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.

4 thoughts on “Nature Notes

  1. A beautiful evocation of a rare and endangered habitat and a memory of what used to be commonplace before intensive agriculture destroyed it over most of the country. Sadly, people take as ‘normal’ the monoculture desert that now exists almost universally, the memory of what the countryside used to be having been lost along with the biodiversity on which we and nature depend. Articles like this to remind us are essential to reawaken memory and highlight the urgent need to restore what has been lost before it is gone for ever.

  2. This entry is like reading a Song of Summer or a ballad calling up all the old names of almost forgotten plants and flowers, scents and sounds of those long almost endless days of summer holidays from school spent climbing the chalk downs. From picnicking among the flowers, rolling and tumbling over the sun-bleached grasses, chasing the chalkhill blues and peering perplexed at the rabbit droppings half hidden among the thyme flowers on the yellow meadow anthills, it was a golden time, recreated and remembered here. Quite perfect – thank you. Oh and I must check out lady’s bedstraw, I have never noticed its perfume – a delight yet to experience!

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