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 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.