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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Inside and out

Posted on June 29 2012 at 11:32:19 0 comments

Rowney Green

Mary Green braves the elements to visit woods and gardens.

I saw some interesting wildlife very locally during May and early June. I led a couple of Alvechurch Village Society walks and one for Rowney Green Horticultural Society, with somewhat variable weather!

The Alvechurch Jubilee walk was very wet and cold, but those who braved it saw some lovely old herbs – tansy and greater celandine – growing in Meadow Lane beneath the bunting. Unfortunately the planned climax of the walk, the beautiful meadow flowers growing on Alvechurch station, was somewhat spoilt by the fact that they had all been mowed down during the week.

The same thing happened a few weeks previously to the flowers along the canal banks near Bittell. I don’t know why the people who undertake this work deliberately ignore all the guidelines: that wild areas should not be mowed down during the flowering, bird-nesting and insect-feeding season.

On the Jubilee Monday, my neighbour was delayed getting to the Picnic in the Park by finding a mallard duck with ten ducklings ensconced in her kitchen! She did finally get them out and back into the wild.

We have done well for wildlife at Withybed this year. We have a resident badger, which took to processing across the field in the evening daylight, much to the interest of the Alvechurch Community Choir singing in The Crown.

And we have a pair of swans who have been here a couple of years and now have six beautiful cygnets. Swans are such good parents, and the survival rate of their young is much better than mallards and the positively careless moorhens!

The walk around Rowney Green showed how varied the ordinary flowering plants of a village are. I must say, the more I see of Rowney Green the more I admire it as a wildlife environment. It has beautiful woodlands.

Peck Wood, of course, is the star. I was privileged recently to be shown round it, noticing where the boundary bank and ditch of the old Alvechurch Park and Bordesley Park remain together with ancient oaks marking the boundary.

These “parks” were hunting grounds for the Bishop of Worcester, who had a palace in Alvechurch down by the Arrow.

I saw where the badgers were moved when the bypass was created, and given artificial setts to live in. They soon moved further out into the wood, where they are plentiful.

But the beautiful old oaks in Peck Wood are not alone. Along the main road, there are some huge specimens, including the Calling Oak, some of which also mark boundaries.

On the east side of the village, going down Gravel Pit Lane and round Lower Rowney Green, there are other beautiful woods. We walked through a wood commonly called “Bishop’s”, which had lovely bluebells and old apple trees.

Woods grow deep down the hillside on the other side of Gravel Pit Lane, leading to the trees growing very tall to get up to the light. The hedges are mostly sympathetically trimmed, so there is lots of flowering hawthorn with oak, ash and field maple, and a wealth of flowers underneath – stitchwort, campion, bluebells, buttercups, alkanet and many others.

Newbourne Wood, which is a nature reserve, is a little disappointing, as the Wildlife Trust do not have the resources to manage it as well as they would like. But if you go right through it to the side furthest from the village, away from the sterile environment of the conifers, there is lovely old woodland with a lot of beech and some bluebell patches.

I have had several walks through Eades meadows, and heard the cuckoo there on two occasions. The flowers there were very delayed by the peculiar weather, but were all coming eventually! The rare (but plentiful here) green-winged orchids came early, then slowed down and flowered for ages, but looked a bit bashed about by the weather.

Hewell Grange prison gardens were open in May this year under the National Garden Scheme. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but it was a fascinating visit. You may know that the prison is actually a stately home, just over a century old, built in the grounds of two earlier mansions.

As you drive to the house, you go down an avenue of beautiful beech trees, with well-manicured lawns (which of course I don’t like much as they don’t have wild flowers). But the start of the tour took us through a lovely patch of trees and wild plants around the old ice house.

Here were patches of white wild garlic, in full bloom, and bluebells, still looking nice. Garlic and bluebells grow in similar places but always have their own patch. There were also other common spring flowers, red campion and stitchwort.

Much of the grounds are shrubbery with grassy patches. The shrubbery we walked past next had holly and rhododendron, and was quite dark. On the way to the lake was a good patch of wild hemlock, that relative of cow parsley which is highly poisonous and not especially common round here.

It wasn’t flowering, as it comes out later in the summer, but the purple-blotched green stems gave it away. Oddly enough, I found a fine specimen down by the Arrow in Alvechurch too this year.

We passed the old hall, which was used from 1712 to 1898 when it partially burnt down – the ruins are preserved. Then we came to the lake, surrounded by a good semi-wild grassland and lots of Canada geese. Apparently they see deer there, but the only wild mammals we saw were rabbits.

By the lake (originally formed from the damming of Batchley Brook) I found a flower I didn’t recognise, so I had to set about finding out what it was, without being allowed to take photos! It had dead-nettle-like leaves and grew quite tall, with sprays of pale yellow rounded flowers.

I couldn’t find a picture of it in any of my books, so I had to set my family on to it. My niece, who broadcasts for Radio Tees, eventually identified it as yellow figwort, an introduced plant, occasionally naturalised.

Here and on the little Repton Island in the lake were also some more familiar flowers: campion, forget-me-not, ordinary figwort and lady’s smock. By now it will be full of foxglove flowers. A lot of the trees round here were ornamentals, but everywhere were good old native trees as well.

We went into the “secret garden” or quarry garden – a clearing in the shrubbery with a rocky edge that had presumably been quarried out at one time. Here there was a “hermit’s cave” and some fascinating flowers.

Around the edge of the grassy clearing were lovely bugle flowers – blue ones and some really unusual pale pink ones. These are usually woodland and meadow flowers. There was some good alchemilla and beautiful ferns among the tree roots, moss and boulders. This very romantic place is the supposed venue of the estate ghost, the Lady of the Lake.

On the next stretch, we passed a patch of miners’ lettuce (claytonia) – an old edible wild plant, very popular again for leaf salads. As we came round to the front of the house we followed a big hornbeam hedge, very close-clipped, and came to the four-square garden.

This was all hedged in very disciplined hornbeam, with a long avenue and steps leading up to the water tower. All was lawned, except for a circle of lavender in the middle. It was a typical landscaped garden in the 18th- century style – no flowers! I did find some ivy-leaved toadflax growing on the steps and flowering, but that was all. 

In the middle of each square was a clipped evergreen bower enclosing a statue representing one of the four seasons. The view of this from up the steps towards the water-tower was stunning, and it must also be great from the prisoners’ rooms facing out on to it.

As with many of these gardens, there is an old dove-cote, an archery lawn, and the site of an old maze (hornbeam-hedged) which is now overgrown. Later, inside the main house, we saw a beautiful ceiling carved in the form of this maze.

The prisoners in this part of the prison are coming near to release, and some work in the gardens or farm, butchery or dairy, or even in the prison farm shop. (The shop now sells asparagus in season, and I stopped there recently on a day they’d run out.

One of the staff said those magic words: “Shall I cut some for you?” I ate one spear raw on the way home, and then had possibly the best plate of food I’ve had this year – there is nothing like absolutely fresh asparagus!)

We walked next past the old stables (dating from the 1680s) and the original real tennis court, now a gym, and some colourful azaleas and rhododendrons.

Next we walked towards the far end of the lake, and came into another wonderful patch of semi-wild woodland. The banks near the old bridge were full of wild strawberry. In the clearings were huge patches of yellow pimpernel – more than I’ve seen for ages.

There was a big patch of greater celandine – an old herb – lots of bugle and bluebells, stitchwort and more lady’s smock. One of the trees here is a huge – and therefore old – copper beech, perfect in May.

On some old mossy steps called Lady Plymouth’s staircase were some really big violets. Then we came to an absolutely huge old oak near the lake, which must be three or four hundred years old.

If Hewell Grange opens its gardens again – go! It’s a bit like going back in time, because the modern demand for flowering garden plants hasn’t really touched it. It’s a tree-lover’s paradise. If you like formal landscaping you will love it: if, like me, you like wild woodland flowers, so will you.

On the Jubilee Walk we visited the trees and hedges round the station and near the canal which will be destroyed when the widening of the railway line goes ahead.

Network Rail will replant hedges of native trees, but it will take an awful long time before these fully grown hedges and trees can be replaced, so that familiar part of our environment will change.

We can just hope they only take out those absolutely necessary for the new line. Appreciate the trees and hedges while they are still there!

This month’s poem is one I have just written.

Counting sheep

Every spring, sheep come into the field
I open my window one day and the world is full
Of bleating, long-lost lambs, five yards away
From worried mothers, chorusing all night
They decorate the field, white on green
Appliquéd like cotton wool, prefiguring
The hawthorn and hedge parsley to come

But this year the field was bare after dry
Autumn and winter and cold spring
So they came in little by little. One day
Suddenly a sheep and its lamb, next day
Another small family group, disappearing
Into the huge field. As they lambed, they joined,
So the spring came stuttering, quietly

Then the cold rain fell and flowers shrank back
Everything sputtering like damp fireworks
Bluebells early and late, hawthorn not showing
But the grass grew, stealthily, quietly
And the sheep and lambs came steadily
Decorating the field like Peruvian embroidery
Till suddenly the field was busy with noise

And I opened my window and the sun shone
And the hawthorn flowered voluptuously
Heavy as lambs-wool, smelling of love
And the hedge parsley rose high as the trees
The moon daisies mooned, and the oaks
Began their golden dance at night
Among the sleeping sheep, when no-one looked.

Suddenly it was high spring, and the world fizzed
With white fire. The adolescent lambs
Escaped and caused their usual havoc
And the world was back on track.
Now I sit among the buttercups, risen overnight
And in a golden evening we gather
And watch the badger, appliquéd on the hill.

So with my life, changes creep in
You never know the tipping point
Until you tip into a new field, a new flower
Suddenly you’ve left school and college
And are stranded in front of a class of kids
You find yourself at the altar in white
And in a house with your own bed and dust

The sheep tiptoe into view, one by one
Husband by lovers, friends by friends
Jobs and singing by poems and acting
Marches and classes, sitting
In meetings by walking up mountains
Till all is changed. Suddenly here I am
Counting the shorn sheep in the full meadow.


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