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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)