Sunday 30 June 2019

On The Knolls

Lets start off with a little colour.....

A field of poppies on the way to Totternhoe, a village on the edge of the Chiltern Hills in Bedfordshire. These are not a crop, it's what happens when farmers don't kill them off by spraying. One wonders just how much poppy seed there is in the soil.

Behind Totternhoe the land rises steeply to form what are known as The Knolls, a strategic outlook known to man for thousands of years. 

On the very top, about nine centuries ago, a mound was raised and a castle was built, with high wooden walls encircled by steep banks and ditches. The palisades and buildings have all disappeared, though enough of the extensive earthworks remain to inspire the imagination. It's the kind of fort known as a Motte and Bailey. The Motte being the central stronghold on the highest point.

The deep ditch above, which still takes a bit of negotiating despite the softening effects of time, surrounds the Bailey or outer defences. Nowadays the Bailey is an area of dreamy meadowland, thick with wildflowers and butterflies.

Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns were everywhere, with occasional Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, Speckled Woods and Brimstones, as well as assorted Blues and Skippers whose restless dance defied closer identification. A dance populated by Red Admirals and Painted Ladies - now there's an image to conjure with!

The thin, chalky soils of this bumpy, difficult terrain have never come under the plough and have merely been used for grazing sheep and cattle. Ideal for orchids then....

And the orchids do not disappoint, with lots of Common Spotted Orchids and Pyramidal Orchids as well as a sprinkling of less common species. Anyone reading this blog recently might be under the impression that the whole country is awash with orchids at this time of year; alas, this is not the case. Although some species turn up in all kinds of unlikely places, others are confined to just a handful of sites. It may well be that most of them have never been all that common; there is very little folklore associated with them, despite their often odd appearance. 

The map of the area north of Totternhoe is crossed by many footpaths which are marked as old roads. These are a relic of the quarrying which used to take place here from Roman times. As well as the digging of chalk to make cement or agricultural lime it is also one of the main sources of Totternhoe Stone, a rock much in demand by medieval church builders. They even constructed tunnels beneath the Motte and Bailey to extract the precious stone.

When the stone is first quarried it is grey in colour and contains a lot of water. As it dries it becomes a soft rock which was relatively easy to carve for the medieval stonemasons. Not only that but when left a little longer it becomes pure white and hard enough to incorporate inside buildings, though not much good as an exterior building stone. You can't enter the tunnels or quarry to see the stone but you can find it in Westminster Abbey and other big churches.

You can explore the whole area on these old quarry tracks, but on a warm day it's thirsty work!

Time to withdraw to the comfort of the village inn, The Cross Keys. You might expect such a perfect retreat to be expensive and no longer anything like a pub on the inside, but you would be greatly mistaken; it still serves a good pint and has a wide-ranging though very reasonably-priced menu. We'll be back!

And there's still time to take a stroll on the Dunstable Downs with its glorious views towards Ivinghoe Beacon. Or you can sit on a bench, enjoy an ice-cream and watch the aerial exploits of the Glider Club.

There's even a view down on to another of those remarkable poppy fields to complete the day.

Take care.

Saturday 29 June 2019

The Cool Of The Morning

As the weather man was threatening a hot afternoon today, I was out for my walk at six this morning. For those of you who weren't around (I didn't see anyone at all for the first hour) here is what it looked like.

There was an early mist over the fields but the sun was soon burning through.

Spiders had been busy constructing their webs in the fields. 

I photographed this thatched cottage back in January when 
there was frost and a little snow around. 
The red garage doors are inscribed "Melbourn Fire Engine", 
it was built in 1862 to house the firefighting equipment for the villages of 
Melbourn and Meldreth.

I made my way to Stockbridge Meadows. 
There were dozens of rabbits grazing, 
though none were willing to have their photos taken.

A Muntjac Deer was only slightly more bold.

Delicate webs on the Teasels.

This is usually a busy road, 
though not as busy as it was before the village was by-passed.

It was already getting warmer
so I walked through the wood in the shade.

The roadside verges are growing luxuriantly.

A crop that's turning gold and some fieldside poppies.
That midsummer feeling.

The distant row of poplars give a Proven├žal feel to a Cambridgeshire field.

It's just half-past eight
 and already the bees and other insects are collecting nectar
 from these poppies growing alongside the railway.
Look closely and see how many insects you can find!

Take care.

Monday 24 June 2019

Chalk And Cheese

Just south-east of Cambridge are a couple of small nature reserves and they made a pleasant jaunt for me on a rather warm and humid Sunday morning. The two reserves have a very different history and look completely different too. Lets go and investigate...

Cherry Hinton Chalk Pit

Just inside the present city boundary lies an abandoned chalk quarry. Material from the quarry was used to build the colleges and other buildings in Cambridge and also to make lime for agricultural use. Nothing has been extracted from these works since the 1980s and the quarry is being allowed to return to a more natural state.

The site gives botanists an opportunity to study how plants colonise what was originally bare chalk. As you can see there's already quite a floral show, though with a fairly limited range of species. Most of the yellow in the scene above is Bird's-Foot Trefoil, or Eggs-and-Bacon as it's sometimes known from the colour of its flowers. It's a naturally occurring plant in England whereas elsewhere it can be a troublesome invasive species. But there are other yellow flowers here too.....

Above is Yellow-Wort, a plant often found on chalky soils.

The chalk itself was laid down when this area was underwater, about 100 million years ago. It consists mainly of the microscopic remains of algae and unsurprisingly it took a long while to accumulate - about 1cm every 1,000 years, it's been calculated! Chalk is usually white, but here it contains layers that are tinted yellow or pink by impurities too. You can just about make out these in the photo above.

Various Dandelion-like Hawkweeds are also colonising this unpromising environment. And those cliffs around the quarry edge are home to nesting Peregrine Falcons. They are also sometimes spotted on the University's buildings in the centre of Cambridge as they await their lunch, a nice fat pigeon perhaps, to flutter into view.

One part of the reserve has not seen any quarrying activity for a couple of centuries and has, over the years, developed into an area of woodland. It was here that I came across a stand of St John's Wort (below).

Then it was time to pedal on to....

Fulbourn Fen

Nothing could be more different from the recovering landscape of the chalk-pits than the unimproved meadowland of Fulbourn Fen. Although I couldn't resist calling the post "Chalk And Cheese" I don't really know if cheese was produced from the milk of the animals that have grazed this area for centuries, but it seems likely.

These traditionally managed hay meadows have retained their original glory, having never been ploughed or "improved" by the application of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Although they are still privately owned, they are managed with the help of the Wildlife Trust and the public are allowed to roam around on the network of paths and enjoy the scenery.

Wildflowers grow here in abundance and there are plenty of bees and butterflies taking advantage of the nectar supply.

In summer the fields are reasonably dry with just a few small ponds to supply water for livestock.

In one of the wetter parts Wild Iris or Flags were blooming, but these are not the flowers that attract the human visitors...

Orchids, particularly the Southern Marsh Orchid, grow in hundreds in one of the meadows. And there are smaller numbers of at least five other species of orchid.

There are still several large trees spreading their shade for the benefit of the cattle that graze here in the heat of summer. On Sunday there were a couple of families picnicking here - young naturalists in the making perhaps. And there by the fence was my faithful "horse" waiting to take me home.

Take care.

Thursday 20 June 2019

Turned Out Nice Again

England's capricious weather suddenly decided to be friendly and obliging for a while this morning. Therefore my brother and I set out to walk part of a route I'd completed back in early November 2018. You can, should you so desire, check out that post here, or else you might like to just it back and enjoy the stunning greenness that ensues after a few days of English rain.

setting out from Lilley

farm track
and farm machinery

fieldside poppies

ascending Warden Hill

Les enjoying views over the town of Luton

more views of lovely Luton, innit?

view with two poppies

view with a distant line of well-spaced trees

Meadow Brown butterfly

dark clouds gathering once more

a patch of Rosebay Willowherb by the side of the track

wonderful garden as we re-entered Lilley.

Take care.