Summertime. The Downs were calling me again. I knew it was time to walk their soft turf once more; I knew it in my head, in my heart and in my bones. The orchids would have their colourful heads above ground by now, and if I delayed any longer I would miss out. A short train ride south, then a hurried walk in which I barely paused for breath, so keen was I to get up on those hills; above the noise, above the people and their buildings and their roads – up to a realm of air, with nothing between the flower-studded sward and the clouds themselves.
The path up through the woods is steeper than it looks and takes a fair amount of puffing to trudge up, but some reward was seeing the plentiful flower spikes of that dour orchid the Common Twayblade; a little past their best but the large, saucer-shaped leaves are distinctive. Emerging onto the open top of the hill is rather like when a plane finally breaks through the cloud layer into the bright, clear world above. Despite the fact it was overcast and a southerly wind was thrashing with gusto across the face of the land, the top of the Downs still felt like the best place in the world to be at that moment.
Skylarks and Meadow Pipits were still singing, perhaps with a little less vim than on my last visit in early spring, but their voices still cut through the breeze as if it wasn’t there and the trilling notes warmed my soul. As I wandered across the slope I could already see the flower spikes of Common Spotted Orchids in their varied shades of pink and white dotted here and there amongst the ant hills and cow pats. Although these flowers are highly variable in shade and pattern, it is not hard in this context to tell what they are even from a distance – as their shape and structure is easy to pick out with practice.
I began to spot other flowers sprouting out of the turf: the small creamy sprays of Dropwort, the neon-yellow spikes of Dyer’s Greenweed, the trailing stems of Common Restharrow made obvious only by the bold pink flowers, then the chandelier-like red-stained pink flower heads of Sainfoin and the numerous fluffy yellow clusters of the low-growing Kidney Vetch. Then, glowing a deeper more beautiful pink than any Common Spotted Orchid, I spied the cone-shaped spike of a Pyramidal Orchid poking out of the long grasses.
I then ventured onto the western slope of this ancient promontory, with the thickly wooded weald stretching away below me and the chain of the Downs running westward into the haze. Here I found my fourth orchid species; the very tall and pale pink flower heads of the Fragrant Orchid – which does have a sweet, heady scent that wafted across the slopes and took my nose by surprise at its strength. They were legion, with hundreds upon hundreds sprouting out of the close-cropped grassland alongside almost as many Common Spotted and fewer Pyramidal – I had to watch my step for fear of breaking one of these treasures.
As I carefully tip-toed through the orchids, marveling at their profusion and beauty, my eye was drawn up the slope to a small dark shape in a tuft of vegetation. It looked like a bit of dead grass or a stick, but something about the shape of it made me curious enough to look at it through my binoculars. I was astonished to find I was staring at a huge moth hanging motionless from a stem of Wild Marjoram, it was undoubtedly a hawk-moth and I eagerly went up to it for a closer look. When I got there I was even more amazed to find a second one lying on the grass next to the first – both larger than almost any moth I’d seen before.
They were Privet Hawks, a resident British species with a dark, furry thorax, long white antennae, mottled black and brown forewings, stripy hindwings and with bubblegum-pink bands on their abdomens. They were absolutely stunning creatures, possibly a pair that had recently mated, both looked very fresh too so they may have emerged from their pupae within the last few days. I had never previously seen this species before so it was a real unexpected treat.
After taking in the expansive view once more and dwelling for a while on the long-forgotten lives of the people who built the circular fortress on the peak of Wolstonbury (now just visible as earth banks), I made my way back down the slope. Yet, another gem awaited me; a glint of emerald green, like something metal, drew my attention to one of the many Common Spotted Orchids by the side of the path. Perched boldly and most attractively on the flower spike was a Forester moth, a small day-flyer related to the burnet moths which is regaled in a handsome electric green all over – only my second sighting of this scarce species.
Wolstonbury hill is one of my favourite walks and I find it is worth the effort regardless of season or weather; already I am planning another visit later in the summer in order to enjoy the butterflies that swarm there on sunny days.