Wingless butterflies and wild granny’s bonnets at Strawberry Banks

Well, to be accurate, you can find both winged and wingless butterflies at Strawberry banks – I know this sounds like a cryptic crossword puzzle. Mmmm, there’s a thought maybe I could start a new career! The answers would involve a lot of letters so they’d also make good Scrabble words. The wingless butterfly I’m talking about is the Butterfly Orchid, a lovely, modest flower which is the latest of a host of orchids that grow at Strawberry Banks near Chalford. Common spotted orchids are also gracing the sunny slopes right now and it won’t be long before pyramidal orchids are flowering. As for the winged butterfly, this idilic limestone grassland is also a place where you’ll find plemty of them of them zipping around, especially on a warm day.

There are two types of Butterfly Orchids – greater and (surprise, surprise) lesser butterfly orchids. The flowers of both look exactly the same except the ones of the lesser are smaller. Not much use unless you see the two plants side-by-side which is unlikely to happen as they don’t like crowds and grow spread out from each other. The greater is between 8″/20cm – 24″/60cm tall, whilst the lesser grows up to 12″/30cm tall. To find them, you just have to walk around the Banks and keep your eyes peeled. (If you want to get really geeky, the pollen sacs of the two are different but, hey, leave that to the botanists and simply enjoy the flower’s loveliness instead.)

Both have small white flowers growing up the flower spike which can be up to 30cms tall. The lower petal forms a long, thin lip and there’s a ‘spur’ sticking out of the back of the flower – a long, thin tube with nectar at the bottom. Only butterflies and moths with very long tongues can reach all the way down to get at this high energy drink. The greater butterfly orchid gives off a lovely vanilla scent, particularly at night to attract moths in particular.

The populations of both orchids around the UK are declining, unfortunately. There seen to be many causes: livestock heavily grazing fields where they grow, fertilsers being added to meadows (as the lesser orcid needs to form a partnership with a fungus in order to grow properly which is easily killed by fertilisers), drainage, shading by scrub, and conversion of meadows to grow cereals and vegetables.

As for the granny’s bonnets refered to in the title, this is the nick-name I’ve always known for columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris is the latin name) which you might have growing in your garden. Many garden flowers have been bred from the wild variety but often the two end up looking very different. Not in this case. As you can see in the photograph at the top of this post, the garden and the wild forms still look the same.

Believe it or not, it’s a member of the buttercup family – you’d never guess, would you, as they look so different. The wild columbine is purple, and very occasionally white, so if you see different coloured ones (and double flowered ones), these are ones that’ve escaped from gardens. It’s between 50 – 90cms tall and where it grows, you usually see lots of them growing together in a group. They’re not common in the countryside and like to grown in woods, fens and on grassland that;s sitting on chalk or lime.

The Banks is generally a wonderful, tranquil place and is one of my favourite sites. Not only is it great for wildlife, when you’re there you feel miles away from anywhere and there’s no sound of human activity, only birdsong and the humming of bees. I find it the ideal spot to forget about the cares of the world.

When to visit: from end of May and into June is the best time to see both the columbines and the butterfly orchids. Visit on a warm day with little breeze and you’re more likely to see lots of butterflies including the rare marsh fritillary butterfly.

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, too. The Banks is also about 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 20 minutes along the path at the bottom of the slope  but it’s such a wonderful place that I’d suggest spending at least an hour there. It’s a also great place for a picnic.

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 columbines are concentrated in the first field – you can’t miss them as they’re standing tall and proud. 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 I doubt that it’s even enough for people with mobility problems to manage. The path through the woods is an uphill slope which again may be difficult for people with mobility problems.

There’s a kissing gate at the entrance to the Banks from the woods which prams can’t get through. Plus the path through the Banks is narrow, only as wide as your foot. So, unfortunately, I don’t see any way that wheelchairs or people with mobility problems can get onto the site.

Facilities: none on site, however, there’s a lovely, well-stocked community-run shop in the middle of Chalford. Lavender Bakehouse on the A419 opposite the turn-off into Chalford serves the most wonderful cakes plus lunches should you want a treat and has toilets, obviously. Just as you leave Chalford on the way to Strawberry Banks, on the right hand side, there’s a fantastic, well-equiped playground where you could take the children. The real fun bit is a shallow stream running along one side of the playground with a stretch where children can safely paddle in it. 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 a few feet furhter on to reach the footpath entrance to Three Groves Wood (a lovely interpretation board shows you’re in the right place). Follow this footpath until it splits into two: take the left hand path to reach the main entrance to Strawberry Banks through the kissing gate. If you take the right hand path, you’ll pass a log wigwam which is great for kids to play in), and this path takes you up to the top of the Banks.

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