Herb Walk and Lecture by Fiona Taylor at Hadsham Farm, Oxfordshire

I’m the first to arrive at Hadsham Farm, and Fi appears through an archway, beneath an exuberant pink-and-white rambling rose.

‘Hello!’ she says, and I grin. I’ve been looking forward to tonight: Hadsham’s a beautiful place and Fi’s always interesting – I’ve never once been bored listening to her.

The other guests start to arrive the moment I’ve parked my bicycle, and we all start with a glass of ice-cold wine. I only know two of the other guests, but the rest are lovely; everyone’s smiling. I start to feel the stresses of an ordinary chase-around Thursday slide off my shoulders.

There’s a big jug of home-made elderflower cordial on the table, and it smells gorgeous. An old-fashioned pump spills water down to a little trough, and we can hear the farm’s sheep in the distance. The evening sun is slanting through the willow, and we all agree that that the evening couldn’t be more perfect.

Fi’s spent forever building up her gardens, and broadly speaking, they’re in five main sections arranged in a big backwards ‘C’ around the house. Directly in front of the house is the terrace, where we’re standing, and it falls away past a weeping willow to a lawn, bracketed by another big bed at the bottom. The lawn is protected from the valley beyond (the one I can see from the very top of Bramshill) by Leylandii, and there are odd gaps so we can see the splendid views. The third section is a sweep by the drive and the fourth is my favourite: the kitchen garden. The fifth is a lovely square outside the boot room door, and the place for hanging laundry and snatching quick handfuls of herbs for the cooking pot.

The sweep beside the drive - Fi explaining Achillia, also known as 'Soldiers' Woundwort'.
The sweep beside the drive – Fi explaining Achillia, also known as ‘Soldiers’ Woundwort’.

The tour is about to start, and we meander obediently after Fi, carrying our drinks, pointing things out to one another. Roses clamber everywhere, like inquisitive children, and I notice them in each of the gardens. I admire a massive trough beneath the kitchen window, planted with trailing red geraniums.

We begin the tour at the sweep by the drive. Practically every plant is either medicinal or useful in some way, and we learn about cat mint (which looks like a cross between culinary mint and a nettle) and rue. There’s Rhodiola growing in the gravel beneath the shade of a tree, and Fi explains how it can be used by athletes to enhance mental and physical performance by increasing the oxygen in the blood. It also goes by the name Aaron’s Rod, which sounds rather dubious.

We continue to the bottom of the lawn. ‘Anyone for Angelica seeds?’ asks Fi, and her eyes widen in surprise as we all shout yes. I love angelica; it looks like a souped-up cow parsley, or a less-thuggish hogweed. We look at horse-heal, burburis, digitalis. No medical herbalist is allowed to use fox gloves any more, its active ingredient is too variable in strength and impossible to measure without a lab. We move onto the serious big boys: Rheum, gelsenium. Fi mixes the latter with lobelia, so if anyone accidentally overdoses, they’ll be sick.

About digitalis - the valley you see from the top of Bramshill is through the trees behind
About digitalis – the valley you see from the top of Bramshill is through the trees behind

We start to move up back towards the house, Fi pauses to point out Vitex, a purple-flowered shrub talked about by Pliny-The-Elder in the days of the Roman Empire. Its alternative name is ‘chaste-berry’, and it’s used for lowering libido. I have an image of Aaron’s exhausted wife, crumbling the leaves into his supper.

Two of Fi’s dogs are at the conservatory window, scrabbling madly for attention and clambering all over the back of the sofa. ‘Off!’ shouts Fi, to no effect.

Molly and Pip, gorgeous little terriers (Pip is Dora's mother). Tryiong to lick my reflection
Molly and Pip, gorgeous little terriers (Pip is Dora’s mother). Molly’s trying to lick my reflection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She shakes her head and leads us all through to my favourite bit, the kitchen garden. Here, everything is as perfectly McGregorish and neat and productive as you could wish it might be. Potatoes stand in perfect lines along their long ridges; sweetpeas gaggle up a twenty foot wide net; feverfew and borage flower  in esoteric pattern alongside marching cabbages and neatly-staked tomatoes.

A fork left for digging potatoes for supper - the amount of work that's created this garden is evident whichever way you look.
A fork left for digging potatoes for supper – the amount of work that’s created this garden is evident whichever way you look.

To the left, there’s a huge bank of raspberry canes, and there are two cages of strawberries. My daughters think of this garden as something akin to heaven. We listen to a bit on thyme, and its modern use in fighting super-bugs. No thyme leaf is exactly the same, so a bug can never change to become resistant to it. Fi is a great believer in the use of a plant as a whole, rather than extracting just one aspect of it. Happily, modern medicine is beginning to share similar thoughts.

I admire the calendula blooming around my legs. Marigolds; bright orange and yellow, like sunshine caught on stalks.

We move up the garden past the wall of sweetpeas to a tower of mallow.

The pharmacy in a flower-bed.
The pharmacy in a flower-bed.

‘A pharmacy in a flower bed,’ says Fi,pointing to the valerian. She tells us about wood bettany –  good for those who’ve been ‘away with the fairies’. Fi has an strong interest in plants to treat dementia, and her sons bought her a Ginkgo tree for a birthday. It grows just outside the kitchen garden and is distinctive with its frilly-cape leaves. Ginkgo’s are known as ‘living fossils’; they date back 270 million years, and, fascinatingly, drop all of their leaves all at once.

Next up is the boot room garden, and by now, I’m in a state of complete zen. The sun has dropped from the horizon, and I’m surrounded by beautiful, benevolent plants that smell  like holiday memories, childhood memories – everything happy I can think of.

I wander slowly at the back of the group, letting words and scents and gentle calm roll over me.

Fi ben
Fi beside her Gingko Tree

I stand dreamily by a tall, gnarled rosemary and imagine how wonderful it must be to grow a garden full of food and medicine.

The last point on the walk is Fi’s dispensary and consulting room. We try tinctures and diffusions, sigh over how lovely everything has been. ‘Perfect, completely perfect.’

I thank Fi and drift out to find my bicycle, clutching bottles of elderflower and lemon balm cordial.  I take one more look at yet more roses, high against the wall of the house.

Rose petals, hips, bark, all good for the heart, the soul. Rather like Fi herself.

 

Links

http://www.fionataylor.org.uk/

http://www.hadshamfarm.co.uk/

On Walking: Thursday 10th July

I’m in the Spring Field, and it’s hot. So hot, I can feel the ground baking around my bare legs, see the shimmer in the air as I look downhill.

The earth is faded red-brown, crumbled, strewn with sprayed-off thistles dying an ugly, splayed death. The cries of the sheep in the next field are incessant, much louder than usual. It’s forecast storms soon, but standing here I can’t imagine rain.

I force my feet onwards, squinting despite my sun glasses. Each time one of my black trainers lands, the ground gives off hopeless little puffs of dust. All around are stunted, twisted weeds, clinging stubbornly to life despite repeated doses of Round Up. I can smell meadowsweet, honey-like on the warm wind. I step carefully: I don’t know what’s between the deep, deep cracks.

We reach the stile but I don’t stop. The dogs are subdued, too hot to even run, and they follow me silently.

‘Go in the stream,’  I tell them. ‘Run on.’ But they stay with me, as if I might need them. The bottom stretch of the field is in shade from the alders, and I walk more slowly, listening to the stream. We stop halfway across, and I look back up the field. My sunglasses have tinted the earth red, and for a second it looks as if it’s on fire, like the Warwickshire stubble-fields I used to know. I remember this sort of day from being a teenager, walking dogs when and where I’ve been told I mustn’t.

It’s the sort of heat that knocks days out of time, that creates mirages. The wind is the sort to provoke restless feet, to tease and push a person to brilliance or madness. Or to passion; the dangerous kind, that gets you in trouble.

We start to slog back up hill, and I notice that beneath the weeds are yellow and black banded caterpillars, lots of them, like an infestation.

Caterpillar for the Cinnebar Moth - taken before I realised there was an army. Munching... I think they’re Cinnabar Moths, but I suddenly don’t want to hang around. I imagine them crawling across my toes, up my ankle, and I’m gone. Freaked out. By-passed brilliance or passion, and gone straight to madness.

 

On Walking: Tuesday 8th July

I’ve got twenty six minutes before the school bus, and we’re marching down the Banbury Road at a cracking pace. I’m soon distracted though, by the large green keys on a sycamore. Some of the lowest have a pink blush, as if they’ve been dipped in a strawberry daiquiri.Sycamore key

Down near the bridge, I pull the dogs to a stop again to stare at a lacy saucer of  ground elder. On a three inch radius, there are no less than seven pairs of bonking Cardinal Beetles. Between some couples there is less than a quarter of an inch, and I can’t help wondering about etiquette – what if a bonking beetle bumps another bonking beetle and there’s bonkus interruptus?  What if one beetle fancies another beetle’s beetle, or if a lone handsome beetle flies in, would the other beetles chat it up, or would there be a brawl on the saucer?

These thoughts occupy me all the way down to the bottom fields, and I walk out from beneath the oak to a field of ripening, fat-eared wheat. The stalks are still green and the nubbles of corn are still soft. I trip over a mole hill, then notice that a mole has dug its way in a perfect line along the footpath. Near the bridge into Emma’s Meadow, there’s a monster hill, as if the mole went berserk and dug an underground palace. Pants wees on it.

I’m too scared of the cows to go into Emma’s Meadow, so I sit on the bridge and look back over the wheat. There’re great swathes of rye grass waving through the crop, shimmering in the sun. There’s Blackgrass too, with its bristly close-grown seeds. I wonder how farmers get it out of the harvest, or whether we end up eating it. The dogs have disappeared into the margins, where we walk in the winter. Pants is singing, which means he’s found a mouse or vole; thank God he never catches them.

Bus-o’clock is drawing near, and I call the dogs. I can’t go in after them: the margin is impenetrable with hog weed and grasses way taller than me. Even the heads of clover around my ankles are as big as golf balls.

I give up waiting and start walking home, knowing they’ll come when they realise I’ve gone. I can hear the dink-dink-dink of a hammer from the Drying Barn at the end of the village.  I’ve heard the domestic sound of a Hoover practically non-stop all day, making me feel guilty for being such a slattern in our house. The din’s being made by Dave and Chris, gearing up for harvest; anticipating the toil, sweat, dust, then the pay-off of a barn full of grain.

It’s the time of year that I feel the most jealous of farmers, their sense of purpose, focus, of gambles against fate. The knife-edge tension of the weather reports, the whipping out of moisture gauges then the best bit: go-go-go. As a child, I’d watch our neighbours’ barns with binoculars, trying to guess if today was the day the combines would roll.

The dogs catch me up as I stop to observe a two-spotted ladybird, and Pants jumps up my white Capri’s to tell me what a clever boy he is. ‘Gerroff,’ I tell him, walking on. ‘Silly silky pair.’ Dora speeds ahead, as if she’d looked at my wrist-watch. She waits by the oak, impatient, panting. Bus o’clock, her eyes tell me, Hurry up. Bus o’clock!

 

 

On Walking: Sunday 6th July

It is late Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting on the stile above Bramshill ponds. I’ve come here to think; my thoughts have been boiled and mashed and  I am reeling from too many people, parties, Darling-could-we’s, Mum-can-I’s, Carlie-have-you’s. Yes we could, you can, I have. But now enough.

The meadow below reminds me of fields I knew as a child. The grass is hazed reddish-purple with fronds and sprays of seed; there are random islands of stingers and docks, the jaunty bobbles of ribwort plantain.   The spinney begins on my right, and cuts down into the valley, across the medieval ponds, before running onwards, meeting the corner of the Scout Woods. It’s an ancient boundary, a right-of-way for foxes, rabbits, deer; there long before the lanes were put beneath tarmac, or the railway put down and peeled up.

From the stile, with Horley behind me, I can’t see a single house. I can hear the irregular piping of some unseen bird, the testy-hornet buzz of off-road bikes from over near Hornton. The breeze is warm, and smells of deep green hawthorn, summer grass, horses. Every knot in my shoulders is starting to loosen, every rattling thought beginning to still.

On the opposite hill, the wheat is green-gold, ruffled to caplets by the wind. The sun is hot on my bare thighs and the wind lifts my ponytail, cooling my neck. I tip back my head, view such richness through half-closed eyes. To my right is a regal spear thistle, with two tufty, purple flowers. As a child, I once spent an entire afternoon chopping up thistle-heads with an old nail, convinced there must be a nut in the bulge beneath the flower. Despite knowing now that there’s not, I still look at them and wonder if perhaps I had the right sort of thistle, or if the thistles I tried were too young.

Two Red Admirals are in a lovers’ dog-fight, and flash in front of my nose. Pants and Dora shoot from the blackberry briar and up the hill towards me. They practically roll their eyes when they see I’m still perched on the stile.

‘Go away,’ I tell them.

The hawthorn berries are starting to turn red on their blunted tips; the fox gloves are sending out their secondary arms from their bases, their main one exhausted.

I push myself off the stile, walk down the hill amongst the red and white clover, the grass feather-stroking my calves and making me itch. I shout the dogs, climb into the spinney.

My shoulders are free; the fearful rattle-rattle-crash in my brain is more distant, as if the noisy, raucous thoughts had all been bundled up, carted off, leaving just echoes to be ignored.

I use a wand of ash leaves to hold aside lofty chin-high nettles, wriggle my way through the cool green gloom. Even the echoes are fading now. I walk, just walk, through the trees.

Dora sunbathing on Bramshill
Dora sunbathing on Bramshill

Thank you to all those lovely people who’ve emailed, Tweeted and accosted me over the garden wall, wanting to know why I hadn’t published a blog lately, and was I all right? Yes, is the answer, completely fine. I had to finish a book in a very short deadline, and have been working tremendously hard. The book’s in now though, and the summer hols are nearly here, so there’ll be lots of walking, and lots of blogs.

Thank you especially to Paul Rodgers, who writes beautifully (and hilariously) himself.