Ancient Woodlands and the Mallard Summer Gathering (Day 100) July 6th
By Steph Bradley 11th July 2010
I start my hundredth day in grand and fitting style in a sauna followed by a hot tub, relaxing my muscles and preparing for the long descent back homewards, ever moving south now, through the industrial belt of southern Lancashire and the Midlands to eventually reach the softer rolling lands of my beloved SW.
John Lamb of South Ribble Transition Towns has bussed up to Samlesbury where I have stayed in one of those new hotels on the edge of cities that are totally incongruous on the landscape and yet offer a quiet comfortable anonymity which in our modern lifestyle are an almost necessary oasis away from the stark reality of what we have created.
John is a veritable mine of information and I get my very own wild flower walk as we start our walk to Leyland down a quiet back road. There is to be birds’ trefoil (also known as eggs and bacon for its flowers start out red like raw meat and turn the yellow of yolks), foxgloves, common orchid, hedge garlic (which I am delighted to discover as it is ready when ransomes or wild garlic has finished), aniseed scented and flavoured sweet cicely, and betony to accompany us. We have both spotted how rich in berries and fruit the hedgerows are and appreciate what a good harvest it is going to be; the haws are developing in profusion and John shows me blackthorn with its gift of sloes, and we see the blackberries are busily forming beneath the blossom.
John has told me our walk takes me through Alum Scar woodlands and I am thrilled to discover that this is ancient woodland and though we will only be able to see a little of it from a bridle way through its narrowest strip, the rest being owned by some wealthy landowner and kept private, this is still a rare treat.
It is so unbelievably beautiful it almost hurts to be there. We are both filled with a sense of awe and deep reverence. John tells me this is land untouched since the Ice Age, never been cut down and replanted by humankind. The difference is palpable, none of that eerie sense of unease I feel around plantations of trees, this woodland is living, vibrant and magical. Anyone who wished they could have gone to live on the planet depicted in the film “Avatar” will understand why. I lament that we have to show large numbers of people this magic on a film screen because the patches of our native land that remain untouched are owned by a few and off bounds to the majority. Again I question how it is that we have deemed it possible to own land, to own living breathing trees with a life of their own, with ancestors who have stood on the same spot for thousands of years. How can we imagine that it is our right to own other living things? What happened in our story as a race to make us feel that ownership is acceptable behaviour?
The ancient woodland at Alum Scar keeps us a while, I am very reluctant to walk on, it feels gorgeous; it is one of the most wonderful feelings I have felt on the walk. I have a sense that if our land were like this I would no longer feel so uncomfortable and out of place so often.
The walk continues; we meet a party of senior citizens out on a walk and stopped for their sandwiches by a patch of betony. John stops to tell them about it and helps them to identify other wild plants growing on the grassy bank where they are sitting.
Next we come to a river and a weir. It is a lovely walk made even more special by witnessing the spectacle of the annual Mallard Summer Gathering. Well over 200 ducks are present, teenagers are daring one another to get as close as they can to the weir, must be their initiation rite says John. Adults are preening their feathers as they bask on the dry rocks in the river whilst others paddle companionably in pools. There seem to be few males and I am curious to know where they go after the mating season; I find out later that the brightly coloured blueish green head feathers so distinctive on male mallards are not visible at this time of the year but have moulted off.
As we continue on down the river beyond the weir we see more and more ducks, swimming up in droves, meeting other groups. I have never seen so many ducks in one place; it is a magnificent sight; a veritable community celebrating the end of the young raising season and perhaps the marking of the independence of the new young adults.
It is a beautiful walk only marred by two disagreeable encounters with dogs, and I feel saddened by the lack of awareness of community that many dog owners display; from the greyhound that leapt over a gate not once but three times to get to us, not to bite but to round us up it is true, but to the delight of the female owner who thought it funny that her dog did this and never once thought to call it back, to the vicious snarling boxer terrier that would have eaten us alive could he have got out of the rather badly kept metal fence behind which he was kept, right beside the public footpath.
John tells me of South Ribble Transition Town’s greatest project to date; a Green directory that has full support of the local council, who plan to help to get it published and distributed across the district. The directory maps how much is already happening in the area from recycling projects to local food schemes to shops that repair things and local crafts people such as those that work with carpentry, and local businesses who use local produce. The publication will continue to be updated in its online version to which a link will be provided in each booklet. See the draft copy attached.
The group, who have been mullers (http://www.transitionnetwork.org/initiatives )since January, soon realised that much of the work they saw as needed was already being undertaken by various groups when they started to look around so they see their role as mapping all that is going on and bringing it together and sharing and disseminating the information far and wide.
John talks about the book he has a chapter in; ‘Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape’ edited by Linda Sever and published by The History Press (ISBN 978-0-7524-5587-7). He writes about Lancashire archaeology and places of prehistoric interest; there are more than 200 ancient sites in this part of the county, as well as exploring place names and their meanings; tracing the roots of the different settlements through their Celtic, Viking, and Anglo Saxon prefixes and suffixes. His interest in his home county spans geology too as well as his own area, botany, and he traces the lie of the land and the numerous waterfalls to be found here as well as mapping the ancient and native trees. I discover that the Whitebeam is the native English tree, and that there are variants for each region so that there is a whitebeam adapted specifically to the Lancashire environment. I love John’s eclectic approach to looking at his home region, his lively interest in all its aspects and his deep respect for its roots. The work he does is worthy of being replicated in other regions.
I learn this mass of information as we traverse ancient green lanes sunken from constant usage. I hear about druid rituals, and the origins of our language before the Anglo Saxons came, which can still be seen in the Manx spoken in the Isle of Man which was once a part of the Lancashire mainland, and the accent of the people of Liverpool.
We arrive in Clayton suburb of Leyland and the house of fellow steering group members Emma and Mark, where I meet Ian and Dot, and we all participate in a Jacobs Join shared meal that just goes on and on.
We have salad from Emma’s garden, and raspberries and strawberries too, butter beans in sauce, fresh garden peas and broad beans with goats cheese, home made bread tolls, goats cheese, hummous and new potatoes, and sweet corn and raw courgette salad. We wash it down with elderflower cordial, and follow it by sticky toffee pudding, rhubarb crumble and vegan ice cream. When we have finished this veritable feast Christine Kirk, steering group member and my host for the night, turns up with her offering and we start again, munching homemade fresh broad bean hummus with crisps, crisp fresh sugar snap peas from her garden, and sweet dessert gooseberries. We wash it down with our second bottle of elderflower cordial, this time some that Christine has made.
To finish we attempt to drink the elderberry wine Dot has brought from her friend’s store. Unfortunately the tempting ruby coloured liquid has oxidised and tastes of pure alcohol and as a result of John’s observations of the cork that was not tightly fitting enough the group realise he has a useful skill to share and he ends up promising to do a wine making skill share workshop soon.
We go outside for a tour of Emma’s prolific vegetable and fruit garden and admire the potatoes growing in old tyre piles and I enjoy the fact that Emma cannot tell us anything about the varieties of produce she is growing, telling us she knows nothing really about gardening, surrounded as we are by her healthy burgeoning plants laden with produce. This is my type of gardening; plenty of passion and a healthy respect for letting plants do their thing.
Back inside Ian tells us about the plans for hydro electric at the mill near his home and the group get excited about this microgeneration project happening in their region and I am struck by this new theme of water power that has begun to emerge from the transition initiatives that I have visited in the north west, and start to get curious to know of this idea is springing up elsewhere in the country too. South Ribble were interested in wind power originally but there were the usual protests about the aesthetics of the turbines and the application to place several along the side of the motorway was turned down, though the council did give permission for a couple of bigger ones in a car park.
The evening ends with a playing of the Quest and an exchange of gifts. I am presented with a hand turned laburnam wood pendant in a recycled woollen purse, and I leave for South Ribble Transition Town one of Transition Lancaster’s precious newspapers and the idea to create their own.
I feel honoured and delighted by my meeting with this enthusiastic group of Mullers and wish them great success in their transitioning endeavours.