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I remember as a child feeling curiously excited when I caught the first smell of autumn in the air. It may be something to do with having an autumn birthday, or fireworks night, or Halloween, or simply wrapping up warm and eating comforting food.

Children are discovering the world around them for the first time and each autumn is a fresh surprise of chilly days, earthy smells, berries mushrooms and nuts, some you can eat and some you most definitely cannot. And the trees! It’s wonderful to see their leaves turn colour.

A tree you never noticed before suddenly turns the most magical, fairy tale, brilliant yellow and its leaves fall like drips of gold into the grass below.

A bit over overgrown brick wall surprisingly and briefly becomes a blazing crimson tapestry.

These miracles last for the shortest of times, they are come and gone in an instant and are all the more precious for the fact that their time is so brief.

Every year I gather a few leaves, usually wet with soft rain when I pick them up so that they gleam with intense colour. Then, in a few hours, they crisp and fade and become ordinary and get thrown away because they are making a mess.

I have looked for ways to preserve them for a little bit longer.

I have pressed them between the pages of heavy books and left them for a week or so. I have used a flower press. Both of these methods preserve something of the glorious moments of autumn, even if the leaves fragile delicate when you take them from the press or book.

This year I have picked up some leaves on my little trips out into the world. It is such a strange year, that I feel that I need to savour every wonderful moment of it.

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So here is a method of preserving leaves that I am trying out for the first time.

I don’t know if it will work yet, but fingers crossed.

Enjoy every moment of this beautiful season.

1/2 cup of glycerine mixed well with 1 cup of water.

On each of your beautiful leaves, make a cut in the stem so that it can absorb the mixture more easily. Put them in a sealable plastic bag, nice and flat and add the glycerine water. Seal up the bag and lay it flat for about three days. The leaves are supposed to come out supple, with their colours well preserved.

You can buy glycerine from your chemist for under three pounds for 200ml


Conkers (Horse Chestnuts) - not edible!

Conkers (Horse Chestnuts) – not edible!

I remember how exciting it felt to find the first conkers of the season.

You could find them gleaming, nestled into the crispy orange brown leaves. Little mahogany bubbles with contour swirls that were almost iridescent.

I remember searching for the perfect one. Thinking I’d found it, then seeing another perfect one and another and another.

Collecting them was for me the best bit of the whole of conker season.

But there was the tradition of playing an age old game with them.

My grandparents told me that they used to bake the conkers in the oven or boil them in vinegar to harden them. I tried both of these and I tried using the conkers just as I found them.

The trick was to find a way of drilling or hammering a hole through the fat middle of the conker with its pale beige-pink patch at the top. Then you cut a length of string about two feet or 60 cm long. Thread the string through the hole and tie a big triple knot at the end of the string to stop the conker falling off.

The game is between two people each with a conker on a string. You stand facing each other, at a convenient sociable distance, one holds their conker at arms length in front of them, keeping it very very still. The other player tries to swing their conker, aimed to hit their opponents’. Then the players swap roles. The aim is not only to hit the other conker, but to smash it to bits. There are regional variations to the game, but that is the basic outline.

There is a modern myth about playing conkers at school which seems to have stopped children from enjoying this free seasonal marker that generations before them have loved so much.

The story goes that children had been getting specks of shattered conkers in their eyes, so a headteacher had made the children wear googles and padded gloves while they were playing.

From this rumour it was a short step to schools all over Britain banning conkers.

The Health and Saftey Executive say that “realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not bothering about.”
https://www.hse.gov.uk/myth/september.htm

Another bonus to conker season is that you can make your own laundry detergent.

We are very used to going and buying super dooper washing powders and liquids, so it seems unimaginable that a traditional natural home made recipe would work. But recently some people have switched from chemical products to using “soap nuts” which are flown half way across the world to us in the UK. However the creamy coloured nut inside conkers contain the same soap like substance, saponin, and many people say that they work every bit as well as a cheap environmentally friendly replacement for laundry detergents.

If you want to try this out you can find several different recipes on line, but basically it goes like this.

  • Smash each conker into little chunks, then grind them in a blender until they are rough crumbs.
  • Place them in a thin layer on a baking paper lined sheet, and bake them gently in the oven, until they are dry but preferably not burned.
  • Let them cool and then store them in a not quite airtight container, (you don’t want them to sweat and get moist and go mouldy.)
  • When you are ready to make up a batch of washing liquid, let a tablespoonful per load of washing seep in warm water for half an hour. When the water has turned milky pour it into a container through a sieve to get rid of the crumbs of chestnut. Use the liquid as you would use a washing liquid.if you want to you can add a few drops of essential oils to give it a fragrance, otherwise it has a very neutral smell.

So let’s make this autumn one where children are taught how to play conkers again by their grown ups, so that they get as excited by the new season as we used to. And try out a way of doing washing without expensive chemical products. A time to turn over new orange brown leaves perhaps.

Enjoy conker season.

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greenparkgrazing

This week, six ewes from the Mudchute flock have been taking part in a conservation grazing trial in Green Park. While they are far from the first woolly lawnmowers to the park, they do mark the return of sheep to the park for the first time since 1939.

IMG_9702The six ewes represent four native breeds from the Mudchute flock: the Oxford Down, Whitefaced Woodland, Southdown and Manx Loaghtan. Unlike commercial breeds who rely on feed supplements, these native breeds thrive on a wide variety of grazing including tougher grass and trample in the seed that has dropped from the wildflowers in the meadow. Traditionally, sheep would have been driven on foot to the parks to graze and breeds such as the Oxford Down and Southdown are among the native breeds developed within such range (that said I do not believe we have details of the previous flocks at the park).

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Our sheep will be helping to manage the meadow for wildlife by grazing scrub and coarser grasses and vegetation, allowing other species to thrive and improving biodiversity of both flora and the many animal species living within these environments. Mudchute itself is a site of metropolitan importance for nature; and here on the farm grazing is a key aspect to our habitat management. The grasslands we so often associate with the British countryside are only maintained by grazing and other forms of management. Without intervention, these incredibly diverse habitats would be taken over by scrubland and forest.

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Our six ewes have been commuting all week, travelling to and from Green Park from Mudchute daily with farm manager Tom Davis and Mavis the patterdale terrier. They seem to be enjoying their outings and opportunity to share a passion for farming and conservation grazing with the visiting public as well as those much further afield through the national and international press. You can see some of the highlights shared via our Facebook page.

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So far, #sheepweek looks to be very popular with park visitors. Many visitors have even made a special trip to see the sheep! We’re delighted the sheep have proven such a hit and have stimulated some fascinating conversations with visitors from all over the world. So many people have been making and sharing their connections to farming: some are meeting sheep and learning about native breeds for the very first time while others immediately recognise the sheep breeds and have farmed for many generations.

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We hope our visitors at the Green Park (and through print and the tele) will also come visit them here at home at Mudchute, we are just a short tube and DLR journey away and open all year free of charge.

We are proud to be a part of the project in partnership with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and The Royal Parks. The grazing trial is an aspect of the Royal Parks “Mission: Invertebrate” project, funded with help from the players of People’s Postcode Lottery.