A sunny June morning in East Northamptonshire, on the edge of a leafy woodland at Fineshade. I leave the track and stoop low to enter the verdant bower, immediately surrounded by sights and sounds that only a magical habitat like this can provide. Leaves flicker in the light breeze, sunlight and shadows dapple the lush green surface beneath my feet. Proceed with caution – there are treasures underfoot! The springtime crescendo of full song may be on the wane now, but the birds still assail me with their varied and melodic notes to create an astonishing soundscape. Blackcap, Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Willow Warbler…..and many others too, proclaim their rights to territories, mates and nests. Wonderful as they are, they are not my main quarry today. No, I am looking for something that makes no sound, makes no effort to hide its rare and delicate beauty, but is still elusive to all but its most ardent admirers…..
I move on, away from the track now, away from all the intrusive sounds of mankind and his doings. I try desperately hard not to break a twig underfoot, but frequently fail. How clumsy I feel as yet another ‘crack’ echoes around me! I pause frequently, admiring the coppiced hazel and ash, growing healthily from the ancient stools and boles below. I imagine for a moment the men and women of long ago who have worked here and expertly rendered the trees into these shapes.
Remnants of a blue and purple carpet are still just visible in places, but most of the Bluebells and Early Purple Orchids have faded now. Suddenly I break into a clearing and stand still, looking up to admire the towering master-trees that foresters have left standing after the removal of the understorey. I catch a new voice added now to the avian orchestra - the clear, penetrating notes of a Nuthatch.
Many of the wildflowers I was shown as a young man here are still present, thank goodness, and I enjoy renewing acquaintance with them. Their evocative names take me back to those days – the massed blue flowers of Germander Speedwell attracting attention, Eyebright peeping out wherever it can, St John’s Wort standing high and reminding me of all its attendant folklore.
I press on, through Far Markham Wood, across the so-called Deer Lawn, a more open area of long grassland, bushes beloved of Cuckoos, dense scrub and undergrowth – a certain home of Grasshopper Warblers, a month ago so keen to advertise their presence, now subdued and silent as they attend to their females and young.
Another pause to admire a plant : Dog’s Mercury (picture right). An interesting plant owing to its dioecious nature – no, I didn’t know what it means either! Male and female Dog’s Mercury plants grow near to each other, but are entirely separate, with different flowers on each! Another Fineshade secret recently revealed to me!
On I go, past Wood Spurge and yet more wild flowers of the woodland – too many to take in all at once. A movement in a dark corner catches my eye – a Speckled Wood butterfly delicately examining each bush in its path, occasionally pausing, but more often passing on to the next without delay.
I realise that it has been skirting some unfamiliar trees – Field Maple, Crab Apple, and even the extremely local Wild Service Tree (left), which, so I’m told, bears dry and juiceless fruit in the autumn. People used to store them until they were almost rotten, then eat them in December or January! It could only happen at Fineshade!
Whilst examining the Wild Service Tree, an elegant Red Kite floats over me, his tail twisting and turning to make use of the breeze and guide him on his way.
The old maps tell me I’ve passed through Dale’s Wood and The Gullet. Some of the old trees here look perfect for bat roosts – I’m sure they’re in there right now as I pass by.
I kneel to look closely at the twin leaves, raised a few centimetres off the ground, of the green-flowered Twayblade (right), one of the most overlooked and neglected members of the Orchid family.
Charles Darwin was a great admirer of the Twayblade, pronouncing it ‘one of the most remarkable in the whole order.’ While musing over the image of the great man kneeling beside me here in Fineshade and explaining to me the intricate nature of its pollination technique, I let my gaze fall upon another plant a few metres away……
Large twin leaves springing from the base of a sturdy central stem, delicate creamy-white flowers, maybe with a tinge of very pale yellow, the whole plant standing maybe 30 centimetres high……it is the principle objective of my search today…the wonderful Greater Butterfly Orchid!
I move over to it, being careful not to disturb the Twayblade. Charles Darwin studied the Greater Butterfly Orchid too, and was much taken by its ‘conspicuous flowers and strong sweet odour emitted at night’, which, he proved, attracted a large range of moths during each night that he observed them. I am suddenly aware that there are more than one – I have stumbled upon a small colony of these elusive, ethereal and scented plants. Time and conditions are noted down, photographs taken. A Fineshade moment to treasure.
I stand at last. As so often in these woods, I have completely lost my bearings. In here, it is a serene, calm and timeless world, unchanged over years, unspoilt by man. Have I passed through Peter’s Nook, or Dumb Bob Spinney? I have no idea, but no matter – I found the Greater Butterfly Orchid.
I use the sun to strike off in a southerly direction, and eventually, having scrambled through thickets, bushes and tangled undergrowth and crossed dried-up streams, I emerge onto a track and trace my way back to my starting point two hours ago.
Back at my car, I reflect on my morning. I encountered neither sight nor sound of another human being the whole time I was in the wood, and yet I was surrounded by life in a myriad forms, every second of the way. I remember the first time I came here, probably forty-five years ago now. It thrilled, revived and restored me then, just as it has today. And, thank heavens, it will continue to do so in all its unchanging and natural ways for decades and centuries to come. I drive slowly away, flicking the car radio on as I go. They’re playing Delius’ ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden.’
They needn’t have bothered – I’ve just been there.
Ken Davies is Education Officer for the Rutland Osprey Project at nearby Rutland Water.
He writes a regular diary for the project so you can read more of his writing here.