Magic of a midsummer night’s dream

THE magic and mystery of midsummer day is already behind us, but July was a month of scorching days and sultry evenings, packed beaches and dramatic sunsets.

Last month we featured a brief quote from Laurie Lee about the wonders of summer, but it’s a subject that really highlights the poetry of his prose – as well as recalling a lost boyhood world from an age before the Second World War and the invasion of the petrol engine.

SCENTS OF SUMMER: hay bales outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Lee’s portrait of the country lanes of sleepy Gloucestershire at the tail end of the First World War was already a history lesson by the time his famous Cider With Rosie was published in 1959, yet there is an easy familiarity to many of his images that still manages to bring the countryside vividly to life.

He wrote: “Summer was also the time of these: of sudden plenty, of slow hours and actions, of diamond haze and dust on the eyes, of the valley in post-vernal slumber; of burying birds out of seething corruption; of Mother sleeping heavily at noon; of jazzing wasps and dragonflies, haystooks and thistle-seeds, snows of white butterflies, skylarks’ eggs, bee-orchids, and frantic ants; of wolf-cub parades and boy scouts’ bugles; of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass-blue in the sun; of lying naked in the hill-cold stream; begging pennies for bottles of pop; of girls’ bare arms and unripe cherries, green apples and liquid walnuts; of fights and falls and new-scabbed knees, sobbing pursuits and flights; of picnics high up in the crumbling quarries, of butter running like oil, of sunstroke, fever and cucumber peel stuck cool to one’s burning brow.

SUNSET SONG: dusk over Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

“All this, and the feeling that it would never end, that such days had come for ever…”

Of course the whole thrust of Lee’s memoir is that change was just round the corner: a way of life which had survived for hundreds of years would be altered forever by the arrival of motor cars and electricity, the death of the local squire and the declining influence of the church.

But he manages to freeze a moment in time for us with his mesmerising descriptions, not least that of his unforgettable encounter with the bewitching Rosie of the book’s title: “She was yellow and dusty with buttercups and seemed to be purring in the gloom; her hair was as rich as a wild bee’s nest and her eyes were full of stings.”

COLOURFUL CROP: poppies outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

The “real” Rosie, Lee’s cousin Rosalind Buckland, died in 2014 just days before her 100th birthday. But for generations of readers, she will always be remembered as the intoxicating Rosie Burdock, sharing a stone jar of cider under a hay wagon in the Cotswolds all those decades ago.

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We may not live in Gloucestershire but Lee’s portrait of summer still resonates in the Chilterns, especially after a month of warmer temperatures and long golden evenings.

MAKING HAY: out on the farm PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Arable farmers are out and about haymaking and collecting silage which will be used to feed sheep and cattle during the winter months. July is the start of the combine season for cereal crops, so larger machines are an increasingly common sight in fields and on country roads.

For nature lovers, it’s the season to enjoy the antics of baby birds and squirrels, and probably the best month of the year for butterflies and moths.

BUTTERFLY SEASON: a dark green fritillary PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Butterflies that usually fill meadows and woods this month include the ringlet, marbled white, dark green fritillary and silver-washed fritillary.

Last year was hailed as the best summer for butterflies for 25 years, so there’s a lot to live up to, but a survey in 2015 found 76% of the UK’s resident and regular migrant butterflies had declined in abundance, occurrence or both over the last four decades, so there is little room for complacency.

MOTH MAGIC: the six-spot burnet PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The UK has 59 species of butterflies – 57 resident species and two regular migrants (the painted lady and clouded yellow). Moths are much more numerous, as our recent post explained – and they can be equally colourful.

It’s not only moths which are colourful, either. The distinctive striped cinnabar caterpillars turn into equally colourful pinkish-red and black moths, and they’ve been seen in abundance across the Chilterns this month as ragwort has flourished across the countryside.

TASTY TREAT: cinnabar moth caterpillars PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Detested by horse and pony owners for its poisonous attributes, the “toxic weed” has many supporters among conservationists as a native wildflower vital for pollinating insects, as our post from Stoke Common last summer explained.

But then July is the month of plenty, from beetles to baby hedgehogs, spiders to hairy caterpillars, all popping up against the glorious backdrop of a countryside in full bloom, where meadows are full of wildflowers, the woods are rustling with baby squirrels and the skies resound to the whistles of red kites.

HAIRY HORROR: a vapourer moth caterpillar PICTURE: Roy Middleton

Poppy fields are still pulsating with colour across the Chilterns, the fields of red heralding the arrival of summer across western Europe, as we highlighted last month.

STUDY IN SCARLET: a field of poppies at Pednor PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

But away from those startling reds, a short drive might replace the colour scheme with the rich blue of linseed, or flax – the stems of which yield one of the oldest fibre crops in the world, linen. The flowers would have been familiar to the ancient Egyptians, and the trade played a pivotal role in the social and economic development of Belfast, for example.

BLUE CARPET: linseed flowers outside Chesham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Or stray into north Hertfordshire and on the rolling slopes of Wilbury Hills, the family flower farm at Hitchin Lavender has become something of a local landmark over the past 20 years, providing a pick-your-own experience over 30 acres of lavender where visitors can also find sunflowers, take photographs and enjoy a family picnic.

PURPLE HAZE: lavender fields outside Hitchin PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Away from the woods and meadows, there’s the Thames and its tributaries to explore too, or a quiet stretch of canal towpath providing a welcome change of pace from the hustle and bustle of busy high streets.

GO WITH THE FLOW: the Thames at Bourne End PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Mind you, you may not need to go far to come face to face with an exotic visitor: it could be that a glance out of the window reveals a young parakeet struggling to work out how to use the bird feeders.

TABLE MANNERS: a young parakeet struggles with the feeder PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

And of course nature has the habit of springing surprises on us in the most unlikely places…even when you think you’ve managed to find a safe, quiet corner to park the car.

ROOF WITH A VIEW: a heron at Wycombe Rye lido PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Ah, glorious summer, with the whole world “unlocked and seething”, as Laurie Lee put it. Or, to quote another famous author, this time Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited: “If it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe…”

RAY OF SUNSHINE: a peaceful moment in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

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 August, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Misunderstood moths are little marvels

MOTHS get a bit of a bad press, it seems, at least in comparison with their colourful butterfly cousins.

But that’s more based on myths and misunderstandings than any hard facts.

Drab, furry and stupid, they fly at candles, eat your clothes and lack the apparent grace, colour and beauty that we associate with butterflies. Or at least, that’s the perception.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: the six-spot burnet moth PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But what about the delicate pale yellow colouring of the swallow-tailed moth, the gaudy attire of tiger moths, the unmistakeable markings of the cinnabar moth, or the six-spot burnet moth?

Some moths do have subtle colourings, but there are plenty which are every bit as beautiful as butterflies. There are some which fly by day and, of the 2,500 moths that live in Britain, only a few species eat clothes.

Some even have secret talents – like the death’s-head hawk-moth, which can squeak like a mouse or the Mother Shipton moth, which has a witch’s face on its wing. Spooky.

SHOW OF STRENGTH: an elephant hawk-moth in flight PICTURE: Roy Battell

One man with more than a passing interest in moths is Mark Scott, whose naturalistweekly.com website was launched in April 2021.

Based in America, the site seeks to build a community focused around engaging and connecting with the natural world through prose and poetry.

Says Mark: “From paranormal podcasts to poems by Virginia Woolf, the site seeks to blend research with personal observation in order to create opportunities for the reader to connect with the natural world.”

His starting point for a series of four blog posts about moths was a celebration of National Moth Week, which began in 2012 in New Jersey and stemmed from an initiative in New Jersey that has grown into a global event that seeks “to promote the understanding and enjoyment of moths and to raise awareness about biodiversity.”

There are some 11,000 moth species in America, and they are important pollinators and provide food for many animals, birds, bats and spiders.

ON THE WING: a barred sallow moth PICTURE: Roy Battell

Mark goes on to examine The Poetry of Moths in a separate blog post, before focusing in more detail on The Death of a Moth, a 1942 essay in which the author observes a moth as it moves about her window.

As she ponders the moth’s movements, she begins to draw parallels between the moth’s life and the human experience – a little moth who is the embodiment of life, can “show us the true nature of life”, but at the same time help us also to contemplate the prospect of death.

DUSK DELIGHT: a clouded silver moth on cherry leaves PICTURE: Roy Battell

Mark’s final post takes us to the role of moths at the movies, from the sinister Silence of the Lambs to The Mothman Prophecies.

In the UK, moth species outnumber butterflies by more than 40 to 1. They are closely related and, despite those myths, some moths are every bit as large and colourful as butterflies, the most dramatic being the hawk-moths: large, slow and fabulously patterned.

Some moths fly by day, some by night, and many use mimicry to protect themselves – around the world, moths resemble everything from wood slivers and broken twigs to bird droppings.

MELLOW YELLOW: a brimstone moth in flight PICTURE: Roy Battell

Their imaginative names, coined by Victorian naturalists, conjure up images of life in the ‘big house’, from satins, ermines and brocades to footmen and wainscots. But their numbers have been in sharp decline in some areas, sparking fears about collapsing eco-systems.

Back in 2013, Patrick Barkham highlighted concerns about declining numbers in southern England, with broadcaster Chris Packham, the vice-president of Butterfly Conservation, voicing concerns about habitat loss, light pollution and agricultural practices.

For more information about moths, see Butterfly Conservation’s website.

Shy lizard enjoys life in the slow lane

IT’S not a worm, it’s not a snake – and to be fair, it’s not particularly slow, either.

So what exactly IS the amiable slow worm, the glossy wriggler cheerfully slipping across a path at Littleworth Common and quickly disappearing into the undergrowth?

It’s actually a legless lizard, it turns out, this shy, elusive burrowing reptile (Anguis fragilis) also known as a deaf adder or blindworm (because of its small eyes), which spends much of its time hiding underneath things.

It has smooth skin, is marked out as a lizard by its ability to shed its tail and blink with its eyelids, and hibernates from October to March.

Found in heathland, gardens, allotments and on woodland edges where they can find pests to eat and a sunny spot where they can bask in the sun, slow worms are much smaller than snakes and come in a range of polished silvers, golds and browns depending on age and gender.

Amazingly, they can live up to 30 years and feast on slugs, snails and insects, though in turn they are preyed on by various birds, as well as badgers, hedgehogs and, in suburban areas, domestic cats.

All six of the UK’s native reptile species – the others are the common European adder (Vipera berus), grass snake (Natrix natrix), smooth snake (Coronella austriaca), common lizard (Lacerta vivipara) and sand lizard (Lacerta agilis) – slow worms are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

They have a number of ways of escaping predators. Sometimes they freeze, while at other times they will flee. moving pretty quickly when they want to, in spite of their name. But if they can’t get away easily, defecation could be the answer: their poo smells nasty enough to deter some predators.

The mating season kicks off in May and is quite a serious business, it seems. Males become aggressive towards each other and, during courtship, the male takes hold of the female by biting her head or neck, and they intertwine their bodies.

Courtship may last for as long as 10 hours, with females incubating the eggs internally and “giving birth” to live young in late summer.

For more information, see the Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, Natural History Museum and the Guardian.

Nature rolls out the red carpet for summer

POPPIES. If there’s one iconic image of what the Chilterns landscape should look like in June, it’s that vibrant splash of colour we see when the corn poppies come into bloom.

STUDY IN SCARLET: a deer hides among the poppies PICTURE: Carlene O’Rourke

Of course, those scarlet fields herald the coming of summer across western Europe and have long been associated with the terrible sacrifices made by the millions who fought in past wars.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: a poppy among linseed flowers PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

The poppies – papaver rhoeas – spring up naturally in conditions where soil has been disturbed, and just as the destruction brought by the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century transformed bare land into fields of blood-red poppies growing around the bodies of the fallen soldiers, the fields of Northern France and Flanders were ripped open again in late 1914.

SUMMER BLOOMS: an array of wild flowers at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

During the war they bloomed between the trench lines on the Western Front and after the war ended, they were one of the few plants to flourish on the barren battlefields of the Somme where so many men had died in one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

POETIC INSPIRATION: John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

As Mary Tebje recalls in her 2017 Chilterns blog post, the sight of those poppies inspired Canadian surgeon John McCrae to write In Flanders Fields, a poem which would come to cement the poppy as a potent symbol of remembrance:

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

POTENT SYMBOL: poppies are associated with remembrance PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

The poppy quickly became a lasting memorial to those who died in World War One and later conflicts. It was adopted by The Royal British Legion as the symbol for their Poppy Appeal, in aid of those serving in the British Armed Forces.

RIPENING CROPS: fields of barley outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

This distinctive red flower is not the only June highlight in the great outdoors, though. Along with poppies, this is the month of the intense blue of linseed, of brambles and bee orchids, dog and field roses, towering woodland ferns and ripening crops.

Hans Christian Andersen wrote in his fairy tale The Flax: “The flax was in full bloom; it had pretty little blue flowers as delicate as the wings of a moth, or even more so.”  Certainly the striking blue of a field of flax in full flower is a remarkable sight – and the stem of the linseed yields one of the oldest fibre crops in the world: linen.

ANCIENT CROP: linseed flowers near Chesham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Like wheat and barley, the crop is believed to have originated in the fertile valleys of west Asia, including Jordan, Syria and Iraq, and was certainly being made in ancient Egypt, with drawings on tombs and temples on the River Nile showing flax plants flowering.

Linseed oil is also traditionally used in putty, paints and for oiling wood, especially cricket bats, and the flower even features in the emblem of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court in Parliament Square, representing Northern Ireland, in recognition of the fact that Belfast was the linen capital of the world by the end of the 19th century.

PUTTING ON A SHOW: daisies at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

And yet one of the strangest features of flax is the fact the flowers open only in full sunlight and usually close shortly after noon, the petals normally dropping off the same day if there is the slightest breeze.

PURPLE PYRAMIDS: orchids at Great Missenden PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

It’s not just the floral displays grabbing our attention in June, though, as Laurie Lee recalled in Cider With Rosie. We may live at a faster pace today, but we can still relate to many of his images of rural life from almost a century ago, even if the wildlife is less plentiful and chance of hearing a cuckoo much more remote.

SUNSET SILHOUETTE: dusk outside Chesham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Summer, June summer, with the green back on earth and the whole world unlocked and seething,” he wrote, “with cuckoos and pigeons hollowing the woods since daylight and the chipping of the tits in the pear-blossom.”

FEATHERED FRIEND: a long-tailed tit PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

From baby birds leaving their nests for the first time to millions of tiny baby frogs and toads emerging from lakes, ponds and ditches, this is the month when the countryside really springs to life, from baby bunnies lolloping around the fields in the warmer evenings, fox and badger cubs play-fighting in the woods and some dramatic-looking moths on the wing, like the large pink elephant hawk moth.

TINY TERROR: a bunny at Little Marlow PICTURE: Carlene O’Rourke

Colourful damselflies are flitting over the ponds and baby bats the size of 50p pieces can be spotted in the warm evening air over the river. Early risers can watch the mist rise over the water at Spade Oak, or down by the Thames.

DAWN CALL: an early morning study at Spade Oak PICTURE: Nick Bell

There may not be the same plethora of natural life Laurie Lee wrote about, but at times you may still have that peculiar sensation of which Melisssa Harrison writes: “…of the past coexisting with the present, the England that existed for so long and exists no longer haunting the modern landscape, almost close enough to touch”.

SWAN SONG: on the water at Spade Oak quarry PICTURE: Nick Bell

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 August, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Stolen snapshots in a drab, damp landscape

MAY may have ended in a bank holiday heatwave, but for most in the Chilterns it was a damp, drab and chilly month, with intermittent downpours and lower-than-average temperatures.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: buttercups brighten the Amersham landscape PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Gardeners, growers and farmers were glad to see the rain after the drier weather earlier in the spring, but the late cold caused other problems, with late-season frosts, chilly nights and thunderstorms contributing to the impression that summer was being temporarily put on hold.

CHILL IN THE AIR: rainclouds gather over Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

As walkers and riders found the dry earth of April transformed into muddy slippery morasses once more, fledging and flowering patterns were delayed compared with previous years.

SUNSET SONG: startling skies over Chesham PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

Photographers up and about early and later were still able to capture spectacular backdrops, but the delay in budding had a knock-on effect on the hatching of caterpillars, impacting on early brooding blue tit families, for example – though some bird species flourished despite the rain.

INTO THE BLUE: the colour palette changes over Chesham PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

As our April pictures showed, spring brought an explosion of life and colour into the Chilterns countryside, with swathes of bluebells from Ashridge to Cliveden surviving well into May, while the hedgerows and woods from Hedsor to Penn were awash with purple rhododendron flowers.

BLUEBELL WOODS: a dramatic display in the woods at Henley PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Back in May last year our slow emergence from lockdown at last allowed walkers to stray a little further along local byways at a time when interest in the natural world was at its height.

SPRING BLOSSOM: horse chestnut candles in Wooburn PICTURE: Andrew Knight

These were the weeks where the slower pace of lockdown life allowed many families extra time to savour those small precious sights around us that we so often overlook, from eye-catching hedgerow blossoms to unfamiliar wildflowers or insects emerging from winter hibernation.

NATURAL GLOW: wild clover is known for its medicinal properties PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

From the white surf of hawthorn to the pinks, whites and reds of the horse chestnut trees, there’s a welcome explosion of life in the meadows and woods alike, and the insects are making the most of the array of food on offer.

HAPPY FAMILIES: greylag goslings on the march PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

From fox cubs and goslings to woodpeckers and treecreepers, fresh life is emerging all around us, even if much of the fledging and migration is taking place a little later than in previous years.

GRUB’S UP: a treecreeper on chick-feeding duties PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Last year the timing of the crisis, coupled with some unseasonally warm spring weather, meant that the limited allowance of daily exercise was a perfect opportunity for many to watch the natural world unfolding outside.

FEEDING TIME: a hungry young starling asks for more PICTURE: Nick Bell

This May may have been colder and less welcoming for family rambles, but nature lovers on local wildlife forums have been sharing their queries and pictures again, and savouring the growing intensity of the dawn chorus as it reaches its seasonal peak.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: a common whitethroat PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Wildlife photographers have been out early and late, some covering impressive distances in their search for an unusual subject: the chance sighting of an adder or water vole, perhaps, or an opportunity to capture the exotic colours of a green orb weaver spider or fast-moving damselfly.

RIVER DANCE: a female azure damselfly at Dorney Wetlands PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Much of our wildlife can be quite elusive, making it hard to spot during a normal daytime walk in the woods but as always, our contributors have often managed to find the ideal spot to capture that perfect picture of an elusive butterfly, rare flower or striking sunset.

FLOWER POWER: a meadow by the River Misbourne PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Their pictures capture some of the brighter moments amid the May monsoon, but by the Spring Bank Holiday temperatures were rising again and families flocking to the seaside to take advantage of the sunshine.

PERFECT TIMING: another stunning sunset over Chesham PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

Back home the Chilterns basked in the warmer weather too, with the weather forecasters promising dryer and sunnier weeks to come.

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 July, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Hedgerows are rustling with new life

LAST April our wonderful bluebell woods provided one enduring positive image of life during 40 days of lockdown.

LIFE DURING LOCKDOWN: bluebells in a Chilterns wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

As the pandemic swept the country and travel restrictions limited our movements to the byways around our homes, it was an emotional and confusing month for many.

OPEN ASPECT: walking near Coleshill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Thankfully one year on, those glorious vistas of dancing bluebells are not the only symbol of hope to cling onto.

GO WITH THE FLOW: the River Chess near Scotsbridge PICTURE: Debbie Chapman

They still may be the ultimate symbol of the Chilterns countryside, but other colours are also fighting for our attention: the swathes of cherry and apple blossom, the cowslips dotting local fields or wild garlic springing up by a country roadside.

SCENT OF SPRING: wild garlic PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Oil seed rape is beginning to flower, the creamy coloured leaves of the blackthorn have been joined by hawthorn blossom, and there’s a positive frenzy of activity among those colourful hedgerows.

TINY TITBITS: a mouse forages for food PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Between nest-building and feeding new families, our garden birds are frantically busy with their household chores.

HOME COMFORTS: a jay searches for nesting materials PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

There are all those young mouths to feed, tasty morsels to discover and take back home to deliver.

MOUTHS TO FEED: a robin picks up a tasty snack PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

It’s not just the birds who are on the lookout for food either: our resident mammals can also sometimes be spotted out and about on breakfast duty.

ON THE PROWL: a fox heads home with food for the family PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Living close to water we’re lucky enough to be treated to an array of delightful wildfowl too, all very individual characters.

DRESSED TO IMPRESS: a mandarin duck PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But the circle of life can be cruel at this time of year. One day a proud mother duck appears at the door with 15 delightful fluffy chicks waddling in her wake.

FLUFFY BROOD: greylag goslings PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But then we have to watch and wait as the family gradually gets whittled down in size by hungry herons and other local predators.

FISHING EXPEDITION: a pair of egrets PICTURE: Nick Bell

Soon there and nine…and then six…and then five. A week or two later and there are still a trio healthy looking ducklings snapping at insects on the pond, though their small size still makes them look a little too much like tasty snacks for mum to relax entirely.

CHEEKY CHARACTER: an inquisitive starling PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Close by, a cheeky starling has set up home in a neighbour’s eaves and has become a colourful and precocious addition to the characters round the feeders.

SMART PLUMAGE: a starling proves a confident new arrival PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Prone to strut about in his smart distinctive plumage like a Cockney costermonger donning their Pearly King outfit for the first time, he is disproportionately cocky for his size, elbowing the bulkier ducks and pigeons aside as if it is they who are intruding on his patch.

THRIVING: the speckled wood butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

April sees the emergence of a whole array of insects, reptiles and butterflies, like the striking orange tip butterflies which have spent the winter months as a chrysalis hidden among last year’s vegetation, or the speckled wood, which seem to have been thriving in both numbers and distribution over the past 40 years as a result of climate change.

DISTINCTIVE WINGS: the orange-tip butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Now they’re on the wing, feeding on spring flower nectar and looking for a mate, another welcome splash of colour in a landscape that has fully awoken from the drab, dreary days of winter.

FLORAL DISPLAY: the landscape wakes up after winter PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

If the colours provide splashes of detail worthy of close inspection on those backroad rambles and woodland wanders, they also provide a striking backdrop of hues for distant vistas too, the green shoots and bursting buds a welcome reminder that spring has once again returned with a vengeance.

SPRING IN THE AIR: the view near Coleshill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

There may still be a chill in the morning air, but the morning dog walk is no longer a battle against the elements, and now there’s something new and exciting to discover at every turn in the path.

INTO THE WOODS: an early morning walk PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

For the earliest risers there are sneaky glimpses of the natural world preparing to meet the day…deer browsing in the woods or a fox returning proudly back to its den with its prey.

STRANGER DANGER: a muntjac senses an intruder PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

In April 2020 Melissa Harrison wrote movingly of the bittersweet emotions associated with witnessing spring at the height of lockdown, a theme echoed in her podcast of the same name.

COLOUR CONTRASTS: a peacock butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“For some, spring is making confinement feel worse,” she wrote. “But I find it immensely comforting to sense the seasons’ ancient rhythms, altered but as yet uininterrupted, pulsing slow beneath our human lives.

SWEET MELODY: linnets need seeds throughout the year PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“Onwards spring romps, as miraculous and dizzying as ever, whether humans are there to witness it or not.”

SNAPPY DRESSER: the colourful goldfinch PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Luckily, this year it is indeed possible to witness it again at close hand, not just in our own immediate corner of the woods, but with the freedom to travel a little further afield, even if our awareness of the pandemic dangers is as real as ever.

LITTLE BEAUTY: the holly blue butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Last year we could not stray far, and it helped to focus our minds on the beauty of the natural world that we so often take for granted.

LOCKDOWN LIMITS: the pandemic cast long shadows PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Once more offered the freedom to travel a little further in search of the natural wonders around us, it’s a time to appreciate the true wonder of that annual “miraculous” reawakening.

SPRING AWAKENING: the green-veined white butterfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“There is a silent eloquence/In every wild bluebell,” wrote a 20-year-old Anne Bronte all those years ago – and from Ashridge to Cliveden, Hodgemoor woods to Watlington Hill, those vivid symbols of nature’s beauty that were so very precious 12 months ago remain as eloquent as ever, carpeting woodland floors across the Chilterns.

ELOQUENT SYMBOL: Chilterns bluebells PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

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 May, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Finally, nature explodes into colour

AFTER those dull, muddy early weeks of the year, the world suddenly seems to explode into life in March.

Suddenly – and only after long grey days of eager anticipation – the natural world is alive with activity, with something new to spot every day.

CHILLY PROSPECT: wintry skies in Chesham PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

And with many families still finding their movements limited by lockdown restrictions, perhaps more of us than ever have been aware of those daily changes in the fortunes of our local flora and fauna, and have been watching them with fascination.

First it was the daffodils and primroses replacing the snowdrops and blackthorn hedges suddenly awash with abundant small white flowers.

EARLY PROMISE: a long-tailed tit at Dorney Wetlands PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But while the earliest hedgerow shrub to flower may herald the onset of spring, country folk warn of the so-called ‘Blackthorn Winter’, when the white blossoms can be matched in colour by frost-covered grass, icy temperatures and even late snow flurries.

EARLY RISER: a muntjac deer appears out of the mist PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Although depicted in fairy tales throughout Europe as a tree of ill omen, blackthorn is given a rather magical reputational makeover by Dutch storyteller Els Baars, who suggests the “innocent” white flowers are the Lord’s way of telling the world that the blackthorn bush was not to blame for its twigs being used to make Christ’s crown of thorns.

And it’s far from being the only colour to catch the eye. Plumes of fragrant apple and cherry blossom appear all around too, a delight to bees and other pollinators before they start to shower to the ground like pink, white and red confetti.

SPECTACULAR SHOW: March blossoms in Willow Wood, Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Wonderful magnolia trees and glossy everygreen camellias and mahonias are fighting for attention in local gardens, while yellow gorse flowers have opened up across the heathland at Stoke Common and Black Park.

PRICKLY CUSTOMER: gorse flowers on Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

The air is thick with birdsong in morning and early evening, robins, blackbirds and wrens shouting about territory while the local wood pigeons strut and coo. There’s frogspawn aplenty in local ponds and nest-building is under way in earnest.

FRIENDLY FACE: a fluffy garden favourite PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Sometimes even the most familiar local residents are worth a much closer look. Living close to a river, we tend to take for granted the birds and animals we see every day: the squirrels, pigeons and the ducks who amiably wander through the garden or quack for food at the front door.

DRESSED TO IMPRESS: the distinctive green head of a drake PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But as Graham Parkinson’s remarkable portraits show, even the ubiquitous mallard is a remarkably handsome fellow, and while the female lacks such dramatic colours, she has a remarkable depth and subtlety to her plumage that is equally striking.

SAFETY FIRST: nesting female ducks blend into their surroundings PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

There’s an important advantage to not being so dramatically dressed, though – camouflage. Nesting alone means female ducks suffer a higher mortality rate than males, so it makes perfect sense to blend into the vegetation on their nesting areas.

UP FOR A FLUTTER: a peacock butterfly on the Thames Path PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Warmer days are encouraging the first butterflies out for a flutter, like the bright yellow brimstone, peacock, small tortoiseshell or red admiral.

Many beetles have been waking up after their winter hibernation too, most noticeably the bright red seven-spot ladybirds, glistening like little red jewels as they warm their bodies in the morning sunshine.

The warmer daytime temperatures also lure adders out of hibernation, but they can hard to spot, even when sitting motionless in the sun. 

ON THE MOVE: clouds scudding across the sky in Chesham PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

Early morning is the best time to see them while they’re still cold from the previous night and a little slower on the move – once warmed up they can wriggle with remarkable alacrity.

Those early mornings and sunny evenings are the best time for photography, as well as catching the sounds of woodland creatures stirring – the yaffle of a woodpecker, perhaps, or the agitated chittering of argumentative squirrels.

ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: on the Berkshire Loop of the Chiltern Way PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Country lanes are beginning to look a little more welcoming, with splashes of colour to offset the brown: the cowslips and coltsfoot, dandelions and winter aconites providing welcome dots of yellow against an increasingly green backcloth.

Although many think of wild flowers like dandelions as a nuisance, Brtiain’s wild flowers are increasingly being recognised as a valuable asset, with people rediscovering their ancient medicinal properties and old recipes being dusted off for salads, wines and health tonics.

OLD FAVOURITE: the common cowslip PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Spring lambs are gambolling in the fields and local farms are a hive of activity too, with chicks hatching, vegetables to plant and spring cleaning to organise as the earth begins to warm – even if there are still plenty of frosty mornings and chill clear nights to freeze the bones.

MOTHER’S DAY: sheep at Great Missenden PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Whichever aspect of spring gives you most enjoyment – those insects emerging from hibernation, early blooms, noisy rooks or natterjacks, frosty morning walks or the antics of playful baby goats, squirrels and lambs, it’s an extraordinary time of year.

As Melissa Harrison says in her nature diary The Stubborn Light of Things: “It’s the oldest story: the earth coming back to life after its long winter sleep. Yet spring always feels like a miracle when at last it arrives.”

MORNING CALL: a barn owl hunting at dawn PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

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 April, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

After the chill, a first hint of spring

FLOODS, snow and sub-zero temperatures all helped to make February a month of contrasts in the Chilterns, but a welcome flurry of warmer days finally helped to herald the first true signs of spring.

HAZY DAYS: the view from West Wycombe Hill PICTURE: Siddharth Upadhya

With the country still in lockdown and wintry walks the only escape for many, footpaths that were not totally submerged soon became muddy quadmires.

BRIGHTER OUTLOOK: West Wycombe wakes up PICTURE: Siddharth Upadhya

But with tree branches bare and vegetation withered, it’s a good time of year to pick out birds as the dawn chorus begins to pick up volume – and equally good for that infuriating task of litter picking before the foliage really begins its resurgence.

MORNING CALL: birdsong is becoming gradually louder PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

As the first flowers poke through the soil crust, weekend wanderers are on the lookout for snowdrop displays and on crisper mornings there are some spectacular sunrises to capture, perhaps made all the more dramatic thanks to sand storms in the Sahara.

SKY HIGH: stunning cloud patterns outside Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Photographers across the Chilterns were up with the lark, the woods echoing to the rat-a-tat of wookpeckers and whistling of red kites, the mornings getting brighter after Candlemas Day and the dull greys and browns of winter beginning to be offset with hazel catkins twitching like lambs’ tails, and even the odd crocus or daffodil.

ON THE LOOKOUT: a kestrel hunts for food PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Ducks and wildfowl may have been enjoying the wet weather but as the big freeze arrived, the number of birds on the feeders dramatically increased and hungry badgers and foxes also got a little braver in their search for an easy snack.

WATERLOGGED: dusk falls on Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Over on the heathland at Stoke Common, the gorse has begun to provide a profuse and colourful backdrop of yellow flowers (recalling those glorious foraging recipes of Rachel Lambert), but elsewhere colours are still muted, at least until the last few days of the month.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: gorse flowers on Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

February is the shortest month, when hibernation is coming to an end and spring slowly starts to assert itself as insects start to emerge from their slumbers and the early shoots of crocuses and daffodils spring up to join the snowdrops.

POLLEN COUNT: bees are up and about again PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Young bees are spiralling around on orientation flights, while older bees are busy bringing in the nectar, their legs pleasantly dusted with pollen.

HERE COMES THE SUN: clouds over Cookham PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other insects, birds and mammals are active too, and our Picture of the Week has reflected the skills of a couple of local Beyonder stalwarts, Nick Bell and Graham Parkinson, whose photographs have brought so much variety to the website in recent months.

CLEVER CORVID: crows are known for their intelligence PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

From curious crows to grazing deer and rasping stonechats, the pictures help to bring local wildlife a little closer to us all, while the broader range of visitors to garden feeders provides another opportunity to study colourful plumage in more detail.

STUDY IN SCARLET: pheasants are dressed to impress PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Take a deep breath and head off to the woods to revive body and soul: without their summer coats, the trees are a study in themselves, fluffy lichen and moss coating the bark and new growth beginning to bud and bulge everywhere. 

FRESH SHOOTS: the signs of spring are impossible to ignore PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

On dreary days the landscape may appear dull and bleak, but what an extraordinary rainbow of colours are out there for those prepared to get up early and venture off the beaten track, or wait patiently for the light to be just right.

FIERY GLOW: more startling skies around Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Those noisy birds are getting their breeding plumage and nest building will soon start in earnest. For anyone tempted by the prospect of nettle soup, tea or even beer, now’s the time they are said to be at their best: young, tender and ripe for the picking.

SPRING IN THE AIR: on the hunt for nectar PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Dandelions are a vital source of nectar for bees and early insects out of hibernation, while daffodils are starting to provide that dramatic show of colour, “fluttering and dancing in the breeze” as Wordsworth put it.

FRESH START: familiar paths start to look more appealing PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Butterfly fans might even spot their first yellow brimstone, one of the first to fly in the spring, stealing a march on other species by over-wintering as an adult, often perfectly camouflaged among clusters of ivy leaves.

Almost a year after the first dramatic lockdown, it’s been a tough time for many and we’re not out of the woods yet. But nature has a way of keeping our spirits high – and thanks to our snap-happy band of explorers, we’re delighted to be able to share so many uplifting images of the glorious Chilterns landscape.

GOING GREEN: new growth can be seen everywhere 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 March, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Capture the magic of the moment

ONCE upon a time, on her holidays in Scotland and the Lake District, a young girl grew up sketching the plants, animals and insects she stumbled across with a particular eye for detail.

From those humble beginnings, Beatrix Potter would go on to become one of the most famous and successful children’s authors of all time, renowned for her precise and enchanting illustrations reflecting her fascination with the natural world.

She became particularly interested in mushrooms and toadstools, and from the late 1880s to the turn of the century produced hundreds of finely detailed and botanically correct drawings of fungi.

She also visited her former governess, Annie Moore, and would send letters with amusing anecdotes to the Moore children, often illustrated with pen and ink sketches, which would provide the basis of some of her later books – including one about a particularly naughty rabbit named Peter.

Flash forward a century and a half, and a new generation of young people are exploring their interest in the natural world through art, painting and photography.

SNAP HAPPY: foliage in Penn Woods PICTURE: Sahasi Upadhya (11)

This week our Picture of the Week featured photographs by 11-year-old Sahasi Upadhya taken on family walks around the area.

And if one good thing has emerged from the pandemic lockdowns, it might be the number of young people and their families reconnecting with nature.

Adults too have found local landscapes a continuing source of inspiration and delight, with more than a dozen professional artists featuring in recent Beyonder articles about their work.

On social media too, Twitter and Facebook feeds have been awash with nature journal entries, sketches and photographs recounting people’s encounters with the natural world.

OUT AND ABOUT: Jules Woolford’s nature journal @DrawnIntoNature

In her Drawn Into Nature blog, Bristol artist Jules Woolford explains how her love for the natural world led her to a career helping people to engage with nature and wildlife.

“When I discovered the world of journaling, it was a natural progression to begin keeping a traditional nature journal, like my idols Edith Holden and Beatrix Potter,” she says.

WILD ENCOUNTERS: nature comes alive in words and pictures @DrawnIntoNature

“Our modern lives are so frantic, often filled with noise, busy work, and negative stress. I’m on a journey to slow down and simplify; concentrate on experiences rather than things, (try to) worry less, be more grateful, and kind.

“Sometimes I take two (or three) steps backwards, but I’m trying to keep going. Nature is a great healer, teacher and an inspiration to me. Through my journals, I try to be an advocate for the earth, and all its life forms. I’m fascinated by the stories we’ve created about the natural world, and I love sharing these little tales from history, folklore and fable.”

ARTIST’S YEARBOOK: Stewart Sexton reviews some of the highlights of 2020 @Stewchat

Up in Northumbria, naturalist Stewart Sexton is a bird enthusiast whose paintings and photographs attract plenty of attention on Twitter @Stewchat, although he modestly claims: “A Northumbrian born and bred, I have been interested in natural history for as long as I can remember. I take photos but I’m no photographer, I paint but I’m not an artist either.”

That’s all very well, but if you lack Stewart’s obvious talent but still want to explore your artistic talent through nature, how do you get started?

Maureen Gillespie, an Oxfordshire artist whose chilly lockdown walks at Blenheim Palace saw her singled out as The Beyonder’s Picture of the Week recently, has some advice: “Probably the easiest way to develop your artist talents is to get outside and really observe nature.”

LOCKDOWN LANDSCAPE: one of Maureen’s series of wintry scenes at Blenheim Palace 

Not that you have to go far to find inspiration, she stresses. “Your local park, trees on your road, flowers in your garden or window box, all these amazing things are there to see, smell and touch and when you really study them you can bring them to life in a drawing or painting.”

Fellow Oxfordshire artist and art teacher Sue Side agrees: “I focus on close looking with my young learners. We look – really look – at the world around us and then we interpret, through drawing, painting, sculpture,” she says. “The aim is to encourage exploration and response – to not worry about finding the right word or the ‘correct answer’.”

INTO THE SHADOWS: a moody shot at Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Photographer Graham Parkinson found his lifelong interest in wildlife was sparked as a six-year-old by the popular I-Spy books – and the fact his gran had a large garden with a field behind it to explore.

He wasn’t alone. The famous spotter books were first published in 1948, with Mansfield head teacher Charles Warrell the man behind the publishing phenomenon of the 1950s and 60s.

A believer in active learning who devised the spotter guides to keep children entertained on long car journeys, he saw the idea rejected by eight publishers and could hardly have known quite how popular they would prove when he set about self-publishing them (just like Beatrix Potter).

“Spotters” gained points for finding the contents of the books in real-life situations. On completion, they sent the books to Big Chief I-Spy, as Mr Warrell had become known, for a feather, an order of merit and entry into the I-Spy Tribe – which by 1953 had grown to half a million members.

The 40-odd titles went on to sell some 25 million copies by the time Michelin relaunched the series after a seven-year gap in 2009-10. Big Chief I-Spy himself died in 1995 in Derbyshire at the ripe old age of 106.

So it might be a modern I-Spy book that ignites today’s youngsters’ interest in nature – or any one of a dozen quizzes, scavenger hunts or nature guides produced by a variety of organisations from Wildlife Trusts to the Chiltern Society. and Chiltern Open Air Museum.

I-SPY OUTDOORS: there are plenty of family activity ideas at the Chiltern Open Air Museum

The National Trust lists keeping a nature diary as one of its “50 things to do before you’re 11 and three-quarters”, whether that means finding an old notebook or making one out of an old cereal box and decorating it with doodles, paper, leaves, feathers or any other natural items you can find nearby.

You certainly don’t need to have any specialist equipment to have fun – and who knows, the next Beatrix Potter could just be out there somewhere!

See The Beyonder’s Nature guides page for some more activity sheets, and check out the Local landscapes feature to meet more artists who have found inspiration in the Chilterns landscape. If you are a photographer, we welcome contributions to our monthly Chilterns calendar feature. Just drop us a line at editor@thebeyonder.co.uk

Glimmers of hope lighten the gloom

A NEW year, another lockdown – and with mud, floods and flurries of snow in the Chilterns, it hasn’t been an easy month for many.

GARDEN FAVOURITE: a robin poses for the camera PICTURE: Nick Bell

Looking back to this time in 2020 when the first news was emerging of the problems in Wuhan, it would still have been unthinkable for most of us to foresee how everyone’s lives would be changed irrevocably by the coronavirus pandemic.

 WINTER LIGHT: Mill Meadows in Henley on Thames PICTURE: Samantha Evans

In 2021, with the UK death toll passing the 100,000 mark and many families grieving the loss of loved ones, the ongoing sense of separation, isolation and loss has been hard to handle – not to mention the devastating impact successive lockdowns have had on local businesses.

 CHILLY PROSPECT: the snow arrives with a vengeance PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

But those fortunate enough to have the countryside on the doorstep and willing to brave the storms, floods and freezing winds have been rewarded with some spectacular early morning walks, stunning vistas and glorious sunsets.

 BRIGHTER OUTLOOK: evening skies outside Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Even familiar “escapes” have been put under more pressure, though. Welcome as it has been to see more families getting out and about, that influx of extra footsteps has put a strain on the landscape, churning up muddy footpaths, damaging crops and threatening delicate environments like those at Stoke Common and Burnham Beeches, where new parking restrictions come into force in February.

 WATERLOGGED: the landscape takes on a soggy appearance PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

On brighter days those able to avoid the weekend crowds have found plenty to photograph and appreciate, though – especially those small glimpses of light in the darkness promising happier times to come.

SYMBOL OF HOPE: early snowdrops provide a dramatic display PICTURE: Nick Bell

Those obliging early snowdrops, for example, have been a powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, these Candlemas bells which once decorated the windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches marking an important Christian holy day when the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of flickering candles.

SMALL WONDER: a hungry blue tit on the lookout for tasty treats PICTURE: Keith Chant

Feathered friends in the garden have provided a welcome ray of sunshine too, in the run-up to the RSPB’s Great Garden Birdwatch 2021.

POWERFUL SONG: robins can be heard all year round PICTURE: Keith Chant

This is the month where the dawn chorus really begins to grow in volume, and various Beyonder features have highlighted the chance to catch those first wintry warbles, the growing popularity of feeding the birds and how to recognise the different songs that make up the most spectacular natural orchestra on earth.

NATURE’S LARDER: berries provide a welcome splash of colour PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Photographers prepared to get up with the lark have been treated to some of the most impressive sights, not just gorgeous sunsets but in the array of wildlife they have been able to capture on camera.

STUNNING SUNRISE: dawn at Spade Oak PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Graham Parkinson’s early-morning forays to Spade Oak quarry have provided a wealth of sightings, from bullfinches and kingfishers to a treecreeper and female kestrel.

FIRST LIGHT: dawn in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Homefield Wood can be a similarly lively place in those first daylight hours, between the sounds of barking deer and fox mating calls, the thrum of a woodpecker or whistling of the red kites.

OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Homefield Wood comes to life PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The Thames is another popular place for an early-morning escape, providing stunning waterside views and the chance to spot a heron or great white egret.

RIVERSIDE RAMBLE: an early walk beside the Thames PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Graham was one of a trio of local wildlife photographers to feature recently in our Picture of the Week series, and his regular postings in online bird and wildlife groups continue to delight. A selection of his latest pictures will provide the basis for February’s prize picture quiz – a perfect opportunity for bird-lovers to pick up £25 worth of book tokens.

AMERSHAM SUNSET: the sky puts on a dramatic evening display PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Meanwhile the skies over Amersham have provided plenty of dramatic postcard vistas this month, from Lesley Tilson’s stunning sunset (above) to Sue Craigs Erwin’s chilly morning vista (below).

COLD COMFORT: a wintry walk outside 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 February, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Gruelling year ends with an icy blast

IT BEGAN with a dull, damp, grubby couple of weeks and ended with an icy blast as temperatures plummeted and snow fell across much of the country.

ICE CRYSTALS: temperatures plummeted as 2020 came to a close PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

After the murky start that left some areas hit hard by heavy flooding, it was a relatively unremarkable month in the Chilterns, but made a little bleaker as families prepared for a hug-less Christmas separated from loved ones amid growing fears of another surge in pandemic deaths. 

SPLASH OF COLOUR: mandarin ducks at Burnham Beeches PICTURE: Carlene O’Rourke

Despite the dismal weather, muddy paths and bleak headlines, local photographers were soon managing to capture some of the brighter colours on show across the country, from classy mandarin ducks to dramatic sunrises and sunsets.

CLEAR SKIES: Brill Windmill PICTURE: Siddharth Upadhya

While Carlene O’Rourke found the ducks at Burnham Beeches bringing a welcome splash of colour to the grey weather, windmill enthusiast Siddharth Upadhya managed to take advantage of clear skies to capture the beauty of the magnificent post mill at Brill, which has timbers dating from the 17th century.

MILLER’S TALE: the restored windmill at Great Haseley PICTURE: Siddharth Upadhya

The skies were equally obliging over in Oxfordshire at Great Haseley, where the restored stone tower mill has dominated the countryside since the middle of the 18th century but suffered years of deterioration and neglect before being fully restored to its original working order in 2014.

DELICATE PATTERNS: wintry colours near Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Elsewhere bare branches and frozen berries provided some striking patterns for Sue Craigs Erwin’s early morning dog walks, with ice forming delicate filigree patterns on spiders’ webs – at least until temperatures started to climb again, much to the delight of four-legged explorers.

MORNING PADDLE: icy water is no deterrent to intrepid explorers PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Meanwhile widllife photographers were looking to the trees – as in Glynn Walsh’s striking Christmas Day picture of a noisy robin. Bare branches provide a better chance to pick out our feathered friends, so it’s a good time of year for first-time birdwatchers to get their eye in.

ON SONG: a robin shares a little of the Christmas spirit PICTURE: Glynn Walsh

Others keeping their lenses focused on local hedgerows include Graham Parkinson, whose pictures have also featured in our recent Littleworth Common feature, and Nick Bell, who has provided an array of fantastic shots for our recent feature about garden birds and article about Mark Avery’s guides to different types of birdsong.

METALLIC SHEEN: a curious starling at Abbey Park Farm PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

With the month’s striking and appropriately named “cold moon” also grabbing people’s attention, some photographers had their lenses trained slightly further afield, as Phil Laybourne demonstrated.

MOON SHOT: December’s “cold moon” PICTURE: Phil Laybourne

Back on earth there was fog and mist to contend with, not to mention torrential downpours and muddy footpaths where it seemed impossible to find any glimpse of colour to lift the mood. But of course there is always that exceptional sunrise or sunset guaranteed to lift the spirits – and with the winter solstice behind us, the days start getting longer from here on.

RAY OF HOPE: days start getting longer after the winter solstice PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

After a year like 2020 and with so many families still ill, grieving or forced to stay apart, New Year celebrations around the country were muted, to say the least. And with another national lockdown looming, the first few weeks of 2021 will not be any easier.

OUT OF THE WOODS?: spring is just around the corner PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

But for those able to get out of the house and escape the grim headlines for a little, the mud, mist and chill in the air doesn’t matter too much. We may not be out of the woods yet, but as the days start getting longer and lighter it really does feel as if spring is just around the corner…

A 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 January, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Get up early to catch the choir

JANUARY brings the first signs of spring – and along with the early snowdrops and primroses, that also means the first echoes of the dawn chorus.

You have to be up early to catch it, but from now until July, the volume is steadily growing, from those first wintry warbles early in the New Year to the most spectacular natural orchestra on earth.

EARLY BIRD: robins are among the first to be heard PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

As the first snowdrops start to peek through the frosty January soil and the birds swarm to the birdtable to squabble over scraps of food, the slow increase in daylight means that love will soon be in the air, which means staking out your territory and trying to attract a mate.

During the dark days of winter, life has been all about survival, trying to find enough food during those bleak chilly days to get through the long night to come.

But as the days start to slowly lengthen, songbirds start to switch into breeding mode, timed to coincide with the warmest part of the year when food is plentiful and days are long.

SMALL WONDER: the goldcrest is the UK’s tiniest bird PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The first songsters of the season are residents such as robins and great tits, joined later on by migrants like chiffchaffs and blackcaps to make May and June the peak time to enjoy the chorus.

But listen out early in January and you can already hear them, with the noise growing day by day and more than an hour of daylight being added between New Year and the end of the month.

FULL VOLUME: sound levels grow as the year progresses PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The collective chirps and tweetings start to grow in volume as the year progresses, starting about an hour before dawn with a few songs from the robins, blackbirds and thrushes before the rest of the gang join in and the chorus gets into full swing.

As with an orchestra, there’s a set sequence. Skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds are among the earliest risers and their songs are complex and detailed, full of meaning and uttered from high perches.

Then the pre-dawn singers are joined by woodpigeons, wrens and warblers, while great tits, blue tits, sparrows and finches only add their voices when it’s light enough for them to see.

NOISY THRONG: blue tits and finches join the chorus PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The most formidable defenders of territory, the robin and wren, are well into their flow by the turn of the year, soon to be joined by the blue, great and coal tits, dunnocks and chattering starlings.

Stars of the show are the loquacious song thrushes and glorious blackbirds, their music a clear signal that winter is giving way to spring.

If you’re prepared to get up early and head into the woods with a picnic, the singing lasts right through until July, but reaches its peak during May and June.

SOUND OF SUMMER: May and June are peak months for song PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Early mornings are too dark to search for food, and too dark to be spotted by predators. That makes it the perfect time to sing, and because there’s less background noise and the air is still, sound carries around 20 times further than it would later in the day – an important consideration when you are looking for a mate.

Singing is hard work on an empty stomach and after a chilly night, so it will be the strongest, best-fed males who will produce the loudest songs. As the light strengthens food becomes easier to find, so hungry birds begin to move off and the chorus gradually diminishes.

There is another chorus at dusk, which is considered quieter, though some birds – like tree sparrows and blue tits – seem to prefer to sing at this time of day.

DAWN CHORUS: sound travels furthest on a still clear morning PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The best days to listen are fine, clear mornings with little wind. Dawn chorus peaks half-an-hour before to half-an-hour after sunrise, but the variety of song can be confusing by then so why not get into position early to savour the arrival of the performers as each takes their turn on stage…

Sunday May 2 is International Dawn Chorus Day 2021. Many thanks to local photographer Graham Parkinson for permission to use his photographs with this article.

Spiders’ webs and misty mornings

IT’S been a month of first frosts and misty mornings, fading fungi and the smell of fireworks.

WINTRY WEB: Willow Wood, Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

It began with a final blaze of autumn colour in the run-up to Bonfire Night and Armistice Day, and ended with an icy blast, a reminder that winter is definitely on the way.

BLAZE OF COLOUR: Burnham Beeches PICTURE: Olivia Rzadkiewicz

November is a ‘game of two halves’ in many respects, starting with a fortnight of burnished golds, yellows and russet hues before the trees get stripped bare by fierce winds and driving rain, and we enter an altogether bleaker period of the year.

BURNISHED GOLD: Burnham Beeches PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Wordsmith, author and friend Alan Cleaver, better known in his neck of the Lake District by his Twitter monicker @thelonningsguy and for writing about the “corpse roads” of Cumbria, reminds us that Cumbrian farmers identify a fifth season of the year covering the dull, drab fortnight or so before winter properly sets in.

INTO THE SUNSET: Willow Wood, Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

“Back End” is the term they use, and it somehow perfectly encapsulates this sullen no man’s land between autumn and winter, the ‘scrag end’ of the year.

Writing in his blog back in 2013, Alan wrote: “It’s such a blindingly obvious fact to most Cumbrians that you really do wonder how the rest of the world copes with a mere four seasons.

LOST SEASON: ‘Back End’ sees the last of the leaves falling PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

“We’ve just entered the ‘lost’ season of Back End. It comes between autumn and winter when autumn’s lost its glory but winter is yet to bite. There’s some dispute but most people will place it around the first two weeks in December.”

No one is quite sure of the precise timing of this season, he concedes: “But we want to keep the rest of the world guessing. We’ve revealed there’s a fifth season – now let them work out when it is!”

INTO THE WOODS: misty walks mark the end of November PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

As literary translator Antoinette Fawcett put it a couple of years later, “backend” is a “blunt-sounding word, plain and to the point. and…firmly associated with the northern counties of England”.

Northern roots or not, it’s perfect for summing up the dank, drab, lifeless feeling of some days in late November, when the light feels bleached and the undergrowth sodden. But not all days are like that – and chilly glimpses of winter sunshine uncover some hidden attractions.

FROZEN IN TIME: morning frost reveals some stunning patterns PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

For a start, those crisper, clearer mornings reveal some stunning cloud patterns, glorious sunrises and mist-coated fields.

MORNING MIST: sunrise in Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Evergreen trees and bushes provide a pleasant colour contrast and the array of berries provide rich pickings for native birds and migrants alike, like the wintering redwings arriving from Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland, or this tiny goldcrest, pictured at Burnham Beeches.

SMALL WONDER: a goldcrest at Burnham Beeches PICTURE: Nick Bell

Hawthorn, holly and mountain ash all provide valuable food sources for birds and small mammals during the winter months, along with blackthorn, juniper and dog rose.

TWISTED TREES: walking in Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

It’s that time of year when ladybirds huddle together in large groups and start looking for suitable sites to hibernate, sheltering under tree bark or leaf litter perhaps. Hedgehogs are seeking out a comfortable den after escaping the perils of bonfire night and badgers are pulling moss, leaves and bracken into their underground setts where they spend so much time snoozing.

RED MIST: sunset at Whiteleaf Hill PICTURE: Anne Rixon

Out on the local lakes and quarries the wildfowl are squabbling, the migrants have arrived in force and under and around the feeders the usual array of tits, squirrels, pigeons and blackbirds have been boosted by the occasional less familiar markings of a magpie, nuthatch, pheasant or parakeet.

SURPRISE VISITOR: a parakeet drops in for a peanut Hill PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Out in the woods the fungi may have faded but the mosses and lichens are creating a colourful carpet over the roots and branches, with many trees looking as if they are boasting furry green pyjamas.

GREEN CARPET: mosses and lichens coat the tree roots PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

December is almost upon us, with the forecasters warning of icy blasts, though with no immediate threat of snow on the horizon, here in the south at any rate. Does that mean we are still in the “backend” season, then? I guess we need our farming friends in Cumbria to let us know about that.

A 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 December, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Falling leaves and mushroom magic

OCTOBER has been a spectacular month in the Chilterns – and you have been sharing some of your favourite images of local landscapes and wildlife during that time.

With Autumnwatch back on our screens and the woods ablaze with colour, families across the area have been getting outdoors at every opportunity to make the most of the seasonal spectacle.

FALLING LEAVES: a bench in Penn Wood PICTURE: Andrew Knight

And with half the country under strict lockdown restrictions, the natural world continues to provide a vital escape from the stresses and strains of mask wearing and social distancing – and for many, an absolutely essential boost to mental health.

WOODLAND WANDER: Hervines Park in Amersham PICTURE: Lucy Parks
COLOUR CONTRASTS: a footpath in Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

But which sights, sounds and smells best sum up the spirit of the month for you? We asked fellow Beyonders to help us expand our selection of favourite pictorial memories of the past month for our online Chilterns calendar and the response was rapid and generous, as you can see.

LIGHT AND SHADE: Brush Hill near Princes Risborough PICTURE: Anne Rixon

This October was perhaps most memorable for its astonishing array of fungi – like these colourful but toxic fly agaric toadstools in Penn Woods (above) – prompting our appeal for help in identifying some of the less obvious local species.

TOXIC TOADSTOOL: fly agarics in Penn Wood PICTURE: Andrew Knight
MUSHROOM MAGIC: fungi flourishing at Whiteleaf Woods PICTURE: Anne Rixon

It’s been a month of ripe berries and falling fruit, of eager foraging for humans and rich pickings for birds, insects and mammals, with trees and bushes bursting with tasty treats.

In kitchens across the Chilterns, pots and pans have been bubbling with jams and jellies, crumbles and preserves. Windows have been steamed up as cooks have dusted off their recipes for rosehip syrup, sweet chestnut stuffing or crab apple jelly.

RIPE FOR THE PICKING: rosehips can make tasty syrup PICTURE: Olivia Rzadkiewicz

The rich, rapidly-changing colours and glorious textures of October make it a favourite with photographers, especially deep in the woods where the green, yellow and russet hues contrast so beautifully with the rugged outlines of ancient bark.

COUNTRY CROSSROADS: footpaths meet at Latimer PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

If the feature proves popular, it could be a regular monthly item, building into a year-round collection of shots capturing some of the natural wonders of our amazing landscape, like this stunning shot highlighted in our Picture of the Week feature.

SUNSET SILHOUETTE: stags locking horns at Grangelands PICTURE: Anne Rixon

If you have a picture or two you would like us to feature, drop us a line by email to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk, join us in our Facebook group or contact us on Twitter @TheBeyonderUK.

Let us know a little bit about where the picture was taken and make sure you include your full name for the picture credit.

FUNGI IN FOCUS: mushrooms in Whiteleaf Woods PICTURE: Anne Rixon
WATERLOGGED: the River Thame flood plain at Aylesbury PICTURE: Ron Adams

Friends help solve our mushroom mystery

AFTER our recent post about toadstools and mushrooms flourishing in Burnham Beeches, we’ve been back out in the woods uncovering an even wider range of fascinating and beautiful fungi.

And what an amazing range of shapes and colours we found. The only problem is that we still couldn’t tell a tawny grisette from a glistening inkcap – not to mention a horn of plenty, velvet shank, parrot waxcap or weeping widow.

The names alone are enough to want to make you find out more – from the stinking dapperling to the charcoal burner, golden scalycap, grey knight or wrinkled peach.

But even armed with the Woodland Trust’s fungi identification guide and those of Wildfood UK and First Nature, the only mushrooms we could identify with any real confidence were the foul-smelling stinkhorn (Picture 15) and the beechwood sickener (Picture 11).

So we put out an appeal to our friends on Twitter and Facebook to help us complete our captions – and the response was terrific.

All 20 pictures were taken on a single afternoon on a short woodland walk at Burnham Beeches.

Within minutes our friends in the Wild Marlow facebook group were pointing us towards the Buckinghamshire Fungus Group – and overnight, group secretary Penny Cullington was able to fill in a lot of the gaps in our knowledge.

If you have similar problems in identifying specific species, check out the group’s detailed alphabetical picture guide – look up the name in the list to locate the photo, with helpful tips about identification.

‘Mushroom man’ John Harris from Leicestershire also has an incredibly useful blog that can help with all aspects of mushroom identification, not to mention a pocket guide for those wanting to investigate further.

And sincere thanks to all those who helped in our quest and commented in forums on Facebook or on Twitter.

PICTURE 1: just a rotting fungus past its sell-by date?
PICTURE 2: our friend @PipsticksWalks helped to pin this down as upright coral fungus (Ramaria stricta). Apparently there are an incredible number of species of coral fungi, but this one is pretty common in our Chilterns woods
PICTURE 3: too little detail to identify this one?
PICTURE 4: Penny from BFG pointed us towards Tricholoma sulphureum, the poisonous Sulphur Knight, once known as the gas works mushroom because of its pungent odour
PICTURE 5: Lycoperdon pyriforme, the stump puffball, says Penny from BFG
PICTURE 6: too many possibilities to choose from here?
PICTURE 7: a faded Amethyst deceiver, Laccaria amethystina, we are told
PICTURE 8: probably the common rustgill or Gymnopilus penetrans, we now believe
PICTURE 9: too far gone to identify?
PICTURE 10: Penny from BFG identifies this as the birch bracket or Fomitopsis betulina (formerly known as Piptoporus betulinus)
PICTURE 11: the poisonous beechwood sickener (Russula nobilis) is known for its bright colours and crumbly gills. It plays a vital role in the woodland ecosystem since beech trees rely on fungi in the soil to pass minerals to them in exchange for sugars from the tree
PICTURE 12: maybe a dappled webcap, but other angles needed for a confirmed identification
PICTURE 13: Penny from BFG suggests the bonnets in the foreground may be saffrondrop bonnets (Mycena crocata) with common stump brittlestem in the background (see below)
PICTURE 14: Psathyrella piluliformis or common stump brittlestem is common and widespread in woodlands, we discover
PICTURE 15: the stinkhorn (phallus impudicus) is recognisable by its foul odour and relies on flies and other insects to transport its spores
PICTURE 16: a species of webcap, we believe
PICTURE 17: clustered bonnet (Mycena inclinata), known by some as the oak bonnet
PICTURE 18: like Picture 4, Penny from BFG believes this is another Sulphur Knight
PICTURE 19: very old honey fungus (Armillaria mellea)
PICTURE 20: probably a shaggy parasol (Chlorophyllum rhacodes), says Penny from BFG, but hard to be sure without seeing the gills and stem

Woods come alive with autumn colour

CHILLY nights and rainy days can turn your favourite walk into a muddy morass and take some of the fun out of autumn rambles.

But brighter days in October and November are a perfect time to capture autumnal colour when the sun breaks through the clouds and turns local parks into places of wonder and mystery.

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Nowhere is more inviting in the sunshine that Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.

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The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.

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Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.

This is also a very different world from your visits back in the spring (below), with so many of the vivid greens replaced with russets, reds and golds.

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There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.

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And if the landscape looks familiar, it might be because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.

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Mind you, the same can be said for nearby Black Park, another perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.

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Although the area round the 14-acre lake and popular cafe tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.

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Nearby Langley Park is another favourite autumn retreat, offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.

This is a world of pooh sticks and Eeyore houses, where toddlers decked out in bobble hats and wellingtons are kicking leaves and splashing in puddles like generations before them.

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For those wanting an even more spectacular vista, there is also the sprawling Cliveden Estate, 376 acres of magnificent Grade I listed formal gardens and woodlands with panoramic views over the Berkshire countryside.

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Owned, managed and cared for by the National Trust, the dog-friendly grounds slope down to the River Thames and feature a number of woodland walks suitable for families, as well as perfect picnic spots for when the rain lets up.

This estate was the meeting place for political intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s, and in the early 1960s was the setting for key events in the notorious Profumo sex scandal that rocked the Macmillan government.

In 1893, the estate was purchased by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who moved to Hever Castle and left Cliveden to his son Waldorf when he married in 1906.

The young Astors used Cliveden for entertaining on a lavish scale and it’s not hard to see how the spectacular location made it a popular destination for film stars, politicians, world leaders and writers of the day.

Witty, glamorous and fashionable, Nancy became a prominent hostess among the English elite and followed her husband into politics, in 1919 becoming the first woman to sit as an MP in the House of Commons.

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That sense of history is all about you here, on the banks of the Thames – memories of autumn walks across the centuries where the timeless beauty of the trees has provided a backdrop to countless human dramas, hopes and fears…

For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website. For Black Park, visit the park’s website and Facebook page or call 01753 511060. For Langley, visit the website or call 01753 511060. For more information about Cliveden, see the National Trust website.

Check out our nature guides page for things to do in the woods and our What’s On page for other local attractions and special events.

Mark’s ultimate birdsong guide

MARK Avery knows a thing or two about birds.

He worked for the RSPB for 25 years until standing down in 2011 to go freelance and was the wildlife charity’s conservation director for nearly 13 years.

WALK FOR WILDLIFE: Mark joins Chris Packham in Hyde Park in 2018

He’s also an author and blogger living in rural Northamptonshire, not to mention a tireless environmental campaigner, pictured above at Chris Packham’s 2018 People’s Walk for Wildlife in London.

Back in February 2020 his casual blog post about birdsong was meant to be a timely reminder about the wonders of the dawn chorus.

He wasn’t to know, of course, that within weeks the country would be in lockdown – and more people than ever before would be finding the sound of their local birds more reassuring and important than ever before.

DAWN CHORUS: a blue tit pictured by Yorkshire-based naturalist Tim Melling

In the first post he wrote about making his first cup of tea of the day at around 6am, taking a step outside the back door and hearing birdsong: a robin or two, a bunch of song thrushes and the occasional blackbird.

“Knowing the songs and calls of birds is a blessing,” he wrote. “I feel at home because I know those sounds, they are recognised, familiar, and loved.”

FAMILIAR FRIEND: the robin’s call is recognised and loved PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

February is the time to start learning bird songs, he suggested, because there aren’t many bird species singing at this time of year so it’s not too confusing. “Start now. Start today,” he urged.

“Try it and see – it’s fun,” he added. “All this stuff has been going on around you all your life but you may never have stopped to listen. Give it a try.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that his first choice of bird to focus on (and one to which he repeatedly returned in subsequent blogs) was the great tit. As a junior research assistant in the zoology department in Oxford he produced scientific papers about the two-note tee-cher, tee-cher phrases that make this one of the easiest birds for novice ears to identify.

TWO-NOTE PHRASE: the great tit has an easily recognised refrain PICTURE: Nick Bell

Song thrushes, dunnocks and blackbirds followed, and by March 20 it was the turn of the chiffchaff to take centre stage, just days before lockdown.

CLARION CALL: the chiffchaff signals that spring is unfolding PICTURE: Tim Melling

“Whenever I hear that first chiffchaff, even on the grottiest day, I know that spring is unfolding, as it always does, and that sunnier days and over the coming weeks a more or less predictable succession of other summer migrants are on their way back. And as a clarion call for spring, what could be better than the song of the chiffchaff?” Mark wrote.

SUNNY SOUND: the cheerful chiffchaff PICTURE: Nick Bell

A lifetime of listening has helped him accumulate a recognition of a range of different songs, and his blog entries encourage newcomers to make a start, ideally in February before the chorus grows, swelled by less familiar migrants.

To help the uninitiated, his posts link to recordings on xeno-canto, a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world.

FIERCE RIVAL: the robin can be vicious to other robins PICTURE: Tim Melling

Mark advises newcomers to try to spot the songster first: then listening to some songs on the website can help to identify the most common species.

His blog introduces birds one by one, including the sparky robin – “lovely eyes but they are vicious little b*ggers” – along with the greenfinch, chaffinch, wren, skylark, willow warbler and cuckoo.

CANDID CAMERA: Tim Melling sees himself first and foremost as a naturalist

Accompanied by some glorious photographs from Tim Melling, “a naturalist who happens to take photographs of wildlife rather than a proper wildlife photographer”, Mark’s guides started taking on a life of their own, growing to more than 20 by the middle of April.

ON SONG: the humble dunnock is usually inconspicuous PICTURE: Nick Bell

Follow the links below to the first dozen of Mark’s blogs:

Introduction
Great Tits
Song Thrush
Songs and calls
Dunnock
Blackbird
More on Great Tits
Chiffchaff
Even more on Great Tits
Yet more on Great Tits
Robin
Great Tits again

JOY IN THE GLOOM: the song of the greenfinch PICTURE: Nick Bell

Here are links to the next eight of Mark’s blogs:
Greenfinch
Chaffinch
Wren
Skylark
Blackcap
Sonagrams
Willow Warbler
Cuckoo

SMALL WONDER: the wren is a small bird with a very loud voice PICTURE: Tim Melling

The positive feedback might have been due in part to the fact that lockdown encouraged many families to take a new look at the world around them, exploring local lanes close to their homes and discovering some of the small delights of nature perhaps for the first time.

It’s the same kind of explosion of interest in the natural world that made the Self-Isolating Bird Club such a success, with as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show hosted by Chris Packham and stepdaughter Megan McCubbin.

Back on Mark’s blog, the entries grew rapidly during April and May, boosted by early morning walks in the countryside near his home and by the enthusiastic exchanges with followers.

Accompanied by more evocative pictures from Tim Melling, the April and May entries extend the scope into much less familiar territory, featuring yellowhammers and whitethroats, curlews, turtle doves and wood warblers: “This bird’s song is sublimely evocative for me. Hearing it, anywhere, even sitting here at my computer, takes me immediately back to the Welsh oakwood on the RSPB Dinas nature reserve.”

SUBLIME SONG: the wood warbler evokes fond memories for Mark PICTURE: Tim Melling

Starling
Black Redstart
Garden Warbler
Sedge and Reed Warblers
Blue Tit
Yellowhammer
Why a dawn chorus?
Common and Lesser Whitethroats

THREES A CROWD: goldfinches produce a musical twittering PICTURE: Glynn Walsh

Goldfinch
Nightingale
Oystercatcher
Golden Plover
Curlew
Lapwing
Snipe
Black-tailed Godwit
Dunlin

COMMON CALL: house sparrows have spread around the world PICTURE: Nick Bell

House Sparrow
Corn Bunting
Turtle Dove
Mistle Thrush
Bittern
Woodlark
Corncrake
Nightjar
Common Crane
Meadow Pipit
Wood Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler
Some favourites

UPLANDS FAVOURITE: the meadow pipit PICTURE: Tim Melling

By May, Mark had reached his half-century of posts about birdsong, a singular achievement and a project that has brought a great of pleasure to so many.

With lockdown restrictions starting to ease, he signed off with a message to subscribers which read: “It’s summer. I wonder what summer will bing in terms of wildlife to my garden and to my locality, and where we will all be in terms of coronavirus in another three months. It’s a bit difficult to tell isn’t it?

“But nature is a source of solace in these times of uncertainty. I just hope that the last few weeks and the coming few months will embed the importance of nature around us in more minds, in more actions and in more government policies. That is one way that we can try to build a better world after this period of reflection.”

MELODIOUS SONG: the blackcap PICTURE: Tim Melling

His followers probably share the same emotions. As one, Bimbling, put it: “I think the series has been wonderful and a great idea. Some of the blogs have prompted nostalgia, others desire. All have been interesting while some have been fascinating. So thank you so much for both the inspiration and effort to put them together. Much appreciated.”

Now we just need to wait until February each year for the dawn chorus to start again in earnest for a chance to make the most of Mark’s labour of love: but his extraordinary 50-part audio-visual journey through our heaths, hedgerows and woodlands might mean listening to the birds outside on a spring morning is never quite the same again.

LAST WORD: the redwing PICTURE: Nick Bell

Trees remain in tune with the past

IT’S a  perfect day for a walk in the woods…not totally airless, not too hot, but warm in the sunshine and even the darker glades are dappled with light.

But here at Burnham Beeches we are in a place where one can feel pretty insignificant, especially when wandering round a tree with a startling past like the Druid’s Oak.

The old-timer may not look so majestic these days, but this tree is around 800 years old, dating back through the reigns of some 35 kings and queens to the era of King John, when the Magna Carta was being drawn up.

This is a time of the crusades and Marco Polo’s travels. It’s hard to believe the same oak will be standing here in later centuries to witness the Spanish Armada, Gunpowder Plot or Great Fire of London.

But time stands still in Burnham Beeches, where ancient sentinels silently recall generations of Victorian schoolchildren coming here for Sunday outings or the war years when the woods were awash with service personnel, with some 65 huts and other buildings hidden among the trees.

Wander down this path and you’re at the site of an Iron Age hillfort. Take that route through the trees and you find a small plaque commemorating the poet Thomas Gray, who wandered the woods in the 18th century and completed his famous poem ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ in 1750 amid the peaceful graves surrounding St Giles’ church in nearby Stoke Poges.

The past is all around you here – and at no time is that more obvious than on an August afternoon when the dragonflies are flitting around, the wood ants are on the march and the cattle are lazily munching their way through the undergrowth.

Helpful Wildlife Trust contacts are able to suggest my fuzzy picture is a male ruddy darter, and a magnificent video from Roger Havercroft on the Wild Cookham facebook page soon confirms this.

At the other end of the size spectrum are the British white cattle casually sun-bathing on the grass. They, along with other traditional breeds such as Exmoore ponies and Berkshire pigs, have been used to bring grazing back to the reserve – a practice which helped to create this ancient woodland.

Back in the woods, the rowan berries are out, the first leaves have fallen and the ancient beeches rustle a little as the evening breeze begins to pick up.

It really is an extraordinary landscape: beautiful, haunting, ever-changing and intimately in tune with the past.

Snakes alive! It’s a nadder…

MEET Norris. I’m not sure that’s his actual name, because he disappeared a little too quickly into the gorse to indulge in idle chatter.

But then it’s notoriously difficult to get close to an adder without scaring it away, even though local ramblers and rangers blithely talk about spotting them basking in the early morning sun as if the moor was awash with the wrigglers.

Nonetheless, after a couple of long years of scouring the local heath, we are delighted to get to meet our first adder at long last. (To see him in action, see the video below.)

Why not Anthony the adder? Or Adelaide, for that matter? Well, as you probably know, the snake’s common name is the result of a historical pronunciation error. Back in the day, this was a “nadder” in the same way that people once spoke of naprons, noranges and numpires.

In historical linguistics they call this metanalysis or rebracketing, when we break down a word or phrase into segments or meanings different from the original, so Norris the nadder it is for now, with a nod to Old English.

We are wandering amid the gorse and heather of Stoke Common, but this is our first encounter with its most formidable resident, one of Britain’s most exotic native species and our only venomous snake. And without doubt there’s a visceral thrill about seeing that distinctive diamond pattern and frankly scary wriggle.

“There’s nothing madder than a trodden on adder,” said Spike Milligan, but these are actually very shy, timid snakes that tend to bite only in self-defence, usually when someone is attempting to capture them or has inadvertently stepped on them.

After the recent storms, it’s a blustery day on the common, which may be one reason we have managed to get so close to our new friend before he makes a dash for it.

Each adder is unique and the patterns on their heads are as individual as a human fingerprint, apparently, although the markings are also amazing camouflage, making them difficult to spot in this ancient heathland landscape where they can hide among the scrub and gorse and venture out to bask, thermoregulating by moving between sun and shade, since they need to raise their body temperature before they become fully active.

As Shakespeare warned in Julius Caesar: “It is the bright day that brings forth the adder, and that craves wary walking.”

Like other members of the viper family, the eggs hatch within the mother and the young are born live. Hence that ‘viper’ name, derived from the Latin for ‘live birth’.

They love rough grasslands, heaths and moorland like this: anywhere with sunny spots for basking, dense cover for shelter and plenty of prey like small mammals, ground-nesting birds, reptiles and amphibians.

So how nasty is that bite? Pretty bad, apparently. Some 50 to 100 people every year get bitten, and a similar number of dogs, although human deaths are rare, with only around 14 recorded fatalities from adder bites since 1876, the last almost half a century ago.

That’s not to make light of the potential injuries, though. It’s only a month since a distraught dad was warning about the excruciating pain suffered by his three-year-old son when he was bitten at a family picnic in a country park.

Pet dogs have certainly died from adder bites and, since this is the only venomous snake in much of northern Europe, perhaps it was inevitable that myths and misunderstandings would surround the snakes, including a widespread belief that its “sting” lay in its forked tongue rather than delivering venom through their hinged, hollow fangs.

Legends and folk tales span the centuries and it’s hard to tell which are the more gruesome of the many and varied medical cures and traditions surrounding the poor snakes, many of which are recounted on Tim Sandles’ Legendary Dartmoor website.

Would you prefer to rub the bite wound with a dead snake, toad skin, the foot of a dead owl, a live pigeon or the straw from a swallow’s nest? Honeysuckle leaves are a slightly more palatable alternative.

Watching Norris wriggle off into the undergrowth, it’s hard not to shiver at the sight. It certainly doesn’t do to think too much about him and his mates hibernating together during the winter in large groups, as many reptiles do.

They can survive for months like that, it seems, emerging in the spring when it’s warm enough for them to bask in the dappled shade of a gorse bush before mustering the energy to start hunting again.

Our folklore is riddled with stories and superstitions relating to the snakes, and adders are often attributed with powers of wisdom or a sly nature.

But if they were sacred to the druids they were also much persecuted: killing the first adder of spring was supposed to bring the perpetrator good luck and bashing one with an ash stick before sunset would also supposedly neutralise evil sprits.

Wearing the skin of an adder inside a hat could ensure the wearer never suffered from headaches, a skin worn around the leg would banish symptoms of rheumatism and one hung over the fireplace would attract good fortune.

Noawadays it is illegal to kill one: since 1981 adders have become a ‘protected species’, although it was not always thus. Tim Sandles’ recalls the letter written to the Western Morning News in September 1925 when the Reverend Hugh Breton recounted: “I always kill them if I can, as they are dangerous to man and beast…”

Even the famous adder dance, in which pairs of snakes entwine themselves around each other and wrestle energetically, is frequently misinterpreted, it seems. Instead of being a courtship ritual, it is actually a duel between territorial males.

Poor old Norris. So many misconceptions! Still, mugging up on adder folklore has at least uncovered one certain way to spot an adder, according to Dartmoor legend at least.

Find a dragonfly, because if you see one hovering there will be an adder basking below it; many believed the dragonfly was put on the moor to warn mankind of presence of the poisonous snake. Sorted. Now we know how to find one in future…

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The word adder comes from the Old English word for the species, naeddre. Over time this became ‘nadder’ and reference to “a nadder”, soon became “an adder”. In the development of language this process, whereby a letter is added or subtracted because of a nearby word, is called metanalysis.

It’s a similar story with napron norange and numpire but works in reverse with newt and nickname.

Parishes protect our common past

THREE cheers for our parish councils.

They may not get much recognition, but they play a crucial role in protecting open spaces and common land across the Chilterns.

Parish and town councils are the most local level of government in England and they vary massively in size, from tiny villages with only a few hundred voters to larger towns where they may look after everything from street lighting and cemeteries to war memorials and markets.

PARISH PUMP: The Vicar of Dibley cast PICTURE: BBC / Tiger Aspect Productions

If the Vicar of Dibley left a lasting impression of parish council meetings being archaic and bumbling, it’s a little unfortunate because the reality is that these grass-roots councils are responsible for a huge range of important community functions.

Originally created in 1894 and called community councils in Wales and Scotland, they can represent from 200 to more than 30,000 people with budgets ranging from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of pounds, levied through the council tax.

COMMON GROUND: Southdown Ponds on Harpenden Common by Andrew Keenleyside

Parishes have numerous powers to provide community facilities – from clocks, bus shelters and litter bins to toilets, sports centres and playing fields. But for many local people it’s their role in protecting shared community land that is of most importance, looking after our commons, open spaces and local nature reserves across the Chilterns.

OPEN OUTLOOK: much of Dunstable Downs is managed by the National Trust

From Dunstable Downs to Ivinghoe, Pitstone and Ibstone, some of our most eye-catching Chilterns scenery is common land, from Chesham Bois to Chinnor Hill and Marlow to Chorleywood.

In fact there are 170 different commons within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and another 88 within 3km of the AONB boundary. 

WELCOME OASIS: Gerrards Cross common, once the haunt of highwaymen

Some, like Stoke Common, managed by the City of London Corporation, may cover 200 acres or more, whereas others may be smaller but much-loved oases of green or wooded land much cherished by dog walkers, runners and picnickers, like Gerrards Cross common, maintained by the local town council.

COMMUNITY ORCHARD: Temple Dell at Farnham Common

Some common land may date back to medieval times, whereas some local initiatives are more recent, including a range of millennium projects across the region – or the community orchard planted in 2011 at Temple Dell and maintained by Farnham Royal Parish Council .

The Warren nature reserve in Wooburn Green is one of around 16 such reserves in Buckinghamshire and looked after by the Wooburn and Bourne End Parish Council.

GO WITH THE FLOW: the River Wye flowing through Wooburn Green

A number of other small reserves, like that at Homefield Wood near Marlow, are managed by the local wildlife trust.

WILDLIFE HAVEN: birds, butterflies and moths find a welcome at Homefield Wood

District councils have a crucial role to play in waste disposal, while county and unitary authorities spearhead tha battle against fly-tipping.

But on many of our open spaces across the region it’s the humble parish council that’s on the front line in protecting our ancient open spaces – and coping with problems like litter, vandalism and anti-social behaviour along the way.

Why are we so scared of spiders?

SPIDERS are the stuff of our nightmares, it seems.

From the giant spiders Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf companions encounter in Mirkwood on their quest in The Hobbit to the enormous, sentient Aragog in Harry Potter, fiction writers have been only too eager to play on our fears.

Bilbo Baggins faces a giant spider

But why are we SO scared of spiders when the vast majority are harmless to humans and most are actively beneficial, gobbling up household pests?

Their silken webs are things of beauty on a dewy morning, as Roy Battell captures in startling images from his Moorhens website (below). And yet fear of spiders is just about the most common phobia in the world.

If that’s the case, you’d expect it to be because we have suffered some sort of trauma involving spiders.

But although spiders could bite if they feel threatened or endangered and most are venomous, in the UK we have little to actively worry about, even if there are literally hundreds of different species living here…and more than 35,000 known species worldwide.

But unlike the Americans, we don’t have to worry about the black widow or brown recluse, never mind the Sydney funnel-web spider, the most dangerous spider to humans in the world, which is native to Australia.

In fact very few of us have undergone any real spider trauma – so why is arachnophobia so prevalent, with children identifying fear of spiders as their biggest terror?

Back in 2015, spider expert Chris Buddle explained in The Independent some of the potential causes, although maybe it’s their sheer ‘legginess’ which gives us the shudders, coupled with cultural beliefs about the nature of spiders.

But if it was an evolutionary fear of animals which posed a threat to ancient humans, why do we not worry more about tigers or crocodiles?

Autumn is a good time to appreciate spiders, when they reach full maturity, and early morning walkers find their webs fascinating, gloriously backlit by the early morning sun.

Numerous online articles provide pictures of the most common types, with UK Safari highlighting 65 species, starting with the 16 about which they receive most queries.

You can also take your pick from guides published in Countryfile, local wildlife trust, the Natural History Museum or even The Sun to get a better idea of the exact species you are looking at.

For those intrigued by the delicate webs, there’s much more to discover, though. All spiders have two claws on their feet, but web-spinning spiders have three. They are used not only to pull the silk but also to grip and release the web’s threads and provide traction as they move around it.

Spiders spin two kinds of silk: sticky strands used to capture prey which make up the spiralling threads of the web and non-sticky or “dragline” silk used to provide structural support, and which spiders walk on to avoid getting caught in their own webs.

Female spiders build the webs and there are three main types: orb webs, funnel or sheet webs, and the irregular webs of common house spiders.

But not all spiders make webs: flower crab spiders alter their colour like chameleons to ambush their prey, the wolf spider leaps out on its prey like its namesake, the wasp spider disguises itself as a wasp to keep it safe from predators, the raft spider can walk on water, and the water spider even lives under water, building a bell-shaped tent between plant stems.

The nursery web spider rather cutely does not spin a web to catch food, but builds a silk sheet in the vegetation to act as a tent for her young, sheltering them until they are old enough to leave on their own.

On heathlands the gorse bushes can often be seen enveloped in huge gossamer webs. These webs are made by  tiny animals known as  gorse spider mites – bright red mites which live in large colonies and are used in countries like New Zealand to control the spread of gorse, which is regarded there as an invasive weed.

Welcome splash of summer colour

BUTTERFLIES are among our most beautiful summer visitors – and the only insects that we universally love to welcome to our gardens (unless you grow cabbages, perhaps).

But how well do you know the most common species? We have become so removed from daily contact with the countryside that many of us are unfamiliar with all but the most iconic or instantly recognisable, like the peacock, small tortoiseshell or painted lady.

It doesn’t help that they flit about so quickly that it can be hard to study them closely, though Butterfly Conservation have produced a handy series of spotters’ guides as part of their ongoing Big Butterfly Count, as featured on our Nature Guides page.

Britain has about 56 species in total, with about three dozen in the Chilterns, as captured in a colourful charity wallchart by members of the Chesham Wildlife group.

With many families exploring their local lanes and footpaths during lockdown, there’s been an upsurge of interest in the natural world, and TV programmes like Springwatch have helped spread the word – along with enthusiastic young naturalists like Rebecca’s Butterfly Farm on Twitter and Youtube.

Habitat loss is a major problem for many butterfly series, especially specialists like the marsh fritillary which can be extremely fussy, and if their food plant or habitat becomes scarce, so do they.

Some specialists, such as the high brown and pearl-bordered fritillaries, are near to extinction in Britain, while other wider countryside species have also declined in areas where agricultural activities have turned much of the countryside into an ecological desert.

Although many factors have contributed to butterfly decline – a changing climate, pesticides and habitat loss – some species have increased in abundance, so it’s certainly not all bad news.

More than 72,000 citizen scientists have been taking part in the annual butterfly count, with a million butterflies spotted – the top five being the large white, small white, gatekeeper, peacock and meadow brown.

But did you immediately recognise the species featured on this page? From the top they were: a gatekeeper at Stoke Common, a peacock at Woolman’s Wood, a silver-washed fritillary at Black Park and a cinnabar moth caterpillar at Stoke Common…

Heath comes alive for summer

AS THE July afternoon sun falls across Stoke Common, there are some welcome splashes of colour to grab the eye.

There are times of the year on a drizzly day when this patch of ancient heathland can seem a little bleak and featureless, but it’s surprising how different it can look on a summer’s day.

The butterflies are dancing in the light breeze, the blackberry blossom is blooming and there are splashes of yellow and purple among the gorse and heather.

Many of the plant species recorded at Stoke Common are considered rare, at least in Buckinghamshire, and there are times when it looks more like a Scottish heath than somewhere that’s a stone’s throw from Slough.

Nowadays this is one of the rarest habitats in Britain, but these 200 acres of land represent the largest remnant of ancient heathland that was once extensive across Buckinghamshire.

Created by a combination of poor, acidic soils and land management which includes grazing, it is home to some  very rare plants, animals and insects that are quite different from those of grassland and woodlands and account for its status as an important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

A score of burnished brown Sussex cattle are currently doing their part to protect the heathland and look smooth, velvety and very healthy on their prickly diet.

Nowadays owned and run by the City of London Corporation, with the help of volunteers and supporters like the Friends of Stoke Common, the common is pleasantly quiet for walkers and runners trying to get away from it all.

But is the splash of yellow broom or gorse? What type of heathers grow here, what type of thistles are these – and what are all those other yellow flowers popping up here and there across the heath?

Pocket guidebooks can sometimes seem more confusing than helpful on such matters, offering you more than 20 pages of similar-looking yellow wild flowers to choose from, all with ever more exotic-sounding names, from creeping jenny and tufted loosestrife to yellow archangel and common fleabane.

Broom and gorse should be easy enough to distinguish, even though both are members of the pea family, have bright yellow flowers and tend to grow in the same kind of places. Gorse is the prickly one whose flowers smell of coconut, whereas broom stems are long, flexible and smooth.

Common broom’s old Latin name, planta genista, is said to have lent its name to the Plantagenet kings because they wore sprigs of it in their hats, while the Glasgow songwriter Adam McNaughtan based his song Yellow on the Broom on the hardships of the Scottish travelling community.

The song was inspired by a book of the same name recalling the memories of Perthshire traveller Betsy White, who wrote of her childhood and the feelings of her mother who, accustomed to travelling all year, married a man who wintered in town.

The hostility of the townsfolk towards the travellers and the unkindness of the other children at school towards her own made her long to see the broom start to flower in the spring – a sign that it was time to be back on the road:

I’m weary for the springtime when we tak’ the road aince mair
Tae the plantin’, and the pearlin’ and the berry fields o’ Blair
When we meet up wi’ our kinfolk fae a’ the country roon’
And the gaun-aboot folk tak’ the road when the yellow’s on the broom

If it’s easy to understand how the flowers of the broom would have lifted the hearts of many a traveller, gorse is not without its fans too.

Pioneering 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus was so taken with it that he tried to grow it in his native Sweden but found the winters there too harsh for it to survive. On a visit to England in 1736 he is said to have wept with joy at the sight of it flowering on London’s Putney Heath.

Anyone who has come into direct accidental contact with gorse is less likely to be so impressed. We have three native gorse species in Britain: common gorse, western gorse and dwarf gorse, the latter restricted to the south and south-east.

Birds like the stonechat and Dartford warbler love this sort of environment, as do lizards and adders, though the reptiles are pretty good at keeping well hidden.

But sitting astride a gorse bush, the stonechat has no such reservations about issuing its distinctive call, which sounds like two pebbles being rubbed together.

Perhaps that confidence stems from the fact that in country folklore this little cousin of the robin, with its blood-red breast, was seen as the devil’s bird and therefore protected, its call representing a constant conversation with the devil, who would break the back of anyone foolish enough to take a stonechat’s eggs.

The abundant flowers of gorse and heather at Stoke Common are valuable sources of nectar and pollen for insects. Pollinated mainly by bumblebees and honey bees, they are valuable both as a food plant and as habitat for many invertebrates including moths and spiders.

But then the same is true of plants we regard as weeds, like thistles and ragwort. Despite its weed status, the spear thistle seeds are attractive to birds like goldfinches and the flowers are a nectar source for butterflies like the small copper.

The much-maligned ragwort (or “stinking willie”) is even more remarkable, providing a home and food source for at least 77 insect species, 30 of which rely on it exclusively for their food source, including the very distinctive cinnabar moth.

These insects are remarkable looking both as moths and caterpillars: the moths have distinctive pinkish-red and black wings, as shown in Charles Sharp’s magnificent photograph on Wikipedia, while newly hatched larvae feed from the underneath of ragwort leaves, absorbing toxic and bitter tasting substances from the plants, becoming unpalatable themselves.

The bright colours of both the larvae and the moths act as warning signs, so they are seldom eaten by predators.

Initially, the larvae are pale yellow, but later develop a jet-black and orange/yellow striped colouring. They can grow up to 30 mm (1.2 in) and are voracious eaters, with large populations able to strip entire patches of ragwort clean.

There is no more controversial and divisive flower around, it seems. Ragwort contains chemicals that are toxic to livestock and has been blamed for deaths of horses and other animals. Yet conservationists say it’s a native wildflower vital for pollinating insects.

The nature poet John Clare was firmly in the positive camp. In 1832 he wrote:

THE RAGWORT

Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come and litter gold,
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold,
That without thee were dreary to behold,
Sunburnt and bare — the meadow bank, the baulk
That leads a wagon-way through mellow fields,
Rich with the tints that harvest’s plenty yields,
Browns of all hues; and everywhere I walk
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright and glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
And seems but very shadows in thy sight.

Who would have thought a poisonous weed would become the stuff of poetry? But then, as they say, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder…

Lazy way to go the distance

AS long-distance paths go, the Beeches Way is a minnow among leviathans.

Many national trails are more than 100 miles long, and some greatly exceed that – with routes like the Greater Rideway, Pennine Way or South West Coast Path being measured in hundreds rather than tens of miles.

But however modest the Beeches Way may sound at a mere 16 miles, it cuts a picturesque route through some magnificent Chilterns countryside, taking in a top trio of local country parks and sites of special scientific interest along the way.

It runs from Cookham on the Thames to the Grand Union Canal at West Drayton, a route developed by the Iver and District Countryside Association in conjunction with Buckinghamshire County Council.

It also links up with other long-distance routes, including the Berkshire Loop of the Chiltern Way and the Thames Path from Cookham.

Several walkers have chronicled highlights of the route and you can see full details on the website of the Long Distance Walkers Association and Pete Collins’ informative website, which also includes links to other connecting walks in the area.

Tim Bertuchi is another walker to provide a step-by-step guide to the route back in 2009 and if, like him, you find the section around Iver feels insufficiently picturesque, you can easily pick up the path in Langley Park, once a deer park that was the scene of royal hunting parties into the Middle Ages.

Since the war the park has been council owned, and although it’s only a stone’s through from Slough, you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.

Walkers might want to linger here a while, watching the wildfowl round the serpentine-shaped lake, a landscape feature influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s.

There’s an arboretum too, and in the spring the rhododendrons of the Temple Gardens are alive with colour.

From here it’s a short step across the busy dual carriageway into Black Park, a spectacular 530-acre network of 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space.

It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to explore.

Thread your way past the grazing Sussex cattle and you face a short descent into Fulmer, where the Black Horse might prove tempting if you feel you have earned a pint or bite to eat.

Cross the road and you are entering Stoke Common, the largest remnant of Buckinghamshire’s once extensive heathland, one of the rarest habitats in England, also currently graced with its own visiting herd of Sussex cattle to help with the grazing.

If you’ve come all the way from West Drayton this is around the halfway mark. You may even want to take the weight of your feet to appreciate the new benches produced by Gina Martin and inspired by artwork by local pupils at nearby Stoke Poges school.

Among the heather, ling and purple moor grass and gorse you may hear the distinctive scraping sound of a stonechat or even catch a glimpse of a lizard, adder or slow worm.

From here you are heading to Farnham Common and another glorious swathe of ancient woodland, Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve and conservation area that is another site of special scientific interest. It’s worth making a date to take this trip in the autumn too, when the woods are a blaze of colour.

The route is shown on the OS Explorer map 172 and is waymarked and signposted in both directions, but it’s easy to get distracted in Burnham Beeches and find yourself wandering away from the route. Try to get back on track to make sure you pick up the path to Littleworth Common and on towards Wooburn.

The Beeches Way links up with the Berkshire Loop near the Chequers Inn, a 17th-century coaching inn which has been transformed into a welcoming modern hotel and pub.

From here, the path leads down towards the 12th-century church of St Nicholas at Hedsor and on to Hedsor Wharf, where the old Roman road from Silchester to St Albans is rumoured to have crossed the Thames.

Anyone travelling by train can pick up the path at either end, either from West Drayton station, close to where the Grand Union Canal meets Yiewsley High Street, or in the picturesque Berkshire village of Cookham on the banks of the Thames.

More ambitious walkers can pick up the Thames Path here, or even diverge onto the Berkshire Loop of the 134-mile Chiltern Way, a more ambitious ramble through the characteristic Chilterns landscape of woods, downland and pretty old villages.

It may even inspire you to tackle some of the further-flung national trails or themed routes, which may take their name from historical or literary figures like Shakespeare and Bronte.

But there’s nothing wrong with savouring a short stretch of the route either, or diverging from it to take a lazy village wander like those around Cookham Village or a short local detour into the woodland paths around Wooburn.

Small is beautiful, they say – and as long-distance walks go, that’s certainly true in the case of the Beeches Way.

Ferns and foxgloves set the tone

AT LAST the welcome relaxation of lockdown restrictions has allowed scope to roam a little further afield – and after the bluebells of April, it’s foxgloves and ferns which provide the focus of woodland forays in June.

What a joy to be able to escape into the trees of Denham, Langley and Black Park again. And after the hawthorn blossom and horse chestnuts putting on a show earlier in the year, now it’s time for the foxgloves to provide a welcome splash of colour amid the glorious greenery.

We may have missed those startling May displays of rhododrendrons in the Temple Gardens at Langley, but the wildflowers are out, the wildfowl are busy on the lake and the arboretum provides a welcome escape from face masks, shopping queues and worries about illness.

Once a hunting ground for medieval monarchs, this is part of a network of green spaces which make up the huge Colne Valley Regional Park, formed in 1965, which stretches from Rickmansworth to the Thames, Heathrow and Slough and provides the first proper taste of countryside west of London.

Cross the road from Temple Gardens and you are immediately in Black Park, another woodland oasis with more than 600 acres to explore.

From miniature mariners to unusual wildfowl, there’s always something to see on the lake, and with 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, this is one of those places where it really does feel possible to lose your bearings – for a short while, at least.

This is a perfect place for children to let off steam, but although the lake area tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.