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.