The green, green grass of home


FOR a while last week we thought the winter was over. We had three perfect days of lovely warm sunshine. Of course it couldn’t last, and out came the thermal vest and on went the central heating while it battered down with rain for two solid days.

However there has been an upside to the incessant rain of the last several months, and that is that the vegetation is as green as I have ever seen it. The grass is almost luminous – this is the field at the back of our house yesterday morning.

It got me thinking about grass, which we all take for granted, yet it is an incredible plant which animals turn into the meat which we not only enjoy but which is so important for our health.

As readers know, I am always way out in my guesses about the numbers of species and so on, and this is no exception. I thought that grasses would be the most numerous class of plants in the world, but they are the fifth.

I was surprised by all the four larger classes. Top of the list is Asteraceae, which used to be called Compositae, the daisy family with 32,000 species. Second is Orchidaceae, the orchids, with 28,000. Third are the Fabaceae or Leguminosae, the pea and bean family, with 20,000 members. Take a bow if you can guess the fourth largest . . . it is the Rubiaceae, which includes the coffee plant and gardenia and has about 14,000 species found mainly in the tropics.

Grasses are known as Poaceae or Gramineae. There are 12,000 species and they are found on every continent including Antarctica. Grasslands such as savannah and prairie are estimated to constitute 40.5 per cent of the land area of the Earth, and they are the most economically important plants in the world because they include the cereals. They provide, through direct human consumption, just over half (51 per cent) of all dietary energy. (Thanks to Wikipedia for all the facts and figures.) They are also used for roofing and for making paper.

One of the key things about grass is that is grows from the base rather than the top, so it can be constantly grazed (or mowed) without killing it. If you tried this with, say, a tomato plant, it would soon perish. Grasses also stand being trampled, unlike most plants (as anyone who has animals or ducks in their garden will know).

The largest grass in the world is the giant bamboo Dendrocalamus sinicus from China and Asia. Individual stems (technically called ‘culms’) can reach 150ft in height with a diameter of 15 inches and weighing 1,000lb.

I couldn’t find a picture of the precise species but there are several giant bamboos and here is a forest in Japan.

The smallest grass in the world, Mibora minima, is a Western European native which grows in the sand dunes of Lancashire and West Wales. It is less than an inch high so would be hard to spot.


IF THE item above has put you in mind of the song, may I invite you to enjoy this live performance by Jerry Lee Lewis.

He recorded it in 1965 and it was his version that was covered by Tom Jones in 1966. If you must have it, here it is.


Horse of the Week

THESE beauties are Percheron mares. Although they originated in France, Percherons are regarded as an honorary British breed, making a quartet of heavy horses with the Suffolk Punch (which I wrote about here), the Shire (here), and the Clydesdale (still to come).

The first records for this breed are from the 8th century and show that the Percheron came from Le Perche, a district of Normandy. They are thought to have been brought to England in the 11th century, in the time of William the Conqueror. Thousands were also sent to America, and today the horses in the three countries show some slight differences.  

They were extensively used to pull armaments in the First World War, and much of the stock came from America.

They are usually black, dappled or grey. The British standard specifies a minimum height of 16.2 hands (66 inches) at the shoulder for stallions and an inch less for mares. They have a very good disposition and are willing workers.

Here and here are a couple of sweet films from Sampson Percheron Horses of Ringwood, Hampshire.

This video from Canada gives an idea of the great size of the horse, the final shot of its feet in particular.

Here’s an advert which has some lovely shots.

Finally, although the camerawork in this is truly appalling, it is spectacular.

You can find out more at the British Percheron Horse Society website.


Wheels of the Week

IF YOU’D come up big on Vernons football pools in the mid-1950s, you’d have been able to afford a really fancy motor. Around £5,000 would buy you a Rolls-Royce. But if you remained winless, you could have invested in another of Vernons’ products – a car billed as the cheapest in Britain.

Launched in 1954, the Gordon, a boxy three-wheeler alleged to be ‘smart and trim, sporty in appearance’ cost just £279.19s 2d, including purchase tax. With the average British wage at between £9 and £10 a week, and with easy payment plans, it was within reach of many working folk.

The Gordon was built by Vernons Industries, an offshoot of the pools company at a factory in Bidston, Birkenhead, just across the Mersey from the firm’s headquarters in Liverpool. The factory had long been producing metal toys, household goods and invalid cars.

The new car was the brainchild of Erling Poppe, whose Norwegian family had settled in Britain, and who had previously designed motorcycles for Sunbeam. Built on a tubular steel chassis with aluminium and light steel bodywork, the Gordon was powered by a single-cylinder Villiers two-stroke engine of just 197cc. This was mounted in a bulging external panel on the driver’s side of the car, with a chain drive to one rear wheel. It meant there was no driver’s door, only a left-hand door. The wheels were ‘large car-type.’

An article on the Birkenhead Transport on the Net website says: ‘In these post-war years, men had learned to drive in the Army, and many had a motorcycle licence, and a three-wheeled car could be driven on a motorcycle licence, as long as the car did not have a reverse gear.’

[The Gordon did have a reverse gear, but it was blocked by a metal bar which could be disengaged once a driver had obtained a full licence.]

‘In 1955 the cars’ main engineer Mr J R Williams with an independent observer, Mr George Christie, took the car, unmodified, on a 1,937-mile endurance trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats, the trip actually starting from West Kirby. At one point on the expedition, on a one in four gradient hill, the passenger did alight and help push the car up what was a very steep climb. One had to bear in mind the Villiers engine was only 197cc, it also returned a good 62 average mpg, with two people in it, very near to the 70 to 80 to the gallon claimed. They made a claim the car could do 45mph, and on the trial run, with uphill and down dale, with two up, it achieved just over 26mph on average.’

The origin of the car’s name is obscure, but the website speculates that it might have been named after James Gordon Bennett, the American-born racing driver known as the ‘founding father’ of Formula One.

Writing on the Isetta Owners Club website, Tony Marshall says: ‘Prototype models of the Gordon were two-seaters, but by the time the car went on sale in April 1954, the body had been altered to accommodate two sideways-facing hammock seats in the back for children, and the hood was extended so that it stretched from the windscreen right to the rear of the car, rather like a marquee!

‘Surprisingly perhaps, it was reported in contemporary road tests that the uneven weight distribution, even with only a driver in the car, did not really affect the handling, not that the single rear-wheel drive was not a cause for concern. In fact, most testers seem to have been impressed by the comfort and performance of the Gordon.’

However, on the WikiWirral website one correspondent writes: ‘A problem that the Gordon had was, as the chain driving the axle was on the right-hand side behind the engine and gearbox and it was driven with a two-stroke mix which was lean on oil, it could seize the engine and cause a swerve to the right towards approaching traffic.’

Vernons promoted the Gordon on price and economy. They claimed it was ‘a car designed to take you and your family anywhere in comfort and safety’ (although it doesn’t look very comfortable or safe to me). Its brochure said: ‘It is the car the family man with one or two children and limited means can really afford to buy . . . and run. Sensational in price and sensational in performance. The Gordon costs less than 3/4d a mile to run, costs less in tax and insurance and costs less to maintain in every way.’ (3/4d is three-quarters of a penny, or three farthings in old money).

The Gordon continued in production until 1957, by which time a deluxe model was on offer, with a 250cc Anzani engine, two-tone paint, modified body trim and whitewall tyres. Class!

It is believed some 1,500 were constructed and there are thought to be one or two still in private hands. This one is still on the government vehicle tax website, and it changed hands in 2017, but it looks as if it is permanently off the road.


Leave a Reply

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