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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Blackthorn & bluebells

Posted on February 11 2010 at 5:16:04 0 comments

Blackthorn flowers and hawthorn leaves

Mary Green celebrates the spring with a walk around Rowney Green.

I started to write this article on Candlemas Day, February 2.

“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter shall have another flight
If Candlemas Day be cloudy with rain
Winter is gone and will not come again.”

Or, of course, in the German-American version, if the groundhog comes out and sees his shadow in the sunshine, he goes back underground for another six weeks. Both these bits of weather lore rely on the knowledge that wet, Atlantic weather is fairly mild and tends to set in for long periods, whereas clear weather at this time of year is cold.

Well, it was cloudy with rain, but I somehow didn’t hold out hopes that winter had gone, and the predominant cold easterly weather came back before I finished writing. I expect winter to have another flight, so everything I said you might see in February may appear in March, and this month’s things in April!

However, the snowdrops came out on time and were here for St Brigid’s Day, the ancient festival of Imbolc, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. And I have just heard my first “dusk chorus” of the year, with blackbirds and thrush singing to a background of collared doves. I have heard my first chaffinch song of the year, too.

The February full moon is called the snow moon, and I saw it shining through falling snow on January 31. The March moon is called the crow moon, and there are certainly plenty of rooks nesting in the trees above my house.

My walk this week is around Rowney Green. I will describe ways of walking there from Alvechurch, though of course you can start at Rowney. It is good in March, but also extra good in late April, for which I am giving you notice! The first part of the walk, by coincidence, was the return half of the February walk by the Alvechurch Village Society.

From Alvechurch, walk on the left side of the Redditch road (passing the beautiful beech tree) until just past Sandhills nursery, where there is a farm road going left towards Lodge Farm. Healthy ash trees on the corner have recently been cut down for no apparent reason, except they are by a road

The little corner patch has lovely blackberries in autumn, and some snowdrops in spring. Take this turn and walk down the quiet road with lovely views of the neighbouring fields, hills and woods. These are some of the rather uncommon arable fields in this area, growing cereal crops.

They are intensively farmed, but do have a few wild flowers in them: I have seen speedwell, scarlet pimpernel, bistort and camomile here in summer. There are some fine oak trees among the fields, and on the hill ahead where the bypass runs, a relatively new plantation of silver birch and other small native trees.

During ploughing and planting times, there will be flocks of seagulls following the tractors, and at any time you may well see a buzzard or two overhead. I have often heard and seen skylarks here too, especially in spring. They like the margins of arable land, though they are not so happy on modern intensively farmed fields. In winter you may see lapwings. They are black and white birds which wheel and cry “peewit” – their other name. 

The lane leads to a bridge over the river Arrow, then goes under the bypass. In summer the ubiquitous Indian balsam grows here. Above the underpass are some pussy-willows, which have very white catkins early in spring, becoming yellow as the pollen comes. 

There is also a wonderful hedge of blackthorn and cherry-plum on the left before the underpass. There are bushes with different size of blossom, thorns and fruit, suggesting blackthorns interbreeding with wild plum (bullace), feral plums and damsons. Unfortunately they have recently been cut hard back, rather late in the winter, so may not flower so well this year.

Blackthorn is an ancient member of the plum family. It has dense white starry blossom on black thorny twigs, blooming before the leaves come. It starts flowering in February or March, or in a very cold year in April, and is a variable plant with some coming out much earlier than others. Thus, although the blossom of each tree is short-lived, the overall flowering season is quite long.

The wood is famous for making walking sticks, including the Irish shillelagh. The thorns can be vicious, certainly capable of puncturing bicycle tyres and thought to cause punctures in car and tractor tyres as well. Traditionally, a period of cold weather called the “blackthorn winter” accompanies the blossom.

In poetry, way back to Chaucer, blackthorn blossom was used to describe the white skin and its fruit, sloes, the dark eyes of beautiful girls. I can remember teaching in London and trying to explain to my students what blackthorn was!

After the underpass, the lane bends and climbs the slope, which has been planted with some very good native bushes. The dogwood is particularly attractive, with its red twigs in spring, and there is more blackthorn, spindle, guelder rose, hawthorn and hazel, which will have catkins on in spring. Shortly after this is a footpath over a stile to the right. You can go up this way, but I will save it for the way back.

Carry on up the road, and in spring you will see flowers beginning to appear on the banks. There are some particularly good patches of white violet here. Later in spring you will see cow parsley, red and white dead-nettle, garlic mustard and other common hedgerow flowers.

At the top are the farm and converted barns, providing some native garden flowers to look at, snowdrops and primroses in February and daffodils later. On the left, there is a lovely clump of horse chestnut trees prominent on a hill. The views across the fields to the left to the Lickeys and Wast Hills, and right to Newbourne Hill, are lovely.

The walk continues up the bridle path on the left near the end of the road. This can be muddy but follows a good hedge. Again, there is a lot of blackthorn, so it should be a great walk in spring and autumn, though it too has recently suffered from being slashed back and may not be so good this year. There are usually wild roses about in summer. In the right autumn conditions, the adjoining field has mushrooms, and we once picked a giant puffball here.

At the top you come out on to Rowney Green Lane by Alpine Lodge farm. There is a lovely little meadow patch here which has cowslips in the spring – I hope they are still there! Turn right and walk up the road towards the village. There is another bridleway off to the left quite soon, which leads down to Seechem farm.

For a longer walk, or an alternative on another day, there is a very good walk here, down to Icknield Street, an ancient Roman road, which you follow to the right and then take one of the two footpaths climbing up across the fields back to Chapel Lane in Rowney Green. (It was down here that I saw blackthorn in blossom on an Alvechurch Village Society walk on February 4 in 2007, though I think you’ll be lucky this year to see it on March 4 or even April!)

The main walk continues into the village. The gardens are a delight in spring, as most of them have naturalised flowers: primroses, daffodils, cyclamen, and snowdrops. Rowney Green has lovely views over countryside, but doesn’t have a shop or pub, so you have to have your own refreshment on this walk. You pass the Peace Hall on the right and soon afterwards a footpath to Newbourne Hill, which you take.

However, if you are doing the walk in April, look for a notice outside the Peace Hall telling you which week Peck Wood is open for the bluebells. It is usually around the last week in April, but does vary slightly. If you are here in that week, you absolutely must visit.

If you are coming specially to see them, you can drive to Peck Wood, or walk up from Alvechurch on the route I give for return, which is shorter. Peck Wood is on the corner of Rowney Green Lane and the Holloway (the road up from the Alvechurch-Redditch road).

Peck Wood is closed to the public the rest of the year and used as a children’s adventure centre by the Methodist Church. But it is open once a year for a week. It is a wonderful old wood, part of the old Alvechurch Park. It has a lot of oak, but also beech, birch, ash and cherry, and stretches quite a long way down the slope and over to your right along the bypass.

You can follow paths round it. Last year I did it on St George’s Day, when it was perfect. Because it is not normally open, but is managed, it is full of wildlife. As well as the best bluebells possible, you will find wood anemones and wood sorrel, yellow archangel, hawthorn and apple blossom. The trees are usually newly in leaf in April.

After this cold winter the tree leaves will come later, which is a good thing for the bluebells. These come up when the light is right, whereas oaks and many other trees come into leaf according to warmth. This means that in a warm spring the leaves may be there blocking the sunlight from the bluebells. On the edge of the wood along the Holloway there were new trees planted last year, which should make a good hedge in years to come.

If you are not visiting Peck Wood, go up the track to Newbourne Hill. This path can be muddy. Newbourne Hill woods are managed by the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and you can wander in them. Unfortunately they are not very old and predominantly conifer trees, so the wildlife is not quite so good. However, a programme of felling conifers and replacing them by native trees has started.

You may see woodpeckers and other birds here. Everywhere on this walk, if it is spring, you should hear birds: chaffinch, robin, great tit, blackbird, thrush, woodpigeon and collared dove at least, and chiffchaff in April. Take the main track through the wood. On the edge I once found a cauliflower mushroom, very recognisable and good to eat.

Emerging from the wood, you will see a stunning view over Alvechurch. There is a dead tree here which has been much photographed and painted. Follow the path down the field, passing on your right a huge circular clump of blackthorn, which has the most spectacular blossom if you come at the right moment.

The field is grazed by sheep and is good for mushrooms in autumn. You cross field boundaries and a stream until you reach the stile on the Lodge Farm lane again. The views are excellent all the way down.

The last field before the stile was arable but became pasture land last year. It had interesting wild flowers last year, for example lots of camomile and pimpernel, left over from its arable past.

Retrace your steps to the start of Lodge Farm lane, and stop to look at the trees by the entrance. There is a very early-flowering hawthorn – a midland hawthorn – here, which normally flowers in April. There are also apple trees, not wild crab apples but planted trees gone native, providing lovely blossom in April and excellent apples in the autumn.

This month’s poem is about the gradual arrival of spring, which is certainly gradual this year!

Spring song

Dark. Nothing blooms.
Kingfisher flashes through
Silent.

Snowdrops look down
Shivering, chilling the teeth
Robin’s song tinkles and scatters silver.

Catkins
Lengthening and lush
Speckled thrush, over and over.

Crocus stream
Opens to the sunrise
Blackbird pours out gold.

A dollop of primroses
Clotted cream
Chaffinch discovers his whole song.

The hedges dress in blackthorn
Bridal path
Skylarks arch overhead.

Sometimes he doesn’t come
My long love among the bluebells
Cuckoo, cuckoo
The bluebells come regardless.


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