Tag Archives: nature writing

Have you seen the bee orchids?

There I was, standing up to my knees in the long grass trying to examine a flower, when a woman passing on the nearby path asked, “Have you seen the bee orchids?”  I turned and answered “No, but I was hoping to find them” and she continued “If you go nearly to the end of the reserve by the bridge, there’s a very nice one”.

Bird's foot trefoil
Bird’s-foot Trefoil

 

Common vetch
Common vetch

 

Aller Brook Nature Reserve in Newton Abbott is a place of contrasts.  It might reasonably be called an edgeland for it is on the edge of the town and the reserve starts where the Brunel Industrial Estate ends.  But it’s more urban than even that implies; the other main boundary of the reserve is the A380 trunk road making its presence felt through the continual loud rumble of cars and lorries speeding between Torquay and Exeter.  Between these two urban barriers is an extended triangular tongue of land with the water of Aller Brook running down the middle in a deep scrub-lined channel – this is the Nature Reserve.

Despite all the noise and light-industrial activity, this reserve is a perfect example of how nature can be coaxed in to a space if it is properly managed.  Kingfishers and otters are reported to visit the Brook and, when I was there, birdsong filled the air, at least when traffic noise allowed.  The main path along the boundary with the industrial estate was fringed with typical May flowers: red campion, cow parsley and brambles, all blooming beneath a thick tree canopy.  On the other side of the path, the Brook was occasionally visible through the scrub shield.

Further along the path, I came across several small areas of grassland managed as hay meadows.  Typical meadow plants were flourishing adding splashes of colour to the muted green grasses. Tall drifts of yellow and white ox eye daisies and unruly purple knapweed grew through the thick vegetation.  Common vetch, dotted with pink pea flowers, and buttery yellow bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the rough cover holding on wherever they could.  A few common spotted and marsh orchids added a little exoticism.  Along the edge of the brook there were stands of dog rose with their floppy, pale pink petals. With all these flowers about, bees were abundant.

The reserve ends at a bridge where the Brook empties into the estuary of the river Teign between huge swathes of tea-coloured reed beds and shiny pillows of brown mud.  The same reeds form a narrow border to the brook.  The bridge area was the part of the reserve where the Bee Orchids were supposed to be, so I looked very carefully within the grass.  They were quite easy to spot, six fine flower spikes standing about 20 cm above the ground with triple propeller-like, pinkish-violet sepals surrounding their complex flowers.

From the bridge, a path returns along the other side of Aller Brook and, at least at the beginning, the vegetation is quite similar.  Compact tracts of grassland sloped downwards to the Brook; common vetch scrambled through the grass accompanied by a few pyramidal orchids.  This side of the reserve, however, felt more contained with stands of brambles and thick tree cover attempting to mask the nearby main road.  It was still slightly unnerving to see glimpses of cars speeding past at 70 mph about 20 metres away.  Incongruously, near here I found another impressive group of Bee Orchids, five spikes in total, with two growing perilously close to the path edge.

As the reserve narrows, so does the path and for some time I walked along a green corridor beneath thick tree cover with relative shade and few flowers.  Eventually the path emerged into the light near a very busy roundabout and the car park of the Toby Carvery.  A ranger I had met earlier told me to look at the grassy area around the car park.  I had to ask a cuddling couple sitting on the edge of this area if they minded if I wandered around the grass but eventually I found thirteen flowering spikes of Bee Orchids looking very fresh, together with one pyramidal orchid.  This unlikely and rather bleak urban spot has a better population of Bee Orchids than the Nature Reserve itself!

There is something very beautiful and rather weird about the flowers of the Bee orchid when you look beyond the three pink sepals.  The most obvious part is the lower petal, the labellum, largely a rich dark red but decorated with variable, yellow horseshoe patterns.  Either side of the labellum are two spurs with a furry surface.  Above the labellum is a pale green arching structure containing two small yellow balls (pollinia) supported by fine threads so that when the wind blows these vibrate.  Above this pale green structure are two horns.

As the name of the orchid suggests, some people see a bee in the complex structure of the flowers.  They imagine the body of a chunky bee (the labellum, complete with furry extensions) with antennae (the two horns) and wings (two of the sepals).  To be honest, I don’t get this – all I see is a complex and idiosyncratic flower but perhaps I am being too literal.  I showed the pictures to Hazel, however, and she immediately saw the bee.

The apparent resemblance of the flowers to bees is also linked with theories of pollination whereby a male bee sees the orchid “bee”, thinks it is a female and tries to pseudo-copulate.  As it does so, it picks up pollen from the pollinia and when it leaves, disappointed, it tries again on another flower pollinating it at the same time.  In southern Europe, the Bee Orchid is cross-pollinated by bees of the Eucera genus but to me none of these bees looks anything like the Bee orchid.  But anyway, who knows what a bee “sees” and it has been suggested that the odour of the flower is more important in attracting the male bees.  To complicate things even more, Bee Orchids in the UK self-pollinate so they manage without bees.

Visiting a place like Aller Brook I can’t help but reflect on our relationship with nature.   I really like the Aller Brook Nature Reserve, there’s something special about the grassland with its profusion of meadow flowers and the Brook with its resident kingfishers and otters.  I love the orchids.  I can’t, however, help feeling troubled by the urban noise, the proximity of traffic and light industry.  This juxtaposition of modern urban life with some of the real glories of nature highlights our dysfunctional relationship with wildlife.  Is this tiny scrap of land the best we can do?  Surely we should be giving nature a higher priority rather than endlessly building roads and houses?

As I thought about this, Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi kept coming back to me, particularly the words:

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”

I visited Aller Brook Nature Reserve on May 30th 2017

Common spotted orchid
Cut-leaved cranesbill and common spotted orchid

 

Bee orchid 1
Bee orchid

 

Bee on knapweed
Bumblebee (male B.pratorum) on knapweed

 

Bee orchid 3
Bee orchids showing pollinia

 

Aller Brook
Aller Brook

 

Toby Carvery Car Park
The car park of the Toby Carvery

 

Perfect poisons for pollinators – available from your local garden centre

We try to make our garden welcoming for bees by growing flowers that provide pollen and nectar throughout the season. We also have some unkempt areas they might want to nest in and we don’t use any pesticides. I enjoy watching the bees foraging on the flowers as they come in to bloom and currently a large cotoneaster bush is full of small bumblebees buzzing loudly as they feed in the sunshine. It’s been very exciting this year to see bumblebees and solitary bees nesting in the dry-stone walls around the garden.

When we need new plants or compost, there is one local garden centre we use. It has a good range of healthy-looking plants and a very nice tearoom! In early spring, it’s also an excellent place to watch one of my favourite bees, the hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), whizzing about in the greenhouses full of flowers. Earlier this year, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late March, I noticed that these Anthophora had set up nests in the old brick wall of one of the garden centre’s buildings.

Bee 4
A hairy-footed flower bee foraging on plants within the garden centre

……………………………………………………………

About a year ago, I saw a crowd funding request from the well-known bee-defender and researcher, Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex. He wanted the money to test whether plants sold in garden centres in the UK and labelled as “bee-friendly” actually contained bee-toxic pesticides, applied during production of the plants. I remember being quite shocked to read about this possibility – could I have been buying plants to help the bees that were in fact laced with bee-toxic chemicals?

I wanted to find out more so I got in touch with our favourite garden centre and asked whether they were using neonicotinoid insecticides on their plants. They reassured me that they were not. So far so good. I then asked if their suppliers used neonicotinoids in the compost on the plants they sold. The reply came back “I’m afraid I can’t answer that question without phoning every supplier. Also a few companies we deal with import some of their stock from other European countries. I’m happy to ask my local nurseries when I’m speaking to them.” That’s the last I heard.
…………………………………………………………….

Dave Goulson got his money and went ahead with the analyses. The results of his tests have just been published and they don’t make happy reading;  here is a link to his blog on the topic. He and his colleagues bought 29 pots of flowering plants from well-known garden centres around Brighton (Wyevale, Aldi, B & Q, Homebase). Many were labelled “bee-friendly” and some had the Royal Horticultural Society endorsement “Perfect for Pollinators”.

They analysed a range of pesticides in leaves and pollen from the plants and found that most of the plants contained a cocktail of insecticides and fungicides. In the leaf analysis, only 2 of the 29 plants contained no pesticides. 76% contained one or more insecticide and 38 % contained two or more. 70% of the leaf samples analysed positive for neonicotinoid insecticides, well known for their toxic effects on bees. In the pollen analysis, neonicotinoids were found at levels known to cause harm to bees. So much for “Perfect for Pollinators”.

As a result of his work, B & Q announced that from February 2018 their plants would be neonicotinoid-free. Aldi revealed that they had stopped using neonicotinoids in October 2016, a few months after Goulson’s analyses took place. Neither B & Q nor Aldi  addressed the other chemicals found in the Sussex analysis.

The Horticultural Trades Association issued a statement that I believe is both silly and cynical, basically rubbishing Goulson’s analysis. You can read Dave Goulson’s rebuttal here.
……………………………………………………………….

So, it really is true that when we buy plants to help bees in our gardens from garden centres, we may be unwittingly exposing the bees to harmful chemicals, despite the “bee-friendly” labels. Also, any insect that nips into a garden centre for a feed, especially early in the season when garden centres have an abundance of flowers, may be getting a hit of insecticide at the same time.

So, what do we do if we want to have a bee-friendly garden?

Dave Goulson recommends the following course of action: if you must buy plants, buy from an organic garden centre or, failing that, go to B & Q or Aldi. Better still, grow from seed or swap plants with friends and neighbours.
…………………………………………………………

One point that has not been discussed so far concerns potential effects on humans of these pesticides found in garden centre plants. Earlier this year, I bought some fruit bushes from the garden centre and these now have a nice crop of plump berries. If these plants have been treated with pesticides, and of course I don’t know if they have, then the fruit will presumably also contain these pesticides. This possibility makes me very angry. I grow fruit in our garden so that we can eat chemical free, fresh, good quality produce. I don’t want to ingest insecticides and fungicides with poorly defined toxic effects on humans.

The featured image shows a hairy-footed fower bee feeding from plants in a lane adjacent to the garden centre

The Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis

Mature trees, richly planted borders, gently curving paths, a place to look and a space to think – the Seafront Gardens in Lyme Regis provide both an oasis of calm for humans and a safe haven for wildlife.  Not only that, some of the town’s best views may be savoured from this green space.  Looking ahead, the Cobb can be seen stretching its protective, rocky arm around the harbour whereas, across Lyme Bay, the west Dorset coast rises and falls like a gigantic wave sweeping eastwards over Stonebarrow and Golden Cap reaching, on a clear day, that louring sea monster that is the Isle of Portland. 

West Dorset coast viewed from the woodland boardwalk
West Dorset coast viewed from the woodland boardwalk; the distinctive shape of Golden Cap is framed by the trees

 

History of the Seafront Gardens

Just over a century ago, the Langmoor Gardens were opened to the public on the slopes above Marine Parade in Lyme Regis.  The land was bought through a bequest to the town from Joseph Moly of Langmoor Manor, Charmouth and the gardens were named in honour of the donation.  The slopes were known to be unstable and concrete buttresses had been built to prevent movement.  Despite this, there were periodic slippages of mud on to Marine Parade and throughout the 20th century the Gardens continued to move causing distortion to paths and eventually rendering the lower part of the gardens unusable.  In 1962, land to the west of these gardens suffered a catastrophic landslip following a misguided attempt at development and several houses were destroyed.  This land was eventually taken over by the town becoming the Lister Gardens, named after Lord Lister of Lyme Regis, pioneer of antiseptic surgery.  The Langmoor and Lister Gardens now form one large continuous public space above Marine Parade.

Rebuilding the Seafront Gardens

The Lyme Regis Environmental Improvements carried out early in the 21st century provided an opportunity to deal with the unstable geology of the Gardens.  Between 2005 and 2007, major civil engineering works were carried out to stabilise the Langmoor and Lister Gardens which were completely remodelled.  The new design included many planted areas and grassy spaces, gently curving paths that seem to reflect the convexity of the Cobb, and a woodland boardwalk with outstanding views across the harbour and bay.  Facilities for mini-golf, putting and table tennis were also built.

Supporting wildlife was deemed important so before work started, bat nesting sites were sealed to prevent them returning, 2000 slow-worms were caught and rehoused and a 15cm barrier erected to prevent others entering.  The gardens were replanted with salt tolerant, sub-tropical and rare plants as well as native species, taking account of the needs of bats, birds and insects.  Now, a decade later, the Gardens have a mature look and nesting boxes for birds and bats are flourishing.  Visitors love the open space and the new design was recognised with an important national award.

The Seafront Gardens in winter

Mid-winter is typically a low time when weather is poor, plants are dormant and wildlife scarce but when I visited the Gardens in December and January I found surprising activity.  Flowering cherry trees at the rear of the Gardens were covered in frothy pink flowers and close by, two fragrant shrubs were also showing well: winter honeysuckle with its white trumpet flowers filled with yellow-tipped stamens; sweet box, covered with tiny white starburst flowers, dark green fleshy leaves and shiny black berries.  As I was admiring the flowers, several bumblebees flew past, stopping briefly to feed from the cherry blossom.

On the terraced borders above Marine Parade, extensive banks of rosemary were covered in mauvish-purple flowers.  These were proving very popular with bumblebees and even in mid-winter, I saw queens and workers foraging busily, collecting sugary nectar and protein-rich pollen from the flowers.  The queens were large and furry with two prominent buff/yellow stripes and a grey or pale brown tail, the workers similar but smaller and more brightly coloured.   These are buff-tailed bumblebees and their relationship with the flowers is far from one-sided.  The flowers consist of two petals enclosing pollen-loaded anthers that beckon seductively at passing insects.  The lower petals contain darker markings highly visible to bees helping to draw them in. Each bee that feeds collects additionally a dusting of pollen from the overhanging anthers which they transfer to the next flower they visit ensuring cross fertilisation.

But shouldn’t bumblebees be hibernating at this time of year?  That’s what all the books say, but the presence of worker bumblebees collecting pollen suggests that somewhere in the Gardens or nearby there are active nests.  Winter active colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees have also been described in South Devon and in Cornwall as well as other locations in the southern half of the UK.  It isn’t clear why this is happening but perhaps these bees are taking advantage of the British penchant for planting winter-flowering plants and shrubs.  The Langmoor and Lister Gardens with their huge banks of flowering rosemary provide this winter forage for the west Dorset bumblebees.

Support your local bumblebees and they will support you.

Although buff-tailed bumblebees seem to be doing well in west Dorset, many other species of bumblebee in the UK have declined over the past 50 years.  This is bad news because these insects are important pollinators of fruit trees, vegetables and flowers.  The decline is largely a result of the agricultural intensification that has changed the look of our countryside leading to the loss of bee habitat, loss of wild flower forage and the use of pesticides.

We can’t reverse this intensification, but we can all help bumblebees by planting flowers in our gardens and by never using insecticides.  It’s important to choose a range of flowers that provide food for bees throughout the season:  the University of Sussex has a useful guide to bee-friendly flowers.   If we provide flowers, the bumblebees and other kinds of bee will return the compliment, visiting our gardens, pollinating our fruits and vegetables and improving their quantity and quality.

When I returned to the Gardens in early April, I found the rosemary still flowering profusely, showing what an important source of insect food it is.  Other plants were also starting to contribute to the forage, and spring insect species were emerging such as the beautiful early bumblebee and red-tailed bumblebee and the grey-patched mining bee.

Lyme Regis Gardens and west Dorset coastline
Seafront Gardens

 

Lyme Regis Gardens
Seafront Gardens

 

Lyme Regis ammonite lamppost and seagull
One of the Lyme Regis ammonite lamposts with “friend”

 

Buff-tailed bumblebee on rosemary
Buff-tailed bumblebee worker feeding from rosemary, photographed on December 26th 2016

 

Andrena nitida
Grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitida) photographed on April 2nd 2017 in the seafront gardens.

 

This article appeared in the May 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Liquid Energy – ivy bees by the sea in South Devon

Here is an account of a visit I made to Paignton about eight weeks ago, seaching for ivy bees.

Goodrington Sands
Goodrington Sands viewed from Roundham Head

 

Ice cream and chips, not together of course, but that’s what people are eating. The sun is shining, the sea an intense blue, the air gently warm and sun loungers have been dragged unexpectedly out of pastel-coloured beach huts. Couples stroll along the promenade arm in arm and one or two children shriek with delight as they run in and out of the waves washing over the long sandy beach. This is Goodrington Sands near Paignton in south Devon and it’s the end of September.

At one end of the beach, the ground rises steeply to Roundham Head, a cliff-lined, grass-topped promontory that interrupts the otherwise smooth sweep of Torbay. The south-facing side of the headland is home to the Cliff Gardens with its terraced flower beds, zigzag paths and mild microclimate supporting many tender sub-tropical plants. A colony of winter bumblebees also flourishes here, nurtured by the almost year round supply of pollen and nectar.

The flat, grassy surface of the promontory eventually gives way to residential streets but before suburbia takes over completely, there is a transitional region, a mosaic of green rectangular spaces and tall, red-brick walls. Nowadays, the area is popular with dog walkers but, in one wall, there is an intriguing, curved-top gateway, hinting at older usages. These walls, now mostly covered with ivy, are the remnants of the kitchen gardens of a nearby Victorian villa.

About a year ago, I discovered these old walls covered in full-flowering ivy with many ivy bees taking advantage of their preferred food. The ivy bee (Colletes hederae) is the last solitary bee to emerge each year and is very distinctive with its yellow and black-striped abdomen and chestnut-haired thorax. I looked for the nest area but, although I found a few small nest aggregations, I was unable to find anywhere large enough to support the number of bees I had seen.

Today, I park in a street bordering the old kitchen garden. Ivy cascades over the wall by the car, its many pale green flower heads scenting the air with their sickly-sweet smell. Insects move about the ivy constantly, flying to and fro, ignoring me to the extent that we sometimes collide. I see hoverflies, wasps, one or two bumblebees and honey bees, and hundreds of ivy bees. The male ivy bees fly about edgily, sometimes stopping to feed, sometimes pausing on a leaf to preen and rest. The females, noticeably larger than the males, carry chunks of chrome yellow pollen on their back legs and abdominal hairs but continue feeding. Sometimes a hopeful male disturbs them, attempting to mate, but they show no interest in their new suitors. Movement is constant, there is an insistent low buzz and this liquid energy steps up in the sunshine. The same liquid energy abounds wherever the ivy is in flower on these old walls. There is a lot of ivy here and that means many ivy bees.

But where are the nests? Last year I found one small nest area in some exposed red soil along the cliff-side path descending from Roundham Head to Goodrington so that’s where I begin today. Sure enough there are still holes in the cliff face together with crumbly soil suggesting active nests. Around these holes there are hundreds of ivy bee males performing what my friend Susan Taylor has christened the “sun dance”. They fly about incessantly, swinging from side to side, occasionally stopping to look into one of the holes but emerging unsuccessfully. It’s an impressive sight along a two metre stretch but what is lacking are any females and anyway it doesn’t feel like a big enough area to account for all the bees on the ivy so I decide to walk down to Goodrington to look at the sea.

As I stand by the beach, I see someone walking down another steep path from Roundham Head. I hadn’t noticed this paved path before: it runs parallel to the cliff-side path but about three metres inland and is partly hidden behind a low hedge. I decide to take a look. The path is bordered on one side by a low bank covered in short, rough grass and hundreds of ivy bee males fly about, skimming the surface, “sun dancing”. When I get closer, I see that the red soil in the bank is peppered with many holes and crumbly soil is spilling out showing that the bank contains active nests.

The males here seem particularly edgy, they constantly investigate the burrows, presumably looking for females and sometimes they even try to mate with one another, not a clever move. On several occasions I notice the males suddenly congregating to form a rough ball. Other males soon join the melee rather like rugby players in a ruck. Somewhere in the middle there must be a female who has just emerged from one of the burrows. The males are trying frantically to mate with her but only one will be successful and I see one copulating couple fly off together, still attached.

There is also a slow but steady stream of females returning to the nest area loaded with yellow pollen. They have come to deposit food in their burrow for their larvae, but finding their nest looks a bit hit and miss. Some approach the area and fly around for a short time before landing and making their way on foot. Others seem to crash land and then pull themselves together after a short rest. The males show no interest in these already-mated females.

The aggregation covers an area about ten metres by half a metre and there must be hundreds of nests. This is a large, very active, nest site and looks big enough to support a huge number of ivy bees. I can’t say whether there are other nest aggregations in the area but this one goes some way to explaining the large number of ivy bees seen at Roundham Head.

I am completely absorbed watching these creatures go about their lives; it’s like being allowed through a door into another world. But then I look up and see, no more than 20 metres below me, an ice cream kiosk with people enjoying their Devon Farmhouse ice cream. Dogs dash along the hard sand splashing in the water. A steam train struggles up the bank hauling vintage chocolate and cream coaches towards Kingswear.

Roundham Court
One of the old walls and the Victorian Villa overlooking Torbay.

 

Red brick wall plus archway
An intriguing, curved-top gateway covered with ivy.

 

Male ivy bee
A male ivy bee

 

Red soil cliff bank Paignton
Some of the “sun dancing” males by the cliff nests. Some are flying, some are investigating the holes.

 

Soil bank above Goodrington
The grassy bank by the path descending from Roundham Head to Goodrington, with the ice cream kiosk by the beach.

 

Red soil in bank
Crumbly red soil and nests in the grassy bank

 

Mating ball of ivy bees
Male ivy bees forming a mating ball, somewhere in the middle is a female.

 

Mating pair ivy bees
Ivy bee mating pair

 

Female returning to nest
Female ivy bee returning to her nest loaded with pollen

An autumn sunshine walk in South Devon – Salcombe to Gara Rock

East Portlemouth Ferry
The ferry arrives at East Portlemouth from Salcombe

 

Steep steps descend from a narrow passageway off Salcombe’s Fore Street.   At water level there is a stone jetty, the Ferry Pier, and above and to the right the Ferry Inn enjoys almost perfect views across the estuary.   A clinker-built motor boat, with the skipper standing up, is already making its way across the water to pick up the few waiting passengers.  Once we are all safely on board, he backs out and turns before heading across the estuary to East Portlemouth; it’s a calm day so this is an easy crossing.   The view from the boat always impresses me, low in the water, a cormorant’s perspective.  Looking towards the mouth of the estuary, the sea is a dark blue but, in the light breeze, ripples caught in the low sunshine cast a dancing light across the water.

The journey takes only a few minutes but it’s transformative.   Salcombe is all cafes and posh clothing shops but across the water we find peaceful long beaches with fine sand.  The tide is very low so we follow the strandline, leaving a record of our footsteps in the soft sand.  Beachside houses cast long shadows in the low sunshine but, where the sun reaches the beach, it creates pale blues and greens in the seawater, shallow over golden sand, and I imagine the Mediterranean.

Eventually, we reach Mill Bay, a football pitch-sized expanse of undulating, pale sand stretching from the sea to the coast road.  Very popular for family holidays in summer, today it is all but deserted.  On one side of the beach, the low tide has exposed a long, green, seaweed-covered slipway with prominent metal rails and stone teeth.  This was built in 1943 by the US navy to support landing craft during the Normandy landings.  It’s hard to imagine the beaches and the estuary filled with ships awaiting the assault on occupied France.

The rear of the beach is fringed with sand dunes bound together with scrubby grass.  One exposed vertical face is peppered with holes, burrows for insects, and several black and yellow striped wasps are moving about the nest area in a proprietorial manner.  Longer and sleeker than the better known common wasp, these are field digger wasps, solitary insects that dig tunnels in the sand and provision them with dead flies as food for their larvae.  A large buff-tailed bumblebee queen is scrabbling in the sand wall as if she is trying to burrow.  She looks in good condition but behaves as if something is wrong.

The path leaves the beach to head gently upwards through coastal woodland in the direction of the estuary mouth.  The autumn leaf-strewn track meanders through the woods with tantalising views of beaches below.  In today’s light, the colours of the sand and water glimpsed through the trees look more southern European than south Devon.  We emerge from woodland cover into brilliant sunshine and spectacular but slightly hazy views across the mouth of the estuary to the vast green headland of Bolt Head and the sandy beach at South Sands with its boutique hotels.  A red, yellow and blue boat passes by purposefully; it may look like a toy, but it is the Ferry that links South Sands with Salcombe town.

The path turns gradually eastwards seemingly cut into the hillside so that we walk with the land falling away to the sea below us and, on the landward side, rising steeply to rocky outcrops.  There is much bracken in evidence, already showing the effects of autumn; bright sparks of yellow gorse shoot upwards.  We pass a single spike of mullein, a few yellow toadflax and clumps of sheep’s bit with their unruly mops of blue petals.  Several stonechats entertain us, fluttering up and down, tail flicking, chatting.

The sea is calm today. From this vantage point, it is a deep blue but where it meets the rocky coastline, the surface shatters into bright fragments in the sunshine.  I scan the coastal waters for seals but get a surprise when I see what looks like a person standing on a rock just above the sea.  A closer look reveals a large cormorant, sunning itself.   Further away, sailing boats take advantage of the good weather and a fishing boat moors close enough for us to read its name through our binoculars.

Eventually, ahead of us we see a curious, white-painted, cylindrical hut, topped with a thatched roof and perched high above the path upon one of the rocky outcrops.  Far below the hut is a secluded stretch of sandy beach and in the distance lies another headland, Gammon Head.  The thatched hut is the former coastguard lookout at Gara Rock and we leave the coast path to head up to investigate.   Behind the lookout there is a new resort/hotel/apartment complex with people sitting in the sunshine enjoying a drink.  A row of coastguard cottages was built here in the 19th century and converted into a popular hotel early in the 20th century.  Laurence Olivier, John Betjeman and Margaret Rutherford are said to have stayed here, not necessarily at the same time.  The old building was knocked down in the last ten years and rebuilt as the new complex.

The old coastguard lookout has glorious views across the sea and coast and it is surrounded by huge banks of ivy.  Much of the ivy is in full flower, filling the air with its distinctive sickly-sweet smell.  Perhaps it is something to do with the light today but the flower heads on these clumps of ivy appear as almost perfect globes.  Multiple pale green lollipops extend from the centre of each flower head in perfect symmetry, like pins in a pin cushion.  Each lollipop is decorated with a frieze of pale yellow-headed stamens, creating, from a distance, a sunny halo around the green globe.  The ivy flowers attract many insects including more field digger wasps but it is the ivy bees that I am looking for and I am not disappointed.  Many of the elegant yellow and black striped-females move quickly about the flowers together with a few hopeful males.  The females are carrying large amounts of bright yellow pollen but still feeding.

We drag ourselves away from this extraordinary spot and head back down the inland valley to Mill Bay following an ancient, slightly sunken green lane with farmland either side.  This is a green tunnel with muted light, formed by overhanging trees including a long stretch of very old lime trees with dark, gnarled bark and multiple branching trunks.  When we reach Mill Bay, we take the coast road back to the jetty.  Many of the houses here are closed up; more than 40% of the houses in the Salcombe area are second homes.  The chimney of one of these homes is swarming with bees, probably honeybees.  The owner will be in for a shock when they next visit!

For a map and further information on this walk click here.

 

Mill Bay
Mill Bay

 

US Navy slipway, Mill Bay
The old US Navy slipway

 

 

Field Digger wasp
Field digger wasp (Mellinus arvensis)

 

South Sands Ferry
South Sands Ferry

 

Coast Path
The coast path and view across to Bolt Head

 

Sheep's Bit
Sheep’s Bit

 

Coastguard lookout Gara Rock
Coastguard lookout at Gara Rock

 

Inspecting the ivy
Inspecting the ivy at Gara Rock

 

Ivy with ivy bee
Female ivy bee (Colletes hederae) with ivy

 

View from Gara Rock lookout
View from the lookout

 

 

Ancient limes
Ancient Lime Trees

 

Bees in the chimney
Bees in the chimney

Golden Cap – a special place in west Dorset

Golden Cap 5
The west Dorset coast with Charmouth to the left. Golden Cap stands out just right of centre.

 

The west Dorset coast contains many wonders but one stands out above all others.  This is Golden Cap, the distinctive steep-sided, flat-topped hill with its golden edge and cliffs falling precipitously to the sea.  Visible for miles around and rising above all its neighbours, it stands 191 metres above sea level and is the highest point on the south coast of England.  It is a local landmark, a place of legend, and an inspiration to writers and artists. 

Golden Cap path
The path from Stonebarrrow leading eventually to Golden Cap. Portland can be seen in the distance.

 

I first climbed Golden Cap nearly thirty years ago.  It was a mild, early spring weekend and I was entranced by the experience.  It’s now one of those places I like to visit periodically so, on a warm mid-July day earlier this year, I set out from the Stonebarrow Hill car park above Charmouth.   The grassy track descended steeply between brambles and bracken towards Westhay Farm with its mellow stone buildings decorated with roses, honeysuckle and solar panels.  I paused in a gateway near the farmhouse to look at one of the hay meadows.  Bees and butterflies enjoyed the thick covering of grasses and colourful flowers while the sun gradually won its battle with the clouds.   Flower-rich hay meadows were once an important feature of the countryside but they have mostly been lost since 1930 as a result of agricultural intensification.  Managed in the traditional way with a late July cut for hay, they support a rich community of invertebrates, birds and flowers. The meadows at Westhay Farm are no exception and rare plants such as the green-winged orchid thrive here.   My gateway reverie was interrupted when a fox suddenly appeared in one of the breaks in the meadow.  We stood looking at one another, a moment out of time, before the fox lolloped off through the long vegetation.

Westhay Farm Golden Cap Estate
Westhay Farm

 

Hay meadow Golden Cap
A flower-rich hay meadow.

 

Beyond the farmhouse, the path descended across open grassland dotted with sunny stands of ragwort and tall, purple thistles populated with bumblebees.  The sea, a pale steely blue, was now ahead of me, dominating the view.  Today it was calm but the slight swell was a warning of its power.  Golden Cap loomed to the east like a steep pleat in the coastline and, when the sun shone, the cliff face revealed some of its geological secrets.  About half way up, a large area of rough grey rock was visible. This was laid down some 200 million years ago and is mainly unstable grey clays of the Middle and Lower Lias prone to rock falls and mud slides.  Towards the summit, tracts of distinctive “golden” rock glowed in the sunshine.  The rock here is Upper Greensand, sandstone laid down about 100 million years ago, forming the “cap”.

Golden Cap 2
Looking towards Golden Cap; the golden sandstone cap and the grey rock below can be seen despite the vegetation.

 

Golden Cap from the east
Golden Cap viewed from the east at Seatown on another day. The golden sandstone cap and the grey rocks beneath can be seen very clearly from this aspect.

 

Fingerpost
A helpful fingerpost

 

solitary bee
A solitary bee on ragwort, possibly Andrena flavipes.

 

beetles
Common red soldier beetles, qualifying for their popular name of “hogweed bonking beetles”.

 

The coast path continued eastwards in a roller coaster fashion.  Prominent fingerposts pointed the way and I passed vast inaccessible coastal landslips and descended into deep valleys with rapidly flowing water, only to climb again on the other side.  In meadows alongside the path, bees, moths, beetles and butterflies flitted among the many flowers including purple selfheal and knapweed, yellow catsear and meadow vetchling.    The final push towards the summit of Golden Cap began very steeply across open grassland before entering a stepped, zigzag track which was easier to negotiate.  As the path rose there was a change in the landscape.  Bright purple bell heather began to show and bracken surrounded the stepped path; a kestrel hovered briefly above.

antrim stone
The Antrim stone

 

Suddenly the path levelled out; I had reached the summit and here were the familiar landmarks:  a low stone marker informing me how far I had walked and the larger stone memorial to the Earl of Antrim.  The dedication told me that the Earl was the Chairman of the National Trust between 1966 and 1977. What it didn’t tell me was that he recognised the importance of preserving our coastline from encroaching development and spearheaded the Enterprise Neptune appeal which led to the purchase of 574 miles of coast saving it for future generations.  Golden Cap was one of two coastal sites purchased in his memory after he died.

Golden Cap view east
The view to the east over Thorncombe Beacon with Portland in the distance.

 

Golden Cap view west
The view to the west towards Lyme Regis and the Devon coastline.

 

I reminded myself of the long views from this high, flat-topped hill:  to the east across Seatown, Thorncombe Beacon, West Bay and Portland, to the west over Lyme Regis and the wide sweep of Devon coastline, to the north across the Marshwood Vale.   Looking down, I saw water skiers carving patterns in the sea surface far below.  The sea now seemed so far away that I felt momentarily separated from the rest of the world.

On my return journey, I headed down and slightly inland to the remains of the 13th century chapel at Stanton St. Gabriel.  Set in meadowland beneath the western slope of Golden Cap, the derelict, grey stone walls and the porch of the old chapel are all that remain.   There is also a cottage nearby and a large building, originally an 18th century manor house, now restored by the National Trust as four holiday apartments.   But why was a chapel built in this isolated spot and why is it now derelict?  A settlement existed here for many hundreds of years and Stanton St. Gabriel was mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086).  There was a farming community of about 20 families in the vicinity until the 18th century and this was their chapel but the settlement was abandoned when some people were lured to Bridport to work in the flax and hemp industry.  Others may have moved to Morcombelake when the coach road from Charmouth to Bridport along the flank of Stonebarrow Hill was moved away from the settlement to its present route.

stanton st gabriel
The derelict chapel at Stanton St Gabriel.

 

The derelict chapel provides a potent reminder of the community that once lived in this isolated but beautiful spot beneath one of west Dorset’s most striking landmarks, Golden Cap.

This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The colours of a Dartmoor Sunset

Last week, on a clear, warmish evening, we went up to Haytor on the south eastern corner of Dartmoor to watch the sunset.  Haytor consists of two huge outcrops of granite, one larger, one smaller, set on a hill some 450 metres above sea level. The two huge outcrops of granite are a local landmark visible for miles around, and the position of the Tor affords panoramic views across the surrounding countryside.

Haytor contrails
Approaching the larger of the Haytor rocks from the east; contrails in the sky

 

A wide, grassy track led steeply up to Haytor from the car park. The sun was setting directly behind the great granite outcrop that evening so the path and the surrounding countryside were in shadow, bathed in an eerie twilight.  Stands of yellow gorse and vivid purple bell heather lined the path and a few crows pottered about on the track ahead of us.  The rock itself was a flat grey in this light but, behind it, the sky was a luminous pale blue engraved with contrails left by passing aircraft, brilliant white shooting stars.  Turning to look back, there were long but slightly hazy views across rolling countryside to Newton Abbot and on to the sea more than 10 miles away at Teignmouth.  Much of this land was still illuminated by the sun and we could see woodland, small towns and the white scars of clay mine workings.  Increasingly, however, a portion of the land lay in shadow as the sun set.

Eastern view
The view to the east from Haytor towards the sea

 

Heather and gorse
Heather and gorse

 

Under the eastern flank of the larger rock, shadow dominated and the air was cool but upon reaching the western side it was as though we had entered a different, more optimistic world – a world of orange light, brightness and warmth.  The sun was still some distance above the horizon but its low rays created a curious moonscape on the nearby moorland.  Every tussock of grass and every craggy stone were illuminated along with the occasional sheep; every object cast a long shadow.  The rich light lent a warm glow to the grey Haytor stone probing every crack, crevice and fissure.  Two German children and later, several local lads in reverse baseball caps clambered in to an alcove in the rock to enjoy the view.  One or two small birds tracked across the landscape together with a lone bee returning to its burrow. In the distance the western hills acquired an apricot halo.

Dartmoor moonscape
Dartmoor “moonscape”

 

Moonscape on Haytor
The smaller of the Haytor rocks with the “moonscape” created by the setting sun

 

As the earth turned, the sun continued to approach the horizon but for some time, corresponding changes in the landscape were slow.  Looking back to the east, increasing amounts of land were enclosed in shadow, and, around the Tor, shadows lengthened.  The colour of the rock changed slowly from a warm pale brown at 20.00 to a deep reddish brown over the next twenty minutes.

Haytor rock 2002
The larger Haytor rock at 20.02

 

Then events seemed to accelerate and I detected a change in the light level as if someone were turning down a dimmer switch.  I suppose the sun had begun to dip below the horizon but it was difficult to be sure as it was still too bright to look.  Shadows became longer still and the rock took on a pinker almost red hue, not unlike the colour of the stone used in some of south Devon’s older buildings.  For a few minutes, the sun painted the landscape surrounding the rock in the surreal colours of pink and a luminous green.

Haytor rock 2024
The larger Haytor rock at 20.24

 

Haytor rock 2027
The larger Haytor rock at 20.27

 

The colour of the rock continued to change and by 20.25, with the sun about half way below the horizon, (based on a photograph), the colour lost its warmth as if it were being drained away.  By 20.26, grey started to insinuate and a minute later the sun had disappeared.  The rock was now a uniform grey and the sun had set.

Sunset Haytor 2027
The western view at 20.27

 

All that was left on the western horizon was an orange glow above the hills, a memory of the sun, with increasing apricot fringes either side.  Overflying aircraft and their contrails were now tinged with pink and, above all this colour, the sky was a very washed out, pale blue.

Eastern view 2

 

We walked back to the car in the half light, the air cooler now.  Ahead of us and in the distance, the eastern hills were bathed in a hazy dark blue light that extended above the land for a short distance.  Above this blue layer was a distinctive red layer that shaded to orange and yellow before merging with the clear blue sky above.

A white moon, almost full but not quite, now hung in the sky like a ghostly eye.

…………………………..

I’ve seen many impressive sunsets but I don’t recall ever being able to follow the changes so clearly.   What we witnessed that evening was a spectacular natural phenomenon, a celestial light show.

But can we understand how all these colours arise?  The explanation comes from considering the position of the sun at different times of the day and the effect of the earth’s atmosphere on the sun’s light.

Although the light coming from the sun is white, we know from looking at rainbows that it is in fact composed of light of different colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).  These colours of light have different physical properties that mean that they respond differentially when they meet particles in the atmosphere.

For much of the day, the sun is roughly overhead and as its light travels through the earth’s atmosphere it encounters molecules in the air (nitrogen and oxygen mainly) and some of the light is scattered during this encounter.  The blue light, and the violet, are scattered more than the other colours and our eyes preferentially detect this scattered blue light; this gives the sky its colour.  Because a small part of the blue light is lost through this scattering, sunlight appears slightly yellow rather than pure white.

When the sun is very low in the sky, towards the end of the day (sunset) and also near the beginning (sunrise), sunlight has to travel much further through the atmosphere.  Blue light is scattered as before but, because there is so much more atmosphere to traverse, the blue light is eventually lost, so that red and orange colours dominate at sunset and sunrise.

 

But what about the colours in the eastern sky?  The layer I described as “hazy dark blue light” was actually the earth’s shadow, where our planet casts a shadow on the atmosphere as the sun sinks below the horizon.  As the sun falls further, this shadow layer increases, only to disappear eventually in to the deepening blue of the night sky. The red layer goes by the wonderful name of the Belt of Venus and arises from residual sunlight encountering dust particles in the atmosphere.  These particles scatter the light (red by now) backwards.

 

Thanks go to Hazel who had the idea for sunset watching.