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Wildflower of the Week: Cow Parsley

First posted 22 May 2020

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.

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Up the Tyne Valley, Down Memory Lane

It’s rather chaotic at Stitches By The Sea HQ as we are having some work done on the house. We had an escape last Tuesday, a trip out for what we call a “Because We Can” day. We do this from time to time ever since we retired because, back then, when we were working,…we couldn’t!

Many of our jaunts take us up the Northumberland Coast and into the Borders, but this time we headed south west until we reached the Tyne Valley, then followed it upstream to Corbridge, a place that holds many childhood memories for me.

Corbridge is a pretty village, with an old church, and some attractive shops, cafes and pubs. It sits perched on a steep bank overlooking the Tyne, only a fairly short drive from the City of Newcastle, making it a popular destination for visitors. To reduce congestion on the narrow streets, there is a large car park just over the bridge outside the village. Stopping there and walking (or in my case scooting) back over the bridge presents stunning views of the river.

Some of the properties on Front Street have steeply terraced gardens leading down to the riverside footpath. It was in one of these gardens that my paternal grandparents had a caravan.

I went there often as a small child. At the time, the garden belonged to the Tynedale pub. There are other businesses occupying the former pub premises now but the central archway and courtyard remain, from which steep steps descend to the flat area at the bottom of the garden. I was so pleased to see that this is still being used to grow vegetables as Grandpa was a fanatical gardener. Having cultivated his garden at home to grow copious amounts of produce, he ran out of space but managed to plant a few rows of cabbages and beans by the caravan.

The seating in the front of the caravan somehow converted into two double beds, separated by a curtain. At the back, opposite the little kitchen were bunk beds for me and my little brother. It must have been pretty crowded, though I remember that sometimes there was a large tent too. This was igloo shaped, with inflatable ribs that were blown up with a footpump until rigid enough to make the structure stable.

My grandmother (Nan) was a prolific knitter: we grandchildren must have had jumpers, cardigans and hats in every colour of the rainbow. She used the leftover yarn to knit squares that she sewed together into very colourful blankets. There were several of these in the caravan. It was always spotlessly clean, and smelt of TCP. Nan had been a nurse and swore by the stuff: she used it as a household disinfectant, an antiseptic on grazed knees and insect bites and even as a gargle for sore throats.

As we wandered through Corbridge I looked out for the Wheatsheaf Hotel. We would sometimes have Sunday Lunch here back then. I was always fascinated by the dumb waiter that brought food from the kitchen downstairs up to the restaurant. As my grandfather was a regular customer we got know our usual waitress by name. She was an older lady (well to me anyway) named Hilda. She would yell our order down the dumb waiter shaft to the kitchen. “Four soups for Mr Brown!”

A steep lane leads down to a footpath by the river. It was a little muddy and criss-crossed by tree roots but the scooter coped. There were masses of snowdrops and some early daffodils in flower.

We soon found the garden again. I thought of Grandpa’s constant battle to keep the grass cut. The rich alluvial soil made it grow long and lush At home he had an immaculately mown lawn (which gradually shrank as the vegetable plot grew) but there was no lawnmower here so he was usually to be found stripped to the waist, wielding a hand sickle.

The fence separating the garden from the path looks the same as it ever did – there was a gate that we used to get to the river. The water was quite high and fast flowing, especially as we got near to the bridge where the river narrows slightly. Buddy the Labrador loves the water, but we kept him well away.

The path floods sometimes. I remember years ago hearing that the river had burst its banks, which to my young ears sounded really dramatic – my grandparents had to clean and dry out the caravan afterwards. During the summers I was there, the river was at a much lower level, safe enough for me to play among the rocks in the shallows, fishing for minnows with a shrimp net.

My father told me that when he was a little boy, he wanted to go fishing with his dad but wasn’t allowed and didn’t have a rod of his own. Ever resourceful, Nan used a garden cane, a piece of string and a bent pin to make a rod. line and hook. . Off he went, with a piece of bacon rind to use as bait. According to the story he caught a pike with his homemade gear. I know that fishermen’s tales have a reputation for exaggeration, but whatever did happen that day, it must have inspired my father. He remained a keen angler all his life.

Have you ever revisited a place from your childhood?

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Snow on the Cheviots

The weather cleared up this morning to give another sunny if blustery day. Driving over the hill between Belford and Chatton there was this stunning view towards the Cheviot Hills, the summits dusted with snow. It’s sights like this that make me feel so thankful to be living insect a beautiful part of the world.

Later on the wind rose again (as Storm Franklin comes this way) and the rain began, but it was still beautiful….and we got rainbows too!

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Lull Before the Storm

Yesterday we headed up the coast to Newton by the Sea. It was a glorious, if blustery day. K and Buddy set off for a walk along the beach while I stayed in the car with my knitting.

The sunshine had brought people out and the beach was quite busy.

On quieter winter days the shoreline is peppered with wading birds, but not today. There were too many walkers and dogs for that. Several oystercatchers and redshanks had gathered on some rocks just offshore, an altogether safer place.

I also saw a whinchat on the marram grass at the top of the beach. They are quite common on the dunes here and I always love to see them.

When K returned he reported a large raft of ducks, mainly widgeon, at the southern end of the bay. It seems that overwintering wildfowl are beginning to gather prior to the spring migration

Of course I love to knit with a sea view. Today’s knitting on the dashboard is the second of a pair of toe-up socks in my handspun alpaca and wool.

It felt good to be out on such a beautiful day, in between this week’s storms.

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A Valentine’s Treat

I hope you all had a wonderful Valentine’s Day and that love was in the air. I was racking my brains for something different to do this year. It is lovely to give and receive flowers, chocolates etc but it is nice to ring the changes now and again.

This year I bought some goodies and packed up a gourmet picnic. It included smoked salmon parcels, olives, Scotch eggs, posh sausage rolls, some French cheeses, strawberries , chocolate truffles and Prosecco.

We headed for the beach and parked overlooking Coquet Island. We left Buddy the Labrador at home – true to his breed, he is a greedy dog and the food was frankly too good to share! We unpacked the picnic and poured a small glass of fizz, then tucked in. Food with a view. Perfect!

Drink responsibly!

How did you celebrate St Valentine’s Day?

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Castles And Coast (With A Bit Of Knitting)

Today’s trip out took us first to the village of Etal. It’s a pretty estate village with a castle, which dates from around the 14th Century. Northumberland has many castles, a reminder of Anglo-Scottish conflict during the region’s violent past

Etal also has a thatched pub – thatched roofs are pretty unusual here in Northumberland.

We wandered down the road which ends in a ford over the River Till I’m not sure how safe it is to cross here as the water runs quite swiftly. We certainly didn’t try it!

On the riverbank we found Himalayan Balsam. This is an attractive plant with hooded pink flowers, but not a native species. It has become established in many areas (probably initially as a garden escape) and is now an extremely invasive weed. Its success is probably due in part to its method of seed dispersal. The ripe pods burst quite violently, spreading the seeds some distance.

Back in the village we had lunch at the Lavender Tea Rooms. I love the teapot sign! Behind the hedge is a pretty paved garden edged with rose bushes and lavender of course, with tables, so it was a perfect place to eat as we had the dog with us. We’ll not be able to lunch outside for much longer this year as autumn approaches.

We drove towards the coast in search of a beach walk for Buddy the Labrador. On the way we passed the imposing ruins of 12th Century Norham Castle.

We stopped for a dog walk at Cocklawburn beach.

Limestone was once quarried here and there used to be alLimeworks with a railway to transport the lime and workers cottages. The lime kilns can still be seen.

The sea was quite rough with some big breakers but they didn’t deter Buddy.

I got on with some knitting.

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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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May Wildlife Walk

I haven’t scooted down my regular route in a while so, as the weather was pleasant, we did the local dog walk on Friday. It was cloudy and cool, but not unpleasantly cold.

Acid yellow fields of oilseed rape in full bloom really stand out from the rest of the landscape .

Newly emerged arable crops are still so small that the rows are clearly visible.

There are plenty of lambs about too.

On the verges, dandelions and lime green spikes of crosswort dominate.

The first red campion flowers have opened. They will flower all summer.

A few bluebells can be seen in the shade of the hedgerows.

Patches of primroses, my favourite spring flower, are flowering profusely.

Garlic hedge mustard grows under the hedges too. This is the food plant of the orange tip butterfly. I only saw one. On sunny days there are more.

Under the trees the blue of the forget-me-nots stands out

Hawthorn flower buds are just opening. The saying “Cast ne’er a clout till may is out” refers to hawthorn or may blossom rather than the month. It basically means that you shouldn’t shed any clothes (clouts) until the flowers are fully open. I’m keeping the layers on for now!

I could hear lots of birds but no lapwings or skylarks, which usually nest in the fields here. I must listen out for them. I could hear the yellowhammers though. I love their lilting song.

Emerging bumblebees were particularly enjoying the nectar of the white deadnettles

In the woods, by the stream the red stems of water avens flowers are emerging.

I hadn’t noticed this fallen branch before .It will soon be hidden by foliage, but for now you can see the mesh of honeysuckle stems that have grown around it.

wildlife walks

Most of the trees are covered in ivy. The stems at the foot of the trunks are quite old and gnarled, but honeysuckle is starting to grow through these too.

So many signs of spring, with lots of new growth and emerging spring flowers. This is such a hopeful time of year.

What are the spring highlights in your neighbourhood?

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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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Sea and Sunshine

It’s been a glorious day today here in Northumberland. We headed to Howick for a dog walk and there was a parking space by the Coastal Path so K and Buddy headed off for a walk and I sat and knitted and watched the birds.

There were two pairs of eider ducks swimming close to the shore showing some breeding behaviour, throwing their heads up. The females are a nondescript brown (and fairly well camouflaged when they are on the nest) but the males are a striking black and while – you can’t miss them really. My favourite thing about eiders however is the sound they make – they don’t quack, they coo!

There were also lots of fulmars flying about. They nest on the cliffs here. Superficially they look like gulls, but whereas gulls have a “W” shaped outline, with bent wings, the fulmar has straight wings and glides over the water – it is more closely related to the petrels and shearwaters. If disturbed they spit a foul smelling oil. Not nice!

A few oystercatchers flew past emitting their piping call.

I was lucky enough to see a couple of dolphins swim past – all summer when there was loads of dolphin activity along the coast we saw nothing and here were a couple when we hadn’t;t particularly set our to find them. Typical!

Not long before we left, couple of canoes went by. – what a perfect day to be on the water.