Monday, 4 February 2019

February 2019 -- ferns and coughs

Hart's-tongue ferns

ather in January used to be a rare thing, but up to the time of writing we have had very little real cold, and the Snowdrops are well developed and ready to open their buds. On a sunny day in January it is surprising how much bird activity can be seen and heard. Song Thrushes are singing, and on a field near the church their northern cousins the Fieldfares and the Redwings have been feeding. Goosanders are on both reservoirs as they usually are in winter, and as I watched two males snaking along the reeds I was once again impressed by the streamlined elegance of these powerful ducks.
     The Alders planted by the lower reservoir are looking good, abundantly festooned with dull purple catkins. They are handsome trees, attractive through out the year, and being commonly available gained a place in Culpeper’s Herbal, ‘The leaves put under the bare feet gauled with travelling are a great refreshing to them’. Hazels are growing here, also bearing winter catkins. Last year a crop of hazel nuts was produced, and these are referred to in Culpeper, ‘The milk drawn from the kernels with mead is very good to help an old cough’.
      Culpeper’s Herbal appeared in 1653, a year before the author’s death. Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) wrote it after much research, in the belief that remedies made from common plants would benefit the masses when medical care was available only to a wealthy few. The book sold in vast numbers, my own disintegrating copy seemingly made from cheap materials, and inscribed at the front with a verse from the Book of Kings describing the wisdom of Solomon, ‘And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the Hyssop that springeth out of the wall.’ It is written in a very individual style sometimes enlivened by a rant, ‘Why should the vulgar so familiarly affirm that eating nuts causes shortness of breath? For how can that which strengthens lungs cause shortness of breath? And so thus have I made an apology for nuts which cannot speak for themselves.
I always admire the ferns growing on the ruined cottage wall near the upper reservoir. Very distinctive are the Harts-tongue Ferns, yet another example of a plant once held to have healing properties, ‘The distilled water thereof is very good against the passions of the heart, and to stay the hiccough’.

Friday, 14 December 2018

November 2018 -- Field maple and cormorants

Field Maple

It is generally acknowledged that butterfly numbers are in decline and it has been quite an event this year to see a Red Admiral or a Small Tortoiseshell. Few and far between have been Comma butterflies. These are of a deep orange colour, their scalloped wing edges giving the impression that they have been produced by means of origami, as if cut from a folded piece of paper which is then opened out flat. The name Comma comes from a white marking on the hind wing, and I am always pleased to see one. Imagine my surprise when, on a recent glorious afternoon in the wildlife area at Strinesdale upper reservoir I moved towards a fine colony of Michaelmas daisies to see upwards of two dozen Commas flitting about on the pale blue flowers. ‘The singularly jagged outline of this butterfly at once distinguishes it from every other native species’ says Colman’s Book of British Butterflies (1895).
     Yesterday I visited Castleshaw reservoirs at Delph. As I drove along the lane to the car park it was noticeable that a large number of thrushes adorned the telephone wires overhead. A sure sign of Autumn — visiting birds from the harsher climes of Scandinavia. A few had settled on a fence and, when disturbed, transferred to a stilted and windblasted Hawthorn tree laden with ripe fruit. The soft greys and browns of their plumage identified them as Fieldfares; thrushes that had crossed the North Sea to reach winter sustenance.
     The extensive sky above the reservoirs looked wonderful — a vast canvas of assorted greys streaked with white. The lower reservoir was being lashed by part of storm Callum and a Heron shot upwards before veering off at a wild angle. A kestrel somehow hovered into the gale and on the far bank a group of Cormorants stood braced against the wind, all facing in the same direction like football supporters during a slow game. The water level is still low, with a margin of exposed mud at the edge. Small flocks of Lapwings were pecking at this, looking supremely elegant in the soft light with plumage of a muted jade green.
     The handsome conical tree in front of the Church is a Field Maple, the timber of which was once greatly valued by craftsmen. A gentleman writer called John Evelyn published a book on trees in 1664 in which he summed up Maple wood’s qualities:– ‘For all uses of the turner, who seeks it for dishes, cups, trays, trenchers, etc., as for the joiner for tables, inlaying, and for the delicateness of the grain, when the knurs and nodosities are rarely diapered, (i.e. intricately patterned GL) which does much to advance its price.’

December 2018 -- Salvia and a tawny owl

Tawny Owl

Perhaps because I grew up reading the First World War adventures of Biggles, Pioneer Air Fighter (written by Capt. W.E Johns), I like to see birds in flight. For sheer aerobatic skill you have to applaud the Sparrowhawk. They certainly can execute an Immelmann Turn, the famous combat manoeuvre of the early air aces. Sometimes we see one from the house, settled on a roof or flickering like a dark flame along the street. Towards the end of October I was walking up from the Strinesdale car park towards the treatment works when I heard coming from the trees the shrill gibber of a  Sparrowhawk, backed up by the harsh scrape of a Jay and the insistent chatter of a Magpie. Peering towards the sound I could see a rounded brown bird firmly ensconced in the low fork of a tree. This young Tawny Owl was seeking to establish a territory but finding the other residents less than friendly. Disturbed by my presence the hawk dashingly flapped away through a space between the branches while the owl turned slowly to reveal those large eyes set in a circular face. It then flew in front of me and away. If Tawny Owls could charge for all the sound effects they supply for nocturnal drama scenes …

     How the autumn light enhances colours. I was watching a group of Blue Tits pecking at the grey stems of a Cotoneaster shrub, the leaves of which had turned a fiery red. The birds looked softly vibrant against the other shades —the perfect subjects for a Japanese print-maker. Reading from (the still unsurpassed) The Natural History of Selbourne written in the eighteenth century by Gilbert White, I noticed that he refers to Blue Tits as ‘nuns’. I do wonder why.

     Among the new wave of highly desirable Salvia garden plants from South America one stands out by virtue of the vivid tone of its purple flowers  borne over a long period. It is reported that this variety, called  ‘Amistad’, was discovered being offered for sale in a remote part of Argentina before it was sent to a commercial grower in the U.K. The name is said to mean ‘friendship’.

January 2019 -- Jews-ear fungi and lichen

Jews-ear fungi

On bright autumn days clear and carrying bird calls have been ringing out on Waterworks Road. and further up towards the reservoirs — the sound of the Nuthatch. A loud chatter is followed by a pure bubbling song that is particularly appealing. Small and highly active, Nuthatches are supremely agile and sturdy. Blue-grey above and warm yellow below they have powerful gripping feet enabling them to scurry down tree trunks as well as climb upwards. On garden feeders they retain command of the peanuts by bossily shouldering away other birds. After listening for a while I was able to see one as it busily tore into some lichen growing on an old sycamore, presumably searching out insects. Lichens are intriguing in themselves being complex organisms, and being found growing in abundance at Strinesdale indicate that the air is very clean. One delicate species resembles small grey-green wigs hanging on lower tree branches.
     Later that same day … a glorious sunny afternoon. As I was passing the treatment works, I glanced into the culvert now choked with weeds and adorned with plastic bottles. There must still be enough small fish in the water to support life because a Kingfisher shot away at full throttle. In these circumstances the back of the bird appears
as a diamond-shaped turquoise panel, the wings like dark fans. The great thing on this
occasion was the sound of those wings, a powerful whirring resonance perhaps amplified by the stonework.
     Autumn woodland demonstrates very effectively how everything in nature is constantly recycled by a largely unseen set of processes. The leaves fall to be acted upon by countless bacteria, fungi, and insects. Birds root for worms in the leaf litter and all is broken down to feed growing plants. Dead wood is reduced by fungi growing on and within the timber. One fungus easy to find in our area is the Jews-ear. This jelly-like being has been taken up by foragers, who say that it can be eaten when well-cooked. The name derives from an ancient legend which asserts that Judas hanged himself on an elder tree, Jews ear being often found growing on elder. 
     A fern thrives on a dead branch. Strinesdale.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

October 2018 -- 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.

February 2019 -- ferns and coughs

Hart's-tongue ferns ather in January used to be a rare thing, but up to the time of writing we have had very little real cold, a...