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Telescopes and Trees – part one

Telescopes and trees do not normally go together but there is one very special place here in the Midlands where they certainly do. We drove northwards on the A49 making our way into Cheshire in search of Jodrell Bank famous as a space research centre created by Sir Bernard Lovell. He was a man with varied interests trees, cricket and space. Here in Cheshire he indulged in two of his passions trees and space.

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We passed through part of the information centre to get to the start of the arboretum trail and we tried to read some of the information panels and studied complicated diagrams. We were instantly lost – the realms of space are not within the realms of our understanding. We both find it fascinating but it all seems way beyond our understanding. At least we tried before moving into the arboretum – trees we can appreciate and understand.

This arboretum holds two National Collections, crab apples and rowans. Malus and Sorbus to be more botanically correct. These are two of my favourite families of trees, if only they had Betulas as well! I would have been in my element!

We had read on the website before coming that the paths can get wet so sensible footwear was advisable. We wore our walking boots and we were so pleased that we had. The paths were so wet often the water was almost to the top of our boots, but it didn’t spoil our enjoyment of a wonderful collection of trees set amidst a natural woodland setting.

A collection of deciduous Euonymus welcomed us as we passed through the wooden gate, their wild coloured berries and bright autumnal leaves were a treat for the eyes.

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We wandered through woodland towards a fairly recently created garden designed by Chris Beardshaw. Before entering his garden we found a little collection of Berberis clothed in their waxy red berries which hung in long racemes.

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Chris Beardshaw’s garden was designed to reflect the creation of space itself and was a strong design based on spirals and circles with a gentle mound at the centre affording us the opportunity of appreciating these shapes from above. The main planting was willows, grasses and perennials.

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Soon after a circular walk around this garden of circles and spirals we discovered the first of the Crab Apples and they were laden with fruit, their miniature apples in sizes varying from tiny beads up to golf ball size.

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This golden fruited variety in the two photos below are “Comtesse de Paris” and the red fruited variety below them with fruit reminiscent of the haws of our native Hawthorn is “Mary Petter”. Close by the stump of a felled old tree had been carved into a proud looking eagle. Upon the eagle we spotted a ladybird sunning itself perhaps finding extra warmth on the wood of the stump. Better camouflaged was the Shield Bug we found just inches away.

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Malus “Indian Summer” was one of the newly planted specimens probably a cultivar newly developed although some of the old original crab trees were now being replaced as they died off.

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But there was much more to this part of the arboretum than the wonderful crab apples, and we discovered interesting trees at every turn in the path and around every clearing, birches, walnuts, whitebeam and maples. In this area of the garden migrant thrushes were busy feeding up after their long journeys. All these crab apples, sorbus and other fruiting trees and nut bearing trees provide a wonderfully rich restaurant for them.

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Two trees caught our attention but we didn’t particularly like either of them and they both seemed so out of place in this natural feeling woodland. They were more “novelty features” than attractive trees. First photo is of a strange weeping conifer and the second a columnar Whitebeam.

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I shall finish part one of our visit to Jodrell Bank Arboretum with a photo of a lovely golden crab apple with blushed cheeks. My next post will be part two when we shall be on the look out for the second featured group of trees, the Rowans or Sorbus.

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The Final Cut

At last a half day of dry weather allowed us a window in which to cut our last meadow on the allotments. This meadow is situated close to our very mature oak tree and within the grasses we grow wildflowers and cultivated plants that we know attract bees, butterflies and moths, hoverflies and all sorts of beneficial insects. It is home too to amphibians, small mammals and even grasshoppers and crickets. The flowering plants here this year just have not stopped flowering their hearts out so we have left cutting the meadow down until last.

So early in November four of us set to with strimmers, mowers and rakes and we made sure we had our water proof clothes at the ready. An hour into our work and we needed them. But we persevered and got the job done. Beautiful rainbows came out to wish us luck.

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A few weeks earlier lots of members worked together mowing, strimming and raking away on the other meadows while the weather held. We were lucky to get so much done, finishing off all but one of our many meadow areas. It is really important to look after the meadows around the site as they are such an important habitat for wildlife and of course help us with our pest control by harbouring predatory insects.

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The meadows grasses beneath the fruit trees in the orchard get very thick so take a lot of sorting out. Luckily, Ian one of our committee came along and he is a builder so he made light work of it.

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The turf spiral is a very fiddly job but John came along and got to work with his strimmer. He loves strimming so we left him to get on with it! It looked really smart!

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When we had finished we had time to appreciate the wonderful colourful fruit of the Crab Apples which we grow in the orchards to improve the pollination of our main apple trees.

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When we stopped for our coffee and cake break we discovered that our resident Little Owl had been using the picnic bench before us. He had left a pellet for us to examine. We learned by studying it closely that he had been enjoying meals of beetles and mice.

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Mating Dragonflies

It is always a delight to see dragonflies or damselflies. We have them in our garden and often see them laying eggs on stems under the water’s surface and later see them emerge back up the stems where they wait in the sunshine for their wings to dry out in readiness for a short life on the wing. When cleaning out some of the debris from the bottom of the pond to stop it getting too thick, we often come across the larvae of dragonflies. These larvae are ferocious hunters with dragon like heads.

When walking through a garden in Herefordshire recently we came across a mating pair on the leaf of a tree just at eye level. It gave me a rare opportunity to photograph them. I hope you enjoy my efforts. Unfortunately I did not have my close up lens with me or I could have experimented more.

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Pumpkins, a BBQ and Homes for Wildlife

At the end of October we held our first ever family oriented working party social day at our allotments, Bowbrook Allotment Community. It was a great success even though the whole day was spent in wellies and waterproofs. The ground beneath our feet was saturated and occasional showers got us from above, but neither distracted us from our aims of the day.

We started just after one o’clock when a photographer from the local newspaper came to take some shots of families working together on our “Homes for Wildlife” projects and one of our most recent award, the RHS Britain in Bloom “National Award of Distinction” which we were awarded for our community involvement.

First task was to make some birdboxes and Wren Pouches. All the materials were collected together by one of our picnic benches and tools readied.  It was heartening to see children, their parents and grandparents working together creating these nest boxes. Three generations together!

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We made some hanging bug shelters too, created from broken flower pots, driftwood and bits of bark.

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We wished also to make a couple of bug hotels, a small one along the fenceline and our most ambitious yet a 6 ft high creepy crawly cottage both based on recycled wooden pallets. We began with a stack of pallets and a collection of natural objects collected by allotment holders, sticks, old garden canes, stones, fir cones etc.

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The “cottage” soon began to take shape as pallets were stacked and fixed together to give the basic structure.

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All we have to do now is choose a name for our new insect home. We have challenged the youngsters from the allotments, our Roots and Shoots group, to choose a suitable one. So far we have a few ideas – “Minibeast Manor”, “Bugtique Hotel” and “Minibeast Metropolis”. The difficulty will be how to decide!

The smaller insect hotel was made from five pallets and again filled with objects that would provide shelter for wildlife. We finished it off with a stone pile, the perfect home for beetles.

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The final jobs before our BBQ was to plant lots of acorns, sweet chestnuts and hazel nuts to grow on and plant in our hedgerows and to plant up a whole sack of daffodil bulbs alongside the paths in our meadows.

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The BBQ brought us all back together and once darkness fell we lit our pumpkin lanterns. And we even found time for Jude to do some face painting.

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As we enjoyed the BBQ the light disappeared and we prepared ourselves for the Twilight Walk, when we wandered around the site with lit pumpkins to light our way in search of sheds decorated as Spooky Sheds.

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And as the night fell we disappeared into the gloom with our pumpkins to guide our way.

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Autumn Working Parties – sorting the meadows.

Our Autumn Working Parties at the allotments are mostly to do with treating our various meadows to their annual haircut, brush up and manicures. Last year we were badly held up by the wet weather and struggled late in the year to get our meadows sorted. This year we had no such problems and managed to get the ball rolling in mid-September. We did however have an audience who sat and watched us, three of the Mallard ducklings who live on site, eating our slugs and snails with raspberries for dessert. Now that is what you call organic pest control!

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The main wildflower meadows need a lot of work to get the thick grass cut down low and to ensure the thatched grass layer is removed.

When we cut the meadows in the orchards we tidy up by clearing grass back form around each tree and top dress with a good deep mulch of manure. This will keep the area weed free and slowly feed the trees next year. We had given the orchards a quick trim over a few weeks earlier and as can be seen in the photo below the warm moist weather had encouraged fresh growth.

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They looked very neat when we had finished. We can now wait for the first bright green spikes of the bulbs that will give us colour early in the year.

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When the meadows are cut very low and well raked, some patches are scarified to allow us to sow seeds of Yellow Rattle, a wild flower which parasitises on the roots of strong growing grass. This weakens the growth of the grass and allows the wild flowers to get better established. It is also good at attracting beneficial insects and bees. So on an allotment site this helps with pest control and pollinating of crops. We spend a lot of time keeping an eye on the meadows to see when the seeds of wild flowers ripen so that we can collect them for re-sowing in the spring.

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One area will not be getting much attention yet though, the three beds that make up the “Perfect for Pollinators” garden. As the photo illustrates one of these is planted up with garden plants, one with a mix of native and garden plants and the third (at the bottom edge of the photo) is seeded each year with annual wildflowers. This annual bed will be cleared completely and then sown afresh in the spring.

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The Little Edible Hedge

When we were visiting my mother recently I was amazed to see just how much food for wildlife the old hedge alongside her back garden was presenting to the mammals and birds and of course the odd late flying butterfly and wasp. This stretch of hedge was originally an old field boundary and it illustrates just how much damage to Mother Nature’s larder the destruction of our hedges by intensive style agriculture actually causes. Here we have a 20 yard stretch of mixed natives with an odd cultivated plant creeping in from the garden that is a veritable larder for all sorts of wildlife.

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Think of hedgerow food for wildlife and the first fruit to come to mind will be the Bramble or Blackberry. This may be simply because we enjoy a tasty nibble of these glossy black gems ourselves. We might also think of Roses with their red fruit following on from their beautiful pink or white flowers. As children we may remember them as natural itching powder – remember the effects of popping a crushed hip down a friend’s jumper? Admit it! Humans have also long collected the hips of the wild roses to produce Rose Hip Syrup.

Rose Hips have long been enjoyed by humans as well as wildlife, being used for jams, jellies, marmalades, wine and tisanes. More recently it has been appreciated for its medicinal benefits in relation to alleviating the effects of arthritis, gradually displacing glucosamine. Our pets also appreciate them as apparently they are given to chinchillas and guinea pigs as a treat.

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A couple of hedge row fruits are also favourites of foragers, the Sloe and the Crab Apple as we readily turn these into tasty winter warmers Sloe Gin and Crab Apple Jelly. In this little length of hedge we found a wild crab and a cultivated crab growing a few feet away from each other. Our birds and mammals probably view them as equally important sources of winter nutrition. They will not be concerned that one has been planted to delight my mother with its spring blossom and red autumn fruits.

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One important food source for wildlife is a little black berry that clumps together in spheres but this will not be until later on in the winter. For now the Ivy is still in flower and these tiny green florets are just starting to become berries. The Ivy plant is a vital  for wildlife throughout the whole year. It provides shelter for all sorts of creatures from the tiniest insect to the plump Wood Pigeons, nest sites for birds such as Wrens, Blackbirds, Song Thrush and Robins and again the Wood Pigeon. In winter the Ivy provides warmth and secret hiding places for all sorts of creatures.

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Less useful for wildlife are the cultivated plants that make their way into the hedge but the local Blackbird population will not turn their beaks up at the tiny long tear drop berries of the Berberis.

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In contrast the deep red berries hanging in full bunches on the Hawthorns will be appreciated by many birds both residents and winter migrants. Once the Redwings and Fieldfares arrive on the back of the cold wet storms of autumn they will soon disappear.

The hawthorn berries have a place to play in human lives as well as wildlife, perhaps not yet seen as important as rose hip but it is being researched at the moment in relation to heart functions. For centuries it has been a part of the cuisine in China. Interestingly the name haw, which is now used to mean the berries, was originally a name meaning “hedge”.

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So this short section of hedge of native shrubs mixed with the odd garden specimen will soon become the favourite restaurant for our avian neighbours.

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Mad Autumn Moments with Martins

Six weeks or so ago our flocks of martins suddenly departed southward and the swallows gathered on the telephone wires above the road passing the front of our house. They chattered and fidgeted, stretched their wings and tails and preened busily ensuring that they were in the best of trim for their long migratory adventure.

Then one day the skies were silent and the wires empty.

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But a week later as we were working away in the garden borders we heard excited calls overhead and dozens of swallows were swirling around just above shrub height. They were so close to us as they enjoyed a feeding frenzy. They must have been en route south from further up North, Scotland or the Lake District perhaps, when the big old oak tree in the paddock behind us and the gardens of our little group of houses called them down. This place meant insects to gorge on to refill and prepare themselves by stocking up for the next leg of their long migration. As we watched stunned by their excitement, their noise and flying acrobatics, they were joined by an equal number of house martins.

They periodically stopped in mixed groups on our roof ridge to chatter and catch up on the latest migration news. For us of course there was the added bonus of all those garden pests being hoovered up by gaped beaks. Great pest control!

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Now in early October they have definitely all gone. We miss their constant chattering in the sky above the garden and await their return in the Spring.

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Return to the Fold

You may remember in an earlier posting on my Greenbenchramblings blog that we enjoyed a walk up a local hill to find the stone circle called Mitchell’s Fold. Recently when my brother and his wife, Graham and Vicky, came to stay with us in lovely Shropshire they fancied a walk somewhere with a feeling of openness, calm and peace. So, we returned to “The Fold”.

For the first set of photos I stood in the middle of the stone circle and took a series of six pics as I moved around in a circle taking in the 360 degree view.

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And then I took a series of shots of the stones themselves, the stones that give this special place a unique feeling and atmosphere. Calm. Peace. Contentment. When we stood within the circle of stones we realised why it has been for thousands of years a place of worship and magic.

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Mother nature has been at work here growing beautiful grasses, sedges, fungi and flowers specially suited to the difficult terrain.

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Graham and Vicky who live down in a town in the South of England, were blown away by the massive views and the 360 degrees through which eyes and mind can wander.

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This place is where we expect to see unusual birds but not very many of them. Today was no exception as we enjoyed the sight of small pipits and finches being buffeted in the winds and birds of prey such as Hen Harrier, Red Kite, Kestrel and Buzzard hunting in their own special ways taking advantage of the slopes and thermals. We met a special creature on our way up the track from the stone circle to the cairns atop the hill. A dung beetle. Its name is a little off-putting as is its habit of moving dung around by rolling it into balls. But they are fascinating little critters who are one of nature’s great recyclers. This little glossy black spherical beetle had iridescent kingfisher blue legs that flashed as it moved and when turned over it revealed similar brightness

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As we turned at the end of the outward leg of our trek we made our way up to the top of the ridge where we stop for refreshment at the cairn. We searched for a stone as we moved uphill as we like to follow the tradition of putting our own stone on the cairn to mark our presence. The views from the cairn wre stunning and simply huge!

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Our little stone sat happily among its much larger cousins who will protect it from the extremes of our weather.

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The coffee and fruit stop was most welcome and came at the right time as Vicky and Graham’s looks of anticipation illustrate.

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Suitably refreshed and impressed with the hill top cafe facilities we made our way along the ridge and slowly back down to the car.

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On the way back down we came across an area where the bracken was glossy and shone in the afternoon sunshine, a phenomena we have not experienced before.

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Boughton House – The Gardens

Back to Boughton as promised and this time we are off to the more intimate gardens closer to the house. These contrast strongly with the large scale landscaping with the huge land forms.

Refreshed with a good coffee and a slice of lemon drizzle cake from the restaurant in the stableyard we wandered off to the walled garden.

On the way we passed through a couple of old gates, presenting an odd juxtaposition with one so grand and one rather normal. Finding an old orchard was an unexpected pleasure. The old apple trees are being sensitively renewed through careful and very skillful pruning.

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The gateway that led to the walled garden was most welcoming and we accepted readily its generous invitation to enter.

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And what a sight met our eyes! The area enclosed by the old honey-coloured stone walls was far larger than we expected and contained a sensory garden, a wildlife garden, herbaceous borders and old greenhouses surrounded by interesting plantings in a selection of eclectic containers.

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The garden designed to attract wildlife contained some interesting insect shelters and great plants for beneficial “critters”. We were most impressed by the insect home called “Creepy Crawly Cottage and the impressive bird bath.

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The old gardeners’ bothy was full of character. I loved the bell!

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At the far end of the walled garden the sensory garden satisfied our noses with sweet herby scents.

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I shall finish this report on Boughton with a couple of interesting features that caught my eye throughout the garden.

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A wander in the Oxfordshire countryside


We were in Oxfordshire for a few days last week mainly because it was my birthday and as a treat Jude the Undergardener arranged for us to visit a garden designed by one of my favourite garden designers, Tom Stuart-Smith. (If you are a regular reader you will already know that!) He had designed a part of a much bigger garden which we discovered included two of our favourite features, meadows and an arboretum. But that is the subject of my next post so you have to wait for that treat!

A mile or two from out hotel was a nursery specialising in herbs (The National Herb Centre) and it had the added benefit of being in farmland to which visitors had access. We did enjoy looking at the huge variety of herbs especially the mints, lavenders and thymes but we mostly wanted to get into that countryside.

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We wandered through wet grassland where even the cut paths were saturated from the heavy overnight rain. As rain still threatened and dark clouds loomed overhead we headed for the woods in the bottom of a valley. We were glad we did as the air was thick with birdsong. It was so loud and there were so many birds there, that it brought back memories of country childhoods where this volume of birdsong resounded everywhere. Sadly it is now rare. So rare that it stopped us in our tracks. Blackbirds, Dunnocks  Wrens, Robins and Song Thrushes. These resident birds provided the main chorus but the solos were performed by the summer visitors, the warblers. Blackcaps, Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs, Wood Warblers and Redstarts.

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A loud buzzing sound emanating from behind a notice on a tree trunk made us stop and investigate. Dark bodied bees were busy around a crack in the bark and in the shelter of the notice. They seemed calm so I moved in close to take a photo and they didn’t seem to mind. However they changed their tune when the camera flash went off, their gentle buzzing sounded more urgent and aggressive so we moved away rapidly.


Leaving the shelter of the wood we were pleased that the rain had stopped and the world looked a lot brighter so we followed a path around the meadows which we discovered were very damp so in patches were covered in that most ancient of plants the Mares Tail, always a sign of damp ground. Anywhere that the ground dipped a pool had formed.

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Between two of these pools a surprise awaited us. Look at the next photo and see if you can work out just what lurks in the greenery.


Have a look at this second view taken a few steps further back and there is a clue.


Yes, here in the soggy ground between two pools the farmer had abandoned a pair of old tractors. The one deep in the undergrowth would never pull a plough to turn the earth but with a little persuasion the second might. The amount of wildlife living in the oldest of the two must have been vast. The bodywork was host to mosses, lichen and algae and spiders had crafted their webs from the wing mirrors. But the biggest surprise of all was that a pair of Bullfinches, surely one of our most colourful native birds were feeding a nest of young within its heart. So there was plenty of life in the old tractor still!

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Of course once we had finished enjoying wandering around the fields we returned to the garden centre for a coffee and to purchase a few choice plants. Who could ask for more?