Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘English bluebell’

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The Sussex Weald, West Sussex, April 2019

I visited a small woodland in the Sussex Weald after work to make the most of a break in the showers. My aim was to catch the bluebells in the early evening light when I think they look best. The forecast was for cloud but it was windy enough for some sunlight to break through. This woodland is coppiced and was where I photographed the wood anemones last month. It is the bluest bluebell woodland I’ve ever seen. My friend always tells me, ‘no, it’s purple!’. He’s right.

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Bluebells are a huge draw for anyone who has a camera (so that’s everyone). It’s part of the traditional spring experience to go to a bluebell wood, in most places that still have them. That’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, ancient woodlands like those in the Sussex Weald are being lost, despite the fact that they are irreplaceable habitats. Their species diversity has evolved over thousands of years. At a coppiced wood like this, their ecosystems have coalesced with our management of them for wood products. The oak above might be a coppice, but it could also be three oak saplings fused together.

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Something felt quite gentle and warming about this oak plugged in amongst bluebells. Perhaps it’s the slight lean, it’s almost an invitation to pass by. The mental and physical benefits of spending time in woodland are great.

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I’ve noticed the flush of new green oak leaves and how quickly that freshness is lost to the stiff darker shade.

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Take these two oaks in the High Weald from a week earlier. Their new green is incredibly fresh but will now have darkened. You have to enjoy every moment of spring before it goes.

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Back to the wildflowers. Before visiting the wood I spoke to a colleague whose job it is to survey woods. He said he’d seen very few early purple orchids this year, possibly due to the colder than average January and then sudden heatwave in February. I said I would report back on my findings. I discovered a patch of about 10 flowering on the wood’s edge with plenty of other spotted leaves yet to produce flowers. I had seen them in the same patch a couple of years ago so knew where to go.

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I find orchids that grow in woods to be twice as exciting as those out in the open landscape. It’s a personal thing, because the diversity is far greater out there. There’s something about woodland versions of other species, birds or butterflies for example. There is something so interesting about the fact some species have made a niche for themselves in certain types of woodland only. Don’t get me started on firecrests. It’s even more interesting when these species, especially the wildflowers, escape out into the surrounding landscape.

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It’s not possible for the flowers to do much of that in this slither of the Sussex Weald because it’s surrounded by a monoculture of oilseed rape. On the contrary the farm is making its way into the woodland through the run off of fertiliser and water being piped in. You can see where the wildflowers are being pushed further into the woodland, away from the polluted areas. It’s something happening to almost every small woodland in England in one way or another.

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Photographing the orchids was tricky because it was windy, dull and the plants were small. I used a telephoto lens and tried to maximise the bokeh around the flower. These flowers are beautiful even when out of focus.

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The woodland flowers felt as if they were at their peak. Elsewhere yellow archangel spread amongst bluebells.

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The details of a wood at this time of year are incredible. If you look closely it’s not just the bluebells that will attract you, the fronds of bracken unfurling are worth investigating. These primitive plants reproduce through spores and pre-date flowering plants like bluebells by millions of years. It’s a tough plant and can be a bit invasive. Oliver Rackham reckoned it was the most common plant across the whole of the UK.

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People often say they spend a lot of time trying to remove pendulous sedge from their gardens. It gets around. It’s actually a resident of ancient woodland and can be found in the wood. I passed this community of sedges on my way out as a few bands of sunlight broke through the clouds and lit their drooping seedheads.

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That light broke free as I made my way out again, illuminating bluebells either side of tree trunks. It was a reward for gambling on a grey sky.

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Roydon Woods, The New Forest, April 2017

It’s Easter Monday and the sun breaks through the generic forecast of cloud, cloud and cloud. So too the bells of St. Nicholas’s church, reputedly the oldest in the whole of the New Forest. Bluebells swarm around graves, one reinstated in bright white stone. Sunglasses are needed to read the inscription. Bluebells and greater stitchwort spread out on the roadside banks and ditches, the fresh green feeling of spring is present here. The bells are clanging away for miles, oaks pushing out leaves after flowers.

Entering Roydon Woods the bluebells offer their spring greeting, washing off every now and then, where leaves and old bracken stems colour the woodland floor brown instead. The lilies have been trampled in places by badgers cutting across the margins of fallen trees and fencelines under dark. The bracken unfurls its prehistoric leaves, for how many millions of years has that been true, some in heart shapes fit for Instagram and greenwashing marketing campaigns. The urge is irresistible. In a place like this, at a time like this, it is difficult not to rejoice in the manner of the church at this time of year. Whatever your religious persuasion, it is hard not to feel a sense of something good making a long awaited return.

It is that time when those with less tolerance for heat jig between sun hat and tea cosy. It is the best of both worlds, and not expected to be the same again until autumn. The British summer usually dispels that generalisation. The birdsong has lifted, many species can be heard: blackcap, willow warbler, chiffchaff, coal, great and blue tit, robin, wren, nuthatch and the hammering of woodpeckers. The paths slaloms through Roydon Woods, at its edges oaks give way to holly, ash and birch. From these trees comes a sound I had hoped to hear for years in Britain. It is a quickfire piping that I have only personally heard in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is a lesser spotted woodpecker.

With binoculars I watch the point from which the call came, and sure enough the bird appears. White horizontal lines scar its black back, it is the size of perhaps a big chaffinch or a small thrush. This, the New Forest, is one of its final remaining strongholds in Britain. It has disappeared from woods in south London and across England for reasons not quite known or substantiated. The increase of their greater cousins and the general lack of available habitat for them may be the defining explanations. Walking on through Roydon Woods, lesser spots continue to call and hammer. I feel I know this ancient place a little more deeply now.

New Forest archive

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Wood anemone

Last year I was commissioned to write this piece about the four seasons in Sydenham Hill Wood. Woodlands are beautiful, yes, but the lives of their inhabitants are not as gentle or pleasant as we might like to think. Here are my four dispatches.

Spring

Along the trackbed of the disused railway wild garlic grows. It’s a remnant of the wood’s ancient lineage, its deep green is welcome refreshment on a grey spring afternoon such as this. Every so often you find other indicators of the wood’s age. Wood anemone are growing in isolated clumps and English bluebells, too, some hybridising with the Spanish garden variety. The hornbeam standing along the track is another pointer to the old age of Sydenham Hill Wood.

Above our heads is another species sure to have been breeding here for some time. There are three tawny owl chicks sitting in the top of a large ash tree not yet in leaf, and through the bare branches we have a clear view of them. They snuggle into their plump, downy coat of feathers, calling to their parents, with rasping voices you might not expect them to make.

The wood’s bird community is watching, not least because the tawny owls are the top predator in the wood and one of the chicks’ parents is nearby trying to make a kill. Last week we found a crow’s head by the pond and it now appears likely that the adult tawny that spawned the trio above is the culprit. The birds know it too: there is an anxious din of woodland birds – woodpecker, crow, robin, great tit, blue tit, ring-necked parakeet, nuthatch – as the rufous adult tawny emerges from its hiding place.

The chicks are further along than expected, they move one at a time over our heads and closer to mum or dad, their spread of primary wing feathers giving them a tactile appearance, each like a finger. The parakeets are the most successful in bothering the young owls as they shriek and dive around them, the vibrancy of these exotically coloured birds muted by the task, on a dour afternoon in the spring wood.

Summer

The leaves of trees under torchlight are sticky with honeydew, a little like our faces, damp with sweat and bothered by mosquitoes. I swat them away.  The wood is perspiring, wet with aphids. The air is thick with the funk of wild garlic that has flowered and gone. Stars are appearing in the ocean of night sky. A dot of light moves across the expanse. Is it a satellite?

A male tawny owl calls from acres away. We blow through a hazel whistle carved in a fashion to mimic the owl, and the bird itself responds in kind, edging closer and closer to us after each play of the whistle, its voice becoming clearer: What’s the time Mr. Owl? Now there is no foliage between us and anxiety stirs. We decide it’s better to stop in case the tawny thinks we’re another male. They are renowned for their aggression in protecting territory.

With the wood under the spell of darkness, the industrial world is reduced to a dreamy wash. Beyond the lining of trees could be an endless wildwood or an open pasture – the imagination runs free in the absence of engines and electric light. Some centuries ago the old woodland was felled and turned into farmland that skylarks, corn bunting, lapwing, turtle dove and cuckoo would have colonised. These birds are now absent from land that is used for cricket, golf and rugby.

From the glade’s sleeping bed of rosebay willowherb the great ghost of a hawkmoth ascends. I swoop the child’s pond-dipping net I am holding towards the monstrous insect, bringing the net and my knees to the ground. I carefully peel it away from the grass, revealing only shadows. The mysteries of the night wood remain.

Autumn

We’re sitting around the moth trap again tonight. A large flock of crows are returning to a roost in the direction of Dulwich Park. There’s something about vast movements of crows, it gives the sense of an ending. In old times this would have been the signal to down tools at the close of a day labouring, ‘when the crow flies’, as they used to say.

The insect numbers have visibly dropped since summer but the pipistrelle bat hunting just above our heads shows there must be enough for them to eat. The twilight is metallic blue, stars are lanterns in the sky untouched by trees.

We’re surrounded by oak woodland, with smatterings of birch, ash, willow and hornbeam. We can only hope the darkening wood conjures something beautiful for us to behold. The leaves around us are soon to fall and even in this fading light you can sense the change, nature exhausted after the sex of spring and summer’s heat. A hobby flies the same path as the bat, catching a moth in midair.

Night falls. Nocturnal mammals begin their movement through the leaf litter, their sound much bigger than they actually are. A moth has been drawn to the bulb of our moth trap and we retrieve it in a clear plastic pot. It’s medium-sized, purple and mustard in colour. It’s the barred-sallow. This moth has evolved to match the leaves of autumn, but it’s early, many of the trees are still verdant green. We release the insect and it disappears into the dark.

Winter

A slender pathway cuts through the ground layer of ivy, most likely to have been forged by a train of foxes. A large ash has been pulled down by the wind, the underside of the ivy leaves wrapped around it are a fresh colour, like the flesh of a lime fruit. To the side a den has been made with string tied to the rotting logs that rest against a tree in a tepee form. Sometimes people spend a night in the wood and so the sign of a tent or den surrounded by food packaging and drinks bottles is not unusual. There isn’t much litter to be found tonight, other than things the ivy has subsumed, bottles or cans taken in by the soil or blown over from the road. Spiders make a home for themselves in empty bottles and the woodlouse is a common inhabitant of an old shoe. Now the leaves of premature bluebells peek through the earth and we take care not to trample.

We come upon a clearing around a large yew tree, the soil cleared of ivy and plant life by the acidity and shading of the tree’s needles. The trunk is rippled and worn like an old doll’s limb. It’s one of a line of yews that would have been a hedge in the grand Victorian garden that was once here. The villas were built in the 1800s, but too grandiose to last, they were abandoned during the Second World War and, deemed unsafe, were eventually bulldozed into the earth. The ground dips to reveal the whitish bricks of a wall and a trail of broken glass. Behind us is a group of silver birch trees, quarantined amidst layers of ivy and the yew. These birch look like they’re waiting for something.

The other side of the wall shows a support structure for the terrace of the old Victorian villa, where the slow life of the woodland has been allowed to resume. A blackbird calls in the canopy and a great tit sings its winter song down in the woodland glade. The sun is setting low through the slope of trees. It’s time to go home.

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