All posts by Chris Gibson

Three days by train: Gloucester and Hereford

Well the forecast for our April short break was for rain, but in the event it turned out sunny with blue skies much of the time, albeit with a chill north breeze and very low temperatures overnight. We headed west this time, taking in Gloucester and Hereford, one night in each, and rail journeys throughout.

Parts of Gloucester felt very familiar: some of our favourite places are regenerated, rejuvenated docks and waterfronts (Glasgow, East London and Salford spring to mind, along of course with Wivenhoe).

To corrupt the album title of folk-rock grandee Ashley Hutchings – by Gloucester Dock we sat down and the sky wept: as we sat and watched, a rain cloud blew up out of a blue sky and started to deposit wintery, sleety rain on us, and providing ample photo opportunities, all droplets and ripples ….

Among the repurposed dock buildings one survivor from several centuries earlier is the 12th century Augustinian priory of Llanthony Secunda.

Around the docks themselves, wildlife (indeed, any greenery) is generally hard to come by, apart from the roof-nesting Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls coming down to feed and bathe.

Some of the old warehouses that have not (yet) been renovated  have a few plants, such as Oxford Ragwort, ornamenting the heights; patches of Ivy-leaved Toadflax and Hemlock Water-dropwort were clinging to the harbour walls; and where the the docksides and wall-tops are covered in moss, Rue-leaved Saxifrage was in full flower, the red-tinged stems and lower leaves spangled with white stars….

But only a short stroll away, it was out to and along the River Severn, still tidal this high up-stream,  with silt deposits on the riverbank nettlebeds indicating recent flooding, or perhaps a large Severn Bore.

Here we were able to immerse ourselves in nature for a few precious moments in the sun.

 

Away from the water, and always on view from anywhere in the city, at its heart is of course the magnificent cathedral, its stone really coming to life as the sun came out…

Inside the nave, monstrous columns support Romanesque arches while the more recent quire is highly ornamented, especially the ceiling with coloured, interlinked bosses:

One of our favourite things in cathedrals is stained glass – the more modern the better!

But pride of place must go the the cloister, and its remarkable fan-vaulting: a magnificent photographic paradise…

So engrossed were we with the Cathedral and Docks, we rather overlooked the rest of the city.  Suffice to say, the priories and churches, historic streets and pubs were a tempting prospect, one that will probably see us return in the not-too-distant future, perhaps as a stopover on our way to Wales.

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After two half-days it was back onto the train for the trip to Hereford, a straight line distance of some 50km, but two hours by train. And what a journey! Right down the western shore of the Severn Estuary, the Forest of Dean off to our right. At Chepstow, across the Wye, and soon we were at Newport, to change onto the line up the Usk valley to Abergavenny, past the Skirrid mountain and ultimately to Hereford.

Another day, another city, another monumental cathedral…

Yes, Hereford Cathedral had some very good points, the Mappa Mundi and chained library (which we found more exciting than we expected), together with some wonderful modern stained glass especially in the Lady Chapel, and John Piper tapestries. But in some undefinable way it all felt a little less friendly than Gloucester Cathedral.

And while the city certainly has historic interest, some of it felt to be only skin-deep, exemplified by the ‘iconic’ Black & White House on which some of the ‘half- timbering’ was actually white paper with black painted lines, stapled on. No doubt there was a good reason but we did feel a little short-changed!

Otherwise, it was a jumble of the delightful and grotty, with sometimes jarring juxtapositions between old and new.

But the pubs were good, especially the amazing pies and mash at the Queens Arms (best meal of our trip!) and of course, as always, a river. The River Wye, with lovely views of the cathedral,  bridges ancient and modern, and river-bank vegetation including dock leaves being demolished by and hosting bejewelled orgies of Dock Leaf-beetles.

Old walls , especially around the cathedral, had flowers such as Aubrieta and Yellow Corydalis …

… and we had Mistletoe just outside our hotel window (as indeed it seems to be everywhere in this part of the country): some trees are very heavily infested and appear to be suffering as a result:

And as at Gloucester, the city was dominated by Lesser Black-backed Gulls, standing sentinel on rooftops and washing in the river.

So another city well worth a visit, even if somewhat different to what we had expected. And then it was back on the train home, for much of the way through previously uncharted waters for our personal Mappa Mundi, through Great Malvern and Worcester (more ideas for another short break?), Pershore, Evesham and Oxford.

Three days, nine trains, two cathedrals and lots of fun: remarkably every single train was within two minutes of its timetabled time. All that, and with advance booking and railcard a total travel cost for the two of us £78, what’s not to love about that?

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: among the April showers…

The weather wasn’t looking good for my first ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist‘ event of the year at the Beth Chatto Gardens today: frequent heavy rain and gusty winds made it touch-and-go (they are always advertised as ‘weather permitting’!). But in the event we were lucky: the torrential rain stopped half an hour before the walks commenced, and largely stayed away for the full two hours (despite some ominous thundercracks), with the sun even coming out for a few precious minutes.

Following the rain, the gardens were relatively quiet, so the 18 wanderers I took out on one or other of the walks were treated to some lovely bird sightings, all enfolded in the spring songs of Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Robins, Wrens and Chaffinches. There was a Mistle Thrush feeding on the lawns with the Blackbirds and the baby Moorhens, and for easy comparison, at least two Song Thrushes, apparently taking food repeatedly into a nest with hungry youngsters. And there was one or two further Song Thrushes singing, a very welcome return to form for this species that has suffered across the country from the overuse and misuse of slug pellets.

The gardens were looking wonderfully green after all the rain of the past three months …

… but with a sky-blue filigree snaking its way through the beds as we enter the peak time for Forget-me-not flowering. Often dismissed as a ‘weed’, this is genuinely beautiful, helping the weave together the floral themes in the different beds, and good for wildlife too, today being visited by Orange-tip and Green-veined White butterflies.

One other butterfly, and my very welcome first one of the summer, was a Speckled Wood, and also new for the year were the first few Large Red Damselflies, perhaps a week in advance of their usual appearance here.

There were Green Shield-bugs in several places, always hard to see because of their colour against a leaf, but never more so than on this Ligularia in which the reddened leaf-margins match the red highlights on the insect’s feet, antennae and abdomen.

While the spring greens are still the dominant hue, flowers are coming through and attracting insects, some of the most wonderful, extravagant blooms being the yellow Paeonia ‘Molly the Witch’ and electric blue pyramids of Scilla peruviana.

And that just leaves the centrepiece of the day, Judas-tree in the Reservoir Garden. Not only were its flowers at their absolute pink peak, especially dramatic when seen against the looming thundercloud, but also surrounded by insects. There were bumblebees and hoverflies, and swarms  of fearsome-looking but friendly, hairy, black, dangly-legged St Mark’s Flies. Traditionally emerging on St Mark’s Day (April 25th) they are almost a week early this spring. But they will be a very welcome feast for Swallows and martins when they arrive in force after their stressful trans-equatorial migrations over the next couple of weeks.

If anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing this all again (weather permitting!) on May 17, June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Walks commence at 11AM and 12 noon each day, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre.  For garden entrance tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, and do come expecting to want to buy some of the wildlife-attracting plants I will show you, as well as delicious tea and cakes!

 

The Wild Side of Beth Chatto Gardens: rushing headlong into Summer!

What a wonderful day to wander round Beth Chatto’s Garden! The sun was shining, I was in shorts for the first time this year, and I could almost forgive and forget the vagaries of our spring so far…

Swallows twittering overhead, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps in full song, and there were Orange-tips everywhere (my first of the year) and Green-veined Whites newly emerged, joining the overwintered Peacocks, along with my first Hornet of the summer.

Insects were everywhere, the sheer bioabundance testament to the spring weather and tribute to the fact that we welcome (or at least live with) all-comers – pollinators, predators, chompers and parasites: we don’t kill the planet with pesticides in creating a beautiful garden.

A myriad of insects of all sorts, from beetles  …

… to flies: lots of hoverflies,  a couple of St Mark’s Flies, a wetland snail-killer Tetanocera ferruginea and a host of others ...

… to bees and wasps, including abundant evidence of nesting Tawny Mining Bees …

… to true bugs.

It seemed that every plant in the garden was being used in some way or another, for feeding, basking or mating but the greatest attractor of all on this day was the Perennial Candytuft, in the Scree Garden, next to and sheltered by Beth’s house:

 

All of the above are pretty widespread creatures, but as always, time spent looking and searching revealed some specialities that I have not, or only rarely, recorded in the garden before. First is a micromoth, a metallic glistening morsel with wingspan barely a centimetre, called Dyseriocrania subpurpurella. Its larvae live in blotch mines on Oak leaves, and while it is widespread throughout Essex, it is only the second time I have seen it here, possibly because the adult emerges in spring when so often the weather conditions are not conducive to flight.

The Slender Groundhopper is a very small grasshopper relative; groundhoppers are the only members of the grasshopper and bush-cricket group of insects (Orthoptera) that overwinter as adults. Although again widespread across Essex, especially around the muddy edges of ponds, this is the first time I have seen it in our garden.

And then a trio of true bugs, all also new to me as inhabitants of our garden. The Rhombic Leatherbug is a scarce south-eastern species, in Essex more or less restricted to Thames-side and the valley of the River Colne. The ground bug Trapezonotus desertus is found also across Essex, but with only a thin scattering of records: the Essex Field Club map shows only some ten localities. And finally, best of all, the spurge-bug Dicranocephalus medius: a very strongly southern species, this has only one spot on the Essex map (in the deep south) and we have seen it before only in west London.

Of course you cannot overlook the flowers and other plants. The ferns are rearing their reptilian croziers skyward …

… while the flowers span the turn of the seasons, from tulips to paeonies.

The overwhelming impression I had was of joy in the garden. I have never seen so many smiling happy people wandering around, for the first time in many months not having to keep one eye on the weather as they walk. And although the weather forecast is not so good, if anyone wants to join me on a nature walk around the gardens, I will be doing just that (weather permitting) at 11AM and 12 noon this coming Friday, 19 April, meeting at the Visitor Information Centre. Once you have paid to come in, the walk is free! Further ‘Meet the Wandering Naturalist‘ events are also planned for May 17, June 21, July 19, August 2, August 16 and September 20. 

For tickets and more information, visit our website Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens

A wander round Kew Gardens

Kew is always a delight, and even during really busy times (such as Easter holidays when Bluey is in town) it is always full of photogenic subjects. This time though, with somewhat inclement weather, many of the photos were taken in the glasshouses. No words, just pictures: flowers, foliage, fruits and architecture…

But for the first time we saw the gardens through the eyes and camera of Eleanor, our six-year-old grand-daughter, on her first visit to Kew.  Here are some of her images from her own unique viewpoint: we do forget that someone only 120cm tall is so often looking through bars and railings, and always upwards. In the right hands, one of Papa’s old cameras can teach us all a lesson!

 

 

Travels around Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire

Away from my usual haunts for a couple of days, I ventured south of the Thames…

I was first introduced to the surprising sandstone outcrops of the Weald last summer in the grounds of Wakehurst Place – see blog here. When the chance came again to head south of the Thames last week I resolved to seek out more of these geological features, and headed to the Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve of Eridge Rocks, just south of Tunbridge Wells.

I was not disappointed! The rock bastions here are even more impressive, set amongst extensive Beech and Holly woods from which (thankfully) Rhododendron thickets are now being cleared.

Massive outcrops, up to 10 metres tall, of 135 million-year-old rocks forming an extensive ridge, they are in places smooth, in others with honeycomb erosion features. They were simply magnificent, despite the gloomy and windy weather, and fittingly dripping with water in the rainy conditions, being an eastern enclave of temperate rain forest, otherwise more characteristic of the western fringes of our isles.

Luxuriant carpets of mosses and liverworts cascaded down the faces …

… and I managed to find both of my target ferns, both new to me. There were some patches underneath overhangs and deep in shady crevices, well out of photo-reach, of the moss-/alga-like gametophyte generation of Killarney Fern, a plant that is now turning up in this form  much more widely than the flaccid, ferny sporophyte generation, a real rarity of the Atlantic fringes.

And then tucked away at the foot of north-facing cliffs, the real prize – Tunbridge Filmy-fern, first found in these parts in the late 17th Century but sadly depleted by the Victoria fern-collecting mania. The main patch covered maybe half a square metre, and the fronds were showing the spore-producing structures. It was worth getting wet and muddy for, even if the unremitting gloom and rain were not really conducive to photography.

Next stop, some 40km to the west was Box Hill, under the care of the National Trust. I am assured the views are magnificent but low cloud and rain meant that the best I could do was to walk among the dripping Box and Yew woodland, with Whitebeam just bursting into leaf.

First time I have been here since the early 1980s, it was a damp but enticing experience, and left me wanting more….

But by now, while the rain was dying away into (heavy) showers, the wind was ferocious. The top of a hill was not the place to be so time to head to my hotel in Havant.

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The second day dawned drizzly though before too long the sun came out and, despite the still strong onshore wind, it got quite warm, at least in shelter. It was a day around the estuaries and marshes between Chichester and Portsmouth, all very familiar to one from Essex.

First onto Hayling Island, and out to the western end at Sinah Beach, with views across to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. And the Beach Café for a most welcome egg-and-bacon bap! The wind was crashing the waves against the more exposed shingle shores, with few birds to be seen and certainly no insects.

Moving east onto the Sinah Common, I found some shelter among the Gorse, Blackthorn and Sallow shingle heath, also with lots of Honeysuckle (it must be a glorious sight and smell in summer) plus a non-native relative Lonicera tatarica, the first time I have seen this eastern Asian bush growing in the wild in Britain.

Lesser Celandine, Heath Wood-rush and Common Stork’s-bill were in bloom, some  attracting attention from bumblebees and hoverflies taking advantage of some shelter from the wind, while the old military installations had an array of lichens.

The shingle continued eastwards, fronting Hayling, and here the feel of Essex was very real, almost like Jaywick, a place I know well.

Around the back of the island, in sheltered bays, Brent Geese were feeding on the marsh fringes…

… except along the shore of Hayling Island nature reserve where the windsurfers were out in force.

Back on the mainland, Langstone Harbour produced Early Meadow-grass, acid green among the other grasses, while White Comfrey and Alexanders clothed the verges. And Mediterranean Gulls yowling everywhere!

Round on the next peninsula at Southsea, the shingle beach was being colonised by salt-pruned Holm Oaks, growing happily alongside truly maritime plants like Sea Beet.

And lastly for today, to Farlington Marshes, the mix of grazing marsh and estuary feeling especially like Essex, with the added ‘delight’ of the very busy road alongside… yes, it was Good Friday, but this whole area does seem terribly busy and noisy.

There was Thread-leaved Water-crowfoot flowering in the shallow marsh pools, while the higher ground had numerous anthills, and the mature scrub hid singing Song Thrush and Cetti’s Warblers.

Alongside the paths, Spanish/Hybrid Bluebells and Garden Grape-hyacinths provided colour and a resource for bumblebees, while Alexanders, here more sheltered, was feeding solitary bees, a well-marked small weevil Anthonomus pedicularius, and lots of hoverflies (mostly Eristalis pertinax), with a White Crab-spider waiting in vain for one to get too close…


And finally to Kingley Vale, a National Nature Reserve on the downs inland of Chichester.

One of THE classic British wildlife sites, its most impressive feature (among many) is the almost primeval Yew woodland, with trees hundreds of years old clothing the chalk slopes.

Old and gnarled, the Yews should be the home of goblins and fairies, although all I noticed were the wood-sprites (singing Goldcrests) and a obliging Mistle Thrush among the sun-dappled forest, with frondy mosses like Thuidium tamariscinum clothing the floor…

 

Buzzards mewed over the Belted Galloway cattle brought in to maintain the rich grassland flora of the open slopes, albeit too early in the season for much to be in flower…

And as the temperature rose, at 1030 the threshold was crossed for the emergence of a host of sparkling Brimstones.

And so it was time to head home, past the town of Arundel, its cathedral magnificent in the by now glorious sunshine (an idea here for another trip, another time). Across the flooded plains of Pulborough Brooks, and through the wooded lanes between moss-coated high banks of the South Downs: homeward bound….past Box Hill which today ironically was bathed in the glow of the setting sun, the bronze-tinged Box trees clinging to the steep slopes above the River Mole. But no time to detour: Box Hill will always be there for another sunny day!

 

 

 

 

The Wild Side of Essex with Naturetrek: a windy Naze

Very strong, and unreasonably (given the direction) cold, southerly winds greeted our arrival at the Naze, an exposed headland and breezy at the best of times but particularly wind-lashed today, with sea-foam tumbling up the cliff. At least the forecast rain largely held off, for most of the morning it was sun and blue skies, and even got quite warm in the shelter of the scrub.

First it was down to the beach to make the most of the spring-tidal window. The cliffs of London Clay, Red Crag and loess are magnificent, actively eroding after the recent (indeed winter-long) rains, telling the story of the past 50 million years.

Pyritized wood and early glacial Crag fossils were scattered across the beach, and ash bands spoke of long-past volcanic episodes further north, with added interest from the modern shells: Portuguese Oysters, White Piddocks, Limpets and Slipper Limpets.

On the landslips Colt’s-foot was in flower, helping to feed the few solitary bees foolish enough to be on the wing.

A couple of Brent Geese fed along the tideline, while a mixed group of waders – Oystercatcher, Grey Plovers, Turnstones, Dunlins, Sanderlings and Ringed Plovers were hunkered down around the corner onto Stone Point, where a few bushes of nationally scarce Shrubby Seablite are still managing to cling on despite the battering from the waves.

Turning landward, the Gorse and Blackthorn scrub was in full flower, the latter especially floriferous this year, as seemingly everywhere. In shelter and sun, a few bumblebees and lots of Dark-edged Beeflies were foraging, along with several frisky Peacocks and a Comma.

Although birds were keeping well out of sight, there were Chiffchaffs singing everywhere, with maybe ten Cetti’ s Warblers (one seen) – their numbers seem to increase every year. A Song Thrush serenaded us, numerous Greenfinches called, sang and bounded around, and a surprisingly early House Martin flew through, riding the wind.

Small clumps of trees, probably remnants of the history of the Naze as an early 20th century golf course, included Sycamores, their beautiful purple-edged bud scales just bursting, with a couple of Hornbeams, oaks (with marble galls) and Silver Birches with Taphrina fungus witches’-broom galls. An active Badger sett under the White Poplars was unearthing the Red Crag below, and at least four male Muntjacs showed themselves, both mammals seemingly indifferent to the modern use for intensive dog-walking.

A final stroll through the scrub, the Gorse scenting the air with coconut, revealed larval webs of Brown-tail moths, a few patches of Stinking Iris (duly sniffed), Sunburst Lichens on the Elder bark and the last few ripe Ivy Berries. Alexanders, earning its keep in our lands, was in full bloom feeding early insects, and the local speciality Sea Hog’s-fennel was sprouting into fresh, green leaf among last summer’s umbel skeletons.

Pity about the wind, but it proved to be another good Naturetrek day-trip, full of all kinds of everything.

Fun on the Fylde, Sefton Coast and Wirral

For the third of our 2024 monthly short breaks by train, it was our usual mix of quirky attractions, art and architecture, food and drink, and of course wildlife, this time in north-west England.

First stop, an hour in Preston gave us chance to take in the bus station, recently threatened with demolition but now listed. Described as Brutalist, the curves added by Ove Arup to the car park above lend it a more Modernist feel.

And the rest of Preston also impressed us… so much so we resolved to return after the Harris museum and art gallery reopens in 2025:

On then to Blackpool. No surprises there… an out-of-season beach resort, full of faded glory, tarting itself up for the summer, west-coast-wet, and always the iconic tower – giving us the best view we have ever has out of  Premier Inn room!

… a view which remained in ever-changing form right through the night.

Of course there is much more to Blackpool than the Tower …

… but the seafront was reliably traditional, with Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls everywhere …

… but even on the Central Pier, nature was trying to burst through, Danish Scurvy-grass managing to flower between the boards among the sea-spray-rusted seats and a small flock of Eiders offshore in the silvery track of a sinking sun.

Next morning, the the seafront tram took us away from the glitz of Blackpool to Fleetwood, more down-to-earth and down-at-heel, with stone lighthouses, views north and east over the Marram to two nuclear power stations, plus the Lake District and Forest of Bowland.

But also to the initial inspiration for this whole trip, another modern listed building we first saw featured in the Guardian, St Nicholas’ Church, designed around the form of an upturned boat.

Back on the train, via Liverpool, we arrived at Crosby to see another much-anticipated sight, Another Place by Anthony Gormley, a hundred life-sized sculptures of his body along 3km of beach, each looking out to sea. Who doesn’t feel that, staring towards the horizon, there must be a better place across the water, only to realise that better place might just be in your own mind, within your grasp if only you are prepared to see it?

A very impressive installation, helped by the sun tentatively peeping out for just about the only time on our middle day, bringing the beachscape to life even without the sculptures, the interplay of water and light, and an evident richness of life with Lugworm burrows and all manner of shells.

Heading back to the station, realization that the west coast is warmer than the east, with Ivy-leaved Toadflax already in full bloom, as well as wetter … this array of five ferns in just a metre of mortar was something we simply couldn’t see at home.

And the snail feeding-trails on a garden gate showed you don’t need to be an artist to produce art!

Back onto the train, it was down to our favourite hotel, The Ship at Parkgate (we were last there eight months ago) for a sliver of sunset across the Dee before a truly sumptuous meal.

And breakfast! With Great White Egret on the menu!!

Before a walk along the estuary front, finding Ash flowers bursting like purple pearls, before heading back up to Neston station (in the rain)…

Today’s destination: Birkenhead. A revelation…! First, Hamilton Square…

… The Priory …

… the views from the Wirral Path across to the unique Liverpool skyline.

And best of all, another Guardian tip, the edifices of the ventilation system of the Mersey Tunnel: built in the 1930s, their utilitarian bulk perhaps reflecting the contemporaneous, hulking Gilbert-Scott Anglican cathedral across the river, but decorated and enlivened with lovely art-deco design features.

The largest ventilation shaft of all, 65 metres in height (needed because of its space constraints right by the river) was simply magnificent. We were actually expecting Brutalist concrete, a modern megalith, but what we got was bricks and bulk, lavishly decorated with art deco detail, not dissimilar to Battersea Power Station which featured on our January tour.

But by now a very cold breeze had sprung up, so our trip was topped off perfectly with a welcome hot coffee and even warmer welcome at Amelie’s café! A simply amazing three days.

#WildEssexWalks: Signs of Spring around Alresford

Spring was certainly in the air for our latest WildEssex walk… but so was quite a lot of rain and drizzle: April showers two weeks early…!  We began at Alresford Old Church, the ruins lit up with transient sunlight and as impressive as ever.

The churchyard is one of the best in this area for the richness of its flora, with Common Dog-violet and both Red and White Dead-nettle flowering, a swathe of Wild Daffodils (or a close approximation thereof) and the delightful citrussy-mint aroma from Lesser Calamint leaves.

While the rest of us were looking at flowers, Jude was finding insects , including a 10-spot Ladybird and (best of all) a bagworm nestling within a gravestone inscription. Bagworms are very unmothy moths, and always interesting (see here for a previous blog about them), but this one wasn’t one of the usual Virgin Bagworms. For a start its bag was much larger than that species, some 8mm long with a distinct ridge running lengthwise, and probably of one of the three Dahlica species, all of which are pretty uncommon. And what’s more this had a larviform flightless female just emerged from her pupa, and it seems about to start egg-laying back into the bag!

Heading down to the Sixpenny Brook, the first of several Chiffchaffs was singing, signs of a very recent arrival perhaps, rather than over-winterers coming into song. Gorse was in full bloom and, in the sun, starting to scent the air with coconut, and attracting bees and hoverflies. Blackthorn too looked stunning, some bushes in bud while others were fully open.

Onto Cutthroat Lane, we passed a magnificent bush of Butchers’-broom, still showing a few flowers, each a subtle gem, and acid-green patches of Early Meadow-grass, a recent arrival here from more southerly heartlands:

Then down the edge of Grange Wood, with magnificent oak pollards and coppice stools on the woodbank, standing amidst the Lesser Celandines and the first few Greater Stitchwort flowers…

… while the Bluebells that will be so glorious in four weeks were just bursting, along with (outside the bounds of the ancient wood) Three-cornered Leeks.

And so we found ourselves on the shoreline, with many of the estuarine winter birds still here, including hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits, a hundred or so burbling Brent Geese and about 40 Avocets – the three birds for which the Colne is justifiably renowned and specially protected.

Sadly no one was with us to see our final, bizarre sight of the walk as we headed back home. There in a puddle on the top of the sea wall was a Common Lizard, almost covered by water, and doing a passable impression of an overactive newt! Eventually we managed to persuade it from its bath and released it into the long grass safe from feet and dogs.

From pollinator paradise to thriving ecosystem: Gardening with Wildlife in Mind

We all know that one secret of successful wildlife gardening is to provide nectar and pollen for all the insects that choose to visit. For lovers of the glorious diversity of garden plants, the good news is that natives and non-natives alike can perform this function for our native bees and other pollinators.

And in the garden context, where the choice of plants is limited only by soil and climate, then the gardener can actually improve upon nature, ensuring that nectar and pollen supplies are maintained year-round. In midwinter for example, the British countryside is simply not tooled up to provide those floral resources (except in the form of Gorse), but that of course is the very time that with climate change/collapse many insects are now remaining active, when in the past they would be in hibernation. Growing plants like Mahonia, Viburnum tinus and Sarcococca makes all the difference, to the insects and to our noses!

With this in mind, I recently contributed a blog to the Beth Chatto website, entitled  a Year-round pollinator plant menu, showcasing the role of gardens and gardeners in keeping out insects alive: https://www.bethchatto.co.uk/discover/our-blog/guides/year-round-pollinator-plant-menu.htm

But no gardener should rest on their Laurus nobilis and think that flowers for pollinators is all that is needed. There are many insects and other invertebrates that are not pollinators: they and the larval or nymphal stages of almost all insects are dependent on eating other things, whether that be leaves and roots or other insects…

Whereas insect pollinators are not always too fussy whether their nectar or pollen food comes from natives or non-natives, the same is not true generally for the leaf-munchers: here it is clear that native plants are generally preferred.  Any good wildlife garden will have a range of native plants in or around it. While virtually all plants have their specialist herbivores, there are a few types that punch above their weight and will hopefully be within insect flight distance of your garden: 

TREES: Oak, Willow     

SHRUBS: Hawthorn, Bramble  

HERBACEOUS PLANTS: Nettle, Dock, Dandelion, Bird’s-foot-trefoil

and a range of native grasses, especially if they are allowed to flower and not scalped to within an inch of their lives every three weeks!

With all the above in mind we are also embarking on a major project of adding a paragraph to the A-Z listing of plants on the Beth Chatto website to highlight their wildlife value, so now you can choose plants that are most beneficial to wildlife.

Look after the day-to day needs of insects, with food for both adults and early stages; water to drink, and sometimes to live in; shelter from inclement weather; and freedom from the bane of pesticides. These insects will then underpin the whole food chain, providing food for birds, and in many cases help to break down dead organic matter, recycling nutrients for the next round of plant growth: the cycle of life. Embrace the facts of predation and parasitism, death and decay, and you can then be happy your garden is truly an ecosystem and helping to save the planet.

Reading – why would anyone want to go there?

Continuing our series of short breaks in places no-one thinks about visiting for fun, we headed to Reading. It was a trip dominated by water: a deluge on the third day, and both the Thames and Kennet brim full and in full spate after the rain of the past few months.

Indeed, such was the flooding that our planned walk along the Thames Path and back along the Kennet soon came to a sploshy premature conclusion:

Rivers mean bridges and railings, always a good opportunity for photos…

… while pond-snails foraged on the rusty rails, presumably scraping up algae and camouflage at the same time.

Of course we knew about the rivers in advance, but what we were not prepared for was the history in the town. The Abbey Ruins especially were impressive, made all the more alluring by the fact that it was then the sun came out for the only time, and the skies cleared to crystalline blue.

As with ancient walls everywhere, the stonework provides ample niches for microcosmic gardens, each packed with biodiversity. Only Whitlow-grass in flower right now, but imagine what they will be like in a short few weeks’ time…

Churchyards as always were filled with life, from flowering Yews to moss-sprung turf …

… with parks and plantings starting to bloom and bud-burst after the winter slumber. Here, Cherry-plum, Cornelian-cherry and Box in flower, with the beautiful buds of Winged Spindle, and last year’s filigree festoons of Old Man’s Beard:

Interesting old buildings everywhere, including the Minster and its patterned walls…

…  to more recent, yet still fascinating buildings reminding us of the half-remembered features of the town: the Gaol and biscuits!

And so to the unashamedly modern: glass and underpasses, fossils in the pavements, sculpture and living walls:

… while from almost every angle, The Blade watches benevolently overhead, competing for attention only with the Red Kites.

And finally the main reason for our visit: the Museum, itself housed in an impressive building …

… filled with everything from biscuit tins to Roman artefacts from the nearby Silchester:

… and the replica of the Bayeux ‘Tapestry’. A Victorian facsimile, this is full scale, 70 metres long,  and was featured in a BBC art series a couple of years ago. It was this that meant we found ourselves in the town, but as with so much about Reading we were wholly unprepared for the impact it would have on us. An hour walking slowly round the gallery was like being immersed in a living graphic novel, and at the end we felt we had been through the carnage of the battle. As good a reason as any to go to Reading, just to see that.

The Wild Side of Essex with Naturetrek: winter by the Colne Estuary

Well, the weather hadn’t read the forecast, and the drizzle that had been expected late afternoon set in well before lunchtime – but thankfully the proper rain held off until we had completed our 12km circuit. And it followed hard on the heels of a very wet late January, and almost everywhere it was muddy, deep welly-sucking mud which we could escape only in the afternoon when we headed up onto the gravels that cap the Essex Alps.

We  set out first along the Wivenhoe Trail and around Ferry Marsh, to be met with the first in-your -face splash of colour, so welcome on a dull February day, from a magnificent fruiting body of Orange Brain Fungus:

Almost as arresting were the Sunburst Lichens festooning the bare branches along with other lichens, together with leaf-mines on the leaves of Holm Oak, Bramble and Holly, each one a micro-drama of life before our eyes.

Down by the Colne, the tide being well out, there were Teals on the water, a flyover Goosander, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Oystercatchers getting frisky. Three Black-tailed Godwits were feeding close to the sea wall, giving much better views than the birds we would see more numerously in the open estuary later on, while in a definite sign of spring a probable hybrid Prunus (it seemed more robust than Cherry Plum, normally the earliest in the genus to flower) was in full bloom.

The Wivenhoe waterfront produced its two botanical rarities of cracks in the block-paving, Jersey Cudweed and Four-leaved Allseed: although now familiar they have been with us only for about eight and five years respectively – and how they got here from southern enclaves is still unknown.

Past the Shipyard ad tidal surge barrier, into the open estuary, the mudflats widen rapidly, and waterbird numbers increase markedly, albeit at greater distance tan those upstream. Black-tailed Godwits were joined by Lapwings, Dunlins, Redshanks and eventually a tight bunch of Knots:

Avocets too, mingling with Shelducks and Teals …

…  and before too long the burbling of Brent Geese, as a couple of hundred flew off a distant field (perhaps spooked by a noisy military Chinook), over our heads and plonked down on the river in front of us. Cue frantic washing and feather-care, no doubt starting to prepare for their epic 4000 kilometre migration that could be under way in as little as a month. And turning our back reluctantly on the water, there was a Little Egret, a smart male Stonechat and singing Linnets on the grazing marsh.

A Song Thrush was an addition to the springy soundscape along the edge of Grange Wood, where we decided to take refuge from the drizzle for lunch (and half of my cheese sandwich was snaffled by a poorly controlled Cocker Spaniel). With the incessant mud-sploshing, I decided to vary the route, to head up to higher, drier ground, past a wonderful array of old oak pollards and coppice stools marking the boundary of the ancient wood.

Bluebell and Wild Arum leaves were spearing into the light, and the first Lesser Celandine flowers, albeit part-closed in the absence of sun.

On to the ancient trackway of Cutthroat Lane, the banks featured Butcher’s-broom, including a few leaves still bearing open flowers, while closer to habitation Snowdrops have snuck out of the gardens.

Finally into Cockayne’s Reserve, where the Sixpenny Brook was in full spate. It is such a surprise in ‘flat Essex’ to actually hear rushing water!

Hazels were flowering, the male catkins just starting to go over, while Siskins twittered in the Alders and a Mistle Thrush delivered its measured fluty song from the very top of the tallest tree.

A final wander along the Brook through Villa Wood, almost an afterthought, then turned for me into the highlight of the day: more Scarlet Elf-cups than I have ever seen fruiting before, having visited the site over 35 years.

Still the only north-east Essex site for this unmistakeable midwinter joybringer, I first found it here in 1986. On that visit, I was with the boss of the local gravel extraction company who had just won planning permission to excavate from under the ancient wood. He wanted me to advise how it could be done in sympathy with the environment: ‘don’t do it’ was not an option on the table! But he was so impressed by the sight of this locally rare fungus that plans were amended, Sand And Gravel Association restoration awards were received. And the rest is history: it is now an Essex Wildlife Trust reserve, and its flagship fungus is evidently thriving.

POSTSCRIPT!

I now have received details of the colour-ringed Avocet I photographed in front of Grange Wood from Dr Simon Cox. He writes ‘the Avocet you photographed was ringed in The Netherlands and has a transmitter (though battery now flat). This shows its route to Essex—Ed Keeble has seen it on the Stour several times at Mistley‘ and here are maps map of its movements (kindly supplied by the ringer, Petra Manche):

#WildEssexWalks – Wivenhoe Woods in Winter

The first WildEssex walk of the year, to our lovely Wivenhoe Woods, was in just the perfect weather – sunshine and little wind, but the legacy of the previous wet days and weeks was evident with the squelchy woodland floor (though we avoided the quagmire areas so as not to lose any of our boots!). Our revised route was not quite what we had envisaged, but we still managed to discover some stories about the ecology and history of the place.

First we criss-crossed the King George’s Field, to look at some of the specimen species, relics of when that area was the park of Wivenhoe Hall. The Cedar of Lebanon, such a statuesque tree, was providing shelter for some tinkling Goldcrests which we were able to admire as they flitted in and out. Other woodland birds heard throughout the two hours included vociferous Robins and Dunnocks, Great Tits (teacher, teacher!) as well as Carrion Crows and the ubiquitous Woodpigeons.

We looked at some of the more usual tree species including Elms: those found in this area always only small, as when they achieve a certain size the beetle which spreads the pathogen which causes Dutch Elm disease can move in. The trees die off, but new ones begin to grow from the roots in their place, thus full-size trees never get the chance to grow.  A shame, but something we have got used to in the English countryside now.

Other trees of note on the KGV include Holm Oaks, and we especially noticed their leaves, where evidence of leaf miners was very apparent. The minute caterpillar of a particular tiny moth lives in between the layers of the leaf, each creature creating a squiggle that represents almost the whole life of these tiny creatures  – the adults fly only for a few hours. The chambers so created fill up with ‘frass’ (poo to you and me) – guess it has to go somewhere!

Then on the leaves of Holly, a similar phenomenon, but in this case the blotch mines of a Holly Leaf-miner Fly:

Once in the wood itself we could see among the leaf litter plants beginning to sprout through, including the spring greens of  Cow Parsley; unfurling Wild Arum (a plant with many vernacular names, most referring to male/female ‘parts’,  for example Cuckoo Pint, Lords-and-ladies, Jack-in-the-Pulpit); dangly catkins of Alder; and the new shoots of Honeysuckle, always a harbinger of Spring.

Butchers’ Broom is quite a special plant – not only for how it looks  (the flowers grow out of middle of the leaves) but also for the mystery of how it manages to get pollinated and to spread: it seems to have lost its pollinators and dispersers in the mists of time since it first evolved…

In a damp woodland you would hope to find fungi and we were not disappointed with a couple of types of Jelly Fungus including a wonderful Yellow Brain Fungus.

In a similar way to leaf mines, ‘galls’  show evidence often of insect activity. These are ‘damage limitation’ structures, when a part of a tree (be it leaf, twig, fruit, bud etc) have a small creature (could be a small wasp, fly or mite) lay their eggs in it. The tree creates a unique-looking growth which is how the insects are identified (they are much too small to notice with the naked eye!). Oak trees are particularly good places to look for galls (over 50 types can be found), and we were impressed by these Marble Galls, clearly showing the exit hole of the wasp when fully mature.

As to actual insects, we found none of note, but on the recce yesterday Chris did find this 7-spot Ladybird and a Green Shieldbug in its winter coloration. Presumably this colour-way would be good camouflage against brown leaf-litter but it showed up rather well against a green leaf.  As the season progresses it will change colour to a much brighter green and become much harder to spot!

We wandered down towards the estuary for a bit of bird-watching and were rewarded with Black-tailed Godwits, Oystercatchers and Teals. Some of these birds will be resident and others visiting from much colder climes.

Plants on the salt-marsh included the Cord Grass and that too had a growth on it – the Ergot Fungus. Harmless growing here ( we don’t eat Cord Grass), it can be devastating when it grows unchecked on food crops, causing madness or death.

Another new word for the day was ‘marcescence’, the phenomenon whereby leaves are retained on a tree after they have died and are no longer functional. No known reason for it, but very distinct in a few of the Oaks and Sweet Chestnuts along this part of the Wivenhoe Trail.

Then a final flourish of colour in the Station car park ( thankfully unsprayed as yet, though guess it won’t be long….):  a beautiful Dandelion and a vital source of sustenance for a passing early bee.