The paths less travelled

This is the first in an occasional series of posts that will visit some of the least travelled footpaths that are out there and waiting to be explored. Many of them will have no obvious merit to the naturalist, but, with a lit bit of time being spent along them, all will open up and reveal their treasure! So, as a starter, let us walk along Freedown Lane in Banstead...

The Freedown is an area of Banstead Downs that was selected by a group of worthy late-Victorians to build, what they called, a lunatic asylum. Banstead Mental Hospital closed in the late 20th century, with the land being sold to the Home Office. Two high security prisons were then constructed on site - incarceration of a different kind. Freedown Lane (FL) is accessed from the B2218 that runs from Banstead to Belmont. FL is a narrow road that soon becomes an unmade track, the very few houses that are present sharing their space with horse paddocks. If arriving by car, it is best not to park along the lane, with the closest parking being on the access road leading to the prisons, which is to be found further north along the B2218. Several footpaths lead back to Freedown Lane through the woodland, although you can always walk back along the roadside pavement.

Once on FL immediately start listening out for Firecrests. 2-3 pairs hold territory along the first 400m of the lane. There are more in the neighbouring woods, but you needn't leave the lane to see or hear them. You will soon come to a high brick wall (on your left), a remnant from the old hospital and now used as one of the many prison boundaries. Pass the few houses on your right and the area opens up onto Horse Paddocks. These are easily viewable from the Lane, and don't forget to utilise the couple of footpaths that run south in between them, allowing extra viewing opportunities across the open grassland. There seems to be little in the ornithological record for these paddocks, although Ring Ouzel (below, a bird on the paddocks in April) and Wheatear have been recorded. It is highly likely that other species of chat will be present in the spring and autumn. Common Buzzards and Red Kites are often loafing around. The tree-line that borders the lane is home to Blackcap and Chiffchaff, with Common Whitethroats present in the more scrubby sections. It is always worth scanning the skies when looking out over the paddocks - only last week I was able to watch two Hobby as they wheeled around overhead. The area often hosts large groups of loafing gulls and corvids. It is ripe for exploration and discovery!

The Lane is also home to two nationally rare invertebrates, both adventive species that are starting to spread in the local area - Striped Shieldbug and Lixus iridis (the latter a rather large weevil). Both can best be found by checking any stands of Hogweed in the more open areas. The lane is just over a kilometre long, and ends at an unmade road that leads out onto the A2022. A few images below will hopefully give you a flavour of the area. If you live locally, it is well worth an hour of your time - if you live further away, then take advantage of the rare insects on offer!

Sections of the Lane run through closed canopy and thick vegetation

The horse paddock fences are worth checking for migrant passerines

In other places the vegetation opens up - it is here that the rare insects are to be found...

...such as Striped Shieldbug...

...and Lixus iridis!

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