It’s the hottest August day since 2003 so I’ve waited to go out until the evening. The sky holds all manner of clouds as the sun slips away. There is a purple hue to the sunset, a heft, as if the atmospheric pressure is close to breaking. Down in the valley where the Arun flows, a cloud hangs below the trees. I can’t work out whether it’s mist, surely not on a day like this.
I glimpse the mist over the fields, but instead it’s a cloud of dust. On the horizon the sound of tractors rumble deep into the lingering evening heat. Following the old footway south I can see the tractor’s dust and so cover my face. With the advent of face coverings in shops and busy places due to Covid, it’s something I’m an expert in now. To the side, a tractor cuts the hay. I wonder what hay there is even to cut this year, it’s been so dry. The dust tells part of that story. I remember one of these fields back in April or May, brimming with buttercups, fresh and green. It lost its verdant glow so quickly as the rain dried up.
I follow the byway uphill, stepping out of the way of two older men roaring down the track on e-bikes like they’re either escaping or attending to a crimescene. I pass a favourite local oak and thoughts turn to the autumn. Along the side of the path a green metal fence has been put up to stop people and dogs, I presume, from accessing fields where sheep, horses, and jackdaws, graze. Each time I come here I watch another tree in the horses’ field get closer and closer to a full ring-barking. One ash tree has already died this year. Anxious, I look for an oak tree which otherwise could live for hundreds of years. This evening the horses are gathered around something at the fenceline. I can only guess that there isn’t the grass for them to eat and so they’re being given hay.
I follow this new green fence and cross away towards the old park, where ancient sweet chestnuts and aging oaks dot the open landscape. In the distance cattle are grazing like moons in the grasslands. On the clay track back down, oaks overhang, laden with thousands of acorns. It makes me think of all they were once used for: coffee, flour, their galls used to make the inks that mark the Magna Carta and American Declaration of Independence. In America acorns were the staple of ‘balanocultures’, Native American communities who stashed and cached acorns as resources.
Off the hill, the path is penned in by lush growth of grasses, brambles, St. John’s wort and knapweeds. There are oak saplings too. Their translucent green leaves are pocked with the pin cushions of spangle galls. These galls are home to the larvae of gall wasps. Next month the galls will fall to the ground and wasps will continue their development through winter, ready to hatch in April and begin the process once more. The seasons, they’re inescapable.
Rainfall on the downs. Still the jackdaws toe the grasslands in their flock, still green woodpeckers cut arcs across the landscape, still the spring’s song builds in hedgerow blackbird music. Linnets flock to the small bushes of rose and hawthorn, skylarks lift from the turf, dropping back down onto the grassy mounds of anthills. So few flowers, but rosettes are massing at the margin of soil and sky, the dropwort, rattle and eyebrights feeding on the thinnest layer of nutrients, readying to flower. But the rain still falls and so I make for Devilsden Wood where bluebells have peeled from green to that almost purplish colour. Our common name feels a little inadequate. But then that’s the joy of common names, there are so many, they each tell a tale of our senses through time. Wood anemones, probably my favourite flower, were known as windflowers because people thought that they only opened their petals when the wind blew. Here they bloom in their little flocks amidst dogs mercury and more bluebells.
The Swanscombe marshes are threatened by an impending planning application by London Paramount. They want to build a theme park on this vast wildlife haven. Is that really the best use of wild land when wildlife is in severe decline in Britain? I don’t think it is. I visited Swanscombe in March and have written this poem. There is a petition by a locally-led campaign to save the marshes, please sign it if you like what you see here.
Swanscombe has a number of different habitats: reedbed, brownfield, hedgerow, woodland, farmland and species rich brownfield grassland.
The grasslands along Black Duck Marsh are covered by wild carrot, birds-foot-trefoil, kidney vetch, red clover and a number of other nectar rich plants. This has attracted a number of interesting insects which have seen flower rich meadows and waysides disappear over the past 50 years. The insect above is an ichneumon wasp, one of over 2000 species in Great Britain.
It’s unusual to see early bumblebee around in August, but here one was, feeding on hawkweed oxtongue, a weedy plant that provides a great deal of nourishment for invertebrates at this time of year.
Turnip sawflies were seen across many of the flower heads of wild carrot, a common plant at Swanscombe. Sawflies are lesser known pollinators related to bees and wasps.
Sited alongside the Thames, it was not surprising to find a few migrant butterflies. There were a number of clouded yellow (too quick and unsettled for me to photograph) and this painted lady. It was fresh and may well be readying for its amazing journey south through Europe to North Africa where its parents had set off on their journey in the spring. How they can find their way back is not yet known to science.
On the southern slope of the rocky bank that runs through Black Duck Marsh, lucerne grew in large clumps. Even on a grey and breezy day there were a number of butterflies there. This, however, is a day-flying moth, the latticed heath.
There were patches of kidney vetch growing along the rocks of the Black Duck Marsh bank, and we wondered if small blue, a very rare butterfly in Britain that relies on the plant, could be present. We didn’t see a small blue but I did find this common frog hopper, the insect responsible for what I knew as a child to be ‘cuckoo spit’.
Common blues were flying low in the grass, possibly laying eggs on birds-foot-trefoil.
The breeze made macro photography very tricky, but I tried to make the most of the grey sky, wild carrot and lacewing feeding on its flowers.
Sitting on the bank of Black Duck Marsh we were visited by this stunning hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella inanis. This insect is in the family Volucella, a group of hoverflies which mimic bees and other Hymenoptera (bees and wasps) in order to deter predators and instead fool them into thinking they’re a threat.
Brownfield is a poorly understood habitat, it is also in the firing line as the housing crisis intensifies in the south of England through lack of affordable housing and poor planning in central London (I’m referring to the luxury accommodation, property banking boom), to name but a few symptoms. As for its importance to wildlife, willow tit is a severely declining bird in England but is now seemingly favouring brownfield over ancient or more established, secondary woodland. Brownfields are often so rich because, like Swanscombe, they are free of pesticides and are left to establish of their own accord. Many brownfields are more precious and indeed green than parts of the Green Belt, a measure ordained to protect open space. They’re also pointers to the feeding opportunities that non-native species like the above white melilot can offer to native insects like bees, a group of insects that offer £560million to the UK economy through pollination (Bumblebee Conservation Trust).
The Channel Tunnel could be heard as it raced underneath our feet. The above photo is the largest spread of birds-foot-trefoil I have ever seen, all growing on the spoil from the original development of the tunnel. Again, brownfield habitats can be some of the richest in Britain. This area would be lost to the development.
There were a number of pathways cutting through the marshes, like this buddleia byway.
My single memory from visiting Swanscombe Marshes in August will be the colour of the grasslands, the yellow of the trefoil, the white of the carrot and purple and blues of the lucerne. Please sign the petition to raise awareness about this unique and diverse wild place. There is time to make a difference and Save Swanscombe.
In April 2015 my good friend Eddie Chapman and I visited the Hortobágy in the Great Hungarian Plain, a Unesco World Heritage Site designated as ‘an exceptional surviving example of a cultural landscape constituted by a pastoral society’. Hortobágy is a small town in the heart of the Hortobágy National Park, three hours east of Budapest by train and a little bit to the west of Debrecen. The area is a magnet for wildlife enthusiasts and we were visiting on our way to Romania by train. The main focus of our visit, being without a car and dependent on public transport, was the fishpond complex known as Hortobágy-Halastó (Halastó meaning ‘fishponds’ in Hungarian). Halastó was ‘dripping’ with birdlife. This vast area of water was cut through with a single gauge railway (which we never used) and a mile-long, single file footpath. We saw a long-eared owl sleeping in a bird box, six eagles in the sky at once, marsh harrier at every turn and many other wonderful species. In the town, storks cavorted in front gardens and battled for prominence on streetlamp platforms placed there to support the storks. I had wanted to visit the region for several years after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1934 account in Between the Woods and the Water, as the teenage Fermor travelled from Rotterdam to Instanbul on foot. To see this area of land over ground hid none of Europe’s failings: people living in rubbish, vast areas of land devastated by extractive industries, huge infrastructure projects half built and deserted, rivers channelled, concreted and their banks denuded, and more rubbish, so much rubbish. But we met wonderful people who invited us into their homes and villages and guided us around the lands they call their own. The wildlife we encountered, for an early spring visit, was incredible. I recommend the excellent Crossbill Guide for anyone visiting.
The Great Hungarian Plain or ‘Puszta’ is known for its flatness. The phrase Puszta was created after the Magyar (Hungarian) population was decimated in the 1200s by Mongol invasion and then the black death. It refers to the emptiness of the landscape after those devastating events. The Magyars settled in the Great Plain at the end of the 800s and they are seen as the founders of the land we now know as Hungary.
230-140 million years ago the Plain was covered by the Tethys Sea, which is described as ‘the mother’ of the Mediterranean. Later, the Pannonian Sea was created with the formation of the Alps and Carpathian mountains surrounding it. The eventual draining of water from the landscape led to a unique mixture of soils, namely loess and clay, the former created when glaciers grind down underlying bedrock. As a student I read Anton Chekhov’s The Steppe and other stories and fell for these endless landscapes and the people (in Chekhov’s case Russian) who had to live from them. Chekhov didn’t miss their wildlife though, his short story The Steppe reveals its hidden life, death and beguiling beauty. As in Chekhov, first impressions of the Great Plain give the sense of a deserted landscape. In reality it was alive with wildlife: white stork, buzzard, roe deer, corn bunting, butterflies, wildflowers, boxing hare, red fox. These were only the things we could see. We missed the steppe tarantula and ground squirrels.
In the town of Hortobágy white storks were a common sight. They arrive in spring from their wintering grounds in Africa, building their famously large nests on platforms erected to support them. We saw tens of white stork in the town itself, some seen at dusk walking around in front gardens, sometimes in very small spaces. From a distance they looked like people, blurred either by heatlines or crepuscular light. We noticed that house sparrows were building nests of their own underneath the mass of twigs put together by the stork. There was tension between the storks with a number attempting to intrude upon the scene pictured above. The birds are silent but for a bill ‘clacking’ gesture, evidently territorial.
Yellow wagtail is a spring migrant to Europe which is in severe decline in Britain. There were a good number of them on the Plain. Being bright yellow with a grey head, it’s easy to mistake the more urban and common grey wagtail for this bird.
The only way for us to get around was to travel by train, the only time that we were really able to mix with local people. For the untrained, Hungarian is a pretty inaccessible language, with no relation to Latin or Western languages, it descends (or ascends) from Finnish. We tried our best but could only really master egészségedre (‘to your health’ or ‘cheers’) after a week in Hungary. The railways were typically post-war Communist, pumping out black fumes and chuntering along. But they were always on time and provided a lifeline for people who had no other means of transport. No one gets around on horseback like they did when Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the early 20th century, when ‘carts drawn by horses and oxen easily outnumbered the motor cars’ (p.44).
Both Eddie and I were struck by the struggles of people in the places we visited. It was at times impossible to see the trip as a holiday, particularly because of what we saw from the windows of our train as it passed from Debrecen over the border into Romania. I like old buildings crumbling around and lament their loss from London (I know there is a housing crisis) and took a few photographs of some that were around the Halastó station.
Having travelled in the Czech Republic and Poland, I’m not a big fan of what communism has done to the landscape. The former Soviet Union has also contributed greatly to global warming with its industrialisation of much of rural Europe. Its architectural merits are also lost on me. I’m not a fan of what modern capitalism is doing either, via agricultural intensification, oil and fracking. But agricultural intensification is something that communism welcomed with open arms, rounding up the smaller farms and destroying millions of hectares of natural grasslands, woods and rivers in the process. Today agricultural intensification is the biggest threat to the steppe grasslands of Europe and Asia, making them some of the most threatened habitats on earth.
This was the door to the station building, now housing sparrows. I should say that dilapidated housing and other buildings do not mean people in the area are suffering or unhappy. Here people seemed perfectly content with life on the surface. No one was homeless and the National Park appeared to be offering good support to the local community through ecotourism.
More charming for the outsider were the individual thatched cottages dotted across the landscape. The evidence of how inhospitable this landscape is for trees can be seen by the two here sheltering next to the cottage. Whether this was used to shelter livestock or dry hay is unclear to me.
We arrived at the Halastó fishponds on foot. The reeds from 2014 were being cut and piled into these pyramids, neatly put in rows. The thatch from the cottage in the previous image will likely have come from the vast reedbeds of Halastó. The reedbeds supported an amazing array of birds, this even before the spring migrants had arrived.
Marsh harriers could be seen at every corner of the landscape, flying low over the reedbeds in search of food. Upon leaving, we were shaking our heads at the sheer number of these birds of prey. We missed them when we’d left.
Another bird of interest for us was the pygmy cormorant, relative of the great cormorant which I know from the River Thames in London, and most waterbodies, really. Seeing these birds perched on branches low in the reeds was like looking back into the prehistoric swamps of Europe.
A line of dying trees at the edge of the fishponds were fitted with open bird boxes. The boxes were a form of social housing for kestrels, what I later found to be lesser kestrel (thanks to Nigel Spring for pointing this out to me), a separate species to the common kestrel we have in Britain. There were several more kestrels out of sight but my lens couldn’t quite capture the scene.
Perhaps the biggest source of amusement for us was from this long-eared owl which was roosting in the same box three days running.
Ever since reading the poems of Anna Akhmatova and the film The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957), I had wanted to see cranes. They are returning to England as a breeding bird for the first time in 400 years, once being a common species of marsh and fenland before their habitat was drained for agriculture. These birds were often eaten by royalty in England. The Latin name Grus grus points directly to the noise they make. These birds flew over our heads as we watched the kestrels and sleeping owl.
For wildlife to be protected successfully in the long term there has to be some benefit for humans as well. Fishponds have been present in Eastern Europe since medieval times and were created for royalty. Today they have a much more wide ranging commercial value and there is conflict to be found between those who like to pull fish from the water and those who like to watch birds pull fish from the water. Here we happened upon workmen extracting fish from one pond into the back of a lorry.
Climbing up one of the lookout posts, Eddie happened across six eagles flying on thermals over the fishponds. I managed to get this photo of what we think are mainly white tailed eagles with a possible lesser spotted eagle, though that may have been out of the picture. Later we saw a white tailed eagle sitting in the mudflats of a drained fishpond, taking to the air with deep wafts of wingbeats.
The sunsets of the Puszta are famous. We encountered this scene on our first day walking back from the fishponds. At this point we were turning back and forth between the setting sun and a pristine red fox trotting along the edge of the path. Corn buntings flocked and roe deer attempted to escape our view with nothing but the blur of the horizon to disappear into.
Beetle on grass blade, near Otford, Kent, England, May 2015
I am walking the North Downs Way back to front, upside down and inside out. This beetle was doing its best to remain on a blade of grass at the side of the path near to the village of Otford. It succeeded. I am struggling to identify it.
Please click through to see more pictures of the North Downs Way on Flickr.
I am walking the North Downs Way back to front, upside down and inside out. This is a view to Chevening House, where the British Foreign Secretary resides, currently Conservative Phillip Hammond. I’d rather be on foot.
Click through for my album of North Downs Way pictures on Flickr.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.