Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Sandy Land

Some place-names are steeped in mystery; how did a village get the name Shellow Bowells? Others are blindingly obvious; the land around the village of Sandy is, well, sandy! It stands at the foot of a sandstone hill and that's where we're exploring today.

The way in which we've valued or dismissed this landscape over the centuries is a lesson in human indecision and fickleness. A hunting ground for stone-age man.  A safe haven in the Bronze Age.  A barren worthless tract of heathland. A useful source of building stone.  A place only fit for breeding rabbits. An exclusive site to build a country residence. A good place to grow conifers. A store for ammunition in World War II.  A valuable habitat for birds which should be restored to it's former state. A place to observe wildlife and wander through glorious heathland. Lets take a rather random stroll through the area.

One thing you notice if you've travelled from the rich agricultural lands of Cambridgeshire is the prevalence of bracken around here. It starts to appear in roadside verges and among the woodland trees in a way which is unusual in the wider area. I know all about its carcinogenic properties and how it is a pernicious weed but I still like to photograph it; something to do with hearing it called "fairy ferns" in my childhood perhaps.

The present guardian of the site, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is trying to restore deciduous woodland to part of the area, removing most of the conifers which have been planted in the past. Oak woodland supports more insects and birdlife than coniferous plantations.

Insect life like this gorgeous Peacock butterfly. I also saw lots of Speckled Wood butterflies dancing through the sunlight.

The RSPB has its national headquarters at Sandy in this fine old house called The Lodge. The house was built for Sir Arthur Wellesley Peel, son of the Prime Minister Robert Peel, in about 1870. 

The pool in front of the house was constructed originally as a swimming pool for Sir Malcolm Stewart, a keen swimmer, who bought the estate in 1934. It now is a ornamental feature with water lilies and a fountain.

The RSPB purchased the property in 1961 after Princess Margaret decided not to buy. It was a major expenditure for what was then a small organisation. But people inhabited the area a long time before even Sir Arthur set his heart upon living here.

Nearby is the site of Galley Hill iron age fort, built around 2000 years ago. Now that the conifers have been felled you can wander around the banks and ditches and wonder at the huge amount of work involved in its construction.

The old quarry, greatly enlarged when Sir Arthur took it into his head to have the whole estate surrounded by a stone wall, is now a breeding area for many birds and a good place to observe bats in the evening.

The RSPB are working hard to restore the heathland and are having some success as both Dartford Warblers and Nightjars, two specialities of the habitat, are slowly returning to the area. The heather in August is a wonderful spectacle.

And some people just like to photograph that pesky bracken!

Take care.  


  1. You have captured the essence of the region so beautifully. The names did sound quite weird but not as bad as some of Australian places though.

  2. Thanks for all the interesting information and splendid images taken at the RSPB Headquarters...The Lodge looks a very impressive building! Great news with the Nightjars and Dartford Warblers!

    I have also caught up with your super posts on Gamlingway....correction Gamlingay.;-)

  3. Such 'quaint' names for the villages. Interesting note you mention about bracken having carcinogenic properties; I must read up on that/new to me. I also think it looks attractive as an under-storey to the larger trees. That's such a pretty shot with the fountain bursting up from the old pool. How pretty all the heather, and wonderful to read they are attracting the warblers and nightjars there. You finished off John with a creative shadow-shot; nice post.

  4. The Peacock is very beautiful. The pink heather is almost surreal. It is always encouraging to see how quickly a landscape can revert to a healthy balance, and become habitat for birds, animals and bugs again.

  5. interesting observation about our changing evaluations of a piece of land--the "wastelands" that the Native Americans were pushed to are now so coveted for their minerals and fossil fuels--while others are discovering the natural beauty and developing them out of existence--the peacock butterfly is stunning--and I must confess to bringing bracken home to plant in my garden

  6. Interesting photographs. Good to see the RSPB Headquarters too.

  7. Beautiful images and commentary (as always), John! Thank you! Is that an introduced North American gray squirrel in your first image? And, is that (gasp!) purple loosestrife in the RSPB fountain? I know it's (1) lovely and (2) native in Europe, but I just can't help my involuntary reaction; it's popping up all over my preserve's wet spots just now.

    1. Yes and yes, Scott. Like many plants it's not too much trouble in its natural environment it's when it gets transferred elsewhere that the trouble begins. Likewise the grey squirrel; they ousted our native red squirrels, as you probably know.

  8. Those RSPB headquarters are set in a beautiful building ... Much flasher than anything we have here.
    It's lovely to see the soft heather in the ...it adds to the beauty of the landscape.

  9. Ah, now I HAVE once visited here and found it a wonderful place, full of life. Hooray for the RSPB, one of those organisations without which Britain (and the world) would be a much poorer place.

  10. Meant to add that I once heard someone say that RSPB stood for the 'Royal Society for the Prevention of Birds'!

  11. Another worthy project for protection. You know I love me some birds, so any place that gives them refuge is a favorite of mine. We have bracken ferns in our yard... I like them for the delicate quality they add to our wildish garden, but my wife doesn't like them and pulls them out! Oh well. Wonderful post John... I especially like the rich history of this spot to add to its beauty.

  12. Lovely photos of a place I would love to visit John. Unfortunately, it is just a little bit too far away for us to leave our elderly, frail dog for the day.

    It is so good that there is a growing awareness of the need to return to broad leaved woodland. Very good news also that the improving heathland is attracting Dartford Warblers and Nightjars!

    Love the pristine looking Peacock and that pretty fountain.

  13. This is a wonderful tale of nature reclaiming an area! It warms my heart.


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