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.