Wolstonbury Hill is a prominent feature along the eastern escarpment of the South Downs National Park, at its peak there are the mounds and ditches which are all that is left of an ancient hill-fort. It lies not far south of the town of Hassocks and commands impressive views over the north and west of the Weald, but it is of most interest for the chalk grassland wildlife which is to be found there during the summer months particularly. The route from Hassocks train station to the hill is one of my favourite local walks, in any season, and earlier this week I took the journey in search of butterflies and wildflowers.
The first section of the walk runs alongside the railway embankment, this is an easy straight and flat path with nice views into the fields and woods on the eastern side. In previous years I have heard and seen Nightingales singing along the railway line in the dense scrub, on this day I only heard a brief snatch of song on the way back, which was frustrating. However there were several Whitethroats singing and I heard a Green Woodpecker call, I also came across some recently fledged Chiffchaffs with an adult in a hedgerow.
Upon reaching the foot of the Downs, the path turns steeply up through a wood, just before this turning there are hedgerows either side of the lane and as I passed a brilliant emerald-coloured Green Hairstreak landed on a flower in the hedge, my first of the year, until a car passed by and scared it off. The wood is cool and often muddy, even in the heat of the day the chalk was still claggy in places. A Whitethroat was singing from an Ash as I entered the wood and a Hornet passed close by – heading off over an open field where a group of Jackdaws were feeding.
The interior of the wood is good for wild flowers of all kinds, especially the orchid Common Twayblade, which is quite numerous along the path. Upon reaching a style at the top of the ridge, rather out of breath, I then walked out over the chalk grassland that sweep round to the peak of Wolstonbury. The meadows here are studded with literally thousands of ant-hills or ‘tuffets’ which indicate that this has been undisturbed grassland for a very long time. I was quite pleased to see a pretty Wall brown butterfly fluttering along the track, these are not as common as they once were and have an attractive warm orange pattern on their wings.
The short-cropped, sun-soaked grasslands of the South Downs are renowned for the diversity and abundance of their flora, it is still a little early for the peak of the downland flower display but there were still plenty of gems scattered about. A clump of Hound’s Tongue was nice, with its downy leaves and subdued, red-purple flowers. I also found some bubblegum-pink Sainfoin, the cone-like flower-heads of Salad Burnet, hundreds of sky-blue stars of Common Milkwort and several each of Early Purple and Common Spotted Orchids.
On the western slope of the hill there are the grassed-over lumps and hollows of an old chalk-pit, here I came across several species of butterfly characteristic of the Downs in May. Common Blues were quite numerous and a delight to look at close-up (if they let you) with a pale speckled underside and an upperside the colour of a shallow sea in summer. Much less colourful, but no less interesting, was a single Dingy Skipper – a species with marbled chocolate-brown wings and a joyful bouncing flight. I was also quite excited to spot the minuscule form of a Small Blue, barely visible as its tiny wings shimmered against the grass. When it landed I got to see its dark, midnight-blue upper-wings, quite exquisite.
At the foot of the hill, but farther round than the way I came up, the path runs along the edge of another wood, the trees and scrub here shelter it from the wind but the sun still blazes so it was particularly hot here. This heat had perhaps aided the emergence of four Broad-bodied Chasers (fresh yellow males yet to acquire their blue colour) that were whizzing about at breakneck speed and soaking up the sun on stems of rush. These were my first proper dragonflies of the year, and quite impressive.
As I walked back towards Hassocks along the lane, I spotted in the hedge a sun-bathing beetle resplendent in yellow and black, rather like a wasp, which is rather the point as this was a Wasp Beetle (Clytus arietis). Other than all these insects, Wolstonbury Hill was also thriving with both Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, both displaying beautifully their own special songs. I also saw a hunting Kestrel and several Linnets.
The walk took the best part of three hours and in the heat of the sun I felt it. But the wildlife was well worth it and overall it is a fairly easy walk, of a decent length so that you feel exercised at the end of it. It is worth going back in late summer, as then there are far more butterflies of different species and the wildflowers are quite spectacular, I shall certainly do so.