A slow walk on a hot heath

It was because I had my heart set on taking photographs of the last of the chalk blue butterflies that I found myself tramping up the rolling hills of Therfield/Royston Heath on the hottest day of the year so far. The car thermometer had reached 34.5 degs Celsius as I arrived in Royston.


A baking day on Therfield Heath

We’d had some rain on the Saturday before, but everything was still looking parched and very end of season. I seriously thought of getting back in the car when the heat hit me in the heat-hazed car park. However, I didn’t feel that I could waste the opportunity as it was the first sunny day in a lengthy series of dull ones. So I set off for the bronze age barrows and the trig point at the top, keeping my eyes peeled for butterflies as I went.


Therfield Heath in September

You can see in the first photo that the grass has been cut to the left of the track. This is because that area is used to exercise racing horses. I wasn’t aware of this the first time that I took the dog for a walk here and it was with considerable surprise that we heard pounding hooves and, seconds later, saw the horse galloping over the brow of the hill towards us. Since we were transfixed I was able to get the lead on Sadie before she got any ideas about joining the chase. This time I was alone, but I noticed that they have put up signs telling people that horses exercise on that bit of heath during the morning.


Bleached heath grasses

The long grass to the right of the path (which is on the south side) is sun-bleached and dry. A slight breeze moving over the ground was making lovely rustling sounds through it as I started to climb. Amongst the dried grass stalks are you can see darker seed heads of wild carrot and lesser knapweed, which added to the musical symphony.


The tightening curl of aging wild carrrot seed heads

In the September mid-afternoon sunshine, there were other seed heads seen in shining clumps dotted throughout the grass. They looked like silver stars with their twinkling edges catching the light, but were in fact the completely spent, flat discs of greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa). They really are quite beautiful and would be great as a dried flower.


The shiny empty seed heads of greater knapweed

In spite of all these signs of a finishing season, low down in the thatch, there were still examples of new growth and pretty little chalkland flowers. For instance, along the edge of the track, speckled through the shorter grasses, are numerous pale blue harebells (Campanula rotundifolia)…


and some very fresh looking scabious flowers (there’s often a second flush). In fact it was on these that I’d hope to see the chalk blue butterflies, but sadly there wasn’t a sign of a single one. Next year I must remember to visit in August, when I’m told they are at their peak.


Field scabious ready to be pollinated

Adding a touch more colour to the heath turf tapestry were plenty of yellow wort plants (Blackstonia perfoliata). They were beginning to close for the afternoon.

The yellow wort on the heath is only about 10cm high, but it can reach up to 30cm. It is a member of the gentian family (hence the flower’s afternoon closing).

Another member of the gentian family flowering on the heath now (which I had never seen before), is autumn gentian (Gentianella amarella). This late flowering biennial has pale mauve flowers with a central frill-decorated tube.

Once I got my eye in it was clear that these autumn gentian were nearly as numerous as the yellow wort.

So that was my hot, sweaty walk on the heath, with some interesting finds, but no butterflies.

There was this dramatic fellow though:


I’ve no idea what he is, googling ‘UK orange skull spider’ didn’t reveal anything! **

**Thanks to Marian for IDing her as a probable Four-spotted Orb Weaver (no doubt getting fat on grasshoppers)


About Frogend_dweller

Living in the damp middle of nowhere
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18 Responses to A slow walk on a hot heath

  1. Googled “UK spoted orb weaver banded legs.” Araneus quadratus? http://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/four-spotted-orb-weaver

  2. nexi says:

    We’re surrounded by chalk, and I’ve often wondered what the greater knapweed was called!

  3. Tina says:

    Beautiful photos–so suggestive of an end of season, but still with the promise of color in those lovely blooms! Thanks for the walk!

  4. Eliza Waters says:

    I didn’t realize it gets so hot in the UK. I always think of milder temps and lots of rainy days. Shows how little I know! Your walk photos are lovely. Field flowers are always enchanting.

    • Well, of course it isn’t usually. The day broke records (hottest September day since 1911) and I don’t know how good the car calibration is, but it was hot, hot, hot. I should take more time to look at wildflowers, because they are often so interesting in their niche adaptations.

  5. Its funny how we find unexpected blessings along our path. Lovely post and great photographs. Thank you.

  6. What an evocative post, beautiful images too of a parched landscape and its hidden treasures. We’ve not see common blue butterflies here this year, I wonder whether the grey, wet spell in August coincided with their flight times.

    • I wish that I had visited in August to see if it was the same here. We often go for the annual Kite Festival held on the slope there, but we were away at the beginning of August and so missed the chance. Fingers-crosses for the blues next year.

  7. Sam says:

    I’m glad you braved the heat and took these gorgeous photos. It was so unusual to have the heat in September, wasn’t it? Slightly unsettling! Sorry you didn’t see any common blues – we had some here in August but I confess to not looking very carefully recently. You did see some treasures though – that spider!

    • That spider was fantastic, like the sun setting with a skull super-imposed. So I think that I was fortunate with the colouring and pattern on the one that I saw. Photos on the nature website show them to be much more generic (but still enormous).

  8. Gentianella amarella…autumn gentian. Hmm…I just became entranced with this one today…an alpine gentian.

    Enter At Your Own Risk…Gentiana asclepiadea

    What might you find inside? Only you will know.


    • Such a glorious blue! This one is much more gentle and tiny. Funnily enough, today I was taking a picture down the throat of an ipomea flower only to realise later, on the computer, that there was a shield bug deep inside.

  9. Such a beautiful spot, even in its late season quietude. Funny to think of Scabiosa as a wild flower, I grow some – Scabiosa columbaria – in my garden.

    • I grow scabious for the garden too, because it is a great beneficial insect flower, but it loves the chalk downland around here and is a favourite of those blue butterflies that I so wanted to see.

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