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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Microwave conspiracies

tortoiseshell, brimstone, butterfly, hedgehog, kids, children, natural history, illustration, illustrator, hannah foley, education, My Dad has a conspiracy theory about microwaves. It goes like this. Whichever way he puts his mug of coffee into the microwave, it always finishes with the mug handle turned away from him when he goes to get it out. He has tested this theory on numerous appliances and it is always the case. Move over terrorists, microwaves are the new threat undermining our way of life and blighting elevenses everywhere!

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June flowers

Rain is gently tip-tapping on the window this morning. In the garden a
single white foxglove grows in a foxglove graveyard. At least three others have died there but this one survived. I often wonder about gardening scenarios like this. What is it that lurks beneath the soil that the foxgloves didn’t like?

The black aphids are finally disappearing from the Japanese maple. I was desperate to ‘do’ something about it and it all took all my strength to resist. The tree looked awful for several weeks, covered in black sticky masses, the new growth yellowed and curling. But everything I read said to avoid chemical interventions: let nature take its course, and they were quite right. After a bit of a lag, nature’s best aphid predators swung into action. The same cycle probably happens every year, only I was too busy unpacking to notice last year. I will have to dig up some of my everlasting sweetpeas before next year though. They are behaving like absolute thugs and have even leapt a metre wide gap to colonise the bird feeder. Very pretty but extremely ill-mannered.

In the hedgerows I can see greater stitchwort, field roses and elderflowers. I spotted a bright pink vetchling tangled up with Meadow Vetchling in a hedgerow along a field down by the estuary the other day. Margaret Erskine Wilson draws the pink variety, Grass Vetchling (Lathyrus nissolia), in her section on June in Wildflowers of Britain Month by Month. Honestly the colour was stunning. Vetchlings are related to the sweet pea and this little plant was just like some of the more exotic colours you get from commercial sweet pea seed. The Meadow Vetchling I saw is not to be confused with Yellow Vetchling (they are both yellow), which Margaret also draws. Yellow Vetchling (Lathyrus aphaca) is a much rarer plant with broad round leaves. Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis) has long thin leaves and is often found on farmland where it is much beloved for its nitrogen-fixing (and therefore soil-improving) abilities. Still with me? No? Time for a cup of tea

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carnivores, lion, bear, wolf, odd-toed ungulates, common seal, rhino, rhinoceros, horse, animals, education, evolution, natural history, illustration, illustrator, Hannah Foley, children, kidsA blog I love to read is called Dove Grey Reader Scribbles, written by a community nurse living in the Tamar valley. It’s mostly about books but she also sometimes writes about the countryside around her. A while ago she started a project she called Beating the Bounds, which involved really getting to know everything she could about the land in a mile radius around her cottage, and she inspired me to have a bit of a think about our own “bounds.”

I checked in with Steve Roud’s The English Year to find out more about beating the bounds (attentive readers might remember me blogging about this book month-by-month over 2015). Roud says that the practice was introduced to the English Church from France in 747, which was around the same time that the country was divided into parishes. It was done to bless the fields and also to make sure that the boundaries were being maintained so that the church could collect tithes on the land. Roud says that Rogationtide is the traditional time to beat the bounds of the parish, and occurs on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday preceding Ascension Day, which happened to be last week (Ascension was on the 25th). Funny how these things work out sometimes.

Anyway, one of the things that Dove Grey Reader (that’s her blog acronym) did was to look at the tithe maps of the land around her. These maps are incredibly detailed accounts of local parishes showing who owned what land. Amazingly, in Devon, these maps have been digitised, meaning I could have a good root through ours from the comfort of the kitchen table. Brunel’s railway line to Plymouth was built through this area in the 1840s so we had always known that the houses around us were built for railway and foundry workers in the late 1800s. One row of houses where my friend lives, has little handbag symbols above the door arch because these houses were built for workers at a local leather-working factory. On the tithe map of 1841, where our house is, there is a large area called Church Fields. We are just behind the old parish church so this land must have at one time belonged to the church or been named so because of its proximity to the church. Then, all around Church Fields are all sorts of gardens and orchards. It must have been a hive of horticultural activity, and I have subsequently found out lots of interesting things.

This post is getting lengthy and I’m sure you’ve drunk your coffee by now so I’ll come back to this topic another time, but for now I’ll definitely give a bit more thought has to how I might “beat the bounds” in the spirit of Dove Grey Reader. Do you beat the bounds where you are? How do you do it and what have you discovered about your local area?

On a slight tangent, this is an illustration I did a while ago for Centre of the Cell about evolution and the Tree of Life.

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Summer at last

D is for Dragonfly by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.owlingabout.co.uk)Finch got some new pyjamas this week. He was so pleased with them that he got up in the night and put all three sets on, on top of each other. He was roasting when we went to wake him up in the morning. There are lots of yellow irises flowering along the river, beautiful golden spears, tall and exotic. My rambling roses are blooming and the bees are busy visiting the chives. After a week of non-stop rain the forecast is for sun! At long last summer might be here…just in time for May half term.

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Ladybird lunch

Wren fell into the toy box like a sky diver this week; head first, arms back. All I could see was a pair of legs back-pedaling frantically. She also attempted to eat a ladybird. We’ve had loads of ladybirds in our house recently and I have spent a significant amount of my time collecting them from the landing window sill and putting them outside. I’m guessing they’ve been hibernating around the house and have all suddenly woken up. The unfortunate one that went in Wren’s mouth was hurrying along the kitchen floor when she spotted him. He obviously realised he’d been clocked because he stopped stock still, but it was too late. She’s at that stage where absolutely everything goes in her mouth so a ladybird was no exception. By the time I’d leapt over to her all I could do was fish the poor thing out with my finger but he was a goner.

Here is Margaret Erskine Wilson’s illustration of herb robert from Wildflowers of Britain Month by Month. We have loads of it growing in the cracks down the side alley, along with forget-me-nots. The pink and the blue make a pretty scene.

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Dawn chorus

turquoise, caterpillar, yellow, gold, orange, black, cinnabar, Hannah Foley, illustrator, illustration, children, kids, education, natural history, biology, insectsThe swifts are back! They have been screeching loudly as they swerve and swoop over our heads. Little Owl and I went on an early morning outing with our local Wildlife Trust on Sunday to hear the dawn chorus. It was a real trauma dragging ourselves out of bed at 4am I can tell you, but totally worth it. We zipped up our body warmers and slipped out into the dark, silent streets. Little Owl was thrilled to be out on such an early morning escapade. She was in charge of the torch and its beam bobbed about merrily as she skipped along the pavement.

We met up with the group down by the river, the dawn chorus already in full sway. I have to say, it made an enormous difference listening to the chorus with a knowledgeable guide. Some of you will know that I have tried to learn different bird songs in the past and not got very far. So it was much easier this time when one of the walk leaders pointed in the air, just as the given bird we were listening for began to sing. We heard a chiffchaff, blackbirds, wrens, a robin, magpies, blue tits, a great tit, various warblers (he lost me there), black caps, and a song thrush. I could just about pick out the thin high-pitched song of a goldcrest but it was right at the top of my hearing range. A few of the older members of the group couldn’t hear it at all but Little Owl got it easily. Did you know that the dawn chorus is not a global phenomenon but only happens at our temperate latitude? I so often think of wildlife wonders happening in far off places (with a commentary by David Attenborough), that it’s easy to forget what wonders exist right here.

As the sun rose above the trees and warmed the backs of a group of gulls larking around on the weir, we headed back to Devon Wildlife Trust’s headquarters at a renovated watermill for coffee and croissants. It was a lovely end to a fabulous trip. The walk was led by volunteers so a big thank you to them. It’s wonderful that people are happy to share their expertise with others for free. And I think I might actually remember some of the songs this time!

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Boomerang jobs

yellow, black, white, badger, meles meles, natural history, illustration, illustrator, Hannah Foley, alphabet, educational, children, kids, familySometimes it feels like Big Dreamer and I are trapped in an episode of Fawlty Towers on a loop. We can’t seem to do any jobs around the house without them boomeranging right round and pinging us in the head again, sometimes multiple times. A “boomerang job” is now an official term in our house. The latest of these concerned the water butt.

Big Dreamer took Little Owl and Finch off to our local garden centre to buy a water butt. They proudly bought it home. A few weeks later Big Dreamer got round to setting it up as an off-shoot from one of our down pipes. Unfortunately when the rain poured so did the water butt. It had a leaky tap. By now the receipt for the butt was long gone and another few weeks passed before Big Dreamer had time to go back to the garden centre. Fortunately a kind lady at the check-out took pity on him and believed that he had bought the butt from them (sometimes it pays to shop local). However they didn’t have any of those sort of water butt any more, only bigger ones. That wasn’t a problem, except they didn’t have any stands for the bigger ones. Having sawn thorough the down pipe we needed a stand that would raise the butt up to the height of the broken one. Sigh. Big Dreamer thought we might be able to manage with the smaller stand so brought the bigger butt home, and got it all set up.

Weeks went by where we thought this butt must have a leaky tap too because it just wasn’t filling up no matter how much rain there was, but we couldn’t find any perceptible leak. That was when we realised that Finch kept turning the tap on and letting all the water out when we weren’t looking. Tap firmly closed we awaited the next downpour. It came this weekend. In the middle of the night the poor waterbutt, heavy from the deluge, overwhelmed the stand and with a huge crash toppled over, and…you guessed it…it now has a hole in it. So after all that, we are right back where we started; in need of a water butt. No hang on, not quite right back where we started, we’re also nursing beautiful purple bruises on our foreheads where that boomerang has well and truly got us. Please tell me this sort of thing happens to you too!

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April flowers

The riverbanks are full of red campion, white dead-nettle, cow parsley, and hawthorn blossom. I barely notice hawthorn all year then suddenly these columns of creamy froth appear like friendly flower aliens beamed down from outer space. No wonder the colloquial name for hawthorn is often the May tree. I have read that the saying “Ne’er cast a clout ‘til May is out” actually refers to the hawthorn flowering rather than the month, which makes a lot of sense as staying in your winter clothes until the end of May always seems particularly risk averse to me.

So spring is here! If I were in any doubt I spotted some cuckoo flowers last week. The cuckoo flower is so called because its flowers are supposed to bloom when the first cuckoo arrives. I have never heard a cuckoo and thought I’d never seen a cuckoo flower either, but have realised where I’d been going wrong. The flower guides describe it as a pink flower but from a distance I would say it looked white, and only had a mauve tinge on closer inspection.

Here are Margaret Erksine Wilson’s beautiful illustrations of hawthorn (which she calls ‘May’), red campion (which isn’t really red but pink), and archangel (which is another name for white dead-nettle but Margaret’s looks more like the yellow variety).

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