OUR picture spotlight this week is not an individual artist or photographer, but a very special and unusual place.
Stoke Common is a remarkable patch of ancient heathland that comes to life in the summer and autumn when the heather and gorse are in full bloom.
There may be times of the year on a drizzly day when this landscape can seem a little bleak, but when the butterflies are dancing and the blackberry blossom is blooming, it’s a very different story.
Yes, there may be a rumble of distant traffic from the motorway if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, or the roar of boy racers testing out the surrounding back roads, but for many this 200-acre oasis is a reminder of what much of Buckinghamshire might have looked like in centuries past.
Since many of the plant and insect species recorded here are rare, visitors need to stay on the signposted paths, which means youngsters wanting to explore and build dens are better advised to head for nearby Black Park or Burnham Beeches.
But for those who enjoy the chance to escape the crowds, there are few better places to “get back to nature” among the spiders and stonechats, cinnabar moths and butterflies.
After last month’s explosion of ragwort, now it’s time for the common to start looking more like a Scottish heath than somewhere a stone’s throw from Slough, as reflected in our Beyonder blog entry last summer.
It’s also the perfect place for dramatic sunsets and fascinating cloud formations, as we reflected in another summer postcard a year ago.
There’s even the faint chance of spotting an elusive adder, though a lot more likely that a dusk rustle in the gorse is actually one of the score of burnished brown Sussex cattle that do their bit to protect the heathland by grazing the common, and look very smooth, velvety and healthy on their prickly diet.
Created by a combination of poor, acidic soils and careful land management, the heathland is designated as an important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Its beauty may not always be immediately obvious to the casual visitor, but catch the sunlight on the heather at this time of year, or the cloud formations at dusk against a spectacular sky, and you could be in a far distant land.
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.
EXILED Scots wanting to capture something of the atmosphere of the Highlands should take a trip round Stoke Common this month.
Amid the ferns and conifers on this slice of ancient Buckinghamshire heathland, the gorse and heather are springing into bloom, giving the common a distinctly Caledonian feel.
No distant mountains or deep, dark lochs to complete the illusion, of course, but the yellows, pinks and purples create a carpet of colour as the heather bursts into flower at the end of the summer.
The iconic British moorlands of Wuthering Heights and Hound of the Baskervilles fame are depicted as bleak, windswept and foreboding – but all that changes by the start of August.
A large proportion of the world’s moors and upland heaths are in the UK, making our moorland habitats internationally important – and none more so than this one, since these 200 acres of land represent the largest vestiages of a landscape that was once extensive across Buckinghamshire.
So there’s no need to head for the hills of the Scottish uplands to savour the late-summer spectacle. The lowland heaths of southern England and south Wales also have the heather showing off at is best alongside the golden yellow of gorse, and Stoke Common is a perfect example.
And if you think the yellow flowers look good enough to eat, forager and author Rachel Lambert has some intriguing recipes on her website; fancy a wild rice pudding, anyone?
Find out more about Rachel at a website documenting the lives of people living and working by the Cornish coast.
WALKERS at Stoke Common are being urged to watch out for dangerous caterpillars which can be a hazard to humans and animals.
The caterpillars of the oak processionary moth are pests of oak trees and have been found on the site.
OPM was first accidentally introduced to England in 2005 and is subject to a government-led programme of survey and control to minimise its spread and impact.
The caterpillars have the distinctive habit of moving about in late spring and early summer in nose-to-tail processions, from which they derive their name.
Walkers have been warned to steer clear of the caterpillars, whose hairs contain a toxin that can cause itchy skin rashes as well as eye and throat irritations.
Residents can report sightings but that the caterpillars should only be removed by pest control operators because of the health risk.
Pets, children and forestry workers who come into close contact with the caterpillars are most at risk and anyone who experiences an itchy skin rash or other allergic symptoms after being near oak trees in these areas should phone NHS111 or consult their GP.
Each caterpillar has around 62,000 hairs, which they can eject. The brown moths, which are harmless, live for only two to three days in July or August.
Action is taken to screen trees imported from Europe, but the species is established in most of Greater London and in some surrounding counties and there are restrictions on movements of oak plants from this protected zone.
The Forestry Commission and Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) have been working to identify infestations and spray infected trees.
Large populations can strip whole oak trees bare, leaving them more vulnerable to other pests and diseases, and to other stresses, such as drought.
Older caterpillars develop tiny hairs containing an irritating protein which on contact can cause skin rashes and eye irritations, as well as sore throats and breathing difficulties, in people and animals.
The caterpillars can shed the hairs when threatened or disturbed. The hairs can be blown by the wind and they accumulate in the caterpillars’ nests which can fall to the ground.
Signs have been erected at Stoke Common to warn visitors about the risk.
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.
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:
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…
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.
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.
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.
Need to get even further away from the family fun? Footpaths lead from here to Stoke Common, and the largest remnant of Buckinghamshire’s once extensive heathland, one of the rarest habitats in England.
There’s less for youngsters to do here, but for walkers wanting room to breathe, the 200 acres are a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) which provides home to some very rare plants, animals and insects – although it may take a sharp eye to spot some of them.
A lot easier to spot are the 20 Sussex cattle currently being used to graze heathland plants on the common, which has been managed by the City of London Corporation since 2007, with friends and volunteers helping to restore it to its former glory.
The site has small areas of birch, pine and mixed woodland, with several ponds, and like nearby Burnham Beeches was grazed by livestock for centuries.
The only difference is that the wood pasture at Burnham is being grazed by seven British white cattle, along with Exmoor ponies.
Due to the they way they graze, livestock help to create a diverse plant structure which is great news for the local wildlife – although stumbling across a beast of this size behind a bush can be quite a surprise, despite their normally placid natures.
Like Black Park, Burnham Beeches is a marvellous haunt for families, and with 500 acres to get lost in, its ancient oak and beech pollards provide a perfect backdrop for those wanting to get back to nature after spending too long indoors.
Ramblers wanting to get a little further off the beaten track don’t have to look far in the Chilterns, of course. Footpaths criss-cross the area, including long-distance paths like Shakespeare’s Way, opened in 2006 from the great man’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon to the Globe Theatre in London, passing through Marlow and Burnham Beeches on its way.
Or there’s always a chance to walk a section of the 134-mile Chiltern Way, particularly well signposted by the Chiltern Society and offering some particularly scenic sections around here, whether through the Marlow woods and on to the Hambleden Valley or sweeping north from the Chiltern Open Air Museum towards Chenies, Sarratt and beyond, in a huge circle heading towards Dunstable Downs.
The nature reserve is made up of beech, ash, sycamore and whitebeam with glades and open grassland.
Wild orchids flourish here, including the rare military orchid, and the place is a haven for butterflies such as the marbled white, white-letter hairstreak and the silver-washed fritillary – not to mention hundreds of species of moth.
Resident and visiting species of birds include chiffchaff, cuckoo and blackcap. Tawny owls can often by heard calling during the day. Fallow and roe deer are also regular visitors to the reserve.
If open vistas and sweeping views are more appealing than woodland wanders, check out some of the local National Trust common land like the pastures at Winter Hill with their breathtaking views over the Thames, or the hay meadows at Pinkneys Green, where a rich variety of grasses, flowers and buzzing insects have made their home.
The grasses in these open, unfenced meadows are left to grow tall all summer, with a wealth of wildflowers adding specks of colour across the open expanse of meadow, from delicate yellow cowslips and kidney vetch to bright white oxeye daisies and purple field scabious.
On a sunny day, walkers pause for a lazy chat under the trees, but on a windy evening there’s something invigorating about the gusts sweeping over the meadow and the clouds scudding across the sky, making it a perfect place for kite-flying too.
From Pinkneys Green to Dunstable Downs, the freedom to get out and about across the local areas is such a blessing after the dark days of lockdown. And who would prefer a packed south coast beach at Brighton or Bournemouth to the fresh air and open countryside of the Chilterns?