Searching for orchids at Warburg nature reserve, Oxfordshire

I’ve become obsessed with orchids lately. In May we visited the orchid slope at Hartslock nature reserve to see rare monkey orchids. Last weekend we headed to Warburg nature reserve, one of BBOWT’s flagship reserves near Henley-on-Thames.

Great butterfly orchid (left) and white helleborine (right), Warburg nature reserve
Greater butterfly orchid (left) and white helleborine (right), Warburg nature reserve

We’re regular visitors to Warburg and often walk the waymarked Wildlife Trail. This time our route was determined by a map in the visitor centre marking the orchid flowering spots.

Orchids at Warburg

My main reason for visiting was to see a bee orchid, and joy of joys, they were marked on the map! And is wasn’t just bee orchids. Greater butterfly, bird’s nest, white helleborine and green hound’s-tongue were also marked. I photographed the map and then headed out into the reserve.

Summer walk in Warburg nature reserve
Summer walk in Warburg nature reserve

We found our first orchid, the greater butterfly, just a few steps away from the car park. This orchid has greenish-white flowers, grows on chalk grassland and in woods. A similarly coloured orchid is the white helleborine, which we found beside the path in the beech woods.

Our next spot was the strange looking bird’s nest orchid, so called because its roots resemble a bird’s nest. Hidden amongst decaying leaves in woodland it’s a strange looking flower. Not one of the prettiest. It lacks chlorophyll, is light brown in colour and blends well with the background. This is my excuse for belatedly discovering my photos of them were rather blurry!

Now it must be said that the rest of the family aren’t as smitten with orchids as I am. Particularly the teen daughter, who decided she’d had enough at this point and headed back to the car to listen to music.

Meadow brown butterfly on bird's foot trefoil, Warburg nature reserve
Meadow brown butterfly on bird’s foot trefoil, Warburg nature reserve

Spotting the bee orchid

Walking out of the woodland and into the open, I finally got to see my bee orchid. Standing alone in the chalk grassland it looked exactly as expected. It mimics the bee in looks, scent and touch in order to attract male bees and help aid pollination. I’ve wanted to see one of these for a couple of years now and was very happy with the find. The irony is that I’ve subsequently found several less than a mile from my house!

Aside from the bee orchids there were loads of common spotted and a few pyramidal orchids just starting to flower. A variety of butterflies were out too, enjoying the temperamental sun.

Common spotted orchid (left), bee orchid (right), Warburg nature reserve
Common spotted orchid (left), bee orchid (right), Warburg nature reserve

My son and I continued on to the last flower marked on the map, green hounds-tongue. I’ve never seen this plant before and had no idea what I was looking for. It also took us further away from the car park in the direction of some ominous looking clouds overhead. I don’t mind getting wet on a walk but thunderstorms were forecast and I had no desire to get struck by lightning.

We went slightly off piste in our rushed quest for the last flower and ended up with very wet legs from walking through long grass. Although it rained a little the storm didn’t materialise and we were able to find the green hounds-tongue. That said I wasn’t exactly sure which plant it was so took photographs of a couple of contenders and identified it properly once I got home.

Super-sized slugs!

On our return to the car park we kept finding super-sized slugs. The paths were dotted with large black and brown varieties; we had to watch our step to ensure we didn’t squash any. I’m not a great fan of slugs in my garden but they were quite interesting to examine close up, away from lettuce plants!

Warburg nature reseve pond hide
Warburg nature reseve pond hide

Before leaving we met up with my other half in the visitor centre bird hide. We’ve often sat here in the past but haven’t always seen that many birds. This time was different; a couple of greater spotted woodpeckers were in control of the feeders, attacking any other bird trying to feed. Whenever they flew away normal service resumed with chaffinches, goldfinches, a nuthatch, blue tits and marsh tits all hastily returning to feed. I could have watched for hours but the kids were restless and it was time to go.

More info:

  • The best time to visit BBOWT’s Warburg nature reserve to see orchids is around June, although this does depend on seasonal weather conditions. However Warburg is a great reserve to visit all year round. There’s a small visitor centre (not usually manned), toilets and picnic site.
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Our family caving adventure down Gaping Gill, North Yorkshire

The small notice in the Yorkshire Dales visitor newspaper caught my eye: “Gaping Gill Winch meet. Experience the thrill of being lowered down this huge natural chamber by bosun’s chair and discover a hidden underground world”.

As a hill walker I knew Gaping Gill was a pothole somewhere on the route up Ingleborough hill. What I hadn’t realised was that twice a year caving clubs give visitors the opportunity to descend over 100 metres on a winch down into Gaping Gill, a trip that is usually off-limits to non-cavers.

An idea formed in my head, taking in the descent of Gaping Gill and the ascent of Ingleborough, the second highest hill in the Yorkshire Dales. The rest of the family were in agreement. Well, at least with the cave descent; I forgot to mention the hill walk until much later.

Walking up through Trow Gill
Walking up through Trow Gill

Fast forward two days. It’s 7.30am and we’re in Clapham, the nearest village to Gaping Gill. Small groups of walkers are emerging from parked cars. They’ve obviously read the same warnings as us. Arrive early if you want to guarantee a place on the winch!

The walk from Clapham to Gaping Gill, through the woodland of Ingleborough Estate, past Ingleborough Cave and up Trow Gill gorge took about 1.5 hours. It was a pleasant enough walk in the early morning sun but my excitement grew tenfold when the pothole club basecamp came into view.

Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent
Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent

Gaping Gill basecamp

At basecamp there were already quite a few people waiting to go down Gaping Gill. Each return trip takes about five minutes so there’s a maximum of twenty visits or so an hour. Without further ado we headed straight to the main tent to sign up, hand over our monies and collect our numbered token.

Fortunately the weather was lovely so we relaxed in the sun and watched others descend whilst awaiting our turn. The cave attracts a wide range of people; the groups in front of us included a 91 year old man and young children (7 years+). One lady sat in the winch chair but changed her mind at the last moment. It was a brave decision but I felt a little sad on her behalf. Without fail, everyone who returned to the surface was smiling!

All about Gapng Gill
All about Gapng Gill

Whilst waiting I read about the history and exploration of the cave. Gaping Gill was first explored in the 1800s; John Birkbeck diverted the waterfall which drops over the shaft and was lowered by rope into the cave. His rope wasn’t long enough to get to the bottom but the ledge he reached is still known as Birkbeck Ledge. A French explorer, Edouard Martel, finally reached the cave floor in 1895. Subsequent expeditions have even managed to link Gaping Gill to Ingleborough Cave although this is not possible at present.

Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent
Waiting for the Gaping Gill descent

The descent

A couple of hours later our numbers finally appeared on the board. We climbed down the ladder and were briefed on the descent. Our instructions consisted of keeping our legs still and not swinging around in the chair. Easy for me, but I made sure my son knew this too!

My other half went first, followed by the children, and then it was my turn. I was a little apprehensive, but mostly excited when I took my place in the chair. It’s a slick operation and before I knew it the sliding platform drew back and the long descent began.

Sitting in the bosun's chair, Gaping Gill
Sitting in the bosun’s chair, Gaping Gill

My first thought was how close the edge of the cave was to my knees. So close that you think you are going to hit them. I sat very still. It gets dark after a few seconds and then you can hardly see anything at all. I felt the spray of water from Fell Beck. This waterfall normally falls into Gaping Gill but is diverted during the winch meet. Even so you still get a few drops coming your way.  Long after my senses had processed all of this we were still going down. It’s a long way down. Longer than I expected.

Heading down into Gaping Gill
Heading down into Gaping Gill

Inside Gaping Gill

As I reached the bottom of the Main Chamber I became aware how much colder it was below ground. Leaving the chair I carefully picked my way across the rocky ground to where the family were waiting. Although the cave has some lighting, and we wore head torches, it takes a while to acclimatise to the darkness. Even in the dim light it’s soon apparent how big Britain’s largest natural chamber is. Huge!

The caving club has set up a couple of floodlights and information boards to help visitors. We made our way from one side of the chamber to the other, peering into the nooks and crannies, and standing for a while on the aptly named mudbank.

We watched as some proper cavers climbed East Slope and slowly disappeared from view into another passage. There are more than 16km of passages underground and although I’d quite like to try caving my biggest fear would be getting lost.

The view from inside Gaping Gill
The view from inside Gaping Gill

Once we’d explored the main chamber we queued again for the return. It was mesmerising watching others ascend into the bright light above us. Impressively one of the cavers made his own way back up using just a rope and leg power. We took the easy option, propelled upwards by the winch. Heading up it was much easier to see the cave walls and almost as much of a shock to emerge into sunlight as the darkness was on the way down.

If you get the opportunity I highly recommend the trip down Gaping Gill. Slightly scary, but perfectly safe, it’s an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. If you’re visiting the area you might also like to read about my top 5 highlights of the Yorkshire Dales; it’s such a beautiful part of the world!

More info

  • Gaping Gill winch is operated by Bradford Pothole Club in May half-term and Craven Pothole Club over the August Bank Holiday. Check the caving club websites for operating times. The descent costs £15 per person; it is not possible to pre-book so arrive early. There’s a comprehensive guide to Gaping Gill on the Bradford Pothole Club website.
  • Gaping Gill is inaccessible to non-cavers except during the winch events.Heed the warning signs around the edge of the entrance. One volunteer pointed out a grass ledge where people take photographs; it is very dangerous!
  • Take waterproofs, a head torch and some snacks to eat whilst you’re waiting. There is a basic field latrine but no other facilities.

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My top five Yorkshire Dales highlights

This isn’t a traditional list of tourist attractions. There are plenty of places to visit in the Yorkshire Dales but my favourite holiday memories are of walks, views and rural life. So what do I love about the Yorkshire Dales?

1. Field barns

My camera roll confirms I was obsessed with photographing barns on holiday. Although with around 6000 field barns in the Yorkshire Dales I still have quite a few to find!

The barns were built in meadows around 200 years ago to store hay and house cattle over the winter months. The freezing winters have taken their toll on many of them but for every barn without a roof there’s another one that’s still in use.

Stone barns of Wensleydale
Stone barns of Wensleydale

2. Hills

The Yorkshire Three Peaks walk is a 26 mile route which combines ascents of three hills – Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside. We opted for the easier option and split the hills across three separate days.

Following the Pennine Way up Pen-y-Ghent
Following the Pennine Way up Pen-y-Ghent

With the exception of one very short easy scrambly section up Pen-y-Ghent all are straightforward hill walks in summer conditions. From the summits we spotted the sea, the distant peaks of the Lake District and other local hills.

Pen-y-gent view
Pen-y-gent view

Of course there are plenty of less-frequented hills to climb in the Yorkshire Dales, including the distinctive flat topped Addleborough; definitely one I’d like to tackle one day.

3. Waterfalls

Thanks to the presence of limestone the Yorkshire Dales is famous for its waterfalls. The Ingleton waterfalls and triple set of falls at Aysgarth are probably the most well known. Plus there’s Britain’s highest single drop (above ground) waterfall at Hardraw Force, the beautiful West Burton falls and Mill Gill Force near Askrigg. But take a look at an OS map and you’ll see waterfalls marked along almost every stretch of river.

Wensleydale waterfalls
Wensleydale waterfalls

The best time to visit is after heavy rain. It was sunny during our trip (I’m not complaining) but the waterfalls were still impressive. If you’re visiting over May or August Bank Holiday weekends and are feeling adventurous you might even like to visit the waterfall at Gaping Gill.

4. Dry stone walls

Together with the field barns the dry stone walls symbolise hill farming in the Dales. There are over 5000 miles of walls throughout the Yorkshire Dales, marking field boundaries and keeping in livestock.

Stone walls near Askrigg, Yorkshire Dales
Stone walls near Askrigg, Yorkshire Dales

Some of my favourite walls are high in the hills. I was intrigued by the wall heading up near the summit of Pen-y-Ghent and again along the summit ridge on Whernside. I can only imagine the effort it must have taken to build them.

With so many walls there are also plenty of stiles. In Wensleydale these are often narrow slits in the walls combined with heavy spring gates. The local sheep are obviously great escape artists!

5.  Wildflower meadows

Visit the Yorkshire Dales in early summer and you’ll be treated to hay meadows full of buttercups, daisies and red clover. The buttercups form a swathe of yellow, brightening up the fields and helping to encourage other wildlife.

Wildflower meadow near Hawes, Yorkshire
Wildflower meadow near Hawes, Yorkshire

As you might imagine, along with field barn photos I have a lot of flower meadow photos too!

Have you been to the Yorkshire Dales? If so, what are your favourite places?

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Yorkshire Dales pinterest image
Yorkshire Dales pinterest image

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Orchid spotting at Hartslock Nature Reserve, Oxfordshire

One of my early summer treats is an evening walk to view the orchids at Hartslock Nature Reserve. Covering 11 acres the reserve is relatively small but a favourite of mine. Partly because it’s one of the best picnic spots in Oxfordshire and partly because of the orchids which cloak its slopes.

Summer evening view over the Thames, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Summer evening view over the Thames from Hartslock Nature Reserve

I walked, with two friends, from Goring to Hartslock, along the Thames Path, surrounded by the bounty of late spring. Swallows diving for insects, fluffy goslings paddling along behind mum and knee-high nettles. We spied on the mansions on the opposite river bank, wondering who might live in them.

Orchids galore, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Orchids galore, Hartslock Nature Reserve

After a mile or so we turned away from the river for a short steep climb up the chalk slope to the reserve. At the top is a bench with fantastic views down to the River Thames. We stopped for a while to catch our breath and admire the Oxfordshire countryside before heading through the gate to the orchid slope.

Monkey orchid, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Monkey orchid, Hartslock Nature Reserve

The reserve is home to the rare monkey orchid which aside from Hartslock only grows in two other places in the UK. The orchids are taped off to stop visitors trampling on them but it was still easy to kneel and take photographs. Although the small prickly thistles hidden in the grass liked to remind you of their presence too!

Monkey x lady orchids, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Lady x Monkey orchids, Hartslock Nature Reserve

Even rarer than the monkey orchids are the hybrid lady x monkey orchids. This is the only place they grow in this country but there were so many you’d never realise they were rare. Sadly it has been a bad year for lady orchids and we didn’t see any of these.

I could have spent hours exploring the orchid patch but the setting sun reminded us we still had another couple of miles to walk. It wasn’t exactly a forced march home through the woods but we didn’t hang around.

Orchid slope at Hartslock Nature Reserve
Orchid slope at Hartslock Nature Reserve

At various points I could see the bright orange glow from the disappearing sun peeking through the trees and I was hopeful of an amazing sunset. But we were too late. By the time we emerged the sun was tucked up in bed. Not that it mattered of course as the orchids were the true highlight of our walk.

More info:

  • The monkey, lady and lady x monkey orchids are at their best during May although this can vary depending on the weather. Different orchids and plenty of other chalk loving plants flower later in the summer.
  • For access details visit the Hartslock Nature Reserve page on the BBOWT website. This also includes a link to the walk route we followed above.
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