Sunday, 11 December 2011

Prize-winning Gooseberries

Despite the size of this wonderful red berry, my attempts at growing prize-winning gooseberries have not been particularly successful.  The winning gooseberries are as big as large eggs; mine are no where near as big – yet. 

This is typical of the displays of prize winning gooseberries that can be found in the pubs where the shows take place in July and early August each year.  There are ten shows: one at Egton Bridge in Yorkshire; all the others in Cheshire and close to us at Goostrey, Over Peover, Swettenham, Marton, and other villages, all within a twelve miles radius.

As you can see, the gooseberries come in four colours: red, white, green and yellow; different varieties in each colour and each variety developed by the growers themselves.  A legendary grower, in the second half of the twentieth century, was Frank Carter, who developed seventeen new cultivars; many of which are still winning shows decades after they were first shown.  Gardeners will know that it takes many years to breed a new variety, and to discover whether a gooseberry tree, as the plants are called among growers, will have berries that are heavy enough to show takes even longer.

The trees are usually grown in pens covered by netting to protect the berries from birds, but ours are in a cage so that visitors to the Old Medicine House can see the cultivars developed by Frank Carter that growers from the Mid-Cheshire Gooseberry Societies have kindly donated to The BlackdenTrust.  Each grower has his own secret method, even ritual, to grow the monster berries. It is said that one advocates urine after a night on the beer; another, a bucket-full of rats; and one, somewhat enigmatically, ‘a little bit of weskit pocket’.  They may be secretive about their particular formula for success, but they are very generous in passing on the skills to novice growers, and to those that take them seriously.   I am very lucky to have been taken under the wing of two growers, who came a couple of weeks ago, to perform the first essential treatment of the trees to get decent sized berries: pruning

For the uninitiated, it is frightening.  A perfectly healthy, many branched, bushy tree is reduced to a fist of old wood with four or five white stalks of this year’s growth.  One of my friends pruned.  His aim was to create a tree that looked like ‘the spokes of a cartwheel’.  The other selected and trimmed the pruned twigs to make cuttings, which he stuck into the soil around the parent plant.

This denuded plant is now ready for winter. 

Frank Carter was born here in Toad Hall, and grew all his gooseberries in Blackden; either in this garden or in the garden of No.4 Blackden Firs.  Some of the names he gave to his cultivars reflect what was important to him: Blackden Gem; Firbob; Roots; Blackden Firs; and Just Betty, named after his mother, Betty Carter. 

As well as establishing a collection of his cultivars to commemorate Frank’s achievements, The Blackden Trust commissions a Frank Carter Memorial Plate, each year, to be awarded to the grower of the heaviest berry shown at the Goostrey Gooseberry Show.

Here are the first three winners displaying their plates: Dave Heath 2009, Emma Williams 2010, the first woman to win at Goostrey, and Terry Price 2008.  Dave won again in 2011.  His plate is still being painted by the potter, John Hudson.  Each plate is unique in that it records the year, the name of the winner and the name of the winning berry. This is the inaugural plate.    

Friday, 2 December 2011

Trees and Steeples

During the winter the The Old Medicine House hums to a different tune.  It gathers itself and is still.  Now we take the opportunity to show The Blackden Trust to the wider community and to make links with others who share our concerns.  Over this weekend we can be found at the Alderley Edge Methodist Church Christmas Tree Festival.

When the festival is opened on 2nd December, the church will be filled with sixty trees; each one decorated by a local organisation or business or charity.  The festival is one of the many events the church runs to raise funds to restore its steeple.

The Blackden Trust tree is decorated with baubles of images of events that have taken place over the last few years.  If you look closely at the one on low down in the middle, you might just make out Alan Garner playing a drum.  The caption we gave to this image was ‘Playing loud music’; something he enjoys doing.

Last year, when Alan opened the festival, he read the passage from The Aimer Gate, where ten-year old Robert climbs up inside the steeple, right up to the top and wears the steeple like a hat.   The church is present in all four stories in The Stone Book Quartet, which is a fictionalised biography of one day in the life of a child in four generations of Alan’s family.  Those stories reflect the importance the church had for the family, and in particular for Alan’s grandfather, who wound the church clock for over fifty years. 

The iron bars inserted in the steeple to hold it together, and that Robert climbed up to get to the top, were the cause of the damage and hence the need to rebuild it.

The Alderley Edge Methodist Church tree is decorated with images of the rose window and the clock that Alan's grandfather wound up every week for so much of his life.  It is topped by a model of a broken steeple; a symbol of the urgency of the work needed to restore the church.

We are gratified that The Blackden Trust, co-founded by Alan Garner, is included in the community that reared him and that the Alderley Edge Methodist Church serves.

The tree safely decorated, I drove home, but when I turned onto the track up to the house, I stopped the car and tiptoed out; camera primed and poised to catch a sight I have never seen before in Blackden.   


There was a quiz at the Festival, where the Bonus Question was, ‘Look carefully, can you name the famous drummer on The Blackden Trust tree?’  A trick question, I thought, but actually answerable by anybody who read the leaflets I’d left under the tree.   

Tom Hughes, Alan Garner and Richard York
making medieval music together at one of The Blackden Trust courses in the
Old Medicine House.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Wall Paintings and Other Decorations

This fragment of wall painting was found in the middle downstairs room of the Old Medicine House in 1970. The room is still identified by its architectural name of Bay 2.  The painting was on the wall above the applied lath and plaster ceiling and below the floorboards of the room above.  It was only a fragment, but had it continued along the whole wall, we think it would have looked like the image below.

Below the scroll, in the plaster above the door head, we found a more elaborate pattern, so damaged by keying to make later plaster stick that I have not been able to reconstruct it.

This black and white pattern ran across the plaster infill and the wooden uprights, so it is likely that it once covered the whole wall.  It is similar to the floral and geometric designs of Blackwork embroidery fashionable in the 16th century, where the embroidery can be seen on collars and cuffs in portraits painted by Hans Holbein.   When complete the wall must have been very striking and beautiful.

I find this design that was on the plaster of the Wing striking, but less pleasing.  It seems to be a combination of stencil and painted details. 

And hidden under layers of wall paper, was this double heart; drawn on a wooden partition in the room above Bay 2. It is the most moving and personal of all the interior decorations.   I would love to know who drew it and when.  Perhaps the documentary research that is waiting to be done will tell us.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Rescue of the Old Medicine House

This is the Old Medicine House you see when you drive into the garden now, but in 1970 the view from the road was less attractive.

It was a Grade II listed building; acknowledged by the leading timber-frame authority of the day to be important because it was basically unaltered since it was built, with substantial original timbering, including a rare timber-framed chimney. But no public body or museum of buildings wanted to take on the responsibility, or the cost, of restoring it.  So in October1970 a demolition order was placed on it.

This might have been a realistic decision if just practical and financial difficulties were being considered.

However, having lived in an ancient timber-framed house, we could see that underneath the dirt and superficial accretions there was a beautiful house that needed saving.  So, ignoring all wise and sensible advice, that is what we did.

We began to take it down, using a tripod and a pulley.

And very early the house began to show us its beauties.

Diary entry for October 28th 1970
Very wet: slowed work a little, but all tiles off & into skip. Frame magnificent, but greasy to climb in.

Wall painting found.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

After the Dig

The diggers have gone. The cupboard is bare. The place is quiet; strangely quiet after the bustle of the excavation.   There are yellow ghosts in the grass where the tents stood for two weeks. 

The strict regime of the training excavation served its priorities: to train the students and to find and determine the use of the lost building.  We found the footings of the building, but it what it was is still a mystery.  To be solved next year perhaps.

As the fortnight progressed, we all settled into our roles and a daily pattern was established; friendships developed and we became an integrated group.  So there was a sense of melancholy when the dig was over, and for me, a frame round a collage of special memories.

And then, after the last visitor had left; the soapwort showed its flower.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Welcome to Blackden

Ten archaeological students are camping in the garden looking for traces of outbuildings that appear on maps from 1789 and disappear by the end of the 19th century.

The 1789 survey, the Tithe Map and first edition of the Ordnance Survey show a building that lay across the south-western boundary of the site as it exists today. However, the maps disagree as to its exact position, while the line of the boundary has itself been adjusted, and none gives enough detail to suggest its function.

In August 2009 the Trust undertook a small exploratory excavation to locate the building, using methods and with results about which you can read in our reports page. In 2010 the area of study was extended, revealing a line of structures and features.

Work since Monday (22nd August) has exposed a substantial part of a barn-like structure that corresponds with the outbuilding on the 1789 map. Inside are traces of industrial activity and recycling of glass. Fragments of building materials point to a timber-framed building with a stone flagged roof, in places with a tight-jointed stone flagged floor.

Nearby excavation has exposed a hollow way that went out of use when it was cut by the coming of the railway in 1841; the hollow way formed part of an older field system that appears on air photographs.