The devil went down to Strawberry Banks

Strawberry Banks Comma + db scabious - Caroline Aistrop

Hurrah! Another opportunity to write about one of my favourite places in Stroud district. I visited Strawberry Banks a couple of days ago and discovered a profusion of devil’s bit scabious creating a purple tapestry weaving through the grassland of this beautiful, hidden valley. Its delicate, lilac pom-pom flower nods on the top of stem about 2-2.5 feet high, and is primly arranged in pairs (though my wildlife-watching companions disagreed and said it was blue. I often have this argument with people ‘It’s purple’, ‘No, it’s blue’, ‘Don’t be daft, it’s obviously purple’…anyone else go through this when discussing flower-colour? No? Must be my funny eyesight, then. I magnanimously agreed on lilac).

It’s one of the last flowers to still be going strong at this time of year and if the conditions are right (i.e. not too much sun in September), it can even carry on into October. How grateful the autumn insects and butterflies must be to have this source of nectar available and, when I visited during a spirit-raising sunny afternoon, there were butterflies in abundance zooming from flower to flower as if they couldn’t get enough of this high energy drink. In just half an hour, I saw commas, peacocks, red admirals, tortoiseshell, and large white butterflies plus heard umpteen grasshoppers and crickets calling.

I don’t know where the name came from as the famous 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper, described the plant as being pleasant and harmless. He thought it an excellent plant for treating all sorts of diseases: “It is very powerful against the plague and all pestilential diseases or fevers and poison, it also helpeth all that are inwardly bruised on the skin by any casualty or outwardly falls or blows, dissolving the clotted blood and the herb or root beaten and outwardly applied taketh away black and blue marks on the skin”. He lists many other ailments soothed by this cure-all (but don’t try them at home!).

Devil’s bit scabious has a number of other common names: blue ball, blue bonnets, oft bit and, my favourite, bobby bright-buttons. I’ve read that the ‘devil’s bit’ part of the name comes from the plant’s short rootstock which has a bitten-off appearance. I wouldn’t know as I don’t want to dig one up to find out!

What is for definite is that it’s the food plant for the caterpillars of the marsh fritillary butterfly which is rare in the south west of England. Visit the Banks again in May and you’ll see plenty of this attractive, orange butterfly, although a couple of years ago, there were so many of its caterpillars gorging themselves on the plant that there wasn’t enough food to go around and the population crashed. Happily, it has since recovered as short-lived species such as this go through troughs and peaks regularly, it’s all part nature’s cycle.

When to visit: from end of July – beg October, but September is an ideal time as this month is a bit of a hiatus for wildlife-watching as virtually all other flowers are over, migrant birds have left, the wildfowl have yet to arrive and fungi have still to get going.

Location: OS Explore map no. 168 grid ref.: ST035913. Strawberry Banks is a couple of miles beyond Chalford, near Stroud. You have to walk through Three Groves wood first in order to reach Strawberry Banks but the path leads straight there from the road so is easy to follow, and it’s lovely wood. The Banks is also approx a mile’s walk down the valley-side from the village of Oakridge Lynch along a number of public footpaths.

How much time to allow: you can easily walk from one end of the site to the other in 15 minutes along the path at the bottom of the slope  but it’s such a wonderful place that you can easily linger much longer! I’d suggest spending at least an hour there.

Terrain: Strawberry Banks is essentially a flower-rich grassland sloping down the valleyside between Oakridge Lynch and Chalford. It consists of two fields divided by a hedgerow, with a stream running along the bottom. The  devil’s bit scabious is concentrated in a wide strip from one side of the site to the other along the bottom half of the slope. A path runs along the bottom edge on generally flat land. It has a soil surface created by lots of feet it so it’s easy to walk along but doubtful that it’s even enough for people with mobility problems to manage.

Can prams make it there? All terrain buggies possibly could but the path through the Banks is narrow, only as wide as your foot. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way that wheelchairs or people with mobility problems can get onto the site  due the roughness, length and steepness of the path leading through Three Groves wood, and the narrowness and uneven-ness of the path along the Banks.  If anyone does manage it, please let me know!

Facilities: none on site, however, there’s a community-run corner shop in the middle of Chalford and Lavender Bakehouse on the A419 opposite the turn-off into Chalford serves the most wonderful cakes plus lunches should you want a treat plus has toilets, obviously. And it sells old-fashioned board and children’s games (like cat’s cradle) and has a lovely loft upstairs where lots of local craftspeople and artists sell their wares. Alternatively, just before you reach Strawberry Banks on the right hand side, you’ll pass a well-equiped, large playground where you could take the children if they get bored with being in Strawberry Banks. There are picnic benches there so you could take a packed lunch and split the day – part in the playground and part on the Banks.

Directions: At the junction between A419 Cirencester Road and Chalford (opposite Victoria Works), turn left and drive through Chalford along the High Street and continue past the playground on the right hand side. Carry on for about a mile, and you’ll see 5 tall, wooden posts on your left at a small layby. Park here (note: there’s only room for a couple of cars) and walk forwards a few feet to reach the footpath entrance to Three Groves Wood (an interpretation board shows that you’re in the right place). Follow this footpath until it splits into two: take the left hand path to reach the top of Strawberry Banks and to also pass a log wigwam (great for kids to play in), or continue on the main path to reach the entrance gate into the bottom part of the Banks which is where the devil’s bit scabious is.

 

Special bird festival at Slimbridge this weekend

Photo - waders bar-tailed godwits (WWT website)

This coming weekend sees the first Wader Festival take place – no, it’s not the annual gathering of wellie manufacturers but a celebration of a special type of bird called a wader which flocks to this area every spring and autumn. On Saturday and Sunday, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s centre at Slimbridge will be busy with all sorts of activities celebrating the birds which collectively form a group that is found all over the world apart from Antartica; in both freshwater and salt-water, in bogs, marshes, coasts, ponds, and whose members are as diverse from flamingos and cranes to godwits and egrets.

Although wading birds can be seen during autumn all over the district and Gloucestershire where there’s a significant body of water or boggy bit, Slimbridge is the perfect place to see them when you want a bit of creature comfort to accompany your wildlife watching. Not just because they flock there in hundreds and thousands, or that because the birdwatching hides are placed at just the right spots to offer the best views, or  the comfortable restaurant and toilet facilities, but also because of the experts who are on hand during weekends to help you learn which type of wader is which (if you’re not an expert).

Unfortunately, we don’t get any waders as colourful as flamingos (though Slimbridge’s bird collection is the only place in the UK where all six species of flamingo can be seen), but the waders that flock here are small and perfectly formed! During the summer months, many of the waders do sport plummage that are wonderful shades of chestnut and all sorts of dramatic patterns. By the time they reach the Stroud district and Slimbridge in the autumn, they’ve donned a more tasteful hue with a subtle style that blends in better with their background and makes them less conspicuous to predators. However, the tall and elegant crowned cranes are a spectacular sight and the handful that you may see at Slimbridge are ones which were bred at Slimbridge and released as part of a special programme to re-introduce them into the wild.

The waders most commonly found migrating at this time of year through Slimbridge include Ruff, black-tailed Godwit, snipe, green sandpiper, redshank, lapwing, ringed plover (one of my favourites), dunlin, bitterns, and the new kid on the block, the little egret. The latter only moved here from the continent in the 1980s and 90s, and started breeding in 1996. By 2006, it had become an established resident with over 500 pairs in the UK.

Granted to the untrained eye, many of the wader species look very similar (and I have to admit that learning to tell them apart is an ongoing exercise for me), when you get to know them, you see that they have different characteristics. For example, I’ve given the black-tailed godwit the nickname of the ‘sewing machine bird’ as when it’s looking for worms and crustaceans to eat, it pushes its long beak into and out of the mud so rapidly that it looks like the needle of a sewing machine to me! So, waders in the UK are birds which may not have the dazzling looks of tropical birds, but they’re well worth getting to know on a personal level. And when you do finally spot the intensely shy bittern emerging briefly from the reeds, the sense of satisfaction is tremendous.

When to visit: Slimbridge’s Wader Festival is on this Saturday (9th) and Sunday (10th), check their website for times and details of the many activities going on http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/slimbridge/whats-on/2017/09/09/severn-wader-festival/. Waders leave their summer breeding ground and pass through this area from late July through to October.

Location: Slimbridge is off the A38 between junctions 13 and 14, signposted by brown tourist direction signs.

How much time to allow: as much as you want! You could easily stay all day and I’d suggest two hours at the least.

Terrain: as Slimbridge is in the floodplain of the Severn, the ground is flat. Tarmac-surfaced paths enable wheelchairs, prams and people with mobility problems to easily get around. A sloping ramp leads from the car park to the visitor centre. Audio-guides help people with visual impairments get around.

Facilities: all you could want for a day out! Loads of stuff for kids to do, there’ll be special activities going on as part of the festival, there’s a shop, restaurant, toilets (in the grounds as well as in the visitor centre)…and lots more.

Directions: take the M5 and leave at either junction 13 or 14, or follow the A38 from Gloucester or Bristol, or the A4179 from Stroud. Once you reach the A38, there are brown tourist signs pointing the way. http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/slimbridge/plan-your-visit/

 

Summer fun in the countryside for kids

Photo - 2 girls walking along footpath backview Pezibear

In the past, I’ve lead walks helping families get closer to wildlife and be inspired by the outdoors. A regular comment that took me aback was parents admitting that these events helped them discover places where they could take their children in the future. Even though they really wanted their children to spend time amongst nature, they didn’t know where to go ‘out there’ in the countryside.

So, here are five places I’d recommend where families can have some fun, fresh air and do a bit of wildlife watching (and all for free):

Woodchester Park, near Stroud – this is a great place to go, one of my top recommendations. It offers acres of woodland, plenty of space for children to explore,  a natural play trail installed by the owners, the National Trust, and even a grand gothic house. The house boasts one of the biggest roosts in the UK of the rare greater and lesser horseshoe bats as well as looking like a set from one of the Hammer House of Horrors films. If bats make you feel slightly on edge, don’t worry,  they’re not free-flying as they live in the roof space and cameras beam live pictures of them to TV screens in the house. A small cafe and toilets finish this off as the near perfect place for parents keeping children happy – note, though, that the Mansion and cafe are only open on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. You can get into the cafe free if you explain on the door that you don’t want to look around the house. However, if the rain starts, a look around the mansion and time watching the bats (which are surprisingly active during the day) are ideal wet-weather options. www.woodchestermansion.org.uk.

Cost: £3/day for the car park, otherwise free unless you want to visit Woodchester Mansion which is extra (this is owned by Stroud District Council and run by volunteers).

Directions – take the B4066 Stroud to Uley road and then take turning to Nympsfield (just before or after Coaley Peak viewpoint depending on where you’re travelling from). Half a mile down the road is a left turn signposted to Woodchester Park. Drive down this unsurfaced road to reach the car park.

Horsley Valley, near Nailsworth – an idyllic valley running from Horsley to Ruskin Mill near Nailsworth. There’s a permissive footpath (i.e. the owners allow people to walk along the valley, it’s not a public right of way) all the way along with the great Ruskin Mill cafe at one end. The valley is owned by the Ruskin Mill Trust who run a college for students but as a lot of the learning activities focus on land management, food growing and traditional craft skills, the site is a maze of fish ponds (which attract herons and kingfishers), colourful flower beds (but not the municipal park kind), vegetable plots, and woodland with beautifully carved wooden benches, bridges, statues and other interesting art pieces along the way.

At the Horsley end of the valley, the stream is so shallow (it’s only a couple of inches deep) and narrow that it’s ideal for children to play in. There’s a spot where a small patch of concrete has been laid onto the bank creating an easy place to walk into the stream. When I’ve taken my daughter and her friends there, they’ve played for ages, making up games as they’ve paddled in the stream whilst I’ve sat in the sunshine on the bank. Just beyond this point is a small field with some sheep and a couple of inquisitive goats (though they weren’t there the other day when we visited). We just love this place.

Cost – It’s free to walk along the valley and Ruskin Mill is also free to get into plus it stages some interesting arts and craft exhibitions from time to time. Visiting at weekends is best when the students and teachers aren’t around so it’s quieter. The college doesn’t mind other people visiting this site as long as it’s treated with respect and all litter is taken home.

Directions – from Nailsworth, take the B4058 to Horsley. Just as you reach the top of the hill in the centre of Horsley and you can see The Hogg pub ahead of you, there’s a small public car park on your left hand side. Park in there and then turn right when leaving the car park. Walk a few yards until you reach a single track road on the right. Walk to the bottom of this road and you’ll find yourself in the valley where the road goes over the stream. Look to your left and you’ll see the public footpath sign – this is the path that’ll take you along the valley to Ruskin Mill.

Cherington Pond, near Minchinhampton – this really is a small lake not a pond but it’s good place for spotting dragonflies, damselflies and birds. Next to it is a small woodland, and a footpath takes you on a lovely stroll around two sides of the pond, over a stream flowing out of the pond, through the woodland, across a reedbed and out onto the road where you can walk back to the parking area (the road is a minor, back-road with little traffic).  The place where the stream leaves the pond is a great spot for children to paddle, play pooh-sticks and generally have fun getting wet. The walk around the site doesn’t take long, only about 20 minutes – but that’s at grown-up’s pace without stopping to look at anything. The path is flat most of the way, with a gentle slope up into the woodland but could easily be walked by young children and is passable with an all-terrain buggy. It’s a lovely place to spend a couple of hours. Unfortunately, the site isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or people with mobility diffuculties.

Cost – it’s free to walk around the site but it is privately owned so please respect both the place and the wildlife, and take all litter home.

Directions – Drive over Minchinhampon Common as if you’re leaving Stroud and heading towards Cirencester, turn right where the Ragged Cot Inn (nice food and real ales, good for a drink or bite to eat) is on the corner and carry on along that road past Crackstone stables to a T-junction. Turn left and then left again almost immediately (there’s still a signpost for the Nag’s Head pointing in the direction you want to go but this pub closed a long time ago) and carry on for about 1-2 miles. Eventually, you’ll see the pond on your right. There is a small area where cars can park at the furthest side of the pond. NB there’s only space for half a dozen cars.

Rudge Hill, near Edge, Stroud – it’s so good for wildlife that the site has been designated as a site of special scientific interest (a SSSI for short). Rudge Hill is an excellent example of unimproved limestone grassland. “What on earth does that mean?” you may wonder. Essentiallly, it’s grassland in its natural form which has been grazed by farmers’ livestock for hundreds of years, without any chemicals added to it. The result is soil with low fertility, giving the wildflowers a massive head start as  they’re not competing with the botanical bullies such as nettles, docks, rye grass which need soil with high fertility to thrive.

Most of the site is open grassland, and there’s an small woodland along the section which borders with the A4173 to Gloucester. Children should find plenty to explore, and butterflies are coming into their own at this time of year so look out for them: on a sunny day, they won’t be difficult to see. Apart  from the road along one side, generally you feel as if you’re miles away from anywhere. Lots of flowers can be found here, (including a number of different types of orchids earlier in the season) plus trees and bushes, and a few bolders offering a restful seat for parents. As Rudge Hill (which was called Edge Common until a few years ago and probably still is by some) is a small site, children could go off on their own and can still be found when it’s time to go home. The only factor to be aware of is the gate at the bottom of Rudge Hill which leads onto the busy road. However, on the opposite side of the road is the Edgemoor Inn and it’s menu of delicious food makes it worth a visit!

Cost: not a bean. The Edgemoor Inn serves caters for all food preferences including vegan and gluten-free so adding a visit would be a treat though would obviously cost.

Directions: car parking is a bit of an issue as there isn’t much space. Either drive along the A4173 Stroud-Gloucester road and then park in the layby opposite the Edgemoor Inn where there’s a footpath leading into the site; or drive along the Whiteshill to Edge road and when you’ve passed a bus stop on your left hand side, keep an eye out for a couple of laybys on the right just before you get to the village. You can park here and enter Rudge Hill through the metal gates at the official site entrance. If you end up in the vilage, you’ve gone too far. Alternatively, the number 63 bus does pass by – ask the driver for the stop before Edge village and then cross over the road, looking for a public footpath sign will lead to Rudge Hill.

Strawberry Banks, Chalford –  another place which feels that it’s miles from anywhere, an idyllic spot on a sunny day. Most of the sloping site is flower-rich grassland consisting of two fields divided by a hedgerow, and there’s a stream running along the bottom of the slope. This is another great, safe place where kids can paddle as the stream is only a couple of inches deep. At the far end of the site, the lower footpath crosses a couple of wooden planks over the river. This is a good spot for kids to paddle and parents to sit and relax! The stream bed here is made of tufa – an uncommon kind of rock which only occures in a few places around the country. It’s formed in limestone-rich streams where the limestone drops out of the water where it settles onto the bed of the sream/river bed. Gradually this layer gets deeper and then solidifies. At Strawberry Banks,  the result is a hard surface which children can easily walk on without sinking into mud. There is a footpath that runs alongside part of the stream though you’ll have to re-trace your steps walking along the lower path through the meadow to find the entrance.

To reach Strawberry Banks, you have to walk through Three Groves Wood first which belongs to Glos Wildlife Trust. It only takes a few minutes and where a path splits off to the right, someone has built a log wigwam where children can play. This path leads to the top of Strawberry Banks which offers a nice walk through the flower meadows and down to the bottom of the site and the stream. Like some of the sites I’ve described above, Strawberry Banks is a place where parents can give children a bit of freedom to roam about on their own without having to worry about traffic. On your way to Strawberry Banks, you’ll pass a well-equiped, large playground where you could take the children if they get bored with being in Strawberry Banks. There are picnic benches there so you could take a packed lunch and split the day – part in the playground and part on the Banks. Chalford’s shop is also a short walk away if you wanted to get extra provisions.

Can prams be taken there? Possibly if you can lift your pram over the gate at the entrance. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way that wheelchairs can get onto the site because of the gate and the roughness of the path. I don’t think it’s suitable for people with mobility problems due to the path leading through Three Groves Wood which is not only a long way for people who can’t walk well but it’s also uphill. If anyone does manage it, please let me know!

Cost: it’s all free. There’s a community shop nearby and Lavender Bakehouse serves the most wonderful cakes plus lunches should you want a treat.

Directions: At the junction between A419 Cirencester Road and Chalford (opposite Victoria Works), turn left and drive through Chalford along the High Street and continue past the playground on the right hand side. Carry on for about a mile, and you’ll see 5 tall, wooden posts on your left at a small layby. Park here (note: there’s only room for a couple of cars here) and walk forwards a few feet to reach the footpath entrance to Three Groves Wood (an interpretation board shows that you’re in the right place). Follow this footpath until it splits into two: take the left hand path to reach the top of Strawberry Banks and to also pass the log wigwam, or continue on the main path to reach the entrance gate into the bottom part of the Banks.

 

Glow, baby, Glow!

Bisley Rd cemetery chapel + gravestones _ C Aistrop

July is the time of year when nature offers the opportunity to visit a fairy grotto or two. If you know where to go, you can take a stroll at dusk surrounded by lots of tiny, neon green lights that appear as if by magic. I’m talking about the glow-worm, that fascinating creature which seems to belong in fairy tales: invisible during the day yet once darkness falls, it decorates a field with nature’s version of fairy lights.

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Pyramidals: the last of the orchid spectaculars

Pyramidal orchids Rudge Hill - C Aistrop

The Stroud district is sooo fortunate in having a wealth of different orchid species growing in lots of places around and about, and in having some that occur in great profusion. There are certain ones which are solitary souls, for example the frog orchid certainly doesn’t copy its namesake as a party animal, but others are real show-offs making everyone a winner in the game of ‘spot the orchid’. The end of June and beginning of July is the last time during the flowering season when you can enjoy one of these spectaculars as the pyramidal orchid livens up grasslands with splashes of its cerise pink flowers.

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Coaley Peak – meadows, marvellous views and possibly ice-cream, too.

 

View down Severn Vale from Coaley Peak - C Aistrop

When it’s a warm, sunny day at this time of year, one of my favourite places to go for a picnic and to enjoy being in the great outdoors is Coaley Peak viewpoint. The 180 degree view over the Severn Vale is stunning, there are plenty of interesting wild flowers to admire, lots of space for kids to run around and, if you’ve got young kids who are Harry Potter fans, you can entice them with the idea of visiting the Forbidden Forest, too. It’s also a place where people with restricted mobility, and possibly even those in wheelchairs, could enjoy being outdoors and seeing some wildlife. Add into this mix the ice-cream van that’s usually parked there at weekends during the summer and what else could you ask for?!

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Elderflower cordial: so easy to make! Here’s how…

Photo of Elderflower - Smoobs

Once the initial explosion of spring flowering has died back and the icing-like cover of white hawthorn flowers has melted from the hedgerows, the next bloom of colour appearing almost immediately afterwards is that of the elder tree. The flowerheads are so large, round and flat that they look like giant plates from nature’s best crockery set.  In reality, these white blooms are made up of thousands of tiny flowers and are a magnet for a whole host of insects gorging themselves on the nectar feast they provide.

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Trees and tranquillity at Breakheart Quarry

Map of Breakhart Quarry

The end of May and beginning of June is a bit of a quiet time with regards to wildlife spectacles. The dawn chorus is still in full swing and, thankfully if you’re not one of those early birds and prefer your cosy bed as I do, so is the dusk chorus albeit not as loud as the crack-of-dawn one. So this hiatus makes it a good time to get to grips with trees – no, not hugging them but seeing and appreciating the different types we have in this country. A great place to go is Breakheart Quarry near Dursley as there’s a fabulous range of trees growing there, it’s very family friendly and the flat footpath circumnavigating the site may even be suitable for people with restricted mobility.

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A cuckoo (but not a nightingale) sang at Frampton Pools

Nightingale - Kev Chapman

I love visiting the Severn Vale, it’s so different to the character and look of the landscape around Stroud and on the Cotswold escarpment that I feel as if I’ve been in another part of the world for a few hours. Once you’re off the main road, there’s a tranquillity and restfulness that I find so soothing. Last Friday evening strolling around the woodland near Frampton Pools was no different and was enhanced by a glorious sunset over Frampton Court.

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Wild garlic in the heart of Stroud

Stratford Park woodland entranceStratford Park must be the jewel in Stroud’s urban wildlife crown. It has a small area of lovely, more ‘wild’ woodland tucked well away from the formal bit of the park and I’d bet a whole pile of money that most people using the leisure centre don’t know of it’s existence. But in May, the woodland floor becomes covered in ‘spring snow’ as the glorious garlic spectacle erupts and, because of the park’s location and footpaths, it’s one of the easiest to reach and enjoy.

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