Majesty in the landscape . . . and it was all in the mind’s eye

Majestic. Standing proudly in the landscape, silhouetted against a bright Spring sky. Many preparing to burst forth with that first flush of greenery that heralds the oncoming summer. Others, still standing, but unlikely to remain that way for much longer. The sap no longer rises as it once did. They will fall where they stand or—more likely—felled as a potential hazard to the public.

Others lie on their sides, like beached ships, slowly rusting away, a pathetic shadow of their former glory.

These are remains of an Oak Plantation planted in the 1720s at Hanbury Hall, a magnificent early 18th century house now owned by the National Trust, just seven miles from our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire. A few hundred meters away from these oak trees stands the hall, overlooking a parkland outside the surrounding ha-ha, that the original builder of Hanbury, Thomas Vernon would never have seen. Designed by George London, what we experience today at Hanbury, three hundred years on, as is the case at similar ‘stately homes’ across the country, was just merely a vision in his mind’s eye.

The Hanbury Ha-ha and park

So many who commissioned great houses, gardens, and parks died before their dreams were realised, and long before their visions of a transformed landscape could be appreciated to the full. Only third or fourth generation custodians perhaps would have really begun to appreciate what was originally intended when the house, gardens, and park were laid out. In the beginning each would have been a massive building site and earthworks, and a nascent park with saplings dotted around and about.

Take the exploits of Capability Brown for example, who was responsible in the mid-18th century for the transformation of so many natural landscapes nationwide. Croome Court, southeast of Worcester (and about 15 miles due south from Hanbury), was his very first commission, for the 6th Earl of Coventry, and the ‘river’ that was excavated by hand alone took 12 years to complete. Some of the trees that Brown planted can still be seen at Croome today.

Croome Court

Steph and I have now visited quite a number of National Trust properties throughout England (and Wales) and this idea of vision and imagination is strongly reinforced by examples such Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, Dudmaston Hall in Shropshire, and Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire, besides Hanbury and Croome.

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Berrington Hall

Calke Abbey

Dudmaston

Dyrham Park

A more recent (150 years ago) example is Cragside, near Rothbury in Northumberland, built in the the late 19th century by William, 1st Baron Armstrong and his wife. The mock-Tudor mansion overlooks a wooded valley and one of the largest rock gardens in Europe, carved out of the rugged Northumbrian moorland. At Cragside, the Armstrongs planted more than seven million trees. Today, the house nestles comfortably in this landscape, seemingly for all time.

The tradition of landscape renewal continues under the National Trust. At Hanbury, for example, there are young saplings all around the park, protected (presumably against grazing by deer, maybe sheep) by picket fences. Impressively, the Trust is also recreating the Long Walk leading downhill from the Hall in a northeasterly direction.

The Long Walk at Hanbury Hall, with George London’s Semicircle (of trees) on the left

However, these full effect of these recent plantings will not be realised for many decades to come. I applaud the continuation, by the National Trust, of this wonderful tradition of leaving something behind in the landscape, just as those who built and nurtured these magnificent properties did, centuries ago.

It’s all about Trust and Heritage

When I fell over last January and broke my leg, and was incapacitated for almost three months, I never thought that we would be able to get out and about for National Trust and English Heritage visits as we had in previous years. How wrong I was!

Once I’d been given the all clear to drive, around the end of March—and relying on my trusty walking stick—we managed to visit eleven National Trust properties (including four times to our ‘local’ Hanbury Hall), and to five run by English Heritage. I have indicated the distance from my home in Bromsgrove, although we visited some properties while we were on holiday in the south of England in July.

National Trust
During our holiday in the New Forest we made a day visit to Corfe Castle, and on the way home a week later we stopped off at Kingston Lacy. Further on, we passed the entrance to Dyrham Park, north of Bath, but didn’t have time to visit then. So we decided to return later in August.

Not long after I gained my mobility, we visited three properties that are quite close to home, not to visit inside the houses, but to enjoy the gardens, and relax with a cup of coffee or a bite to eat for lunch. The restaurant at Packwood House, renovated over the past couple of years or so, is particularly nice.

If I wrote a specific blog post about each of these visits, I have included a link below.

Hanbury Hall (10 April, 4 May, 29 August, and 18 November) 6 miles
Hanbury is our local National Trust property. I think we’ve been inside the house only once, several years ago, but during the year we did pop over there, in about 15 minutes, to grab a cup of coffee, and walk through the gardens. Of particular interest for me is the glorious parterre, kept immaculately by the resident gardeners and volunteers.

Packwood House (20 April) 17 miles

Baddesley Clinton (12 May) 19 miles

Shugborough Hall (22 June) 53 miles
One of the things we particularly liked about Shugborough was the number of rooms open to the public. As always the volunteers were most helpful in pointing us towards items of interest.

Read about our visit here.

Avebury (2 July) 81 miles
We stopped in Avebury on the way south to our holiday in the New Forest. It was a good halfway place to have coffee and lunch. There’s much to see, with the stone circle and the house (with each room decorated in a different period).

Read about our visit here.

Corfe Castle (5 July) 176 miles
We visited Corfe Castle on a day trip from our holiday home in Dibden Purlieu on the east of the New Forest. The drive west was about 47 miles, on quite busy roads.

Read about our visit to Corfe Castle and Kingston Lacy here.

Kingston Lacy (10 July) 134 miles
Kingston Lacy was owned by the same family as Corfe Castle, about 19 miles to the north. This must be one of the National Trust’s premier properties – it’s full of treasures. Well worth another visit sometime.

Claydon (19 July) 67 miles
Our visit to Claydon was a delight. Normally, photography is not permitted inside the house, but when I explained that I write a blog about our National Trust visits, they gave me permission to photograph many of the architectural aspects I am interested in. And I have to say that the volunteers at Claydon were some of the most helpful and friendliest that we have come across.

Read about our visit here.

Dyrham Park (12 August) 77 miles
It’s quite a walk from the car park to the house and gardens. Thank goodness for the shuttle service. On the day of our visit the weather was beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

Read about our visit here.

Brockhampton Estate (26 August) 25 miles
We made our first visit to Brockhampton in September 2012. It was great to see that other parts of the medieval house had been opened to the public.

Greyfriars’ House and Garden (14 December) 12 miles (by train)
This was our last visit for 2016, and we hopped on the train from Bromsgrove for the 20 minute ride to Worcester Foregate. From there it was a less than 10 minute walk to Greyfriars’. Nice to see the rooms decorated for Christmas, and we had an excellent tour guide.

Read about our visit here.

English Heritage
This was our second year as members of English Heritage, and we didn’t visit as many properties as we would have liked. But that will be rectified in 2017!

Buildwas Abbey (27 May) 36 miles
We had tried to visit Buildwas in 2015, on our way from Wenlock Abbey to Ironbridge. But it was closed. We had the place to ourselves when we visited in May. Peaceful!

Read about our visit to Buildwas and Langley Chapel here.

Langley Chapel (27 May) 11 miles from Buildwas Abbey
Standing isolated in a field, this is a delightful example of a 17th century chapel catering to a Puritan rural population.

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Calshot Castle (9 July) 136 miles
Calshot was just a few miles south of our holiday home in Dibden Purlieu. We were amazed to discover how well it had been maintained over the centuries. I guess this is not really surprising considering the active defensive role it has taken on all that time.

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Read about our visit here.

Bolsover Castle (17 August) 90 miles
Bolsover Castle sits on the skyline to the east of the M1 motorway in Derbyshire. Whenever we travel north to visit our younger daughter Philippa and her family, we have to pass Bolsover. And for years we were intrigued by it, and what it might offer. We had also seen in the past few years a BBC program about the castle presented by historian Lucy Worsley. We were not disappointed in our visit.

Read about this interesting visit here.

Witley Court and Gardens (26 August) 16 miles
Witley Court is one of our local visits, just a few miles west of Bromsgrove on the far bank of the River Severn. We have been visiting Witley Court since the 1980s when you could just wander into and around the ruins. We had last been there in July 2015.

Silent witness to centuries of history

In Friar Street, close to the center of Worcester, and a couple of hundred meters or so north of its magnificent cathedral, stands a half-timbered building built around 1480 (the birth year of my 13th Bull great grandfather) that has been a silent witness to some of England’s pivotal moments in history, such as the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII in the late 1530s, and just over a century later when King Charles II (although not yet crowned) was defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, the last battle of the English Civil Wars.

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These photos show the double gateway looking into the garden, and from inside to the street, as well as views of the rear of Greyfriars’ from the garden. Building a half-timbered house was, according to our guide, a little bit like piecing a jigsaw together. Which pieces fitted where? Well, symbols were embossed on matching pieces of timber and these can be clearly seen in one the photos in this gallery.

Greyfriars’ is a late medieval merchant’s house that has survived the ravages of time—but nearly didn’t make it. Greyfriars’ is now owned by the National Trust. We enjoyed a visit to Greyfriars’ House and Garden yesterday, where many of the rooms had been decorated to celebrate Christmas during various times: a Tudor Christmas in the entrance hall, a Puritan Christmas (or lack of it) in one of the main bedrooms, and a wartime Christmas in the library.

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Just 13 miles of so south of our home in Bromsgrove, Worcester is the county town of Worcestershire. But for one reason or another, and despite having been residents of Worcestershire for over 35 years (albeit with a break of almost 19 years in the Philippines) we have only rarely visited Worcester. I think the last time I was there was in December 2013 when I was called for jury service at the Crown Court (but never actually made it on to a jury).

Since becoming members of the National Trust in 2012, in the lead up to Christmas we have visited one of the Trust’s properties in our ‘neighbourhood’ – Hanbury Hall, Croome Park, Packwood House, Baddesley Clinton or Coughton Court – since there is always a special festive display to enjoy.

This year we decided to visit Greyfriar’s, making the short journey by train, not wanting to have the hassle of finding convenient parking in the city. In any case, it was also an opportunity of experiencing Bromsgrove’s new railway station¹.

We stopped off for a coffee at M&S before walking on to Greyfriars’ and arrived just in time, a little after 11 am, to take advantage of the excellent first house tour of the day. We were just three visitors, and I had full opportunity to use my camera to the full, even though light levels were extremely low. So the set of photos I came away with are certainly not my best, by any stretch of the imagination, but I hope I did capture something of the beauty of this interesting property.

Saved from demolition
Greyfriars’ was destined to be demolished but was saved by members of the Worcester Archaeological Society. In 1943, military dental surgeon M Matley Moore and his sister Elsie took on the refurbishment of Greyfriars’, eventually taking up residence in 1949.

These photos show the main entrance hall, one of the main tapestries, and some of Elsie Matley Moore’s handiwork above the fireplace.

Apparently the house was in a dreadful state when the Matley Moores began their refurbishment project, and this was not something undertaken lightly during the Second World War or its immediate aftermath when building supplies were hard to come by. Nevertheless, they were able to salvage panelling and other decoration from other buildings, in addition to keeping what original features that were still part of the building’s fabric. Elsie Matley Moore was an accomplished seamstress, and lovingly restored a number of the seventeenth century tapestries that are still on display, as well as adding features of her own, such as ceramics and a set of particularly rare Georgian green (from arsenic? – not so) wallpaper panels in the downstairs living room.

These photos show the main bedroom (apparently occupied by the man of the house), the parlour (and its William Morris tiled fireplace), and the library. All the rooms had magnificent grandfather clocks, several manufactured in Worcestershire, and at least one designed with just a single hour hand. In the fireplaces in two rooms were cast iron – and painted – door stops that Elsie Manley Moore collected. These are quite rare today. Above the fireplace in the parlour is some original carved woodwork frieze with carved dragons (there’s a close-up in this gallery), and indicating that Worcester is not that far from the Welsh border country.

Downstairs, the dining room was refurbished in a Georgian style. These photos show the majolica tiles above the fireplace, and one of the green wallpaper panels.

The garden was obviously dormant yesterday, but National Trust volunteers told us that during the summer months the garden is a haven in the center of Worcester (although traffic noise from the close-by ring road did unfortunately intrude as we explored a few of the garden’s nooks and crannies).

Each year Greyfriars’ is host to Shakespearean players who perform in the garden. I think we should look out for that event for 2017.

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¹ After the Rio Paralympics 2016, the Bromsgrove station signs were all painted gold, recognising the rowing gold medal won by local sportswoman Lauren Rawles.

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Genebanking, East Africa style

As part of the evaluation of the CGIAR’s program on Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections (aka the Genebanks CRP), my colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I made site visits to two genebanks in Kenya and Ethiopia, at the World Agroforesty Centre (ICRAF) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), respectively.

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L to R: Director General Tony Simons, Brian, Alice Muchugi, and me

Learning about trees
While I have visited ICRAF (the acronym for the institute’s former name, which is still used) a couple of times in the past, I had never visited the genebank, and was intrigued to learn more about the particularities of conserving tree germplasm for food and agriculture. And we were not disappointed.

ICRAF’s Genetic Resources Unit (GRU) is part of the Tree diversity, domestication and delivery science domain, and is managed by Dr Alice Muchugi. On its web site, it states that the GRU has a global role to collect, conserve, document, characterize and distribute a diverse collection of agroforestry trees, mainly focusing on indigenous species in all ICRAF working regions. The ICRAF seed bank in Nairobi and field genebanks in the regions ensure the supply of superior tree germplasm for research and conserve material for the benefit of present and future generations. The current aim of ex situ conservation activities at ICRAF is to be a world leader in the conservation of agroforestry tree germplasm and develop a global conservation system for priority agroforestry trees. Genetic resources databases provide information on agroforestry tree taxonomy, uses, suitability and sources of seed as well as details of the ICRAF agroforestry genetic resources collection. The Genetic Resources Strategy guides in ensuring that collections are conserved to international standards, encouraging quality research to fill information gaps and promote use, and sharing knowledge and germplasm to improve livelihoods.

The genebank holds more than 5000 accessions of some 190 tree species. Among the important species are the tallow tree (Allanblackia floribunda), the baobab (Adansonia spp.), and a whole slew of fruit tree species like mango.While many have seeds that can be stored at low temperature, others have short-lived or so-called recalcitrant seeds. Seed conservation is therefore quite challenging. Some species can only be maintained as living plants in field genebank collections at several sites around Africa and also in Peru. The conservation biology of some of the species is further complicated by sex! Some trees have separate male and female plants, known as dioecy. As you can imagine, this is a very important characteristic to know at the seedling stage, since it might take up to 25 years for a tree to flower. And it’s not much consolation for a farmer to discover then that he has planted only male trees. Knowing whether a seed or seedling is male or female is actually a rather important conservation objective.

Not only is the biology complicated for ICRAF’s genebank staff, seed size varies from the ‘dust’ of gum trees (Eucalyptus species) to fruits and seeds weighing a kilo or more. Many have very hard seed cases, and staff have to resort to garden secateurs to break into them, or even place a seed in a workbench vice and attack them with hammer and chisel! Because so few seeds are available for some species, the seedlings from germination tests are most often taken to the field nursery. In the following photos, Alice Muchugi and some of  her staff explain how seeds are tested in the laboratory and stored in the genebank

My genetic resources experience is limited mainly to potatoes and rice, each of which presents its own challenges. But nothing like the scale of agroforestry species. It was fascinating to see how Alice and her staff are successfully facing these challenges.

The Genetic Resources Research Institute (GeRRI) of Kenya
Brian and I took the opportunity of visiting the national genebank of Kenya, located at ‘at the former KARI Muguga South, 28 km from Nairobi, in Kiambu County. Muguga, located at an altitude of 2200 metres above sea-level, has a bimodal rainfall pattern and provides naturally cool temperatures that are conducive for genetic resources conservation‘. This was interesting for a number of reasons. We wanted to have a national perspective on the CGIAR genebanks program we were evaluating, but also to see how this national genebank was operating. The Institute Director, Dr Desterio Nyamongo, is also a Birmingham genetic resources alumnus, having studied for his MSc in the early 1990s (after I had left to join IRRI). I should add that Brian was the Course Director for the MSc course on plant genetic resources.

The genebank has more than 45,000 accessions of 2000 species, landraces and wild species, and aims eventually to cover the flora of Kenya. The comprises the usual facilities for data management, seed conservation, and cold storage units. We were very impressed with the program of the genebank, and it has engaged very actively in international agreements for the collection, conservation, and use of genetic resources. Its recent collaboration with Hyderabad-based ICRISAT has led to collections of sorghum, pigeonpea and finger millet in Kenya, and germplasm is now conserved in both the GeRRI and in ICRISAT’s regional genebank in Nairobi where it has already been evaluated for useful traits and selections released to farmers.

I had one small embarrassing moment as we were shown around the genebank. When introduced to one of the staff, Mr Joseph Kamau, he told me we had already met. My mind was a blank. In 1998, he had attended a training course at IRRI on morphological and agronomic characterisation of rice varieties, as part of the participation by Kenya in the IRRI-led (and Swiss-sponsored) Rice Biodiversity Project. There he is on the left in the second row.

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Now, forages are another thing . . .
After Nairobi, Brian and I moved on to ILRI’s Addis Ababa campus. We had earlier visited ILRI’s headquarters in Nairobi, located a few miles west of ICRAF.

ILRI’s genebank has always been located in Ethiopia, and has a very large collection of forage species (legumes and grasses) important for livestock. It has almost 19,000 accessions of 1000 species. During our recent visit to Australia we heard about a strategy for the conservation of forage species that aims to rationalise the forages collection held at ILRI and CIAT in Colombia (that I visited at the end of July). Forages are complex to conserve. The breeding system for many is not fully understood, nor their tolerance of low temperature storage conditions. The strategy contemplates archiving some of the species, since it’s unlikely that they will be useful for agriculture, even in the medium-term.

The head of the genebank is Dr Jean Hanson, a seed physiologist by training, and another Birmingham alumna, both MSc (1973) and PhD. Jean and I received our PhD degrees at the same congregation in December 1975. Jean has tried to retire at least once, but was asked to return to her old position after her successor left ILRI after just one year. Nevertheless, Jean has her sights set on permanently retiring once the new genebank facilities in Addis are commissioned in 2017.

In managing a genebank, you sometimes have to make tough (even hard) decisions. I never expected to have to become hard-hatted!

But that’s exactly what we had to do during our visit, as Jean showed us round the impressive building that is being constructed around the existing cold store and will expand the conservation capacity significantly. It’s also interesting that the genebank and its collection will now be managed through ILRI’s Feed and Forages Biosciences program, whose new head, Dr Chris Jones is keen to use genomics to study and exploit the diversity in this important germplasm collection.

In these photos, Jean explained some of the complexities of seed increase in the greenhouse (these were Trifolium or clover species), and in the field where it’s often necessary to spatially separate different accessions to prevent cross pollination. She also showed us bar-coded samples in small refrigerators of the Most Original Samples – samples closest genetically to the germplasm collected in the field. We did go inside one of the cold stores after navigating our way through a construction site. Thus the hard hats for health and safety purposes.

This is an important investment by ILRI in its genetic resources conservation responsibilities, and is a great commitment for the future, based no doubt on the broader institutional support for genetic resources conservation through the Genebanks CRP (soon to become the Genebanks Platform).

 

Genebanking Down Under

I have just returned Australia, a round trip of almost 21,500 miles, to attend the Annual Genebanks Meeting of the CGIAR’s Genebanks CRP. I was in Australia for only four nights! I travelled there with my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd. Considering the distance I think I coped with the travel reasonably well, no jet-lag to speak of, although I was just tired from the length of each flight. There’s no doubt that travelling business class with Emirates took away much of the ‘travel pain’, with three of the sectors (DXB-MEL, MEL-DXB, and DXB-BHX) operated with the A380-800.

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Brian and me enjoying a wee dram in the A380 upper-deck lounge on the flight from Melbourne to Dubai, all 14 hours plus.

Arrival in Australia
We landed in Melbourne early on the Sunday morning. I was just thankful to be there. Our trip down-under had not be confirmed until a week before we were due to travel on Friday 28 October. I immediately applied for a free visa (yes, even UK citizens need a visa for Australia) through the official Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) website. It indicated that most visas are granted in one working day. Since it was a Friday when I applied, I didn’t expect to receive my visa until Monday morning, UK time when offices in Tasmania would already be closed.

Well, to cut a long story short, I still hadn’t heard back from the DIBP on Thursday, the day before I was scheduled to travel. Talk about stress! So I bit the bullet and applied for an ETA (electronic travel authorisation) through an agency, and paid for the Fast Track (20 minute) service. And less than 30 minutes later I had my travel authorisation. Weird. I did wonder if this was a scam, but when I checked in at the departure gate at BHX to board the flight to Dubai, the system initially denied me permission to board, but once my passport details were entered into the system, there was my authorisation.

On landing in Dubai on the Saturday morning (29 October), I checked my emails, and there was a message from the DIBP with my ‘official’ visa approval. I had no issues at all when we went through immigration in Melbourne.

About five or six hours after departing Dubai I woke up and needed to visit the toilet. By then, we’d hit rough air (somewhere off the coast of south India) and the cabin crew wouldn’t let me out of my seat. So I had to sit uncomfortably cross-legged until the seat belt signs had been turned off.

The meeting that Brian and I were to attend was held in Horsham, a small town with a population of around 14,000, half distance between Melbourne and Adelaide in western Victoria. We met up with the rest of the genebank managers group at an airport hotel. They were all headed for a tour of the lovely Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria in Melbourne (that Steph and I had visited in January 2004). Instead Brian and I were able to take a half day room, have a shower and get our heads down for a few hours before leaving on the 3½ hour coach trip to Horsham.

The AGM was hosted in Horsham at the Grains Innovation Park, an agricultural research station on the western limits of the town, and the location of the Australian Grains Genebank.

Australia’s genebanks
Until quite recently, Australia did not have any federal genebanks, rather genetic resources conservation was the responsibility of various state agencies. Having no federal coordination in this respect, it was difficult for Australia to comply fully with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. So two national genebanks were set up. Horsham is the home of the Australian Grains Genebank (AGG), a state-of-the art facility built in the last couple of years, and headed by Dr Sally Norton. The other genebank (that we didn’t visit) is the Australian Pastures Genebank (APG) located in Adelaide. However, the leader of that genebank, Mr Steve Hughes and some of his colleagues did attend the open second half of the meeting held in Melbourne.

agg002During one of the meeting breaks, Sally Norton took us on a tour of the genebank. The AGG ‘underpins the development of new, more productive temperate and tropical grain crop varieties for Australia . . . to acquire, conserve, maintain stocks of viable seed, and distribute seed of diverse germplasm to Australia plant research and breeding programs.’ Click on the flyer image to open a PDF version.

The genebank has an impress collection of cereals, pulses, and oilseeds, almost 119,000 accessions in total, of which >5000 are unique (that is, as far as can be determined, they do not exist in any other genebank collection).

The genebank has impressive interconnected facilities: a laboratory for seed sorting and cleaning, a drying room with controlled temperature and relative humidity to dry seeds to an acceptable equilibrium moisture content, and several cold stores, all at -20C.

We spent two days in closed meetings, during which Brian and I sat quietly at the back of the room, intently listening to the discussions about the Genebanks CRP, its progress and achievements, and plans for the next phase beginning in 2017.

On the Wednesday, we had a tour of other facilities at the Grains Innovation Park, before setting off to Melbourne for a break at Brambuk, the National Park & Cultural Center in the Grampians National Park, a BBQ lunch and the chance to get up close and personal with some native Australian wildlife.

ppv002Another facility that has recently opened at Horsham is Plant Phenomics Victoria.

It’s one thing to conserve seeds of potentially useful varieties and wild species. It’s another to discover if they have traits useful for breeders to increase productivity. The study of plants for drought or heat tolerance, for example has certainly moved into the 21st century. Not only can drones (and other pieces of clever kit) be used to record in real time the responses of individual plants and even whole crops in the field, but sophisticated equipment can be used to measure plants every few minutes or more frequently. And at Horsham, Plant Phenomics Victoria is a AUD7 million initiative with greenhouses, growth chambers and a state-of-the-art automated high-throughput phenotyping system (that is, for measuring how the plants look and grow). Just check out what this facility can be used for by clicking on the image on the left and opening a PDF flyer. Pots move along various conveyor belts, are photographed, weighed, water use and temperature measured – all automatically. Very impressive.

Up close with a koala
We had a great time getting to know a koala (named Bruce – what else?), a young kangaroo, dingo, crocodile, echidna, and python, and a toothy wombat at Brambuk. I’ve never touched a snake before – somewhat of a phobia for me. But I decided to have the python draped around my neck, and help hold a jumpy crocodile. Thank goodness its jaw was held shut! Then it was back on the coach to Melbourne.

Brian and I stayed on for one more day, departing on the Thursday evening, having missed a bush meat (kangaroo and crocodile, among others) BBQ in Melbourne. Our flight departed at 22:35, and we landed, on time at BHX just after 11:30 on Friday morning. It was interesting landing at BHX in an A380, a service that Emirates launched earlier this year, replacing the Boeing Triple 7 on that midday service. Apparently Emirates will replace its evening service that we took to Dubai with another A380 in January. It just goes to show how profitable this BHX-DXB route has become.

Photographing the Summit-Selby neighbourhood of St Paul

20160916-003-minnesotaOver the years we have got to know our way around St Paul, Minnesota, quite well. Minneapolis (the other half of the Twin Cities) less so. The grid system of tree-lined avenues and streets makes it quite easy to navigate around the city, with a significant number of avenues running west to east from the banks of the Mississippi River to the Cathedral Hill district.

Two avenues, Summit and Shelby, actually converge at Cathedral Hill (map), and from the steps of the magnificent Catholic Cathedral of St Paul, you can enjoy a panoramic view over the downtown area of St Paul, from the Minnesota Capitol (currently being renovated) to the northeast and the Mississippi to the southeast.

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Looking east on Selby Ave towards the Cathedral of St Paul.

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The downtown St Paul skyline, with the state capitol to the left, and the business district to the right. The Mississippi lies just beyond the business district.

So, a couple of weeks ago, Steph and I decided to drive over there, to take a walk round, and for me to do some photography. It has been six years since we last wandered round there. Our eldest grandchild, Callum, had been born just a month earlier in mid-August 2010, and while Hannah (our elder daughter, his mother) had a hair appointment, we pushed Callum around in his pram. Respite for the new mum, first grand-parenting responsibilities for Steph and me.

16 September past was a bright but overcast day, perfect for photography because there were no harsh shadows to complicate matters.

For the past seven years I have been using a Nikon D5000 DSLR. I bought it in the Philippines a few months before I retired, and I’ve been very happy with it. It had an 18-55 mm lens fitted when I bought the camera, and around 2012 I acquired a 200 mm lens. Now, while I liked that telephoto, it wasn’t very convenient having to constantly change lenses for just ‘that’ shot. Often, I just didn’t bother.

However, a few days before we flew to Minnesota for our latest visit at the beginning of September, I treated myself to an all-in-one lens, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200 mm 1:3.5-5.6 GII ED lens – an early combined birthday and Christmas present. So our Summit-Selby wander was a good opportunity to test some of its capabilities.

I decided that some shots of the cathedral, both wide angle and telephoto from the same location would be quite interesting, and here are some of the results.

The Summit-Shelby neighbourhood is rather lovely, but expensive. Along Summit are some of the grandest houses that I have ever seen; and some more modest ones too. It’s also a neighbourhood famous for the great and good of St Paul who settled there over the past century or more. Authors F Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Garrison Keillor (A Prairie Home Companion) both lived in the neighbourhood at one time or another.

In fact Keillor once owned a bookshop underneath Nina’s Coffee Cafe on the corner of Selby and Western Ave N, a well-known and popular meeting place in that neighbourhood (he has now moved to another venue on Snelling Ave near Macalester College).

These are just a few of the properties that caught my attention as we walked around.

And on the corner of Summit Ave and Western Ave N, there is a delightful small park, Cochran Park, with an elegant fountain with abronze statue of a running Native American with his dog at his feet.

All-in-all, an excellent morning’s exercise, coffee break, and photography. I look forward to many more opportunities.

 

Can’t see the wood for the trees . . .

During our visit to Minnesota in September 2015, we visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (owned by the University of Minnesota) with Hannah and Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë. Being a year younger than today, we had to get back home so they could have a post-lunch nap. So we really only had time to see the various gardens closest to the Oswald Visitor Center (click here for condensed visitor guide and map)

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Steph and I returned to the Arboretum almost a month ago, and this year we took the Three Mile Drive around the site. There is so much to see, and the various plantings are laid out splendidly. The crab apple collection particularly caught my attention.

So rather than try to wax lyrical about the Arboretum, I’ll let you follow the links I’ve made here to the various websites, and let my photos speak for themselves.

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