Thursday, 24 June 2021

Happy at natural world thriving and prospect of rediscovering orchid

Happy at natural world thriving and prospect of rediscovering orchid

ON a bright morning we decide to stay local and visit Clayfield Copse and Blackhouse Wood at the northernmost tip of Emmer Green. We have not visited for a while.

I always forget how marvellous and diverse it is in here. There is such a broad variety of trees, understorey and flowering plants. Simply delightful.

We are greeted by some healthy looking ponds, devoid of common duckweed. We have a small pond in our garden and are planning to install a much larger one in a sunny spot to entice amphibians, dragonflies and all manner of aquatic life.

We are confronted with handsome hornbeams that love clay soils, gnarled oaks, ancient wild service trees, wych elms, crab apples, beech, hazel and field maples. Field-rose is abundant, as is pendulous sedge and wood sedge.

Cramp balls, or King Alfred’s cakes, a species of fungus (Daldinia concentrica), have hardened on fallen, dead wood. Common dog-violets are joined by bluebells, now in full flower.

We come across a trio of cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) and I recall these woods once formed part of the Caversham Park Estate. The trees appear relatively young but mighty and graceful.

Like last week, we hear chiffchaffs, blackcaps, blackbirds, song thrushes, chaffinches, great tits, robins, wrens, dunnocks, jays, green and great spotted woodpeckers. Still no willow warblers. What has happened to them?

We hit the northernmost boundary of the copse and head east towards Blackhouse Wood. Arriving at the boundary of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, we cross the line and stand to admire a young wild pear (Pyrus pyraster) covered with large but fragile white blossom.

It’s such an attractive, uncommon tree, Rosemary and I are both happy to see it.

I love Blackhouse Wood, the way that paths lead either side of tree trunks and the little islands of flowers that encircle them. It is a truly magical place and full of flowers, especially wood anemones, bluebells and lesser celandine.

Brimstone butterflies are in abundance.

Moving on, we find common lime, sweet chestnut, silver birch, wild cherry (or gean), yew and rowan trees as well as a beech that seems to be howling at us with a most strange expression.

We take our leave and head home where I take a stroll around our garden to check on the progress of our recent acquisitions.

I’m glad to report that our wild service tree, crab apple and large- and small-leaved limes (Tilia platyphllos and Tilia cordata) and red oak (Quercus rubra) have settled in nicely, all protected by green mesh from the nocturnal activities of our resident badgers, deer, foxes and whatever else.

As to the flowering plants, foxgloves, tutsan, (a bushy hypericum), sweet cicely, feverfew, common valerian, yellow pimpernel and woodruff are growing at speed.

Cowslips, primroses, lungwort, wild tulip, mezereon, red campion, garlic mustard, wood forget-me-nots, native bluebells both white and blue, cow parsley, ground ivy, wood avens, common dandelion, white dead-nettle, red dead-nettle, green alkanet, fritillary, herb Robert (ours have nearly pure white flowers, which is unusual) and greater celandine are all in flower.

The last plant is poisonous but used by herbalists. When snapped, the stems ooze a yellow liquid renowned for treating and destroying warts. All in all, quite a sight.

Butterflies waft about — brimstone, peacock, comma, holly blue and our first orange-tips of the year. Only the male sports the orange tips. The female is more or less white with a black or dark grey wing-tip. The caterpillars feed locally on Lady’s-smock and garlic mustard.

Part of our vast collection of ferns is full of fiddleheads, some green, some reddish. Many others are wintergreen, in particular hart’s-tongue and soft shield-ferns.

Our hedgerow has emerged from its winter slumber. With the exception of beech, all is in leaf. The little fellows will burst into life soon enough.

We visited our local garden centre a few days ago and I was delighted to find two native wild roses on sale, namely dog rose (Rosa canina) and sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa). We bought one of each and plan to purchase more as they are fine, sturdy specimens.

We are thinking about having an open day at our garden (when allowed) to show what is not just attainable but beneficial to nature from insects to birds.

Early the next day, we drive to Henley and park in the Mill Lane car park before strolling over the wooden structure that carries us to Marsh Lock and further on towards Shiplake.

The river smells sweet and is clear. I don’t see any fish but I know they are there somewhere.

The bumpy dry path along the riverbank looks like dinosaur skin and leads to Bolney Court with its outstanding, ancient oak that must be about 700 years old.

There is plenty to see along the way. Wild angelica is on the rise, as is water mint. Marsh marigold, with its large, bright yellow sepals, is in flower — a heartening sight.

Mute swans glide about on the shimmering water and greylag geese hiss. Rosemary feeds them. Great crested grebes dive and resurface resplendent. Chiffchaffs, whitethroats and blackcaps sing their hearts out. What is not to love?

We are looking forward to the vast platoons of mayflies still to rise, an incredible sight. There are around 200 different species in Europe, all belonging to the ancient order Ephemeroptera.

We look out for the hobbys that we saw here last summer but they should not arrive until May. As fast as any bird that I’ve seen in flight, they do not hover like other birds of prey.

On our way along the riverbank opposite Happy Valley, we meet a charming young woman named Amy Etherington riding her bicycle.

She stops and is interested in what my wife is taking photographs of. Rosemary is taking pictures of Lady’s smock. also known as cuckooflower.

Amy lives nearby and invites us to see what she has growing close to home.

After a short walk, she leads us into a tussocky paddock, a very appealing spot enclosed on two sides by a vigorous hedgerow.

Amy explains that some orchids pop up here year after year and, as their leaves should appear soon, we arrange to return.

It is a distinct possibility that the plants could be a species of marsh orchid as described by Amy and most probably southern marsh-orchids (Dactylorhiza praetermissa). That would be lovely to confirm, so we’ll be back to investigate.

Once back home again and thinking excitedly about the possibility of finding and identifying the orchids, I check my Flora of Oxfordshire (Killick, Perry and Woodell, 1998) to find that the southern marsh-orchid was recorded nearby long ago.

Nevertheless, it would be great to confirm the existence of an uncommon plant so close to Henley. The setting appears to be perfect to me, an orchid specialist. Fingers crossed.

Later on, some iridescent starlings squabble over bird food only feet away. We call them the “Gang of Four” and have named them Bill, Shirley, David and Roy (for those old enough to remember the Social Democratic Party).

Two red kites tangle and toy above, clearly having fun. Our local songbirds break into a final fanfare before turning in as we prepare to do the same.

I feel so happy sitting in the back garden as the light fades.

In my head, I sing a section of Everybody’s Talking, written by Fred Neil and covered by Harry Nilsson (and later the Beautiful South). It was the theme tune for Midnight Cowboy (1969).

I’m going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes
Banking off of the northeast wind
Sailing on a summer breeze
Skipping over the ocean like a stone.

Before I go to bed I sit down in my den and play the original. I’m skipping with a renewed life and a lovely wife.

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