Saturday, 26 May 2012

Monkey Orchids and other Spring Flowers

This posting is of a field trip with the excellent local history society. For a report on all that the group found please look here. With continuous bright sunshine it became a little too hot at times. The April rains had brought out an excellent array of spring flowers some of which are quite rare. Firstly one of my favourite plants at this time of year, the very vigorous and healthy looking black bryony (Dioscorea communis).

black bryony

The location was on a steep south-facing chalk slope overlooking the Thames.

River Thames

And now for the main reason for the visit, this is one of the few sites where you can see a few rare monkey orchids (Orchis simia). Apart from Hartslock you can only see them in Kent.

Monkey orchid

The bright colour and strange form is very appealing, but they are small (the spike is only a couple of inches). Here is a close-up showing the curious arms; legs and tail. The monkeys have a pale 'bonnet' around the head.

Monkey orchid

Sometimes they give the impression of legs sticking out all over.

Monkey orchid

The reason for a great deal of botanical excitement is that there are a couple of Lady orchids (Orchis purpurea) here too. How they got there is a mystery as you would expect to see them in Southern France. The flowers were well passed their best.

Lady orchid

And what is more these have hybridised with the Monkey orchids to create a more vigorous Monkey-Lady orchid mixture that is dramatically more vigorous than its two parents. Its flowers are somewhat intermediate in form between the monkey and lady parents, with many more flowers per spike. The 'bonnet' around the head is much more purple than its monkey parent.

Hybrid Monkey/Lady orchid

The hybrids grow up to ten times taller than their parents and are restricted to a patch within five yards of the Lady orchids.

Hybrid Monkey/Lady orchid

Here's a close-up of one flower, revealing a smiling face, you can see there is something of a monkey about it.

Hybrid Monkey/Lady orchid

There were also a few plants that are just as rare but much less visually exciting. These include Bastard Toadflax (Thesium humifusum), a strange semi-parasitic plant that is hard to spot, and not yet in flower. Also Downy Fruited Sedge (Carex tomentosa) - a very rare variety of grass. The more common but choice plants were also present in good numbers, including horseshoe vetch.

Horseshoe vetch

Such a wealth of wild flowers (lots of milkwort) attracted butterflies, although in the stiff breeze they didn't settle for photographs. Dingy skipper; orange tip; brimstone; small tortoiseshell; small heath were all seen. There were at least two types of blue butterfly around, common blue and this holly blue (Celastrina argiolus).

Holly blue butterfly

Back to the flowers with Clustered Bellflower (Campanula glomerata)

Clustered bellflower

And another orchid with intricate flowers that can be hard to spot Twayblades (Neottia ovata).


Finally, another member of the orchid 'family' is White Helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium), doing well on the fringe of woods.

White helleborine

Friday, 25 May 2012

Hungerford and Chilton Foliat

After a very cool start of May the weather has flipped directly into high summer with torrid temperatures, pleasant enough a change for just a day or two. So it was too hot to walk in the first part of the week, only the stiff breeze made this walk feasible today. I extended my walks along the Kennet and Avon canal to the town of Hungerford. Here is a map of the 11.5 mile walk:

View Cholton Foliat - Hungerford - Froxfield in a larger map

Most of the time the walk was over rich farmland that has prospered in the April rains.

Hungerford,farm view

The early spring flowers (lesser celandine; bluebell; wood anemone) were being replaced by the flowers of summer. Ubiquitous was bright blue speedwell, in a variety of species.


I headed north-east from the picturesque village of Chilton Foliat past farms called, rather strangely, Little Hidden Farm and Great Hidden Farm. These cattle seemed to have chosen to sunbathe, as shady areas were also available for them.


Continuing the farmland theme, the proximity of the horse rearing Lambourn was evident from the many hoof marks on the tracks. These two horses made a lovely matched pair of greys.


I headed down along pleasant woodland fringes down to Denford Mill Lock on the Kennet and Avon canal and there joined up with a walk I did ten years ago from Kintbury.

Kennet and Avon canal, Denford Lock

The canal path takes you to Hungerford, a town I have not explored on foot before. It has an impressive range of antique shops and looked busy, I did not see a single boarded up shop as I had done in Abingdon.


The High Street is a busy road (the A338) and it seemed all the older properties were scattered along it. Very little in the way of pre-industrial houses, it was the boom brought by the canal and then the railway that greatly expanded the town. The town hall is built in a fairly eccentric Victorian style (1870). To read more about the history of Hungerford please visit here.


If it was an ancient place one would expect an interesting, ancient church as a central focus, with a central square, however in Hungerford the main parish church (St. Lawrence) is tucked away at the edge near the canal. Moreover it is a strange mixture of 1815 and 1880 dates. Apparently, an earlier medieval church on the site collapsed during repairs. Built with Bath stone, transported conveniently along the canal (a plaque takes the view it the most easterly large building made of Bath stone - an unlikely claim). It is mock-medieval in tone with not a great deal to commend itself, the 1880 re-build tried to correct some of the worst bits of the 1815 creation. Indeed rather than a picture of the exterior I took this one of a model of the church made of match sticks that you can see inside it (and, I can't refrain from suggesting, is there an even smaller model inside the model?).

St. Lawrence Hungerford

I then continued along the canal.

Kennet and Avon canal

The canal passes through an area of marshland (Freeman's Marsh) and then quietens down to the rural backwater that is more typical of its character. The canal has now left the Kennet Valley and follows the River Dun, the importance of this route can be gleaned from the fact that the canal, the railway and the A4 road are all within a few hundred yards of each other.

Kennet and Avon canal

To complete the circular walk I headed off north over farmland after first walking along the busy A4, there I spotted this Hawksbeard in full glory.


Cake Wood looked interesting, with many yellow archangels on the fringes, I was taken by the unfolding of this fern.


The farmer had kept the path directly across a barley field clear and easy to walk. I have heard people wonder whether cereal plants like barley and wheat have 'flowers' and I came at the correct time to supply the proof - the little anthers are providing pollen.

barley flowers

The path then came down into the Kennet valley and it looks idyllic near Littlecote House.

barley flowers

A pleasant walk through woods and over the Kennet took me back to Chilton Foliat with all its thatched houses.

Chilton Foliat