I headed off, towards the end of last week, with three chums to look at flowers and butterflies, and to drink beer and wine, and to put the world to rights.
All of us could be described as senior enough to be grumpy old men, although, of course, our aim was to be happy not grumpy. Sometimes, however, the rest of the world is getting everything so wrong that grumpiness comes through despite one’s intentions to be sunny, sunny, sunny.
Our target was to see purple emperors in Bentley Wood – one of the best places in the country to see them.
However, we visited a secret chalk downland site first – and saw lots of flowers. I’m really trying with flowers this year and decided I would learn one each day. I learned meadow cranesbill and then my mind was full for the day as far as flowers are concerned. I’m really impressed by folk who can remember more than one flower a day – they must be real naturalists.
We did see some other flowers – some were very rare – but if I told you about them I’d have to kill you all, and since readers are flooding back to this blog now I am not telling you about the USA that would be too high a body count and too big a task.
However, I have a lot more vacant slots in my head for butterflies and we saw marbled whites, small heaths, a single common blue and ringlets, meadow browns etc.
I have an almost infinite number of brain receptacles for birds but not too many of them were used – we did see lots of corn buntings though, which is such a rare event in the English countryside these days that I had to have a drink.
We stayed in the Old Mill at Salisbury but Constable had moved his easel – I thought I could see where it had been though. Salisbury Cathedral looks as wonderful as ever, even though someone has built some houses in front of it and forgotten to grow the 50ft trees first to mask them.
The Old Mill has kingfishers flying past if you sit in the garden at 6am and keep your ears open for their high-pitched cries (they can make those cries even when they have fish in their beaks I notice). They also have a nice pint of Abbot.
Conversation ranged widely through the days over what we thought about the RSPB magazine (mixed), George Monbiot’s book (mixed), the RSPB’s new TV advert (mixed), the Wildlife Trusts (mixed), the Guardian (mixed), this government (not so mixed), this book (mixed) and that book (mixed), and this old friend (we think he is great!) and that old friend (he’s great too!). You see, it’s a bit difficult to summarise – you should have been there!
The conversation was stimulating even when I was completely sober, and even when they were completely sober. You should have been there! I have some very clever and very agreeable friends.
The Old Mill seemed to want to give us Saturday breakfast around Saturday lunchtime – but we negotiated it much earlier (to just before elevenses) so that we could set off to Bentley Wood where the air would be black with purple emperors.
We also made the mistake of eating breakfast when it arrived – that always slows you down, doesn’t it? So we arrived at Bentley Wood at around 10, I think it was, and just bagged the last spot in the car park which was full – this trivial piece of information is actually quite important.
The air was not yet black with purple emperors so we went walking to track them down. Phewww! What a scorcher – it was hot. Good weather for butterflies – in fact good weather for; meadow browns, ringlets, large skippers, small skippers, white admirals, large whites, green-veined whites, red admirals, speckled woods, silver-washed fritillaries (how amazing are they?), white-letter hairstreaks and anything else I’ve forgotten but not for purple emperors. And not for peacocks or brimstones for we were in the ‘peacock gap’ and the ‘brimstone gap’.
One or two emperors had been seen but we had been in the wrong place at the right time and so we were emperorless – like most other people. The car park, remember the car park?, is quite a good spot for them and if we had just stayed there we might have seen one. T’would have been a terribly dull visit though.
We had to make a move in order to get to the next pub so we left. It wasn’t quite that easy as hordes of people were having a picnic blocking our exit so we had to lay about us with stout sticks to clear a path. No, that’s an exaggeration – they were very kind and moved with alacrity (especially when I told them our driver was apt to veer around like a crazed, a crazed? – a crazed driver under these circumstances).
As we edged slowly out of the constricted space (remember we were last in to the car park) we found a horse fly to rival all horseflies and looked at that in awe and then edged out the last few feet to discover that a purple emperor had been performing acrobatics about 20 feet from us in the first part of the tiny car park.
That was enough to make anyone grumpy but we were soon at the pub. So we didn’t see purple emperors – our quest was a failure apart from all those flowers (tufted vetch was my flower of the day on Saturday), all those butterflies, all that beer, all that wine and all that cheery conversation. A failure as we did not see purple emperor even though, had we been sensitive to it, we might have felt the faintest whisper from its wings a few feet away.
So how can I have the nerve to display that lovely photo of a purple emperor at the top of this post? Because on Monday morning, I was watching a purple emperor (about half a dozen of them in fact) half an hour from my home and at the site, Fermyn Woods, where Tim Melling took these images.
I know my chums will be pleased for me and not grumpy at all.