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 (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 to feed on 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 caterpillars gorging themselves on the plant that there wasn’t enough food to go around and the population crashed. Happily, it has recovered as the population of species with very quick life cycles like this butterfly 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.

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