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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

‘Villages’

Posted on May 27 2014 at 2:17:17 0 comments

Bear Hill

Mary Green looks at how villages fit into the wild landscape.

It’s been lovely to watch a “normal” year unfold this spring. All the blossom has been beautiful and has come at the right time – cherry-plum, blackthorn, plum, damson, pear, apple, hawthorn – one after the other as they should.

The oak came into leaf well before St George’s Day: the beautiful old Calling Oak at Rowney Green was especially early. 

The timing of course doesn’t predict weather, but it means the weather has been mild. Oilseed rape made the fields bright yellow two months earlier than last year.

Eades Meadow has started its season even more beautifully than the last few years. I visited Peck Wood on a warm sunny evening: the bluebells smelt intoxicating and green woodpeckers, chiffchaffs and thrushes sang.

My swan family has finally split up, leaving the parents as a pair again. One by one the cygnets were driven away: three of them stayed together in a gang for a while but now only one is left here. Its plumage has finally turned to the adult white.

I have found another pair of swans nesting on several eggs and my neighbour had goslings in her garden (see last month’s picture of its parents!) so I have high hopes for young ones.

Mind you, I saw a duck lead her six tiny ducklings to a place where a heron was waiting, letting them run around near him. I was relieved to see them again the next day.

Unfortunately the great effort made by the Canals and Rivers Trust to manage the towpaths in a wildlife-friendly way has been reversed this year. Instead of leaving the wild-flower fringe along the hedgeside as they should, their contractors have cut everything right back to the hedge-bottom.

Uncommon yellow archangel, a woodland flower, was mown down, as was a fine plant of alexanders in flower – this normally grows by the sea. And of course all the cow parsley, campion, stitchwort, moon daisies, speedwell, buttercups, dead-nettle – all the usual May flowers.

Nothing left for the butterflies and other insects. So I was extra pleased to see how well part of St Laurence churchyard had been mown: paths to walk through but plenty of wildflowers including pignut and goldilocks.

In my article on landscapes previously, I mentioned that the villages themselves were part of the landscape. So this month I will look more closely at those villages.

You still see the history of a village in its layout and buildings, and the influence of ancient farming, woodland and waterways is still there too. I am leading the Alvechurch Village Society walk on June 1, when I’ll be looking at the wild life around Alvechurch village.

The most ancient dwellings were usually on hill tops. They were defensible, with views across the countryside attracting pathways towards them, and were often on ancient sacred sites.

They avoided the floods and miry paths of the lowlands – perhaps we should re-start the practice! Of course, human habitation was seen as a good thing, not a detriment to the landscape.

Alvechurch stands out as being an old hilltop village – really a small town. It is named after an Anglo-Saxon lady and has a medieval centre.

The church and High House Farm are still there on the hill top, together with some fine old big houses. Further down Bear Hill are medieval half-timbered houses leading down to elegant Georgian houses.

The old Bishop’s Palace has gone but the marks of its moat and fish ponds remain along with its meadow land. It must have been a very compact medieval settlement alongside a hunting park, and later a rather prosperous village at the centre of agricultural land.

There has been a church here at least since the 12th century: the yew tree there is five hundred years old. The churchyard would have had herbs and medicinal plants and at one time was surrounded by elm and other native trees.

Later plantation has brought non-native conifers and large lime trees, favourites of the 19th century.

High House Farm and large houses like The Lawns (previously the rectory) and The Shrubbery make this an imposing area. No wonder the old Salt Way from Droitwich leads here.

And it’s one of the places for the magnificent Wellingtonia trees planted in the 19th century. All these hilltop trees have a great visual impact in the village, as well as supporting wildlife.

The spread of the old village is down the hill to the River Arrow, another obvious place to build as water was so important. Down there was the town mill.

Around The Square were later elegant town houses, some used as schools. This part of the village then grew into a more industrial centre, using the water power from the river, for example along Rectory Lane.

There were good quality artisan cottages for working families spreading along the main road – the Birmingham to Evesham road. Nail making and needle making led later to car manufacture.

From the 18th century, the building material was brick, and small redbrick cottages like those in Meadow Lane are beautifully designed. Brick was made locally, with clay taken from the marl pits that are now wildlife-rich ponds.

During the 20th century, houses were more likely to be faced and painted, as redbrick was seen as being not very classy. Now we are returning to brick, which can be a beautiful material.

The roads leading in to the village were generally lined with trees, as they had been formed through old woodland and were often boundaries. When the village began to spread further along the roads in the 19th and 20th centuries, many of these trees were retained.

You can see this very well in Alvechurch where old oaks lead into the village along the main Birmingham to Evesham road, supplemented by beeches and having a lot of elms at one time.
You can see it In Rowney Green too, with ancient oaks and other trees still marking the main road through the village, and an ancient boundary. Alvechurch School has especially good hedges and oak trees, kept in the modern development.

Later Alvechurch grew to the west and north, in the flatter land. There is a bit of ribbon development towards Redditch, but not much else that side. The waves of development are interesting and contain great design from the 19th, 20th and even 21st century (with a few exceptions).

Callow Hill is a fascinating example of how the old elements are incorporated into the new. On the left side as you approach the village is a line of old oak trees. On the opposite side, newer cherry trees have been planted to echo them.

The houses have mostly unfenced gardens, leading to a lovely wide open aspect looking up to the church. And the houses include interesting social history: some of them are self-builds.

The same kind of expansiveness is there in the top part of Latimer Road, with some really usefully-sized 1920s houses, in a harmonious style but all slightly different, and a wide street.

Where this road meets George Road are some excellent red-brick 1950s houses, with steep-pitched roofs. It’s easy not to notice houses like these when we concentrate so much on the conservation area.

As for the 21st century, Mill Court is a lovely example of harmonising modern build with old industrial buildings. Like the older artisan cottages, they don’t have big gardens, but are in harmony with their environment and surrounded by trees and fields.

You can see how the old boundaries and their trees and walls persist in modern estates. A good example is Withybed Close, early 20th century houses built to fit within an old curved boundary tree-line.

The Buckleys area, a rather urban late 20th-century design, is made part of the village-scape by the fine old trees and green spaces around it. A group of houses on Tanyard Lane has a lovely old redbrick factory wall behind the gardens.

Until the 19th century, ordinary people didn’t have gardens in the way we do now. Big houses had parkland and some formal gardens, herb and vegetable gardens, and orchards.

Cottagers usually had use of a piece of land to grow food, and pasture held in common. There would have been trees around, and wild plants were freely left to grow and used a lot as food and herbs.

Meadow Lane

Most of the 20th-century houses really do have gardens, though! Parts of Alvechurch (and Barnt Green) are fairly typical of “suburban” style, even though they are in villages. The family house with a big garden was everyone’s dream and probably still is.

These gardens have, on the whole, contributed hugely to wildlife. Flowers and flowering shrubs and trees provide nectar for insects and homes for birds, and other creatures from worms to hedgehogs thrive.

Some birds – sparrows and starlings for example – seem to prefer houses to countryside. I always smile as I walk down from Withybed into Alvechurch: we don’t get many starlings but as soon as I reach the main village there they are.

Less wildlife-friendly are lawns and decking, and the barren front gardens that have become parking spaces. But old-fashioned gardens, even tiny ones, with flowers and trees are fine. Lots of people tell me they have hedgehogs, frogs and even deer and badgers in their gardens.

Moving to the other villages, Barnt Green grew up around the railway and its nearby cattle market. It was always a trading post, and still has a proper shopping street at its heart. The village benefits hugely from being on the edge of old natural woodland, later enhanced with the Lickeys’ plantations of conifers.

The more acid soil on the Lickeys gives rise to rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas being planted around the big houses, and there is good heathland wildlife like bilberry nearby.

Many of the smaller settlements are ribbon development, growing along the roads; Bordesley being the most typical. However, much of Bordesley is on one side of the road only, so there are great views and a feel of being in the countryside.

Hopwood is a little different: it has large 20th-century houses ribbon-style along the road, but some older farms, and a more coherent centre now it has a modern affordable housing development. It benefits from the canal and nearby ancient woodland, and the fields around are rich in wild flowers.

Rowney Green is interesting, because most of the older houses are in Lower Rowney Green, in a sheltered area on a slope of the hill. The more modern developments follow the road along the ridge line with its spectacular views – not really ribbon development, more like an old ridgeway settlement. This village too is surrounded by lovely woodland and contains fine old trees.

My own settlement, Withybed Green, was on a junction of old tracks across to Foxhill and Cooper’s Hill. It is a cluster of mostly late-18th and early-19th houses.

It was originally a withy bed – a willow bed – and was occupied first by farm workers, then brickworkers and canal workers. You can see that the houses didn’t originally have gardens, just outhouses and orchards: now the gardens are all over the place, not necessarily next to their houses.

There was always, and still is, poultry keeping and bee-keeping, and at one time pigs were kept too. The canal and railway cut it off from Alvechurch and until relatively recent times it had its own shop as well as the pub.

Old settlements like this have lots of evidence of the woodland they were carved from. There are woodland plants like yellow archangel, wood anemones, moschatel and sweet woodruff growing around Withybed.

There are lots of remnants of old orchards too, especially our own variety of plum, plenty of damsons, apples and pears. I’ve noticed these round Rowney Green, too.

Even the mobile home park near Hopwood is an old orchard and still has some fine apple trees overhanging the canal.

Meadow Lane in Alvechurch has plentiful greater celandine, a herb associated with old cottage gardens. The deer that visit our gardens, sometimes to our annoyance, remind us of the old hunting parks around the village.

All the villages here are integrated into the countryside and its wildlife, but also have their own characteristic shapes and histories. Have a look as you walk around where you live.

I have noticed a lot more since being shown round my own village by Jack Hanson, Worcestershire Historic Landscape Officer, who has done a study of the area. Thanks, Jack!

I wrote this poem last year for a resident of Meadow Lane, at the Picnic in the Park. She told me how the wildlife of the Meadows infiltrated her garden!

Meadow Lane

There is a wildness in the Meadows. Walk
Under the trees: on one side bluebell’s scent,
On the other, wild garlic’s fallen stars
Blowsy horse-chestnuts towering over you,
The ancient oak, four hundred years alive,
Hawthorn and rowan fill the air with musk.
Wildness spreads down the lane. Here you find
The early coltsfoot, then great celandine,
Green fingers reaching into back gardens.
In the soft night, the fox’s stealthy tread
Brings his hot smell and brush of scarlet fire
In daylight ordinary rabbits eat your buds
The thieving pigeons strut, after your seeds
And now and then a secret grassy snake
Slithers among the shining daffodils
You love them all, life in all its shades
The warp and weft of darkness and sunlight


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