Winter cheer from snowdrops and aconites

Conygre Woods - snowdrops + aconites close-up Caroline AistropThe noticeably lengthening days are letting a little ray of sunshine break into my winter grey gloom, but the thing that really cheers me up is a wander through Conygre Wood near Kingscote village. During February, the woodland floor hosts carpets of snowdrops along with a lovely cheerful flower called winter aconite. The latter is a little, bright yellow flower which opens up in the sunlight creating a patch of mini-suns shining back at that elusive ball of fire which we don’t see enough at this time of year.

Conygre Wood is right on the edge of this picturesque oldy-worldy village which lies just off the A4135 between Tetbury and Dursley (just half a mile from the Hunters’ Hall pub). If you’ve only got half an hour or so, it makes an ideal place to visit as there’s a circular walk beginning and ending at the kissing gate entrance. This wood and Kingscote wood, which lies just beyond it, are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI for short) – a special status given to places in the UK which are important for the wildlife that lives there.

Contrary to what you might think, the snowdrop isn’t native to this country. The first record of it here dates back to 1597 as a garden plant and in 1770, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire were the first places in the UK where it was recorded as growing in the countryside. Obviously, it must have spread from gardens like so many other flowers are doing even today. It’s native to Europe and the Middle East, found from the Pyrenees in France at the most western point through Italy, Greece, Sicily, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Turkey and as far east as Iran and Syria. Its name scientific name, Galanthus, was created in 1753 by a famous naturalist called Linnaeus and means ‘milk flower in the snow’. There are two types of snowdrop in Conygre Wood – the type with the trumpet (the cylindrical bit in the middle) made of one row of petals and then a ‘frilly’ type where the trumpet is made up of lots of petals. You have to keep looking closely at the flowers to spot the different types!

The winter aconite isn’t native to our countryside either and is found growing wild in woodlands of France, the Balkans (an area of southeast Europe) and Italy.  It is a member of the buttercup family (hence the buttercup-like yellow flower) and, like the snowdrop, it was brought here to be used as a garden flower. Unlike the snowdrop, it isn’t nearly as widespread and it’s pretty unusual to find it in woodlands like this. Although neither of these flowers are strictly ‘wild’ flowers, they appear when most of our native ones have yet to poke their heads up, cheering the soul and adding some colour to the grey days.

When to visit: both snowdrops and aconites flower from early February until late in the month. The colder the weather, the longer the flowers will last as insects won’t be around to fertilise them. Insects are cold-blooded and need warm temperatures to move about easily – apart from the bumblebee which has its own fur coat and can function on cool days.

Location: Conygre Wood is on the edge of Kingscote village. Take the A4135 between Tetbury and Dursley – either travel along the A46 until the crossroads with traffic lights where you can turn one way to Tetbury and the other way to join the A4135. Or pick up the A4135 from Dursley. Hunters’ Hall is alongside this road and opposite it is the minor road to Kingscote. Take that and follow the road for half a mile into the village.

How much time to allow: there’s a circular walk around the wood which takes about three-quarters of an hour to an hour at the very most if you’re not hurrying.

Terrain: The wood is on a slope so the lower path, which takes you to the snowdrops and aconites, starts relatively flat but then starts to slope downwards. It gets very muddy after a lot of rain towards the far end. The return path runs along the top of the wood and is well-drained and flat.

Facilities: there aren’t any in the village but the Hunters’ Hall pub is a great place to stop for a drink if you need to use the toilets. They also serve tasty food and their Sunday lunch is very popular. If you’re thinking of enjoying this before or after seeing the flowers, make sure you book your table in advance as all the tables were taken on the Sunday when I called in after visiting the wood.

Directions: either park on the road in the village (note – it’s a small village with little parking especially when a Sunday service is held in the church) or park at Hunters’ Hall pub if you’re going to have a drink or eat there. From the church, keep walking along the main road through the village ‘away from’ the Hunters’ Hall, and in a short distance you’ll see the wood in front of you on the left hand side of the road. Go through the kissing gate entrance and when the path splits, take the right hand path to reach the aconites and snowdrops. After enjoying their loveliness, carry on along the path, keeping to the right. You’ll see a small lake in a field a distance away on the right, keep going and eventually you’ll reach a ‘T-junction’  – turn left here to double back and walk back through Conygre wood along flat, dry path which will return you to the kissng gate.

Conygre Woods - carpet of aconites Caroline Aistrop

Walking to a heavenly waterfall

Heavens waterfall long view - Caroline Aistrop

This constantly wet, miserable weather may not be great for the seratonine levels or make you want to abandon your dormouse impersonation curled up in a warm corner somewhere, but it is ideal for one thing – waterfalls. It’s little known that Stroud has a waterfall – OK, it’s not a niagra falls-type waterfall or even a ‘stand at the bottom and get covered with spray’ waterfall. But, nethertheless, a waterfall it is. And it’s found near a place with a name that makes you want to walk there – The Heavens.

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A winter bird spectacular at Slimbridge

WWT - wild bird feed on Swan Lake copyright WWT
Wild bird feed on Swan Lake, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Slimbridge. Photo by Nick Cottrell

The stars of the winter show in the Stroud area, and also around Gloucestershire, are definitely wildfowl. Whilst we assume that birds head south for warmer climes to avoid the coldest season of our year, as they leave there’s a huge group of birds who come here on their summer holiday. Swans, geese and ducks do fly south for the winter, but they end up around the UK having left the artic circle and the adjoining harsh, frozen lands such as the tundra of northern Russia, Greenland and Iceland.  As you might imagine, these places freeze solid during our winter making food impossible to find so wildfowl migrate here where it’s relatively balmy by comparison. These are birds that need to be by water so they head for our shores and coast plus inland lakes and marshes.

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Wildlife-friendly gift ideas for Christmas

Snow and baubles - Trixieliko

You might be more organised than me in the whole matter of Christmas present buying (I only let this annual festival of frenzy start to perculate into my brain on Stroud’s Goodwill Evening), but if you’re still searching for a present that’d be really valued by someone who’s keen on wildlife, I’ve put together some ideas in the selection below. I, personally, feel that ‘experiences’ or presents that last well beyond the festive season are a much nicer anyway, and the profits raised get ploughed back into helping protect our local wildlife. Continue reading “Wildlife-friendly gift ideas for Christmas”

A walk to Paradise and back!

IMG_1735

So winter has finally started – at least according to the Met Office for whom the 1st December marks the beginning. For astronomers, we’re still autumn until the winter solistice (21st December) which seems a bit late to me. Whatever date you choose, I have to admit to being a bit disappointed with autumn this year. I’d been planning to post a series of blogs highlighting the best places and walks where you could appreciate the full majesty of the glorious seasonal colours. Instead, the trees seem to have gone from green to bare branches in almost one fell swoop. Yes, there has been a degree of colour change, but the usual yellows, reds and oranges have seemed muted. I feel you’ve cheated me, Mother Nature! I find these riotous colours are one of the autumnal delights tempering the thought of winter’s cold, short days. That, plus the wonderful bounty of berries and fruit, and the comforting chutney-making.

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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).

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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.

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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):

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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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