Wildlife-friendly gift ideas for Christmas

Snow and baubles - Trixieliko

You might be more organised than me in the whole matter of Christmas present buying (I only let this annual festival of frenzy start to perculate into my brain on Stroud’s Goodwill Evening), but if you’re still searching for a present that’d be really valued by someone who’s keen on wildlife, I’ve put together some ideas in the selection below. I, personally, feel that ‘experiences’ or presents that last well beyond the festive season are a much nicer anyway, and the profits raised get ploughed back into helping protect our local wildlife.

Stroud Valleys Project (www.stroudvalleysproject.org)

If you haven’t visited Stroud Valleys Project’s shop in Stroud’s town centre already, then I’d urge you to pop along to Threadneedle Street where you’ll find it opposite Carphone Warehouse. It’s a treasure trove of all sorts of eco and wildlife friendly products and gifts: from socks made out of bamboo, things to help you garden more naturally and eco-cleaning products, to jigsaws, games, books, greetings cards and plenty of fun things to pop into Christmas stockings. From expensive to a few pence, you should be able to find the gift that suits your budget as well as the lucky recipient. Stroud Valleys Project’s eco-shop is open Monday – Wednesday, 10am – 5pm, Thursday 10am – 4pm, Friday 10am – 2pm, and Saturday from 10am – 3pm. If you want to phone ahead to check anything, their number is 01453-753358.

Help a Hedgehog Hospital (http://www.helpahedgehog.org/)

Rescuing and caring for orphaned, injured, stray and sick hedgehogs all over the Stroud Valleys, the ‘Hospital’ is actually a network of volunteers who do the actual nursing and care of one of the nation’s favourite wild animals at home. Other than putting out the cat food and saucer of water in the garden, you can help lots of hedgehogs by buying a membership for the lucky gift recipient and making them a Friend of Help a Hedgehog hospital at £15/year for adults, £12.50/year for seniors, £7.50 for those under 16, and £25 for families or couples. Their website also has greetings cards for sale and a 2018 calendar containing photos of these creatures that couldn’t look bad in a photo even if they tried.

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (https://gloswildlife.myshopify.com/)

My favourites from the Trust’s selection are the adoption schemes – you can choose from a barn owl, hare, stag beetle, hedgehog or otter. Don’t worry, you don’t find one turning up on your doorstep! When you adopt, the Trust sends a gift pack containing a soft toy of the animal (or in the case of the stag beetle, a model to cut out and make  – I call that ‘beetle-ist’. I’m sure even a beetle could be cuddly!), fact sheets and colouring activities, an adoption certificate, and a photograph to pin onto the wall.  These are great for cultivating an interest in a particular animal or bird that a child, or maybe even an adult, has. There are also annual membership packages available so you can enjoy the many activities offered by the Trust and contribute towards caring for over 60 nature reserves which protect a whole host of animals, birds and plants. The gifts page on the website has a few other offerings such as a calendar and a Top Trumps game.

The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (https://www.wwt.org.uk/support/adopt/)

The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust also offers a range of animals and birds to adopt but these are a bit more exotic! Bewick swans, flamingos, cranes, Hawaiian geese (possibly the friendliest goose in the world), ducks, and otters (of course). Adopters will receive a cuddly toy of their chosen species, an information pack about it, the Trust’s twice yearly membership magazine, and a ticket to visit for free one of the Trust’s nine centres around the UK. You could even adopt a piece of Slimbridge! A special map on the website lets you choose a square of this internationally important nature reserve to support. If you adopt a swan, you can choose from one of four swans with their own names and identity just to make it more personal. Years ago, the Trust’s scientists discovered that each swan has an individual bill marking, like a fingerprint in humans, and started naming all the ones that over-winter at its centres.

Annual membership packages (for individuals, families or couples) are available which give you free entry to all nine centres and a members’ magazine twice a year. If you fancied a bit of relaxing Christmas shopping, the Slimbridge centre has a large gift shop with all sorts of items from books to games and ornaments. The shop is open during the same hours as the centre (9.30am-5pm) and if you’ve got kids, they could even visit Santa between 18th – 21st December.

Dursley Birdwatching Society (http://dursleybirdwatchers.btik.com/Membership)

This is a great group to join for anyone seriously interested in watching and discovering more about birds. I’ve been a member for so many years I’ve lost count, and enjoy going out on their regular birdwatching trips as I learn so much from other members who have encyclopaedic knowledge between them. The annual events programme is mainly concentrated around Gloucestershire but often goes further afield into south Wales, Somerset and Herefordshire. Occasionally, there are residential trips organised to another part of the country. Wherever the location, it’s certain that it’ll be brimming with birds and often other special wildlife like orchids.

During the winter, a programme of indoor talks keeps the interest going whilst there are fewer outdoor visits (though there are still some, just not as many as during the rest of the year, obviously, as a lot of birdlife has sensibly headed south). Annual membership is a bargain at £13 for an individual, £18 for families, and £7 for students. Members receive a monthly newsletter containing details of upcoming events and news of bird sightings in the area.

Glos Naturalists’ Society (http://www.glosnats.org/)

If you want to give a present to someone who’s mad on wildlife generally or who has a specialist interest e.g. plants, butterflies or mammals, then a year’s membership to the Glos Naturalists’ Society will be ideal. This is a group of very knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers who scour the county searching for, and recording, the nature that’s growing and living here. Their work is valuable for helping other organisations such as Glos Wildlife Trust know where to direct conservation work and in dealing with planning applications. The Society members have often found rare species and re-discovered ones that were thought to be extinct in Gloucestershire. Membership only costs £15/household and for that, you’ll receive a quaterly magazine with latest Glos wildlife news, a copy of the county’s annual bird report and copies of the ‘Gloucestershire Naturalist’ which contain more scientific articles about local wildlife.

Oak & Furrow Wildlife Rescue Centre (https://www.oandf.co.uk/)

This wonderful centre, which boasts Pam Ayres as its patron, takes in any and every injured or abandoned bird or animal from a wide geographical area around its Cricklade base, including Stroud (my daughter and I took in a wood pigeon that she’d rescued from a cat). They have a purpose-built hospital which is manned by a tiny number of staff plus lots of volunteers who give up their time to clean out endless numbers of cages, feed patients and generally give lots of tender, loving care. The centre is going through a funding crisis currently, so buying a membership from them would be a win-win for them and your ‘giftee’. You choose how much you’d like to donate as a membership fee, though £10 is the minimum amount suggested.

I hope these ideas provide some last minute inspiration to keep the wildlife fans in your life happy at Christmas. And don’t forget to feed the birds during the festive break! (though I’d go easy on the turkey and stuffing, unless you’ve got a family of foxes who regularly visit your garden like a fortunate friend of mine)

Have a Happy Christmas and a wildlife-filled 2018!

Nature Xmas present - rawpixel


A walk to Paradise and back!


So winter has finally started – at least according to the Met Office for whom the 1st December marks the beginning. For astronomers, we’re still autumn until the winter solistice (21st December) which seems a bit late to me. Whatever date you choose, I have to admit to being a bit disappointed with autumn this year. I’d been planning to post a series of blogs highlighting the best places and walks where you could appreciate the full majesty of the glorious seasonal colours. Instead, the trees seem to have gone from green to bare branches in almost one fell swoop. Yes, there has been a degree of colour change, but the usual yellows, reds and oranges have seemed muted. I feel you’ve cheated me, Mother Nature! I find these riotous colours are one of the autumnal delights tempering the thought of winter’s cold, short days. That, plus the wonderful bounty of berries and fruit, and the comforting chutney-making.

So what determines the colours of the leaves? Why are the colours more spectacular some years but not others? Leaves find it very hard to photosynthesise (the process which makes food for the tree) at temperatures below 5 degrees centrigrade, so when it slows down or stops, leaves aren’t worth having around. Instead, the nutrients in the leaf are absorbed back into the main body of the tree and ‘recycled’. Daily temperature and day length are the two principle cues that spark this process: two chemicals in leaves (phytochrome and cryptochrome in case you’re interested) monitor red and blue light and can detect changes of as little as half an hour. As soon as the day length and temperature fall below a certain level, the leaves start falling.

What turns the leaf’s colour from green to the characteristic autumnal shades? The green colour is thanks to chlorophyll, the chemical photosythesis factory. When this is absorbed back into the tree, the green disappears and stops masking the yellow colours which, surprisingly, have been there since the leaf first grew in the spring. In late summer, red-coloured chemicals develop in the leaves but are also covered up by the green until the leaf starts to die. These reds are affected by the brightness of the autumn sunshine and temperature – when the days are sunny with chilly but not freezing nights, the reds become more vibrant and spectacular. This year, autumn has generally been mild and mainly overcast, which explains the muted colours compared to some years.

One enjoyable walk I did do in autumn, which would be good at other times of the year as well, took me to Paradise! Whilst many people would describe the countryside around here as that, Paradise is actually a tiny cluster of houses just off the A46 north of Painswick. Charles I and his army is reputed to have made their camp in this spot during the Civil War with the monarch gazing over the rolling hills and sighing ‘Is this Paradise?’. Whether true or not, it’s a lovely story as recounted by RR Gordon in his book ‘Little Cotswold Walks’. He’s written a serites of these books describing delightful walks around the Stroud valleys. The walks are generally an hour or two in length and, best of all, they always include a pub! As Mr Gordon says: ‘I aim for an hour or so – which justifies having a pudding at the pub!’ Now that’s my kind of countryside rambling. In fact, two of the books have pubs as the hubs of all the walks. Each route is also given a critique by Mr Gordon’s dog, Daisy – handy if you want to combine exercising your family pouch at the same time.

If you look in book 2: ‘The Painswick Valley’, you’ll find Walk 5 starting and ending at the Walkers’ car park at Painswick Golf Club and taking in Paradise along the way. It’s a fabulous walk, though a tiny bit strenuous and muddy in a couple of places, offering great views over the landscape and includes walking alongside a beautiful babbling brook. Take note, though, Mr Gordon’s description of the start of the route isn’t quite accurate: go past the golf club and keep going along the track until you see a sign saying ‘Walkers Car Park’ on your right. I got completely lost to start with by parking in the small car park on the right immediately opposite the golf club.

The walk is described here: http://www.rrgordon.com/TheLittleBookOfLittleWalks-2PainswickValley.pdf. 

When to visit: route can be followed at any time of year. You get great views from many places on the walk so you’ll see something different whenever you go.

Location: beginning and ending in the Walker’s Car Park at Painswick Golf Club. OS Explorer map 179 SO863115.

How much time to allow: 1.5 – 1.75 hours (depending how fast/slow you walk).

Terrain: lots of ups and downs with stiles so definately not for people with mobility problems. The route takes you along a lovely stretch of the Painswick stream and along the valley bottom so it’s muddy in places. Wear stout, waterproof shoes.

Facilities: Painswick Golf Club has a restaurant and toilets.

Directions: Drive along A46 until you see the signpost for Painswick Golf Club and take this minor road which almost runs parrallel with the main road. Follow this until you reach the gold club and drive past club house. Keep going until you see sign saying ‘Walkers’ car park’ on right hand side and park in there. Follow the book for directions from here.

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 (i.e. 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 available 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 of its caterpillars gorging themselves on the plant that there wasn’t enough food to go around and the population crashed. Happily, it has since recovered as short-lived species such as this 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.


Special bird festival at Slimbridge this weekend

Photo - waders bar-tailed godwits (WWT website)

This coming weekend sees the first Wader Festival take place – no, it’s not the annual gathering of wellie manufacturers but a celebration of a special type of bird called a wader which flocks to this area every spring and autumn. On Saturday and Sunday, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s centre at Slimbridge will be busy with all sorts of activities celebrating the birds which collectively form a group that is found all over the world apart from Antartica; in both freshwater and salt-water, in bogs, marshes, coasts, ponds, and whose members are as diverse from flamingos and cranes to godwits and egrets.

Although wading birds can be seen during autumn all over the district and Gloucestershire where there’s a significant body of water or boggy bit, Slimbridge is the perfect place to see them when you want a bit of creature comfort to accompany your wildlife watching. Not just because they flock there in hundreds and thousands, or that because the birdwatching hides are placed at just the right spots to offer the best views, or  the comfortable restaurant and toilet facilities, but also because of the experts who are on hand during weekends to help you learn which type of wader is which (if you’re not an expert).

Unfortunately, we don’t get any waders as colourful as flamingos (though Slimbridge’s bird collection is the only place in the UK where all six species of flamingo can be seen), but the waders that flock here are small and perfectly formed! During the summer months, many of the waders do sport plummage that are wonderful shades of chestnut and all sorts of dramatic patterns. By the time they reach the Stroud district and Slimbridge in the autumn, they’ve donned a more tasteful hue with a subtle style that blends in better with their background and makes them less conspicuous to predators. However, the tall and elegant crowned cranes are a spectacular sight and the handful that you may see at Slimbridge are ones which were bred at Slimbridge and released as part of a special programme to re-introduce them into the wild.

The waders most commonly found migrating at this time of year through Slimbridge include Ruff, black-tailed Godwit, snipe, green sandpiper, redshank, lapwing, ringed plover (one of my favourites), dunlin, bitterns, and the new kid on the block, the little egret. The latter only moved here from the continent in the 1980s and 90s, and started breeding in 1996. By 2006, it had become an established resident with over 500 pairs in the UK.

Granted to the untrained eye, many of the wader species look very similar (and I have to admit that learning to tell them apart is an ongoing exercise for me), when you get to know them, you see that they have different characteristics. For example, I’ve given the black-tailed godwit the nickname of the ‘sewing machine bird’ as when it’s looking for worms and crustaceans to eat, it pushes its long beak into and out of the mud so rapidly that it looks like the needle of a sewing machine to me! So, waders in the UK are birds which may not have the dazzling looks of tropical birds, but they’re well worth getting to know on a personal level. And when you do finally spot the intensely shy bittern emerging briefly from the reeds, the sense of satisfaction is tremendous.

When to visit: Slimbridge’s Wader Festival is on this Saturday (9th) and Sunday (10th), check their website for times and details of the many activities going on http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/slimbridge/whats-on/2017/09/09/severn-wader-festival/. Waders leave their summer breeding ground and pass through this area from late July through to October.

Location: Slimbridge is off the A38 between junctions 13 and 14, signposted by brown tourist direction signs.

How much time to allow: as much as you want! You could easily stay all day and I’d suggest two hours at the least.

Terrain: as Slimbridge is in the floodplain of the Severn, the ground is flat. Tarmac-surfaced paths enable wheelchairs, prams and people with mobility problems to easily get around. A sloping ramp leads from the car park to the visitor centre. Audio-guides help people with visual impairments get around.

Facilities: all you could want for a day out! Loads of stuff for kids to do, there’ll be special activities going on as part of the festival, there’s a shop, restaurant, toilets (in the grounds as well as in the visitor centre)…and lots more.

Directions: take the M5 and leave at either junction 13 or 14, or follow the A38 from Gloucester or Bristol, or the A4179 from Stroud. Once you reach the A38, there are brown tourist signs pointing the way. http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/slimbridge/plan-your-visit/


Summer fun in the countryside for kids

Photo - 2 girls walking along footpath backview Pezibear

In the past, I’ve lead walks helping families get closer to wildlife and be inspired by the outdoors. A regular comment that took me aback was parents admitting that these events helped them discover places where they could take their children in the future. Even though they really wanted their children to spend time amongst nature, they didn’t know where to go ‘out there’ in the countryside.

So, here are five places I’d recommend where families can have some fun, fresh air and do a bit of wildlife watching (and all for free):

Woodchester Park, near Stroud – this is a great place to go, one of my top recommendations. It offers acres of woodland, plenty of space for children to explore,  a natural play trail installed by the owners, the National Trust, and even a grand gothic house. The house boasts one of the biggest roosts in the UK of the rare greater and lesser horseshoe bats as well as looking like a set from one of the Hammer House of Horrors films. If bats make you feel slightly on edge, don’t worry,  they’re not free-flying as they live in the roof space and cameras beam live pictures of them to TV screens in the house. A small cafe and toilets finish this off as the near perfect place for parents keeping children happy – note, though, that the Mansion and cafe are only open on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. You can get into the cafe free if you explain on the door that you don’t want to look around the house. However, if the rain starts, a look around the mansion and time watching the bats (which are surprisingly active during the day) are ideal wet-weather options. www.woodchestermansion.org.uk.

Cost: £3/day for the car park, otherwise free unless you want to visit Woodchester Mansion which is extra (this is owned by Stroud District Council and run by volunteers).

Directions – take the B4066 Stroud to Uley road and then take turning to Nympsfield (just before or after Coaley Peak viewpoint depending on where you’re travelling from). Half a mile down the road is a left turn signposted to Woodchester Park. Drive down this unsurfaced road to reach the car park.

Horsley Valley, near Nailsworth – an idyllic valley running from Horsley to Ruskin Mill near Nailsworth. There’s a permissive footpath (i.e. the owners allow people to walk along the valley, it’s not a public right of way) all the way along with the great Ruskin Mill cafe at one end. The valley is owned by the Ruskin Mill Trust who run a college for students but as a lot of the learning activities focus on land management, food growing and traditional craft skills, the site is a maze of fish ponds (which attract herons and kingfishers), colourful flower beds (but not the municipal park kind), vegetable plots, and woodland with beautifully carved wooden benches, bridges, statues and other interesting art pieces along the way.

At the Horsley end of the valley, the stream is so shallow (it’s only a couple of inches deep) and narrow that it’s ideal for children to play in. There’s a spot where a small patch of concrete has been laid onto the bank creating an easy place to walk into the stream. When I’ve taken my daughter and her friends there, they’ve played for ages, making up games as they’ve paddled in the stream whilst I’ve sat in the sunshine on the bank. Just beyond this point is a small field with some sheep and a couple of inquisitive goats (though they weren’t there the other day when we visited). We just love this place.

Cost – It’s free to walk along the valley and Ruskin Mill is also free to get into plus it stages some interesting arts and craft exhibitions from time to time. Visiting at weekends is best when the students and teachers aren’t around so it’s quieter. The college doesn’t mind other people visiting this site as long as it’s treated with respect and all litter is taken home.

Directions – from Nailsworth, take the B4058 to Horsley. Just as you reach the top of the hill in the centre of Horsley and you can see The Hogg pub ahead of you, there’s a small public car park on your left hand side. Park in there and then turn right when leaving the car park. Walk a few yards until you reach a single track road on the right. Walk to the bottom of this road and you’ll find yourself in the valley where the road goes over the stream. Look to your left and you’ll see the public footpath sign – this is the path that’ll take you along the valley to Ruskin Mill.

Cherington Pond, near Minchinhampton – this really is a small lake not a pond but it’s good place for spotting dragonflies, damselflies and birds. Next to it is a small woodland, and a footpath takes you on a lovely stroll around two sides of the pond, over a stream flowing out of the pond, through the woodland, across a reedbed and out onto the road where you can walk back to the parking area (the road is a minor, back-road with little traffic).  The place where the stream leaves the pond is a great spot for children to paddle, play pooh-sticks and generally have fun getting wet. The walk around the site doesn’t take long, only about 20 minutes – but that’s at grown-up’s pace without stopping to look at anything. The path is flat most of the way, with a gentle slope up into the woodland but could easily be walked by young children and is passable with an all-terrain buggy. It’s a lovely place to spend a couple of hours. Unfortunately, the site isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or people with mobility diffuculties.

Cost – it’s free to walk around the site but it is privately owned so please respect both the place and the wildlife, and take all litter home.

Directions – Drive over Minchinhampon Common as if you’re leaving Stroud and heading towards Cirencester, turn right where the Ragged Cot Inn (nice food and real ales, good for a drink or bite to eat) is on the corner and carry on along that road past Crackstone stables to a T-junction. Turn left and then left again almost immediately (there’s still a signpost for the Nag’s Head pointing in the direction you want to go but this pub closed a long time ago) and carry on for about 1-2 miles. Eventually, you’ll see the pond on your right. There is a small area where cars can park at the furthest side of the pond. NB there’s only space for half a dozen cars.

Rudge Hill, near Edge, Stroud – it’s so good for wildlife that the site has been designated as a site of special scientific interest (a SSSI for short). Rudge Hill is an excellent example of unimproved limestone grassland. “What on earth does that mean?” you may wonder. Essentiallly, it’s grassland in its natural form which has been grazed by farmers’ livestock for hundreds of years, without any chemicals added to it. The result is soil with low fertility, giving the wildflowers a massive head start as  they’re not competing with the botanical bullies such as nettles, docks, rye grass which need soil with high fertility to thrive.

Most of the site is open grassland, and there’s an small woodland along the section which borders with the A4173 to Gloucester. Children should find plenty to explore, and butterflies are coming into their own at this time of year so look out for them: on a sunny day, they won’t be difficult to see. Apart  from the road along one side, generally you feel as if you’re miles away from anywhere. Lots of flowers can be found here, (including a number of different types of orchids earlier in the season) plus trees and bushes, and a few bolders offering a restful seat for parents. As Rudge Hill (which was called Edge Common until a few years ago and probably still is by some) is a small site, children could go off on their own and can still be found when it’s time to go home. The only factor to be aware of is the gate at the bottom of Rudge Hill which leads onto the busy road. However, on the opposite side of the road is the Edgemoor Inn and it’s menu of delicious food makes it worth a visit!

Cost: not a bean. The Edgemoor Inn serves caters for all food preferences including vegan and gluten-free so adding a visit would be a treat though would obviously cost.

Directions: car parking is a bit of an issue as there isn’t much space. Either drive along the A4173 Stroud-Gloucester road and then park in the layby opposite the Edgemoor Inn where there’s a footpath leading into the site; or drive along the Whiteshill to Edge road and when you’ve passed a bus stop on your left hand side, keep an eye out for a couple of laybys on the right just before you get to the village. You can park here and enter Rudge Hill through the metal gates at the official site entrance. If you end up in the vilage, you’ve gone too far. Alternatively, the number 63 bus does pass by – ask the driver for the stop before Edge village and then cross over the road, looking for a public footpath sign will lead to Rudge Hill.

Strawberry Banks, Chalford –  another place which feels that it’s miles from anywhere, an idyllic spot on a sunny day. Most of the sloping site is flower-rich grassland consisting of two fields divided by a hedgerow, and there’s a stream running along the bottom of the slope. This is another great, safe place where kids can paddle as the stream is only a couple of inches deep. At the far end of the site, the lower footpath crosses a couple of wooden planks over the river. This is a good spot for kids to paddle and parents to sit and relax! The stream bed here is made of tufa – an uncommon kind of rock which only occures in a few places around the country. It’s formed in limestone-rich streams where the limestone drops out of the water where it settles onto the bed of the sream/river bed. Gradually this layer gets deeper and then solidifies. At Strawberry Banks,  the result is a hard surface which children can easily walk on without sinking into mud. There is a footpath that runs alongside part of the stream though you’ll have to re-trace your steps walking along the lower path through the meadow to find the entrance.

To reach Strawberry Banks, you have to walk through Three Groves Wood first which belongs to Glos Wildlife Trust. It only takes a few minutes and where a path splits off to the right, someone has built a log wigwam where children can play. This path leads to the top of Strawberry Banks which offers a nice walk through the flower meadows and down to the bottom of the site and the stream. Like some of the sites I’ve described above, Strawberry Banks is a place where parents can give children a bit of freedom to roam about on their own without having to worry about traffic. On your way to Strawberry Banks, 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. Chalford’s shop is also a short walk away if you wanted to get extra provisions.

Can prams be taken there? Possibly if you can lift your pram over the gate at the entrance. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way that wheelchairs can get onto the site because of the gate and the roughness of the path. I don’t think it’s suitable for people with mobility problems due to the path leading through Three Groves Wood which is not only a long way for people who can’t walk well but it’s also uphill. If anyone does manage it, please let me know!

Cost: it’s all free. There’s a community shop nearby and Lavender Bakehouse serves the most wonderful cakes plus lunches should you want a treat.

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 here) 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 the log wigwam, or continue on the main path to reach the entrance gate into the bottom part of the Banks.


Glow, baby, Glow!

Bisley Rd cemetery chapel + gravestones _ C Aistrop

July is the time of year when nature offers the opportunity to visit a fairy grotto or two. If you know where to go, you can take a stroll at dusk surrounded by lots of tiny, neon green lights that appear as if by magic. I’m talking about the glow-worm, that fascinating creature which seems to belong in fairy tales: invisible during the day yet once darkness falls, it decorates a field with nature’s version of fairy lights.

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Pyramidals: the last of the orchid spectaculars

Pyramidal orchids Rudge Hill - C Aistrop

The Stroud district is sooo fortunate in having a wealth of different orchid species growing in lots of places around and about, and in having some that occur in great profusion. There are certain ones which are solitary souls, for example the frog orchid certainly doesn’t copy its namesake as a party animal, but others are real show-offs making everyone a winner in the game of ‘spot the orchid’. The end of June and beginning of July is the last time during the flowering season when you can enjoy one of these spectaculars as the pyramidal orchid livens up grasslands with splashes of its cerise pink flowers.

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Coaley Peak – meadows, marvellous views and possibly ice-cream, too.


View down Severn Vale from Coaley Peak - C Aistrop

When it’s a warm, sunny day at this time of year, one of my favourite places to go for a picnic and to enjoy being in the great outdoors is Coaley Peak viewpoint. The 180 degree view over the Severn Vale is stunning, there are plenty of interesting wild flowers to admire, lots of space for kids to run around and, if you’ve got young kids who are Harry Potter fans, you can entice them with the idea of visiting the Forbidden Forest, too. It’s also a place where people with restricted mobility, and possibly even those in wheelchairs, could enjoy being outdoors and seeing some wildlife. Add into this mix the ice-cream van that’s usually parked there at weekends during the summer and what else could you ask for?!

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Elderflower cordial: so easy to make! Here’s how…

Photo of Elderflower - Smoobs

Once the initial explosion of spring flowering has died back and the icing-like cover of white hawthorn flowers has melted from the hedgerows, the next bloom of colour appearing almost immediately afterwards is that of the elder tree. The flowerheads are so large, round and flat that they look like giant plates from nature’s best crockery set.  In reality, these white blooms are made up of thousands of tiny flowers and are a magnet for a whole host of insects gorging themselves on the nectar feast they provide.

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Trees and tranquillity at Breakheart Quarry

Map of Breakhart Quarry

The end of May and beginning of June is a bit of a quiet time with regards to wildlife spectacles. The dawn chorus is still in full swing and, thankfully if you’re not one of those early birds and prefer your cosy bed as I do, so is the dusk chorus albeit not as loud as the crack-of-dawn one. So this hiatus makes it a good time to get to grips with trees – no, not hugging them but seeing and appreciating the different types we have in this country. A great place to go is Breakheart Quarry near Dursley as there’s a fabulous range of trees growing there, it’s very family friendly and the flat footpath circumnavigating the site may even be suitable for people with restricted mobility.

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