The clue was really in the names. I saw Meadow Pipits (which I could identify but were nice to see), my first Meadow Browns of the year (which I also could identify) but also Meadowsweet (I know that one), Meadow Buttercup (there are an awful lot of buttercups), Meadow Cranesbill (I can do that one on a good day), Meadow Vetchling (I knew it was a vetch), Meadow Rue and Meadow Barley. Guess what? We were in a meadow!
To be a little more precise, we were in the delightful Plantlife nature reserve of Seaton Meadows which is only c45 minutes from my home, and which I have driven past, unaware of its existence, in the past. I first learned of it last year when it featured in Plantlife’s membership magazine (I’ve been a member for ages) and I phoned them up to see whether it was still worth a visit. As I feared, it had been cut for hay and so I promised myself I would try to visit this year – and I have kept that promise.
I travelled through beautiful Northamptonshire on a lovely June afternoon and across the county border into bandit country. As I parked the car I momentarily thought I heard a Curlew call but realised it couldn’t possibly be that. A Chiffchaff was carrying food and a pair of Lapwings clearly had some chicks judging from their mobbing of a Carrion Crow which flew past. A Bullfinch flew along the hedgerow but it was time to put aside bird-ish things and concentrate on plants.
I met up with Joe Costley and a band of Plantlife supporters. They had just finished a proper look round the nature reserve and now Joe was going to give me a quick tour too – which was very kind of him.
Seaton Meadows were bought by Plantlife in 1996 with money left over from a very successful appeal, and to honour the memory of Geoff Hamilton, the gardener, who lived nearby and was a great Plantlife supporter.
The nature reserve is 28 acres and is in the floodplain of the River Welland. As well as plants called ‘meadow something’ we saw many others including Pepper Saxifrage, which isn’t even a proper saxifrage (how confusing can plants be?!) but is, along with plants like Green-winged Orchid and Dyer’s Greenweed (which occur on other sites) a good indicator of an ancient meadow – one that has had broadly similar management for over 170 years.
Joe told me that he’d heard a Curlew several times that afternoon – but I concentrated on the plants.
This meadow is a good example of what was once ordinary but is now special. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest but that awful phrase does nothing to tell you that it is a lovely place to be – looking at the plants and the butterflies and trying not to be distracted by the birds (a Red Kite flew over, as they do). I’d agree that it is certainly ‘special’ – it’s really lovely and I’m glad that it remains as a small example of how the countryside used to look. I wouldn’t want to turn back the clock and see the the whole countryside return to this gloriously beautiful land use but it’s a pity we didn’t save a few more fragments as we were trashing our natural heritage back in the post-war period. I was glad to hear that Plantlife will be using ‘green hay’ from this site to seed, literally, another meadow nearby. Good luck to them!
This is, to throw out another awfully dull phrase, MG4 grassland – a rare habitat in international terms. This fairly small field was something really special.
Joe and I agreed that neither of us would want to live in a landscape where everywhere was the same and Joe told me that ‘There’s a type of meaning to it that I respond to in personal terms‘ and went on ‘ For me, it’s important in biological terms, but also as part of our cultural history. Meadows like this define history – they differ from place to place.‘.
I could see what he meant. But for me, I needed Joe’s interpretation of this meadow to see it in anything approaching the clarity with which he saw it, and appreciated it, and understood it. I liked it – to look at – but I cared about it even more as Joe interpreted it for me.
Thousands of people must drive past this site, even in the few summer months of its peak wondrousness, and not get it at all. And that, quite honestly, would have been me too if I hadn’t had the great treat and pleasure of Joe’s company and knowledge.
As I walked back to my car I wondered how protected this site was. What impacts might climate change have on it? What upsets might the neighbouring land uses impose on it? What might its fate be? Seaton Meadows were now precious to me and they looked very vulnerable and fragile.
A Curlew sang in the distance and then I saw a pair of them fly past. Crikey! This place must be special!