Friday, August 26, 2011

Reconnaissance at Tempsford Airfield

After interminably gloomy skies and even, shudder, rain on Wednesday, at last the sun shone and summer returned. Late, yes, but most welcome.

A visit to Tempsford airfield was long overdue. This is the place, a landscape, with which I feel the most emotionally connected in Bedfordshire. I cycle down there often, and just sit and read or lay out on the grass by the barn (of which more later).

The road from Everton down to Tempsford is great fun on a bike (picture was taken from GR TL 19978 51242); it's one of those hills you can just scream down. I've got a hybrid mountain bike, dirt cheap when I got it from Halfords about 5 years ago and worth every penny. I sometimes cycle a slightly different route across the bumpy fields from Swaden (below in May the bike got papped at GR TL 18368 49292). 
From Sandy you can reach the airfield via a choice of routes; straight out of town along the bridleway which follows Hassells Hedge (the remnant of a Roman road route that ran from Baldock via Sandy to Godmanchester), or by road by heading up Swaden and along the Everton Road, and cutting down a bridleway from up on the ridge. If you go by car, there's a parking place opposite the drive to Fernbury Farm on the Tempsford Road (at GR TL 19042 51790). From here the paths are easy, concreted farm tracks.
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), is still in flower and a welcome companion throughout the summer, with its candy-striped flowers and needle-like seedpods. It had heaps of old local names, so familar was it to our ancestors; my favourite is granny thread the needle. It's also called stinking Robert: It doesn't exactly smell of roses.
The path, now grassed over, carries on, heading north, alongside the hedge. 
Late summer spear thistles (Cirsium vulgare), taller than me, were shedding their seeds liberally. The tinkling of small flocks of goldfinches overhead indicated I wasn't the only one to notice.
The hardheads of the ancient wound herb black knapweed (Centaurea nigra) (below) are still looking fine. Grigson (1975) says it was also used as a love charm. Girls picked a flower head, pulled off the expanded florets, put it inside their blouse and then checked again in a hour or so to see if the remaining florets had expanded; this being a sign that love will come their way. Under the weight of camera gear and binoculars I fear if I tried that, the bud would just get squished. 
And then you get onto the wider concrete tracks; once the runways. The land is still flat as a pancake and great for cycling. 
In May, just by here, I saw a hare galloping through the fields towards me. It didn't see me at first and just came within long-zoom range, then stopped, clocked me and ran off under a hedge (the photo below was taken in May). Hare yesterday, gone today.
More goldfinch snack-bars were lined up along the field edges.
The sun was deliciously warm but it was breezy. The wind flipped up a coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) leaf revealing its white furry underside. The seedheads (some spent, some closed up) are of 'Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon', meadow salsify (Tragopogon pratensis).
In March I'd photographed the flowers of coltsfoot in the same place; then a cheering sight, a sunny harbinger of spring. Once used herbally for dry coughs (Tussilago means cough soother), we now know it contains pyrrolizidine aklaloids, which can cause liver damage. I'm sticking to honey and lemon. Here are the March sunflowers.
Another gorgeous, but admittedly smelly plant, which grows alongside the old concrete tracks is houndstongue (Cynoglossum officinale). Now dried up, brown and in seed. 
This plant reeks of mouse pee. It's great! Really worth smelling and if you've ever stayed in an old house wherein live those furry little pee machines, then you will instantly know this smell. I think the houndstongue is the spur in the middle of the 4 seed capsules, which are most effective at attaching to one's leggings to hitch a ride. I'm a willing carrier for such a lovely plant. The leaves were worn in shoes in the belief they warded off dog attacks. Hmmm. Dogs have a highly evolved sense of smell so perhaps the stench of mouse pee emanating from someone's feet did give them paws for though?

In May, this same plant looked like this. Lush and furry.

With scrummy veined flowers of a deep red/purple. Sigh! 
Further on, actually past a place I am going to take you back to visit, the track is lined by the lovely dyers greenweed (Genista tinctoria), now almost past, but you can just see some yellow flowers to the right of the path.
Dyers greenweed is a small shrubby relative of broom. The flowers are a rich deep yellow. A lover of heavy soils, it is very much at home on the calcareous clays in Tempsford.
This is an intensively farmed landscape, not without its share of rubble and dumping of waste.
But, although unsightly for me, these piles of spoil are opportunities for plants. The fuzzy red leaves and pink flowers of red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) glow in the sun.
This is the same little dead-nettle that makes it bid for world domination in March by taking over patches in dull winter fields by clothing them in blankets of pinky-purple blooms. Here (below) in March, just nearby, a dazzling splash of colour on a cold winter day.
Weld (Reseda luteola) another dyeing plant (dyers rocket), is never shy of grabbing the limelight with its spires of flowers and seizing a colonisation opportunity. 
It was near here in May that I had my 'best nicromoth ever' moment, spotting the nationally scarce orange conch (Commophila aeneana). With its 'oily' streaks and day-glo orange wings, it has to be the weirdest and most freaky moth I've ever seen.
A slump in the grass to snaffle an apple and slurp a drink, proved serendipitous. Recent Kentish botanical excursions have introduced me to narrow-leaved birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus glaber). Now I seem to see it everywhere :-) 
Here I am in a dry grassy place on heavy soils...and here is lovely NLBFT. Happiness. 
The late summer flowers were blooming gorgeous - and no hayfever for me! Yay! Here teasel, ragwort, wild carrot, agrimony. 
The burred seeds of agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) are an example of natural velcro.
Another long-flowering season plant is wild carrot (Daucus carrota), still in full swing at this time of year. 
Many of its flower-heads have a single deep red flower in the centre. It is called Queen Anne's Lace (although that is what my gran used to call cow parsley), the story runs thus; Queen Anne, wife of James 1st (now I can understand why she took up needlepoint), is said to have pricked her finger with a needle whilst making lace. The deep red flower in the middle of the carrot flower is the drop of blood.
Even the spent flower-heads have a beauty and complexity that takes my breath away. 
I love the teensy but beautiful flowers of knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare).
Rose hips on the dog rose (Rosa canina)...
...and a smooth pea gall on a dog rose leaf (housing a larvae of the mini-wasp Diplolepis nervosa or D. eglanteriae). 
I wandered back down the track. There was no-one about. A lone aeroplane was flying overhead. Flocks of LBJs (Little Brown Jobbies, aka unidentified birds) flitted overhead. The hum of trains on the East Coast line was just discernible. The thrum of the tractor nearby was lulling. The late summer, late afternoon sun was too inviting. I lay back in the stubbly grass and abandoned myself to my inner thoughts.  
A 2nd instalment is to follow...once I've woken up...

I tend to use Grid Reference finder to locate places.
Geoffrey Grigson (1975) The Englishman’s Flora. Paladin


  1. Hope you see more hares, so you can continue your run of puns! "Hare I stand, I can do no other?"

  2. Do hares eat a Diet of Worms?
    I thought a couple of posts about the secret Royal Hare Force base might be interesting.
    I'd better stop hare...

  3. Re Coltsfoot, I once made a gallon of coltsfoot wine (using the flowerheads only), as recommended in a book on home made winemaking, and probably drank at least half of it. I wonder how much alkaloid I consumed and whether it did me amy harm?
    Re Cow Parsley, my grandfather (a londoner with a love of the countryside) called it "Break Your Mother's Heart" rather then "Queen Anne's Lace" and said it was unlucky to pick it. Somebody I worked with said that her mother called it "May" and had described road verges full of Cow Parsley as "Miles of May". There is a curious link here in that my mother calls Hawthorn "May" and would never allow me to bring May blossom into the house; but I don't know whether she inherited this superstition from my grandfather. Must look it up sometime in The Englishmans Flora.
    Re Red Deadnettle, Henbit Deadnettle used to be quite common round here, but I haven't seen it for a while. Do you see it much in Sandy, where you have similar soils?

  4. Hi Martin. Hmmm on the coltsfoot wine! Not something I'd venture to imbibe TBH.
    My gran was a Londoner. Gerard says Londoners called hawthorn May-bush. Not heard of cow-parsley being called 'May' though. I also thought it was unlucky to bring hawthorn indoors.
    Yes, do see henbit DN around here occasionally but not got any pictures :-(