More beating the bounds…

bottles, vintage, ink, dip pen, sketchbook, hannah foley, illustratorI have been out beating the bounds again…and getting thoroughly lost! One evening I headed out hoping to pick up a lane that would bring me out down river from our house, so as to complete a southerly loop of the parish boundary. Looking at the OS map it seemed fairly simple so I didn’t bother checking street names and of course took the wrong one.

The choice was between Tan Lane and Water Lane. In hindsight the correct choice was fairly obvious. I know which one all of you would have chosen, making the quite understandable assumption that Water Lane might lead to some water and the nearest bit of water might be the river. Oh no, none of your logical thinking for me! I chose Tan Lane and ended up in an industrial estate; a really big industrial estate where all the names are a variation on a theme and all the units look the same. I discovered all sorts of niche products are manufactured just streets away from our house, and some so niche I had to google them when I got back!

It was some consolation to spot many of the plants I’d learnt about on the city wall wildflower walk, making their home in cracks and crevices all over the place. There was one particularly comic prickly lettuce who seemed to wave enthusiastically at me as I passed it for the second time. At last I made my way out of the labyrinth and found myself on the western bank of the canal. My aim was to join the brook that upstream forms the western boundary of the parish. After it leaves the parish it flows through the industrial estate, coming out alongside the canal and wiggling its way through reeds and marshy land until it reaches the estuary.

After some to-ing and fro-ing along the canal towpath I at last found the footpath I was looking for, veiled by overgrown vegetation. A laminated planning proposal flapped against an old fence post. The footpath is due to be scrubbed out in only a few months time to make way for a new train station to service the industrial estate. Scrambling through thigh-high nettles the path was clearly not in use any longer so I could see the sense but it did make me wonder what errands had caused the path to be formed in the first place.

Leaping the railway track and crossing a bridge the path brought me out on the far side of the brook and I headed upstream. I know this section of the brook quite well from childhood. I remember seeing it from our car window whenever Dad would take us into the industrial estate on the hunt for car parts. I can see it in my mind’s eye, trickling miserably down an enormous concrete flood basin. Opinions on flood risk management seemed to have changed since then because the brook is barely recognisable. The rough shape of the concrete basin is still evident but it is now bursting with grasses, reeds and wildflowers. In the dusky evening it was the most enticing array of olive and mossy greens, bronzes and golds.

Now, technically I wasn’t following the parish boundary anymore, in fact I wasn’t in my own parish at all. But who’s going to let a technicality get in the way of a good walk?! So I struck out to the southwest, leaving the brook and following a deep lane with a cobbled channel down one side in which ran a mossy spring. This lane is called Clapperbrook Lane and I’d been wanting to walk along it for ages. Clapperbrook Lane is super old, probably Iron Age. Bounded on either side by ancient walls and the windowless ends of old thatched cottages. It is narrow, dark, green and very very beautiful. If fairies live anywhere it’s in Clapperbrook Lane. As its name suggests it once led down to a clapper bridge and in aerial photos from the 1940s it is surrounded by farmland. This parish used to be a rural village on the outskirts of the city and its centre still feels very village-like. There’s the old church, the village hall, the school and lots of cottages jumbled around the central crossroads. But the coming of the industrial estate in the 50s and then the tacking on of various housing estates has changed it considerably.

Making my way through the village, admiring the many beautiful front gardens and trying to ignore a looming black raincloud, I crossed a busy road and met the brook again. This time I was back on home turf, in the valley on the far side of Roly-poly hill. Quickening my pace along the field edge I experienced that funny summer storm light you sometimes get. Do you know the kind of thing I mean? Where it is all dark and black directly above you but in the distance the golden sun is setting. Its long rays reach into the dark and catch the edges of the fat raindrops that are just starting to fall, making them glint and wink.

I left the footpath when it met a lane. The lane crosses the brook at a ford, with a little metal bridge for pedestrians. The brook swings out wide after the ford forming a tranquil pool with a shingly beach. The water reflected back the dark canopy of trees that shroud the spot. I could hear the rain hitting the canopy but beneath there was only the gentle drip, drip of the odd raindrop trickling down between the branches and plopping into the pool. In the growing twilight I turned for home, heading up Roly-poly hill and down past the allotments.

As you can see from the picture, I am currently drawing vintage bottles!

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Sailing and sowing

Enterprise, dinghy, sailing, water, sea, blue, boatThe summer holidays are drawing to a close. School re-starts on Tuesday. The fantastic weather over the bank holiday was a great way to end and was worth all the previous weeks of dreariness. We finally launched a little sailing boat Big Dreamer has been working away on renovating. In all the flurry of a new baby and moving house this is a story I haven’t mentioned here.

We were given the boat by a lovely lady whose husband had been a keen sailor. They had been married for 45 years and he was only in his early 70s when he died. I think that’s terribly sad. I can’t imagine losing Big Dreamer and we’re not even close to clocking up that many years together. Anyway, her husband’s sailing boat lay in her garden slowly deteriorating and she decided that she would like to give it away to a family with young children, and so it came to us. The boat has needed a lot of work to sand down, patch and re-paint but at last she hit the waves on Sunday. Big Dreamer was mostly concerned she would spring a leak, and I wouldn’t say she was entirely water tight, but it was a great start. We hauled her back up on to the trailer with a list of things to sort out before our next outing, but if the weather is kind we may well get some wind in her sails before the end of the year. I’ll keep you posted.yellow, door, front door, original, Victorian

In other news Big Dreamer has painted our front door yellow and it looks magnificent. This paint-job has been a long-term ambition of Little Owl who insisted the door should be yellow, only for us to discover that underneath all the layers of paint, the door had originally been yellow. She’s got a sixth sense that one. What do you think? Does it get the Owling About blog seal of approval?

Over the summer we’ve have also become the grateful recipients of a patch of allotment. I’ve been desperate for an allotment. As long-term readers of this blog will know, I’ve had a varied career with vegetable growing and I’m missing it. There’s not much space in our little garden for veggies, other than in pots and hanging baskets. A whole plot seemed a bit overwhelming. It might have been manageable if we’d received one in pristine condition but I think that’s pretty rare, and the thought of trying to clear endemic bindweed and couch grass before even starting was very off-putting. Even then, I think it would have been a struggle while the kids are so little. This kind offer is the perfect solution. My good friend has had a half-plot for many years but is starting a full-time job and wondered if I wanted to take on a bit of hers. Here’s my patch. The black-plastic went on this week to kill off the weeds and we’ve sourced some manure from the local riding stables to collect and mulch down over winter to put on in the spring. Another thing to keep you posted on!

allotment, weeds, patch, growing things, vegetables, green fingers

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August flowers

I don’t know about where you are but around us it’s been a dreary old August, not much warmth but plenty of dark grey clouds and rain. Everything is looking very battered and I don’t think my tomatoes are ever going to ripen. Green tomato chutney anyone?

Here is a page from the August section of Margaret Erskine Wilson’s book, Wildflowers of Britain Month by Month, showing Rosebay Willowherb. The wildflowers are struggling in all this dampness. Down by the river there is the odd spear of purple loosestrife, rosebay, and knapweed amongst the grasses and hogweed seedheads. Everything is brown and bedraggled.

My rudbeckia purpurea has done well however and one morning we spotted this crazy spider sitting pretty in one of the flowers (turn away now if you’re not a spider fan!). It’s a white crab spider, and this one must be a female because she is BIG and has two pink lines down either side. Crab spiders don’t weave webs but ambush their prey by leaping out and grabbing them with their strong front legs (hence the name). They then stun their prey with a paralysing agent before wolfing them down. Normally they like to camouflage themselves by sitting on a flower of a similar colour to really take their prey by surprise. It’s even thought that they can change colour to match their surroundings. Not this one though, she’s one tough cookie, brazenly sitting on a big pink flower in all her pearly glory. What a beauty.

white, crab, spider


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We are back from a lovely week in Wales. Here is a view from a sea cave we explored one day. The last day was showery (it being Wales and all) and we dived into a well-known department store for a coffee. Big Dreamer was most put out when Wren walked up to a male mannequin with her arms up for a carry, and called out “Dada!” Oh dear!

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Boundary walls

yellow, gold, orange, blue, purple, turquoise, cells, education, illustration, illustrator, Hannah Foley, children, kids, family, science, biologyDuring her beating the bounds project, one of the things Dove Grey Reader (blogger extraordinaire) talks about, is trying to be more observant of the flora and fauna through the seasons as she walks the mile circuit she has marked out for herself around her house. I love watching the roll of the seasons, and the cycling changes in the lives of the flowers and insects around me, and I’m always looking for ways to help me be better at noticing these things. It’s part of the reason I’ve been working my way through Margaret Erksine Wilson’s watercolours over the months of this year. So when I spotted a wildflower walk being put on by Devon Wildlife Trust and led by the botanist, Jeremy Ison, I put my name down sharpish.

This wasn’t just any wildflower walk, it was in particular a walk around the old city walls of Exeter, looking at the wildflowers that inhabit the cracks and crevices. Although Exeter city walls don’t have the renown or majesty of somewhere like York or Chester, they are actually the most complete of any city in the UK so there’s lots to see, and there are lots of plants that have adapted to the particular conditions of walls. I can now tell my Maidenhair spleenwort from my Black spleenwort. Contrary to what you would expect, the maidenhair variety has a thin black line down the central vein and the black version doesn’t. Who names these things?! I can also identify two other spleenworts that love walls, Wall rue and Hart’s tongue. Harts tongue, as with many of the other wall plants, will grow to much bigger sizes in other habitats, but tends to stay small on walls where nutrient levels are low and plants are more exposed.

I can also pick out a pretty daisy called Mexican fleabane, the snapdragon-like Purple and Common Toadflax, and the garden favourite, Red Valerian. I love the name of Pellitory-of-the-wall and learnt that it’s a favourite food source for the Red Admiral butterfly. Another fantastic name is that of the fern Polypody. It’s such a friendly sort of name, and now I know it, I keep seeing it everywhere, and gladly greet it like any other neighbour in the street.

One of the things I found most fascinating about the walk is learning how the history of the city is reflected in the plant life on the walls. A particular sort of grass present in the walls near the quay (of course, I’ve forgotten its name!) would have been brought over from Europe in grain sacks which supplied the water mills. Oxford ragwort is a really funny one. Prior to the industrial revolution it was only found in Oxford. It was introduced there in 1690 via the Oxford Botanic Garden, from where it quickly escaped, and was soon growing in most walls around the city. The industrial revolution brought the railways and Oxford Ragwort found that it was just a bit partial to the railway clinker beds. It then spread throughout the country via the railway.

The pretty ivy-leaved toadflax will only grow on walls over 100 years old, hence is found on some segments of the city walls but not others. It’s all over our boundary wall in our garden. Big Dreamer is forever pulling it out as he’s only just finished re-pointing the whole thing. While it may one day prove the wall’s downfall the toadflax is also a testament to just how long the wall has been there. Not quite as long as the city walls I’ll give you that, but still looking pretty fine.

We are off on our hols next week so no post from me. I’ll see you when I get back!

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Vancouver on Treepedia

As a postscript to my last post, I was recently reading about the cities of the world with the most trees. There’s a very cool-looking website put together by MIT called Treepedia where they are charting the green canopy of the cities of the world. It doesn’t look at parks, but focuses on vegetation in streets. Look how green Vancouver is! It led me to read more about the city, where they have set a goal of ensuring that every person lives within a 5 minute walk of a park, greenway, or other green space by 2020. I LOVE it.

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Beating the Bounds – again!

animal cell, orange, yellow, red, nucleus, golgi apparatus, rough endoplasmic reticulum, smooth endoplasmic reticulum, lysosomes, ribosomes, illustration, illustrator, Hannah Foley, natural history, biology, kids, children, education, scienceI have been back walking my loops of the parish boundary (read why here and here). The other evening I rejoined the boundary at the medieval stone cross on the old road to Plymouth. The surface of the road has sunk down well below the level of the surrounding land, probably worn down by decades of cart wheels and feet. The pavement levitates a good few feet above the road itself, and runs along half way up an old Devon bank full of wild flowers and grasses. I can imagine the sense in it being raised up out of the mud and muck of the old road to aid pedestrians in a slightly drier passage. At the top of the hill I turned right and followed the ridge along a lane. This area was once home to two big quarries that provided most of the red bricks used for the local houses and buildings. Over to the left, fields straddle the ridge and then drop away into a deep wooded combe with a stream at the bottom. On the right is a housing estate with marvelous panoramic views of the whole city, and on a clear day, all the way to the sea.

I take a right along the top of the housing estate to join the old holloway that runs down in a diagonal through the estate, eventually petering out behind some bungalows. I have a vague sense of unease about the way that holloway has been treated by the town planners. Anyone who has had a deep association with a holloway and has read Robert MacFarlane, Stanley Donwood, and Dan Richards’ book Holloway will know that these ancient routes have a personality and atmosphere all of their own. It reminds me of the river spirit that comes to the bathhouse in the Japanese animated film Spirited Away. Eventually they manage to clear all the rubbish and pollution (including an old bicycle) out of it and it flies away into the sky in a spray of sparkles. I wonder if this holloway has its own sort of genius loci, and will one day rise up with the buried rivers of London, wanting to know why it has been treated with so little respect.

I go up the holloway rather than down it to the houses. It is deep and verdant, smelling of green and of growth and of rich dark earth. It borders a small Local Nature Reserve where Devon Wildlife Trust graze cattle. Rare yellow ants can be found here, along with common lizards and 23 different species of butterflies. At the top it joins a lane but this obviously must have been the route of the old holloway too because, although wider, it isn’t that much wider, and is hemmed in by those characteristic earthen walls. I find myself increasing my pace to a trot here. If a car came, there was literally nowhere for me to go. Thank goodness for my bright pink jacket! Lo and behold a car did come racing through, going so fast that the driver must have been a frequent user of the lane and not at all used to there being a walker on it. He screeched to slow down and I had to turn in my toes to let him pass.

Recently I read someone commenting about how we don’t walk anymore. It was a child psychologist I think, saying how we don’t walk as families anymore. The comment sprang to my mind as I finally broke into a run towards the end of the lane. And I get it. There’s a nervousness about walking in rural areas. Although the path might be clearly marked as a right of way in books and on maps, my self-confidence in my right to be there easily crumples. I think England is deeply embued with a strong sense of private land ownership. It whispers to me that I’m not allowed here and I can’t do that. And even if I am allowed here I don’t know how to behave properly in the countryside. Even though I’m not at all, the charge of “townie” looms. Suddenly I’m grouped with all those people who fly-tip and leave beer bottles in field gates, and let their dog harass sheep. The image of a rifle-toting landowner shouting “get off my land” is quintessentially English.

A little while ago, I listened to an episode from the Radio 4 archive of In Our Time about the poet John Clare. Poor John Clare ended his days in an asylum and it was fascinating to hear the experts discussing some of the possible causes for the deterioration of his mental health. The main bulk of the Enclosure Act was enforced in John Clare’s lifetime and they talked of the impact of this dislocation from the land he loved so dearly. We need our green spaces, and to be frank, parks just don’t cut it. We need green as far as the eye can see just as we need sea to the horizon, and stars filling the sky. It gives us perspective on our tiny lives. So I conjured up my old Grandpa Evans in my mind’s eye, complete with gaiters, waistcoat and enormous walking stick, stuck two fingers up to the word “townie” and strode on. I took another little lane heading down hill and followed a footpath over some fields. At last I emerged back on to another housing estate, and followed the sweep of surburbia down to the river, where a path took me all the way home.

The illustration above is from a project I recently completed for Centre of the Cell about cells. Can you tell your rough Endoplasmic Reticulum from your smooth?!!

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We found this poor chap in our garden yesterday! He must have been brought down by the storm. He’s a Jersey Tiger moth which is a rare day-flying moth. Sadly it’s just a bit rarer now. Little Owl carefully placed him in her bug finder pot and has taken him into school.

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After the Storm

water starwort, watercress, white-clawed crayfish, stream water crowfoot, lesser water parsnip, fine-lined pea mussel, chalk stream, UK, natural history, wildlife, illustration, biology, illustrator, Hannah Foley, education, non-fiction, kids, children, families, fish, salmon, Brown trout, damselfly, water vole, brook lamprey, Yesterday an enormous storm rolled in and blew the power at Radio Devon. The kids and I watched in awe from the window as rain pounded the garden. Counting the seconds between lightening strike and thunder clap, the storm stalked towards us, bounded the roof tops with an almighty roar, then rumbled away towards the horizon. My Madonna lilies looked like they’d suddenly developed a life-long smoking habit, the white petals splattered with yellow pollen. But my hollyhocks bore the worst of it. They were dashed to the ground. Little Owl held the broken stalks carefully in her arms and gave me her heartfelt condolences. Needless to say we reached for Percy the Park Keeper for our bedtime story and read, After the Storm.

The school term is drawing to a close and we are busy with summer fetes, sports days, meeting new teachers, reports, end-of-term celebrations and the final push to achieve various sporting and Brownie-related achievement badges. The teachers look weary and frayed. Little Owl’s temper is short. Finch moodily rearranges his stick collection in the giant planter in the side return. Even Wren is not immune. She finally started walking this week but only after the Health Visitor looked her firmly in the eye and told her there’d be a paediatrician referral with her name on it if she didn’t get on with it. Time for a holiday I think.

This was a sample spread I did for a piece about chalk streams. You can find out more about what is being done to help our chalk streams here.

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Mad hattiness

frog, toad, salamander, garden, flower pots, Europe, amphibians, natural history, Hannah Foley, illustrator, illustration, natural history, children, kids, education, biology, wildlife, natureWren and Finch are big fans of carbohydrates. They would live entirely on bread, potatoes and pasta if they could. Finch’s potato passion reached new heights with this season’s jersey royals so he was utterly disgusted when we made a potato salad with some last week. “Why are the potatoes dirty?” he asked prodding the mayonnaise dressing with disgust. Needless to say all ‘dirt’ had to be wiped off the potatoes before he would touch them. What a relief to find potato perfection was still there under all that awful creamy stuff!

We also lost Wren’s hat last week. Flying across the park, late for school pick-up as usual, we only discovered its loss once we got to school, so we all kept our eyes peeled on the return leg. It was Little Owl who spotted it. In the middle of one of the big grassy patches danced a very drunk man with Wren’s flowery sun hat balanced on his head. Arms outstretched, hands gracefully curved he bobbed a slow waltz in the sunshine, the velcro straps gently tapping his ears.

“Ummmm excuse me,” I began nervously and hoped he wouldn’t turn nasty. “I think you might have my baby’s hat.” He turned sharply on his heel, pulling Wren’s hat off his head, clutching it to his bare chest.

“Yes, yes, I do!” he exclaimed joyfully. “I was looking after it! I saw it on a rock and thought no one will ever see it there but if I dance around here a bit with it, whoever lost it will definitely see it.” With a flourish he returned the hat to Wren. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he’d bowed low to the ground and added, “Your servant my lady.” We gave the hat a good wash when we got home but it’s nice to know you can count on the local characters to take care of your lost property.

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