Blog

At Fountains Abbey, wildflowers prevail with time

Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, July 2021

The ruins of Fountains Abbey sit on lawns that look as good as modern football pitches. It’s boiling hot and most people hide in the shade. This doesn’t feel like northern England.

The story of Fountain’s Abbey begins on the 27th December 1132 but abbeys have been in existence in northern England since the 600s. The abbey was founded under the Cistercian Order and monks had to serve as ‘a choir monk in prayer or as a laybrother in manual work’ (National Trust (NT), 2011).

The abbey and its residents lived through tough times: financial problems, livestock disease, climate change, raiding Scots and the onset of the plague. The plague hit around 1349-50 and killed a third of the abbey’s residents (NT, 2011).

On this hot day the ruins emit a welcome cool, tunnelling a gentle breeze that slips through the valley of the the River Skell. Skell is a non-English placename:

The name is from the Old Norse skjallr, meaning “resounding”, from its swift and noisy course. In the Middle Ages the river was known as “Heaven Water”, presumably from its association with Fountains Abbey.

Smith, A.H. (1962). The Place-names of the West Riding of Yorkshire. 7. Cambridge University Press. pp. 137โ€“138.

Yorkshire can sometimes feel like another country to southerners, so strong are its cultural links to Scandinavia. It’s the same for the rest of England, with the Viking territory of ‘The Danelaw’ once reaching down to the River Lea, just north of London, and covering large swathes of England.

The ruins alongside the River Skell

Monasteries in England were dissolved after Henry VIII’s falling out with the Pope over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The abbey was surrendered in November 1539. After the monks moved on, the land and its materials were sold off. The stained glass windows and other valuable elements were crudely removed by the new owners. The abbey was ruined in a way to make it unfit for religious practices.

Some 450 years later, in 1983, the estate was purchased by the National Trust.

Inside the walls of the abbey, wildflowers burst from pockets of stonework: wild marjoram, black knapweed, St. John’s wort, field scabious and harebell. These flowers have taken root in substrates within the crevices of the masonry. They have prime positions to receive full sun, and are sheltered from some of the elements. It’s a great place to live.

Marjoram in its happy place

I wonder why these plants are here, perhaps their medicinal value. No doubt they were cultivated and used by the monks who spent their lives here. I like to think the prevalence of marjoram (known in a culinary sense as oregano), St. John’s wort and scabious are due to their prior importance in the day-to-day lives of the monks.

My uncle recently sent me a copy of The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic by Christina Oakley Harrington. It has a lot to say about these plants.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly nectaring on marjoram

I know that marjoram is a delicious herb. I grow it in a pot in my garden for pollinators and it’s something I nibble on when visiting the chalk grasslands of southern England, where it lives. According to Treadwell’s, it has high magical value, something which I can’t be sure was of interest to the monks at Fountain’s Abbey, who were obviously not pagan in the way previously settling Vikings were. It is thought that pagan beliefs of pre-Christian England did persist in people’s outlook. The connections people have with nature would have been safe spaces for those beliefs to persist.

Scabious gets its common name from the fact it was once used to treat skin ailments. The flowerheads eventually become scratchy after flowering and were once used on the skin.

St. John’s wort among marjoram and harebells

St. John’s wort is a famous medicinal herb, another species which can be found in chalk grasslands in southern England, and in other areas throughout Britain. There are a number of different species. According to Treadwell’s it’s one of the most important and protective plants in magic folklore.

In its medical use, Wikipedia says:

“The red, oily extract of Hypericum perforatum has been used in the treatment of wounds, including by the Knights Hospitaller, the Order of St John, after battles in the Crusades, which is most likely where the name derived.[19][21]

It is also used to treat depression.

Ragwort grows high from masonry

Ragwort does not have many supporters in England, which is a shame because it could be key to providing a fundamental nectar source for pollinators across the UK. This is particularly true of towns and cities away from grazing animals. It’s disliked because it has toxic properties which can go undetected in cut hay and then be consumed unknowingly by livestock, accumulating to cause organ failure. Its proponents (for ecological reasons) have created a website in its defence.

According to Treadwell’s, in Ireland it’s known as ‘fairies’ horse’. This is because:

it is believed that witches and fairies ride on it as if it were a horse, flying through the air at night

The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic, Christina Oakley Harrington (p.106)

The seeds definitely fly through the air because the plant grows in some of the highest parts of the masonry. Swifts screech in flight as they shoot past those higher outcrops, perhaps feeding on some of the many insects that nectar on the plant’s flowers.

One thing I learned here, and that I’ll never forget, is that urine was once used by the monks at the abbey. It was collected and used as a dye, for leather tanning and also for wool treatments. A urine pot was found near perfectly preserved.

I think I’ll stick to the herbs.

Thanks for reading.

Postcard from the Dales

Valley of the Swale, the fastest river in England

Hi everyone,

No usual blogs from me this week as I’m away in the Yorkshire Dales.

It’s been very hot here which makes walking more difficult (for me). The evening light has been absolutely sensational, though.

Old mining buildings near Keld/Muker

Walked the Muker-Keld loop incorporating the Pennine Way in part.

It’s such an incredibly rich landscape of natural and cultural history. I intend to put together a longer post about the walk in the weeks ahead.

The hay barns in Swaledale are some of my favourite features of this wonderful place. I have a massive framed picture of one in my house.

This one in fact. The meadows here had just been cut. There was a huge hedgehog, oystercatchers and swallows foraging in the tractor’s wake.

Ok, time to coat myself in Factor 50 and head out again.

Thanks for reading.

Fungi ๐Ÿ„: amazing woodland unicycles!

A few weeks ago I visited a local woodland with high hopes for a summer burst of mushrooms. A couple of years ago in July this woodland was showing up some great soil-based mushrooms, species like blusher (Amanita rubescens) and the brittlestems (Russula). Though I didn’t find that this time, there were huge numbers of one species – twig parachute (Marasmiellus ramealis).

The image above is one taken with my camera’s in-built focus stacking, as illustrated below. It takes several images at different focus points and blends them to provide an image which is completely in focus (I don’t know why the halo-effect is happening, for info). With this cluster of mushrooms it’s able to tell the whole story.

When I posted this pic on social media, a couple of people came back with their own descriptions: Julian Hoffman called them “amazing woodland unicycles”, which has to be my favourite. In respect to my aunt who may be reading this, she got there first with “bicycle wheels”.

The set-up needed to get this image is a camera like an Olympus E-M5 which has in-built focus stacking, a small tripod-like thing, some extra lighting and a remote shutter release. You also obviously need a mushroom. The remote trigger allows you to take a photo at very slow shutter speeds which are susceptible to blurring if there is movement. That’s the beauty of fungi and other stationary subjects, you don’t need a huge full-frame camera with exceptional low-light ability. You can just use slow shutter speeds instead.

Though it is of course not fungi, this was another focus-stacking subject on that walk in the woods. Alongside a footpath, on a piece of wood being used as edging, I found this dog vomit slime mould (Fuligo septica)… yes that’s its common name. It was in the process of covering the surface of the wood and extracting nutrients and minerals along the way. Look at the networks of slime as they build across the wood.

And here is another of the VIP behind the scenes phone photos. It’s nice to put the image in context. A vari-angle screen is also incredibly helpful in these situations. If you want any advice on this kind of fungal or slime mould photography, do post a question in the comments and I’ll happily let you know what works for me.

By the way, I was using a 30mm macro lens (60mm outside of Micro Four Thirds camera/lens config). You can actually see the settings if you look at the screen.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

Fungi ๐Ÿ„: nipping to The Mens

Last week I dropped in on a favourite Sussex Wildlife Trust woodland. It’s a place I only ever visit when travelling to or from work. It’s a place with a funny name, The Mens. It’s even funnier when I tell others I’m going to The Mens after work. The name is said to derive from the word ‘common’, a place where local people would have had foraging and grazing rights in centuries past. It’s now a significant ancient woodland in the Sussex Low Weald, holding National Nature Reserve status. It’s special because of its naturally occuring beech and holly, though I’m no expert on its specifics. It is a uniquely beautiful woodland. It is highly sensitive, and when I go I do my best to treat it with a high level of respect and care.

It’s one of the few places in SE/central southern England outside of the New Forest, that I have visited, where moss and algae cover tree trunks. Above is the typical assemblage of mature beech, oak and a surrounding sea of holly.

You can see indicators of how many mushrooms are likely to be in fruit when you first enter a reserve. I saw the above within the first few paces. It’s is a mushroom called spindleshank Gymnopilus fusipes (to my knowledge, happy to be corrected), which grows around the buttresses of oak trees. In a separate recent walk, it was the most common fungus I saw, and so is enjoying a key fruiting period.

In terms of tree health, I wouldn’t say it was a ‘good’ sign because there is some decay going on and it is defined as a parasitic species. In a woodland like this, it is normal and part of the life of the woodland. It helps to disconnect ourselves from our normal notions of life and death when in woodlands, it doesn’t play out in the same way there. Dead and decaying trees are crucial to a woodland’s life and longevity.

Spindleshank is often first seen like the group below, bursting on the scene. It is probably attached to a root or piece of wood under the soil.

This was the only fruiting mushroom I found during the short walk but there was a large abundance of slime moulds growing on fallen wood and some standing trees.

These orangey-pink blobs are a slime mould known as wolf’s milk Lycogala epidendrum. It’s famous because you can pop it and it emits a gunk of the same colour. It’s quite cool.

You will find it on decaying wood that has been in situ for several years, often in shady and damp conditions.

This species looks a bit like slug eggs. As with most slime mould I find, I’m not sure of the species.

We have had a very wet time of it in southern England, which should be cause for celebration, really. This same species was making the most of the conditions.

Behind the scenes on the slime mould shoot

My camera is capable of doing in-camera focus stacking. This means it can take several images at different focus depths and merge them together to make an image with everything in focus. This is a dream come true for macro photography, especially when the subject is so tiny.

This is a species of coral slime mould. I have seen so much of this in the past few days spent walking in oak woodlands in West Sussex. It’s clearly striking while the woodland is wet.

And so is this little slug.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

Recent posts

Postcard from the Dales

Hi everyone, No usual blogs from me this week as I’m away in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s been very hot here which makes walking more difficult (for me). The evening light has been absolutely sensational, though. Walked the Muker-Keld loop incorporating the Pennine Way in part. It’s such an incredibly rich landscape of natural and… Continue reading Postcard from the Dales

Unlocking Landscapes podcast: the Great Hungarian Plain

HUNGARY AND ROMANIA BY TRAIN: PART ONE

In this episode Iโ€™m joined by my good friend Eddie Chapman as we recount a visit to the Great Hungarian Plain. 

Eddie is a devoted rambler and part-time rapper who lives in Glasgow, Scotland. He grew up in the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield and developed a love for the landscape through hiking in the nearby Peak District.ย Eddie now spends his walking time bagging munros in the Scottish Highlands.

Listen to the audio file here:

Watch the audio slideshow on YouTube here:

This is part one of two episodes covering a trip Eddie and I undertook across Hungary and Romania in 2015. In part one we recount our travels through the Great Hungarian Plain, en route to the Romanian Carpathians. 

Itโ€™s a light-hearted episode with recollections of unusual experiences, including owl-headed body-builders, fire water and rural sports bars.ย 

We saw some incredible wildlife in one of Europeโ€™s most important landscapes – the Great Hungarian Plain – and would definitely recommend it if youโ€™re into birds. But do listen to what we did wrong if you’re planning a visit!


Links:

Eddie’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/spagheddielegs/

Blog post about this trip (2015): https://danieljamesgreenwood.com/2015/07/13/photography-the-great-hungarian-plain/

Hortobagy National Park: http://national-park.hungaryguide.info/hortobagy-puszta.html

Unlocking Landscapes Twitter: https://twitter.com/UnlockLand

Advice on European train travel: https://www.seat61.com/

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: a ruby-tailed wasp in the Adur valley

I got to spend the afternoon wandering around the Adur valley recently. The River Adur runs through West Sussex where it reaches the sea at Shoreham. There are wonderful views of the South Downs, especially from the area I was wandering around.

Truleigh Hill on the South Downs, seen from the Adur valley

This landscape fascinates me because it was once a much wider and wilder estuary. The town of Steyning had its own port, but the river’s margins and the marsh has become farmland. Looking at the maps you can see Rye Farm, with Rye potentially from the West Saxon word for ‘island’, just as it once would have been when surrounded by water or wetlands.

The River Adur

It was the end of a very rainy period and the insect life was out in force. There were hundreds of bumblebees on tufted vetch in the damp margins and probably thousands of newly emerged grasshoppers.

I wasn’t alone on this walk and so couldn’t linger too long. But along one of the lanes I found some umbellifers. On one flowerhead there was the unmistakable green and red of a ruby-tailed wasp!

They are stunning insects – with metallic blue-green thorax and a ruby-red abdomen.

The wasp was feeding on hogweed, a popular plant with pollinators.

This is a better view of the ruby abdomen.

There were just so many insects out and about, it was a joy but also a massive distraction. Buttercups are often the favoured haunt of sawflies – the earliest relative of wasps. This is a species in a group of rather elongated sawflies.

Tufted vetch was growing in the flowery margins where the bumblebees were in great number. There were also large numbers of small tortoiseshell butterflies.

On a fence near the river a blue damselfly was eating some kind of bug. It was so focused on chewing its prey that I could get very close indeed.

The number of ladybird larvae was also great, with many either on the hunt for aphids or setting themselves up for their metamorphosis.

Elsewhere on hogweed I found these carpet beetles. They are very, very small and can’t seem to tear themselves away from the nectar.

The Adur Valley with Chanctonbury Ring in the distance on the South Downs

Thanks for reading.

More macro

Recent posts

The Sussex Weald: the piping woodpunk

On the last day of May I set off on a walk into the High Weald not far from where I live. It was spring at its height, with warm weather more like the summer months to come. I waited until the late afternoon to head out for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t love walking in the heat, secondly, the light is better for photography when the sun’s glare has softened.

The willows had begun to release their seeds, the ground covered in a coat of white fluff. This seed dispersal is what makes willow so effective. The catkins are pollinated by bees, flies and other insects, which then produce the seeds. The same effect comes from poplars, which are willow relatives.

Hawthorn peaks around the end of May and I always look for insects on its nectar-rich flowers. I didn’t have a macro lens at the time but with my zoom found this large sawfly nectaring. Sawflies are relatives of bees and wasps, though sawflies actually came first. Their reputation is usually defined by the behaviour of the larvae of a species which can eat roses. You can of course say the same about many other species, moths for example.

The High Weald is home to a lot of Scots pine, where it succeeds the once open heathland. I have always been confused by the ‘native range’ of pine, whether it is naturally occurring in places like the Weald. It was planted for forestry, especially on the heaths, though it is not being harvest in the same way here anymore. Pines are gymnosperms which came before the flowering plants (angiosperms). They evolved over 300 million years ago, whereas angiosperms ‘arrived’ 130million years ago.

A flowering plant I was hoping to find on this walk was lily of the valley. Last year I found this beautiful plant in the very same spot. Someone who works on this site told me that it may be evidence of earlier human settlement because it was once cultivated for perceived medical purposes. That would require a blog in itself!

Having spent several years working, walking and hanging around in woodlands, you become accustomed to hearing certain birds and learn about their behaviour. One call I’m unlikely to forget is that of the great spotted woodpecker nestling. I was walking along a track, mostly minding my own business, when I heard the piping of the little woodpunks. There didn’t seem to be many suitable trees around, but the birds were definitely there.

Continuing down the path I saw that a hole had been made in this standing dead birch tree. I could hear a nestling but also another woodpecker nearby, outside of a nest. I used the foliage seen here to hide for a while – still on a footpath – and see what would happen.

The nestling soon popped its little head out of the tree hole, calling for its next meal. They are beautiful little birds. I did once have the chance to see one up close after it fell out of a nest:

They are beautiful, reptile-like birds. I once said to a colleague who was also a herpetologist that they look reptilian.

He scolded me: ‘they are reptilian!’

The Wealden woodpunk did get its dinner after a while. A parent bird returned to pass food between bills. It was such an incredible thing to witness and all the more special because I had not expected to see it that day. It was also interesting to see the role of fungi in this breeding opportunity. The birch tree had been softened internally (if not actually ‘killed’) by birch polypore, a type of bracket fungus. I received several other examples from people in London of great spotted woodpeckers breeding in standing dead birch trees. It should be a lesson to people managing woodlands or birchy landscapes such as heathland – this is an important tree species in the wider ecosystem.

The first oak leaves were out in that lovely fresh green, which will soon turn more leathery and a deeper shade.

New holly leaves were appearing also, like little flames or woodpecker crests in the shade.

On the return home from the woods, I noticed these large spikes of orchids in a field. A new farm building had been built in the background. At the edge of this field, alongside the footpath I was on, the landowner had tried to plant leyland cypress and laurel, probably the worst things to plant in this landscape, next to rhododendron (which was nearby anyway). It seemed so mean-spirited to block the view of this expanse and its rare flowers for people passing by. Do people know how privileged they are to own land like this in England?

I know this beech tree agreed with me (yes, it’s been a long year). Or at least that’s what its facial expression seemed to suggest.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

Recent posts:

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: the fencepost jumping spider

Another week and it’s another spider post. This time, it’s a spider that also likes posts.

One evening a couple of weeks ago I had logged off from work and went out into the garden to look at something other than an email. It was a warm evening and the sun was dipping below the surrounding roofs. I noticed a blemish on the fence, a place of macro dreams.

I identified the blemish immediately as a jumping spider but one bigger than the usual crowd. Even better, it was sitting still!

The grey-brown colouring of the spider helped to camouflage it against the sun-bleached wood of the fence. It was no surprise at all, when looking at my spider book later, that I learned this was a fencepost jumping spider!

Finding a jumping spider as relaxed as this and in an accessible position can raise the adrenaline levels, meaning you can lose composure and not get images that are in focus. That said, probably about 90% of macro photos I take are out of focus because the range is wafer thin. The stars aligned this time, however.

The spider was so still that there were no issues. It seemed quite interested by me and looked straight down the lens, as far as I could tell.

One of these images will certainly go down as portfolio worthy, at least in terms of happy memories. And really there’s no better place to end this post than looking into the eyes of Britain’s largest jumping spider!

I hope you like (my) posts, too.

Thanks for reading.

Equipment used: Nikon D5600, Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro, Nikon SB-700 flash, Raynox-250 macro adaptor. Photos edited in Adobe Lightroom.

More macro

Recent macro posts

Poetry: winter/spring haiku

For those who aren’t aware, I am a self-published poet of very little renown, thank god. You can see more about that here.

I have a third booklet of poems which are not far off being ready but I’ve written very little in the past year. My pandemic mind has not helped me to write anything, or to read any poetry either.

That changed when I started reading the Penguin book of Haiku a few months ago. It definitely inspired me. I found the 5/7/5 syllable structure to be simple enough for my stay at home mind. That said, I don’t keep to strict rhyming systems anyway as I find that too restrictive most of the time.

I first learned about haiku when studying creative writing at university. It was great to get back into it again. Here is a selection:


Coronavirus,
once an ogre in the woods,
now walks among us

who predicted this?
a whole year of hidden life,
of feeding the cat

why has this happened
when we thought we knew it all
but we knew nothing

January days
never much light to be had
but the darkness fades

coffee-coloured mud
still holds panes of brittle ice
that break underfoot

the pond is frozen
wind moves the willow branches
listen: the ice cracks

bullfinch pink, perching,
it travels through the pine trees
the female follows

streaming over stone
the gill flows through the woodland
taking everything

primroses ready
to open flowers again
to mark the season

hairy-footed bees
cruising around the flowers
searching for a mate

peregrine falcon
passing over where I live
(thankful Iโ€™m human)

the headless pigeon:
nobody knows who killed it
or who took its head

a storm came at lunch
sudden whipping back of trees
raindrops splattered glass

face masks in gutters
did people mean to drop them?
one had shit on it

gulls cry from the roof
sparrowhawk sails overhead
followed by a crow

at dusk the wagtails
together on the rooftops
one by one they fly

when will it all end?
will there be a ringing bell
or will it change us

what if we are trapped
if this is our punishment
for taking too much

when will we hug our
mothers, fathers, our children,
when will it be safe?

oak trees black at dusk
clouds build on the horizon
the river flows on

a trespassing drone
seen off by a grey heron
both in silhouette

waiting on the news
you expect the worst of it
but the sun rises

ยฉ Daniel James Greenwood 2021

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: the zebra in the room

I know that this blog has focused a lot on spiders this year. My spider knowledge is basic and these posts, their photos and required dip into spider ecology (arachnology) helps me to improve that knowledge. I recently purchased a spider ID guide (Britain’s Spiders by Bee, Oxford and Smith) and it’s helped me to gradually open a better understanding of these, well, misunderstood animals. I do wonder how much the tales of antipodean killer spiders has made people in England, where there are no venomous native spiders, needlessly fearful. Of course it’s different for arachnophobes.

My favourite group of spiders are the jumping spiders, the salticids. The first jumper I ever saw or photographed was one of the zebra spiders, of which we have three species in the UK. You can only identify them with microscopic assessment of their genitals, which is beyond this blog. Regardless, I found a zebra spider on the wall of my living room, which I now appreciate is just a giant invertebrate trap. I have actually also had a starling find its way in.

I knew this would be a good chance to try and get some good photos of the spider because there are few places to hide. I helped the spider onto my finger tip which, though the photo isn’t focused properly, does show how small (and harmless) it is.

And here is a reminder to you all of how most macro photos come out – out of focus. I suppose it’s half the fun.

Zebra spiders are beautiful inverts. Their name obviously comes from their black and white patterning.

One part of the spider that I really wanted to share is its fangs. They are seen below the pedipalps, what are effectively reporoductive organs for spiders. I presume the spider was hunting for prey, or perhaps even looking for a mate.

I helped the spider back out onto the windowsill where it wandered along the draught excluding brush. I hope it found what it was looking for (unless you were the thing it was looking for!).

Thanks for reading.

More macro