In January 2015, the stone church and old manor that make up most of Luddesdown were surrounded by winter cereals and short-grazed pastures. Today, the hamlet appears to have been transported to southern France being enveloped by a freshly planted, organic vineyard. The last time that vines were grown in such quantity was probably during the Roman occupation in the first century, after which the climate cooled and the Dark Ages descended.
In early April, the new vines are dwarfed by grey metal stakes and an early growth of arable weeds leaving the bare chalk soil as bright white, flinty stripes across the slopes. A month later and the charlock drowns the fields a bright yellow. The view to the village of Cobham on the top of the hill to the north is across vineyards, fields and woodlands; only the pylons kill the beautiful pastoral landscape as only pylons can.
The woodlands above the slopes are ancient hornbeam, beech, ash and oak, with coppiced hazel and sweet chestnut. Scot’s pines and firs have been planted in some compartments and today stand tall. The ash trees appear to be dying back providing a rich time for woodpeckers and nuthatches. The rides are surrounded by dense bramble but a few rare plants survive on the edges, including half a handful of white helleborines that will be flowering in May along with the more abundant bluebells, woodruff and sanicle.
The early butterflies are nearly all widespread species including orange tips, brimstones and ‘cabbage whites’, the exception in southern England is the Duke of Burgundy fritillary and the nearest colony is near Canterbury. Peacocks and small tortoiseshells are also out and both common this year. The hedge garlic and lady’s smock are the host plant of orange tips. Brimstones feed on anything full of nectar and lay on alder buckthorn. The whites lay on brassicas and hence why many gardeners net their young broccoli, swede and cabbage plants. Now there is a job to do.
Red kites are renowned nest predators especially of rooks and crows. In mid April, most carrion crows pairs have a nest on the go, probably with with four blue speckled eggs in a stick nest lined with wool, and if a kite approaches then the male will climb vertically out of the woods to harry and chase the bird away. When a red kite decides not to move on but to carry on circling lazily, low over the fields, then the level of aggression will build and the interaction develop into an angry dogfight. On a sunny evening on the North Downs, this carrion crow was all claws and contorted wings as it twisted and turned to attack and evade the long yellow talons of the inquisitive and persistent intruder. The aggression eventually worked and the kite ambled away. This was likely to have been a single bird as it is going into primary moult early with a distinctive notched wing; breeding birds tend to hang on to their flight feathers until later in the season.
Spring in the ancient oak, ash, beech and hornbeam woodlands of the North Downs is announced by wood anemones, sweet violets and celandine but quickly followed by a flurry of others. Moschatel, colloquially known as townhall clock or five-faced bishop is a diminutive and uncommon plant found in small colonies amongst the much showier swathes of bluebells and spikes of yellow archangel. A small number of toothwort are emerging in an old hazel coppice; these are parasitic plants, lack chlorophyll and look sickly and dangerous. The ancient woodlands are at their best in early Spring just as the fresh green leaves appear on the trees; and none hereabouts is complete without an abandoned, burnt out car.
An old ash tree probably suffering from ash dieback, has three woodpecker holes in its dying wood. The middle hole is occupied by a pair of great tits that carry in beakfuls of moss. The other two holes are being inspected by a pair of nuthatches but also, from time to time, a pair of green woodpeckers. There is more than a hint of competition but, whilst the nuthatches seem unflustered by the watcher on the steep bank of bluebells opposite the upper hole, the woodpeckers are clearly put off; so the story is not straightforward to tell.
The male, well I presume the male, nuthatch is very active and vocal and on one occasion carries a huge dead stick, but for what purpose is not clear as it is not ideal nest material. Maybe he is simply showing off?
The male nuthatch appears on and around the tree with the three holes with great regularity in the early morning and calls persistently. Some of the louder calls involves throwing his head back and, as described a century ago, serenading the sky.
After which, both holes are inspected by one and sometimes both the pair. This involves peering in, entering and then checking the entrance. Sometimes the male tries the top hole then scuttles down and does the same to the bottom hole. The top hole is much bigger and possibly preferred but the choice is not yet fixed. On one occasion, the woodpecker chases the nuthatch from the upper hole during the briefest of flypasts, resulting in a bout of frenetic nuthatch calling. The woodpeckers are shy and only visit briefly, staying high in the trees or hiding on the far side of the tree trunk; their presence always causes the nuthatches to start calling.
The male nuthatch works the branches around the nest tree and quickly finds grubs under bark and from beech buds and proffers them after a brief and dizzying chase around a branch to the female.
A day later and on a bright evening of quiet calm the nest holes are deserted. Will the nuthatches succeed or will the woodpeckers, or will neither and the great tits be left in peace?
Late March is cold and grey with fleeting sunshine; the woods are still winter dead and the promise of spring seems a distant dream. There always seems to be a cold snap when the blackthorn flowers and lights up the hedges.
The early spring flowers appear foolhardy in the chill easterlies that keep the land cold; added to which the clear skies bring ground frosts. Even so the daffodils are fading by the end of March. Then the wind changes; the high pressure that ran the cold from the north and east now brings sunshine and summer warmth from the south to lift early April. Spring weather turns on a sixpence.
The hornbeam woodland on the North Downs is still livened by spring song; the elusive mistle thrush from the tree tops, blue tits and great tits chiding every passer by; and the songs of wrens, robins and blackbirds fill the air. A tawny owl calls and then again in the day time. The hoot comes from the neighbouring yew woodland that survives on the shallow soils of a sleep valley side. There are couple of old crow nests where the owls may have be nesting; the clutch of white eggs is usually laid in March. The badgers are active here too, with well-worn paths along the field edge and under the dark green trees down the brown, bare floor to a sett below. Small latrines are hollowed next to paths then neatly filled with fresh dung.
The view from here is the toothy grin of the grey distant City to the west. The hornbeam woodland is beginning to leaf as the early violets fade. The wood anemones and celandine are in their prime and bluebells more common but not yet a regal carpet. The bramble is starting its long march across the woodland floor and soon will shade the woodland flowers but only as the brief, bright spring is itself lost to the long summer shadows.
In this April warmth, the early butterflies are on the wing; peacocks, brimstones, small tortoiseshells and commas are all found on the sunny, south facing edges of the woods, sunbathing and chasing a mate. Spring is always a headlong rush.
The hornbeam woodlands on the North Downs are at their best; carpeted with a white blanket of wood anemones. A perfect example locally is on the rolling hills above Eynsford. The anemones are a near monoculture but the dark green bluebell leaves are emerging and the swathe of deep blue flowers will take over in a few weeks. One or two bluebells are out now, remarkable for a species that normally appears in May. There are also occasional patches of wood sorrel, wood spurge, wild strawberry and primrose.
On a cool evening sheltered from the bitter east wind that brings endless sunshine, a mistle thrush sings its plaintive song from the tree tops and a territorial male buzzard shrieks angrily at any passer-by. The small birds of the hornbeam coppice are thin on the ground having been virtually non existent through winter; a drumming great spotted woodpecker, pairs of noisy great tits and singing male chaffinch.
Down the road in Mereworth woods, the sandy soil supports a similar flora with wood anemones, wood spurge, sweet violets, primroses and bluebells. The coppice management is still in full swing with large coupes of sweet chestnut and small stands of old oaks not escaping the treatment.
Heather Angel is one of the great wildlife photographers with a wonderful portfolio of images; she is a constant traveller, especially to China and the mountains of Sichuan, as well as a prolific nature writer.
I had a day (thanks to a brilliant birthday present) with Heather learning how to photograph plants close up, both outside and in the studio; in so doing, I learned a lot about plants and their insect pollinators (a current project) and also how to better use the controls on my camera.
On a mad March day, we dodge the downpours and enjoy the clear bright sunshine when long gaps in the cloud appear. The garden is full of flowers from across the temperate world and bulbs and other early flowering species are out, braving the wet, cold Spring.
The first lesson was how reflected light (the foiled backing card from a packet of smoked salmon works very well), evens up the tones on brightly coloured flowers in sharp sunlight.
I am shown how the grape hyacinth signals to insects by displaying the white rim on the flowers where nectar is present; the others are either coming out or going over.
Indoors, and plants are put in a light tent or against a pale blue polypropylene sheet backdrop (from a local art shop); and black velvet is used to set off a flower to create a strikingly lit image. The last set up is a dead leaf on a light box. Each shot requires the tripod to be positioned, the lighting is added and experimented with and the camera settings adjusted. We worked out how to focus stack on my camera and Heather showed me the kit to do it properly. Sometimes a plamp is used to hold a flower in place or to hold foliage back. The studio is filled with tripods, lights – some flexible and one extendable like a telescope, light tent, clamps, plamps and every type of florist’s flower holder. Plants in a multitude of pots come and go or selected flowers are picked and clamped.
Even a New Zealand Pāua shell (often used in jewellery) gets the light tent treatment.
It is intense but endlessly instructive and the day passes in a blink. I’m not saying that the final results are world beating; but the day helped develop the tools to one day perhaps enable the capture of a truly great image; and it was simply, great fun to learn from a generous professional who effortlessly combines brilliant technique with creative flair.
Fackenden Down is spring cleaned; a herd of red Dexter cattle has been in over winter. This native breed from south west Ireland is often used to manage chalk grasslands, especially to clear invading tor grass. Being small with short legs that give a comical appearance, they tend not to poach the turf. Scrub that constantly spreads into the grassland has also been cleared and burnt by volunteer work parties.
On a bright March evening after weeks of rain, the downland slope is quiet apart from a pair of buzzards that perch in the boundary trees at the top of the ridge; the pair stay close together, mew noisily, fly and settle again. They must have a nest nearby, perhaps in one of the great oaks that edge the pastures below, that they will now be rebuilding.
The neat circles of burnt ash tell of warming bonfires of great piles of brash. Around them today, primroses flower and dog’s mercury edges the shade.
The evening light is clear and golden; the low sun lights up the flooded water meadows in the Darenth valley and quickly drops over the hills as the moon rises.