Minchinhampton Common: flowers, butterflies, birds, iron age ramparts and …cows. There’s so much to see!

Stroud is blessed by being ringed by three very special commons and we’re so fortunate that we can enjoy each one of them. No unfriendly ‘keep out’ signs here even though each common is a nature reserve, a site of special scientific interest and one is internationally important for its wildife.

Cowslips and cows on Minchampton Common – credit: C Aistrop

Minchinhampton Common is one of these special places and abuts onto the village of Minchinhampton (funnily enough). The whole area has a story stretching back to prehistoric times and the ridges of land running along parts of the common are the remains of Iron Age defenses (called The Bulwarks by locals). Nearby is a neolithic long barrow which was a communal tomb for local people thousands of years ago. The common is now owned and managed by The National Trust so it’s protected for future generations.

During May, however, it’s our present day wildlife that makes this a place you must visit. It’s a special type of grassland called unimproved limestone grassland because it hasn’t had fertilisers or pesticides put on it for a long time so wildlife can flourish.

From the end of April until late into May, the common is a riot of cowslips and, from early May, the cowslips’ sunny yellow is complimented by golden yellow buttercups and interspersed by contrasting early purple orchids and green-winged orchids (which are also purple, despite the name). Then, later in May, the colour palette has electric blue added to it thanks to the Adonis Blue butterflies.

It’s a glorious sight which makes my heart sing whenever I walk amongst it, especially as skylarks hovering high overhead serenade you throughout your walk. One of the best aspects of this common is that most of it is on the flat so no demanding steep climbs here, a gentle saunter will enable you to appreciate the natural wonders. The flowers and skylarks are even mere inches away from the car parks, so you could see them without moving far. Sitting a little way from the car with a picnic is a lovely way to spend a sunny afternoon.

The Bulwarks are the best place to see the Adonis Blue butterflies. For some reason, they seem to like the slopes of the ramparts, perhaps because the thin soil here warms up quickly when the sun shines. You can’t miss them and even though common blue butterflies are around as well, the bright, electric blue of the male Adonis is unmistakeable and stunning. The female isn’t blue but a chocolately brown – a common story as the female of many species is a brown colour to keep her hidden from predators.

On 12th May each year, cows are let onto the common to graze and the day is called Marking Day locally. They stay there until October. It’s a tradition stretching back hundreds of years and this keeps the common an ideal place for wildlife. They’re used to people but please keep your dog under control around the cows, especially when there are calves around. The sight of Highland cattle on this place deep in England does make you do a double take!

A word of caution – as you’re walking around the common, keep an eye out for skylark nests which are on the ground amongst the long grass. I once stopped to look at some orchids and realised I’d stopped inches away from 3 speckled eggs. I was horrified to think I’d nearly stepped on them!

When to visit: cowslips flower from late April until late May, 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 spring), skylarks sing all the way through the month, buttercups cover the common with a layer of gold from early to late May, and the Adonis Blue butterfly appears towards the end of May and into early June.

Location: the flowers are all over the common as are the skylarks. The Adonis Blue butterflies are best seen along the Bulwarks. From the car park, walk straight ahead with car park behind you. Cross the road and keep walking straight ahead until you’ve almost reached some houses. Turn right, then walk to the road and cross the road. This area of the common is where you’ll find the green-winged orchids. Walk ahead but veer to the left aiming for the ridge of land you’ll see – but watch out for flying golf balls as the common also doubles up as a golf course. Walk along the ridge – this is part of the Bulwarks – looking out for butterflies. Cross the road and walk on the ridge on the other side – this is more of the iron age ramparts. Turn right and head across the common back towards the car park, crossing the road to get back to your car. It’s difficult to get lost as the whole area is flat and you’ll be able to see where you are.

How much time to allow: as long as you like. The route I’m describing takes about an hour at a gentle stroll as it takes in The Bulwarks but even 15 minutes will let you see plenty of flowers and hear the skylarks.

Terrain: flat, but you’ll be walking through long-ish grass so it won’t necessarily be even. There aren’t any ‘proper’ paths as such.

Facilities: none on site, but the Old Lodge is a great pub on the common 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. Minchinhampton is definitely worth a visit as it’s a beautiful old Cotswold town with lovely tea shop, restuarants, the Crown pub, and shops.

Directions: drive across the common on the main road from Rodborough towards Minchinhampton village. At the skew-wiff junction at Tom Long’s Post (a tall white post with direction signs on the top), turn right and then right again a few yards just beyond. Drive a few yards and you’ll see some parking areas on the right. There’ll be a large, raised mound beyond – this is a covered reservoir.

Early purple orchids on Minchinhampton Common – credit: C Aistrop

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