The Buddliea I planted last year is hanging its purple lamps across the garden and, above it, is a constant whirring and buzzing of insects – bees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies. I looked out yesterday and saw a Humming bird Hawk-Moth hovering from flower to flower. I rushed to get my camera, but when I got out there it had vanished. Then there was a vibration next to my right ear and it zoomed in, touched down briefly on my chest then flew off.
When the sun appeared yesterday I saw Red Admirals, Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and a beautiful female Brimstone. After the recent cool damp weather, these butterflies seemed galvanised into a flying fluttering frenzy by the sudden heat of the sun’s rays.
On the ground was an enormous caterpillar – that of the Elephant Hawk Moth. It had fearsome ‘eyes’ and dinosaur-grey skin which rippled and wrinkled as it shimmied along. I watched it till it reached safe cover. These caterpillars feed on Fuchsia, among other things, so I was glad I’d planted a Fuchsia shrub.
Today it is grey and dull again, but I keep looking out in the hope of seeing the Humming Bird Hawk Moth again.
It’s a time of winged things. Summer is taking flight and giving way to autumn. House martins are whirling through thundery air, stocking up on insects before their journey.
In the park, Finley, aged two, is swinging higher and higher – ‘I’m flying …’ Jago, five, is standing still staring at the ground where there is a seething mass of silver wings among the grass. The muggy humid weather has created perfect conditions for flying ants to hatch. The newly emerged young queens and males are spiralling up on sweet-wrapper wings to mate in mid-air. Afterwards the queen bites off her wings, which have served their purpose, and creates a new nest by digging into the soil. The males, having mated, die.
Finley blows the seeds of a dandelion – ‘two, three, six’ and hands me the bare stalk. We examine a stink bug (Coreus marginatus) which has landed on his jeans. A fly sits beside me on the picnic bench. The droning sound of bees blends with distant thunder. In the garden, borage and lavender are straggling everywhere, but I refuse to tidy up as the insects love these plants. Hoverflies, ladybirds, wasps and bees are pinned to every petal.
As we watch the shimmering wings of the ants disappearing into the shadows of the lime trees we hear a loud roaring sound and the Red Arrows fly over in formation. Later is the sad news of the Hawker Hunter crash at Shoreham.
Litton Cheney – a village dug in between two ridges. It has the feel of being stranded in time despite the A35 snaking above it on the skyline. I walked past stone cottages thatched and organic as though they’d grown out of the earth without human intervention. A path traversed a field of short crisp grass crunching underfoot. I couldn’t resist picking a flower from a patch of pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidia) and breathing its sweet scent.
Goose grass (Galium aparine) spattered with cuckoo spit clung to me as I brushed by. I imagined all the pale green juvenile frog hoppers hidden in that protective froth. I came across a derelict farmyard left for nature to take over – rotting log piles and old barns – the perfect habitat for insects, bats, beetles, owls and many more creatures that shun tidy sterile environments.
Emerald green harts tongue ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) bordered the shady lane as I left the shelter of the village for the white way which led gently upwards. I walked through another deserted farmyard where weathered paint peeled from padlocked doors. The cobwebbed glass in the shed windows reflected a phantom image of my face as I tried to peer in. Other windows lacked glass, offering a perfect bolthole for bats and moths. Rusting old machinery grew out of the long grass. A deep silence overlaid this place then a dog barked, breaking the spell.
The chalky path started to climb out of the valley giving views of the strip lynchets terracing the hills. The path had been surfaced with old rubble and stone mixed with thick shards of brown pottery and the occasional fragment of blue china. Overhead a skylark sang in a jet-scarred sky. Cow parsley on tall stalks created a bank of white cloud and grasses were clubbed with heavy seed heads. Nettles fringed the path and, high in the hedges, pale pink dog roses contrasted with dark green. Trees were in full plumage except for one lightning-blasted skeleton, its limbs raised in surrender.
Clumps of purple woundwort (Stachys silvatica) flourished in the banks, bees blustering around the flower spikes. In this prehistoric place I thought about how this plant was used to heal wounds, perhaps from barbed flints. The landscape was opening up now and a steep slope led upwards to the A35 which followed the ridge. I could see lorries on the skyline moving west. Below in the valley, large elder trees were festooned with white umbrella blossoms. White smoke from a bonfire ghosted the distance.
Pins Knoll showed up as a pivotal nub in the circle of hills – a prominent hill which was probably once the site of a settlement. Millions of years ago this landscape was once covered in sea, now swallows swooped in shoals, forked fish-tails against a watery blue sky.
A humid morning. Snails sliding up walls lubricated with overnight rain. Bees slowly gyrating like a child’s mobile around the verbascum, their buzzing blending with the drone of a plane and the hum of approaching thunder. The air is static with electricity and the dog is on edge, following me everywhere – creeping under my desk, pressing against my legs.
I unplugged the broadband and headed for the beach hoping for fresher air. Camouflage-splodges of rain started to fall on the tarmac as I drove off. The recent dry weather has tanned the grass on the roadsides. Treetops are singed brown. The school holidays have just begun and autumn is already elbowing summer out of the way.
Rusty spokes of seeding hogweed line the road, along with spikes of rosebay willow herb. Thistles and burdock add to the purple theme. Sheep are bunching up in a field. By the time I reach the coast at Abbotsbury the screen wipers are on double speed and the rain is bouncing off the road like a million ping pong balls. People are sheltering under the corrugated iron porch of the beach café. A child in an adult-sized plastic cape is splashing luxuriously in the puddles.
I wait in the car till the flashes of lightning and thunder-rumbles subside. The heavy rain has turned the path behind the beach into a stream. I wade through wet shingle noting the bright yellow blooms on the bristly ox-tongue, the rain-battered petals of sea campion, candy-pink flowers of the common mallow and glossy red berries of woody nightshade, tunnels of tamarisk. The air is heavy and it’s like walking under water.
Back in the car and along the coast road. To my left a bank of grey cloud has merged with the sea distorting the horizon. On my right, puffs of steam are coming off the fields. Ahead, Golden Cap is topped by a plume of white mist and looks like a volcano. Colmers Hill is misty in the distance.
Along the strandline on Burton Bradstock are ribbons of different types of seaweed – carragheen, dulse and kelp, tied together by the storm. These are garnished with the usual fishing wire, bits of rope and plastic but I was pleased to see the shell of a spider crab. The gravely sand is pock-marked with the rain, there is a smell of fish and chips. A small boy is screaming like a gull as he rushes at the sea.
Driving home along a steaming road, the Fleet lies silver and flat as a filleted fish on the edge of the sea. I’m glad of the air-conditioning.
Clouds of butterflies flutter around my head taking me back to childhood. I’m on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, in June, in a heat wave and in love with the place – an archipelago of granite islands which seem to float in a turquoise sea surrounded by white sand. Thirty miles off the rugged spit of Lands End and with nothing between them and America, the Scillies are unlike anywhere else.
The roads contain sand from the beach glittering with quartz, fragments of sea-glass and pieces of shell. Wildflowers edge the way, attracting insects in the sort of numbers I remember from the sixties, a contrast to the barren fields and verges of the mainland. Small and large tortoiseshell butterflies, red admirals, bees and beetles forage everywhere. Caterpillars gorge on the profusion of plants. We wait while a thrush smashes a snail in the road. The birds have little fear of people and hop around under your feet, and sometimes will even take food from your outstretched palm.
I saw a humming bird hawk moth gathering nectar from a tree echium – a plant which will grow to twenty feet high, smothered in small blue flowers attracting the bees and butterflies. On the margins between land and sand, sea holly and other salt-resistant plants flourish. The beaches are strewn with tiny shells not seen on the mainland – lucky cowrie shells like small clenched hands, swirling pink and silver top shells, yellow hi-vis winkles, fragile fan-shaped tellins, whelks hollowed by the sea to ivory twists … all set in dazzling white sand peppered with quartz crystals. Beachcombing on a sand bar with the turquoise water lapping at your feet is paradise.
Beyond the main islands are uninhabited smaller islands and large rocks which are a perfect environment for seals and seabirds such as the Puffin, Guillemot, Shag, Cormorant, Gannet and various types of gull. Unusual birds are often storm-bound on Scilly and create a great deal of interest. At St Martin’s a blackboard lists recent sightings – whitethroat, bar-tailed godwit, sanderling, golden plover …
I went on a boat trip to the Western Isles by invitation of the Sea Bird Recovery Project and learnt more about the birds of the Isles of Scilly – the subject of my next blog, coming soon.
Early morning on a muggy day – no wind and a canopy of blue-grey cloud. Biblical rays of sun breaking through here and there. Light rain stippling my skin. The church clock has stopped at midnight when the jackdaws jammed up the works with their nest.
A mayfly spiralling upward towards a swallow on the wire. I could hear swallows under the railway bridge and think they have nests under the dark ledges, but can’t see them. A froth of cow parsley lines the verges like umbrellas at a wedding. Mallards taking off with splashing sounds from their reflections on the stream.
Frisky Friesians were in the footpath field so I chose the lane. Past a badger’s sett no longer in use, the white chalk greening over. Beeches and sycamores crowd up to the edges of the lane creating a dense green tunnel. Does green have a smell? I think so – a peppery, garlicky, sagey sort of scent. It has a sound of quiet rustling. Large rain drops are now landing on big leaves with a tapping noise.
Some places seem to be discrete environments where outside influences don’t exist. Here in this green place there is a profound silence only broken by birdsong. It’s like being in a dream – a deep green planet spinning off on its own. Muddy puddles reflect the trees, creating a watery liminal woodland beneath my feet.
Out of the dream and into the open lane with the sound of the stream the other side of the hedge. Snails like humbugs and spat-out boiled sweets slither over stems, some crushed like eggshells on the tarmac. Plantain with coronets of white flowers, dog roses displaying perfect rain drops, buttercups, dog daisies, comfrey, campions – all attracting insects from cow-pat coloured flies to bees like tiny golden bears. The elderflowers smell like honey.
The rain is ponderous now and the cow parsley has an antiseptic hospital-white smell. There are seven swans a-swimming on the river and a single swallow dipping overhead. A clump of ox-eye daisies on the edge of the road defies passing traffic, the sound of the rush-hour is starting and I’m getting wet …