Nature Notes

Black Bryony and the Jaggy Creel.

Dawn, and a mist rises from the lake by the big house, and a small cloud inversion hovers over the source of the River Enborne. It lifts and mingles with a plume of smoke from the biomass wood boiler, and all is caught in the most ethereal, golden light as the sun comes up behind the trees.

After work, I climb the hill. The leafless woods now appear thin, but up here above them, a few rolled cigarillos of whitebeam leaves have been wind-speared onto a lone hawthorn tree. They rattle in a gust and as I watch, are let go like handkerchiefs on the wind, from hands waving off someone dear, departed. And all is brown.

But so many shades and varieties of brown – and green. Dunnock and wren browns, woodcock browns, russet fox and fallow deer brown, dogwood reds and blackthorn damson, moss and olive greens. Waterfalls of dried goosegrass lie over the hedges, thatching it thinly, sheeny in the light, like straw-coloured lametta, and bramble and rose briars arc high above; one like a shepherd’s crook, another flicks like a driving whip. There are few berries now.

But still heaped at astonishing bright intervals are lustrous, scarlet berries on clockwise twists of raffia. Great heaves of black bryony drape and festoon the hedges and low trees, like necklaces ransacked from a props department, or Carmen Miranda’s dressing room, and thrown over the hedge like gypsy washing.

As I pass the old, graffitied milking parlour (and former Rave Central) I crunch over the remains of a stolen, burnt out car from the summer. Between the bryony berries, are the cartons, wrappers and cups of a whole takeaway meal for four; up on the hill, a car engine revs and backfires as it is driven along a track not meant for it. I imagine its occupants, pursued by a police car, offloading a stolen bounty of rubied jewellery out the window of a speeding car, along with their rubbish, whooping as they go.

Another car comes belting up the hill and I slip through a gap in the hedge and push through a protective, almost impenetrable thicket of rain-jewelled blackthorn, wanting a bit of peace and solitude. Inaccessible to the hedgecutter, the thicket twinkles with finches, tits and buntings, winter thrushes, blackbirds and wrens. It is a small pocket of a sanctuary, a refuge. What Seamus Heaney called ‘the blackthorn’s jaggy creel.’

When I come out, all is quiet. My coat is velcroed over with burrs and the tiny cones of agrimony seeds, that I take for a brief jolt as a mass of crawling spiders. I am as camouflaged as the wren in the thicket.

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Nature Notes

Helvella crispa and the White Fog.

There are a few surprises down the old holloway. The fog came down this morning after a brief, warming sunrise, thickened and settled. I cannot see the hill. On these barely-gets-light days the earth is a painting. The ground I walk on is a chaotic mandala of leaves in rich, golden colours, a patina of butter, toffee, fudge and caramel.

The holloway is bordered by a deep ditch full of water running off the down and already, I mistake the grey lane I have left behind for trailing smoke or floodwater.

My first surprise is a small stand of pristine and beautiful fungus.

The elegant, strange and sculptural white saddle fungus looks like a candle that might have puttered in the casement of Wuthering Heights, the wax melting in shapes formed by a strong draught from a wild moor; the stem of the fungus is deeply fluted like an elaborate ionic column and the ‘saddle’ on top convoluted. A side-saddle perhaps?

It is more like a wrung handkerchief, or a crumpled white peony. Perfectly formed curls, curlicues and roses arc and project from it as if from a fascinator worn to a wedding. Amongst the slew of brown mud, hoof prints and bright leaf litter, they look as if they are made of white, unsullied marble or porcelain.

I take two just steps forward and a woodcock, that must have been sitting tight, right under my nose, explodes up from the earth, shedding leaves as if it were made of them and jinks off. Had I thought to look, would I have spotted it? Probably not. Not unless I’d seen the bird’s black, buckthorn-berry eye, its dark onyx glinting through its cryptic, brown, leaf-mould camouflage.

When I reach the hill, negotiating the deeply churned mud that the shoot and the tractors have made on the bridlepath, the cloud has lifted slightly. I walk on the open down, below a veil of cloud. The clatter and collective whumpf of wings alert me that a large flock of woodpigeons have taken off just above me, in the fog. Here, on this broad expanse of long, tufty grass, seedheads and the leaves of wild, calcareous plants, a lamplight glow comes up from the hazel wood and the hawthorn and blackthorn scrub and all their mingled leaves on the ground. They emanate a butter-coloured light that diffuses and refracts off the low cloud and everything warms again.

A sheltered, thorny fold in the down is filled with chacking fieldfares and voles run from my feet into the insulated castle sanctuaries of hollowed out anthills. The discovery of the porcelain-white saddle fungus and its elegant, curlicued candles seems to have set a glow in the window of this world.

Nature Notes.

Old Gods & Raven Calls.

These winter days, we become crepuscular. Sometimes it feels that, outside, only the glow from big round hazel leaves, or the gold flare from a little quince tree in the hedge, with its hard, yellow-green fruits, provides the only natural light. Like a stored memory; a facsimile of sunshine, a warmth re-gifted in sight only. Leaves deep-litter the lanes & the first windows are blown through the woods. Holes in the sails of the canopy. New shapes – or old ones – are revealed. The old gods are up & on the move …

On the hill, there is a strange, smoky-mauve, quiet atmosphere. Smoke rises from bonfires, just as chalk dust & chaff plumes did six weeks ago, from the combines. A half-hour’s amble around the top of the hill brings a salve of birds.

Redwings and fieldfare are close by, gobbling through the hedges with soft, contact calls. Golden plover swing by in a rapid shape-shifting flock, to land like poppy seeds broadcast out across the field. Their piping whistles fall to me from a sky they have already left. In the foreground, a handsome-bright stonechat hunts from a hawthorn; his smart white collar and rich chestnut-caramel, striking against the dark red berries. 

Then I have to notice what I’ve been trying to ignore. Patches of a strange substance all over the grass. It looks revolting; like something a dog produces when it’s eaten too much grass.

My own dog looks at me, witheringly. There is too much of it. I steel myself for a closer look. Some patches are like yellow coral on the grass stems. Others are more like white slime, or bile or, in other places, scrambled eggs or snail eggs.

It’s everywhere. A weird ectoplasm that no dog could be responsible for. Of course: Dog’s Vomit Slime Mould Fungus! There is so much of it – I’ve not seen it up here before, or perhaps I overlooked it – but I feel inwardly triumphant with my discovery.

Ravens call from the circular wood. They seem to be utilising it as some kind of amphitheatre. I creep in to listen. One makes the sound of a bell struck softly, whilst another plays around with the sound of a slowly pulled, two-handled saw.

Looking up at it, I trip over a small pile of soft-edged, crumbling bricks.There was once a house up here, that doubled as an occasional pub. It’s a high, lonely road and I wonder if it became a kind of pub from its position. A shelter for the lost or weary, desperate travellers or lonely shepherds.

The dog growls at something I can’t see. I wonder what the ravens are repeating so earnestly; what they’ve heard. I turn for home, towards a squid-ink sky; clouds like ink smudges and brush strokes bleeding into blotting paper, as the dark approaches again.

A handful of dry whitebeam leaves, curled like cigarillos, racket down the road behind me. Unusually up here, there is not a breath of wind.   

Nature Notes

The Falcon and the Gleam.

The rain and wind has flattened the strip of long, uncultivated grass on the awkward corner of an arable field. A vole runs from my feet. Last night, a barn owl hunted here. I only heard it’s urgent ppsshhhht as it quartered the field, but two days earlier, I glimpsed it on a fence post, hocks together and toes turned out, wings folded behind its back and with the evening’s mizzle beading its lightly toasted feathers. It gave me two long second’s worth of eye contact with its unreadable, midnight-dewpond eyes before flying off.

I rescue a one-inch toad heading for the woodpile. We’ll be needing that tonight and rather than unhouse him accidentally, I cup him in my hands and release him near one especially constructed for him. An hour later, my daughter puts on a welly from the boot stand outside the front door and her toes meet with a wood mouse. It leaps away, but must have spent a cosy night on the porch, curled up in the upside-down toe of the boot. We stuff the cracks of the house to prevent them coming indoors.

It continues to rain. There is a gap in the wood like a moon in the sky, that has been there all summer. A hole in the otherwise impenetrable canopy where I can see the white sky and the curved hill beyond. Bigger winds have begun to blow bigger holes through it, but for now, the single hole is still there, drawing my eye. The rain streams down the lane, sluicing leaves and small stones, cross-hatching in long, graphite lines over the tarmac, and soaking through my old and inadequate leggings and coat.

In places where the rain has receded a little, sycamore leaves have kept a chalk patina, their veins outlined in pale relief, where the rain running down the track & over them like spilt milk has left its residue: the surface of an old ocean, re-wetted, re-emulsified, momentarily set free.

Tiny haw berry lanterns glimmer with drops of rain and the bloom is smudged off sloes. Guelder rose fruits gleam like fireworks and the black buttons of purging buckthorn shine. I revel in the sensory joy of sloshing and the fact that even above the swish of my (un)waterproofs and the roar of water raining, pattering and running through the wood, I hear the softest whistling ‘seeip’ of redwings coming in.

The chimney starling has been mimicking a golden plover’s rain-dread whistle a whole fortnight before I see them myself, in a gauzy veil over the fields. I wonder if the starling anticipated their arrival with the season and the wind direction, or if they’ve been passing over the house at night for fourteen days already, when I’ve been shored up and insulated, inside. 

Out on the lower slope of the hill, an unidentified, large falcon seems to come from nowhere, swoops close by, pivots and comes back past me for a closer look. Enthralled, I am baffled by its identification. And then I see jesses dangling from its legs, the leather straps that mark it as a falconer’s bird. It flies off, pursued by jackdaws and a raven.  There is no one about. Not a gauntleted soul in sight. I wonder, if I’d thought to hold my fist out, it was looking to land, to come home? The centre cannot hold, I think. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. The words of Yeats’ poem circle. The falcon has spun off and gone out of reach. We have become unstuck.

We held a climate week at school last month and watched the videos shared by the young conservationists and activists to launch the State of UK Nature Report, 2019. It made such grim reading. But we cannot think there is nothing we can do. The ceremony of innocence is drowning and we cannot wait for some revelation to come to hand. We must all act.  I follow the gleam of the setting sun for a while; there is an apricot bar of light at the last of the day. A heavy, pewter-lidded sun blinks. Goes out over Wiltshire.

Nature Notes

Owls & Flowers.

These last five weeks, I have been seeking solace in the countryside around me. The golden light & air of September so soft, I could wrap it around myself. The rain of October falling relentlessly, like some sort of empathy. Noticing small things and wild things has been a great comfort: a starry, Milky Way scattering of autumn cyclamen under a hedge, a polecat vanishing into a log pile, like a sable stole snatched back from a toppled coat stand, or a rhythmic ‘clopping poem’ made up, riding down the lanes between the hedgerow riches: hips and haws, cobs and sloes, hops and guelder, elder, pear. I was singing it softly to myself a quarter mile later, the horse’s radar ears swivelling to listen. 

Walking the same route days later, up the Bunjum Lane towards Prosperous, there is some puzzling chalk pit graffiti; an old name scrawled on a new fence in an old, old place. Above a storm drain, dug into an old rubbish dump of Shippam’s paste bottles, tin teapots & old earthenware, is the name ‘Oliver Cromwell.’ I wonder if old allegiances die hard out here, just an afternoon’s walk from Civil War battle site of 1643, in this time of political turmoil. Along the ‘pobbel drom’, crab apples bead and perfume the tarmac with a rich seam of golden green. Nuts and berries crack underfoot and, where they have been milled by tyres, hooves and feet, make a pale green flour.

Another day, I go up the hill and disappear in cloud to blot out the world below. A buzzard, its feathers beaded with cloud-mist on the fencepost watching with me from this precipitous place, and a hare on the road, do not move. I walk for a whole day on the big hill, and sit for hours hugging my knees and my dog, with views out to almost all the houses I’ve ever lived in.

Pale, bleached grasses, pewter skies, leaves thin as watery light. This is a spent and exhausted countryside, beginning to put itself to bed, to rest. I take strength from the thin turf & light, gleaning kernels, letting husks blow away. It’s an early attempt at a cure for grief. On this autumn equinox, I try to balance the light & the dark as the last swallows filter through, tilting at kites & ravens & the stillness of hares in their forms.

Within the ramparts of the hill fort, what looks at first to be a giant ant pupae comes into focus. A white grub, the size of a mixing bowl, appears to nestle under an excavated anthill. On closer inspection, this is a cross-section of co-habitation. A badger has clawed at the anthill and pulled it apart to get at a subterranean wasp nest built at the heart of this ant citadel. The white ‘grub’ is half of the paper urn home; the comb has been spilled and the grubs scattered by the badger’s bear claws and licked up, the remains of the paper house crumpling and disintegrating in light rain. It is wonderfully and fascinatingly distracting.

Then a crow calls with a surprisingly strong West Berkshire accent: byre! fyre! Instead of oi, boy! and brings me back into focus. A raven, over the watery farm & watercolour hills calls like a stone gone down a well. Farmer Carter, then Farmer Stokes stop on the road to say ‘we heard along the grapevine & are sorry.’ I thank them. But I think the corvids told. There are no grapevines out here. Only bedwine. Bedwine, woodbine, traveller’s joy, wild clematis, it has so many names, smoking through the hedges like a remnant, gone out wildfire.

Back home, an owl calls outside the house in daytime, as it has outside Mum and Dad’s house everyday for the last 4 weeks. I know what it is supposed to mean and  we don’t need telling. It would’ve happened if I’d listened or not. I am reminded by a Kate Bush lyric ‘Your name is being called by sacred things that are not addressed nor listened too. Sometimes they blow trumpets.’ I still love hearing the owls at night. I bear them no grudge. It is a sound that soothes. Both our houses are filled with flowers now. Owls and flowers. How it’s always been.  

Outside the window, there are walls of gold. Castellated fortresses of straw bales, bigger than our house, to soften floors & stop up the bitter drafts under stable doors & between barn walls, when a gold-threaded memory of warm summer is most needed.

Nature Notes

The Sense of an Ending.

The dew-filled tubes of stubble straws have their own silly surprises. They can hold a lot of water. This is apparent, when walking across harvested fields in bare legs & a favourite old dress.

I love harvest time. We plan a family walk, high on the Pewsey Downs and by the time we get there, the wind in our hair and a romp in our boots, the dew has dried from the stubble and the piled straw lines. These bare chalk hills, their swoops and arcs, folds and combes are where the first farmers first broke the earth, pre-history.

This is Eric Ravilious country: Edward Thomas, Hardy and white horse country: below us, the measured lines, satellite geometry and castellated walls, towers and monoliths of the bale stacks follow ancient curves and patterns. Here too are long barrows, round barrows, gallops and sarsen stones and a broad view of harvest. Each square half-mile has its own plume of chalk dust, billowing up from the header of a combine, whilst in other fields, bales are being carted and flotillas of gulls and kites follow the plough, already beginning the year again in places.

On the other side of Knap Hill, we pause to check the map by an old, dry dewpond. It formed the hub of a cartwheel of at least 8 footpaths, emanating from it like spokes and two more further on; the names are a litany of drovers tracks: Workway and Wansdyke, White Horse and West Way. It is easy, in this remote spot, to imagine the travellers meeting here in this high, dry place, watering themselves and their livestock and finding shade or shelter under the overhanging trees.

A footpath sign like a gibbet leads us off, over the bare hills. It reminds me of a wild chapter in Adam Thorpe’s classic novel, Ulverton. Skirting West Wood, we attempt to follow the old Wansdyke track and stumble across a patch of unfarmed, ungrazed and uneven thistle ground. The wind soughs through heavily haw-laden thorn trees. A check on the map reveals this to be the remnant foundations of the long abandoned, remote village of Shaw. We pass through full of questions and a quiet reverence for what must have been a hard life up here.

Back home, we celebrate our 20th Wedding Anniversary, remembering our country wedding in a little flint church overlooking Watership Down. There was a pony and trap and dancing in the village hall next door. I wore a dress the colour of harvest & we decorated the hall with swags of ivy & plaits & sheaves of corn. But my Dad isn’t well. And isn’t going to get better. Between us, we manage to break him out of hospital, and bring him home.

The harvest here is done and there is a bale stack the size of our house in Home Field. Little flocks of swallows pass over on migration and house martins twinkle through the air, catching the last light. The howl of a chainsaw in the wood harmonises with that of the keeper’s dog. In the farmyard, there is a sad toad squashed in the dust and an owl calls in the day, everyday. I try and squeeze out my latent harbouring of old rural and Romany superstitions. I know, anyway.

Tarpaulin thrown and lashed over the straw flutters anxiously and there is the sense of an ending. Later and still out, the harvest moon comes up like a bonfire behind the trees, then bellies up, whole, minting and blessing the stubble in old gold.

Here lies my heart, I think. Here, with the chalk hill like a loving arm at my back.  Later still, the small white moon is like a seedpod of honesty held to the sky. A lens; a mother of pearl cloud, caught in a tracing-paper eyeglass.

Nature Notes

The Sea & The Gold Drop Roads.

All week, the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path had taken us right, or further North; down to the Havens and the beaches. But after a careful night walk across the clifftops, our curiosity had been piqued by a small boat, lit and anchored under the steep, wooded cliffs of the mysteriously named Goultrop Roads, and a lamp that swung through the trees.

With the sea, calm, turquoise and teal below us and so clear we could see the waving fronds of seaweed, we turned south and soon reached the coastal hanging wood, treacherously steep and vanishingly rare, of the Goultrop Roads. The name is evocative enough.  The children misheard it as Ghoul’s Stop, and I, as Gold Drop. There are no roads – and there is no beach.

The coast path runs right along the edge, at tree top height. And the china blue sea can be seen between the branches, below, in a strange reversion; as if it were the sky reflected. As if you were upside down. There are stunted, wiggly, ferny-sprouting oaks, hazel and sycamore, pines, hornbeam, beech and hawthorn, all lashed up together with flowering, scented honeysuckle vines.

You could step straight out into the upraised arms of an oak, and climb all the way down to the sea, walking a final oak-bough-plank out – to dive straight into the sea like a pearl fisher. The only path down is now cut off by a landslip – but there may have been several  tracks hidden under the canopy, where a lamp could be seen and then not – explained away, dismissed as nothing more than imagination. The ‘roads’ were old smuggler’s tracks; routes up from a safe, secret anchorage of a boat tucked in tightly at the bottom.  Nearby inlets and coves are named testaments: Brandy Bay, Dutch Gin, Foxes Holes. 

Now, there are bright butterflies, uncommon blues like sea flakes that join the gatekeepers, the travelling painted ladies and the wall browns, marked like the leaded lights of a coastal church’s stained glass windows. There are vertiginous badger tracks, a peregrine, rumours of otters and an aura of mystery even in the bright day.

Above the coast path, the small medieval church of St Mary’s lies low in a barley field full of salted, rustling corn. Its short bellcote and lone 14th Century bell, squat furtively, as if the church were not meant to be seen from the sea, or by anyone that didn’t already know it was there. Within, is a poignant WWII memorial to the Czech and Polish airman who died flying missions from the airfield of cornfields that now surround it.

Later that afternoon, we head out to the Marloes Peninsula and Wooltack Rock, with its close views of Skomer and Skokholm across the flurry of the Jack Sound. Through my binoculars, hundreds of shearwaters do just that; skimming the troughs and swell of the waves with breathtaking ease. Gannets dive off Pitting Gales Point and there is the higher-pitched jackdaw ‘chack’ of choughs. We spot four of them, flame bills and feet and a jet glossiness making vertical dives down the cliff face. 

And then, if this wasn’t wild Welsh alchemy enough, the singing of seals reaches our ears, echoing up from the cove and sea caves. Three seals float upright, human-like, yawning like bored sirens; their whole dark-dappled bodies, bobbing like bottles, visible through the clear water.

Back at our temporary home, we head out for a last evening swim, all braving the water, with the last of summer’s warmth in it. We swim towards the dark hulk of the Goultrop Roads and a light, perhaps, blinks. I know then that we passed through too quickly. I can still feel  the dappled shade on my skin.

Nature Notes

A Wilder Birdfair.

This year’s ‘Glastonbury for birders’ lived up to that image with a Friday deluge. But the Birdfair community are no strangers to mud and staff & volunteers worked incredibly hard to keep it open. I’ve only managed a trip to Rutland Water’s Birdfair once before, when the children were much younger – but this time, I had only myself to please, and all the wild treats, birding indulgences, conservation conversations and talks to choose from. And what a year to go back. A campaign initiated and led by biologist and wildlife writer Amy-Jane Beer, meant women speakers were on the agenda – there’d been a dearth before.

Amy opened Birdfair (for me) with her talk Wild Women Do; addressing how women get out into the wild alone, what it means to them and what gets in the way. She had invited the ‘wild women’ of Twitter to contribute to her talk, and we did.  Amy’s talk was funny, inclusive, illuminating – and emotional. She described sleeping in a bivvy bag under a hedge to survey turtle doves; and how differently this is construed if men do it. I thought of the words of another nature writer, Carol Donaldson; of what it is to be ‘an oddity among your own species, of wanting solitude, earth and foxhole existence’.

I heard Tessa Boase speak on her book Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather and the resistance she came across in uncovering that the true founders of the RSPB were women, not men. It’s an incredible story. As was Joe Harkness’s talk on Bird Therapy. Struggling with mental health, Joe’s story, subsequent research and guide to birding is inspirational and uplifting. I was privileged to an early read of this book and can absolutely confirm, it’s a hopeful way to soar.

A brilliantly realised re-staging of the revoked Game Fair interview between Fieldsport’s Charlie Jacoby and Wild Justice (the fight-for-wildlife team that is Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery) was delivered to a packed tent, dripping with condensation. Driven grouse shooting (the three are not opposed to walked-up shooting) and the illegal killing of wildlife was discussed. Chris then gave the stage to young wildlife ambassadors. These articulate, clear-sighted people, aged 11-17, stole our hearts, and kicked our resolve into touch.

I managed to catch up with wild and writerly friends and even, through my newly renovated ‘vintage’ binoculars, managed some birdwatching. Time was running out; being away from my usual dry chalk down or heathland habitat, I gratefully accepted pointers from more experienced and friendly birders – and spotted a great white egret (conveniently hunting next to a little egret for size comparison) and a marsh harrier. With a long car journey ahead, I hesitated in going further out onto the reserve, when, over the hill came a sign I need go no further. An osprey, carrying a trout almost the length of its own body, locked and loaded in its talons.

I left glowing with warmth, inspiration and fresh resolve to do more, see more, write more for wildlife. Because, as Amy-Jane Beer quoted, from my contribution to her talk, it is my everything. It is the place I come from and the place I go to. It is family. Wherever I am, it is home and away, an escape, a bolt hole, a reason, a consolation. And a way home. Which I found, eventually. Inexplicably via Milton Keynes.

Nature Notes

The Sea and the Butterfly.

On the Pembrokeshire coast path with my daughter, on the first evening of our holiday, we walk right up the aisle of an ant wedding, taking place either side of the dusty path.  Choosing the warmest, most still of summer days, the ants have grown wings for their nuptial flight, as will those in many other colonies in this particular micro climate at this precise moment in time. This strategy lessens the chance of inbreeding and maximises that of mating. We walk through the wildflowers: our hair, bridal veils of twinkling silver and gold wings. Swallows swoop on the opportunity, above.

The following day, we travel back across the cliff path. The sea is a sparkling draw and the cove our aim, but we dawdle, distracted again by the meadows. Goldfinches tease clumps of drifting thistledown with temporary moustaches, and bees and hoverflies rest on knapweed, vetches, sea campion and marjoram. But it is the butterflies that really catch our attention. There seems a relative abundance of little gatekeepers this year and here, on the coast, wall browns. The name does not do these small, chequered-orange insects justice, dancing up at our feet in spiralling ‘leks’ like tiny fritillaries.  I have not seen one for years. They are almost extinct in Southern and Central England, victims of climate heating. Rather than overwintering as caterpillars, the warmer weather encourages them to hatch into butterflies and, meeting the inevitable cold and absence of food plants, the generation is lost; they can’t survive. But on the coastal margins, where the climate is on average 1.2 degrees cooler, wall browns winter through as caterpillars, as they always have done.  

We are in the sea when the much-talked of ‘influx’ of painted lady butterflies arrives here. Once a decade, numbers of this migratory butterfly build to a spectacular crescendo. Coloured like rich Victorian floor tiles, in tortoiseshell-orange, black and white, these powerful butterflies complete a 7,500 mile journey, in an annual, generational relay from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Arctic Circle and back. Travelling at around 30mph, half a mile up and staging around 100 miles a day, the butterfly goes through several different generations of themselves in a journey of constant renewal and metamorphoses. Our butterflies are a mix of those that have hatched here and those that have come across the sea from continental Europe.

We launch into the sea and relish the cold water closing around our necks. The sea is flat calm between a succession of building rollers. There is a warmish wind and spots of warm, fat rain fall onto our shoulders. A flock of oystercatchers blink black and white above us and gulls glance the surface and our ears. And then suddenly, there are butterflies coming in off the ocean, flying towards us. We treadwater, marvelling at them. That such a fragile-seeming creature could come all that way – a bit of printed silk, really; some of them tattered and faded as our summer grasses, sun and weather burnished, like battered old travelling cases. But then – they are a creature all wings and flying mechanism and little else. Light, and buoyed by the wind, why would we ever doubt them?

When we walk out of the sea, they are all over the little village’s buddleia bushes, balancing on glinting pint glasses, probing spilt droplets of lemonade. Our hair, briney and sea-salted, spiralled and tousled by the wind into ringlets, dries like snakelocks anemones. 

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Nature Notes

A Bed of Bedstraw.

Ham Hill Nature Reserve is a tiny, caterpillar-shaped, remnant of chalk grassland on the edge of West Berkshire and Wiltshire. Its high spine rises above steep plunging banks and a Saxon holloway, running parallel with the road to Buttermere.

Facing the sun, its slopes are full of wildflowers, insects and butterflies. Although quickly walked through, it is a place to look long and linger. The afternoon is cracklingly hot and reassuringly full of the buzz and high pylon whine of insects.  

There is an understorey of spent cowslips, yellow rattle and the oat-coloured ‘hops’ of quaking grass beneath the white umbellifers of burnet-saxifrage and wild carrot. A badger run acts as a dusty white staircase, and I go up carefully, just halfway, not wanting to impact on any plantlife.  The anthill tumps form fragrant, herb-rich pillows, knitted so tightly with tiny green leaves and the delicate flowers of fairy flax, chalk milkwort and squinancywort, they look to have been embroidered by fairies.  

Spikes of purple-blue clustered bellflowers stand among brown broomrapes and orchids that the place is known for. Pyramid and burnt orchids are easy to spot. I have to look hard for pale green twayblade but find similar musk orchid by its honey, unmusky scent alone.

It’s impossible to ignore the butterflies. There are marbled whites, meadow browns and possible chalkhill blues and orange skippers I struggle to identify as they bowl along.  It is too late in the year for Duke of Burgundy but the big, blowsy oranges of dark green fritillary are mesmerising, tumbling over the flowers.

Sounds reach us from fields below: clapping from a cricket game in Shalbourne and the thump of a baler and the rattle of a tedder turning hay. There is the sound of a glider cutting through air and the disconnect of its winch cable. The weight falling through the air on its tiny parachute seems to stop time. 

I sit, gazing at Ham Hill itself, searching for a trace of the lost white horse beneath it. Cut in the 1860s for Mr Wright of Ham Spray House, it was not packed with chalk and probably invisible by the time the Bloomsbury Set came to live at the house in the 1920s, scandalising the locals, picnicking naked on the orchidy slopes. The horse only exists on a map of 1877.

Back home, in the evening, I find I can’t settle in the house and wander up to the other end of the down. Lady’s bedstraw glows in the sunset and I settle down in it for a while.

I’m not sure what I notice first: the twitter of swallows coming down lower to feed or the sky behind me prickle and darken. Either way, rain is coming and I head home. In the morning, my skin is still fragrant with the scent of Lady’s bedstraw.