Blown away by bird’s nests at Rudge Hill

Birds’ nest orchids (credit: Caroline Aistrop)

Driving along the A4173 from Stroud to Gloucester, you’d never know there was a national nature reserve hiding behind the hedgerow as you drive past the Edgemoor Inn. On the opposite side of the road to the Inn, stretching from the road up the hillside, Rudge Hill is a wildflower meadow with more orchids than you can shake a stick at. There are special members of the orchid family growing here – helleborines – and a wooded copse where a a rare orchid is in all its glory.

The meadow is part of a big area called the Cotswold Commons and Beechwoods national nature reserve. Rudge Hill is one of a chain of woodlands and meadows running around the Painswick Valley and, together, they create the biggest nature reserve in the Cotswolds. The Hill is a glorious place to visit – not only are there flowers everywhere at this time of year, the view is stunning with a 180 degree view all around the valley. It’s definitely a place to go on a sunny, warm day with a picnic.

What blew my mind the other day when I visited were the bird’s nest orchids I found growing in the wooded bit down at the bottom of the meadow near the entrance from the road. These are rare orchids and flower roughly once every 10 years. Hence why I was so excited to find them!

I admit that to look at, they’re not anything to write home about with their small, brown flowers – as you can see from the photos. But, hey, beauty is in the eye of the beholder! Part of the enjoyment for me is finding these flowers when you know they probably won’t be there again for another decade.

The name hasn’t got anything to do with the flowers, even though they’re brown. It’s to do with the roots which are a brown tangled mess looking like a bird’s nest to the scientists that gave it its name. None of the plant is green so it can’t make its food using sunlight, which green plants do. Its roots provide a home for a fungus and this makes the food for the orchid. The fungus in turn gets its food from nearby tree roots! Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul! This is why the orchid grows in woodland.

There are loads of other orchids growing on the site – common spotted and fragant are ten a penny, my hubby found one butterfly orchid and pyramidals are starting to flower. And this is the best site I’ve visited for finding twayblades – an orchid with small, green flowers and two big leaves; twayblade is the old English name for two-leaves. I know it looks somewhat uninspiring to most people, I forgive you for being underwhelmed. However, being a bit of a flower geek, I can’t help but get excited when I find it. One thing in its favour is that the two big, broad leaves at the base of the stem make it easy to identify. Other orchids can be trickier sometimes. There are lots of twayblades in the copse and also dotted around the meadow.

Another ‘wow’ moment for me was finding some rare white helleborines – a special member of the orchid family. These are in the wooded copse, too. But the whole site is so fantastic it’s worth just strolling around enjoying the many flowers: when I visited I saw horseshoe vetch, rock rose, milk wort, ox-eye daisy, sanfoin, hawkweeds, thyme, self-heal, bush vetch, yellow rattle and sanicle. There are plenty of birds around and I heard chiff chaffs, willow warblers, song thrush and blackbird.

Take a picnic and just relax in this 5 star site! It’s a great place to take children as there’s loads of space to run around and no roads to worry about.

When to visit: early to end of June for the orchids and wildflowers. 

Location: Rudge Hill is opposite the Edgemoor Inn on the A4173 Stroud – Gloucester road, and next to Edge village. OS Explorer map 179 SO097848

How much time to allow: you can walk a circuit of the site in an hour at a leisurely pace, but allow a half day to fully take in the flowers and wildlife, and to site on the bench at the top of the site and drink in the view. If you’re planning to visit the Edgemoor Inn, add more time still! 

Terrrain: although it’s called Rudge Hill, the site is essentially a slope running downhill from the top if the site towards the A4173 which borders the bottom edge. It’s a gentle gradient so the paths which run horizontal across the site are more or less level. The surfaces of the main paths are bare earth but there are lots of grass surfaced paths too. The site isn’t suitable for wheelchairs but all terrain prams could manage fine on the wider, main paths. The grass surfaced paths are probably too narrow to fit a pram. Someone who can’t walk very well may be able to manage to walk a little way into the site as there’s a kissing gate at the entrance which they could get through.

Facilities: have I mentioned the wonderful Edgemoor Inn?! It serves delicious food, real ales and the full range of other drinks, plus it has a beer garden overlooking the Painswick valley. There aren’t any facilities on the site itself, though there is a small woodland if you get caught short and a ‘wild wee’ is needed!

Directions: either get to the site opposite the Edgemoor Inn or from Edge village.

Edgemoor Inn: drive along the A4173 Stroud-Gloucester road and there’s a  layby opposite the Inn. Park there and you’ll see the Cotswold Way footpath which comes out into the layby. Walk up there to get onto the site and the Cotswold Way takes you right through the middle of Rudge Hill.

Edge village: drive along the minor country road from Whiteshill to Edge and a little way before Edge village is a bus stop on the left hand side. A few hundred yards after this is an informal layby on the right hand side of the road (it has an earth surface, it’s not an official layby). Pull over into this layby and park here. There’s a path through the vegetation which takes you to the entrance gate of Rudge Hill. The road joins the A4173 Gloucester road just after Rudge Hill and some houses, so if you get to the houses, you’ve gone too far. Or, just after the layby, turn right onto a dirt track and this takes you to the entrance gate. There’s room for one or two cars here.

Suggested route to walk: there are many paths around the site, but it’s not a big place so you shouldn’t get lost as you can orientate yourself by looking at the view and walking back and forth or up and down the site. The route I walked was: 

From entrance gate go straight on – at fork in path, take right hand path – take right hand path at next fork – take left fork in path – take left hand path – take left hand path to join a wider path then turn right (opposite you is the Cotswold Way marker post) – take left hand path then keep to the right – take left hand path – a ‘cross-roads’ follow Cotswold Way on the right – turn left to follow path into the wooded copse – keep straight on through copse and the follow path up a slope (ignoring path on left) – take right hand path to take you back to the entrance gate.

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.

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One of nature’s jewels takes to the wing

The end of May and beginning of June sees the butterfly world start to really take off. There’ve been a few lovely butterflies pottering around during early spring (orange tip, brimstone and peacock mainly) but now the most showy members of the insects rock up to Nature’s party.

Male adonis blue butterfly – credit:

Adonis was the God in the Greek myths that we associate with exceptional handsomenss and beauty, and the butterfly named after him is a stunningly eye-catching one. During the last week of May and into early June, this electric-blue butterfly (few photos really do justice to its colour) shines brightly on sunny days as it flies around looking either for a female to mate with or one of its favourite flowers to feed on. The female isn’t blue but mainly dark brown – a common story as the female of many species is a brown colour to keep her hidden from predators – though there can be a blue sheen on where the wings are close to its body.

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Midger wood: ancient and tranquil

Just a short way from the busy A46, this ancient woodland feels as if it’s in its own world, miles away from anywhere. Its hidden valley, gently babbling stream, moss covered oak trees, bird song and tranquility make it an ideal place to forget about the cares of the world. It feels ancient as if it’s been here since time began.

Wild garlic carpets Midger Wood in May. credit: C Aistrop

The valley is old – and I mean mindblowingly old. It was carved out during the Ice Age by a stream flowing beneath the ice sheets which covered all of this region. Once the Ice Age had finished and all of the ice had melted, trees and plants moved in and covered the area, creating woodlands like Midger Wood.

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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.

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Nature Highlights in May

Dazzling display of bluebells carpets Cam Peak with hawthorn bushes looking like iced wedding cakes. Credit: C Aistrop

May is bursting out all over – literally. You’re probably puzzled, thinking the old adage surely refered to June but, believe you me, May is the month when nature explodes onto the scene. After months of grey lifelessness when winter seems set to never end, nature accelerates from full stop to warp factor 10.

Nature’s activities in May remind me of the Rupert Bear story (which I loved reading to my daughter) about the ‘imps of spring’ – tiny, elf-like people who slept underground during winter and then, woken by their alarm clock, come above ground with their bottles of magic potion. They spray everything in sight and suddenly trees come into leaf, flowers bloom, grass grows and the animal and bird life appears from nowhere. There’s such a sudden profusion of life this month that part of me suspects the imps and their potion really do exist.

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The prettiest ‘snake’ you’ll ever see

One and a half million of them and not a forked tongue in sight, thankfully. The snake’s head fritillary flower is nationally rare but 80% of what’s left in the UK grows in North Meadow, a national nature reserve at Cricklade near Cirencester. OK, I have to admit that this is nowhere near Stroud. Yes, yes, OK, I admit it’s not even in Gloucestershire but just over the border in Wiltshire. However, this spring spectacle is worth the 45 minute drive from Stroud – there really are hardly any other places in the country to see this and at least one and a half million of them really do flower every year in the meadow. Plus, the best bit is that you’re literally inches away from the flowers as the footpath takes you through the middle of this floral exuberance.

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It’s glow time!

At this time of year, there’s a female that shamelessly flaunts her figure and desire to attract a male for the night. She certainly doesn’t hide her light under a bushel and turns parts of Stroud into a ‘green light’ district with her unbridled desires.

But a one-night stand is all she craves and once that’s satisfied, her light is extinguished as she crawls away to lay her eggs and then die. More tragic heroine in a Charlotte Bronte novel than a Jilly Cooper pot-boiler.

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Look out for woolly bears in your garden (or even flying tigers)!

Beware of what’s hiding in the undergrowth: they’re black, very hairy and large – well, by caterpillar standards anyway. Woolly bear is the nick-name given to the caterpillar of the garden tiger moth because, as the name suggests, it’s covered with hairs – lots of them. It looks black but in reality the hairs are a mixture of colours: shorter black ones and ginger ones nestling amongst long white-coloured ones.

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Queen Anne’s lace: stomach calmer and insect feeder.

<a href=”http://Image by Jasmin777 from Pixabay

Queen Anne's lace with hoverfly - credit Jasmine 777 Pixabay

I guess you’ll have recognised this flower straight away – and maybe you call it by its other common name, cow parsley. I prefer the lace one as I feel it fits the beautifully delicate and intricate flowers so well.

What is surprising is the large number of other common names it’s had over the centuries: fairy lace and spanish lace are understandable, kecksie and Grandpa’s pepper seem somewhat odd, but rabbit meat and step-mother are just plain weird! It was also referred to as ‘mother die’ and it’s thought this was to frighten children away from picking it so they didn’t pick the poisonous hemlock by mistake. Hemlock has purple-coloured spots on its stem (which is also solid not hollow unlike Queen Anne’s Lace), otherwise it looks very similar to the non-expert eye.

Continue reading “Queen Anne’s lace: stomach calmer and insect feeder.”