Park Gate and Points East

Park Gate Down is a dry valley hidden in the well-wooded hills between Stelling Minnis and Elham. The string of three small meadows, wrapped in dark, dense woodland, are ungrazed chalk grassland full of famous orchids, myriad other plants and insects. The fields were never ploughed in the Second World War or afterwards, when the white heat of agricultural technology and subsidy burned brightest, probably because of their isolation and inconsequential size.

The birds are no guide to the quality of the habitats; the scratching rattle of a common whitethroat Sylvia communis and spirited whistle of a blackcap Sylvia atricapilla fill the warm, still air.

Park Gate 1

The well trod paths through the nature reserve leads past fragrant Gymnadenia conopsea, common spotted Dactylorhiza fuchsii and monkey orchids Orchis simia. The first two species occur on many of the chalk downs throughout Kent and further afield, but monkeys are rare and only found at one site in South Oxfordshire, a second, well-kept secret, site near Faversham and here at Park Gate; a population founded from Faversham seeds in 1958 by Mr. Hector Wilks. Hence Park Gate Down is also known as the Hector Wilks Reserve.

The other plants and grasses are perhaps not as colourful but are equally attractive. Ribwort plantain Plantar lanceolata, an elegant brush of white stamens and the swaying grass sward, an art installation. At the top of the down, a stand of columbine Aquilegia vulgaris stands tall, transfixing in deepest blue.

Park Gate 6

The day flying insects are abundant and species rich, including clegs that are having a silent, stealthy nip. A brown argus Aricia agestis maintains its territory from the top of meadow oat-grass Avenula pratensis. A picture wing fly, possibly Melieria crassipennis, on ox-eye daisy. A digger wasp Argogorytes mystaceus rummages the undergrowth perhaps looking for froghopper spittle which it raids to stock its nest.

Park Gate is also famous for its late spider Ophrys fuciflora and musk orchids Herminium monorchis. Perhaps this is not a good year; they apparently come and go, but we could easily have overlooked them. We do spot the obvious, a huge blousy butterfly orchid Platanthera chlorantha standing proud of the shorter-grazed grassland at the far end and walk right past a small colony of fly orchids Ophrys insectifera. A kind lady, local but with a lilting antipodean accent, puts us right and then cannot resist telling of a site for late spiders near the Channel Tunnel and lizard orchids Himantoglosssum hircinum in a quiet churchyard.

There are 14 species of orchids here, so the books say; we find seven, including ubiquitous common twayblade Neottia ovata, and small patches of early purple orchid Orchis macula now well past their best.

The downs above the Channel Tunnel entrance complex with Folkestone beyond are steep and we follow the directions to the late spiders on the small bank below the narrow road. The grass around the spiders is flattened by string of prostrate photographers and we add our own indelicate marks. Here emerging pyramidal Anacamptis pyramidalis and old, man orchids Orchis anthropophora add to the floor show.

Park Gate 17
The downs at Folkestone overlooking the concrete and rail that forms the Channel Tunnel complex.

In the grey light of the late afternoon, we hunt the village with the church with the lizards; eventually we find an old brick church next to fine houses and their well-tended gardens. The lizard orchids are carefully marked and unmown in the surrounding lawn. Most are still in bud but the one against the south-facing wall is in its medusa-like prime. A single bee orchid Ophrys apifera strikes a note of purple discord.

A dozen species of fine Kentish orchids on a warm, grey day in June.

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