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

BackTo Knitting With A View

One of my favourite things to do is drive to the beach and sit with my knitting while K takes the dog for a walk. It’s been a while. The beach is just too far to walk to from home so when lockdown began we stuck to dog walks round the village. Then when the restrictions were lifted the world and his wife seemed to arrive in Northumberland for a staycation. The coast was basically full! The surge in domestic tourism has helped the local economy and kept our local hospitality industry going which is great, but now the school term has begun and many of the holiday makers have gone it’s lovely to reclaim our beaches.

Today we went to Sugar Sands. It’s a bit off the beaten track and getting there involves a gated single-track road through a farm (with an honesty box – you pay £1 to park by the beach and it all goes to local church funds.) It’s been one of the few places we’ve been able to park on the coast, until August Bank Holiday, when it appeared on a list of “Britains’s top secret beaches” somewhere and got overrun. There were still quite a few people about but as you can see there was nobody sat on the beach.

The parking area is at the top of a steep bank , so the view over the beach and out to sea is wonderful. It was such a beautiful day, if a bit breezy, and the sea was the most brilliant blue.

There were still some sand martins about (they nest in holes in the bank). Some tiny wading birds (sanderling I think) were trotting about the shoreline like clockwork toys. A pair of gannets were hunting quite close to shore, unmistakable when they turned into the sun to show pure white plumage and black tips to those long straight wings. They would soar to gain height then fold their wings and plummet into the water with a splash, catching small fish with that dagger beak. It’s always spectacular to watch.

I love to knit with a view. Do you have a favourite knitting spot?

Watching The Kite Buggies

A few weeks ago, we headed up to Spittal, which is at the mouth of the River Tweed, on the south side of the river (South of Berwick-on-Tweed). We had gone there in search of Bottle-Nosed Dolphins as they had been been seen there on most days during the early summer. There were no dolphins to be seen, but I ended up watching three people doing an extreme sport I’d never come across before.

I’ve since discovered on the internet that these are kite buggies, vehicles, usually with 3 wheels, propelled by the wind using a power kite and steered with the feet.. It looks rather like a cross between sand yachting and kite surfing. I’ve seen the kite surfers at Bamburgh many times and that looks pretty spectacular, but this was something new for round here.

The big beach at Spittal was pretty quiet (even though the car park was busy), so they had plenty of space. I’m not sure how easy it is to control speed and direction!

There was a bit of a breeze, so they were zipping along pretty quickly. I suppose one of the advantages is that you don’t need to have quite such a good sense of balance as you would with kite surfing.

It looks like great fun!

Alnwick Garden: A Rosy Treat

Last month Alnwick Garden invited bloggers to attend one of two days as part of their “Bloggers Week”. It was scaled down somewhat from the original event, but COVID – 19 had put paid to that. I was pleased that it had been rescheduled and it was nice to get a treat, so I booked my free ticket. I’ve been many times previously and used to have a members pass. I stopped that after they started a special offer which gave you entry for the year on a single admission ticket and haven’t been since, until this recent visit. It was also one of my first trips out to a public place since lockdown – it was going to be interesting to see what measures had been put in place and also how I felt about being in a busy location.

If you decide to visit, I strongly advise you to check the Alnwick Gardens website beforehand to check if advance booking is required and if there are any restrictions on opening hours or the facilities available. Everywhere is subject to quite rapidly changing guidelines in these difficult times.

As a disabled visitor I was able to show my blue badge use the designated forward parking area by the entrance. I had brought my own disability scooter, because the gardens own scooters and wheelchairs were not available for visitor use. A one- way system was in use to facilitate social distancing. which included a couple of small kerb bumps that in other circumstances I would have tried to avoid with the scooter, but they were not too bad and I got over them ok. As we approached the pavilion area it did seem more crowded, which did make me feel uneasy – Social distancing was just about manageable but I was still reaching for my mask! I think that this was mainly because the cafe was not open at the time, so more people were milling about – a couple of stalls were serving refreshments along the walkway to the left of the pavilion which seemed to add to the congestion. There were plenty of hand sanitiser points around.

The first sight of the cascade as you come through the pavilion courtyard remains as spectacular as ever. At regular intervals an additional sequence of fountains plays out, which is lovely to watch. Part of this is accompanied by the delighted shrieks of children trying to dodge the jets of water that shoot over the walkway in the centre of the cascade

The central cascade is flanked by hornbeam tunnels which have matured beautifully.

The one way system in the garden itself was not so easy to follow, especially when I’m used to following the easiest paths for the scooter . Most parts of the garden are reachable by scooter, with fairly gentle ramped paths throughout. Because of this we somehow bypassed the area of the garden which has a series of water features hidden from the rest of the garden by hedges.

July is my favourite time to visit when the Rose Garden is at its best. The scent is intoxicating. Out of interest I checked if I could still smell the roses with one my homemade masks on – I could not, so that’s an interesting test of their efficiency!. Until you visit a place like this it’s hard to imagine what variation in fragrance there is between different roses. Some are quite spicy, others have citrus notes. There are a stunning variety of different colours and forms too, from massive many-petalled blooms to sprays of tiny single flowers.

At the centre of the rose garden is a pergola covered in climbing roses and clematis, with an ornate urn. There are lilies here too.

in addition to the amazing planting and water features there are a few unexpected ornamental items, like this little frog statue, which I love.

Even the wrought iron gates are works of art

The path slopes upwards through the trees at one side of the cascade to the walled garden at the top. This is another feast for gardeners with stunning herbaceous borders that thrive in the shelter of the tall old brick walls. Earlier in the summer the delphiniums near the walled garden entrance are one of my favourite elements of this part of the garden, though the planting has highlights at all times of the year. They are past their best now but there are many other plants to enjoy, including a stunning bed of alstroemerias, in shades of red, orange and pink.

The centre of the walled garden has a formal layout with beds and paths bordered by clipped hedges, some low to show off the flowers inside, some high, like the ones surrounding this little secret garden with its central fountain

Following the path from here to the other side of the cascade we arrived at the cherry orchard, which is a vision of blossom in the spring. The path zig zags down through the trees (the corners are a little bit steep and the path is not a smooth as elsewhere in the garden but I managed (there is a steeper path with steps straight down the bank for those able to use it). In amongst the the trees are some swing seats for those whose want to stop for a breather here.

The path leads along past a large duckpond towards the poison garden, which has a fascinating collection of poisonous and medicinal plants. Visitors here are escorted by guides that begin their tours at regular intervals.

Between here and the pavilion there is another lovely border, planted in shades of blue and yellow. We grabbed a coffee from the stall here and sat watching the bumblebees visiting these electric blue and silver eryngiums.

The one-way system exited through the gift shop. I have to say this was the most stressful part of the visit. Even though my visit took place before masks became mandatory in shops, I felt safer wearing mine. Despite signage, few of those using the gift shop seemed to be observing social distancing and the route meandered through the shop displays and the shoppers, rather than directly to the exit door. The gift shop used to be in a separate building and visiting it was optional. It seemed ironic that we were corralled in this way at a time when social distancing is needed – rearrangement of shop fixtures would help.

With that exception, I enjoyed my visit. The gardens are as lovely as ever and there was plenty of space on the lawn for families to picnic and enjoy the space.

Just before we left we caught the climax of another fountain display. It ended with the large fountain in the lower pool getting higher and higher.

Have you visited the Garden? What did you think?

Wildflower Of The Week: Meadowsweet

At it’s peak now, Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) flowers from June to September, and is common in damp meadows, ditches and road verges, by rivers and streams, growing to about 1.5m on reddish stems. . It is actually a member of the rose family, though the frothy clusters of cream-coloured flowers give no clue to this. Each tiny flower has 5-6 petals and male or female flowers are on separate plants. the flowers smell faintly of almonds and are an important pollen source for insects.

Found from Europe to the Middle East, the plant was introduced to America, where it has become naturalised.

The dark green leaves however are, more like those of the rose, set in pairs along a leaf stem, toothed and more heavily veined, with a silvery underside. When crushed they can have an antiseptic smell on top of the same almond notes of the flowers.

The plant has many names, some of which indicate it’s many uses through the ages. It was used as a strewing herb, thrown on the floor to cover the mud, provide insulation and a pleasant scent when trodden underfoot. The flowers were used to decorate banquets and for bridal garlands, giving rise to the name bridewort. The herbalist Gerard said that the scent “make the heart merrie, delighting the senses without headache or putting off meat”. Meadowsweet was said to have been a favourite of Elizabeth I.

Although the name Queen of the Meadow or Pride of the Meadow, would suggest that the plant is named for its habitat, the alternative of meadwort is thought to derive from the use of the flowers to flavour mead. It has been used to add flavour to port, claret and beer, gin, sloe gin, jam and various desserts – some sources recommend using it in the same way as elderflower to make cordials, liqueurs and “champagne”.The flowers and leaves retain a scent and flavour even when dried, enabling use all year round. The roots yield a black dye.

Herbalists have also found many uses for this plant. Culpeper used it for fevers, wounds and eye irritations. It has also been used for colds, bronchitis, upset stomachs, joint problems and for bladder infections. Modern science has found one of the reasons for its useful medicinal properties: it contains salicylic acid, also known as aspirin.

This really is a versatile plant with a fascinating history.Wildflower

August Wildlife Walk

During this crazy year, when time has either been standing still or passing us by, it’s quite reassuring to go for a walk and see the passing of the seasons. Whatever else happens, the wild plants still come into flower around the right time and the swallows migrate here. The farm year continues too and we see fields change as crops grow and reach harvest and spring lambs grow bigger.

Today I took my usual walk near the village and the first thing I spotted was that some of the meadows have been cut – the warm wet weather has really encouraged grass growth and hay and silage making.

The oilseed rape crop is ripening. The acid yellow flowers of spring have now been replaced by brown stems and seed pods.

The grain crops are ripening fast and combining has already begun in some places. This barley still has a greenish tinge. I love to watch it swirl about and ripple in the breeze.

The verges and hedgerows are now a dustier, darker green, with the creamy grass seed heads, thistledown and meadowsweet flowers and accents of purple from thistles, knapweed, meadow cranesbill and woundwort.

Purple Knapweed and Milk Thistle (top right) with creamy Meadowsweet (bottom right)
The brilliant blue-purple flowers of Meadow Cranesbill

The most dominant birdsong I heard today was that of the yellowhammer: a rising sequence of notes followed by a single, lower, longer one. They seemed to follow me and every so often I’d catch a glimpse of one on top of a hedge.

There were lots of butterflies today, mainly whites, including green-veined whites and also small tortoiseshells and red admirals. I also saw this beautiful pale moth – so far I can’t identify it.

As we turned, a roebuck crossed by the bridge. They are very common round here, but mostly keep themselves well hidden in woodland, especially during summer, so it was lovely to see one.

What aspects of nature characterise this time of year where you live?

Wildflower of the Week: Red campion.

It’s impossible to miss the tall clumps of pink-red flowers of red campion that are growing in profusion in hedgerows and woods at the moment and will continue to do so until August and well into Autumn and Winter if the weather is mild. This relative of the carnation is a short-lived perennial that produces copious seed that enables it to spread rapidly , especially in fertile soils.

The plant grows up to a metre tall, though usually 30-60cm high. with leaves and stems covered in softly downy hairs. The leaves are pointed oval in shape, carried in pairs on the stems.

The flowers carried in small groups at the end of the stems. Each has five petals and each petal has a central cleft. the calyx immediately behind the flower is dark red/brown and hairy. The plant is dioecious, that is a single plant carries flowers with either female or male parts, not both as in most flower species. On the female plants the calyx develops into a vase-shaped seed capsule full of tiny black seeds. The female flower produces a sticky substance that causes pollen from visiting insects to stick. The Latin name for the campion family, Silene, may come from the woodland god Silenus or from the word for saliva.

The red campion hybridises freely with the closely related white campion with resulting flowers in a wide range of shades of pink. Though I’ve never noticed this, you may come across flowers with a darker centre. This is caused by a fungal disease known as anther smut, producing dark spores on the reproductive parts of the plant

The plant is sometimes called the Adder Flower from it’s use in folk medicine to treat snakebites (though personally if I was in this situation I would prefer to seek professional medical advice immediately rather than take my chances with the plant!) The roots of plants in the campion family can be used to prepare a soap substitute, though the red campion is less known for this than it’s close relative, soapwort. The 16th Century herbalist, John Gerard said that the hairy stems could be used to make candle wicks. A century later, Nicholas Culpepper described a number of medical uses including the treatment of kidney stones and internal bleeding as well as to “helpeth those that are stung by scorpions or other venomous beasts”.

Another country name is Batchelor’s Buttons as unmarried young men would wear the flower in a buttonhole..

Red campion certainly provides a welcome splash of colour in late spring and throughout the summer.

As always, please remember these guidelines.

  • Don’t touch or pick any plant unless you are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that it is safe to use, and not poisonous.
  • Don’t pick anything unless it is abundant
  • Only pick small amounts and no more than you need
  • Don’t pick if there is a risk of pesticide/weedkiller or other contamination, including from traffic or other forms of pollution.
  • Always get permission from the landowner.
  • Avoid areas which may be soiled by animals (wild or farm animals or pets)
  • Wash plants thoroughly

Wildflower of the Week: Cow Parsley

From April to June our hedgerows, road verges and meadows are filled with the frothy white flowers of cow parsley. It is the earliest to flower and one of the most common of a large plant family, the umbellifers, which all have similar shaped flower clusters or umbels, made up of tiny individual flowers on stems radiating from a single point in a sort of umbrella shape. The family includes several food plants and culinary herbs, including carrot, celery and and parsley, but also some extremely poisonous species such as hemlock and fools parsley and also hogweed which has a highly irritant sap that can cause quite severe burns.

The flowers are carried on metre high hollow stems. As they appear quite early in the year, they are are a great food source of both pollen and nectar for insects.

The leaves are arranged alternately along the stems and are fern-like: triangular and finally divided. When crushed they smell of aniseed.

Cow parsley spreads rapidly, producing large quantities of seed and also though spreading rhizomes. It is on the increase in the UK. Like the nettle, it enjoys fertile soil and increased agricultural fertiliser use has benefited it. This may be to the detriment of smaller plants that become smothered out by the taller cow parsley. It is considered an invasive species in parts of the US.

The plant has a variety of old names. including hedge parsley, wild chervil, keck, lady’s lace and Queen Anne’s lace. In some parts of the UK it has the rather gruesome name of mother die or mummy die. Children would be told they would lose their mothers if they brought it in the house – to deter them from picking it and the highly poisonous hemlock that it resembles.

Though cow parsley is edible, eating it or using it medicinally is not to be encouraged in case it is mistaken for its deadly relative. It has also been used as a mosquito repellent.

The lacy flowers certainly make very pretty addition to our hedgerows in late spring and early summer.

Wildflower of the week: White Dead-Nettle

Commonly seen on road verges and on disturbed land, the white dead-nettle resembles the stinging nettle, but, as its name suggests, has no sting. It is a short to medium height perennial. The leaves (closely resembling those of its stinging relative) are heavily veined, toothed, slightly hairy and heart-shaped, arranged in pairs on square, often reddish stems.

The flowers form in whorls round the stems immediately above each pair of leaves. They are lipped and white, slightly tinged with green. A rich source of nectar, the flowers are popular with insects, especially bumblebees. The blooms have evolved to be pollinated by the larger bees – only they have a long enough proboscis to reach the base of the flower where the nectar is and they are the perfect size for their backs to brush against the stamens and stigma of the flower, depositing and collecting pollen as they feed. The nectar is protected by a ring of hairs that stop smaller insects crawling inside, though some reach the nectar by cheating: they bite a hole in the base of the flower!

As the flowers die the calyx of each remains, forming a spiky cup that holds the developing seed.

White dead-nettle’s popularity with bees gave it one of its old names, the bee nettle. It is also known as white archangel as it was said to come into flower around the feast day of Michael the Archangel. From a certain angle the stamens resemble two human figures and this gave rise to the name Adam-and-Eve-in-the-bower.

The flowers and young shoots can be used in salads or the leaves cooked as a vegetable. Traditional medicinal uses for the plant were for staunching wounds, curing haemorrhage, reducing excessive menstrual bleeding, and also as a tonic to lift the spirits.

White dead-nettle has been in bloom since March and will continue until Autumn

Wildflower of the Week: Crosswort

Crosswort: Cruciata laevipes

Crosswort is one of those wildflowers that seems insignificant at first, but once you spot it, it seems to be growing profusely everywhere. There is a good show at the moment along the grass verges, but as the grass and larger plant grow rapidly they obscure it.

Crosswort is a low growing perennial, that forms rhizomes, underground stems from which the shoots sprout around 4-8 inches high in Spring. The stems are square and unbranched, bearing triangular leaves, both stems and leaves are covered in tiny hairs.

The leaves are arranged in groups of four in a cross-shape, which can be easily seen when viewed from above. This gives rise to the name. It is also known as smooth bedstraw, maywort and maiden’s hair.

The tiny four-petalled yellow flowers also follow a cross shape and smell faintly of honey. They are arranged in clusters around the stem above each group of leaves.

Crosswort isn’t used as a modern culinary or medicinal herb but in the past it was used to treat dropsy, rheumatism and rupture. It was also used to promote would healing and cure headaches. A red dye was extracted from the roots.

Crosswort is found throughout Europe and Asia. In the UK it is less common in Northern Scotland and the far west. It thrives on chalky soils in grassland and roadside verges.