With fronds like these, who needs enemies?


IF it is possible to have a least favourite plant, mine is bracken. And I will be seeing a lot more of it before long, because when ‘rewilding’ comes to pass, the landscape will be covered in it. It is one of the most aggressive plants in the world, outcompeting other vegetation with an almost indestructible structure and an armoury of toxins.

Bracken is a member of the fern family and is found on every continent except Antarctica, and in all environments except deserts. The variety in Britain is Pteridium aquilinum, which infests moorland and woodland with equal vigour. It spreads by thick, fleshy, brown-black underground stems which can extend long distances, and throws up fronds which may grow to 8ft, though more usually 6ft. It also reproduces by spores carried on the wind, and has the potential to extend its area by as much as 3 per cent per year at the expense of other vegetation. This is particularly undesirable in upland areas as there are many plants which can grow nowhere else.

Just in case reproduction doesn’t work, bracken is equipped with not one but two toxins. The young fronds contain hydrogen cyanide or prussic acid, which kills insects that feed on it. The plant contains the carcinogenic compound ptaquiloside which leads to cancers of the digestive tract and is toxic to cattle, dogs, sheep, pigs and horses.  The compound is destroyed with cooking and bracken is eaten in Japan. Call me picky, but I wouldn’t fancy it. It may be coincidence but there are high rates of stomach cancer in Japan. Ptaquiloside has been shown to leach from bracken plants into the water supply, which has been implicated in high rates of stomach and oesophageal cancers in areas with high bracken growth, such as Wales and South America. Bracken can also release allelopathic chemicals, which disrupt the reproductive activity of other plants. This is an important factor in its ability to dominate other vegetation, particularly in regrowth after fire.

To put the tin lid on it, bracken harbours ticks, which often cling to passing dogs.

Apart from herbicides which may kill other plants, the only realistic way to combat bracken is with brute force, by crushing it or cutting it for three consecutive years.

All of which makes rewilding something to look forward to!


A couple of weeks ago I noticed from a distance that one hawthorn tree in a group stood out from the rest.

Going closer it really did have more blossom than the others.

It looked impossible to cram any more flowers on to the branches.

Last week I was surprised to see the blossoms had turned a pretty pink.


Sheep of the Week

On Bank Holiday Monday I went to my first agricultural show of the year, at Great Harwood, a few miles from us. It was a perfect day and there must have been thousands there.

I was particularly pleased to find a sheep class for the Lonk breed, since I have had trouble finding pictures of them. I took a few of my own.

No one seems to know the origin of the name, but the Lonk has been reared on the Pennine fells of Lancashire and Yorkshire for several hundred years; there is one flock with records going back to 1740.

The Lonk is one of the largest hill breeds native to the UK and with its strong bones and thick fleece it can withstand harsh climates. It has clear black and white legs and face, with the two colours not merging, and a white fleece. Both ewes and rams have horns.

The Lonk Sheep Breeders Association was established in 1905 and since then its main qualities of hardiness, size, health and longevity have been rigorously preserved.

Lonk lamb was used by chef Nigel Howarth in a (ghastly) BBC TV show called The Great British Menu some years ago and here is a clip about it, featuring a young Marcus Wareing. (They do know the origin of the name, unlike any other authority.)

The recipe is here. It looks a lot of bother to me. 

You can read more at the Lonk Sheep Breeders’ Association website. http://www.lonk-sheep.org/

(While I was looking on YouTube I came across this delightful video from the Azores, where Alan and I have been – very warmly recommended – of a sheep apparently trying to teach a young bull how to butt.)


Wheels of the week – On the Buses, Part 2

This is the second article in a three-part account by DEREK REYNOLDS of his time as a bus driver. You can read Part 1 here.

AFTER a couple of weeks, all became so familiar that crews worked mostly in harmony, though there were times when they didn’t, which was one of the reasons I put my name up for the One Man Green Line rota (it was more money too). I was quite glad to get a place on the 706 route that ran out of Tring. Here I am starting a shift on a Leyland National, which was new in 1972.

Minolta DSC

For a pay-as-you-enter bus, the driver would ‘draw’ his box at the beginning of his duty, board his vehicle and affix his ticket machine to the specialised bracket on the driver’s half-door facing the entry doors. He would also have a change machine. At the end of his duty (I say ‘he’, because we did not have any lady drivers at Tring, Hemel Hempstead or Chelsham) he would complete his waybill and cash in back at the conductors’ room where he first drew his box.

The 706 route went from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire down through Watford, Kilburn, Marble Arch, Victoria, Vauxhall, Brixton, Streatham, Thornton Heath, West Croydon, Sanderstead, Warlingham Green to Chelsham, where there was a garage and canteen. During the winter months we would stand the coach on the forecourt until starting the return journey. During summer, certain coaches would be handed over to a Chelsham driver to take passengers on to Winston Churchill’s home at Chartwell, turn, then come back to be taken over by the Tring driver for the return to either Aylesbury or Tring.

I also drove RFs (Regal Flat, referring to the engine lying on its side) and here is one southbound at Marble Arch.

This is the RF ‘office’.


The RF was a single-deck vehicle built by AEC of Southall. It usually sat 39 people (some 41) plus three permitted standing. The engine was much the same as on the RT double decker, same six-cylinder engine, same capacity of 9.7litres, just a few modifications for it to be laid flat on its side to fit below and behind the driver, and beneath the floor of the vehicle. RFs were 30ft long, whereas the RT bus was 27ft 6in (56 seated passengers with 5 permitted to stand). Early RFs had no passenger doors, as the Metropolitan Police Commission refused to accept buses on the streets of central London with such doors. They relented after a while.

The Leyland Nationals broke down so often that we ended up driving RFs most of the time. The National was fine when everything worked, but when an RF came down the road it was always accompanied by the feeling of an old friend arriving.

(As an aside, some conductors held a grudge against drivers for ‘selling them out’ when taking up One Man Operation (OMO). A conductor would earn around £27 per week, a driver much the same. But when the driver took on an OMO position he received an extra £5 per week. This was the source of the grudge – drivers were doing their whole job for just an extra fiver. But it must be emphasised that this seldom showed on the surface. We got on too well for such to spoil the job.)

Was it boring? Was it monotonous? Not really. You saw the changing of the seasons, spring blossoms and autumn leaves. The daily duties were many with different start and finish times, which meant seeing different regulars along the way. Some could be grumpy, or very nice, mostly the latter. One particular regular was ‘The Ice Cream Man’.

I never did learn his name, but he and his brother ran ‘The Ice Cream Parlour’ in the Edgware Road opposite Paddington Green Police Station. The duty we all knew as ‘the last Aylesbury’ started at 16:38 whereupon the southbound coach was taken over outside Tring garage at 16:53, ran down through London to Chelsham, ran back and all the way to Aylesbury at 23:30, and was the last coach of the day to leave Aylesbury (hence ‘the last Aylesbury’), terminating at Tring at 23:56.

On the way back after leaving Marble Arch we would look for the Ice Cream Man just past Paddington nick around 22:00. He would stand on the kerb carrying two large carrier bags. We’d pull over and he’d hop aboard, settling himself into one of the front seats and would produce from one of his bags a huge clump of newspapers wrapped around a block of multi-flavoured ice cream, handing it to the driver as we made our way along towards Maida Vale. I never did see his season ticket in the years I carried him, though he must have had one as inspectors who got on checking tickets never said a word. But the ice cream! It had so many flavours: vanilla, pineapple, pistachio, passion fruit, strawberry, chocolate, caramel and toffee. It took some care and ingenious driving to work my way through the block. It was the best ice cream I had ever tasted. The Ice Cream Man would be dropped off outside Bushey police station just south of Watford, and I’d still be working my way through his gift north of Berkhamsted!

Some of the drivers were characters too. There was Jackie Webster from somewhere up north with a large jocular face and black Brylcreemed crinkly-chip hair with a central parting, with the crinkly hair swept back, looking for all the world like the wake of a speedboat. He would crack jokes in the conductors’ room and anywhere else he had an audience. It was said amongst the other old hands that during one winter when there was black ice on the roads, he was driving the coach along St George’s Drive in Pimlico near Victoria, when the coach took a big slide across the road, mounted the pavement and crashed into the portico entrance to one of the several hotels along there, breaking the windscreen in the process. When a startled receptionist looked out of the hotel doorway, Jackie lent through the broken windscreen and asked: ‘Do you have any vacancies?’

In another instance, I was taking a coach southbound through Berkhamsted and passed Jackie going northbound. Just as we neared each other to exchange the customary wave, he leant forward with glasses askew and stuck his dentures out – I creased up with laughter, and had fits of uncontrollable giggles all the way through Hemel. Rotten swine.

Harry Ketteringham was another great bloke. I route-learned the 706 with him in early 1971. He climbed aboard to take over with a huge bag of stuff, from which he produced flask, milk, biscuits and cake, and spread it all around the limited amount of space in the cab. ‘Did you bring some snap?’ he would ask. I didn’t, relying on getting something in Chelsham canteen at the other end. ‘No matter, you can have some of mine.’ He promptly started to pour a cup of coffee as we went along, tucking into sandwiches between stops. Another real gent with strings of stories to tell.

On the bus side there were crews who had operated together for over 30 years. The two Bills were such a pair; Bill Horne the driver, whose badge had only four numbers on it, 3036, and who was almost stone deaf. His mate Bill Hall, the conductor, would show two fingers or just a nod to the other Bill as he glanced over his shoulder back into the lower saloon. If Bill Hall was on the top deck, he’d give a couple of stamps with his foot over the other Bill’s cab.

A couple of other conductors of long service spring to mind. One, Les Boiling, had started taking fares on a primitive converted cattle truck between Tring Town and Tring Station. Forty-three years he had been taking fares, and that was in 1970. Another, Arthur Deeley, was born locally, and told of how as a boy he was employed to break up clods of earth with his feet after the plough in the fields around and about, for sixpence a day. Jim ‘J J’ Birch had served in the Chindits, and my regular conductor Reg Bone had suffered as a Japanese prisoner of war. Roy ‘Poppy’ Flanders, ex-British Army in India, sometimes referred to as the ‘Star of India’, had tales of superhuman strength climbing ladders with a two hundredweight sack of flour on his back for a bet. Five foot not much tall, another with trouser creases to shave with. Then there were George Prentice and Fred Read, who between them drove the station bus on route 387. That was their route, their bus, and they would drive no other route. Back and forth from Tring to Tring Station, and alternate runs through to Aldbury and back. They knew everyone who used the bus, and knew every sign that meant that a passenger was ready to be picked up, like a garden gate left open, or a bag by the gate. They’d stop, and out would come the passenger. Shut the gate, pick up the bag and climb aboard.

Tring garage was small, and housed fewer than a dozen vehicles. The RT, and the single deck 39-seat RF coach were the mainstays of the fleet, later being supplanted on coach work by the Leyland National, a futuristic-looking monster built largely of plastic and glass, and with an unhealthy habit of breaking down. Passengers hated the uncomfortable seats, and the rattling and shaking of body panels. They did improve when high-backed seats were fitted with blue moquette covering, but they never replaced the quality of comfort and solidarity of the RT and RF.

The final part of On the Buses by Derek Reynolds will be in Notes from the Sticks next Sunday.


One Reply to “With fronds like these, who needs enemies?”

  1. I didn’t know bracken was so bad. I have some in my garden which I deliberately planted in a couple of heavily shaded areas where nothing would grow.

    My other bracken anecdote is from a book called “Title Deeds” by Liza Campbell of Cawdor Castle. She wrote about her many eccentric, aristocratic ancestors; one of these would not use toilet paper – he used bracken instead, and would take suitcases of the stuff with him whenever he stayed anywhere away from home,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *