All posts by Chris Gibson

Beth Chatto’s Garden: the rebirth of Spring

Today should have been the ‘Local Friends’ day at Beth Chatto’s, prior to reopening tomorrow. Covid19 (and,  it transpires, the snow from Storm Darcy) had other ideas, but hopefully reopening will be not too far down the line…

But quite by chance, my timeline reminded me this morning that I had been there taking photos on this very date 16 years ago. So here’s a few of the highlights of what to expect when we can once again make Beth Chatto’s garden one of our regular haunts.

It’s all too easy to have your head and heart swayed by the signs of the Spring to come. But do take time to lose yourself in ‘yesterday’s news’, the still decorative remnants of last year’s growth, like the memories in a faded photograph…and a much-needed reminder that in gardens, overtidiness is anathema.

With many trees devoid of leaves, late winter sun penetrates the garden gloom, and casts shadows and creates highlights more arrestingly than at any other time of year.

And then the promise of what’s to come. New shoots…

… new blooms: now it will be Snowdrops, Snowflakes and Aconites that grab the headlines, but gradually Hellebores and Daffodils start to broaden the palette…

… new scents: from the more subtle Laurustinus, Daphne and Witch-hazel, to the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks olfactory grasp of Sweet Box (Sarcococca hookeriana, pinker flowers with undiluted sugar-sweetness, while Sarcococca confusa has a slight counterpoint of citrus) …

… and new lives: hibernating insects roused by the sun, from natural insecticides such ladybirds and wasps, to plant bugs, including the Bishop’s Mitre.

At any time of year, the garden is a place of calm and beauty, a place to reflect and reconnect with the natural world. And after the past year, that is a nature cure we all could do with, more needed this Spring than in any other.

Book Review – Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic

Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic

by Joe Gray (Dixi Books 2021)     

Not being particular fans of ‘nature writing’ in general, we were slightly dubious about the prospect of reading this book.  However, neither of us need have worried!  From the outset we were both hooked. Joe’s profound knowledge and deep thinking is imparted in a readable and gently humorous style, whilst his clear affection, passion and concern for the natural world shine through.

In fact, ‘nature writing’ is probably a misnomer. All too often that falls into the trap of seeing nature just as a utilitarian resource for us, to use and abuse, care about or ignore, as we choose. Not so here: embraced in a philosophical package which doesn’t put humans at the centre, which asserts that its protection is of intrinsic value for its own sake, and which doesn’t shy away from humanocentric taboos, such as discussions of overpopulation, makes for us a refreshing change.

We found exploring aspects of ‘eco-psychology’ fascinating. ‘Eco-anxiety’ and ‘topoaversion’ are all states of mind we recognise (although Chris had them squeezed out of his consciousness by a lifetime in professional conservation, only to re-emerge during the liberation of retirement) but were previously  unaware had names; having these dark thoughts put into words was cathartic. This is not however a depressing read – in fact it is truly uplifting and makes we two glad that there are people like Joe on the planet. Certainly it makes us want to go further in changing our lifestyle to favour nature, but at the same time it doesn’t, as many authors seem intent on doing, engender feelings of guilt for the realisation that probably we will not do all that we could.

Born during the Covid pandemic, when we all have had to reflect on our physical and philosophical horizons, this book should be a mind-changer for many. And still in the grip of nature, we should use the time we now have to read it and think. By donating all royalties from this, Joe’s first book, to a worthy cause (the World Land Trust), you will not only be getting a jolly good read, but helping safeguard the planet. And it contains a very fitting tribute to Trevor James, friend and inspiration to many of us, who passed away recently: in fact, one can almost hear Trevor’s voice uttering one of the many apposite phrases in the book – ‘nothing makes my hackles rise quite like innocent, voiceless victims’. Nature needs those who wear their passion on their sleeves.

Chris & Jude Gibson

Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic by Joe Gray (Dixi Books 2021)     ISBN-13: 978-1-913680-06-0

Publisher’s price £17.99. If you order from, you may get a better price, and your purchase will help towards supporting independent bookshops.

Giving a Voice to the Wildlife of the Essex Coast

During the three decades I worked for Natural England and its predecessor bodies, much of my time was devoted to Essex, and among the many things I tried to do was put the wildlife of Essex on the map. Partly to counter the negative image of Essex, both in the popular media (Loadsamoney and Essex Girls in the 1980s), latterly in a sequence of Far Right Tory MPs), and even in the more refined sphere of conservation. That negative image is enduring: there is a story that someone, sometime as long ago as the 19th Century said of Essex that it is ‘flat and boring‘, to which the response was ‘no, it is slightly undulating and boring….’

Given the pressures on the coast, and its incredible concentrations of birds, salt marshes and other wildlife interests, not surprisingly my PR efforts focused on our coastline. That proved particularly apposite as we started to invent and embrace the ideas of respecting and using natural coastal dynamism in its protection. ‘Managed realignment‘ was born in Essex: we turned an idea in a back room in Colchester in the late 1980s into reality, and Government policy, in just a few years.

So to try and see the nature reserves and other protected areas of Essex coast taking their rightful place in the pantheon of ‘jewels in the crown’ I wrote a series of four booklets over thirteen years, each growing and (largely) improving on the previous version.

First in 1990 was a small A5, 12-page, black-and-white booklet, modelled on and indeed adopting the house style of existing, rather lo-fi, Nature Conservancy Council National Nature Reserve booklets. Only 3297 words long (thanks, Jude, for counting them!), it did feature specially commissioned line drawings from the renowned local artist Richard Hull. Sadly, through the editions, these were phased out as printing advances made the use colour photographs more feasible: all are reproduced below for posterity.

Rather less successful was my attempt at cartography, all Rotring pens, Letraset labels, and Letratone transfers for the shading, on tracing paper, using my university dissection scalpel. Those were the days! But, pretty soon, the print run of 2000 was exhausted, as it was a free publication, and at that time we still used to attend major events such as the Essex and Tendring Shows, where many disappeared into the voluminous bags of small children. But who knows, some may have hit home!

By 1993 an update and reissue was needed, and it emerged in full colour, thanks to the design input from The Creative Company, who admirably didn’t feel constrained to operate within corporate design guidelines, although their choice of a stippled background tint to the text pages did nothing for legibility. (Note to self: don’t sign anything off until you have seen the hard copy in your hands!). 21x21cm (two-thirds A4, another break from ‘style’), 20 pages and 8185 words long, Richard’s illustrations remained, along with three (professionally drawn) maps and 8 photos, and the run of 3000 lasted for some seven years, at least in part because a (nominal ) charge was levied whenever we could. This edition even got an ISBN: 1-85716-129-7.

To mark the Millennium, in 2000 a new edition was in order (ISBN 1-85716-486-5), and this for me is the apogee in design and utility terms. A5, 40 pages, 12366 words, 67 photos, and still four line drawings, this lovely package fully met my ‘is it readable in the bath?‘ test, my ideas, words and photos expertly and coherently put together by Jacquie South (Jax Design), who also produced the maps. However, having mutated into English Nature, and with a greater focus on corporate identity, this edition never really found favour within the upper echelons of EN hierarchy as we had gone right away from their standards. I remain unapologetic, and its wider reception I think justified it: nominally priced at £2, it sold well (including a bulk order from Essex University Biology Department and hawked by me around the lecture and media circuit), with almost 3000 units shifted in just three years.

So we come to the final (for now) print iteration in 2003 (ISBN 1-85716-762-7): 32 pages, 12364 words, 49 photos but no line drawings, this time grown into the increasingly prescribed corporate style of A4 – and so forgoing ‘read-in-the-bathability’, much to my concern. The print run was 2000, and when English Nature became Natural England in 2006, a partial rebranding exercise with sticky labels was sanctioned as a stop-gap. But by the time the  Colchester office was closed in 2012, we still had about a third left. ‘Destroy them‘, the bosses said, because of the out-of-date branding. But I just couldn’t bear to. I took most of the boxes, and have been progressively handing them out (free) at talks, walks and other events ever since, both before and after my early retirement. Now, at the end of 2020, the well has run dry, and thanks to Jude’s hard work inputting my words (including finding errors – I have to admit to a proofread failure) we have converted the bulk of the 2003 edition into a PDF, updated where necessary with the hindsight of the last 18 years. And while photos for editions 2 and 3 were all created from 35mm transparencies, almost all have now been replaced with more up-to-date digital images. The benefits of time during Covid lockdown!

At the same time, we recognised the need for a smaller, less technical publication, so Jude expertly abridged the words and we produced the slimmer, more photo-heavy PDF, ‘Celebrating the Essex Coast‘. We are happy to send out copies of either PDF free of charge if you email us, provided that you accept the fact that your details will be held on a mailing list to shamelessly promote our wares at the time we have something to sell you…

Which, if Covid continues to exert its malign grip on our mobility, may not be too far away. We are now working on not one, but two books. The first, provisionally entitled ‘A Field Guide to the Essex Coast‘ is not a conventional guidebook. It won’t give step-by-step guides of where to go and what to see: there are plenty of other publications that do that already and all share the same problem – the coast is more-or-less dynamic, ever-changing under the influence of weather, currents and tides, so that anything prescriptive is immediately out of date.

Its subtitle is perhaps more accurate – this is a journey not from A to B, but ‘from A to see…’. It provides the information needed, from access points to must-see features to background information, to enhance enjoyment and give readers all they need to explore the Essex coast for themselves. That is explore and engage, involving the excitement of the unknown, rather than being spoon-fed, being told where to go and what to expect to see (and suffer righteous angers if, God forbid, you don’t…)

In three sections, firstly there is the ‘Why?’ Why explore the Essex coast, an introductory, largely pictorial celebration of that which makes to Essex coast so valuable. That moves into the ‘Where and when?’, taking each stretch of the coastline in turn in more detail. And finally, the ‘How?’ – the things you need to know in order to explore safely, for yourself and for the wildlife you may be looking at.

The planned second volume ‘A Field Guide to the Wildlife of the Essex Coast’ will address the ‘What?’. What are the habitats you can find on the Essex coast, how do they work, and how are we humans trying to protect them? What is the wildlife you can find along the Essex coast, both common and rare, large and small? Again not a conventional guide, but full of information about how things survive and thrive on the cusp between land and sea. Watch this space!

Times have changed. The Nature Conservancy Council  became English Nature became Natural England. I moved on from Essex to a national role and then took early retirement. And NE became largely a toothless mouthpiece of a Government at best unenthusiastic about environmental protection, especially insofar as it restricts opportunities for already rich people to make money out of our green and pleasant land…. Not its fault of course: one of the first acts of the coalition in 2010 was to tell us we were no longer an independent watchdog  for the natural world (as enshrined in law), but there to deliver government policy. Which of course was growth. Otherwise known as Rape of our Common Wealth…

Now as much as at any time in the past is the time for nature to be given a voice.


The Wild Side of Essex: Day tours with Naturetrek – December

It was good to be back! After a month of Lockdown v2.0, during which the wet weather of early autumn which plagued several of the September and October tours had faded into distant memory, a brighter prospect seemed in order for the first of the December walks.  Nature of course had the final say….

Our first walk, down the Colne started in a peasouper, visibility little more than 50 metres as we set out. Of course that did mean that any birds we did see were close to, like this Black-tailed Godwit, uncharacteristically probing a saltmarsh just 10m from us:

Moving up the Essex Alps to Cockaynes, fog became freezing fog, encrusting every surface in rime. Not a bird stirred; indeed the only sound was ice fall as the temperature lifted a touch at lunchtime.

Heading back down to the estuary, a welcome spurt of sun illuminated Butcher’s-broom (in bloom well in advance of its usual February-April flowering season), Cordgrass Ergot and its own parasite Gibberella gordonii (continuing the remarkable showing of these two fungi locally this year), and a host of birds – a thousand babbling Brents, two hundred Avocets, and numerous Knots and Wigeons in the glasslike waters of the rising tide …

… until all too soon, the mist rolled in from Mersea, a chill breeze sprang, the temperature plummeted, the views and birds were enveloped, and twilight stole the day, well before sundown.

Four days later, the temperature had risen by almost 10°, although it remained still and the estuary sat in a pool of grey, only a distant glimmer reminding us the sun was still out there. 

A showy pair of Stonechats graced the grazing marshes as we followed the ebb of the tide, and most of the expected estuarine birds appeared in very good numbers. Several hundred each of Golden Plover, Avocet, Teal and Lapwing were noteworthy, making quite a spectacle. Only Godwits seemed fewer than expected, but in Alresford Creek, midway between the inner estuarine muds and the outer estuarine sands, both Black-tails and Bar-tails were feeding together for instructive comparison between this sometimes tricky species pair.

Despite a couple of (relatively) hard frosts in the past two weeks,  there were still plenty of fungi to see, including Coral Fungus, Jelly Ear, Cramp Balls, Maze-gill and Orange Cup, and the last knockings of an exciting lockdown find, the only example we know of Coral Tooth in north Essex. Elsewhere in the county it is known only from Epping and Writtle Forests.

Dense Blackthorn thickets on the shore, the summer haunt of Nightingales, now devoid of leaves and sloes, revealed their value for an intricate array of lichens, filigree frosting the trunks and branches with seasonal grey and sunburst -yellow.

And finally, a sign of hope in these very dark times – literally, metaphorically, medically and politically – the glowing fruits of Stinking Iris, and the first bloomings of spring flowers including Butcher’s-broom and Cow-parsley.

Mid-month it was out to The Naze, the only one of three walks planned there this month that we were able to run.

Lovely winter sunlight turned lichens on the salt-blasted clifftop trees into radiant artworks, while new Gorse flowers attracted a few bumblebees and announced to start of ‘the kissing season’.

As the tide receded, the beach provided rich pickings for us, from Mermaid’s Purses and Piddocks, to mass strandings of Common Whelks…

..and for the sandy foreshore birds: Turnstones, Redshanks, Sanderlings and Bar-tailed Godwits.

And so to the cliffs: recent wet weather had mobilised them into active slumping, mass movement of visceral power, bringing new crops of Red Crag fossils into view for the first time in 2 million years. ‘The Wild Side’ of our coast at its best!

A last scan, as dusk fell, over what had been a very quiet seascape for wildlife throughout the day revealed two or three Harbour Seals, presumably on a fishing foray from the Backwaters. A fitting end to a fine day out!

With new Covid restrictions coming into force around Christmas, it may be some time before these walks can recommence. Keep an eye on the Naturetrek web pages for further news:

The Wild Side of Essex: The Colne Estuary (Day Trip) – Naturetrek

The Wild Side of Essex: Exploring The Naze and Walton Backwaters (Day Trip) – Naturetrek

Essex Field Club and the Essex Naturalist

In the county of the Essex Wildlife Trust, with more than 37,000 members one of the very largest county wildlife trusts in the country, the importance (indeed the very presence) of the Essex Field Club (fewer than 300 members) is all too easily overlooked.

Essex Field Club has a venerable history, founded in 1880 when it was a learned Victorian gentleman’s (largely) society, for the study of the natural history, geology and in those days the older archaeology of the county, although it has to be said that, in common with the times, much of their interaction with nature was at the end of a shotgun…’what’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery‘ was the attitude of a time before high quality, portable optics and cameras, and when identification literature was scarce or absent.

To this day it remains misunderstood, the ‘F word’ being indelibly (and now wrongly) associated not with ‘field trips’ but ‘field “sports” ‘. (Note the use of ironic quotation marks – there is nothing sporting about chasing a Fox on horseback with slavering hounds, nor shooting unarmed birds.) In reality, it is the leading county organisation for the study of our wildlife and geology, by amateurs and professionals alike: knowing what we have and where, and how those have changed over time is of crucial significance to those seeking to conserve wild Essex.

As with all such clubs, it has a range of activities, both indoor and outdoor, throughout the year. But for me there are three things about EFC that stand out. Firstly it maintains a panel of county recorders for particular taxonomic groups and subject areas, experts who give their time freely to help curate the public record so that it can be relied upon as an evidence base.

Second, there is the website. In addition to the usual newsy functions, the site contains information and distribution maps for most species. Of almost everything! A few keystrokes and you can find details of previous records of a species from the county, an incredible free resource, as used for example in our blog from earlier in the year Lockdown Localism – finding rare and special invertebrates close to home.

Third and not least, there are the publications, especially the flagship transactions Essex Naturalist. And here again the website excels, with all publications going back to 1880 scanned, indexed and searchable. So this includes four volumes each of annual Journal and Transactions (1881-1884); these evolved into the Essex Naturalist, which comprises 31 volumes between 1887 and 1976, covering up to five years in each volume. From 1977 to 1992, the Essex Naturalist (New Series) vols. 1-11 were published irregularly, each being a ‘special publication’, essentially a standalone book. Essex Naturalist (New Series) reappeared in annual transactions format, edited by Colin Plant, from 1995-1998 (vols. 12to 15), before emerging into its current, larger, annual format in 1999 (vol 16), with an editorial panel, masterminded by Peter Harvey from the outset. Together, a digital treasure trove going back into the heart of the Victorian era (although the volumes since 2005 have not yet been archived), an window into the past to provide inspiration for the future – what was once, can be again, and better…

Now, the largest ever annual edition (Vol. 37, 316 pp) has just arrived with a thump on the doormat. We are very pleased to have five papers this year – this is a real lockdown bonus, giving us time to contribute to this important written record of natural world, the first time for several years. 

First one is the longest, with John Hall, a twenty page account of the ultimately successful campaign to save Lawford Tye field, home to Lunar Yellow Underwing and more, from the clutches of housing developers after Public Inquiry. Hopefully this will have useful lessons for others in a similar, sadly all-too-frequent situation.

Then an account of new botanical finds around #wildWivenhoe, including rarities hiding in plain sight as close as 20 metres from our door! As covered in a previous blog.

Next, the story (again blogged previously) of our successful campaign to encourage Beth Chatto Gardens to tackle the pollinator-murdering habits of the pond plant Thalia dealbata.

And the discovery of two new big red-and-black bugs (see past blogs here, here and here). The Firebug also features in two other papers by different authors – clearly it has arrived in a big way since 2019, especially around Harwich, but also elsewhere in Essex and adjacent counties. Coming soon  to Mallow and Lime near you!

Finally, the identification of a first for Essex, the rare sawfly Pamphilius sylvarum, after an identification gestation of 8 years, jointly with Yvonne Couch, who found the second, although first to be identified. Confused? Then read this blog.

All of this and much, much more (see Contents page above) could be yours for just £15, from the Essex Field Club. That’s 15 to buy…or why not spend the same sum, join the Club, and get Essex Naturalist along with all other member benefits for free?


Sustainable cotton clothing: Fraser Wear

Any one who knows me knows I care little about clothes, apart from their functionality. Do they keep me warm, or cool, or dry, as hoped? To my shame, until recently if I bought anything, I paid scant attention to its provenance, focussing on performance alone, and thus no doubt helped perpetrate immense environmental and workers’ abuses …

So when a message popped into my inbox from Fraser Wear, it was almost (as most contacts through my website are) summarily deleted. Something however made me investigate, and as I did, I wanted to delve further. Sustainability certainly seemed to be at the core, at all stages from cotton growing (organic), milling, fabrication. manufacture, printing (all powered by renewable energy sources), and distribution (plastic-free). Likewise, the website indicates that a fair deal for workers is an integral part of the process.

So far, so good. But how reliable are such claims? Certainly nothing on the website, or that of the supplier Teemill ( gave me reason to doubt the claims. And when I noticed that Fraser Wear is partnered with reputable conservation charities (Marine Conservation Society, Gwent Wildlife Trust and Wolf Watch UK), donating 5p in every £1 to those causes, any residual fears were allayed further.

So on the basis that the credentials are good, what about quality?

I was sent a t-shirt with the wolf design, and initial impressions were very favourable. The cotton felt good, the fabric appeared substantial and durable, and the design transfer seemed fast. And after a couple of washes, no sign of any of these positive impressions changing: Jude enquired about ironing, and it was suggested she shouldn’t iron straight onto the printed design, to avoid shrinkage, fading, cracking, flaking or peeling. Obviously time will tell, but there certainly have been no concerns as yet.

So would I choose to buy? In a word, yes. At around £20 for a t-shirt and £40 for a hoodie, they are certainly not the cheapest, but ‘the cheapest’ comes with a high environmental and social cost. For the high standards, and given the fact that I feel I shall have the garment for several years to come, the price is not unreasonable to my mind. Others’ impressions have been equally favourable – this is a chance to look good and feel good about it.

With the world in the grip of a pandemic, it may seem an odd time to be focussing so much on sustainability of clothing, but if not now, when? Care for the earth can, should and must be part of the new normal.

The Wild Side of Essex: Day tours of The Naze and Walton Backwaters with Naturetrek – October

The best laid plans….! This was going to be a combined blog of the half-a-dozen planned Naze walks between late October and early December, the late autumn period. Until Covid19 had the last word, as it has throughout 2020, and Lockdown v2.0 descended upon us…

The only trip we managed before being overtaken by events was full, five customers all of whom had been with me on the Colne previously, remarkably on four different occasions.  And it was on a day of lovely autumnal sunshine. Thankfully the heavy showers missed us, but the clouds drifting out to sea left a legacy of wonderful cloudscapes, washed pink from the sun setting behind us.

Bird highlights included some 300 Dark-bellied Brent Geese burbling on the beach (with a goodly proportion of immature birds, in contrast to many recent years), confiding Grey Plovers, Teals flashing electric-green in the late sunlight, and a group of lovely Long-tailed Tits on the undercliff.

This late into the autumn and with south-westerly winds, the cliff-top bushes were unsurprisingly quiet for passerine migrants, although Robins tried their best to fill the silence, along with a few Redwings, Goldcrests and Chaffinches, while small parties of Redpolls trilled over, and five or six Stonechats  perked up the fence-lines on the marshes.

Lingering vestiges of summer included single Peacock and Red Admiral, buffeted in the strong breeze, a late group of three Swallows drifting southwards, Sea Spurge and Sea Rocket still flowering on the low dunes, the spreading alien Narrow-leaved Ragwort colonising the cliff slopes, and our local celebrity rarity Sea Hog’s-fennel, some still in flower.

Touched with the low sunlight, sea-walls were transformed into modern art works by radiant lichens, while the salt marshes glowed with Annual Sea-blite and maybe four species of Glasswort, each with distinctive autumn tints. A few sprigs of Common Sea-lavender still in flower were remarkably late, but the most exciting find was the large-fruited Cordgrass Ergot, a fungus I have noticed only a couple of times before, but abundant here.

And last but not least, the internationally important geology: Red Crag shells in profusion on the beach, their surface characteristically stained by iron oxides;  pyritised wood, septaria and copperas from London Clay, with just a few sharks’ teeth, the beach having been well picked over by half-term crowds.


Hopefully, walks will be able to restart in December, and dates are now being offered through to the end of February 2021.

Cockaynes in late Autumn #WildWivenhoe

A late October walk to the Cockaynes Reserve, damp underfoot and dull (but warm). Not a classic year for autumn colour – still no frost, and the leaves are falling already – but a typical, muted yellow and ochre UK autumn.

Fungi are sprouting everywhere: the season has started at last (October brought at least a whole season’s rain), and in the absence of cold weather may well continue through November…

Perhaps surprisingly, quite a few insects were still on show and active, albeit sluggishly: lots of Parent Bugs (in a range of colour forms reflecting their transition into autumn plumage), and a few Birch Shield-bugs, lacewings and Acorn Weevils:

But alone with ourselves in the woods, there was more, so much more.

The pitter-patter of falling spangles…

… the thump of acorns …

… the earthy, humic smell of renewal …

… and the visible promises of rebirth of the Earth. #BringingNatureToYOU


Late October in the Beth Chatto Gardens: after the deluge…

After a summer of me commenting on the lack of rain, October has done its best to redress the deficit, never more so than the sustained downpour the day before our visit. So everything was looking fresh, and the flowers and foliage encrusted with pearls…

The freshness extended to the air. Newly-scrubbed of its accumulated dust and odours, the pristine palette brought forth the most wonderful scentscapes, sometimes surprising, like this Berberis, barely yet in flower, but already enveloped in a rich, heady pool of lily-of-the-valley laced with talcum powder.

Probably as a result of the warmth, with no hint still of frost, this autumn is not shaping up to be a classic of colour saturation, more a gentle British one, the foliar fireworks muted into russet and yellow.

The remaining flowers too, mostly pastel shades…


…with the occasional bright sparks of intensity, sometimes from flowers, but as often as not, from seeds and fruits.

And with the welcome warmth, insects were out and about, including Willow Emerald damselflies, now at the very end of their season, and Hairy Shield-bugs, now starting to adopt the browner tones of their autumn plumage.


The garden year is turning full circle, but freed from the competing attentions of blooms and butterflies, the approach of winter is when the natural sculptures and textured canvases come into their own. There’s still time to get there and see the gardens before they close for the winter in mid-November

The Wild Side of Essex: Day tours of the Colne with Naturetrek in October

Five day-walks in October saw the change of the seasons, on the estuary itself, and the ancient woods, grazing marshes and parkland of the Wivenhoe area.

But, despite the Essex coast being one of the driest parts of the country, our walks were plagued by weather, often wet, sometimes windy, but usually (thankfully) mild. My descriptions on the days ranged from ‘gun-metal gloom‘ to ‘fifty shades of grey, and sixty grades of wet‘ to ‘rain, rain and .. er .. slightly lighter rain‘…

One one walk, the thunderstorm which enveloped us on an exposed sea wall, after what had been a lovely warm sunny autumnal day, was simply spectacular. Truly, the Wild Side of Essex!

Especially when the sun came out, though, the radiance of autumn was palpable, whether in the wonderful specimen trees of Wivenhoe Park or the ancient Grange Wood running to the estuary shore:

And of course not just trees – autumn also seeps into the leaves of Common Reed, and tints the array of Glassworts on the marshes, making it the best time of year to separate this very difficult group, each with a distinctive autumn hue.

Flowering was drawing to a close, but Cord-grass and Strawberry Clover were still going strong, and Blue Fleabane was a good find in the Cockaynes Reserve:

So too Lesser Calamint, Common Fleabane and Sea Wormwood, though these were notable as much for their scented leaves as for the flowers.

And especially on the greyest days, the rain-washed air was a pristine palette to savour the flavours, the fragrant foliage of Pineappleweed, Walnut and Lawson’s Cypress shining bright in the olfactory gloom, the perfect antidote to the lusty musk of Stinkhorn pervading Wivenhoe Park…!

Turning to the Wivenhoe waterfront and the Natural Art of Block Paving. Certainly not ‘weeds’ – think instead of filigree adornment, that which helps soften the mind-numbing, spirit-crushing straight lines we attempt to force upon the world. 

Leaving the most important pollen and nectar source to last: Ivy, flowering right to the end of the month, and still attracting diverse insect visitors, from social wasps to hoverflies, ladybirds to Ivy Bees, the latter especially numerous on the Ivy hedge of St Mary’s Churchyard.

Other insects were fewer, as would be expected: lingering Common Darters, with a few Migrant Hawkers; sluggish Hornets around their nests; and Speckled Woods occupying their favoured sun-flecks (when available!). Red Admirals included one making the most of the nectar from Strawberry-trees in the grounds of Wivenhoe House: such spectacular garden plants, bearing this year’s flowers alongside last year’s fruits, and memorably awash with the heady lemon scent of nearby Magnolia grandiflora flowers.

Otherwise, insect-wise, it was down to the ones one never actually sees  – the galls, leaf-mines and other feeding signs, which are so apparent at this time of year:

October is fungus season. Usually. But this year, perhaps a legacy of previous spring and summer droughts, it was slow to get going. By month’s end, they were starting to pop up – Beefsteaks to Birch Brackets, Sulphur Tufts to Honey Fungus – and the birchwood-gloom-piercing Fly Agarics lending the essence of autumn to even grey days.  For me though, best of all was the super-sized Cordgrass variety of Ergot, a fungus I have seen only once before.

And finally the birds. Migration time, so the occasional Wheatear and Stonechat were right on cue, and at times the visible migration along the ridge of the Essex Alps was quite impressive, with hirundines, Meadow Pipits, Goldfinches, thrushes, Reed Buntings and good numbers of both Siskins and Redpolls. Roving tit flocks, in Wivenhoe Park especially, often held Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs, and on one occasion a very obliging Treecreeper, while around the University lakes and the upper river, Kingfishers usually showed themselves, electric streaks of blue piercing the gloom.

Down on the estuary, wader numbers built through the month, with up to a thousand Black-tailed Black-tailed Godwits and hundreds of Redshanks. Shelducks arrived back from moult migration mid-month, and the feeding and flying flurries, snowstorms of up to 400 Avocets, never failed to impress.

And the best bird of the month, this Osprey which flew low over us for 20 minutes, evidently looking for food, while seeing off the unwanted attentions of Carrion Crows and Jackdaws. The most obliging I have ever seen around Wivenhoe!

All of the above, plus autumn’s bounty, both fecund and full. Hips and haws, chestnuts, conkers and acorns galore, and a supporting eclectic mix of other wildlife, from Muntjac to Eel, bagworms to Lesser Water-crickets. Each walk a cornucopia of biodiversity!


So that’s it for Naturetrek on the Colne in Autumn. Despite unexpectedly wet weather for most of our five walks, it was fun. After a spell on the Naze, we will return for ‘Winter on the Colne Estuary’ towards the end of November – see here for details and booking. All vestiges of summer will have been swept away by then, but waders and wildfowl will be at their midwinter peak, including our iconic Dark-bellied Brent Geese. And if (as is so often the case) we have had no hard frosts, the fires of autumn may still be burning in the leaves and the fungi season still going strong….

The Wild Side of Essex: Day tours of the Colne with Naturetrek in September

Three tours this month, spanning the transition from summer to autumn, and the weather reflected that. The first was unremittingly grey, but warm and humid, increasingly breezy and ultimately very wet. The second was blessed with liquid autumnal sunlight, at times intensifying into summery fire, which bathed the landscape in welcome warmth. And the third, a misty, moisty, windless day, in stark contrast to two days’ previously when a gale swept through, leaves falling ahead of their time, and branches, whole trees and even power lines felled. The woodland birds seemed subdued by this, save for mournful Robin song, ululating Woodpigeons and the occasional half-hearted Chiffchaffing in the storm-tossed woods.

On the estuary, waterbird numbers were swelling towards their winter peak. Downstream, it was possible to see a thousand Black-tailed Godwits socially distanced on the water’s edge, with other waders for easy comparison, usually including a sprinkling of Avocets, sometimes a twinkling flurry of two hundred or more. Upstream, numbers are always fewer, but the views can be better, and included the first returning Teals and Dabchicks, along with a few Kingfishers, one one memorable occasion being aggressively chased by a male Yellowhammer. A Kingfisher was also seen well on the Wivenhoe Park lake.

Autumn time is migration time, and visible migration was a feature of every walk, whether hirundines of three species, Meadow Pipits, Lapwings or Greenshank. Other migrants to or through Essex included White Wagtails and a Stonechat, but the biggest surprise was a lone Guillemot in the heart of town. Almost as surprising was a Harbour Seal, right up the river, in shallow water, presumably hunting Mullet.

This autumn has been mild so far, and only by the end of the month were the leaves beginning to colour, Norway Maples and the first few Red Oaks heralding cooler days in Wivenhoe Park. But the fruits of the landscape have been simply magnificent, hips, haws, sloes, acorns and so many other fruits seemingly larger and more numerous than for many a year.

Likewise galls, especially those on Oak leaves, buds and acorns. Such abundance, such diversity, without ever even seeing the causal creatures!

The couple of downpours in the month have done little so far to offset the spring and summer droughts: fungi, other than microfungi and brackets, groups which have a lower reliance on moist soils, were few and far between. Until the end of the month at least, when blue-staining Rooting Boletes and Parasols to Shaggy Ink-caps, Beefsteak and Giant Polypore to Chicken-of-the-woods, earthballs to puffballs and Sycamore Tar-spot to Oak Mildew started to appear. And of course, frosts permitting, the season is far from over…

Insects declined as the month progressed, apart from social wasps nesting everywhere on the sea wall, and thronging the flowering Ivies, along with hoverflies and Ivy Bees. Lots of Common Darters and Migrant Hawkers were still active, and even at the month end, there were Willow Emerald damselflies active round the Wivenhoe Park lakes.

Heather Bees (rare in Essex) around Cockaynes and Sea Aster Bees on their eponymous plants completed the triumvirate of late season bees, while butterflies have faded away almost entirely, save for a straggler Meadow Brown, and Speckled Woods in their favoured dappled shade. By the end of the month, Vapourer moths became obvious in all wooded areas, foxy males flying around to try and locate the flightless females.

All groups enjoyed the ‘pavement plants’ (NOT weeds) of Wivenhoe waterfront, including Four-leaved Allseed, Jersey Cudweed, Spotted Spurge, and both Canadian and Guernsey Fleabanes. The saltmarshes were still flowering, with Sea Aster, Cord-grass and Golden Samphire, while Shrubby Sea-blite and the glassworts were just assuming autumn tints.

On the downstream itinerary, we found some lovely patches of our local specialities Strawberry Clover and  Lesser Calamint, and other spectacular nectar and pollen resources included included Common Toadflax, Bugloss on the margins of sandy arable fields, and on the sea wall, Sea Beet in full ‘glorious’ bloom…

In Cockaynes reserve, wafts of Epilobium brachycarpum above Creeping St. John’s Wort covered the former weighbridge area. A new alien plant here, Stace calls it ‘Panicled Willowherb’. We begged to differ, and coined the much more descriptive and euphonious ‘Wispy Willowherb’.

And finally, garden plants do have their uses, even ones apparently designed by committee – the Passion-flowers of Wivenhoe were being assiduously searched for nectar and pollen. And in the gardens of Wivenhoe House Hotel, Strawberry Trees, simultaneously in full fruit and flower, attracted bumblebees, while the incredible citrussy scent of Magnolia grandiflora proved a complete ‘nose-opener’ to me at least. We live and learn every day in the natural world!