Friday 30 April 2010

The Okavango Delta - the perfect place to Safari or holiday? = Yes for me! Part 2/3: John’s Story....

Many travellers regard the Moremi Wildlife Reserve as the most spectacular and beautiful game park in Southern Africa. It covers more than 1,000 square kilometres (385 sq miles) of grassy flood plains in the north eastern corner of the Okavango Delta {approximately 1/10th of the whole}.

Apart from thorny acacia savannah, the terrain includes winding waterways with banks of reeds, palm-covered islands, thick forest and lush, lily-covered lagoons where hippos bathe and sport.

The islands afford places for the camps to be established, some having to be reached by light aircraft during the spate period. Chief’s Island within Moremi is exactly as it says – the tribal chief’s island and will feature here. The other islands are smaller, some becoming swamped when a large deluge comes down, or just small refuges for the land loving animals.

Camp Okavango was where my mother and I stayed when we holidayed together in 1989, and we were due to go on to Camp Moremi, where I’d camped the year before .. but that particular year we couldn’t get to the camp at Moremi as the flood waters were particularly large!

The two Camps had been built by a Californian lady, who had been regularly coming on safari to Botswana with GameTrackers since the mid 1970s. She then decided that she would like her own lodges, and duly applied – at that stage there were only a few photographic lodges within the Delta area. Jessie Niel had been spending six months in Botswana and six months at home – hence her desire for something more permanent.

They could only accommodate a maximum of 12 people .. and I’m sure it wasn’t full when we went out .. the Meru luxury tents were beautifully appointed with Laura Ashley furnishings, and each had private reed facilities behind them. Our original camp comprised a reed and thatch lounge, bar, dining room, reed and thatch kitchen and storerooms, with sandy paths around.

We were so well looked after by the staff, who were just part of one big team, that Jessie had nurtured .. and we had an amazing time. To get a flavour .. perhaps some of you have read or seen Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency .. set very much in the backdrop of the capital, Gaberone .. with its peoples. The founder of the Agency is a Motswana woman, Mma Precious Romotswe and I’ve found a Youtube clip (1min 45 secs) .. which shows the Delta, Gaberone and you can hear the dialect: link below.

I’m sure John Khata, will probably say it’s a resemblance .. but no more, but John is a generous fellow and will grant us licence to see the clip and get a feel of Botswana life. John was born in the Delta in 1944, and when still young with his parents went to visit relatives on Chief’s Island.

John was to return with his mother and grandmother to their home, but while they’d been visiting there had been a huge storm, and they lost their way on their return journey, as the tracking marks had been washed away. The women didn’t know how to start a fire and they survived by digging water lilies, and eating berries and figs. This went on for two weeks – Chief’s Island is quite large!

The family and friends had been out looking and searching for them, but had given up presuming them to have died, or been attacked by a wild animal.

John tells that in his culture, when you are three months old, your father has to take you to a big river, channel or lagoon, and dip you in three times, as they believe that to do so while they are young they will never be scared of water .. an essential in the Delta with its floods.

Then when he was eight – his father took him out to teach him how to hunt and how to sleep in the bush without being scared. He went out one day with his father and other hunters, then they camped .. a mix of the elders and the youngsters. However on one of the evenings, when they were sitting round the fire – one of the other boys moved three or four metres away to cut the grass to use it as a mattress .... but a lion came out of nowhere, grabbed him and ran away. His body has still not been found.

After that incident John’s family moved to another village further away. The elders believe that the best education is to learn about the bush, being in the bush and being involved from the time John was old enough to learn. School, as we know it, was not considered necessary for their way of life. The tribes people in days gone by could and would make sufficient money from nature .... as the animals were still free – so an income could be made from animal skins, mokoros (traditional crafted canoes) and some meat.

John started working for Mr Haroon of Oryx Safaris, learning the craft of skinning, before changing to gun bearer and/or tracker. He then moved to Bird Safaris, spotting and catching birds, from different parts of the Delta On the trips back they also caught baby Zebra by driving very fast in the middle of the Zebra herds, throwing a rope round the neck of a baby, injecting it to enable it to be lifted and put in the back of the truck.

While John was working for the safari companies, the Government in 1980 decided that the tribes people should be moved out of the Delta, nearer the town, so that they could all learn to read and write.

John had other plans .. and crossed over to Camp Okavango by mokoro, because he had heard that they were going to build a camp there – in the north of the Delta. John was duly employed, helping with the construction until Camp Okavango was finished in 1983.

First he worked as a groundsman, then because he knew about the traditional craft of mokoros and poling (similar to the punts at Oxford and Cambridge) he was promoted to taking tourists out on mokoro trails ... no-one better at being able to see the native flora and fauna and tell us stories about them than someone who has lived in the Delta all his life.

Then he says as he was meeting tourists everyday .. he started to learn English and just absorbed the language – he knew a little from his birding days .. and now he continues with his guiding being an integral and respected team member of Camp Okavango.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go on safari, mokoro around the Delta, spend time with John learning the bush background, get a grip on the area of Camp Okavango and its surroundings .. a treasure trove of history unavailable elsewhere ... John – I think I might be back for another visit fairly soon .. will you look after me? Thank you!

Walter Smith, Marketing Director, from Desert & Delta Safaris (ex Camp Okavango) very kindly gave me permission to print John’s story .. it is essence, as John wrote it.

Walter’s reference on John is thus: John has been working for our company at Camp Okavango for 30 years now and by pure default of his life story, is one of the most experienced and accomplished guides in the Okavango Delta. We are very proud to have him on our team and value his loyalty and commitment incredibly.

A very fitting tribute to a wonderful place, full of magical people, who care for their surroundings and for their friends – us the tourtists – ensuring that we understand the benefits of the call of the wild, as well as have a wonderfully conducive holiday – taking with us a love of the area .. to promote to others .. even if it’s twenty-one years later .. as I’m doing here!

Thank you John and your family, together with Camp Okavango for sharing with us your magical land – holidays I will never ever forget .. and I know my mother loved them .. Dear Mr Postman – weren’t we lucky?

The founder of the Agency is a Motswana woman, Mma Precious Romotswe and I’ve found a Youtube clip (1min 45 secs) .. which shows the Delta, Gaberone and you can hear the dialect. There's some very evocative African music playing here too ... but please come back and comment??!! Thank you!

PS - I shall ask Walter on his return from holiday for some larger photos .. and replace these .. it's frustrating when you think you've got good pictures and they come out the size of postage stamps .. oh well too late to worry now!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 27 April 2010

The Okavango Delta - the perfect place to Safari or holiday? = Yes for me! Part 1/3

That magnificent bejewelled panhandle in the middle of southern Africa formed by the Okavango waterway expanding its tentacles to become the Okavango Delta, flowing straight into a sea of sand, the Kalahari Desert, and vanishing... completely disappearing into ‘a sea’ that can be up to 100 metres thick.

Tourism is a boom industry, big game hunters in the 19th century trekked into northern Botswana in search of elephants, crocodiles and lions, while for a century or so the country’s rich animal life seemed to be forgotten – not any more ... tourists are coming from all corners of the globe to witness the wild side of Africa, that is steadily disappearing elsewhere.

Map of the Cuando-Linyanti-Chobe river system in the region of Namibia’s Caprivi Strip based on a NASA satellite photo (note orientation with north-west at top). Water shows black. 1 The Cuando River; 2 Caprivi Strip; 3 Mudumu National Park and Lianshulu Lodge, the start of the Linyanti Swamp; 4 Linyanti Swamp and Mamli National Park, where a ridge of Kalahari sand blocks flow to the south-east; 5 Okavango River and delta which sinks into the Kalahari sands; 6 Linyanti River; 7 Lake Liambezi (dry when photo was taken); 8 Chobe River; 9 Confluence of Chobe and Zambezi at Kazungula; 10 Zambezi and Caprivi Swamps were experiencing an extreme flood at the time of the photo. Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC.

Great efforts are being made to conserve this wild life heritage with a host of parks and reserves being established. Moremi Game Reserve, the reserve between Maun, the main town on the edge of the Delta and the sandy woodlands, waterways, islands, marshes and shallow lagoons that few westerners would understand or be able to survive in was once inhabited by the local Batswana, who fully understood the force of nature with its annual flood. John Khata, a local, will tell us his story in part two.

Moremi was created by the local people, who in 1961, worried by the increase in big game hunting and the devastating effects on wildlife – both the killing and the destruction of the habitat - decided that out of their tribal land s a game park should be founded and administered by them – this was the first time an African tribe had done such a thing.

The main entrance in to the reserve is from Maun especially if you are driving from South Africa via Francistown, and for my first trip we did – however there are other reserves and safari camps within the Delta able to be reached by plane, including Linyanti/Chobe National Park established on the flood plains of the Chobe River, which is now captured by the mighty Zambezi.

Map of Botswana - the Delta in the north west; the Zambezi in the north east; while the Limpopo forms the Botswana border with Zimbabwe and South Africa

Some 10,000 years ago the Chobe merged with the Okavango flowing south to join the green greasy Limpopo River on its way to the Indian Ocean in Mozambique, now due to earth’s upheavals the two systems have separated .. creating the unique wetland in the lower reaches of the Okavango, before disappearing into the sands, while the Chobe breaks into many channels and swamps (called the ‘Linyanti Swamp’) before joining the Zambezi 43 miles (70 kms) above Victoria Falls.

In times of extreme flood some of the Okavango’s waters escape east into the normally dry channels feeding the Linyanti Swamp and thus entering the Zambezi basin – otherwise today the Okavango has no outlet. The Great Rift Valley system stretching down Africa from the Middle East into Eastern Africa, where it is most active, contributes to the tectonic movement along the Zambezi and into northern Botswana – causing these relics of large inland lakes, while at the same time causing the zigzagging of the seven (so far) gorges at Victoria Falls.

A casual visitor could be excused for missing the real Botswana – he will see mile upon mile of flat, desolate scrubland stretching in every direction, little or no surface water and a climate ranging from freezing winter nights to roasting summer days. A wasteland. Or is it? Go further new visitor and experience the heartland of this country ... find the area where the summer rains of Angola reach a parched desert that springs to life five months later.

Mochudi - tribal village west of Francistown

The desert where you can find fish, where the birds find paradise, insects abound and the animals find the bounty of nature to ensure life continues. The slow trickle of water seeps down the various waterways bringing to life the surrounding areas, taking five months to touch the annual swamp areas or to refill the perennial channels.

It is a marvellous land of waterways, islands, marshes and shallow lagoons abundant with tiger fish, elephant, crocodiles, hippopotami, monkeys, snakes, giraffe, impala, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra and the rare sitatunga and lechwe antelope all benefitting from the flooding waters.

Lions, cheetah and packs of wild dogs roam the open grasslands ready for the next meal. While the multitude of birds fly in and around the woodlands, papyrus reeds, savannah, winding channels, palm covered islands, thick forest and lily covered lagoons enjoying the luxury of this wildlife sanctuary and haven.

Mother and wild dog cubs - c/o Camp Okavango

In the late 1980s I’d been on a camping safari into the Okavango with twelve family friends & my mother hearing about this amazing trip via a 15 page letter with 3 maps!! decided that she too would like to visit the Okavango and so booked a posh holiday for the two of us – fantastic. John’s story (a Tswana tale .. a river Bushman) and more about our trip and the sights that we observed in parts two and three ..

Botswana now has much to offer despite being landlocked, especially since its independence in 1966, and is a regional leader in economic freedom. It has large mineral reserves and its new economy takes advantage of a fast-growing service sector, world-renowned diamond industry, tourism and manufacturing.
Aerial female Lechwe, who live in the watery reed beds

Competitiveness and flexibility are promoted by a sensible business regulatory environment, openness to foreign investment and trade, and relatively flexibly employment regulations. Botswana’s economic growth is roaring ahead with the World Bank citing Botswana as one of the world’s great development success stories. Add to this the jewel of the Okavango with its wildlife reserves, which for all its drawbacks is offering much to the world.

Dear Mr Postman – now that the warmer weather is here .. Mum is, I think, managing to throw off her bad cold ... but it’s a tough time for her. She again can’t hear .. so we’re back on the olive oil, and with time I expect them to clear. She is funny though .. she started speaking at me really slowly – as if I couldn’t hear!! Then later on told me I must listen to her when she’s speaking .. but she hadn’t been speaking out loud .. I have to laugh! She can read the odd word .. eg ‘tapestry’ when I expanded it on the iphone .. and laughed when she saw the picture, then said that Speedy Gonzales didn’t match up! But as I couldn’t explain the context as she can’t hear ... I’m somewhat stumped! Life is fun!! My father's sole surviving sibling died at the weekend and he would have been 96 yesterday!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday 23 April 2010

Pevensey Castle, Normans Bay, smuggling and family remembrances ... Part 2

If Jenny and I had continued further north from Bexhill the village of Battle would be reached, where William the Conqueror changed English history by feigning retreat and then beating King Harold, the King killed by an arrow in his eye – so the story goes, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Harold had only been crowned King of England in January 1066, after the death of Edward the Confessor, but due to the succession struggle had been anticipating an invasion from France, by William, Duke of Normandy (as he was), another contender for the English throne, and had based himself on the south coast at the ready.

Death of Harold in the Battle of Hastings, as shown on the Bayeux Tapestry (above)

Harold maintained a large fleet in the Channel to deter the Norman army from crossing the water, but due to dwindling supplies he was forced to dismiss it during the summer, many ships of which were subsequently lost in a storm. William then landed unopposed at Pevensey on 28th September 1066.

Another claimant included the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, who beached in the north of England in September 1066. King Harold learning of this headed northwards at breakneck speed, covering the 185 miles (300 kilometres) from London to Yorkshire in four days taking the Vikings completely by surprise and routing them in the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September 1066.

Harold now had to hot foot it back south again to deal with the Duke. The Duke, with his fleet safe in the western haven of Normans Bay, meanwhile shored up the fortifications at Pevensey Castle and made his plans.

Senlac Ridge is about 5 miles inland from Bexhill and Hastings where Harold, when he arrived from the north, based his army – the high ground gave him a great advantage over the Normans, who made repeated charges up the hill ... but to no avail. The English were exhausted and finally succumbed after two days of fighting and were vanquished on October 14th: William’s feint of retreat caused the English to break ranks with the intention of routing them but with intended consequences.

Hastings, Battle and Pevensey are about 50 miles further south from the capital .. and if the elite marathon runners in this weekend’s London marathon were able to maintain their speed for the 225 miles or so, then it would take them 18 hours to get to Yorkshire (26 miles is covered in about 2 hours). But think of that distance wearing armour and with all the paraphernalia needed for an armed struggle ... Speedy Gonzales (as shown) came to mind somewhat incongruously!

William could not use the coastal route that Jenny and I took as we skipped along the tiny islands, that are now small high points – hence the road, called Rickney Lane, as back then and until the 1400s these islands were in the tidal bay inlet. The hamlet names along this part of East Sussex are all derived from the Old English word “eye” meaning island: Peven’s sey, Rickney, Horse Eye, North Eye.

William, as you can see, had to skirt the bay and coastal marshes, to begin his attack on Harold who had encamped on Senlac Hill, but his forces were well rested after the two weeks in port. Much has changed along this coast over the millennia.

Normans Bay, with its Pevensey Levels, is a changing coastline – ten thousand years ago at the end of that glaciation period the rising sea levels flooded the lower reaches of the numerous coastal river valleys creating a tidal estuary with a wide bay, leaving the present Levels under water.

Over hundreds of years, the tidal bay gradually became saltmarsh, then as today reedy meadows, while in 1287, two hundred years after the Battle of Hastings, a huge storm caused this silting up of the channels along this part of the Sussex coast, which precipitated that change.

This is a map of the 7 Cinque Ports in Kent and Sussex. Pevensey is located on the southern tip of the lowest bay on this map, before the change in the coastline (as depicted with a dotted line), which continues to occur. (to see a larger image click through to Wikipedia).

After that brief historical sojourn regarding the Conquering of the English King by William we returned along the old coast road towards his landing point and Pevensey Castle. The sea once lapped against the south and east sides of the Castle, and after William’s success the Normans converted the remains of the original Roman sea fort into a fortress; it was an important part of their coastal defences.

In a few hundred years the Castle fell into disrepair as the sea receded and Pevensey ceased to command the coastline. It was temporarily fortified during the brief threat of the Spanish Armada in 1587 – 88; while in World War II it was fitted out as a Home Guard command post. Rickney Lane traversing the marshes had anti-tank cylinders along its length – as shown in the picture.

Anti-Tank Cylinders, Rickney Lane: There are two here the second is partially obscured by the reeds opposite the farm track. A hole at the top of the first one is also just visible and from this barbed wire would have been attached to stretch across the road to form a roadblock. The farm track on the left also carries a footpath across the marshes which rejoins Rickney Lane near Pevensey Haven. © Copyright Simon Carey

The Roman fort of the Saxon Shore stood guard on a harbour which is now silted up. It is not a rectangular castle like most of its contemporaries, but oval in plan and is well provided with substantial external bastions. Both the Romans and Normans recognised the castle as of strategic military value and for over a thousand years kept it strengthened during their custodianship.

Pevensey Castle - main gate

A keep, a strong central tower, was built in the south east corner, and a small inner bailey (one of the two outer walls of the castle) was fortified within the Roman walls. These were used as defences for the outer bailey, which still stand for much of their length today. Pevensey Castle with its history stretching back to Roman times chronicles very graphically the story of Britain’s south coast defences. For an aerial view – visit the 1066 Online website:

As a byline .. an earlier word for a keep, still used for some medieval monuments, especially in France, is donjon; a derivative word is dungeon.

Pevensey Castle walls

The following, part of a Rudyard Kipling poem, refers to the Pevensey Levels - I thought a perfect description - what do you think?

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn,
Old Wars, old Peace, old arts that cease,
And so was England born.

Dear Mr Postman, I still haven’t heard from Jenny – but no doubt we’ll catch up and I shall let you know how she got on. My poor mother isn’t very well and we’re in for a difficult time – but let’s hope she can settle down and be comfortable – quite honestly that’s what I really wish for .. she has been in no discomfort until this year .. and I really don’t want her to suffer at all.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday 18 April 2010

Pevensey Castle, Normans Bay, smuggling and family remembrances ... Part 1

Jenny came to town .. memories flooded back ... questions arose – time to tell the tale and answer some of those questions. We had a lovely day, 950 years later following William the Conqueror along the marshy Pevensey Levels, sticking to the coast until we found the Galley skiing hill in the town that saw the birth of motor racing.
We lunched on the way at a smugglers inn, The Star, formerly a Sluice House close by the ditch called Wallers Haven, part of the salt marshes with their watery inlets able to hide the smugglers and their boats, the marshes being notoriously difficult to cross without local knowledge.

View westwards across Normans Bay from Hastings towards Bexhill, Pevensey and then Eastbourne

We had fresh fish and chips and a crab salad, while to finish off a chocolate chip and nut ice cream sundae with mountains of cream on the top – sadly not Cornish cream. We sat outside and nattered about family musings – I’m in my inquisitive mode .. I can find out things from Jenny and then at a later stage regale with my mother with the tales, that will keep her amused and interested.

Jenny, my mother’s cousin, lives on Vancouver Island and as I’ve been away in South Africa it is only recently that we’ve seen a little more of each other. The family came from St Ives in Cornwall and I wanted to find out some more. My grandfather died when my mother was two in an accident in the 1920s, and again there was a dislocation and for various reasons I’ve never found out more.

Star Inn, Normans Bay © Copyright Kevin Gordon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

I knew the family had been in shipping, my grandfather apparently wanted to be a farmer, but his father decided he would be an engineer – as happened in those days; but for the sons World War I intervened in their early days before they could set out on their careers.

My great grandfather was the financial officer for The Hain Shipping Line in St Ives, which was in existence for 100 years until it was taken over by P & O during WWI. His elder son, one of my great uncles, took over his position with the steamship line and then became a director, when the firm moved to the larger deeper port of Cardiff, in Wales, on the takeover by P & O.

St Ives Bay, showing the harbour

Their early trade was the local Cornish fishing industry using sailing luggers; soon they moved on and bought schooners enabling their trade to expand to the Mediterranean ports, exporting cured fish returning with Greek and Turkish dried fruit; then with the development of larger schooners and the conversion to steam they were trading with the Caribbean for West Indian sugar, and with Brazil for coffee; ultimately trading with India, Ceylon and Australia.

The firm was very philanthropic giving preference to local boys wishing to make a career at sea, and this policy resulted in a large number of Master Mariners who were respected in all the major ports of the world. Considering that most of these mariners received only a very basic education, there is all the more reason to applaud their achievements in the much harder school of Master Mariners.

Jenny’s mother was the boys’ younger sister and on her marriage they moved to London, which was when they would come down to Bexhill-on-Sea along the coast from Pevensey Bay to visit other relations. We went into Bexhill to Galley Hill, where Jenny said her father had skied down, with Jenny standing on his skis! She said ‘ it’s not much of a hill is it?, which it isn’t .. but her young memory was of an exciting time .. all the way back to the early 1930s!

The four boys in the early 1900s, without their young sister in the picture

In 1808 a Martello Tower was built on Galley Hill as one of the line of defensive forts built in several countries of the British Empire during the 19th century, from the time of the Napoleonic Wars onwards. Unfortunately this one was destroyed through coastal erosion by about 1868.
Galley Hill however was the high lookout point for Normans Bay between Eastbourne and Hastings where the Customs and Excise officers or ‘Preventivemen’ tried to stop smuggling; this situation worsened after the Battle of Waterloo 1815, due to the return of thousands of soldiers and sailors who could find no legitimate employment and so turned to smuggling.

The Coast Blockade was formed in 1818 to meet the new threat and was eventually replaced by the Coastguard in 1831 – our British Coastguard is a civilian organisation whose only role is search and rescue.

A pitched battle ensued in 1828 after the blockade men on Galley Hill spotted smuggling going on down at the Sluice Gate in Normans Bay and engaged the Little Common Gang in a bloody rout.

Martello Tower at Galley Hill (discover Bexhill)
courtesy Bexhill Museum

Within 74 years the first British motor race took place using the Bicycle Boulevard, part of the seafront at Bexhill; away in the distance up Galley Hill puffs of smoke could be seen, a speck of a toy car emerging, a few seconds later two monsters throbbing, puffing and snorting raced past, causing the earth to tremble.

Such was the occasion that thousands flocked to Bexhill to witness this unique spectacle. Nothing could be seen of the drivers except a crouching figure with streaming hair, whose hands had a death-like grip on the steering wheel. Not only were straight sprint races run from east to west against the clock, but cars raced side by side, very much resembling the start of the Grand Prix races today.

Monsieur Leon Serpollet, the Frenchman, in his steam driven "Easter Egg" with the fastest speed of 54mph and the first French victory on British soil c/o Discover Bexhill

More than 200 entries competed in that inaugural meeting in 1902 and the local hotels and boarding houses were packed with the curious who had come to witness, for the first time on British soil, the spectacle of motor cars racing at speeds in excess of 50 mph, when the speed limit of the day was a mere 12 mph!

We went inland a little searching for Jenny’s cousin’s house .. but to no avail, and drove up through the housing estate, that used to be my paternal grandmother’s home, when she moved to Bexhill, also from London, before it was razed for housing in the early 1960s. The marketing achieved by the motor racing appeared to be successful – as Bexhill became a fashionable retirement resort.

We returned along the coast road towards Pevensey Castle, where we could see the imposing facade of the fortress walls .. more in my next post. Jenny had to get back to London as she was meant to be going to France by train fortunately – but I suspect that she will have been involved in a terrible scrum, arising from the volcanic ash fall out .. and I hope she is alright .. travelling is not easy when you get to your 80s ..

So dear Mr Postman – you can see it was an interesting day for me. On Wednesday my mother had been her old self and we had a really good chat – but now she’s not very well again .. and it is challenging for her, as well as me.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday 10 April 2010

Fancy a Cornish Cream Tea? In Cornwall, in Tokyo or at home?

I have to say I never thought I’d hear such an offer made – but Tregothnan, the house and estate, the traditional home of the Boscawen family, the seat of Lord Falmouth, is making such an offer this weekend to celebrate being able to have a delicious Cornish Cream Tea at its estate, while launching its new product: Cornish Cream Tea in a Box.

Tregothnan, shown in the late 19th century, is now famous for its large private botanical garden and arboretum, tea estates, and kea plum orchards, offering private guided visits to the estate: this weekend however is its annual opening to the public for a charity garden weekend on behalf of the Children’s Hospice South West.

The Box (shown left), which one can buy from their on-line shop, or in person, contains home grown Cornish tea, a scone, Kea Plum Jam and Rodda’s Cornish Cream, which has to be frozen – but then has a 3 day shelf life – doesn’t it look delicious?

Perfect for a Spring tea - perhaps sitting in a sheltered sunny corner or indoors with the doors open enjoying the freshness of new growth, cup in hand.

The estate has been exporting English tea to China and Japan for some years now – surprisingly – and Churchill even considered planting government tea estates for the war effort, until he realised it took six years for the bushes to mature: that ruled that bright idea out!

Tregothnan on a recent promotional visit to Japan, with boxes of Cornish Cream Tea abounding, found the Japanese went ‘mad’ for it – and think it is the ‘ultimate tea ceremony from the UK’.

So the British Embassy in Tokyo has decided to celebrate the Queen’s actual birthday on 21st April with a quintessential Cornish Cream Tea garden party... thousands of cream teas will be sent over for this unusual event.

The idea of Cornish Cream Tea in a box seems to have taken off ... so much so that an invitation has been extended to participate at the International Tea Exposition in Las Vegas in the summer (11 June) where you will be able to sample the actual thing.

Did you know that the Phoenicians 2,500 years ago, on their forays to Cornwall for tin, also took back to the Lebanon, as it is today, the recipe for cream making? ...

... so Cornish cream can only be made in Cornwall, Devon and the Lebanon. Cornish clotted cream with its cool, silky texture, and unique unmistakeable thick crust, is perfect for complementing the scone with its jam or golden syrup topping.

This post gives more background and historical details on the Falmouths, their orchards with the Kea Plum trees, the Fal estuary (with its container ships floating out the economic recession) .. but the actual Tregothnan site has some wonderfully evocative Cornish and English photos .. well worth a visit – this site page has a montage.

The camellias must be fantastic at this time of year and my mother would have loved to have been able to visit (she was a brilliant gardener) – one year I must make sure I do – what a picture these will be .. the Camellia ‘Rosemary Williams’ – such a glorious pink – really lifting our hearts towards the coming of summer.

I know little of Japan and its history or of tea ceremonies, bur reading the Wikipedia entry for The Book of Tea published in 1906, by Okakura Kakuzo, a Japanese scholar ... 

... who contributed to the development of arts in Japan, provides some interesting insights leading me on to ideas that I know extremely little of. Surprisingly he wrote all of his main works in English, but it is The Book of Tea for which he is chiefly remembered in the West.

The Japanese tea ceremony as right, also called the Way of Tea, is a Japanese cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha, powdered green tea. 

Zen Buddhism was a primary influence in the development of the tea ceremony. Okakura Kakuzo coined the term “Teaism” – a synthesis of Taoism, Zen and the Chinese use of tea – to remind us that we can have a sense of focus and concentration while under the influence of a great tasting tea.

So we can sit absolutely silently enjoying a special cup or glass of tea .. to be in mind and body united in one to enjoy the taste of the tea, smell the tea and the jam, taste the home-baked scone with its rich topping of cream and kea plums ... 

... silently, reverently and slowly in a moment of peace in this frenzied world .. savouring every moment and every morsel of this Cornish Cream Tea which might have come out of a box, if you are far away from the Cornish peninsula – enjoy!

Dear Mr Postman .. yesterday my mother was quiet and peaceful, which is reassuring to see. Spring really does seem to have arrived .. cool air with lots of bright sunshine – so invigorating and uplifting.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Folklore Notes and report back on Great British Garden Bird Watch

Our January Great British Garden Bird Watch was a huge success with over half a million people participating in the survey, eight and half million birds being reported, with 73 different species being spotted.

This winter with its particularly cold weather, which is still ongoing – though I understand it is relatively normal to have snow in Scotland, Wales and Ireland at this time of year – has been very bad for the tiny birds, who have no body weight and thus few reserves – so the wren, coal and blue tit are having a tough time, and we are being encouraged to feed them.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker

In the past 30 years there has been a dramatic decline in house sparrows and starlings, while species normally found in the fields have come into the villages and towns – the yellowhammer, redwing, bullfinches and fieldfare.

The report back can be seen here in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website, while this year’s top five (all pictured in my previous post – clever me!) are:

1) House Sparrow - maintained top spot for 7 years, but have declined by over 15%
2) Black Bird (see below for their song .. lovely – give it a listen .. only a few seconds of pure natural bliss)
3) Starling - dropped to 3rd place after being in top two for 10 years
4) Blue Tit
5) Chaffinch

Blackbird Song, Garden Birds too - YouTube video:

Now that we are terribly slowly coming into Spring, no doubt it will be magnificent once the warmth gets turned up a little, we can keep our eyes open for a few more turns of nature – the woodpecker (on warm fine days – where are those?) should be out drumming on the large, old trees.

White Horse Chestnut - the conker tree (late April/May flowering)

After selecting a hollow branch or trunk of a dead or dying tree – they set to: 40 blows every second! You might think that they would get a headache – the equivalent to you and me of repeatedly hitting our head against a wall at 26 km per hour (16 mph).

Evolutionarily they have adapted to this method of attracting a mate, and maintaining their territory: their skulls are thick!, their brains are very tightly packed inside to reduce the effects of shaking; while they also have spongy tissue around their beak which acts like a car’s shock absorbers. Their eyes too close just before the beak hits the tree, to avoid being damaged by flying bits of bark.

Quite honestly this year .. some of the lore seems to be a bit haywire .. the saying goes that:

“If March comes in like a lion,
it goes out like a lamb .....
If it comes in like a lamb,
It goes out like a lion.”

March was just icy, snowy, cold and very arctic windy .. the lambs were struggling & I’m absolutely certain the lion would have been hunkered down somewhere!

Cornus florida berries encased in ice (Flowering Dogwood, USA)

While in February I totally agree as it’s now April!

“That as the days lengthen,
So the cold strengthens.”

Why I’m whingeing when I live on the south coast of England, I have no idea .. but if it’s cold here – then it must be utterly miserable further north and further abroad as in Mongolia, as the news tells us. (Since I wrote this - it is definitely warming up: I'm pleased to say!

However Spring only arrives when you can put a foot on 12 daisies .. and I do not think I can do that yet – there is an odd daisy or two .. but not a little patch. Daisies apparently are among the first flowers to respond to the warming sun and the rising sap, but many Springs do not really start until April or May – this year is one of those I suspect. I remember about 8 years ago sitting outside in 30 deg C having a roast lunch on Mother’s Day (March 30th that year) .. so we English have our own personal weather lore!

Once the daisies do appear then we just have that wonderful juxtaposition of vibrant, verdant greens, bushy growth, blossoms and candles, also red, orange or yellow stemmed with greening buds of the dogwoods.

We need to protect this new life so it is here for future generations and all to share and wonder at, as we do now. We need the hedges, for which this country is (was) renowned, with their complete holistic habitats, the field margins, the scrubby woodland pockets at field edges, the dirty puddles – these breeding grounds for wild plants, for wildlife – insects, flowers, weeds too, hidey holes for beetles, insects, invertebrates – more stocks of food (seeds, leaves, nectar), pollinators .....

... after this year .. we really need to do our little at home and round about – protect this life ahead, so we can all see the horse chestnut candles, the bumbling bees, our smallest birds, and our own food growing in a wonderful cross-hatch of field colours containing all the plants in a rainbow –

R – for a field of red poppies
O – oranges of ripened corn, wheat and barley fluttering in the balmy breeze
Y – sunny yellow daffodils at the start of Spring
G – verdant greens of new shoots
B – sky blue of the linseed fields, above which the lark sings
I – Indigo – to remind us of our Greek and Roman connections, who had coined the word from India and its use of the first ‘royal purple’ indigo dyes, millennia ago
V – Violet – violets in the verges, amongst the woodland floor peeping out

Bless this world with all its vibrancy and all it offers – let us do our part and encourage our families, relations and friends to do their part – now at the start of another year and Spring, or as we wind down to Autumn to remember cleanliness is not all – let’s do less garden spring cleaning next year! – encouraging all life: from lichens, fungus, snails, slugs, bugs and beetles et al .. so we do see the colours of the rainbow, and we can eat the rainbow foods, to keep us in this rainbow land.

Dear Mr Postman – things are looking up a little – my mother suddenly was quite bright and cheerful – which was lovely to see. She then went back to sleep! However she’d looked at the flowers her great friend had sent her .. well I had instructions .. tulips, daffodils, and some red dogwood sprigs (left): Mum commented on the white tulips making the difference – bringing the other flowers to life .. there were pink and purply ones too; then there are some hyacinths I found – and the blue ones have come out – giving a really lovely scent, the pink ones aren’t far behind – so that’s a success from Elizabeth. Mum also commented on the new ‘posters’ and said they amused her .. so that’s good – a successful day.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday 2 April 2010

Who would have thought Barbary Apes would be eating our greens?

Our search for better ways to provide our ever growing populations with nutritious foods by finding new ideas and novel approaches – some seem similar, in ways, to the ancient methods of searching in the hedgerows.

Weeds – as they used to be known – are making a comeback .. the “simplers” searched for, tried and tested the plants we perhaps know as weeds today – nettles, dandelions, burdock, sorrel, wild mustard, watercress and many other herbs or beneficial weeds that have become a part of our daily kitchen and garden lives.
Paignton Zoo - photographic montage

This Garden of England that we live in – the Garden county of Kent in the south east, the Vale of Evesham, along the River Avon in Worcestershire, both originally home to orchards and market gardens supplying a vast range of fruits and vegetables.

I was surprised to learn that in the 1960s they started growing Chinese vegetables, which were relatively uncommon forty years ago; however now the Evesham Vale grows vast amounts of kai choi, pak choi and beansprouts – I’m sure most of us who purchase these ‘new’ vegetables would not have realised they were grown here, especially as the farms were started by Italians!

This is not a Barbary Ape, but is obviously so enjoying her greens - part of the BBC Devon article

People have become more open to new foods as we travel the world, which have changed our tastes and thus the opportunity to try out and cook these for ourselves. It’s all very well for the market gardens to supply our food – but we have a new kid on the block so to speak – Paington Zoo is growing food for their animals, trialling a new method of vertical farming that could well be rolled out to supply our ever insatiable appetite for greens.

We have already got living walls, as I wrote about in this post, which will I am sure take off as more and more of us get easier and cheaper access to these wall units or this different vertical farming method being trialled at Paington Zoo.

The system designed by a Cornish firm uses solar power or wind energy so that it is ‘eco-friendly’, while the water used to grow the plants is recycled. This system could be taken into the cities and towns, grown on small brown field sites, warehouses, on flat-topped rooves – providing a sustainable solution to getting our greens – while at the same time making better use of available land.

In the meantime in 2009 the Zoo together with a commercial partner (Valcent (EU) Ltd) installed the first of a new generation of innovative plant growing systems to support the growing of food for its animals in an energy efficient, local and nutritionally controlled way – so the Rock of Gibraltar, or Barbary, Apes get to act as ‘simplers’.

To begin with the Zoo will grow a whole range of herbs, leaf vegetable, as well as baby tomatoes and strawberries, which will reduce their food bill a little, as the animals scrunch, crunch and munch their way through a total of about £200,000 worth of fodder per year.

The 100 sq metre machine, like the one installed at Paignton Zoo, can grow up to 11,200 plants, which apparently is 20 times more than could be grown conventionally in a field covering the same area. The new rotating system has been installed in the first public vertical hydroponic display house – and so can be seen along with the other zoological and botanical exhibits.

Paignton Zoo was one of the earliest combined zoological and botanical gardens being run as a wildlife conservation trust, with a large emphasis on education and scientific collaboration around the world. So apart from the zoo itself, there is a wonderful themed botanical park through which you can to wander stimulating other senses: Medicinal Garden, Economic Garden, Wildlife Garden and the new venture of the vertical garden in its special display house.

c/o This is a picture from Patrick Blanc's Inhabitat site: Patrick Blanc’s Vertical Garden System can be implemented anywhere: indoors or out and in any climatic environment, as you can see!

The zoo may seem like an unlikely location for a groundbreaking project, but zoo directors understood the benefits of promoting vertical farming technology to the public as well as to growers. As a botanical garden, Paignton Zoo is keen to educate people about all aspects of horticulture, particularly new, environmentally friendly implementations such as this.

The world population is growing, food supply is shrinking, water supplies are becoming more limited, food production is competing for land with housing and the production of fuel crops. We have to make better use of available land.

However the Barbary Apes (the Macaque monkey) kept at the zoo, normally to be found in North Africa and on the Rock of Gibraltar are mostly herbivorous and will relish having the extra home-grown salad greens, as too will the other animals, birds, reptiles and insects be delighted to be sprinkled with salad leaves - as sorrel here.

Those weeds of yesteryear are becoming the seeds of choice today, or were so carefully selected by our ancients, when conditions about 13,000 years ago changed dramatically leading, in the face of starvation, to the cultivation of the best seeds available today.

This first collection of wild grass seeds actually sown on newly cleared land in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, set up a chain reaction of crop cultivation through the rest of history – so we now have the best of both worlds ... forgotten weeds and adaptable seeds .. letting us feed Barbary Apes our greens, while perhaps in due course creating the 21st century’s own Hanging Garden on Babylon.

Dear Mr Postman .. Spring is very slow and it is still fairly cold. My mother seems to be settled, quiet and at peace - which for Good Friday is the best way to be. Happy Easter to all.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories