Tweet of the week: 19/09/21

OUR Sunday night social media reflection this week plunges us into the art world, and particularly landscapes from the 1930s and 1940s.

Our host is @HenryRothwell, whose morning and evening tweets pay tribute to artists like Eric Ravilious, transporting us to that unsettling period between the wars when the outstanding British painter and designer, best known for his watercolours of the South Downs, was at the height of his creative powers.

Chalk Paths by Eric Ravilious, watercolour on paper, 1935

Rothwell’s favourite featured artists include John and Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and George Clausen, but range from 19th-century works to contemporary artists like Anna Dillon, whose ongoing Wessex Airscapes exhibition at the Sewell Centre Gallery highlights her collaboration with aerial photographer Hedley Thorne based on their shared passion for the landscapes of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. 

The Dryers by Anna Dillon from her Wessex Airscapes exhibition at Radley College

Rothwell’s own Twitter identity is slightly cryptic, but the “recovering” archaeologist is based near Wells in Somerset and has a particular interest in using digital media in the presentation of archaeology, spending much of his time developing a digital map of the hillforts of Britain.

But it is his fascination with art which has won him more than 30,000 followers on Twitter over the past decade and which translated into a small family business in February 2021, when Rather Good Art was launched, offering postcards and greetings cards based on the work of those favourite artists.

From small beginnings the number of cards on offer is steadily increasing, with the range of featured artists now extending to Van Gogh and Klimt.

Piquet Hill by David Alderslade, watercolour and gouache

Back on his Twitter feed, Rothwell’s enthusiasm for English landscapes allows him to sweep around the country, from Norfolk to Cornwall, from Kent to the south-west of England, perhaps pausing for a moment to study a favourite work by the contemporary artist David Alderslade, for example, based in his caravan on the edge of Salisbury Plain.

He does stray further afield on occasion, to Scotland, France or even Canada, and to coast and city scenes too, but his roots are firmly in the English landscapes of Ravilious, Nash and contemporaries like Claughton Pellew.

The Train by Claughton Pellew, 1920

Away from social media, Rothwell reveals yet another range of interests on his Notes for the Curious website which, alongside book reviews and occasional essays, features a score of Grave Goods interviews with a range of writers, historians, musicians, comedians and others deciding which items they might like to accompany them to the afterlife on their final “great adventure”.

Highlights include interviews with mudlark Lara Maiklem, comedian Isy Suttie and nature writer Melissa Harrison.

Like our other Tweet of the Week selections, Henry Rothwell is able to lift our spirits and transport us into a different dimension – and who can ask for anything more from their social media friends?

In case you missed them, here are some other favourites:

@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.

@A_AMilne: With 73,500 followers, this celebration of the wit and wisdom of the much-loved author and playwright taps into the timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood.

@woolismybread: Solitude, sheep and collie dogs in the company of Yorkshire shepherdess Alison O’Neill, whose 38,000 followers appreciate her straight talking and love of life’s simple pleasures.

@fenifur: Dartmoor wanderings with “Sea Witch” Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Tweet of the week: 12/09/21

AFTER last week’s trip to the Westmoreland fells, this week’s social media feed finds us at the opposite end of the country, exploring the wilds of Dartmoor.

And in the same way that shepherdess Alison O’Neill’s @woolismybread account offers followers a welcome escape from the pressures of city life, our social media host this week is equally rooted in the great outdoors.

Sea Witch is the Twitter monicker of @fenifur or Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

An able writer and photographer, she launched a modest blog in 2018 dedicated to encouraging people to make the most of nature – without feeling under any pressure to document it beautifully or do something unusual in order to really be experiencing it. 

“I spent the first half of my life almost permanently submerged in the sea or out on long walks on the South Downs, but even then I recently began to feel anxious that I wasn’t doing nature ‘right’,” she writes.

“I can only imagine how unsure some people who have grown up in urban places who have not had access to wild spaces for one reason or another may feel. Perhaps especially so when we are told that nature will ease our anxieties, yet taking part seems to involve additional uncertainties and planning.”

As somebody with ADHD, insomnia and chronic pain from hEDS and autoimmune conditions, Jenny understands that getting to grips with the natural world may not always be as easy as it sounds.

Yes, we know it can be beneficial for our mental health and how gardening or rambling can alleviate depression or anxiety. But what if you have a chronic pain condition that doesn’t mix with the bending and kneeling of gardening, or find it stressful trying to keep several things alive, or can’t afford compost and seeds?

If growing up in the south coast cathedral city of Chichester gave Jenny a lifelong love of the sea, it’s Dartmoor which has in recent years provided her and partner Pat with a place of respite and relaxation, as well as exploration and discovery.

When a serious illness left her with post-viral fatigue, exacerbating her joint pain and autoimmune problems, exploring the moor seemed to provide the perfect challenge to help her regain her strength, using John Hayward’s classic 1991 book Dartmoor 365 as an inspiration.

His book highlighted interesting features to be found in each of the 365 square miles of the park, prompting Jenny to follow in his footsteps, using a separate @DartmoorSquares account and her Instagram feed, @jennynaturewriter to build a photographic map of her walks.

“I put a pause on this during lockdown because Dartmoor was really suffering with an excess of visitors and it didn’t seem right to post walks to some of the less well trodden places,” she says. “Hopefully my posts will encourage people to appreciate and enjoy Dartmoor respectfully.”

Jenny’s explorations are about the simple pleasures in life, from picnics and river swims to foraging for mushrooms, elderberries, sloes or wild raspberries, following deer paths, watching the ponies or soaking up the last rays of a particularly spectacular sunset.

Her rambles also immerse her – and us – in the history of the place, and allow us to savour those discoveries too, from the abandoned villages and tin mines to remote “letterboxes” where visitors can still leave a calling card to show they have found the spot.

Back in Victorian times no one was better known to visitors to the district than James Perrott of Chagford, who for more than half a century acted as guide to tourists wanting to explore the wild landscape, and became known as the “father of letterboxing” – after setting up a cairn and bottle for calling cards at Cranmere Pool in 1854.

Here, luminaries of the day like Charles Dickens could leave proof that they had accompanied Perrott on the arduous 16-mile round trip from Chagford, and it remains one of two permanent letterboxes on the moor, though hundreds of others exist, hidden from view from all but the most determined explorers.

Those weekend “route marches” across the South Downs as a teenager may have given her a certain level of confidence about going out alone into spaces away from towns as she got older, but chronic joint pain and a year almost bed-bound with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome means she has a particular understanding of those who find such feats difficult or impossible.

Her six-part blog is a work in progress but provides a lively introduction to walking, wild swimming and foraging, with the promise of more posts to follow.

Her @DartmoorSquares and Instagram feed provide a pictorial record of rambles around bogs, tors, and ancient settlements, capturing some fascinating places of interest along the way, like Crockern Tor, where the ‘Great Parliament of the Tinners’ would meet from the early 14th century to legislate in relation to stannary law, regarding tin-mining.

But immersed as it is in the wonders of nature, there’s nothing cutesy about her personal Twitter account, which sometimes feels as wild and untamed as the landscape she loves so much.

“I would LIKE my Twitter feed to be a way for people to learn more about nature and the environment in general, Dartmoor, history, walking, maybe a place to inspire people to go out exploring,” she says. “However it is also my personal account so this can turn into vents now and then! Everyone who has met me in person knows that I rarely take myself seriously, though my humour is very dry and that doesn’t always come across online.”

Perhaps it’s the intensely personal nature of the account which makes it so appealing to her 2,800 followers. She has certainly proved to be no fair-weather friend, with more than 54,000 tweets since her account was launched in 2010 maintaining an almost daily presence, many clearly posts shaped by her health issues and her decision after a few years working in wildlife charity and university admin to retrain as a medical herbalist.

“Without trying to sound dramatic, Dartmoor literally saved my life,” she says. “I got sick all the way back in 2016. I’d been in hospital with liver adenomas and heart issues, and had been given four types of intravenous antibiotics, so my system was defenceless when I got a norovirus a week later.

“I had to go to part time, sleeping in my lunch break on working days. I had an eight-month wait to see a specialist, so spent that time researching on my own. I was eventually diagnosed with various things which the PVFS had exacerbated. Before the specialist I’d been seeing my GP who didn’t ‘believe in’ PVFS though, so I spent a lot of time worried I was dying with some kind of rare disease.”

Depressed and ill, daily visits to Dunsford nature reserve provided a change of scenery, but did not offer a linear recovery. “Some days I could only manage a mile, and that could take me two hours,” she recalls. But one day she made it the two miles to a meadow which was full of meadowsweet, a plant used by medical herbalists to treat stomach issues.

“I couldn’t tolerate omeprazole or ibuprofen and was desperate not to be on codeine or tramadol, so I tried meadowsweet tea twice a day and it changed everything! Suddenly I could eat without searing pain every time, it was the glimmer of hope I needed.”

More years of ups and downs were to follow, but the Dartmoor walking challenges would help immensely. “Having a challenge to complete helped motivate me to get up when it felt like the last thing my body wanted, and I had the privilege at the time of having savings in the bank to live on, which meant I could just do temp work and volunteering when I was able for a whole year,” she recalls.

That’s when she chose to qualify as a medical herbalist – although taking that leap in the dark with another two years to qualify has brought its own anxious moments.

“With 150 clinic hours under my belt I’m qualified to treat ‘self-limiting’ conditions under my own insurance, and any patient with supervision in my course’s clinic,” she says. “It’s evidence-based plant medicine, and for me the gentle, holistic approach is much more friendly towards bodies and systems that are in distress and attacking themselves.

“It’s my aim to help people with chronic illness live with less pain and if possible get back some if not all of their physical health (and therefore improving mental health).

“I live every day in pain and I have to watch out for flare-ups, but without Dartmoor and the plants I found there to help my body heal, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

It’s doubtless that searing honesty, as well as her compassion, wit and irreverence, which makes Jenny a welcoming online presence.

In the same way that we know how much she hates drones, waste and noisy neighbours, we can also relate to those flashes of impatience over family expectations, gaslighting by doctors and her ferocious reaction to injustice or unfairness.

“Dartmoor saved my life” could be her mantra – and long may she continue tramping through the bogs, streams and prehistoric sites that make her beloved moor such a place of discovery and adventure.

Thanks to Jenny for permission to reuse pictures from her Twitter feed.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Rich pickings signal the end of summer

AUGUST is a time of plenty, when gardens are in full bloom and the combines are rolling across nearby farmland.

FRIENDLY FACES: sunflowers put on a show near Aylesbury PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Ironically, Britain’s farmers may have an unlikely source to thank for thousands of us watching those crops being harvested with a new and more knowledgable eye this year.

For amid all the mysterious talk about spring beans, oilseed rape and winter wheats, moisture content and disappointing yields, it seems that the belligerent “petrolhead” Jeremy Clarkson was responsible for introducing a new generation of TV viewers to the trials and tribulations of farming life.

FARMING LIFE: harvest time at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

The success of Clarkson’s Farm offered some unexpectedly revealing insights as our Jeremy took personal charge of the management of the 1,000-acre Cotswolds farm near Chipping Norton that he bought back in 2008.

And amid all the hapless bumbling and frustrated swearing at the continual setbacks, we were treated to a warm-hearted gem of a series that potentially taught us more about farming than any other agricultural programme on the box.

WINTER FEED: hay bales outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Farmers are a notoriously tough audience, but many were won over by the TV star’s hard-hitting commentary about bureaucracy, pricing policies, Brexit challenges and bad weather.

“I think the show is absolutely brilliant,” Redditch-based farmer George Beach told Birmingham Live. “Clarkson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but everyone seems to agree about what he’s done.”

Even Sutherland hill farmer Joyce Campbell, who proved such a popular character on BBC2’s This Farming Life that even her collies get fan mail, tweeted: “I love @JeremyClarkson on his farming. The best TV ever.”

SUNNY SIDE UP: a sunflower crop near Aylesbury PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

From cultivation to harvest, misty dawn starts to exhausted night shifts, this was Clarkson as we have never seen him before, in a world where failures have real emotional and financial consequences.

The whole experience also gave him a new respect for farmers, he confessed. He told monthly magazine Farmers Guide: “I get annoyed with what people think about farming. It’s either the huge barns in Texas where they brutally grow pigs or cows, or Kate Humble with a freshly scrubbed baby lamb on a clean bed of hay. Farming is somewhere in between.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: overlooking the Misbourne PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

“Farmers are trying to fill the supermarket shelves with cheap good food, and at the same time look after the countryside. Every one of them I talk to is responsible and doing this all the time, despite what is going on with Covid, Brexit or idiotic political decisions.

“We should give farmers a lot more respect. We’re all eating what they produced.”

SPLASH OF COLOUR: heather in bloom on Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Away from the arable farms, it’s been a colourful month on local heathland like that at Stoke Common, where the heather and gorse are at their finest.

Pockets of heathland like this provide a marked contrast to the large ploughed fields of the scarp foothills where medieval open fields were divided into regular parcels through the process of enclosure. From the 1750s onwards, enclosure by parliamentary Act became the norm, affecting more than a fifth of the total land area of England by the First World War.

EVENING LIGHT: a Chesham sunset PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

The majority of Chilterns crops are cereal crops like wheat and barley, used in a variety of foodstuffs from bread, cakes and biscuits to beer and whisky. One of the most familiar crops is oilseed rape, with its distinctive yellow flowers and pungent aroma, the rapeseed being crushed and the oil used for cooking or food processing, or as an industrial lubricant.

But you can also find peas and beans, alternative crops such as linseed, borage and poppies, and of course thousands of cattle, sheep and pigs, not to mention the occasional less familiar livestock like red deer, emus or alpacas.

POLLEN COUNT: a bee gets busy PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Parts of the Chilterns have a long history of orchards, particularly those growing cherries, while there are also several vineyards producing quality wines – and while the arable farmers are busy with haymaking and silage collection, insects, birds and baby mammals are abundant too, the annual wildlife population at its highest this month, even if the birds are too busy moulting to make much noise.

DISTINCTIVE CALL: the green woodpecker or “yaffle” PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

Lambs born in the spring are back out in the fields, reptiles can be spotted basking the sun and baby squirrels are beginning to put on weight and bully the young birds at garden feeders.

But according to meteorologists, August 31 marks the end of summer, and although it’s too early for the real golds, reds and browns of autumn, there’s a definitely chill in the morning and evening air that hints at the start of a new season, even if we are hoping there are plenty of sultry September days still to enjoy.

COLOURFUL CHARACTER: an Egyptian goose PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

September is a big month for bird migration, with the British Isles a crossroads for millions of arrivals and departures, but the first to head south are already on the move in August.

ON THE WING: a swallow skimming over the river PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

Swallows, house martins and swifts are all migratory birds that winter in Africa. Swallows and house martin arrive back in the UK in late March to early April and leave again in September to October, but the swifts are first to leave, and young swallows and house martins are honing their flying skills and enjoying the abundance of insects before joining the exodus.

Fruits, berries and nuts are plentiful, the game season is under way for meat eaters and the list of vegetables in season is quite overwhelming, from beetroot and broccoli to parsnips, peas and peppers.

TOUCHDOWN: Canada geese coming in to land PICTURE: Nick Bell

Home-grown herbs are also in plentiful supply, and from bilberries and crapapples to wild damsons and mushrooms, there’s plenty to keep foraging enthusiasts busy too, as well as ensuring a fertile feast for many species of birds, eager to gorge on berries before their long migration and helping plants propagate in the process.

Across the Chilterns, it still feels as if summer is with us, with warmer temperatures marking the opening weeks of September. But this is a time when the leaves are beginning to dry out on plants and trees, flowers are fading and days are becoming shorter.

Whisper it quietly, but autumn is sneaking quietly in. We haven’t had the dramatic drop in temperature yet, or the growing awareness that the leaves are beginning, ever so gradually, to change colour. But it won’t be long, so enjoy that September heatwave while you can, as temperatures briefly push close to 30 degrees centigrade before autumn finally makes its presence felt.

GROW WITH THE FLOW: the river Misbourne at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for September, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Tweet of the week: 05/09/21

TWITTER accounts don’t come any more dramatic and enticing than that of Alison O’Neill, a shepherdess in the Yorkshire Dales whose @woolismybread account offers thousands a welcome escape from the pressures of city life.

Not that anyone would claim running a small hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales is an easy task, but living in nature amid the spectacular scenery of the majestic Howgill Fells in Westmoreland makes up for any harsher challenges life throws at her, she insists.

OPEN OUTLOOK: Alison’s pinned tweet features her beloved fells PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“I am blessed with a rare freedom,” she writes. “I work quietly in the old way, woven to my landscape, betrothed to the life of a shepherdess.

“I don’t like sheep, I love them and I always have. I care for my flock and in turn they provide for me. I fashion their wool creating beautiful products, offering provenance and heritage as hallmarks for every item I produce.”

That love of nature shines through her posts from the fells, but it’s the lifestyle as much as the scenery which her followers find both restful and inspiring, from the homely sound of clucking hens around the farm to the sight of a bulging breakfast tray or the reassuring company of Shadow the sheepdog.

Alison enjoys sharing her world, guiding walks and holding talks about my life on the fells with her beloved sheep, amid the whirling swifts and restless winds.

HOME COMFORTS: Sunday breakfast on the farm PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

Born into a shepherding family, she recalls: “Life for me was practical and everyday, sometimes harsh in a northern way. I was lucky and thankful to be reared on fresh air and freedom, a country girl whom inherited an instinct to nurture and a desire to care.”

When in the late 1970s her grandparents and parents sold their farms, she vowed that one day she would have her own farm and follow in their footsteps, despite the warnings about the impossibility of making money from small-scale hill farming.

Come the run-up to the millennium, and she was taking on the tenancy of Shacklabank Farm, a 37-acre plot which would be home for the next 20 years: where her daughter Scarlett would be born and where unhappy memories of the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic and a divorce would be offset by the rewards of farming in one of the country’s most stunning landscapes.

Thanks to that “sheer Dales-woman grit and determination”, she has managed to remain at the farm on the hill, offering an antidote to fast fashion and intensive farming.

LABOUR OF LOVE: Alison has farmed at Shacklabank for 20 years PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“Rather than selling my wool for next to nothing I found a way of turning it into highly desirable tweed clothing. And rather than pushing wildlife back on my farm, I have encouraged it to flourish. My labour of love is a way of life and one that I am most grateful to have,” she says.

Certainly her 38,000 Twitter followers appreciate her straight talking and love of simple pleasures, like the smell of autumn in the air, the company of the loyal Shadow or nurturing her beloved Rough fell, Swaledale and Herdwick flocks, using their wool to produce a range of natural tweeds that capture the “spirit of the place we all call home”.

It’s a lifestyle that has made the Yorkshire shepherdess something of a media star, but for her Twitter fans it’s her ability to “keep it real” that continues to delight and inspire.

Alison’s website, shop and media and video links can be found here.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Woodlands echo to hoots in the night

THERE’S no sound which better captures the atmosphere of the woods at night than the hoot of an owl.

NIGHT OWL: a little owl silhouetted against the moon PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

But even when they are at their loudest and most active, these nocturnal hunters are not always easy to spot – and there are even some popular misconceptions about the noises they make too.

LOCAL FAVOURITE: a little owl poses for the camera PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Like that “twit – twoo” we so often mimic, for example, is not one owl, but two different owls calling – the high-pitched “kee-wick” of the female tawny owl, which is responded to by the “hoohoo” or “twoooo” note of the male.

Owls have evolved as specialised hunters with a wide range of skills to help them locate and catch their prey. Each species has a range of incredible “superpowers” that many other birds do not possess, but which give owls the ‘tools’ they need to survive.

Different species can see in almost total darkness, have soft feathers with a comb-like ‘fringe’ on the flight feathers which aids silent flight, have round facial discs with special feathers to ‘catch’ sound and a toe that swivels so talons can be used in different ways when squeezing prey or gripping a branch.

PERFECT CAMOUFLAGE: a tawny owl hides in the trees PICTURE: Andrew Knight

But for most of us, spotting any of the five species of UK owl can be tricky. They can be notoriously difficult to track down, are very well camouflaged and tend to set up home in some pretty hard-to-reach places.

The calls may echo around the woods on an autumn evening when pairs begin courting, ready for nesting around February, but can you tell your tawny owl from a barn owl or little owl?

DAYDREAMING: a little owl appears to yawn PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

For Steve Gozdz and partner Billie O’Connor, relocating to the Chilterns in 2019 to be closer to nature has sparked an ever-evolving fascination in the wildlife to be found near their home base where the ancient villages of Goring and Streatley straddle the Thames, the meeting point of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs).

From here, Steve’s Owl Walks over the past couple of summers have introduced locals and visitors alike to the range of owls to be found in nearby woods.

EVENING RAMBLE: owl walks have proved popular with locals PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Says Steve: “We are really lucky to live in an area which has four different types of owls all sighted in a small radius. Whilst the short-eared owls and barn owls are a less common sight for most, it’s been delightful to show a number of local residents the families of little owls we have nesting and breeding here in Goring & Streatley, and to help them learn more about them and the tawny owls we so often hear and sometimes also get to see too.”

Steve’s business, GG Wildlife Experiences, was born out of lockdown and his long-standing interest in wildlife.

“I think there really is a growing interest in the countryside and appreciate of the wildlife within it,” he says. “The difficulties of Covid-19 have been numerous, but during these hard times we have seen a positive by-product – the growing love and appreciation of our countryside and wildlife.”

FEATHERED FRIENDS: little owls nest and breed locally PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Billie adds: “We already know we are incredibly lucky to live in such a beautiful location, of scenic countryside and amazing wildlife. Many of us might hear the evening and night-time calls of different evening creatures, the most recognisable for some being the tawny owl.”

Steve started Goring Gap Wildlife Walks back in 2019, but the broadening into a wider range of experiences was a natural step, says Billie. “We now offer guided wildlife spotting boat trips, and even nature breaks, so expanding the business and rebranding made sense, to show we now offer so much more.”

The pair believe that helping people understand local wildlife better will encourage them to want to look after it. “The more people understand, the greater their interes, and then a lot of people want to know about how to protect it, how to create good habitats in their garden or on their land to allow wildlife to flourish – which is a great way to protect and grow those species we really want to see thrive,” says Steve.

BIRD IN THE HAND: wildlife photographer Steve Gozdz

So much so, that last year Steve turned his woodwork skills to good use and began creating and installing custom handmade owl boxes for those in the local area.

“You can’t just put any box up and hope for the best. Different Owls require different habitats and very different homes; it also depends if you are creating just a roost, or are creating a nesting location,” he says.

Steve will check out the garden or land and advise on the most appropriate box for the owl type that is likely to frequent the area. And in some cases, he has advised against buying one, as the habitat just hasn’t been right. “The environment needs to be suitable for a long-term habitat in order for the wildlife to flourish, and so I want to ensure we give the right advice, and give the wildlife the best chance,” he explains.

HOME TO ROOST: owl and bat boxes have proved increasingly popular PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

A new request at the end of last year was bat boxes, and Steve began installing these for customers who enjoyed seeing bats in the garden and wanted to provide a safe haven for them.

As the guided owl walks season comes to an end, Steve is now busy with a series of owl box orders in the run-up to the roosting wintering period, ready for the next year’s mating period when new pairs will need to find new homes……

You can contact Steve at info@ggwildlifeexperiences.co.uk or visit his website for guidance or advice on your garden’s suitability for different wildlife. Guided Wildlife Experiences run all year round.

Village tales are stranger than fiction

WHAT connects the Wall Street Crash and Benjamin Franklin with Hollywood stars and an English rake with a reputation for arranging underground orgies?

The answer lies in a picturesque village of wobbly roofs and hidden passages where time seems to have be standing still for centuries.

FROZEN IN TIME: the picturesque village of West Wycombe PICTURE: Mary Tebje

And as Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje discovers, the story behind the extraordinary village of West Wycombe really is stranger than fiction.

Today it looks like a film set, though it was once an important stop for stagecoach travellers heading to and from London, with more than a dozen public houses vying for the custom of weary passengers.

Yet this is a place of scandal and innuendo, thanks to the antics of an 18th-century politician whose Hellfire Club was notorious for orgies and black magic.

RUMOUR AND INTRIGUE: history comes alive in West Wycombe PICTURE: Mary Tebje

In the latest instalment of her “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns, Mary finds out more about Sir Francis Dashwood and the story behind his parties, his wonderful park and his imposing mausoleum, which still dominates the landscape after 250 years.

It’s just one of a continuing series of stories about the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Vivid memories of a year in pictures

IT’S been a year since we launched our Picture of the Week series – and what a year it’s been.

Inspired by the open studios events staged across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire each year, the series was launched at a time when months of lockdown had prevented artists from getting out and meeting potential customers face to face.

Such events offer a great opportunity for artists and makers to throw open their doors and showcase their work, but if the lockdown put paid to such intimate contact, it certainly did not the cramp the enthusiasm and ingenuity of creative souls from all over the Chilterns.

MAUREEN GILLESPIE
LOCKDOWN WALK: Blenheim by Maureen Gillespie

Some turned to local walks near their homes for inspiration, while others took the opportunity to go back through old sketchbooks, sort out old photographs and revisit settings which had never quite made it on to canvas.

STOCKTAKE: Beaconsfield artist Tim Baynes searched old sketchbooks for inspiration

And many seized the chance to improve their virtual galleries and reach out to customers through blogs, instagram posts and online shops.

PERSONAL TOUCH: Dorset artist Sam Cannon launched a monthly newsletter

Of course that’s not quite the same as getting to meet your customers in person, but as lockdown restrictions started to ease, those exhibitions, pop-up displays and working studio visits soon began to emerge again.

PERSONAL TOUCH: self-taught artist Sabbi Gavrailov from Hemel Hempstead

For wildlife and nature lovers, highlights of the weekly series have included many works inspired by or reflecting the natural world, including animal portraits and sculptures, and paintings rooted in the local Chilterns landscape, from the Ridgeway views of Anna Dillon and Christine Bass to the colourful Oxfordshire scenes captured by Alice Walker, Jane Peart and Sue Side.

VALE VIEW: Inchombe Hole, Buckinghamshire by Anna Dillon

We have ventured out into the parks of Harpenden with Andrew Keenleyside, explored the wetlands of Oxfordshire with Jane Duff and delved deep into Wytham Woods with Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley.

ROSIE FAIRFAX-CHOLMELEY
WOODLAND FORAY: a reduction linocut by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley

A score of those local artists can be accessed through our Local Landscapes page, and their subject matter ranges from portraits to seascapes and abstract works.

SUE GRAHAM
CORNISH VISIT: Sundown, St Ives by Sue Graham

Further afield, Chilterns artists have taken on us on journeys from Cornwall to West Wales, while guest artists have hailed from as far afield as Dorset and the Lake District.

Photographers have featured too, patiently waiting for the perfect wildlife shot, whether otter or kingfisher, red kite or dragonfly.

FAIRGROUND FUN: handpainted gallopers at Carters Steam Fair

Over 52 weeks, the collection has grown into a formidable showcase of local talent, punctuated by occasional more unusual contributions, ranging from the fairground art of Joby Carter and family to a step back in time to enjoy the 1930s art of Eric Ravilious, the “happy little trees” of TV art legend Bob Ross or the stunning works of Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon.

Do you have a nomination for an artist who should be featured in our weekly series? Write to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk explaining the reasons behind your choice.

Tweet of the week: 29/08/21

IT’S hard to believe that Winnie the Pooh is almost a hundred years old – and yet the amiable, bumbling, honey-loving bear remains as popular as ever with children and adults alike.

And one Twitter account which taps into that rich seam of affection and timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood is our Sunday evening Twitter choice of the week, @A_AMilne.

With more than 73,000 followers this account has been active since the summer of 2018, offering a daily Tweet taken from the famous children’s books or appropriate words of wisdom from the author and his son, on whom Christopher Robin was based.

While the famous wood was modelled on Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, a landscape itself facing numerous challenges at present, the spirit of Pooh seems alive and well in the Chilterns, where in woodland from Black Park to Burnham Beeches it never feels as if Pooh, Piglet and Tigger are too far away, as we wrote last October.

From den-building in the woods to a noisy game of Pooh sticks on a small wooden bridge over a stream, it’s clear that new generation of children has every bit as familiar with the adventures of the gloomy donkey Eeyore, meddlesome Rabbit and the rest of the gang as those first excited readers of almost a century ago.

The upbeat daily Tweets celebrate words written or inspired by the author and incorporate 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 this is one voice on Twitter that manages to capture some of the magic of those innocent adventures, whether in search of a Heffalump, getting stuck in a rabbit hole or floating away on the string of a balloon.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Tweet of the week: 22/08/21

SUNDAY night seems an appropriate time to enjoy a quiet moment of contemplation about the ups and downs of the past week, and to prepare to make the most of the week to come.

So what better time to launch a new regular feature highlighting some of the more stimulating, thoughtful and thought-provoking material to be found on Twitter?

Social media may not seem the natural place for a relaxing read, but perhaps that’s the point of taking time to focus on the best that it has to offer, rather than the worst.

We know that some people find Twitter a dangerous place, filled with harassment and abuse. The company has been roundly criticsed for failing to act quickly enough to remove rogue users and prevent menacing and threatening behaviour.

But the platform also provides an excellent opportunity to communicate with a worldwide audience of readers who share similar concerns and interests, so of course it makes perfect sense as a complementary platform that allows us to spread the word about our website’s content to a broader audience than our core Facebook membership group.

Reaching new audiences can be a mixed blessing, of course, as we discovered when Jeremy Clarkson responded to our recent Tweet about queues outside his Cotswold farm shop, prompting “likes” from more than 10,000 of his followers, not to mention a fair share of acerbic remarks.

But having been on the platform since June 2018, we have been protected from most of the worst aspects of online interaction, and instead have been able to savour the posts of the 1,000-odd people we have chosen to follow, from naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts to farmers, growers and local groups with a special interest in what the Chilterns has to offer.

Back in July 2018 we wrote about the benefits of positive thinking online, of attempting to surround yourself with engaging and upbeat company rather than become depressed by the unrelenting misery of negative news feeds and toxic exchanges which sap our energy and undermine our peace of mind.

With that in mind, our new feature is very much focused on finding the positive online and seeking out those voices that provide us with joy – particularly when that takes the form of accounts which celebrate wildlife and the great outdoors.

It might be a joke, cartoon or nature clip, or perhaps a thought-provoking commentary or personal experience that chimes with the magazine’s aims.

In our own posts we have attempted to be uplifting in output, deliberately restricting the number of weekly tweets and trying to provide our 450+ followers with pictures and links which brighten their day rather than the reverse, as well as linking to the content of our regular and one-off features.

Local photographers have been out and about capturing the magic of the Chilterns landscape for our monthly calendar feature, while artists across the region have featured in our Monday Picture of the Week series, which has been running for the past year.

The magazine’s Twitter feed is slightly more political than our Facebook group page, reflecting growing concerns about climate change and the state of the planet. But at the same time as highlighting unavoidable concerns, the mood of the feed has always tried to remain upbeat and positive.

Whether that means singing the praises of moths or slow worms, highlighting colourful characters who adore the Chilterns countryside, exploring our fascinating local heritage or spotlighting dozens of top local attractions for family days out, the focus has been on celebrating the very best our region has to offer, and hoping to encourage readers to spare a moment to peruse the magazine’s main website in a little more detail.

With almost 300 articles to choose from, we hope those who find their way to the website are able to find something to hold their interest, from characters with interesting stories to share to stories steeped in the history of the extraordinary Chilterns landscape.

So do join us over the coming weeks as we try to seek out some of the most inspiring, entertaining and informative Twitter users who prove social media can be a powerful force for good, and not just a place for division, gossip and abuse.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Hidden villages with surprising secrets

DAPPLED beechwoods and ancient churches dot the landscape around the Domesday Book villages of Great and Little Hampden, outside Princes Risborough.

In this tucked-away parish, travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje discovers classic Chilterns countryside where difficult geography has protected the landscape from the worst intrusions of road and rail.  

GOTHIC REVIVAL: Hammer horror films were set at Hampden House PICTURE: Mary Tebje

From ancient earthworks and picturesque churches to a manor house where Hammer horror films were set, there are some unexpected surprises to be unearthed in these quiet valleys and hilltop hamlets, as Mary discovers.

LIVING HISTORY: Little Hampden church PICTURE: Mary Tebje

The article is one of numerous entries in her “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of her adventures here.

How fossil secrets sparked a mining boom

SCRATCH beneath the surface of a pictureque Chilterns village and you’re never quite sure what secrets you might discover.

That’s certainly the experience of local travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje as she ventures into Shillington village, just north of the Barton Hills in Bedfordshire.

LOCAL LANDMARK: All Saints Church in Shillington PICTURE: Mary Tebje

The ancient village church is such a prominent landmark that it’s perhaps predictable that a visitor’s thoughts turn to the past, and how this former Saxon monastery has survived the weather, natural disasters, war, decay, plague and pollution for so long.

Perhaps more surprising is how this village, along with many others spread in a line towards the Suffolk coast, grew rich through the unexpected mining and selling of coprolite: the fossilised remains of land animals caught as sea levels rose 90 million years ago.

Why get so excited about dinosaur poo? These droppings of bear, lizard, wildebeest, fish or dinosaur contain the fossilised teeth, claws, scales and bones of all sorts of dinosaurs, marine lizards and other animals, not just filling the shelves of excited 19th-century geologists but spawning something of a mini-gold rush once the phosphate content was fully appreciated as an important fertiliser.

THIRSTY WORK: Shillington no longer boasts a dozen pubs PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Mary discovers how Shillington’s population exploded as locals cashed in on the lucrative trade, with weary workers packing the village’s dozen pubs.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Clappers command an impressive outlook

BACK in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, defence was a big issue for early settlers in the Chilterns.

And as hill fort locations go, few can boast quite such a commanding position over the local landscape as the wonderfully named Sharpenhoe Clappers, a scheduled ancient monument in Bedfordshire, part of a wildlife oasis sandwiched between the urban sprawls of Bedford, Dunstable and Luton.

BIG SKIES: the view towards London from Sharpenhoe Clappers PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje sets out to explore Sharpenhoe, and discovers an ancient chalk escarpment that nowadays is a place of big skies, wildflowers and a sense of calm, criss-crossed by waymarked trails and looking spectacular against a foreground of rape fields.

It is one of a quartet of National Trust properties lying adjacent to each other, with the Sundon, Moleskin and Markham Hills to the west and Smithcombe Hills to the east. Reputedly haunted by a Celtic tribal chief, these days the hills are frequented by ramblers and picnickers, butterflies and red kites.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Lofty view of Bedfordshire at its best

RARE plants, precious downland and spectacular views single out Barton Hills as a popular destination for walkers and wildlife enthusiasts.

And yet this national nature reserve in the northern Chilterns north of Luton is often overlooked by tourists, as Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje explains when she embarks on a ranger-led walk to find out more about the area’s heritage and habitat.

WORTH THE CLIMB: the outlook from Barton Hills PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Steep paths may make the going hard in places, but the rewards include spectacular views over the Bedfordshire hills and valleys and a chance to reflect on the dramatic climate events that shaped this landscape millions of years before early settlers arrived.

Fuelled with artisan cheese and the chance to sample a “Bedfordshire clanger” – the county’s answer to the Cornish pasty which was once baked for consumption by field workers – Mary discovers an extraordinary habitat of chalk grassland with a rich history.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

HOMEWARD BOUND: a rainbow brightens weary walkers PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Where chalk streams tumble below the ridge

FOR thousands of years, drovers, traders and invaders have walked or ridden the prehistoric trails which stretch for hundreds of miles from the Dorset coast to the Wash.

High in the Chilterns at Bledlow Ridge, the route offers a drier and less wooded journey for travellers than the spring line settelements below – and it’s amid this ancient landscape that Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje ventures off the beaten track to explore the picturesque village of Bledlow.

TO THE MANOR BORN: a water feature at Manor House Gardens PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Lying just outside Princes Risborough on the western edge of Buckinghamshire, this is a village of wobbly brick and flint cottages where signs for the long-distance trails invite you “up and away over the hills”.

“It would be no coincidence that the communities who lived here either welcomed visitors, or had to defend themselves at the sound of soldiers boots on the chalk,” writes Mary. “Not hard to imagine as there’s something refreshingly untamed about the place.”

Here, she discovers a ‘fabulously wild’ parish church, a manor house with a secret water garden and a ravine of noisy tumbling streams.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns in which she shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region and attempts to “capture the beauty in the mundane”. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

What’s new at the back of Beyonder?

SOME stunning new pictures have been added to the header pages of The Beyonder – thanks to the generosity of local photographers Nick Bell and Graham Parkinson.

FROZEN IN FLIGHT: a southern hawker dragonfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

The pictures form part of a carousel of around 30 images which appear as a background on the site whenever someone opens a new page.

LIGHT AND SHADE: a hot day in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Until now the images used on the site have almost all been taken by Beyonder editor Andrew Knight, supplemented with occasional free photographs shared by photographers on the Unsplash photo-sharing website and credited on the magazine’s Support Us page.

SHADOWLANDS: local woodland provides an atmospheric backdrop PICTURE: Nick Bell

Says Andrew: “We have always wanted to feature local photographs on our pages, but in the early days of the site my cheap point-and-shoot digital camera simply wasn’t good enough to produce top-quality images.

AUTUMN COLOURS: fallen leaves in Staplefurze Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“We were grateful to the photographers on Unsplash who share their work in return for a credit, but we also wanted to ensure that all our pictures are local ones and feature a cross-section of wildlife as well as landscapes.”

READY TO DROP: a bee captured over a poppy PICTURE: Nick Bell

Original Beyonder display pictures featured a range of destinations pictured through the changing seasons, from Langley and Black Park to Burnham Beeches, Cliveden, Marlow and Penn.

MORNING GLORY: rays of sunshine in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Several of the new pictures featured in the first part of a profile of Nick Bell featuring his insect pictures.

UNDER COVER: a ladybird potentially unaware of its prey PICTURE: Nick Bell

“Nick’s photographs are stunning and they help us to reflect the breadth of content on the site,” says Andrew. “Capturing fast-moving insects and birds is a very specialist skill, and it’s very exciting to be able to use images of this quality in this way.”

BIRD ON THE WIRE: birds silhouetted against a huge sun PICTURE: Nick Bell

As well as a quartet of insect photographs, other shots show sunbeams in woodland and a dramatic picture of clouds at sunrise. Additional pictures featured in a second article spotlighting Nick’s bird photographs.

MORNING GLORY: a dramatic sunrise PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other pictures taken by Graham Parkinson have featured in an article about his hobby and in local walks featuring a cross-section of his portraits of locations like Homefield Wood and Littleworth Common.

DAWN LIGHT: ominous shadows in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“Not all pictures are suitable for these background displays because of having to be able to read type over them,” Andrew explains. “But we are looking forward to including more pictures when we can find just the right ones.”

TINY TERRORS: aphids on a rose PICTURE: Nick Bell

The random nature of the header selections means there’s no way of selecting which one will appear on any particular page – so anyone looking for a particular image may find they need to refresh the page quite a few times before it appears.

“It can be quite hard to replace images because some of the older ones have so many happy associations,” says Andrew.

“Many of them were taken on local walks at different times of year and conjure up other images of a particular day out – the colourful fungi in Penn Woods, the flooding by the Thames near Bourne End, an autumn day in Black Park or springtime coming to Spade Oak quarry.

“But Nick and Graham’s pictures are a reminder to visitors that there’s much more to the website than just people enjoying a ramble in the woods.

“We have a lot of articles about all sorts of things, from birds and insects to local history, interesting people with a story to tell, book reviews and places to visit once the lockdown restrictions allow.

NATURAL CURE: an early morning walk provides great stress relief PICTURE: Nick Bell

“For anyone stumbling on the website for the first time, there are now more than 200 different articles to read, so hopefully there will be something that catches their eye.”

Have you a photograph which might be perfect for The Beyonder? Drop us a line at editor@thebeyonder.co.uk

Rare attractions on the reserve

WEST of Marlow is prime walking country, with the Chiltern Way leading out through Bovingdon Green towards Rotten Row and picturesque Hambleden.

Enticing footpaths split off in every direction, and those favouring a circular loop can take a four-mile circuit from the Royal Oak that takes in both a section of the Chiltern Way and Marlow Common.

One highlight along the route is Homefield Wood, a site of special scientific interest owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

LIGHT AND SHADE: fern fronds lit by the sun PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Here, the chalk grassland of the small but peaceful nature reserve makes it one of just three sites in the country where rare military orchids can be found – not to mention offering a perfect habitat for birds, butterflies, moths and other insects.

WELCOME GUEST: bees are vital for pollination PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The nature reserve may be small, at about 15 acres, but the herb-rich grassland offers a chance to see Chiltern gentians and upright brome grass, as well as a variety of orchids, though visitors need to be careful to avoid trampling rare plants that may not yet be in flower when the reserve is at its busiest towards the end of May and in early June.

As reserves manager Mark Vallance explains, the military orchid is so called because its dense spikes of pinkish-violet flowers have petals and sepals folded in such a way that they resemble a knight’s helmet, with the lower petal shaped like a human form with ‘arms’ and ‘legs’, and spots which resemble buttons on a jacket.

IN THE PINK: foxgloves flourish in late spring, bringing a splash of colour to the woods

Ferns and foxgloves make Homefield a delight in the late spring, and the wood has a mixture of young beech plantations, with some conifers and many native trees.

Resident and visiting species of birds include chiffchaff, cuckoo and blackcap. Tawny owls can often be heard calling during the day.

PARTRIDGE FAMILY: a variety of birds can be found in the woods PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

It’s only a couple of miles west of Marlow but parking is very limited, so getting there on foot is an environmentally kinder and more enjoyable way to travel.

MORNING LIGHT: Homefield features a variety of different trees PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

There’s been woodland on this warm slope for at least 200 years, though forestry work has created many changes. Nowadays the reserve is made up of beech, ash, sycamore and whitebeam with glades and open grassland.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: deer browse woodland shrubs and herbs PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The rides and glades are home to a range of mammals too, from inquisitive squirrels to shy fallow and roe deer. But for sheer variety, the prize has to go to the huge population of butterflies and moths.

WOODLAND CHOIR: a robin strikes up a song PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Butterfly species range from the marbled white and white-letter hairstreak to the silver-washed fritillary and some 400 species of moth have been recorded, including blotched emerald and striped lychnis.

SUMMER DANCE: butterflies and moths flourish at Homefield PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Visit the BBOWT website for more information about Homefield Wood and how to get there.

Ancient acres offer space to escape

EXPLORE the sprawling Ashridge Forest in the company of Chilterns travel writer Mary Tebje, whose blog sets out to capture the beauty in the mundane, the stuff “that the locals have stopped noticing but is the very essence of what makes this place special”.

Despite the continuing lockdown, Ashridge Forest offers plenty of space and the distance needed for enjoying the great outdoors, she writes in her most recent post.

BREATH OF FRESH AIR: the trails are quiet in winter PICTURE: Mary Tebje

“I am fortunate in having many outdoor options that are local to me, where I can walk and feel almost that life is ‘as usual’,” she writes.

Mary has written extensively about Ashridge Forest, Ashridge House and the surrounding countryside.

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished on the orders of King Henry Vlll, but you can find out more about the history of the estate in: Ashridge: A Flourishing Trade and explore Ashridge House Gardens too.

Walkers make tracks for the common

MAYBE it’s the proximity of a couple of welcoming pubs that has made Littleworth Common so popular with walkers.

The location beside Burnham Beeches helps too, not to mention its handy position on the 16-mile Beeches Way, which runs from the Thames at Cookham to the Grand Union Canal at West Drayton.

LONG-DISTANCE PATH: the Beeches Way runs across Littleworth Common

Whatever the reason, a host of ramblers find it a handy starting point for a walk, whether that means a leisurely stroll around the common itself or a more demanding circuit taking in some of the substantial areas of woodland that surround this spot.

QUIET REFLECTIONS: a pond on Littleworth Common PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The 40-acre SSSI (site of special scientific interest) is common land owned by South Bucks District Council and comprises open heathland, most of which has developed into birch and oak woodland, although some remnants of acid heathland survive.

MORNING HAS BROKEN: dew drops lit by the rising sun PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

A network of paths criss-cross the common and the “muddy boots welcome” sign outside the Blackwood Arms says it all.

HOME COMFORTS: a duck house close to the Blackwood Arms

Thirsty souls can choose between here and The Jolly Woodman when lockdown restrictions allow: both pubs have featured in the Midsomer Murders series and provide a perfect base for a wander.

LOOKOUT POST: a red kite with hunger pangs PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Fancy Free Walks, for example, suggest a three-mile circuit that takes in some of the less familiar parts of Burnham Beeches for those who fancy a day exploring the ancient woodlands. It’s one of more than 40 mapped routes contained on the not-for-profit website set up to introduce more people to the countryside and to connect with our historic land, towns and villages.

FOCAL POINT: various routes fan out from the common PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The site has a 10-mile circuit too, taking in Stoke Common and Hedgerley, and for those wanting to ring the changes, permissive paths on the Portman Burtley Estate provide an opportunity to explore a range of mixed woodland habitats.

PERMISSIVE PATH: insect-hunting in Staplefurze Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Burtley Farm boasts around 1,000 acres of mixed woodland ranging from conifer plantations from the 1920s and 1950s to older oaks planted following the Napoleonic wars when there was a perceived shortage of timber for ships.

The most ecologically important area of woodland is Egypt Wood, part of the Burnham Beeches National Nature Reserve complex and reached on a footpath from Abbey Park Farm.

MIXED WOODLAND: on the Portman Burtley estate PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

This is also part of a longer two- to five-and-a-half-mile signposted circular walk taking in a picturesque Buckinghamshire village of Hedgerley as well as an RSPB reserve and remnants of the once important local brick industry.

BRANCHING OUT: a footpath heads south towards Burnham

Many wanderers are happy to stay close to the common, but more ambitious ramblers can check out the long-distance route west to Hedsor and Cookham or east to Stoke Common, Black Park and Langley.

WATCHFUL EYES: starlings in Bristles Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

For other ideas for local walks and places to visit, check out the highlighted pages.

Feathered friends flock to the feast

THE tiny square of pebble-covered ground outside our front door is a little humble to be classed as a front garden.

But a bird bath and feeding station have transformed it into a source of constant activity over the past three years.

DRESSED TO IMPRESS: an aristocratic-looking pheasant drops in for breakfast

Our smattering of largely unremarkable plants may be of only passing interest to wildlife, though our neighbour’s small pond is close enough to provide refuge for the occasional toad and the hibiscus hedge provides welcome cover for the dunnocks later in the year.

SHY VISITOR: dunnocks usually prefer to stay close to the ground PICTURE: Nick Bell

Around the country, millions of us have been relying on our feathered friends for company during the darkest days of the pandemic. And as a nation it seems we are now spending up to £300m feeding the birds in our garden each year.

GOOD COMPANY: UK bird lovers spend millions on garden visitors PICTURE: Angela Scott

Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that seeing and hearing birds in the garden has a direct link to lowering levels of stress, anxiety and depression – and that people who spend less time outside are more likely to feel depressed in their lifetime.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: jays have striking and distinctive plumage PICTURE: Nick Bell

Most of us probably don’t need any convincing that having trees, shrubs and birds close by makes a difference to how we feel – and the daily antics of our garden visitors are a source of delight to millions of us too, increasing our levels of happy hormones.

TASTY TREAT: a blackbird stops for a snack PICTURE: Angela Scott

Against a backdrop of unprecedented biodiversity loss, researchers have increasingly recognised the range of benefits provided to humankind by nature – and that became even more evident as people struggled to cope with lockdown pressures.

STANDING PROUD: a hungry heron stakes out its next meal PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Research by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has shown our growing love affair with feeding the birds has significantly altered the composition of our garden bird communities over the past 40 years, helping the populations of some species grow and increasing the variety of birds visiting feeders.

In the 1970s, feeders were dominated by house sparrows and starlings. Today, a much broader range is commonly seen taking advantage of the growing variety of supplementary foods on offer, with population growth across some 30 species, particularly those like goldfinches and woodpigeons.

SUCCESS STORY: goldfinch numbers have grown in recent years PICTURE: Neil Richards

The former were in long-term decline but with the introduction of sunflower hearts and nyjer seed to bird feeders, the numbers have been steadily increasing.

There are dangers too, of course, not least the possibility of disease transmission at feeders, but those following BTO tips to avoid such worries have delighted in the huge range of species appearing in our gardens – up from around 18 in 1987 to some 130 today.

OCCASIONAL GUEST: a stunning green woodpecker PICTURE: Nick Bell

Looking back over 2020 in our own small patch, there have been around two dozen different bird species dropping in to visit.

ENTERTAINING: squirrels are agile and cheeky visitors PICTURE: Angela Scott

Much of the time it’s the squirrels, pigeons, tits and robin providing the daily entertainment, and what delightful and uplifting visitors they are.

SONG OF JOY: the unmistakable sound of a thrush PICTURE: Nick Bell

As well as the blackbirds, there are plump thrushes and occasional magpies too. Living close to water means that ducks are daily visitors, with the occasional moorhen, pheasant or partridge showing up for breakfast.

Long-tailed tits are among the regulars, darting about in the bushes along with the other tits and dunnocks so that the undergrowth sometimes seems alive with movement.

RARE DELIGHT: the great spotted woodpecker PICTURE: Angela Scott

Rarer visitors have included woodpeckers, jays, starlings and even a ring-necked parakeet, currently in the firing line for a government cull because they have been spreading around the country so quickly.

Recent favourites have included goldfinches and a nuthatch, the distinctive black eye strip making him look like a cheeky bandit.

BANDIT COUNTRY: the nuthatch has a distinctive appearance PICTURE: Nick Bell

There was even a tawny owl audacious enought to turn up on the roof on the very night we had been unsuccessfully scouring the local woods for hooting owls – a delicious irony.

Living beside a small nature reserve means that we don’t have to travel far to encounter a wider range of birds – an egret, heron, mandarin duck or kingfisher along the river, perhaps – and Kevin the red kite has been a long-standing resident of the Cedar of Lebanon that towers above the houses here.

POETRY IN MOTION: a red kite captured in flight PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But we are the lucky ones. An RSPB study a few years ago suggested that only one in five children are connected to nature and wildlife. Successive surveys by different bodies keep confirming what we might already guess – that youngsters spend about half as much time outdoors as their parents did, and twice as much time looking at screens than playing outside.

Perhaps lockdown will change that a little. It may be a pretty chilly January day but there are couples and families out in the woods walking everywhere. Yes, the novelty may wear off, but these cold family days out might just be sowing the seeds for a new generation to show more interest in the natural world around them…and that could only be a good thing, not only for everyone’s mental health, but for future of our troubled planet too.

WOODLAND WONDERLAND: hunting for insects PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Back at the feeders, there’s a final flurry of activity from the robin, tits and dunnocks which the cat pretends not to notice, assuming an air of benign innocence.

Lockdown may have stopped us going out and seeing all the people we would love to spend time with, but it’s surprising how much pleasure these small creatures have brought us during these most difficult days – and hopefully their winter food gathering has been a little easier too.

Sincere thanks to Nick Bell, Graham Parkinson, Neil Richards and Angela Scott for their wonderful illustrations for this article.

Top tips for a contented canine

Guest writer Lucy Parks continues her occasional blog about how Cypriot rescue dog Yella has adjusted to life in the Chilterns

YELLA will be three at the end of this year, which means I’ve had her in my life for 2.5 years. And what a learning curve it’s been!

I thought I was prepared: I’d done a lot of research before I got her, I’d asked my dog-owning Facebook friends to give me their best advice, I’d booked her in for training, I’d bought what I understood I needed… but reality is often a surprise.

What I offer here, based purely on my own experiences, through trial and error, are my top tips for happy dogs and happy owners. 

Training: as a first-time dog owner, I had both a one-to-one session with a dog trainer and took Yella to puppy classes. They gave me huge confidence and helped me to understand how best to train her, but two commands have proved invaluable: “wait” and “this way”.

“Wait” works in so many situations, whether it’s stopping her from running to the front door when someone rings the bell, to crossing the road safely or keeping her out of danger when it’s time to go back on the lead after a good run. 

“This way” is a great alternative to saying “no” when encouraging her to go in a certain direction. It’s a simple distraction in a positive way rather than shouting “no!” to stop her running off – and I’m convinced Yella even knows her left from right because of this.

Visibility: as regular blog readers will know, Yella loves to go exploring in the woods. Because of her colour, it can be tricky to spot her, especially among autumn leaves, but I invested in some dog bells, which fit on her harness and it means I can always hear her, even if I can’t actually see her. They’re a cheap lifesaver from constant worry about where she’s gone.

In the winter, I add a dog light to her harness for extra visibility. One early evening last year we managed to startle some walkers in the woods when they saw just a jangling red light belting towards them. It took them a moment to realise it was only a friendly little dog, rushing up in the dark to say hello.

Toys and beds: It’s easy to spend a fortune on dog toys. One friend gave me a great piece of advice: buy children’s toys from a charity shop, wash them, remove any choke hazards, and you’ve got a new toy at a snip of the price. Yella doesn’t really much care for playing with toys, but she loves to play tug and, for that, her “toy” of choice is the leg of an old pair of tracksuit trousers…

Dog beds can be equally expensive. I bought a cheap child’s bean bag chair from Amazon (cost about a tenner), cover it with a £2 washable fleece from Ikea and she’s sorted. In fact, Yella and Nancy the cat have a bean bag chair bed each and Yella likes to spend her time between both of them.

Winter extras: I’ve found winter to be a more accessory-heavy time as a dog owner, a constant battle against the mud and wet. Early on I discovered Equafleece coats (above). They’re not cheap but they keep Yella warm, wick away moisture from her body and keep off the worse of the mud – plus she looks darn cute in it! She also has a stash of microfibre towels, which are great for towelling her down because they dry really quickly so there aren’t wet dog towels hanging around the house. A pack of (cheap) wet wipes by the front door also help to get muck off her paws when we’re back from a walk.

For me, Acai thermal, waterproof skinny trousers are a top find. They look good, dry fast, mud wipes off and they keep me toasty on winter walks. I could wear them all day, they’re so comfortable. Again, not cheap but worth every penny. The same goes for good walking boots and wellies. It’s worth spending a bit more (I know – I’ve tried the cheap ones and it’s a false economy). I favour Merrell walking boots and Hunter Balmoral wellies.

Practical tips: Yella is a shit-roller. Fox poo, badger doo-doo, bird mess, cow pats, even human excrement (I know: vile)… Yella has rolled in it all. I don’t like to bathe her too often but sometimes there’s no option and Animology dog shampoos do the trick for me. They get rid of the stink and she smells like biscuits afterwards. She hasn’t yet worked out the correlation between rolling in poo and having a bath, but she accepts her fate and quite enjoys having a good rub down.

Arden Grange liver paste is the answer when giving Yella meds. Simply wrap any tablet in a bit of paste and she’s mad for it. Nancy the cat has it, too, with her meds – it’s a winner in our house.

And, finally, if you allow your dog on the bed (Yella’s allowed only by invitation and usually only at weekends for a lie-in), a handheld vacuum cleaner is perfect to get rid of the dog hairs. It takes only a moment for a quick whizz over the duvet and saves finding dog hairs in your mouth at bedtime. And no-one wants that, right?

Next time: Some of our other favourite walks in the Chilterns.

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, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.

Taking it easy on the towpath

THERE’S something immensely satisfying about watching a canal boat negotiating a lock.

Whether that’s because of our fascination with water or the step-by-step ritual of filling the lock chamber and opening sluice gates to raise or lower a vessel, we’ve enjoyed studying the process for centuries.

“Gongoozlers” is what canal folk call those of us who idle on the towpath watching others do all the hard work in this way – but if it was used derisively in the past, nowadays there’s no shame attached to the curious spectators intrigued by the graceful art of lock navigation.

And so it is with a mixture of curiosity and admiration that we are on the towpath on a murky day at Denham Deep Lock watching the owners of The Hatch Shop showing just how to do it in style.

This is the deepest lock on the Grand Union Canal, bringing the canal down by a whisker over 11 feet – nothing dramatic by national standards, perhaps, given that those in Bath and at Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire are almost 20ft, but a decent drop nonetheless.

(If you really want to see a lock with a formidable drop, take a glance at the Ardnacrusha Lock on the River Shannon near Limerick, whose two chambers offer a total rise of 100ft, or the world record-breaking 138ft Oskemen lock in Kazakhstan.)

Anyway, Denham Deep Lock may not be able to compete with those figures, but it still offers plenty to distract the casual observer wandering along this section of the Grand Union Canal as it passes through Denham Country Park.

The original Grand Junction Canal, constructed more than 200 years ago, ran from Birmingham to London, some 137 miles and with 166 locks. Nowadays known as the Grand Union Canal, this is the trunk route of the canal system, passing through rolling countryside, industrial towns and peaceful villages as it gives voyagers access to Milton Keynes, Northampton and beyond.

TRUNK ROUTE: the Grand Union Canal PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Back in Denham, The Hatch Shop is making light work of the lock on its way to Uxbridge. Officially opened back in July but hampered by lockdown restrictions, the pop-up narrowboat shop – complete with Vietnamese rescue dog Sidney – has been moored in London and Oxford, selling a bohemian collection of trinkets and mementoes, from dream catchers and incense burners to cute signs and candles.

With the rear lock gates shut, it’s time to open the sluice gates and allow the boat to slowly slip down to the level of the canal on the other side of the chamber.

That means a little bubbling and boiling as the excess water slips through those atmospheric lock gates, coated with lichen and ferns.

Once the water level inside the chamber has subsided, it’s time to push open the heavy lock gates and move out into the lower level, ready for the onward journey.

With over 1500 locks on the canals, building new lock gates is a year-round job for the Canal and River Trust. Each one is unique, and made to measure by a team of carpenters.

An average lock gate lasts for about 25 years and it could take anything from a fornight to a month to build, using green, sustainably grown oak with steel fitted to strengthen the joints.

Safely out of the chamber, it’s time for The Hatch Shop to resume its journey to Uxbridge, leaving the country park behind.

On a drizzly day in November, it has to be said that this is not the most prepossessing section of the Grand Union, particularly with the roar of traffic from the nearby motorway and a motley collection of vessels in various states of repair dotted along the banks.

The park opens out to the north, towards Denham Quarry and a succession of other attractions in the Colne Valley Regional Park, but the mosaic of rivers, lakes and farmland is not looking at its best at this time of year, and HS2 construction work has left heavy scars on the local landscape too.

Walkers still flock here all year round, but we may have to wait until the spring until the place perks up again and the crowds return to Frans Tea Gardens for a welcoming cuppa by the side of the lock.

Dogs help beat the lockdown blues

Guest writer Lucy Parks continues her occasional blog about how Cypriot rescue dog Yella has adjusted to life in the Chilterns

DOG owners have their walking habits – Yella gets a short walk in the morning, before work, to the poo bin at the top of the road and back, and a longer, off-lead walk in the afternoon – but everything changed during lockdown in 2020.

With fine weather, a huge change to routine and little else to do, we suddenly started meeting many, many more dog owners on our daily walks: neighbours that we’d never spoken to before, neighbours who we didn’t even know had a dog, new friends for Yella to meet out in the fields and woods. It really was a warm, friendly and, well, community-bonding experience.

I missed bumping into Alfie and his human dad in the alleyway at 6.30am every morning to exchange a few pleasantries but relished the lie-in that lockdown brought and the expansion of our dog social(ly-distanced, of course) group.

Yella’s new BFF is Arthur, whose lovely human owners were shielding but walking round and round our small estate every day for exercise. We’d wave out the window or stop for a short chat.

Everyone we met on our walks, whether they had dogs or not, just seemed happier, more friendly and yet mindful of the strange situation we found ourselves in and the rules we had to follow.

We kept an eye out for Maggie, the octogenarian who lives across the road with her 12-year-old rescue dog Hector, and made sure she was getting the support she needed. Yella tried to run around with Hector but, frankly, he’s an old boy who’s landed on his feet with Maggie and he was happy to just have a head-scratch.

Yes, there were awful things going on around the world, but Yella and I will always look back with fondest at that spring and summer as a happy time of long walks, long lie-ins and new friends.

Next time: Lucy’s top tips for happy dogs and happy owners

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, Part 4 and Part 5.

Duke looks out over his domain

AS VIEWS go, few outlooks are quite as spectacular as that enjoyed by the late Duke of Sutherland from his lofty perch among the trees at Cliveden.

From here, the 2nd Duke can stare perpetually out over the elegant house he and his wife had built here after their newly purchased home burned down in 1849.

The man in charge of the project was Charles Barry, the architect responsible for the Houses of Parliament, who had rebuilt the Duke’s other homes at Trentham Hall in Staffordshire and Dunrobin Castle in Scotland.

Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, wanted a retreat from London that was close to her friend Queen Victoria at Windsor, and by 1852 the three-storey Italianate villa was complete and able to host a ball for 200 people.

“Just, compassionate and good” is how the Duke was remembered by his son in the inscription on the rear of the larger-than-life Grade II listed marble statue that stares out across the Cliveden estate, with an equally impressive panorama over the Thames on the other side.

The Duke died in 1861 and the statue was erected at Cliveden at Christmas 1866, but it wasn’t always in this location, being moved from the Grand Avenue in 1896 to make way for Lord Astor’s new acquisition, the Fountain of Love.

But the Duke’s commanding position is an apt choice, offering such an unequalled view of the house which has witnessed so much history.

If only trees could talk, what a tale they could tell – of parties and politics, scandal and intrigue.

The estate has been here from more than three centuries, successive owners sparing no expense in their efforts to create a magnificent summer retreat.

Within 20 years of buying Cliveden in 1849, both the Duke and Duchess had died. They were not to know just how famous their house would become for its lavish hospitality and glamorous guests when Nancy and Waldorf Astor lived here during the first half of the 20th century.

Nor could they have foreseen how a chance meeting at the newly installed swimming pool in the 1960s would ignite one of the biggest scandals in British political history when John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, met model and showgirl Christine Keeler there.

The “sex and spying” scandal marked the end of Profumo’s career and nearly brought down the government.

Nonetheless, the estate survived the Profumo scandal and the Sutherland legacy lives on – not just in their beautiful mansion, but through no fewer than 11 children, whose descendants read like a who’s who of the British aristocracy.

Grouse beater in the doghouse

Guest writer Lucy Parks continues her occasional blog about how Cypriot rescue dog Yella has adjusted to life in the Chilterns

IT WAS a beautiful summer afternoon and we’d taken the dogs – Yella and her daughter, Lumi – to what was one of our favourite spots: Shardeloes in Amersham.

As Lumi’s human mum and I sat on a bench, enjoying the view across Shardeloes lake and on to the Chilterns, we saw Yella belting across the field below us, having the time of her life.

WHO, ME?: Yella tries the cute and innocent look

And then realised that she was in hot pursuit of a brace of grouse. With equal horror and admiration we watched in almost slow motion as the birds flew away… apart from one, which decided to run rather than fly… and Yella caught it.

This was not Yella’s first rodeo. Although she now had all the home comforts she needed, Yella was still at heart a street dog. The first time this showed itself was when she was (unbeknownst to me) pregnant and obviously craving food. One of the cats caught and brought me a pigeon. Yella spotted it, grabbed it, rushed into the garden and ate the whole thing – feathers, bones, beak and feet. I could only watch in astonishment and Nancy, the cat, was furious.

A couple of days later on a walk down a wooded alleyway and Yella caught her own pigeon. In fairness, it must have been pretty dozey to have not flown off, but Yella had her prey. She ran off with it into the garden of a nearby large and rather fancy house and emerged without it only a few minutes later. From the mud on her nose and paws, I reckon she buried that one in someone’s garden…

PRIZE CATCH: Yella’s prey was shocked but unhurt

That afternoon in Shardeloes, Yella proudly brought us her catch. She growled when Lumi went near it but allowed me to see her wondrous prize: it was still alive and didn’t seem hurt (apart from being in the jaws of a small dog).

After some deliberation, we decided to seize a moment when Yella had dropped the poor bird to pop her lead on, drag her away from it and briskly leave the area. She wasn’t happy, though, and she never forgets.

Subsequent visits to Shardoes resulted in Yella returning to the scene of her crime in search of grouse – to the point that we can no longer go back there because, so single-minded she is in her determination, she’ll go missing for 20 minutes at a time exploring any faint sounds of rustling.

It’s a shame because it’s a lovely walk but, while the squirrels and deer she chases will always out-pace her, Yella the Street Dog just can’t be trusted when it comes to dopey game birds.

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, Part 4.

Next time: How lockdown brought the dog-walking fraternity closer

Nature puts on a fireworks display

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…

Take a walk in Pooh’s paw prints

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Perfect way to unwind with friends

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.

OPEN OUTLOOK: meet up with the Gruffalo and take in the views at Wendover Woods

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…

FAMILY FUN: Yella and daughter Lumi check out the Firecrest Trail
  • 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.

PAWS FOR THOUGHT: Yella takes a break from letting off steam

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

Crash course in puppy parenting

Guest writer Lucy Parks rises 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.

SURPRISE DELIVERY: the new arrivals take a nap

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.

PROUD MUM: Yella and the pups in their makeshift whelping pen

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.

HOME COMFORTS: the pups move into 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.

TIRED BUT HAPPY: Lumi and Sock sleep off another day of shouting and pooing

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.

NEXT TIME: Our favourite walks with refreshments

Who goes there, friend or foe?

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.

Prayers for a troubled planet

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.

NEW LANDSCAPE: a street food market in Japan PICTURE: Jérémy Stenuit, Unsplash

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.

BACK TO NATURE: our global ecosystem is under threat PICTURE: Kunal Shinde, Unsplash

“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.

DIVIDED PLANET: children playing in New Delhi PICTURE: Atul Pandey, Unsplash

“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.

CRY OF THE POOR: a homeless man in Athens PICTURE: Jonathan Kho, Unsplash

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. 

GLOBAL OUTLOOK: a colourful view of the night sky PICTURE: Jeremy Thomas, Unsplash

Bus stop which brightens journeys

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.

Express delivery proves a surprise

Guest writer Lucy Parks recalls the time rescue dog Yella began behaving oddly…

sudden arrivals spark a panic

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.

NESTING INSTINCT: Yella three days before the birth

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?

DOUBLE TROUBLE: Yella becomes a mum

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.”

UNEXPECTED ARRIVALS: the two puppies

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.

Pet rescue is no walk in the park

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.

FRESH START: redundancy prompted Lucy to consider the possibility of owning 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.

FACEBOOK STAR: Yella and Lucy’s artwork on the Cyprus Dog Rescue page

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.

WINNING SMILE: the first picture Lucy ever saw of Yella

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.

SECOND THOUGHTS?

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.

HALFWAY HOUSE: Yella’s first night in the hallway

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.

EAGER ANTICIPATION: Yella ready for walkies

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.

OFF THE LEAD: exploring Hervines Park in Amersham

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.

REGULAR WALK: the light at the end of the footpath that leads to the Big Field

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.

OPEN ASPECT: Yella takes in views of the glorious Chilterns

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.

FIRM FRIENDS: Lucy and Yella in the Big Field

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.

NEXT TIME: Yella delivers her biggest surprise

Has the sun really set on summer?

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.

MORNING CALL: a small skein of pink-footed geese PICTURE: Tim Melling

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.

TEAM SPIRIT: wild Canada geese, pictured in North America PICTURE: Tim Melling

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.

KNOTS LANDING: a flock of knots and dunlins at the Humber Estuary PICTURE: Tim Melling

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.”

FUNGUS FORAY: many of the more colourful toadstools and berries are poisonous

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.

LAND OF PLENTY: harvest celebrations date from pagan times

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.

HARVEST HOME: today, celebrations take place towards the end of September

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.

THANK THE LORD: a prosperous harvest was a time for prayer and thanksgiving

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.

OPEN OUTLOOK: farmland in Bedfordshire

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…

Postcard from . . . Burnham Beeches

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.

A last chance to reset the clock?

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.

Later posts considered the impact of the UK lockdown and the opportunities it offered to reconnect with the natural world.

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.

Rambles round Midsomer country

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 offer room to breathe

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.

Other nearby spots to explore include Maidenhead Thicket, famed for its associations with Dick Turpin, and the Cookham Commons from Cookham to Cock Marsh and Winter Hill, a landscape which inspired the artist Stanley Spencer and children’s author Kenneth Grahame.

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.

Capture the colours of Caledonia

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.

Forest trails get a major makeover

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.

Perfect spot for tranquil thoughts

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.

All creatures great and small

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.

IMPOSING PRESENCE: British White Cattle at Burnham Beeches

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.

OLD FRIENDS: Sussex cattle have become regular visitors at Stoke Common and Black Park

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.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: the red-headed Cardinal beetle

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.

INSECT HEAVEN: summer comes to a Chalfont meadow

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.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: a silver-washed fritillary at Black Park

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.

FAMILY OUTING: ducklings drop in for a visit

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.

PIGEON POST: one of a series of weekly pictures from Roy Battell
NAUGHTY NIBBLE: another of Roy Battell’s visitors

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.

The local farm shops have had new arrivals too, from piglets at Sandy Lane Farm to newborn goats at the Crazy Bear Farm Shop at Stadhampton.

PATTER OF TINY HOOVES: new arrivals at Sandy Lane Farm

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 lift the lockdown gloom

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.

Life, but not as we know it

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.