The month of June opened with hot, sunny days, temperatures reaching into the high twenty degrees centigrade. It was a good time to go for a walk, especially as the weather forecasted change.
I have discovered a little haven in Ewhurst, the Sayers Croft Nature Reserve. To get to it walk down Wykehurst Lane and you will find it well marked on the left. There are many signs of summer on the wayside before reaching the reserve and now the verges are full of variety and colour. I saw Hedge Woundwort, Silverweed, Stinging Nettle, some late Yellow Archangels, Bramble, Cinqfoil, Field Bindweed, Elder and two hedgerow plants that I particularly associate with summer Briar Rose and Honeysuckle, both shrubs trailing over the hedges, striking yellow, red, and pink against the darkening green background. Shakespeare wreathes Titania’s bower, described by the jealous Oberon in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in both these rambling flowers:
‘Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,William Shakespeare
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;’
This is the drowsy arbour where Titania will have a magic potion placed on her eyes. Woodbine was the Elizabethan name for Honeysuckle and Eglantine the delightful word for Briar Rose. The word found its way into Middle English via the Old French, Provencal, aiglentina based on the latin acus meaning ‘needle’ or aculeus ‘prickle’. The romantic significance of the rose went back into antiquity but became fashionable in courtly circles through a book called ‘La Roman de la Rose’ written by Guillaume de Lorris in about 1230. The tale narrates a courtier lovers attempts at wooing his beloved, who is called Rose, and takes the form of an allegorical dream, set in a beautiful, secluded walled garden in which a magical fountain springs. Guillaume de Lorris says his aim is to express the ‘whole art of love’. There is a magnificent illuminated manuscript of the poem in the British Library with charming pictures of the lovers in the garden, painted in the vibrant colours typical of medieval art and bringing alive a lovely summer romance. You can look at this manuscript on the British Library’s website. The poem was incredibly influential and owed the Courtly Love tradition to its ethos.
It is funny how one flower can have such a hinterland of cultural meaning but, of course, when you are walking along the by-ways of the countryside these are not the thoughts that resonate; instead one admires the glamour of these plants and bathes in their fragrance, which to each individual will conjure many associations.
Just along from this bank of Eglantine Wykehurst Lane reaches woodland and this marks where the nature reserve is. The reserve is 10.9 hectares, (27 acres) and is open to the public; sign-boards point out what to look for and there is a map showing the footpaths through the wood. These paths are well-marked and easy to walk, allowing access to as many people as possible. Recently we walked into the wood and were a little alarmed to see a push-chair abandoned. A little further on we met a father and two children walking; the youngest child was only just toddling and clearly the occupant of the push-chair. It is so good that young children can experience nature at close hand, this little girl was called, appropriately I thought, Willow. These reserves are protected spaces, the developer’s tentacles will never reach into this domain and I hope Sayers Croft will, over the years, be able to acquire more land to preserve for all our enjoyment.
The woodland is mixed with lots of oak trees and beech, sycamore and some evergreen larches. The path follows the margin of the wood and at this time of the year the ground level has an interesting variety of ferns growing, I saw male fern and bracken, their fronds still a pale green and bringing light to lower level of the woodland floor. Ground Elder is also abundant here but the wood has several glades where sunlight is able to penetrate the canopy and in these places Foxglove stands brought bright pink into the shade. The Foxglove has been used in medicine since the middle ages, digitalis, which is its latin name, is a glysocide used to treat heart disease. The plant should not be taken without expert guidance as it is toxic and dangerous. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon foxes-gleow, a gleow being a ring of bells. This originates in Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove flowers round their necks, as the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds. I jolly well hope they baffled the huntsmen then and may the foxglove magic continue its spell continue to confound these barbaric bloodsports. The American-British poet, Anne Stevenson (Born 1933) shows a keen observation of these plants in her poem ‘The Miracle of the Bees and the Foxgloves’:
Because hairs on their speckled daybeds baffle the little bees,Anne Stevenson
foxgloves come out to advertise for rich bumbling hummers,
who crawl into their tunnels-of-delight with drunken ease.
The erotic charge of that last line is powerful and makes you realise that everything in nature has its place.
In other breaks of the canopy honeysuckle was growing over the scrub bushes, and filling the air with its sensuous fragrance. It reminded me of Alison Uttley’s children’s story, ‘The Great Adventure of Hare’; Hare has just met a ‘fine gentleman in a red coat’ and, continuing on his journey is troubled by a ‘curious smell’. He picks ‘a branch of honeysuckle and twined it round his head, and held a sprig of marjoram to his nose.’ Alas the fox smell stays with him.
The path twists on through the reserve and there are bridges crossing the stream, Coneyhurst Gill, which runs along a surprisingly deep valley coming from Pitch Hill and tracing its way to the other side of Cranleigh, where, as far as I can tell it flows into the large Vachery Pond. At the moment there is very little water in it and many parts of its course are dried up. It is interesting to speculate how a relatively small stream has carved out such a steep-sided valley and I’m not sure how this erosion could have occurred even when the stream is in full spate. From the wood’s margins you can see fields and these have been left to wildflowers and grasses and it is along this edge that the natural history can be particularly rich. Birds can find protective cover for their nests at this time of year, while being able to feed on the seeds in the field. Fields like these are very important today as they provide a varied diet, encouraging different species of insects and a range of birds. In many farms there tends to be a predominant monoculture of one type of crop, which is often of limited use to wildlife. There have been measures to combat this, with farmers setting aside land or leaving the margins of their fields to grow naturally in an attempt to arrest the decline of species. This has probably been too little, too late but is better than nothing. These fields at Sayers Croft seem to recapture the type of farms celebrated in books like Flora Thompson’s ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’, although the author herself admitted to indulging in nostalgia for a lost age.
A Speckled Wood dances on the path in front of us. These butterflies often inhabit woodland margins and are common at this time of year. Evidence of another woodland dweller is found a bit further on as we find a Badger sett. It does not look as if this entrance, where there are several holes, has been in recent use but setts can be extensive and there are probably other entrances elsewhere in the wood. Timothy Roper, in his recent monograph on Badgers, reckons that the animals spend as much as 70 per cent of their time underground: a place to sleep, to find refuge from threat and to raise young. The setts are handed down from one generation to the next and we have records which indicate that setts in use at the end of the eighteenth century are still in use today: I like to think of them as the equivalent of an ancestral home. Roper also points to the size and complexity of setts, with a labyrinthe of tunnels and chambers; his research suggests a ‘typical’ sett contained 16 entrances, 57 chambers and a tunnel network of 310 metres in length. I know of several setts in Ewhurst, as the mix of field and woodland offers ideal habitat and it is highly likely that these date back over one hundred years. It is a chastening thought that a badger seen today may have ancestors who lived in setts that have been around a lot longer than most of our houses.
The public footpath takes you out of the reserve across the field I mentioned earlier. The Buttercups make a sheen of shimmering yellow as the midday sunlight glints off their petals. The whole effect of unstable light is added to by golden pink grasses, heavily seeded, playing in the breeze. A swallow skims the far side of the field, revelling in the insect bounty. W.H. Davies, (1871-1940) a Welsh poet who spent a good part of his life as a tramp in Britain and America and wrote about hardship, the people he met and nature, has a wonderfully evocative vision of a summer field:
Today the fields are rich in grass,W.H. Davies
And buttercups in thousands grow;
I’ll show the world where I have been-
With gold-dust seen on either shoe.
For a tramp his shoe is his world and here Davies symbolises his kinship with nature. Also a tramp has no material wealth and the poet translates the buttercup’s pollen into his gold-dust, which marks his place in the world. Davies’ immersion in the natural world, living close to and within it in a primal manner is something which I feel I can never hope to emulate.
(Picture: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=214367)