WE DON’T normally like to blow our trumpets here at The Beyonder, but this week’s picture choice is the latest original artwork that my lovely wife Olivia has been able to turn into a greetings card for our online shop.
It’s a suitably autumnal portrait of a rather gorgeous fox who looks as if he’s stepped out of a fairytale, and it’s the seventh piece of art Ollie has been able to transform into a smart greetings card with the help of Tom Allnutt at Amersham Business Services.
Other portraits include a couple of inquisitive badgers, a duck, teddy bear and a pair of endearing dogs, much of the artwork notable for its vibrant colours and celebration of the natural world.
The cards are also for sale on Ollie’s new Etsy shop, where she explains how she has only recently rediscovered her love of painting while struggling to recover from Long Covid.
“It has been such a tonic for me to be able to paint peacefully and prayerfully for just a few minutes each day,” she says. “I have found the process of working with colour to be very restorative and restful as well as uplifting.”
She adds: “I haven’t been able to get out and about in the natural world as much as I would like recently, so escaping into nature via paintbrush and canvas has lifted my spirits.”
It’s more than half a century since she wrote Big Yellow Taxi, though the youthful Joni could hardly have realised her words would turn into quite such a timeless environmental anthem.
Inspired by the juxtaposition of her hotel parking lot against the backdrop of the Hawaiian mountains, she wrote:
Don’t it always seem to go That you don’t know what you’ve got Till it’s gone They paved paradise And put up a parking lot
It was 1969 and she was just 26 when she penned her “little rock and roll song”, which originally appearing on her Ladies of the Canyon album and was released as a single in April 1970.
It was her first trip to Hawaii and she later recalled how she took a taxi to her hotel late at night without getting to see much of the island.
“When I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart,” she said.
Initially a regional hit in Hawaii, it took time for the impact of the music to gain a true international audience.
“It took 20 years for that song to sink in to people most other places,” she later recalled. “That is a powerful little song because there have been cases in a couple of cities of parking lots being torn up and turned into parks because of it.”
Hey farmer farmer Put away that DDT now Give me spots on my apples But leave me the birds and the bees Please!
Flash forward to Britain in 2023 and that concrete jungle has become not just an everyday reality but is posing an existential crisis for our wildlife.
Somehow we’ve become blind to the issue and the insidious way in which the motor car has come to completely dominate our lives.
For a few brief months in the heart of lockdown we were exposed to an alternative reality, where families went out for walks together and we suddenly started to hear the birds and insects above the steady drone of traffic.
But as Paul Donald examines in his new book, Traffication, it seems we have very quickly forgotten any lessons we might have learned during the pandemic.
It’s not just that the trillions of miles of driving we do each year are destroying our natural environment, but that we have become almost oblivious to the scale of the threat.
Our streets and driveways are overflowing with cars. Whereas car ownership was once a dream for poorer families, it’s become a prerequisite of 21st-century life, as much as smartphones and Netflix.
And whereas we once ridiculed Americans for their reliance on gas-guzzling limousines, their endless highway traffic jams and sprawling out-of-town shopping malls, we have hardly noticed how our small island has been transformed in the past 20 years.
More than a decade ago, a report showed millions of the UK’s front gardens had been paved over to become parking spaces, a trend that has continued ever since, with fewer and fewer front gardens boasting any refuge for wildlife.
Such lifeless hardstandings are often actively encouraged by estate agents, boasting that a driveway could add to the value of the property, yet this doesn’t just deprive birds and insects of vital food but increases floodwater run-off, making drains more likely to overflow.
Over the past half-century our lives have changed in many subtle ways. But during that time, car ownership figures have exploded. In 1950 there were just four million vehicles on the road. Today it’s more like 33 million, and they are clustered everywhere: on verges and roadside, car parks and front drives.
The proliferation is every bit as damaging to nature as habitat loss or intensive farming, and not simply in terms of roadkill: a busy road can strip the wildlife from our countryside for miles around and the impact of traffic all-pervasive, affecting every aspect of animals’ lives.
Couple all this with the growing popularity of artificial grass and the fact that our roads are lined with litter and pockmarked by flytipping, and it genuinely feels as if the natural world is increasingly under siege in our urban landscapes.
It’s also not a problem that’s just as bad everywhere else in Europe. Take Amsterdam, for example, where cycles, trams and boats outnumber cars – and where the air quality is much cleaner as a result.
Back in Britain, it feels as if we’re running out of time to protect what’s left of our countryside.
As the wonderful Joni wrote all those years ago:
They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them No, no, no
We’re not quite there yet, but we desperately need to reverse the trend. We have lost billions of birds, insects and mammals in recent decades, and wildlife needs all our help to survive and flourish in the coming years.
Large-scale rewilding partnerships are wonderful, but millions of ordinary householders could be doing their own bit to stop the rot…before it really IS too late.
AFTER a positively springlike November that contributed to 2022 being the UK’s warmest year on record, December was a very different story.
The first two weeks of the month saw the coldest start to meteorological winter since 2010, with high pressure and a cool northerly airflow resulting in a prolonged spell of low temperatures, bringing snow and icy conditions at times.
But the plummeting temperatures were accompanied by drier than average days with plenty of sunshine, allowing The Beyonder’s photographers to get out and about to make the most of the frosty mornings and chilly afternoons.
Bare branches and frozen berries provide striking patterns on early morning rambles, while the weak winter sunshine can create dramatic light effects.
Yes, there’s always fog and mist to contend with, not to mention torrential downpours and muddy footpaths where on some days it seems impossible to find any glimpse of colour to lift the mood.
But on crisper days when the ice forms delicate filigree patterns on spiders’ webs and animals’ breath hangs in the cold air, such rambles can still be a delight.
It’s a time of year when the past feels very close at hand in our ancient Chilterns landscape, where small villages sit clustered round their ancient churches as they have done for centuries, spirals of woodsmoke curling into the air as dusk falls and the inviting glow of lamps and lanterns lighting up the cottage windows.
Here, even those hallmarks of our industrial past, the railway bridges and canal towpaths, feel wholly immersed in the natural world, their weathered bricks polished and aged by time and the elements until it feels as if they must have always been here.
After two winters of pandemic worries, families were on the move at last, undeterred by the icy conditions and rail strikes from planning long-awaited reunions and travelling a little further afield than they could contemplate in 2020 or 2021.
Closer to home, if many winter walks had a slightly monochrome feel, there were always those marvellous days when the skies clear to allow a spectacular splash of colour, as they did back in 2020 when windmill enthusiast Siddharth Upadhya managed to capture the beauty of the magnificent post mill at Brill.
Meanwhile widllife photographers were looking to the trees, the sparse foliage making it easier to pick out our feathered friends, a perfect opportunity for first-time birdwatchers to begin recognising the different shapes and colours.
For those wanting to identify birds by the sounds they make, there couldn’t be a better starting point than Mark Avery’s guides to different types of birdsong, worth exploring in plenty of time ahead of the spring, when the dawn chorus starts to grow in volume and variety.
Early in the month, clear skies and the almost perfect alignment of the sun, Earth, moon and Mars allowed from some striking views of the month’s appropriately named “Cold Moon”.
For ancient civilisations, the cycles of the lunar phases helped to track the changing seasons, with different Native American peoples naming the months after features they associated with the northern hemisphere seasons (including howling wolves, which give us January’s Wolf Moon).
Wrapped up warm against the elements, a woodland wander on a winter’s evening can make it much easier to imagine how much more familiar early civilisations were with those night skies and glorious constellations.
But at this time of year even our towns have a magical festive feel, the sparkle of Christmas lights helping to lift the spirits now that the winter solstice is behind us, and nature lovers can start relishing the way that the days start getting longer from here on.
For many, this is a difficult time of year, when even nature lovers can struggle with winter depression on those short days when the sun is obscured and the landscape full of greys and browns.
But that’s when those snatched snapshots can provide a welcome foretaste of the excitement of spring, when a ray of sunlight falls perfectly on a leaf or the mist clears to suddenly leave the landscape awash with colour.
For winter ramblers, dusk and dawn are favourite times to brave the elements, not just in the hope of a spectacular sunrise or sunset but because those quiet times are also often the most promising for catching wildlife unawares.
Even when nature is looking at its lowest ebb and many creatures are dormant or hibernating, the hoot of a tawny owl, whistle of a red kite or bark of a fox or muntjac reminds us that our local wildlife is never too far away, even if we can’t always see it.
Furtive and fast-moving, or sleepy and nocturnal, our stoats and weasels, dormice and badgers are not easy to spot, but tracks in the snow and rustles in the hedgerows may give away their presence – and even our most common garden birds like robins, blackbirds and tits are all individually beautiful.
Come rain, hail or shine, our photographers are out in all weathers capturing the beauty of the Chilterns countryside, and we are enormously grateful for their evocative portraits of our local flora and fauna this December.
A big thank you to all the kind local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month, and throughout 2022. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for the coming year, contact firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.
IT’S a chilly November night in the heart of the woods, with the star-studded sky casting a ghostly glow through the ancient branches.
Only an hour ago, the place was awash with autumn colour, the last afternoon rays of sunlight lighting up the russets and browns of the fallen leaves.
Now, although it’s not late, there’s little stirring among the frost-tipped leaves. The dog walkers have long headed home and most creatures with any sense have burrowed down for the night.
The call of an owl pierces the cold night air and the occasional explosive flurry of a startled pigeon or muntjac is enough to get the heart beating a little faster, but for the most part these dark woods seem deserted.
That’s something of an illusion, of course. It may be quiet, but this is still a refuge for wildlife of which we often catch only tantalising glimpses.
How often have we spotted a weasel or dormouse, for example? The occasional rustle among the leaf litter reveals we are not alone, and the reassuring hoots of the owls are a reminder that food is plentiful if you know where to look for it.
But although a fortunate wild swimmer might bump into an otter in the Thames, or spot a bank vole preening its whiskers, you have to get up with the lark or mooch silently around at dusk to stand a chance of catching a glimpse of our more elusive mammals.
On night walks like these, it’s easy to have a sense of time standing still: of past generations sharing the same sounds and emotions as they trudged along the local drovers’ roads and ridgeways on just such a wintry evening in a past century.
Chilterns woodlands reek of history – of charcoal burners and iron age forts, of lurking highwaymen and wartime military camps.
Amid this picture postcard landscape, Romans built their ancient roads out from London, stagecoaches swept past on their way to Oxford or Amersham, and displaced Polish families lived for years among the trees after the Second World War…
November is the month of woodsmoke and fireworks, of first frosts and misty mornings, of fading fungi and a fabulous fortnight of burnished golds, yellows and russet hues as nature puts on its own glorious fireworks display before the trees get stripped bare for winter.
It’s a season of remembrance too: of poppies and memorials, of wreath-laying ceremonies and sombre thoughts of past battles and lost loved ones.
As temperatures fall, this is that bleak, sullen fortnight or so before winter properly sets in that, we learned in 2020 from author and friend Alan Cleaver (better known in the Lake District as @thelonningsguyand for writing about the “corpse roads” of Cumbria), Cumbrian farmers identify as “back end”.
The landscape may start feeling somewhat bleak and unwelcoming, but it’s a time when our bird tables come alive with tiny visitors and crisper mornings reveal gloriously intricate spiders’ webs and colourful mosses and lichens carpeting old tree stumps.
Some less familiar faces may join the native birds feasting on the hawthorn, holly and juniper berries, while hedgehogs and badgers are seeking out comfortable spots for a wintry snooze – and there might even be a chance to catch sight of a stoat in its winter coat of ermine…a camouflage tactic that offers somewhat less protection now that our winters are becoming less and less snowy.
Chilly it may be, but our timeless Chilterns landscape has not lost all its colour yet, tempting us out in our scarves and mittens in the hope of hearing the whistle of a kite or hoot of an owl, watching the wildfowl squabbling at the local quarry or the bats coming out to hunt as darkness falls.
Here, where the buried flints and pots beneath our feet remind us that this landscape has been home to people like us for thousands of years, we can smell the woodsmoke rising from ancient chimneys, watch the silvery Thames slicing through the fields and feel just a little more connected with the natural world around us.
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 email@example.com on email or via our Facebook group page.
FEBRUARY. It might be one of the coldest, bleakest months of the year, but it’s also the shortest – and a time when families out on muddy wintry walks are eagerly on the lookout for the first signs of spring.
Not this year. This year, come February 24 and everyone’s eyes are on the other side of Europe and the shock Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Suddenly it seems a little trite to be chatting blithely about the Chilterns countryside awakening after winter. Instead, we are all glued to the television and the unthinkable images of war engulfing Europe.
As days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, whole streets and towns are turned into rubble, sparking the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
The devastation is already reminiscent of the streets of Syria and Iraq, and with families streaming over the border to Poland and other neighbouring countries, the fear is palpable and the threat is real.
How ironic then, that in the same week that war broke out we are visiting the Polish resettlement camp at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire and recalling how a previous Russian invasion more than 80 years ago changed the course of world history.
It’s one of many reminders around the UK of those terrible events from the spring of 1940, made all the more painful by history being repeated so many years later.
Marysia, the wonderful woman we are visiting with, lived briefly in this camp when she first came to England as a teenager after the war – like so many others after a long and arduous journey via Russia, Persia and Africa.
She was seven when the Russian soldiers arrived and her family was deported from their forest home to the icy wastes of Siberia.
After the war, Northwick Park was a brief stopping-off point before she was moved on to Herefordshire, but with many of the Nissen huts used to house families then still in use today for local businesses, in many ways the place looks very like it did more than 70 years ago, bringing memories flooding back.
Many of the Polish families relocated to the UK lived in camps like this for years – including those in Hodgemoor Woods beside Chalfont St Giles, where the camp remained open until 1962.
Indeed by October 1946, around 120,000 Polish troops were quartered in more than 200 such camps across the UK.
All of which is an all-too-vivid reminder that the events being played out in the towns and cities of Ukraine today will have an impact on people’s lives for decades to come.
As the pale skies and dramatic sunsets of February give way to the brighter weather of March, we stumble across a young woman looking a little lost in local woods at sunset.
She has no dog and seems a little disorientated as dusk falls, but when we ask if she is OK she assures us that she is. She’s from Ukraine and adjusting to a new life in the Chilterns, insisting that she is fine.
But as she wanders back to the village, we’re left wondering just how many families will be torn apart by the current conflict – and how many decades it will be before the shockwaves stop reverberating across Europe.
Here, the dawn chorus is beginning to pick up volume as the branches begin to look a little less bare and the first flowers poke through the frost: snowdrops and primroses, later to be followed by the daffodils and bluebells.
Once more photographers across the Chilterns are up with the lark, capturing the sights and sounds of the changing months as hungry badgers and foxes get braver in their hunt for an easy snack and insects and reptiles emerge from their slumbers.
There may still be a chill in the morning air, but the morning dog walk is no longer a battle against the elements.
Beyonder stalwarts Nick Bell and Graham Parkinson are on the hunt for less usual sights, tiptoeing through the undergrowth on the trail of an elusive hare, fox cub or cautious deer.
Regular contributors Sue Craigs Erwin and Lesley Tilson also have their eyes peeled for those spectacular sunsets or rare moments when a bird or insect stays long enough on a twig for the perfect shot.
Deep in the forest, there’s new growth everywhere, with fluffy lichen and moss coating tree barks and warmer weather tempting walkers back out onto footpaths no longer submerged in a sea of mud.
As the weather warms, there’s more time to study the colourful plumage of regular garden visitors, enjoy the first butterflies or spot a muntjac foraging in the woods or a fox returning proudly to its den with breakfast for the family.
We are so lucky to live here: only an hour from central London, yet a haven for wildlife, with a network of thousands of miles of footpaths stretching across the 320 square miles designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Suddenly, after long grey days of eager anticipation, the natural world seems alive with activity with something new to spot every day, the green shoots and bursting buds a welcome reminder that spring has once again returned with a vengeance.
From historic market towns to sleepy hamlets, this is a landscape dotted with quintessentially English coaching inns, ancient churches and picturesque chalk streams.
It many no longer boast charcoal burners or “bodgers” in the woods, or an abundance of watercress farms and cherry orchards, but it’s still a world of muddy boots and excited dogs, log fires and historic pubs.
In the spring, 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, though it’s still hard to fully concentrate on all the intimate daily changes in quite the same way it was before the war started to dominate the news agenda.
After the anxieties and distractions of lockdown we are once again free to explore the local landscape fully, yet it feels almost insensitive to be savouring that freedom against the backdrop of the apocalyptic pictures and real-world horror stories emerging from Ukraine.
Pandemic, climate change, war – no wonder our teenagers are worried about the world and find it hard to concentrate in class.
But then just as lockdown gave us time to re-examine our relationship with the natural world, we know too just what an important role nature can play is maintaining or re-establishing our mental health.
Yes, we must do what we can to provide practical help to those fleeing the war, but it’s no bad thing for us to be immersing ourselves in nature again too.
It’s easy to get depressed by the pointlessness, chaos and destruction of war, but perhaps it’s even more important that we celebrate beauty at such a time and remind ourselves of the importance of those small daily delights that still matter so much.
Whether it’s the sounds of woodland creatures stirring in the early morning sunshine, country lanes awash with spring colour, the screech of an owl as dusk falls, the spring lambs gambolling in the fields or a family of little ducklings learning to swim, the Chilterns landscape has the power to soothe our fears and revitalise us to face new challenges.
Our timeless landscape has witnessed its fair share of bloodshed and conflict across the centuries, but the froth of hawthorn blossom in the hedgerows, dancing bluebells in the woods, and nodding poppies in the cornfields remind us that life must go on, and sustain us at times when our spirits are low.
When the news feels overwhelming, there could be no better way of keeping a grip on reality, clearing away the cobwebs and banishing our own fears and anxiety among the bluebell woods and country paths of the Chilterns.
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.”
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. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.
AFTER those drab, dull days of December, the New Year brought us a crisp chill in the air and a sense of new beginnings.
After almost two years of pandemic restrictions and more than 140,000 deaths, could the UK finally envisage an end to most lockdown restrictions?
Against a backdrop of fresh concerns about distant rumblings of war in Ukraine and with many families still trying to heal the scars caused by isolation and loss, the timeless landscape of the Chilterns continues to provide a breathtaking backdrop to our daily lives and a source of solace to many.
Those lucky enough to have the countryside on the doorstep and willing to brave the storms, frost and freezing winds have been rewarded with some spectacular early morning walks, stunning vistas and glorious sunsets.
The bare branches of January make it easier to spot birds in the trees and after the relative silence of winter, the dawn chorus will steadily grow between now and May.
Mosses, lichens and fungi provide splashes of colour and an array of intriguing patterns and shapes amid the soggy leaf litter.
The skeletal vegetation allows new vistas to open up too, however, exposing the earthworks, trails, mileposts and ditches so often hidden amid the undergrowth.
Many footpaths are still muddy and forlorn, and our busier roadsides are still scarred by litter and fly-tipping, all the more visible now that the foliage is stripped bare for all to see the terrible impact of humans on the natural environment.
But if there are days when nature appears to be under siege, there are plenty of small glimpses of light in the darkness promising happier times to come.
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.
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.
Their early morning forays to local woods and beauty spots provide a vivid reminder of just how much wildlife is around us, even if many animals are still sheltering from the wintry blast or are quick to disappear at the sound of an approaching footstep.
From the sounds of barking deer and fox mating calls in those first daylight hours to the thrum of a woodpecker or whistle of a red kite, there are plenty of audible clues to the wealth of wildlife around us, even if it sometimes requires a sharp eye, zoom lens and early morning start to spot that heron, egret or well camouflaged owl.
If the ancient wings of the heron make the bird look positively Jurassic, the owl has long been a symbol of wisdom in literature and mythology. Their hunting prowess and night vision, in particular, impressed the Ancient Greeks, who believed that this vision was a result of a mystical inner light and associated the owl with the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena.
The late American poet Mary Jane Oliver expressed it in a rather different way in her poem Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard:
His beak could open a bottle, and his eyes – when he lifts their soft lids – go on reading something just beyond your shoulder – Blake, maybe, or the Book of Revelation.
The skies have been obliging too, Anne Rixon‘s stunning shot of this month’s Wolf Moon perfectly capturing the timeless wonder of that striking vision when the moon shows its “face” to the earth.
Wolf moons and snow moons, blood moons and strawberry moons, harvest moons and worm moons…long before calendars were invented, ancient societies kept track of the months and seasons by studying the moon.
All year round, our photographers are out and about in all weathers to capture that moment when the sun breaks through the clouds and the rain stops, or a startled animal looks up at the sound of a broken twig.
Our Birds & Beasts page includes a special focus the work of our incredible specialist wildlife photographers.
As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the 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 next calendar entry, contact email@example.com by email or via our Facebook group page.
DREARY December bowed out in a pretty desultory fashion, paving the way for the warmest New Year’s Day on record.
But after a year of debate about climate change, no one was really celebrating the unseasonal temperatures, thought to have been boosted by warm air wafting in from the Azores.
It may not have helped that this was also the dullest December in 65 years, with only around 26.6 hours of sunshine across the UK, leaving many feeling dispirited – though it didn’t stop some lucky photographers snatching striking pictures of the shortest day of the year.
For some, seasonal affective disorder is a more serious type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern, symptoms of which include a persistent low mood, loss of interest in everyday activities, an extreme lethargy and feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness.
Nature lovers can struggle with winter depression too on these short days when the sun is obscured and the landscape full of greys and browns.
But the more persistent photographers are up and about early and late to capture those brief dramatic moments when the sun breaks through to set the landscape awash with colour.
On December 21, the winter solstice marks the time when the sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky, giving us shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year: after which it doesn’t seem unreasonable to start dreaming about spring.
Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that around the world the day should have been seen as such a significant time of the year in many cultures, with midwinter festivals marking the symbolic death and rebirth of the sun, and with some ancient monuments like Stonehenge even aligned with the sunrise or sunset at solstice time.
Down in Dorset, one of the UK’s most majestic natural landmarks comes into its own in December, when thanks to the way the Earth moves on its axis there is a rare opportunity to photograph the sun appearing on the horizon through Durdle Door on the Jurassic Coast.
Keen photographers arrive in darkness to snatch that holy grail “through the keyhole” shot of sunlight bursting through the famous rock arch, which only occurs for a few minutes each day from mid-December to early January.
If the warm air from the Azores brought an unseasonal feel to New Year’s Eve, the month was not entirely devoid of chilly nights and frosty mornings.
It may have lacked the grim icy resonance of In The Bleak Midwinter, or the reassuring seasonal familiarity of one of John Charles Maggs’ stagecoach paintings, but there were still plenty of moments when the “frosty wind made moan”, bringing a touch of colour to children’s cheeks and a welcome crispness to the morning air.
Wildlife may be hard to spot on these short days, especially when the sun is obscured and the countryside can appear bleak, but snatched snapshots provide a welcome foretaste of the excitement of spring, like a juvenile great crested grebe surfacing amid water glinting like mercury.
Cross-country walking is a lonely exercise at this time of year and the backdrop may look bleak at times, with trees dormant, flowers withered and much vegetation looking half-decayed.
But even when nature is looking at its lowest ebb, there are already signs of bulbs pushing through the topsoil and it’s easier to see birds perching on the bare branches, hungry for a snack.
The welcome whistle of red kites is familiar to anyone living in the Chilterns, while buzzards too are an increasing common sight above our woodlands once more, having quadrupled in number since 1970.
Whether it’s the cry of a tawny owl or bark of a fox or muntjac, there are plenty of evening sounds to remind us that out local wildlife is never too far away, even if many creatures are dormant or hibernating at this time of year.
A timely expedition down the M25 to the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey is a reminder of just how elusive some of our native wild breeds actually are.
Furtive and fast-moving, or sleepy and nocturnal, our stoats and weasels, dormice and badgers are not easy to spot, which makes this centre an important place for education, given that so few children will have the chance to see such animals in the wild.
Back in the woods, our dog walkers and nature lovers are undeterred by cold hands and runny noses, and have been roaming across the Chilterns on the look-out for shots that capture the very best of the season.
2021 was an incredibly tough year for many, dominated by pandemic worries, lockdown restrictions and extreme weather events.
As Bill Gates reflected, it was also a year when we were reminded just how significantly something happening on the other side of the world could affect us at home – but also how change happens “because groups of people get together and decide to make things better”.
We’re not there yet when it comes to avoiding a climate disaster. But we also know that we won’t get everyone agreeing on how to win the battle unless people care about the natural world and the impact we humans are having on it.
Our wonderful photographers are contributing to that awareness with their beautiful portraits of the flora and fauna to be found across the Chilterns landscape, and we are very grateful for their efforts to chronicle the passing year month by month.
A big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month, and throughout 2021. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for the coming year, contact firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.
HAVE you ever seen a weasel or a stoat? A dormouse, perhaps, or an otter, badger or tawny owl?
So may of our wild creatures are fast-moving and furtive that it can be hard to catch more than the briefest glimpse of them disappearing into the undergrowth.
For city kids, the problem is even tougher. Other than an unwelcome house mouse or scruffy urban fox, many young people will have never encountered most of our iconic British wildlife – which is one of the reasons the British Wildlife Centre was founded back in 1997.
A dairy farmer for 30 years, David Mills had always been inspired by pioneering conservationists like Sir Peter Scott, Gerald Durrell and John Aspinall, who had started their own wildlife centres.
By the time he took the plunge to realise his own conservation dream and sold off his award-winning herd of pedigree Jersey cows, he had a very clear vision of the type of visitor attraction he wanted to create.
It took 18 months to get planning permission to transform Gatehouse Farm in the small Surrey hamlet of Newchapel, during which time David toured the country looking at the smaller collections of animals to see what people were doing and to make contacts.
Rather than opening a traditional zoo for rare or exotic species, he wanted to focus on British wildlife and the concept of “conservation through education”, teaching children to recognise, understand and appreciate Britain’s native wild species and encouraging them to develop a lifelong interest in their protection.
But when most of your collection is shy, small, nocturnal and elusive, how do you ensure that visitors are not just touring a series of apparently empty enclosures where snoozing animals are hidden from view?
It’s a problem that’s most obvious in the winter months, when many animals are hibernating. But it struck David that the secret to engaging visitors’ interest in his collection of fascinating but often reclusive native species lay in keeper talks.
The policy of actively encouraging keepers to form close bonds with animals is coupled with an extensive programme of breeding and release into the wild, helping to rebuild the country’s red squirrel population, for example.
Indeed, the appealing little animals played an important role in the conservationist’s personal life, too – he met his partner, the Oscar-winning actress Judi Dench, after inviting her to open a squirrel enclosure in 2010.
They have been together ever since, and in 2016 she was at Buckingham Palace to see the “elated” 73-year-old pick up an MBE for his conservation work.
Rather than attempting to maximise the centre’s footfall or income, the emphasis has been on becoming a non-commercial specialist attraction, remaining closed to the public on weekdays in term time so that school visits can take place.
“We can then focus on teaching children to appreciate and respect Britain’s own wonderful native wild species,” says David.
Building stimulating natural environments for the animals reflects growing concerns about seeing animals in captivity and encouraging close keeper-animal bonds of trust makes it easier to show the wildlife off to visitors without interrupting their natural daily rhythms.
Weekend visitors can learn about different species at half-hourly keeper talks, scheduled to coincide with feeding times or when the animals are at their most lively.
Here, animal welfare is the top priority, and visitors can’t expect wildlife to “perform” on cue. But even in winter, patient observers can be in just the right place at the right time to catch a particular resident popping their head out to see just what’s going on, or burrow into a darkened underground display where a bundle of cosy badgers can be found curled up asleep in their sett.
This is also not a place where healthy wild animals will be trapped behind bars for a lifetime, although the centre has occasionally offered a permanent home for rehabilitated animals that cannot be returned to the wild – for example those with a permanent injury or too used to human contact.
But wherever possible, animals will be reared and released, and the centre participates in a range of specific conservation projects dealing with everything from hazel dormice and Scottish wildcats to water voles and polecats.
A drizzly January day isn’t the ideal time to see the centre at its best, and two years of coronavirus restrictions have made life tough hard for visitor attractions across the country.
It’s also fair to say that Newchapel is hardly a wildlife wilderness. Thundering traffic on the adjoining main road or the roar of a jet from nearby Gatwick are reminders of just how much our natural habitat is under threat.
Information boards around the cente tell the now familiar story of mankind’s incursion on the natural environment, with a long list of animals hunted to extinction across the centuries or suffering overwhelming habitat loss.
Once bears, lynx and wolves stalked the landscape. Today it is much more humble creatures like hedgehogs, toads and butterflies, along with countless varieties of insects and birds, whose declining numbers are a cause for concern.
The British Wildlife Centre may not have all the answers to the problems of the modern age, but over the past two decades it has allowed generations of school pupils to get close to more than 40 different types of wild animals and birds, animal encounters which complement a range of national curriculum topics in science, history and geography.
The centre has also transformed 26 acres of former agricultural grazing land into a wetland nature reserve where a huge variety of wild birds, mammal and invertebrate species have set up home.
There’s also a field study centre for school nature trips, and the centre hosts a range of photography days and workshops for enthusiastic amateur photographers on days when the centre is closed to other guests.
For tickets, opening times and full details of other facilities, conservation work and special projects, see the centre’s website.
HARDLY had the shrill echoes of the little Halloween ghosts and ghouls died away before we were facing the noise and light explosion that is Bonfire Night.
Dreaded by pet owners and nature lovers worried about the impact on local wildlife, the annual fireworks jamboree has become a more organised affair in modern times, with most November 5 celebrations run by local charities and other organisations.
But of course there’s a visceral delight in so many of those sights, sounds and smells of bonfire night, of toffee apples and burnt marshmallows, baked potatoes and warm chestnuts; hands stabbed by the sharp prickles of sparklers, cheeks red with the cold night air pinching our faces.
Bathed in woodsmoke and the acrid smell of gunpowder, our caveman origins come to the fore as we draw closer to the flames and huddle together for warmth and light.
November is a month of remembrance too, of poppies and poppy-strewn memorials, of old soldiers and wreath-laying ceremonies, of sombre thoughts of past battles and lost loved ones.
It’s also the month that sees a fortnight-long firework display of natural colour as the falling leaves provide a spectacular backdrop for autumn rambles before the first winter storms strip the branches bare.
The timeless Chilterns landscape offers such a wealth of different outings too, from ancient long-distance routes and drovers’ paths to simple circular strolls watching the red kites soar or catching a deer unawares.
For some, it’s the small details which catch the eye, from veins on leaves, unfamiliar fungi or seed cases strewn among the leaf litter.
For others, it’s the chance to get close to the mammals, birds and insects which inhabit this wonderland, always in the hope of that rare moment when time stands still just long enough for the perfect close-up of a or a hungry sparrowhawk.
Speaking of one of her November rambles a couple of years ago, Melissa Harrison writes in The Stubborn Light Of Things: “Dusk is my favourite time to go out walking. As the light fades, the night shift clocks on: rabbits come our to feed, owls call from the copses and spinneys, and foxes, deer and bats begin hunting as darkness falls…”
She goes on: “But there’s another reason I love to be out of doors at day’s end. Here in Suffolk traces of the past are everywhere, from horse ponds glinting like mercury among the stubble fields to labourers’ cottages like mine with woodsmoke curling from brick chimneys hundreds of years old.
“In the half-light of dusk, the old lanes empty of traffic, it’s possible to leave behind the present day with its frightening uncertainties and enter a world in which heavy horses worked the land, the seasons turned with comforting regularity and climate change was unheard of.”
Against the backdrop of the Thames, or those ancient woodlands and hidden holloways, the Chilterns is a similarly captivating landscape where time can frequently seem to stand still, especially at dusk and dawn.
Under our feet are the hillforts, earthworks and buried flints and pots reminding us that this landscape has been a focal point for people for thousands of years, an ancient and beautiful place where the whistle of the kite or bark of a fox can still keep us in touch with the natural world around us.
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 email@example.com on email or via our Facebook group page.
OUR picture choice this week provides a postscript to our recent article about Dorset artist Sam Cannon and her extraordinary wildlife paintings.
Last week we wrote about Sam’s art, and how her decision to include lettering in some of her paintings had prompted an explosion of interest in her work, which nowadays attracts a substantial and enthusiastic following on Facebook and Instagram.
Howver the artist, based near Lyme Regis in Dorset, still talks of herself as “just being a mum who also paints in between all the other things life throws at me”.
Despite her modesty, it’s clear that her paintings provide a source of solace and inspiration to many, not least her remarkable Shepherd’s Hut, a moonlit woodland scene which incorporates a quote from the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.
The words are those of Sonya in Chekhov’s 1898 play Uncle Vanya: “We shall find peace. We shall hear angels. We shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.”
The words are beautifully juxtaposed against a peaceful woodland backdrop, the cool blues and greys of the moonlit shadows offset by the warmth emanating from the shepherd’s hut and the brown-and-white forms of two late-night visitors.
Like most of Sam’s paintings, the work combines her love of wildlife with an understanding of tyopgraphy honed during her years of study at Reading University.
When Sam referred to our original article in a post to her 43,000 followers on Facebook, along with her reflections about her week and current difficulties in selling original work, it prompted an outpouring of affection and support from her fans.
Despite the satisfaction of working as a full-time artist, setbacks range from a summer slump in the market for original pieces to export problems when dealing with customers in North America.
Sam stopped shipping to North America earlier in the year because of the hit-or-miss nature of dealings with customs and the US postal system.
She wrote: “Every time an item is severely delayed or lost, it all falls back on me. I lose customers and money. I’d rather offer no service than a hit-or-miss one.”
She has had similar doubts about spending 30 to 40 hours working on a painting just to see it sit in a folder, instead deciding to concentrate on smaller tasks. “I’ve been painting wooden hearts,” she posted. “And whilst things remain so quiet for me, I’ll be continuing to focus on small things like wooden hearts, slates and pebbles in the hope that my paintings will once again start to find homes.”
Her fans have been quick to offer their support, with hundreds of likes, shares and comments responding to her original post, many of which Sam has responded to in person. Among the words of encouragement are those who appreciate her honesty in talking about such matters on her site.
“Your words are beautiful and calming . . . just like your painting,” wrote one. And, with reference to Reflections, another wrote: “It’s a beautiful painting Sam, one which will help many people reflect on the last year or so.”
Sam Cannon’s painting can be found on her website and instagram feed. As well as original works, she also sells limited edition giclée prints, greeting cards and calendars.
WILDLIFE author, campaigner and blogger Mark Avery may have scaled back the frequency of his blog posts, but thankfully his weekly book reviews are still offering a helpful snapshot of the latest nature book releases.
With so many titles weighing down the nature shelves, it’s helpful to have an old friend casting an experienced eye over the latest releases, and in the meantime Mark assures us he has been making excellent progress with his next book since he stopped his daily blog posts.
“If I have written 1000 words by breakfast around 0830 then it’s a good day. If I am still writing by 1030 then it’s a really good day,” he says.
Visitors to his blog cansign up for his monthy “news blast”, which includes links to his latest Sunday book reviews.
BACK in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, defence was a big issue for early settlers in the Chilterns.
And as hill fort locations go, few can boast quite such a commanding position over the local landscape as the wonderfully named Sharpenhoe Clappers, a scheduled ancient monument in Bedfordshire, part of a wildlife oasis sandwiched between the urban sprawls of Bedford, Dunstable and Luton.
Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje sets out to explore Sharpenhoe, and discovers an ancient chalk escarpment that nowadays is a place of big skies, wildflowers and a sense of calm, criss-crossed by waymarked trails and looking spectacular against a foreground of rape fields.
It is one of a quartet of National Trust properties lying adjacent to each other, with the Sundon, Moleskin and Markham Hills to the west and Smithcombe Hills to the east. Reputedly haunted by a Celtic tribal chief, these days the hills are frequented by ramblers and picnickers, butterflies and red kites.
The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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”.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com on email or via our Facebook group page.
Thankfully one year on, those glorious vistas of dancing bluebells are not the only symbol of hope to cling onto.
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.
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.
Between nest-building and feeding new families, our garden birds are frantically busy with their household chores.
There are all those young mouths to feed, tasty morsels to discover and take back home to deliver.
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.
Living close to water we’re lucky enough to be treated to an array of delightful wildfowl too, all very individual characters.
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.
But then we have to watch and wait as the family gradually gets whittled down in size by hungry herons and other local predators.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“Onwards spring romps, as miraculous and dizzying as ever, whether humans are there to witness it or not.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.
THIS week’s picture choice takes us north to Milton Keynes and a quite extraordinary rewilding success story we first featured back in 2018.
Gazing out over a bare field in 1990 it would have been hard to believe that a humble couple of acres of cow pasture could become a veritable wildlife haven.
But Roy and Marie Battell’s transformation of the two acres has been inspiring. Today there are hundreds of trees – plus four ponds and meadows attracting a huge cross-section of wildlife.
Over the years the couple’s website depicting life in the nature reserve has developed something an international reputation.
The woods provide a home for all types of birds, insects and mammals with various trail cameras monitoring the movements of visitors ranging from sparrowhawks and kestrels to foxes, badgers and deer.
Dozens of loyal followers sign up for Roy’s weekly newsletter, which chronicles the changing landscape through the seasons, and his carefully chronicled pictures have appeared in a many wildlife textbooks.
His latest weekly selection is a fairly representative snapshot of life with the “Moorhens”, capturing everything from rooks and magpies gathering nesting materials to hungry squirrels, strutting pheasants and hunting owls.
It’s the quality of Roy’s photographs, coupled with his painstaking attention to detail in chronicling and recording the animals’ movements, which has attracted the interest of enthusiasts and academics around the world.
He sends these out every week to around 100 subscribers, while the archives provide an invaluable day-by-day record of the the extraordinary transformation they have achieved on their doorstep. To sign up for the weekly email, visit their website.
SOMETIMES it takes a crisis to make you look at the world in a different way.
That was certainly true for Steve Gozdz. He and his partner Billie O’Connor relocated from Surbiton to the Chilterns in 2019 to be closer to nature, but he was due to head back into corporate life when Covid-19 struck.
Despite years working as a contracts manager, Steve had always had a keen interest in wildlife, especially birds.
And as he explored the local countryside during the initial lockdown taking pictures of the wildlife he saw and sharing them with others on social media, he was taken aback by the level of appreciation of his photographs – and later, by requests from people to join him on his walks.
After setting up a Facebook page encouraging local people to engage with nature, as lockdown restrictions bit hundreds of followers starting to share their own photographs from their walks.
Could wildlife tour guiding provide a new career for the 46-year-old entrepreneur? Goring Gap Wildlife Walks was born.
“We agreed now was the time to swap that corporate lifestyle for my passion,” says Steve, whose friends dubbed him ‘The Bird Whisperer’ for his ability to help them seek out and enjoy the local wildlife.
On holidays abroad, the couple would often pay a guide to show them the sights and wildlife of different countries, from Gambia and Senegal to Portugal. Why not try running similar guided walks closer to home?
Says Steve: “I have always been fascinated by wildlife and having moved to the Chilterns, I was able to really indulge in my “serious hobby” of wildlife photography and walking in our amazing countryside.”
Part of his mission is open people’s eyes to the area’s natural wonders, and the couple could hardly be better placed, given the unique Thameside location of the ancient villages of Goring and Streatley, the meeting point of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs).
Here two national trails intersect (the Ridgeway and Thames Path), making the villages a popular stopping-off point for those on long-distance walks, with ready access to both Oxfordshire and Berkshire.
While the immediate surroundings were ideal for guided tours, the area covered by his walks was soon rapidly expanding over neighbouring counties, with options ranging from short family walks geared towards children to private tailored walks for those interested in more specific “sightings”.
“I think there really is a growing interest in the countryside and appreciate of the wildlife within it,” says Steve. “The difficulties of Covid-19 have been numerous, but during these hard times we have seen a positive by-product – the growing love and appreciation of our countryside and wildlife.
“I spend most of my time outdoors. I really believe in the power of nature as a healing agent and to bring about calm and balance. Scientific studies have certainly proven the power of fresh-air therapy – being in the outdoors, walking, and taking in nature.”
Current lockdown restrictions may have prevented Steve from running walks for customers, but he has kept up his daily exercise walks and has been taking plenty of photographs to share across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
“Winter brings a number of birds only seen this time of year such as fieldfare and redwing; both quite shy but beautiful birds, they winter here to escape the harsher climate of their mostly Scandinavian homes,” he says.
“We have also seen small groups of lesser redpoll feeding in the silver birches and alder, and flocks of goldfinch have made their way into our gardens to feast on feeders of nyger and sunflower hearts.”
With kingfishers posing obligingly at various places along the river and the signs of spring all around, there’s certainly no shortage of sightings to write about, much to the delight of his social media followers.
“The birds are now more vocal, especially at dawn as they re-establish existing pair bonds and last year’s young are ready to become parents themselves,” says Steve. “We are fortunate in this area of the UK to have four types of owls we could see, especially during the stage of post-fledgling until the end of the summer; my owl walks prove extremely popular from June to August.”
Steve’s clearly itching to get back out and about as soon as the restrictions allow, having organised walks for more than 200 people since starting the business in July 2020.
Future events include the Chilterns Walking Festival, more family-friendly wildlife walks with spotting guides, and partnerships with local hotels who want to offer wildlife tours and photography sessions for their guests.
Many walks take place on private land, allowing the small groups to be genuinely alone with the wildlife they come across.
“The children really love it and you never know whether you might be inspiring the next Chris Packham,” says Steve.
“I started out thinking this would be a temporary business to see me through lockdown but now I’m hoping to earn a permanent living from my passion. I feel very lucky with the success I’ve had so far.”
IT’S not every day you come face to face with a weasel.
But that’s certainly one of the most memorable wildlife encounters enjoyed by Nick Bell, the Maidenhead photographer whose pictures have been in the spotlight on this page for the past couple of weeks.
Stoats and weasels aren’t that unusual in the British countryside, but you don’t get to see them very often other than a quick flash as they streak for cover.
Nick recalls: “I was walking along a path in Ockwells Park, early on a crisp, beautiful March day, when the weasel ran across the path right in front of me.
“It jumped up onto the bottom rail of the fence and, when it came to a break in the undergrowth, stopped and looked at me, no doubt wondering if it could make it past me with no undergrowth to hide it, just long enough for me to get its photo.
“I wasn’t sure if it was a stoat or a weasel, so I did some research. I discovered that a stoat is the size of a cucumber and a weasel the size of a sausage. Stoats also have longer tails than weasels.”
Some animals are more obliging when it comes to posing for the camera, like the inquisitive grey squirrel which looks as if it’s playing a game of hide and seek.
Mustelids like stoats, weasels, badgers and otters all pose more of a challenge because they generally tend to be active at night, which makes them elusive.
Foxes and deer are timid too, but a little easier to stumble across if you are light on your feet and approach quite cautiously.
“I get to see occasional foxes during my walks,” says Nick. “The day that I saw two was unusual, though. They were a couple of young foxes. I watched them play fighting for fifteen or twenty minutes. It was a complete delight. They were at the far end of a field, so I couldn’t get the best photos of them, but it was still a great experience.”
Our previous selections have focused on Nick’s pictures of insects and birds, taken in a variety of locations near his home patch in Maidenhead. He was born in Cookham and moved back to the area after taking early retirement at the age of 61.
But mammals pose their own challenges – and rewards.
Says Nick: “There are some spots in and around Ockwells Park where I know you are likely to see deer. The great thing about photographing them is that they usually stand absolutely still, no doubt thinking that that will prevent you from seeing them.
“My favourite time to photograph them is when the bluebells are out in the woods. Sometimes, they decide to run for it, and leap in the air as they run, which is great for photos.
“One of my most disappointing ‘near misses’ in a photo was when I spotted a very young roe deer kid standing in front of its mother in the woods. I had time for one photo only before they were gone. The photo was, sadly, not in focus. Oh well; you win some and you lose some.”
From cute goslings to fast-moving dragonflies, Nick’s broad range of subjects have provided a lot of pleasure on local wildlife forums.
“I have heard it said many times during the coronavirus pandemic that many of us are using nature for relaxation during lockdowns. That is certainly true of me,” says Nick.
“Wildlife photography has undoubtedly helped with my mental health during these difficult times. Being outside with nature helps to ground me and to relieve stress. I usually get home with a great sense of well-being.”
THE great thing about wildlife photography is the extent to which it immerses you in the landscape.
Capturing the perfect shot means being in just the right place at the right time – and no one knows that better than Nick Bell, whose stunning insect photographs were in the spotlight last week.
This week the focus is on Nick’s bird photographs, starting with a quite extraordinary silhouette taken on one of his forays into the countryside around his Maidenhead home.
The picture was taken at dawn in Ockwells Park, part of which is a local nature reserve.
“I think of each trip out as an opportunity to relax with nature, but also as an opportunity for exercise, so I tend to walk two to four miles on every trip out,” says Nick.
“This means that I move through different types of habitat – eg by water or through woods – and so see different types of wildlife. Get out there early, ideally for sunrise, when there are fewer people around and the wildlife is most active.”
Although Nick is a relative newcomer to wildlife photography, he has thrown himself wholeheartedly into it since his retirement a couple of years ago and has been a prolific contributor to online nature groups like Wild Maidenhead, Wild Marlow and Wild Cookham.
He has also quickly demonstrated his extraordinary eye for detail and for pictures with dramatically different perspectives, like his unusual portrait of Cliveden House in a water drop or of his own reflection in a horse’s eye.
“Look for slight movements or variations in colour, constantly,” he advises like-minded enthusiasts wanting to capture the natural world on camera.
“Look up, look down, look to both sides. Look in the distance and also look nearby. You can so easily miss a photo opportunity if you’re not constantly alert,” he says. “Don’t be disheartened if you don’t seem to be seeing much. I can walk for two miles without seeing anything. Then, there’ll suddenly be a flurry of activity.
“In time, you’ll get to know where you’re most likely to see wildlife. In these areas, move slowly and quietly. In the best areas, stand still for five or ten minutes or so. The wildlife will come to you. Always creep round corners, in case there’s something just round the other side. Have your camera ready, just in case.
“When you see something, photograph it immediately, even if it’s far away. Then gradually creep closer, taking more photographs every few steps.
“Photos are more interesting if the subject is doing something. So, for example, when I photograph a robin, I wait for it to start singing before I press the shutter button. A singing robin makes a better photo than a silent one.”
It helps if your subject is prepared to pose in just the right place long enough to provide you with the perfect Valentine’s Day portrait too!
But a closer look at some of Nick’s most striking pictures shows that there always seems to be something happening to capture our attention, whether that means a bird gobbling a tasty treat or red kites swooping and tumbling against a clear blue sky.
“Eyes are everything!” Nick is keen to emphasise. “I rarely keep a photo of any animal if I don’t have its eye clearly visible or well illuminated.
“Goldfinches can be quite a challenge, as their eyes often don’t show up well. The same goes for blackbirds and crows. Try to photograph them with their eyes in sunlight. When focusing the camera, try to focus specifically on the subject’s eye.”
A zoom lens makes all the difference, he admits: “I started with a 16-300mm lens, then moved onto am 18-400mm lens, then onto a 150-600mm lens. Each lens change resulted in great improvements in my photos.
“I now use the 18-400mm lens for subjects that are close to me, like insects, and the 150-600mm lens for anything further away. 600mm lenses are heavy! I bought a dual camera harness that puts all of the weight on my shoulders, rather than on my neck. It makes carrying two big lenses (one on each side) relatively easy.”
The pictures are taken in a variety of locations near Nick’s home patch in Maidenhead. He was born in Cookham, but lived in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire from 1994, until moving back to Maidenhead and taking early retirement at the age of 61.
An active marathon runner, he took up modern jive dancing in 2009. “I have been hooked on it ever since, competing in national competitions the last eight years or so,” he reveals. “I’ve been lucky enough to compete at Blackpool Tower Ballroom several times.”
In comparison, wildlife photography must seem positively sedentary, though Nick will happily roam a few miles in search of the perfect subject.
“Every day out gives me great pleasure,” he confirms. Thanks to his photographs, those are special moments we can all get a chance to share.
And that is particularly valuable when such snapshots frozen in time are often hard to capture on family rambles, when our conversation may scare wildlife away, or a sudden rustle in the bushes is the only evidence that an insect, bird or tiny mammal is close at hand.
Depending on the available light, Nick will use a high aperture or fast shutter speed to freeze a movement, especially when dealing with fast-moving insects or birds like goldcrests, which never stop moving.
Insects and mammals feature just as frequently in his pictures, but sometimes it can be the early morning sky or the shadows in the woods at dusk that catch his eye.
“Those are the best times,” he says. “When you can stand silently, enjoying warm early morning sunshine, and being alone with nature, with no other people around.”
Next week: Our final selection of Nick’s pictures turns the spotlight on mammals
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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’.”
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.
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 email@example.com
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…
WANDERING around Langley Park, it’s not hard to imagine a medieval monarch mustering a royal hunting party here.
But then there was a deer park at Langley Marish as long ago as 1202, continuing in use throughout the Middle Ages.
Today, Langley is part of the Colne Valley Regional Park, managed by Buckinghamshire County Council and offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.
Once Crown Property, the park and manor were granted to Sir John Kederminster in 1626 and sold in 1738 to Charles Spencer, third Duke of Marlborough, who used it as a hunting lodge.
In 1756, he commissioned Stiff Leadbetter to build the present house, finished in 1760. His son George commissioned Lancelot Brown (1716-83) to landscape Langley Park during his time working at Blenheim. In 1788 Robert Bateson-Harvey bought the estate which remained in the family until 1945 when it was sold to Buckinghamshire County Council.
It’s only a stone’s through from Slough – 3km from the town centre, in fact – but 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.
Between March and June the masses of rhododendrons in Temple Gardens burst into bloom and in summer many species of butterfly chase around the heather and gorse on the open land leading down to Langley Lake, where a variety of wildfowl congregate.
Sir Robert Grenville Harvey planted the gardens in the early 20th century, apparently transporting 1600 tonnes of peat from Scotland by train to Langley Station for mulching the plants and employing local men to move the mulch by horse and cart to the garden.
The lake was originally rectangular, thought to have been created by the extraction of brick clay from the ground to build Sir John Kederminster’s ‘Chief Lodge’ in 1710. One of the main landscape features influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s was the creation of a longer, serpentine-shaped lake.
The Arboretum is a fine collection of specimen trees and gardens running around the outside of the walled garden, which originally was a kitchen garden for the residents of Langley Mansion where they grew their own fruit and vegetables.
The western stretch of the arboretum is known as ‘Queen’s Walk’ because Queen Victoria used to pass through the arboretum when visiting Sir Robert Bateson-Harvey.
Nowadays the former royal hunting ground provides the perfect base for family days out, with trail guides, an orienteering course and conservation volunteer days, as well as a varied events programme.
Parkland trees range from English oaks to Wellingtonia and Cedar of Lebanon – and there’s a history trail produced by the Heritage Lottery Funded Friends of Langley Park, an organisation which also boasts a wonderful gallery of pictures.
The park is open daily from 8.15am. Accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are located in the cafe. More information from the website or call 01753 511060.
IS IT really only a few short weeks since we started to learn this strange new upsetting language about ventilators and self-isolation, social distancing, R numbers and PPE?
It seems an age – and it’s all been doubly disorientating because this sudden flurry of unsettling medical terms coincided with our plunge into lockdown, depriving us of all normal social contact.
And yet, despite all the scary language, grim statistics and huge toll of personal grief and suffering, there’s been another new language people have been learning in terms of their relationship with the natural world.
We’ve been forced to get out walking, explore our local patch, get on our bikes and spend time alone in the great outdoors.
Roads usually busy with traffic have become peaceful byways….and the walkers, joggers and cyclists have been out in force.
For those of us struggling to identify the most common plants and species, that’s meant quite a steep learning curve, so unfamiliar have we become with the insects, butterflies, flowers and trees around us.
Thankfully, there have been plenty of people able to come to the rescue, from TV naturalists like Chris Packham or Steve Backshall to ramblers, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts sharing their pictures and queries on local forums (like the Chesham Wildlife facebook group whose butterfly pictures are featured below).
We’ve seen museums offering virtual tours and live talks, rangers organising online forest schools and parks hosting nature quizzes.
It’s been an extraordinary time to rediscover nature and re-examine our relationship with the natural world because there has been so much time to savour the experience of getting to know the local landscape better, as Lucy Jones mentioned in a recent Guardian article:
“I’ve found that my local natural areas feel like new destinations each day, even by the hour, for nature is in constant flux. Bird songs are richest at dawn and dusk. The wild garlic smells stronger when the soil is warm. The nettles glow Kermit-green when the sun is low in the sky. The scarlet pimpernel shows itself when light and humidity are just so.”
Like Lucy, slowing down and having the extra time to look around us means we have been discovering treasures we would previously have overlooked and savouring those small precious things, from the smell of petrichor – the scent of the earth after it has rained – to eye-catching hedgerow blossoms or unfamiliar wildflowers or insects.
But often that opportunity for closer scrutiny has raised more questions than answers, especially for someone only really familiar with half a dozen of our most common wildflowers and only barely able to pick out a horse chestnut or oak at 20 yards.
Suddenly the big question of the day might be how to tell hawthorn from blackthorn, do horse chestnut candles really change colour when pollinated, and how do you distinguish between poison hemlock and yarrow or elderflower?
Lucy’s timely new book Losing Eden explores how crucial the connection with the living world is for our minds – and how being deprived of easy access to the living world around us can be a public health disaster.
During the height of the UK coronavirus lockdown, thousands have turned to nature as a balm for dealing with loss and loneliness.
And 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, savouring the intensity of the dawn chorus, the first blossom appearing, the bare tree branches suddenly cloaked in green.
When the news feels overwhelming, there could be no better way of keeping a grip on reality, clearing away the cobwebs and banishing the fear and anxiety among the bluebell woods and country paths of the Chilterns.
Even a short trip outside becomes an adventure into the unknown. But unlike our ancestors, many of us are no longer familiar with the flora and fauna on our own doorsteps.
Thankfully, help is at hand from a variety of sources. Through the worst weeks of the lockdown, Chris Packham and step-daughter Megan McCubbin provided a daily ray of sunshine with their Self-Isolating Bird Club which boasted 51 broadcasts, 132,000 comments and 7.7m views during its eight-week run, as well as bridging the gap until the BBC’s May Springwatch series.
You want to tell the difference between a honeybee, red mason bee and a buff-tailed bumblebee? No problem. Or what about the marvellously named white-tailed bumblebee or hairy-footed flower bee?
You could even print off a handy guide to some of the most common types from the website Wild About Gardens, set up by the Wildlife Trusts and the RHS to celebrate wildlife gardening and to encourage people to use their gardens to take action to help support nature.
Many of our common garden visitors – including hedgehogs, house sparrows and starlings – are increasingly under threat and much of our wildlife, from bats and barn owls to stoats and badgers, can be quite elusive, making it hard to spot during a normal daytime walk in the woods.
But getting to know the natural world better is a great way of engaging young people’s interest – and that in turn is vital if they are going to grow up as a generation respecting the natural environment.
That’s where a greater working knowledge of nature can help to win hearts and minds. The more flowers, insects, birds and animals we can spot and recognise, the more likely it is that we can fully engage with the wonders of the natural world.
For many families, lockdown has been a nightmarish experience. But for those able to share their nature notes, photographs and queries – on Twitter streams or Facebook groups like Chesham Wildlife, Wild Marlow, Wild Cookham and Wild Maidenhead – relearning the lost language of the natural world has provided a welcome respite from the doom and gloom.
FORGET about the selfish shoppers piling their trolleys high with toilet rolls, or the shopkeepers marking up the price of their hand sanitiser bottles.
Crises have always brought out the best and worst in people, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.
But rather than focusing on the aggravating actions of that mean-spirited minority who always think of themselves first at any cost – including the scammers, fraudsters and other criminals eagerly targeting the most vulnerable of prey – it’s time to look at the bigger picture.
locals in Madrid applauding public health workers and those on Italian
balconies singing into the night to the countless thousands of health and
service sector staff knowingly putting themselves at higher risk of catching the
virus, this is a time to salute the courage of the many, not the pettiness of
is not going to go away quickly. Indeed, it’s likely to spark a global
recession on a scale we have not seen before – and make us all rethink our relationship
with nature and the world around us.
trend forecaster Li Edelkoort was one of many early voices predicting that the virus
could provide “a blank page for a new beginning” that could eventually allow
humanity to reset its values.
Could it mean us getting used to living with fewer possessions and travelling less, as the virus disrupts global supply chains and transportation networks?
The crisis has already impacted on virtually every aspect of our daily lives – as it did for this priest, who asked parishioners to send him a picture of themselves and their families so he could tape them to the pews and remember them during Mass while the parish is closed.
Some campaigners certainly believe the economic disruption has already had environmental benefits, pointing out how carbon emissions and pollution in China dramatically declined after the virus first hit.
“It seems we are massively
entering a quarantine of consumption where we will learn how to be happy just
with a simple dress, rediscovering old favourites we own, reading a forgotten
book and cooking up a storm to make life beautiful,” Li told the design
and architecture magazine Dezeen.
The woman named by Time magazine
in 2003 as one of the 25 most influential people in fashion said the impact of
the epidemic would be “layered and complex” but would force us to stop taking
planes, work from home more and entertain only among close friends or family.
With a younger generation increasingly concerned about the ownership and hoarding of clothes and cars, the transformation could be dramatic.
“Suddenly the fashion shows look
bizarre and out of place, the travel ads that enter our computer space seem
invasive and ridiculous,” she said. “Every new day we question each system we
have known since birth, and are obliged to consider their possible demise.”
It is a time of profound challenges for our national and world leaders but by taking the decision-making power out of our hands, the virus has forced us to wake up and take notice of what we have been doing to the world.
But if it offers the prospect of resetting
the dial when it comes to pointless travel, growing pollution and the
ever-increasing production of ugly and useless plastic toys and souvenirs, it
will come with a heavy price tag.
As well as potentially millions
of deaths around the world, we can also expect to see many existing companies
wiped out in the process of slowing down the pace – from luxury brands and
airlines to hospitality businesses and importers.
Going cold turkey in changing our
shopping and socialising habits is only the start. But as country after country
shuts down, the process of rediscovering old books, dusting off old recipes and
reconnecting with our nearest and dearest may do something to offset the
Of course, there’s little room
for flippancy in celebrating any possible benefits of such societal changes. It’s
hard at this stage in the crisis to have any realistic comprehension of the
impact these events will have on our lives for generations to come – including the
loss of loved ones, the hidden fall-out in terms of anxiety and mental health
issues, the countless job losses and the extra strains likely to be imposed on already
Not to mention the fearfulness of those who are already ill, the impact of the virus in prisons, hospitals, refugee camps and war zones.
Yet clearly the shutdown will
also give people time to think – and maybe time to think differently, about new
ways of living. As one popular poetic quote being widely shared on social media
puts it: “And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in
ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.”
We are not at that stage yet.
But we are already at a point where local communities are talking of ways of
pulling together to protect the elderly and housebound, to counteract the
selfish stockpiling of the greedy.
For many hunkering down at home, there may be different ways of supporting small independent businesses and allowing local ingenuity to flourish against the depressing backdrop of global economic pressures.
For those able to leave their house, there’s still the great outdoors to explore, even if that means a solitary walk rather than an outing with friends. But as these pictures show, when the sun breaks through the clouds, the natural world can provide a welcome escape from the gloomy news feeds or social media chatter.
Will we eventually enter an era where cottage industries flourish and arts-and-crafts initiatives prosper? Is our destruction of nature ultimately responsible for Covid-19 as some environmentalists believe?
We’ve suffered pandemics
before, of course, from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, and all have had a
profund impact on society (and not just through the devastating impact on
How we cope with and survive from the current crisis is in our hands. It will undoubtedly mean looking at the world in a different way – and changing how we live our lives. It’s also time for all of us to do so with a lightness of heart and kindness of spirit that perhaps belies our own worries and concerns. And one thing’s for sure: for the post-coronavirus generation things will never be quite the same again.
FROM stately homes to steam railways and spooky caves, from wildlife sanctuaries to woodland walks, The Beyonder’s What’s On pages have been updated to include more than 50 of the Chilterns’ top attractions.
The at-a-glance array of picture buttons offers ideas for days out that range from free museums and rural rambles to palaces and zoos across four counties.
The buttons link directly to the websites and Facebook pages run by various organisations from the National Trust to town museums.
Attractions for animal lovers range from the Living Rainforest or Beale Park in Berkshire to Whipsnade Zoo and Woburn Safari Park in Bedfordshire.
If rescued hedgehogs are of more interest than lions and tigers, there’s always the Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hsopital in Haddenham, and youngsters wanting to get up close and personal with lambs and baby goats can visit Odds Farm or even foxes and ferrets at the Green Dragon Eco Farm.
History lovers aren’t forgotten, either – from stately homes like those at Stonor Park, Waddesdon or Hughenden, not to mention the majestic delights of Blenheim Palace or Hampton Court.
Museums include those in Amersham, Stevenage, St Albans, Tring and High Wycombe, while those preferring a steam trip can venture out to Chinnor or the Bucks Railway Centre at Quainton Road.
If youngsters need to escape from their smartphones and get the wind in their hair, they can always connect with nature at one of the country parks scattered across the region – or blow away the cobwebs with a walk in Wendover Woods, Penn or Burnham Beeches.
For something that little bit different, there’s always the model village at Bekonscot in Beaconsfield, the gloriumptious Roald Dahl museum at Great Missenden, the mysterious Hellfire Caves at West Wycombe or the exotic attractions of Kew Gardens.
Or what about stepping back in time at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, finding out more about science at the Look Out Discovery Centre or discovering more about the lives of writers like John Milton or CS Lewis by visiting their homes in Chalfont St Giles and Headington, Oxford.
Many of the websites featured offer a regular programme of special one-off events, displays and attractions too, so there’s always more to discover – with further buttons linking to the National Trust, English Heritage, Wildlife Trusts, Chiltern Society and National Garden Scheme for more ideas about places to visit and things to do.
With a host of additional events listed in the monthly What’s On pages too, there’s something for everyone who loves the great outdoors. For more information, click on What’s On whenever you need a little inspiration about how to make the most of your free time.
The website has also launched a “Where to go” section on its Further afield pages, which in the past have featured attractions which might involve Chilterns readers driving just a little further afield, to London, Surrey and Sussex.
The first half-dozen attractions listed include Winston Churchill’s family home at Chartwell, nearby Hever Castle in Kent which was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and the steam railway centre at Didcot, much loved by railway enthusiasts.
Feeling left out? If we have inadvertently missed an attraction out of our listings, get in touch.
THE GOOD news these days is the sheer number of nature books weighing down the shelves in your local bookshop.
The bad news is the confusion of choice when faced with so many different titles and too little time in the week to read them all.
Luckily there has also been an explosion in the number of good local independent bookshops providing a welcoming place to browse and some expert advice about the best titles to choose. But just in case you haven’t got too many local nature lovers able to advise you, what are some of the most interesting reads fighting for your attention this year?
Given our excitment about Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut The Salt Path, we are naturally looking forward to the September launch of her follow-up narrative about returning to normal life after the period of homelessness which inspired her first book.
The incredible journey she and terminally ill husband Moth made along the South West Coast Path in the wake of the collapse of their livelihoods was as thought-provoking as it was life-affirming, but what happened when their odyssey came to an end?
Or if you need something to get your teeth into before then, what about Lindsay McCrae’s lavishly illustrated memoir of life with an emperor penguin colony, which came out in November.
The award-winning wildlife cameraman spent the best part of a year in Antarctica chronicling the lives of 11,000 emperor penguins and this is the story of their existence in one of the planet’s harshest environments – or as fellow wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan described it on Twitter, “an incredible chap in an extraordinary place”.
Anyone interested in slightly less extreme conditions can find out more about how weather actually works and what the future may hold for us in climate terms in an intriguing analysis from meteorologists Simon King and Clare Nasir.
From how rainbows are formed to whether we could harness the power of lightning, the pair break down our knowledge of the elements to explain the significance of weather in history and explore the science behind a subject that affects us all.
Or if you feel overwhelmed by all the doom-laden talk of climate change, find out what happens when 3,500 acres of land which has been farmed for centuries is left to return to the wild.
Isabella Tree and husband Charlie Burrell were facing bankruptcy working their farm in West Sussex when they decided to try something radical and restore the Knepp Castle Estate to the wild, using herds of free-roaming animals.
Flash forward a few years and the estate has become a breeding hotspot for rare and threatened species where the fabled English nightingale sings again. Despite local and government resistance, here is a story of optimism and hope against a backdrop of looming environmental disaster.
For younger readers who would enjoy and a funny and informative introduction to the natural world, Ben Hoare’s infectious enthusiasm is accompanied by elegant photography and lush illustrations from Angela Rizza and Daniel Long.
Hoare introduces some extraordinary plant life, not to mention the odd tarantula, rattlesnake or wombat.
One book last summer which quickly won plaudits from a number of celebrity fans was Joe Harkness’s groundbreaking testimony to the transformative power of birdwatching.
Described as “life-saving” by Chris Packham and “wonderful” by Bill Bailey, the book chronicles the author’s efforts to recover from a breakdown, and his discovery of how birdwatching could help his sense of wellbeing and self-acceptance.
A slightly different type of natural escape was that chosen by Mark Boyle, whose efforts to live off grid and escape from the pressures of modern technology form the basis for The Way Home.
With no running water, car, electricity or internet, this is about discovering the pleasure of an elemental life governed by the sun and the seasons: building a home with your bare hands, learning to make fire, collecting water from the stream, foraging and fishing to survive.
Nature’s healing powers are explored in more depth in another 2019 book, this time exploring the science behind why being in nature makes us feel alive and helps us thrive.
Why on earth do we spend countless hours indoors in front of screens when being in nature feels so good? This book explores how nurturing our emotional connection with nature can impact on our physical, intellectual and spiritual lives too.
Meanwhile Douglas W. Tallamy’s new book explores practical steps we can all consider to help avert the decline in wildlife populations.
Tallamy’s solution is to encourage a grassroots approach to conservation where home owners everywhere turn their backyards into conservation corridors to provide practical and effective wildlife habitats.
As well as sidestepping the whims of government policy, this encourages neighbours and heighbourhoods to work together to start preserving precious wildlife for future generations.
Of course there are still plenty of other classics to catch up on if you haven’t read them yet, including Robert Macfarlane’s exploration of the world beneath our feet in Underland.
From the burial grounds of the Mendip Hills to the catacombs of Paris and the ancient ice of Greenland, Macfarlane explores the netherworld in a mingling of myth, memoir lyrical travelogue.
Volunteers will survey the state of nature in the Chilterns and benefit from training courses in species identification and surveying techniques, with enthusiasts and experts joining forces to “own their patch”.
The data will then be used to track trends across the landscape and inform practical woodland, grassland and farmland habitat management projects.
Following on from the recent State of Nature report the project is calling for amateur surveyors to work with the experts across 50 1km survey squares to tell the story of the landscape, through understanding the relationship between different species groups.
The project will dovetail with existing national recording schemes (Breeding Bird Survey, Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and National Plant Monitoring Scheme) to bolster coverage in a ground-breaking new partnership.
Unique to the project is its mentoring programme for those who can identify quite a few birds, butterflies or plants but want to learn more about surveying these local species.
The project will last initially for four years, starting in spring 2020. Volunteer surveyors are needed during the spring and summer.
To register an interest or find out more, contact the project lead, Nick Marriner, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chalk, Cherries & Chairs is an ambitious five-year scheme which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns through 18 interweaving projects.
The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts working across the UK to protect .wildlife and special places for generations to come.
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a UK charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why bird populations are changing.
Butterfly Conservation (BC) is the UK wildlife charity dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and our environment.