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Conceptual Art in a Devon Country Lane – Lockdown Nature Walks 7

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 Windmill 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.

The start of Jackman’s Lane

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:

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo)

lace wing

Speckled yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia)

A Nomad bee (Nomada species) on hogweed. This photo does not show enough detail to assign this bee to a species but it is one of the many cuckoo bees that parasitise the nests of solitary mining bees.

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.

Black bryony with its glossy leaves and small yellow flowers

Banks of cow parsley along Jackman’s Lane

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.

no caption required!

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.

Crosswort

Meadow vetchling with a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Hedge woundwort with a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Further on, nettles begin to dominate the hedges and a few tall trees appear before the lane reaches the old ridgeway road on Windmill Down.  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 along Windmill Down 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

A Dartmoor Cuckoo Chorus – Lockdown Nature Walks 6

With the easing of the Lockdown rules in the UK, we have been venturing further afield for our exercise walks.  So, a few days ago we drove up to Two Bridges, high on Dartmoor, for a circular walk around the valley of the west Dart river via Wistman’s Wood, a rare example of ancient high-altitude oak wood.  Our walk was graced by the sounds of many cuckoos.

We began by heading northwards away from the Two Bridges car park on an uneven track running roughly parallel to the west Dart river.  With clear skies, strong sun and barely any breeze, it was much hotter than we expected for Dartmoor and sultry is probably the best word to describe the weather.  Soon after we set off, however, as we walked up the dry stony path to Crockern Tor Farm, we heard the unmistakable call “cuckoo cuckoo”.    A few sheep and one or two walkers were our only company and the song of the cuckoo instantly grabbed our attention as it echoed round the valley.  Further on, a jumble of rocks, Crockern Tor, loomed on our right and then another cuckoo called.  Eventually, we reached the top of a ridge and Wistman’s Wood came into view ahead, a green-leaved mass standing out above the summer-dry landscape on the eastern flank of the valley while the west Dart river lay in the valley bottom below.  The dry grass around us was punctuated by neat yellow tormentil flowers and unruly clumps of heath bedstraw covered with tiny white flowers and, as we walked, small orange butterflies (Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus) flickered upwards, dancing around briefly before heading off.  Another cuckoo called and I began to understand how the simple but beautiful music of their song had inspired so many composers.

Wistman’s Wood (taken 19th May 2018)

 

We made our way along the edge of Wistman’s Wood looking in on the seductive jumble of moss- and lichen-covered twisted branches and smooth rocks.  By now we had been walking for about an hour and were finding the temperature difficult so we decided to take a lunch break seated on smooth lumps of granite beneath one of the old oaks.  A little cloud had helpfully bubbled up keeping the sun at bay.  The river valley lay below us and the dense oaks of Wistman’s Wood and a few smaller clumps of trees stood out on the hillside.   Sheep bleated fitfully and small birds flitted about.  Then the cuckoos started to sing as if to provide us with lunchtime entertainment.  Several birds called from different directions, some nearer, some further away and at least two cuckoos moved between the trees in the valley.  We recognised them in flight from their pointed wings and long tail.  Most of the song was “cuckoo cuckoo”, the call of the male bird and sometimes this was extended to “cuckcuckoo”, not far off the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.  We also heard the burbling, gurgling sound which the female cuckoo makes when she is excited.

Cuculus canorus vogelartinfo chris romeiks CHR0791 cropped.jpg
A cuckoo (from Wikipedia)

 

Here is a short video of a male cuckoo calling:

The cuckoos had put on a real show for us that day but whenever I hear their call, whether it be one cuckoo or several, the sound has a profound effect on me.  In my teens, living in small town Hampshire, near woodland, cuckoo calls were a standard fixture of spring, something I came to expect each year.  With the decline of the bird, and having lived in large towns for many years I lost that expectation.  Now when we come to Dartmoor and I hear cuckoos again, their song touches some deeply held memory for me.

After lunch, we headed down across open moorland to cross the west Dart river.  Cotton grass with its fluffy, white cotton wool heads grew here, showing that the land is normally very boggy.  I also saw a few delicate blue and white heath milkwort flowers, far fewer today than in previous years, perhaps a reflection of the dry weather.  We crossed the river and scrambled up to the Devonport Leat, a narrow watercourse constructed in the 18th century to supply water from the Dart river to the growing community of Plymouth Dock 27 miles away.  Nowadays it empties into the Burrator Reservoir which provides water for Plymouth itself.  We followed the leatside path along the western side of the valley across the river from Wistman’s Wood to return to Two Bridges [The picture at the head of this post and the note at the end explain the location of the leatside path].  This should, by definition, be mostly easy walking but degradation of the path stones makes it less so.  Marsh violet with its pale mauve flowers, pink lousewort and good amounts of bilberry flourish in the damp environment by the leat and a few small fish dart back and forth.

About half way along the leatside path, two male cuckoos began to sing from the trees across the river in Wistman’s Wood.  At first, their calls came at different times from different locations.  One bird sang “cuckoo” and a short time later the other bird did likewise as if providing an answer.  This call and answer pattern was then repeated.  But the two birds were actually “cuckooing” at different frequencies so that gradually their calls moved together, then began to overlap and for a short time they sang at the same time before one bird stopped.   For a brief moment, as we listened, time stood still.

The song of the two cuckoos initially made me think of a musical round where different groups of people sing the same melody but start at different times.  “Sumer is icumen in”, also known as the Cuckoo Song, is a good example of a round.  A better analogy for the calls of the two cuckoos, however, comes from the phase music of Steve Reich. In his composition, Piano Phase, two pianos play the same tune but at slightly different tempi, giving rise to novel musical effects, rather like the two singing cuckoos.

When we decided to walk on Dartmoor that day, I had expected to hear one or two cuckoos but nothing like the extraordinary cuckoo chorus that graced our walk.

We walked on Dartmoor on May 27th 2020, our route is described here

The picture at the top of this post looks south down the valley of the west Dart.  Wistman’s Wood can be seen on the left and the line on the western hillside is the Devonport Leat.

Lockdown Nature Walks 5

We’ve now been in Lockdown for eight weeks, although recently there has been a slight and rather confusing easing of the regulations.   I have been continuing my exercise walks and sometimes I venture into the nearby countryside but more often I keep to the town centre gardens and car parks  looking at the flowers and the wildlife.  I thought I knew the town centre area well but, even here, so close to home, I’ve made some new and surprising discoveries.  So, here is my fifth Lockdown Nature Walk.

One place I walk through regularly is the Nursery Car Park, notable for the wide grassy banks and tall, ivy-clad, stone walls that surround several sides of the parking area providing unplanned but welcome space for wildlife.  There are many flowers early in the year and with the lockdown there are very few cars and even fewer people so it’s a surprisingly peaceful place.  In my earlier Lockdown Nature Walks I saw bumblebees, butterflies and hairy-footed flower bees enjoying the flowers here.

 

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Male orange-tip butterfly, showing the antennae, the grey-blue velevety body and the vivid orange patches on the forewings. One hindwing is slightly folded over

One morning in late April, I was walking through the Nursery Car Park and noticed a white butterfly making its way above one of the grassy banks. I don’t normally pay much attention to the white butterflies.  I think it must be engrained prejudice from childhood when “cabbage whites” used to spoil some of my father’s attempts at growing vegetables.   Something, however, made me look again and this time I saw flashes of orange as the butterfly danced briskly along.  It turned to follow another car park margin and paused, settling on one of the plants growing in the soil border below.  With its wings spread wide, I could see its blue-grey velvety body, prominent antennae and the vivid orange patches that occupy the outer halves of each forewing showing that this was an orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines), a male as the females lack the orange colour.  I approached carefully to get a better look but the insect flew off across the wall in the direction of the Leechwell Garden and was gone.  An orange-tip butterfly seemed rather exotic for this semi-urban space and I couldn’t remember having seen one here before.

When the butterfly paused, I felt as though it was urging me to take a better look at this soil border.  This was a part of the car park I had ignored until now, probably because before lockdown, parked cars made the border virtually inaccessible.  When I had a closer look, I was surprised to find that a range of native wild flowers had colonised the border and were growing prolifically, creating a mosaic of pinks, blues, whites and yellows: three species of cranesbill, pink purslane, red campion, green alkanet, cow parsley, garlic mustard, hedge mustard and buttercups. It had become a rather beautiful place, that is if you like unruly wild flowers!

I came back to the same car park border over the next few days and usually saw one or two orange-tips but other insects were also attracted to the profusion of flowers.  Here are some of the species I saw:

 

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large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

 

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Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida). The chestnut haired thorax, dark abdomen and black hairs on the hind legs are key features

This is probably an ichneumon wasp but very difficult to pin down to species from one photograph.

 

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Holly blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus) on bluebells

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Bee fly (Bombylius major) nectaring on herb robert

 

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Male early mining bee (Bombus pratorum) on green alkanet. This was the first male of the season for me and looks very fresh with bright colours. Note the generally furry look, the yellow head and the orange-pink tail.

But there is more to say about the orange-tip butterflies as on one of my visits, I noticed a male repeatedly flying upwards and then dropping down on to some garlic mustard flowers.  When I looked more closely, I saw another butterfly on the cluster of small green and white flowers and realised that this was a female orange-tip butterfly.  The male’s behaviour probably had something to do with mating but the female was showing no interest.  The male eventually gave up and flew off but the female moved to another flower and basked in the morning sun allowing me to look.  Unlike the male with his brash colouration, she is understated but just as beautiful with a grey patch and spot on each forewing in place of the male’s orange patches.   As she flexed her wings, I was also able to see the pattern on her underwings.  This is a complex design of green and yellow veining and mottling reminiscent of the marbled end papers of an antique book or a tie-dyed fabric from the hippie era.  The male has the same underwing pattern providing both male and female orange-tips with excellent camouflage when they rest with their wings closed on a leaf or on flowers such as garlic mustard or cow parsley.

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Female orange-tip butterfly showing her grey patch and spot on the forewing, also the veined and mottled underwing pattern

Male orange-tip butterfly showing veined, mottled pattern on underwing (click picture to enlarge and see the complexity of the pattern)

 

Garlic mustard is one of the principal larval foods of the orange-tip butterfly, along with cuckooflower, so I wondered if the female had been laying eggs before the male had disturbed her.  There are two moderate clumps of garlic mustard growing along this border so I looked at the plants and found the tiny orange eggs on both clumps.  They look like ridged rugby balls about a millimetre long and the female attaches each egg, usually one per plant, to a stem just below the flower head.  They start off a pale greenish-white and as they mature, they turn bright orange.   One or two weeks later, the larva emerges from the egg, eats the egg casing and starts its journey through different instar stages, gradually consuming the plant, preferring the seed pods, as the larva develops.  After some searching, I was able to find one larva, a well camouflaged, yellowish caterpillar (about 5mm long) on one clump of garlic mustard about two weeks after I first saw the eggs.   The larva will eventually form a pupa (chrysalis), from which the adult butterfly will emerge next spring.

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Orange-tip butterfly egg attached to garlic mustard

 

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Orange-tip butterfly larva on garlic mustard

I need to keep reminding myself that all this is happening on a scruffy border along one edge of a town centre car park and that my observations are underpinned by a series of coincidences.  First, the insects I have described would not have come to the border had the flowers not grown here.  In particular, the orange-tip butterflies would not have fed here and deposited eggs had there not been the two clumps of garlic mustard.   Then there is the lockdown which emptied the car park of cars making more space for wildlife and gave me the time to wander about looking at the soil border.  I believe there are lessons to be learnt from all of this if we choose to learn them:  growing flowers, especially wildflowers, is good for insects and will support them and bring them into your garden;  also it can be very rewarding, and good for our well-being, if we take time to look at the wildlife around us.

My previous Lockdown Nature Walks can be accessed here

 

Lockdown Nature Walks 4

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.

Near the beginning of Copland Lane

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. 

yellow archangel

 

Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) worker with pollen feeding at yellow archangel. Look for the single yellow band near the head and the pink tip to the abdomen.

 

hart’s tongue fern, semi-transparent in the low sunshine

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.

a dense, tangled green mass of plants

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.

ground ivy – the fragrant leaves of this plant were used as a bittering agent in beers until hops took over.

 

cuckoo flower

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.

 

tall trees create a green corridor

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.

Alexanders growing at the junction of paths

 

hoverfly (Eristalis sp.)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lockdown Nature Walks 3

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.

A solitary bee resting on the quince leaves. This is probably a mining bee but it is impossible from the photo to determine the species.

 

Another solitary bee, this time feeding from the quince flowers. She is carrying plenty of pollen and when I first saw her I thought she was probably a furrow bee (Lasioglossum sp.).

 

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.

A male red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) resting on the bee house in the sunshine

 

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”.

A spray of cherry buds each clasped by green sepals.

 

Mature flowers on the cherry tree showing the five pure white petals. The yellow-tipped stamens and the thicker pale green pistil can be seen more easily if the picture is enlarged by clicking.

 

A hoverfly feeding from the cherry flowers and hopefully pollinating them. This may be a Tapered Drone Fly (Eristalis pertinax).

 

In search of the native daffodil

This year sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of the English romantic poet William Wordsworth.  One of his most famous poems, “Daffodils” was inspired by an extensive drift of the flowers he encountered growing along the shores of Ullswater in the Lake District.  Wordsworth’s flowers would have been our native wild daffodil, smaller and less showy than the many brightly coloured, cultivated varieties we are accustomed to seeing in our gardens and parks.  Native daffodils used to grow prolifically in the wild in many parts of the UK but woodland clearance and ploughing of meadows reduced their numbers.  The west country is still a good place to see the flowers in the wild so I went off to look for them in Devon and Dorset.

A native daffodil growing in our Devon garden showing the lemon yellow trumpet and cream coloured petals

I started my quest in our Devon garden where, a few years ago, we planted native daffodil bulbs obtained from a reputable supplier.  This year they began to flower in late February revealing blooms of an understated beauty compared to their less subtle cultivated cousins.  The trumpet is lemon-yellow and rather narrow with roughly parallel sides and the six petals are the colour of clotted cream, standing perpendicular to the trumpet, like an Elizabethan ruff.  The grey green strap-like leaves and flower stem holding its single flower are about 20cm long, quite a bit shorter than many cultivated varieties.

The native daffodil is a member of the narcissus family, a genus often said to be named from the Greek myth whereby the young man, Narcissus, falls in love with his reflection seen in a pool of water.  Unable to resist the allure of his own image, in time he realises his love cannot be reciprocated and he wastes away turning into a gold and white flower.  Others believe the name comes from the Latin word narce, (numbness, torpor) a reference to the narcotic properties of the plant.   Daffodils contain many chemicals, some of which were probably responsible for these narcotic effects, and extracts of daffodil have historically been used in folk medicine.   The plant is now considered to be poisonous but one compound, galantamine, is purified from daffodils grown commercially in Wales for use as a therapy in Alzheimer’s disease.

The flowers growing in our garden provided me with a useful image to keep in my mind when I went into the countryside searching for native daffodils.  It wasn’t difficult to find flowers along lane-side verges in West Dorset and in Devon that resembled the native daffodil, but how could I be sure?  Simon Harrap in his beautifully illustrated book “Wild Flowers” warns against identifying roadside blooms as native because of the practice of garden dumping and of hybridisation with one of the thousands of garden cultivars, some of which have been deliberately planted to brighten up the countryside.  He suggests searching in deciduous woodland or old pasture where the flowers may have been long established.

So, where can we go to see our native daffodil growing in the wild?  The Lake District has strong populations with Wordsworth’s flowers still gracing the shores of Ullswater in late March and early April.  Another fine population can be seen near Farndale in North Yorkshire but it is on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire borders that one of the most impressive displays occurs each spring.  The “Golden Triangle”, defined by the villages of Kempley, Oxenhall and Dymock, has for many years attracted large numbers of visitors to see the carpets of wild daffodils in woodlands, orchards and pasture.

A fine display of the wild flowers can, however, be found nearer to home.   Just a few miles to the west of Exeter in the Teign Valley in Devon lies Dunsford Nature Reserve and on a beautifully sunny mid-March day, we went to see the Dunsford daffodils. We parked near Steps Bridge where the Teign cascaded noisily over rocks creating showers of white water and sparkling light.  The riverside path took us away from the bridge and almost immediately we came across daffodils.  They were easy to find:  growing under the trees in deciduous woodland, scattered across riverside meadows and flourishing among coppiced hazel stools.  They were unmistakeably our native daffodil based on their stature, the shape of the flowers and their lemon and cream colour and, something I hadn’t noticed before, the tendency of individual flowers to be held at a slight angle downwards.  For the most part, they do not grow thickly, it’s as though they need their space, and dense drifts of the flowers are rarely seen here.  But this is compensated for by the sheer number of flowers so that for a few weeks at this time of year they own the land and it becomes very much daffodil territory.  This is one of the strong impressions I shall take away from our visit.

We did find one meadow with denser growth (see picture at the head of this post) where the colours of the flowers tended to merge into a sheen of yellow, shining like the sun and reminding us that spring is on its way.  Native daffodils are sometimes also called “Lent lilies” as they were said to bloom and fade between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  When we visited Dunsford on March 16th, the flowers were close to their peak but they should still be around for a few more weeks.

But let’s go back to that stormy day in April 1802 when William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy encountered the profusion of daffodils by Ullswater.  Dorothy described in her journal for April 15th how the flowers “tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake”.  William composed his poem two years later, inspired by her journal entry and his tribute to the daffodil has become one of the best-known pieces of verse in the English language.

Here is the last verse where Wordsworth remembers the events:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

 

For directions to Dunsford Nature Reserve look at:  https://www.devonwildlifetrust.org/nature-reserves/dunsford

I bought native daffodil bulbs from https://www.wildflowershop.co.uk/index.html

Native daffodils growing wild in the Teign Valley

 

A Teign Valley meadow with native daffodils

This article appeared in the April 2020 digital only edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.  The fieldwork was completed  before the lockdown came into force.  Hopefully the article will provide a reminder of the joys of Spring.

 

Lockdown Nature Walks

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.

P1290182trimmed
This Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) was nectaring on celandine on a grassy bank not far from our house. This individual is mostly paprika coloured with dark spots and paler edges and has recently come out of hibernation. With its scalloped wings and mottled brown underside it resembles a dead leaf providing camouflage during hibernation.

 

P1290188trimmed
The Leechwell Garden, the town centre community garden, is a short walk from our house. I found this plum tree in the Garden, covered in pure white flowers each with a mass of yellow-tipped stamens. The hoverfly is hopefully providing pollination.

 

On Wednesday, when I visited the Leechwell Garden, I was surprised to see many small bees flying close to the surface of a grassy bank bathed in warm sunshine. The picture shows one of the bees, a female yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes), and I think you can see why she gets her name. They dig holes in the underlying soil for their nests.

 

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Behind the Leechwell Garden is the Nursery Car Park, very quiet this week. Along one edge of the Nursery Car Park there is a grassy bank with many celandine and dandelion currently in flower. This small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) was nectaring on celandine. The wings are mainly bright orange with black and yellow spots but along the back edges are patterns of small blue shields. When I was growing up I used to see clouds of these butterflies but that doesnt happen any longer.

 

B.hypnorum
This Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) was feeding from a dandelion in the Nursery Car Park. Tree Bumblebees have the annoying habit of taking over nest boxes intended for small birds

 

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.

 

Signs of spring?

Dull, wet and mild has been the prevailing story for the winter weather so far this year in the south west of the UK.  Much needed winter sunshine has been in short supply and we’ve woken up to frost on only a handful of days. And then the storms:  in February alone, two consecutive weekends of severe weather brought heavy rain and gale force winds but very mild temperatures.   Local roads were blocked by water but flooding in other parts of the UK was much worse.

Even before the storms, walking in the rain-saturated countryside was particularly difficult but we managed to get out, although this sometimes meant paddling through mud and water.

Westcombe Beach

One of these walks was on a sunny February 1st when we took the opportunity to walk to Westcombe Beach near Kingston in south Devon.  This is an isolated sandy cove bisected by a sprightly stream and enclosed by some impressively jagged shiny grey rock formations.  The beach was largely clear of plastic waste, a rare find nowadays, but on one side I came across several unusual pale blue and pink inflated objects.  Although these might look as though they are made from plastic, they are in fact living creatures, Portuguese Men o’ War, driven on to the beach by south westerly winds.   They normally float on the surface of the sea, trailing dark blue tentacles with the capacity to deliver a very nasty sting, their pink sail catching the wind.

Portuguese Man o’War (some of the features of these organisms are lost when they are beached)

During our walk to and from Westcombe Beach we came across several flowers usually associated with the spring including primroses, violets and celandine.  As we were near the coast, the dark green fleshy leaves of Alexanders also flourished along the path sides but I was surprised to see one plant already in flower.

The flowers of Alexanders with a fly (probably a Yellow Dungfly)

Then as we walked back along the cliff tops in the low, late afternoon sunshine, we encountered a large caterpillar crossing the coast path.  It was very furry with orange-brown hairs along the top and darker grey-brown hairs below.  This is a larva of the fox moth and on sunny winter days they come out of hibernation to bask.

Fox moth caterpillar

Just under a week later, on February 6th, a day of sunny intervals, we walked to Mansands near Brixham.  Mansands is another isolated cove but with a stony beach and backed by a substantial body of water that attracts both waterfowl and bird watchers.  The land rises steeply either side of the beach with cliffs and there had been some falls of the soft rock on the eastern side over the winter which may have affected the solitary bees that nest there. [The picture at the head of this post shows the eastern side of Mansands beach and cliffs.]

Our biggest surprise of the day was finding a pair of toads (male and female) on the path along Mansands Lane as it descended towards the beach.  Hazel spotted the pair and had to take quick evasive action to avoid squashing them.  They were most likely on their way to the water below the path to spawn.  The males are opportunists and hitch a lift on the back of the larger females when they pass.  Once the female arrives at the water, more males will jump on her, competing for her attention.  Eventually, she will choose one male to fertilise her eggs as she deposits strings of them in the water.  We managed to persuade the pair to move to the path edge where they were more likely to avoid the danger of passing human feet.

Male and female toads

There were more surprises in store as we walked up the very steep Southdown Cliff away from Mansands where we saw several flowers often associated with spring.

Blackthorn flowers on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

 

Greater stitchwort on Southdown Cliff above Mansands

I hadn’t expected to see these flowers so early in the year but perhaps the generally warm weather has encouraged them.  There have also been reports of solitary bees emerging earlier than expected and I have seen queens of the bumblebee Bombus pratorum in two places in Devon, on January 15th and 20th so both very early.

Bombus pratorum queen (January 20th 2020)

A simple explanation for these findings is that our climate is changing.  Warmer, wetter winters with unstable weather are becoming more likely as a result of global temperature increases with corresponding effects on the flora and fauna.  But one person’s observations in one year don’t go beyond the anecdotal and we need much more comprehensive data to draw conclusions.

For this, I went to Nature’s Calendar, a citizen science project that records first flowerings, first sightings etc for many species across the UK.   When I looked at their report for 2019, I was surprised to see that blackthorn, to take one example, flowered 27 days earlier in the UK than it did in 2001.  In fact in 2019 all but one of Nature’s Calendar spring events were early, some considerably so.   Lorienne Whittle of Nature’s Calendar attributes these changes to the warmer winters we are now experiencing and the concern is that the long-established patterns of nature are being disturbed with potentially serious consequences.  For example, if frogs and toads spawn early, late frosts could kill their tadpoles.  Also, should insects emerge too soon they may not survive unless plentiful flowers are available for food.  We are entering uncertain times.

Stepping back in time for Christmas – Burning the Ashen Faggot

Midwinter fire ceremonies were once very popular in the UK, especially in rural communities.  People gathered around the hearth in a noisy, joyous celebration, with the fire bringing light into the darkness of winter.  These ceremonies probably have a pagan origin and one which used to be widespread in the UK was Burning the Yule Log.  Less well known but quite common in Devon and neighbouring parts of Dorset and Somerset in the west of the UK was Burning the Ashen Faggot.   Although it has now largely disappeared as a household custom, it is still celebrated in a handful of local pubs to the accompaniment of hearty singing and copious drinking.

photo courtesy of Nigel Daniel

The ashen faggot was a large bundle of ash sticks or an ash log surrounded by smaller sticks, all bound together by thin bands of willow or hazel (withies).  The ashen faggot was cut and constructed on Christmas Eve and placed on a fire kindled with remnants of last year’s faggot.  Ash burns well, even when green and as the fire caught and each of the withies broke, tradition demanded that a new jug of cider be brought out to quench the thirst of the assembled company.

The scene around the hearth as the Faggot burned is vividly brought to life in this extract from Festivities and Superstitions of Devonshire in Bentley’s Miscellany 1847:

“On Christmas Eve it is the custom in all the farm houses of this neighbourhood to “burn the ashen faggot”. All the labourers and servants are invited, and a huge fire is heaped up on the wide hearth.  We all sat round the hearth in a circle; the firelight deepening the shadows on the hard-featured mahogany countenances around, and setting off the peculiarities of each form. The ashen faggot which lay on the hearth consists of a long immense log of ash, surrounded with smaller branches bound to it with many withies, forming one large bundle; it filled the whole hearth and as it burned the roaring in the large chimney was tremendous.  As the fire slowly catches and consumes the withies, the sticks fly off and kindle into a sudden blaze and as each one after the other gives way, all present stand up and shout with might and main; the “loving cup” of cider is handed round and each drinks his fill.  They then resume their seats, sing songs, crack jokes until the bursting of another band and the kindling of a fresh blaze demands renewed shouts and another pull at the cider flagon. The merriment is allowed to go on till nearly midnight, before which hour the worthy giver of the feast likes to have her house clear, that the “Holy Day” may begin in peace.  This custom is kept up religiously in all the farmhouses around, and is one of the principal festivals of the year.”

Burning the Ashen Faggot was a very popular west country custom and Amery, writing in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association (1879), reported that in the Ashburton postal district alone 32 farms and cottages burnt the Ashen Faggot on Christmas Eve 1878.  There were various superstitions and beliefs associated with the event and an old man present at one of the 1878 ceremonies told how the custom “commemorated the first dressing of our Saviour in swaddling clothes, because Joseph cut a faggot of ash, which is well known to burn green and lighted a fire by which the child was first dressed”.  The custom was also widespread in 19th and early 20th century Somerset where it was often combined with apple tree wassailing and held on old Christmas Eve (January 5th ).  There is one 19th century record of burning the Ashen Faggot in East Devon for Christmas Eve 1839 at Bindon Farm about 4 miles from the Devon/Dorset Border.

In the 19th century, the Ashen Faggot was a household custom bringing working people together at Christmas. Servants and farm labourers and their families were all invited to the farmhouse with its huge hearth and the celebration was provided by the farmer and his wife in thanks for the year’s work. For one evening at least, people put aside divisions and squabbles.  The custom began to die out as work patterns changed, as the railways enabled people to move about and as artificial light banished winter darkness.

Building the Ashen Faggot in Axmouth, December 24th 2018, photo courtesy of Tiffany Hyde

It seems likely that the custom would have disappeared altogether had it not been taken on by local pubs where it still survives despite recent closures and more stringent insurance requirements.   One pub where it flourishes is the 800-year-old Harbour Inn at Axmouth in East Devon and I spoke to one of the villagers, Nigel Daniel, who helps organise the annual ceremony.    He told me that on Christmas Eve morning a group of villagers cut the ash and make the faggot which measures about six feet in length and five feet in circumference, filling the expanse of the old inglenook fireplace.  Seven bindings each made from hazel are used to secure the faggot which is traditionally taken to the Harbour Inn at lunchtime where a few early Christmas drinks are enjoyed.

Beginning the reading at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth, photo courtesy of Kristy

The ceremony itself starts late Christmas Eve with the reading of the following lines taken from Christmas by RJ Thorn 1795:

Thy welcome eve, loved Christmas now arrived,

The parish bells, their tuneful peals resound,

And mirth and gladness every breast pervade,

The ponderous Ashen Faggot, from the yard,

The jolly farmer to his crowded hall conveys with speed;

 where, on the rising flames, it blazes soon.

Seven bandages it bears,

and as they each disjoin, a mighty jug of sparkling cider’s brought

with brandy mixed to elevate the guests!

The Ashen Faggot is placed upon the open hearth where it soon lights with its distinctive orange and purple flames.  As each binding “disjoins” revellers are urged to recharge their glasses accompanied with seasonal toasts.  Local singers Ian Hunt and Phil Gamble perform three Seasonal songs:  The King, Christmas Song (from the Copper family) and Stormy Winds.  Communal carol singing follows continuing well into the night.

Communal carol singing at the Harbour Inn Axmouth as the Faggot burns upon the hearth, photo courtesy of Kristy.

The ceremony at the Harbour Inn was revived more than 70 years ago by the landlord Ludovic Grant who used to present a roasted boar’s head as part of the celebrations.  The BBC showed interest in the ceremony in the 1950s, broadcasting it on radio and television, but when Ludovic Grant retired in the late 1950s it sadly lapsed.   Fortunately, Axmouth thatcher, David Trezise and local gardener, Ned Spiller got together in the early 1970s to restart the ceremony and, led for many years by David Trezise, and with the enthusiastic support of subsequent landlords the event has flourished at the Harbour Inn offering a truly traditional start to a modern Christmas.

The ceremony will be held again this Christmas Eve at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth, but you can also step back in time and participate in this ancient west country custom at the Luttrell Arms in Dunster on December 24th and at the Squirrel Inn at Laymore near Chard and the Digby Tap in Sherborne on January 6th, but please check the timing.

I should like to thank Nigel Daniel for generous help in preparing this article and for providing  photographs, also Kristy of the Harbour Inn and Tiffany Hyde for generously providing photos.

The Ashen Faggot at the Harbour Inn in 1950 showing Vice-Admiral Sir Francis Pridham, Fred Larcombe and Albert Soper (kindly supplied by Nigel Daniel)

 

Building the Ashen Faggot, Axmouth, December 24th 2017, photo courtesy of Tiffany Hyde

 

This article appeared in the December 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the head of this post shows the Ashen Faggot burning on the hearth at the Harbour Inn, Axmouth on Christmas Eve while carols are sung, courtesy of Kristy of the Harbour Inn.

Goat Island and the Great Chasm – the day the earth moved

Nearly 180 years ago, about three miles west of Lyme Regis (in the south west of the UK), a huge chunk of the East Devon coast split off to form a plateau separated from the mainland by a deep, dry ravine.  This was the largest movement of land ever experienced in this part of the country; it remodelled the coast and created a unique new environment.  The plateau, now called Goat Island, and the ravine are still unique and when I walked there in late June, pink and purple orchids flowered across the grassy surface of the plateau whereas the ravine was populated by a tangled jungle of trees and other vegetation. 

Goat Island
The grassy surface of Goat Island with the sea in the background

 

In the early 19th century, the land behind the cliffs in this part of East Devon was dominated by farming.  Between the cliffs and the sea there was an area of land, the undercliff, formed by subsidence that supported fertile market gardens and orchards with some pasture for animals.   Cottages had also been built here for farm labourers who walked up and down the steep cliff path to the farmhouse a short distance inland.  The latter part of 1839 had seen unprecedented rain and as Christmas approached, there had been ominous signs of instability in the cliffs with deep fissures opening on the cliff tops and settlement cracks appearing in cottages built on the undercliff.

One of the farm labourers who lived in the cottages with his family was William Critchard.   At about 1am on Christmas Day 1839, Critchard and his wife returned to their cottage having been generously entertained along with other labourers’ families by their master at his farmhouse.  Their Christmas Eve gathering had included the West Country custom of burning the ashen faggot (a large ash log) accompanied by the drinking of copious amounts of cider.  On their way back to the cottage, the couple noticed that part of the cliff path had dropped about a foot since the morning and new cracks had appeared in the cottage walls.  Still merry after their evening’s entertainment they retired to bed unconcerned.  At 4 am, however, they were awoken by a “wonderful crack” and by 5am they rose to find deep fissures appearing in the garden.  They realised that something major was happening and set off up the cliff path, now almost impassable owing to subsidence, to spread the alarm.

Movement in the cliffs continued over the next 24 hours and as the day dawned on December 26th it revealed a landscape changed almost beyond recognition.  Contemporary drawings show that a massive section of cliffs, about three quarters of a mile long and estimated as 8 million tons of rock, had moved seawards by several hundred feet creating a dry ravine, the Great Chasm, in its wake. The plateau of land that had moved was bounded by cliffs 150 feet high and came to be called Goat Island. The ravine held a gothic landscape of lumps and bumps, peaks and troughs, vividly expressing the power of the convulsion that had occurred. (See here for some contemporary illustrations of the landslip)

The cliffs in this part of Dorset and Devon are notoriously mobile, but the events of Christmas 1839 represented the greatest ever movement of land in the area.  At the time there was much speculation as to the cause of the landslip: might it have been the result of an earthquake or a volcano, was it the work of rabbits, or could it have been a punishment from God? By chance, two of the most eminent geologists of the time, William Buckland and William Conybeare, were staying nearby and could interpret the events; Buckland’s wife Mary made invaluable drawings of the changed landscape.  Buckland and Conybeare concluded that the excessive rain had saturated the permeable layers of chalk and greensand that constituted the upper part of the cliffs.  Beneath these layers was an impermeable layer of clay and the chalk/greensand, saturated and very heavy, moved forward on the impermeable clay leading to the landslip.

The new landscape became a tourist attraction.  Queen Victoria arrived on the Royal Yacht to view the scene and others took to paddle steamers to gaze in wonder while specially composed music, the Landslip Quadrille, was played.   Bizarrely, fields of corn and turnips growing on cliff top land had moved intact with Goat Island and were ceremonially harvested the following August by local village maidens dressed as attendants of Ceres, the Roman Goddess of the Harvest.

But what of Goat Island nowadays?  It’s only accessible on foot but the walk along the coast path is worth the effort.  I set off from Axmouth on a misty but mild morning in late June to make the steep climb across the golf course and on to the cliff top.  I followed narrow lanes with high banks and skirted cornfield edges to reach the coast path.  Cliff edge scrub obscured the sea most of the time but occasional breaks revealed Beer Head lurking mysteriously in the mist.

About two miles into the walk, with my attention captured by the many flowers lining the path, I was jolted from my reverie as the path twisted and dropped down steeply into dense vegetation.  It continued to descend with the occasional squirm to the right or left before bottoming out.  About me now was a disorienting, tangled jungle of trees, shrubs and ferns with brambles and creepers dangling downwards to catch the unwary.  Dampness hung in the air and only brief vestiges of light filtered through the canopy.  This is the undercliff near the edge of the Great Chasm, no longer an open ravine but taken over by nature in the intervening 180 years.

Quite soon the track reared upwards again climbing steeply towards the light past a cushiony chalk hillside with a scattering of wild flowers.  In time, the path levelled out to a long, lush grassy meadow sloping gently towards sheer cliffs above the undercliff and the sea; this is Goat Island.  Woven within the grass were the frilly flowers of eyebright, many yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear, patches of yellow rattle and wild thyme and two blue spikes of viper’s bugloss. It was, however, the orchids that surprised me with their number and variety: pyramidal orchids with their intensely pink, three-lobed petals overlapping like ornate roof tiles and common spotted orchids with their cylinders of lilac pink flowers carrying magenta hieroglyphics.  I searched for bee orchids and found only two spikes, each bearing several flowers.  With their mauve propeller-like sepals and their large central petal complete with furry edges and yellow horseshoe patterns on a maroon background, these flowers are one of nature’s marvellous mimics said to resemble bumblebees.  Butterflies, especially marbled whites completed the scene.  Goat Island nowadays is a beautiful, unusual place, an oasis of calm where noise means bird song.  It is also a managed landscape, a cooperation between nature and humans, as every year the grass is mown to encourage flowers and to prevent scrub taking back the land.

Goat Island is also a place of history and I stood there for some time, trying to imagine the scene 180 years ago when the land beneath my feet moved and the lives of the people living there were changed forever.

The picture at the head of this post shows common spotted orchids and catsear on Goat Island.

This article appeared in the August 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Down into the undercliff near the ravine

 

Bee orchid and pyramidal orchid on Goat Island
bee orchid and pyramidal orchid

 

pyramidal orchid
pyramidal orchid

 

Vipers bugloss on Goat Island
Vipers bugloss

 

wild thyme with bumblebee
bumblebee on wild thyme on Goat Island

 

Marbled white butterfly
marbled white butterfly

 

Meadow brown butterfly on wild marjoram
meadow brown butterfly on wild marjoram