Blog Archives: Travel by Rail

The Wild Side of Felixstowe

A short break in Felixstowe was ostensibly a recce for our proposed #WildEssexOnTour extravaganza later in the summer, but in reality was jolly good fun as well! We didn’t venture to Landguard this time as we know it so well anyway, but we explored green spaces in the town and also up the coast to Bawdsey.

The first day, spent in glorious warm sunshine, we started along the sea-front, looking at the cliff gardens; they were a revelation, formal yet informal, filled with a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowering perennials.

The plants are mostly non-native and tolerant of sea-spray and wind: fortunately most, like the sun-roses, are a magnet for bees and other pollinators.

Others included Rose Garlic, with mixed heads of flowers and bulbils, and Red Valerian, much more familiar but in full bloom, showing its almost unique character of possessing only one stamen per flower.

A number of springs emanate from the cliffs, reflecting the local gravel/clay geology, and these have mostly been corralled into formal water-features, fringed with Monkey-flower, and with Curled Pondweed and Water-hornwort in the water.

With such an array of plants and habitats not surprisingly there was plenty of insect life on display, from Holly Blues to tiny Dark Bush-cricket nymphs and Green-palped Sun-spider (with a planthopper for lunch) to numerous nymphal froghoppers drooling ‘cuckoo-spit’.

Even flat, mown lawns were not devoid of interest, some with both Sea and Small Mouse-ears (four and five petals respectively) among the Bulbous Meadow-grass, along with Bird’s-foot Clover (with at most two flowers in a head) and Spotted Medick, all typical components of dwarfed maritime turf.

Heading inland, the Snow Hill Garden had Elm leaves with the distinctive larval munchings and meanderings of the Zig-zag Elm Sawfly, a relatively new arrival in these parts…

… while in Langer Park, a more-traditional manicured recreational space around the remnants of the once-tidal Walton Channel, the trees and nettlebeds produced a huge late-afternoon array of sun-basking invertebrates.

There were ladybirds galore, including Adonis, Cream-spot and the distinctive sexpustulata form of Two-spotted …

… along with weevils, soldier-beetles and a large leaf-beetle with a distinctive ‘gutter’ around its thorax Chrysolina oricalcia, the latter something we have never seen before.

Other insects included Hawthorn Shield-bug, Nettle-tap moth and numerous flies …

… including one hoverfly who spent five minutes laying eggs on a nettle-leaf right in front of us, perhaps up to 20 in total!

Spiders too, including a nursing Nursery-web, a few crabbies and one Larinioides cornutus, with quiff and fancy garters. A truly splendid half an hour by the nettles.

Next morning, the weather could hardly have been more different: dull, grey, cooler and with light rain on-and-off all day. A real surprise then walking to hear a veritable chorus of Swifts flying over; yesterday there has been only a few. It went on – and on – and on – and it soon became apparent that it wasn’t ‘real’ Swifts, but tapes of screaming Swifts designed to drawn in occupants to the array of next-boxes on the Library. All credit to Suffolk County Council for this, even if elsewhere in the area they do appear to be a bit heavy-handed on the glyphosate front along paths and roads.

A bus-ride to the north-eastern end of town took us to within striking distance of Felixstowe Ferry. The shingle beach was covered in froth-topped flowering plants of Sea-kale, while along the edge of the land, there were all sorts of other interesting flowers, including White Ramping-fumitory, Seaside Daisy, Sea Radish and Snow-in-Summer.

Several Silver Y moths were out and about, presumably reflecting a recent immigration event, a nomad-bee (perhaps Nomada flava) nectared upon Sea-kale and several Gorse Shield-bugs gave the lie to their name, feeding (or at least resting and mating) on Sea Beet.

Rounding the corner to the Deben, we took the foot ferry across to Bawdsey …

… where we found flowering Barberry and Sand Cat’s-tail, with a Gorse Shield-bug in its ‘proper’ home bearing more than a passing resemblance to Gorse seed-pods.

And finally, one of our most exciting finds of all, the large, rounded, reddish galls of Plagiotrochus quercusilicis on the new-season leaves of Holm Oak. Caused by a gall-wasp, this again was new to us, and indeed is relatively new to the area, being first found in Colchester as recently as 2018. By now though it could be well established – certainly on our walk back to the station we saw it abundantly in one of the gardens.

A fascinating couple of days and a very enticing prospect for our three-day event later in the year!

A garden of medicinal plants and Regent’s Park

Our latest trip to London was in direct response the book we reviewed a few months ago about the botanical origins of modern, prescription medicines. The book told us about the garden of medicinal plants created by the Royal College of Physicians and the monthly guided walks around it. When we found that the May walk was to be led by a good friend of ours, our May Day out was inevitable.

The gardens may be small but they are packed with interest, hundreds of species with connections to medicine. While there are some crossovers with the Chelsea Physic Garden, that is rooted in herbalism whereas the RCP garden is more scientific, with medically proven plants rather than those that have assumed functionality based on for example the fanciful Doctrine of Signatures. It is also a beautifully laid out garden, geographically themed and impeccably labelled (surprisingly not a feature of too many botanical gardens!).

So, few of the plants below are named. You simply need to go there and find the labels yourself: it is free, indeed the walks are free, you just need to check in at reception (and book onto the guided walks). The plants range from familiar and common to rarely seen, wild to cultivated, the ordinary to the beautiful, like the very-familiar-but-stunning-close-up polka-dot paradise that is London Pride:

There were even a few that I as a hardened botanic garden visitor had never seen before, the buttercup relative  Beesia calthifolia  and the South African Buddleia glomerata, most unBuddleia-like although perhaps the leaves do echo those of the Buddleia crispa I am so familiar with at Beth Chatto Gardens.

And not just interesting flowers. Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’ always makes an impact, but here it is the Box in the bottom corner of the picture that is most significant. Lots of Box around the garden, and no signs of Box Moth damage, and it was very pleasing to hear from the Head Gardener that this is not achieved by use of chemical pesticides. Given the business of the RCP it would be ironic if they were to resort to pesticides (= poisons) to keep the garden looking good, notwithstanding the recognition of the subtle dividing line between medicines and poisons…

Away from the plants, yes of course there were Rose-ringed Parakeets, together with invertebrates including the little spider Nigma puella, Rose Aphids and the Plane Bug, no doubt using the Oriental Plane that dominates one of the garden areas.

It is a lovely garden and we will certainly make it a regular stop-off on our trips to London, to see it at different stages of the year.

And so it was then across the road to Regent’s Park on what was just about the first really warm day of the year. The trees were springing into leaf, each recognisable by their hue, rather than the ‘standard’ green of foliage later in the season sullied by the trials of life.

Once again plants, both wild and cultivated …

… but what really struck me was the overlooked beauty of the humble, freshly emerged Ribwort Plantain.

There was a Reed Warbler singing summer into the merest sliver of a reedbed by the lake, and as always a range of insects and other critters to slow down our perambulation!

We were especially pleased to see the galls of the spring generation of the gall-wasp Andricus grossulariae on the dangling tassel catkins of Turkey Oak, rather like the redcurrant galls on native oaks (the spring generation of Spangle Gall-wasps) but with a nipple-like projection. A. grossulariae is one of the gall-causers that have two generations in a year, each generation on a different species, and in this case one native and the other non-native. Some pretty complex happenstance here for it to have become established in this country –  it arrived  here around the turn of the Millennium.

A couple of final images from the Park, first a pollard willow doing its best to recreate ‘The Scream’, and some ‘interesting’ imagery on the bins. A fine message but to feature a Wryneck as the star seems a bit ambitious!

While in the area of course we could not ignore the surrounding built environment, especially since the business end of the RCP is housed in a Brutalist masterpiece by Denys Lasdun (we must book on one of the architectural tours in due course!):

Out the back are the impressive Art Deco Melia Apartments, and just up the road Chester Terrace, in all its Neo-Classical ‘finery’ (ie not to our taste!)…

… and  a selection of other styles, including an ‘old friend’ looking benevolently on.

Another wonderfully varied day of delights!

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?

 

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!

 

 

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.

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.

London: Reused and Recycled!

For our first trip of the year we headed back to one of our favourite stamping grounds, Chiswick (see here for previous blog). Not only is the Premier Inn right next to the Chiswick Flyover (!) it is also just about the cheapest room we have found. And it is next to the Fullers brewery!! And a friendly pub, the George & Devonshire!!!

On top of all of that, Chiswick is a great hopping off point to sites in West London we wanted to visit. And as we realised this time, a couple of places sharing a common theme of Reuse and Recycle, part of the palimpsest of history, each new chapter overwritten on the previous.

So on the way there it was Battersea Power Station: an incredible, hulking edifice, its shape so iconic, and now converted to somewhere you can actually visit and touch some of its six million bricks.

Inside as well as out, simply vast, but tastefully done, the shop signs in concordance with each other and lacking gaudy advertising, just like we found so pleasing in an equally imposing edifice last year, the Halifax Piece Hall.

But as well as its sheer bulk, there are artistic touches everywhere, intentional and otherwise, some absolutely remarkable for such an utilitarian building:

The only slight disappointment was the way the edifice is now hemmed in by new high-rise flats (no doubt needed to fund the conservation of the main building)…

But from the riverbank the iconic outline is still visible, along with views  along the Thames:

Out on the water there was a flock of Gadwalls, and then on the supports of the coal jetty, the most wonderful lichenscapes and mossy microcosms:

Then after a restorative drink, courtesy of the Battersea Brewery Tap Room, underneath the arches of the railway. we headed through Battersea Park to the station. The Power Station loomed from every angle, and the park had sculpture and palm trees:

Winter Honeysuckles were blooming, each flower extravagantly fragranced, and attracting lots of bumblebee interest, while on the lake Shovelers were getting into the swing, or spin, of Spring, one particular pair spinning round and round, heads down, beak to beak, for minutes on end. Feeding frenzy, or pair bonding…or both?

Next morning dawned crisp and blue, perfect light for a stroll through the grounds of Chiswick House to the station:

Our destination, more reused and recycled infrastructure, the London Wetland Centre at Barnes, a visionary rescaping of the former Barn Elms Reservoirs from water supply to wetland biodiversity and education.

Something for all here, from the captive but entertaining (again including many Spring frolics, especially among the head-tossing Goldeneyes and skittering Smews) …

… to the wild birds, often remarkably tame as well …

… although not always: the Moorhens were going at it with all the ferocity of fighting cocks.

Aside from birds, it was good to find a Cream-streaked Ladybird, Winter Aconites and our first Cherry-plum flower of the season, and Butcher’s-broom, simultaneously flowering and fruiting a year apart.

And natural art, from the depths of winter to the cheering new shoots of the year.

#WildEssexWalks – at the head of the Stour Estuary

Oh no!  Shock horror! That was our first reaction when we climbed the steps to the top of the sea wall at Manningtree today.  Instead of an expanse of mud with myriads of feeding waders we were greeted with an almost high tide!  Either tide tables aren’t what they used to be, or (more likely) it was an early and exceptionally high tide, as it so often is around the time of the Hunter’s Moon.

However, we need not have worried: we still managed a lot of ‘birding’ – watching them fly in on to the strips of salt-marsh on the estuary, to feed, preen, get frisky and all the things birds get up to, and as the tide came in further and covered everything, fly off again.

Cormorants hung their wings out to dry in their customary fashion, and Little Egrets struck their poses in elegant style, occasionally flying over showing their black legs and yellow feet to good effect.  Several species of gull put in an appearance – Great and Lesser Black-backed, plus Herring, Black-headed and  a single Common Gull.

Large flocks of Redshanks and Avocets entertained us with their fly-pasts, and hunkered down on the marsh and open water respectively. Lapwings flapped by and a few Brent Geese were seen too, along with larger numbers of Teals, Wigeons and a few Mallards.

Black-tailed Godwits put in a show just as the tide was at its highest, calling to each other in their inimitable ‘Wit Wit’ way, but the biggest surprise was a group of ten Greenshanks, usually much more solitary than this.

All this against a backdrop of Moorhens in the ditch to the rear of the seawall, singing Wrens and a shouting Cetti’s Warbler in the scrub, and a lovely Red Kite circling leisurely overhead.

Of course, us being us, we also looked at any other wildlife we could find – plants including the bright yellow Tansy, a favourite with visiting insects and the beautiful Teasels, some containing a ladybird or two, perhaps already thinking of hibernating for the winter.

Common Reeds were starting to assume their autumn colours and Dog-roses were absolutely laden with luscious hips, presumably testament to our damp midsummer.

A Red Admiral flew overhead, a Harlequin Ladybird basked in a brief flurry of sunlight and on our way back down the steps we narrowly avoided standing on the largest of the chrysomelid beetles, Chrysolina bankii.

Having rescued the beetle, some of us retired to the local pub for a pint and bag of crisps and chat. All in all a very pleasant WildEssex event, in spite of the often rather dull and overcast (though thankfully dry) conditions – thanks all!

#WildEssex on Tour: Harlow and the Stort Valley

 

After the success of last year’s three-day event to Burnham-on-Crouch, we decided a second one was in order – this time to the not-usually-associated-with-wildlife Essex town of Harlow.  Our band of enthusiastic ladies were game for anything, and we’d like to thank them all for their interest in all we arranged and their sense of fun!

Our base at the Harlow Mill Premier Inn was most comfortable, and sitting outside with a drink hearing the running water from the mill pond into the Stort Navigation Canal was just delightful.

We mixed some walking along canals with visits to gardens, a mill, a museum, churchyards and pubs, plus a train ride and a walk to the most odd, brutalist, (but exciting to Chris!) zig-zag bridge…

The main focus of course was the wildlife which we found at every turn – from our second-only sighting of a Southern Green Shieldbug to the exploding seed pods of Himalayan Balsam to Ivy Bees enjoying every Ivy bush we encountered.

Everywhere were bushes and trees absolutely laden with fruits and berries. And plenty of those fascinating structures, galls and leaf-mines, too.

Water played an important part of the trip, us spending a considerable part of the first two days enjoying walking along the banks of the River Stort and Canal.  Listening out for birds we heard the ‘peep’ and then the blue flash of a Kingfisher or two, the high pitched tinkling of Goldcrests, the screech of Parakeets (though no sightings, sorry Jean!), plus ubiquitous Robins and Chiffchaffs performing their autumn songs.  Ducks and Moorhens on the river were showing signs of Spring-friskiness – no doubt due to the day-length being similar to that of Spring when they would be getting up to such activities!

Insects along the way included dragonflies and damselflies, bees, hoverflies, grasshoppers, and an Alder Leaf-beetle (only the third record for Essex, but well established here judging from the number of holes in the leaves) and ladybirds of many types in various stages of their development.

The flowering season is coming to a close, but along with the beautiful but invasive Himalayan and Orange Balsams, there was plenty to see from festoons of Hops to strong-smelling Water Mint, and emerging fungi hinted at what looks like shaping up to be a bumper autumn.

A pleasant walk away from our hotel was the famous Gibberd Garden – a mixture of wild and more-tended areas, lots of sculpture and a castle with its own moat.  My heart went into my boots when, on arrival, the board outside stated it was ‘Closed for Private Function’ but that turned out to be an admin error  (phew) – so we got in OK and were virtually all alone to explore as we wished. Coffee and cake in the Barn were very welcome as the afternoon went on.

En route to the garden we had encountered several Juniper Shieldbugs (one trapped in a web, which we of course rescued) on an Ivy bush.  This is puzzling given that they are meant to spend their lives on Juniper and related species, and so we will be asking the experts about this unusual behaviour. There was a Cypress tree across the road, but why they should be branching out we don’t know.

On the final morning we went into the heart of Old Harlow, through the Greenway and on into Gibberd’s New Harlow  for a tour of some of the many green spaces, ‘The Lawn’ Uk’s first residential tower block The Lawn (Harlow) – Wikipedia,  and a churchyard full of gravestones covered in colourful lichens where many interesting stories were revealed by the two ladies working in the grounds.

We concluded our mini-break in the delightful Harlow Museum.  This has so much to enjoy – from a walled garden full of interesting plantings, (where Chris saw evidence of the Figleaf Skeletonizer moth for the first time, it only recently having arrived in the UK), to a gin still, to an unusual exhibition of Penny Farthings and other bicycles. It really is the epitome of a good local museum, and a credit to Harlow Council.

 

As organisers, we were thrilled with how the trip went, not only for the camaraderie and pleasure of being in each other’s company, but also for the excitement of discovering new things.  We will be sending records of the Southern Green Shieldbug, Alder Beetle and Figleaf Skeletonizer moth to county and national databases so evidence of our trip will be set down in the annals of history!

During our last evening’s meal we discussed the possibility of a 3rd Wild Essex on Tour trip next year – who knows we may even cross the border into another County!  Do get in touch if it is something you may be interested in.

 

Two days of wildlife, culture and commemoration in and around London

At the weekend, we spent a very happy couple of days exploring parts of London we haven’t been to before as well as some old favourites, and a foray out into the Surrey countryside. Here are some of the photos from our travels, with words kept to a bare minimum…

First stop, just after emerging from the Jubilee Line at London Bridge was the Hop Exchange, a remarkable building which a friendly security man was very happy to tell us all about – as he said, ‘what is the point of learning if you keep it to yourself’! The similarities with  the Halifax Piece Hall we explored on one of our visits earlier in the year – same function, different commodity –  were very apparent.

On emerging back into the street, we noticed the Shard looking over our shoulder, a looming but kindly presence throughout our time in Southwark:

A wander around the streets took us to the delightful Red Cross Garden which gave us a nymphal Southern Green Shieldbug…

…and then to Crossbones Cemetery, one of our main reasons for this trip. With a rich but shocking history as a last resting ground for thousands of those on the fringes of society, it is a tiny haven from city life, despite its proximity to numerous landmark features.

 

Lunch at The George, with its galleries, before more walking the streets, peering wherever fancy took us in the manner of all good psychogeography. And of course spending as much time with the new – the incredible Shard – as the old…

Peckham next for more of the (relatively) new, with the Pioneer Centre, from the 1930s Peckham Experiment approach to community and social welfare, and Peckham Library, the product of millennial modernity:

Overnight in the Barking Ibis gave us chance for a lovely walk at dawn along Barking Creek, one of our favourite parts of the Metropolitan Essex coastline, with Jersey Cudweed, Cormorants and Cetti’s Warblers to guide our way:

Then it was back to Waterloo, and a jaunt down the Necropolis Line, or the modern equivalent thereof, to Brookwood Cemetery in deepest Surrey.

Brookwood may have been established to satisfy an urgent need in the heart of the city, but its size is so vast (it is the largest cemetery in the UK) that it is still under-utilized, with lovely acid heathland habitats within its bounds.

Special plants, such as Devil’s-bit Scabious and Dwarf Gorse, abound ..

.. along with all manner of animal life, including Small Copper, Fork-palped Harvestman, Alder Leaf-beetle. Rhododendron Leafhopper and the green spider Nigma walckenaeri …

… and a whole lot more.

A large section of the cemetery is given over to military burials; the most thought-provoking part of the whole site is the American section, the gleaming gravestones being laid out with such precision, and eliciting many conflicting emotions around the futility of war within the beauty of the natural world…

After the cemetery, there was just time for a stroll along the Basingstoke Canal….

…before heading back to Crossbones for the monthly vigil, a rather moving plea for social justice, sadly as relevant nowadays as when the cemetery was in operation.

Two cemeteries, from two eras: when will we ever learn?

Eastern Scotland by train: Forth Rail Bridge, York and the journey home…

Our final morning in Aberdeen, and the rain has arrived. Overnight the granite city has become the dour granite city! Such a monochromatic contrast to yesterday…

We broke the journey south for three hours by the Firth of Forth, changing on to a stopping train at Inverkeithing where a Hawthorn Shield-bug sidled across the platform, another insect towards the northern end of its UK distribution. We rescued it from trampling feet!

Then a couple of stops down the line and across the rail bridge to Dalmeny. A wander down through the woods, past fruiting Rowans and Speckled Wood butterflies, brought us to the shore and its wonderful views of the iconic Forth Rail Bridge, with the modern road bridges further west.

The best thing was the fact that against all forecasts, the sun re-emerged, lighting the bridge and its rusty colour. Simply magnificent!

Out on the water, solitary Guillemots and small rafts of Razorbills were loafing and diving:

South Queensferry was busy (a cruise ship was moored just downstream) but lovely …

… and all too soon, it was back on the train and into a now-dismal England. Overnight in York the rain continued, so next day we had a wet wander round the walls, with Wall-rue ferns and Shaggy Soldiers.

Most interesting was the sight of snails (mostly Banded Snails with just a few Garden Snails) on certain sections, the only likely dry-weather refuges being the grassy embankments four or five metres below.

Into a pub to shelter, we suddenly realised our holiday was ticking away, and sought the wild once more. After checking numerous Senecios in vain, from Common and Sticky Groundsels to Oxford and Narrow-leaved Ragworts (it was only with close scrutiny that I realised how much the old flowerheads in rain look like sea-anemones!) …

 …. and along a steeply sloping concrete embankment of the Ouse we at last found the prize, the locally endemic York Groundsel. A fertile hybrid between Groundsel and Oxford Ragwort, it is surprisingly distinctive with eight yellow rays. What’s more, this is a de-extincted plant. First found and named Senecio eboracensis in the 1970s, by the noughties it was globally extinct in the wild, a victim of City Council herbicide profligacy. Thankfully the Millennium Seedbank at Wakehurst Place had some seeds, which were grown on and enabled its return to the wild earlier this summer.

Sadly we were unable to find the other York speciality, Tansy Beetle, except in art form, despite some good stands of the foodplant. A good reason for us to return.

And so our holiday drew to a close. Five nights, six days, and five rail journeys which thanks to early booking and a railcard cost just a couple of hundred pounds!

Eastern Scotland by train: Aberdeen, the Granite City

We saw Aberdeen at its best, at least for our one full day there, in sunlight and under azure skies. Far from being the monochrome, grey granite city of repute, the sunlight brought the stone and the city to life.

 

Once again it was a whirlwind mix of culture and wild. The city centre has lots of monumental buildings, photogenic in the right light …

… and especially down by the docks, the cityscape is enlivened by equally monumental street art.

 

Union Terrace Gardens, recently remodelled, provided a wonderful pocket of green, set off by impressive modern constructions:

And the gardens themselves are full of interesting plants, and plenty of insect activity. What’s not to love about a garden that features apparently deliberate ornamental plantings of Timothy grass!

 

Out then to Old Aberdeen, a world away from the bustle of the modern city into the historic seat of learning, and modern place for leisure and pleasure.

Attractive buildings and cobbled street scenes in abundance are laced with the ever-present colours of Fuchsia…

 

… and the lovely Cathedral of St Machar, with its impressive ceiling, stained glass and rough stone walls.

Nearby, the Botanic Garden. There is no truth in the rumour that our trips are planned around places like this! Just as with Dundee, the garden is full of light and life, colour and interest.

And almost next door, into Seaton Park, a mix of cultivated ‘wild’ and natural green space, the latter running down to the wildness of the River Don, with Goosanders  and the sound of rushing water.

But as is so often the case it was the ornamental gardens forming the main focus of insect activity:

Back to the Fuschia, it was interesting to watch the way that Honeybees were getting the nectar without delivering on their side of the pollination bargain, chewing through the base of the flower tube to get at it. In fact, on close examination, almost every flower had been on the receiving end of nectar thieves.

But as we headed back to the hotel, so the sun disappeared, cloud was spreading in, and change was afoot, ready for the next phase of our holiday, the two-day journey home…