Totnes is an ancient town with many old stone walls lining passageways, roads and the edges of gardens. In spring and summer, the wintery-dark stone of these walls erupts with clumps of green leaves followed by dense, rounded clusters of tiny flowers, usually a bright pink, so that the clusters resemble scoops of strawberry ice cream. This plant is red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and is thought to have been introduced from the Mediterranean in the late 16th century. It is now naturalised in the UK and common in England and Wales, especially in the south west where it insinuates its roots into the mortar in the old walls wherever it can get a toehold. Its colourful flowers lend a hint of the Mediterranean to some west country towns.
Despite this summer’s very dry weather, some valerian flower heads still remain attracting insects looking for late season nectar. Large furry bumblebees scramble about the colourful flowers and white butterflies perch on flower heads but the plant is a particular favourite of a spectacular day flying moth with a wingspan of about 5cm, the hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). Most years I see one of these moths but this summer I have had many more sightings especially in the last week of August and first week of September. A long spell of warm southerly winds may have brought the moths northwards from their Mediterranean strongholds.
A clump of red valerian hanging from an old stone wall in our street has been very popular with the moths. On several recent days, a hummingbird hawk moth has appeared by a flower head, as if from nowhere, and hovered, its long proboscis deftly inserted into one tiny flower collecting nectar from the base of the corolla. The moth seems to hang in the air, its greyish body with black and white chequered rear showing well. Its brown and orange wings beat so rapidly that they appear as a blur and create an audible hum. When it has finished with one flower cluster, it jinks to another.
There is something magical about these elegant creatures and I feel privileged to be able to see them. My feelings, though, are tinged with sadness as their arrival in greater numbers is a reflection of our rapidly changing climate.
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.
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.
A week ago, I went down to the south Devon coast below the village of East Prawle to find the rare long-horned bees that live there. Their main nest site is located in the low cliffs near Horseley Cove and I scrambled down the steep path to the foot of the cliffs to have a look. It was a beautiful sunny day and the area was bathed in sunshine while the sea, a deep blue in that day’s light, fussed on the jumble of large boulders that lie just off shore. The sea was calm when I visited but in the winter these boulders will defend the cliffs from the worst of the storms creating a protected microenvironment.
Tracts of reddish soft rock peppered with pencil-sized holes were evident across the cliffs and several bees, roughly honeybee-sized, were patrolling the area showing a particular interest in these cavities. They swung in and moved quickly just above the surface sashaying back and forth and from side to side like hyped-up ballroom dancers. They looked very fresh and were rather lively and It was difficult to discern details but when I focussed my attention on a single insect I could see a pale yellow face, a bright russet thorax and two extra-long antennae, for these were the male long-horned bees (Eucera longicornis) I had come to see. One landed briefly and I marvelled at his magnificent antennae, each as long as the rest of his body.
Numbers varied but there were always a few about and sometimes up to six at one time, weaving around one another, creating a loud buzz. My presence didn’t seem to bother them, some flew around me and another collided with me but they carried on regardless. They are driven by procreative urges and having emerged from their nest holes in the soft rock within the last week or so, they were now waiting to catch a virgin female as she appeared. Mating had, though, already begun. On two or three occasions, a bee flew directly into a hole and didn’t reappear. Photos confirmed that these slightly chunkier bees with golden pollen brushes on their back legs were female Eucera longicornis, already mated and preparing their nests.
Eucera longicornis is rare and much declined and one of many special insect species found along this stretch of coast, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The cliff top meadow above the nests was a mosaic of wildflowers and earlier I had found a few male Eucera feeding on bird’s foot trefoil. The coast path either side of the meadow had, however, been treated with herbicide and strimmed, virtually eliminating wildflowers, seriously degrading this important site.
Here is a short piece I wrote after a visit to the Lamb Garden in Totnes on March 9th together with a poem by Thomas Hardy.
It’s that time of year when I spend more time than I should peering at patches of lungwort. The wild variety (Pulmonaria officinalis) has been flowering for several weeks here in Devon and now has a mixture of pinkish-red and purplish-blue trumpet-shaped flowers above fleshy, white-spotted green leaves. The weather has kept most insects away but this morning, there is a hint of warmth in the air and finally, I see what I have been anticipating.
It’s one of the first bees to emerge each year, and I get that first time thrill again. I don’t see it arrive but suddenly it’s there hovering by the lungwort, hanging in the air as if working out which flower to sample. As it hovers, I notice the mostly buff-haired abdomen and thorax, also the pale yellow mask-like face and is that the tongue hanging in readiness? This chunky insect might be mistaken for a bumblebee but is a very fresh male hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes), usually the first solitary bee species to appear in Totnes each spring.
Having chosen a flower, he settles down to feed, pushing his head in deeply to access nectar. His legs are splayed out gripping either side of the corolla, displaying the silky hairs that decorate them, celebrated in his common name. He doesn’t stay long, darting to another flower with a brief hover in between, buzzing loudly.
Lungwort flowers start out red and acquire the blue colour as they age. Red flowers contain more nectar than blue and the Anthophora feed preferentially from these red, higher forage flowers. This colour code means they don’t waste time visiting low-nectar blooms and may visit several plants looking for high nectar flowers, increasing the chance of cross pollination.
The male then notices me and hovers, buzzing loudly and aggressively in my direction before departing in a huff. Other males appear and occasionally two find themselves together on the flowers. This also doesn’t go down well and they depart, carving circles in the air around one another.
I wanted to include a poem to go with these spring observations so here is Thomas Hardy meditating on the topic in “The Year’s Awakening” .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As the train drew in to Dawlish Warren station, I realised that I hadn’t made this journey by rail for nearly two years because of the pandemic. Seeing the familiar landmarks at the station and, in particular, the river Exe, a pale blue ribbon of water stretching ahead parallel to the railway, was like visiting the house of an old friend. I had decided to travel by train to try to inject some sense of normality into my life. Being “double-jabbed”, I felt the risk was low.
The journey had gone well, the vast majority of passengers wore masks and were being careful and respectful of others. The railway line between Newton Abbot and Exeter runs close to water all the way, providing one of the great railway journeys in the UK and I was enthralled, as always, by the close-up views of the Teign estuary and of the sea between Teignmouth and Dawlish Warren. It was by no means a “normal” experience, though, as everywhere there were signs urging people to take care.
Leaving the station, I walked through the commercial area which had a distinct holiday atmosphere. Racks of colourful plastic buckets and spades vied for attention with row upon row of beach shoes and there were quite a few people about. Some were enjoying the funfair, some the busy cafes and pub while others were simply promenading.
When I reached the seafront, I sat on one of the benches for a short time to take in the view. Thin cloud hung overhead but milky sunshine kept the temperature pleasant. Visibility was good and there were clear views across the water to the red cliffs of East Devon. The tide was low and the sea a silvery-blue mirror tempting children and parents into the water for a swim or splash about.
A fenced boardwalk took me down into the nature reserve passing between sandy areas covered in rough grass where the papery, lemon-yellow flowers of evening primrose showed well. Some small birds were moving about here perching above the scrubby bushes. I was unable to see them clearly enough to identify by eye but their distinctive rattling call told me they were cirl buntings, rare birds that frequent this part of south Devon.
The middle part of the reserve is a large area of damp grassland and ponds surrounded by sand dunes. A dense population of scrambling plants grew across the damp areas with colourful flowers decorating the thick green matrix (see picture at the top of this post). Meadowsweet with its frothy, creamy blooms was perhaps the dominant flower but there were also many spikes of yellow bartsia, a root hemiparasite that takes nutrients from grasses and suppresses their growth. Purple tufted vetch scrambled through the lush canopy and the tall stems of purple loosestrife were just coming into flower. The southern marsh orchids that had illuminated the area a month ago were now mostly over although a few flowers remained.
Further on I began to see one of Dawlish Warren’s summer specialities, marsh helleborine. Clusters and then large drifts of this beautiful but unusual orchid were coming up through the short, damp grassland lending it a pinkish veneer. I made the error of kneeling down to look more carefully at the flowers only to realise just how damp the area was. The flowers are complex with three pink sepals and two upper petals, white with pink striations, covering the yellow reproductive apparatus. The large lower lip is even more complex with its upper section decorated with pink striations and its lower, mostly white frilly-edged section. This lip also has a strange appendage, rather like a pocket with egg yolk splodges.
The land then rose steadily towards the dune ridge in a network of soft sandy paths separating patches of rough vegetation. The sounds of the sea were always present and as I walked about, it seemed that wherever there was loose sand, a few small stripy bees were resting near the path edge. Photographs showed that these had striking green eyes. Some had yellowish brown hair around the thorax and looked very fresh whereas in others this had turned silvery an indication of their age. The green eyes and the preference for a sandy environment are characteristic of male silvery leafcutter bees (Megachile leachella). This species is found in large numbers at Dawlish Warren.
The pink and white pea-type flowers of restharrow grew alongside one rising sandy path and a stream of black and white stripy bees, (slightly larger and pointier than the male leafcutters) were arriving to forage. They landed on the white lower part of the flower and then rocked backwards and forwards as they accessed the nectar. These are female silvery leafcutter bees collecting nectar for their nests. There were also males about but they showed no interest in the females, mating having, I presume, happened already.
Not far away was a different habitat again where the soft paths ran between small vertical areas of sand held together by rough grass and with poorly defined but visible cavities. Male leafcutters were loitering about here but then I saw a female arrive carrying a segment of green leaf under her abdomen. She landed in front of one of the holes and gradually eased forward eventually disappearing with her leaf segment. The piece of leaf will be used to construct her nest in the cavity in the sand.
But where was she cutting her leaf segments? I wandered about the area near her nest looking at the vegetation and eventually came across a tree where the leaves had many small semi-circular holes. Some of the leaves had been so well cut that there was little leaf left. This may be the source of the leaf segments but without seeing one of the bees cutting I can’t be sure as there is another species of leafcutter resident at Dawlish Warren. No bees turned up to answer my question and by now the weather had changed becoming cooler and windy and it felt as though the bees had decided to take the afternoon off.
Last year, I did find silvery leafcutter bee females cutting leaf segments at Dawlish Warren but from a different tree and here is a short video:
With the change in the weather, I decided to go home and made my way to the railway station. It had been a good visit and I was pleased to have taken my first train journey after such a long time. Ironically, that evening, the Prime Minister announced that from July 19th all COVID restrictions on behaviour would be abandoned. This has not been met with universal acclaim and I would urge you to read this deeply felt critique. For myself, I am not sure I would feel comfortable to travel by train again unless the railway companies make mask wearing compulsory.
In this seventh Lockdown Nature Walk, I want to take you along more of the ancient lanes that crisscross the countryside around Totnes rather like the lines on the palm of my hand. The walk I describe was done in the last week of May on a sunny, warm day when there was a distinct feeling that the seasons were changing.
I begin at the foot of Harper’s Hill on the western side of town where an ancient trackway strikes steeply upwards in a south-westerly direction into trees and away from the busy Kingsbridge Road. This is hard walking especially on the uneven surface and quite soon the lane becomes deeply sunken, bordered on both sides by steep banks, up to four metres in height. Ferns and pennywort grow along these banks and a jungle-like tree canopy cuts out most of the light so that even on a sunny day the lane has a gloomy, slightly sinister feeling. Today, small insects are caught, dancing like dust motes in the few shafts of light that make it through the canopy. Earlier this year, fleshy green ramsons carpeted the pathside banks but their leaves are now yellowish and a vague garlicky odour hangs in the air as they decay.
It’s difficult to believe that for hundreds of years, until the inception of the turnpikes, Harper’s Hill was the main route out of Totnes towards Plymouth and the west. As I trudge up the steep hill, I imagine the countless others who walked this way with heavy loads, or animals or rickety carts. It’s as though I am “slipping back out of this modern world” (after W H Hudson).
Eventually, though. the lane levels out. A gateway on the right offers a brief window through the curtain of vegetation and I see the land falling away steeply into a deep valley and Dartmoor lurking in the distance. I continue along the track as it becomes more open between tall trees and a few caravans used for housing to reach Tristford Cross.
In the past, those who had laboured up Harper’s Hill bound for Plymouth and the west would have turned right at Tristford Cross on to the old ridgeway road along the brow of Broomborough Down. But I go straight ahead at this crossroads along a paved lane avoiding the occasional car to reach Cholwell Cross where another track, Jackman’s Lane, crosses at right angles. Signs announce that this is an unmetalled road and it is indeed a deeply rutted, reddish soil track used by farm vehicles and muddy after rain but today bone dry and hard as concrete.
I turn right along one section of Jackman’s Lane. Superficially, this appears to be just another country track but from the first time I came here, I realised that this was a place with its own particular character and charm. Unlike so many local lanes, it is flat, light and airy and surrounded by rolling countryside stretching into the distance. Although it is bordered by Devon Hedges, these seem to have been maintained, restricting their height and allowing light to reach both sides of the track especially when the sun shines as it does today. Many flowers grow along the lane, bees, butterflies and hoverflies dart about and there is a general buzz in the air.
Here are a few of the insect species I saw:
As I enter the lane, I notice thick rope-like skeins of a scrambling plant in the right-hand hedge with dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves that look as though they have been coated with shiny paint. This is black bryony and its pale yellow insignificant flowers are now showing. Insignificant they may be but they will give rise to trailing strings of plump, shiny red berries in the autumn. Several tree species are present in the hedges including elder, hazel, holly, rowan and sycamore, suggesting that this is a very old hedge. In several places, foxgloves grow from the top of the bank in large groups (see picture at the head of this post) creating a vivid pink display against the clear blue sky, reminiscent of the colourful banners displayed at music festivals. Large buzzy bumblebees systematically work the individual foxglove flowers.
Banks of lacy white cow parsley line the lane in places but the insects seem to ignore this umbellifer. The same is not true for hogweed and one or two tall stands of this robust plant with its white pompom flowers are proving irresistible for hoverflies and solitary bees. Then I come to the toilet! Someone has dumped an old toilet in the right-hand hedge and scrawled “R Mutt” on it in black letters. This may be fly-tipping but I also think it is an “hommage” to Marcel Duchamp, and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the value of this piece of conceptual art.
A gateway into a field appears on the left so I stop to take in the view. I work out that I am looking roughly south west and an image unspools ahead of me of fields and hedges, a few cows, repeating into the distance, disappearing into a blue haze. For a short time, I am transfixed by this view, it’s so unusual for this part of Devon to encounter a landscape free from hills and valleys. It feels as though the sea should lie somewhere in the distant blue haze but that’s beyond what I can see.
In the middle section of the lane, I find flowers that speak more of summer than of spring so despite the limbo imposed on human lives by the lockdown, seasonal change carries on regardless. Foxgloves are part of this seasonal shift but I also see large amounts of a yellowish plant that grows almost horizontally from the side of the hedges. It has greenish-yellow, hairy leaves arranged symmetrically in whorls of four with clusters of small fragrant yellow flowers at the bases of the leaves. I initially thought this was lady’s bedstraw but it is in fact crosswort, a relative. Vetches are also showing. Bush vetch with its untidy mauve flowers has been about for a while but I also find the yellow, pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling. Both vetches attract bees but another favourite of these insects is hedge woundwort. This plant has just come into flower in the lane displaying its burgundy red flowers decorated with fine white hieroglyphics.
Further on, nettles begin to dominate the hedges and a few tall trees appear before the lane reaches the old ridgeway road. The section of Jackman’s Lane that I have described is quite short, barely half a mile in length, but it has a very particular character. It is also very rich in wildlife and unexpectedly, it contains an interesting piece of conceptual art.
There are various ways to complete a circular walk from here but perhaps the most interesting is to turn left until a stony track leaves the ridgeway road to bear right, downhill. This is another section of Jackman’s Lane which eventually reaches the Plymouth Road at Follaton for an easy return to the town.
To see my previous Lockdown Nature Walks please look here
With the easing of the Lockdown rules in the UK, we have been venturing further afield for our exercise walks. So, a few days ago we drove up to Two Bridges, high on Dartmoor, for a circular walk around the valley of the west Dart river via Wistman’s Wood, a rare example of ancient high-altitude oak wood. Our walk was graced by the sounds of many cuckoos.
We began by heading northwards away from the Two Bridges car park on an uneven track running roughly parallel to the west Dart river. With clear skies, strong sun and barely any breeze, it was much hotter than we expected for Dartmoor and sultry is probably the best word to describe the weather. Soon after we set off, however, as we walked up the dry stony path to Crockern Tor Farm, we heard the unmistakable call “cuckoo cuckoo”. A few sheep and one or two walkers were our only company and the song of the cuckoo instantly grabbed our attention as it echoed round the valley. Further on, a jumble of rocks, Crockern Tor, loomed on our right and then another cuckoo called. Eventually, we reached the top of a ridge and Wistman’s Wood came into view ahead, a green-leaved mass standing out above the summer-dry landscape on the eastern flank of the valley while the west Dart river lay in the valley bottom below. The dry grass around us was punctuated by neat yellow tormentil flowers and unruly clumps of heath bedstraw covered with tiny white flowers and, as we walked, small orange butterflies (Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus) flickered upwards, dancing around briefly before heading off. Another cuckoo called and I began to understand how the simple but beautiful music of their song had inspired so many composers.
We made our way along the edge of Wistman’s Wood looking in on the seductive jumble of moss- and lichen-covered twisted branches and smooth rocks. By now we had been walking for about an hour and were finding the temperature difficult so we decided to take a lunch break seated on smooth lumps of granite beneath one of the old oaks. A little cloud had helpfully bubbled up keeping the sun at bay. The river valley lay below us and the dense oaks of Wistman’s Wood and a few smaller clumps of trees stood out on the hillside. Sheep bleated fitfully and small birds flitted about. Then the cuckoos started to sing as if to provide us with lunchtime entertainment. Several birds called from different directions, some nearer, some further away and at least two cuckoos moved between the trees in the valley. We recognised them in flight from their pointed wings and long tail. Most of the song was “cuckoo cuckoo”, the call of the male bird and sometimes this was extended to “cuckcuckoo”, not far off the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth. We also heard the burbling, gurgling sound which the female cuckoo makes when she is excited.
Here is a short video of a male cuckoo calling:
The cuckoos had put on a real show for us that day but whenever I hear their call, whether it be one cuckoo or several, the sound has a profound effect on me. In my teens, living in small town Hampshire, near woodland, cuckoo calls were a standard fixture of spring, something I came to expect each year. With the decline of the bird, and having lived in large towns for many years I lost that expectation. Now when we come to Dartmoor and I hear cuckoos again, their song touches some deeply held memory for me.
After lunch, we headed down across open moorland to cross the west Dart river. Cotton grass with its fluffy, white cotton wool heads grew here, showing that the land is normally very boggy. I also saw a few delicate blue and white heath milkwort flowers, far fewer today than in previous years, perhaps a reflection of the dry weather. We crossed the river and scrambled up to the Devonport Leat, a narrow watercourse constructed in the 18th century to supply water from the Dart river to the growing community of Plymouth Dock 27 miles away. Nowadays it empties into the Burrator Reservoir which provides water for Plymouth itself. We followed the leatside path along the western side of the valley across the river from Wistman’s Wood to return to Two Bridges [The picture at the head of this post and the note at the end explain the location of the leatside path]. This should, by definition, be mostly easy walking but degradation of the path stones makes it less so. Marsh violet with its pale mauve flowers, pink lousewort and good amounts of bilberry flourish in the damp environment by the leat and a few small fish dart back and forth.
About half way along the leatside path, two male cuckoos began to sing from the trees across the river in Wistman’s Wood. At first, their calls came at different times from different locations. One bird sang “cuckoo” and a short time later the other bird did likewise as if providing an answer. This call and answer pattern was then repeated. But the two birds were actually “cuckooing” at different frequencies so that gradually their calls moved together, then began to overlap and for a short time they sang at the same time before one bird stopped. For a brief moment, as we listened, time stood still.
The song of the two cuckoos initially made me think of a musical round where different groups of people sing the same melody but start at different times. “Sumer is icumen in”, also known as the Cuckoo Song, is a good example of a round. A better analogy for the calls of the two cuckoos, however, comes from the phase music of Steve Reich. In his composition, Piano Phase, two pianos play the same tune but at slightly different tempi, giving rise to novel musical effects, rather like the two singing cuckoos.
When we decided to walk on Dartmoor that day, I had expected to hear one or two cuckoos but nothing like the extraordinary cuckoo chorus that graced our walk.
We walked on Dartmoor on May 27th 2020, our route is described here
The picture at the top of this post looks south down the valley of the west Dart. Wistman’s Wood can be seen on the left and the line on the western hillside is the Devonport Leat.
We’ve now been in Lockdown for eight weeks, although recently there has been a slight and rather confusing easing of the regulations. I have been continuing my exercise walks and sometimes I venture into the nearby countryside but more often I keep to the town centre gardens and car parks looking at the flowers and the wildlife. I thought I knew the town centre area well but, even here, so close to home, I’ve made some new and surprising discoveries. So, here is my fifth Lockdown Nature Walk.
One place I walk through regularly is the Nursery Car Park, notable for the wide grassy banks and tall, ivy-clad, stone walls that surround several sides of the parking area providing unplanned but welcome space for wildlife. There are many flowers early in the year and with the lockdown there are very few cars and even fewer people so it’s a surprisingly peaceful place. In my earlier Lockdown Nature Walks I saw bumblebees, butterflies and hairy-footed flower bees enjoying the flowers here.
One morning in late April, I was walking through the Nursery Car Park and noticed a white butterfly making its way above one of the grassy banks. I don’t normally pay much attention to the white butterflies. I think it must be engrained prejudice from childhood when “cabbage whites” used to spoil some of my father’s attempts at growing vegetables. Something, however, made me look again and this time I saw flashes of orange as the butterfly danced briskly along. It turned to follow another car park margin and paused, settling on one of the plants growing in the soil border below. With its wings spread wide, I could see its blue-grey velvety body, prominent antennae and the vivid orange patches that occupy the outer halves of each forewing showing that this was an orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines), a male as the females lack the orange colour. I approached carefully to get a better look but the insect flew off across the wall in the direction of the Leechwell Garden and was gone. An orange-tip butterfly seemed rather exotic for this semi-urban space and I couldn’t remember having seen one here before.
When the butterfly paused, I felt as though it was urging me to take a better look at this soil border. This was a part of the car park I had ignored until now, probably because before lockdown, parked cars made the border virtually inaccessible. When I had a closer look, I was surprised to find that a range of native wild flowers had colonised the border and were growing prolifically, creating a mosaic of pinks, blues, whites and yellows: three species of cranesbill, pink purslane, red campion, green alkanet, cow parsley, garlic mustard, hedge mustard and buttercups. It had become a rather beautiful place, that is if you like unruly wild flowers!
I came back to the same car park border over the next few days and usually saw one or two orange-tips but other insects were also attracted to the profusion of flowers. Here are some of the species I saw:
But there is more to say about the orange-tip butterflies as on one of my visits, I noticed a male repeatedly flying upwards and then dropping down on to some garlic mustard flowers. When I looked more closely, I saw another butterfly on the cluster of small green and white flowers and realised that this was a female orange-tip butterfly. The male’s behaviour probably had something to do with mating but the female was showing no interest. The male eventually gave up and flew off but the female moved to another flower and basked in the morning sun allowing me to look. Unlike the male with his brash colouration, she is understated but just as beautiful with a grey patch and spot on each forewing in place of the male’s orange patches. As she flexed her wings, I was also able to see the pattern on her underwings. This is a complex design of green and yellow veining and mottling reminiscent of the marbled end papers of an antique book or a tie-dyed fabric from the hippie era. The male has the same underwing pattern providing both male and female orange-tips with excellent camouflage when they rest with their wings closed on a leaf or on flowers such as garlic mustard or cow parsley.
Garlic mustard is one of the principal larval foods of the orange-tip butterfly, along with cuckooflower, so I wondered if the female had been laying eggs before the male had disturbed her. There are two moderate clumps of garlic mustard growing along this border so I looked at the plants and found the tiny orange eggs on both clumps. They look like ridged rugby balls about a millimetre long and the female attaches each egg, usually one per plant, to a stem just below the flower head. They start off a pale greenish-white and as they mature, they turn bright orange. One or two weeks later, the larva emerges from the egg, eats the egg casing and starts its journey through different instar stages, gradually consuming the plant, preferring the seed pods, as the larva develops. After some searching, I was able to find one larva, a well camouflaged, yellowish caterpillar (about 5mm long) on one clump of garlic mustard about two weeks after I first saw the eggs. The larva will eventually form a pupa (chrysalis), from which the adult butterfly will emerge next spring.
I need to keep reminding myself that all this is happening on a scruffy border along one edge of a town centre car park and that my observations are underpinned by a series of coincidences. First, the insects I have described would not have come to the border had the flowers not grown here. In particular, the orange-tip butterflies would not have fed here and deposited eggs had there not been the two clumps of garlic mustard. Then there is the lockdown which emptied the car park of cars making more space for wildlife and gave me the time to wander about looking at the soil border. I believe there are lessons to be learnt from all of this if we choose to learn them: growing flowers, especially wildflowers, is good for insects and will support them and bring them into your garden; also it can be very rewarding, and good for our well-being, if we take time to look at the wildlife around us.
My previous Lockdown Nature Walks can be accessed here