Monday, July 11, 2011

Step back in time

One morning in early August, 1854, Mr Edwin Lees set out to explore the countryside around Alfrick, an area about 7 miles west of Worcester. He was joined by members of the Malvern Club for this, a late summer field meeting. The talk was of local history, geology, and most importantly botany; he noted the plants he encountered along the way.

Edwin Lees (1800-87) was a bookseller and printer in Worcester, and an amateur botanist and geologist of local repute. He published a number of books on botany, geology and natural history, his aim being to increase people's awareness of plants and en
hance their enjoyment of the countryside. He was apparently an expert on Rubus (brambles) (Steele, 1847), a family which still taxes taxonomists to this day, and he was instrumental in setting up the Worcester Natural History Society (now Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club). Here he is with a bunch of flowers (remember Victorian botanists used to gather specimens for their collections).
Edwin Lees: This portrait is missing. This picture was reproduced 
in the 81st edition of the Worcester Archeaological Society newsletter here
requesting any information on the portrait's current whereabouts
I trust I have not infringed their copyright: No offence was meant. 

Lees recounts his Alfrick field-trip in 'Pictures of Nature' (Lees, 1856, Excursion IX pps 191-214); a book about local natural history tours in Worcestershire.  
I could not resist following in his footsteps. Are any of the notable species he found in 1854, still there 150 odd years later?

First off, I must admit, we drove to Alfrick Pound and walked a shorter circular route from there. I plotted Lees' approximate route on the OS map (Sheet 204: Worcester & Droitwich Spa) and we drove as close to his route as we could.

Lees went via Leigh. So did we. We visited Leigh Court Barn 'the largest crook structure in Britain' (linkie to English Heritage site).
The barn was built in 1344 and is magnificent. It houses an old cider press and an 18th century horse-driven apple-crusher.
There was no-one else there, except for this handsome cockerel and his chickens, in the yard.
Leigh church, next door, has a lovely wooden porch.
I couldn't find any Bithynian vetch (Vicia bithynica) under the local hedges as Lees did.

At Hopton I was cock-a-hoop to find a patch of white herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), by a little bridge. Lees saw these lovely flowers nearby in the woods at Storridge (and we found them there too!).

This is not just a washed-out pink flower but pure white; there is no red colouration in the flower or the foliage. Stunning.
White herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)
At Hopton a kingfisher whizzed under the bridge and a hare gave me a few seconds to take a shot before galloping off out of sight.
I did a very quick search for burnt orchid (Neotinea ustulata) noted by Lees in the meadows by the stream, but I couldn't find any.

One plant, which Lees wouldn't have seen in such abundance in the wild, but now rampant in riparian habitats, is Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera).

Himalayan balsam was introduced to the UK in 1839, it escaped into the wild and is now classed as an invasive alien. It dogged our footsteps all day.

We parked at Alfrick Pound, where Lees was due to meet friends from Malvern in the Inn (They'd actually gotten lost on the way there, so he set off for his woodland walk without them, and didn't meet up with them till the evening. No mobile phones in those days).

Lees found Deptford pinks (Dianthus armeria) by the Inn (which must be a house today). The pinks are long gone. Sigh. He also noted common calamint (Clinopodium ascendens) and soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) in the area. I found some soapwort in leaf in the hedgerow and a few plants of calamint, in flower, in a field entrance just below the village.
Common calamint (Clinopodium ascendens) showing the long, hairy, upward-pointing lower calyx teeth.
We found lots of wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare) in the hedgerows near the village too.
Just about keeping pace with our botanical predecessor, we walked through Storridge Woods (including Knapp and Papermill nature reserve); Lees describes walking through these woods next to the Leigh Brook.

At one point he crosses the brook, via a 'rustic bridge, with lofty white poplars'. I believe this is the bridge (called Pivany Bridge); still flanked by lofty poplars!

Pivany 'rustic bridge' over Leigh Brook (Knapp & Papermill nature reserve)
Some lofty white poplars by the bridge.
Along the brook, in the woods, was the handsome and not at all small, small teasel (Dipsacus pilosus). Lees calls this plant tall shepherd's staff, an altogether more appropriate name for such an impressive plant, which in some cases was well over 1.5m tall!
Small teasel standing tall in a woodland clearing by the Leigh Brook
Small teasel flower, yet to open 
The Wildlife Trust had just cut Big Meadow for hay, but the steeper edges, which were left, were a riot of purple hardheads and St Johns' wort. 
The St John's wort, in this case is, I believe, imperforate St John's wort (Hypericum maculatum, which Lees calls Hypericum dubium). The flower petals are noticeably blotched.
We found some larvae we'd never seen before, chomping voraciously through some Solomon's seal (Polygonatum xhybridum)(growing by a path in the wood, near a cottage). Googling 'Solomon's seal larvae' when we got home, came up with Solomon's seal sawfly larvae (Phimatocera aterrima)! You learn something new every day! 
It was a lovely walk, and I will retrace more of Mr Lees' local natural history excursions next time I am in Worcestershire.

Here's the map of Knapp & Papermill nature reserve (from the Wildlife Trust leaflet and here online).

Lees, Edwin (1856) Pictures of nature in the Silurian region around the Malvern Hills and Vale of Severn. On Google books.
Steele, William Edward (1847) A handbook of field botany
. (Lees is referred to on page x) On Google books.
Pivany Bridge was damaged in a flood in 2008. Lees also describes a disastrous flood in the same area in 1852.

More information about Edwin Lees?
I couldn't find out much about Edwin Lees online (there is no Wikipedia page in English (I must remedy that), but there is a short page here on the French Wikipedia site). The Grauniadwith one of their too common spelling errors, spells his name Less.  
Edwin Lees lived in Cedar Terrace, Henwick, Worcester. The road doesn't seem to exist any more and I guess the area has been redeveloped. 
His other books include:
The Botanical Looker-out (1842). On as text file here.
Botany of Worcestershire (1867). On Google books.
Botany of the Malvern Hills (1868). On Google books.


  1. What a fantastic idea for a post! I love the mixture of nature and architecture in your pictures, and there's such a great sense of history here. This was a fun read, thanks! :)

  2. Hi Mel,

    I saw your lines (11 july,2011) about a 'white' Herb Robert, but I think it is a Little Robin, Geranium purpureum. I was just wandering this morning in my own neighbourhood, the eastern dockyards of Amsterdam, when I recognized a remarkeble nice little total white geranium species.
    It can be compared to the Herb Robert by looking to the colour of the pollen. If the pollen is orange, you have the Herb Robert but if the pollen is orange it is a Little Robin.
    With a sheared enthousiasm for plants,
    Arend Wakker - Amsterdam Holland

  3. Hi Arend Wakker :-) Fellow plant hunter
    Cheers for tip. I probably won't get back to that spot to check the pollen. And I didn't key out with the BSBI plant crib.
    The flowers looked (eye-balled only) identical to pink flowered plants, so I went with albino G.robertianum.
    Hope the weather is better for you across the Channel than it is here today. Drizzly greyness all day. Mel (Walmer, Kent)

    1. Hi Mel,
      Reading mine own reaction, I saw that I made an error. The orange pollen is the G. robertianum while the yellow pollen, as on your picture, points to G. purpureum.
      The weather is just a little better here.
      It is always a great adventure to take an old book with an botanical route and compare that to the present nature. I wonder what the old man Lees would say.

      g from Amsterdsam