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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Autumn views

Posted on October 22 2010 at 6:41:58 0 comments

Fly agaric in the Barnt Green woods

Mary Green finds our woods and hills full of autumn fungi, fruits and berries.

September was quite a mild damp month so the trees stayed green and the berries and fungi were plentiful. It still looks quite green in early October as I write this. The horse chestnuts have turned brown, the non-native maples in Alvechurch are making a spectacular show, with their red leaves. Some of the native field maples and hazels are turning yellow, and the ash is just starting to go.

From my window I can see an unusual field maple which, instead of turning the more usual yellow, goes a brilliant red in late October. We are currently enjoying an Indian summer, which I hope will last a while. My house is full of spiders and my garden on these misty mornings is full of their dew-spangled webs.

I was interested to read the letter from Darren Maguire last month. There are indeed plenty of buzzard families around Alvechurch. I was surprised by how common they were when I first came to live here, as I associated them with moorland and mountains. There are some apparently nesting up the top of the hills above Withybed Green, and others at Rowney Green. They also like to fly over the canal. They seem to get more numerous every year, so obviously do well. 

I saw a particularly good show of fungi on the little raised stretch of wood on the Blackwell road out of Barnt Green, described in my walk around the Old Orchard in the September issue. This is the relic of old woodland between the road and the railway cutting.

There were lots of wood mushrooms whose exact names I am not sure of, but also two I did know. All the way down the slope to the railway were fly agarics in abundance. These are the traditional large red or orange toadstools spotted with white, the “sacred mushroom” which contains a hallicogenic drug and should not be eaten as this is potentially highly poisonous.

The other was a good edible fungus called the bay bolete. They grow in mixed woodland, as do other boletus species. These are quite recognisable, as they have shiny brown tops, and underneath are spongy spores rather than gills.

The best is the common bolete, also known as cep or porcini (with the delightful old common name “penny bun”), which has a very brown round cap, white spongy spores and a thick stalk. You will all have eaten this if you ever buy mushroom soup or dried mushrooms. The bay bolete has a thinner stalk, and the yellowish spores which bruise blue. Both types smell lovely.

Of course, you should not eat fungi unless you are sure of what they are. I have just been on a “fungus foray” with the National Trust to learn a bit more about them – but there’s so much to learn! We found 40-odd different ones within a mile. I can really recommend this way of discovering fungi.

Berries have been lovely this autumn, especially the hawthorn. It’s interesting how they vary in size, colour and even shape. You can eat them straight off the tree: they have a taste all of their own like musky apples, best eaten when they have grown big and soft. They make a lovely jelly with crab-apples.

I found some good big wild service tree berries too. These are the “chequers” that you have to wait until they are almost over-ripe before you eat. When “bletted” (softened) they taste like little medlars, and used to be eaten like sweets by children. Of course, I have been making jam from my foraging. I am pleased to say that I have discovered a way of making sugar-free jam, important for people with diabetes. It relies heavily on apples, and doesn’t keep so long, but that just means you have to eat it faster! I’m now working on sugar-free sloe gin…

Among non-edible berries, the yews have made a great show this year. Alvechurch churchyard is absolutely full of them, bright red against the dark foliage. Guelder rose berries and leaves are also beautiful, quite common here, and are one of the berries whose edibleness no-one seems sure of.

This month I am walking around the Wast Hills between Hopwood and Forhill. They form the northern boundary of “our patch” and are a rather neglected but beautiful ridge walk. All these walks are on the Birmingham OS Explorer map. They are also clearly shown on the very welcome new footpath map from the county council, which came in my last Village and is currently available to pick up from Alvechurch Parish Council’s office. As there are so many walks around Hopwood, I will describe some more in December.

To get to Hopwood from Alvechurch on foot, the obvious way is to follow the canal. The towpath is good all the way, though after rain it has muddy stretches. These are particularly in the stretch after Withybed: the later section has been improved. By the time you read this I hope they will have finished the work on the bridge over the “dead arm” which is being replaced by a causeway.

There is a lovely variety of things to see along the towpath. On the site of the missing bridge between Withybed and Coopers Hill (featured in last month’s Village), there is a dead ash tree on the opposite bank with a beautiful bracket fungus.

Later there is a stretch on the other back with newly-pollarded willows, bullrushes and marsh marigolds. The open section near Bittell moorings has wide views across the newly planted wood on one side and the reservoir and Lickeys on the other. There are swallows here from April to September, and often swans as well as the ubiquitous mallards. I hope the bee-orchids on this stretch survive the change of mowing contractors. As I write this, I am reading that British Waterways may be one of the quangos to be closed down. I hope someone will continue to look after the canal network, which is a vital wildlife corridor.

Near the old brick foot-bridge just past Bittell moorings there is a lovely bullace (wild plum) tree. It has good blossom and very edible fruits, like a small purple plum. The next stretch up to Hopwood is in a cutting and tree-lined, with lovely old oaks, and eventually becomes peaceful as the motorway noise goes, though it’s a bit smelly from the rendering plant. There are lovely big apple trees, presumably from the original waterside orchard.

You might prefer to drive or get a bus to Hopwood and start there. The walk heads straight into the Wast Hills. From Hopwood, walk up the canal towards Birmingham. This stretch is usually full of boats in the summer, and has a nice friendly feel to it. You pass under an old brick footbridge and a road bridge, then the canal enters a tunnel. To the left is Hopwood Dingle, a nature reserve not open to the public, having ancient woodland including oak, ash, wych elm and wild service trees. Past the tunnel you can either continue up the small road or take a marked field path on the left which runs parallel to it and rejoins it. Either way you walk steadily uphill until you reach a wooded patch at the top. The grid reference here is SP 037765.

Here you will see the well-signed North Worcestershire Way. If you were to turn left, you could link up with the walk across the north of Upper Bittell reservoir, which I described last month. For this walk, turn to the right.

The path goes along the ridge, firstly through trees and then on open ground. The trees are first on the right then on the left. While they are on the left, just on your right is Wast Hill. This is the highest point round here at 210 metres. There are exhilarating views from here and along the next open stretch, over towards Birmingham one way, and back to Alvechurch and Rowney Green and beyond on the other.

Be careful not to take a track off to the left which goes north to join Redhill road. Carry on following the NWW until you reach Forhill Farms. There are some nice ponds and wetland patches to the right of the track, including one near the end of this bit with white geese as well as native waterbirds. When you reach Forhill farms you have to jink around the back of the first farm, Big Forhill, but it’s quite easy.

Here you can decide whether to do a long walk for a full morning or afternoon, or a shorter one for a couple of hours, possibly the best choice if you have walked from Alvechurch. For the shorter one, leave the NWW here and cross the farm road, then head down a footpath going south-west towards Lea End. I did this walk last summer. It is well marked with signs, though not always clear on the ground.

The first part takes you through a rather messy section with old equipment and junk, and an area used for clay pigeon shooting, but you soon get into more open fields. The path crosses and recrosses a hedge by several stiles before holding to the left bank of a nice dingle. The fields here are lovely – well-grazed, open and park-like with sheep and fine individual trees and really good views.

I haven’t done this walk in spring, but my guess is that the trees in the dingle would be lovely then, and there are probably bluebells. It is obviously a relic of old woodland, and has an amazing variety of native trees in it giving lovely autumn colour.

You arrive at Lea End lane. Walk along a short distance to the right, then follow a path off left back towards the canal. Alternatively, you can follow Lea End Lane back, or you can turn right and follow Watery Lane and Stonehouse Lane back to Hopwood. There are also further footpaths criss-crossing here so there is plenty of choice.

The path I followed back to the canal was through interesting quiet fields. It leaves Lea End Lane at grid reference SP 041754. In summer it started in lovely meadow grass then became more scrubby and ended up thistly with lots of butterflies. It can be quite a difficult walk through the vegetation, or in wet muddy weather, but is well-marked. When you reach the canal, near the old footbridge, follow it left back to Hopwood.

I found this round trip a lovely summer walk, quite hot in the sun on the low ground, but breezy up on the hills and cooler under trees, so a perfect mix. In June, the fields were fragrant with clover and elderflower. But even in November it will be enjoyable, because of the canal, the trees and the views.

For the longer walk, from the Forhill farms continue on the NWW path towards the Peacock at Forhill, where you could break for refreshments. (Alternatively of course you could park here and start and end the walk. The grid reference is 055755.) When you reach the start of Lea End Lane just before the pub, turn right down it, down Clare’s Hill. A short way along you will see a footpath taking off left into a little wood, which you follow. This is Clare’s Wood.

It is a beautiful little wood, with very old oak trees. I noticed a patch of sweet woodruff. This plant is a marker of ancient woodland. It has tiny white flowers, and looks a bit like a non-sticky goosegrass. It used to be dried and used as one of the plants to stuff mattresses and generally scent the house, as it develops a powerful perfume when dried. Most of the land round here is owned by the Bournville Village Trust, but apparently this wood isn’t. Within the wood are several attractive ponds, which were once clay pits to serve the local brick-making industry.

The path leaves the wood and goes on through fields, with lots of stiles to cross, to reach Watery Lane by Broadcroft Farm. I did this part of the walk recently on a very wet day with the Alvechurch Village Society. At the junction, go a little way down Stonehouse Lane and turn right into a field path along a hedge below the farm. When we went, there was a big Hereford bull here so we went back and walked along the road back to Lea End Lane instead! Either way is fine.

At Lea End Farm you come to the little dingle where I came down on the shorter version of the walk. You can continue on Lea End Lane for this longer walk, take the footpath on the left and do the rest of the walk back to the canal.

If you start at Forhill, you can do a very good shortish walk by following the route down Clare’s Hill to Lea End, then going up the path by the dingle and through the fields back to the junction with the NWW, which you can then follow back to Forhill. It’s a steep climb, but the views back can be breathtaking. All of these walks have varied ground underfoot, and some quite challenging stiles if you have dogs or are less flexible than you were!

By the time you get this you should still be enjoying tree colour, unless windy weather has made the leaves already fall. The native oaks and beeches are brown and golden, and red wild service trees stand out. Look out for the redwings on hawthorn and other berries: they look like thrushes but have a brilliant red flash as they raise their wings. Birds will be stripping the berries now, especially all those lovely holly ones you want to last till Christmas!

The poem this time follows on from last month’s “fire” poem, as part of a sequence about the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. This one was written it the time of the Icelandic volcano earlier this year.

Earth

It is solid in my hands
As I plant and press the roots in
Grounding, earthing
Made from clay we are strong
Returning to the earth
We will never be gone

And yet, an eruption in the ice
And the fire bursts through
Closing our airways
Throwing the earth with ease
From far away it dusts us
And our life trembles

How thin it is, how fragile
This earth balanced like a skin
Between fire and air
A crust of rock, holding grass
Cupping oceans, carrying us
Fine as a shining crystal

So our lives, we seem safe
Our feet on the ground
The grass, the trees, the roots
Our loves earthing us
But always the fire and ice
Beauty and terror below


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