Sunday 26 June 2022

Sheep And Weeds

My walk ended up on familiar, well-trodden paths - though there's always something different to see and photograph. The title has rather given the game away: a flock of raggle-taggle sheep are grazing Shepreth Moor and there's a magnificent tangle of weeds on the poppy field. So with no further ado.....

"Hey, I ain't no sheeps!"

Take care.

(the brown, slightly mad-looking, animals
 are Manx Loghtan sheep and lambs, originally from the Isle of Man,
kept mainly for their value as conservation grazers)

Thursday 23 June 2022

A Three-Thousand Horse Town

In England it's often difficult to decide whether a site should be classified as of historic importance, scientific interest, recreational value or natural beauty. In such a small country things tend to get mixed up - and in this particular case you can also throw a couple of works of art and one of the country's top sporting venues into the mix.

As you approach the small Suffolk town of Newmarket (human population 15,000) this mighty statue literally rears up ahead of you. It's called the Newmarket Stallion and it stands right in the middle of the road on a traffic island and announces to everyone that this is the horse-racing capital of the UK.

We're about to walk right through the middle of the racetrack, or more exactly we're walking between the July Course and the Rowley Mile Course. Yes, there's more than one course here at racing HQ. In fact the whole town is surrounded by everything to do with the Sport of Kings. There was no actual racing today but we saw one or two horses being exercised as we began our walk and we'll have a look for some more later this morning.

Our walk is along the top of this raised bank, giving us views out over the race courses and the surrounding countryside. This embankment looks like the kind of thing that might have once carried a railway; it's on that sort of scale - though in fact it's much, much older. There's a deep trench along the west side and the whole thing's called Devil's Dyke.

It's around seven miles (11.3 Km) in length and about 30 feet (10 metres) from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the bank. But as you walk along it becomes clear that neither figures nor photos can express the enormous effort of building such a thing. It was probably dug around the fifth or sixth century AD by Anglo-Saxons, though it's not clear whether it was to prevent an invasion, to control trade along the ancient Icknield Way or perhaps even for reasons of prestige. There's an old legend of course....

A big wedding was being held in Reach, at the northern end of the Dyke. The Devil was not invited, but decided to go anyway. He was refused entry and left for home, at high speed and in high dudgeon. His fiery tail left a deep scorch-mark across the fields, which was ever after known as Devil's Dyke. Maybe there's a grain of truth in this tale.....did two tribes unite, perhaps through marriage?...perhaps another tribe felt threatened by this new alliance and dug this defensive ditch as protection...perhaps, perhaps. One thing is clear though: the Devil, rather than dwelling in the depths of hell, once resided in the sleepy Suffolk village of Wood Ditton - that's where the Dyke ends!

The chalky, sun-facing slopes form a rich haven for wildlife, notably chalk-loving plants and the insects associated with them. Marbled White butterflies were everywhere (though the two photos here were taken elsewhere, in much trickier conditions, the day before and, having gone to so much trouble, I'm not going to waste them!).

Butterflies seem to come into this world with a not-very-clear idea of what they can feed on and they dither about from flower to flower, like some absent-minded shopper, until by chance they stumble upon the right one. You want to grab them by the antennae and say "This is what you're looking for!", but all you can do is stand by, patiently or impatiently, camera in hand, and wait.

But at least we knew what we were looking for.

It's called a Lizard Orchid because it's said that the individual flowers resemble small lizards. You can, sort of, see the head and the tail and maybe some little short legs.

Or can you? Whatever you might think about their likeness to lizards, they are certainly some very strange flowers. And they smell of goats.

And here they stand, right beside the race track. They are quite common plants in parts of mainland Europe, but here they are confined to a few places with chalky soils. 

Having found our orchids there was time to quickly visit the training gallops alongside the Moulton road to see some of the thoroughbreds being put through their paces. They gallop up one way...

...then dawdle back towards the town of Newmarket, something which we're about to do ourselves. 

These days the Sport of Kings could easily be re-named the Sport of Sheiks, as huge amounts of Arab oil-wealth have been poured into horse racing. Even so, the Queen has always been a keen race-goer and horse-owner so it's hardly surprising that the town should want a statue of Her Majesty...

Of course, this is Newmarket, so even the Queen has to share the plinth with a racehorse and its foal.

Take care.

Sunday 19 June 2022

It's The Little Things

Children have a different view of the world from grown-ups. They have little use for grand views or beautiful countryside, but have a seemingly inbuilt obsession with messy corners inhabited by creepy-crawlies and squirmy-wormies - life on a smaller and more manageable scale. The kind of thing which adults usually don't even notice. Somehow I've managed to retain some of my childish inquisitiveness; so here are a few insects and wild flowers that have entertained me recently.

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly 

One of our more familiar garden butterflies which everyone sees at least a few times every summer. But how many of us notice the jewel-like blue crescents along the edges of the wings? They can be very territorial and will chase any other butterflies that encroach on what they consider to be their bit of the flowerbed. According to the Wildlife Trusts' website the males "court" the females "by drumming their antennae on the females hindwings". Now that's something to look out for.

Bee Orchids

I mentioned these in a recent post, so I thought I'd better find some for you. I also mentioned how wild orchids sometimes appear in unlikely places and these are a case in point, growing on a small patch of grass in a street in the modern village of Bar Hill. The flowers are supposed to mimic bees and thus attract real bees in to pollinate them. It must work as Bee Orchids are not that rare.

Scarce Chaser Dragonfly

Despite the name Scarce Chasers are not that scarce - not around the many old flooded gravel pits around here anyway. That's the female in the picture above.

Yellow Wort

This tiny flower is a specialist of chalky soils and, while it can turn up in specially managed hay-meadows, it's just as likely to be found in abandoned quarries or, as here, on a heap of waste soil left over from excavating a small farm reservoir. Yellow Wort is actually a member of the Gentian family, but one that is very easily overlooked.

Pyramidal Orchid

From the same heap of soil as the Yellow Wort, comes this Pyramidal Orchid. There are also Bee Orchids, Common Spotted Orchids and vast numbers of Ox-Eye Daisies on the same site. Pyramidal Orchids have occasional moments of nationwide fame when they get on the News for appearing in thousands on a particular traffic roundabout.

Cardinal Beetle

It's amazing how such a handsome little chap can be so little known. The Red-Headed Cardinal Beetle is a fairly common insect of gardens, parks and hedgerows.

Bedstraw Broomrape

The Broomrapes are a very odd group of flowers which lack any green leaves. Instead of photosynthesising they rely on gaining their nutrients from the roots of other plants, in this case Lady's Bedstraw. This particular example was found growing on sand dunes on the North Norfolk Coast. The host plant, Lady's Bedstraw, is a fairly unspectacular yellow flower which gets its name from the fact that it was once used for stuffing hay mattresses, to which it gave a pleasant scent.

Black-Tailed Skimmer Dragonfly

Another dragonfly which benefits greatly from the proliferation of flooded gravel pits
, which have been left to serve as nature reserves in this area. If you get interested in dragonflies then you have to get used to the idea that males and females of the same species can look very different from each other. Birds often have females that are duller versions of the males, but with dragonflies no such rules apply. Here for example is the female Black-Tailed Skimmer:

And that concludes this round up of some of the smaller things in life. But we ignore them at our peril, for it's these tiny organisms that form the foundation on which the whole of the world's ecosystems are built. Children know best.

Take care.

Friday 17 June 2022

A Day In Sunny Hunny

Every year, at about this time, the people of land-locked Cambridgeshire are seized by a sudden urge to visit the coast. Hunstanton is the nearest and most obvious place to go. From early forays with buckets and spades, to teenage adventures sleeping in beach huts, to later excursions taking elderly parents out for the day, right through to recent visits in search of shorebirds and seabirds - most of them came up for discussion during the course of a recent visit with my brother to "Sunny Hunny", as Hunstanton is less formally known.

St Edmund's Point

St Edmund's point is at the north end of Hunstanton's famous cliffs. There are miles of flat sands to explore, though our usual walk eastwards has been somewhat hampered and restricted by recent changes in the water channel, which drains out the last dregs of the tide.

Hunst'on Beach 

Despite there being a clear line of cliffs at Hunstanton, just a little further east the division of land and sea becomes very indistinct. Twice a day the sea comes in and covers everything, then it withdraws in a half-hearted sort of way leaving pools and channels all over the beach and sandbanks way out to sea.

Over The Dunes And On To The Beach or
"Look at the lully blue sky!"

"Look at the lully (lovely) blue sky!" was first excitedly uttered by my mum's great friend Agnes on an early bus-excursion to the seaside - it's been a catchphrase in the family ever since and must have been repeated every time we've been here.

Beach Colours

The beach huts here are more subtly painted than elsewhere (though there is one pink and purple one among them), but none more tastefully than the sand and sky blue one pictured here.

The Lighthouse

The lighthouse has long since lost its light and is now used as holiday accommodation. It dates from 1840, though a wooden lighthouse stood on the same spot before that. Lights may well have been displayed from the nearby St Edmund's Chapel in the more distant past. This most recent lighthouse was still known as "Chapel Light" in its early days.

The South Beach

The South Beach can be reached by descending a short flight of steps from the amusements, fish and chip shops and candy-floss stalls on the promenade. Later in summer it will be crowded with families with small children, but for now it's the site for school students involved in a surveying exercise.

Fulmar heading north

That "seagull" is not a "seagull" at all. It's a Fulmar, which is more closely related to albatrosses than gulls.

Fulmar heading south

For centuries they were confined to the islands of St Kilda, far out in the Atlantic, but spread into the rest of Scotland in the nineteenth century and into England by 1930. It took them till the 1960s to reach these cliffs.

Wave-Cut Bench

The cliff-line at Hunstanton recedes every winter as storm waves undercut the cliffs and rock topples down. The "wave-cut bench" is the geologist's term for the rock that's left once the seas have done their work and the cliffs have retreated further inland. The flat rocks that remain really do make comfortable benches for the weary wanderer.

Coloured Cliffs

The red colouration is entirely due to iron impurities in the rock.

It's Written In Stone

Where the red and white rocks meet you sometimes get some interesting patterns. I remember being fascinated by these rocks when I was a little boy - and I still find them interesting today.

The Wreck Of The Sheraton

The S T Sheraton was built as a steam-powered trawler, but served in both world wars as a patrol vessel. At the end of WWII it was moored offshore here to serve as a target for trainee bomber pilots. In 1947 she broke free from her moorings during a storm and ran aground beneath Hunstanton cliffs, where she remains to this day.

The Sea As Sculptor

A small part of the Sheraton forms this unintentional free-standing piece. I really should have spent more time photographing the colours and textures of the wreck's rusted carcass. But that will have to wait for another day in Sunny Hunny.

Take care.