy’s critics are quick to pour scorn on claims that owning and running a 1,000-acre farmer really does much to offset his own not insubstantial carbon footprint.

But when Clarkson is involved, controversy is not far behind, as a recent casual tweet illustrated.

WEEKEND INVASION: queues gather outside Jeremy’s farm shop

When The Beyonder took a weekend trip to the Cotswolds, it found Diddly Squat farm shop under siege – with the car park packed, there were dozens of eager customers waiting in lines to be served, sometimes for hours.

It wasn’t meant to be a snide jibe, just a factual comment. After all, how many farm shops can count on this sort of popularity? Not only that, but so many of the visitors were young couples too, with aficionados travelling from all over the country on the off-chance of catching a glimpse of any of the stars of the show.

Never one to miss a promotional opportunity, Jezza was quick to respond, prompting a hectic flurry of “likes” from many of his 7.4m-strong Twitter army:

So far so good, and all this is fair game. But it does highlight one important aspect of the show which it’s all too easy to forget: this time it’s personal.

Hidden among the thousands of likes are a welter of comments too. And as you’d expect, being on Twitter, not all of them are complimentary.

Yes, there are those delighted at the boost he has given farming, and many customers from Essex to the Isle of Man insisted they were only too happy to spend hours queuing, with customers laughing and joking despite the wait.

BACK TO THE LAND: Jeremy on his Cotswold farm PICTURE: Amazon

But others aren’t slow to spray slurry in every direction: at us, for daring to tweet about the queues or at Jeremy for the price of his candles or the traffic “chaos” being created on surrounding roads.

The overall consensus seems positive: that a “great show” has helped to open people’s eyes to how hard farmers work, and if that has lured a new generation to the farm shop gates, that’s no bad thing.

But amid all the hectic exchanges, shares, likes and rebuttals, it occurs that this is where Clarkson’s real courage comes in.

Putting yourself “out there” on TV may bring financial rewards, but it also exposes you (and your loved ones) to constant comment and criticism, much of it cruel, intrusive and personal. Everyone thinks they know you and have the right to pass judgement on your actions, opinions, lifestyle and personality.

OPEN OUTLOOK: the Cotswold countryside near Clarkson’s Farm

Clarkson is a born entertainer who doesn’t shirk from upsetting people, and he’s not known as a paragon of political correctness or sensitivity.

But it takes courage to lay yourself open to such searing public scrutiny, especially when it means putting your home, family and friends firmly in the spotlight too.

There’s every indication that Clarkson genuinely had a blast making the first series of Clarkson’s Farm – and last month he was eager to ensure everyone knows there’s another series in the pipeline.

Let’s just hope Kaleb, Lisa and company are up to the challenge too. Where TV is concerned, there really is no hiding place from the public gaze, months and years after a programme is screened.

Series One of Clarkson’s Farm is available on Amazon Prime.

Songs can bring our landscape to life

 A “SONIC postcard” celebrating the landscape of the Chilterns has been released by a young singer-songwriter from High Wycombe.

The music video features an original song from local artist Jazz Dylan celebrating what makes the Chilterns special to her.

It forms part of the ongoing Echoed Locations project highlighted in The Beyonder last February, which has already seen students from Bucks New University using simple recording skills to bring the local countryside to life.

Now other musicians are being encouraged to follow Jazz’s example and produce some more original tracks.

Says Jazz: “I am a bit of a hippie. I’m an over-thinker and for me getting out into nature lets me just be myself. I feel very lucky to have the Chilterns on my doorstep and spend a lot of time there. I still come across things I’ve never seen before.”

She says the song is a condensed portrait of her experience of the Chilterns.

“There is so much I could say about this gorgeous place that I call home,” she adds. “One of my favourite things about the Chilterns is the amount of sky we have and getting to see all the birds flying. I don’t know what it is about red kites that I love so much, I just think they are awesome.”

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Jazz says that during lockdown, she came to fully appreciate how close she was to nature and the huge impact it can have on one’s mental wellbeing – and of course her video is not all about sunny days and soaring red kites: “Keeping with true British style, I had to include the rain,” she says. “Being drenched in rain then having a hot chocolate. That’s perfection isn’t it?”

Get On Your Boots is the first of what the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs project hopes to be many original songs that will be added to Echoed Locations, and the team is calling for more artists and musicians to fcontribute with their own songs, poems or sounds that will help people connect to the Chilterns landscape.

Chalk streams get timely cash boost

THE Chilterns’ precious chalk streams are to benefit from a £294,000 grant from the government’s Green Recovery Challenge fund.

The money will pay for an important initiative balancing practical restoration work with education and engagement projects.

The Chiltern Society and Chilterns Conservation Board are partners in the project, entitled: “Chalk stream and wetland meadows: guarding the irreplaceable for people and nature.”

RARE HABITAT: the River Chess at Latimer Park

Schemes developed by the Chilterns Chalk Streams Project focus on wetland habitats across the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The globally rare habitat supports a wide diversity of plants and animals and offers opportunities for recreation and relaxation as well as providing fresh water to local communities. Yet chalk streams are under threat from pollution, urban development, invasive species and climate change.

The grant will enable the creation of two jobs with the Chiltern Society and will indirectly benefit other NGOs and voluntary groups, including Revive the Wye, Benson Environment Group and Chiltern Rangers CIC.

Elaine King, chief executive officer of The Chilterns Conservation Board, said: “We are delighted to be awarded this funding. By connecting nature and people, we aim to secure a healthy future for chalk streams and for the people, communities and businesses of both the Chilterns AONB, and nearby urban areas.”

Tom Beeston, Chiltern Society chief executive, said: “It provides a much-needed and immediate boost in activity of works to protect our internationally rare and endangered chalk stream habitats. Longer term, it facilitates the building of volunteer capacity to continue that much-needed protection and awareness building for chalk streams and wetlands over the coming decades.”

In the first phase of the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, the government announced grants between £62,000 and £3.8 million to help create and retain thousands of green jobs. The projects, spread across England, will see trees planted and protected landscapes and damaged habitats such as moorlands, wetlands and forests restored, alongside wider conservation work. The projects will also support environmental education and connecting people with green spaces.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “The sheer breadth and potential of these projects to restore and transform our landscapes, boost nature and create employment is tremendously exciting.”

Picture of the week: 26/07/21

SOME art works are guaranteed to make you smile.

Jo Grundy’s stylised, whimsical paintings have just such an effect – as those buying her works are quick to testify.

MOONLIT BAY: a print on paper of the sea at night from an original acrylic by Jo Grundy

Jo says that being born and brought up on a farm in West Berkshire gave her a love of nature and the English landscape which she tries to capture in her vibrant, colourful paintings.

“I have always been creative and it was inevitable that I would choose a career based around art so I trained as a graphic designer which was an easier option to earn a living from, at that time, than a fine artist,” she says.

DOWN SUMMER LANE: a print from an original acrylic by Jo Grundy

Working in graphics for the next 14 years clearly influenced her use of colour and composition and after taking time out to have her two children, she initially began creating home-made greetings cards.

“As this brought in only a small income, I started to work on developing my painting style,” she says. “To begin with all my paintings were in mixed media and I used everything from paint and paper to stitching and beads to create highly textured and ornate pieces.”

WINTER AT KINGFISHER COTTAGE: a print from an acrylic original by Jo Grundy

Nowadays she uses mainly acrylics, in particular a brand of decorative paint which boasts a vivid and distinctive palette designed for use on a variety of surfaces including wood and glass as well as paper and canvas.

“My main inspiration comes from the ever-changing seasons of the English landscape, with my favourite season being winter as I love to see the structure and detail of trees and hedgerows,” she explains. “My winter scenes are very popular with many selling before they are even finished.”

SNOWY LANDSCAPE: a print on paper from an original acrylic painting by Jo Grundy

Many of her striking originals are on sale as prints in her Etsy shop, and buyers have been enthusiastic in their praise.

“Beautiful, and hanging in my home office where I can see the “countryside” every day. LOVE it!” said one. “It is truly beautiful, and brings me so much joy,” said another.

WESTBURY HORSES: a print on paper from an original acrylic painting by Jo Grundy

Says Jo: “I have been selling my work, mainly online for over seven years and have many of my images licensed for greetings cards, prints and more recently cross-stitch kits.

“I never initially thought about licensing but it is a direction that found me and it’s lovely to see my work as cards and other products.”

Jo’s portfolio, including original paintings and a range of prints and other products can be found on her website. And the picture choice proved so popular, Jo’s work was featured for a second week.

Writer picks out his Sunday best

WILDLIFE author, campaigner and blogger Mark Avery may have scaled back the frequency of his blog posts, but thankfully his weekly book reviews are still offering a helpful snapshot of the latest nature book releases.

If you’ve missed his words of wisdom over the past couple of months, he’s been reviewing books about swifts, more swifts, grouse shooting, and an exploration of ecological principles illustrated by UK natural history.

Back in previous weeks there were reviews of books dealing with everything from hummingbirds, our relationship with nature, the Lake District and rewilding to Britain’s insects, an anthology of women writing about nature and volumes about moths and butterflies.

With so many titles weighing down the nature shelves, it’s helpful to have an old friend casting an experienced eye over the latest releases, and in the meantime Mark assures us he has been making excellent progress with his next book since he stopped his daily blog posts.

“If I have written 1000 words by breakfast around 0830 then it’s a good day. If I am still writing by 1030 then it’s a really good day,” he says.

Visitors to his blog can sign up for his monthly “news blast”, which includes links to his latest Sunday book reviews.

How fossil secrets sparked a mining boom

SCRATCH beneath the surface of a pictureque Chilterns village and you’re never quite sure what secrets you might discover.

That’s certainly the experience of local travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje as she ventures into Shillington village, just north of the Barton Hills in Bedfordshire.

LOCAL LANDMARK: All Saints Church in Shillington PICTURE: Mary Tebje

The ancient village church is such a prominent landmark that it’s perhaps predictable that a visitor’s thoughts turn to the past, and how this former Saxon monastery has survived the weather, natural disasters, war, decay, plague and pollution for so long.

Perhaps more surprising is how this village, along with many others spread in a line towards the Suffolk coast, grew rich through the unexpected mining and selling of coprolite: the fossilised remains of land animals caught as sea levels rose 90 million years ago.

Why get so excited about dinosaur poo? These droppings of bear, lizard, wildebeest, fish or dinosaur contain the fossilised teeth, claws, scales and bones of all sorts of dinosaurs, marine lizards and other animals, not just filling the shelves of excited 19th-century geologists but spawning something of a mini-gold rush once the phosphate content was fully appreciated as an important fertiliser.

THIRSTY WORK: Shillington no longer boasts a dozen pubs PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Mary discovers how Shillington’s population exploded as locals cashed in on the lucrative trade, with weary workers packing the village’s dozen pubs.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Clappers command an impressive outlook

BACK in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, defence was a big issue for early settlers in the Chilterns.

And as hill fort locations go, few can boast quite such a commanding position over the local landscape as the wonderfully named Sharpenhoe Clappers, a scheduled ancient monument in Bedfordshire, part of a wildlife oasis sandwiched between the urban sprawls of Bedford, Dunstable and Luton.

BIG SKIES: the view towards London from Sharpenhoe Clappers PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje sets out to explore Sharpenhoe, and discovers an ancient chalk escarpment that nowadays is a place of big skies, wildflowers and a sense of calm, criss-crossed by waymarked trails and looking spectacular against a foreground of rape fields.

It is one of a quartet of National Trust properties lying adjacent to each other, with the Sundon, Moleskin and Markham Hills to the west and Smithcombe Hills to the east. Reputedly haunted by a Celtic tribal chief, these days the hills are frequented by ramblers and picnickers, butterflies and red kites.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Lofty view of Bedfordshire at its best

RARE plants, precious downland and spectacular views single out Barton Hills as a popular destination for walkers and wildlife enthusiasts.

And yet this national nature reserve in the northern Chilterns north of Luton is often overlooked by tourists, as Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje explains when she embarks on a ranger-led walk to find out more about the area’s heritage and habitat.

WORTH THE CLIMB: the outlook from Barton Hills PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Steep paths may make the going hard in places, but the rewards include spectacular views over the Bedfordshire hills and valleys and a chance to reflect on the dramatic climate events that shaped this landscape millions of years before early settlers arrived.

Fuelled with artisan cheese and the chance to sample a “Bedfordshire clanger” – the county’s answer to the Cornish pasty which was once baked for consumption by field workers – Mary discovers an extraordinary habitat of chalk grassland with a rich history.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

HOMEWARD BOUND: a rainbow brightens weary walkers PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Sculptures lure art lovers to the lakeside

IT’S ONE of the hottest days of the year and Bournemouth beach is buried under an ant’s nest of sunburnt tourists. The A31 is tailed back for miles and everyone is heading for the sea.

Well, almost everyone. Just a few miles away down a Dorset country lane is a perfect oasis of tranquillity, and one of the county’s most unexpected and delightful tourist attractions.

Here, at a seat overlooking a beautiful stream or shimmering lake, you can enjoy a picnic with friends in glorious countryside and enjoy an extraordinary exhibition of modern sculpture set against the most spectacular of backdrops.

True, if you fancy snapping up one of the sculptures on display for your own backyard it could set you back anything from £15,000 to a quarter of a million pounds or more – but if you’re content just to chill out by the lake and enjoy the show, this is the perfect place.

Swans, cranes, pelicans and even a stray polar bear spring out of the water, though it can sometimes be hard to spot which ones are real and which are man-made.

But then the 26 acres that provide the setting for Sculpture by the Lakes have allowed sculptor Simon Gudgeon and wife Monique to create an environment for enthusiasts that blends nature’s beauty with inspiring works of art, free from the space constraints of a traditional gallery.

Carefully landscaped and curated with the aim of enhancing the aesthetic qualities of each sculpture, the park has deep running water, which means children under 14 and dogs are not allowed on site: a disappointment for some families, no doubt, but for other couples it contributes to the overall tranquillity of the place.

Paths meander round the lakes, each turn revealing a different vista and new work of art, many by Simon and some by guest exhibitors.

Born in Yorkshire in 1958, Simon “lived deep in the countryside on the family farm, learning the essential arts of observation, evaluation and interpretation of how animals and birds behave, both with each other and man”.

He studied law at Reading University and practised as a solicitor, starting painting only in his thirties and first exhibiting at London’s Battersea Exhibition Centre in 1992. An impulse purchase of artist’s clay at the age of 40 led into his new career as a sculptor, responding to what lay closest to his heart: the natural world.

He went on to gain global recognition for his sculpture, with exhibitions around the world and his works featuring in numerous important private collections and art museums abroad and in the UK.

The park at Pallington opened in 2011 and is home to some of his monumental finished pieces, as well as housing studio workshops. He sculpts primarily in bronze, and occasionally in marble, granite, glass or stainless steel.

He is particularly known for his sculptures of birds in flight, often with ingeniously engineered bases that seem to launch them into the air rather than anchor them to the ground.

His pared-down approach allows the smallest of details, such as the arching of a neck, to suggest rather than depict a bird or mammal.

The work of a dozen or more guest sculptors adds to the variety, with materials ranging from marble and limestone to forged metal, and subjects from wildfowl and wildlife to abstracts, kinetic wind sculptures or figurative works inspired by the masks of the Venice Carnival.

The park provides an array of benches, tables and other suitable spots to relax and take in the view, with visitors being actively encouraged to bring a picnic and spend the day. As Simon says: “We like to give our guests the space and time to fully absorb and appreciate the sculpture park.”

Scattered around are a number of more exclusive private spots too, which can be hired for £50 – £100 a day and accommodate families or small groups who really want to chill out in style.

There’s even a larger double-storey timber retreat with a roof terrace offering spectacular views over the entire park and situated in its own exclusive area, with room for 60 for lunch or 100 for a drinks, wedding or anniversary reception.

Three gallery spaces exhibit sculptures, paintings and prints by a collection of talented artists, while the cafe offers coffee and cakes, not to mention picnic ingredients sourced from the nearby kitchen garden.

“These are gardens designed to be savoured,” says Simon – and a glance at some of the enthusiastic feedback online suggests there are plenty of visitors who find the tranquil setting a refreshing alternative to those hectic beaches a little further along the Dorset coast.

Day ticket prices cost £12.50 a head and the park is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm. See the website for details, upcoming exhibitions and other news.

Shy lizard enjoys life in the slow lane

IT’S not a worm, it’s not a snake – and to be fair, it’s not particularly slow, either.

So what exactly IS the amiable slow worm, the glossy wriggler cheerfully slipping across a path at Littleworth Common and quickly disappearing into the undergrowth?

It’s actually a legless lizard, it turns out, this shy, elusive burrowing reptile (Anguis fragilis) also known as a deaf adder or blindworm (because of its small eyes), which spends much of its time hiding underneath things.

It has smooth skin, is marked out as a lizard by its ability to shed its tail and blink with its eyelids, and hibernates from October to March.

Found in heathland, gardens, allotments and on woodland edges where they can find pests to eat and a sunny spot where they can bask in the sun, slow worms are much smaller than snakes and come in a range of polished silvers, golds and browns depending on age and gender.

Amazingly, they can live up to 30 years and feast on slugs, snails and insects, though in turn they are preyed on by various birds, as well as badgers, hedgehogs and, in suburban areas, domestic cats.

All six of the UK’s native reptile species – the others are the common European adder (Vipera berus), grass snake (Natrix natrix), smooth snake (Coronella austriaca), common lizard (Lacerta vivipara) and sand lizard (Lacerta agilis) – slow worms are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

They have a number of ways of escaping predators. Sometimes they freeze, while at other times they will flee. moving pretty quickly when they want to, in spite of their name. But if they can’t get away easily, defecation could be the answer: their poo smells nasty enough to deter some predators.

The mating season kicks off in May and is quite a serious business, it seems. Males become aggressive towards each other and, during courtship, the male takes hold of the female by biting her head or neck, and they intertwine their bodies.

Courtship may last for as long as 10 hours, with females incubating the eggs internally and “giving birth” to live young in late summer.

For more information, see the Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, Natural History Museum and the Guardian.

Living in a land of impossible greens

Beaconsfield artist Tim Baynes always found West Wales a place of inspiration – and now he lives there. Today he shares some initial impressions about his new life in Carmarthenshire

WE HAVE moved to Laugharne, a town on the south coast of Carmarthenshire lying on the estuary of the River Tâf. Population 1,222.

It is like standing on the edge of a new life, when somebody is saying to you: “Hey, would you like a new life?” And you say: “Yes please, that would be nice, thank you.”

I think I really know the difference between living in a place and loving a place. There is so much ahead of us, probably most of it will be strange. Yet there is so much to see, enjoy and stub one’s toe on. Every nook and cranny seem to have a story.

I am making a drawing or two most days in Laugharne. I make notes each day about what we do all day here.

Our town squats at the end of an estuary. Here the Afon Taf flows into Carmarthen Bay and eventually the Bristol Channel. On the other side of this estuary are deserted churches, small farm fields and narrow roads draped in flowers. Cow parsley, red campion, buttercups, bluebells and hawthorn compete for room to flourish. Hedges are high. In the shade, hart’s-tongue ferns glow in a green haze.

These roads are like some helter-skelter rising up to the sun and plunging down to shady bridges and crumbling cottages. Up, up again, to a field of views across a hundred fields. A line of pylons march across this land.

There is so much green, from darkest viridian to almost lemon. Gates are held together by rust and blue bailer twine. Red rust and turquoise blue the complement to green on the colour wheel.

As we make our way to Llansteffan (St Stephen – often these saints were from ruling families who invaded Wales in the Middle Ages), the land seems to pant in the high sun. We meet villages along the way. Llan-this, Llan-that. There are 630 “llans” in Wales: it means Christian settlement, often a church, conjoined with a local saint.

Llan y bri, through which we pass, has two chapels: Capel Newydd, new chapel, is home now to most of Dylan Thomas’ maternal relatives. Hen Gapel was the only medieval church in Wales to be converted to a non-conformist chapel. Now it is without a roof and God has an uninterrupted view on the congregation.

In November 2020, a series of Tim’s paintings featured in our Picture of the Week feature.

Part 1 focused on the flatlands of the Kent coast and marshes, Part 2 threw the spotlight on West Wales – “a landscape, coastline and places that really inspire” – and Part 3 homed in on church architecture across the Chilterns.

Tim Baynes’ website features a variety of galleries of his work, downloadable minibooks and work for sale. His blog, which includes more detail about his adventures in Laugharne, can be found here.

Picture of the week: 19/07/21

EVERY picture tells a story – and for art expert Patrick van der Vorst, the best paintings can speak volumes.

STAR SEEDER: graffiti art by Morfai in Kaunas, Lithuania

As a senior director at Sotheby’s in London, the Belgian-born auctioneer and dealer had become an industry expert with a huge accumulated knowledge about the world of art, antiques and collectibles.

He even featured as a winner on the TV programme Dragons’ Den when his antiques-valuing website Value My Stuff was backed by both Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis.

EARLY MARTYRS: St Peter and St Paul as depicted by Cavarozzi © Galerie G Sarti, Paris

But the entrepreneur’s life took a new twist in 2019 when he enrolled as a seminarian with the Diocese of Westminster, studying at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome to become a priest.

And it’s now a couple of years since he launched a new website linking daily Gospel readings with poignant and reflective works of art, accompanied by a short personal commentary.

“FOLLOW ME”: The Calling of Saint Matthew by Panini (1752) © Museo Poldi Pezzoli

From Old Masters to street artists like Morfai, whose work is our picture choice this week, the website features an extraordinary range of artworks spanning the centuries, allowing visitors to consider the daily reading from a new perspective.

The French impressionist painting Picking Peas by Camille Pissarro, for example, was looted by the Nazis during World War Two when France was under German occupation, and was only returned to its rightful Jewish owners in 2017.

RICH HARVEST: La Ceuillette des Pois, painted by Camille Pissarro in 1887 © Sotheby’s Paris

It sold at auction for €3.3 million in March this year, and Patrick uses it to reflect on the spiritual harvest referred to in Matthew Ch 9, when “the harvest is rich but the labourers are few”.

Likewise his choice of Star Seeder, a piece of graffiti art which went viral after it appeared on a wall in Lithuania’s second-largest city, ties in with Luke’s explanation of how, with the crowds gathering around him, Jesus recounts the parable of the sower spreading his seed on different types of land, to see much of it trampled on, eaten by birds, withered or choked. Only the seed falling into rich soil grows to produce a successful crop.

Patrick explains: “At first there was simply the bronze statue created by Bernardas Bučas (1903–1979) in Kaunas, the art deco capital of Lithuania. The sculpture embodies the interwar period where the peasant is sowing grains, working for his country.

HIDDEN MESSAGE: Morfai‘s street art only makes sense at night

“Fast forward to 2008. Street artist Morfai sprayed the wall behind the sculpture with stars. The composition works only at night, as then with the light which is shining upon the monument, a shadow of the sculpture is cast onto the wall, which then corresponds with the stars being sown by the shadow silhouette of the sower… The grains have become stars…”

During the day, the street artwork makes no sense – and likewise with parables it may be that they make little sense at first sight, Patrick suggests. “It is only at certain times, or when our own personal circumstances change, or a certain light is shining upon a certain aspect of our lives that the parables make sense,” he writes.

Ironically, the original artwork was overpainted and it was only eight years later that Morfai was invited to restore it, this time incorporated black granite stars onto the wall behind the statue.

Patrick’s website offers a daily news letter by email with the Gospel reading of the day, alongside an appropriate work of art and short reflection.

Where chalk streams tumble below the ridge

FOR thousands of years, drovers, traders and invaders have walked or ridden the prehistoric trails which stretch for hundreds of miles from the Dorset coast to the Wash.

High in the Chilterns at Bledlow Ridge, the route offers a drier and less wooded journey for travellers than the spring line settelements below – and it’s amid this ancient landscape that Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje ventures off the beaten track to explore the picturesque village of Bledlow.

TO THE MANOR BORN: a water feature at Manor House Gardens PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Lying just outside Princes Risborough on the western edge of Buckinghamshire, this is a village of wobbly brick and flint cottages where signs for the long-distance trails invite you “up and away over the hills”.

“It would be no coincidence that the communities who lived here either welcomed visitors, or had to defend themselves at the sound of soldiers boots on the chalk,” writes Mary. “Not hard to imagine as there’s something refreshingly untamed about the place.”

Here, she discovers a ‘fabulously wild’ parish church, a manor house with a secret water garden and a ravine of noisy tumbling streams.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns in which she shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region and attempts to “capture the beauty in the mundane”. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Picture of the week: 12/07/21

THE insects in today’s picture choice are so vivid and lifelike that it’s hard to believe they were painted more than 350 years ago.

But the painting on copper panel actually dates from 1657 and is the work of Jan van Kessel the Elder, a versatile Flemish artist known for his meticulous studes of insects and flowers (along with marine and river landscapes).

METICULOUS DETAIL: van Kessel’s extraordinary painting from 1657

Born in Antwerp in 1626, van Kessel belonged to a dynasty of famous painters and a couple of his works are in the National Gallery.

But despite the vivid realism of the colours in his sprig of redcurrants lying alongside an elephant hawk moth, ladybird, millipede and other insects, to modern eyes the study may feel uncomfortably lifeless.

But of course that stems from our ability to capture the natural world in all its splendour without trapping, killing and impaling them in cabinets of curiosities, as early natural history enthusiasts were prone to do.

NATURAL WONDER: the spectacular peacock butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Ironically van Kessel – a keen observer praised in his day for his precision and attention to detail – was perhaps more radical in his artistic approach than we might initially appreciate as 21st-century observers of his work.

“Cabinets of wonder”, as they were also known, were early forerunners of museums – private collections of notable objects which emerged during the 16th century and helped to establish the socioeconomic status of their curators.

Filled with all kinds of disparate objects, from preserved animals, horns, tusks and skeletons to minerals, sculptures or clockwork automata, such collections often helped to promote scientific advancement when their contents were publicised and discussed, and the desire to collect and categorise the natural world inspired artists to achieve the same in painted form.

POLLEN COUNT: an industrious bee PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

By the Victorian era, the pursuit of collecting was held in high esteem and formal parlours functioned as private museums with which to impress and amaze guests, the age of scientific exploration and discovery fuelling the popularity of taxidermy as an all-consuming obsession.

But for van Kessel way back in the 17th century, a collection of studies of flowers and insects engraved and published in 1592 in Frankfurt was to influence his work, and his studies differ from the dispassionate approach of predecessors who arranged flora and fauna in rows, as if they were specimens in a collector’s cabinet.

UNDER COVER: a ladybird potentially unaware of its prey PICTURE: Nick Bell

Van Kessel created a more dynamic arrangement of insects, where his message of nature as a mirror of God’s power would not have been lost on contemporary audiences.

As art expert and seminarian Patrick van der Vorst wrote in a recent reflection on the work: “The juxtaposition of Van Kessel’s animated painted insects with the redcurrants and two moths delights the viewer. There is a certain cheerfulness that emanates from these paintings.”

WILD ENCOUNTERS: nature comes alive in words and pictures @DrawnIntoNature

Perhaps that means van Kessel’s painting from 1657 has more in common with the vibrant portraits in modern nature journals than the grim drawers favoured by Victorian collectors, who kept their insects and butterflies so neatly and systematically arranged and ordered.

Picture of the week: 05/07/21

ARTISTS and makers across Buckinghamshire throw open their doors in June to showcase their work.

But even when the event is over, online galleries give visitors the chance to explore the work of dozens of creative souls from all over the Chilterns throughout the year.

MINDFUL MOMENTS: Sharon Bailey draws inspiration from the Chilterns landscape

The Bucks Arts Weeks project – which follows similar events across Oxfordshire in May – allows the public a unique opportunity to hear artists, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and jewellery makers talk about their work and see them in action.

The open studios scheme has been running in Buckinghamshire since 1985 and all the events are free to the public – including exhibitions, pop-up displays and dozens of working studios.

From calligraphy to ceramics and sculpture to digital art, the skills on display include printmaking, jewellery, drawing and painting, metalwork and photography.

For wildlife and nature lovers, highlights include many works inspired by or reflecting the natural world, including animal portraits and sculptures, and paintings rooted in the local Chilterns landscape.

Many of the local artists, from Anna Dillon and Jane Duff to Sue Graham and Christine Bass, have featured in The Beyonder’s Picture of the Week series and can be accessed through out Local Landscapes page.

ANIMAL MAGIC: Highland Moo visits Pitstone Windmill by Katie Nathan

Geographically the open studios and exhibitions stretch from Milton Keynes and Buckingham in the north to Aylesbury, Chesham, High Wycombe, Chorleywood, Henley and Maidenhead, on the southern edge of the county.

Some towns like Princes Risborough, Amersham and Chesham organise their own trail maps during the live event and exhibitors are grouped geographically to make it possible to visit a number at a time.

And while many artists draw inspiration from the Chilterns countryside, subject matter ranges from portraits to seascapes and abstract works.

LIGHT AND DARK: oils provide a favourite medium for Joe Little

During the fortnight of displays and demonstrations, visitors can buy or commission work – or even try their hand at some of the skills or sign up for classes. Prices range from postcards and small gifts costing a few pounds to major pieces of original artwork or sculpture costing hundreds.

Any artist or maker interested in taking part next year should contact the organisers on admin@bucksartweeks.org.uk.

Picture of the week: 28/06/21

ARTISTS and makers across Buckinghamshire throw open their doors in June to showcase their work.

But even when the event is over, online galleries give visitors the chance to explore the work of dozens of creative souls from all over the Chilterns throughout the year.

MINDFUL MOMENTS: Sharon Bailey draws inspiration from the Chilterns landscape

The Bucks Arts Weeks project – which follows similar events across Oxfordshire in May – allows the public a unique opportunity to hear artists, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and jewellery makers talk about their work and see them in action.

The open studios scheme has been running in Buckinghamshire since 1985 and all the events are free to the public – including exhibitions, pop-up displays and dozens of working studios.

From calligraphy to ceramics and sculpture to digital art, the skills on display include printmaking, jewellery, drawing and painting, metalwork and photography.

For wildlife and nature lovers, highlights include many works inspired by or reflecting the natural world, including animal portraits and sculptures, and paintings rooted in the local Chilterns landscape.

Many of the local artists, from Anna Dillon and Jane Duff to Sue Graham and Christine Bass, have featured in The Beyonder’s Picture of the Week series and can be accessed through out Local Landscapes page.

ANIMAL MAGIC: Highland Moo visits Pitstone Windmill by Katie Nathan

Geographically the open studios and exhibitions stretch from Milton Keynes and Buckingham in the north to Aylesbury, Chesham, High Wycombe, Chorleywood, Henley and Maidenhead, on the southern edge of the county.

Some towns like Princes Risborough, Amersham and Chesham organise their own trail maps during the live event and exhibitors are grouped geographically to make it possible to visit a number at a time.

And while many artists draw inspiration from the Chilterns countryside, subject matter ranges from portraits to seascapes and abstract works.

LIGHT AND DARK: oils provide a favourite medium for Joe Little

During the fortnight of displays and demonstrations, visitors can buy or commission work – or even try their hand at some of the skills or sign up for classes. Prices range from postcards and small gifts costing a few pounds to major pieces of original artwork or sculpture costing hundreds.

Any artist or maker interested in taking part next year should contact the organisers on admin@bucksartweeks.org.uk.

Picture of the week: 21/06/21

ARTISTS and makers across Buckinghamshire throw open their doors in June to showcase their work.

But even when the event is over, online galleries give visitors the chance to explore the work of dozens of creative souls from all over the Chilterns throughout the year.

MINDFUL MOMENTS: Sharon Bailey draws inspiration from the Chilterns landscape

The Bucks Arts Weeks project – which follows similar events across Oxfordshire in May – allows the public a unique opportunity to hear artists, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and jewellery makers talk about their work and see them in action.

The open studios scheme has been running in Buckinghamshire since 1985 and all the events are free to the public – including exhibitions, pop-up displays and dozens of working studios.

From calligraphy to ceramics and sculpture to digital art, the skills on display include printmaking, jewellery, drawing and painting, metalwork and photography.

For wildlife and nature lovers, highlights include many works inspired by or reflecting the natural world, including animal portraits and sculptures, and paintings rooted in the local Chilterns landscape.

Many of the local artists, from Anna Dillon and Jane Duff to Sue Graham and Christine Bass, have featured in The Beyonder’s Picture of the Week series and can be accessed through out Local Landscapes page.

ANIMAL MAGIC: Highland Moo visits Pitstone Windmill by Katie Nathan

Geographically the open studios and exhibitions stretch from Milton Keynes and Buckingham in the north to Aylesbury, Chesham, High Wycombe, Chorleywood, Henley and Maidenhead, on the southern edge of the county.

Some towns like Princes Risborough, Amersham and Chesham organise their own trail maps during the live event and exhibitors are grouped geographically to make it possible to visit a number at a time.

And while many artists draw inspiration from the Chilterns countryside, subject matter ranges from portraits to seascapes and abstract works.

LIGHT AND DARK: oils provide a favourite medium for Joe Little

During the fortnight of displays and demonstrations, visitors can buy or commission work – or even try their hand at some of the skills or sign up for classes. Prices range from postcards and small gifts costing a few pounds to major pieces of original artwork or sculpture costing hundreds.

Any artist or maker interested in taking part next year should contact the organisers on admin@bucksartweeks.org.uk.

Nature rolls out the red carpet for summer

POPPIES. If there’s one iconic image of what the Chilterns landscape should look like in June, it’s that vibrant splash of colour we see when the corn poppies come into bloom.

STUDY IN SCARLET: a deer hides among the poppies PICTURE: Carlene O’Rourke

Of course, those scarlet fields herald the coming of summer across western Europe and have long been associated with the terrible sacrifices made by the millions who fought in past wars.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: a poppy among linseed flowers PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

The poppies – papaver rhoeas – spring up naturally in conditions where soil has been disturbed, and just as the destruction brought by the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century transformed bare land into fields of blood-red poppies growing around the bodies of the fallen soldiers, the fields of Northern France and Flanders were ripped open again in late 1914.