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Wildflower of the Week: Gorse

Gorse (Ulex europaeus) is a member of the pea family that grows as a shrub up to 3m tall, and is found on rough ground, moor, heathland and coastal areas. The plant is native to Europe and North Africa, but has become an invasive weed in parts of the USA, Australia and elsewhere. It is also known as furze or whin.

The plant is covered in sharp spines up to 3cm long and can be seen in flower all the year round but is at its peak right now, covered in golden yellow blooms with a keeled structure typical of the pea family. They have a sweet coconut scent and are a valuable source of nectar for bees, butterflies and other insects.

The country saying  “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion” comes from the year-round flowering habit. A sprig added to a bridal bouquet symbolises fertility.

The flowers are followed by dark brown hairy pods, each carrying about three seeds, which are ejected as the pod splits open.

The spines (which are modified leaves) make gorse an effective hedging plant, forming a dense impenetrable barrier to livestock, but also protective cover for wildlife including nesting birds.

In traditional medicine a tea made from gorse flowers has been used as an antidepressant. 17th Century herbalist, Thomas Culpepper described a decoction of the flowers as effective against jaundice and as a diuretic and cure for kidney stones. The flowers also yield a bright yellow dye. Being edible they can be used in salads and to make a tea or syrup.

The straight stems of gorse wood make good walking sticks. it has also been used to make brooms and chimney sweeping brushes.

The plant burns fiercely with a great heat and was popular for firing bakers ovens and kilns. Gorse fires spread quickly but even when burnt to the ground will regenerate quickly from the roots.

On warm spring days a walk past a gorse hedge certainly fills the senses, with those vivid yellow flowers alive with buzzing bees and the air suffused with that coconut fragrance.

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Druridge Bay in May

We often meet Daughter for a walk at Druridge Bay Country Park. The weather was lovely the other day so off we went, accompanied by Buddy the Labrador of course!

Spring flowers are everywhere and I spotted one I haven’t seen in ages. This is doves-foot cranesbill.

The little pink flowers resemble those of Herb Robert, another member of the cranesbill family, but that has fern-like leaves. Doves-foot craneshill has clumps of round, lobed leaves.

On the lake the paddle boarders were out in force and and a lone windsurfer sailed by . We noticed a straw bale floating in the water. Our first thought was that it had been dumped there, but then we spotted another, then another across the other side. . They had been deliberately placed in the water all around the lake.

We suspect this is being done to control the growth of algae. Straw, especially barley straw, produces substances as it breaks down and these inhibit algal growth. This form of control is preferable to less environmentally friendly chemical herbicides. In the past we’ve seen warning notices posted in the park about toxic blue-green algae. During such an algal bloom people are advised to stay away from the water. Algal toxins can be fatal to dogs so pets should also be kept out of the water. These blooms usually occur in hot dry weather.

Although there were quite a lot of people about, they were spaced out in the park. The only exceptions to this were the children’s play area and the car park. Some people were having their picnic right by their vehicle, which seemed rather sad when there are so many other lovely spots across the park.

The beach had more people than I’d seen in a while, but was not exactly crowded!

In the visitor centre there was an exhibition of wildlife paintings by local artist Diane Patterson. She paints on wood and the grain inspires the picture, often forming the background landscape. I particularly liked her portraits of hares.

We stopped for a takeaway hot chocolate and then continued on around the lake.

The cowslips have been flowering for a while but we found a huge patch of them which looked quite spectacular.

Bluebells are in full bloom on the edge of the wooded areas.

I love our walks at Druridge Bay!Drurid

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Spring Walk at Druridge Bay

The other day we met some friends, who are visiting the area, for a walk at Druridge Bay Country Park. Daughter came too and the dogs had a lovely time. Our Buddy was joined by our friends’ cockapoo, Bertie.

The cowslips are in full bloom now.

The mallard ducklings have hatched.

It was a perfect day (although there was a cold wind) and there wasn’t another soul on the beach. Beautiful!

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Coastal Capers

Here in Northumberland we have the most beautiful coastline, with glorious sandy beaches, expansive mud flats and romantic rocky shorelines. Somehow I can never stay away from the sea for long so we had a couple of trips along the coast this week. It’s so much quieter since autumn arrived and the tourists left.

The first took us to Sugar Sands. which I’ve blogged about before. It’s a hidden gem, reachable down a gated farm track. It was pretty deserted apart from a few seabirds and a lone seal that came in quite close to shore.

It was day of showery rain with sunny intervals which led to some moody clouds.

Buddy and K dodged the rain and had a good walk.

Our second trip began early in the morning and took us to the north of Budle Bay. We parked by a gate with a good view towards the coastal mud flats

K and Buddy set off for a walk, but before long I had some visitors.

They soon lost interest and wandered off.

We at the peak of the bird migration season right now and the coastal flats and fields are filling up with geese and ducks. You always hear them first, then look up to see the V-shaped formations or skeins of geese far overhead.

We’ve seen Brent, Barnacle and Pink-footed geese recently. They have been spending the summer in Siberia and Northern Scandinavia and have arrived to spend the winter here.

My next visitor was a hare, than ran up the field towards me.

Hares are common here and we see them often. They are easily distinguished from rabbits by their larger size, black-tipped ears and because they run rather than hop. Hares also have the most beautiful big hazel eyes when you see them close up. They seem to stare straight through you and it gives then a strange mystical quality. It is no surprise therefore that the hare features strongly in myth and legend. It is associated with witchcraft, fertility and the moon in folklore from many parts of the world. It is one of my favourite animals.

I also saw this young roe deer.

The roe deer is also very common in Northumberland. They seem to be present in even the smallest piece of woodland. We see them more often in winter when they venture into the fields to feed. They can be quite a hazard on the roads at night. Several times I’ve had to brake hard to avoid hitting one. I’ve learnt to drive off very slowly and carefully when this happens as there is always another one! This one eventually left and bounded through the undergrowth on the field margin.

We set off back down the coast, next stopping at Budle Bay. The tide was out leaving a huge area of mud.

This is an important site for birds, especially waders and waterfowl, that feed on invertebrates in the mud.

We saw various ducks and geese, swans, gulls, oystercatchers and redshanks. There were huge numbers of shelducks further away. From Budle we headed for Bamburgh andNorthumberland White Hart Rock.

The image of the deer is repainted regularly. Looking south, Bamburgh Castle looked stunning.

Out to sea, Inner Farne was clearly visible.

Our final stop was at Howick. The sea was calmer than it had been, so we did wonder if we would be able to spot any dolphins, but there were none about. We enjoyed watching a group of gannets feeding.

It had turned into a beautiful day. It’s such a privilege to live in such a stunning part of the world.

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Autumn Walk at Druridge

Yesterday turned into a lovely day so we arranged to meet daughter for a walk at Druridge Bay Country Park, close to where she lives. The last time I posted about a family walk there it was January and freezing cold. This time is was mild and we were treated to a little early autumn colour.

There were all sorts of berries on the trees and bushes.

There were loads of lovely ripe blackberries – daughter was keen to pick some. She has some apples from my mother’s tree, which has cropped very heavily this year, I’m not sure whether she will make bramble and apple gin or add the brambles to a crumble with the apples – she had a good bagful in a short time.

But berries are not the only way that trees and shrubs produce their seeds. This little oak tree was covered in acorns.

The Ash has elongated winged seeds, known as keys, that hang in bunches.


The field maple bears pairs of winged seeds.

Down by the lake there was a clump of reedmace, with distinctive velvety brown spikes.

The swans, ducks and gulls gathered by the boat ramp, waiting to be fed, while a lone paddle boarder floated by.

I was just beginning to think that despite all the colourful berries, there was very little autumn leaf colour, then I saw these beauties.

Close to the park exit there was a large stand of teasels. The spiky seedheads looked stunning in the late afternoon sun. We have some in our garden that I hope will attract flocks of hungry goldfinches.

What a lovely way to spend an afternoon!

What signs of autumn have you noticed?

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A Walk In The Woods: Thrunton

Autumn arrived with a vengeance today, but we’ve certainly had a good run of lovely weather over the last couple of weeks. One warm day we decided to head for the hills rather than the coast, which was still pretty busy at that point. We went to Thrunton Woods, which is off the A697, west of Alnwick.

This is a Forestry England site, planted with conifers. There are marked trails of various distance and difficulty and some lead to points of interest such as a cave (the refuge of a 19th century monk), Hob’s Nick (a gully said to be haunted by hobgoblins) and a prehistoric fort. Some of the routes are quite steep but lead to spectacular views from hilltop crags. Cyclists and horse riders are also welcome on the trails.

I was using my new mobility scooter. Some parts of the main paths are quite treacherous as they are very rough and stony, and I wouldn’t even attempt some of the more difficult routes, but that still left plenty to go at. Buddy the Labrador loves Thrunton Woods and it’s great for dogs, although ticks can be a problem. Dog owners should also note that there are no dog bins. We always see a lot of bagged up dog waste dumped near the car parks, which is horrible! Why can’t people take it home? If it’s away from a path, any unbagged dog mess left will soon decompose. The plastic bags won’t. Moving swiftly on…..

,There is always something very atmospheric about mature woodland and Thrunton is no exception. The rays of afternoon sun were filtering through the trees and it was very still: beautiful but almost eerie.

It felt warm in the sunny spots on the paths and late summer butterflies were fluttering about or alighting on the vegetation to soak up the heat.

It’s always interesting to look at the flora of different habitats. The moorland that surrounds Thrunton Woods is purple with blooming heather in late summer and there is heather on the trail margins in the woods too.

The damp ditches that flank the paths are filled with mosses and ferns.

There were large groups of fly agaric fungi, vivid red against the greens and browns of the forest floor. When the toadstools first push through the earth, they are white but the warty outer covering breaks up as the cap expands leaving white spots on the red. These are the classic fungi in children’s book illustrations, very pretty but highly toxic. In addition to the nausea, vomiting and sweating the toxins cause, there is a hallucinogenic effect, historically used in shamanistic rituals in some cultures – no wonder it is associated with fairies and elves!

The scooter battery drained quickly as the trail went uphill and had to cope with the stony parts so we perhaps didn’t go as far as we would have done otherwise (I’ve ordered a second battery so hope to solve this issue). It was still the perfect place to be that day