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Notes from the Sticks: Within these walls


STONE walls are very common round here, some of them proper traditional dry stone, some with a bit of mortar in the centre and some with mortar throughout, like a brick wall. It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of wall it is to the plants though. If there is somewhere they can get their roots in, they will. And they must be very tough, because it is a harsh environment – little in the way of nutrients and nothing in the way of shelter. We have had glorious sunny weather for a week or so, such a treat after the long cold winter, and all but the north-facing stones have been baking. So far though the wall plants are putting up with it.

I took these pictures over the last few days within half a mile of home.

The most plentiful wall plant round here is ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) which flowers all summer long and into the autumn. It is native to southern Europe and is said to have been introduced to Britain in the 17th century in a consignment of statues sent to Oxford. This is on a bridge over the Ribble.

There is a white variation and I know of just one patch of it. You can see a few of the usual mauve flowers in amongst it.

Now a group of plants which one would expect to find in a wall, the ferns.

These are small Asplenium scolopendrium or hart’s tongue fern (with ivy leaved toadflax, which turns up in several pictures).

This is spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), the name deriving from the belief that it is useful in treating disorders of the spleen.

And this is wall-rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria).

Then there are plenty of other plants which could be described as opportunist wall-dwellers. They may not last the summer if they get too hot and dry, but if they manage to set seed they have done their job. Here are some I found.

Herb robert (Geranium robertianum):

Corydalis lutea, or fumewort, which I would love to grow in my garden but which stubbornly refuses to co-operate:

This is Galium aparine which goes under several common names. I know it as goosegrass, and others are cleavers, catchweed, robin-run-the-hedge, and sticky willy.


A grass:

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris):

Nettle (Urtica dioica):

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

Alliaria petiolata, or garlic mustard:

Red valerian (Centranthus ruber):

White valerian (Centranthus ruber alba). NOTE, Sunday 10.30am: I originally wrote that the pink plant in the background was feral campanula, but a reader suggested it was aubretia. When I checked I found it was neither but the mystery plant at the end of this article.

Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium). When I was a child in Beckenham, Kent, in the 1950s, this plant was everywhere, having colonised the many wartime bomb sites. Although Beckenham was not a target, it was in ‘Bomb Alley’, the route taken by German bombers and the V1 and V2 rockets. I was told that sometimes surplus bombs were dumped on the way back, and the rockets regularly fell short of London. There is a fascinating website here. The second picture is of my church when I was growing up, Christ Church, Beckenham. The houses round about were flattened and 12 were killed when a V1 landed on January 5, 1945. Soon after the war the church officials had the foresight to buy the derelict land and later turned it into car parks, which have been bringing in an income for the church ever since. This is one of the sites I remember being full of rosebay willowherb. You see in the picture that overlooking it was the interior wall of one of the destroyed houses, complete with fireplaces on each floor. I am pretty sure it is still there but rendered over. By the time I attended the church all traces of damage had been repaired, though there was a brass plaque in the church hall commemorating the raid and the fatalities. However last time I was there a few years ago I couldn’t find it.

Biting stonecrop (Sedum acre), which will have yellow flowers later. A small elder bush is growing above it.

Finally a couple of pretty plants which I can’t identify – I think they are pink and white variants of the same thing. Can anyone help?


Sheep of the Week

To give them their full name, these are Eppynt Hill and Beulah Speckled Face sheep, usually shortened to Beulah Speckled Face.

The breed has been present in the uplands of Wales, notably Eppynt, Llanafan, Abergwesyn and Llanwrtyd Wells, for more than a century, but is little known outside Wales. They are not true hill sheep which can be left outside all year, but they need minimal management. The pure-bred ewes  are usually crossed with lowland rams such as the Suffolk, Texel or Bluefaced Leicester to produce market lambs for meat.

The breed is named for its variably patterned black and white face, which is free from wool.

This is a fairly obscure sheep breed and there is very little video on YouTube. This is the best I can offer. (I tend to avoid videos of sales and shows because the sheep don’t usually look very happy, and they are normally back views, but this one is filmed from the front.)

You can read more (though not a lot more) on the Beulah Speckled Face Sheep Society website

Wheels of the week – On the Buses, Part 1

This week we start a three-part account by DEREK REYNOLDS of his time as a bus driver.

I grew up in Wood Green, North London, on Redvers Road which was the terminus of both the 625 and 643 trolleybus routes. These pictures taken in the mid to late 50s show buses parked outside the Congregational Church and Church Hall, awaiting crews.

Their quiet passage disturbed no one, swiftly gliding along with little sound other than the clickety-clicking of the resistances when accelerating, accompanied by the rising hum of the motor. When parked still connected to the overhead wires, their compressors would kick in now and then with a characteristic ‘thumping’. The only exciting thing was when the overhead booms jumped off the wires, which would cause the conductor to withdraw a long bamboo pole from its stored position beneath the back of the bus and hook the booms back on to the wires. They were also much faster than the diesel-powered buses of the day. But I never dreamt of becoming a bus driver.

Almost two decades later, I was living in the Hertfordshire countryside near Tring, and found myself disenchanted with travelling into London to work. One day off, I took the bus into Chesham and entered a different world. The bus was a single-decker, with a pay-as-you-enter system operated by the driver, but more to the point he greeted the passengers as familiar members of the rural community, stopping at garden gates, helping old ladies with their bags, and generally providing a needed service for which he was appreciated. I found this appealing.

January 1970: Tring had a small bus garage, and outside a sign said ‘Drivers Wanted’. An inspector stood close by and I showed interest. Very smartly dressed was he, with a ‘ruddy’ complexion and trouser creases you could have shaved with. This was Inspector Ronald Wright, and with a phone call to the main offices at Two Waters Garage at Hemel Hempstead, he secured me an appointment for an ‘aptitude test’ at Hemel. Passing this test undertaken by the formidable Chief Inspector Goodchild, I was introduced to the chief driving instructor, Bob Spence, who showed me around an AEC Regent Type (RT) double decker adorned with ‘L’ plates, and with the window behind the driver removed to receive instruction. This is the type of bus in a picture taken outside Two Waters Garage, facing northbound towards Tring. (There are pictures of Two Waters Garage and Tring Garage on this website.)

First off, a walk around giving overall dimensions, engine power, and transmission type. These vehicles were built through the 1950s with four-speed pre-selector gear selection, with a fluid flywheel. For the test drive, rather than operate as pre-select, I was told to use the gear selector as if it were a gear lever, and the ‘operating’ pedal as a clutch, but let the ‘clutch’ out fully to allow the fluid flywheel to operate as intended. Pressing the ‘gas’ pedal put us in motion, and off we set, pulling away in second gear as first was for hill starts and full loads. Heavy steering, but responsive, we went past Boxmoor Station, right into Fisheries Road, right again through Boxmoor village to Hemel’s big roundabout, back along Two Waters Road and back into the depot, where Bob asked me if I had driven buses before. I hadn’t, so I seemed to have done all right.

The following week was conductor training at St Albans garage, as all drivers had to pass as conductors before entering driving school. Calculating fares, understanding passes, monthly travel and season tickets, operating the Gibson ticket machine, the Setright and the Almex, understanding and observing ‘fare stages’ along a route and incrementing the ticket machine as each one was passed, along with the correct filling in of waybills so necessary for calculating passenger receipts and for inspection by inspectors along the routes. Then two weeks in driving school. This was more like it!

Three trainees and our instructor. We drove all over London and a lot of the Home Counties, sampling the fare of the various garage canteens and giving them marks out of ten. (Windsor was the best.) Along the road we would stop to swap drivers, take constructive criticism, be instructed on road safety and have the emphasis of ‘Observation, Anticipation, and Consideration’ drummed into us. Then came test day in early February 1970. Not only were we accompanied by our instructor and the examiner, we also had the examiner’s examiner on board! No pressure then. We were tested on manoeuvring; signalling (most by hand); pulling into stops keeping the rear platform adjacent to the stop and kerb where possible; reversing around a corner keeping the rear of the bus no more than twelve inches from the kerb and ending up parallel with the kerb; understanding bell signals; observation on passing every single side road, track, and driveway as you pass and after you have passed to ensure a clear and safe passing; use of brakes including emergency stops; operation of gears and the selection thereof under various road conditions including hills up and down; the Highway Code, and correct use of the handbrake. In the latter instance, if the ratchet was heard to engage when being pulled on you failed. Just one click, and you failed. Press the air brake, squeeze the lever, pull it back, release the lever, release the footbrake. Two of us passed, the other failed, to re-take on another date.

The next journey was to the Public Carriage Office in Penton Street, Islington, where you received your Public Service Vehicle licence (as it was then), and your badges – Conductor and Driver. These are mine:

Minolta DSC

 After that, back to your assigned garage and start route learning. This entailed riding as passenger and making notes. This also gave much insight from the regular drivers of not just the route, but where ‘Jumpers’ were most likely to appear. ‘Jumpers’ were inspectors whose job it was to catch you out for running early if they could.

Then you got teamed up with a conductor – and you were ‘in service’. In the cab of a 27’ 6” long, 7’ 6” wide and 14’ 6” high 9.7-litre straight six diesel engine AEC RT bus, with passengers boarding. Conductors would be issued a duty card upon ‘drawing’ their ‘box’ (containing ticket machine, spare rolls and duty card). This card represented the routes to be travelled in the course of a duty, and the times and points at which ‘hand-overs’ should take place. That card stayed with the conductor until the end of his duty when he or she ‘paid in’.

The driver would, when boarding his vehicle, find in the cab a ‘running’ card. This card remained in the vehicle at all times during the day. It showed where that vehicle was to be at the various points along the route, but mostly the termini – arrival times and departure times. The driver leaves that card in the cab.

This picture shows driver Brian Holland and conductor Roy ‘Poppy’ Flanders’ on the forecourt of Tring railway station in the early 1970s.

I drove the local routes 301, 301B and 302 between Aylesbury and Little Bushey near Watford, and sometimes up through Hemel Hempstead for the Apsley Mills (where Basildon Bond stationery was made) lunchtime rush on 312 and 316A. Buses lined up across the road while workers queued behind a white line within the works entrance. At a signal from the security guard there was a mad rush of humanity crossing the road en masse and boarding. With a standing load, we would take off through Hemel dropping off on the way and climbing up into the Highfield estates where we would stand for six minutes. Then make the return journey back to the Mills, picking up almost all the workers we took on the way out. What a life!

On the Buses by Derek Reynolds continues in Notes from the Sticks next Sunday.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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