Deep in woods loud with birdsong an elegant spike of white flowers glows, a tiny constellation. This is platanthera chlorantha, the Greater Butterfly Orchid. Night scented (it smells of vanilla) I wonder if its brightness also acts to help lure the moths that pollinate it.
Most orchids I’ve seen in the UK have been relatively small and often rather inconspicuous, but this stately plant was nearly a foot tall and vivid against the woodland gloom. We only saw two of these unearthly beauties on our walk, which made them seem very special.
And although there were almost certainly more of these orchis mascular or Early Purple orchids, we found just one bedraggled flower spike pushing up gamely through the ivy and leaf litter.
I was lucky enough to attend a conference in the Wye valley this weekend, which meant a chance to walk in the woods beside Offas Dyke for an hour or two. I found these lovely plants during that short walk. It’s only right for this blog to celebrate what we have here in the UK right now alongside my Nepali show and tell.
For May eve we camped out in a little East Sussex wood; we wanted to be out in the fresh new green and jump over our own mini Beltane fire to bring in summer. Also, the area is renowned for its bluebells, of which I am something of a connoisseur.
The weather was cool and damp, the humidity intensifying the depth of the colours and general sense of lushness and rampant growth. Birdsong seemed astonishingly loud, the only other sounds a constant dripping and the babble of running water. I felt I could almost be in a high altitude cloud forest anywhere in the world if it were not for the familiarity of the trees and vegetation around me.
There are so many wildflowers all blooming together right now, the harsh winter having telescoped the seasons down until the first late winter flowers stand shoulder to shoulder with summer blooms. And everything is giving it’s best after that winter, including the bluebells.
If you are lucky enough to have been in a bluebell wood in full flower you will know well the extraordinary sensual overload that this can provoke. You walk along thinking that you’ve already seen it all, it couldn’t possibly get any bluer. Then the trees open out a little more and they are swimming in an astonishing violet mist of overwhelming voluptuousness. This, I can tell you, you have to experience for yourself.
It’s not just the colour, the scent is vivid too – heady and exotic for something so British, but with a coolness that makes it bearable, like lilies crossed with violets. Sometimes you can smell the flowers long before you see them.
I remember my first sighting of bluebells as a child, and the wonder I felt at their unexpected beauty. My mother wisely told me not to pick a single one, they could never look better in my hand than standing exactly where they were and I understood and did as I was told. Coming back from our walk we saw a family who had not been so wise; they had greedily picked as many as they could carry and were already making disappointed sounds at how swiftly they had wilted. They bore my mothers rage with baffled indifference, but if they learned nothing that day, I had learned plenty.
To read more Nature Notes, why not visit Rambling Woods – in fact, why not write a Nature Notes post of your own?
Could it really be that two months and indeed a whole season have passed me by since I last wrote here? This morning on the way to the shops I was jolted awake by yet another sign of time passing – the rowdy screeching of swifts overhead, the first I’ve heard this year. Despite the cold, it must be summer.
With every passing sign of spring – the first snowdrop, the first lesser celendine, the first wood anemone, bluebell, swallow sighting… I’ve been wanting to write and celebrate. There hasn’t been the time though, so even though I note these changes and absorb their import they have passed here in silence. It’s felt so wrong, and now that I’ve started writing again I can barely collect the discipline together to figure out what I have to say. There are the swallows, and bluebells, and Beltane woods, and a feeling of the headlong rush of life that has broken the banks of spring and flooded into summer already. I feel knocked over and swept away by the flow of it all of it all… and then I have to go and do the chores.
A couple of weekends ago now (how quickly the summer goes) R and I caught the train to Cookham to spend an afternoon walking along the drowsy bank of the River Thames and climb Winter Hill, where we would picnic in honour of the fullness of summer. Follow the Thames west of London up towards it’s source and you will barely recognise it as the murky waterway that bisects the city’s heart; indeed, follow it as far west as Oxford and it has another name – the Isis.
The day was hot and sunny with a refreshing breeze as we approached the flank of the Hill along a towpath riotous with wildflowers. The breeze however kept dragonflies and damselflies to a minimum, though we did get to see this little marvel, a female Beautiful Damoiselle.
Cookham is famous as the home of the visionary artist Stanley Spencer, who painted biblical scenes as if they had occurred in his native village. After viewing some of his oddly hallucinatory work in the Stanley Spencer Museum the landscape, already vivid in the summer heat took on a strange intensity as if I were looking directly through the artists eyes. Cookham is also a home to the arcane practice of Swan Upping, the ceremonial rounding up of mute swans by the Queen’s Swan Markers, the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers. Cookham, in short, is as beautifully English as it gets, and more than mildly eccentric to boot.
One of the best reasons to visit this part of the world (apart from it’s singular beauty) is the chance to see Red Kites. Once almost extinct in the UK and still globally threatened, these spectacular birds ride the skies like no other bird I’ve ever seen, and around Cookham and Winter Hill there is a sizeable local population. On a previous visit we’d been startled by a tawny flash erupting from a wheat field right in front of us as one of these birds shot into the sky, leaving us gasping with disbelief. On that occasion we didn’t know that these birds were locally common, and while eating our picnic on the hill’s crest we shook our heads in wonder while watching more than one bird flirting with the breeze at eye level no more than twenty yards away. On this visit we got our first sighting while in the beer garden of the Bounty Pub, taking turns with the binoculars to watch a soaring pair while we slapped on sun cream, drank a sustaining coffee and prepared for our climb.
Don’t get me wrong; the climb is hardly arduous – I don’t know for sure but I’d be surprised if Winter Hill tops two hundred feet. It’s steep though, and the sun was bright and harsh. Lush vivid green meadows nodding with wildflowers clung to the slope and as we climbed it’s steepest point our hot faces drew level with Harebells, Clustered Bellflowers, Scabious. Butterflies commute busily between patches of flowers and at the top rabbits, unafraid, graze near the sheltering brambles.
The view from the top of Winter Hill on a beautiful late summer day repays the modest effort a thousandfold – the flat lands of the Thames roll out like a richly patterned carpet, and in the dancing shade of oak and ash we sat down to drink it all in.
No picture could do justice to the panorama of many coloured patchwork fields, the toy like train on it’s track, the subtle glint of the Thames below. We unpacked our picnic of strawberries and wine and toasted the sun dazed landscape.
Exploring the crest of the hill I was delighted to find some fat new Parasol Mushrooms growing up through dried out cow pats – Parasol mushrooms are good eating, but I’m always a little nervous about id’ing mushrooms in the field so we left them unmolested.
Further along I found this beastie gorging it’s-self on Ragwort. It’s the gaudy caterpillar of the just as gaudy Cinnabar moth, and it’s football jersey colouration serves as a warning to predators – keep away, I taste bad, I will make you very sick! It’s food plant – Ragwort – is full of poisonous alkaloids which the caterpillar stores safely in it’s body, rendering it, too, poisonous. They have a voracious appetite and will completely devour their host plant down to the ground, which will sometimes result in the caterpillars turning cannibal in the absence of anything else to eat. As this was the only Ragwort plant to be seen, and as it had already been quite comprehensively munched, and as there was only one caterpillar doing the munching… well I have to come to the conclusion that this greedy creature may well have been the sole survivor of a cannibal feast. Enough of the grisly nature lesson – don’t you think our stripy friend would look well sitting on a fully opened parasol mushroom – just like the caterpillar in Alice In Wonderland? The landscape may be full of gentle beauty, but just a quick glimpse of it at a different scale reveals a strangeness to match anything Lewis Carrol dreamed up.
Eventually it was time to dawdle our way back down and catch the train back to London. We thought we’d seen everything we could possibly want to see as we strolled along the river, scanning the waters with our binoculars for nothing in particular. Then I spotted this Great Crested Grebe diving, and soon it had a plump fish in it’s beak. Curious as to why it did not eat it’s prize immediately I kept the binoculars trained on the bird and was lucky to see it swim to it’s mate and give the fish to her – she could not dive for her own dinner because their chicks were riding upon her back, their fuzzy grey heads peeking out between her wings.
Summer is moving on apace and as I don’t want to waste a single sunny day when it crops up, I grabbed my camera and binoculars and cycled up the River Lee after the first good forecast this week. The idea was to go dragonfly spotting, something I’ve been aching to give a whole day to, but the day itself had other plans for me.
I had a particular spot in mind, Gunpowder Park, near Waltham Abbey. I’d been there many years ago and had a vague memory of myriads of dancing insects, so having for once a specific destination in mind I set off at a brisk pace.
The towpath was deserted, surprisingly so for such a lovely day. I usually cycle the towpath slowly, mindful of pedestrians and dogs, but on this occasion there was not another soul to be seen, and I sped along. Due to my haste I will have missed a lot – I know it – just from the tantalising things that I only glimpsed like the plums glossy and ripe and good spilled across the gravel as windfall, the skulking herons, the bright flash of wildflowers. The horse meadow with it’s bright garlanded hedgerow coaxed me to pull up and drink in it’s beauty, the scent of buddlea and wild sweet peas heady and intoxicating.
Usually I’d stop alongside those pylons to search for Little Owls (at one point I was seeing so many and so regularly there that I just called them “pylon birds”) but this time I was on a mission, and thinking that I could easily stop there on the way home I hurried by. A bank of honeysuckle flowers tempted me to pause, but I was uncharacteristically hasty in getting back in the saddle.
Ever feel like you’ve jinxed yourself? All those things I told myself I’d stop and look at properly on the way back never did get looked at after all, which proves to me that being in a hurry to get anywhere is just a great big waste of NOW. Hurrying discourages curiosity, blinkers us to the unexpected. And on I sped, intoxicated with the swift breeze and the scrunch of gravel under my tyres. The towpath finally emerged from beneath the roaring M25, ducked under one more road and rolled out into parkland. Was this Gunpowder Park? I wasn’t sure, and a quick rummage in my saddlebag confirmed that I’d forgotten to bring a map. No problem! It would surely be signposted and besides, I could always ask for directions.
I got off the bike and strolled slowly along the riverbank in hope of spotting a dragonfly or two, but the wind was strong and I could not find the sheltered places where the dragons and damsels would be patrolling. Still, the river was beautiful, a slow, sinuous dancing river, and the weeds under the water swayed slowly like mermaids tresses. So many wildflowers I did not recognise! I got down on my belly to take pictures, to the mild alarm of strolling families who couldn’t see anything special about the clump of weeds I was prostrated by. I’m truly glad I spent a bit of slow time here, because when I got up and got back on my bike in search of Gunpowder Park and dragonflies, I realised something wasn’t quite right. Oh no – no WAY. I had a puncture. Normally this would not be an issue but I think you can guess what else I’d forgotten. That’s right - I’d set out to cycle miles out of London over relatively rough ground and not even brought a pump with me. And as I’d forgotten my map, I had no idea where the nearest train station was. Where was everybody? Now that I needed to ask directions the park seemed suddenly deserted. In search of directions or even a sign I followed the nearest road and stumbled upon a very unfriendly looking gated community on the edge of town; big ugly houses with big ugly cars parked in all the drives, completely sterile and unhelpfully deserted. But here I found a genuine and lovely surprise.
A flowering ornamental shrub was by some magic growing wild at the side of the path, and on it’s flowers danced an astonishing number of Painted Lady butterflies. The nectar laden flower heads tossed in the strong breeze and the insects clung to the blossoms determinedly, everything moving back and forth as if being pulled by a tide. Bees hummed industriously between the butterflies – everything was so intensely involving that the mystery of how I was ever going to get home seemed very far away.
I know most people in the UK have been seeing these lovely butterflies in great numbers since their mass migration here earlier this spring, but I’ve been singularly unlucky and seen hardly any. To find dozens of them all in one place was plenty consolation for the lack of dragonflies and the long, hot, unpleasant slog home.