Rich pickings signal the end of summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EVENING LIGHT: a Chesham sunset PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

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

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

POLLEN COUNT: a bee gets busy PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

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

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

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

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

COLOURFUL CHARACTER: an Egyptian goose PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.