IT’S great to see so many families getting out into the great outdoors in search of autumn colour.
Ramblers, dog-walkers, cyclists, foragers and picnickers – locals have been shrugging off the misery of face masks and social distancing by escaping into the woods at the first glimpse of sunshine, however unforgiving the October temperatures.
And what a spectacular show they have seen on those days when the sun breaks through the rainclouds and turns woods and parks into places of wonder and mystery.
Our earlier post about autumn colours took us to Burnham Beeches, Black Park, Langley Park and Cliveden – but it seemed remiss not to return to Penn Wood, given that our last proper sortie here was on such a monochrome February day.
How different the landscape looks now. The colours at this time of year are truly spectacular, the falling leaves forming a tapestry of different shapes and textures, and the trees themselves a glorious variegated backcloth of yellows and greens, russets and pinks.
It’s warm enough in the sun to linger over the array of different fungi peeking out from beneath the leaves, or pause a moment to study the cattle grazing their way incuriously around this remnant of Wycombe Heath, managed by the Woodland Trust.
Across the centuries, Penn and Tylers Green are villages that can boast a long and illustrious history and until the middle of the 19th century, this was a 4,000 acre common of heath and woodland stretching over seven parishes from Tyler End and Winchmore Hill in the south up to Great Kingshill in the north.
The landscape has changed a lot over the years, but you can sense history all around you here, and the evidence ranges from iron age earthworks and Roman pottery to written records of royal hunting parties in the 12th century or aristocratic shooting parties in the Victorian era.
Indeed, recent suggestions that an important Roman official was living in Tylers Green 1700 years ago might force historians to rethink the importance of this area during the Roman occupation.
The southern edge of Wycombe Heath consisted of Kings Wood, St John’s Wood, Common Wood and Penn Wood, where there would have been little if any settlement during the Saxon and early Norman period.
Back in the woods, the wild boar and wolves of the middle ages may have long disappeared but grazing cattle have returned, helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilising the ground.
In the heyday of the furniture industry, wood-turners called bodgers worked in shacks in the woods here, while 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 became a prisoner-of-war reception centre and a holding base for Polish soldiers.
Today it’s a place to spot colourful fungi and keep an eye open for rare beetles, tiny mice, amd squirrels gathering their winter hoards. Or listening out for the sound of a red kite or buzzard overhead…or a tawny owl calling as dusk falls.
It’s not quite warm enough to linger under a maple with a book, but this seat under the trees looks so inviting it seems a shame not to be able to while away an hour or two watching the leaves falling and waiting for any woodland creatures to get sufficiently confident to venture out…
OUR local woods are a constant delight – and although Black Park Country Park is spread over 500 rather than 100 acres, it never feels as if Pooh, Piglet and Tigger are too far away.
If proof were needed that we are not alone in this sensation, you only have to go down to the entrance to the lake to find a new generation of children playing Pooh sticks over the small wooden bridge there.
Or snatch a glimpse through the trees of youngsters building a small den of the sort that Eeyore might well call home.
All of which makes it all the more pleasurable to be able to savour some of Pooh’s adventures – and his creator’s words of wisdom – via a daily Twitter feed.
Upbeat daily Tweets celebrate words written or inspired by the author and incorporate some of the exploits of Winnie the Pooh and his companions which generations of children have enjoyed.
Also included are quotes from Christopher Robin Milne, whose relationship with his father inspired the 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin.
The “real” stuffed toys owned by Christopher Robin may be a long way off – they have been on display in the New York public library since 1987 – but down among the trees it’s all too easy to hear the words of those childhood friends echoing among the autumn leaves, whether in search of a Heffalump, getting stuck in a rabbit hole or floating away on the string of a balloon.
It’s particularly easy to visualise those childhood friends at this time of the year, when the colours are so striking and the leaves are falling.
As C R Milne put it: “When a child plays with his bear the bear comes alive and there is at once a child-bear relationship. Then the child gets inside his bear and looks at it the other way round: that’s how BEAR feels about it… and sympathy is born.”
Guest writer Lucy Parks continues her occasional blog about how Cypriot rescue dog Yella has adjusted to life in the Chilterns
top trails for tasty treats
AT THE weekends, Yella and I enjoy doing a longer walk – often with friends – that takes in a refreshment stop.
Okay, so maybe Yella (and canine companions) don’t enjoy the refreshment part quite as much as the humans, but it’s nice to reward yourself with a drink.
Here are three of our favourites…
Wendover Woods is a well-managed woodland area on the side of the Chiltern Hills with ample car parking. Some fellow dog-walkers aren’t too keen on the structured approach, but I think it’s got a good variety of terrain and a lovely cafe that serves good coffee and homemade cake. Plus it’s high up and there are stunning views across the Chilterns.
There are a number of established routes around the woods and we particularly enjoy the Firecrest Trail, a five kilometre route along bridleways, through woodland and with the all-important open spaces for crazy running. It can get quite busy in the areas around the car park/cafe – and presents a picnic hazard for inquisitive dogs on sunny days…
Wendover Woods can be found at HP22 5NQ. Parking is £2.50 for up to two hours.
Rickmansworth aquadrome is a popular public park and nature reserve that can become hideously busy on nice days… but hurry past the main areas near the car park and cafe and you’ll find a tranquil paradise, rich with wildlife.
There are lovely, level, paved walks around the main two lakes. If you’re feeling more adventurous (and your dog’s well-behaved), explore the more distant Stocker’s Lake Nature Reserve. Yella loves nosing around the water’s edge and then lets off steam in the wider open areas.
Again, there are picnickers on warmer days and lots of water birds – including swans that are quite happy to chase a small dog if it gets too close. And the cafe… oh, the cafe. The best meaty sausage rolls I’ve ever tasted, beautiful bacon sarnies and excellent coffee. It’s a hot-spot with yummy mummies during the week and with families at weekends, but it runs efficiently and is consistently good. Worth a trip for the cafe alone!
Rickmansworth Aquadrome is accessed via Frogmoor Lane, Rickmansworth WD3 1NB. Parking is free. More details on the cafe here: https://thecafeinthepark.com/
Penn Street woods is wet-weather favourite because of the thick tree cover. Park in the Holy Trinity Church car park (it’s free) and go where the mood takes you. There are clear paths, diversions down woody alleyways and an abundance of wildlife to chase (for the dogs). Penn Wood is one of the largest ancient woodlands in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and it can get quite busy on Sunday afternoons. After a lovely dog walk, arrange for your walk to end at The Squirrel pub – it has a fabulous selection of libations, a big outdoor area and cosy nooks inside. Cheers!
Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog. A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals.Click on these links to see her earlier posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Next time: Squirrels, pigeons, deer and grouse…Yella proves her street dog credentials
I FEEL very fortunate to have spent 2020 in relative freedom in the Buckinghamshire countryside.
I’ve watched the seasons roll round with every daily walk showing a different detail in that annual cycle of change.
On one walk a couple of weeks ago, I noticed gleaming red rosehips punctuating the greens of the hedgerows, and I was reminded of an impulsive foray into foraging that overtook me a few years ago. In one go, I had made a batch of rosehip syrup and an elderberry cordial.
Nostalgia swept over me and before I knew it, I had armed myself with a plastic bag and my sturdy walking boots.
I have never really been good at remembering exact timings for seasonal fruits, and when I got up close to the hedgerow, I realised I had cut it very fine. The rosehips were nearly all soft and all the best ones had already gone to the birds.
Undeterred, I picked what I could – a mixture of hard and softening fruits – and zoomed off to another site where I vaguely remembered seeing dog rose blooms earlier in the year. Alas, my fears were confirmed – I was late to the party.
What followed was a maniacal spree around the whole of south Bucks searching my favourite walking haunts for rosehips. The actual picking of the hips is quite meditative – you can get lost in the repetitive action of twisting the fruits away from the stems but be warned that the thorns often snap you painfully back to reality! At the end of the day, I counted hips from ten separate locations, with a meagre 1.3kg to show for it.
Making rosehip syrup is something of a labour of love. When you have your harvest, you have to wash each hip carefully (to get rid of animal pee and car fumes), and then top and tail each hip. This takes some time, and I managed to get through a whole radio comedy series in the process. Make sure you have a sharp knife and a sturdy chopping board for this.
Next, roughly chop the hips (some recipes suggest popping the fruit in a blender for a quick whizz but I did it by hand). You’ll notice that the insides of the rosehips have little furry seeds stuck pretty firmly to the fruit wall. These hairs are used to make itching powder, so be careful when handling them. You can choose to remove the hairs and seeds at this point but I didn’t- it’s too fiddly and time-consuming and everything gets strained in the end.
Pop all your chopped hips (soft ones and hard ones alike) into a large saucepan and cover with water (1 litre per kg of fruit). Let it boil for 15 minutes. You’ll notice the most heavenly aroma coming off the water – it really is a happy and beautiful scent. Somewhere between rhubarb and custard boiled sweets, candy floss and strawberries.
Next, strain everything in the pan through a muslin cloth and set aside the clear liquid in a clean pan. Take the pulp that you have already strained once and boil it in a fresh litre of water for another 15 minutes.
Then strain everything in that pan through a muslin cloth, letting the liquid run into the pan containing the first batch of strained liquid. Next, add a kilogram of sugar per kilo of fruit you started with, and stir while boiling until the syrup is at your desired viscosity. Bottle it up and it will last for a few weeks in the fridge.
Rosehips contain more vitamin C than oranges so don’t feel too guilty if you find yourself taking shots of the stuff – it’s irresistibly delicious. Alternatively, it goes really well on pancakes, porridge or drizzled over fruit or ice cream – all the ways you’d use maple syrup. It’s also delicious as a hot or cold cordial, so take your pick and enjoy the fruits of your labour!
Guest writer Lucy Parksrises to the challenge of coping with two adorable puppies after rescue dog Yella delivers her biggest surprise
THE JOYS OF MOTHERHOOD
WE CALLED the puppies Eggy and Sock, a derivative of the Greek for “surprise” and “shock”. And I was in shock. With hindsight, we did everything wrong in those first few days.
I’d handled the pups within minutes of being born and, that weekend after they were born on the Friday, I had so many visitors to the house to see the new arrivals, all of them wanting to cuddle the little ones and Yella being hugely tolerant of the attention they were getting.
Not long after getting Yella I’d joined a Facebook group called Dogs of Amersham and Surrounding Villages, which proved to be a huge source of support in those first few days. Fellow dog owners donated a puppy crate, a video on how to raise puppies, puppy pads and emotional support.
The charity that had provided Yella was brilliant. They were as shocked as I was and gave immediate practical, emotional and financial help.
I’d posted about the pups on Facebook the day they were born and, by that evening, I had five or six people who were interested in having one. First dibs went to my best friend, who’d wanted a dog for years, and Yella gave her the perfect opportunity.
They changed her name from Eggy to Lumi – short for “halloumi”, in a nod to her heritage – and Sock, the boy, was bagged by another friend. At least it took away one of the stresses, knowing that I had homes for them.
Yella’s timing could not have been more perfect: the fact she had the pups on a Friday afternoon, when I was at home; that I had the weekend to get my head around the new challenge I was facing; that I had started work at the vet’s that same week so had expert knowledge on tap. That Yella took to motherhood like a duck to water was an added bonus.
Oh goodness, I learned so much that first weekend. It was a true crash course in dog parenting and it passed in a blur. We made a make-shift whelping pen from Yella’s crate and cardboard. Later, we created a puppy pen in the hallway.
The eight weeks I had the puppies at home – incidentally, the same amount of time I’d had Yella before she gave birth – proved the hardest job I’ve ever done. These little eating, sleeping, shouting, pooing machines were relentless. Watching their development from tiny blind hamsters to cheeky, adventurous toddlers, though, was wonderful.
By the time they left for their new homes, we were all exhausted and relieved. Yella was ready to let them go and I was just happy to have my house back to normal.
Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog.A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals.
OCTOBER has arrived with a vengeance, Storm Alex wreaking havoc across the country and depositing a month’s worth of rain in some areas over the weekend.
Those venturing out during gaps in the deluge have seen something of a transformation, with the storms stripping leaves off trees and the autumn colours of browns, reds and golden yellows replacing the green of late summer.
While the shops already gearing up for Halloween, the woods are awash with fallen acorns and apples, lichens, mushrooms and toadstools.
Amid the dripping leaves of Burnham Beeches, it’s suddenly a strange new world of unusual textures, shadows and colours.
The ferns are turning brown, along with the trees, an early hint of the glories to come later in the month as the autumnal colour palette really begins to explode.
Down at the ponds the stunning colours of the mandarin ducks stand out against the muddy browns, greys and blacks of tree roots and rain-spattered water.
But it’s at ground level that the real stars of the show can be found, with a small cross-section of the country’s 15,000-odd species of fungi providing an intriguing range of shapes and colours among the soaking foliage.
Not that the uninitiated will want to get too close to some of these amazing-looking fungi: some of them are deadly and boast spine-tingling names like the destroying angel, funeral bell and death cap.
Fungi live everywhere and vary in size from the microscopic to the largest organisms on earth. But perhaps we are most intrigued not just by their beauty, but the deadly consequences of dabbling with the most poisonous of them.
We instantly recognise the familiar scarlet cap of the fly agaric toadstool, which both attracts and kills flies, or the Scarlet elf cups or fairies’ baths, which make a tiny puffing sound when they release their spores into the air.
But on decaying branches and in damp spots scattered around the woodland floor there are an array of others whose offputting appearance may only be matched by their sinister names, like jelly ear fungus, foul-smelling stinkhorns or toxic beechwood sickener.
Or what about the gruesome beefsteak fungus, which looks like a raw cut of meat and even oozes a blood-like substance when cut…or the brown roll-rim, a common birch woodland fungus that looks benign, but is deadly poisonous.
Not that it’s all about innocent-looking killers. As well as many fungi being edible, some have medicinal properties, like the candlesnuff fungus, which is both anti-viral and active against tumours, or other uses like the common inkcap, once a source of ink for important documents.
Lichens play an important role in the ecology of woodlands too, offering valuable microhabitats, shelter and food for various small invertebrates which in turn are prey for larger insects and birds.
They can also be hosts for other species of parasitic fungi, as well as providing other ecosystem services such as carbon cycling and water retention.
Most organisms lack the ability to digest wood and return the nutrients to the soil, but fungi figured out the secret a few hundred million years ago. A good thing too, or otherwise dead trees would just pile up everywhere.
But down here among the lichens and leaf debris, could you spot the difference between a prized chef’s ingredient like a chanterelle or charcoal burner, and a deathcap, which has been used as a murder weapon for millenia?
Notable alleged victims of death cap poisoning range from Charles VI, ruler of the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy, to the Roman Emperor Claudius.
Voltaire even wrote that a dish of mushrooms had changed the destiny of Europe, since the death of Charles VI led to the War of the Austrian Secession from 1740.
The Woodland Trust does offer a handy guide to some of the most common fungi and lichens, coupled with some fascinating legends and facts – but even professionals can get things wrong, it seems: the distinguished German mycologist Julius Schaeffer died in 1944 after eating a succession of dishes containing brown roll-rim mushrooms.
In the ancient woodlands managed by the City of London Corporation, fungi have a vital role to play in the delicate balance of biodiversity, and in sites like Epping Forest commercial pickers – who can face prosecution – have been stripping the forest of wild mushrooms, depriving insects and animals of a valuable food source and threatening rare species.
Much maligned and mistrusted, toadstools and mushrooms are associated with ancient taboos, death and decomposition, but they have magical associations too and are nature’s natural recyclers, playing a vital role in the ecology of natural habitats like Burnham Beeches.
Down in the woods, hundreds of them are hard at work breaking down decaying organic matter and providing food for squirrels, deer and insects. It’s wonderful to see the fascinating shapes, forms and colours the fungi world has to offer – and yes, of course we want to leave them there for the next visitor to enjoy.
FOR millions of Christians around the world, a month-long season of prayer culminates this weekend with the feast day of St Francis of Assisi.
The idea of celebrating September 1 as a day of prayer for creation began in 1989 at the wish of the Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios, a leading figure in the Eastern Orthodox church whose successor Bartholomew I is also seen as something of a “green” source of spiritual inspiration.
In 2013 Pope Francis – formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio – chose his papal name in honour of St Francis, reflecting both men’s concern for the world’s poor, as well as the future of the planet.
The Pope subsequently urged the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and all people of good will to take urgent action against the injustice of climate change and the ecological crisis, to protect the poor and future generations.
The Season of Creation has become an annual celebration uniting Christians in prayer and action for the protection of the earth, with many viewing this year’s event as being of particular significance in light of the coronavirus pandemic and global climate concerns.
In July a cross-section of faith leaders urged the UK government to develop a new shared vision for the future ahead of the UN climate change conference in Glasgow next year, when the UK has the COP26 presidency.
The faith leaders spoke of the need to “restore balance in the very systems of life, affirming the need for equality, justice and sustainability” in the sharing of the earth’s resources.
They pointed out how, amid the fear and the grief for loved ones lost, many had found consolation in the dramatic reduction of pollution and the restoration of nature.
“Renewed delight in and contact with the natural world has the capacity to reduce our mental stress and nourish us spiritually,” they wrote. “We have rediscovered our sense of how interconnected the world is. The very health and future of humanity depends on our ability to act together not only with respect to pandemics but also in protecting our global ecosystem.”
On the plus side, less travel and consumption and more kindness and neighbourliness have helped us appreciate what society can really mean, they pointed out. But in times of crisis injustice becomes more obvious, and it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most, as the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development stresses in its climate campaign.
“All this shows us how precarious our previous ‘business as usual’ was, socially, economically, ecologically and spiritually,” the faith leaders wrote.
“Our faiths teach us that our planet, with its rich resources and inspiring diversity, is lent to us on trust only and we are accountable for how we treat it. We are urgently and inescapably responsible, not just before God but to our own children and the very future of humanity.”
The Season of Creation ends on October 4, the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, but the call to action looks beyond the annual event and focuses on protecting biodiversity, reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change and pushing sustainability to the forefront of government decision-making.
Pope Francis phrased it as the need to “listen to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor”, a message that resonates across the centuries from when Saint Francis chose to take the Gospel literally and lead a life of poverty in the name of the Lord.
“If God can work through me, he can work through anyone,” the saint said, yet on Sunday, almost 800 years after his death, his message about our intimate connection with God’s creation sounds more relevant and important than ever.
NOT many bus stops can boast their own Facebook page, or receive fan mail.
But then the Bradenham Road bus stop on the outskirts of West Wycombe is no ordinary bus stop.
With more than 550 followers on Facebook, the bus stop launched its social media presence a year ago when it was being relocated – so that the Essex contractors involved in the move could let their partners know what they were working on in darkest Buckinghamshire.
By October it was open again, complete with books, comfy cushions and even a dog bowl and bottled water for anyone out for a stroll.
The summer displays might have faded, but there were winter pansies in place and daffodil bulbs planted. By December it was time for festive lights and Christmas decorations to be attracting the attentions of passing commuters.
Over the months it’s been only too clear from online comments and handwritten letters just what a delight the bus stop has been for queueing motorists and those taking refuge from sun and rain.
In July 2019 a grateful cyclist wrote a letter of thanks after escaping from 34-degree sunshine to mend a puncture, while a passing walker described it as “an awesome place of rest, respite and peace”.
After the March lockdown, the bus stop geared up for Easter with a seasonal children’s drawing competition, with prizes of Easter eggs – not to mention a bottle of Prosecco and top-quality steaks for two provided by a local butcher.
Those artistic offerings were soon followed by posters thanking the NHS and key workers.
By May there were Union Jack flags on show to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the summer saw a return of the dramatic floral displays for which the bus stop is best known.
It was quite a while before local resident Emma Copley admitted to being the driving force behind the clean-up, once neighbours started to spot her in action.
She says: “I’m a great believer in reclaiming space that’s been neglected … nice areas attract good behaviour and respect.
“It’s all made worthwhile by the lovely comments and people stopping to look. I even had a lady give me money (donated to charity ) and a coachload of Japanese tourists stop to take photos.”
Of course the concept of brightening up bus stops and providing reading material for weary commuters is not a new one, with experiments around the world from Singapore to Greek and Turkey.
Back in 2011, a pair of Israeli artists launched a project in Haifa which spread to a number of cities providing bookshelves at a number of stops to see if travellers would swap books and replenish the shelves.
Installation artist and lecturer Daniel Shoshan envisoned that the initiative could serve as a new way of connecting people and possibly even improve literacy rates. Might authors one day give public performances at bus stops?
A couple of years later, bus commuters in Sydney and Melbourne were pleasantly surprised by a Christmas campaign that set up bookshelves at various bus stops to encourage Australians to read and buy local books. The creative move, which enabled commuters to take home free books, enticed so many people that they often missed their bus in the process.
West Wycombe’s glorious community bus stop may not be quite on the same scale, but there’s no doubt of its popularity with passing motorists – and the idea is clearly contagious, as it has now “twinned” with another local bus stop boasting bookshelves, looked after by the Piddington & Wheeler End Parish Council.
Whether it’s the sense of community spirit that captures the imagination or the beauty of the floral displays, it’s clear that fans of the Bradenham Road bus stop enjoy the simple things in life – and if a humble bus stop can put a smile on the face as well as providing shelter from the storm, that sounds like a winning idea that deserves to succeed on a wider scale.
I’D HAD Yella, my first dog, for a few weeks and we were both settling into our new routine. She was adjusting to life in the UK and I spent a lot of time on Google, checking that I was doing the right things, too.
Yella was six months old and in season when she came to me from Cyprus; she was growing nicely with good food, exercise and lots of love. We’d noticed that her teats had started to get bigger and, over the course of a few days, she started “nesting”, gathering all her toys into different places around the house. Google told me she was probably having a phantom pregnancy. I wasn’t overly concerned.
I’d decided that I needed a local, part-time job and was delighted to secure a role as a veterinary receptionist at a practice just down the road. I started my new job on the Monday. By the Friday, I was getting worried about Yella.
She was getting fussy about eating, she didn’t want to go for walks and – when I got home from work on Friday lunchtime – she was clearly in distress, shaking and howling like a lamb being slaughtered.
I called the vet to make an appointment and tried to encourage Yella into the garden for a pee before we left. She wouldn’t pee, the howling got worse and, when she came back into the house, she started squatting on the carpet.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I thought, “you poor thing – you must be in a bad way.” And then, before my very eyes, as she continued to squat, a tiny bag of puppy popped out of her. I uttered a profane expletive as I continued to stare at the small bag. What on earth to do?
I called my partner, who was driving to my house at the time: “Yella’s just had a puppy and I’m not even effing joking,” I said. “But I think it’s dead… oh no! It’s not! Gotta go.”
Yella had broken through the sac the puppy was born in, bitten the umbilical cord, eaten the placenta and was licking the tiny, mewling creature, no bigger than a hamster.
Through the haze of astonishment, practical issues kicked in. Right, we had an appointment to make. I scoured the house for a suitable receptacle for the puppy: yes, the recycling bin. I lined it with a towel, picked up the puppy and popped it in. Yella went nuts, trying to get to her baby in a bin. How on earth was I going to get them into the car?
I called the vets to let them know that Yella had delivered a puppy and that we might be a bit late for our appointment. Two minutes later, Holly the vet nurse called back: “Would you like me to come over?” Yes, please. “One more thing, Lucy: there might be more than one puppy.” What? WHAT? “Keep Yella and the puppy calm, if another comes out, you can help her by breaking the sac. Make sure they’re comfortable and warm. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
By the time Holly and my partner arrived at the house, Yella had delivered, cleaned up and was suckling a total of two puppies. For a street dog who was abandoned by her own mother at birth, she was doing an amazing job. I was a mess.
I’d gone from having one dog to three in eight weeks and one day. I was a new dog parent and now grandparent. I had no idea what was going on, while Yella’s maternal instinct had kicked in and she seemed to know exactly what to do.
Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog.A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals.
NEXT TIME: Yella and Lucy get to grips with motherhood.
Guest writer Lucy Parks recounts the pleasures and perils of adopting a rescue dog
A DOG CALLED YELLA
I CAN’T remember a time I didn’t want a dog.
My mother – who doesn’t like animals, hence no childhood dog – tells stories of me toddling up behind German Shepherds as a kid, just to give them a hug. To me, dogs were there to be loved and cuddled and I knew that, one day, I would fulfil my dream.
Cats filled the gap as I worked full-time and simply didn’t have room in my life for a dog.
Everything changed when I hit 50. Made redundant, I took the opportunity to pare back my life, stay local, work less. The moment had come. I always knew I was going to go down the rescue route but, having two cats at the time, it proved difficult with the UK rescue charities. They, understandably, want to be sure that when they re-home a dog into a house with cats, the dog (and cats) will be comfortable.
After a few months of looking, a friend with a Cypriot rescue dog suggested a Facebook group I might be interested in. To cut a very long story short, in July 2018, Yella flew into the country and into my arms.
Yella (Greek for “laugh” because, in the first photo we saw of her, she had a big grin) is a Kokoni-cross, a small, domestic Greek terrier known as “the daughter’s dog” for their gentle and devoted nature.
She was six months old, scared stupid and didn’t speak any English. But from the first moment we saw each other, on a dark night in the car park at South Mimms service station, it was love.
I’VE made a terrible mistake…
The first few days with Yella, my new rescue dog, were terrifying for both of us. She was away from everything she knew – albeit that she was only six months old – and not just in a strange home but in a strange country. She’d had an arduous plane and truck journey to the UK from Cyprus and, despite having wanted a dog forever, I had very little idea of what it actually entailed.
Yella wasn’t house-trained; she’d never worn a collar or harness or walked on a lead before; she’d not seen traffic before; she didn’t know how to play; wasn’t interested in sticks or balls. Oh and I discovered that she was in season, which is why she hadn’t been neutered before she came to me.
She followed me everywhere. Everywhere. I thought I’d never be able to leave the house again. I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.
That first night, I’d slept in the hallway with her, next to her crate, waking up regularly to take her outside for a pee. She never really took to the crate, though, and it became a bit of a tussle every night. The sound of a puppy crying in her crate is just heartbreaking.
But as time went on, we both adapted as we got to know each other. Yella came to ParkRun with me at Rickmansworth Aquadrome, she came to the beer shop in Amersham and she revelled in the love and attention she got from my friends.
I guess I was hideously naive at the start. I was impatient to have the perfect pet but any dog, especially a rescue dog, needs time, understanding and patience.
Yella hadn’t had a bad start in life, she wasn’t abused or neglected, but she’d been brought up in shelter and her new life in the Chilterns could not have been more different.
discovering the chilterns
ONE of the very best things about getting a dog has been discovering the Chiltern Hills.
I’d lived in Amersham for 15 years when I got Yella and I was familiar with the well-trodden commuter route between home and the station but, admittedly, I’d explored very little further than that.
Yes, I liked going out for walks but it always felt a bit, well, empty without a dog. Now I was forced to venture down footpaths and into new places in search of good walking routes.
As well as finding the stunning scenery that had been right on my doorstep all along, I was blown away by the dog-owning community.
In my first few weeks with Yella, I spoke to more people in my home town than I had in the previous 15 years. Dog owners are always ready to stop for a chat, exchange stories and coo as their pets sniff each other’s butts.
It’s provided a totally unexpected, if slightly unusual, social avenue. I know very few owners’ names, but I know Lily, Arthur, Hector, JJ, Buddy and Billy – and Yella greets them as old friends.
One of my first regular walks with Yella was to Hervines Park in Amersham, which has the winning combination of open parkland to run in and long, deep woods to explore (where squirrels might be found).
The first time I lost Yella
IT WAS at Hervines Park where I lost Yella for the first time.
She’d not long been off-lead and I was still a bit nervous, but she’d always stayed close… but she was getting braver. In the woods at the edge of the park, she suddenly bolted off, chasing a squirrel. I called and called – Yella’s recall has always been a bit selective – and after a few minutes I started to panic.
Hours passed. Well, it was probably more like five minutes but felt like hours, and then I spotted two women and their dogs walking up through the woods. They hadn’t seen Yella, but they sympathised for a while. As we stood there, a man approached us from the woods with five dogs in tow.
It took me a moment to realise that one of them was Yella. My heart leapt and, boy, was she happy to see me. It transpired that only two of the dogs actually belonged to the man; the others had just joined his walk…
There are always lots of dogs to run around with at Hervines Park and it remains one of our favourites. It can be approached from many different directions, there’s parking at the end of Hervines Road and, if you feel inclined, can walk for miles.
stunning views on the doorstep
WITH hindsight, twilight wasn’t the best time to embark on the new walk that a local runner had told me about, especially one through woods.
I was a bit scared but Yella was oblivious, excited to find a whole new world of sniffs.
It was literally five minutes down the road from home on the Amersham/Chesham Bois border and yet – like many of the other walks I’ve found – I had no idea it was there.
At the end of the quiet but well-established wooded path, I could see daylight and we hurried towards it. We found ourselves crossing a railway bridge and then – oh goodness me, what a sight to behold: the Chilterns Hills, laid out before me like a landscape painting in the late afternoon sun. I could only stand and stare. It was simply stunning.
The Big Field, now one of our staple walks, lay ahead, a popular area with dog walkers and kite fliers. It’s on the side of the Chess Valley, exposed, open and perfect for crazy running.
We headed across the field to the left, following the path down the big hill. Only the occasional passing train on the Chesham branch of the Metropolitan line, high above you, reminds you that you’re in the Home Counties.
The footpath cuts through the valley, under a railway bridge with fine graffiti to the left and up into Blackwell Stubbs, a small but well-maintained woodland. Back up another hill – well, this is the Chilterns – and take the left fork up into Stubbs Wood (that’s a road, not a wood).
This is a lovely circular walk that takes about 45 minutes. Yella loves the variety of woodland and open space, the potential for deer and squirrels, and the chance to meet canine friends.
In the same area of Amersham are Chesham Bois Common and Great Bois Wood, both firm favourites with many different routes to explore.
It’s but a tiny area of the Chilterns and it offers so much. Yella and I have loved witnessing the changes of the seasons here, from slipping through snow and slopping through mud to hot summer evenings in the shade of the ancient beech trees. We are truly blessed to live in such a wonderful place.
Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog.A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals.
SEPTEMBER. Suddenly, there’s a chill in the morning air.
It’s as if nature knows you have just changed the month on the kitchen calendar and wants to tell you to forget all about those long humid dog days of summer – autumn is definitely on its way.
It’s not as if this should be a surprise. Days have been shortening since the summer solstice. But it’s the pace of change that suddenly seems to quicken.
From late May until near the end of July, sunset in the south-east is after 9pm. But we lose around three minutes of daylight every day from August through to late November…it just may take us a little time to notice.
That’s why, on a crisp morning in early September, we suddenly start muttering about the nights drawing in and winter being around the corner.
Dramatic skies foretell of more changeable weather to come. Even though in practice September is often a month of long hours of sunshine and relatively warmth, sunset is now before 8pm and will be almost an hour earlier by the end of the month. Psychologically, those long sunny summer evenings are already feeling like a distant memory, especially with the children back at school after the long holidays.
It’s still getting light early, and we’re woken by the reassuring honking of geese flying past in perfect formation – just one of some 4,000 species of birds around the world migrating in search of milder weather and more plentiful food.
It’s a friendly sound, as if the family are having a lively conversation, although scientists speculate that it is actually a way of keeping the flock together on their long flights, with those behind honking encouragement to the ones in front.
The shape makes sense too, creating uplift for the bird immediately behind and adding much more flying range than if a bird flew on its own. They swap positions en route, so that when the lead goose gets tired, it rotates further back in the ‘V’ and another goose heads up front.
Even more amazingly (and much quoted on team-building courses around the world), when a goose gets sick or is wounded and falls out of formation, a couple of other geese obligingly fall out with their companion and follow it down to lend help and protection, staying with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or until it dies; only then do they set off to catch up with the rest of the group.
The geese aren’t the only ones of the wing. The skies are hectic with criss-crossing migrants and down at the local gravel pit the numbers of gulls and cormorants will be building.
Around the country from the Tweed estuary to Flamborough Head in Yorkshire and Spurn Head at the mouth of the Humber, birds are arriving in huge numbers, pausing before pushing on with their remarkable journeys.
Meanwhile in the woods, it’s conker season for pupils wandering home from school and the acorns have been dropping like rainfall – or, as botanist and author @LeifBersweden puts it: “One of my favourite September activities is to sit in the sun near an oak tree, close my eyes and listen for the quiet plick-plock-thump of acorns pinballing between branches before falling to the ground. It might not sound like much, but that sound is just utterly wonderful.”
The foragers are out looking for mushrooms and other edible delicacies, although many of the toadstools and berries are far from safe.
Start nibbling the fly agaric, destroying angel, death cap or white bryony and you could face vomiting and diarrhoea, stomach cramps, hallucinations and even death. Maybe not such a great idea for the uninitiated, then.
Ants and hornets are busy at work building their nests in the woods, bats are swarming and the baby moorhens are skittering around on their lily pad rafts.
Around the country, harvest has been under way for weeks, with early finishes in some areas where the weather has allowed, and heavy rain delaying the combines elsewhere.
Normally falling towards the end of September or early October, the harvest thanksgiving festival dates from pagan times, traditionally held on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox (September 22 or 23).
Once Lammas Day at the beginning of the harvest season on August 1 was the time of celebration, when farmers made loaves of bread from the new wheat crop and gave them to their local church for ‘loaf Mass’ to be used as the Communion bread during a special mass thanking God for the harvest.
The custom ended when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and nowadays we have harvest festivals at the end of the season which usually include singing hymns, praying, dancing and decorating churches with baskets of fruit and food.
Michaelmas Day is traditionally the last day of the harvest season: the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel on September 29. St. The patron saint of the sea, ships and boatmen, of horses and horsemen, he was the Angel who hurled Lucifer down from Heaven for his treachery.
In the past, the harvest festival differed, based on when all the crops had been brought in, and was a matter of life and death that would involve the whole community working together, including children.
A prosperous harvest would allow a community to be fed throughout the potentially barren winter months and would be cause for much celebration. As an occasion steeped in superstition, it’s no surprise that so many ancient customs and folklore pre-date Christianity but still reflect the importance of crop gathering and the reverence in which the harvest was held.
Even 150 years ago all the work was done by hand – including the cutting of cereal crops like wheat, barley and oats – and everyone was roped in to help out, including wives, children and roaming groups of migrant labourers who would seek employment from farms at the start of the season, especially in the eastern arable counties.
Gathering sheaves into stooks was back-breaking work too and days were long, from 5am till dusk, but the compensation was extra pay, a midday meal and often all the beer or cider needed to keep a labourer going through a hot day.
After the harvest came the celebration – one of the great village festivals shared by all the local community and culminating in an evening of dancing and merry-making.
We may not have reached Michaelmas Day yet, but many farmers in the south-east have already finished their harvest, despite concerns about crop quality and yields.
With daytime temperatures staying up in the 20s, it’s clear that summer’s not quite over – but for better or worse, around the Chilterns, this year’s harvest is almost gathered in…
IF ONLY trees could talk, what secrets they could tell…
The ancient oaks and beeches of Burnham Beeches have provided a place of solace and refuge during difficult times this year.
Through the long summer holidays that followed the easing of lockdown restrictions, the woods have been alive with the cries of children and lolloping spaniels, a safe place to socially distance away from the pressures of supermarket shopping and public transport.
Paths wending through overhanging branches have provided shade from the sweltering heat of early autumn and shelter from the rain, a place for bug hunts and Pooh sticks, of family adventures and solitary wanderings.
From hungry ducks and moorhens to foraging ponies and cattle, the woods are home to an array of wildlife, from the ubiquitous pigeons and squirrels to the industrious ants, colourful dragonflies and elusive reptiles.
Spread across more than 900 acres, Burnham Beeches soaks up visitors and provides a cross-section of different habitats, from heathland ferns and heather to lily-covered ponds and carefully grazed wood-pasture.
A national nature reserve for almost 30 years, it is an oasis of calm in a hurried world, and one which hundreds of local families will remember with affection for the part it played in making the long difficult summer of 2020 just a little easier to cope with.
BACK in March I posted a blog about the possibility that the pandemic might just encourage us to rethink our relationship with the natural world and our place in it.
Written just days before the lockdown, it was a plea of hope that our experience of coping with the virus and its horrors might just provide some sort of global opportunity for humanity to reset its values.
It was by no means a lone voice, of course. Numerous leaders and pundits have put forward blueprints for how we can rebuild in the wake of the pandemic, and the Pope has been dedicating his Wednesday general audiences on how the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity can help heal the world.
But have we really forgotten the potential lessons we learned from lockdown so very quickly?
We always knew the importance of the economic imperative and getting people back to work as far as possible. Yet in Warwickshire this week we are seeing ancient oaks being pulled down as HS2 construction work continues at an eventual cost already estimated at more than £70bn.
Every week when we walk among the centuries-old trees at Burnham Beeches we marvel at the age and beauty of these giants, which have witnessed so much history.
The devastation across the Chilterns which has reduced local residents to tears is just one symptom of the race to resume all the things we were doing before the whole crazy coronavirus scare began.
Five months on, do we really need a new railway at this moment in time? A third runway at Heathrow? An Oxford-Cambridge expressway? Surely there might be less damaging job-creation schemes that might protect what little we have left of our countryside before it gets buried in concrete and litter?
The March post suggested: “How we cope with and survive from the current crisis is in our hands. It will undoubtedly mean looking at the world in a different way – and changing how we live our lives.”
I’m not sure that’s happening. The race seems to be on to declare that it’s “business as usual”. But it’s no longer business as usual. And it would be good to see more of our political and business leaders taking account of the new reality before it’s too late.
CHILTERNS villages don’t come much prettier than The Lee, and this area is a perfect base for a summer ramble.
It’s just a shame that HS2 construction is having such an impact on this part of the world – and you don’t have to wander very far to come across hand-made signs protesting about the “ecocide”.
HS2 apart, this is glorious countryside where there’s been a small community since the Domesday Book of 1086 – and doubtless earlier.
The name is believed to derive from the old Anglo Saxon word ‘leah’ meaning ‘woodland clearing’. At that time the Chiltern hills were largely covered with woodland and the community at Lee would have been closely linked to nearby lowland areas at Great Missenden and Wendover, which had land more suited to crops and grazing.
In the 13th century a chapel was built at Lee; known locally as The Old Church, it is now a Grade I listed building.
With ancient rights of way such as the Ridgeway passing close to the hamlet, the cluster of hamlets around Lee remain a magnet for ramblers and cyclists, not to mention an increasing number of Midsomer Murders fans keen to scout out popular locations from the series.
The Cock & Rabbit on the archetypically English village green is better known to followers of DCI Barnaby as the Rose & Chalice – and being handily placed halfway between Great Missenden and Wendover, it’s a good staging post for any walkers reaching and leaving the area by train.
Another local landmark that’s hard to miss is the Grade II listed wooden ship’s figurehead of the Admiral Lord Howe at the entrance to Pipers, a country house steeped in the history of the Liberty family, of Regent Street fame.
As Lord of the Manor in the 1890s, Arthur Liberty he extended the estate to encompass a dozen working farms, many houses, cottages and public houses, and there are still many visual reminders in the village of his influence. He died in 1917 having built Pipers for his nephew and eventual heir.
The figurehead comes from the Navy’s last wooden ship, dating from 1860, though it never saw sea service and was used as a training ship at Devonport before being broken up in 1921, with many of the timbers used for the mock Tudor extension to the Liberty store in London.
Ramblers and cyclists wanting a more dramatic forest setting don’t have far to go to explore Forestry England’s 800-acre site at Wendover Woods, recently expanded as part of a redevelopment funded by a massive HS2 community grant.
On a quiet day the trails offer miles of varied paths and gradients to explore, along with picnic areas, a children’s playground, Go Ape treetop adventure course and nearby mountain biking area at Aston Hill for those wanting a more challenging range of adventure trails.
Or if you still haven’t had your fill of Chilterns landmarks, make your way over to Hawridge & Cholesbury Common, designated as a local wildlife site and offering the perfect place for another circular stroll.
Cholesbury is an ancient hill top village and has much to interest the visitor, especially an Iron Age Hill Fort which is one of the most impressive prehistoric settlements in the Chilterns.
Starting from the 17th-century Full Moon pub, with its atmospheric views over the nearby windmill and common, you can opt for a two-and-a-half or five-mile round trip to the fort, which was probably built around 300-100BC and occupied from the Roman conquest into the middle of the first century AD.
For the less energetic, the area is criss-crossed with footpaths and is rich in wildlife, including fox, badger and muntjac deer as well as a range of birds and butterflies.
Against the reassuring backdrop of the crack of leather on willow (cricket has been played on the common for more than a century), you can enjoy a leisurely stroll here without veering far off the beaten track (or too far from the prospect of a welcoming pint at the Full Moon)…
BIG skies aren’t normally a feature we associate too often with the Chilterns landscape, but for those who enjoy plenty of room to breathe on a walk, Pinkneys Green is perfect.
This glorious expanse of open grassland owned and managed by the National Trust is home to a rich variety of grasses, flowers and buzzing insects, thanks to the fact that the open unfenced hay meadows are left to grow tall in the summer, providing a perfect hiding place for a variety of wildflowers.
From delicate yellow cowslips and kidney vetch to bright white oxeye daisies and purple field scabious, specks of colour dance amongst the grasses for as far as the eye can see, allowing walkers to wander a network of paths cut into the hay until it is cut in late summer, encouraging the distribution of seeds for the next year.
Alive with the hum of bees and butterflies in the summer months, this grassland is a popular haunt for species like the marbled white, a medium-sized butterfly with black and white checked wings which is particularly fond of purple flowers like wild marjoram, thistles, and knapweeds.
Here you might listen out for the call of a skylark on a summer’s evening, spot the dunnocks, fieldfares and redwings sheltering in the hedgerows around the field or hear the rustle of a vole, shrew or field mouse in the long grass.
A perfect place for trying your hand at kite-flying, or just enjoying the wind in your hair on a blustery day, it’s one of a number of open spaces owned by the National Trust in the area.
A number of useful National Trust trails provide an opportunity to get to know the commons better, including a four-mile circular trail taking in Cock Marsh and the Thames and a longer trail incorporating Winter Hill, Maidenhead Thicket and Pinkneys Drive.
EXILED Scots wanting to capture something of the atmosphere of the Highlands should take a trip round Stoke Common this month.
Amid the ferns and conifers on this slice of ancient Buckinghamshire heathland, the gorse and heather are springing into bloom, giving the common a distinctly Caledonian feel.
No distant mountains or deep, dark lochs to complete the illusion, of course, but the yellows, pinks and purples create a carpet of colour as the heather bursts into flower at the end of the summer.
The iconic British moorlands of Wuthering Heights and Hound of the Baskervilles fame are depicted as bleak, windswept and foreboding – but all that changes by the start of August.
A large proportion of the world’s moors and upland heaths are in the UK, making our moorland habitats internationally important – and none more so than this one, since these 200 acres of land represent the largest vestiages of a landscape that was once extensive across Buckinghamshire.
So there’s no need to head for the hills of the Scottish uplands to savour the late-summer spectacle. The lowland heaths of southern England and south Wales also have the heather showing off at is best alongside the golden yellow of gorse, and Stoke Common is a perfect example.
And if you think the yellow flowers look good enough to eat, forager and author Rachel Lambert has some intriguing recipes on her website; fancy a wild rice pudding, anyone?
Find out more about Rachel at a website documenting the lives of people living and working by the Cornish coast.
BIKE-MAD teenagers love Wendover Woods, and many runners find it the perfect place to work out their fitness routines.
But not everyone is over the moon, it seems, at the programme of improvements funded by a massive HS2 community grant – and not just because of where the money came from.
There’s a sense of adventure as you make your way up what seems an interminable entrance drive, and it gives you a chance to take in the full extent of the 800-acre site. This drive, the car park and the café are all part of the improvements financed by a £450,000 cash injection.
There’s even a promotional video from April 2020 saying how pleased Forestry England were with the redevelopment, although only a few hundred people have seen forest centre manager David Barnett explaining that it was “some 17 years in the making”.
Doubtless there are many who have found the easy car parking, new visitor hub and large café real improvements – and some visitors have praised all of those things. But there are also a number of reviews in recent months that have expressed less enthusiasm for the changes, with critics lambasting the parking and food charges, and finding the scale of the makeover a little overwhelming.
No one has any issues with the scenery, and on a quiet day the trails offer miles of varied paths and gradients to explore, along with picnic areas, a children’s playground, Go Ape treetop adventure course and nearby mountain biking area at Aston Hill for those wanting a more challenging range of adventure trails best suited to intermediate and expert riders.
But it rankles a little to pay £1.50 for the one-page map of the site, the coffee in the cafe was undrinkable on the day of our visit and the car park fees rack up for those staying for longer periods.
The signposting of trails around the cafe is far from clear for newcomers, and despite the facilities, the plethora of trail options and the impressive views out over Aylesbury Vale to the north, it’s clear several visitors have been disgruntled with aspects of their visit – though at the time of writing no one from Forestry England seemed to have answered their concerns.
Queues to pay for parking top the list of gripes, but some found the new cafe unappealing too: variously described as a “container” and “industrial warehouse”, dogs are not welcome inside, although some found the food reasonable and outside picnic area appealing.
Once in the woods and away from all the “commercial aspects” of the top area, it’s “magical” says one reviewer, but another found it a “dull commercialised version of nature” and yet another “little more than a countryside theme park”.
Sad to say, we found ourselves agreeing with the critics – especially compared to the blissful peace of Stoke Common or empty tracks at Black Park. And yet it was clear a lot of families were having a lot of fun at Wendover Woods, and long may it continue.
Outside peak periods the trails offer an escape from the cares of the outside world, and hundreds of families are taking advantage of that chance to engage with nature at first hand.
But Forestry England may need to pay a little more heed to the worries expressed by visitors. Numbers may be up, but that counts for little if the experience leaves a bad taste in the mouth or too large a hole in the pocket.
COULD there be a more restful spot for a moment of silent contemplation or thoughtful remembrance of loved ones?
Hats off to the gardeners at Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens: the rhododendrons and wisteria may have faded, the roses are losing their blooms but the gardens still look spectacular and provide a welcome oasis of peace and tranquillity.
The setting may lack that dramatic splashes of colour we saw back in the spring, but this is still a place of beauty and serenity – a haven for quiet reflection where dozens of small secret gardens are dedicated to local loved ones; a place often stumbled upon by poetry lovers making a pilgrimage to the nearby grave of Thomas Gray in St Giles’ churchyard.
It’s not a park, and visitors are asked to treat the gardens with respect and behave accordingly. But see our previous feature, Secret garden soothes the soul, for more detail about the gardens, Thomas Gray and the adjoining churchyard and National Trust monument.
IT’S BEEN a month of making new acquaintances, small and large – from huge British white cattle at Burnham Beeches to tiny beetles, from inquisitive piglets to baby coots, goats, ducks and squirrels.
The largest livestock wandering our local commons are the cattle released each year to graze the vegetation at Black Park, Stoke Common, Burnham Beeches and Langley Park.
Perhaps the most intimidating, size-wise, are the British White Catttle at Burnham Beeches, although they seem docile enough when lying down or thoughtfully munching their way through the local vegetation.
The modern day breed of cattle can claim direct links with the ancient indigenous wild white cattle of Great Britain, notably from the park at Whalley Abbey in Lancashire, and have become regular visitors in recent years as grazing has become increasingly seen as a way of creating diverse habitats in such ancient landscapes.
Once such woodlands would have been grazed by red deer, aurochs, wild boar and beavers. As humans increased their influence on the countryside they seriously reduced the numbers of wild herbivores, but introduced their own grazing pressures in the form of domestic livestock such as pigs, goats, sheep and cattle.
Overstocking of woodland grazers can cause a loss of plant and animal species and prevent natural regeneration, but balanced regimes with appropriate grazing pressure can increase habitat diversity, support important wildlife populations and encourage natural regeneration. A lack of grazing often allows more aggressive plants to outcompete and dominate sites, one reason why the past decade has seen the wider use of grazing cattle across the UK.
The livestock’s dung decomposes quickly as there are many insects and fungi which have evolved to feed on it, making it an important part of the ecosystem.
Bugs and beetles, moths and butterflies are just as important to the local ecosystem but a lot harder to photograph. Thankfully local forums like the Wild Cookham and Chesham Wildlife facebook groups are awash with experts good at spotting, capturing and chronicling their movements, or pulling together useful photo montages of which species to spot – and when.
One of the smallest but most colourful discoveries in a Chalfont meadow was the red-headed cardinal beetle, a bright red beetle with black legs and knobbly antennae found in woodland, hedgerows, parks and gardens over summer.
But this glorious meadow was alive with insects, from crickets to marbled white butterflies: it’s just tricky to capture them on camera when they move so quickly.
Thankfully the experts in the Wild Cookham facebook group are able to come up with much better images of some of the butterflies I have failed to capture, like the marbled white, comma, red admiral and holly blue, along with an excellent guide to about three dozen of the most common local species; Butterfly Conservation also have a useful identification guide.
Apart from the insects, this is also the season for baby animals in all shapes and sizes. Living near water, we have several families of ducks among our regular visitors, although seeing the little family line dwindle as the weeks go past and local predators get to work can be a little disheartening, reminding us of our very special rescue duckling a couple of years ago.
Watching a family of young thrushes showering and playing in the birdbath was an unexpected delight, a reminder of just how many visitors dropped in during the dark weeks of lockdown to make our lives a little cheerier – from a flustered pheasant and partridge to tits, robins and blackbirds, dunnocks, magpies and goldfinches.
We were remiss in keeping a proper lockdown diary, but one weekly photographic record that is a regular source of delight is the photo-newsletter issued by the “Moorhens” from their base near Milton Keynes.
A couple of years ago we posted the story of the Battells’ transformation of a couple of acres of cow pasture into an impressive nature reserve and their weekly newsletter continues to chronicle the exploits of a vast array of bird, animal and insect visitors, from courting pigeons to hungry foxes and naughty young squirrels. Contact their Moorhens through their home page to sign up.
Baby coots, ducklings and goslings have been vying for visitors’ attention at Black Park, and similar scenes have been repeated in ponds and rivers across the Chilterns.
From bats and barn owls to moorhens and muntjacs, after those long weeks when the main highlights were the daily visitors on the bird feeders, it’s a delight to be out and about again, lucky to be alive and blessed to be able to enjoy the amazing flora and fauna on our doorstep.
BLUEBELLS. If there’s one word which conjures up more positive images of life during 40 days on lockdown it’s this one.
And on a personal level, if there’s one abiding, memorable positive image to emerge from the extraordinary month of April 2020, it will be those vistas of bluebells dancing in the local woods.
We have been lucky, of course. Living on the edge of open country, it has been easy for our vital daily escape from the house to disappear into the woods.
And what a great healer nature has been. From the deluge of Twitter and Instagram pictures being shared from woodlands across the Chilterns, it seems we are not alone in finding this a welcome respite from the grim tally of deaths and infections on the news feeds.
It’s not a luxury we are taking for granted either – friends in Italy, Spain, China and Argentina have been under virtual house arrest, unable to get out for anything more than a tightly controlled shopping trip.
Not to mention those trapped on cruise ships or stranded in a drab hotel in a foreign country stressing about how to get home.
But these walks have offered so much more than just a welcome escape from the house, a breath of fresh air and all-important exercise.
From the moment that the prime minister addressed the nation on March 23 about government plans to take unprecedented steps to limit the spread of coronavirus, it was clear we were in uncharted and scary territory – not just in the UK, but all over the world.
Doubtless many volumes will be written about the awful spring of 2020, and it’s hard to write anything positive about this time without being conscious of the terrible human toll – some 27,500 deaths in the UK so far, with all the associated individual family tragedies that involves.
For a while, it felt as if we might be joining the statistics. A long feverish weekend paved the way to a fortnight of slow recovery. But lying in the night coughing and sweating, listening to relentless government press conferences and stories of doom from around the world, it was all too easy to succumb to the paranoia.
Every cough and tickle takes on a new significance. What if there’s a problem breathing? Will this mean dying on a ventilator in a hospital unable to say anything to your nearest and dearest? And the social media feeds don’t help – this is real, and friends around the world are already having to cope with the loss of loved ones.
Thankfully, the symptoms subside and strength returns. And nothing feels quite so exhilarating as the fresh air of that first tentative walk, even if we can’t smell the flowers.
Which makes those bluebells all the more enchanting. And they go on blooming all month on so many of the paths we wander through…English bluebells, of course, so long associated with the Chilterns and ancient woodlands and a constant source of inspiration for artists like Jo Lillywhite (below).
And as our first steps outdoors become a little more confident and we manage to stray further from home, there are new copses and paths to discover.
Enchanting and iconic, bluebells are a favourite with the fairies – and the violet glow of these bluebell woods is an incredible wildflower spectacle that really does lift the spirits and warm the heart.
“There is a silent eloquence/In every wild bluebell” wrote a 20-year-old Anne Bronte in 1840. The vivid hues may have begun to fade by the end of April, but the secret beauty of our ancient local woods has helped to set us firmly on the road to recovery and provide a welcome gentler vision of a terrible month which will haunt so many for years to come.
FORGET about the selfish shoppers piling their trolleys high with toilet rolls, or the shopkeepers marking up the price of their hand sanitiser bottles.
Crises have always brought out the best and worst in people, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.
But rather than focusing on the aggravating actions of that mean-spirited minority who always think of themselves first at any cost – including the scammers, fraudsters and other criminals eagerly targeting the most vulnerable of prey – it’s time to look at the bigger picture.
locals in Madrid applauding public health workers and those on Italian
balconies singing into the night to the countless thousands of health and
service sector staff knowingly putting themselves at higher risk of catching the
virus, this is a time to salute the courage of the many, not the pettiness of
is not going to go away quickly. Indeed, it’s likely to spark a global
recession on a scale we have not seen before – and make us all rethink our relationship
with nature and the world around us.
trend forecaster Li Edelkoort was one of many early voices predicting that the virus
could provide “a blank page for a new beginning” that could eventually allow
humanity to reset its values.
Could it mean us getting used to living with fewer possessions and travelling less, as the virus disrupts global supply chains and transportation networks?
The crisis has already impacted on virtually every aspect of our daily lives – as it did for this priest, who asked parishioners to send him a picture of themselves and their families so he could tape them to the pews and remember them during Mass while the parish is closed.
Some campaigners certainly believe the economic disruption has already had environmental benefits, pointing out how carbon emissions and pollution in China dramatically declined after the virus first hit.
“It seems we are massively
entering a quarantine of consumption where we will learn how to be happy just
with a simple dress, rediscovering old favourites we own, reading a forgotten
book and cooking up a storm to make life beautiful,” Li told the design
and architecture magazine Dezeen.
The woman named by Time magazine
in 2003 as one of the 25 most influential people in fashion said the impact of
the epidemic would be “layered and complex” but would force us to stop taking
planes, work from home more and entertain only among close friends or family.
With a younger generation increasingly concerned about the ownership and hoarding of clothes and cars, the transformation could be dramatic.
“Suddenly the fashion shows look
bizarre and out of place, the travel ads that enter our computer space seem
invasive and ridiculous,” she said. “Every new day we question each system we
have known since birth, and are obliged to consider their possible demise.”
It is a time of profound challenges for our national and world leaders but by taking the decision-making power out of our hands, the virus has forced us to wake up and take notice of what we have been doing to the world.
But if it offers the prospect of resetting
the dial when it comes to pointless travel, growing pollution and the
ever-increasing production of ugly and useless plastic toys and souvenirs, it
will come with a heavy price tag.
As well as potentially millions
of deaths around the world, we can also expect to see many existing companies
wiped out in the process of slowing down the pace – from luxury brands and
airlines to hospitality businesses and importers.
Going cold turkey in changing our
shopping and socialising habits is only the start. But as country after country
shuts down, the process of rediscovering old books, dusting off old recipes and
reconnecting with our nearest and dearest may do something to offset the
Of course, there’s little room
for flippancy in celebrating any possible benefits of such societal changes. It’s
hard at this stage in the crisis to have any realistic comprehension of the
impact these events will have on our lives for generations to come – including the
loss of loved ones, the hidden fall-out in terms of anxiety and mental health
issues, the countless job losses and the extra strains likely to be imposed on already
Not to mention the fearfulness of those who are already ill, the impact of the virus in prisons, hospitals, refugee camps and war zones.
Yet clearly the shutdown will
also give people time to think – and maybe time to think differently, about new
ways of living. As one popular poetic quote being widely shared on social media
puts it: “And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in
ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.”
We are not at that stage yet.
But we are already at a point where local communities are talking of ways of
pulling together to protect the elderly and housebound, to counteract the
selfish stockpiling of the greedy.
For many hunkering down at home, there may be different ways of supporting small independent businesses and allowing local ingenuity to flourish against the depressing backdrop of global economic pressures.
For those able to leave their house, there’s still the great outdoors to explore, even if that means a solitary walk rather than an outing with friends. But as these pictures show, when the sun breaks through the clouds, the natural world can provide a welcome escape from the gloomy news feeds or social media chatter.
Will we eventually enter an era where cottage industries flourish and arts-and-crafts initiatives prosper? Is our destruction of nature ultimately responsible for Covid-19 as some environmentalists believe?
We’ve suffered pandemics
before, of course, from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, and all have had a
profund impact on society (and not just through the devastating impact on
How we cope with and survive from the current crisis is in our hands. It will undoubtedly mean looking at the world in a different way – and changing how we live our lives. It’s also time for all of us to do so with a lightness of heart and kindness of spirit that perhaps belies our own worries and concerns. And one thing’s for sure: for the post-coronavirus generation things will never be quite the same again.
DELIGHT in the little things, said Kipling – yet all too often the simple daily pleasures slip past us without us taking the time to savour them.
These days there’s an added problem for the selfie generation: everyone is so busy taking pictures for Instagram or Snapchat that the chance to properly relish a reunion with old friends, an extraordinary meal or stunning view is sometimes undermined or lost completely.
It’s the perennial challenge for travel writers and bloggers, of course. Do you soak up that chance conversation with strangers, the scent of exotic spices in the souk or the interminable bus journey through the mountains without capturing a picture for posterity, or do you spend all your time looking at life through a lens?
On the first day of March, with the sun streaming in through the bedroom window after what seems like weeks of gales and torrential downpours, the birds are in full song and, to quote Wodehouse: “The snail was on the wing and the lark on the thorn – or, rather, the other way around – and God was in His heaven and all right with the world.”
And so, turning away for a moment from the grim TV news about coronavirus, locust plagues and war, what are the small reasons to celebrate this week?
One small highlight is the return of an old friend, Fez the pheasant. Or, to be a little more realistic, an avian relation that looks remarkably like Fez, resplendent in his splendid waistcoat, who became a regular visitor round the bird feeder last year.
This year’s lookalike only pays a brief morning visit before scuttling off in a panic, but we hope he will return – like his majestic cousin, so beautifully captured on camera by Roy Battell of The Moorhens and circulated to followers in one of his weekly newsletters.
Other seasonal highlights include the daffodils providing a welcome splash of colour around the nearby Cliveden estate, prompting the predictable outpouring of Wordsworth quotes and perhaps a less well known quote from the Twitter account of @A_AMilne: “I affirm that the daffodil is my favourite flower. For the daffodil comes, not only before the swallow comes, but before all the many flowers of summer; it comes on the heels of a flowerless winter. Yes, a favourite flower must be a spring flower.”
And although the slog up from the river to the house at Cliveden can be a thigh-wearying climb, it’s worth it to look back over the sunlight fading over the swollen Thames.
Other little pleasures in recent weeks have been culinary surprises like an enticing cream tea at the Crazy Bear farm shop, a tasty vegetarian lasagne at the Grocer at 15 in Amersham Old Town, an outstanding Sunday lunch at Flowerland in Bourne End and a tasty bacon butty at The Barn Cafe in picturesque Turville Heath.
Not that we’re name-dropping, I hasten to add. But it was nice to be able to recognise the quality of local produce in our post for the Rearing & Growing page, which was shared on some local tourism websites.
It’s been an exciting week for our website too, because our friends at cbacontent have been helping us finally sort out our top destinations for our What’s On pages, installing links to more than 50 top family attractions across the Chilterns, from free museums to Whipsnade Zoo.
The toughest thing with an outdoors magazine is sitting at the computer when you want to be outdoors, of course – and a call from the kitchen reminds me that we should be getting our boots back on to get back out there – actually delighting in those little things, and not just writing about them…
THERE’S something immensely restful and soothing about Gregorian chant – and the same can be said of the tranquil surroundings of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.
Here, buried in the depths of the English countryside, is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery founded in Paris in 1615.
Vespers is sung prayer – in Latin. Traditionally this evening sacrifice of praise to God takes place as dusk begins to fall, giving thanks for the day just past, and although guests are welcome and some services and concerts are well attended, it’s not uncommon to find the monks alone at this time.
Uprooted by the French Revolution, the monks moved initially to Douai in Flanders and settled in England in 1903, when they moved to their current base at Woolhampton.
The Order of Saint Benedict, also known as the ‘Black Monks’ because of the colour of their habits, is a religious order of independent monastic communities like Ampleforth, Downside, Worth and Buckfast.
They observe the Rule of St Benedict, a sixth-century Italian saint who studied in Rome and then turned his back on the world and lived in solitude before founding a monastery at Monte Cassino.
Here at Douai, under the patronage of the Edmund the Martyr (the East Anglian king who died in 869), the monks live a simple life of worship, study and work, centred around six daily services, from matins and lauds at 6.20am to compline at 8pm.
Despite their crow-like appearance when their black hoods are raised – an indication that they are in silent communion with the Lord – they are individually friendly and welcoming to guests who seek them out.
But “listening” is central to the Benedictine doctrine, so silence is an important part of their daily life – and for guests, a welcome reminder of how important it is for us all to escape the incessant hubbub of the modern world.
And so it is in preparation for the weekday service that we attend. Beforehand, individual monks sit in contemplation, both inside the abbey church and on benches around the grounds.
They then file silently to their places in the pews for a half-hour of praise and peace, the two dozen male voices echoing round the impressive arches of the abbey where we are the only other members of the congregation.
The abbey church was opened in the 1930s but not completed until 1993, and is a Grade II* listed building on the National Heritage List for England with marvellous acoustics.
Our simple evening service is without ceremony or accompanying music but is no less moving for that. The individual Latin words may be indistinct or unfamiliar, but the message of praise is clear – and the underlying sense of self-sacrifice and humility which underpins the monks’ way of life shines through.
Douai monks still serve in parishes throughout England and welcome guests on retreats and courses, as well as those seeking space for quiet or study. There are facilities for conferences and for youth and chaplaincy groups and throughout the year they host a number of concerts in the abbey church.
Guests may take a peaceful walk in the nearby meadow or sit in a small wooded glade at the foot of a statue of Christ. This is a place of peace and contemplation – and a welcome escape from the unrelenting noise and activity of our everyday lives.
For more information about the work of the monks at Douai, see their website.
STARGAZERS and nature photographers have been comparing their images of Friday’s Wolf Moon over the weekend – and it’s fair to say they managed to capture some startling and memorable pictures.
The first full moon of the decade lit up the night sky and coincided with a lunar eclipse, which happens when the sun, moon and Earth are perfectly aligned.
Clear skies across much of England provided perfect conditions for
those staking out some of the country’s most iconic backdrops, like Stonehenge
and Glastonbury Tor.
And around the world, from the beaches of Malaga to the mountains of Macedonia, photographers on the American astronomy website space.com have been showing off their efforts to capture the moon – and the penumbral eclipse which took place between 5pm and 9pm UK time when the earth’s outer shadow falls on the moon, making it look darker than normal.
The term ‘wolf moon’ is thought to have been coined by Native Americans because of how wolves would howl outside villages during the winter. Space.com is one of a number of sites with dates of all the full moons of the year, including the occasional blue moon where the moon is full twice in a month (this year on October 1 and 31).
On Chesham Wildlife facebook group page, Graeme Kennedy, a voluntary duty warden with the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, managed to capture the moon early in the evening, so reflecting the sun’s orange glow (above).
Photographers across the UK managed to capture the moon throughout the night, but some of the most dramatic images were captured by Wiltshire landscape photographer and commercial drone pilot Nick Bull.
His YouTube Channelis dedicated to drone photography and his commercial licence allows him to capture crop circles and historical landmarks like Stonehenge (below).
Particularly dramatic footage this year includes his time-lapse footage of the Wolf Moon over Glastonbury Tor.
The full moon happens about once every 27 days when the moon and the sun are on exactly opposite sides of Earth. The moon looks illuminated because we see the sun’s light reflected from it.
Different tribes may have had other names for it around the world – spirit moon, goose moon or even bear-hunting moon, for example.
There are another three penumbral eclipses to look forward to this year – and the next full moon will occur on February 9, normally known as the “snow moon”, so get those cameras ready!
TIS the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as Keats put it – of ripe fruit and harvest time, of an evening chill in the air and shorter days as we inch towards Michaelmas Day.
It’s the time of year where bats are swarming, birds are migrating and, deep in the woods, mushrooms and toadstools are flourishing.
But while shepherds, farmers, druids and astrologers might have been all too familiar with equinoxes and solstices, city dwellers may be a little less aware of the significance of the Latin terminology, religious ceremonies and country folklore associated with the month of September.
Michaelmas on September 29 is the third quarter-day of the year and marks the Feast of the three archangels mentioned in the Bible (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael).
Traditionally this was the time when accounts would have to be settled by tenants, when the harvest was over – and the impending autumn equinox means it is also associated in the northern hemisphere with the start of autumn.
More than 50 English churches take their names from St Michael and All Angels, including those at Aston Clinton and Hughenden (below) in Buckinghamshire.
Michaelmas is the start of school, university and legal terms, as well as being the last day of the year that blackberries can be picked, according to English folklore, since legend has it that when St Michael expelled Lucifer from heaven, he fell from the skies and landed in a prickly blackberry bush.
Satan promptly cursed the fruit and, depending which part of the country you come from, it is said that he scorched them with his fiery breath and stamped, spat or even urinated on them so that they would be unfit for eating.
Hence Michaelmas pie is made from the last berries of the season, while another ancient tradition suggests that a well-fattened goose fed on the stubble from the fields after the harvest should be eaten to protect against financial need in the coming year: “Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year”.
Indeed the day was also known as “Goose Day”, apparently following the example set by Elizabeth I who was dining on goose on the saint’s day in 1588 when she was told of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Looking to the skies, this is also the month of the autumn equinox, one of the two times a year when day and night are almost equal all over the planet and traditionally taken as marking the beginning of autumn.
Since that makes Michaelmas the time of year that the darker nights and colder days begin, the celebration is associated with encouraging protection during the winter months when it was believed the forces of darkness were stronger – and who better to protect one than St Michael, the archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels?
This is also the month of the most famous of all full moon names, the Harvest Moon, with numerous harvest festivals being celebrated around the world, from America to the Chinese mid-autumn Moon Festival.
In ancient times, it was common to track the changing seasons by following the lunar months, and for millennia people across Europe, as well as Native American tribes, named the months after features they associated with their seasons.
Today, we use many of these ancient month names as full moon names, including the Harvest Moon, which is the full moon nearest the September equinox.
Immortalised in music by Neil Young in a song on his 1992 album of the same name, it is not the only full moon to have provided musical inspiration. October’s Hunter’s Moon or Blood Moon provided the title for Night of the Hunter’s Moon, a track on the 1978 solo debut album from Sally Oldfield, older sister to Mike ‘Tubular Bells’ Oldfield.
From Anglo-Saxon times, the Hunter’s moon is associated with hunting, slaughtering and preserving meats for use in the coming winter months.
WHERE better for a picnic and evening of outdoor theatre than the stunning National Trust Cliveden estate near Maidenhead?
Heartbreak Productions set the perfect tone for the occasion last night with their tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Private Lives, Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners about a divorced couple having an unexpected reunion when they honeymoon with their new spouses in the same French hotel.
And the energetic five-strong cast of this Midlands touring company presented a lively and engaging reinterpretation of the play at the tail end of their marathon summer season.
The company head back home to Leamington Spa after presenting more than 250 performances of a quartet of different shows during a hectic three-month summer season that has incorporated everything from Romeo and Juliet to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny.
Some 200 theatregoers took their picnics to L’Hotel Crevecoeur to watch Elyot and Amanda struggling with their rollercoaster emotions after their unfortunate meeting in Deauville.
The parts were played by Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence in the original 1930 production, and later by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a 1983 Broadway production.
For this outdoor adaptation of the celebrated comedy, nostalgic music and dance helped to create the 1930s ambience as dusk fell on Coward’s delicious one-liners, but there were darker undercurrents too in the barely suppressed violence underpinning the central couple’s stormy relationship.
A fitting season’s end to Cliveden’s open-air theatre productions, as the Heartbreak team packed up and headed home for a final couple of shows and a welcome break.
IT’S hard to believe we are already more than halfway through August, but the sudden splash of colour from the hibiscus hedges at our front door are the most vivid reminder of the changing months.
We’ve enjoyed the fabulous summer displays from the roses, fuchsia and buddleia in our tiny back garden, and now it’s the turn of the front to have a final spectacular flourish.
Lammas Day (August 1) is past – traditionally the day when the first wheat from the harvest is made into a loaf to be the bread consecrated with the wine at a thanksgiving mass.
Lammas comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning loaf mass and has been celebrated for thousands of years, marking a bittersweet month of feasting and abundance, a time when growth is slowing and the darker days of winter and reflection are beckoning.
These are the dog days of summer, when the gardens and roadsides are full of goodies, fields are full of grain, and harvest is approaching.
In ancient times it was a time to celebrate the great Celtic sun king Lugh and reflect on the upcoming abundance of the fall months – the season when the first grains are ready to be harvested and threshed, when the apples and grapes are ripe for the plucking, and we are grateful for the food we have on our tables.
August is a traditionally a month of feasting and celebrations – of market fairs, games and bonfire celebrations, circle dances and community gatherings, as well as being seen as an auspicious month for weddings.
There are many customs throughout Europe around the cutting of the grain or corn.
The first sheaf – which guarantees the seed and symbolises continuity and rebirth – would often be ceremonially cut at dawn, winnowed, ground and baked into the harvest bread which was then shared by the community in thanks. The first barley stalks would be made into the first beer of the season.
The last sheaf was also ceremonially cut, often made into a ‘corn dolly’, carried to the village with festivity and was central to the harvest supper: a corn maiden after a good harvest or a hag or crone after a bad one.
Old Lammas Day on August 12 apparently also marked the day when the lord of the manor would allow commoners to graze the medieval flood plain meadows until Candlemas at the beginning of February.
Locally, the blackberrying has been in full spate and the visitors from earlier in the year – Fez the wandering pheasant and Snoot the sneezing hedgehog – have been replaced by the delightful ducklings, swarms of cheerful tits and agile squirrels.
It’s a reminder that it’s almost two years since we moved to Wooburn Green, and of what a delight that time has been, with the cooing of the pigeons and whistling of the red kite in the nearby Cedar of Lebanon a constant backdrop to life at “Bear Cottage”.
That slight chill in the evening air is also a reminder of the bittersweet aspects of August that former generations will have sensed – the imminent end of the harvest, the picking of the fruit and berries and the promise of darker winter nights to come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 pageher supporters were only too quick to add their own words of praise and appreciation too.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Therapyauthor Joe Harness.
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.
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.”
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.
IT WAS great to see the car parks full at Burnham Beeches for New Year’s Day, with dozens of local families starting the year with a breath of fresh air and a ramble through this extraordinary 540-acre nature reserve.
It may get dark quite early, with the car parks closing at around 4.30pm, but the weather was dry and mild enough for youngsters to enjoy throwing leaves in the air and a small army of assorted canines to be rushing excitedly around the woodland paths.
More ambitious walkers can embark on a two-hour 8km history trail that provides a living history lesson about the ancient trees and monuments scattered around this landscape – including the 700-year-old Druids Oak and Iron Age hill fort.
Always a popular place for family walks, picnics and Sunday school outings, the reserve grew in popularity after 1880 when visitors from London could pick up a bus service from Slough station which stopped at tea rooms on the south western boundary of the site.
It seems odd to think of Victorian families enjoying the same sort of New Year’s Day ramble here more than a century ago – and perhaps even odder to ponder how many of the same trees they might have seen!
A downloadable map includes information about the reserve’s history and wildlife.
IT’S A shame Thames Water can’t do a little more to clean up its act around the Little Marlow sewage treatment works.
Given that the works lies next door to a nature reserve, you might think some effort could be made to keep the approach road neat and tidy.
But ramblers enjoying the otherwise picturesque circular tour of Spade Oak lake down to the River Thames are once again greeted by a growing pile of fly-tipped debris just where the footpath crosses the approach road to the works.
The pile looks remarkably similar to the rubbish dumped in the same spot some months ago, pictured below.
And given Thames Water’s pledges to invest in the area following its disastrous pollution problems some years ago, you might hope for just a little more effort to prevent the lane becoming a fly-tipping hotspot.
Back in March 2017 Thames Water was fined a record £20.3 million for polluting the River Thames with 1.4 billion litres of raw sewage.
The company allowed huge amounts of untreated effluent to enter the waterway in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in 2013 and 2014, leaving people and animals ill, and killing thousands of fish.
Judge Francis Sheridan handed down the largest penalty for a water utility for an environmental disaster at a sentencing hearing at Aylesbury Crown Court.
Richard Aylard of Thames Water said outside the court that the company had learned its lesson, changed its ways and was also proud to be working in partnership with environmental groups across the area, working to improve rivers.
Following sentencing, Thames Water also announced it would allocate £1.5 million towards projects to improve the rivers, wildlife and surrounding environment at the six locations.
One small step might be to improve the approach road to the Little Marlow works. No one is blaming the company for the fly-tipping itself – but if future incidents are to be prevented, more needs to be done to prevent this becoming a permanent blot on the local landscape.
IT’S HARD to think of a less likely tourist attraction that the UK’s second oldest oil refinery, at Grangemouth.
But if you drive past the gas flares and cooling towers for a few minutes, the detour off the busy M9 motorway from Edinburgh to Stirling will take you to a quite extraordinary reminder of a golden age of steam.
For this is the home of the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway, a five-mile working heritage railway and home to Scotland’s largest railway museum.
The view from the station platform – the main station at Bo’ness was actually relocated from Wormit, at the south end of the Tay Bridge – could hardly be more authentic, although the 0-6-0 tank engine decked out in British Railways black is also “in disguise”.
Despite the BR livery, this is not the former LNER Class J94 engine which once bore that number, but a lookalike – an engine once owned by the National Coal Board which was built by W G Bagnall in 1945 and acquired from the NCB’s Comrie Colliery in Fife.
In its gleaming BR livery it certainly looks the part, though, and it’s only one of a large selection of steam and diesel engines to be found here.
Another surprise is the surprisingly rural atmosphere of the route. Despite the proximity of heavy industry, the line takes passengers to a local nature reserve, and you can always walk back along the coast or disembark at another rural station that has been a favourite with film-makers.
The museum across the footbridge at Bo’ness is open seven days a week until October 28 from 11am-4.30pm and boasts three large buildings full of memorabilia – from full size locomotives to old-fashioned railway signs which once adorned the walls of busy railway stations across the country.
For full details of the railway, see the link above –and more information about the Scottish Railway Preservation Society can be foundhere.
LEAP OF JOY: Jamie Ross’s winning banner picture for the Discover British Nature Group
WHAT do you wake up to in the morning? For many of us it’s a news feed, TV breakfast show or radio news bulletin – and sometimes that can prove a pretty depressing start to the day.
Fake or otherwise, news can be bad for our health. The dangers were highlighted rather neatly a few years ago in an essay by Swiss entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, who uses some pretty stark adjectives to describe our standard daily diet of toxic, stress-inducing snippets of irrelevant gossip.
With Dobelli’s warnings in mind of the damage this diet does to our ability to think creatively by sapping our energy, we at The Beyonder have been engaging in a detox with a difference.
Part of Dobelli’s cold-turkey approach involved ditching news in favour of magazines and books which explain the world and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – go deep instead of broad, he advised.
That makes a lot of sense, but we don’t always want to sit down for a lengthy or complicated read, so what alternatives are there to the standard news feed?
In The Beyonder’s facebook group – still at the time of writing a very select gathering of a handful of like-minded souls – we’ve been exploring groups, pages and websites for outdoorsy people which might help us start the day in a more positive way than the conventional tabloid diet of death and destruction.
So, here are a handful of our suggestions which might provide a handy starting point for anyone wanting to start the new day with a jaunty spring in their step and a smile on their face…and we are only too happy to have suggestions of other groups that might be added to the list.
Of course the starting line-up of possible sites is almost too long to contemplate, from charities and country parks to heritage sites and TV naturalists. And there are those which might be a touch too specific for more general tastes, like Emmi Birch’s 1200-strong group of red kite enthusiasts or the 5000-strong followers of a group sharing locations of starling murmurations, or David Willis’s uplifting exploration of bushcraft skills.
So difficult is it to narrow down our top six feel-good sites, that it’s worth highlighting a few more which are calculated to bring a smile to the face before homing in on our top recommendations…
CREAM OF THE CROP: Sandy Lane Farm in Oxfordshire
For those who like a regular update of life on the farm which doesn’t begin and end with The Archers, there’s always the news feed from Sandy Lane Farm, just a few minutes off the M40 in Oxfordshire.
This family-run farm is home to Charles, Sue and George Bennett and has been growing organic vegetables for over 25 years and raises free-range, rare-breed pigs and pasture-fed lamb. The farm shop is open on Thursdays and Saturdays for those wanting to visit in person, but for 1300 online followers there are regular updates of what they might be missing out in the fields.
Over in West Berkshire, a similar number of followers enjoy regular updates from Aimee Wallis and partner Dario at the Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue Centre. The centre’s work, focused particularly on corvids, formed a full-length Beyonder feature back in May and the news feed provides regular pictures and video of rescued birds’ progress.
KEEPING IT CLEAN: volunteers in Kidderminster
There’s nothing nice about litter, but a couple of inspiring community websites provide regular reminders that for every thoughtless or selfish individual treating the countryside with contempt there are a dozen highly motivated volunteers behind the scenes doing their best to make their local neighbourhood a better place to live in – and none more so that Michelle Medler and her pick-up team in Kidderminster.
On to our top five, then – and the 1800-strong Discover British Nature Group which describes itself as a place for members to share photos, ask for help with identification and to share their common interest in British nature.
Apart from hosting a friendly banner competition – for which Jamie Ross’s memorable shot above was a recent winner – the daily feed of spectacular shots of birds, insects and other wildlife is always a delight.
A similar website with a bigger 11,000-strong following is UK Garden Wildlife where foxes, hedgehogs, deer and badgers are in the spotlight, alongside a full range of birds, butterflies and other insects.
Given the sheer quality of many of the photographs on all these sites, there’s no such thing as an outright winner here, but in terms of the sheer amount of pleasure given on a daily basis, a clear contender is UK Through The Lens, a Facebook group with 23,000 members and a broader remit for photographs to share landscape and outdoor photographs.
Unlike some of the other groups, this provides scope for sharing pictures from urban and industrial landscapes as well as coasts, wild places and rural backwaters. It is also an excellent place to learn more about photography and is open to all, from outright beginners to full-on professionals.
FROZEN IN FLIGHT: Alan Bailey’s spectacular group header for Nature Watch
It’s a tough call to name a winner, then, but top of the tree of our photo-feeds for nature and animal lovers is Nature Watch which has a dedicated following of 31,000 members and a steady stream of inspiring photographs uploaded by enthusiasts across the country.
Of course this isn’t about choosing one website at the expense of the others, thankfully. It’s the combined input of all our contenders that helps to lift the spirits – and provides an inspiring and uplifting alternative news feed to those coming from the politicians, pundits and traditional news providers.
In the weeks and months since we have been following these pages (or joined the relevant group), the most noticeable thing about the vast majority of posts has been a real sense of humanity at its best.
Apart from the technical photographic skills of many of those contributing, it’s clear that these are people who care deeply about the environment – and what happens to it.
There’s plenty of scope on other sites to rage about climate change or animal cruelty or all the other things that are wrong with the world. But sometimes it’s important just to sit back with like-minded souls and marvel at the wonders of nature, from fluffy duckings and cute fledglings to stunning birds of prey, from some of the more elusive or nocturnal wildlife of our islands like moles and weasels to the less obviously breathtaking moths and beetles.
So, thank you to all those individuals on these websites whose startling snapshots of the natural world provide such a regular and genuine source of delight – and make each and every day just that little bit special.
We will be only too happy to extend our list to include further recommendations if appropriate – bearing in mind, of course, that membership of any of the closed groups mentioned is subject to acceptance, and abiding by the rules of that group.
BIG PICTURE: pondering our place in the universe [PICTURE: Greg Rakozy, Unsplash]
THE MOST startling thing about Paul Kingsnorth’s 2008 portrait of England in decline (Seen and Heard – Books) is just how much of it sounds as if it were written yesterday.
And yet his round England journey was undertaken well over a decade or so ago. Which begs the question – why didn’t we all spot what was happening at the time?
Well, of course we did: we all had those bleak conversations echoing the book’s central message – moaning about those idiosyncratic pubs and cafes and shops being swept away amid the violent regeneration of our town and city centres.
And of course it wasn’t all bad, by any means. Many of those awful greasy spoons and appalling backstreet boozers were the very epitome of what was wrong with England. Those famous publicans who took pleasure in being rude to their customers, for example. Those village pubs empty on a Saturday night long before the smoking ban or the soaring cost of a pint had made a real impact on trade.
But as the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone – and in fact the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi would make a pretty good soundtrack to Kingsnorth’s expose of a country which seems to have lost its way.
PRICE OF PROGRESS: high-rise city centre offices [PICTURE: Matthew Henry, Unsplash]
What resonates most about his book is the cumulative effect of all this so-called progress – of its dehumanising effect on us, creating a culture of dependency on the consumer machine created by the apparently unstoppable march of global capitalism.
“We expect. We demand. We are like children. Everything must be instant and, if it isn’t, somebody must pay,” he writes.
This is the real tragedy and it’s a growing selfishness that we see around us every day, in impatient queues at the till or blaring horns in traffic queues, the careless dropping of litter or the way tempers flare up so quickly over the most minor disputes.
The problem is that we have lost our ability to relate to other people, to empathise with their plight, share their concerns. Instead, we are living in a world of artificial reality, fuelled by our self-absorbtion, our narcissistic Instagram uploads and Facebook selfies.
We tap our feet in the supermarket when the person in front of us has the temerity to chat to the check-out assistant. We thump on the horn if someone takes a micro-second too long to spot the traffic light has turned green. We are patronising and sarcastic or downright aggressive when hard-pressed rail staff or shop assistants struggle to cope with problems beyond their control.
And all the time we are taking pictures of our food or the concert or the view and telling our friends how cool and happy and chic and contented we are.
CONSUMER CULTURE: global brands dominate our lives [PICTURE: Victor Xok, Unsplash]
And it’s this disconnect from any local community that poses the biggest danger to our wellbeing, not our reliance on global brands. It’s how we choose to use new technology that is the problem, not the fact that new technology exists.
And that’s nothing new. Joni Mitchell recognised the problem back in 1970 and we are far better informed today about the practical impact of our actions on the environment, as well of ways of starting to turn back the tide.
But if there is a more important message to be drawn from such a dystopian vision, it’s that there IS something we can do about it. As individuals, we can make choices. And as individuals working together we can be powerful.
That philosophy lies at the heart of what The Beyonder is about. At one level it’s about families exploring and enjoying the great outdoors so that it doesn’t feel as if we have totally lost touch with the landscape – or as if nature has just been contained and fenced in for our enjoyment (“They took all the trees / Put ’em in a tree museum / And they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see ’em”).
It’s about youngsters feeling as carefree building a den in the woods or a sandcastle on the beach as they do battling dark forces in the latest computer game. It’s about having the patience to keep listening to the old boy in the pub rattling on about the way things were. And it’s about sharing our enjoyment for some of the simplest things in life – the new ducklings on the lake, the screech of an owl at night in the woods, the glimpse of a hare or badger disappearing into the undergrowth.
SIMPLE PLEASURES: taking delight in the natural world [PICTURE: Olivia Beyonder]
Kingsnorth recognised that if there’s any antidote to the ideology of mass consumption and growing disconnect between human beings, it lies in rediscovering the essence of the place itself, not just the field and stream, but the town and village too.
Human beings are social animals and enjoy being part of a community. We feel more anxious when we feel isolated, remote, separate from our environment, so it makes sense at every level to know our place – and the other people who inhabit it.
We can’t bury our heads in the sand, turn off the news and live in a bubble, pretending the problems of the world don’t exist. But we can take a moment to share our appreciation of the natural world, our joy of living and our recognition that thousands – millions – of other people feel the same way.
Just as a sneak theft or random verbal attack by a stranger can spoil our mood and our day, so a random act of kindness can bring not just a smile to our face but a deeper inner joy.
There may be plenty wrong with the world, but there are other people out there who care just as much about what’s gone wrong – and who are working out the best way to put it right, one little personal step at a time.
Real England: The Battle Against The Bland by Paul KIngsnorth was published in paperback in June 2009 by Portobello Books at £8.99
BACK TO NATURE: England’s threatened wildlife [PICTURE: Ryan Jacques, Unsplash]
GOING GREEN: vegetables without plastic wrapping [PICTURE: Scott Warman, Unsplash]
IT WAS a health scare that started Kathryn Kellogg first thinking about what she was putting in and on her body.
“I had never considered it before; I just assumed everything I was consuming was safe,” she says. “There’s very little regulation and testing for the products we buy. Cleaning companies don’t even have to release the ingredients they use.”
After starting to cook from scratch and starting to make her own cleaning and beauty products, the aspiring actress moved to California as was shocked to see all the litter and plastic in the ocean.
“I knew I had to do something; so, I decided to be the change I wanted to see. I stopped buying plastic and wanted to create a sustainable life. It felt like a really natural progression,” she recalls.
Living in the Bay area and spending her free time hiking and cooking, she worked a 9-5 job and is one of a number of young millennial women responsible for promoting a zero-waste lifestyle revolution that has taken off in a big way.
Kathryn’s blog, Going Zero Waste, was launched in March 2015 and by the time she was profiled in The Guardian a year later, was attracting 10,000 page views a month and had 800 subscribers.
The focus of her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts is all about homemade products and simple shopping tips that can help avoid unnecessary waste. The goal is to ensure her trash for the past year – anything that hasn’t been composted or recycled – fits in an 8oz jar.
She’s not alone – over in Chicago, Celia Ristow of Litterlessespouses a similar zero waste vibe.
And it’s got to make sense. One of the best things about her blog is her desire to make things accessible and attainable: so that for anyone starting out on the zero waste journey or just wanting to be a little more eco-friendly, her first suggestion is always the ‘Big Four’ simple, easy swaps popularised by Plastic Free July, an initiative which originated in Western Australia but which now involves participants around the world.
Kathryn advises that these four items – plastic bags, straws, single use water bottles and takeaway coffee cups – are easy to avoid and make-up a huge portion of waste in landfills and the ocean.
It’s a great starting point for reducing litter at the point of consumption – and just one of a series of straightforward tips on Kathryn’s website.
LESS IS BEST: steering clear of plastic [PICTURE: Heder Neves, Unsplash]
In fact, this is just one of more than 300 blog posts full of zero waste tips. For anyone starting out on the journey, Kathryn’s Beginners’ Guide is as good a place as anywhere to start.
THIS afternoon a delightful, downy creature waddled into our lives and made a big splash in our hearts.
The river behind our house is home to some 20 adult ducks, and our neighbourhood has been waiting with bated breath for the arrival of the spring hatchlings. We hadn’t spotted any – until today.
A grown parent pair was guiding their brood of two tiny ducklings upstream. The river is very fast flowing and has a strong current, and it wasn’t long before the second duckling was struggling to keep up.
We watched with a growing sense of alarm as the duckling began to lose strength. Her bursts of ferocious paddling were growing weaker and she was floating further away on the current. Meanwhile, the adult ducks had swum so far they were now around the next bend 20 metres upstream and out of sight.
We have quite an active colony of patrolling red kites that have made their home in the enormous cedar of Lebanon that watches over the waterway, and it didn’t take much for my maternal instincts to kick in with full force.
I waded out to the opposite bank of the river, struggling even at my height to keep balance in the flow. The duckling was desperately trying to cling onto some ivy that creeps down to the waterline, chirping noisily to alert her parents. They hadn’t noticed half of their brood was missing.
I scooped her tiny form out of the water easily and carried her to our landing bay. She was still chirping wildly but did not resist my touch. The next hour was spent in two ways: Andrew got on the phone to our friend Aimee Wallis at Corvid Dawn to find out what to do next, as she has rescued ducks herself and reared them for release.
I guarded the duckling, whom I have now named Felicity Duckworth, as she chirruped frantically from various vantage points around the garden in the hope that her parents would hear her and return. I kept a watchful eye on our curious cat, Legotine, and shooed away a male mallard duck who was barking and snapping at Felicity with such ferocity that I snatched her away from him before he attacked.
All the while, whenever I set the duckling down on the ground, she would run quickly to my feet and seek shelter under my long dress. This behaviour, Aimee warned us, is called imprinting. Ducklings have an instinct to follow moving objects that are bigger than themselves (animate or inanimate!), believing that object to be their mother. I was flattered to say the least, and completely, utterly smitten.
Aimee told us the best thing we could do was to keep Felicity warm and take her to a wildlife sanctuary. It is apparently rare for a mother duck to return for lost young after around two hours. We duly waited and then, with Felicity tucked into a warm box lined and covered with tea towels, set off with heavy hearts for Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital in Aylesbury.
Whoever wrote the ugly duckling song had clearly never seen a duckling themselves. In the car, Felicity kept jumping out of the box that was in my lap and clambering desperately into the crook of my neck where she nestled herself and kept warm. I had a chance to see her close up when she was relatively still.
Her down was brown and yellow, and more like fine, fluffy fur. Her eyes were intelligent, sharp and very trusting. She could only be days old as her beak was sharpened to a point by her egg tooth which she had used to hatch out from the shell. All in all, this little bundle was quite simply perfection.
She was starting to close her eyes and her neck was drooping, a sign of shock or exhaustion in ducklings, so I put on Classic FM, thinking the music would be the closest thing to birdsong we had access to in the car. She quickly came to and cheeped volley after volley of duckling songs for the remainder of the journey.
We were greeted by two receptionists at Tiggywinkles, who humoured me as I struggled to break the bond that felt inseparable after only two hours of acquaintance. Reluctantly, and with a lump in my throat, I handed Felicity to the veterinary nurse who lifted her in her blue latex gloves. Three other ducklings had been handed over to the centre that morning after a female duck was killed in a road accident. I am heartened to know that Felicity will be given a chance to ‘learn how to be a duck’ with three new siblings who will no doubt have stories of their own to tell.
Tiggywinkles in Aylesbury, The Wildlife Hospital Trust, is a specialist hospital dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating all species of British wildlife. Wild animal casualties brought to the hospital are treated free of charge and released through a controlled programme back to the wild when they are fully fit. To find out more about the work of the hospital, which has a visitors’ centre, see the charity’s main website above or Facebook page.