Friday, 3 July 2015

More childhood reminiscences

Yesterday's post got me thinking about my time spent in the infant and junior school playground - and as a pupil I'll hasten to add! If my leisure time of wandering the fields, woods and waterways was out of synch with the ways of today's kids, what about my school time? For the time being, let's forget about what went on in the classroom, suffice to say that it was all chalkboards, milk breaks and the manual ringing of a heavy brass bell to announce break times. It's out in the playground that I'm interested in!

In the early to mid 1960s us kids were still surrounded by the echoes of the Second World War. Our grandparents possibly served in it, our parents certainly lived through it and there were still comic strips, picture cards and TV programmes (All Our Yesterdays and Hogan's Heroes) that would not let it fade away. As boys we would re-enact British v German battles, starting off with a few of us linking arms and shouting out "Who want's to play war?" As more boys joined our throng the cry to arms would build until an unspoken critical mass was reached and then we broke off into different sides. It was now that we could use phrases that we had gleaned from Captain Hurricane such as "Schweinhund", "Himmel" and "Raus". We knew nothing about their meaning. If we had had enough of killing each other we would play 'It', deciding upon who would actually be 'It' by sticking out our balled-up fists and reciting "One potato, two potato..." "Ip dip dog's shit, you are not it", or the now outlawed "Eenie, meanie, miney, mo..."

There were many other playground chants. I assume that some were universal, others very local. The girls were largely responsible for these (although us boy's had our very own bawdier versions). When they weren't French skipping or cat's cradling you might hear:

"What's the time, half past nine, hang your knickers on the line,
If a copper come's along, hurry up and put them on!"

or, a regional variation of;

"What's the time, half past nine, hang your knickers on the line,
when they're dry bring them in, put them in the biscuit tin"

Or does anybody remember;

"The Salvation Army all free from sin,
Tried to get to Heaven in a corned beef tin,
The corned beef tin wasn't made very well,
The bottom fell out and they all went to Hell"

One particular favourite of us boys was to all link arms, and menacingly march across the playground, reciting in as gruff a voice as we could manage;

"Mrs Marden,
Walking down the garden,
(All make loud farting noise)
Beg your pardon,
Mrs. Marden!"

We used to howl with laughter at this, and what started off as three or four boys doing it quickly turned into twenty. At that point the teacher on playground duty would break up the merriment.

The girl's really did corner this market, with all sorts of chants and rhymes associated with various forms of hand clapping. A playground back then was a museum of folklore and traditions. There is an infants and junior school close to my home, and I can confirm that playtime is still a noisy affair. I'd love to observe what the children get up to, and if any of the 'old favourites' still survive - but alas, if I did I would most probably be promptly arrested and reported to social services.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Childhood memories

Between 1962-1970 I lived in Tring, Hertfordshire. It was (and I believe still is) a small market town and it was a wonderful place for a young boy to grow up in. We lived in a new-build on the edge of town, literally a stones-throw from open fields that stretched away to the reservoirs. The new estate on which our home was built had attracted mainly young families, so that there were plenty of children about - and as we lived in a cul-de-sac, the boys that also populated it with me formed a ready gang. Back then 'stranger danger', health and safety and paranoia were largely missing from the world of the grown ups, so us kids were left alone to get on with our lives.

Because open countryside was literally on our doorstep we used to go off an explore it, sometimes on foot, at other times on our bikes. We cycled the pavement-less country lanes as a peloton of seven and eight-year-olds, oblivious to traffic (mainly because there was none). We found farmers gateways in which to rest up, apple trees to scrump from and blackberry bushes to raid if we were desperate. Our travels might take us to the canal, where we would hang over locks in feats of daring-do, scoop up frogspawn or try to master the art of skimming stones - and not one of us could swim. Our time was also taken up, depending on the season, by conker fights; throwing burdocks and grass arrows at each other; blowing on grass leaves until they squeaked; popping bindweed flowers out into the air; seeing if we liked butter by holding up a buttercup to our chin (we always did!); capturing butterflies and imprisoning them in glass jars; trying to find bird's nests; creeping through crops that were taller than us; sneaking into barns to chase rats with sticks and then beating a retreat if the farmer came along the track (and heaven help us if his dog got a sniff of us...) We made camps in the woods, and in them took our first puff on a 'liberated' cigarette.

None of us were into nature, it was just there. To climb a tree, to lay out in a field and look up into the sky, to get grass stains on our knees, to pick goosegrass balls and grass seeds from your jumper - these were all just a part of our life - a part of our growing up. We left home in the morning and appeared again at tea-time. If we were very late our parents weren't so much worried about our wellbeing, they would be more concerned that our food was getting cold.

The sun always seemed to be shining. My six-week summer holidays always seemed to last a lifetime. I was fortunate in that my early childhood was without problems and full of carefree happiness. When I look back now, a lot of that was down to the relationship that I had with the outdoors. It was there to explore, a giant natural playground where I felt at total ease. It was full of adventure and possibility. We were whippet-thin, as fit as fiddles and fearless to boot, all through our walking, running, cycling and climbing. The odd broken arm, cuts and bruises here and there, but by and large no harm done. And who didn't enjoy picking the scabs off a few days later?

How many kids in 2015 can lay claim to all of that? And is it any wonder that there seems to be a disconnection between us and nature.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Langley Vale Farm

Langley Vale Farm was recently purchased by the Woodland Trust, where they plan to plant a wood in commemoration of the centenary of the Great War. This Surrey farmland is a rare thing - one that has maintained healthy hedgerows, species-rich copses and wide field strips that has enabled arable plants to thrive. The list of 'rare' plants recorded here is enviable, with Narrow-fruited Cornsalad, Night-flowering Catchfly, Red Hemp-nettle and Venus's Looking-glass amongst the lengthy roll-call. Part of the reason why such gems are still present is that the land is (was) partially managed for hunting - mainly Pheasants. It is here where shooting and botanical preservation became unlikely bedfellows. With the farming set to cease the hunters have already quit the scene. And with them the wide and open field strips seem to be following them, giving way to coarse grasses and unregulated crops. The areas where I once saw such species as both Fluellens, Rough Poppy and Night-flowering Catchfly are in serious trouble. Without a helping hand they will not survive and the planting of a wood will see them disappear forever...

This morning I met up with Peter Wakeham, a local botanist who knows this area very well. It is a little early in the year for us to expect (or hope for) some of the sought-after arable gems, but we did see a good selection of 'local' plants - Bastard Toadflax (on nearby downland), Green Hellebore (in one of the farmland woods), Dwarf Mallow, Dwarf Spurge, Catmint (considered to be truly wild) and a profusion of Narrow-fruited Cornsalad. The image above gives a flavour of what the farm is (or was) about - copses, plenty of hedgerow, bare strips between the crop and field edge, plus open areas that abound with wild flowers - the yellow flower you can see in the photograph is not a crop, it's both Perforate and Hairy St.John's Wort! Let us hope that the Woodland Trust can see their way clear to managing some of their purchased land as a sanctuary for some rapidly disappearing farmland plants.

Dwarf Mallow
Dwarf Spurge

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Counting butterflies

I love counting things - any thing - it doesn't have to be birds, plants, moths or butterflies. It could be books, or albums, or photographs. It is a bit of an illness really, a Tourette's of adding things up. I find myself automatically doing so when driving, having a bath, or, like this morning, out walking...

07.15hrs saw me on Park Downs and not only was it already warm, there were at least three figures of butterflies flying above the flower-rich grassland. These I had to count! A zig-zagging route was embarked upon, with care taken to not recount sections of meadow. My final tally was a bit of a shock as I'd recorded just over 1,000 Marbled Whites. They really were a sight, flitting just above the sward, some spiralling up in combat and then veering off into nearby scrub. They were skittish and didn't settle that easily. Also on the wing were Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Small Skipper, Small Heath and 4 Dark Green Fritillary. It was barely 09.00hrs.

I now had the bit between my teeth, so decided to walk the length of Chipstead Bottom, from Fames Rough in the west to the Holly Lane meadows in the east. It was memorable, as the flower-rich meadows held thousands of butterflies, a constant shimmering presence above the vegetation. This time there were more Meadow Browns (2,270) although the Marbled White count was an impressive 1,760. These are very much conservative counts, the true tallies must be much higher. I didn't ignore the plants, with the Hither Field and Valley Meadows holding a minimum of 3,500 Pyramidal Orchids. The abundance of flower, mainly Cat's-ear, Bird's-foot Trefoil, Yellow-rattle, Rock Rose, Hairy St. John's-wort, Red Clover, White Clover, Wild Thyme and various trefoils was outstanding.

Some people may question the value of putting a number to a species that is clearly impossible to count with pin-point accuracy. However, I feel that this is preferable to purely suggesting that a species is 'abundant' or 'present in hundreds' or 'low thousands'. What does that mean? 300? 500? 2,000? 10,000? At least giving a firm figure allows future naturalists/researchers a baseline. If I repeat the process next year I have something to compare it to - and so do other people. Apart from that, it's fun doing so. What can be better than wandering flower-rich chalk downland surrounded by butterflies?

Monday, 29 June 2015

A great flowering

Over the weekend I paid a brief visit to Banstead Downs. The amount of flower on show was terrific - locally we seem to be experiencing a great flowering at the moment, at least on our precious chalk downland. The most eye-catching was this Kidney Vetch, which will be good news for the Small Blue colony, as this is their food plant. There was plenty of Fairy Flax, Bird's-foot Trefoil and Dropwort also on show. The only slight downer was that the patch of Basil-Thyme (very local in Surrey) is much smaller this year. It seems to be getting crowded out by coarse grasses.

Friday, 26 June 2015

At last a Banstead Cypress Carpet

I've been expecting a Cypress Carpet to come along and pay me a visit here in Banstead for some time now. This species has become established (albeit patchily) across the south of England, and 'my' part of Surrey seems to be a bit of a stronghold. However, whereas other local lepidopterists to the north, south, east and west of me casually reel them in, I have failed - until last night (see above).

So, Cypress Carpet joins an ever increasing list of species that, back in 1987 when I first starting recording here, were but flights of fancy - Toadflax Brocade, Small Ranunculus, White-point, Tree-lichen Beauty and Jersey Tiger to name but five. What next?

Thursday, 25 June 2015

6250 and 354

The two 'orchid fields' at the northern end of Park Downs have really got to me. I have spent much of the last 36 hours wondering just how many orchids there actually are. After Tuesday's visit I put the Pyramidal Orchid figure at c3,000 and the Bee Orchid total at 100+. This morning I went back and counted them...

One person, even if they methodically criss-cross the two moderately-sized fields, is not going to come up with anything other than an approximation of the number of plants on show, but I can confidently claim that there are certainly no fewer than 6,250 Pyramidal and 354 spikes of Bee Orchid. Most of the former species are towards the top and middle of the fields and those of the latter at the base of the slope. In one small area (maybe 20m x 5m) I counted 114 Bee Orchids alone.

I didn't stop to look at much else, although was pleased to come across quite a bit of Smooth Tare, and butterfly numbers had picked up, mainly Meadow Browns and Marbled Whites.

If you live nearby it is certainly worth a visit. I will be going back for sure!

There were very few paler flowered Pyramidals
Many of the Bee Orchids are huge!