From here to Canterbury

Wildflowers

The North Downs, Coulsdon, May 2015

Entering onto the Downs, a group of teenagers are fixing their upturned bikes in the buttercups and silverweed. They spill out onto the lane, calling across to each other when a car comes past. It’s evening and the sun hits the mounds of anthills overgrown by birds-foot trefoil and speedwell. The glowing yellow and blue petals are a precursor to the summer yet to hit these chalky meadows, their flowers like a stash of forgotten jewels. From the strip of trees and bushes that separates Farthing Downs from New Hill, a flow of blackbird music runs, moving here and there as the wind tugs and carries their songs to different places. A red fox slips into the hedgerow. Song thrushes evade the wind with their daggers and trills. Up ahead, a pair of young women pose on the path, and only until a few paces ahead do I see the selfie-stick with their phone on the end. Disappearing off, knowing they aren’t alone, they throw a few more statuettes to their camera, before slinging hand bags back into the crooks of their arms. Skylarks call from up on high, one with its wings and bill working as if it all depended on that verse. In the hawthorns the linnets ping and pang, a green woodpecker lifts up from the turf and submerges itself in some oak scrub. The magpies tread through short tufts of meadowland coloured by buttercups and the hot red stems of salad burnet, still yet to leaf. Before me is Happy Valley, its wayfaring trees flowering in white spots on the hillside. Slipping off into the chalk hollow that will lead to Devilsden Wood, the defiant song thrush sings into the tunnel of hazel and yew, a master of this underworld. On the track before me is a light brown toad, sitting in the middle of the path. Like a baby it crawls towards me and nuzzles in against the side of my boot. I remove my foot and let it continue its journey into the undergrowth.

In Devilsden Wood I feel the first hints of the evening cooling, the sun having reddened my skin in the open land. The new, hardening green leaves of beech explode in the canopy where the light hits them, the few slithers of sky that can be seen between their branches leaves nicks of light along the trackway. A couple with their two sons walk with sticks, picking their way through the undergrowth to find new paths and treasure. The bluebells hum purple in the dark hazel coppices, brightened in part by the helmets of yellow archangel and splashes of stitchwort. The wood ends and the buttercup meadows of Happy Valley simmer at the break of trees. A man and a woman stroll the way I have come with butterfly nets in their hands, a happy day spent on the Downs, I am sure.

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The route leads back into sun dappled bluebell woods swamped by bramble. Two dogs shoot past from behind a small mound and I’m taken by surprise. Meeting company in the dark wood I waste no time breaking out again into the valley. On the hill that will take me to Coulsdon Common, two lads are rolling down, swearing as their tumble takes a surprising turn. At the bottom of the hill waits a girl with hands on hips, as if deciding between them who she will choose when their race climaxes. The lad with long black hair and grunge hoodie lies on his back, raising himself up on his elbows. The girl jockeys him and lies back. They rest in the sun-draining valley like a pair of Siamese twins. I pass them and head towards Coulsdon Common, overtaking a man in his seventies:

‘Evening,’ I say.

‘Good evening, sir!’ he fires back, as if still in the military. He stops, casting his eyes across the flowering meadow to the scene of a white gazeebo in a garden where a PA system amplifies a ceremony of some sort. He is a lone figure on that track, wearing a cap and winter coat. On Coulsdon Common the goal posts gape in shade as the sun breaks through the branches, illuminating the grasses: cocks foot and meadow foxtail. It’s approaching eight o’clock and so I chunter on, passing Saturday evening strollers fresh from an afternoon in the Fox pub. A man drives a mower along the verges, a clutch of bluebells given a stay of execution around a fencepost. I drop down into Rydons Lane past houses with vast lawns dotted with wildflowers left over from their previous incarnation as meadowland or wood. The absurdity of suburbia strikes its note – carp ponds, seven cars, gates with intercoms. I leave on an incline swallowed by yew trees and bursting with chalk, a Labrador storming past me. A voice blurs with the tree dark.

‘He’s over here,’ I shout.

‘Oh, thanks mate,’ is the reply of a man in a white t-shirt, stranded amidst dogs mercury.

I walk through a familiar farm where women ride horses, a Jaguar parked close by. In winter these fields are boggied by the deep clefts of horse hooves, now they are sealed by the heat of a hot day’s sun. Crossing a stile I arrive in a field where a man smokes a cigarette at a pathway in from his house, evidently in need of some silence and peace, he does not see me. I follow the mowed path alongside a hedge of poplar suckers, beyond a dead oak and its dead ivy which has only collapsed in the past year. In need of a snack I sit on the grass and notice paths which I had not seen before. A young, fresh red fox bounds into view, skipping as if from something invisible to the human eye. It sees me and stops, staring, unsure of what I might do. But I’m only here to sit and chew a Tunnock’s Caramel. I watch it through my binoculars, its image framed by buttercups and hedges, a house at the field’s edge. Insects move in small clouds along the edge of the mower’s reach.

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On Hayes Lane I dodge speeding cars and see that patches of wild garlic are being harvested with scissors, hollow stalks standing leafless on the verge. Their thoughtful foraging will make no dent in this robust lily, a plant flowering in profusion along the trackways from here to Canterbury in spring. At the entrance to Kenley Common a song thrush rises to a protruding branch, smashing a snail against the wood. It drops it and flies away. Taking a closer look I see the snail still curled up in its brittle, fractured home. The Common is not empty, the same spreads of buttercup full with human life. A man lies on his stomach in the flowers calling for his dog to run towards him, the remaining sunlight channelling straight down his lens. I look at the English oaks, swelling woods and distant wounds of chalk quarry and wonder what draws us so readily to gather professional images of our pets. With time on my mind I snatch a glimpse of the Caterham valley and head towards Whyteleafe, the remainder of the Common swamped in the shady wood pasture by cow parsley. The wood of mature ash and wayfaring trees are bright white, naked limbs in the twilight. At the end of my walk a poorly, urban fox cub nips into the road, pausing to watch me, like its healthier meadow counterpart, to see what I might do. I watch it disappear into the avenue of parked cars and take the pavement down to catch the next train home.

A thousand years

Parrot waxcap

Farthing Downs, London, November 2014

Blue smoke plumes from the dreary Downs, the crack of piled ash trees cuts through the distant wash of the M25, and now the noise of chainsaws. This work is good fun. How many people panic at the sound of this machine, waking to find that their favourite tree is gone from the frame of their bedroom window. In the town I am always suspicious when their itch carries. But this is the restoration of the chalky meadows swallowed by the incoming of woods. We as a species have been trying to halt the loss of woods but at the same time deny new ones for thousands of years. This is a thousand-year-old view, the only change the exchange of machines for the pop of axes on heartwood.

Against a view of near leafless beech, a green woodpecker rises from the anthills, its flight reminiscent of a puppet tugged at intervals as it passes. Robins sing, gulls create the aura of the Sussex coast, and rain specks add a pinch of cool. In the now flattened meadows fungi can be found: a parrot waxcap plucked and left, yellow gills that ripple like flames around its stem. Puffballs are scattered across the path, little footballs deflated and unwanted. I press my toe into one, flattened and leathery grey, its brown spores puffing out like effluent. I definitely take them with me.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014

The beaver’s work

Mutěnice fish ponds

South Moravia, Czech Republic, July

I’m standing in the street waiting for Moravian ornithologist Karel Šimeček. From here I can see a serin on a TV aerial across the road, and from over the houses I hear a golden oriole releasing a few phrases of its fluty, unmistakable music into the morning air. In the road is a dead animal, a common sight, and an indicator of just how much wildlife there is here. Another common image, especially on the roads leading out of town, is squashed hedgehogs. In England we barely have dead ones anymore. A car pulls up on the other side of the road and out steps Karel, binoculars round his neck, eye pieces covered by grey duct tape. He crosses the road, making sure not to be run down like a hedgehog. He shakes my hand and turns to the squashed animal in the road:

‘Turdus philomelos,’ he says.

A song thrush, my favourite bird. We get into Karel’s silver Peugeot estate with Radiohead’s Kid A on the stereo, a welcome reminder of home, and we set off. The roads are mostly empty but then it is 8:30am on a Sunday morning. I ask Karel about his interest in wildlife.

‘I became interested in birds as a boy when my mother bought me a book,’ he says. ‘I have been watching birds for more than thirty years. But there are not as many as there used to be, when I look at my notes I can see that there are less birds now.’

Why is that?

‘Different reasons. Agriculture is very important but it is probably the main reason,’ he says.

I was astonished to see how large the fields were in South Moravia. My host is conservationist Zuzana Veverkova, and she told me that the average field size is 500 hectares, meaning that small-scale, sustainable farming is impossible. Young people cannot find a way in other than through inheritance. And there are reasons why farms are so large: inspired by Stalin’s collectivisation of Russia’s agriculture, the Czech communists did the same, forcing farmers off their land and into prison if they refused. Today you have the corporate farming practice with monocultures of what Karel calls ‘the yellow evils’ of wheat, corn, sunflower and rapeseed. In some places, there are miles of these plants and nothing else.

But back to birds. I’ve never seen a goshawk and have read they are one of the most common raptors in the Czech Republic:

‘They are at 20% of what they were when I started,’ says Karel. ‘They are hunted and poisoned by people who think that anything with a curved bill and talons should be killed.’

‘Do you know the hunters?’ I ask.

‘Yes, I know them, and there is no reason for their killing of these birds.’

‘And are goshawks protected by law?’

‘Of course.’

We pass out through the fields, a pine wood on the horizon.

‘A few friends and I managed to get the pine forest protected as a nature reserve,’ says Karel.

That was not enough to save its most unique resident. 20 years ago it was home to more than twenty singing male ortolan buntings. Today there are none. Karel laments this fact as we take a swerve in the road, our passage halted by a pair of white storks treading through a field. Karel reverses and I photograph these graceful birds. They watch us, too, turning away and moving further into the pasture.

White stork

Arriving at Mutěnice fish ponds we stand on the rickety wooden footbridge where the River Kyjovka dams, the water splitting off into the ponds. Leaves cover the surface, a red admiral arriving to bask on the enforced stillness. Karel points to a stand of dead poplar trees on the other side of the river.

‘That’s the beaver’s work,’ he says.

They’ve been here for thirty years. About five years ago the manager of the ponds attempted to eradicate them, but he failed and so the beavers remain. They arrived here from Austria from the Morava, the river that gives this district its name, running the border with Austria and reaching the Danube in Slovakia. When they first appeared here one beaver was captured and interred in the local zoo. It escaped within 24 hours and returned to the fish ponds.

Turning to step off the footbridge, over a few missing slats, Karel glimpses a kingfisher as it lands on a rock in the Kyjovka. I lift the camera to it but can’t switch it on in time to get the shot. Off it goes, electric blue bolt into the willowy shadows of the river. And as we trample through the long grass alongside the river Karel picks out the calls of young kingfishers and a perch that bears the signs of the birds, no leaves, just bare and worn.

One abiding memory of these ponds will be the stench of the water. It’s nasty. More than once Karel has stopped and pointed at the water’s edge and said, ‘this is not water, this is coffee.’ It’s brown, frothy and pungent so not far off. We continue along the Kyjovka, the large pond on our left meeting the path which we’ve already passed down this morning. Karel has seen something up high in the hazy summer sky:

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘White tailed sea eagle.’

Marsh harrier attacking white-tailed eagle
Marsh harrier attacking white-tailed eagle

Through the binoculars I see a huge animal beating its great wings, with primary feathers so long they look like fingers that could dictate some deep, magical changes to the world below. But no animal is safe or indeed at peace for long on Earth. Karel has seen alongside the eagle a marsh harrier attacking it, and moments later another appears. I set my camera and start clicking. The eagle looks overdressed in its Gogolian greatcoat of brown feathers, its white head and neck protruding out from under, yellow talons dangling out below like down-turned coat hangers. The marsh harrier strikes again and again, forcing the eagle away from the sky above the huge pond and towards the trees, until the battle is over and all three have left my field of vision.

‘We had no idea that the eagles were here,’ Karel says. ‘A Swedish hunter had a permit to hunt in the forest and when he was leaving he said, “I see that you have eagles nesting in the forest”. Our response was, “we didn’t know that!”.’

We tread the path already taken, a dead bat splayed on the ground, its deathly grin drawn wide and rotting. It’s our waymarker. A small van rolls along the track, a Czech man with short black hair and ski-glasses steps out, handing Karel a metal tag that reads ‘Budapest’. They discuss something and then say goodbye, the man getting back into the car and driving away. The ring is from a young cormorant that was shot the other day. It had been ringed by ornithologists in Hungary and died here at Mutěnice. This seems familiar to Karel:

‘The migration patterns of cormorants are well known,’ he says.

This is an extract from an upcoming collection, Travels in South Moravia

Links:

Karel’s website

Conservation in South Moravia

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014

This is it

Six-spot burnet moth

Farthing Downs, London, July 2014

We leave the chalky, wooded hollow and appear in an ocean of field scabious. The sun setting in the west catches the pale, lilac petals of these daisies. In the other meadows across on New Hill and in Happy Valley greater knapweed has begun to flower, that deep purple gives me the sense of summer’s final movements, splayed florets that say: this is it. The meadows, too, abound with the motorised flight of burnet moths that were not here two weeks ago. Many of them are mating, one pursued by a pair of skippers unwilling to share a flowerhead. I wonder, what harm could a butterfly do a moth? Anthropomorphism excused, their quarrel does have the feel of a playground spat. That landscape is behind us now as we return along the crown of Farthing Downs. The sky is split in half to the west, smears of rain hurrying our return to the urban landscape. The liquid song of the skylark pours from the sky and we search for its shape. After giving in and then locating it I see it some forty-feet up in the sky. My companion can’t quite believe how clearly its song comes yet from so high. We stand, our exit delayed, the two forces of incoming weather and skylark display gluing us to the soft turf of Farthing Downs.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014

Where the wild thyme grows

Daneway Banks

Daneway Banks, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, Cotswolds, July 2014

Figures stalk this tumbling chunk of meadowland. Severe expressions are worn: eyes drawn to-and-fro, either side of the gently worn path. But all they see are the scattered clouds of marbled whites. This is where the wild thyme grows, creeping along the turf, appearing in small spreads on the miniature hillocks of ants. And here you have the reason for all the skulking souls, though some boast of their sightings as they lay flat on their bellies in wildflowers, with camera lenses mounted by donut-shaped flashes large enough to save a life at sea. The wild thyme is the food plant of the large blue butterfly, once extinct but now successfully reintroduced from Swedish stock, this insect depends on the work of red ants taking its pupa into their nests as one of their own. The large blue pupa will then eat the other ant grubs it’s lodging with, eventually destroying the entire colony. To find something that was once extinct is, to many, to contend with the immortal. We haven’t seen it, instead we hear stories of large blues sunning themselves beside gate posts ‘just fifteen minutes ago’. We also hear of the creature’s phased movement, down the hill with the sun’s heat. We meet a softly spoken man making his fifth visit in search of the ghost. He identifies the yellow spike of flowers that is agrimony. He suggests we look it up in my friend’s wildflower guide (one which I tossed, jokingly, into the air out of faux-botanical disgust some minutes ago). There’s much more to see: clustered bellflower, common centaury, yellow wort, pyramidal orchid, lady’s bedstraw (which we shamefully contended ourselves with as golden rod), the simple colours of bird’s-foot-trefoil, and edibles like marjoram and salad burnet.

Marbled white

Rain comes and we leave these meadows of lost souls, leading up into Dorvel Wood. There is that change, the sudden loss of colour, all has become green and brown – leaf and leaf litter. The wood flowers appease the loss of butterflies – the underlying stench of wild garlic, the sight of violets, wood spurge, wood melick and no desire for the unusual. No man can be found here lying in mud and puddle to capture a photograph he can later sell on. But the ash leaves, crinkled, brown – is this ash dieback disease, the greatest threat to British wildlife since Owen Paterson? This was a moment I had expected but had somehow felt to be too far away. The canopy leaves are curling and dying, too. Is this the end for the common ash? We ponder it and tread out of Dorvel Wood, into the beating and blazing meadows of Sapperton.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014

The cascading orchid

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Farthing Downs and New Hill, London, June 2014

In the towns swallowed by London’s urban lurch, summer is flowering knotweed, rosebay willowherb and lupins, all non-native, all bold and blooming along Victorian railway sidings. At Farthing Downs summer strikes out in meadows of yellow rattle, dropwort, field scabious, hawkbit, ribwort plantain and sheeps sorrel. The first meadow browns, ringlets and small heaths take flight, the latter locked in a pair, mating, flying as one away from my lens. Stopping to take in these grassy Downs, the sheer number of butterflies is clear.

But the birds have not retired just yet. I hear a cry from the blue sky and see a buzzard tucking in its wings and bombing towards Coulsdon. This is the first I’ve seen here, and its arrowing for London is without doubt. This is now officially the most common bird of prey in the UK. I also hear the songs of linnet, song thrush and chiffchaff. Spring and summer have clashed in a frenzy of yellow, green and the common blue butterfly. On New Hill pyramidal orchids cascade across the slope, the leaves of spring cowslips now tucked in under the shade of orchids, rough hawkbit and yellow rattle. The bed of marjoram bounces, its fragrance only felt when touched with the fingers. On the other hillside jackdaws flock with two sheep grazing, their medieval world clattering along with their calls, like bullets ricocheting. The sheep go about their tasting, the meadows purpler still.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014

A neon waltz

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Farthing Downs, London, May 2014

I sit on a path new and slight, pressed into the grasses. Last year I sat in a spot close by under the shade of ash trees watching a willow warbler make return visits to a nest down in the brambles. Now the brink of a small copse of trees has gone, the bird, perhaps returning, may have decided this was no longer a place to raise young. In the absence of willow warblers, brimstone butterflies, perhaps reaching double figures, mark the new space of downland that has been reopened from the folds of trees. The piles of logs and branches stacked in the iron beds are still here, yet to be burned or hedged. I like that slowness, that I can come back some months later and no one has felt too pushed to tidy the place up.

A male and female brimstone fly together and then fall down amongst the twigs and low, woody brambles. I’m interested to see what they’re doing so I get up and have a look. They’re mating, bodies bent round, facing away from each other. They part. High in the sky, against the blue and its herring and lesser black-backed gulls circling on thermals, a huge flock. I wonder why, I wonder what for. Down here with me the female brimstone is again on the wing, met by a band of battling males. They pass her and are turned immediately onto her, each forgetting their quarrel and targeting the paler female. This is the perfect reflection of the adult butterfly’s life: the males seek as many females as they can; the female, having mated, defends herself from latecomers as she strives to find the right plant for egg-laying. The males attack her, but she breaks free, up into the sky. She is not free of them. The four males cloud her, their colours so close as they gain height that all sense of defence has disappeared into a neon waltz. They go up, up and over my head to the world of gulls and warm air rising.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014

Deer and shadows

Sika deer

Newton Stewart, Galloway, Scotland, February 2014

A lady with a crutch and white hair slipping from a woollen hat stops me in the road. She saw me photographing the upturned soil and root plate of a gigantic spruce. Her accent suggests she has moved here from England:

‘I’ve seen about half a dozen deer in the woods just up there,’ she says. ‘If you’re quiet you might see them.’

I thank her and take my camera from the bag, pulling my hood up to shade out my face. The day is bright, sunny and warm. Beyond the dry stone wall the woodland begins, a line of evergreens creating a dense bank of shade along the wall, before the characteristically decrepit and mossy trees of an old Scotch wood. I look into shadows and see that a deer is watching me. It’s a sika deer, the first one I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t seem frightened. It turns to me, then away again, grazing behind the line of dark trees. I follow it along, it doesn’t gallop or run. Its path leads me to two more animals, one of them a stag, new antlers primitive but still impressive. It stares at me behind the wall – there’s a good twenty-metres between us. I’ve been photographing them the entire time. I think back to the venison sausages I had at the Galloway Arms, the conversation I had with the bar man:

‘Everyone thinks they’re all cute and cuddly, like Bambi,’ he’d said. ‘No one wants to kill them.’

‘But not everyone knows what they do to woodlands,’ I’d said, thinking aloud.

‘Well, exactly!’ he’d affirmed in his thick Scotch accent.

I know their numbers are at their highest in the United Kingdom since the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago (so are ours, by the way). I know the link between the nightingale’s sudden decline in England and deer overgrazing woods, not that the nightingale makes it up here to Scotland. But I could not kill one of these animals. I’d rather leave that to the lynx, or even the wolf. I put my camera away and make my way along the empty road.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014

A careless act

Gull

Farthing Downs, London, January 2014

From the hawthorn trees comes the sparkling sound of thrush and finch chatter. All around the landscape is weighed down by weeks of rain, the sodden grey and blackness, but this conversation lightens the scene. A flock of goldfinch burst into the sky, skipping through the air in their piecemeal flock. Their yellow wingbars flash against black feathers like miniature human warning signs. I train my binoculars on the thorns and see a redwing sat in the branches, contributing to the bird discussion. As I step towards them it ends instantly and so I turn and take a path to leave them.

The stumps of ash trees glow resinous on the hillside, the felled trunks lie supine beside them, the bark darkened by rain, the green and blue lichens thrive without a care for the tree’s demise. The brash has been piled and burned in elevated corrugated iron beds, and to many people this would seem like a careless act of deforestation. But it’s not. Farthing Downs sits on a bed of chalk and is home to a vast array of wildlflowers which are disappearing from the English countryside. The City of London Corporation are here engaging in a battle of restoration. Further along the path a black-headed gull skates low over the lane – I’ve not seen them so close to the grasslands here – propelling itself up and into the wind. Its relationship to winds so cold and blustery seem uneasy, and against this vista of meadows and woods, all the more unique.

A layer of snow

A layer of snow

Carrbridge, The Cairngorms, Scotland, October 2013

Arriving in the fields, the lichen frosted pinewood in our wake, I admire an old alder tree coppiced and growing by a brook. The landscape unfolds, the Cairngorms rising in the east, fringed in all corners by the yellow of birch leaves. We look to the hill where we had observed this scene only two hours ago, from a spot where a sheep skull hung from a piece of standing wood. We follow the River Dulnain as it runs east, the sound of traffic returning along the A-road. A buzzard floats over a line of trees, calling out, the sound severing the reminder of motor vehicles. We egg it on – ‘go on, my son!’ – and approaching a small farmstead we find a rabbit freshly mutilated, its neck bone protruding, eyes gone. Was this the buzzard’s work, or perhaps a mustelid. We cross a tributary of the Dulnain and a goosander bursts from underneath the footbridge. This saw-billed creature is one I had never seen before now. It steers itself upstream into the dusky light reflected by the water. We continue past a dilapidated cottage and fiery beech tree, watching as sheep leap and bounce away from a row of cabbages they had been eating in a neighbouring field. We meet the main road and wait patiently for our chance. Having crossed, we train our binoculars on the summit of Cairn Gorm, the restaurant and funicular railway car scratched into its slopes. All is dressed in a layer of snow.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014