Thursday, 10 August 2017

Wansdyke and Bishop's Cannings

I planned out this walk over five years ago and have finally got around to doing it. The recent weather has been of grey skies with quite a bit of rain. As it had rained so much yesterday I thought I ought to head to the chalk hills as the paths are never muddy. Perhaps because the weather had discouraged from walking for so long I overcompensated and took rather a lot of photographs (194) nearly exhausting two camera batteries in the process. The walk was about 14 miles; here is a map of the route:

The original ambition was to do a considerable section of the Wansdyke which is an impressive man made feature running from Marlborough to Devizes (roughly). The Wansdyke is by most people considered a post-Roman defensive system built up to defend against the Anglo-Saxons and then Danes who occupied the Thames Valley and this line would have helped keep them out of south-western and southern Britain. It is a shortened form of ‘Woden’s Dyke’ after the Anglo-Saxon god who also gives us Wednesday. However, I believe this section - from Marlborough to Devizes was older and merely re-cut in later times. It is rare for such a significant feature to be built in a short period for one purpose as it would represent such a huge amount of effort. I consider a smaller feature was present back in the mists of time as a tribal boundary.

The first part of the walk was a pleasant ascent to the ridge along which the Wansdyke runs, harebells were in good numbers.


The ditch is impressive. It runs along the crest of the chalk downs for some miles. It marks an important watershed, to the north the waters drain east into Kennet that ends up at London, to the south the waters drain west to the river Avon through Bath and Bristol.

Wansdyke ditch

It was only when I reached the Wansdyke that I remembered my original reason for wanting to walk this route. I had visited Avebury with its amazing stone circle (the largest in the world), south avenue but also Silbury Hill. Silbury Hill is one of the most impressive earthworks and its function has been the subject of much debate. It is the largest man-made mound in Europe. It is located some distance from Avebury and seems unrelated to the other ancient features. It has now been reliably dated to the late Neolithic (2490-2340 BCE). I wondered whether its chief function was to advertise the presence of the tribe in the valley. Silbury Hill is certainly very prominent in the landscape, and if it was left as pure white chalk it would have stood out like a beacon. You can just about see Avebury church to the right of the hill in the distance,

Silbury Hill

This is the view of Silbury Hill a couple of miles further along the Wansdyke. I had to wait for the sun to catch the hill so it stood out rather like the white chalk would have done. I think it would clearly advertise to anyone coming north from the Vale of Pewsey that this land was occupied by a powerful tribe.

Silbury Hill

The land then fell away a little but the Wansdyke was still present as a significant ‘gash’ in the landscape. Centuries of farming have not really dented its splendour. I can't help thinking of a dim echo of the Great Wall of China!

Wansdyke ditch

There was a fairly strong northerly breeze and on the protected south side were a number of butterflies soaking up the sun. The real star was this Wall Brown butterfly (Lasiommata megera). I had only seen one other wall brown before - about a month ago in the same area. It is a pretty thing much more exciting than the name suggests.

Wall butterfly,Lasiommata megera

Over much of the chalk were plants of Red Bartsia (Odontites vernus) dotted here and there.

red bartsia,Odontites vernus

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina or Argentina anserina) was also in flower .

silverweed,Potentilla anserina picframe

I found my favourite thistle - the Woolly Thistle (Cirsium eriophorum) - along the Wansdyke path.

woolly thistle,Cirsium eriophorum

A wildlife friendly farmer had planted a wide strip alongside the walk with wild-flowers. He had installed bird boxes along the side of a barn. The blue flower that always impresses, common in the mixes that are sown, is Phacelia - but not really a full native flower.


A bit further along I made another discovery. I saw a few blue flowers which I took for scabious but on closer inspection they were rather different and much more 'blue'. I believe this is Round-headed Rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare). I had thought this flower was only found in the Sussex downs. Looking online it does have a good population in this area and there is very little else it can be. Quite an exciting find as I had not expected to see it here.

round headed rampion

This particular stretch of path had been heavily grazed by cattle and that had helped the more interesting wild-flowers prosper rather than grass..


I then left the Wansdyke path to explore the Vale of Pewsey to the south. The track had a good range of wild-flowers including kidney vetch, field scabious, meadow's cranesbill and great willowherb.

These walks always give one or two wildlife surprises. Apart from seeing the wall brown and the rampion I must count seeing about 50 house martins among the highlights. They must have had a tough time in all the cool and wet weather and were making best possible use of the sunshine by sitting on the warm slates of one house. There were continual comings and goings which is encouraging for a species that is now much rarer than it used to be.

house martins

I then came to the small village of Bishop's Cannings, quite the epitome of a rural idyll. One villager had set out fresh eggs for sale with an honesty box, which is always a good sign. The church took my breath away. It has a strange look, monumental but as if several churches have been stuck together. My thoughts turned to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. The manor of Bishop's Cannings was owned by the bishops of Salisbury (hence the name) from Norman times so the bishop had the funds to extend the church at several stages in the current architectural style.

bishops cannings church

The church had many interesting features, I regret I had not much time to spend there. One of the most unusual is the ‘monk’s carrel’ which is a seat used for confession decorated with exhortations for good behaviour in latin dating back to the 15th century.

bishops cannings,monks carrell

It wouldn't be a proper English village without a quaint old thatched cottage, so here you go.

bishops cannings cottage

And so down to the Kennet and Avon Canal. Another walking project that is almost complete; in sections I have walked all the way along the towpath from Reading to Pewsey. I now was able to walk the section from Bishop's Cannings to Alton Barnes leaving only a couple of short sections to complete. I joined it at the swing bridge just by Bishop's Cannings where a boat had just gone through.

kennet and avon canal, canal, swing bridge

I am not a great fan of canals, particularly when they have long straight sections. However here it is a series of gentle curves and it had a nice wild-flower ‘verge’.

kennet and avon canal, canal

Near a defunct swing bridge was a plant that likes damp conditions. It is gypsywort (Lycopus europaeus), so called because it yields a dye that people used to darken their skin (before tanning aids) and so look more like gypsies.


Eventually I reached Honeystreet with a nice canal-side pub (The Barge Inn) and then headed north to Alton Barnes and Alton Priors. The villages are only half a mile apart but each has its own church. The church at Alton Priors is larger and on the south face of the tower was an unusually large sundial. Accounting for British Summer Time it was still keeping good time.

alton priors,sundial,church

I was going to include another butterfly at this point but decided to economise on pictures. I saw a good many Meadow Browns, a few Common Blues, Small Tortoiseshells and one or two Red Admirals, Peacocks, Green-veined whites and Small heaths. A prominent feature of the landscape that can not go unrecorded was the Alton Barnes White Horse. Not quite as impressive or as old (only 1812) as the one at Uffington.

white horse

I then followed the last segment of what is considered the Great Ridgeway. On the steep undisturbed slopes north of Alton Priors was a good selection of wild-flowers including Clustered Bellflower. In one area were some Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) plants in flower. This is a plant now often planted as part of a mix as the leaves are considered to add useful protein to fodder. Up here though I think this one has been here a long time and could be considered 'native'.

sainfoin,Onobrychis viciifolia

As I climbed up the steep path from Alton Barnes at 6pm a farmer was just about to start harvesting a huge field of wheat - he would be busy well into the night. I end with one final view looking east along the bases of the chalk downs towards Martinsell and Oare, they look a bit like the Seven Sisters to me.

chalk downs

Monday, 26 June 2017

Buttermere and Walbury Hill

This walk was a record breaker. Although not in distance (only 13 miles) it broke my long standing record for total ascent set on the very first walk posted here (8th October 2009). In this case I climbed (and descended!) a total of 1,644 feet (501m) - the London Shard is a mere 1,004 feet high. It also took a total of 8 hours - only really possible near mid-summers day. I took 148 photographs and have had trouble whittling this down to this limited selection. Here is a map of the route:

As a final trek during the main orchid flowering season I decided to visit three nature reserves and three counties (Berkshire, Wiltshire and Hampshire). I started at the top of the downs near the village of Ham. The morning sun and breeze gave excellent views.


Just a few hundred yards from the car a bird was calling from a hogweed plant. I guess it was a Whitethroat but I could well be wrong.


I walked to the village of Buttermere, no not the one in the Lake District, the one in Wiltshire. This one does also have a ‘mere’ but only the size of a tennis court. In the churchyard there was a pretty trailing plant - Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia).

creeping jenny,Lysimachia nummularia

Buttermere church that serves only a dozen or so houses was more like a chapel. It had been recently re-roofed and re-pointed.

buttermere church

That was the last village I passed for the next 12 miles. I then followed ‘Buttermere Bottom’ which runs along the valley bottom. In places there was fine meadows with some wild flowers dotted within it, including Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris).

self heal,Prunella vulgaris

The closest I saw to a ‘mere’ was a rather small pond. However it did have a plant I don’t remember seeing before - I think it is Greater Spearwort (Ranunculus lingua), this is now widely planted in ponds but out here it may well be native.

greater spearwort,Ranunculus lingua

Another nice wild-flower that was growing here and there in the meadow was Musk Mallow (Malva moschata).

musk mallow,Malva moschata

I then reached my first ‘nature reserve’, even though there is nothing to say it is managed for wildlife. There was a very good range of plants including Fragrant, Pyramidal and Common Spotted orchids. There must have been hundreds of pyramidals, many be a thousand common spotted but only a few dozen fragrant. This is an almost white Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii).

white common spotted orchid,Dactylorhiza fuchsii

Another nice plant to see was Centaury (Centaurium erythraea).

centaury,Centaurium erythraea

And especially Clustered Bellflower (Campanula glomerata).

clustered bellflower,Campanula glomerata

Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris) is a plant usually see at the seed stage, this plant was still flowering.

bladder campion,Silene vulgaris

I could have included many more flowers from this excellent little sloping meadow but will limit myself to Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) with its purple anthers - and a hoverfly.

mullein,Verbascum thapsus

I continued following the valley bottom. As this is chalk country it is completely dry, last seeing water at the end of the last Ice Age. Along the track was patches of the feared garden pest - Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), but still rather pretty all the same.

bindweed,Convolvulus arvensis

I then headed up an ancient trackway into some welcome shade. Along the track there was a remarkable amount of Redcurrant (Ribes rubrum). This is considered an indicator of ancient usage as it spreads very slowly and our forbears must have brought it there long ago.

redcurrant,Ribes rubrum

I then reached my second Nature Reserve - West Woodhay chalk pit. However there was much less to see than I expected - I have visited three years ago and thought there could have been more to see. However I did see four species of orchid so must not grumble! Common Spotted, Fragrant, Bee and Twayblades.

I then followed Wayfarer’s Way to Walbury Hill - my high point of the walk at 974feet and the highest natural point in South East England. Common Spotted orchids were here and there along the path. Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) was coming into flower.

knapweed,Centaurea nigra

Just by the car park for those who take the less strenuous route to the top were about half dozen flowering spikes of the parasitic Knapweed Broomrape (Orobanche elatior).

knapweed broomrape,Orobanche elatior

Combe Gibbet stands on the summit of Walbury Hill and it has fine views over the land that falls away dramatically to both north and south. This is the view to the south, by this time it had started to cloud over.

view Walbury Hill

Continuing west along the ridge there are a few farm buildings and by them used to be a bank of vigorous plants. Unfortunately the farmer had decided to chop them back severely but I did find one or two flowers of what I think is Marsh Woundwort (Stachys palustris). There must be an artificial pond nearby as this was near the top of a very dry chalk hill.

marsh woundwort

You may have noticed the distinct lack of butterflies in this post. This is extremely misleading as I saw loads on this walk. However it was fairly warm and they did not settle for long. My species list for the walk was Meadow Brown (loads), Ringlet (loads), Marbled White, Large Skipper, Small Skipper (may be Essex could not be sure), Red Admiral, Small Heath, Brimstone, Comma, Meadow Brown, Silver Washed Fritillary and Small Tortoiseshell. Normally I count myself lucky to see three Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) in a day, on this walk I lost count and would say I saw at least 50. Sometimes three or four were busy chasing each other around. So it is appropriate that a highlight of the walk was a pair of Small Tortoiseshells that came and rested close by.

small tortoiseshell,butterfly,Aglais urticae

My last stop was a part of the Ham Nature Reserve which I had visited last August and the year before. Orchid seed heads had been seen there so it seemed an excellent opportunity to see which type they were. They turned out to be Common Spotted with a very good number of Pyramidal Orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) too.

pyramidal orchid,Anacamptis pyramidalis

I had vaguely hoped to see a much rarer orchid in these parts - the Lizard orchid. I had read a report of a single plant seen there some years ago and it would certainly have been an exciting find if I had found it, but alas no. I rather wearily climbed back up the steep slope and back to the car - exactly eight hours after I had set out and with only a short lunch break out in the wilds.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Orchids and other things

The weather continues to be mixed and rather windy. As in past years the plants have responded by growing rapidly - they prefer it to hot sun. The focus was on plants and in the last week I have been busy visiting four sites noted for orchids. The orchid season is pretty short - each species is in flower for only a couple of weeks

The first trip was to Pewsey Down in Wiltshire. I have visited the site twice before once in September 2010 and September 2005. One of the first things we saw was a Wall Brown butterfly, the first I have ever seen. It sat and posed during a brief spell of sunshine.

wall brown butterfly

A little later on and the clouds came over and the winds got up. An isolated Nodding thistle (Carduus nutans) had a large number of bumblebees burrowing into the flowers to keep warm and out of the wind. One flower had 11 bees, this one had only 6!

nodding thistle,bumblebee

There was an area of short turf where all the plants were of diminutive stature. Kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) was one of them.

kidney vetch

Another creature seeking refuge from the wind was a Forester moth (Adscita statices) on a Sainfoin flower (Onobrychis viciifolia).

forester moth,sainfoin,Onobrychis viciifolia

Here and there over the downs were Fragrant orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea).

fragrant orchid

One of the reasons for the trip to Pewsey Downs was to look for Lesser Butterfly Orchids (Platanthera bifolia). We found about eight in all over the western section not the masses we were expecting, however when we moved to eastern part we did find them - in their hundreds, a very pleasant surprise.

lesser butterfly orchid

Another target 'rare' plant was Field Fleawort (Tephroseris integrifolia). After scanning many hundreds if not thousands of yellow flowers, a few (only about half a dozen plants) were found. It is a small plant rather grey and hairy in leaf and stem.

field fleawort,Tephroseris integrifolia

A few days on and I joined another group of friends in a look for orchids and may be more Field fleawort. The first location was Old Burghclere Quarry. I have visited here a few times before, in 2012 ; 2013 and 2014. The main attraction here are the Fly orchids (Ophrys insectifera), with more pairs of eyes to look around, we found hundreds of them scattered over the site.

fly orchid,Ophrys insectifera

Another plant I have photographed there before is Knapweed Broomrape (Orobanche elatior) but we spotted more flowering spikes emerging than I had seen on my own.

knapweed broomrape

The next place we visited was Ladle Hill in the hope of seeing Field fleawort, Burnt tip orchid and Frog orchids. It turned out to be too early for these orchids, they were not showing at all. We only saw Twayblades, Fragrant and Common Spotted orchids. However there were excellent views to be had. In the middle distance in this view is Baron Andrew Lloyd-Webber's pad at Sydmonton.


A nice little plant I spotted up on the iron age fort was Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria).

small scabious

The last site I visited was a site well known as one of only a handful of haunts of rare orchids. I walked through Homefield Wood six years ago and spotted some nice plants and butterflies but nothing special. An orchid I have not seen before is the Greater Butterfly orchid, it is subtly different from the Lesser Butterfly orchid (see above).

greater butterfly orchid

But the main attraction is large numbers of Military orchids (Orchis militaris) in two small meadows. They are mixed in with many Common spotted orchids. There were also a few Fly orchids, Fragrant orchids, Twayblades and Pyramidal orchids so all in all not a bad place for orchids.

military orchid,Orchis militaris

I looked at a few dozen Military orchid flowers and noted that there was quite a lot of variation, not just in size but in colour and shape. I would suspect there is some hybridization going on - quite common among orchids. Here is another military orchid showing quite a few differences.

military orchid,Orchis militaris