beetles

Path to the past

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.

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Postcard from Scilly

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.