Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An unusual conglomeration of wildflowers

I've been staying in Bridgnorth this week. Looking north-east from High Town you can see a bare cliff, called, unimaginatively, High Rock. A walk up clearly beckoned. Sadly the weather was somewhat unkind and quite dull the day I went up, so I've sourced a picture of the view online. I followed an easy route from town (here but without the extra loop as it started raining).

High Rock, Bridgnorth, from High Town looking north east. 
By Pam Brophy on Wikipedia and used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Wildflowers are excellent geologists. Some are so fussy & sophisticated in their habitat requirements that their presence is a pretty good guide to what lies beneath; soil type and geology. Of course, soil type is not the only factor determining where plants can grow and thrive; other factors, physical (climate, topography), biological (competition, shading, herbivory) and historical (agriculture, quarrying) all have a role to play. Wildflowers with similar ecological needs are found growing together in recognisable assemblages. 

On the walk up to High Rock a first clue to underlying geology was this feeble scrambler Ceratocapnos claviculata, climbing corydalis. It's a delicate, pale flowered climber with tendrils. It prefers acid soils and I've seen it on sandstone. The weather was dank and grey, so it looks paler than usual in my picture.

It even grows happily under bracken, clambering up the stems using its tendrils. There are few plants that relish living under the domination of shady bracken (the photo below take in Sandy, Bedfordshire a few years ago). I admire this tenacious little plant.

Perhaps one day archaeologists will marvel at the skills of the creators of this modern rock art near the top of the rock. Mysterious petroglyphs for our descendants to decipher. The friable Bridgnorth sandstone presents few challenges to those determined to leave their mark. Hmmm.

Personally I prefer to see polypody fern (Polypodium spp) on the rocks and it was indeed frequently encountered growing in deep shade, on exposed rocks, under the dense woodland canopy.

After a rather dull and sometimes steep, walk through the woods, it was a relief to reach the top of High Rock and pause to admire the view. My photos are awful so here is the view.

It was a surprise to see a dainty blue flower growing between the rocks. Sheep's bitJasione montana, is a flower I've previously only seen at Dungeness; a plant of impoverished, dry sandy and cliffs.

It's a lovely pale blue and looks like a small devil's bit scabious (a member of the daisy family Asteraceae). It was also called sheep's scabious. But for all that superficial similarity it's actually a bellflower (Campanulaceae).

Growing adjacent, in shade, with tall stems & dull yellow flowers, was ploughman's spikenard, Inula conzya. This is a robust member of the daisy family. I've only ever seen it on well drained soils on calcareous substrates. In fact, I thought it was a calcareous indicator species, so was perplexed to find it on acidic sandstone. Ploughman's spikenard once had some repute as a efficacious wound herb. An old name for the plant was cinnamon root, and the name Spikenard implies an aromatic quality. It was also called great fleabane; its specific epithet, conyza, being derived from the Greek for 'flea'. The powdered root was used as a flea deterrent.

Further exploration revealed yet another tall daisy nearby, also in shade. Goldenrod, Solidago virgaurea (virg-aurea literally meaning 'rod, 'golden') was yet another pleasing find. I've formerly only found goldenrod (our native goldenrod) on Northern rocky mountain streams and crags. It's a plant of free-draining acidic substrates. A sandstone cliff ledge sounds pretty good then. Goldenrod was another ancient wound herb. Solidago derives from Latin soldare, to make whole.

Common calamint (Clinopodium ascendens) is uncommon in the north and I didn't expect it. It's a plant I see on chalk or limestone grassland. It's listed and recorded as being present on High Rock in 1992, in Lockton & Whild's 2005 Rare Plants of Shropshire (pdf here - see page 43). They describe it as 'a plant of dry, calcareous soils in the south of Britain'.

A few steps further on, another unexpected find; wild liquorice or milk vetch, Astragalus glycyphyllos. This is a fairly uncommon plant that I see infrequently; the last time being down my old road in Sandy. It prefers sandy soils. Wild liquorice is also listed in the Rare Plants of Shropshire (p24) and was last recorded on High Rock in 1991. The seed pods are quite funky, liked clawed hands.

And the naked stems even weirder once the pods have dropped off.

On a sandstone crag it was no surprise, and quite a relief, to see heather, Calluna vulgaris growing nearby.

I thought the plants found up on High Rock were an unusual assemblage and not all typical of acidic grassland on sandstone. It's worth a quick gander at the local geology.

The walk up to High Rock (a Locally Important Geological Site) is essentially walking on rocks formed in the Permian. During this time (250-290 MYA) our island was landlocked in supercontinent Pangaea and positioned roughly where the Sahara is today. So hot, dry, desert. Permian rocks are sandstones; Bridgnorth sandstones.

At the very top of High Rock there were exposures of what looked like a conglomerate, in dramatic contrast to the cross-bedded, finer grained sandstones. Googling revealed it to be Kidderminster Conglomerate laid down during the Lower Triassic (251-247 MYA). It sits uncomformably on top of the sandstones; pebbles and debris dumped, higgledy-piggledy, by a powerful flash flood, like a flood in a wadi. The conglomerate contains Carboniferous limestone, marl & quartzite pebbles, so must have an effect on the flora on High Rock and goes some way towards explaining the presence of plants with varied ecological requirements.

It doesn't look much today, just a rugged lump of rough rock, but the Late Permian/Lower Triassic was a time of catastrophic upheaval on Earth. A massive extinction event wiped out 96% of all plants & animals. The cause is still debated; volcanic, comet, climate change. Life on earth almost died out. It took about 10 million years to recover. A sobering thought during our uncertain times when we treat our environment so causally. Nature is a powerful force.

A quick aside from botany. On the scramble back down form the top of the rock, I stopped to photograph this distinctive little red beetle. It was in deep shade and next to a rotten log. 

It turned out to be a fortuitous snap. (Here is a better photo from Hampshire) This smart little chap is Platycis minutus, a net-winged beetle and Nationally Notable (Nb), more likely to be encountered south of The Wash. My tentative identification was confirmed by Caroline Uff, County Recorder for beetles. It was last recorded over 100 years ago and that record is for Tuckhill (on the way to Stourbridge). Well, I am chuffed. But, do I snap photos of dull looking brown beetles, which could be rarer? No I don't. I admit recording bias towards colourful cuteness.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The marvellous richness of nature

Being in the vicinity, I couldn't resist a short early evening stroll near magical Stokesay Castle.

Unfortunately the castle was just closing, so I only got glimpses from the churchyard...

..and the lane.

It really is a remarkable survivor from medieval times.

To add to my delight the sky was full of chattering house martins. I rarely see hundreds of martins in the air these days. These wee birds were congregated on the castle roof, in the early evening sunshine.

Everynow and then they took off in a noisy flurry - a 'richness' of house martins - into the air. They circled then settled back on the old roof tiles, only to fly off and round again a few minutes later. It was wonderful.

My video is handheld on a tiny Panasonic but I think it captures some of the energy and exuberance of these beautiful little birds.

Soon they'll be leaving us and heading south. They are declining in numbers and amazingly we still don't know exactly where they go or how they get there. BTO's latest tracking survey will helpfully reveal scientific data we can use to answer those questions and help us all protect them. Although based on recent disregard for scientific data & protection of wildlife by our elected representatives perhaps that is a forlorn hope.

Good luck little Stokesay martins!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Knockers and knobs

A walk around the narrow streets of High Town in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, allowed a little indulgence in door furniture admiration. 

These elegant Georgian designs feature a classical-style face wreathed with leaves. Are those grapes tucked behind the ears and vine leaves in the wreath? Maybe this is Dionysus the Greek god of wine, merry-making and ritual madness? If so, why the sad face?

Perhaps the morning after the night before?

Quite a few webpages suggest this is Medusa. But, I don't see any snakes or serpents. Roullier-White state that it's Hestia, the Greek goddess of home, hearth & architecture. I don't think so, so I'll stick with Dionysus. I have no idea what the rather prim, square shouldered knave on the left is up to.

Continuing the classical theme, some cheeky cherubs adorned a few doors. The one on the right is actually a satyr, in a Kenrick and Sons design. Kenrick is a long established (since 1791) foundry in West Bromwich. This is design No. 425. Satyrs were the companions of Pan and the above mentioned Dionysus. I can't find out anything about the cherub design on the left.

Below are traditional designs, on the left a Victorian scroll, another Kenrick design and on the right a Doctor's door knocker, so called because it was used on a doctor's door. This didn't sound a very satisfactory explanation to me, but Roullier-White go further "Prior to the advent of the public postal system, in the 17th Century, and in rural areas houses were not numbered. Name plaques were common but so was illiteracy, Doctor’s houses were identified by a particular type of knocker. The lower lever like hook was designed so that a child could reach the knocker"

I like this Victorian loop design (and very well polished too); another Archibald Kenrick design.

This striking cat door knocker is probably a symbol of good luck. The only picture I could find online of a similar design was from Malaysia

This decidedly severe knocker looks like a Chinese guardian or Fu lion; a symbol of protection. 

And lions certainly have a lion's share of the door knockers in Bridgnorth. 

The classic lion door knocker is based on the door knocker of No. 10 Downing Street. Pretty imposing. The original lion knocker was fitted to No.10 in the 1770s or 1780s but made in the West Midlands. How appropriate! I've been unable to ascertain which foundry made the original but suspect it was Kenricks.

And this little lion looks even more forlorn than the morose big cats above.

A few doors had a nautical theme. It's a long way from the sea here, but Bridgnorth used to be a bustling river port, with wharves and barges, till the end of the 19th century. (Here's a link to a 19th century painting in Northgate Museum, Bridgnorth.) The fish design is a stylised big-lipped scaly fish with trident tail. It looks Chinese to me, perhaps a carp, a symbol of good luck and abundance.

And some less than polished but full of character.

A couple of rather neat door handles, a rope twist and a star backplate.

Finally, a hand door knocker, the only one I found on my walk. The Hand of Fatima is common in the Medina of Marrakech. Musician Elaine Fine has blogged about hand door knockers here and suggests the hand was there to ward off evil spirits, but perhaps it was also a symbol of protection and blessing on the household.

Arkeolog, a photographer from Turkey has some wonderful photos of hand door knockers from his homeland and from Syria (you'll need to scan down his photo page).

I'd never before realised there were so many designs, from the ornate to the very ordinary, and behind many a story or deeper meaning. Might go and buy one tomorrow!

Did buy a door knocker today! This lovely owl from the Door Knocker Company just outside Church Stretton.