Magdalen Road at night

Magdalen Road at night
December 2010

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Coal in St Leonard’s

Strange as it may seem to young people, houses with central heating are a relatively recent phenomenon.  I grew up in a house built in the 1950s; even at such a recent date, outside the back door was a coal-shed integrated into the house, and every so often a lorry loaded with sacks of coal would arrive to deliver fuel for the open fires and anthracite for the kitchen range.  One pair of grandparents, in an older house, had a coal-cellar, reached by a flight of steps from the garden.  The other grandparents, in a more modest property, had a coal-bunker outside the back door.   By the time I left home, central heating and electric fires had replaced the dependence on coal; the coal-cellar and coal-shed had become store-rooms, the bunker had been taken away in pieces.  

Scattered around St Leonard’s there are, I am sure, similar reminders of the use of coal in our homes.  Some people still buy coal, but few need deliveries measured in hundredweights as the earlier generations did.  So the storage spaces have disappeared or found alternative uses, laundry rooms, a place for garden tools, and so on.  Such reminders of the past are on private land, we are not aware of the changes in other people’s homes.  

Of course, house chimneys are a permanent reminder of an age of open fires, and I wrote about them in an earlier issue.  But at ground level, there is one kind of public and visible reminder of how we used to use and store coal.  And that is the coal-hole cover.  If a house boasted a coal-cellar then it needed a way of filling that cellar.  The family could access their fuel from inside, but they did not want dusty tradesmen traipsing through the front door to deliver a dirty, coal-encrusted sack.  The solution was a chute, large enough for the fuel, but small enough to prevent intruders entering the property.  And the chute needed a cover, usually a heavy cast-iron circular cover, set into the pavement outside the property or into the garden paving around the house.  

There are still a few coal-hole covers in pavements to be found in the neighbourhood.  Many will have been lost over the years as houses are altered and pavements resurfaced.  I have only found a handful, in Colleton Crescent and Matford Lane, or between us and the city centre, in Southernhay.  If you are passing, take a look at the attractive designs on these utilitarian pieces of ironwork. 
Circular coal-hole cover in Matford Lane

Friends in the older parts of the neighbourhood tell me that there were examples outside their front doors, in shallow front gardens; but those front gardens are now parking spaces for cars, and the pieces of ironwork have been thrown away – though one at least has been retained for decoration and is visible in Wonford Road.   

Rectangular and circular covers in Colleton Crescent
Bloggers in London and Cheltenham (and elsewhere) have recorded the coal-hole covers in their cities, with pictures. 

Are there any other surviving coal-hole covers locally?  This is an open-ended article; I would be delighted to get further information about this topic.

Friday, 16 June 2017

2017 general election results for Exeter

Elected: Labour candidate Ben Bradshaw, 34,336 votes, with 62% of the votes of a 71.7% turnout, with a majority of 16,117
Conservative James Taghdissian polled 18,219
Liberal Democrat Vanessa Newcombe polled 1,562
Green Joe Levy polled 1,027
Independent Jonathan West polled 212
Independent Jonathan Bishop polled 67

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Purple flowers in May in St Leonard's

After the yellows and whites of the flowers around St Leonard’s in March and April, May brings out two shrubs noted for the display of purple flowers.  The colours of lilac and wisteria are abundant this month – bringing delight to passers-by, and to the bees starting to seek nectar in these warmer months.
Neither plant is native to this country, but they were introduced at different times.  The lilac came first, with records of it being grown in Britain in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth.  It wasn’t widely known – Shakespeare doesn’t mention it, despite the bard’s extensive knowledge of plants and flowers.  It is related to the olive, and the similarity is evident if you compare the wood of the two trees.  Like the olive, the lilac is native to the eastern Mediterranean, and it was travellers to modern-day Turkey who brought the first plants to western Europe.  (Just imagine the challenge of bringing a plant back from there by sailing ship, horse-drawn vehicle and horseback!).  There are lilacs all over the neighbourhood, in numerous shades from white through to very deep purple, many derived from the breeding programme of an energetic French nurseryman of the 19th century.  White lilacs – in Victorian flower language – symbolise innocence.  Brides from just after the second world war found white lilac a convenient and inexpensive flower for their bouquets at a time when the flower trade was recovering.
Lilac’s botanical name is Syringa, and that name comes from Greek mythology.  There was a beautiful nymph named Syringa.  Pan, the god of the forests and fields, was taken by her beauty and chased Syringa through the forest.  She was so frightened by Pan's affections, that Syringa escaped by turning herself into an aromatic bush.  Pan couldn’t find her, but found the hollow stems of the bush suitable for making himself pan-pipes. 
Lilac flowers can be used in cookery, to make jellies and syrups, or even dipped in batter and deep fried.  They will have fewer calories than a deep-fried chocolate bar, but I haven’t encountered a fast-food outlet selling them.
Wisterias came to our gardens in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Most writers say that the plant was named after a German botanist, Caspar Wistar, despite the difference in spelling.  A minority of books call the plant wistaria in consequence.  The first wisterias came from North America, and then the great plant hunters of the nineteenth century collected examples of the same family from Japan and China.  So the plants that we see around us come from both hemispheres, though the oriental shrubs are more common.  Over the last two centuries of cultivation, we have come to welcome the shrub as a beautiful climber for arches, balconies, or to run along walls and fences.  The wisteria tunnel in Pinces Gardens, in St Thomas, has been a feature for nearly 150 years.  Unlike the plants in Flanders and Swann’s song, Misalliance, wisterias may twine clockwise or anticlockwise.  The plant can get so heavy that it damages its supporting structure – and if it climbs a tree, can strangle that!
Although a wisteria comes from the family of beans, and the plant produces pods, it is not advisable to try to eat any part of the plant.  So enjoy the sight of these splendid shrubs, and allow the bees their harvest from the flowers.
Published in the Neighbourhood News, May-June 2017

Friday, 5 May 2017

2017 County Council election results for St David's and Haven Banks,which includes St Leonard's

This is a copy of the page posted on Devon County Council website

Result declared at 1:46 pm, 5 May 2017
CandidatePartyVotes% Votes
CHUN Kevin MartinLiberal Democrat 3429.7%
GILINSKY Aric Samuel DavidThe Conservative Party Candidate 90625.7%
JEFFERY BrianUK Independence Party (UKIP) 952.7%
MOORE Diana FrancesGreen Party Candidate 62017.6%
WHITTON Marilyn CarolLabour Party 1,55644.1%
Total votes cast3,531
Elected councillorPartyVotesMajority
WHITTON Marilyn CarolLabour Party 1,556650

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Have you ever noticed white patches on the walls of St Leonard's?

No, it isn’t the work of a careless painter, nor the result of someone disposing of their chewing gum, it’s natural.  And not just white patches, but yellow, green, red and brown; it’s lichen, moss and some kinds of algae. 

One of the must-have DVDs of Christmas 2016 was the newly released film of Swallows and Amazons.  Before the film-makers decided to introduce a hint of espionage, there was a sub-plot in Arthur Ransome’s book about Captain Flint’s book of his travels, “Mixed Moss” by “A Rolling Stone”.  Ransome was referring to the proverb, “a rolling stone gathers no moss”, a reminder that moss grows slowly and likes steady conditions.  Moss can be found in damp, shady parts of the neighbourhood, a nuisance to those whose lawns are “grass mixed with moss”, but a way of softening the hard, harsh surfaces of pavements and walls.  Biologists will tell us that there are over 10,000 species of moss, flowerless plants which spread by spores, not seeds.  Gardeners rely on moss as a constituent of peat – suffering from over-use these days – and florists use moss for decoration and to retain water (many mosses can hold over 10 times their weight of water).  In the First World War, moss was collected and used as a dressing for wounds – a memorial at Widecombe is a reminder of the amount collected on Dartmoor.  Moss was superior to cotton as a dressing for wounds, being mildly antiseptic.  There is speculation that some birds choose to use moss in their nests for the health of their chicks.  So, if the moss on your patio or roof is being pecked by birds, it may be for the insects living there, or to help raise the next generation.

Lichens also generally prefer damp conditions; their biology is more complex than that of mosses, and even now there are some aspects of how lichens live that are not fully understood.  The professional society that studies them explains that “A lichen is not a single organism; it is a stable symbiotic association between a fungus and algae and/or cyanobacteria.”  And I am not going to attempt to explain that here!  

Around the neighbourhood, there are countless patches of what is called a crustose lichen (crustose simply means that it has a crust) which can be mistaken for chewing gum on pavements.  (Not many lichens have common English names, and I will leave Latin in the Neighbourhood News to the editor’s fluency.)  The commonest species here are very tolerant to urban pollution; generally, though, lichens prefer an unpolluted environment, and so you find more different lichens where the air is cleaner.  (My brother points out that he finds many more lichens when he visits Exeter than in his workplace of Sussex.)  Next time you are walking in the neighbourhood, stop to look at the crusty lichens on the walls.  Walls with a lot of lichens are providing the right kind of conditions; acidity, moisture, quality of air, chemicals in the stone.  So glazed bricks don’t grow many lichens; older bricks often do.  Lichens are scarce on local granite features, even though the tors of Dartmoor are home to many.  It is all to do with moisture and pollution.  Lichens colonise some pavements more than others; it may be the type of surface, or simply the amount of foot traffic from passers-by.  Have a look under a roadside bench to see how they spread where they are undisturbed.  Different crustose lichens can be found on the bark of trees, usually on the north side of the trunk or branch, because that is moister.  But you may notice that some species of tree have no lichen, while a neighbouring tree has plenty.  Trees differ in the acidity and nutrient content of their bark, and lichens grow where the conditions are just right.

Older garden trees may have fruity or fibrous lichens, and again, the number and type of lichen depends on the species of the tree.  Generally, the tree will not suffer from the presence of lichen, so if you have some, rejoice – your garden has pure air.  

What’s the use of lichens?  Of course, you can feed your pet reindeer on lichen; they enjoy it.  Humans sometimes eat lichen, but it is not for everyday diets – unless you are desperate, and even then, take care.  But from prehistoric times, lichens have been used to make dyes for wool, and some weavers and spinners still do this.  Brown, gold, orange, green, purple, blue and red colours are all possible, depending on the species of lichen used and the type of extraction process.  And if your favourite perfume contains oakmoss, you are scented with an extract from that lichen – despite the name!  

The poet John Clare wrote about the natural world.  It is perhaps appropriate that his gravestone in Helpston churchyard in Northamptonshire is covered with lichen.  The lichen has spread into the inscription so that his epitaph now reads “A POET IS BORN NOT MAD”, hiding the final “E”.

(Published in Neighbourhood News, Jan-Feb 2017)