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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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
methinks!

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Rogationtide

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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