A Many-Coloured Xmas
24th December 2011 - 0 comments

Looking from our house, towards upper Nidderdale

Fifteen Rough Fells are exploring our back fields, their new home. They are still nervous, retreating from the good grass and uphill, into cover, when I walk up to them. The sheep shift through gorse and brambles, clear to see, despite the darkness of seven in the morning. This time last year, snow and their white coats would have made them invisible. As I stand in the mild gloom, watching the sheep, chaffinches and tits fly past me for their breakfasts. Expecting the weather to turn, I keep the feeders full. The birds all round the farm are the chief beneficiaries of this unseasonal weather.

Rainbows and valleys always go hand in hand, especially in summer, when sunshine and showers appear frequently together. The more permanent, unchanging skies of winter are traditionally poor for rainbows. This December, however, we've been noticing rainbows almost daily. Like the green shoots of tulips that have already started to rise up around the house, the rainbow season has come months early.

It's over the woods and reservoirs of upper Nidderdale that the multi-coloured arcs are most in bloom. I don't know why this area is so fertile for them. Perhaps all the water is an excellent compost. Perhaps because we walk there in the afternoons; a good time of day for rainbows.

There is something unsettling about this unseasonal weather. The dale feels uneasily new. I find myself missing leaden skies and, like the sheep, the cover of snow.
Xmas Lights at the Coldstones Cut
13th December 2011 - 0 comments

Coldstones Cut on a wild winter night

Blindly chain-sawing a path through gorse this morning, I accidentally connected with a young hawthorn. The branch I’d hit, as thick as my arm, was a mess. There was nothing for it but amputation. I love hawthorns; these tough little border guards of fairy land. I love their red berries in winter, when everything else is bare. But only cut a hawthorn in May, when it’s white with blossom, the stories say. Any other month and you’re in big trouble with the fairies.

The day turned into a wild evening, battering the hell out of our farmhouse. Even the dog wasn’t keen on her bed-time pee. On the other side of the dale, the lights of the Coldstones Cut were weirdly blue in the wind. Opened a year ago, the Cut is Nidderdale’s number one tourist grabber; a vast phallus-shaped installation of stone and aggregates next to Coldstones Quarry. High up on the shady side of the dale, there are few bleaker, or more beautiful visitor attractions in England. This week, it was strung with hundreds of metres of Xmas lights.

For no sensible reason, and without the feeble dog (who had bolted inside), I decided to drive across the dale to photograph the lights. All the way up Greenhow Hill, trees swayed by the roadside. I parked in a ditch, as close as possible to the long moorland track that led up to the Cut. As I got out into the howling blackness, I spotted a hawthorn close by, barely shifting. The track was icy. I slithered all over the place in the wind, but kept going towards the Cut. Its lights were white now. Trying to keep the camera still, I lay face down like a sniper.

I’d like to say I made it all the way up the track to the Cut. Half way, the ice and the wind and my imagination got the better of me. I’d hacked at a hawthorn today and was due some bad luck.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
12th December 2011 - 0 comments
The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by W.B Yeats (1888)

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
Bio-dynamic Beekeeping
25th November 2011 - 0 comments
The more I read about beekeeping, I find myself instinctively uneasy about certain mainstream practices. Clipping the wings of queens, killing old queens, removing all honey over winter and feeding bees on sugar syrup and so on appear to entirely favour the beekeeper and not the bees. It's very early days in my beekeeping life (and my experience is entirely theoretical, not practical), but to my mind as a beekeper you are given charge of thousands of lives, who you are essentially exploiting and the least you can do is create an environment that is as natural as possible for them. By adopting a bio-dynamic approach you'll have to work harder, get less honey (30% less, is what I've read) and probably your honey won't taste any different to a non-biodynamic approach, but I think you'd feel a better person and also create healthier bee colonies. Currently, given declining bee numbers, this is important.
With these thoughts in mind, while I'm going to do the mainstream beekeeping courses, I will also extensively study bio-dynamic beekeeping and aim to go on a short course in the new year.
In the UK, I have found a few organisations who provide courses.
The Biodynamic Association, The Natural Beekeeping Trust, The Natural Beekeeping Alliance and Friends of the Bees.
Aside from these organisations, what I would love to find is a local beekeeper who takes the biodynamic approach, who I can learn from. It's always a weird and wonderful feeling to imagine, if I follow a certain path, the people and places it'll take me to.
Bee-Friendly Plants
22nd November 2011 - 0 comments
Neglect and a lack of chemical spraying have made our back fields teem with wildlife. However, the brambles and gorse are taking over and need reining in. Three acres of gorse and brambles to be fought by hand is going to be rough.
During the time of the great bramble battle, the ambitiously-titled 'blissful beekeeper' will be a sweaty, foul beast, best left well alone.
Once this winter task is done, I'll be able to turn my attention to fully cataloguing all the wild flowers on our land. I'm keen to identify which flowers are going to be popular with bees and other insects and to sow some more and plant bee-friendly trees.
With this in mind, I am researching plants that are native to the Yorkshire Dales that are popular with pollinators. Strangely, it's a harder task than you might imagine. Lists exist, some fuller than others, but they generally don't go into detail on the specific plants. For instance, I know knapweed is a good nectar supply for bees, but how good? Better than willowherb for instance? Worse?
My plan is to put together a list of UK wildflowers, that combines details of both their herbal/medicinal qualities and their nutritional value for pollinators, in particular bees. The other obvious consideration is what honey from some of these plants would taste like. But for now that is a secondary concern.
For now, here are some links to sites with information about plants for pollinators:
- The Royal Horticultural Society's Perfect Plants for Pollinators is a very extensive, seasonal list.
- The Women's Institute launched a super 'SOS for Honeybees' campaign and has plenty of information on their site, including links and an excellent list of bee-friendly plants in the download section.
- The Devon Beekeepers' Association have some good info here
- Buzzaboutbees Wildflower and Natives for Bees and Pollinators
- The British Beekeepers' Association has an extensive list, although it is for garden plants and trees, not wildflowers.
- The Melissa Garden, has a very good link.
- A short list, albeit with good detail, from the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Associations
Winter Greens, with Sesame, Soy and Orange Blossom Honey
21st November 2011 - 0 comments
Here's a recipe Megan adapted from the Sarah Raven Garden Cookbook. As a slightly grumpy vegetarian of six months, Kale is a bright spot in my life and any recipe involving it is a joy. This one is especially good. We're having it for lunch.

2 Cloves Garlic
Golf ball sized piece of ginger
1/2 medium hot chilli
Teaspoon juniper berries (NB you will find these in the spice section of the supermarket)
Good glug of sesame oil
One Savoy Cabbage, or large helping of Kale
Dark soy sauce
Orange blossom honey (or other runny wildflower honey)
Toasted sesame seeds

- Finely slice the garlic, chilli and ginger.
- Crush the juniper berries.
- In a pan heat the sesame oil, then add the garlic, chilli and ginger and sweat for a couple of minutes allowing their flavours to infuse the oil.
- (If you don't like too much heat, you can remove the slices of chilli from the pan at this point, but I like to leave them in).
- Add the roughly torn Savoy Cabbage, or Kale, swirl around until the leaves turn a dark glossy green.
- When the leaves have half wilted, but still retain some crunch, add in a good glug of soy sauce, and a table spoon of orange blossom honey, and give it a good stir, so the leaves are evenly coated.
- Finally throw in a handful of toasted sesame seeds and serve hot from the pan.