Poppies: prolific elusive


For the last few years I have tried, in vain, to grow poppies. I have scattered seeds. I have planted plugs. I have nurtured tiny green shoots, indoors and out. I have bought very expensive specimens with very impressive names from well-known suppliers of repute. All of my efforts have been fruitless.

One or two larger plants survived long enough to reveal scarlet petals, beautiful, bold but fragile, within the first day or two devoured by slugs, or scattered by the breeze. I have planted in poor soil – as per the received wisdom, in good soil, in pots and in the ground, all to no avail.

It seems that I am destined to appreciate these most lovely of wild flowers only in the wild as nature intended. And in car parks. By road sides. On waste ground. In cracks between old paving stones. Growing out of wall crevices. Anywhere except in my garden. Oh well…….. Here are some I saw earlier 🙂

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I received no less than ten spam messages through WordPress last week, different names but clearly the same person, informing me that unless I pay a certain amount of bitcoins by 1st June they would hijack my account and send all sorts of nasty communications posing as me. I have been promised a bad name and that I will be thrown out of blog world and shunned by all the universe if I don’t pay up. Oh dear! If this calamity comes to pass, please know it’s not really me. It’s been a pleasure. Enjoy the poppies 😄

 

Medieval Shrewsbury

 

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Being ideally situated on the border of England and Wales, Shrewsbury has been an important political and commercial centre for a thousand years and more. English monarch, King Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, at one time resided here, the birthplace of their unfortunate son, Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the two princes presumed murdered in the Tower of London. The royal connection continues with Henry VII, the first Tudor king, lodging in Shrewsbury before the Battle of Bosworth where he defeated the reputed killer of the princes, King Richard III.

The river Severn links the city to the Irish Sea via the West Country and the Bristol Channel, a key route for trade during the industrial revolution and even earlier.  Many English locations are as old and historic as Shropshire’s county town, but not all have such a wealth of buildings as well preserved and still in everyday use.

On Saturday, I visited Shrewsbury for the first time. After a relaxing river sail between the Welsh and English bridges, our coach party was told where we were to reconvene at 16:45, leaving four hours to explore. Unusually for me, I had no plan for the afternoon and had just decided to wander and get a flavour of the city. I damaged my knee ligament a few weeks ago, and though I’d been walking crutch-free for over a week, I didn’t want to push my luck. I was also still feeling queasy after a terrible coach journey.

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The King’s Head pub shows the victorious Henry VII. The background is the same pale blue as the city’s coat of arms.

From the river we entered the city centre, passing the King’s Head pub, its sign depicting an image of  King Henry VII and the date 1483, referencing the Battle of Bosworth. The current building dates from that time, just one of many timber-framed buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries. Georgian and Victorian  buildings are slotted in between, with lots of passageways to explore. It isn’t a big place but the free city map was very useful in making sense of all the nooks and crannies.

 

 

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We looked around the new market hall which seemed to be thriving, full of stalls selling the usual wares and a couple of small but very popular eateries, one Thai and the other serving what looked like French/Mediterranean dishes. It was lovely to see a town market doing well in an age where many, including the one in my own town, are virtually dead.

A short walk away was the old market hall, or what remained of it. The British Legion was having some sort of gathering there, and the collection of military vehicles parked in front spoiled the opportunity for photographs, but I captured the most interesting features of the front facade.

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The three leopard heads or ‘loggerheads’ on the city’s coat of arms
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Interesting that this spelling variation of ‘removed’ was still in use after 1791.

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We stopped for a sandwich and another look at the map to decide our next steps. A very useful feature which I hadn’t seen on any other city maps was the little signs indicating both moderate and steep inclines. Having a better idea of the gradients informed my choice to not walk down a particularly steep lane and across the river to Shrewsbury Abbey, the setting of Ellis Peters’ tales of medieval monk and sleuth, Cadfael. With my knee still unstable I could not have attempted the challenging walk back up again. A longer, flatter return walk along the river bank could have been an option, but we didn’t have enough time on this occasion.

Another religious building attracted our attention: the oldest church in the city, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. As we walked up the gentle brew over the cobbled stones we both commented on the number of runners that had passed by, seemingly taking part in an event. All were consulting the free city maps and seemed to be in a rush and in pursuit of something elusive.

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I observed one runner who had stopped outside the Three Fishes pub. His vest displayed the name of his orienteering club in Cornwall….. so that was it! After consulting his compass, off he ran again to find his next clue. A cryptic set of numbers and letters had been written by hand on one of the pub’s very old doors.

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St Mary the Virgin is the oldest church in Shrewsbury, so although I’m not particularly interested in churches on the whole, I thought it might be worth a look. The doors are always a clue to what’s inside.

 

I wasn’t disappointed. The entrance is the oldest part, and dates back to Norman times. A small section of the red stone wall was crumbling slightly and it was wonderful to touch brickwork almost a thousand years old.

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Some ancient tomb stones were propped up against the wall.

 

Inside were some stunning examples of German stained-glass, depicting, amongst biblical scenes, some splendid ducks and a Masonic- type symbol which I have seen in other church windows elsewhere in the country.

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A particularly interesting feature was a quite striking wall which had originally been external before the church was extended. I liked the way the light still filtered through from the new windows beyond.

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The rich and opulent colours of the beautiful altar below were mesmerising and quite exotic looking.

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St Mary’s, Shrewsbury, is one of the most interesting and attractive churches I have visited and was an excellent consolation for missing out on the Abbey.

 

With an an hour or so left before assembling at the coach pick up point, we ambled along more old paths; marvelled at the misshapen wood panelling on the still sturdy shops; reflected on the leaded windows, no two exactly the same, and decided we would definitely return to explore further – by train next time!

A short sail on the Severn

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Yesterday, I visited Shrewsbury for the first time. I had been looking forward to experiencing the olde world charms of this quaint Shropshire city on the Anglo/Welsh border. I was less sure about my choice of conveyance: a good old British coach excursion. I suffer from travel sickness, but it affects me only on some terrains and modes of transport. Coaches and winding country lanes are a very, very bad combination indeed. Having been advised (wrongly!) that the journey would be via motorways and straight A roads, I decided to chance it.

Fast forward from leaving the M6 south of Warrington and along many, many miles of rural Cheshire’s scenic but convoluted lanes; fast forward through the inevitable, fortunately not witnessed by fellow passengers, and  I finally arrived in sunny Shropshire, still green around the gills .

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The travel company had arranged for our first views of Shrewsbury to be from the vantage point of the upper deck of Sabrina, a small pleasure craft offering short sails along the river Severn, which separates England and Wales. Sabrina is named after the Celtic river goddess, a name also bestowed in ancient times to the Severn itself. The source of the river is near the town of Llanidloes, mid-Wales. It loops through Shrewsbury, continues into the west country, and eventually on into the Bristol Channel. The Severn is the longest river in the UK – five miles longer than the Thames.

The short wait at Victoria Quay near to the Welsh Bridge provided me with a bit more time to recover in pleasant surroundings from the hellish coach ride. 

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Rod, our friendly Scottish skipper, told us about some of the points of interest as we sailed first towards the English Bridge. The tree-lined river banks were lush and green on both sides. Interestingly, exactly three hundred Lime trees are sited on the bank. In accordance with a local regulation, if one has to be cut down another must be planted to replace it. Kingfishers frequent this section of the river but unfortunately none appeared for us. The view was lovely, nonetheless.

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We passed Pengwern Boat Club, Pengwern being an ancient name for the county of Shropshire, dating back to the time when it was a Roman settlement. A small herd of Old English long-horn cows grazed happily as people walked by. The reminders of the border position of this city are all around. According to Rod, the cattle are recruited every year to munch on the lush grass and keep it in check.

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People strolled along the bank or sat on the grass, reading or just passing time. An adjacent park appeared to be very popular; through the trees I glimpsed dog walkers, and excited children scurrying up climbing frames. Charles Darwin, a local boy, had spent a lot of his time there ( perhaps pondering the origins of the flora and fauna?) and a garden area has been named after him. Another famous former resident is the font of all gardening knowledge, Percy Thrower. Rod pointed out his former house, which could just be spotted inside the park, but I wasn’t able to get a photo. Percy served as Superintendent of Parks in Shrewsbury before he became well-known.

We arrived at the English Bridge, originally a Norman construction, but rebuilt in 1768 to allow larger boats to pass beneath as Shrewsbury became a more important industrial link between England and Ireland via the port of Bristol.

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Here, Rod swung the boat around, and we retraced our route.

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The Kingsland Bridge is privately owned, and originally a toll charge was due from all who crossed it. Nowadays, it’s free to walk across on foot, but drivers must still pay 20p. I spotted the city coat of arms: three sinister-looking leopard heads on a blue background. These are locally known as loggerheads, as in the turtles, though the reason for this is not clear.

We sailed beneath a gorgeous example of early 20th iron work. The Porthill suspension footbridge was built in 1922 at a cost of just over £2000. Its refurbishment a few years ago cost over half a million pounds.

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Sabrina arrived back at Victoria Quay and the Welsh Bridge. Originally named St George’s Bridge, it was built between 1793 and 1795 on the site of other river crossings dating back as far as the 12th century. I wasn’t able to get a good shot of the bridge from my viewpoint, so below is one from the internet, which also captures Sabrina at her mooring.

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We crossed the bridge into the centre of the city, ready to experience its medieval charms.

 

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When a friend suggested an evening drive to the beach at Formby point, I gladly accepted. Accessed by way of a lonely road through woodland, the sand dunes at Formby would not ordinarily be somewhere I could visit by my usual means of public transport as night time loomed.

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We exchanged  greetings with dog walkers and joggers. An older couple helped a small child look for shells whilst sea birds trotted across the damp sand, investigating the shallow pools left behind by the outbound tide.

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Staying  close to the shore, we made a seat out of stone steps at the foot of the lifeboat station and looked out to sea.

Dusk was descending. The sky shifted through a muted palette of greys, mauve and smoky amber as the sun’s lamp was slowly dimmed.

The camera’s zoom lens revealed the hazy shapes of distant pedestrians, on four legs and two, traversing the expanse of the beach, out to the water’s edge and back again.

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Buoys bobbed in the shallow water, guiding to safe passage marine vessels bound for the port of Liverpool, or sailing into the night towards Dublin. Towering wind turbines stood still, imposing but strangely graceful.

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The silver ribbon of sea, its mirror-surface bouncing back the last of the light, marked the end of the road where the silhouette of a solitary vehicle was stopped at the water’s edge.

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Tulip Fields: An Impression

Dutch bulb fields have, since the time of ‘tulip mania’ in the 17th century, attracted painters from Europe and beyond, mesmerised by vistas of flowers, row after row, vibrant and tantalising, extending like floral carpets to meet the horizon.

One of my favourite examples is Tulips in Holland by French Impressionist, Claude Monet, painted in 1886.

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I am fascinated by the light and the vivid hues, and had pondered the reality and how it compared with Monet’s impressions as he set them to canvas in real time.

The Dutch tulip season is short, beginning in March and ending in May. A short visit to Holland’s southern bulb region last week presented the opportunity to feast my eyes on multitudes of magnificent blooms as Monet did on another spring day over 130 years ago.

The flat land and waterways reminded me of happy childhood holidays cruising on the Norfolk Broads with my family. They are early memories, set in time in a technicolour palette; our sensory perceptions of colour, smell, pain and sounds gradually fade as we grow older. I still remember the boldness of scarlet poppies against the parched East-Anglia fen land and vast sky. Of course, the two regions of England and Holland were once joined, back in the mists of time, so perhaps the connection is understandable.

The landscape changes from week to week as fields are harvested and return to barren soil, their glory days ended for another year.  Elsewhere, new flowers open to the sun as their moment arrives. 

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I ambled alongside one narrow canal which skirted several smaller fields. Views from the water’s edge offered a chance to see further and to form my solitary impressions.

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My impression is of a grand artistic collaboration between nature and nurture at its triumphant moment of fruition, and that I was lucky to be in the gallery to see it for myself.

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Keukenhof: A Dutch Floral Fiesta

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Two or three years ago my mum revealed that as a young woman she’d longed to visit Dutch tulip fields. She’s 77 now and although that long ago dream had never come true, she had still thought of it from time to time. Mum had never previously mentioned this ambition as she had thought it too difficult to realise. That’s not completely without foundation; tulips bloom for just a couple of months, mid-March to mid-May, so any visit would have to take place within a fairly tight window. Practically, I’m the only one of her children who could accompany mum on such an expedition, and I can only take holidays at certain times. This year the opportunity finally arose for us to visit the Netherlands during my Easter break.

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The Netherlands is famously the world’s largest exporter of flowers, and nowhere can the glory of Dutch flora be better experienced than at Keukenhof Gardens. Keukenhof is situated in Lisse in the bulb growing region of Holland to the south-west of Amsterdam. The 80 acre park was opened in 1950 as a site for growers from all over the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe to exhibit their hybrids and help the Dutch export industry. 

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The land had formerly been a medieval hunting ground, and was used in part to provide herbs, fruit and vegetables for the kitchen of the land-owning Countess of Heinaut’s castle, hence the name Keukenhof, or ‘kitchen garden’. After the Countess’ death, the land was possessed by several very wealthy owners. Constantly expanding since the current park’s establishment,  it has become one of the largest flower gardens in Europe and attracts millions of visitors from all over the world.

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Keukenhof opens its gates to visitors for only seven or eight weeks each year, so it can be very busy. It was wonderful to see so many awe-struck flower enthusiasts soaking up the April sun and the spectacular vistas. ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’, I discovered, sound the same in all of the many languages I heard as we wound our way around the botanical wonderland.

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Traditional woodland areas still displayed late flowering snowdrops and daffodils, some presented in very artistic arrangements.

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Carpets of tulips and hyacinths rolled out in glorious displays of colour and texture.

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Each year Keukenhof has a theme, and in 2019 it is Flower-Power; a ’60s retro celebration of peace and love. Various exhibitions and installations appeared throughout the park; I particulary enjoyed the inspirarational peace garden.

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Gorgeous seating area
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You can just about make out the pieces of rose quartz positioned on the rooftop to represent love.

Many lakes and water features grace the park. Some provide quieter places to sit – as far as is possible at a popular site on this scale.

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Stepping stone path across the Wilhelmina Lake
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One of several pools and fountains

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Keukenhof Gardens is roughly the size of 80 football (soccer) pitches, so a full day is needed if you want to see all of it. Of course, this necessitates stops for food and rest, all of which is catered for. There are two larger restaurant areas but these do become very busy at the obvious times. Other charming cafes offer delicious coffee and famous Dutch apple pie.

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Everywhere is accessible for prams and wheelchairs, and there are lots of places to sit and take a break whilst enjoying the carnival of flowers.

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This is just a flavour of my visit to Keukenhof; a small selection of the delights for the senses. I have returned with a selection of bulbs for my own garden which – fingers crossed – will be a reminder when they flower of a special kitchen garden that I was able to share with my mum and make a dream come true.

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I wish an enjoyable weekend to all, hopefully one that will include some beautiful flowers and sunshine.

is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Covering an area of 80 acres it is a celebration of Dutch flora on a magnificent scale. The of the modern   is one of the world’s largest flower gardens. Covering an area of 80 acres it is a celebration of Dutch flora on a magnificent scale. The  of the modern 

Narcissus

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On a recent visit to Liverpool’s  Walker Art Gallery my eye was drawn to John William Waterhouse’s painting of Echo and Narcissus. The painting shows the mountain nymph, Echo, gazing longingly at Narcissus as he gazes even more longingly at his own reflection in the water. Echo’s love is unrequited by the object of her affections and, feeling rejected and invisible, she fades away until all that remains is her voice. Desperately thirsty, but unwilling to disturb his image on the water’s surface, Narcissus eventually dies from dehydration (though in another version of the myth he drowns). A clump of Narcissi, pale yellow heads leaning forward to peer into the water, springs up on the spot.

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Despite the recent return of early morning ground frost to some of our gardens, spring is established. Things are happening in my little patch.

One of the earliest blooms each year is the dwarf rhododendron which I have kept in the same pot since I rescued it from a skip about five years ago. I was told that it wouldn’t grow much bigger even if planted in the ground so I decided not to disturb it. It flowers only once, and only for a short time, but I look forward every March to that exquisite show that tells me spring has arrived in earnest.

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The early flowering clematis which I planted quite recently seems to have taken root. Although it looks so delicate and fragile right now I hope it will provide a stunning backdrop as it climbs the fence and heralds the arrival of spring at the end of March for many years to come.

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The little old spiraea which every summer I suspect has had its last day in the sun never ceases to amaze and delight me with its spring revival.

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Even those plants which won’t flower until June or July are showing new green shoots on last year’s woody stems.    The potted herbs are flourishing, quickly returning in colour and scent.

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At the beginning of December I planted some daffodil bulbs which I’d bought in the autumn and forgotten about . I thought it was probably too late but hope, as they say, springs eternal. Well, spring they did! Some of them, anyway.

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I’ve noticed that many of those swathes of early daffodils which graced roadside verges and parks have now faded, like the lovely Echo, leaving only lowered browning heads  or leaves which will also die back over the next month or so, though below the ground the bulbs will sleep until their time comes again. I’m happy that my late blooming golden narcissi, a few still unfurling, will still be around a while longer yet to make me smile when I look outside every morning. Like their mythical namesake they have every reason to stand proud and show their faces to the sun.