Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Is it really mid-November?

I suppose our back garden is moderately sheltered but we are situated at the edge of Daventry, itself a small town, only about 300 metres as the Crow, Corvus corone, flies. The warmth associated with large urban areas, especially London, is hardly a factor and Stefen Hill is not really considered balmy. Yet a remarkably large number of plants are still in flower.
The climber, Thunbergia alata, commonly known as Black-eyed Susan, is on a wall which offers some sort of protection, but it is a native of east Africa and really enjoys warm conditions. Yet it seems happy enough. 

Thunbergia alata, aka Black-eyed Susan, remains in bloom on our
garage wall. Stefen Hill, Daventry. 15 November, 2017
Our plant of Salvia x jamensis 'Hot Lips' is also flowering profusely although most plant guides regard it as tender. The parents of this hybrid are Salvia greggi, from southern Texas and S. microphylla, a widespread species found from Arizona to Mexico. Neither of these species seems likely to have imparted hardiness to their offspring and yet it is unfazed by November's weather
Hot Lips - Salvia x jamensis - is still open for a visit from a bee.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 15 November, 2017
From Mexico too come most of the Dahlia species involved in our garden varieties. The slightest of frosts usually reduces their leaves to a mushy, dark green mess but nevertheless they are still blooming happily for us with buds still being produced.
Dahlias on 15 November. Ridiculous! Stefen Hill, Daventry
Until I sat down to write this blog it hadn't occurred to me that, with the exception of the Thunbergia, all the species being considered are of American origin, for also in flower is the Argentinian Vervain, Verbena bonariensis. It hails of course from the vicinity of Buenos Aires, hence bonariensis, and should again be only borderline hardy. Having said that, I've never had trouble with this verbena in the past; maybe that part of Argentina gets chilly winters.
Verbena bonariensis goes on and on. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
15 November, 2017
What conclusions can be drawn from all this? Basically nothing I suppose. We have had a couple of light frosts recently but not enough, it seems, to damage these four plants and I am tempted to conclude that these lingering flowers owe their survival to climate. warming. Certainly in my youth we would have had frosts, or maybe even ice on puddles by now. One sharp frost however and we can kiss these flowers goodbye so we'll enjoy them while we can.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Fighting back

We are all familiar with stories about human destruction of the natural habitat, from trawlers scraping the sea bed with their nets to litter left by climbers around the summit of Everest; from turtles dying having swallowed polythene bags in mistake for jellyfish to the unacceptable loss of soil through short-term farming practices. We fight back in tiny ways. I avoid buying 'Velvet' brand toilet rolls because of the unnecessary destruction of primary forest for their production and I never buy Cadbury 's chocolate for a similar reason - in this case the cutting down of rain forest for cocoa plantations. Are my actions a waste of time? I honestly don't know. I should really take the course chosen by Jeremy and become a vegetarian. (I refer here to my son Jeremy and not Jeremy Corbyn although both set an admirable example.)
These thoughts crossed my mind as I visited Daventry earlier today because as I walked from the car park (cars are, of course, another related issue) I noticed how plants are fighting back too. A few rosettes of Common Whitlow Grass, Erophila verna, had rooted at the foot of a wall. In themselves they do no damage but they do assist in the accumulation of soil, material in which more robust plants may later root. 

Common Whitlow Grass, Daventry town centre. 14 November, 2017
Notice the gaps in the brickwork
The tiniest nooks and crannies may accommodate a chance seed; it may be wind-blown, as in the case of Oxford Ragwort, Senecio squalidus, or deposited in bird droppings as with Brambles, Rubus fruticosus. The result is the same, a plant whose roots  begin insinuating themselves into the mortar to create ever-widening cracks.
Oxford Ragwort to the rear of the town library, Daventry.
14 November, 2017
Oxford Ragwort is an annual or short-loved perennial but brambles are woody plants and present a more serious problem. If not removed their roots will widen to a point where structural damage will result. The specimen I photographed is of no consequence as the area is due to be redeveloped shortly but elsewhere...
A bramble growing strongly in a wall to the rear of Daventry's library.
14 November, 2017

Oxford Ragwort is an introduced plant (from southern Europe) and so too is Buddleia, Buddleja davidii, a native of China. On the M40, where it cuts through the Chiltern Hills I have noticed huge swathes of buddleia cloaking the chalk face. It is helping to bind the walls of the cutting in place or will their roots split the chalk and cause it to crumble? Perhaps it is too soon to tell but the situation is doubtless being monitored. 
A buddleia seedling, only small at he moment, but if ignored...
Certainly masonry in Daventry is being weakened by buddleia and the consequences are likely to be serious if these attacks are ignored. It grows rapidly and produces great quantities of seed and as a woody plant its destructive powers are considerable. The seed may be wind-borne but the dispersal mechanisms are as yet not fully understood. could develop into a problem. North Street, Daventry.
14 November, 2017
I found it damaging brickwork in three places during just a short walk but it wasn't the only culprit. Cotoneasters have red, orange or yellow fruits much consumed by birds. The seeds pass through a bird's gut to be deposited elsewhere. Much like buddleias, cotoneasters (this example was unidentifiable to species) will split brickwork and in the case in question the damage was too severe to be easily rectified.
A cotoneaster has developed in a similar manner. Daventry town centre.
14 November, 2017
A few days ago here in Daventry I found another plant dreadfully difficult to eradicate yet whose destructive powers are legendary, lifting paving slabs and seriously damaging the foundations of buildings. I refer to Japanese Knotweed, Fallopia japonica. Lacking prompt action when found the consequences could be very serious indeed.
Japanese Knotweed. Daventry. 3 Novermber, 2017
Does all this matter? Probably not, but my fevered imagination foresees two possible scenarios where the situation could get out of hand. One involves a widespread plague akin to the Black Death, consequent on mankind failing to produce antibiotics to cope with rapidly mutating pathogens; the other involves a financial catastrophe where money for essential repairs simply isn't available. Both would result in people too busy ensuring their survival to worry about nature's fight back.
Absolutely impossible of course. Pharmaceutical companies will obviously come up with an answer and no government could possibly starve local authorities of resources to that degree. 

Saturday, 11 November 2017

St Peter's Church, Wolfhampcote

In a curious, inexplicable way, the Church of St Peter, Wolfhampcote, is one of the most impressive churches I know of. It isn't the stained-glass windows - there aren't any. Nor is it the tapestries, carpets or beautifully carved altar screens or misericords: if there were any they were removed long ago. No, it is the sheer simplicity of the interior. 
The Church of St Peter, Wolfhampcote. 10 November, 2017
The church is no longer used for services although it remains consecrated. It is now cared for by The Churches Conservation Trust and, although I admit to being an atheist, it pleases me that this building appears to be in safe hands. The simplicity of the building helps to focus the visitor on features which might be otherwise overlooked. The 13th Century chancel arch, for example is pleasing in its form and proportions. Above the arch is a royal coat-of-arms of Queen Anne - although I doubt she paid the church a visit.
The chancel arch with, above, the royal coat-of-arms of Queen Anne.
10 November, 2017
The simple pews are small, rather fragile-looking and very basic. I didn't risk sitting on one.
The pews could hardly be more simple.
The parishioners would have faced the very basic altar, not distracted by stained glass; as I have said, there isn't any. In theory any valuable stained glass could have been removed for safety but I suspect that isn't the case. The church would have been cold and uncomfortable but we know that in mediaeval time non-attendance was generally not an option.
View towards the altar of St Peter's Church, Wolfhampcote.
10 November, 20
Outside, the building is again simple. It is possible to imagine church representatives and local worthies leafing through an architect's brochure and choosing something within their means. The structure has subsided in places and cracks have been plugged with mortar.

Masonry was thickly encrusted with lichens. St Peter's, Wolfhampcote.
10 November, 2017
A number of table tombs formed a small group and the headstones in general were a lichenologists paradise but time was pressing. I tore myself away and continued my journey.

Tony White  E-mail:

Friday, 10 November 2017

Walk: Braunston to Daventry

Chris was off to Rugby today with her friend Ann for what I gathered was a spot of retail therapy. I was dropped off at Braunston and I intended to walk back to Daventry via  Wolfhampcote, Miry Bridge and Kentle Wood.
I set out heading south-west along the towpath of the Oxford Canal. The weather was behaving nicely and the walking was pleasant if not breathtakingly exciting. I turned back from time to time and watched the slender church spire of All Saints in Braunston shrinking in the distance.

At this point Braunston is still in clear view. 10 November, 2017
According to my Ordnance Survey map I would soon be approaching a bridge that once carried the Great Central Railway over the canal and I became mystified as no such bridge appeared. Eventually I found traces of the structure but the bridge itself had clearly been dismantled. Never mind, a series of other smaller but nonetheless attractive bridges allowed me to find my bearings on the map.
A number if simple but attractive bridges were passed on my walk.
Between Braunston and Wolfhampcote, 10 November, 2017
Eventually I crossed the canal to turn almost due east and approached the mediaeval village of Wolfhampcote. Apart from a few scattered dwellings and farm buildings the village no longer exists. These D.M.V's - deserted mediaeval villages - are scattered about the midlands and indeed I had just passed the D.M.V. of Braunstonbury. Of this settlement even less remains, a few hummocks in the fields being all that is visible. The Black Death was perhaps a factor in the depopulation, not necessarily by wiping out the villagers but encouraging them to drift away to seek a better life elsewhere in a country desperately short of farm workers.
The squat tower of St Peter's, Wolfhampcote.
10 November, 2017
Before long the Church of St Peter's, Wolfhampcote came into view. It is quite a fascinating building with so many points of interest that I do not propose to deal with it here but to give it a blog of its own. After spending twenty minutes or so at the church I pushed on.

What on earth could these pigs expect to find in this deep mud?
Courtesy obliged me to say hello to a group of Saddleback pigs wallowing in the mud at a nearby farm. I'd have stayed for a chat but I needed to press on.
Heavy loads of coal from Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire or Yorkshire would
once have thundered over this bridge, heading for London.
  Near Wolfhampcote, 10 November, 2017

My route now took me under the old Great Central Railway. The track-bed is now in places a haven for wildlife, perhaps too choked with vegetation for delicate plants but surely a refuge for many creatures.

I was now walking virtually due south, travelling more or less parallel to the infant River Leam. To use the word 'river' is a tad overstating it, but that is how it is marked on the map, and it is quite important since here it forms the boundary between Northamptonshire to the east and Warwickshire to the west. Since leaving the canal I had in fact been in Warwickshire and would continue to be so for the next mile or two. 
The River Leam. Its waters will flow into the Avon and on to the
 River Severn. 10 November, 2017
This was an area which, a century ago, would have been rich in wildlife but there was little out of the ordinary to be seen. True, November is not a month associated with bounteous flowers but there should have been more than Fool's Parsley, Aethusa cynapium, to be seen among the stubble. Cases of poisoning are rare as the plant is nauseously smelly when crushed.
Fool's Parsley is a seriously toxic weed. In stubble near Wolfhampcote.
10 November, 2017
A flock of fieldfares took to the wing as I approached. I was surprised as I was still some distance away, but then, skimming the hedgerow where they had been foraging, came a sparrowhawk. Missing out on a kill it swerved away with its familiar flap, flap, glide flight.
I was now climbing out of the Leam valley and my legs were letting me know that I'd covered something like four miles; my brain told me that I had about two more to go. As the slope eased I recovered my stride and, via the western edge of Kentle Wood, I re-entered a built-up area and within an hour I had my feet up with a hot coffee before me. Bliss!


Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Towards Newnham

You visit a library or a bookstore such as Waterstones and search the shelving in the section marked 'TRAVEL, UNITED KINGDOM' and find a book called something like Great Walks in Britain. You pull out a likely-looking tome and turn to the index, looking for 'Northamptonshire'. Nothing. You pull out another book and repeat the exercise. Again, nothing. The fact is that I am unfortunate enough to have been born and to live in a county with an exceptionally featureless landscape. Sure enough, some of the villages are pretty with old buildings and walls constructed from a warm, mellow sandstone, sometime pale, sometimes dark but always attractive. But if you seek mountains or high, rolling hills, if you are in search of glittering lakes, waterfalls, or even the tiniest glimpse of a coast, look elsewhere. All we have hereabouts are low, sheep-grazed hills or heavily farmed arable land. For the record, 91% of the land around Daventry is farmed compared 57% in the U.K. as a whole; 1% of the land around Daventry is 'natural' compared with 35% over the a whole [see footnote]. Furthermore much of the land is covered with clay so sticky that if you are foolish enough to walk on it after rain, for even a few steps, you soon find you are taller by two inches.
Am I being harsh? Perhaps a little.
My childhood friend, the late Trevor Hold, travelled widely but he wrote:
                              is to that unassuming shire
                                       where I was born that my own spirit flies,
                                       homing to her parks and ancient trees,
                                       the sandstone manor and the weathered spire,
                                       the steady river ambling to the sea.
                                             Wherever I may live, my exiled eyes
                                             Will seek that landscape and those gentle skies.

I, lacking Trevor's poetic vision and sheer humanity, mutter to myself something about silk purses and sows' ears.
Having got that bellyache off my chest (!) there are some local walks that, given good weather, can be very pleasant, and I set out on such a stroll earlier today. My target was Newnham Windmill, a Grade II listed building set at the edge of steep escarpment with lovely views to the west across into Warwickshire. It is farmed by Matthew Moser using environmentally friendly methods in an endeavour to allow wildlife to flourish on this mildly acid land. To some extent he is successful but going by some other farmland in the area he is a voice in the wilderness.
Blackberries were still available for birds, mice and the foxes who will delicately pluck the fruit. Even though Chris and I were gathering them eight or ten weeks ago some of them have yet to ripen.
Some blackberries have yet to ripen. Hedgerow between Daventry and
Newnham. 8 Novermber, 2017
It is this variability that makes the Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus, so interesting that some botanists - batologists - have spent years studying this plant and splitting it into hundreds of microspecies.
Equally variable are crab apples. There is only one true Crab Apple, Malus sylvestris, but cast-aside apple cores from a host of varieties have given rise to many faux crab apples and hybridisation is commonplace. As they soften they will provide food for a range of creatures.
These apples will soon fall and become available to many creatures.
Between Daventry and Newnham. 8 November, 2017
Hawthorns are still heavy with fruit so there is no immediate likelihood of birds going hungry and it is this hedgerow bounty which attracts fieldfares, redwings and, if you are lucky, waxwings, to join in the feast.
The quantity of fruit left on the hawthorns will eventually attract many
birds including migrants. 8 November, 2017
Another quite different type of fruit is also nibbled by mice, slugs and snails and the larvae of flies. I refer to toadstools. Perhaps not fruit in the generally accepted sense but they are nevertheless the fruiting heads of fungi, whose thread-like hyphae insinuate themselves through the soil playing an absolutely vital role in the whole cycle of life, death and decay. Many are puffballs, like this Stump Puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme, occupying - where else? - a decaying stump at a field margin.
A mossy stump bore the fruiting heads of Lycoperdon pyriforme.
There are several rather similar species found in Britain but a close look at the general shape (pyriforme means 'pear-shaped) and the surface detail make this one easily recognised.
The surface is only slightly papillose. 8 November, 2017
The sun was now very bright but I had not allowed for a very heavy dew and my feet were getting soaked. No way was I going to make it to the windmill, not because of fatigue but I had paused so often that I was way behind schedule. Fence posts, and at one point the sun-warmed brick wall of a old barn, had yielded lots of flies. I took a gentle stroll round a small pond, complete with reed-mace and then decided it was lunch-time.
A small pond was a habitat for Lesser Reedmace.  8 November, 2017

     Footnote.  Figures supplied by the Corine Land Cover inventory      

Tony White   E-mail:                     

Friday, 3 November 2017

On a Disused Railway Track

I can usually contrive some sort of blog from even the most unpromising material but by 'eck I struggled today! The old Weedon to Leamington railway line once ran through Daventry and although much of the old track-bed has disappeared a few sections remain and are popular footpaths.
One section is crossed by the Ashby Road; it is easily accessible and so I decided to pay it a visit. I parked my car in Dennett Close and strode out, full of optimism. My mood didn't last long. Certainly the side of the footpath was colourful: blue crisp bags, silver and red coke cans and miscellaneous plastic bags, mostly orange - but not a single flower. Undaunted I carried on, back beneath the road I had just left.
The disused railway track is crossed by the Ashby Road.
Daventry, 3 November, 2017
I was surprised to find a patch of Japanese Knotweed, Fallopia japonica, growing beside the footpath. This member of the Dock Family, Polygonaceae, is notorious as an almost ineradicable weed. Landowners do not have a legal duty to remove it but I felt I ought to let the authorities (Daventry Town Council?) know, so I resolved to make a careful note of its position on my return journey.
A patch of Japanese Knotweed grew near to the track.
Daventry, 3 November, 2017
Do you think I could find it! I walked back and forth through the area I had visited only twenty or so minutes earlier but simply failed to find it and all I have is the photographic evidence. With the leaves having a distinctively truncated base it cannot easily be confused with any other plant in Britain but there it was - gone!
Curiously only female plants exist in Britain so its spread is purely by vegetative means. Furthermore all plants here in the U.K. are genetically identical: it is one huge clone - a single plant! It has been suggested that British specimens represent the largest female organism on earth!

What else?   Well, I swept a Parent Bug, Elasmucha grisea, from a birch tree.

And?   Er... I took a specimen of a small mirid bug, Pinalitus cervinus, from a willow tree. This variable species can sometimes occur in attractive shades of green but I'm afraid my specimen was rather dull. It is quite a widespread bug but easily overlooked and this was my first-ever record. And it was a cold day.

That won't do. Don't blame the weather, just go away and don't do another blog until you've something interesting to report.

Tony White  E-mail:

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

November the First - it must be Delapre Abbey

Delapre Abbey lies on the southern edge of Northampton proper, betwixt the town and Hardingstone. Less than ten years ago the buildings, once the Abbey of St Mary de la Pre, were in a dilapidated state, but a hefty Lottery Fund grant in 2013 has allowed a large-scale restoration to begin. When I paid a visit earlier today I found that a huge amount of progress had been made but I still had to pick my way through wheelbarrows, excavators (backhoes) and the like.
Restoration is going on apace. Delapre Abbey, Northampton.
1 November, 2017
All very interesting, but my target was the area to the rear, where a shrubbery, mature trees and a walled garden would hopefully provide interesting glimpses of wildlife. A very large specimen of a Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, was an important feature but as I have already written about this (Liriope and Liriodendron, 7 December, 2016) I will move on.
What I took to be a nice example of Cercidiphyllum japonicum stood in the walled garden so I strolled over for a closer look. As I got nearer I spotted a cluster of tell-tale pods on the branches. It was a Judas Tree, Cercis siliquastrum; the two species have almost identical foliage despite being in different families and in fact Cercidiphyllum comes from the Greek kerkis, a Judas Tree and phyllon, a leaf.
The Judas Tree is in the pea family, hence the pods. Delapre Abbey, 2017
Most plants within the walled garden had ceased flowering with the heads of a Globe Thistle, Echinops bannaticus (nearly always listed in plant catalogues as Echinops ritro) being an exception. With few flowers of note I turned to other botanical features.

The spherical inflorescence of the Globe Flower, Echinops bannaticus.
Delapre Abbey. 1 November, 2017
A Hart's-tongue Fern, Asplenium scolopendrium, showed clearly the elongated lines of sori that give this plant its specific name, skolopendra being Greek for a long-legged centipede, and clearly alluding to these brown lines. George Claridge Druce, writing in 1930, described it as 'local and decreasing' [Druce, 1930] but I find it regularly and it appears to be widespread. In older books it is called Phyllitis scolopendrium.
Hart's-tongue Fern is a very distinctive plant. Delapre Abbey, Northampton.
1 November, 2017
Liquidambar styraciflua is a member of the rather small Altingiaceae family, confined to warmer parts of the northern hemisphere. With its palmate leaves it  looks rather like an Acer but is unrelated.
The Sweet Gum, ablaze with autumn colour. Delapre Abbey.
1 November, 2017
For bright autumn colour it is almost unsurpassed but this seems to be at its best when the Sweet Gum - to use its common name - is grown on moderately acid soil.
A closer look at the palmate foliage.
Speaking of acid soil, the grounds of Delapre Abbey have quite a good display of Rhododendron species, plants which, with a few rare exceptions, like acid conditions. When examining the foliage of a rhododendron I was delighted to find many specimens of the brilliantly coloured Rhododendron Leafhopper, Graphocephala fennahi. It is a North American cicadellid bug which arrived in Britain in the 1930's and is one of only a very few insects which depend upon Rhododendrons, feeding on the sap.
Rhododendron Leafhoppers were very common in Delapre Abbey
grounds. 1 November, 2017
I was very pleased with this discovery and my day was complete when, a couple of minutes later, I took an equally colourful spider.
My e-mail address is, suggesting that I hold Diaea in high esteem. So when I found a male of the only British member of the genus, Diaea dorsata, in my sweep-net I was particularly pleased. The female of the species is unremarkable and perhaps easily overlooked. Not so the male which, apart from the dorsal surface of the abdomen, is of a lovely emerald green. It is moderately common, most often found on evergreen trees such as yew, and shrubs such as Cherry Laurel, from which I took this specimen. 
It is depicted on the dust jacket of Volume 1 of Mike Roberts' superb Spiders of Great Britain and Ireland.


As I say, my day was complete.


Druce, G.C 1930  The Flora of Northamptonshire  T.Buncle & Co, Arbroath
Roberts, M.R. 1985  The Spiders of Great Britain and Ireland 3 Volumes. Harley Books, Colchester

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