Often when people think of orchids, the image of the big ‘n’ blousy type come to mind. That was certainly the picture I’d conjured up when a friend first pointed out a native orchid to me. As she was mad-keen on plants, I think my initial reaction and obvious disappointment crushed her enthusiasm. Ah well, I was only 18 at the time and had yet to learn to appreciate plants and native flowers in general. Now I, too, get as excited as my friend when I see our orchids start to re-appear every spring.
We’re very lucky in Stroud to have so many orchids gracing us with their presence as they’re fussy souls – they need a fungus to associate with their roots or they can’t grow at all, they need particular climatic conditions to encourage them to emerge, and there aren’t that many of them in the rest of the UK. We are one of a number of hotspots in the country. Orchids need alkaline soils with low fertility to keep aggressive plants (like couch grass and nettles) away, and even experts aren’t too sure of all the factors orchids require in order to grow successfully.
Minchinhampton Common are is one of the best places in the district to see orchids (as well as Selsley and Rodborough Commons). At the beginning of May, two types of orchid appear in abundance – early purple and green-winged. Helpfully (?!), they both look very similar – spikes of purple flowers with leaves at the bottom of the plant stem. Early purple orchids usually have brown/black splodges on the leaves (though not in every case), and green-winged don’t. If you have very good eyesite, have a look at the top side petals: green-winged have dark green-ish stripes running vertically downwards and early purples don’t.
But who needs such in-depth information in order to enjoy the wonderful show of orchids at this time of year? It looks even more spectacular thanks to the mingling of the deep purple-coloured orchids the profusion of yellow cowslips which grows in the same type of habitat. One good place to enjoy this spectacle is Minchinhampton Common – but as it’s a big place, it’s easy to wander around it for a long time and miss the best places. One spot I head to is where Brimscombe Hill emerges onto the common (see info below). But a word of caution – please keep to paths or cow trails, or keep a careful eye on where you’re going, as skylarks nest on the ground amongst the tall grass. The other evening as I was walking around, absorbed with looking at orchids, I nearly stepped on a nest and didn’t realise until a bird suddenly few up from next to my foot. I looked down to see 3 eggs just centimetres from my clod-hopping boot. I felt awful about scaring the parent bird away and hoped the nearby rooks wouldn’t spot the nest before it returned.
When to visit: first two weeks of May are the best time to see early purples and green-winged (possibly a bit earlier if it’s been a warm winter)
Location: the area of Minchinhampton Common on the left-hand side immediately after the point where Brimscombe Hill emerges onto the common. There’s a small parking area just before this on the left-hand side but please park considerately as local residents park here, too.
How much time to allow: as long as you like. It’s possible to take in the lovely sight in just a few minutes, but I’m recommend spending a bit of time there as the whole common is a great place for a walk and you’ll find orchids dotted around the common.
Terrain: flat, but the ground could be uneven and you’ll be walking through long-ish grass. There’s a unmade up road running to a house over on the left alongside the orchids which is easy to walk along, plus obvious paths across the common – there’s a wide one on the opposite side of the road which is a lovely route. This latter one is perfect for prams/all-terrain buggies and people with restricted mobility, and there are still lots of flowers all around plus some orchids. Because of the nesting skylarks, I wouldn’t recommend prams to be wheeled off the paths.
Facilities: none on site, but the Old Lodge is quite close by and has a lovely garden where you can sit and enjoy a drink. I don’t think they have any objection to children being in the pub during the day.
Directions: from A419 to Cirencester, turn off to Brimscombe up the hill. When you’re virtually at the top, look out for the parking area on the left (there’s an old-style telephone box there).