Sunday March 29 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Coast and countryside

Posted on July 31 2017 at 3:10:42 0 comments

Saltburn beach

We certainly did have a flaming June this year, and the first part of July. I don’t know what it was about the specific conditions, but the flowering of orchids in the area was the best I’ve ever seen.

When I took a group of people to Eades Meadow in June we expected to see lots of common spotted orchids, and some remnants of the earlier flowering green-winged orchids, which we did.

Then someone spotted bee orchids, which I hadn’t seen there before. There was lots of twayblade, a rather greenish orchid with a distinctive nest of round leaves.

I was looking out for fragrant orchids, which are rarer: there are usually a few way off the path so you don’t see them easily. But this year there were dozens, everywhere, even near the path.

These are a more elegant orchid, with larger, more loosely-set flowers of deep pink up a long stem. They have a beautiful scent.

I even found orchids in the old field that takes the Saltway footpath from the little aqueduct under the canal near Alvechurch up towards Grange Lane.

This field always has lovely old pastureland flowers like agrimony, bedstraw and knapweed, but I’ve never seen orchids there before.

I was intending to write my usual holiday article about the Highlands of Scotland this year. Unfortunately I didn’t make it there due to family illness, but I did spend a week in North Yorkshire and County Durham, so there was plenty of chance to see different wildlife.

When you go to other parts of England, you are met with both the familiar and the unfamiliar. The trees were very similar, except there were more thriving elms there, which had flowered profusely this year. And there were bird-cherries, which like a more acid soil than we have.

With the differences in soil, and the cooler climate, the flowers are often different. The orchids there were northern marsh orchids in June, following a previous flowering of early purple orchids.

I found my biggest group of orchids on the sea cliffs at Saltburn in the far north of Yorkshire.

This coast, North Yorkshire and Durham, is characterised by very steep valleys called “denes” running down to the sea. These are wooded and usually too steep to have roads actually running down them, so are often wild and beautiful.

One in Saltburn has been semi-cultivated as the Valley Gardens and the other mostly left wild. The Valley Gardens are a lovely example of how wild plants can co-exist with more cultivated ones.

A flower really abundant in June is the meadow cranesbill, a lovely blue geranium. It doesn’t grow wild in our bit of the Midlands, but has sometimes spread into the hedges from people’s gardens. I spotted a rabbit happily feeding nearby.

They also have the beautiful darker wild rose I mentioned in June, the downy rose. But they don’t have the white field rose, which is prolific around here, which is odd because it was the forerunner of the white rose of York.

Along the verges I kept spotting a flower we don’t have round here, called crosswort – that’s when the verges hadn’t been mown to death (they have the same problems there).

It looks at first glance a bit like lady’s bedstraw, which we do get here – including a rather surprising line along the pavement in Bear Hill Drive in Alvechurch.

There was a lot of pignut still out in June, when it was over here. This is like a short cow parsley, with feathery leaves and an edible root. It’s believed to be the origin of the song about “gathering nuts in May!”

There was also sweet cicely, though it was almost over when I was there, with its lovely spikes of seeds forming.

This plant is also a bit like cow-parsley, but has leaves that smell distinctly of aniseed and frothy dead-white flowers. The seeds were eaten, and are good for the digestion.

Saltburn is an old-fashioned seaside resort with a pier and a cliff railway. Swallows had nested in the eaves of the little wooden hut at the start of the railway. The pier is decorated by “guerrilla knitters”, who this time had chosen a seaside theme.

The huge sandy beach was very clear, so there was not much marine life, but there was lots of evidence of marine life from the recent and far-distant past. It’s a great beach for shells and stones.

Some of the black stones are very light and are actually coal, a sign of the area’s industrial past. Some of the reddish stones are heavy and full of ore.

If you are really lucky you can find a hard black stone, which is jet. If you rub it on another stone it leaves a brown mark, whereas the coal leaves a black streak, and ordinary black stone just leaves a whitish mark.

Jet mining was once a big industry in this area, made especially popular through Queen Victoria’s love of jet jewellery. You don’t have to look far to see the industrial past and present there.

Many of the industrial sites are excellent for wildlife, and the best range of birds can be found on the salt marshes round the Tees estuary. Old quarries host a range of orchids and other flowers.

These areas are often more biodiverse than the farmland and moorland that attracts visitors there.

Something else we found on the beach was far older. This is a good place for fossils. The most common, which we found lots of, are the kind called “devil’s toenails”, though you can find ammonites as well.

I also visited a place near Durham called Lion Mouth Rural Centre. This is a centre for adults with learning difficulties or mental health issues, where they can come to take part in country crafts.

It was featured on Countryfile a few years ago, when they worked on the little river that runs through it. They restored the natural bendiness of the river and helped fish to live in it, as well as assisting flood-prevention. They now see otters there, and kingfishers.

The river is lined with butterbur, a plant with huge leaves which used to be used to wrap butter. We get it along the Arrow, but not as much as this! The wooded sides are full of white foxgloves, and valerian, which likes damp areas.

(This is the “true valerian”, a wild plant which loves the north, as opposed to the red valerian which grows at the seaside – including Saltburn – and in gardens round here.) Valerian was a herb used to help with sleep.

The people who run the site make use of everything, making seats out of fallen trees and growing plants in old tyres, and the clients who come can work outside on this, or in the more conventional gardens, or in art and craft rooms.

It’s another good example of garden plants and vegetables mixed in with wild plants. Working in an environment like this has a very positive effect on people. Re-using materials is also even better than recycling, and helps people understand about sustainability.

Most of the birds and mammals up north were the same as here, but I saw more spotted flycatchers than I normally do!

I noticed there were a lot of swifts, and when I came home they were screaming over Alvechurch a lot in the evening – but not here at Withybed Green for some reason. But we do have a pair of geese with four big grown-up goslings, who have taken over from the pair that lost their one.

Back home I have enjoyed showing people my “wild garden” as part of the Withybed Open Gardens. I have a couple of local-grown orchids which I am encouraging to spread, and other interesting wild flowers like sweet cicely and alexanders, which came from Yorkshire originally!

A lot of people, on that day and when I take them round Eades, ask me how to get wildflowers to grow in their gardens. It isn’t easy, and just scattering a packet of seeds often fails.

My way is to introduce a perennial wildflower plant and hope it spreads, as well as letting local wildflowers find their own way in. I’m fascinated by the way they interact and keep each other under control.
Something I have noticed in this hot dry weather is that places with mixed planting of perennials, such as fields of mixed grass and wildflowers (or my garden!) are very resistant and don’t suffer from drought so much.

They also absorb water better when we do get it, so help prevent flooding.

I wrote this poem in August last year.

August walk
To keep me mindful, I have the canal.
I walk it daily, but each day different.
Water will calm the troubled heart, or wake
The tired head. Today wind shakes the treetops
And the sun just about summery still
Shines on that oak tree bole, which looks
Like one of those little earth goddesses
Dug up from a Neolithic tomb
Green hair sprouting above her breasts.
The boat names are traditionally eccentric
Wordsworth, Dreckly and the misspelt Cymberline
Persephone and Dunwyngyng. Sublime
And ridiculous, like love, like life.
Two cock pigeons fight until
A dog disturbs them and they fly together
To the safety of a tree. Conkers
Are hardening and thistledown blows.
I walk towards autumn, holding on to summer.

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