North Downs diary, Mole Valley, Surrey, April 2017
I follow the Mole gap trail into Norbury Park, ash woodland glowing in the spring sunshine, dog’s mercury abounding on the soil between the pale trunks. The railway line cuts across the eastern edge of the woods, a brick bridge taking trains straight over one of the major footpaths. Under the bridge a lady walks her dog down the hill, her shape appearing beneath the brick. She pauses as I pass under the bridge and takes a photo.
‘All I could see was your legs,’ she says. ‘And then the rest of you appeared.’
We both have cameras and she asks what I’m here to photograph, about butterflies and how many I’ve seen today. Orange tip, brimstone, peacock and my first small tortoiseshell of the year. Along the banks of the Mole butterflies have flitted in good number.
‘Oh I haven’t seen many,’ she says. She tells me more about Norbury Park, its managers Surrey Wildlife Trust and how angry she feels about the fact all the Trust’s rangers will be made redundant. ‘It’s always the people who are out there doing the actual work that suffer. When there’s a fire or something goes wrong there won’t be anyone there for us to contact.’
The ranger programme was being funded with money from Surrey County Council, and Jenny has been making efforts to register her discontent with local councillors. ‘It’s all about priorities, they’ve just resurfaced the A24 and when there was nothing wrong with it.’
‘I devote myself to the countryside,’ she says. ‘Apart from 3 years in London for university I have always lived in Surrey. I spend hours walking with the dog and never get round to everything I need to do in life. When I get home I just head back out again.’
I ask her how things have changed over the years.
‘There are definitely less birds than there used to be,’ she says.
As we stand talking next to the railway bridge the sun shines down through the leafless trees. Peacocks sun themselves on the ride’s edge, bright yellow brimstones pass across the slopes above us. We say farewell, Jenny heading off into the Park while I continue south towards Box Hill.
The Mole edges Norbury Park, where beech woods sprawl along the eastern slopes. On the other side of the river the smell and calling of livestock breaks through. In the woods the beeches gleam in the glory of the sun, ramsons begin to flower one by one. Leaving the Park, farmland opens out and the woodland is replaced by fields with single oaks, and a beanpole lime tree riddled with mistletoe. I learned recently that mistletoe grows only on smooth bark, its seed is sticky and is often left there by the mistle thrush, so named for this reason. The branches in the canopy of limes are always sleek and silver, perfect for the mistletoe to attach itself to. The oaks are grand specimens, one dying back from above. Many trees are leafing on the Downs but no oak or ash quite yet. Overhead buzzards soar and mew, and the rickety frame of a red kite tumbles towards Box Hill.
The green fields turn instead to brown where cattle graze. More oaks mark the old field boundaries, likely once connected by hedgerows now removed. The farmer has fenced them to protect their roots and bark from the jaws and hoofs of his or her livestock. The fields are protected by electric fencing audibly ticking, but several of these oaks are dying, possibly from the damage done by the cattle. Crossing the Mole again the train line returns, a neat arch allows the river to flower as it kinks round. The light shimmers and ripples on the underside of the brickwork built almost in a spiral. It’s dizzying to watch for too long. Across the old footbridge and into a field named Foxbury Shaw more veteran oaks stand ready to leaf again, a trio leaning into a dried up channel, perhaps a former braid in the river.
One oak has fallen and lies supine with that typical stag head of old roots. Passing close by I notice the swarming of insects at the root plate. It is surely too early for wasps and they appear too big. Edging closer, they are in fact hairy-footed flower bees whirring and zipping around the old roots. When the tree fell the roots lifted soil with them, now hardened like great chunks of biscuity dough. The sun has baked the soil and the wood of the fallen oak. Here is the very image of a life after death.
The oak is being mined by solitary bees, some, like the bronze furrow bee are minute. There are more animals besides them, with jumping spiders waiting for the chance to pinch their prey. One sits atop a root basking in the sun, camouflaged against the bleached timber. The soil has been drilled with holes, the habitat of the flower bees. A group of about five to eight males, blonde and super-fast in flight, zip around me as I photograph their homes. Truly it is the sound of racing cars or X-wings tearing around at several hundred miles an hour. Another species of bee basks on the upturned roots, it has long, black antennae and is disturbed when I look more closely. It’s a mourning bee, a parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of hairy footed flower bees. The eggs hatch, eat the young of the flower bee and then eat the food stash left for its prey. Despite our clichés, some bees are only in it for themselves.