May 1999

Sunday 2nd May – Saddlescombe, West Sussex – The gash in the South Downs that forms the Devils Dyke ends at a large farm at Saddlecombe. The hamlet is really only the farm and farm workers’ houses. The paths lead up onto typical chalk downland. The path cuts deep through Hawthorn woods. Wild Arum are unfurling, Herb Robert, Stitchwort, White and Red Dead-nettles are in flower. Occasionally a Violet peeps through the dark grassy undergrowth. Then it is out onto the downland, thin soils barely cover the hundreds of feet of chalk thrust up by relentless tectonic movement of what is now Italy. Sheep have for centuries kept the plant life down to those that favour growing close to the ground, vetches, cinquefoils, milkworts and rising above by a few inches, Cowslips. The farm has a variety of fowls – Turkey, Chicken, Bantams, Guinea Fowl and a pure white Peacock standing on a shed roof, trumpeting loudly. There is also an old Donkey Wheel – a large wheel in which a donkey walked driving a shaft for grinding grain.

Monday 3rd May – Falmer – The village is now divided by the large A27 – the old road now a quiet dead end. A road leads off towards the Downs and will eventually meet the old track across the top of the edge of the Downs from Ditchling Beacon to Lewes. Long gentle valleys lead down from the top, full of sheep. From here the importance of Hollingbury Iron Age hill-fort can be seen, rising above the land and surveying all below. The road drops down to Shambledean Bottom. One side is lined by a thick woodland from which Blackbird, Great Tit, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Garden Warbler and Nightingale can all be heard but only the first three could be seen. In the scrubby hedgerow on the other side Whitethroats sing and display. Dill the Dog chases out a large male Pheasant. I tell her off and she manages to look contrite for a little over three seconds.

In the late afternoon I stroll with Dill the Dog up to the Hollingbury Camp. A lot of the Hawthorns and Brambles have been cleared. Large areas of Gorse are blooming brilliant yellow with Linnets flitting across the tops. Early Purple Orchids are flowering on the banks of the defensive dyke.

Tuesday 4th May – North Sheffield – The path leading through the woods is covered with Wood Ants, scurrying in every direction. At a couple of nests they are swarming around in a mass of bodies and legs. Beneath the Silver Birches, an Orange Tip Butterfly is visiting flowering Stitchwort.

Thursday 6th May – Barnsley Canal – Warblers are now in full song all down Willowbank and along the canal. Sedge Warblers have joined them singing from the scrub and reed beds on the valley bottom pastures. A Kestrel perches on wires, causing a constant, repetitive pink pink alarm from a Blackbird. A Treecreeper searches the twisting trunk of a Hawthorn. Then, total frustration, a Grasshopper Warbler is reeling within a couple of metres of the path but remains hidden in a thick Willow.

It is late evening, just after 22:00. The sky is still a pale indigo to the north. Whilst still waiting for the final summer visitors to arrive, it is strange to consider the longest day of the year is only six weeks hence. It has been raining and the air is cool and fresh, but heavily scented by the flowering shrubs in our gardens. From behind the streets to the south comes the tortured screech of metal on metal as the Huddersfield train negotiates the bend.

Friday 7th May – Barnsley Canal – A layer of heavy mist lies along the Dearne river valley. The regular summer visitors to the canal are now complete with the jug jug song of a Reed Warbler from the dense Bulrushes. The rushes seem lower than usual this year and the tips of the new growth are pale brown – damaged by the late frosts? Blackcaps are everywhere, singing their little hearts out. Ribwort Plantain is in flower, a circlet of tiny white flowers about the bullet shaped black head, which used to “shoot” as children by looping the stem around itself and jerking up to eject the tip. Cuckoo Flowers are blooming in the marshy areas, but the bird after which it is named is yet to be heard.

Sunday 9th May – Little Don Valley – A cool wind blasts across the conifer plantations. A Cherry tree, although old and gnarled at its heart, is bedecked in a confetti of white blossom like a young bride. Goldcrests squeak from the dense evergreens. The Little Don is in spate, rushing peat-stained brown waters bubble and swirl. Two Grey Wagtails bob by the water’s edge, their yellow breasts shining against the ochre brown spit. White rills tumble down the steep moor-side. A Cuckoo flies down to a fence post, cocks its long tail and calls its name. A Goshawk rises from the top of a pine and circles off down the valley. Curlews call across the moors. A Tree Pipit launches into the air from an old Oak and parachutes down to a dry stone wall, singing loudly. The Oak and Birch wood here is absolutely full of Willow Warblers. An ancient Oak has tumbled down, pulling out a section of the wall against which it grew. Despite its prone position, bright green leaves are emerging.

Monday 10th May – Scarborough – Heading north-east along the A64 and my first Swifts flash over the road. In the late afternoon Dill the Dog and I wander the paths on the North Cliff. Primroses bloom high on the sloping sandstone. The Castle is high above on a headland. Old tennis courts are crumbling on small flat areas. Below the Castle the cliffs are steeper, heavily eroded in broad strata. The lower slopes are wooded. Willow Warblers sing from these woods, whilst Blackbirds churr and pink. House Sparrows are nesting in a hole in a vertical wall of sandstone. This sandstone was laid down 160 million years ago in a tropical sea. Above this sandstone layer is a 155 million year old coral reef. These layers contain large numbers of marine fossils, especially Ammonites. Herring Gulls soar high above.

Tuesday 11th May – Scarborough – Thunder storms had rolled through during the night. The morning is cool and breezy. South of the town there is ribbon development along the Filey road. Beyond the houses heavily eroded sandstone cliffs angle down to the sea. They are covered with young shrubbery, ideal for the many singing Whitethroats. Swallows and Swifts chase overhead.

Thursday 13th May – Goole – The Dandelions in the hospital car park have already run to seed. Linnets leap at the stems to bend the heads down to a more manageable height, and then feast on the tiny seeds.

Sunday 16th May – Darton – The River Dearne flows through Darton, a village in the north of Barnsley. Like all the villages around the area, the pit has now closed. Clouds of gnats swirl over the river. Starlings, with beaks full of food from the newly mown meadows, fly west over the motorway. Swifts sweep overhead. There is an abundance of white flowers – Hawthorn, Stitchwort and one of the parsleys. A small burrow dives under tree, fresh earth thrown out. It is Weasel sized.

Sunday 23rd May – Netherwood Country Park – The park is part of the old Darfield Main Colliery site. Blackcaps, Willow Warblers, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds sing. A Moorhen squawks from the pond, which being patrolled by a Canada Goose. Dill the Dog decides to go for a swim and emerges coughing and spluttering. Starlings with loaded beaks fly rapidly across the park. On the spoil heap, the thin grass under the Birches is splattered with Cuckoo Spit – the frothy protection of Froghopper larvae. Screaming Swifts twist and turn over the summit of the heap. At the foot of the heap runs a stream. Here the base clays are exposed. The path is fractured and has fallen away in places, down the eight-foot drop into the chuckling water. A flock of shrieking Starlings, non-breeding birds, feed in a newly mown hay meadow. Netherwood Marsh is a large pond with a small, densely wooded island. The wildfowl are mainly feral and obviously used to humans coming and feeding them. A pair of Canada Geese bring their seven yellow goslings. A Coot only has one chick. Four goslings accompany four geese that range from normal Greylag through to pure white in various stages of plumage. Ruddy Duck sleep and a pair of Tufted Duck investigate the fuss before sliding off. Two Muscovies with bald pink faces also check out what is going on. Back at the first pond, a pair of Mute Swans have emerged with five cygnets. Along a ditch by the car park large stands of Comfrey blooms with rich purple flowers.

Wednesday 26th May – Barnsley Canal – A loud chattering flock of Starlings fly over the car park, their cacophony soon replaced with the strident song of the Wren. Blue and Great Tits are also singing loudly, but the warblers are mainly silent. The Mute pen rises to turn at least five pale olive eggs. The cob is in close attendance. Lapwings call plaintively over the loop. Further up the canal the second wave warblers are evident, Whitethroat and Sedge Warblers singing their little hearts out. The Water Fern has grown from a thin layer on the canal’s surface to a thick pile. I jump a mile when there is a large splash in front of me whilst I am writing this report – Dill the Dog has just leapt into the canal! White Pignut and yellow Meadow Buttercups gently tint the green meadows. Red spikes of Sorrel rise above the grasses.

Thursday 27th May – Barnsley Canal – Willow Warblers move through the Hawthorns bordering the canal. They always seem to be looking upwards to the branches above. A pair of Grey Herons stand at the top of a dead tree in the loop and are mobbed by a Lapwing. Further down the marsh is another dead tree and a Mistle Thrush stands erect at the very top. A Blackcap sings in a bushy Willow whilst searching for food. I am lucky that the Mute pen again starts to turn her eggs as I pass and this time I can get a good view – there are eight eggs! There is rich green foliage everywhere. Many are easy to identify even without their flowers – the huge leaves of Burdock, the rapidly rising columns of Rosebay and Great Willow Herbs, Marsh Horsetails, a member of an incredibly old plant group and the tendrils of Tufted Vetch climbing through other plants.

Monday 31st May – Longendale – Longendale is the long valley that runs from Woodhead down to Glossop in Derbyshire. Woodhead pass is one of the traditional routes across the Pennines from Sheffield to Manchester. A railway used to run through here as well but as so often, has long gone and the track-bed is now a fine footpath. Across the tops the heather moors are dotted with white tufts of Cotton Grass. Willow Warblers sing from stunted Willows and Hawthorns along the Trail. Meadow Pipits rise into the air, peeping and then parachute down again. On the other side of the valley is a cow pasture which seems to have been treated for grass as it is a bright emerald green in contrast to the far more subtle hues of green and browns that make up the moors. Higher up, grit-stone outcrops and tumbled rocks pile up. An outcrop of stone pillars seems split asunder by a large Hawthorn growing out of the middle. Into Glossop past a farm with a large steeple and features more akin to a church. The town itself is bustling around the large market selling a wide range of wares, from the butcher’s lorry where a barker is apparently robbing himself with the deals he is offering to the stall with the mystic incense and batik-dyed tops.