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Spring flowers at Cogden in west Dorset

More than six weeks ago I went searching for spring flowers in west Dorset. I wrote about this for the Marshwood Vale Magazine and the article below appeared in the June edition.

It was an unexpectedly bright morning in the first week of May and I had come to one of my favourite places, Cogden in west Dorset in the south west of the UK.  I stood in the car park for a few moments enjoying the gentle warmth of the air and taking in the familiar view set out below me.  There was the sea, calm that day and a uniform greenish-blue merging into the distant mist with no clear horizon.  There, also, was the yellowish-brown shingle beach with its fringe of white water, part of the larger Chesil Beach sweeping eastwards towards Portland, the wedge shape barely visible in the mist.  I was here to see what flowers were in bloom on this spring day and I hoped I might find some of the first orchids. 

The view down to Cogden Beach

I began my search by heading eastwards through the gate from the Car Park into the meadows that slope down below the coast road towards the sea.  Despite the traffic noise, skylarks trilled overhead and a green woodpecker “yaffled” nearby.  The ground was quite uneven, perhaps churned up by cattle when wet and muddy, making for awkward walking.  Rough grass predominated but a few bright yellow cowslips were dotted about and spikes of bugle with their pale blue flowers were also showing well.  Bugle is an unassuming flower, often overlooked but a closer examination revealed the delicately beautiful patterns of darker stripes and pale patches that decorate the flowers.  Elsewhere in the meadow, the first yellow cushiony flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were emerging, a foretaste of times to come.

I asked some passing dog walkers if they had seen any orchids.  They hadn’t, but kindly warned me to beware of adders. I continued to the east through several fields and across stiles gradually descending towards the sea.  Traffic noise from the coast road gave way to the soothing sound of pebbles driven rhythmically back and forth by waves on the beach.   When I reached the coast path, I turned to walk westwards, first along a narrow track enclosed by lush green vegetation and later above a broad grassy area bordering the reed bed and shingle beach.  Colourful drifts of wild flowers grew here, mostly cowslip and cuckooflower. 

I have always loved cowslips for their clusters of bright yellow, frilly-edged, trumpet shaped flowers (see picture at the head of this post). Seeing so many here reminded me of my childhood when it was common to find large numbers growing across chalk grassland and railway embankments in Dorset.  Nowadays, it is a treat to see even just a few of the flowers, a reminder of how much has been lost from our countryside, mainly through urbanisation and the relentless march of intensive agriculture.   

Cuckooflower is a very attractive, rather delicate looking flower, also called lady’s smock (picture below). The petals here were white with variable amounts of lilac pigmentation and lilac filigree markings.  Cuckooflower is one of several plants whose name honours the cuckoo; the flowers are said to bloom at about the same time as the bird arrives from its migration.  Cuckooflower is also one of the larval food plants for the orange tip butterfly.

In time, the reed bed petered out and I reached the first paved access track from the Cogden Car Park.  The shingle beach near here is a very special place where many unusual plants flourish despite the harsh environment by throwing down long roots to harvest fresh water from the underlying soils.   Sea kale is one of the main attractions.  It is now rather uncommon in the UK but numerous clumps of the plant with their fleshy, cabbage-type, dark green leaves were evident that day.  A few flowers, yellow at first then turning to white, were also showing.   It was, though, too early for their great display when each clump will be covered with white flowers making the beach look as though a heavy snow has fallen.  Another plant was, however, providing interest in the interim.  This was sea campion and large mats of the plant were growing across the shingle, each covered in hundreds of white bowl-shaped flowers.    

I still hadn’t found any orchids and was about to give up when, almost accidentally, I came across several groups of the flowers in an area of longish rough grass, bramble and gorse behind the shingle beach.   There were, perhaps, twenty or more spikes of flowers of a brilliant purplish-pink held on thick stems emerging through the drab, rough grass, looking as if someone had splashed pink paint across a dull canvas.  Many were in peak condition.  A few were already past their best but others were just emerging.   The flower spikes were loosely decorated with florets, like jewels on a bracelet. Each floret comprised a prominent extended lower lip, mostly purplish-pink but white towards the throat with a pattern of pink spots.  An overhanging hood, marked white on some spikes, contained the reproductive parts of the plant and behind the hood a spur curved upwards.  These are early purple orchids (Orchis mascula), usually the first of the species to appear each year and they conjure an otherworldly beauty wherever they grow.  Early purple orchids were once common across the UK but have suffered in the same way as cowslips. 

My visit to Cogden had been fascinating, as always, and I was particularly pleased to have found the orchids.  It was, though, early May and many flowers were only just beginning to show.   In a few weeks, the shingle beach will be dominated by the white flowers of sea kale, large drifts of pink thrift will appear across the low coastal cliffs and yellow horned poppy will begin to bloom.  In the meadows and in the grassy areas near the reed bed many flowers will appear including several species of orchid.    

Cuckooflower

Sea campion growing across the shingle on Cogden Beach

Sea campion
Early purple orchid
Early purple orchids

Sighting seals along the south west coast of the UK

A glistening black head suddenly broke through the surface of the water a metre or two offshore.  A long, dark, shadowy shape was also just visible and we realised that this was a seal.  We watched, captivated, as it swam slowly south westwards, staying roughly parallel to the beach, leaving a trail of ripples in its wake.  Along the beach, people were swimming and when they saw the seal coming, they quickly made their way to dry land but the seal had already disappeared. 

A grey seal swimming, (not the one referred to in the text whch took us completely by surprise)

This magical encounter occurred last year as we were walking along a shingle beach in south Devon, but chance sightings of seals can occur almost anywhere along the Dorset and Devon coasts in the south west of the UK and are unpredictable and surprising.   Each observation, though, is a reminder that these fascinating creatures live alongside us, and gives an insight, however brief, into their lives.

Seals are the largest land-breeding marine mammals found in the UK and two species may be seen around our coasts, the grey seal and the common or harbour seal.  The grey seal is the larger of the two with males up to 2.6 metres in length and 300kg in weight.  The grey seal is one of the rarest species of seal globally and the UK has more than a third of the world’s population, mostly found around the west coast of Scotland, also the Orkneys and the Shetlands with a few significant colonies along the East coast of England.  Common seals are smaller, with males up to 2 metres in length and 150 kg in weight.  Numerically, UK waters contain fewer common seals but the population is still significant amounting to 30% of the European sub species.  Common seals have a similar UK distribution to that of the grey seal. 

Grey seal

Should you sight a seal, it can be tricky to decide which species but if you can see the head, that may help.  Common seals have relatively smaller heads compared to body size with a clearly defined forehead and short snout.  Grey seals have larger heads with longer flat noses and no forehead.   Fur colour is deceptive as both species vary in colour from grey to pale brown and whether the animal is wet or dry.  Fur patterns, though, may help identification with grey seals having irregular darker blotches and common seals being more uniformly spotted.

Common Seal (photo by CJ Sharp from Wikimedia Commons)

Seals spend their lives partly on land and partly in the water.  They haul out, often in groups, on uninhabited rocky islands, secluded beaches and sandbanks to rest, to digest their food or to give birth.  More than half of their time, though, is spent in the water feeding and they can travel long distances to forage.  They are superb swimmers, capable of diving to a depth of up to 100 metres to find food on the sea bed and during a dive they slow their heart rate in order to conserve oxygen.    On land, seals can appear ponderous and ungainly, dragging themselves about using their front flippers, but once in the water they swim with grace, elegance and speed.  This ability to slip effortlessly between two distinct lives, one on land and the other in the water, seen and largely unseen, gives seals an aura of mystery. It is no surprise that a wealth of myth and story has attached itself to the creatures.

A grey seal hauled out on rocks

Because the majority of seals in the UK are found along northern and north western coasts, sightings as far south as Dorset and Devon are infrequent but of great interest.  There are no regular haul out sites along the Dorset and east Devon coasts so sightings are usually of seals moving about.  Most of these casual sightings are of grey seals although there are thought to be a few common seals resident in Poole Harbour.  The picture changes as we move into south Devon where several regular haul out sites are found along the coast.  Here grey seals gather in small numbers at low tide to rest although they can also be seen swimming nearby.  Seals are also seen in the Exe and Dart estuaries sometimes a distance from the coast. 

The Dorset Wildlife Trust Fine Foundation Wild Seas Centre at Kimmeridge is trying to build up a catalogue of seal sightings.  Individual seals have characteristic marking patterns on their fur, so that photos can be used, rather like a fingerprint, to identify seals seen regularly in Dorset or moving about along the coast.  By sharing their findings with other seal recorders, they already know that some seals seen along the Dorset coast have also been spotted in Hampshire, south Devon, Cornwall or France.   Should you see a seal, you can help this project by reporting your sighting (with photographs if available, see below for details).

There is increasing concern, however, that seals are being disturbed by encounters with humans.  They are large wild animals and, although they are curious creatures, they can be easily upset and disturbed.   Seals haul out to rest and digest food and this essential quiet time can be interrupted if humans get too close.  Disturbed seals may even panic, jumping from rocks into the sea so risking injuring themselves.   There are also sporadic reports of humans being bitten when trying to feed or pat seals.  Feeding seals additionally risks disturbing their natural feeding patterns.

The Dorset Wildlife Trust has compiled a code of conduct to try to deal with these problems.  This code should be followed at all times when encountering seals or taking photographs, to protect both seals and humans and to minimise disturbance of these wild creatures:

  • Keep well away from seals so that they can’t see, hear or smell you
  • Use a camera zoom or binoculars for a better view
  • Keep dogs on a lead if seals are known to be in the area
  • Never feed seals 
  • Take all litter home 
  • Do not seek out encounters with seals in the water 

Seals are iconic wild creatures and we are privileged to be able to see them along our coasts.  We must, however, treat them with respect.  They have their own lives, very different from ours, and they have as much right to occupy the environment as we do.  We should enjoy watching these beautiful creatures but make sure that they can live their lives undisturbed.

I should like to thank Sarah Hodgson of the Dorset Wildlife Trust for her generous help and guidance when I was preparing this article

All photos shown here were taken using a zoom lens.

To report seal sightings in Dorset, use this link: http://seals.dorsetwildlifetrust.net/  , seal sightings elsewhere in the south west can be reported by emailing:   sightings@cornwallsealgroup.co.uk

This article also appeared in the April 2022 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Mooching about by mahonia

If, like me, you enjoy looking at flowers, then winter can be a pretty dismal time.  The plants that give colour to the autumn such as asters and sedums have long since faded and there’s a gap of several weeks before the winter flowers, snowdrops, aconites and pulmonaria show their faces.  It hasn’t helped this winter that the December weather, although very mild, brought many overcast days.  Ceilings of thick grey cloud hung overhead, keeping light levels low and draining the landscape of colour so that I yearned for some brightness. 

A large mahonia in full flower

But there is help at hand in the form of winter flowering shrubs and plants which bring welcome colour to the gloom.   These include winter honeysuckle and winter flowering heathers but my favourite is mahonia with its starbursts of lemon-yellow flowers and its spiky evergreen leaves.  Mahonia works hard, flowering from November with some varieties continuing to bloom well into the New Year.   A large stand of the shrub is a fine sight in winter, sometimes as much as three metres in height, covered with multiple plumes of flowers reaching upwards above sprays of spiky mid green holly-like leaves.  Even on the darkest winter day, the yellow flowers light up their surroundings like banks of fluorescent tubes and should the sun shine, both flowers and leaves glow in reply.  As an added bonus, stands of mahonia are often enveloped in a cloud of sweet fragrance said to resemble lily of the valley, a rare experience in these low months.   If all that wasn’t enough, as the flowers mature, they produce attractive blue-black berries dusted with a white bloom.

Sprays of mahonia flowers showing the developing unripe berries that will eventually turn black

Mahonia was first discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition sent to explore the newly acquired north western territory of the United States during the early years of the 19th century.  The shrub was found growing extensively between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean.  The prominent Irish/American nurseryman Bernard McMahon based in Philadelphia was responsible for propagating the seeds and plants brought back from the expedition and mahonia was named in recognition of his work.  Mahonia is also referred to as Oregon grape after the resemblance of its berries to the vine fruit and the part of the US where the shrub was first seen.

The native US shrub was imported into the UK in the 19th century and different varieties were also found in Asia at about the same time.  These and their hybrids are now very popular in this country contributing architectural interest to gardens as well as winter colour.  They are often planted around the edges of car parks and outside buildings where their potential size can be readily accommodated. 

It’s not just humans, though, who take pleasure from mahonia in winter.  Both insects and birds relish the profusion of flowers and berries on the shrub.  The long arching racemes thrown upwards by mahonia are densely packed with small flowers, each shaped like an upturned bell and formed from concentric rings of petals and sepals. The flowers are rich sources of pollen and nectar providing important forage for insects on mild winter days and, as the insects feed, they contribute to pollination. 

Among the insects visiting mahonia in winter, bumblebees are regular foragers in the south of the UK and I have seen both workers and queens even in late December, sometimes liberally dusted with yellow pollen.  Honeybees and hoverflies will also venture out to feed on milder winter days and they may occasionally be joined by red admiral butterflies.   It’s fascinating to watch bumblebees working the flowers, moving systematically along a raceme, dislodging yellow petals which fall to decorate nearby leaves and create a yellow “snow” on pavements below.  Birds such as blackcaps and blue tits also take sugar-rich nectar from mahonia flowers.  When they visit, they may pick up pollen on their beaks contributing to pollination.

Close-up view of mahonia flower showing the ring of stamens just inside the petals (see also the picture at the head of this post).
The same mahonia flower but after stimulation causing stamens to move inwards

The flowers have a special mechanism for increasing the efficiency of pollination by visiting insects and birds.  In each flower, the pollen-loaded stamens are arranged in a ring just inside the petals.  Stimulating the flower, as would happen if a pollinator visits, causes the stamens to move inwards increasing the likelihood that the pollinator will pick up pollen to transfer to the next flower.  Pollination leads to formation of the berries, each about the size of a blackcurrant which start green and mature to blue-black with a white bloom.  The berries provide winter food for birds later in the season and blackcaps, blackbirds and song thrushes may be seen feeding.

Although mahonia was a new discovery for colonists in the US in the early 19th century, the native American tribes of the north west were already familiar with its properties.  Some ate the berries, either raw or cooked and some used preparations of the shrub for medicinal purposes.  Yellow dyes derived from the plant were also used by the tribes for colouring fabrics and basketry.   Preparations of mahonia have been employed in traditional Chinese medicine over many years and are used by some contemporary herbalists but rigorous scientific studies of their effects have not been performed. 

It is interesting to reflect on how mahonia, a shrub native to parts of the US and Asia, has successfully travelled to the UK where not only does it brighten our winters but it also supports wildlife across this low season.

Worker buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on mahonia flower with pollen (November 25th 2021)
Queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on mahonia flowers (December 4th 2021)
Red admiral butterfly on mahonia (November 25th 2021)

This article appeared in the February edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The Holly and the Ivy

Even amid the glitz and glitter of our commercialised Christmas, certain seasonal songs have surprising power.  For me, The Holly and the Ivy is one of those songs.  I probably first heard the carol and began to internalise the words and tune before I was ten years old.  Now, although I am not religious, all it takes is a mere mention of the title or a hint of the tune to set the carol going in my head evoking memories of past Christmases.  The carol has an interesting history and although the words are staunchly Christian, references to holly and ivy come from much earlier pre-Christian times. 

In case you need reminding, here is the first verse of the carol, with the refrain:

The holly and the ivy

When they are both full grown

Of all the trees that are in the wood

The holly bears the crown

Refrain: The rising of the sun

               And the running of the deer

              The playing of the merry organ

              Sweet singing in the choir

The most popular version of this carol, the one you will most likely encounter this Christmas, was first published as recently as 1911.  The folk song collector, Cecil Sharp was visiting the Cotswolds in January 1909 and heard this version sung by Mary Clayton of Chipping Campden.  Sharp transcribed the words and tune and published them together for the first time in his book English Folk-Carols and this has become the accepted version.   Here is a link to a recording:     

The words of the song can be found before that time in several early 19th century and one early 18th century Broadsides (early forms of printed lyrics).   None of these versions, though, gives the tune and, most likely, the carol was sung to different melodies with local modifications of the words in different parts of the country, and passed between generations as part of the oral tradition. 

One of these local melodies has recently become very popular with folk singers.  It was first recorded in 1952 by Maud Karpeles and Pat Shaw from the singing of Peter Jones of Bromsash in Herefordshire.  I remember hearing this version myself for the first time about twenty years ago sung in a very lively manner by Magpie Lane and it transforms The Holly and the Ivy into a celebratory Christmas song that is great fun to sing.   Here is a link to a recording by the Oxford Waits and the Mellstock Band:

The existence of different versions of the song passed on orally in different parts of the country suggests that The Holly and the Ivy is a very old, possibly medieval song. We tend to think of all Christmas songs as timeless accompaniments to traditional Christmas festivities but many were, in fact, written in the 19th century or later.  A few, including The Holly and the Ivy, are much older.

Ivy with its shiny, dark green leaves, covered in autumn with pale flowers that attract many insects including this red admiral butterfly

But why holly and why ivy?   Holly can grow as a tree or it may be part of a hedge restrained by cutting and shaping.  Its dense mass of prickle-edged leaves acts as a barrier, a natural barbed wire, and its red berries glitter with welcome colour even on the darkest winter day.   Ivy with its prolific climbing habit can, given the chance, rapidly overwhelm walls and hedges and is often treated as a nuisance or simply ignored.  It is, though, covered in flowers in the autumn providing late season pollen and nectar for insects and its dark berries are relished by birds in the winter.   

The Christmas significance of the two plants derives from their evergreen nature.  Both bear shiny green leaves seemingly brimming with life throughout the winter when most other plants and trees are leafless. Holly and ivy were popularly gathered along with mistletoe and other evergreens to decorate churches, houses and streets at Christmas time from at least as early as the 16th century and probably before.  This custom may be a relic of pagan midwinter celebrations with the evergreens symbolising rebirth, the return of the light and the greening of the landscape in spring.  The custom survives and holly and mistletoe, both preferably with berries, are still used as Christmas decorations although ivy seems to have fallen out of fashion.

But what about the words of the carol?  Perhaps we shouldn’t delve too deeply into such a traditional song but the first verse does seem counterintuitive.  Holly is rarely a large tree and unlikely to dominate all others and this verse contains the only reference to ivy in the entire song.    The refrain contains some pleasant imagery but it also seems out of place and the editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols believe it may have been a later addition to older medieval words.

Holly flowers

Overall, though, the carol tells the story of Christ’s life interwoven with the life of the holly tree.  So, verse 2: “The holly bears a blossom as white as the lily flower” refers to the white flowers borne on the bush in late spring with white signifying the purity of Mary and Jesus.  Verse 3: “The holly bears a berry as red as any blood” refers to Christ’s blood.  Verse 4: “The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn” refers to the crown of thorns.  Verse 5: “The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall” is another reference to the crucifixion.

Holly with its red berries and shiny, spiky leaves

The Holly and the Ivy is also one of several carols from medieval England that tells of the rivalry between holly and ivy for mastery of the forest, a contest with its origins in ancient folklore.  In The Holly and the Ivy, the holly “bears the crown” so winning the contest; perhaps that’s why we hear no more about the ivy.  Holly was also traditionally seen as a masculine symbol perhaps because of its stouter prickly leaves and ivy a feminine symbol with its softer leaves.  The carol may, therefore, contain a gentle reference to the ups and downs of relationships between men and women. 

So, in The Holly and the Ivy, we have a much-loved, traditional Christmas carol suffused with Christian and pre-Christian symbolism.  Even among the approaching Christmas clamour, the song never fails to bring pleasure whichever version we choose to sing.

I wrote this piece for the December 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

West Dorset surprises

The minor road that climbs past the Spyway Inn near Askerswell was quiet that day, a welcome relief from the seemingly endless traffic clogging the A35.  Eventually, though, Eggardon Hill came into view, the road levelled out and our attention was captured by the stunning panorama laid out to the west.  Below, the land unfolded in a mosaic of fields, trees and hedges with different colours and textures, backed by the hills of west Dorset rising mysteriously in the slight haze that softened the air.  To the south west, the sea and the familiar ups and downs of the Jurassic Coast completed the image.  [The picture at the top of this post shows the view in a slightly spread out panoramic form] We drove on and, just before the road dipped under the old railway bridge, turned into the car park at the Powerstock Common Nature Reserve.

Trees surrounded the car park and bright early June sunshine filtered through the leaf cover casting dappled light across the parking area.  Birdsong echoed around us and the rippling sound of running water emerged from the nearby woodland.  Common vetch scrambled through the fences along the car park edge and its purplish-pink pea-type flowers were proving popular with plump, furry, pale brown bumblebees.

We set out along the woodland path taking a right fork to stay on the northern edge of the reserve.  The track felt enclosed but wildflowers grew along the margins including the inconspicuous bright blue speedwell and the purplish-blue spikes of bugle.  In time, the woodland melted away leaving the path to run between broad sloping banks topped by trees and scrub.  This is the Witherstone cutting, once the path of the Bridport branch railway as it ran between Powerstock and Toller stations.

The old railway cutting

This branch Line opened in 1857 linking Bridport to Maiden Newton and the main line.   The coming of the railway to West Dorset revolutionised social and commercial life in the area which, at the time, was poorly served by roads.   People could travel more widely and I tried to imagine trains passing through the cutting, drawn in a haze of smoke and noise by the small steam engines of the Great Western Railway.  I pictured people on the trains, travelling for work or for leisure or moving about during the two world wars.  The line was also important for the transport of milk, watercress and the net and twine produced in Bridport.  As motor transport came to dominate, traffic on the railway declined resulting in its closure in 1975.  Although the tracks were lifted, there are still signs of the old railway, notably the rusty fence posts that line the track.   The remains of an old brickworks can also be found in the nearby wood.  This was set up near the railway to take advantage of the clay that remained when the cutting was excavated.

On the day of our visit, the sloping banks on either side of the path were mostly clad in short rough grass although there were some areas of exposed grey soil, perhaps a result of slippage.  The former railway cutting felt very sheltered and the bright yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil grew across the grassy areas.  We also found many small flowers of milkwort, almost hidden in the grass.  Milkwort is a common plant on rough grassland and the flowers exist in several colours.  Pink and purplish-blue flowers grew at Powerstock Common but each flower also had one white petal divided into finger-like lobes giving it a passing resemblance to a miniature cow’s udder.  This may account for the name of the flower and its use in the past for increasing milk production.  We also found one common spotted orchid with beautiful purple markings but more will have appeared, along with many other flowers, as the season advanced.

The abundance of flowers attracted insects and several common blue butterflies flew past or around us displaying their sky-blue upper wings and intricately patterned lower wings.   Two yellow butterflies also passed by, dancing around one another in the air.  I hoped they would land so that I could identify the species but they did not oblige. Bumblebees moved lazily among the flowers but we made our most exciting observation on a slightly raised area of rough grass with some exposed grey soil not far from the main path. 

Here we found bees flying about at high speed, backwards and forwards and from side to side, just above the ground, accompanied by a clearly audible buzz.  There were perhaps a hundred or more of the insects, and with their incessant movement this was an impressive sight.   It was difficult to identify them at first owing to their frantic activity but they were honeybee-sized and I thought I could see shiny black abdomens.  Very occasionally, one would pause to feed from the bird’s foot trefoil revealing a yellow face, a pale brown-haired thorax and two very long antennae, each as long as the rest of their body. Such long antennae, resembling shiny black bootlaces, are seen only on one UK species of bee, the male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).

The obvious excitement of these male bees arose because they were anticipating the emergence of females and wanted to try to mate.  Indeed, on several occasions some left their frantic flying to coalesce into a small mobile cluster.  Others tried to join in, some left the melee.  This was a mating cluster and formed when a virgin female emerged from her nest chamber.  Many males then pounced upon her hoping to mate but only one was successful.  Once mated, females get on with nest building and laying of eggs to secure the population of next year’s long-horned bees. 

The long-horned bee was once a common sight in May and June across the southern half of the UK, unmistakeable from the long antennae of the males.  Agricultural intensification led to destruction of habitat used by these bees along with a loss of their favoured flowers such as wild vetches and peas.  As a result, the species is now quite rare being restricted to twenty or so UK sites many of which are along the southern coast.  The Powerstock colony is large and seems to be prospering; it was a treat to see it that day. 

Powerstock Common is a rich and varied nature reserve and we glimpsed only a small part during our visit.  Even so, we enjoyed the peace and the floral beauty of the old railway cutting and discovered a fascinating mixture of natural and industrial history. 

At the beginning of July, Natural England announced that the combined land at Powerstock Common and nearby Kingcombe Meadows, both managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, would become a National Nature Reserve recognising the unique character of these west Dorset sites and the rare wildlife they contain. 

Three short videos of the long-horned bees showing their behaviour that day can be seen on my YouTube channel  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvXWn_9QYdx0AU6guJ3iYLA

common vetch
milkwort (pink version) showing white petal
Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) in flight showing his long antennae
Female Eucera longcornis showing her pollen-collecting hairs on her back legs. The female also has antennae of a more conventional length.
mating cluster
mating cluster with male looking on
common spotted orchid

This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

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.

 

Murmurations and memories as starlings gather over Chesil Beach

It was the video that clinched it!  I’d read the reports of starlings gathering in their thousands at sunset over Chesil Beach but when I saw the video of their murmuration and the liquid patterns they carve in the sky, I knew I had to go to see for myself.  So, on the first clear, dry day we set off for West Bexington on the West Dorset coast near where the starlings had been spotted.

the sun hung low in the pale western sky

West Bexington is a tiny village lying between low coastal hills and Chesil Beach and when we arrived that mid December afternoon, it all felt very quiet.  The sun hung low in the pale western sky, its bright yellow disc casting a shimmering, silvery mirror across the water and a warm light across coastal fields.  We parked in the beach car park and set off across the shingle, the pea-sized pebbles making for hard going as usual.  The sea was our constant companion, calm with just a light swell and waves that barely left a thin white line along the vast sweep of beach.  I had thought there might be more people about to watch the birds but, apart from a few fishermen, their faces turned fixedly towards the sea, we were alone on the shingle.   The skeletal remnants of beach plants that flourish here in warmer months added to the sense of isolation.

For a short time, we stood by the extensive beds of pale reeds that line the back of the beach.  The feathery stems fidgeted and rustled as a light breeze passed and we heard the occasional squawk from birds deep in the reeds but invisible to us.  A skein of geese passed eastwards to disappear behind the coastal hills honking loudly as they went and the pale moon appeared above the ridge.

Moon rising over the ridge (photo by Hazel Strange).

Then we noticed another figure labouring across the shingle, swathed in warm shawls and a woolly hat.  She approached us and asked if we had come to watch the starling murmuration.  We had of course.  She told us that she had seen them perform near here on the two previous afternoons before roosting and this was about the right time.  We stood, the three of us now, looking, watching, scanning the sky for perhaps ten minutes, but nothing happened.  We discussed the vagaries of watching wildlife and we got colder and colder.  The sun, a fiery orange ball by now, approached the horizon and spread its warm glow across the shingle.  The moon, nearly full and not to be outdone, rose steadily above the hills.

We were on the point of giving up when the first group of starlings appeared in the sky above the coastal hills to the west.  At first, they were just a mobile black smudge but soon they began to move about in the pale sky sculpting smooth shapes and occasionally disappearing from view over the dark land.   Quite suddenly they were joined by more …… and more……. and more birds, as though some signal had been sent and soon a huge cloud of thousands of birds was moving backwards and forwards forming massive, mobile, liquid shapes that twisted, thickened, thinned and sometimes split apart before merging again.   The mass of birds, the murmuration, seemed to have a life of its own, as though it was some kind of sky-bound superorganism squirming about.  This was one of the most impressive natural events I have ever experienced, forever engrained in my memory.  It lifted our spirits eliciting spontaneous exclamations of surprise and delight.

By now the sun was setting and the light was fading.  Suddenly, and without warning, the birds dropped down to roost across the coastal scrub to the west below Othona like a sheet floating to the ground; it was as if another signal had been sent that only the birds understood.  With so many starlings, there must have been an impressive noise from their wings when flying and from their chattering when on the ground.   I lost all sense of time while the birds were performing their murmuration but when I checked my watch the whole event had lasted only ten minutes and coincided roughly with the setting of the sun.

We marvel at their behaviour but starlings don’t create these pulsating patterns in the sky for our benefit.  So, why do they do it?  Security is thought to be one reason.   Predator birds are always on the lookout for food and as the light fades, individual starlings become more vulnerable. They cannot see the predators well in the fading light but flying as part of large swirling mass of birds provides safety in numbers. Predators find it difficult to focus on single starlings in a moving murmuration so the chance of attack for individual birds will be lower.  Starlings are also gregarious and are thought to gather in large numbers as a prelude to roosting close together both to keep warm overnight and to exchange information about good feeding areas.   It is tempting after having watched a murmuration to suggest that the birds are also expressing some kind of joy of life.

And yet, starlings are not universally loved. Some people view them as noisy, thuggish and dirty creatures: bird-feeder bullies that soil urban spaces where they roost and have a negative effect on arable farming.  Should you take the time to look at a starling, though, you will see a beautiful bird with glossy black plumage enhanced by flashes of iridescent purple or green.  Their dark plumage is decorated with startling white spangles in the winter so that, as the poet Mary Oliver says, they have “stars in their black feathers”.

But whether you love them or hate them, starlings in the UK are in trouble.  Since the mid-1970s, there has been a 66% drop in their numbers, the starling has been red-listed and is of high conservation concern.  The reasons for this decline are poorly understood but are thought to be linked to changes in farming practice.  The use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers and the loss of flower-rich hay meadows have severely reduced numbers of invertebrates such as earthworms and leather jackets that starlings depend on for food. Starlings are dying of starvation and other farmland birds such as tree sparrows, yellowhammers and turtle doves have also been badly affected.  Agriculture needs to adjust to make space for wildlife in order to halt this downward spiral before we lose these birds altogether and murmurations become no more than memories.

For two more brief videos of this murmuration have a look at my YouTube channel:  Philip Strange Science and Nature.

This article appeared in the February edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The starlings gather and create patterns

An unusual “spiral”

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.

An oasis of calm, a mosaic of environments

Towards the end of July, I visited the Maer, a nature reserve situated at the eastern end of the promenade in Exmouth, a seaside town in the south west of the UK.  With its sand dunes and sandy grassland, the Maer is a remnant of a much larger dune system that once stretched down to the beach. Nowadays, it provides an oasis of calm close to the busy sea front as well as a habitat for special plants and insects.

sea holly growing on the sandy ridge

A slight mist softened the long views as I walked eastwards along Exmouth sea front.  Some warmth penetrated the cloud and a few people were already enjoying the beach on this late summer morning.  The sandy tip of Dawlish Warren lay tantalisingly close across the water and further on, the Ness at Shaldon lurked in the mist like a gigantic wedge of cheese.  The commercial area with its big wheel, pubs and cafes was busy but eventually I reached a quieter part where sand and scrub tumbled downwards at the side of the beach road.  This is the edge of the Maer, a local nature reserve and one of Exmouth’s hidden gems. Superficially, the Maer is a large grassy, sandy space sandwiched between the beach road and Exmouth Cricket Club but it conceals a mosaic of different environments with unusual flora and fauna.

A substantial sandy dune ridge forms the southern border of the Maer giving views across the reserve on one side and towards the beach on the other.  Marram grass grows thickly giving the sand stability but there are also areas of bare sand and areas of scrub, reminders of the dune system that must have occupied this area before the beach road was built.  Restharrow with its pink and white pea-type flowers and a few residual yellow evening primrose provided some colour but it was the sea holly that surprised.   This is an unusual and unexpected plant that grows extensively along the first part of the ridge.  Its spiky greenish-grey leaves with white margins and veins and its powder blue flowers light up the sand as though someone had spilt pale paint.  Sea holly flourishes in these arid conditions by having leaves covered in a waxy cuticle to help retain water and through its deep roots. Although sea holly has some visual resemblance to our Christmas greenery, it is a relative of the carrot; in the past it was employed as an aphrodisiac.

Several large insects with bold black and yellow markings crawled about the bright blue sea holly flowers collecting nectar.  These are beewolves, some of our most spectacular solitary wasps, that nest in sandy places and specialise in catching honeybees.  Both male and female beewolves were feeding that day but it is the larger female (up to about 2cm long) that catches and paralyses honeybees and may be seen flying back to the nest carrying a quiescent honeybee beneath her.  She digs a nest tunnel in sandy soil up to a metre long with multiple terminal branches where she lays eggs and provides honeybees as food for the developing larvae.  These once rare insects have expanded their UK range since the 1980s, possibly in response to climate change and I saw them in several places on the reserve notably on a stand of mauve thistles. They are not aggressive towards humans.

Further along the ridge, before it is colonised by brambles, scrub and low trees, I found a large clump of an unruly scrambling plant covered in pea-type flowers of an impressive reddish-pink colour.  This is broad-leaved everlasting pea, a perennial relative of our annual sweet pea, growing through the grasses on the Maer ridge holding on via thin tendrils.  A chunky dark bee was feeding from the flowers, apparently undeterred by their jerky movements in the breeze. This was a leafcutter bee, most likely the Coast Leafcutter Bee that favours sandy habitats near the sea.  They nest in burrows in vegetated sand lined with pieces of leaf cut from trees and plants.    Later, when the sun came out, I saw several of these bees chasing one another around the bright pink flowers like children in a playground.

The large central part of the reserve was coated with golden brown grass criss-crossed with paths for walkers and looking very dry, a reflection of the recent lack of rain.  Within the grass were mats of restharrow and many of the yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear.  One area resembled a lunar landscape with many small craters where the surface had been dug out exposing the sand.  Solitary wasps and small leafcutter bees had happily nested here.

Tall clumps of ragwort with bright yellow daisy-like flowers and deeply lobed green leaves were dotted around the central area. This plant provides valuable habitat and food for invertebrates and I found one clump that had been appropriated by black caterpillars with prominent yellow bands.  They were moving about, eating the leaves of the ragwort, voraciously consuming the greenery and destroying the upper parts of the plant.  These are caterpillars of the cinnabar moth and as they feed, they assimilate some of the toxic alkaloids contained in ragwort, rendering themselves unpalatable to birds and other predators.  It is said that their yellow stripes act as a warning to birds.   Once fed and mature, the caterpillars dig themselves into the ground to spend 12 months or so as pupae before emerging as beautiful day-flying red and black moths.  The adult moths live for a few weeks, feeding on nectar before mating and laying eggs on the ragwort leaves.  The eggs grow into caterpillars and the cycle starts all over again.   The cinnabar moth is entirely dependent on ragwort for its survival.

Towards the western end of the reserve, I found a large colony of flowering plants, perhaps suggesting damper conditions.  Clumps of common mallow up to a metre tall dominated with their trumpet flowers composed of five deep pink petals each with purple stripes.  At the centre of each flower was a mass of grey pollen-covered stamens emanating from a single stalk like a miniature bunch of flowers.  Near the mallow, large areas were covered by a sprawling, scrambling plant richly covered with pea-like flowers above many small, spear-shaped, mid green leaves.  Flower colours varied from very pale to light blue, mauve and deep purple with some plants having several of these colour variants.  One plant even had bright yellow flowers.  This is Sand Lucerne, a fertile hybrid of lucerne and sickle medic, naturalised in East Anglia, where its two parents grow together, but now transplanted elsewhere.

There’s so much to see at the Maer and I could easily have spent several more hours looking about.  But I had a train to catch so I headed back along the promenade and across the town towards the station.

This article appeared in the October edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the head of this article shows the sandy ridge just above the seafront in Exmouth and the clump of broad-leaved everlasting pea.

 

beewolf on sea holly
male beewolf on sea holly

 

Female beewolf on thistle
female beewolf on thistle

 

Broad-leaved everlasting pea with leafcutter bee
leafcutter bee on broad-leaved everlasting pea

 

cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort
cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort

 

common mallow
common mallow

 

Sand Lucerne
sand lucerne

 

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