Tag Archives: heath milkwort

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.

High on Hardown Hill

It was a luminous spring morning in early May when I trekked up Hardown Hill in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. Hardown rises steeply above Morcombelake and the surrounding countryside affording fine views of the coast and of the Marshwood Vale. Compared with its well-known cousin, Golden Cap, across the valley (see picture above), this flat-topped hill is unjustly ignored but its heathland summit boasts a rich ecology supporting several rare species and, for many years, Hardown Hill was a busy semi-industrial site where building stone was mined.

Heathland track on Hardown Hill small
Heathland track across Hardown Hill

It’s a steep climb to the top of Hardown Hill but finally the stony track flattens out and I enter a heathland landscape, rare in this part of Dorset. The summit is broad and flat and typical low-growing heathland plants such as gorse and several species of heather flourish here on the acid soil. Pale sandy tracks cut swathes across the heath but, even on a sunny morning in springtime, the feeling is sombre, dominated by dark browns and greens. A few mature birch trees and a small copse of pine trees provide relief and I come across a pond surrounded by tall clumps of pale, dried grass and a struggling sallow. This heath habitat is also the home of rare nightjars, sand lizards and Dartford warblers.

Standing on the Hardown summit is an elemental experience. Today, a moderate wind blows from the west, rising and falling like the sound of surf on the strand. The heath vegetation rustles and fidgets in response, accompanied by skylarks trilling high overhead. I watch a spirited storm tracking across Lyme Bay and prepare to shelter but, in the end, it mostly avoids the land leaving the sun to return. All of this is overlaid on the southern side by the ebb and flow of traffic noise from the busy A35 some distance below.

The heath may look uninviting and barren, but this is springtime and there are many signs of renewal. A few clumps of yellow gorse stand out above fresh grey-green growth and heathers push feathery green and red shoots upwards. Submerged in the thick heath vegetation are the small bright blue and white flowers of heath milkwort piercing the darkness like stars in the night sky. In the past, the flowers were thought to resemble small udders and this may account for the plant’s name as well as its administration to nursing mothers by medieval herbalists. Along path edges on the northern side of the heath, I find several generous clumps of a shrub with pale fleshy leaves, green with a tinge of pink. This is bilberry, covered at this time of year with delicate, almost transparent, pale red, lantern-shaped flowers looking out of place in this harsh environment but proving popular with bumblebees and hoverflies. Late summer will see the plants covered with succulent black fruits.

I encounter only one other person on the heath but it hasn’t always been such a quiet place. From medieval times, Hardown Hill would have resounded to the clash of picks and shovels wielded by men mining the landscape for building materials. Beneath the thin layer of soil that covers the summit, there are layers of clay and a yellow/brown sandy material containing substantial lumps of flint-like, hard rock, the chert cobs. A mixture of clay, stone and sand was taken for road construction and the chert cobs were used for building. Mining occurred on the southern slopes of the Hill, either in open pits or in adits (mine shafts) cut into the hillside. Nowadays there are few traces of this busy activity. The mining area has mostly been colonised by rough grass and bracken, brightened today by a haze of bluebells.  One open pit has been preserved near the top of Love’s Lane displaying the layers of rock and the chert cobs. The adits are inaccessible for safety reasons but one serves an important role as a hibernation area for the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

The chert cobs were split using a small hammer on a long handle, the Hardown hammer. Cobs were held on an iron bar with three claws and covered in damp hessian to protect the eyes of workmen who also wore wire goggles. Split cobs were used to provide a tough outer surface, silvery-blue or yellowish, on domestic and farm buildings around the Marshwood Vale. Good examples of the use of Hardown chert can also be found on the 14th century abandoned chapel at Stanton St Gabriel beneath Golden Cap and on the tiny 19th century church at Catherston Leweston.

But it is to the height of Hardown Hill that I want to return. Its prominence above the surrounding countryside gives spectacular views with new perspectives on some of west Dorset’s notable landmarks. Looking southwards, we see Golden Cap and the darkly-wooded Langdon Hill rising steeply across the valley with a backdrop of the waters of Lyme Bay (see picture at the top of this post). Towards the east, Portland floats unsettlingly as if cast adrift. To the north, especially from Hardown’s rough grassy flanks, we look across the patchwork of fields and the ring of hills that make up the Marshwood Vale with the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum cradled in its green embrace. New perspectives challenge us to think differently and the relative isolation of Hardown fosters quiet contemplation away from the cares of everyday life.

Perhaps that’s what Thomas Hardy meant when he wrote in his poem “Wessex Heights”:
“There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, ………….”

Marshwood Vale and the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum, from Hardown Hill
Marshwood Vale and Whitchurch Canonicorum from Hardown Hill

 

Bilberry on Hardown Hill
Bilberry on Hardown Hill

 

Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill
Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill

 

Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa)
Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa) on Hardown Hill

 

Exposed chert on Hardwon Hill
Exposed chert seam on Hardown Hill

 

Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church
Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church

This piece was originally publsihed in the July 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.