A Wet Week in the Lakes

You definitely have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth when you holiday in the Lake District. Perhaps the wet and windy times only serve to make those magical good days all the more precious, but that’s something that is difficult to keep in mind when you are subjected to day after day of rain.

A walk in the Duddon Valley

We certainly had a lot of tempestuous weather last week when we returned to Sunny Bank Chapel on the western shore of Coniston Water. Instead of the walking and canoeing that we had planned, we visited historic houses and museums instead – and there are thankfully quite a few of these in the Lake District. It was still an interesting and enjoyable holiday – just not the one that we had anticipated.

Sunny Bank Chapel was our home for the week. Situated on the quiet western shores of Coniston Water, it has its own land stretching down to the lake.
The chapel’s baptismal pool had much more water in it than it did last year

The week’s weather was so awful that we only managed two proper walks. The first was in the remote Duddon Valley which took us past the romantic ruins of Frith Hall:

Frith Hall was built as a hunting lodge in the early 17th century. Later, it became an inn used by travellers on the pack horse trail to Millom and was somewhere that runaway couples came to in order to get married – in 1730 seventeen marriages were recorded there
Frith Hall ruins and the more modern barn built behind it, set in its Duddon Valley landscape
The River Duddon at Ulpha
We saw a lot of small coppers on this walk

Our second proper walk took us up into the beautiful mountains behind Coniston:

Autumnal colours everywhere
The gigantic pudding stone in front of the Old Man of Coniston
Our lunch stop at Levers Water

As we climbed, we noticed several sizeable areas on the flanks of the mountain where many sticks had been planted into the ground. More sticks were being taken down by quad bike to a group of people at work:

Stacks of thousands of sticks were still awaiting placement:

The quad bike driver told us that each stick marks where a tree is to be planted this autumn. In a few years time this part of the mountain should look very different – and with a much enhanced biodiversity and water-retaining capability as a result.

The Coniston mountains bear the scars of hundreds of years of copper mining, although all this industry ceased in the early 20th century.

This discarded rock scattered around a mine entrance was incredibly dense and heavy. We were tired after just getting ourselves up to this point and it is difficult to imagine how the miners in the 19th century did that and then spent a full day toiling down the mines
Looking down into Coppermine Valley
This building was built in 1830 in Coppermine Valley as the mine manager’s house. It was then acquired by the YHA in 1931 and became a youth hostel. I stayed there once myself as a teenager in the 70s. Although it still remains a YHA building, it is now only available to hire for exclusive use

One day we were able to make the most of a dry weather window and visit Humphrey Head, a limestone finger of land that sticks out into Morecambe Bay and is famed for its rare calcareous-loving plant life.

The information board at the entrance to Humphrey Head

It is said that this is where the last wolf in England was killed in 1390. The wolf came down from the Coniston fells just to the north where it had been killing the sheep, and attacked a child in nearby Cark. The country folk chased it to the very end of Humphrey Head where it was killed with pikes as it hid amongst the rocks. I have such a clear picture of this whole event in my head that I feel emotional about it even though it was seven hundred years ago.

The tip of Humphrey Head where it is said that the last wolf in England was killed in 1390
Limestone is a very obvious feature of Humphrey Head
We think it is very windy at home, but our trees don’t look like this
There were a few migrating wheatears there

It wasn’t the right time of year to see the rare plants for which Humphrey Head is famed in botanical circles. We did, however, see this plant that we had never seen before:

The amazing dropwort, a plant of dry limestone pasture
The dropwort in its context amongst the anthills

It was not until our last morning that it was dry and calm enough to go out on a canoe adventure:

Going down to the canoe through Sunny Bank’s fields

We were a bit shocked to see that the lake was about a metre higher than it had been when we arrived at the beginning of the week. How much rain had fallen to raise the level of such a large lake by a metre?

The bench is now in the water

We had a very enjoyable paddle to Peel Island, over towards the far side of the lake.

Hauled out on Peel Island

On the way back there was a beautiful rainbow over the Coniston mountains…

…and it had begun to rain once more as we returned to the Sunny Bank boat house:

Returning to the chapel for coffee and some dry clothes

On a day that was forecast to have heavy rain throughout, we visited Levens Hall. This is an Elizabethan house built around a 13th Century Pele Tower, but what interested me was that it has the oldest topiary gardens in the world dating back to the 1690s.

The topiary gardens at Levens Hall. The first recorded ha-ha in Britain is also here

On another day we had a walk around the gardens and estate of Sizergh Castle, now owned by the National Trust.

I love a vegetable garden:

The National Collections of four different types of fern are held at Sizergh:

The ferns were a dominant feature in the gardens:

I had no idea that there were so many different varieties of hart’s tongue fern:

As we walked around the estate, we saw this ram with a harness strapped to him that holds a coloured crayon. The ewes will be marked by the crayon as he mates with them so that the farmer knows which ones are yet to be done:

I see that it was Marrow Day yesterday at Underbarrow Village near Sizergh. I hope everyone enjoyed themselves and that it stayed dry:

It’s heart-warming to see that Cumbria Wildlife Trust is valuing the potential of churchyards with its Wildlife in Sacred Places project:

In the lobby of the Sizergh estate church

To fill another poor weather day we visited Townend in Troutbeck. This farm was owned by the Browne family for four hundred years before it passed to the National Trust in 1948.

We came across several of these traditional bank barns in the Lake District. Built on a slope, a ramp leads up to the first floor on one side. On the other side of the barn, where the land is lower, animals have access into the ground floor.

The Townend bank barn showing its ramp up to the first floor

Townend was incredibly atmospheric, especially on such a dark, wet day. The smell of woodsmoke and the lighting kept low as if the house were still candlelit helped the imagination conjure up how life must have been.

All the furniture at Townend is as it was when the Trust acquired the house. This is the quirky kitchen. The glass vase was filled with water to magnify the light of a candle when doing detailed work such as embroidery

One evening we had hired the badger-watching hide at RSPB Naddle Farm at Haweswater and we decided to get ourselves over the Kirkstone Pass and spend the day in the Penrith area, within easy reach of Haweswater for our scheduled 7pm arrival at the hide.

There had been a tremendous storm the day before and water was dramatically tumbling off the mountains:

Water gushing into Ullswater at Glenridding

We stopped at Brougham Castle, a 13th century castle built by the English to guard the old border with Scotland and now owned by English Heritage.

The River Eamont was in spate after the storm
The keep at Brougham (pronounced Broom) Castle.

We also visited the impressive Mayburgh Henge but I’m afraid my photos just don’t do it justice. It is like an amphitheatre with a diameter of a hundred metres and with walls up to five metres high, built from millions of boulders from the nearby river. Thought to be about 4,500 years old, its significance to prehistoric people is not properly understood but, even today when it is slap bang next to the M6 motorway, it has a very special feel to it.

There used to be four standing stones in the centre but now there is just one
Using the dramatic filter on my camera seems to help with archaeological sites

Long Meg and her daughters is another prehistoric wonder near Penrith and is the third widest stone circle in England with a diameter of 100 metres. Long Meg herself stands outside the circle and is made of local red sandstone whereas her daughters are granitic.

It is thought that there would originally have been 70 daughters, although there are now 59, only 27 of which are still standing
Long Meg standing to one side, watching over her daughters

We had spent a very entertaining day exploring historic wonders around Penrith but we got a call from the RSPB telling us that access to the badger-watching hide was impossible after the storm of the night before. This was disappointing but we will try again and hope that for our next Lake District holiday we are a bit luckier with the weather.

Another earlier post about the Lake District – in a much drier September:

Meadows Amongst The Trees

A few weeks ago we walked around our wood with Dan Tuson, Conservation Advisor for Natural England in East Kent. He works with farmers to restore biodiversity to their land and is now meeting up with wood owners as well to advise on woodland management that can enhance that work. We have also recently attended an interesting ‘Pollinators in Woodland’ zoom talk given by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

The result of both of these is that we are now starting to establish some mini flower meadows in clearings within our wood.

We do already have one of these clearings. In the regenerating section of the wood there is a large glade where marjoram grows densely and which is filled with butterflies, bees, flies and bugs each summer.

Peacocks were particulary abundant in the marjoram glade this year. Their larval food plant is the nettle and these grow lavishly in another area of the wood where pheasants were once fed and phosphate levels are high
But the headline act of the marjoram glade is the silver-washed fritillary, a large woodland butterfly that glides in and takes your breath away

Now into September, the marjoram flowers are going over. Once the seed fully ripens and goes black, we will be harvesting it to spread onto the ground in other areas of the wood.

Marjoram now setting seed

Last winter we cleared this area below, which is quite close to the marjoram glade:

Breaking up the surface of the soil with a rake prior to seeding

The sun is now hitting the woodland floor there but the understorey is yet to develop, so we raked the soil surface and scattered an Emorsgate native wild flower seed mix:

Emorsgate ‘Wild Flowers for Woodland’ contains the seeds of thirteen different woodland plant species

There is a third area that was coppiced two years ago and the undergrowth has now started to grow back. But some patches do still remain clear and we scattered foxglove and kidney vetch seed in these unvegetated sections:

The idea is to create insect-rich pockets within the trees, each an oasis for pollinators and boosting the biodiversity of the wood.

The easiest way to get a glade of sufficient size so that the sun hits the floor and flowers can grow is to widen an existing ride, thus incorporating the space that is already cleared. There are several such tracks winding through the wood that we could use. This is the track that leads down to where we park the car

We are going to be working on some more coppicing this winter and will then again sow flower seed in the newly opened-up areas. I am really interested to see what this will all look like next year.

The wood definitely has an end-of-season air about it now. It was exciting to see a weasel on the cameras this week:

The long body of a weasel approaching the pond
Buzzard having a drink
Squirrel with a hazelnut in its mouth
A beautiful tawny owl with its large black eyes
Juvenile bullfinch are still being seen around the wood

Across in the meadows, the bird ringers have once more put their nets up high in an attempt to catch linnets:

The mist nets up high for linnets. Thankfully the dog has never yet been caught in the nets

One of the ringers had caught a grasshopper warbler in the area a few days previously and so a grasshopper warbler net was also set up – a low one mostly hidden amongst the high grasses and with the distinctive song of the grasshopper warbler playing at one end. These birds sound very much like grasshoppers.

The low grasshopper warbler net

No linnet or grasshopper warbler was caught that morning, but they did get a large number of house sparrows. Sparrows are usually very good at avoiding the nets and they have never caught such numbers of them before:

A flock of sparrows is once more visiting the seed on the strip

Most of the sparrows were young birds and I was given a tutorial on post-juvenile feather moult. The moulting of the wing feathers begins at the point where the primaries meet the secondaries and works out from there in both directions. This bird below had five smart new primary wing feathers but the secondaries were still the old ones:

A lot of the sparrows had ticks on their heads:

John’s hand is showing the telltale sign that these birds have been eating blackberries

I did some research on bird ticks and discovered that they are most likely to be engorged nymphs of the castor bean tick (Ixodes ricinus).

The two ticks on the left are the larvae of the caster bean tick (the lower one is engorged with a blood feed). The next two are the nymphs and the three on the right are the adults (male, female and engorged). The adult ticks are almost never found on birds but feed on larger mammals. Photo from Wiki Commons.

This is most probably a house sparrow in the beak of the magpie:

Most evenings we have been hearing tawny owls calling from a pine tree close to the house soon after dark – both a male and a female. They have also been appearing on this perch:

One night an owl sat on the perch for an hour and a half and did a lot of personal grooming:

Sparrowhawks are often being seen on the same perch:

A sparrowhawk choirboy

I have cropped these next two photographs by exactly the same amount to give a true sense of the difference in scale. One morning a sparrowhawk was sitting on the perch:

But thirty seconds later it had been replaced by a much, much bigger bird:

We have seen buzzards flying above the meadows before but never before has one appeared on the trail cameras. I have put the two photos next to each other to compare the size:

Slide the line left and right to compare the sizes!

There has been a marked increase in rabbit numbers here this year and I wonder if this has attracted the buzzard’s interest:

Our front lawn is once more covered in autumn ladies tresses, small and delicate orchids with tiny white flowers spiralling up the stem:

The builders have instructions not to tread on the lawn! They have been making progress on our new garage and utility room and the ‘shoulders down’ team have now returned to begin work on the landscaping around the new structures:

The ‘shoulders down’ team at work

Back in February they built us a butterfly bank using the chalky soil dug out for the foundations of the new garage:

The butterfly bank in July

This week they have built us two more banks using more excess chalky soil as they start to clear up their builders compound prior to the completion of the project:

Another chalky butterfly bank under construction

One of the new banks has broken roof tiles, another by-product of the build, as a core. The hope is that reptiles will burrow into the bank and hibernate amongst the crevices of the tiles:

The tiles that are about to be buried by soil
The other new bank, with the original bank in the background

Both of these new banks will be liberally spread with both native annual and perennial flower seed this autumn and should look fabulous next year as well as being a great asset for pollinators – we did spot the rare black mining bee visiting flowers on the original bank this summer. The curved slopes of the banks will also present a wide range of different aspects to the sun and will hopefully be used by a variety of invertebrates and other animals to dig burrows to nest and hibernate.

We have had visitors this week and we all went canoeing on the River Stour between Fordwich and Grove Ferry – a stretch of water where 140 beaver are now thought to live:

A Canoe Wild map at the launch point at Fordwich. Can there really now be so many beavers living in this five mile section of river?

It is a beautiful and tranquil stretch of river, teeming with fish.

We didn’t see any beaver out during the day but we did see lots of signs of their activity.

A trip on the Stour is an absolute must should you ever find yourself in East Kent.