Richard Hollingum takes us on and English country safari in Northamptonshire
Readers of a certain age may recall – or not, if of that age – the primary school nature walk. Lining up in pairs and walking in crocodile formation to the local park to look at nature. Birds were watched for, insects were shied away from, flowers were sniffed and someone always tried to push Michael Brown into the bushes or the pond. I suspect that if such excursions take place today they are preceded by a risk analysis, form filling and the agreement of the parents seven days in advance.
However there is nothing stopping families indulging in a little ramble amongst nature at the weekend or during the holidays. The local park can still offer plenty to look at but in Northamptonshire you are never very far from the countryside so there is really no excuse not to get out in the fresh air and see what is around us.
Once we are out, then what? How many go out for a walk yet are still inside their house or office in their head? And who is still listening to their iPod and texting on their phone? Put it all away and start to pay attention to what is around us.
The distance is not an issue as we are going to take our time. We are going to walk as slowly as we want and we are going to look at the large and the small. Let us stand still in an open spot and see how far we can see to the left and to the right without moving our eyes. What are we aware of in the periphery of our vision? As we turn around we can see how different the view is from another perspective. Look at the clouds; what are they doing? Moving quickly or slowly? Which direction? How many colours in the sky? It is not just blue. Look for the different blues. Look for where it changes to pink or cream or grey – or any other colour.
Most of us, in the normal way of walking, look ahead and look down at our feet. We want to get on, want to make sure that our footing is secure and that we don’t step in anything. But, on our nature walk, we are walking slowly and the short steps will make it safe enough to look around. We can even stop! What ever we do, look to the left, look to the right, look up and look down.
Let’s take a walk through this field. We have walked down an old lane that is now little more than a track and the entry to the field is at the bottom, by a bridge. The track continues across the bridge but we shall turn right, following the path that runs along the edge of the field and climbs gently to a small plantation of trees ahead. The crop is nearly ready for harvesting, the heads of barley bowing towards the earth, their lengthy awns reaching out like antennae. When the wind blows, the field rustles in a reassuring way, moving en masse in a little dance whilst its feet stay firmly planted in the ground.
We move along the path. Looking up the steep rise of the field to our right, the horizon is quite near and the matt gold of the crop has a gleaming line running along the edge where it joins the sky. The sky today is blue, copper sulphate merging to ink merging to cerulean. The joins are invisible, the transition continuous. When you look again it has all changed. The colours never stay.
On the left is a small brook, now virtually dry. There has not been proper rain for a number of weeks and this brook never runs to much in the summer. The drooping willow branches play in the breeze; flies dance round them on their way to the trunk which attracts them with sugary sap. The flies are the vanguard. Only a wasp or two has appeared but it is very likely that these will be joined by hundreds more very soon.
A few steps on and a verge of nettles stands between us and the brook. Butterflies dance in and out of the greenery. A Speckled Wood settles on an old Hogweed, the pale decaying leaf a good background for the rich deep browns and yellow spots of the wings; there is a dusting of blue on the hair on the abdomen. A tiny moth flits by and lands on a stem of grass, remains long enough for us to have a quick look and then off it flits again to hide its creamy wings in the darker parts of the nettle forest.
A brown and orange butterfly settles nearby and we lean in as near as we dare to see what it is. Just before it flies off we can see that it has a dark dot on either forewing and that these dark dots both contain smaller white dots. In years gone by these were known to many as Hedge Browns. Now they are known as Gatekeepers. Nearby there is Meadow Brown. Some of us need to check the white dots – one for the Meadow Brown, two for the Gatekeeper.
Fifty or so metres up the field, the stream disappears and a hedge sets off to the left at ninety degrees for a few metres before it turns right and runs to the top of the field. This creates a triangular corner which the farmer has left to grow wild flowers and grasses. In the hedgerow some birds hop about but it is difficult to see them. Mostly quiet now the breeding season is over, the tell-tale songs are not heard to help us. One flies up into a tree and when the sun catches it we can see clearly that it is a Yellowhammer. Known for its ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ call it is only his resplendent yellow coat that can identify him today – for it is only the male that shows off to this extent.
The tall grasses and the flowers move in the breeze even more than the crop that has its solid brothers to hold it up. Bees zip between the tall stalks. One lands on a thistle right in front of us. Ignoring its audience, he quickly works his way around the purple crown that sits atop the green spiky seed head. He has two yellow stripes and a white bottom and is probably a male buff-tailed bumblebee. The flowers here are all purple, at least the ones at this height, which are predominantly thistles of various varieties though there are some Greater Knapweed which are being visited by honey bees. As soon as they depart, other bees appear, some with bright orange rear-ends, some with white stripes. And then some come along that pretend to be bees but are in fact highly decorated hoverflies.
This wild flower planting continues as a thick verge up the field in front of the hedge, keeping human scavengers at bay from the rare, early-ripening blackberry. Towards the top of the field there are some tiny Common Blue damselflies trying to make up their minds where to stop. Just as you think they have settled, off they go again to try another place, then another. They look entirely unbelievable, more like a space ship than an insect that has been around for millions of years. Another butterfly flutters in. This time a Small Skipper. It may look like a moth but it is not.
A few more steps and we have reached the top of the field. The path now leads round to the right and runs between the plantation and the crop. No more hedge or stream and not so much light. The trees are a good wind break though, and we turn to look down the field, across the valley towards the village and beyond. On the distant horizon, large white boxes, warehouses and factories, mark the start of the town.
Which way now? Our walk is not over but perhaps you should get out there to finish it? And leave Michael Brown alone!