My family doesn’t share my love of orchids. Or, more specifically, the walks spent looking for them.
Back in mid-May we visited the BBOWT reserve at Homefield Wood in Buckinghamshire. Although relatively small it’s one of only three sites in the UK where military orchids flower, a good enough reason to drive an hour to reach it. Or at least I thought so!
The reserve is a short walk through the Forestry Commission’s woodland. As we arrived the military orchids were immediately visible in the meadow, along with other chalk loving plants. Aside from the flowers, the most impressive sight was the number of bees, insects and butterflies flying and buzzing around the grassland. Something that is sadly lacking on my local farmland walks.
However, despite the rarity of military orchids (in the UK), they weren’t my favourite find.
I preferred the fly orchid. Although it was only when another visitor pointed one out to me that I realised I’d already walked past several without realising. It might have been hard to spot but it’s easy to identify. Why? The fly orchid, erm, looks like a fly!
Alongside the fly orchids I found common twayblade. Compared to other orchids it’s nondescript so I didn’t mention it to the family. If they’re not excited by colourful orchids how would I interest them in this one?
The family had skulked off into the woods at this point. My other half looking for birds, my son and daughter taunting each other with sticks. I remained in the meadow, chatting to a couple of visitors laden with expensive looking camera gear.
They told me most of the military orchids were in another field, a short walk away through the wood. I headed over to find a much larger patch, some roped off to protect them from human feet. Volunteers cleared this area several years ago allowing the orchids to flourish and conservation work looked ongoing. Thanks to these efforts over 700 military orchids were recorded on the reserve in 2016.
Walking back to the entrance I detoured into the woodland to find my last orchid of the day, white helleborine, growing under the beech trees. I strolled happily back to the car to find the family waiting, bored, hot and only placated by the promise of an ice cream.
If you, unlike my family, are interested in orchids you might also enjoy reading my posts about Hartslock and Warburg nature Reserves.
Homefield Wood is 2.5 miles from Marlow. It’s not the easiest reserve to find so follow the directions on the BBOWT website.
I highly recommend Peter Creed’s ‘Guide to finding orchids in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire’.
What would your perfect Mother’s Day look like? Mine would start with breakfast in bed followed by a walk and picnic. Later on the children would complete the housework with not a moan or groan to be heard. Likelihood of this happening in our family? Zilch. But at least the walk and picnic happened!
Along the Ridgeway, Watlington
Our walk began in the small market town of Watlington, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. It’s home to some interesting looking independent shops (OK, it has a chocolate shop) but the shops were closed on Sunday and the town deserted.
Watlington is also home to the actor Jeremy Irons. I saw him here a few years back; out riding a horse and accompanied by a couple of dogs. He greeted us cheerfully but I didn’t recognise him; fortunately my fellow walkers did.
There was no sign of Jeremy on this walk. Surprisingly, for such a lovely spring day, we saw very few people.
From Watlington we joined the Ridgeway National Trail, our local long distance path. We walked for a mile or so between fields and the edge of woodland, listening to skylarks and spotting the first butterflies of the year. A little further along we left the Ridgeway and walked through fields of lambs. Although inquisitive and playful they ran to their mums as soon as I attempted to photograph them.
Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve
I’d checked the map for possible picnic sites before leaving home. We were following a walking trail leaflet but I decided a diversion was needed for a good lunch stop. The viewpoint on top of Bald Hill, which forms part of Aston Rowant Nature Reserve, was slightly off route and, of course, uphill but proved the perfect location. Although my son wasn’t enamoured with the climb and announced he’d eat at the bottom instead.
Despite my son’s protestations we set out our picnic on the summit. Thanks to my daughter we enjoyed a special Mother’s Day picnic that was a more elaborate affair than our usual sandwiches, with quiche, dips, homemade sweet potato crisps and fruit kebabs.
Rather incredibly, the M40 splits Aston Rowant Nature Reserve in half. If you’ve ever driven from Oxford to London along the motorway you’ll have passed through it at Stokenchurch Gap, usually signalled by red kites flying high above the traffic.
Red kites were reintroduced here in 1989 and are a huge success story. They’re now widespread across Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties with more than 1000 breeding pairs recorded. Ironically we didn’t see a single kite as we ate our picnic.
Instead we sat on our peaceful hilltop and watched the mesmerising stream of motorway traffic, wondering where everyone was driving to. How happy we were not to be in a car!
After lunch we walked downhill to rejoin the trail. I’m glad we visited the reserve; great views are an important part of any walk for me and Bald Hill was well worth the climb. Dare I say the walk would have been a tad boring without it?
We crossed the road into Lewknor and walked through the village, resisting temptation to stop for a drink at the Leathern Bottle. Many of the houses in Lewknor and the small hamlet of neighbouring South Weston are constructed from brick and flint which is abundant in the Chiltern Hills. I love this style of building; a pity we live in a 1960s house.
Back on farm tracks we passed near to Model Farm. Its imposing chimney harks back to the days of steam power but the farm also has a more controversial recent history. In 1999 it was one of the UK trial sites for genetically modified crops. That’s until protestors converged on the farm and destroyed the GM oilseed rape crop!
The fields around here were also used as the filming location for the 2014 war epic Fury, starring Brad Pitt. I wonder if he fought in the same area as the GM crop protestors?
St Mary’s Church, Pyrton
There were more signs of spring in Pyrton where the churchyard is famous for its spring daffodil display.
The weekend before our visit was Daffodil Sunday when, in addition to visiting the daffodils, there’s afternoon tea on offer in the village hall; something to remember for next year.
As we walked around the churchyard my son spotted a headstone for a young sailor lost in the 1914 sinking of HMS Aboukir. Just as sad was his brother’s gravestone next to it; another casualty of World War I. A sobering reminder of the importance of European unity.
Back in Watlington we looked in vain for an open cafe. We were out of luck. Thankfully our drive home took us past a waterside cafe where we stopped for a break. Along, it seemed, with half the population of Oxfordshire!
We followed the Watlington to Lewknor and Pyrton walk with a side diversion into Aston Rowant Reserve. The main walk is flat and six miles long. The diversion up and down Bald Hill adds about one mile.
The only good thing, from my perspective, about our impending winter is that it gives me a chance to catch up on blog posts. Take our trip to the Quantock Hills for example. We visited in late summer, the August Bank Holiday weekend to be exact. Remembering the weekend we spent walking the hills, eating cream teas and searching for fossils cheers me up no end on a wet and grey November day.
Located in north Somerset, the Quantock Hills cover an area of 38 square miles. They’re less well known than their nearby neighbour, Exmoor, but on a Bank Holiday weekend that’s a bonus. As usual we chose to explore on foot, walking along the coast, through heather moorland and wooded combes. We squeezed in four short walks in the Quantocks, not too strenuous and all less than 4 miles so perfect for families.
1. Kilve beach and East Quantoxhead
Whilst some people enjoy golden sand and blue seas I prefer interesting beaches. Give me rockpools, fossils and shells any day. Kilve beach ticked these boxes. Whilst it isn’t the most beautiful to look at, particularly on a grey murky morning, it’s a fantastic place for fossil hunting.
The cliffs at Kilve beach are formed from oil rich shale, with the different layers of rock clearly visible. Back in the 1920s, plans were afoot to extract the oil but fortunately proved unprofitable. I hope it remains this way.
We spent a good hour mooching around the beach, turning over the rocks in our search for fossils. We found plenty but what impressed me most were the huge ammonite fossils; it’s incredible to think these are 200 million years old!
The kids were disappointed to leave the beach and go on a walk; they wanted to carry on fossil hunting. Tearing ourselves away we headed up onto the cliff to continue our walk along the coast path. All around us were the gifts of late summer; blackberries, golden fields and swallows.
Turning inland we passed through the tiny village of East Quantoxhead with its manor house, duck pond and mill house.
As we neared the end of the walk a small ford offered some fun. We all had a go jumping over the stream; much more exciting than walking across the bridge.
It was a fortunate coincidence that our walk ended back at Chantry Tea Gardens. How on earth did that happen?! Sitting outside in the sun we enjoyed sandwiches and a cream tea, accompanied by a cheeky robin demanding crumbs.
2. Beacon Hill
Our second day started wet. The forecast was an improving one so after a lazy morning we headed to Beacon Hill. The rain wasn’t quite done with us so we lingered in the car park waiting for the showers to pass.
I’d originally planned a longer walk but decided a quick trip up to Beacon Hill summit would be drier. It didn’t take too long to climb and from the top we had great views in all directions. Of rain clouds that appeared to be heading towards us. We didn’t stop to admire the views! Straight back down to the car. Just before the rain arrived, again.
3. Lydeard Hill and Wills Neck
Fortunately the weather cheered up as the day progressed. Aside from the threat of one further heavy shower where we decided to take refuge in a house offering cream teas. Two cream teas in two days, yum.
Our afternoon walk took us onto the highest point of the Quantocks, Wills Neck. This was another straightforward out and back route, up and down a hill; good job really as I didn’t have a map. From the car park we walked to the left of Lydeard Hill, down into a small plantation and up again.
The colours of the Quantocks really are stunning in late summer. The pink and purple heathers and the yellows of the gorse. At least I think it was gorse; the problem with writing a post three months after a visit is that I cannot see from my photos whether there are prickles on the bush (and is therefore gorse) or not (and is therefore broom). Either way, it’s beautiful.
4. Holford Combe and Woodland Hill
This was my favourite walk. The weather, in contrast to the previous day, was warm and sunny. Perfect for sitting on the M5 looking at the back of car bumpers queuing for miles. But I’ve jumped ahead to the afternoon. Our morning was idyllic.
The first part of our walk took us through Holford Combe, a steeply wooded valley. I was surprised to learn the video for the Bryan Adams song, Everything I do (I do it for you), was filmed around here. Back in 1991 it was number one for a gazillion weeks so in the interests of blog research I watched the video again. After the initial shock of how young Bryan Adams looked I could immediately spot Holford Silk Mills. Sadly not passed on this walk, but Kilve beach features too.
Two hundred years before Bryan some very different wordsmiths, the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dorothy and William Wordsworth lived and wrote in these hills. As our track opened out into a sunlit glade it was easy to see where they got their inspiration. The stream sparkled in the sunlight and I could easily imagine whiling away afternoons relaxing on the grassy bank. It was magical; if I believed in pixies this is where they’d live!
We followed the stream until it reached Ladies Combe then headed out of the woodland up a steep track onto Woodland Hill. Along the familiar heather and gorse covered slopes to the top of the hill. There are fabulous views from the summit, if you exclude Hinkley Point nuclear power station (far right in the picture above) from your field of vision.
Walking back to the car park we found a large muddy pond teeming with tadpoles. I know very little about the frog breeding cycle but it seemed very late in the season. Indeed, as I sit here on this November night I start to wonder what happened to them. I do hope they reached frog-hood!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
If you’re visiting Warburg why not tag a trip to Homefield Wood too? Lots more orchids to find, including military orchids in late May and June.
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.