Something new

Fly orchid 4

Farthing Downs & New Hill, London, July 2013

On the Downs the butterflies are immediately evident, the week old broods of meadow brown ferry amongst the long grasses, rarely stopping to feed on flowers. Breeding season is ending but still the song of skylarks comes from over the slope, some ancient language remembered, its translation lost. Greater yellow rattle blooms now, the spring buttercups lost to a swathe of Yorkshire fog and other grasses I don’t know. The suntan lotion on my arms acts as an adhesive, my skin covered with seeds. The grasshoppers are conjuring up their rickety, wooden percussion. I am hopeless in finding them, except for one that hops between seed heads, a micro Tarzan in this meadow jungle. But where are the people? A man drives a BMW sports car along the lane, revving its engine. I know where I’d rather be. Men in England are bare chested at the slightest chance and here a couple stroll along the lane drinking from big bottles of water. The tattoo stamped on the man’s back stands out in this simple landscape of slopes and flowers.


Ghostly day-flying moths spread at my every step through the long grass. Bumblebees forage on clovers, dropwort and yellow rattle, small heath butterflies appear again, two fly together, eager to fulfil their short lives with as much fornication as is possible. I cut back on to the path I know best. A chiffchaff sings in the hedgeline at the bottom of the hill, a single blackbird and a whitethroat, too. There’s no sign of spring’s willow warblers or their clutch of young. A crowd of peacock caterpillars munch through nettle leaves, leaving only the dreadlocks of flowers. A yellowhammer appears from across the lane, landing in a small hawthorn bush, its strong yellow plumage brighter than dandelions, a South American yellow, and at its brightest here. I take a few photos. Along with skylarks, this is a bird I have to travel to see, when once, before my time, you might have woken to it flocking in the hedges and fields.

Peackock caterpillar

Leaving the Downs I enter the chalky wooded hollows at the bottom of the slope, with tor grass growing along the track, an indicator of the calcareous soil. My sweat cools with the breeze that slips through here. In the dappled shade I scan the path edges for orchids, black bryony creeping out from the darkened hedges. And there it is: the fly orchid. I change lenses and struggle to get the image right, sweat dripping, bringing lotion down my face. But it’s beautiful to look at – a bit like a bumblebee pinned and proffered by the long spike, with its little eyes and short antennae. A family are passing behind the hedge, discussing how to control the dog.

‘She’s pulling me down into these weird places,’ says the mother.

‘Just let her off the lead, let her off the lead,’ the dad says.

They arrive on the path heading down hill. Their daughter warns the dog to stay with them. I only see the mother, she’s dressed in an apricot coloured dress and heeled shoes. She’s young and glamorous, so fitting with the array of flowers bursting from the hillside.

‘Who needs Box Hill when you can come here, eh?’ says the dad. They disappear down towards Happy Valley.

Speckled wood egg crop 1

I carry on along the ridge and settle on the desire line drawn down the hill and through the flowers. Ringlets move through the meadow, the first I’ve seen this year. They move at the same time and, stitched together, they are a tapestry of flickering wings. In my silence and stillness wildlife begins to move around me, perhaps more trusting. I see more plants now: twayblades, common spotted orchid, salad burnet, marjoram, ox eye daisy, rough hawkbit and bladder campion with its inflated, balloon like calyx-tubes. The wind blows through the trees. A speckled wood butterfly flaps about me, its wings audible as it hits my khaki shorts and leaf stalks. It clasps hold of a spear-like grass stem and curves its abdomen, laying a tiny pearl of an egg. This, for me, is something new.

Hit the road, muntjac

Foulden Common, Norfolk, March 2012

I walk the road from Oxborough, scanning the verges for unusual flowers. At times I am rewarded by small blasts of sweet violet, little white flowers which have been used down the centuries for their perfume and act as indicators of ancient woodland, particularly here in eastern England. But there’s no woodland anymore, just these elliptical patches of tiny flowers showing what might once have been here. The sudden end of the farmland is marked by a Scot’s pine, its bark fissured by wire that’s now part of the tree’s anatomy. Foulden Common opens up, a field of dry grass and mole hills, a wintry wood of birch and oak. A hare scarpers.

I sit beneath an oak tree riddled with dead branches and living lichens, a reedbed and crack willow behind me. Immediately I’m alerted to a large animal amongst the reeds, its fur dark brown, it turns its head towards me and disappears. I’m looking out at the fields, divided from the common by a fence and wire. Pheasants are calling back and forth from the wood behind me, its metallic call reverberating, to the field ahead. Gunshots boom, deep and bassy with a final, rippling crack, the pheasant screaming in the wake of the artillery. Overhead, military jets run drills from a nearby airbase and I am reminded of accounts of the Iraq war by civilians, the terrifying sound which hinted at what was to come. It takes over everything: the rooks and woodpigeons fly off in the distance, the robin singing in the scrub is silenced, a red breast moving, beak opening and closing as it sings into the machine’s roar. But it doesn’t last and the occasional gunshots resume, the soothing song of a yellowhammer coming over and over underneath. The release from the barrage makes me want to sleep, like being released from a grip, the yellow bunting luring me further with its repeated phrase, and so I give in.

I wake and the boredom has lessened, the endless trudge of hedgerow and arable land is distant, the lack of people is not so peculiar now. I feel the quiet throb of lichens, the bark against my back and the sun touching my face, the black eyes of an animal which thinks I’m still sleeping, a small, dog-like mammal with a head like a wood mouse. We hold eye-contact and it dithers, moving behind the collapsed willow and into the reeds. And then it begins. A volley of harsh, bark-like shouts fired from the cover – is it going to attack? The voice is intense, hostile. It’s unnerving. ‘Alright,’ I shout. ‘Alright!’ I put my camera and map away and head back to the road, the monotony of walking returns. The muntjac has shifted me from the Common.