Tuesday 31 October 2023

The Outs And Ins Of Early Autumn

I always get rather impatient at this time of year, waiting for the full blaze of autumn glory to show up. On our little island, warmed by the influence of ocean currents and westerly winds bringing drizzly rain, autumn takes a long time to arrive. But that doesn't stop me from going outside to look....

And all I find is confusion!

A few oak leaves are playing the game; though most of the tree will resolutely hang on to her green gown for a few more weeks.

In the churchyard the little recently-planted maple glows like the embers of an October bonfire while its neighbours still think it's summer.

But I'm trying to focus on autumn today - or am I?.....

These back-lit, unfocussed leaves somehow remind me of modern stained glass.

And the same autumn colours are nicely reflected in the waters of the little River Mel.

Those half-dozen photos are all I came home with from my walk, though on the way back through the village street I frequently stopped and pocketed any fallen leaf that caught my eye. After a cup of tea I BluTac'ed the leaves to an upstairs window and got out my macro lens and small tripod. This is what I came up with from my indoor experiment...

And that's all I have to say about our autumn so far.

Take care.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

The Way Through The Woods

Rainy old England. Even down here in the south of the country, which largely escaped the attentions of storm Babet, there seems to have been rain or showers every day for the past couple of weeks. But it's getting to the time of year when the first signs of autumnal colour should start to shine forth. Time to head for the woods.

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, we head down the A10 road towards London, turning off down a rabbit warren of minor roads till we reach White Stubbs Lane and attempt to find one of the two small car parks that give access to Bencroft Wood, Nut Wood and Westfield Grove. 

All these variously named patches of woodland join up and form the Broxbourne Woods National Nature Reserve.

In the vicinity of the road and the car parks, there's well surfaced and heavily signposted network of paths. We always visit during weekdays but I imagine that it must get busy here on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. 

But we'll leave behind these well worn routes and turn off along narrower, muddier paths that lead into the heart of the woodland - not that it's really remote and you'll still run into the occasional dog-walker or horse-rider, even during the week.

This is what we'd hoped to see - plenty of fungi. During a wet, soggy autumn they pop up everywhere, especially in woods, forests and plantations. I'm not going to try to identify them all as it's easy to make mistakes and I always forget them all by the next autumn anyway!

The only problem with photographing them - apart from the increasing difficulties of bending down and getting back up again - is that once you get your eye in you see them everywhere and it's easy to forget to photograph anything else.

I've recently been reading a book about fungi by the prodigiously knowledgeable and wildly eccentric Merlin Sheldrake which has further impressed upon me just how vital it is to have a thriving population of fungi in woodland areas. It looks as though these woods are doing OK, at least for the time being.

Our path has led us to the edge of the trees where the shafts of sunlight make me raise my head for a few moments. There are many meadows breaking up the tree cover and giving variety to the landscape.

But how did this pattern of land use come about, so close to London? Before the days of easy and efficient transport it was vital that the growing city had a nearby supply of timber (for house-building, ship-building, furniture-making and fuel) and of fresh milk. This part of Hertfordshire, with its heavy soils which could not easily be drained and ploughed, fitted the bill perfectly. And now, of course, it's part of the Metropolitan Green Belt and protected from large-scale development.

Heads down for more dainty mushrooms!

We met a woman who told us that there were "proper fairy-tale mushrooms, you know, the red ones with white spots" in a certain part of the wood - "in the place where I walk my dog". Hmmm....

Another person we met explained how, despite appearances, the reserve is under pressure in these modern times. The population around here has grown, is more mobile and now information is shared so easily by social media. Whereas there were once just a few local people picking mushrooms, there are now large numbers descending on the area. There is a theoretical limit imposed on how many 'shrooms you can take, but it's not enforced.

In spring there was a "secret" bluebell meadow, known only to a few. Then someone thought it was a good idea to mention it on national television, and irresponsible visitors trampled the area to get their "selfies".

Across the centre of the wood there's a wide, rough road that follows a dead straight line, crossing a couple of small streams. Absolutely ideal to ride motorbikes up and down! They'd been there at the weekend and churned up the path so much that we abandoned our plan to follow it, after I'd made a closer-than-intended inspection of Hertfordshire's heavy, ill-drained soils.

This old tractor has been here for many years. I photographed it some ten years ago, when there was slightly more of it than there is now.

Back to the fungi. I noticed that there were fewer of them as we got nearer to the road - was that the result of foraging or maybe just that the road follows drier ground which is less suited to the growth of fungi. Oh, but how did I forget this one...

The star of the show, the unmistakable Fly Agaric or amanita muscaria. It is poisonous and contains psychoactive substances. I always wondered if its association with elves and fairies is due to people eating it and hallucinating.

As usual the bracken beneath the trees is changing colour before the leaves. 

Despite its occasional problems it remains a wonderful place to wander and observe the changing seasons. With any luck we're on the path which will lead us back to the car.


On the way home we passed this remarkable structure....

It stands in the village of Little Berkhamsted and is called Stratton's Tower. Admiral John Stratton had it built in 1789, allegedly so that he could see the ships on the Thames. It's made of old hand-made bricks which had been salvaged from a large house nearby. They are at least 250 years older than the tower itself. The idea that you might see ships from here is usually rubbished by all modern writers. But it is only 17 miles away as the crow flies, and you can easily see the towers of Canary Wharf from ground level a few miles north of here. So, with the height of his tower and a good telescope might Admiral Stratton have been able to at least see the masts of ships navigating the Thames?

Take care.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Farming For Nature

Autumn 1958: I'm with my mother and "Auntie" Dora, we're blackberrying in the fields of Two Pots Farm. The hedges are thick with berries and are so neglected and outgrown that there are "tunnels" inside the hawthorn bushes where a small boy might find pheasants, rabbits, or, on one memorable occasion, a cow!

Autumn 1968: I'm walking with my father beside a freshly ploughed field not far from home. Dad bent down and picked up a clod of earth that resembled some badly mixed concrete. "They can't carry on farming like this, just putting more and more chemicals on the land every year", he sighed.

I've always thought that somewhere between these two extremes there must be a way that agriculture can move forward, working with nature rather than relentlessly destroying everything that is seen to reduce short-term profits.

Luckily there are other people with similar ideas and, unlike me, they are doing something about it. So, Autumn 2023 and my brother and I are on the Coton Countryside Reserve, just a mile or two outside of Cambridge. This compact area of farmland is in the care of the charity Cambridge: Past, Present And Future, who are putting some of this thinking into action.

Other schemes in the area include the Countryside Regeneration Trust's Lark Rise Farm and the RSPB's Hope Farm. But there's also a network of farmers who are farming along similar lines and I've also noticed many large farms are experimenting with different methods on small parcels of their land.

That rough-looking strip of land in the middle of the field has been left to encourage insects which are essential to pollinate the crops. They are usually known as beetle-banks, but they also attract large numbers of butterflies and bees. In the foreground is a wildlife-margin which has the same purpose and also provide food for seed-eating and insect-eating birds.

Flocks of Goldfinches were busy feeding on the seeds as we walked around the wide, grassy paths. Another thing you might notice in the fields these days are "cover-crops", like the sunflowers we saw earlier in the year. The long roots of sunflowers go down into the soil, breaking up the ground to a deeper level than ploughing, the seeds provide food for birds and then, when ploughed in, the dead stalks and leaves add humous to the soil. There's also a lot of interest in ways of growing crops without ploughing at all.

The path takes us up to Red Hill, a mighty summit with a viewpoint all of 45 meters (148 feet) above sea level!

It's enough to give a view across the flat lands of Cambridgeshire and the paddocks of the local riding school (which, incidentally, goes by the wonderful name of Haggis Farm - and Dumpling Farm is just down the road, honest).

There's a magnificent banquet laid out for the winter thrushes (Fieldfares and Redwings) when they return to these shores - any day now.

I'd hoped to find more fungi after the recent rains but, apart from this giant specimen, I didn't notice any.

They've also planted some local varieties of apples and plums to provide food for wildlife, though I'm sure some will be devoured by human visitors.

These human visitors, having walked most of the available paths, made their way to a pub for slightly less healthy sustenance.


While we were at the Working Steam Weekend at Stotfold, Les took a couple of short videos which you might like to see:

(The whistles you can hear on the second video come from the steam engines that were ploughing on an adjacent field).

Take care.

Saturday 14 October 2023

Clapper Snapper

A small collection of scenes on a walk along the edge of the Chiltern Hills, around Sharpenhoe Clappers.

We've been there a couple of times before:

Take care.