Box Hill is 30 degrees in the midday sun and lean cyclists in colourful jerseys pedal hard up the narrow road that zig-zags through steep slopes of chalk grassland with patches of dogwood, whitebeam and bramble topped by woodland dominated by beech, ash and hanging yew. The landscape tells a complex story of clearance, abandonment and use since the Bronze Age. The views are of the wooded Ranmore Common on the hills to the west and the Low Weald disappearing in the haze to the south.
The slopes above zig-zag hill are the finest of chalk grasslands and, in mid July, lit by deep blue, clustered bellflowers amongst a sward rich in other flowers such as lady’s bedstraw, squinancywort and eyebright. The more extravagant the name, the more diminutive the species.
A single snowy inkcap Coprinopsis nivea is emerging from the turf next to a patch of tall and yellow, wild parsnip. A female dark-green fritillary is harried by a furious, flying male that previously maintained a constant patrol low over the grassland. The female drops deep in the tall sward to escape attention; others take nectar on the abundant cat’s ear. Silver-spotted skippers flit low across the slopes; one walks through the tangle of shorter vegetation on to a stemless thistle flower to nectar. The day-flying moths are abundant but difficult to follow; just one, Pyrausta nigrata, stops for a few seconds in plain sight.
There is so much to discover here but the sun is relentless, the downs are baked and the insects a blur in the bright light. Beneath the huge yews on the top of the hill is a cool and silent sanctuary; an ancient cathedral with smooth, twisted pillars and a dark floor of fallen needles.