Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Through The Woods

We're off for a woodland walk today, but not just any old ramble through the trees; we're following the National Nature Reserves Trail through Broxbourne Woods. And it was a rather misty start to our day once again.

We'll be passing through several blocks of ancient woodland, known variously as Wormley Wood, Emanuel Pollards, Bencroft Wood, Old Grove, Westfield Grove and so on. Surprisingly perhaps we're not far from London, just a little over three miles from the M25 motorway. What's more we're even closer to the built up Lea Valley, though you'd never guess it on such a quiet, still morning as this.

The heavily-used paths suggest that there must be a lot of people here at some time, but all we encountered all morning were a group of four runners, a woman with a dog and a solitary bird-watcher.

And that was not just because it was a dull morning, for the sun soon pierced the mist and it developed into a cloudless Spring day.

We left the woodland from time to time to cross fields or follow tracks across grazing land. In fact if I just push my way through the hawthorn and brambles.....

....There you are, what did I tell you! Parts of this trail are just about impossible to follow on a map, which sometimes shows paths where there are no paths, and conversely no paths where you're supposed to go, so it's just as well that it's all clearly waymarked with little arrows.

Many of the trees here are Hornbeams, a real tough customer of a tree whose wood is so hard to work that it was reserved for just a few important jobs, like making the hubs of cartwheels or the blocks for carpentry planes. At this time of year though it is sending forth delicate lime-green leaves that look wonderful when they catch the sunlight. 

It's also the time of year for Wood Anemones. I love their simple white flowers which are set against their rich and complex foliage.

Wood anemone  Anemone nemorosa

"Sun-loving, gentle, a mark of the old. Wood anemone is one of the first spring blooms, arriving to take in the light through the leafless canopy in broadleaf woodland. Look for them in old and ancient woodland that suits their slow growth".

That's what the Woodland Trust has to say about them.

But it's no good getting all soppy and poetic - we have hills to climb! That's about as much of a hill as we'll find on this walk.

There seems to be a lot more birdsong than actual birds in the branches today. Most of the birdlife is made up of Blue Tits, Great Tits, Robins and Wrens - pretty little things each one, but easily viewable in the garden most days of the year. But Chiffchaffs are also tirelessly belting out their two-note refrain and now and again, if you're really attentive, the Blackcap is singing snatches of his liquid melody.

Some smart new grass is also springing up in some of the glades.

And here's my first Orange Tip butterfly of the year. They are also fond of the sunnier spots. 

After the Great Fire of London in 1666 there was a tax placed on coal to raise revenue to pay for the rebuilding of the churches of the City. At that time all the coal was transported by ship and unloaded at the docks, making it relatively simple to collect the tax. But two hundred years later more and more coal began to be brought in by road, canal and rail. A ring of posts was erected around the area to delineate where tax was payable. Mostly these were on major routes into the capital, but, for reasons unknown, there was also one erected on this minor byway, where it stands to this day.

We're nearing the end of our circuit now, but still with enough energy to make diversions to photograph muddy little ponds.

Take care.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Opening Up

The country is opening up from the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic, but our walk on Friday was very local, just over the county boundary in Hertfordshire. That meant we had a fairly early start to proceedings.

We are experiencing some rather strange April weather lately with overnight frosts and even a little fog around dawn; the above-average temperatures of the last few years have lulled us into thinking that we might be done with frosts in April, though I remember that the advice always used to be not to plant out any tender plants till late May.

The local golf club has opened up too and there was no shortage of enthusiastic putters tramping through the early morning dew.

The strip of woodland running along the southern perimeter of the golf course is a very well-walked area, being so close to the town of Royston, and dog walkers were out in force as the sun began to break through the mist.

A tree has fallen across this little track leading towards the golf course.

I'm sure this larger track must once have been the old road between Therfield and Royston, as it makes no sense for there not to have been a direct road. Nowadays, if you want to drive from one to the other, you have to leave Therfield by making your way along minor roads to the main road into town. Or of course walk along this ancient track; it'll be better for your health and you might spot Yellowhammers, Linnets and Corn Buntings singing from the hedges.

Not that there are many hedges in this heavily farmed landscape. It's doubtful that this was ever densely forested land as it forms part of the chalk ridge which cuts across the country, though it was never farmed as intensively, or insensitively, as it has been during the last century.

To save you straining your eyes, I'll tell you that the little white sign at the bottom left tells you that the narrow strip of land behind it is a "wildlife margin", part of what seems an inadequate gesture to redress the balance. But it's not the only environmental scheme here and while I was taking the photo a Raven flew over, a bird you wouldn't have seen in this area a few years ago, and just one indication perhaps that things are improving a little, here and there.

After skirting around the village of Therfield, we took to the sunken lane which gave occasional glimpses opening up over the surrounding fields, where we managed to see Fallow Deer and many Hares.

I'd often passed this small south-facing meadow, but never at the right time, it seems, to see its wealth of golden cowslips.

The meadow is fenced around so it was tricky to find a nice group of the flowers to photograph, but eventually this little scene revealed itself. But these were not the flowers I'd come to see. I'd approached by this lengthy route to be sure they were opening up and looking their best by the time I arrived.

This grassy hummock is known as Church Hill and for a few brief weeks every year it hosts a small spectacle that causes the good folk of Royston and the surrounding villages to don their walking shoes and undertake a miniature expedition, for the grassy slopes become home to some small purple flowers.

These are wild Pasque Flowers (pulsatilla vulgaris) and they are a rare plant indeed, occurring in just a handful of places in the UK. They get their name from "Paschal", meaning associated with Easter, as that's the time they flower.

They are also grown in gardens, particularly on rockeries, but these garden flowers are much larger than those that grow wild here on Church Hill. By the way, I can find no reference to a church ever having stood near this spot. The only mention on the HeritageGateway website (a fine resource for anyone wanting to find out about historic building and sites in England) is of some low banks below the hill, these almost imperceptible square structures are thought to be medieval sheep pens, but have the imaginative local folk name of "The Devil's Hopscotch".

And, while we're on the subject of folk names, Pasque Flowers are also known as Dane's Blood, from a supposed link to old burial sites, of which there was one on Church Hill, but it was probably from the Neolithic period, so no link with any church there.

I can rarely pass without taking a picture of this absurd gate standing all alone (and in vain) at the edge of the golf course. No point in opening up the gate when you can walk round on either side.

On a different topic, I see that it's just ten years ago when I published my first post on this blog. A big thank you to all those who follow my gentle adventures and have contributed 17,420 comments over the years.

Take care.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Dropping In On Grafham Water

Earlier this week my brother and I went for a stroll beside Grafham Water, a man-made reservoir a few miles north-west of home. It was built in the 1960s to provide water for the growing population of the area. Despite its artificial origins much of the shoreline now looks quite natural. In the mid 80s it was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and much of the surrounding woods and fields now form a nature reserve.

At this time of year it is a magnet for birds with many dropping in as they pass through on migration. And though you'd have to be very lucky to spot a passing Osprey or the White-Tailed Eagle that was seen there recently, there are usually a few more common migrants to be seen.

Like this White Wagtail, motacilla alba alba to give it its Latin name. We have the very closely related Pied Wagtail (motacilla alba yarrellii) here all year round, but the "White" continental cousins pass through every year on migration. You can tell them by their lighter grey backs and clear division between the grey back and the black head. At first glance our Pied Wagtails look very similar but with a more black-and-white appearance, as the name suggests. They also wag their tails a great deal, so it's a more helpful name than some birds are given.

Now you may have thought that the little Wagtail looked as though it was far from the nature reserves I'd mentioned. And you'd be dead right. Strange as it may seem the best place to find these migrant birds is along the concrete dam holding back the water, even with the constant stream of pedestrians wandering along the wide path and the presence of fishermen on boats and standing at the water's edge.

Ah, here's a Redshank - another well-named feathered friend, if you'll allow that the legs are actually more orange than red. It has a ring on its leg and if we could only read the number on it we might learn if it's resident at Grafham or just passing through on its way further north - either is a possibility. Although the setting looks a bit more natural with odd sticks that have been washed up here, our Redshank is also standing on concrete.

Here's a chap I hoped we might see, a Yellow Wagtail. Again a good name, except that there's also a Grey Wagtail and a rarer Citrine Wagtail that also look yellow. You only see Yellow Wagtails here as they travel through; they'd really prefer a pasture with cattle on it and lots of attendant insect life. As always there were other birds we'd hoped to see, but here's what we did encounter:

Blue Tit, Great Tit, Robin, Dunnock, Wren, Reed Bunting, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler (heard), Pied Wagtail (and White Wagtail), Yellow Wagtail, Linnet, Blackcap, Blackbird, Song Thrush (heard), Great Crested Grebe, Redshank, Skylark, Swallow, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Mallard, Mute Swan, Red Kite, Buzzard, Black-Headed Gull, Magpie, Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Canada Goose, Greylag Goose, Wood Pigeon, Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Rook, Great Spotted Woodpecker (heard drumming), Shelduck, Cormorant.


As that was a rather short post we can have some music. Some of you enjoyed the beautiful old Irish airs, played by Steve Cooney on the guitar, which I featured recently (it's playing now as I write this). But he also has a fine reputation as an accompanist to traditional dance music. So here he is whipping up quite a storm with that incredible fiddler, Martin Hayes.....

Come down off that table, now, and....

take care


Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Buds And Blossoms

A few pictures of the oncoming Spring. Believe it or not it was actually snowing just a couple of hours before I went out for my walk - just a few flakes, but definitely snow and not petals of blossom blown by the wind.

And that's how things looked on Monday morning.

Take care.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

King Willow

The willow tree has always had a special place in my heart. It may not be as imposing as a mighty oak, or even the ash tree that stood at the top of my childhood garden, but you have to admire the willow's sheer will to survive.

The trees I'm about to show you stand beside a small meadow, just a short bicycle ride from my present home. But there were willows throughout my life: some strange-looking trees grew outside a house called "The Willows" when I was a child. They had broad, stumpy trunks and a crown of thin, radiating branches, like the one on the right of the above photo. Every few years the branches were lopped off, then allowed to grow again; a practice I now know is called "pollarding".

And these trees are also frequently split open by strong winds as they get older and the inside gets hollowed out. This also happened to the trees on Grantchester Meadows where I often wandered in my teenage years.

At first sight the tree above looks like a natural and graceful addition to the scene. But on closer inspection you can see that the trunk is at the back, way over to the right, while 75% of the growth is from a huge branch that has succumbed to gravity and is now resting its elbow on the ground. But despite all this it still bursts into leaf every spring!

This is the tortured tangle of timber that you see close up. Like an elephant....or an octopus....or those writhing, anthropomorphic creations of the illustrator Arthur Rackham?

What I think must have happened here is that the trees were once pollarded, but when the branches began to shot up they were then left untrimmed - for centuries perhaps. Their weight was too great for the tree to bear and they gradually descended to the ground. But, as they are willows, they just kept on living as if nothing untoward had occurred.

Some trees are split asunder by the forces involved but, although the heartwood has completely rotted, both halves of the tree continue to produce new foliage each spring, while the disintegrating centre provides a sheltered habitat for all kinds of other life.

Small people, and perhaps elves and fairies too, can climb right inside.

There seems to be no indignity that a willow tree can not survive. You can cut off a pole, stick it in the ground, even stick it in upside down if you like, and, if there's enough moisture, it'll grow into a new tree. If you think these trees' days are numbered then all I can tell you is that I thought that when I first saw these trees forty-odd years ago.

And if looking at all these twisted and shattered trees is giving you a headache, then all you need to do is chew on a piece of willow bark and it's said to provide a cure.

This is nothing to do with willows at all, but a blackthorn hedge which has suddenly come into flower in the same little meadow. Well worth a short bike ride.


And we'll finish of with a little music....

As you might have already gathered from his appearance - long, grey dreadlocks and stockinged feet - Steve Cooney is an interesting character. Born in Melbourne, Australia, he left home and went to live in an Aboriginal village to learn didgeridoo. He then decided to explore his own roots by moving to Ireland and played in rock bands, eventually ending up in the folk-rock group, Stockton's Wing. Nowadays he mostly accompanies Irish fiddlers, singers and accordion players on acoustic guitar. The fiddler Martin Hayes challenged him to make a solo album of Irish airs originally composed for the harp. That's just two of the beautiful tunes you're listening to.

You can only hear and buy the album here - Steve Cooney - harp tunes CD (stevecooneymusic.com) - as far as I know. A copy of the CD is on its way to me from Ireland right now.

Take care.