Totnes is an ancient town with many old stone walls lining passageways, roads and the edges of gardens. In spring and summer, the wintery-dark stone of these walls erupts with clumps of green leaves followed by dense, rounded clusters of tiny flowers, usually a bright pink, so that the clusters resemble scoops of strawberry ice cream. This plant is red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and is thought to have been introduced from the Mediterranean in the late 16th century. It is now naturalised in the UK and common in England and Wales, especially in the south west where it insinuates its roots into the mortar in the old walls wherever it can get a toehold. Its colourful flowers lend a hint of the Mediterranean to some west country towns.
Despite this summer’s very dry weather, some valerian flower heads still remain attracting insects looking for late season nectar. Large furry bumblebees scramble about the colourful flowers and white butterflies perch on flower heads but the plant is a particular favourite of a spectacular day flying moth with a wingspan of about 5cm, the hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). Most years I see one of these moths but this summer I have had many more sightings especially in the last week of August and first week of September. A long spell of warm southerly winds may have brought the moths northwards from their Mediterranean strongholds.
A clump of red valerian hanging from an old stone wall in our street has been very popular with the moths. On several recent days, a hummingbird hawk moth has appeared by a flower head, as if from nowhere, and hovered, its long proboscis deftly inserted into one tiny flower collecting nectar from the base of the corolla. The moth seems to hang in the air, its greyish body with black and white chequered rear showing well. Its brown and orange wings beat so rapidly that they appear as a blur and create an audible hum. When it has finished with one flower cluster, it jinks to another.
There is something magical about these elegant creatures and I feel privileged to be able to see them. My feelings, though, are tinged with sadness as their arrival in greater numbers is a reflection of our rapidly changing climate.
During the hot weather in the first few weeks of August, we took to sitting in the shade by our pond with our mid-morning coffee. Butterflies, bees and hoverflies passed by, sometimes stopping on nearby flowers, but the main attraction was a large clump of lavender. With its many purple flowers and grey green foliage, it lent a sweet scent to the air as it cascaded down a rough stone wall by the path and was thronged with medium sized bumblebees. The heat seemed to stimulate them and they moved continuously from flower to flower, stopping only briefly to feed. Each time they moved to a new flower head the stem dipped as it took their weight only to spring back as it adjusted. Sometimes the light reflected off their wings like glittering fragments of glass. With all this activity, the lavender clump appeared to be alive.
In the middle of the day, up to ten bumblebees could be seen moving about the lavender clump at any one time and with their black, yellow and white striped furry bodies they looked superficially to be of the same species, probably buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). Photographs supported this identification and examination of their back legs showed they were males. These male buff-tailed bumblebees will have emerged from a nest that reached maturity during the summer and males, once out of the nest, cannot return and spend their time searching for virgin queens and feeding. Dave Goulson has likened the gangs of male bumblebees drinking nectar on flowers such as lavender to groups of men propping up the bar in a pub.
I wondered what they did at night and one evening I walked past the lavender and found three immobile male bumblebees attached upside down to flower heads (see pictures at the head of this post and below). This was their roost and one of more was there roosting on many subsequent evenings. Male bumblebees have a short life, a few weeks, and by the third week of August numbers had dropped and those that were still about looked rather sluggish. Small brown Common Carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) began to take over the clump but that was also beginning to show signs of age.
There’s a path I often take on my way into town. It runs between the back gardens of two rows of houses and is probably an ancient right of way. Much of the path is lined by old stone walls, softened in summer by the pinks and purples of valerian and campanula. Walking along here one early June morning, I was surprised to find a dense mass of flower spikes, some up to a metre tall, rising from a bank usually covered in rough grass. Whorls of purplish red flowers decorated with white art deco-style patterns grew around each stem above heart-shaped leaves, toothed and pale green, nettle-like but without the sting. This is hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica). To some, it’s an invasive weed but to me it’s a beautiful wild flower, attractive to insects and with interesting medicinal properties.
Small bumblebees were drinking nectar from the flowers in their lazily laconic manner, pushing their tongue between the three-lobed lower lip and the curving upper lip, acquiring an involuntary dusting of pollen from the hidden stamens. Hedge woundwort is, though, a particular favourite of another smaller bee species, one with a very different personality. One of these was moving edgily from flower to flower stopping very briefly to feed, emitting a distinctive high-pitched buzz as it went. It was about half the size of a honeybee, a non-descript brown except for some orange hairs on the tail and a golden pollen brush on the back legs. This was a female fork-tailed flower bee (Anthophora furcata). While she was feeding, another small bee arrived at high speed, a similar brown colour but with prominent yellow hairs on the face. This was the male fork-tailed flower bee; he hovered briefly behind the female buzzing loudly before pouncing. Both bees ended up falling to the ground.
Hedge woundwort and the closely related marsh woundwort have a long history of use in folk medicine for wound healing. The 16th century surgeon Gerard once witnessed a man cut himself badly with a scythe. Gerard offered help but the man refused and poulticed the injury himself with woundwort, stopping the bleeding; his wound healed in a few days. Gerard went on to use the plant in his own practice but, his professional pride piqued by the man’s rejection, christened it “clowne’s woundwort”.
If, like me, you enjoy looking at flowers, then winter can be a pretty dismal time. The plants that give colour to the autumn such as asters and sedums have long since faded and there’s a gap of several weeks before the winter flowers, snowdrops, aconites and pulmonaria show their faces. It hasn’t helped this winter that the December weather, although very mild, brought many overcast days. Ceilings of thick grey cloud hung overhead, keeping light levels low and draining the landscape of colour so that I yearned for some brightness.
But there is help at hand in the form of winter flowering shrubs and plants which bring welcome colour to the gloom. These include winter honeysuckle and winter flowering heathers but my favourite is mahonia with its starbursts of lemon-yellow flowers and its spiky evergreen leaves. Mahonia works hard, flowering from November with some varieties continuing to bloom well into the New Year. A large stand of the shrub is a fine sight in winter, sometimes as much as three metres in height, covered with multiple plumes of flowers reaching upwards above sprays of spiky mid green holly-like leaves. Even on the darkest winter day, the yellow flowers light up their surroundings like banks of fluorescent tubes and should the sun shine, both flowers and leaves glow in reply. As an added bonus, stands of mahonia are often enveloped in a cloud of sweet fragrance said to resemble lily of the valley, a rare experience in these low months. If all that wasn’t enough, as the flowers mature, they produce attractive blue-black berries dusted with a white bloom.
Mahonia was first discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition sent to explore the newly acquired north western territory of the United States during the early years of the 19th century. The shrub was found growing extensively between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean. The prominent Irish/American nurseryman Bernard McMahon based in Philadelphia was responsible for propagating the seeds and plants brought back from the expedition and mahonia was named in recognition of his work. Mahonia is also referred to as Oregon grape after the resemblance of its berries to the vine fruit and the part of the US where the shrub was first seen.
The native US shrub was imported into the UK in the 19th century and different varieties were also found in Asia at about the same time. These and their hybrids are now very popular in this country contributing architectural interest to gardens as well as winter colour. They are often planted around the edges of car parks and outside buildings where their potential size can be readily accommodated.
It’s not just humans, though, who take pleasure from mahonia in winter. Both insects and birds relish the profusion of flowers and berries on the shrub. The long arching racemes thrown upwards by mahonia are densely packed with small flowers, each shaped like an upturned bell and formed from concentric rings of petals and sepals. The flowers are rich sources of pollen and nectar providing important forage for insects on mild winter days and, as the insects feed, they contribute to pollination.
Among the insects visiting mahonia in winter, bumblebees are regular foragers in the south of the UK and I have seen both workers and queens even in late December, sometimes liberally dusted with yellow pollen. Honeybees and hoverflies will also venture out to feed on milder winter days and they may occasionally be joined by red admiral butterflies. It’s fascinating to watch bumblebees working the flowers, moving systematically along a raceme, dislodging yellow petals which fall to decorate nearby leaves and create a yellow “snow” on pavements below. Birds such as blackcaps and blue tits also take sugar-rich nectar from mahonia flowers. When they visit, they may pick up pollen on their beaks contributing to pollination.
The flowers have a special mechanism for increasing the efficiency of pollination by visiting insects and birds. In each flower, the pollen-loaded stamens are arranged in a ring just inside the petals. Stimulating the flower, as would happen if a pollinator visits, causes the stamens to move inwards increasing the likelihood that the pollinator will pick up pollen to transfer to the next flower. Pollination leads to formation of the berries, each about the size of a blackcurrant which start green and mature to blue-black with a white bloom. The berries provide winter food for birds later in the season and blackcaps, blackbirds and song thrushes may be seen feeding.
Although mahonia was a new discovery for colonists in the US in the early 19th century, the native American tribes of the north west were already familiar with its properties. Some ate the berries, either raw or cooked and some used preparations of the shrub for medicinal purposes. Yellow dyes derived from the plant were also used by the tribes for colouring fabrics and basketry. Preparations of mahonia have been employed in traditional Chinese medicine over many years and are used by some contemporary herbalists but rigorous scientific studies of their effects have not been performed.
It is interesting to reflect on how mahonia, a shrub native to parts of the US and Asia, has successfully travelled to the UK where not only does it brighten our winters but it also supports wildlife across this low season.
The Lockdown may be easing but with coronavirus still circulating and with little sensible guidance coming from central government, life is far from normal. So, I am continuing my Lockdown Exercise Walks and avoiding large gatherings where possible. In this eighth Walk, I want to take you to one of my favourite parts of the south Devon coast near Prawle Point, Devon’s southernmost headland.
The forecast for the coast was good so, towards the end of the third week of June, we headed off across the rolling hills of the South Hams towards Kingsbridge. The weather, though, seemed to be unaware of the forecast. Great slabs of grey cloud loomed ahead and there were clear signs of recent rain. I began to wonder if this trip were such a good idea but we pressed on, knowing how quixotic the Devon weather can be. At Kingsbridge we picked up the coast road turning right at the village of Frogmore across a watery inlet to follow four miles of narrow, winding lanes.
Not only are the lanes narrow here, they are enclosed by Devon hedges, creating a narrow corridor with steep banks. At this time of year, the banks are smothered with lush vegetation, mostly green but enlivened by splashes of white cow parsley, yellowing Alexanders and bright pink foxglove remnants. In just one spot, a large patch of rosebay willowherb coloured the bank coral pink as if paint had been spilt and when we stopped to let an oncoming car pass, a few spikes of purple tufted vetch cried out to be seen.
As we approached the village of East Prawle we passed the duckpond with its large clumps of chrome yellow monkey flower and parked by the village green. Hazel wanted a longer walk, whereas I wanted to spend time looking at flowers, so we agreed to meet later. I began by heading towards the coast down a steep road edged by rough stone walls. Fulsome clumps of red valerian clung to the stone, rain-remnant drops of water hanging from the flowers like tiny glass globes. The sun began to break through the cloud that had brought the rain, the water droplets sparkled like fairy lights and butterflies flickered among the flowers. Now and then, I glimpsed the coast spread out below and the sea, a uniform misty blue.
Near a row of coastguard cottages, I entered a narrow lane lined by green hedges coloured by more valerian, also honeysuckle and bramble. The lane turned sharp left to descend more steeply across slippery exposed bedrock and through scrub and woodland. A chiff chaff called and I stopped to gaze at the flowers and insects on a bank of bramble caught in the morning sunshine. Suddenly a woman appeared down a nearby path that joined the lane looking surprised to find me standing there.
“Are you alright?” she asked
“I’m just looking at the flowers” I replied, trying to reassure her.
“Yes, there are lots of flowers about. Have you seen the pink sweet peas on the coast, they don’t smell like the garden variety?” she continued.
“That’s narrow- leaved everlasting pea, a perennial wild form of the garden variety and coincidentally its pink flowers are part of the reason I’m here today, some rare bees feed from them” I replied.
“It’s so difficult to identify wild flowers from books” she worried.
“Yes, I sometimes leaf through the entire book to identify something I have seen.”
I told her I could wait if she wanted to go ahead down the lane so that we maintained physical distancing but she said there was no need as she was taking another path to the right and promptly disappeared.
Leaving the woodland, I passed between arable fields along another enclosed path with the sea now ahead of me. These fields occupy a gently sloping coastal plain stretching between steep inland cliffs with rocky outcrops and the present low cliffs above the sea. The steep inland cliffs give the area an enclosed, almost claustrophobic feeling whilst creating a gentle microclimate. Barley grows in these fields, spring sown so that its seed and stubble can be left after autumn harvest to provide winter food for the rare cirl buntings that now flourish here. As I walked, the distinctive rattle of one of the birds echoed around the inland cliffs. The barley was a soft, uniformly yellowish-green carpet so I assumed it had been well sprayed with herbicide.
When I reached the coast, I headed westwards along the coast path between the cliff edge and the barley field. The cliff edge was fringed with bracken and blackthorn, the latter providing good nest areas for the cirl buntings. Tall stems of hemp agrimony grew here along with a profusion of narrow-leaved everlasting pea scrambling through the bracken and the scrub, grabbing on with fine tendrils. Large, mostly pink, pea-type flowers (see picture at the head of this post) were scattered about the plants, not in large numbers but frequently enough to make an impact. The large upper petals, like bright pink sails decorated with fine green striations, stand out above the smaller lower petals that resemble miniature boxing gloves, with an unusual bluish-pink hue.
Silvery bees patrolled the area around the flowers weaving their way deftly and quickly among the vegetation and I wondered how they were able to navigate so easily. Sometimes they stopped to take nectar and from their very long black bootlace antennae I recognised these as male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis). This part of the south Devon coast contains the largest UK colony of these very rare and very distinctive bees. The sun had now come out making it feel quite warm and I stayed by the flowers for a while. A few female long-horned bees soon appeared carrying large chunks of pollen so I presume they were coming to collect nectar. They share only a passing resemblance to their male counterparts: they have short antennae and are covered in thick pale hairs. They hang below the pink flowers holding their body in a tightly curved crescent as they feed and the flowers of narrow-leaved everlasting pea seem to be a very important pollen source for the insects.
I moved on through two latch gates to enter a narrow but long coastal meadow stretching between cliff tops fringed with bracken and scrub and the inland cliffs that tower above. The meadow hadn’t been cultivated or grazed and was thick with knee-length grasses and wild flowers. Grasshoppers rose as I walked and small brownish butterflies danced around me. This is a floral paradise, a mosaic of colour and form.
The predominant flowers at the beginning of the meadow were the white hemispheres of sea carrot rising like so many large mushrooms through the thick grass to dominate the landscape. There were also some of the nodding yellow heads of cat’s ear, popular with red-tailed bumblebees, and the pinkish-purple flowers of common vetch. Partially buried in the grass I noticed the small, bright pink flowers of centaury with their prominent yellow stamens. Narrow-leaved everlasting pea climbed through the cliff-edge bracken attracting more long-horned bees to its pink flowers, so I stopped to watch.
I dragged myself away and further on, a rough path took me down the low cliff to an area of soft rock riddled with small pencil-sized holes, thought to be the principal nest site of the long-horned bees. As I waited to see the insects returning to their nests, I was conscious of the sea grumbling around the rocks behind me and the patchwork of colours it held. The water was mostly a shimmering deep blue but with darker areas hiding submerged rocks and tinged green where it washed over shallow sand. My reverie was interrupted when the woman I met earlier appeared on the rocks around the cliff corner. She seemed keen to talk and I learnt that she lived in London but had come down to stay in her cottage when the lockdown was imposed.
I scrambled back up to the coast path and as I walked westwards in the direction of Prawle Point, the floral mix in the meadow changed. Cat’s ear now dominated lending the meadow a yellow cast. Along the cliff edge, the bracken had been replaced by tracts of yellow bird’s foot trefoil and purple tufted vetch. I also noticed lady’s bedstraw and hedge bedstraw and the bright reddish-purple flowers of bloody cranesbill. This kaleidoscope of colour brought more bumblebees and solitary bees although I thought the vetches looked past their best, perhaps a result of the dry spring.
Hazel appeared, having finished her walk and we made our way back up to East Prawle starting along a field-edge wall where brambles and other wildflowers grew. Cirl buntings sang and, in the sunshine, a male long-horned bee fed from one of the flowers, butterflies danced together and a fine mason wasp collected nectar.
In this seventh Lockdown Nature Walk, I want to take you along more of the ancient lanes that crisscross the countryside around Totnes rather like the lines on the palm of my hand. The walk I describe was done in the last week of May on a sunny, warm day when there was a distinct feeling that the seasons were changing.
I begin at the foot of Harper’s Hill on the western side of town where an ancient trackway strikes steeply upwards in a south-westerly direction into trees and away from the busy Kingsbridge Road. This is hard walking especially on the uneven surface and quite soon the lane becomes deeply sunken, bordered on both sides by steep banks, up to four metres in height. Ferns and pennywort grow along these banks and a jungle-like tree canopy cuts out most of the light so that even on a sunny day the lane has a gloomy, slightly sinister feeling. Today, small insects are caught, dancing like dust motes in the few shafts of light that make it through the canopy. Earlier this year, fleshy green ramsons carpeted the pathside banks but their leaves are now yellowish and a vague garlicky odour hangs in the air as they decay.
It’s difficult to believe that for hundreds of years, until the inception of the turnpikes, Harper’s Hill was the main route out of Totnes towards Plymouth and the west. As I trudge up the steep hill, I imagine the countless others who walked this way with heavy loads, or animals or rickety carts. It’s as though I am “slipping back out of this modern world” (after W H Hudson).
Eventually, though. the lane levels out. A gateway on the right offers a brief window through the curtain of vegetation and I see the land falling away steeply into a deep valley and Dartmoor lurking in the distance. I continue along the track as it becomes more open between tall trees and a few caravans used for housing to reach Tristford Cross.
In the past, those who had laboured up Harper’s Hill bound for Plymouth and the west would have turned right at Tristford Cross on to the old ridgeway road along the brow of Broomborough Down. But I go straight ahead at this crossroads along a paved lane avoiding the occasional car to reach Cholwell Cross where another track, Jackman’s Lane, crosses at right angles. Signs announce that this is an unmetalled road and it is indeed a deeply rutted, reddish soil track used by farm vehicles and muddy after rain but today bone dry and hard as concrete.
I turn right along one section of Jackman’s Lane. Superficially, this appears to be just another country track but from the first time I came here, I realised that this was a place with its own particular character and charm. Unlike so many local lanes, it is flat, light and airy and surrounded by rolling countryside stretching into the distance. Although it is bordered by Devon Hedges, these seem to have been maintained, restricting their height and allowing light to reach both sides of the track especially when the sun shines as it does today. Many flowers grow along the lane, bees, butterflies and hoverflies dart about and there is a general buzz in the air.
Here are a few of the insect species I saw:
As I enter the lane, I notice thick rope-like skeins of a scrambling plant in the right-hand hedge with dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves that look as though they have been coated with shiny paint. This is black bryony and its pale yellow insignificant flowers are now showing. Insignificant they may be but they will give rise to trailing strings of plump, shiny red berries in the autumn. Several tree species are present in the hedges including elder, hazel, holly, rowan and sycamore, suggesting that this is a very old hedge. In several places, foxgloves grow from the top of the bank in large groups (see picture at the head of this post) creating a vivid pink display against the clear blue sky, reminiscent of the colourful banners displayed at music festivals. Large buzzy bumblebees systematically work the individual foxglove flowers.
Banks of lacy white cow parsley line the lane in places but the insects seem to ignore this umbellifer. The same is not true for hogweed and one or two tall stands of this robust plant with its white pompom flowers are proving irresistible for hoverflies and solitary bees. Then I come to the toilet! Someone has dumped an old toilet in the right-hand hedge and scrawled “R Mutt” on it in black letters. This may be fly-tipping but I also think it is an “hommage” to Marcel Duchamp, and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the value of this piece of conceptual art.
A gateway into a field appears on the left so I stop to take in the view. I work out that I am looking roughly south west and an image unspools ahead of me of fields and hedges, a few cows, repeating into the distance, disappearing into a blue haze. For a short time, I am transfixed by this view, it’s so unusual for this part of Devon to encounter a landscape free from hills and valleys. It feels as though the sea should lie somewhere in the distant blue haze but that’s beyond what I can see.
In the middle section of the lane, I find flowers that speak more of summer than of spring so despite the limbo imposed on human lives by the lockdown, seasonal change carries on regardless. Foxgloves are part of this seasonal shift but I also see large amounts of a yellowish plant that grows almost horizontally from the side of the hedges. It has greenish-yellow, hairy leaves arranged symmetrically in whorls of four with clusters of small fragrant yellow flowers at the bases of the leaves. I initially thought this was lady’s bedstraw but it is in fact crosswort, a relative. Vetches are also showing. Bush vetch with its untidy mauve flowers has been about for a while but I also find the yellow, pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling. Both vetches attract bees but another favourite of these insects is hedge woundwort. This plant has just come into flower in the lane displaying its burgundy red flowers decorated with fine white hieroglyphics.
Further on, nettles begin to dominate the hedges and a few tall trees appear before the lane reaches the old ridgeway road. The section of Jackman’s Lane that I have described is quite short, barely half a mile in length, but it has a very particular character. It is also very rich in wildlife and unexpectedly, it contains an interesting piece of conceptual art.
There are various ways to complete a circular walk from here but perhaps the most interesting is to turn left until a stony track leaves the ridgeway road to bear right, downhill. This is another section of Jackman’s Lane which eventually reaches the Plymouth Road at Follaton for an easy return to the town.
To see my previous Lockdown Nature Walks please look here
For the fourth of my Lockdown Nature Walks, I want to take you along Copland Lane, one of the many old tracks that radiate like compass points from the town of Totnes. Copland Lane follows the westward compass point, roughly parallel to the busy railway line to Plymouth and Cornwall which lies some distance below in the valley. It takes me about 15 minutes, on foot, to reach the beginning of Copland Lane which lies between the gate to a popular group of allotments and a moderate sized, newish housing estate. I walked Copland Lane about a fortnight ago on a day of clear blue skies and warm sunshine tempered by a blustery cold wind.
A large stand of blackthorn, still covered in its small white flowers, grows near the start of the lane as if to herald the transition out of the semi-urban into a different world, a world of green, a world of growth, a world of colourful wildflowers.
At first, the lane drops gently downwards, bordered on the right-hand side by steep banks below the gardens of houses and on the other side by a bank of tightly packed soil perhaps stabilised by rubble, known locally as a Devon Hedge. Various kinds of vegetation including shrubs and coppiced trees, grow up prolifically from both sides not quite meeting above the lane but creating an enclosed, sheltered feeling. Sunlight percolates through the tree screen casting a dappled pattern across the track, but there is more to the light today. At this time of year, the trees have fresh, pale green, almost transparent leaves and as the sunlight filters between and through the leaves it acquires a subtle greenness that I only experience in spring.
Along the right-hand side of the lane, where sun warms the soil, I notice large stretches of yellow archangel with its many pale yellow flowers each with hooded, fringed upper lip and broader, three-lobed lower lip with intricate pale brown markings. Looking at the spear-shaped leaves, I see no silvery markings so this is likely to be the true native species rather than the garden cultivar. A worker early bumblebee with its pink-tipped abdomen feeds from the flowers.
The left-hand side of the lane sees less direct sunlight but growth seems just as prolific although the species that prosper are different. Banks of ramsons line the base of the Devon Hedge, starry white flowers just beginning to show. Several pale spathes of Lords and Ladies struggle through the thick ivy that covers the side of the bank. Fronds of hart’s tongue fern unfurl in groups as they push upwards and where the low sunshine catches their leaves, they become semi-transparent as if X-rayed. Navelwort (wall pennywort) grows in places covering sides of the lane with its circular, fleshy green leaves with their central dimple or navel. Its immature flower spikes push upwards getting ready to display many small white lantern flowers in a few weeks.
As I walk on, the lane changes, casting off its enclosed feel to become more open. The Devon Hedge loses its tree cover allowing the sun full access to the soil bank and the fertile conditions encourage the growth of a dense, tangled, green mass of plants (see picture at the head of this post and above). Without flowers, I can’t recognise many of these but I do see the fleshy stems and crimson flowers of red campion and the starry white flowers of stitchwort. I notice vetch-type leaves scrambling through the mass of greenery and one bright pink and white, pea-type flower reveals that this is common vetch. The low sunshine cuts across the bank and through the mass of greenery, highlighting the dense luxurious growth. Something about the light changes as it filters through the seemingly unfettered tangle of vegetation. It’s difficult to pin the effect down but there is a softening, a dispersion.
Occasionally, I encounter people walking along the lane towards me and we perform an elaborate dance to maintain social distancing which often involves one party sheltering in a hedge. Everyone is very polite and we usually say Hello but it feels so alien to shun others where we might normally have exchanged experiences, if only of the weather.
Now, gradually, the feel of the lane changes again. It becomes wider and bound by neat hedges and farmland on the left. There are cows in the fields and the lane takes on the persona of a farm track. The houses on the right eventually peter out, also giving way to farmland, but before they do, there are large grassy banks bathed in sunshine and scattered, confetti-like, with stitchwort. I also notice the violet-blue, funnel-shaped flowers and fleshy scalloped leaves, dark green but tinged red, of ground ivy showing well. Some wild strawberry flowers promise fruit to come and one or two spikes of cuckoo flower push through the grass displaying their delicate lilac flowers.
As I stand gazing at the flowers, a man emerges on to the lane through a gate from one of the houses with his wheelbarrow. He looks at me quizzically as I peer at the grassy bank and asks, not aggressively, what I am looking at.
“I’m looking at the flowers and the insects” I answer
“Ah yes, the flowers are much better now they clear the brambles” he replies before moving off.
The lane now has a short section where tall trees create a green corridor with much less sunlight. The vegetation changes accordingly and the path edges are again lined densely with ramsons and, on the right-hand side, where a little sunlight filters through, more yellow archangel seems to prosper. Not long after the tree cover ends, the open, hedged lane splits, offering a choice of two tracks. One is Higher Copland Lane which leads to the hamlet of Copland where someone with a sense of culture and a sense of humour has set up a Bed and Breakfast called Appalachian Spring. I take the other track, Lower Copland Lane, which provides me with the easier way to return to the town, but before I do, I look at the large clump of Alexanders that has colonised the junction of tracks. It stands in full sunshine today with its creamy mop head flowers above thick fleshy stems reminding me of scoops of Cornish Dairy Ice Cream enjoyed as a child on holiday. Alexanders grows mainly by the coast so it is a surprise to find it here. The flowers are proving very popular with hoverflies and almost every flower head is occupied by one of these insects.
Copland Lane itself is about a mile long, whether you take the Higher or Lower branch. It contains a variety of different environments and there are many interesting things to see. Today it also provided me with a much-needed distraction from the unusual and unsettling way of life now imposed upon us.
In this third post on Nature Walks during the Lockdown, I want to take you on a very short stroll, only a few steps in fact, into our front garden. It’s a small garden but it’s south facing and sheltered and it comes to life in the spring, especially on a sunny day.
I stand in the garden and listen. Today is cooler and breezier than it has been for some days and, across the street, the wind wanders through the developing leaf canopy on the tall sycamore creating a low rushing sound. A buzzard mews as it circles overhead, a few gulls gossip on the roof tops and a greenfinch wheezes nearby.
But there is one sound I have become accustomed to that I can’t hear today. This is the continuous low buzz that has been coming from the front hedge on warmer, sunnier days. The hedge is a Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) and for several weeks has been covered in small fleshy green leaves and bright orange-red, cup-shaped flowers filled with yellow stamens (see picture at the head of this post). The flame-coloured flowers flare brightly in the spring sunshine, but they tend to be partly buried by green foliage tempering their overall impact. Once the flowers fade this will be just another green hedge but, in the autumn, when the leaves fall, they reveal attractive pale green fleshy fruits that seem to have appeared from nowhere. For now, though, the flowers celebrate the spring by being a magnet for all kinds of bee. Unlike many flowers, there seem to be no preferences and I have seen honeybees, several species of bumblebee and several species of solitary bee, many loaded with yellow pollen; the almost continuous presence of bees working the flowers produces this spring buzz. I have tried to get pictures of the different bees feeding from the flowers but this has been unusually difficult. It feels as though when the bees see me, they move quickly to flowers deeper in the hedge although I did manage a couple of photos.
Spring has, however, recently moved up a gear. There are two small bee houses attached to the front of our house and, a year ago, these were occupied by red mason bees who filled some of the holes, topping them off with reddish mud. Just over a week ago, two of the mud plugs were broken and out came two red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) males. There are now at least six and they spend their time flying frantically about the bee houses dancing in the air, sometimes stopping to look in one of the holes, sometimes resting on the wall in the sun and sometimes feeding from nearby flowers. They are brimming with sexual energy, waiting for females to emerge from the bee houses, desperate to mate and their pent up excitement sometimes leads to mistaken male on male mating attempts. Male red mason bees are very attractive insects and it’s worth pausing to look. They are about two thirds the size of a honeybee, and notable for their long antennae, pale facial hair and striking bands of orange hair across the abdomen that sparkle in the sun.
It’s always an exciting time when the mason bees appear and busy themselves around the bee house. It’s a sign to me that spring has really arrived and summer will follow and I am reassured that nature is still following its plan.
As if to serenade the emergence of the mason bees, the cherry tree near the hedge also burst into flower this week. I had been watching the tree and thought there would be plenty of blossom and it is now covered in sprays of small white flower buds each clasped by five green sepals. Many of the buds have opened revealing five pure white petals on each flower, the sepals having bent backwards. Within the flower there is more to see, a mass of stamens each topped with a yellow anther, also a single thicker pale green pistil. Our tree is a Morello cherry, a cooking variety and self-fertile but pollination depends on insects to transfer pollen between anther and pistil. As if to underline this point, as more flowers have opened, I have noticed a stream of insects coming to feed from the flowers including hoverflies, solitary bees and even some of the mason bees from the bee houses. Some of the solitary bees went systematically from flower to flower so pollination should be fine and, providing the birds are kept at bay, we should enjoy a good crop of fruit in the late summer.
I don’t expect the flowers to last very long so it’s important sometimes to stop, stand back and admire the tree in its spring guise covered with pure white flowers, and remember the poem “Loveliest of Trees” where A E Housman saw his cherry “hung with snow”.
We are now well into the third week of lockdown in the UK. Totnes seems to be following the rules well, there are very few people about and when I encounter someone they mostly keep two metres away. With the lack of traffic, an abnormal quiet seems to have settled across the town so that we now notice the singing of the birds.
It’s a difficult time and perhaps reflecting this, a crop of supportive messages appeared recently in chalk on houses and on the road on Kinsgbridge Hill and Maudlin Road. One of these heads this post and I have put another below.
It has been easier, at least for me, to endure the lockdown given the gentle weather we have been experiencing. Mornings have been particularly glorious as the warm light of the rising sun is softened through a thin veil of mist across the valley below our house.
I have been continuing to enjoy my Lockdown exercise walks around the town centre gardens, car parks and lanes and here are a few notable observations.
Do look at the short video at the end of this post which shows a female hairy-footed flower bee feeding in the Nursery Car Park. It illustrates her behaviour and her colouring.
We are fortunate to live on the southern edge of Totnes close to open countryside. Just a short walk from our house lies Fishchowter’s Lane, an ancient sunken lane, once thought to have been one of the principal southern routes out of Totnes towards Dartmouth. Nowadays, it is very quiet making it a pleasant walk by woods and fields with various possibilities for longer or shorter loops back to Totnes. Here are some pictures taken as we walked the lane recently. For more images of the lane through the seasons, have a look here.
Finally, back to the town centre where one unanticipated effect of the lockdown has been the lack of strimming along car park edges allowing wild flowers to prosper. This is particularly clear in the Nursery Car Park where there are now drifts of of golden dandelions and a large bank of three-cornered leek covered with its trumpet-like white flowers with their pale green stripes. The flowers are very popular with female hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes); here is a short video clip I took yesterday morning of these insects showing how they behave.
We’ve been in lockdown in the UK for nearly a week. I was glad when it was announced as it was the first decisive step our government has taken during the coronavirus crisis. We’re supposed to stay in our homes except for essential outings (work, food or medical) and one “exercise” walk each day. Hopefully the lockdown will reduce the spread of the coronavirus by limiting social interaction but it does require people to follow the new rules.
It has been a beautiful week for weather, mild and spring-like with bright sunshine and blue skies, the sort of weather where the air is filled with birdsong and you can almost hear the buds swelling. When I have been out on my exercise walks, I have been taking photographs when I see something that catches my eye. I thought I would post these here, partly for interest as spring arrives in the west country and partly to show how much wildlife there is about us.
The picture at the head of this post is of some Anemone blanda growing among leaf litter in the Leechwell Garden. These blue flowers are native to southeastern Europe but seem to do well here.