Tag Archives: flowers

The late December garden

Late December is a paradoxical time with its short days and its gaudy celebrations. Even when the sun shines, the light is low and combined with the early arrival of evening, I feel the urge to hibernate. It’s a low time, suitable for contemplating the past year but not quite time to think about the new one.

Emily Dickinson expresses some of these thoughts in the first few lines of one of her poems:
There’s a certain Slant of light
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

On two rare sunny days at the end of 2013 (December 26 and 31), I went to the Leechwell Garden in Totnes to see how nature was reacting to this low time. The Leechwell Garden was created in 2010 from a derelict plot of land that had been, for many years, an orchard. We can see the Garden clearly from our kitchen; we watched with interest as it took shape and became a community space. It’s now an important part of Totnes life and used by many.

The Garden entrance and the pergola

Planting in the Garden has been very carefully planned to provide flower forage for insects throughout their busy time. There is also a Bug House which some solitary bees have used for their overwintering larvae; I await the hatching of the new bees later this year. Most likely there are also bumblebees in the Garden. They would be expected to be safely hibernating at this time of year but in the past week or so I have seen fat bumblebees out and about elsewhere in Devon and in Dorset.

The Bug House with an unexpected visitor

On the days I visited the Garden, the sun shone from a cloudless pale blue winter sky. The recent weather had been very mild but also wet and windy so the paths were treacherous. I didn’t expect to see any flowers this late in the year so it was a surprise to find a Prostrate Rosemary with some mauve flowers dotted around the mass of dark green foliage and a few pink blooms on patches of Thrift and Heather.

Heather and Thrift

Despite the paucity of flowers there was colour elsewhere if you looked for it, mainly from the fruits of the carefully chosen plants. The wooden pergola, an important feature of the upper garden, is covered with climbing roses and clematis in summer. One of the roses (Francis E Lester) now shows copious sprays of bright red rose hips, some plump and many slightly shrivelled but all retaining their own natural beauty, especially when seen against the clear blue sky. Elsewhere, a Cotoneaster was covered with red berries which will provide welcome food for birds when times get tougher. At the back of one of the borders, I spotted the distinctive white, translucent seed pods of Honesty, hanging like paper lanterns.



The most striking sights were the yellow fruit suspended from leafless branches of a Crab Apple (malus), rather like baubles on a Christmas tree. Some of the fruit were intact , some were decaying, swollen and split but they all extended the colour range at this time of year.


Despite the colours I have picked out, the overall feel of the Garden was monochrome, in tune with this low time of year. It would, however, be a mistake to think that everything is dormant; if you look closely there are clear signs of preparations for the new season. The Crab Apple is covered with buds and I found some catkins on several trees including Silver Birch. They are getting ready for the lengthening of the days and the retreat of the bad weather.


Next time you see Nelson’s Column, think of Dartmoor.

Dartmoor is the largest and wildest area of open country in the south of England but despite the wildness, the human imprint is never far away. For many years, the moor has been exploited by industry which has shaped the landscape and continues to do so. We walked on the moor recently, and stumbled across surprising traces of Dartmoor’s industrial past and present. Even at our starting point, the car park near where Cadover Bridge crosses the River Plym, there were signs warning of the dangers of a disused china clay pit nearby.

We began by heading up hill towards Cadover Cross. This is one of many Dartmoor Crosses, made of local granite and thought to have been landmarks for travellers in this remote countryside often plagued by bad weather. Cadover Cross may have been associated with important 12th century routes that used the river crossing.

Cadover Cross, Dartmoor
The view downhill from Cadover Cross showing the bridge over the River Plym and wide expanses of open moorland typical of this part of Dartmoor. This was one of the landscapes used by Stephen Spielberg in the Warhorse. The spoil heaps of the disused clay pit are visible on the right.
View from Dewerstone Rock
View from Dewerstone Rock

Leaving the Cross, we continued over scrubby grassland interspersed with bracken and gorse, sharing the route with sheep, a few ponies and one cow. We kept the heavily wooded Plym valley on our left but we could not yet hear the river; the only sound was the gossip of a few passing birds. Eventually we reached the highest point on this walk, Dewerstone Rock, where traces of ancient settlements have been found. From the Rock, there were panoramic views towards the coast with Plymouth Sound clearly visible. On this dull, slightly misty day, it was just possible to make out the Wheel of Plymouth on the Hoe near where, according to popular anecdote, Drake played bowls as the Armada threatened.

Cut in to the rock, and now rather eroded, is the inscription

Obit Septembris

This is a memorial to the teacher and local poet Noel Carrington who died in Bath in 1830.

From Dewerstone Rock, we dropped steeply down through oak woods passing the remains of disused 19th century quarries and the bed of a railway that was once used to transport blocks of granite down the hillside. The rails have long gone but the sleepers, regularly placed granite blocks, and the fixing holes in some of the blocks were clearly visible.

Granite sleepers, Dewerstone Woods
Granite blocks forming sleepers of the old railway
Fixing holes on granite sleeper
Fixing holes in granite block from old railway

Granite forms the bedrock of the high moor and has been used as a building material for as long as humans have inhabited Dartmoor. Many local buildings including Dartmoor Prison and the large church at Widecombe used local granite and the material has also been used in London, notably in the old London Bridge (now in Arizona) and Nelson’s Column.
The path continued in zig-zags through woodland down the side of the river valley. We could hear the river before we could see it but eventually it was there, bubbling over rocks near Shaugh Bridge. This was the half-way point of the walk and a pleasant place for us to eat our sandwiches.

P91The River Plym near Shaugh Bridge
The river Plym near Shaugh Bridge

Having crossed the river Plym, we picked up the woodland path back to Cadover Bridge. Now, all around us were traces of a second Dartmoor industry, china clay mining.

China clay was first discovered in the UK in Cornwall in the 18th century, and has been mined continuously on Dartmoor since the mid 1800s. China clay, or kaolin, was originally used to make porcelain but nowadays it is used in many processes including the manufacture of paper, ceramics and toothpaste. Kaolin is a breakdown product of granite and, for many years was mined using powerful jets of water. The water washed out the soft kaolin in a crude mixture with stones, gravel and sand. After the coarse particles were filtered out, the kaolin slurry was put in to huge settling tanks. The compacted kaolin was then dried to produce blocks of china clay for transport.
In this part of the moor, the kaolin suspension was piped more than a mile from the now disused quarry near Cadover Bridge to settling tanks and then to “drys” near Shaugh Bridge. We saw the remains of the “drys” in the National Trust Car Park. In the woods we found the settling tanks and for much of the rest of the walk we followed the ceramic pipeline that carried the crude kaolin suspension. How different this area must have been in the heyday of the granite and china clay industries.

Ceramic pipeline, Plym Valley, Dartmoor
Ceramic pipeline

We continued through woodland for a mile or more but were always conscious of the river not far below on our left; its presence reassured us that we were following the correct path. At this time of year, the landscape was mostly green so it was a surprise to come across a clutch of Rowan Trees. Their shocking orange berries will provide welcome food for hungry birds in a few weeks’ time. According to Richard Mabey, the berries, mixed with a few crab-apples, can also be used to make a “sharp, marmaladish jelly, traditionally served with game and lamb”.

Rowan Tree

Nearby, where springs wet the ground, we found the small purple flowers of Devil’s Bit Scabious. Devil’s Bit refers, in folk tales, to the short black root, bitten off by the Devil angered by the plant’s ability to treat scabies. This seemed appropriate as across the river valley were the Dewerstone Crags or Devil’s Rocks, beloved of climbers; Dewer is the ancient Celtic name for the Devil.

Devil's Bit Scabious, Dartmoor, Devon
Devil’s Bit Scabious
Dewerstone Crags, Dartmoor
Dewerstone Crags

Further on, the path dropped down to meet the fast flowing river, a perfect place for Dippers. On cue, one of the plump, chocolate-brown birds was there, standing on a rock, bobbing up and down, proudly displaying his white waistcoat while the water flowed swiftly past. We watched until the Dipper decided to leave and then we walked the short distance back to the car.

Dipper on the River Plym

This walk comes from “Dartmoor, Great short walks for all the family”, by Sue Viccars, Crimson Publishing, 2009.

Thanks go to Hazel Strange for the lovely photos.

Butterflies, flowers and imaginings by the River Avon in Devon

On a sunny day in late July, we walked by one of Devon’s rivers. With holidays and visitors, it’s taken me until now to write about it.

We started our walk from the village of Loddiswell, high above the river valley. On this warm late July day, we descended through quiet lanes confined by steep Devon Banks alive with a confetti of butterflies (mostly Meadow Brown and White). In spring, these banks are painted white with the starry flowers of Wild Garlic (Ramsons) mixed with splashes of Red Campion, but although there are few flowers now, something must be attracting the butterflies. At Reads Farm we left the road and took a path under trees and beside a stream to reach open grassland bordering the river.

River Avon near Loddiswell
The river Avon near Loddiswell

This is the middle Avon, part of this Devon river that rises high on Dartmoor dropping down to reach the sea at Bantham and Bigbury on Sea. Rain had been sparse recently and the quiet state of the river reflected this.

Comma butterfly
A Comma butterfly

We headed upstream on a riverside path enclosed by tall grasses and brambles, accompanied by more butterflies including this beautiful Comma. The dry, warm summer has been good for butterflies and I can’t remember having seen so many for some years.

Marsh woundwort
Marsh woundwort

Near the same spot was a stand of tall plants with striking orchid-like pink flowers; these are Marsh Woundwort, a plant of damp places. Woundwort features in both Gerard’s and Culpeper’s Herbals and, as the name implies, it has a long history in folk medicine for use in wound healing.

Soon the path entered woodland. The river was still close by and the tree-canopy cooled the air and dimmed the light. There are supposed to be Dippers and Grey Wagtails but we don’t see these birds today. We do see a Blackcap and my daughter sees the unmistakeable iridescent blue flash of a Kingfisher. There are Otters in the Avon and sometimes you can see otter spraint on the river bank, the closest I have come to a seeing a wild otter.

Railway Bridge over Avon 1
The old railway bridge over the Avon

Eventually, the old railway bridge appeared ahead of us. Although the bridge is a human artefact, its mellow brick now blends in well with the trees surrounding it. The sunlight filtering through the trees and reflecting from the water produced ever changing dappled patterns on the old brickwork. In the photograph of the bridge (below) the image is confusing because of the almost perfect reflection of the bridge on the surface of the still water.

Railway Bridge over Avon

We crossed the bridge to head downstream on a path continuing through woodland along the track bed of the former South Brent-Kingsbridge railway. This opened in 1893 and ran for seventy years; some called it the Primrose Line because of the profusion of these flowers in spring. Eventually, we come upon the old Loddiswell Station, largely intact. This used to serve legendary cream teas but we are out of luck today as the buildings are up for sale. When the trains ran, the station was said to be a “brisk walk away” from the village. What they didn’t say was that this included a steep hill and, after crossing the river again, that is our route back to the car.
I recently read “The Old Ways” by Robert Macfarlane describing his many walks along long-established paths. I was particularly interested in his idea that in walking along an old path it might be possible to “slip back out of this modern world”, to conjure up traces of past lives. As we walked along the track bed of the old railway, I thought again about this idea. Could I find any trace of former lives as we walked here?

When this railway came to Kingsbridge near the end of the 19th century, it would have changed people’s lives. South Devon would have become more accessible. Local produce could be sent further afield; this included crabs and lobsters for London and Southampton (for the liners). The railway would have carried men off to two wars and the lucky ones would have returned. The railway would have brought people to Kingsbridge for holidays and in 1939 children evacuated to Kingsbridge would have passed this way.

Many of these events would have been coloured with high emotion. As I walked, I could imagine some of the events and how people might have felt. These sensations were heightened by finding the old station buildings which gave me a tangible framework for my imaginings. Perhaps that’s what Macfarlane means by slipping out of this modern world.

The photographs are by Hazel Strange.

A close encounter with a Leafcutter Bee

It had been one of the first really hot days of the year; also the day Andy Murray won the men’s title at Wimbledon. We had been to the coast: for the sea and for a picnic in the early evening sun. When we got back and had unpacked the car, I went in to our garden. We have a Wisteria growing as a small tree in a pot. It had its two weeks of floral glory in May but its copious foliage now demands regular watering especially during hot weather.

While I was giving it a drink, I heard a strong buzzing near my head. Sure enough there was a blackish bee to my right, perched on one of the leaves. As I watched, it deftly cut through the leaf and rose up carrying a leaf fragment between its legs before flying away, rather like a Harrier Jump Jet. I had no camera to record this astonishing (to me) event which was a pity. When I had a look in my book of Small Woodland Creatures, I realised that this was a Leafcutter Bee, one of the UK’s solitary bees and an important pollinator for summer flowers, vegetables and herbs.

Wisteria with Leafcutter hole
Wisteria with Leafcutter hole

Next morning I had another look at the Wisteria, secretly hoping for a rerun of the events of the previous day. I didn’t see any more Leafcutters but, based on their characteristic calling card, it was clear they had been here before on more than one occasion. There were several circular holes (~ 1cm) in the leaves, the trademark of the Leafcutter Bee. When I had watched the bee, the fragment of leaf appeared about the same width as the bee and a little longer, but I believe this is because the bee folds the circle of leaf in to an aerodynamic form.

The Wisteria seems quite happy despite the invasion of the Leafcutters and anyway the leaf fragments are very important for the life cycle of these creatures so we must let them get on with it. Mated females work hard all summer to provide next year’s brood. She makes her nest in holes in plant stems, dead wood, cliffs and old walls. Leafcutters also seem happy to take up residence in purpose built bug houses, but more about that later. The female Leafcutter lines the nest with pieces of leaf and petals and constructs brood cells in the tube, providing each cell with pollen and nectar and laying one egg. She seals the cell with a piece of leaf and then starts on the next cell continuing along the tube until it is nearly full. She then collects many pieces of leaf and puts them at the nest entrance cementing them together to form a solid barrier to protect against all sorts of threats. The young bees develop in the individual cells where they overwinter and emerge the following June and the cycle starts again. There are some lovely pictures and drawings of Leafcutters on this web site.

Bug House in the Leechwell Garden
The Bug House in the Leechwell Garden

By chance, I also visited the local community garden (The Leechwell Garden) that day. The garden has many bee-friendly plants and one of the people who works there showed me their bug house. In one of the tubes was the nest of a Leafcutter bee complete with the neat sealing of leaf pieces. Here is a photo showing the (out of focus) sealed nest tube and the green leaves. I make no linkage between the Leafcutter in my garden and this nest but it is a nice coincidence.

Leafcutter nest
A Leafcutter nest with its sealing of leaves

The hills are alive with the sound of …… bees!

The fishing port of Brixham lies at the southern end of Torbay in South Devon. Last week, we walked along Brixham’s minor roads and quiet residential streets to reach a green lane leading away from the town and towards the coast path. The green lanes in Devon form a network of ancient tracks and here the green canopy, the high banks and the exposed bedrock kept us cool before we headed up hill over fields. As we climbed, we were rewarded with ever improving views over the entire panorama of Torbay. Here is a view towards Torquay with Brixham in the foreground.

Torbay from Brixham

The wide curve of the bay is certainly spectacular especially when the sun shines and if you imagine the bay without the scar of housing then you can see why visitors to Torbay in the late 18th century might have been reminded of Italy. One such visitor enthused: “It is not England but a bit of sunny Italy taken bodily from its rugged coast and placed here amid the green places and the pleasant pastoral lanes of beautiful Devon”. Even nowadays, the red valerian found in the summer all over this part of Devon manages to create some feeling of the Mediterranean although the modern, rather unsympathetic development of Torbay detracts.

Red Valerian
Red Valerian lining the walls in the village of Dittisham

Another picture below shows the fields above Brixham and if you look carefully at the surface of the field in the foreground, it appears to be covered with a white sheen. This is in fact white clover mixed with buttercups and other wild flowers.

Field above Brixham

We paused here to take in the view and to catch our breath on this warm day. It was very quiet but gradually we became aware of a low level hum. It took a while to realise what was causing this but when we looked more closely we could see that the field was full of bees, both honeybees and bumblebees; wherever we looked there were bees enjoying the clover. All our attempts to photograph the bees failed but here is a close-up of the clover.

White Clover
White Clover

Emily Heath has recently talked about how honeybees and bumblebees like white clover on her AdventuresinBeeland Blog.

The noise we heard, let’s call it a “midsummer hum”, took me back to my first year at senior school when we read a book, Bevis by Richard Jeffries. This book, written in 1882, tells the story of two boys, Bevis and his friend Mark, and their adventures. These include mock battles with other children, rigging a boat and sailing to an island. At one point, the boys remark that the only sound they can hear is the “midsummer hum”. I can’t now imagine why this book was chosen for us to read; perhaps my English teacher thought it would capture the imagination of a class of eleven year old boys. The story also has clear parallels with the Swallows and Amazons books of Arthur Ransome, which were quite popular at the time. I remember not liking the book (Bevis) but for some reason, the idea of a “midsummer hum” has stayed with me all these years.

[The photos were taken by Hazel Strange]

Mansands – the name says it all, or does it?

Mansands Beach, South Devon

On one of the recent warm days we were back on the South West Coast Path. Heading east towards Brixham, with a few miles yet to walk, we started to descend from the flat cliff top and the beach at Mansands appeared ahead of us. It’s a wider cove than many in this part of South Devon with some hints of settlement. The picture above (taken on June 6th 2013) shows the sweep of rocky beach enfolded by the surrounding cliffs and if you look carefully you can see a low building with white walls. This used to be Coastguard Cottages but is now private housing. The cottages were built in the 19th century by French prisoners from the Napoleonic wars but they now have some 21st century touches with the roofs boasting solar panels.

Limekiln at Mansands, Devon

Tucked away below the cottages and above the beach is what appears at first sight to be a rough alcove made from stone blocks. Once you have lived in Devon for a few years you recognise this as one of the many lime kilns found around the coast and on some inland waters. These date from the 18th and 19th centuries and were used to convert limestone in to lime. The lime was used to make mortar for building and lime wash for whitening cottage walls. Lime was also used in farming where, spread on fields, it counteracted the acidity of local soil and improved fertility. Limestone came from local quarries and was “burnt” in the kilns using coal brought from South Wales. The kilns were built near water so that materials could be delivered by boat.

Sea pinks at Mansands, Devon

Near the limekiln was this bright purple clump of thrift (sea pinks) growing in a crevice in the rock, the flowers darker than the usual pink.

One thing puzzles me – how did the name Mansands come about? I want it to be like the town of Manly in New South Wales where the name was given to denote the “confidence and manly behaviour of the locals” when it was first discovered by settlers. But in fact the derivation is much more prosaic; the name, Mansands comes from the Anglo-Saxon gemaen meaning common. According to Valerie Belsey in her book, Exploring Green Lanes in the South Hams, the sands could have been shared by two manors, hence they would have been common.

Flowers for the bees and the excitement of a swarm.

Over the past few weeks I have been watching for bees in our garden, wondering how their numbers would be affected by the poor winter and late spring. A few bees came to the blossom on our neighbour’s apple tree but about a week ago we had an influx of bees when the raspberries came in to flower. Although I love the fruit, I had never been very impressed by raspberry flowers. Honeybees don’t share my sentiments and for a short period the raspberry flowers were very popular with these bees. Here is a picture taken about a week ago.
honeybee on raspberries

The bumblebees also tried the raspberry blossom but once the patch of comfrey at the bottom of the garden was decorated with its pastel flowers, there was no contest. Especially in the recent warm sunshine there has been a steady stream of bumblebees buzzing very audibly around the flowers. Here are some pictures, also taken about a week ago.  The first two show Common Carder Bees on raspberries and on comfrey. I love the details of bee anatomy these pictures show.  There is also one of another bumblebee on comfrey, probably a Buff Tailed Bumblebee, although it is difficult to be sure.

[I have been told that it is actually a Garden Bumblebee, see Comments]

bumblebee on raspberry
Common Carder Bee on raspberry
bumblebee on comfrey 3
Common Carder Bee on comfrey
bumblebee on comfrey
Bumblebee on comfrey

The town where I live, Totnes, has a busy Friday market. With the new season’s early holidaymakers the market felt busier than ever but there were also visitors of a different kind this week. At the market last Friday, one of the traders asked me if I had seen “the bees”. They went on to tell me that, earlier that morning, a swarm of honeybees had appeared over the market like a cloud, turning the air black for a short time. The swarm was still there, but now high in a tree at the edge of the Market Square. I had never seen this phenomenon before; the swarm was now a “lump of bees” hanging from a branch with a few bees flying round it. I had no camera with me so I could not take photos but it looked very like the pictures I had seen. I wondered how the swarm would be collected as it was about 20 feet above ground but apparently later that day the bees decided to fly off somewhere else.