County Diary: Countryside scene is changing dramatically

Early purple orchids in bloom.
Early purple orchids in bloom.
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Mid-May, and once again I thrill to the screaming party of swifts. It’s a common summer migrant, distinguished from swallows and martins but its sooty brown plumage, long scythe-like wings and short tail. Its torpedo-shaped body contributes to its rapid flight.

Bands of golden daffodils, and dandelions that highlighted road verges have vanished. Only silvery-grey dandelion ‘clocks’ remain. Travelling to Lealholm in the Esk Valley, we commented on the dramatic changes to our countryside within a week. Oak trees were in leaf, well ahead of the ash. Sheets of wood anemones were replaced by a thick covering of ramsons or wild garlic, like a thick carpet of snow. Bluebells formed ‘pools’ of blue in the dappled shade of hedgerows. Did you know that the sticky mucilage in bluebell bulbs and stems was once used in book-binding, and to stick feathers onto arrows?

Bluebells were accompanied by small colonies of early purple orchids – the first orchid to flower. From a rosette of leaves, blotched with blackish spots, arose a dense spike of rich purple flowers. At one time, a beverage called salop was made from the orchid’s tubers. Salop houses were popular meeting places before coffee was introduced.

A recent highlight was exploring the charming village of Lealholm. From the church, we gazed down at the amazing foliage of trees in the area, and of course we couldn’t miss the stepping stones.

Whilst enjoying a cup of tea, our attention was drawn to the primary school. Jackdaws nest in some funny places, from crevices in trees or buildings, or even a rabbit burrow! This one had its nest of sticks in a ventilation aperture, high in the gable end of the school. It may have used the same nest previously. This jackdaw was busy feeding young, most probably on caterpillars which are abundant in May and June.

We’ve searched in vain for herb paris in Forge Valley, but our quest for baneberry in Low Yedmandale was encouraging. Six strong plants may well be blooming by June.

Meanwhile, woodruff delights the eye with tiny, chalk-white terminal clusters of flowers, and whorls of leaves like threaded stars and similar to cleavers. Woodruff emits a delicate scent of new-mown hay. Elizabethans used it as a strewing herb on floors. Garlands of roses, box, lavender and woodruff decked churches on St Barnabas Day, June 11. Dried woodruff has been added to pot pourris and snuff; placed in drawers of linen, and pages of books. Frequently added to wine and liqueurs, it was also used as woodruff tea, said to purify the blood. Even toiletries included this popular ingredients.

Scalby village is noted for two rare plants – coralroot bittercress (cardamine bulbifera), near the church, and large bittercress (cardamine raphanifolia) beside the beck. Please leave for all to enjoy and appreciate.