We are back from a lovely week in Wales. Here is a view from a sea cave we explored one day. The last day was showery (it being Wales and all) and we dived into a well-known department store for a coffee. Big Dreamer was most put out when Wren walked up to a male mannequin with her arms up for a carry, and called out “Dada!” Oh dear!

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Boundary walls

yellow, gold, orange, blue, purple, turquoise, cells, education, illustration, illustrator, Hannah Foley, children, kids, family, science, biologyDuring her beating the bounds project, one of the things Dove Grey Reader (blogger extraordinaire) talks about, is trying to be more observant of the flora and fauna through the seasons as she walks the mile circuit she has marked out for herself around her house. I love watching the roll of the seasons, and the cycling changes in the lives of the flowers and insects around me, and I’m always looking for ways to help me be better at noticing these things. It’s part of the reason I’ve been working my way through Margaret Erksine Wilson’s watercolours over the months of this year. So when I spotted a wildflower walk being put on by Devon Wildlife Trust and led by the botanist, Jeremy Ison, I put my name down sharpish.

This wasn’t just any wildflower walk, it was in particular a walk around the old city walls of Exeter, looking at the wildflowers that inhabit the cracks and crevices. Although Exeter city walls don’t have the renown or majesty of somewhere like York or Chester, they are actually the most complete of any city in the UK so there’s lots to see, and there are lots of plants that have adapted to the particular conditions of walls. I can now tell my Maidenhair spleenwort from my Black spleenwort. Contrary to what you would expect, the maidenhair variety has a thin black line down the central vein and the black version doesn’t. Who names these things?! I can also identify two other spleenworts that love walls, Wall rue and Hart’s tongue. Harts tongue, as with many of the other wall plants, will grow to much bigger sizes in other habitats, but tends to stay small on walls where nutrient levels are low and plants are more exposed.

I can also pick out a pretty daisy called Mexican fleabane, the snapdragon-like Purple and Common Toadflax, and the garden favourite, Red Valerian. I love the name of Pellitory-of-the-wall and learnt that it’s a favourite food source for the Red Admiral butterfly. Another fantastic name is that of the fern Polypody. It’s such a friendly sort of name, and now I know it, I keep seeing it everywhere, and gladly greet it like any other neighbour in the street.

One of the things I found most fascinating about the walk is learning how the history of the city is reflected in the plant life on the walls. A particular sort of grass present in the walls near the quay (of course, I’ve forgotten its name!) would have been brought over from Europe in grain sacks which supplied the water mills. Oxford ragwort is a really funny one. Prior to the industrial revolution it was only found in Oxford. It was introduced there in 1690 via the Oxford Botanic Garden, from where it quickly escaped, and was soon growing in most walls around the city. The industrial revolution brought the railways and Oxford Ragwort found that it was just a bit partial to the railway clinker beds. It then spread throughout the country via the railway.

The pretty ivy-leaved toadflax will only grow on walls over 100 years old, hence is found on some segments of the city walls but not others. It’s all over our boundary wall in our garden. Big Dreamer is forever pulling it out as he’s only just finished re-pointing the whole thing. While it may one day prove the wall’s downfall the toadflax is also a testament to just how long the wall has been there. Not quite as long as the city walls I’ll give you that, but still looking pretty fine.

We are off on our hols next week so no post from me. I’ll see you when I get back!

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Vancouver on Treepedia

As a postscript to my last post, I was recently reading about the cities of the world with the most trees. There’s a very cool-looking website put together by MIT called Treepedia where they are charting the green canopy of the cities of the world. It doesn’t look at parks, but focuses on vegetation in streets. Look how green Vancouver is! It led me to read more about the city, where they have set a goal of ensuring that every person lives within a 5 minute walk of a park, greenway, or other green space by 2020. I LOVE it.

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Beating the Bounds – again!

animal cell, orange, yellow, red, nucleus, golgi apparatus, rough endoplasmic reticulum, smooth endoplasmic reticulum, lysosomes, ribosomes, illustration, illustrator, Hannah Foley, natural history, biology, kids, children, education, scienceI have been back walking my loops of the parish boundary (read why here and here). The other evening I rejoined the boundary at the medieval stone cross on the old road to Plymouth. The surface of the road has sunk down well below the level of the surrounding land, probably worn down by decades of cart wheels and feet. The pavement levitates a good few feet above the road itself, and runs along half way up an old Devon bank full of wild flowers and grasses. I can imagine the sense in it being raised up out of the mud and muck of the old road to aid pedestrians in a slightly drier passage. At the top of the hill I turned right and followed the ridge along a lane. This area was once home to two big quarries that provided most of the red bricks used for the local houses and buildings. Over to the left, fields straddle the ridge and then drop away into a deep wooded combe with a stream at the bottom. On the right is a housing estate with marvelous panoramic views of the whole city, and on a clear day, all the way to the sea.

I take a right along the top of the housing estate to join the old holloway that runs down in a diagonal through the estate, eventually petering out behind some bungalows. I have a vague sense of unease about the way that holloway has been treated by the town planners. Anyone who has had a deep association with a holloway and has read Robert MacFarlane, Stanley Donwood, and Dan Richards’ book Holloway will know that these ancient routes have a personality and atmosphere all of their own. It reminds me of the river spirit that comes to the bathhouse in the Japanese animated film Spirited Away. Eventually they manage to clear all the rubbish and pollution (including an old bicycle) out of it and it flies away into the sky in a spray of sparkles. I wonder if this holloway has its own sort of genius loci, and will one day rise up with the buried rivers of London, wanting to know why it has been treated with so little respect.

I go up the holloway rather than down it to the houses. It is deep and verdant, smelling of green and of growth and of rich dark earth. It borders a small Local Nature Reserve where Devon Wildlife Trust graze cattle. Rare yellow ants can be found here, along with common lizards and 23 different species of butterflies. At the top it joins a lane but this obviously must have been the route of the old holloway too because, although wider, it isn’t that much wider, and is hemmed in by those characteristic earthen walls. I find myself increasing my pace to a trot here. If a car came, there was literally nowhere for me to go. Thank goodness for my bright pink jacket! Lo and behold a car did come racing through, going so fast that the driver must have been a frequent user of the lane and not at all used to there being a walker on it. He screeched to slow down and I had to turn in my toes to let him pass.

Recently I read someone commenting about how we don’t walk anymore. It was a child psychologist I think, saying how we don’t walk as families anymore. The comment sprang to my mind as I finally broke into a run towards the end of the lane. And I get it. There’s a nervousness about walking in rural areas. Although the path might be clearly marked as a right of way in books and on maps, my self-confidence in my right to be there easily crumples. I think England is deeply embued with a strong sense of private land ownership. It whispers to me that I’m not allowed here and I can’t do that. And even if I am allowed here I don’t know how to behave properly in the countryside. Even though I’m not at all, the charge of “townie” looms. Suddenly I’m grouped with all those people who fly-tip and leave beer bottles in field gates, and let their dog harass sheep. The image of a rifle-toting landowner shouting “get off my land” is quintessentially English.

A little while ago, I listened to an episode from the Radio 4 archive of In Our Time about the poet John Clare. Poor John Clare ended his days in an asylum and it was fascinating to hear the experts discussing some of the possible causes for the deterioration of his mental health. The main bulk of the Enclosure Act was enforced in John Clare’s lifetime and they talked of the impact of this dislocation from the land he loved so dearly. We need our green spaces, and to be frank, parks just don’t cut it. We need green as far as the eye can see just as we need sea to the horizon, and stars filling the sky. It gives us perspective on our tiny lives. So I conjured up my old Grandpa Evans in my mind’s eye, complete with gaiters, waistcoat and enormous walking stick, stuck two fingers up to the word “townie” and strode on. I took another little lane heading down hill and followed a footpath over some fields. At last I emerged back on to another housing estate, and followed the sweep of surburbia down to the river, where a path took me all the way home.

The illustration above is from a project I recently completed for Centre of the Cell about cells. Can you tell your rough Endoplasmic Reticulum from your smooth?!!

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We found this poor chap in our garden yesterday! He must have been brought down by the storm. He’s a Jersey Tiger moth which is a rare day-flying moth. Sadly it’s just a bit rarer now. Little Owl carefully placed him in her bug finder pot and has taken him into school.

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After the Storm

water starwort, watercress, white-clawed crayfish, stream water crowfoot, lesser water parsnip, fine-lined pea mussel, chalk stream, UK, natural history, wildlife, illustration, biology, illustrator, Hannah Foley, education, non-fiction, kids, children, families, fish, salmon, Brown trout, damselfly, water vole, brook lamprey, Yesterday an enormous storm rolled in and blew the power at Radio Devon. The kids and I watched in awe from the window as rain pounded the garden. Counting the seconds between lightening strike and thunder clap, the storm stalked towards us, bounded the roof tops with an almighty roar, then rumbled away towards the horizon. My Madonna lilies looked like they’d suddenly developed a life-long smoking habit, the white petals splattered with yellow pollen. But my hollyhocks bore the worst of it. They were dashed to the ground. Little Owl held the broken stalks carefully in her arms and gave me her heartfelt condolences. Needless to say we reached for Percy the Park Keeper for our bedtime story and read, After the Storm.

The school term is drawing to a close and we are busy with summer fetes, sports days, meeting new teachers, reports, end-of-term celebrations and the final push to achieve various sporting and Brownie-related achievement badges. The teachers look weary and frayed. Little Owl’s temper is short. Finch moodily rearranges his stick collection in the giant planter in the side return. Even Wren is not immune. She finally started walking this week but only after the Health Visitor looked her firmly in the eye and told her there’d be a paediatrician referral with her name on it if she didn’t get on with it. Time for a holiday I think.

This was a sample spread I did for a piece about chalk streams. You can find out more about what is being done to help our chalk streams here.

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Mad hattiness

frog, toad, salamander, garden, flower pots, Europe, amphibians, natural history, Hannah Foley, illustrator, illustration, natural history, children, kids, education, biology, wildlife, natureWren and Finch are big fans of carbohydrates. They would live entirely on bread, potatoes and pasta if they could. Finch’s potato passion reached new heights with this season’s jersey royals so he was utterly disgusted when we made a potato salad with some last week. “Why are the potatoes dirty?” he asked prodding the mayonnaise dressing with disgust. Needless to say all ‘dirt’ had to be wiped off the potatoes before he would touch them. What a relief to find potato perfection was still there under all that awful creamy stuff!

We also lost Wren’s hat last week. Flying across the park, late for school pick-up as usual, we only discovered its loss once we got to school, so we all kept our eyes peeled on the return leg. It was Little Owl who spotted it. In the middle of one of the big grassy patches danced a very drunk man with Wren’s flowery sun hat balanced on his head. Arms outstretched, hands gracefully curved he bobbed a slow waltz in the sunshine, the velcro straps gently tapping his ears.

“Ummmm excuse me,” I began nervously and hoped he wouldn’t turn nasty. “I think you might have my baby’s hat.” He turned sharply on his heel, pulling Wren’s hat off his head, clutching it to his bare chest.

“Yes, yes, I do!” he exclaimed joyfully. “I was looking after it! I saw it on a rock and thought no one will ever see it there but if I dance around here a bit with it, whoever lost it will definitely see it.” With a flourish he returned the hat to Wren. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he’d bowed low to the ground and added, “Your servant my lady.” We gave the hat a good wash when we got home but it’s nice to know you can count on the local characters to take care of your lost property.

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July Flowers

Meadowsweet by Margaret Erskine Wilson

July is the prime time for British wildflowers. It is the longest section in Margaret Erskine Wilson’s book Wildflowers of Britain Month by Month. Down by the river new flowers are taking centre stage: up steps yarrow, meadowsweet and dittander. It’s also probably why National Meadows Day usually takes place around now, and this year it was on Saturday. To mark the occasion we went along to a meadows festival hosted by a local farm whose main income comes from producing wildflower seeds.

In the 90s the farm converted from dairy to hay meadows and in 2009/10 they received a commendation from the Most Beautiful Farm Awards which rewards the combination of conservation, sustainability, and profitability in farming. Farming is a tough job anyway but currently farmers seem to be pulled in every direction. The drive to increase production ad infinitum is at odds with the long term health of the land. Oh, and they have to earn a living too. In Devon, the little family farms are just not big enough to provide a living for one farming family and many are being joined together. One farmer near us works across 13 farms. But at Goren they’re trying to buck the trend and the result is a very wonderful place to be.

We pitched our tent in the orchard with the other festival-goers and wandered down into the meadows. Meadows are a man-made feature of the landscape, the result of generations of plants and humans adapting to each other’s activity. As a result many niche species can only survive in this habitat and are becoming increasingly rare as meadows disappear from our farming landscape. The Wildlife Trusts estimate that 95% of lowland meadows have been lost since the Second World War. Goren is a spectacular sight, fields of wildflowers as far as the eye can see, alive with the hum of insect and bird life. The kids had an absolute ball climbing hay bales, swinging from trees, running along grassy paths amongst the wildflowers, and foot-stomping to some great live music. We sampled some of the farm’s own cider, and their Ruby Red Devon beef. As the sun set we snuggled into our blankets beneath a big old lime tree to listen to a wonderful storyteller regale us with tales from around the world. It was really magical. And back at the tent, despite Wren thinking bed-time was more like party-time, and Little Owl’s hundreds of trips out for a wee, we did actually get some sleep!

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Walking the bounds

frogs, amphibians, night, South America, natural history, non-fiction, kids, children, educational, illustration, illustrator, Hannah Foley, biology, plants, green, brown, blueMy Dad likes to take a “stroll around the block” of an evening. I think that’s an interesting expression because a “block” is an American term. We don’t really have blocks here do we? My Granddad on my Dad’s side had a florist’s shop in New York for a while so I had wondered if that’s how the expression had come to be part of my Dad’s parlance. When I voiced this thought to my in-laws they said that their parents often used the phrase and it probably came from watching American movies. So much for my theory. Nevertheless, going for a stroll around the block is something I often find myself yearning to do of a dimpsy Devon evening, and I wondered if I might use it to explore the beating the bounds idea a bit more.

Dove Grey Reader (the blogger who inspired these beating the bounds thoughts) marked out the circumference of a mile around her cottage and walks this route regularly, taking in all she can, and getting to know the landscape intimately over the seasons. Having discovered the parish tithe map online thanks to Devon County Council I laid the old parish on top of my OS map and worked out roughly where the boundary would have gone. Some of the boundary is over private land so inaccessible, including, annoyingly, one of the old boundary stones. It’s also been chopped up by new roads and a new industrial estate near the river so I’ve had to adapt a bit. It’s also a really big parish. It would probably take me the best part of a day to walk the whole thing. So instead, I’ve been walking loops from the house, where the top part of the loop takes in part of the parish boundary.

The first of these meant heading west across two residential streets, circling a large park, walking up another residential street, across a busy road and then joining a path that runs up beside the allotments to the fields beyond. This hill has a lovely name, it is called Roly Poly hill and is a countryside corridor which allows those of us in the parish with green hearts to get our countryside fill without the need for an ignition key. There are in fact two paths that run up either side of the allotments and both are on the 1841 tithe map, which makes me think that this hill has always been an important country link for the people living in our parish. One has a name, Crabb Lane, further over the hill becoming a properly metalled road, but my path is anonymous. It is enclosed by steep banks on both sides, covered in all sorts of shade and damp-loving plants. At the top of the hill it was worth a pause under a copse of mixed deciduous trees to look back over the city to survey the hustle and bustle from a peaceful distance.

Turning back to the West, the hill gives way steeply to hedgerowed fields and wooded combes, jumbling their way to the horizon. The south-westerly orientation of the hill side makes it perfect for the growing conditions required by the fruit farm that occupies the fields. At the bottom of the hill is a brook, reputedly home to otters and kingfishers. The parish boundary doesn’t go as far down as the brook, but heads along an old Saxon lane that runs along the ridge of Roly Poly hill. It’s not metalled but is wide enough for me to imagine carts of long ago bumping their way along it. Parts of the hedgerow here are over 400 years old.

I took a brief detour down a footpath to visit a wonderful old tree known locally as the Twisted Oak, which does indeed have a distinctive spiral twist to its trunk. This tree is thought to be over 250 years old, and marks an important confluence of ancient routes. There has been a bridge crossing the brook here since at least 1244. This side of the hill, down to the brook is a conservation area. There are several listed buildings around here, including some thatched cottages that date back to medieval times. Standing beneath the oak tree I watched insects dancing in the warm evening sunshine which penetrated the canopy in spotlights, and crossed my fingers that some big developer hasn’t already got his name on the land deeds, the precious green space subdivided in his mind into plots for rabbit hutch houses.

Pushing aside gloomy thoughts about how much green space seems to be disappearing under concrete or tarmac, I strode back up the hill to rejoin the Saxon lane. Where the lane comes out onto a modern road, which follows another ancient route out of the city, there is a medieval granite cross, standing sentry. I gave it a salute and headed off back down the hill and to home.


The frogs are a sample spread I did for a book about amphibians.

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The private life of ladybirds

It has been so hot here. All the doors and windows of the house are flung wide open. Wren sleeps in just her nappy but only fitfully. She wakes up grumpy, her curls plastered to the back of her neck. At the weekend we paddled in a cool lake on Dartmoor, and admired banks of purple foxgloves down shady woodland paths.

I have finally put two and two together in the garden and am left with the question: how did I not know how ladybirds develop? I know all about caterpillars and butterflies (thank you very much Mr Carle) but not anything about ladybirds…and consequently I hadn’t clocked certain natural goings-on in the garden were linked. Remember me mentioning transporting sleepy ladybirds that had just come out of hibernation from the landing window sill outside? Remember the black aphid infestation of the Japenese maple and how nature slowly took its course and they went? Yes, I know you lot knew, clever clogs the lot of you! I didn’t.

Ladybirds hibernate over winter, wake up, mate and then lay their eggs. I had noticed these funny little black and red beetley creatures (see the first pic above) but didn’t know that this is what baby ladybirds look like! And I didn’t know that their absolute favourite thing to eat is an aphid! It was only when they started attaching themselves by one end to various leaves and the garden gate that I realised they were all slowly turning into ladybirds! Here’s one, well on its way. I think it will be a seven-spot. I wonder how long this cycle has been happening? Ladybird parents eye up the maple in late summer, thinking to themselves, that’ll be covered in aphids next spring, I’ll just have a little kip here then nip down and lay my eggs nearby when the time comes. Lo and behold the aphids turn up, the baby ladybirds hatch and feast away, the maple breathes a hearty thanks, the baby ladybirds grow up to be ladybird                                                             parents, and so it goes on.

THANK goodness I didn’t spray the tree!

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