Tuesday, June 21, 2022

A botanical Rant

Having a little botanical rant here.

Summer solstice, and the local grass verges are looking amazing. I am lucky in that I live in Cumbria in the middle of nowhere and that the County Council doesn’t get round to mowing our verges till the autumn. Also that the nearest large village is surrounded by what the CC designates “special verges” of high botanical importance.

All this makes me dubious when people in other areas post photographs on social media of big urban areas which are sowing “wild flowers” in “meadows” (quotation marks for irony). These are sown with seed mixes containing arable annuals, including non-natives such as the California Poppy and French Spinach (Red Orache). The result may be pretty but by definition, these are not meadows, which are permanent grassland not arable fields. It’s gardening – admirable, well carried out, eye-catching, but not, as some claim, restoring degraded habitat. It’s more colourful and a bit more diverse than super-mown grass verges, and it saves the councils some expense, which is a fair enough reason to do it, but outside of urban settings it’s inappropriate.

I fear for the natural British flora at the hands of well intentioned but uninformed gardeners.

As I mentioned above, I’m in a rural area. Step out of the farm gate with me, onto the lane which is an ancient drove road, in its heyday a route for cattle and goods being walked into the industrial towns. It’s mown once a year now by the Council, in September or October. I don’t suppose it held as much flora or insect life in the old days as it does now – travelling hooves and teeth will have seen to that. But there were meadows and moorland either side of it and when the hooves and teeth disappeared, it came back.

The verges now are astonishingly diverse.

Walk 200 yards each way with me. Instead of the scientific binomials that I have come to prefer I’ll give you common English names, which to a writer are as much of a joy as the flowers and plants themselves.


  1. Grasses: Rye grass

  2. Rough meadow grass

  3. Wavy hair grass

  4. Quaking grass

  5. Sweet vernal grass

  6. Yorkshire fog

  7. False Oat

  8. False brome

  9. Cocksfoot

  10. Ferns: Male Fern

  11. Lady Fern

  12. Shrubs: Northern Downy Rose

  13. Sherard’s Downy Rose

  14. Summer snowflake (an escape from my garden, not planted)

  15. Geranium macrorrhizum (an escape from my garden, not planted)

  16. Giant Bellflower (native but an escape from my garden, not planted)

  17. Wood cranesbill

  18. Meadow cranesbill

  19. Herb Robert

  20. Nipplewort

  21. Meadow vetchling

  22. Bush vetch

  23. Birds-foot trefoil

  24. White clover

  25. Red clover

  26. Feverfew

  27. Cinquefoil

  28. Silverweed

  29. Meadow buttercup

  30. Bulbous buttercup

  31. Common chickweed

  32. Mouse-ear chickweed

  33. Common sallow

  34. Eyebright

  35. Great willowherb

  36. Lady’s mantle

  37. Water avens

  38. Mouse-ear hawkweed

  39. Rough hawkbit

  40. Marsh thistle

  41. Spear thistle

  42. 3 different species of dandelions

  43. Common daisy

  44. Ox-eye daisy

  45. Germander speedwell

  46. Field speedwell

  47. Meadowsweet

  48. Betony

  49. Self-heal

  50. Hedge woundwort

  51. Harebell

  52. Crosswort

  53. Common sorrel

  54. Cow parsley

  55. Black Knapweed

  56. Garlic Mustard

  57. Hedge bedstraw

  58. Lady’s bedstraw

  59. Foxglove

  60. Yarrow

  61. Welsh Poppy

  62. Ribwort plantain


  1. Grasses: Rye grass

  2. Rough meadow grass

  3. Wavy hair grass

  4. Sweet vernal grass

  5. Yorkshire fog

  6. False Oat

  7. Cocksfoot

  8. Ferns: Male Fern

  9. Lady Fern

  10. Common Polypody

  11. Shrubs: Common sallow

  12. Bay willow

  13. Blackthorn

  14. Wild plum (Prunus domestica)

  15. Hawthorn

  16. Bird cherry

  17. Ash

  18. Hazel

  19. Northern Downy Rose

  20. Sherard’s Downy Rose

  21. Wood cranesbill

  22. Meadow cranesbill

  23. Herb Robert

  24. Shining cranesbill

  25. Meadow vetchling

  26. Bush vetch

  27. Tufted vetch

  28. Birds-foot trefoil

  29. White clover

  30. Red clover

  31. Cinquefoil

  32. Silverweed

  33. Meadow buttercup

  34. Celandine

  35. Common chickweed

  36. Mouse-ear chickweed

  37. Broad-leaved willowherb

  38. Lady’s mantle

  39. Water avens

  40. Wood avens

  41. Rough hawkbit

  42. Marsh thistle

  43. 3 different species of dandelions

  44. Ox-eye daisy

  45. Goat’s-beard

  46. Germander speedwell

  47. Field speedwell

  48. Meadowsweet

  49. Betony

  50. Self-heal

  51. Hedge woundwort

  52. Crosswort

  53. Common sorrel

  54. Cow parsley

  55. Pignut

  56. Raspberry

  57. Wild strawberry

  58. Barren strawberry

  59. Common Dog-violet

  60. Blinks

  61. Brooklime

  62. Black Knapweed

  63. Melancholy thistle

  64. Garlic Mustard

  65. Lady’s Smock

  66. Wood forgetmenot

  67. Changing forgetmenot

  68. Cleavers

  69. Hedge bedstraw

  70. Lady’s bedstraw

  71. Hogweed

  72. Foxglove

  73. Yarrow

  74. Red Campion

  75. Welsh Poppy

  76. Ribwort plantain

  77. And the odd nettle and common dock, but not many because everything else keeps them in check.

These lists are from memory alone…And that’s without going half a mile up the road where the verges are graced by Northern Marsh Orchid and Common Spotted Orchid and a myriad of their hybrids, plus Bilberry, Lemon-Scented Fern and Hard Fern. All on the roadside.

If I went out with a clipboard throughout the year and noted everything I saw either side of our house I could easily list up to 100 species of plant in a quarter-mile of road. 

Lots of plant diversity brings lots of insect diversity, plentiful insects bring diverse bird and animal life.

Many other verges can be as diverse as ours if they are not mown to within an inch of their life by lawn-obsessives – and if they are spared the attentions of the sow-a-meadow apostles.

Yes, OK, sow native annuals where you have already got a degraded grass verge.

But leave the good’uns alone please.

Sunday, August 22, 2021


What a ragbag of inheritance our language has. 

I've been pondering why the hair round the feet of horses and ponies is called "feather", in the singular, no matter how legs or how many horses we are talking about. 

What other nouns behave like this? Wool, at clipping-time, is a mass noun; the fleeces (plural) as a whole are wool, not wools, though a grader at the mill would define different "wools" by their staple length and fineness. Fluff. We wouldn't call the fibre gathered by the vacuum cleaner "fluffs" even if it had come off several cats. A high quality duvet is filled with down, not downs, despite the filling having come from more than one bird. It's something to do with volume, mass or quantity. Some uncountable quality makes these things mass nouns. 

Rice, gold, butter. Milk, honey, marmalade. Sugar, grass, sand. Hay, straw, bedding. Cutlery, furniture. Concrete. All these are mass nouns. Not pebbles, rocks, or apples. 

So feather is a mass noun when it relates to horses, but not when it relates to birds! Feathers with an "s" are something entirely different, and structurally different from hair (which, incidentally, on humans, in English, is also a mass noun – we never say, "I love your hairs.") 

Why? I dunno. It just is.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Able and disabled

As we crawl slowly out of the privacy of coronavirus lockdown I have been pondering the relationships I have with other people.

The ones I like best are the live-and-let-live kind. My husband and our family are very good at that. We are there for each other when needed, whether that's wild partying, childbirth, death, or cleaning a drain. Otherwise, no news is good news.

Many of my friends are similar. I suppose that's the nature of friendship when you live widely spaced in a rural area. It requires effort and/or fuel to make a call in person, so it tends to be by invitation rather than a casual just-passing intrusion. I gather from things I've read that this is sometimes seen as a masculine attitude; that male friendships are a honeycomb of adjacent interests rather than a mingling of personas. I don't much care whether that's masculine or not. I'll settle for the honeycomb any day, even if it does mean that when I complete the surveys about How the Over-60s are Coping After Coronavirus, the number of people I can list as 10 out of 10 for friendship is non-existent. Family get a 10; friends and work colleagues, usually a 6. The rest are acquaintances, with whom I speak/correspond far more by email and on social media, rather than in person. Lockdown has been a confirmation of my preferences, rather than an issue.

There are a couple of friends whom I meet in person who sometimes make me feel uncomfortable. I have had difficulty in pinning down why, but I think it's because they are very intense and ask quite personal questions. We can go along happily for hours discussing external matters, writing, language, the countryside, botany, music, horse management or whatever, even politics; then suddenly there'll be the "And how are YOU?" question, about your joints / your lungs / your eyesight / your bereavement, which, given the above paragraphs about my preferences for the social distancing of lockdown, feels slightly creepy. I would rather not be asked such questions directly. The answers, I feel every time, are very much only to be shared with immediate family and my medical advisers.

I don't know why my friends ask about these things. From my side, it feels as though I am being used as a target for empathy practice. I have been fiercely independent since childhood, and since adulthood I have had a reputation for being powerful and efficient. I don't want things done for me, even by a friend, just because they think I have had a medical or emotional difficulty. It feels as though it's a power trip for them, and I dislike it a great deal.

I imagine people who have chronic illnesses and permanent injuries feel much the same: I certainly would rather be thanked or congratulated for something I have done than pitied for something I can't. Empathy is one thing, but pity is quite another.

Which brings me to considering the elderly, disabled neighbour. He is registered blind, has had toes amputated due to diabetes, needed skin grafts two years ago because he burned his leg while lighting the open fire, and consumes a list of daily medications as long as your arm. My husband goes in twice a day to check on him and set out his medications, morning and evening, because he can't read the bottle labels any more.

Our neighbour really ought not to be living alone at all, certainly not for five days out of seven, from Monday mid-day to Saturday mid-day when his daughter arrives for the weekend. He can't measure out his liquid medications without spilling them, so he glugs them from the bottle, overdoses himself and gets diarrhoea as a result... leaving a brown trail from the couch to the front garden because he can't go upstairs to the toilet fast enough. And because he's blind he can't see if he has made a mess, and because he is disabled he couldn't clean it up if he did. Another neighbour goes in once or twice a week and cleans up after him. Another sometimes leaves him pies or stews to eat.

When I heard those details from my husband yesterday, I was first revolted, then surprised that he hadn't talked about it before, and then angry with the mostly-absent daughter. That degree of unsanitary living is a "high" level of concern on the AgeUK scale. Yet the old man probably thinks, as I've outlined above for myself, that his independence matters more than any other consideration.

At what point should we, as neighbours, interfere further? We can't ask social services for help with his care, not without his consent (disregarding whatever the daughter might have to say). You can’t force someone to accept help or act on their behalf unless they agree to it, and he's not mentally incompetent, just stubbornly independent. I suppose we have to wait until he feels he's had a really bad day, when he has no choice but to swallow his pride and ask for help.

As for me, I think I'd rather break my neck playing with horses before I reach that age.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Galloway Gate - free this weekend

About the Lune Gorge, and several pieces about Fell ponies and their owners and the land they belong to -
- go on, it's worth a look and costs nowt!

I've updated all my book prices too, and the full list is here: http://www.jackdawebooks.co.uk/prices.htm

While you're thinking, here's a sample from Galloway Gate.

Darkfall CV-19

Dusk drifts smoke-blue from the east.

Sheep nipnipnip at the frosting grass

(eat, eat before night). A distant dog

barks the same rhythm, with no message.

We have met no-one since dawn.

No bikers from the Devil's Bridge,

no walkers queueing for the mountains,

no chatty neighbours bringing eggs,

and for this we are thankful.

Only one con-trail, pink, in the west

draws a line at the end of the day.

The blackbird whistles the trees to bed.

The air is clear of everything but rooks

whose funeral wings wipe the sky clean.



Saturday, April 17, 2021


I did not watch The Funeral. I am sure it will be more or less on a loop on social media and several TV channels for the next 24 hours. 


I drove my old Fell pony instead and thought, as we trundled gently through the sunshine, of the carriage drivers I've known who will do it no more, and the one who said that his Fell team were "all ancient, like me."


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Easter Sunday and Remembrance Sunday

Easter Sunday and Remembrance Sunday have two things in common, and one of them is that they are Sundays.

The other is that they make us feel better about death.

Both are linked to a human pattern of thought wants to attribute purpose to a person dying. "Jesus died for our sins." "Soldiers died to keep us free." To which I have to say, "Sentimental tosh. They were killed." 

Or, since the grammar checker advises against the use of the passive voice, "Someone killed them". 

Or, to remove more vagueness, it wasn't "someone" who killed them, it was another man (on the whole). 

"A soldier killed them."

...or a Government employee of some kind, whatever term you choose -- a man (or a woman) employed or co-erced to behave in a way that served policies that had been formed by other men in authority. Pilate's power came from the ruling Roman empire. Rommel and Himmler and other generals derived their authority from Hitler's Nazi regime.

So let's rephrase it yet again:

"The Empire of Rome killed Jesus."

"The Nazi party killed Corporal Jones and his mates."

And both can be boiled down even further into:

"Political power and greed killed them."

I don't believe for more than half a minute that either group of victims was intending to "die for us". 

The notions of sacrifice that are attached to Easter and Remembrance Sunday have been put there by other people, and that's because humans don't like guilt and regret and loss, and they do like a story to have a purpose; the same way we like fiction better than news broadcasts, and conspiracy theories better than science. Humans like over-simplification - the "elevator pitch".

Still, if we must have a story and a purpose, then let's respect Jesus (if he existed) and the war dead (who definitely did) for having been regarded as a notable threat to a policy or a system. 

But consider also the possibility that the lofty notions of sacrifice or deity have been attached to their deaths afterwards, by those who survived, to make them (us) feel better.

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Awesomeness of the Fell Pony

You may have noticed that I have a very strong bias in my horse "character" preferences. Hoofprints in Eden, Scratch and String of Horses all feature or star Fell ponies. Guess why...

Because they are awesome...

Newcomers to the blog may not realise that I don't just write books about Fell ponies (or that I write other things as well). I write the script/s and commentate  for the Fell Pony Society's Display Team. I edit the Fell Pony Society's Magazine, and look after their web site. I serve on the FPS Council and on a couple of sub committees. I'm on the FPS sub committee that's planning the celebrations of the Society's Centenary coming up in 2022 - helping with a book, a video and an exhibition. 
I also look after the historical resource that is the Fell Pony And Countryside Museums web site, which gives background and historical context to the real life collections at Dalemain.

Not bad for an awd OAP grannie, eh? Oh aye, and in between times I drive my Fell pony.
Step aside, we're comin' through.