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.