Tales of the one that got away

MY photographic skills are getting no better, it seems.

Taking an early morning stroll in the woods at Chartwell, near Churchill’s old home, I was in a perfect position to capture the drama of a bee systematically entering the bells of a wild foxglove.

Except that, as the evidence shows, the bee was a little too fast for me. Ho hum.

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The good news is that reading Britain’s Wild Flowers by Rosamond Richardson has partially compensated for my incompetence by informing me that this is the fairies’ flower whose distinctive flowers might even be gloves for foxes, given to them by fairies so that they can silently sneak up on their prey. How nice an idea is that?

Mind you they are known by a variety of different names in different places, from goblins’ thimbles to dead men’s bells – a sinister Scottish warning reflecting the idea that if you can hear them ringing, you are not long for this world.

Elves hide in the bells, apparently. The Druids revered these flowers and used them in midsummer rituals, while they were also incorporated into an ointment which, when rubbed on witches legs’, enabled them to fly.

Oh yes, there’s more. We know digitalis is poisonous, of course, and yet it is also the source of the most potent and widely used sustances in the treatment of heart disease. Thank you, Rosamond, for radically reshaping my knowledge of this wild flower and its intriguing history.

Next up, butterflies.

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Flushed with my success last time out, I’m able to capture another meadow brown in all its glory. But although the scene is idyllic – a field full of bustling butterflies against the backdrop of the Weald of Kent –  this is, after all, the only butterfly I have been able to capture on film.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when a small tortoiseshell starts sunning itself in the flower garden at Chartwell. Out comes the camera and a flurry of shots later, it transpires the bird has flown. Well, the butterfly, to be precise.

Instead of the aforementioned tortoiseshell, there a host of flower pictures of where the offending insect had been. You will just have to take my word for it.

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Likewise, the nesting house martins are out of focus and the other birds were too quick off the mark to feature in frame – there are some 45 species at Chartwell, apparently, but most of them weren’t hanging around long enough to pose for the world’s slowest and least talented photographer.

No matter. It was fun, anyway and I am enjoying the process of learning a little more about the natural world around me – the plants, birds and trees, for example. And I just have even more admiration for the wildlife photographers who have the patience, skill and stamina to capture nature in all its glory.

Yes, they may have the right equipment too, but they know how to use it – as demonstrated by Vincent Van Zalinge’s wonderful picture of a kingfisher from Unsplash.

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Mind you, my picture of the fox wearing gloves came out pretty well, surprisingly. But hey, I don’t suppose you would want to see anything as run of the mill as that…

Tales from the riverbank

IT’S hardly surprising to hear the mental health charity Mind saying how time spent surrounded by nature benefits both our mental and physical wellbeing.

It’s almost self-evident that nature heals, connects and gives us a clearer sense of perspective, not to mention all those measurable bonuses in terms of blood pressure, heart rate and reduction of stress hormones.

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Half an hour out of the house and striding through open meadowland with only the whistle of the red kites for company, I’m already feeling the benefit of escaping from the computer, the news feeds and the endless soul-destroying political intrigues about Boris, Brexit and our relentless destruction of our beautiful planet.

Apart from the startling view over the valley and the site of the soaring kites riding the thermals, there’s also a flurry of activity among the wild flowers as a handful of small heath butterflies flutter about in the breeze.

I wish I could accurately identify more of the insects and plant life around me, but for once, this one hung around long enough for me to see the markings…

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I’m nipping across the fields to explore a section of the ‘Berkshire Loop’, an extension to the Chiltern Way created in 2010 by the Chiltern Society to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the 134-mile circular walking route.

As explained by Pete Collins on his excellent walking website, the 28-mile loop starts near Penn and branches south from the Chiltern Way, passing just west of Beaconsfield to cross the Thames at Cookham.

It then heads west through Cookham Dean, before re-crossing the Thames at Henley and eventually meeting the southern extension of the Chiltern Way at Harpsden Bottom.

From my lofty perch in the meadow on the climb up to Kiln Lane, it’s a picture of Buckinghamshire peace – although in times past from here you might have spotted a puff of steam across the valley from a train taking the old Great Western line from Maidenhead to High Wycombe.

Nowadays the rails stop at Bourne End, but they used to run through single-platform stations in Wooburn Green and Loudwater, closed with the line in 1970.

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I pick up the Berkshire Loop in Wooburn Common just past the Chequers Inn, a 17th-century coaching inn which has been transformed into a welcoming modern hotel and pub with an interesting menu which will provide a welcome venue for my evening meal at the end of my six-and-half-mile ramble.

For now, open country is beckoning and I’m heading down a road marked as unsuitable for motor vehicles before taking the picturesque path through the woods which heads down towards the 12th-century church of St Nicholas.

The footpath leading across the field up to the church is particularly inviting – a real flashback to a bygone era and a well-trodden path across the centuries.

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Given the spectacular location, there may well have been a Saxon church on this site – or even an earlier Pagan temple, as an old Roman road from Silchester to St Albans is rumoured to have crossed the Thames at Hedsor Wharf close by.

Hedsor Wharf is the where the route heads next, past a field of what look like coal-black dragonflies dancing in the breeze as the path leads down to the Thames at Cookham.

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It’s not hard to see why this area has known different civilisations across the past 4,000 years. There is a small Bronze Age settlement between Marlow and Cookham, signs of a Roman settlement to the southern end of Cookham Rise, and crossing points were always crucial on a great river like the Thames.

Here, the stylish Ferry pub harks back to earlier times, before the building of a bridge in 1840 provided an easier crossing point. The current single-track road bridge dates from 1867 and was a toll bridge until it was bought by the council in 1947.

From here, after the briefest of encounters with the traffic queueing to cross the old bridge, it’s a pleasant and much less polluted riverside ramble west to Bourne End, accompanied by swans, coots and geese, and still pleasantly warm in the late-afternoon sun.

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The narrow boat and cruiser owners are out tinkering with their mooring ropes, the dog walkers from Cookham are taking the air and there’s more of a bustle on the footpath than on the deserted sections north of the river.

But then this is a popular saunter down to Bourne End, and a more conventional route would be to cross the river there on the railway bridge and continue to take the Thames path on the other side on into Marlow.

Past the rail bridge, families are chilling out in the terrace of The Bounty pub at Cockmarsh, and an alternative option would be to follow the four-mile National Trust circular tour back across Cock Marsh to rejoin the Chiltern Way near the Winter Hill Golf Club.

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Or you can stick to the riverside path a little longer before cutting away at an angle towards Winter Hill, another section of National Trust land where the terraces are known to have been colonised by the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age (350,000 – 10,000 BC).

Habitation at the site has continued ever since, as is evident from the Bronze Age burial mounds at Cock Marsh, and huge amounts of Roman pottery were removed from the foot of Winter Hill in 1906, which is thought to have been the site of a ferry across the River Thames.

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For now the marshy terrain looks slightly less welcoming, although it’s a very pleasing outlook over the valley and runners and dog walkers are out on the main paths, where the National Trust is working to maintain what it can of the surrounding chalk grasslands.

It makes a perfect hunting ground for a sneaky heron, however, whose hungry stance is a reminder that it’s time to get a move on and complete the final lap of the journey towards Marlow and dinner…

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The weather becomes a little duller for this stretch, as I depart from the Chiltern Way again and make tracks towards Marlow, utilising part of the 11-mile Cookham Bridleway Circuit and being side-tracked through Longridge and Bisham before finally emerging onto the welcome last leg.

The historic bridge beckons, along with the equally iconic image of All Saints Church. From here, it’s an easy wander through the town’s picturesque back streets to the station, from where the weary traveller can still catch the “Marlow Donkey” back to Bourne End or Maidenhead.

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It seems likely the nickname was actually bestowed on the little Great Western Railway 0-4-2 saddle tank locomotive which used to provide this service back in the early part of the 19th century rather than the two-coach multiple units which run the service today, but the name lives on the local Greene King pub and is too atmospheric not to treasure.

Back at the Chequers Inn for dinner, there’s  time to ponder an earlier form of transport. What must it have been like travelling in these parts three centuries ago, when the first regular stagecoach services began?

By the mid-18th century, England was crisscrossed with coach routes, and hundreds of inns were spread out at seven to 10 mile stages across the land. The coach stopped at the end of each stage to change horses and allow passengers to refresh themselves.

From the 17th century onwards, a stage coach service was well established from London to Oxford, passing though Uxbridge, Beaconsfield and High Wycombe. By the end of the 18th century as many as twenty coaches might come by in a day – and as Clare Bull explains on the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society’s website, those early travellers must have been glad to reach a place of safety, as well as comfort.

Whether coming from London or Oxford they had to pass through some of the most notorious highwaymen’s haunts, it seems.

From Oxford, the steep climb out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur presented ideal conditions for attacks on slow-moving coaches with tired horses. The wood through which the road passes just before reaching Holtspur is still known as Cut-Throat Wood, and The King’s Head at Holtspur had a reputation as one of the marauders’ favourite drinking dens.

On the Oxford Road the most notorious marauder was Jack Shrimpton, a native of Penn who was hanged in 1713. Earlier still, Claude Du Val, renowned for many stories of his gallantry, was hanged at Tyburn in 1670 at the age of 27.

The last man to be condemned to death for highway robbery in the area was tried in 1800 for holding up a coach at Beaconsfield and stealing thirty shillings; he was hanged at Gallows Road, Aylesbury – a suitably gripping fireside story to regale the weary traveller before a welcoming bath and bed.

 

Listen to the buzz on the street

THE laburnum outside the bedroom window is suddenly in full bloom after the bare twigs of winter have reclothed themselves – and equally suddenly, it’s abuzz with life, literally humming with bees.

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The yellow cascades are dramatic, pristine eye-catching waterfalls which will be gradually turn into drifts of yellow husks on the grass, as if some benevolent monster has been eating a LOT of sweetcorn.

As the Twitter feed starts filling up with posts about World Bee Day (May 20), those schoolday poems suddenly seem very vivid – particularly Tennyson’s onomatopoeic “murmuring of innumerable bees” and Yeats’ “bee-loud glade”.

Standing under the hanging blooms, this is no distant drone though, but a frenzied flurry of activity and a very welcome one after all the negative publicity about bees becoming increasingly endangered.

Without bees, we cannot strive towards a world without hunger – and that’s the underlying message behind the World Bee Day project, as Boštjan Noč, author of the initiative and President of the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association, says:  “It is time for everyone to listen to bees, in particular, leaders and decision-makers.

“I believe that – with the proclamation of World Bee Day – the world will begin to think more broadly about bees, in particular in the context of ensuring conditions for their survival, and thus for the survival of the human race.”

That’s an enthusiasm shared by campaigner Amanda on her website BuzzAboutBees which also includes just about everything you could want to know about the thousands of different types of bees and their habits.

Even the Woodland Trust has got in on the act, with its easy guide to telling the difference between different types.

With May 20 behind us the laburnum blossoms are falling but the bees have been constantly busy. And even far from home, you can still hear them. As Yeats said (albeit in the context of the lake waters lapping), the sound tells to follow you: While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

 

Cunning intruder at the palace

IT’S JUST as well a competent photographer was on hand to capture the magic of a recent crafty visitor to the Pond Gardens at Hampton Court Palace.

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I’m normally quick to blame my photographic disasters on my equipment – the cheapest digital camera in the shop which has subsequently suffered plenty of bumps and scratches on our rural rambles.

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Fortunately as I fumble with the zoom to try to capture a fleeting image of the surprise visitor in the foliage, partner Olivia is on hand to take charge of the equipment and show me how it should be done.

Hence for once we actually have some pictures of the animal in question that are not obliterated by branches or marred by careless camera movements.

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However it also turns out our visitor is not so cunning or elusive as the folklore might suggest – and the warmth of a sun-drenched grassy spot proved too alluring to resist as the perfect place for a quick afternoon nap.

Even the excited squeaks of ‘Reynard!’ from the visiting French schoolchildren could not disturb the slumbers of this rather majestic palace guest…

 

Bird lovers flock to support pigeons

PIGEONS have plenty of loyal devotees after all, it seems.

Not only did our recent blog singing their praises attract dozens of visitors to the site – making it the single most popular post since The Beyonder’s launch a year ago – but a coincidental mention of the birds in the Evening Standard echoed our sentiments too.

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Columnist Ellen E Jones was writing in the wake of  story about an RSPCA appeal for information about an unidentified person seen throwing nearly hatched pigeon eggs off the balcony of an Airbnb property in Holloway.

She was quick to throw her hat in the ring in praise of the Trafalgar Square stalwarts, pointing out how clean-living and monogamous they are.

Ellen wasn’t alone in feeling that the much-maligned birds were worthy of some long-overdue recognition.

When Aimee Wallis of Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue posted a link to the article on her Facebook page her supporters were only too quick to add their own words of praise and appreciation too.

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Not to mention all those wartime achievements, racing feats and Dickin medals, of course.

I may have been a little slow to realise the true talents of these feathered friends, but thanks to all who flocked to their support and proffered a range of supporting arguments about why we should be a lot more forgiving about the pigeons in our lives…

Time to give pigeons their due

I HAVE to confess that I’m feeling a little guilty.

There’s me thinking I love all our feathered friends equally, and it seems I have a secret prejudice against one particular garden visitor.

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I’ll gush over the antics of visiting robins, blackbirds and blue tits, and chuckle at the acrobatics of the thieving squirrels. But I have been rather less than generous in my welcome to the local pigeon population.

We relish the friendly quacking of the hungry ducks, the cute scuttling of the moorhens and the bewildered meandering of the stray pheasant, so why do the ubiquitous Percy, Woody and their tubby pigeon pals – who mysteriously all have stolid names like Stan, Clive and Norm (from Cheers) – not get the same red-carpet treatment?

The real extent of my subconscious discrimination was brought home to me last year when we stumbled across an injured pigeon. Doubtless indoctrinated by press references to pests and vermin, not to mention the disdain for the birds expressed by the shooting fraternity, I presumed we would be leaving the limping victim to its fate, and natural selection.

Partner Olivia had other ideas and after a quick call to the RSPCA our injured friend was duly delivered to the local vets’.

So where does this prejudice of mine stem from? Don’t I harbour dim memories of Jack Duckworth cooing over his beloved pigeons in Coronation Street, and weren’t many of these birds hailed as heroes during the war?

Our Buckinghamshire visitors are wood pigeons (columba palumbus) rather than the feral pigeons of the grimy London streets, and to be fair their purple and grey colouring is quite gorgeous in its own way, with those striking white neck patches.

But although they do tend to waddle round the neighbourhood like burly gangsters, there’s also something cute about the way they collectively roost in the local hedges, and a soothing reassurance in their constant cooing.

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But then even their grubby London counterparts have their supporters, despite being dubbed flying rats or being persecuted as pests, as Steve Harris explains in a feature for the Discover Wildlife website.

Oddly enough, the ancestors of these city slickers were the first birds to be domesticated, thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Since then, the rock pigeon (columba livia) has made an astonishing contribution to human wellbeing.

To help with background research, I turn to Aimee Wallis from the Corvid Dawn wild bird rescue sanctuary, remembering her enthusiasm for the birds from our visit there last May.

She says: “After corvids, pigeons were the second bird I completely fell in love with, mostly because I’d never paid them much attention before, but since rescuing them and working with them closely, I realised just how remarkable they are.

“Not only were they calm whilst being stitched up or glued together, like they knew you were helping them. They never forgot you: even as adults you can build a strong bond with a pigeon.

“They recognise faces, but not only that, they are extremely loving. They also pair for life. They will happily sit on your shoulder, preen your hair and try and follow you to work if they could.”

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Back in the day, a dovecote, rabbit warren and carp pond were the three essentials to provide fresh meat throughout the year, and in addition to food, pigeons produced guano so rich in nutrients that it played a key part in agricultural development.

Perhaps best of all, there was no need to catch and breed the birds. Just providing an alternative place to nest, usually a dovecote with rows of ledges or clay pots along its internal walls, was enough – and some designs could accommodate thousands of sitting females.

Typically producing about 10 squabs a year, pigeons were a perfect source of protein until chickens emerged as being better suited to mass production.

But Darwin devoted much of the first chapter of On The Origin of Species to pigeons, and Aimee is full of respect for pigeons as parents. “The male bird produces crop milk as well as the mother and they share parenting equally,” she says.

“They make wonderful pets, you can free fly them and they will greet you from a long day and show up at your window in the mornings cooing away. They really are very special birds, with bags of character.”

Though pigeons were still an important food source in the 1800s, they were stolen from lofts in large numbers as live targets to supply the newly fashionable sport of pigeon shooting. When the practice was made illegal in 1921, clay pigeon shooting was invented.

Even those who use pigeons largely as training tools for bird dogs are quick to praise their stoicism and endurance – even if the idea of surviving numerous retrieves “mangled and bloody” does not sound like the perfect life.

Writing in Outdoor Life in 2015, Scott Linden wrote: “But watching them roost, calmly ruffling feathers on a nest, elegantly circling the loft, even pecking the ground for grit, they are in many ways like our horses. Both exude a calming influence, a soft and peaceful aura enveloping nearby humans. There is therapy in being near them.”

Says Aimee: “One thing people aren’t aware of is these grey street birds are descendants from the war. Pigeon lofts were popular back then and people would eat their eggs and keep a flock in their garden, but sadly that died out and the lofts were brought down.

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“Many pigeons couldn’t be caught so they were left to fend for themselves. Once family pets and companions, they had to learn to scavenge around humans that once fed and housed them.

“Thankfully they managed to survive even as domesticated as they were. They stayed among humans in towns as they have no wild instincts as such, only their racing skills that help them escape the city sparrow hawk.

“I continue to crave raising these gorgeous Jurassic little babies each spring and love their speaking voices.”

What about pigeon racing, then? Although the pastime of rearing and racing pigeons is waning in popularity, this year saw an extraordinary story about the “Lewis Hamilton” of racing pigeons selling for over £1m at auction.

The headlines revealed how the sport had become a multi-million pound enterprise in China, with millionaire enthusiasts struggling to outdo each other with extravagant coops and outlandish bets.

But Aimee believes the story behind the headlines is not such a happy one.

“Sadly this industry took off in the wrong direction,” she says. “The pigeons turned from an idealistic garden hobby to a huge money-making business.

“They use the term ‘necking them’ if they don’t come home to their mate on time, which is ringing their necks: this is very common. They exhaust the birds and hundreds over the last seven years have turned up tired and skinny. Nine times out of 10 the owners don’t want them back.”

The sport has been associated with flat-capped pensioners ever since Coronation Street’s Jack Duckworth and workshy cartoon character Andy Capp first expressed their enthusiasm for pigeon lofts.

Yet racing has also attracted devotees as diverse as Walt Disney, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Pablo Picasso, who loved the birds so much he named his daughter ‘Paloma’, the Spanish word for a pigeon or dove.

Pigeons are probably most famous for their ability to find their way home and deliver messages. This was first exploited 3,000 years ago and by the fifth century BC Syria and Persia had widespread networks of message-carrying pigeons.  Pigeons carried the news of the winners of the first Olympic games, while Julius Caesar used them to send messages home from his battle campaigns.

In 1850, Paul Julius Reuter’s fledgling news service used homing pigeons to fly between Aachen and Brussels, laying the foundations for a global news agency, and the birds’ homing ability was extensively harnessed in the two world wars.

There’s even a display at Bletchley Park telling the extraordinary story of pigeons in wartime, when the avian secret agents saved countless lives – of 54 Dickin Medals (the animal’s VC) awarded in World War II, 32 went to pigeons.

The exhibition has been organised by The Royal Pigeon Racing Association, which also offers advice on its website for anyone interested in the sport (although animal activists PETA kicked up a storm in 2013 with claims of cruelty and calls for the sport to be banned).

The birds’ achievements are also recognised at the moving Animals in War memorial at Brook Gate on Park Lane. Along with millions of horses, mules, donkeys and dogs, some 100,000 pigeons served Britain in the First World War and 200,000 in World War II.

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They saved thousands of lives by carrying vital messages, sometimes over long distances, when other methods of communication were impossible, from behind enemy lines or from ships or aeroplanes.

Stars like Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Hurt, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall teamed up to tell something of the birds’ story in the 2005 animated film Valiant, but it was something of a box-office flop and reviews were mixed.

Amazingly, despite decades of research, we are still not precisely sure how pigeons find their way home over terrain they have never seen before with such apparent ease.

How extraordinary. They have played a vital role in medicine (one study even trained pigeons to detect cancers), they have saved countless lives in wartime and they continue to entertained tourists in their millions, from Trafalgar Square to Venice’s Piazza San Marco, yet they are still widely regarded as a nuisance.

It seems wrong, somehow. Sorry, Percy, Woody and friends. You have been much wronged, but I for one will be looking with fresh eyes and a new respect at the “small blue busybodies” of Richard Kell’s poem, “strutting like fat gentlemen/With hands clasped/
Under their swallowtail coats…”

 

Past casts long shadows at Penn

MUSHROOMS, snowdrops and spaniels with floppy ears – spring is in the air at Penn Wood.

Youngsters are out building Eeyore houses, the February sunlight is streaming through the branches of the ancient beech and birch trees and the sound of birdsong is everywhere.

What better way to blow away the cobwebs than to take a wander into this Woodland Trust enclave which used to form part of Wycombe Heath, 4,000 acres of heathland and woods with a surprisingly rich and varied heritage.

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Back in the 13th century this was where commoners would pasture their pigs, but the Romans roamed these woods centuries before that, with artefacts like brooches, dishes, coins and tools indicating the presence of a settlement here from 100 to 300 AD.

There is also strong evidence of iron smelting in the woods, with some pottery remnants discovered which could pre-date the Romans, indicating they were simply continuing the iron production that had already been established in the Iron Age.

From as early as 500AD the wood was used as a deer enclosure and the parish of Penn takes its name from this saxon enclosure, or ‘pen’. As in other areas of the Chiltern countryside, by the reign of Henry I (1100 – 1135 AD), the woodland was used as a hunting ground for the citizens of London.

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Pigs were an essential part of the medieval woodland economy with commoners exercising their right to pannage, the entitlement to put pigs out to eat the acorns and other nuts found in the wooded areas of the common, to fatten them up in autumn.

Dry hollows found throughout the wood may show where flint, clay, sand, gravel or chalk have been extracted. Clay from this area was used to produce distinctive decorative flooring tiles which could be seen in royal palaces, churches and manor houses across England.

In the 19th century, the Enclosure Acts changed legal property rights to land that previously permitted communal use and in 1855, ownership of Common Wood and Penn Wood passed to the 1st Earl Howe, forcing many local people and their livestock off the land and sparking years of unlawful protest where poaching was rife.

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During the Second World War, Penn Wood was used as an army training camp, complete with an assault course and a rifle range. Later it was used as a prisoner-of-war reception centre and then as a holding base for Polish soldiers.

Wandering through the woodland today, it’s easy to conjure up vivid echoes of different times in the history of the place amid the busy drumming of a woodpecker and the chirps and chirrups of the other woodland birds.

When Earl Howe took private ownership of the common land, he removed the livestock and set about arranging the re-forestation of the land with oak, beech and conifers.

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He laid out ornamental drives and avenues lined with rhododendrons and azaleas, cherry laurel and spineless holly for the benefit of the Countess who was fond of driving in the woods.

The branches are bare at the moment and the ornamental species have yet to flower, but the memories crowd in: of aristocratic shooting parties visiting the estate in Victorian times, perhaps, or the bodgers who lived and worked here for centuries, fashioning chair legs and spindles for the furniture trade.

By the middle of the 19th century Hgh Wycombe had become a centre for furniture production and there were a hundred factories in the area, many using Penn and Common Woods as a source of timber, with tall narrow beeches being planted to replace more traditional oaks.

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For two centuries, wood-turners called bodgers worked in shacks in the woods, cutting and shaping the wood into legs and spindles and drying them in piles before taking them to the factories to sell – with a small number continuing to work in the woods right up until the 1950s.

Over time, the once ancient pasture changed to privately-owned forest, although public access was not restored until 1999 when, after a long campaign to prevent the site being turned into an 18-hole golf course, Penn Wood was acquired by The Woodland Trust. Public ownership of Common Wood returned in 2002 when it was bought by the Penn and Tylers Green Residents’ Society.

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The wild boar and wolves may have gone but grazing cattle have returned, helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilizing the ground, with the aim of encouraging an array of flora and fauna to return to the site, including butterflies and other insects, nesting birds and wild flowers.

Birds to be found here range from tawny owls to kestrels and buzzards, while those lichen-covered dead branches provide welcome hiding places for a dozen scarce beetle species.

Butterflies range from the purple hairstreak up in the high canopy to the marbled white in the wide sunny glades.

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But our leisurely February ramble is almost at an end as we retrace our steps towards the wonderfully peaceful churchyard of the ancient Holy Trinity church, which squats at the edge of the woodland.

Every generation for over 800 years has left its mark on this church, from the 12th century through the persecution of the Reformation to the present day, and emerging from the trees into the wintry evening sunlight, this feels like a place where the past casts long shadows.

As a pheasant scuttles for cover amid the silent gravestones, it feels a suitable place to pause a moment and ponder the moving individual stories recounted by each monument, from those of the landed local gentry to that of the most short-lived child.

Inside the church there is a great deal more to discover about the history, monuments and memorials of Penn – but that, as they say, is another story.

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Fog lifts on a different landscape

AFTER the snow, the fog – a murky, swirling affair worthy of a night on the Kent marshes or a Whitechapel back street.

But aside from conjuring up images of Magwitch and London pea-soupers, this latest twist in the February weather story also manages to banish the hard crusting of ice and snow that has been resolutely frosting the local landscape.

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And as the fog subsides, to be replaced by a steady drizzle, that’s great news for all those early flowers tempted into bloom by the mild January air and buried by last week’s wintry downfall.

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Candlemas day is past and the snowdrops are out, but the chill in the air still makes it feel as if spring is a long way off.

Nonetheless there’s a definite sense of anticipation in the air as the natural world starts to sense warmer times to come, and the bare branches and withered vegetation provide a drab backdrop against which to watch the countryside starting to stir.

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Certainly there’s a jauntiness to the dawn chorus this morning and the bare branches of the laburnum outside our bedroom window make it easier to spot the miniature army of blue tits, coal tits and long-tailed tits which have been frequenting our bird feeders.

The variety here is a little less dramatic than the visitors chronicled in this week’s newsletter from The Moorhens – alias Roy and Marie Battell, whose small nature reserve near Milton Keynes has been frequented by badgers, muntjac deer, red foxes and partridges, along with pheasants and woodpeckers.

But there have been a few less familiar visitors to our patch too, with one stray pheasant, a lone goldfinch and a cheeky lesser spotted woodpecker popping in for a quick bite.

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Not that these colourful guests have displaced the regulars in our affections. As well as the robins, blackbirds, magpies and dunnocks, one of our firm favourites remains the baby moorhen who has become a regular saunter round the feeders looking for scraps the smaller birds have dropped on the ground –  and whose distinctive tracks in the snow were a dead giveaway of her movements last week too.

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Natural boost for our mental health

IT SOUNDS pretty obvious that time spent outdoors can be good for our mental health as well as our physical wellbeing.

But a variety of different bodies have been quick to promote the wonders of the natural world to mark the start of the fifth year of Children’s Mental Health Week.

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From the Woodland Trust to local wildlife trusts, forest schools and activity weeks, the message has been simple – that climbing trees, building dens and playing in the woods can all help youngsters learn valuable life skills, as well as reconnecting with nature.

On Sunday it was worrying to read in The Observer that emergency talks were being held over the future of children’s adventure playgrounds amid concerns that funding cuts are making some popular sites too dangerous to insure.

“Too many children are living a ‘battery hen’ existence, spending more and more time sitting in front of screens and less time outside playing. I want to see more playgrounds across the country, not fewer,” said England’s children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, who has championed play as a weapon against child obesity and poor mental health.

Mental health and the natural world was also under the spotlight last week in an emotional interview on Winterwatch between Chris Packham and Bird Therapy author Joe Harness.

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Viewers were quick to phone, Tweet and email with their thoughts on the subject, pointing out how much pleasure even the housebound could obtain from watching garden birds at their kitchen window.

Certainly our own garden guests have been giving us great joy during the recent snowfall, with the tits, robins, blackbirds and pigeons being joined by curious moorhens, affable ducks and boisterous squirrels.

In America, a survey of managers of assisted living and nursing home institutions all agreed that watching garden birds had a positive effect on their residents’ morale, and that feeding and watching birds gives housebound residents a connection with the outside world and reduces isolation and depression.

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Braving the wintry weather has allowed eagle-eyed youngsters to pick out the tracks of some of the more unfamiliar guests, while budding photographers have also been out and about, discovering that finding beauty in nature can help to ease the February blues.

Laura Howard, digital producer for The Watches, points out: “During the colder months, when the sun is low in the sky the world seems to slow right down. A sleepy darkness creeps in and colours often mute to greys.

“However if conditions are right, this season can also show nature at its most inspiring as precious winter light illuminates the world. Due to its low profile on the horizon and its distance from the earth, winter sun has a quality all of its own as evidenced by these terrific photos.”

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It’s got to make sense – and on recent trips to Black Park, Burnham Beeches and Langley Park, it has been a delight to see people of all ages braving the sub-zero temperatures to make the most of the natural world in all its winter glory.

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A feast of light in the darkness

WRITING in The Independent a few years ago, then environment editor Michael McCarthy pondered on how many people today know what Candlemas is all about.

One in a hundred, perhaps? Maybe even fewer than that. But as well as explaining the background to the Christian holy day he also painted a marvellously evocative picture of what this day would have looked and felt like in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the parish brought their candles to church to be blessed by the priest.

On that gloomy February day the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of light when the candles were lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary – making it literally the brightest day of the year and a welcome reprieve after the gloom of January.

But as the Springwatch 2019 Almanac reminds us, February 2 is also the day of snowdrops, with windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches decorated with the pure white flowers, or Candlemas bells as they were once called.

presian-nedyalkov-445146-unsplashSYMBOL OF PURITY: snowdrops in bloom [PICTURE: Presian Nedyalkov, Unsplash]

As flawless symbols of purity, they were the perfect flowers for the feast, and even today many of the country’s best snowdrop displays are clustered around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

This year’s warm January has meant plenty of snowdrops have flowered early, along with primroses, winter jasmine, gorse and other splashes of January colour, despite the old rhyme which says: “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day.”

And there are numerous locations where sheets of the small white blooms provide dramatic displays for visitors braving the chill January air, including great houses like the National Trust gardens at Cliveden.

A powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, Galanthus nivalis means “milk flower” in Latin and the “drop” is not a drop of snow but a “drop” as in eardrop, the old word for earring – although legend has it that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve was despairing that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared and transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers to prove that even the harshest of winters eventually give way to spring.

Snowdrops are popular among gardeners and galanthophiles are avid collectors of different snowdrop varieties. But it’s not just the simple beauty of the snowdrop which appeals.

As McCarthy argues in his Independent article it’s the timing of the flowers’ appearance that is symbolic too: “They’re the very first sign of something else, the Candlemas bells, an undeniable signal that the warm days will come again; and I’m sure they fill me with elation because what I am looking at, against the dead tones of the winter earth, is Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white.”