Saturday, 29 September 2018

October -- Mountain Ash and fungi

Male fern, Strinedale
A walk round the reservoirs revealed more autumn fungi than I ever remember. A search of both grassy and shady places disclosed toadstools in various colours: pink-purple, pale burnt orange, domed warty structures like coffee to which cream has been added and some of a tan hue — circular like biscuits.
    Beneath every colony of toadstools lies an extensive network of fungal filaments. These retrieve nutrients from the soil making them available to other plants, trees being a major beneficiary of the process.
     Strinesdale, being low-lying and damp, supports a good selection of common ferns. The different species of these prehistoric and handsome non-flowering plants are not too difficult to identify with a bit of practice. Male Fern, Lady Fern, Hart’s-tongue Fern and others are all fascinating, growing from spores by an intricate method.
     The heat of summer has caused many trees to bear abundant fruit, none more so than the Rowan or Mountain Ash. We are fortunate to have many of them decorating our parks and streets, some absolutely laden with berries (orange–red on our native species Sorbus aucuparia). These will be eagerly consumed by Starlings when they are ripe. Complex chemical processes take place within the fruits and like melon growers, the birds seem to be holding off until the stage of perfect ripeness has been reached. Incoming Redwings from Northern Europe hungry for carbohydrates and oils will join at remaining berries during the autumn. Rowan trees are tough — it is stated that they will grow at a higher altitude than any other British species. Their strength and their red fruit gave rise in former times to a widespread belief that they held magical powers. The author Geoffrey Grigson, always careful to credit his original sources, recounts that ‘in Wales, if you were foolish enough to step into a fairy circle, only a stick of Rowan laid across the circle prevented you from staying there a year and a day’.
Mountain Ash
     A fourteenth century Irish poem celebrates the usefulness of the tree:

‘Glen of the Rowan trees with scarlet berries,
With fruit praised by every flock of birds
A slumbrous paradise for every badger
In their quiet burrows with their young’.  

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

August 2018 -- St John's Wort and a reservoir

Ogden reservoir

After the fierce heat of early July — when a first-ever temperature of 50 oC was reached in the greenhouse — came the rain. I never thought that rain could be so welcome after last year’s wet summer, but the recent showers revived flagging gardens and freshened the atmosphere.
     Heat-induced physical torpor being lessened, I went for a walk round Ogden reservoir. As I ascended the path through farmland it was noticeable that their was no smoke from moorland fires in this area and a light breeze made walking a pleasure. Passing a pond I could see that the surface was largely covered by the handsome flat leaves and small bright yellow trumpet flowers of the Fringed water lily (Nymphoides peltata). This is not a true water lily nor is it a native plant, but it is commercially sold for use in water-gardens. It can be very invasive. Despite having alien status, the brassy flowers shone cheerfully in the sunlight. Who introduced it into the pond I wonder?
     On descending to the water’s edge I chatted to an angler who bemoaned the decline in the number of pike in the reservoir. Fishermen have always released them when caught but now they are being taken for food by foreign nationals. As we spoke a large fish swam towards his feet with an effortless grace. ‘There you are. Six or seven pound pike’. It certainly was impressive as it glided to deeper water — olive green with a pointed head and very streamlined. Loud and sinister chords from a full orchestra would not have been inappropriate.
      Apparently pike do not waste energy pursuing their fish prey but lurk amid dense aquatic vegetation and then go in hard with a fast burst of speed, their specialised teeth making escape
impossible. Their predatory feeding habits help to maintain an environmental balance, the man said.
S John's Wort
     As I walked to the car park I glanced over a wall to see a fine patch of wild flowers alive with bees and butterflies, and it included a colony of St Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum. (It has tiny glands which look like holes in the leaves.) This was reputed in ancient lore to have direct links to St John the Baptist which gave the plant powerful magical properties. The uses listed in Culpeper’s Herbal seem mundane by comparison: ‘Good for those that have been bitten or stung by any venomous creatures’.

Monday, 18 June 2018

July 2018 -- Carnelia roses


It is not unusual for members of the Anglican clergy to achieve excellence in other fields. We have some old shrub roses at home developed by an Essex vicar, the rose-breeding Revd. Joseph H. Pemberton during the early part of the 20th century. His involvement with the rose world was great for he exhibited his blooms at the popular rose shows held throughout the country, being assisted in this by his two gardeners. While thus exposed to a wide range of these beautiful flowers, he conceived the idea of introducing easy to grow shrub roses to be characterised by great fragrance and a free-flowering habit. The method which Joseph Pemberton employed was not recorded but his work of hybridisation resulted in a small selection of varieties still valued today. The best of them have the names ‘Penelope’, ‘Felicia’, and ‘Cornelia’ and, while hundreds of rose varieties have vanished in the intervening years, these are still grown, a remarkable achievement for an amateur. Cornelia — here wet but fragrant.
      The other day I took a short walk at Stalybridge Country Park, ascending an uphill track between some cottages. Warblers sang in a wooded area and passing through this I was soon at a higher point from where I could look down onto part of a reservoir. The air was wonderfully fresh, having a different quality to that of, say, central Oldham, and a falcon circled overhead. From the valley below bursts of birdsong and the sound of rushing water floated upwards bringing a great sense of peace and tranquillity. I thought how restorative such places are to the careworn spirit and how essential it is that everyone should have access to natural beauty somehow. The vegetation there was not varied, mainly bracken and heather with birch and oak trees stilted by thin soil and exposure. On the walk down I passed a gardener planting a new border at the front of a cottage. He knew his plants and was
enthusiastic about them and I thought of the importance of gardens in bringing natural beauty into our ever-accelerating world.
      The small corner garden next to the Parish Hall is flourishing, being the idea of John, one of our Church Wardens, who carried out all the hard graft needed to prepare the site for planting. Others were enthused by this, Charlie for example bringing the Alchemilla mollis and pink Geranium which have grown to suppress incoming weeds. A former patch of weedy turf now makes an attractive statement.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

June 2018 -- a meadow pipit and some wood anemones

Meadow Pipit

Our new church clock was installed in memory of the late John Brooks and Doreen was saying that one of their first outings together was a walk up Lark Hill at Delph. Not having visited this local beauty spot before, I took a walk there in some very welcome late afternoon sunshine. The very stony track leads through cultivated grassland and I soon noticed a pair of long dark-coloured ears sticking up above the vegetation. They belonged to a Hare which emerged to run across the field. They are elegant and given their substantial size could provide a good meal if necessary.
     Farther up the path, a Lapwing appeared directly overhead, calling constantly and looping round in series of circles, soon to be joined by a second bird. This means of leading a potential predator away from the nest provided an opportunity to observe the birds from all angles. Soon one of them landed a few yards away, the dark head crest and metallic green plumage giving it an air of some nobility.
     Alchemical mollis is a useful if very invasive garden plant which looks good after a shower of rain because water droplets remain held on the leaves like bright beads of mercury. There is a wild form, Alchemilla vulgaris, compact and a rich shade of green, which has the same moisture holding ability, and is a common plant at Lark Hill. I was interested to read that in ancient times Alchemilla vulgaris was held to have magical powers, being described thus in a sixteenth century herbal:– ‘In the night it closeth itself together lyke a purse and in the morning it is found full of dewe.’
     The weather was perfect as I reached the summit to look down onto Diggle. The sky was a clear blue, the low elmberry bushes were in full flower and a Meadow Pipit perched obligingly on a weathered post. The only grumpiness-inducing moment occurred when an off-road motor cyclist came roaring up the track.
     Walking past Denshaw church yard last month I could see some bright white flowers among the grass. They were Wood Anemones, a plant I have known since childhood. We lived near to some neglected woodland where in springtime Wood Anemones gleamed in the shade. I keep a blue-flowered variety going and while not an ideal garden plant (it disappears below ground after flowering). It certainly is beautiful when in flower.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

May 2018 -- Pied wagtail and the common primrose

Primula vulgaris
Up to now this spring has been largely devoid of pleasant weather. The rain, the bitter cold  and lack of sunlight have made one long for change.
    At the farthest end of the R.S.P.C.A centre grows a fine colony of the common primrose (Primula vulgaris) some plants having spread into the small United Utilities facility next door. This humble flower has over many years been developed by hybridisers into a variety of brightly coloured forms, and yet the pale yellow original has a simplicity and charm which for centuries has held the attention of poets and artists. The primrose once grew in some profusion in the countryside and a late Victorian book on wild flowers tells of the plant’s popularity among people displaced by the industrial revolution. ‘Great numbers of the roots are transported each spring into London and other large towns, and in many a back street and squalid alley the pot of primroses is a link between the present and the past, and recalls many an association with the bygone days to those whose lot now confines them to very different surroundings.’
    As peace and quietness become ever more difficult to find, local reservoir sites offer tranquillity and stillness. On a dull morning recently I was walking by Denshaw reservoirs, the all-pervading greyness seeming to subdue any sense of colour, when a black and white bird landed on the fence. It was a Pied Wagtail — not a species to attract attention when pecking around on the ground — but in the misty light it appeared smart and interesting like a good monochrome photograph.
Pied wagtail
      The upper reservoir there is indeed a tranquil spot and a venerable Sycamore tree slightly overhangs the water. Still bare of leaves it looked beautiful. The pitted trunk, plastered with moss and lichen looks as if it would fit perfectly into a Japanese temple garden. Walking back to the road it was reassuring to hear the rolling call of the Curlew and as the sun briefly shone a skylark burst into song.
      The common small birds of Strinesdale are now very active, Great Tit, Chaffinch, Dunnock etc., and after such a vicious blast as the Beast from the East one wonders what their survival strategies are. Today I was pleased to hear (for me) the first Blackcap of spring.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

April 2018 -- Cyclamen coum and a fieldfare


Last month I wrote about the tiny Goldcrests feeding by the R.S.P.C.A. Centre and I wonder if they were able to survive the fierce storm known as the Beast from the East. Despite more bad weather, things are moving towards spring. Today at the pond in the King’s Meadow low prolonged croaking sounds, like the muted roar of distant motor cycles, could be heard as frogs thrashed about and mats of spawn covered the surface between the reed-mace plants.
     As the Beast receded a striking thrush appeared on the apple tree in our back garden. This was a Fieldfare — a winter visitor from Northern Europe — more often seen in large flocks. Somehow this chestnut and grey bird had recognised that fallen apples lay beneath the snow. As the snow thawed the Fieldfare vigorously drove a sharp beak into the over-ripe fruit, continuing for three days, and when last seen looked in very good condition as if strong enough to re-cross the North Sea. I once saw a large number of Fieldfares feeding in a derelict cider orchard near Hereford.
     I always enjoy watching (and hearing) our native Mistle Thrush. They are early nesters, strong and energetic and can be seen bounding about in local fields. I saw one the other day hopping along the top of a drystone wall with characteristic straight-ahead urgency.
Cyclamen coum
     I have had little success in the garden with the oft recommended winter flowering Cyclamen coum. Our bought plants died but left behind a cluster of minute seedlings. These were potted up last year and placed in the greenhouse.
Disconcertingly the leaves withered away in the autumn, the whole lot coming close to being thrown away, but within a few weeks fresh leaves appeared

followed by delicate pink blooms. Patience required.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

April 2015 -- Greenfinches and a grey wagtail

I always find that the arrival of spring in our region is signalled by two distinct occurrences: the drumming of the Greater spotted woodpeckers and the spawning of frogs. For a few days now, the amphibians have been producing large quantities of spawn in the culvert draining from the Little Sea and small heads are visible above the water, amid faint grunting and bubbling sounds.
     The highly attractive black, white and red woodpecker is increasing steadily, being found wherever there is reasonable tree-cover. Their presence is often indicated by a shrill yelping call, and as I walked along the other morning, one glided overhead emitting a loud staccato chatter. The bird appeared white from below and was presumably a male on a mating display flight. Another bird answered from nearby.
     I love the clear colours offered by Nature at this time of the year. Yellowish-green greenfinches wheeze from upper branches and goldfinches burst into 3-D and glorious technicolour. At the quieter end of the spectrum, I never tire of the flawlessly elegant
Grey wagtail
grey wagtail.
Every so often, I repair to the scenic Castleshaw Reservoirs for some quiet birdwatching. On Sunday 22nd March, though, the approach road held many cars as a marathon-run finished at the study centre. AS the supporters applauded exhausted runners, I walked to the upper reservoir and it was not long before a dainty grey wagtail appeared on the stones at the water’s edge. Following the movement of this bird led to a redshank pecking with great energy between the stone setts. Watching at close range here, it was possible to admire the dark streaks and speckles of the brown plumage. One of the long orange-crimson legs was fitted with a ring. Other wading birds could also be heard. A pair of oyster-catchers circled over the water, their piping sound evocative of the sea-shore, and the magnificent rolling call of a curlew echoed somewhere in the background. A pair of goldeneye ducks could be seen at a distance. Tough little things and low in the water.
     As I walked back down the lane, I happened to glance over the wall to see a slow-moving pair of great-crested grebes. In breeding plumage, they were sedate and lovely on the water, with the ear-tufts up and chestnut neck frills fully displayed. Surely one of our finest species.

October -- Mountain Ash and fungi

Male fern, Strinedale A walk round the reservoirs revealed more autumn fungi than I ever remember. A search of both grassy and sha...