The North Downs in Kent are sandwiched by the M20 and M2 motorways; the wilderness muted by the constant roar of traffic and ancient grasslands nearly neutered by post-War agriculture. The nature reserve of Queendown Warren is one of the best remnants to have escaped the plough; it lies on south facing slopes within earshot of the M2 but lost in a maze of minor roads and dry valleys near Detling Hill and the Kent county showground.
Like many chalk grasslands it is unprepossessing; no swathe of purple heather or carpet of bluebells, just an unkempt grassland in need of a good trim. However, closer inspection reveals a rich and rare flora; it is famous for its diversity of orchids both on the downland and in the adjacent, ancient beechwoods. In the 13th century, it was the queen’s warren; Eleanor of Provence, consort of Henry III, owned the land where imported and much-prized rabbits were tended within enclosures by warreners for their meat. Today, the rabbits maintain the sward without assistance and exclosure experiments on the reserve seek to manage their impacts by keeping them out. Plus ça change…
In late August and early September, most flowers are over but there are a few late arrivals, most notably autumn gentian and a single autumn lady’s tresses, that stick out of the close-cropped sward. The gentian flowers are an attractive, washed-out purple, although a minority are plain white. Autumn lady’s tresses is an understated, delicate spiral of small white flowers, hence the scientific name Spiranthes spirals. Both are dryland species, emerging at the time of autumn rains.
There is also red bartsia, patches of butterfly-filled marjoram, a little basil and thyme, eyebright, squinancywort, harebell, rock rose, and yellow-wort. Most downland flowers are small in size and appear to be designed to survive long summers on the bone dry, free draining, chalk soils. Carline thistle looks dead and over but the autumn brown flowers are in their prime.
Adonis blue females are busy laying eggs on tiny sprigs of horseshoe vetch, ignoring the fast flying males that patrol the down slope. Chalkhill blues, brown argus and meadow browns are also common but all look increasingly tatty as the summer ends.