Anyone zooming along the A1 dual-carriageway road could be forgiven for not noticing the sign to Diddington. It's every bit as "diddy" as its name suggests, just a church, a farm and a few houses - and a total contrast to the noisy mayhem of the traffic rushing past.
We were there, my brother Les and I, just a few days ago but failed to see, or even hear, what we were searching for. Today we set out from the tiny car park at the end of the lane and walked back past the houses. Small birds tumbled out of every hedgerow and skylarks were singing up above as we made our way past the farm and out into the grassy meadows. We'd heard that a Ring Ouzel had been here lately. It should be migrating north but for some reason a few of them are hanging about around here. If you've never seen a Ring Ouzel it's a mostly black bird with a shining white collar - it looks rather like a clergyman - and there was not one, but two of them hopping around in the field.
Not being able to get close enough to photograph the birds I contented myself with a shot of some bunnies!
We then sought out the concrete road leading to the water treatment works. It doesn't sound very promising I know, but at this time of year there are usually small brown birds, hidden deep in the undergrowth at the roadside. They sound like this...
Recordings never quite do justice to the wonderful tone, wild improvisations or sheer volume of their song. Despite their name Nightingales can sing at any time of day or night. There was no chance of a photo, but that really doesn't matter; the bird is nothing to look at anyway, much better to just stand and listen...and wonder.
As we know someone who loves horses we thought we'd better include this fine fellow in the blog. It would be nice to think he was standing waiting for us; however he was really watching a beautiful grey horse who was being led along the road. 'Tis springtime.
It's time to turn our backs on the woodland that has entertained us through the last few posts and venture forth into the Fenland. First of all we'll go just north of the village of Fen Drayton where the River Great Ouse is poised to empty its waters over the wide flat plain; not that it's allowed to do that any more, of course. Nowadays it's all neatly channelled and confined as it crosses the agricultural land.
Fen Drayton Lakes:
But here, where the river gravels have been removed, the flooded pits give some idea of the watery world of past times; similar enough to attract ducks and wildfowl at least.
With the gentle turn into spring come many changes: cattle are once again turned out on the riverside meadows, leaves begin to hide the bare branches, flowers appear, the winter ducks fly north and from the south new avian friends arrive to populate the hedgerows with birdsong.
In winter these lakes were home to huge flocks of ducks, but now there are gulls noisily planning to nest on the islands, and soon there will be Swallows and Sand Martins, Swifts and House Martins, swooping over the water and feeding on flies.
No matter how many times you've seen it before it's a strange transformation to witness.
The ears are as surprised as the eyes, as a whole new soundtrack unfolds to our wanderings. One of the new arrivals is the Sedge Warbler. This small, streaky brown bird has just flown in from Africa and starts singing the moment it arrives. Everything seems to be urgent and hurried in the world of this tiny scrap of life.
Reedbeds like these are its summer home - a few weeks ago it might have been perched among the elephant grasses of the Savanna. Its "song" is a madcap assemblage of chattering, clicks, whistles and snatches of other birds' songs, all hastily uttered with such rapid changes that I often think there are two or more birds singing. The longer it sings the more crazy it gets...
That's a short video I found on YouTube. The higher up the reed the bird climbs the more excited it becomes; often they fly up into the air, unable to control their emotions any longer.
When we were at Fen Drayton Lakes the first Sedge Warblers had just arrived, by the time we visited Baker's Fen, near Wicken, they were chirruping away at full-throttle in every patch of reeds we passed.
Wicken Lode is (just about) navigable as far as this and a few boats make the journey and moor here for the night. They can't go any further, but what a great place to watch the sunset and then awake at dawn the next morning.
There's a Mid-West style wind pump here, looking a little out of place in the Fenlands of East Anglia. There's also a more traditional "windmill type" pump a short distance away, but just out of sight of today's walk.
The mere above held an interesting collection of "left-over birds": a single Wigeon that's presumably injured and unable to fly north with his brethren; a couple of Pochard perhaps similarly afflicted; some Mallards that seem to contain a certain amount of "farmyard-duck" in their genes; and a hybrid goose.
But there were recent arrivals too: a Garden Warbler was singing sweetly in the bushes and several Blackcap likewise; a pair of Greenshank - an uncommon wader here, just passing through perhaps; and two or three Hobbies, smart little birds of prey which will feed on dragonflies later in the summer, catching them on the wing, then neatly "shelling them" and devouring them while in flight. And that symbol of the English spring, the Cuckoo.
I don't know who Charlie is (or was) but that's his hide above. "Charlie's Hide" it says proudly by the door. If the hide is anything to go by then Charlie would have been a rough and ready fenman, witness to many a "fen-blow" and perhaps a flood or two. The kind that blends in with the landscape and with a particularly pleasant outlook on life.
That's the outlook from Charlie's Hide anyway, as spring edges in across the Fens.
In our last post we explored Hayley Wood and I said we were moving on to Gransden and Waresley Woods to see the bluebells. It's really all one wood, though part is in Gransden and part in Waresley. A stream, which at this time of year is just a muddy dip in the woodland floor, marks the boundary between the two parishes. By the time we arrived the midday sun was shining brightly and the birds were singing.
Now, the Bishop of Ely: In my last post I quoted a bit about Hayley Wood from a survey of the Bishop's lands done in 1356, when he was wanted for murder. I said I needed to find out more.
The first thing to realise is that back in the fourteenth century the Fens surrounding the Isle of Ely were a wild and unruly place. The King had no power in this watery wilderness, which formed a hideaway for all kinds of outlaws and vagabonds. He relied on the Bishops of Ely to maintain some kind of order and they "ruled with a crozier of iron".
In the early thirteen-fifties some of the Bishop's men burned down some houses which it turned out were owned by one Blanche of Lancaster. Blanche was a child at the time but had inherited her father's vast wealth. King Edward III had plans for Blanche to marry his third son, John, so burning down her houses was not a bright move. The King rebuked the Bishop and forced him to pay damages.
Soon after this the Bishop, Thomas de Lisle, had one of Blanche's servants murdered and the King retaliated by seizing all the Bishop's possessions and making him beg forgiveness. The survey of his properties was to enable the king to be sure he'd confiscated everything.
Blanche went on to marry the king's son, who is known to history as John of Gaunt, when she was just fourteen. She bore him seven children, three of whom survived infancy, including one who later became King Henry IV. She died from the Black Death when she was only in her early twenties.
"A certain wood called Helewode which contains 80 acres by estimate. Of the underwood of which there can be sold every year, without causing waste or destruction, 11 acres of underwood which are worth 55 shillings at 5 shillings an acre"
- Survey of the Bishop of Ely's Estates, 1356
(occasioned by the Bishop being wanted for murder).
And Hayley Wood is still there today. Would you like to come and see?
To get there we must park on the roadside then walk down this lane. The hedge on the right, as we look at it here, has been in existence for at least 800 years, as is evidenced by many maps that have been drawn down through the centuries. As old hedges mature they come to include more and more hedgerow species and there's a feast of berries here for birds in winter time.
Once within the wood you may be surprised to find it divided up by dead straight "rides" which, though they may look modern, have been here since medieval times and were vital to the life of the wood, as they divided it into separate plots and provided the routes by which the timber could be extracted.
Whereas modern forestry plants trees, lets them grow, then fells the lot of 'em, medieval foresters were (as I've explained before) more subtle, more sustainable. Parts of the wood are still treated in the old way for conservation purposes - some trees are felled, but others are left to grow into fine trees for timber. Where a tree is cut down....
...it re-generates itself by sending up shoots from the old stump. These shoots are the "underwood" mentioned in the quote at the beginning of this post, which were harvested on a seven-year rotation. The light poles thus obtained were used for making hurdles which were used for penning sheep at night, for making the framework for wattle-and-daub cottage walls and all manner of light tasks. And, most importantly, they'd worked out that this harvest could take place "without waste or destruction" of the woodland.
When the wood is opened up in this way, more sunlight reaches the ground and wild flowers benefit tremendously in the next couple of years before the wood grows up again. Hayley Wood has one rather special flower which I can show you several pictures of.
At first sight you might think it's a Cowslip....or maybe a Primrose. You wouldn't be far wrong, but it's actually an Oxlip. They occur in suitable habitat throughout Europe, but in England are restricted to a narrow band stretching through Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. So here we're at the western extremity of its range.
The Oxlip was first described by John Ray in 1660, but in the following years people began to think that he was mistaken and the Oxlip was just a hybrid between a Cowslip and a Primrose. This state of affairs persisted till 1842 when a naturalist called Henry Doubleday was wandering near the village of Great Bardfield and wondering at the splendour of the fields of Oxlips, as many others must have done.
Doubleday, however, noticed something which everyone else had overlooked - there were no Primroses growing anywhere nearby - and you can't have hybrids of plants which are not present! He therefore concluded that John Ray must have been right all along. And he wrote a letter to Charles Darwin about it. The great man found that a cross between a Cowslip and a Primrose did give a very similar looking plant, one that today is known as a False Oxlip, but those growing around Bardfield were true Oxlips, as are those growing in Hayley Wood.
We met a couple who'd driven down from Birmingham just to see the Oxlips, which makes me feel guilty for all the years when I haven't bothered to make even the short journey from home. There were other flowers there to enjoy as well...
... a few violets here and there...
....our friends, the Wood Anemones, growing along with Celandines, though not in such profusion as in the last post...
.... and, of course, plenty of English Bluebells. But I'm told there are even more of them at nearby Gransden Wood. We'll go there just as soon as we find our way back to the car.
Which leaves me just one thing to find out concerning that opening quotation - Was the Bishop of Ely ever tried for his crimes, or did he get away with murder?
To the Medieval mind woodlands were places of mystery, though they also knew their economic worth. We're off to the woods today to see if we can find beauty, a little history and maybe even some of that mystery.
The wood I have chosen to explore on this fine day is Hoddesdon Park Wood in Hertfordshire, which is within a larger area known as Broxbourne Woods, parts of which are a National Nature Reserve. The Hornbeam trees are just coming into leaf and look spectacular as the sun shines through the delicate new leaves.
To reach the wood we need to walk down this long, straight footpath. Believe it or not this was once one of the most important roads in England, built by the Romans to link London with Lincoln and York. We don't know what the Romans called it, but it later became known as Ermine Street, taking its name from the Earningas tribe, whose land it crossed.
And where did the Earningas reside? Well, exactly where I do, on the boundary of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. The village of Arrington, just down the road from me, was once Earningas-ton; strange how these old names have changed over the centuries. But once we've crossed this shallow ford we're in Hoddesdon Park Wood itself.
Landscape historians would classify this wood as an ASNW, or Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland. "Semi-natural" because human influence has done much to shape it for several centuries. "Ancient", in this case, means that woodland has existed in this place since before 1600 (though not the same trees, obviously). Prior to 1600 there was so much natural woodland that nobody ever planted woods, so anything in existence then had probably been like that since trees recolonised these islands after the last ice age. Pretty old then - but the title of this post said something about "stars".
Here we are: a Wood Anemone, star of the woodland floor, blooming early before the leaves appear on the trees blocking the sunlight. They are not rare; you find small numbers in many woods around here.
In the English climate they spread very slowly - about six feet (2 metres) every century - so if you find a lot of them then you can be sure it's an ancient woodland.
And there are certainly plenty of them here, spreading all along the eastern and southern part of the wood, where more sunshine gets in. It's a member of the buttercup family and is also known by the old name of Windflower, perhaps because it grows in the more open parts of the wood where there is more sunshine - and wind. They also vibrate prettily in the breeze, just like twinkling stars.
To add to the fun you can search for occasional pink flowers. These occur naturally and I'm told that some are tinged with yellow or blue, though I've never seen any.
Wild flowers like these are just one of the more obvious differences between old woods and new plantations for, while it's easy enough to plant trees, it's impossible to re-create the complex mosaic of life which gives these ancient woodlands their special character and value.
It's only very recently that scientists have begun to unravel the complicated relationships between trees and fungi. If you want to know how trees cooperate and talk to each other, you need to read The Hidden Life Of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, which is most readable explanation for the non-scientist. But there's still a good deal of mystery lurking here: the complete story of what mosses, lichens, insects and plants like Wood Anemones play in the woodland ecosystem may yet be undiscovered.
What we do know about is the history of this wood; not as much as we'd like to know, but far more than we know about many others.
It's first mentioned in a document of 1277 when it belonged to the Brassington family, who owned much of the land around here. And the ownership of this parcel of land can be traced right through to the modern day. But far more interesting is how the wood was used in the past.
For woods were not just nice places to wander and relax, but were a resource which was exploited by the local population. And, since that exploitation went on for years and years, we can assume that it was a sustainable system which did the wood no long-term harm.
Large parts of the wood were coppiced; that is the trees were cut off near to ground level, which does not kill them but encourages them to send up many straight poles from the remaining stump. These could be used for a variety of purposes and could be harvested every ten years on a rotational system. This frequent cutting back allowed light in to the forest floor which encouraged the growth of wild flowers. That still happens today where coppicing is undertaken for conservation purposes.
But that's not all. We also learn from the historical record that ten of "the best and fairest trees" were left on every acre of land (about 0.4 hectares) to grow into timber trees for building (and shipbuilding in some places). The bushes and fallen branches were left for the local villagers to collect as firewood.
And that's by no means the end of the wood's value - nuts and berries were collected as food, leaves were fed to animals, pigs were turned into some woods to feast on the acorns, deer and wild boar were hunted, young birds of prey were taken for falconry and so on and so on. But nobody ever planted a tree; they just relied on the trees' ability to renew the woodland naturally.
There are earthen banks within the wood which are thought to date back to the Iron Age and that system of management carried on till the nineteenth century. There's even an ancient moat within the wood which is probably the site of the head forester's house - they were important people back in their day.
All too soon it's time to end our little ramble into the beauty and history of this fragment of the British landscape. The Wood Anemone show is one which passes most people by; if you look online you'll find plenty of information about "bluebell woods", "bluebell walks" and even a "Bluebell Railway", but these galaxies of tiny white stars are largely ignored. Mid-April is the time to go out and search for them.