Thursday, 20 June 2019

An abundance of common wildflowers and a single rare one

An abundance of common wildflowers and a single rare one

THE sun has definitely got his hat on today. It is Tuesday, May 21 and so wonderful, bright and clear that it brings cheer to the heart.

We are heading off to see what we can find in a small corner of the world at Path Hill, near Whitchurch Hill.

As my friend Matt Coome drives along the newly verdant, twisting lane, we spot a red kite ahead in the middle of the road. It belatedly flies off on our approach to reveal a little dead fox. I have never liked the sight of roadkill and it always makes me feel sad when the animal is so young. It’s a small dent in my otherwise buoyant mood but this is part of life along our country roads.

After leaving the car, we head straight off through a sturdy kissing gate and onwards through two paddocks towards our destination.

The grassland is a golden marvel today, sheets of meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris) shine like the sun interspersed with swathes of the red spikes of common sorrel (Rumex acetosa).

We stop for a moment as we are greeted by two inquisitive hairy-hooved horses by the next gate.

Moving on, the lane is now as green as can be and full of scent. By a crossroads a broad and robust example of hound’s-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) catches the eye, its small maroon flowers only half out. It is such a handsome plant, a relative of green alkanet in the borage family and a bumblebee magnet.

We cross the “road” and stroll through an avenue of cherries that will be dripping with fruit before too long.

We turn right at Holmes Farm with its beautiful, stone-framed windows and follow the lane towards Keeper’s Cottage.

Along the way a skylark sings high above and a cockerel crows, a rural tonic for the ears. Young elms rise alongside their dead brothers and the lovely fragrance of dog roses fills the air.

At the cottage we turn left and enter another paddock where some handsome chestnut-coloured horses seem to be enjoying themselves at the far end.

Greater burdock (Arctium lappa) and common mallow (Malva sylvestris) are spreading rapidly. Dove’s-foot cranesbill (Geranium molle) is abundant and indeed throughout the entire landscape that we explore.

At the bottom of a gentle slope we enter a fallow field by way of another kissing gate. Here I have to mention that all these gates have been installed by the Chiltern Society and have replaced rickety old stiles. A great job, so a big thank-you from me.

A short path leads further down to the dry valley. A lone common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) glows scarlet in the field and there is a fine wych elm and some old yews to the left-hand side.

There is also what looks like part of an old garden wall within a fenced-off area. My friend Dave Kenny informs me that it forms part of the remains of Greenhill Cottage. It would have had splendid views over Greenhill Valley. I wonder what caused its abandonment.

Now we enter the target (via another fine gate of course). A large fallen apple tree partially frames the entrance with a white-flowered field rose (Rosa arvensis) close by and here we have it, a parcel of sun-drenched meadow on a steep, south-facing slope dotted with scraggy hawthorn, the size of a modest back garden.

Beneath and alongside the grasses, notably the very handsome meadow brome (Bromus commutatus) with its nodding panicles, we admire creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans), oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), mouse-ear hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum) with its pale yellow flowers, red clover (Trifolium pratense), lesser stitchwort (Stellaria graminea), black medick (Medicago lupulina), salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor), germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) and a delicate carpet of wild thyme (Thymus polytrichus).

Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare), hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo) and common toadflax (Linaria vulgare) fill the gaps but are not in flower just yet. Hound’s-tongue is well represented.

Buttercups and daisies are here, of course. There will be much more to witness soon but the display of reds, yellows, whites and blues are a work of nature’s art.

As we leave to cross the valley bottom, I look back with the realisation that I need to gen up on grasses.

The ground rises from the valley floor. We pass a solitary oak and enter a small area of old woodland on the other side. It is quite cool in here.

We find goldilocks (Ranunculus auricomus) with its pretty yellow flowers and common figwort (Scrophularia nodosa).

Hitting the lane, we turn left towards Pathhill Farm. Wild hops (Humulus lupulus) grow along here, dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) is in flower and dog roses are blooming.

At the farm we turn back down to the valley bottom once more. We find clumps of goat’s beard (Tragopogon pratensis), its yellow flowers closed as it is past midday.

Pineapple mayweed (Matricaria discoidea) is underfoot. It is a funny little plant — crush it and, yes, it smells of pineapples. The flowers look like tiny pineapples too.

Once more we pass through two gates and into the easternmost meadow. This is unexpectedly rich.

The south-facing slope is full of attractive bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) with its compact yellow flowers emerging from red buds. Wild mignonette (Reseda lutea) populates the hillside with its creamy flower spikes and is joined by heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis).

Best of all, we find a single columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), a very scarce plant. I have only seen some at Hartslock nature reserve, near Goring, previously. I can see some form of hypericum emerging so this meadow needs further inspection. Taking a much-needed breather, we stop at the entrance to a small woodland.

The fruits of a wayfaring tree are expanding, a white bryony (Bryonia dioica) clambers around the gate, wood forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) grows just within. Chiffchaffs, great tits and a blackcap chatter away. The view back along the valley is a fine one.

Emerging from the wood, Holmes Farm lies ahead and it is time to head home.

Back in the green lane, we stop for a chat with some friendly sheep over a fence by Rose Cottage. I think that they are just interested in seeing us.

On our way home, I think how much I look forward to the summer. It always seems too brief but then each season has its charms. It is wild orchid season now so time to get hunting.

Vincent Ruane

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