Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pots of cash

Sunday was a fine day. Blustery and changeable. I headed off up the A1 to Hinchingbrooke Country Park, just over the border into Huntingdonshire, to help a friend with the biannual plant sale in aid of the local wildlife trust.
Hinchingbrooke CP is just west of Huntingdon, near to Hinchingbrooke School, formerly an 11th century nunnery, later a manor house owned by the Cromwell family and later still owned by the Earls of Sandwich. Oliver Cromwell and Samuel Pepys were both locals. The country park was part of the estate of Hinchingbrooke House.

Nancy Dawson has been running volunteer plant sales at Hinchingbrooke since 1990 - for 21 years. These amateur plant sales have raised heaps of cash for the wildlife trust to buy land for nature conservation. We set up everything in the morning under rather ominous skies.

The plants are all fantastic value; sold with good advice as to where to plant them and what wildlife they might attract. 
It was incredibly gusty on Sunday, the tail of Hurricane Katia I guess. Plants and chairs got blown over a number of times. They were not the only things to get blown off course over the weekend. The RSPB reported that storm petrels, shearwaters and guillemots have all been blown inland and stranded - even in Birmingham! 
Nancy first opened her own garden to the public in 1976, to raise funds for the wildlife trust. She did this till 2001. The initial impetus was raising cash to buy three key reserves: Waresley Wood, Upwood Meadow and Felmersham Gravel Pits. Hoards of people queued down the road to attend these incredibly popular local events. Her philosophy was simple: Why throw away your excess plants? Why not pot them up and make some cash for your favoured charity? Unlike many of us (I speak about myself) she actually did it, and didn't just think it.
When she retired as an employee of the wildlife trust in 1986, she immediately set up the Garden Group. She and her husband successfully petitioned for the wildlife trust to set up a reserves acquisition fund so any money from plant sales would go specifically towards buying land for nature conservation. Over the years money has been raised to go towards the purchase of; Kings Wood, Heath and Reach, Houghton Meadows, Pegsdon Hills and Flitwick Moor.

During the afternoon, while everyone else was working, I took a stroll around the country park. I've been to Hinchingbrooke CP a few times but never noticed the little wildlife garden by the visitor centre and cafe.

The luscious succulent ice plant (Sedum spectabile) was just starting to put on a fine show as a late nectar source. The few bees who'd braved the gusty winds were diving in enthusiastically. 
In the damp meadow I was delighted to find this lovely green-veined white (Pieris napi) keeping out of the wind low down in the vegetation. (I'd stopped to tie up my shoe laces otherwise I'd have missed it.) Pieris in ancient Greek means 'a muse'. And napi derives from both Latin and Greek for 'mustard', one of the this butterfly's many host plants. I'd never noticed before how peppermint green they are. I think this may be a male? Lovely, lovely.
I actually never got very far with my walk as I found myself quite entranced lying on a pond dipping platform, leaning over the edge and seeing this pond snail upside down using the surface tension to glide across the water. Wow! 
I believe this is Lymnaea stagnalis. What an amazingly beautiful creature. I willingly spent 20 minutes of my life watching this graceful animal grazing on the detritus and vegetation at the pond edge. (I found it quite hard to deal with the sun glare so apologies for that.)
It was so peaceful just lying there, watching. The dragonflies I'd come to photograph wouldn't land near me anyway. I was going to chuck this next photo away as it's quite fuzzy, but then I noticed that the snail is taking a breath of air (I think). Snorkelling really.
Pond snails have very vascularised tentacles, which enable them to effectively respire underwater and only come up for air occasionally. It's a very relaxing past-time watching pond snails gliding.
Back at the plant sale everyone else in the Garden Group was busy (I really am just padding). Overall though, it was a quiet day, perhaps due to the changeable weather, but the sale still raised about £300 for the local wildlife trust :-)

The Garden Group have been active, with Nancy as their catalyst, for over 25 years. This was her last plant sale. She reckons (on the back of an envelope, so I suspect this is an underestimate) that these plant sales have raised over £80,000 for the wildlife trust. Wow, wow, wow! When you think that this money has added value when combined with Landfill Tax Credits - that's a HUGE contribution to nature conservation in this area. Just from leftover plants from people's gardens.

On Tuesday I went to Priory Country Park, Bedford, to help (in the broadest possible sense of the word) Nancy and another friend in the little wildlife garden there. My 'help' on this particular day, consisted of cutting a few plants back and well, taking photos, and then drinking tea. Here is the lake at the country park. It was very gusty again. There were flocks of martins feeding over the water.

The park has one of those ugly loos. I've never been in one as I have a dread the door may open when...well....I just don't use them. Fortunately we can use the staff facilities when helping in the garden. Phew.
So, here is the wildlife garden gate.
The garden was planted in 1985/86 and is a quiet little haven. 
I really should have taken some photos in the summer. 
This morning, under a rock, we were delighted to find part of the shed skin of a grass snake (Natrix natrix). The head is clearly visible.
The scientific name natrix is possibly from the Latin, natare, which means, to swim. Grass snakes are nifty swimmers and the skin was found right next to the pond. They moult (ecdysis) at least once a year and the skin is sloughed off inside out. Good to know they are about.
It was jolly windy but I did just about manage to catch this spindle fruit (Eunonymus europaeus) in mid-swing. I love the shocking pink colour. 
Spindle is a hard wood and was used to make spinning spindles; hence the name. It was also used to fashion skewers and toothpicks, and the keys on virginals (Barker, 2001). The fruits are poisonous (pink for poison) to humans, and can cause liver and kidney damage. The seeds are cardiotoxic (Barker, 2001). All in all best avoided. Birds guzzle them up though and spread the seeds in their poo.

This blog post is a paltry effort to pay homage to someone who was not only a guiding light when the Bedfordshire Wildlife Trust first started, but has put enormous effort in over the years running open gardens and plant sales (and the Priory wildlife garden) to secure a future for conservation in this area. She also inspires others, myself included. 

Barker J (2001) The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe. Winter Press: Kent.


  1. The wildlife garden looks so beautiful and natural.

  2. Hi lotusleaf.
    It's only small but it is a little haven in an otherwise busy country park :-)

  3. One of the things we loved about England when we visited a couple of years ago were all of the green spaces. Each city we visited had beautiful little parks. I love you green butterfly, and the Lymnaea stagnalis. I would have been watching it at length my family of men clamored for me to move along ;)

  4. Hi Tammy. We are blessed with urban greenspaces here, but it does feel a crowded little island at times. A lot of the time really. Watching things, focusing on something, like that little snail, helps me breathe some space into my life. Mel

  5. Hi Mel,

    Found your lovely site when searching for info on the Hinchingbrooke Country Park plant sale for Sunday 29 April 2012.

    What a shame that it's done nothing but rain today, I guess the plant sale was called off? I hope they have others!

    Love your site, well done.

    1. Hi Deborah
      Thanks for your kind words :-)
      I've moved from the area (to Kent) so don't know about the plant sales now. I hope they do carry on. I can imagine the weather might have been a wash out today - it was pretty dire in Walmer - although it's a lovely evening now.
      I've got a new blog at
      Very best