The great thing about living in the country is that there is plenty of space to grow fruit and vegetables - sometimes too much space in fact and managing the garden and fighting the weeds is quite a battle that I often lose! However, this year has been fantastic so far for fruit as there were no frosts and the early cool weather gave the fruit extra time to establish and grow. We currently have enough cherries to feed a small village, even with the pigeons taking their share!
Staying here you are welcome to pick what happens to be in season. So currently we have plenty of gooseberries, red currants, white currants, red and blush cherries, rhubarb, salad, rocket, spinach, red onions and garlic to share with guests. There is nothing better than picking produce on a warm summer's day like today and then cooking or eating it straight away.
We have had a great crop of asparagus and strawberries and now the rest of the soft fruit is becoming ready. Broad beans are looking good, though the pheasants took all my peas. The salads are beginning to go to seed and I need to sow some more for early autumn. I am hoping this year to get to grips with cabbages and Brussels sprouts - though they often seem to elude me - I grow the seed, but planting out at the right time or preserving them from all those other creatures that would like to eat them seems beyond me!
It is a great time of year for walking in the woods and there are many ancient woodlands around here to choose from. Just across the field are Butlers Wood and Waldegrave Wood, both dating back to medieval times and associated with Butlers Hall - Thomas de Butler lived here in 1361 and Richard Waldegrave in the 1400's.
Although with some the footpaths tend to go round them rather than through them, there are a number that you can explore. Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserves include Arger Fen and Spouses Vale near Assington, Groton Woods at Groton and Bradfield Woods at Bradfield St George. All are worth a visit and each has its own character. Other woods that are close by include Clay Hill Woodland at Great Henny, Loshes Woodland at Loshes Meadow, both an easy walk, and Assington Thicks at Assington and Marks Hall Estate a little futher away.
Last week I went on a 'Walk and Draw' with the Colchester Ramblers to Hillhouse Wood, West Bergholt, which is maintained by the Woodland Trust who have a wood finder website Visitwoods. They also have Fordham Hall Estate Wood and Primrose Wood near Boxford. The Ramblers welcome people joining them on their walks and their programmes are easily found on their website. Locally there are three Ramblers groups - Sudbury, Colchester and the Stour Walking Group, the latter for people in their 20's-30's.
Hillhouse Wood is interesting with undulating woodland and a rich variety of flora and fauna. The wood was carpeted with bluebells and swathes of wild garlic or rampons with their lush garlicky smell. There were also a few beautifully deep magenta spotted orchids which were quite a treat to see. I was also amazed at the trees flowering - both oak and hornbeam with masses of blossom as the leaves were just starting to form
With the weather finally warming up, it is time to look ahead to the delights of summer and something that makes a great family day out around here is a visit to an agricultural country show. We are lucky that there are several very good shows that happen over the course of the summer and the dates for 2013 are:
12 May South Suffolk Show http://www.southsuffolkshow.co.uk/
18 May Hadleigh Show http://www.hadleighshow.co.uk
29 & 30 May Suffolk Show http://suffolkshow.co.uk/
26 & 27 June Royal Norfolk Show http://royalnorfolkshow.co.uk/
13 July Tendring Hundred Show http://www.tendringshow.co.uk/
Each show has its own character, but all offer a great mix of livestock schedules, with prizes for cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, goats etc. There are also a lot of equestrian events including show jumping and a good range of other events in the ring. Smaller shows within shows usually include rabbits, guinea pigs etc. There are also exhibits concerning conservation, wildlife, bees, gardening, the flower, fruit and vegetable marquees, not to mention a huge range of trade stands and perhaps most importantly the food hall, celebrating British food and farming and particularly locally grown food. Many also have stands focusing on a range of sports, with several activites to try out on the day, suitable for a variety of ages.
My favourite place at shows is in the the livestock area, particularly the sheep and goat tents. In fact that is where we first saw the ewes and rams that went on to breed our little flock of Suffolk sheep, one pictured above, and our Angora goats. The Suffolk Show particularly celebrates the 'Suffolk trinity' - made up of Red Poll cattle, Suffolk sheep and Suffolk Punch heavy horses. At the South Suffolk Show they have an amazing procession of the prize-winning animals, which is a fantastic spectacle to see.
Traditionally October 21st is National Apple Day and there are quite a few events in East Anglia to celebrate this, which is great (Common Ground http://www.england-in-particular.info/cg/appleday/index.html). Locally people have got together to press their apple juice too. This year has not been a great year for Orchards as the cold and wet weather in the Spring meant poor pollination and therefore poor crops. Here our cherries, plums and damsons suffered. We had a few pears but our apple crop has generally been good although a couple of trees including our Cox's Orange Pippin didn't fruit.
At one time the whole area around here was farmed as apple orchards and the stores on the farm were used as cold stores for apples. I have an aerial photo from the early 1970's showing the orchards before they were grubbed up. When we arrived in 1993 there was only one apple tree left! However I went to the record office and found a plan of the garden on an Ordnance Survey map from the 1870's and also details of the orchards in a sale document of 1951 - both of these helped me when restoring the garden and planting the orchard in 1998.
The new orchard has 36 trees and each one is different - it might seem strange - but this is how orchards used to be planted to give a succession of fruit rather than having one variety all crop at once as with modern methods. I had great fun researching old fruit varieties and finding ones that had an Essex/Suffolk connection - so of course we have a Sturmer Pippin and a D'Arcy Spice! I went on an Orchard Planting day at Brogdale in Kent, home to the national fruit collection http://www.brogdalecollections.co.uk/index.html and I also went on a pruning day run by the Norfolk Smallholders Training Group http://www.nstg.org.uk/ - both very useful. I sourced apples locally from Ken Leech who was an apple grower in our village (Bulmer) as well as from Brogdale who grafted some specially and Deacon's Nursery on the Isle of Wight. All were planted as whips and trained. Trees were selected for their flavour and also for the coloour of their blossom, also taking in account pollinators. The orchard now is quite mature and the trees are doing well - to the east is a row of cherries, to the south plums and gages, to the west pears and in the middle apples. There are also two crab apples which act as pollinators.
We make apple juice and often freeze it so that we can drink it throughout the year, using a little Vigo masher and press which works well. There are always plenty of apples for visitors, friends and family too!
The weather is lovely at the moment - warm summery days and cooler nights - it often happens like this when the children go back to school! It is a busy time of year in the garden gathering in the crops and getting ready for the winter. Overall, I have to say that the garden beat me this year - with all the rain earlier on I didn't manage to keep control of it the way I would have liked and the weeds won! Oh well now there is another year to get ready for - I like that sense in the vegetable garden of starting afresh each autumn.
My best crop, as usual was onions - we had both a good crop of early red onions and a main crop of white onions - Marshalls Fen Globe, which always seem very reliable and swell to a good size. The main crop of red onions though has not got going at all - not sure why? I had a great crop of garlic - especially the variety Christo which Jennifer Birch supplies - magnificent bulbs and a really good size - several beautiful plaits to last through the winter!
Now what's left is mainly courgettes (growing like triffids), pumpkins, sweetcorn and a few autumn salads that I've just planted. Not much in the way of brassicas, other than a few late Savoy cabbages which are being transplanted - I never seem to get geared up for cabbages and brussels sprouts - spring always seems to be the wrong time of year to be thinking about them! In the Orchard we have quite a lot of apples and some pears, though this year our cherry and plum crop was poor, down to the horrible weather when the blossom needed pollinating I think. In the fruit garden the autumn fruiting raspberries and blackberries are doing well, but I need to prune my currant and gooseberry bushes and sort it out a bit!
The greenhouse is very productive at the moment - tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in abundance which is lovely - lots of ratatouille! I did make the mistake of letting the cucumbers share a large open grow sack with some spinach and they have hardly fruited at all - so must give them their own space again next year.
So now autumn digging and the exciting part of choosing all the seed varieties for next year. Soon time to put the garlic and broad beans in again!
All has been activity in the fields around here this last week with the harvesting. Suddenly the landscape is transformed. I love to see the fields full of wheat, barley and beans but I also really like seeing stubble fields - they remind me of long summer days riding across them when I was younger! The views open up again and expanses seem accessible. When it comes to ploughing though there is a tinge of sadness with autumn coming.
There are still many birds to see - flocks of skylarks and our resident green woodpecker as well as swallows and buzzards.
Nearby in Sudbury there are the water meadows, some of the most ancient continuously grazed land in England. They are managed by the Sudbury Common Lands Charity and have a network of footpaths across them, making them a great place for walking, although they are also a farmed area. They lie in the floodplain, with the River Stour running through the middle, so at certain points of the year they are covered with water. In the summer cattle graze there - they have a ceremonial letting on of the cattle in May and then they are taken off the meadows usually in late October.
As well as the cattle, the water meadows are a great place for wild life - kingfishers, little egrets, barn owls, buzzards, swans, moorhens and an array of dragon flies and damsel flies and other insects. The landscape has wetland plants, marsh orchids, rushes and sedges.
The Mill Hotel in Sudbury is a lovely place to stop off for a coffee or a drink and sit and admire the views.
Further afield, but still not far Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge also have lovely water meadows and of course in Cambridge the backs are there too and there is no better way to see them than by punt - you can hire your own or go on a punt tour, where someone does the hard work for you!
Last Sunday we went across to Mersea Island, not an unusual thing as the children sail there most weeks in the summer, but on this occasion it was to go to an Open Day at the Packing Shed - one of Mersea's best known landmarks. It was built in the 1890's on Packing Marsh Island by the Tollesbury & Mersea Oyster Fishery Company and although oysters are no longer packed there, it has been restored and is now run by a trust for a variety of outdoor activities. It is a fascinating place to go to - you catch a launch from the causeway and for £3 can have a cream tea and enjoy the spectacular views. Whilst we were there storm clouds gathered making it look rather dramatic at high tide, when the foreshore disappears. It is next open on Sunday 19 August www.packing-shed.org.uk
Mersea is famous for its oysters and seafood - there are several local fish restaurants, but perhaps most famous is the Company Shed where a delicious range of sea food is served - oysters, salmon, crab, prawns, cockles etc. It is best to get there early and get your name put on the board as they don't take bookings, it is on a first come first served basis www.the-company-shed.co.uk
The highlights of the sailing year at Mersea are Cadet Week, at the end of July where the youngsters take to the water and Mersea Week, which this year is from 19-25 August where an amazing number of boats take part in the racing each day, including dinghies, cruisers, classic yachts and gaffers, smacks and Mersea Fishermen's Open Boats. There is also a Round the Island Race where the smaller boats sail round the island and are carried across the Strood - the bridge that connects Mersea to the mainland, but which floods when there is a very high tide. www.merseaweek.org The final Saturday of Mersea Week is the Town Regatta - as well as sailing, there is also rowing, punting, sculling, swimming and walking the greasy pole, with a prizegiving and grand firework display in the evening. www.mersearegatta.org.uk
The jetty or hammerhead is a great place for crabbing and on the quieter side of East Mersea there are lovely beaches and interesting walks as well as the Mersea Vinyard to visit.
I went to Flatford at the weekend to see an exhibition by artist Simon Carter at the Boathouse Gallery, run by the National Trust near to their tea room. It is a lovely exhibition with drawings and paintings of Willy Lott's Cottage and is on until August Bank Holiday. It was good to see Simon's paintings on two walls of the gallery with the opposite wall of windows completely open to the landscape.
This landscape, in the heart of Dedham Vale was also the source of many of Constable's paintings - 'the Hay Wain' and 'Boatbuilding near Flatford Mill' among them, and is now an 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty'. Constable wrote in a letter to Rev John Fisher I should paint my own places best: painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate "my careless boyhood" with all that lies on the banks of the Stour: theose scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful. As well as his finished paintings, his sketches are also interesting and I particularly like his cloud studies. The largest collection of Constable paintings outside London is to be found at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich - well worth a visit!
It was a beautifully sunny afternoon in Flatford and I enjoyed a walk on the water meadows by the River Stour and also round to Willy Lott's cottage, passing several painters sat in the fields painting - perhaps on a course at the Flatford Mill Field Centre? The landscape is quintessentially English, having a sense of timeless beauty, with its undulating fields, mill pond and moving river as well as big East Anglian skies. Nearby there is East Bergholt, where Constable was born and also Dedham, both interesting villages to visit. You can hire rowing boats on the River Stour both at Flatford and Dedham and enjoy a few hours exploring the landscape by water. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/flatford-bridge-cottage
Finally we have had our sheep sheared today - this year's cold weather has delayed it from the traditional time at the end of May, to be fitted in around the Suffolk Show, until nearly the end of June. They look beautiful and sleek without their wool and it really shows off the structure of the Suffolk breed.
Tim our shearer also shears several other flocks in the area; he and his son Ben show their own sheep very successfully and are also called to judge shows too. Later this week they will be taking their sheep to the Royal Norfolk Show. This morning it was lovely to watch them being sheared, Tim talks to the sheep whilst he works, keeping them calm and making the whole procedure look so effortless! We know, however, how big our pedigree Suffolk girls are though and also that there is a real knack to turning them.
Our flock comes from the 'Kersey Flock' of R Partridge & Sons which I believe dates back to 1927 and is the 4th oldest pedigree Suffolk flock in the country. The breed evolved from mating Norfolk Horn ewes with Southdown Rams and were first recorded in 1797. Chris Partridge manages the Kersey flock, which is currently one of the largest flocks in East Anglia and his rams, ewes and lambs regularly win prizes at the shows.
The Suffolk breed are a particularly good meat breed. This year we have not had lambs, but when we do have them they are very engaging, amazingly black when they are born, gradually changing to white bodied sheep with black face and legs. We enjoy maintaining our small flock of this local special breed!
For the last few weeks I have been enjoying the pleasure of seeing my Cedric Morris irises come into bloom. They are so beautiful - the colour, patterns, textures and fabric of the flowers are amazing - almost like exotic insects. They have been slowly unfurling and standing in stately grace despite the recent bashing of the rain and wind.
Sir Cedric Morris, artist plantsman, propagated his own irises at Benton End in Hadleigh, where he ran an Art School from 1940 and lived there until 1982. According to local writer Ronald Blythe , he had Iris Parties there in June, when hundreds of irises were in bloom inside box hedges and other famous gardeners including Vita Sackville-West would come. ('Benton End Remembered' G Reynolds & D Grace). After his death his irises became scattered, but in 2004 Sarah Cook retired to Suffolk and started collecting his irises together and now has the Royal Horticultural Society National Collection of Sir Cedric Morris Irises in Shelley. She opens her garden each year at the end of May/June and you can see this splendid collection in a beautiful setting www.malmaisonsandiris.co.uk. Her plants can also be found at the plant heritage fairs at Helmingham Hall in May and September www.suffolkplantheritage.com
Last year I bought about 10 irises from Sarah and planted them in September - I was thinking that they would look best on a west facing border by the bottom wall of the garden - but that area is not under control enough at present. So I planted them somewhere where I could keep my eye on them - right outside the kitchen window at the front of one of the raised beds in the vegetable garden. They have been such a treat to watch each day!
Suffolk is well known for its Irises and as well as Sarah Cook's garden it is also worth taking a trip up to Woottens of Wenhaston, near Southwold www.woottensplants.com. They open their iris fields each year usually at the end of May/June and they are an amazing site - full of colour and spectacular blooms. They specialise in both bearded irises and iris sibirica.