Friday, 31 May 2013

Martin Down

Martin Down National Nature Reserve is a famous site for butterflies and wildflowers and I have decided to launch a new project of journeying specifically to such sites, rather than simply walking in conveniently located bits of countryside. The reserve consists of two distinct parts, a wooded area on one side of the A354 near Salisbury and a large area of chalk grassland on the other side.

A meadow separates the wood from the road and the track running along the edge of the wood marks the route of a Roman road.

A grassy track leads to the first of a series of clearings which are a feature of the wood and indicate how it is being managed for wildlife. I have read the elusive Duke of Burgundy has been seen here, but at first all I see are lots of Brimstones, mainly males (a deeper shape of yellow), flying around presumably looking for mates. I also heard my first cuckoo of the year.

My first picture subject is a reasonably large moth, which a bit of searching revealed to be a Treble Bar.

The first clearing also offered a group of wonderful orchids, the red one at the head of this post and this lovely pink one.

I began to see some other butterflies: Comma, Large and Small Whites, Green-veined White, Peacock, Large Skipper. But as a I reached a large clearing, I couldn't help but be aware of a fantastic profusion of cowslips.  I decided on a close-up photo, highlighting the delicate spots of orange inside the flowers.

While I was doing so, I again heard the sound of a cuckoo, but this time is was coming towards me. I looked up and for the first time actually saw one. It saw me and promptly veered away. I followed a small path out of the clearing which led towards the edge of the wood a and then, in a more open area, the beautiful bell-like flowers on tall stems, maybe two feet from the ground. It is Columbine, wild aquilegia.

I retraced my steps to the big clearing and followed the right hand path which soon led to the edge of the wood. I saw some Speckled Woods on the way. The path continued in further woodland, but it was instructive to see how different it was: the trees were much denser and there were no little clearnings, only the odd path junction created any open space. I saw only a few more Brimstones.

I retraced my steps again and took the southern exit from the clearing which I could see would offer a curbing route back to the entrance to the wood. After a while, I noticed a pair of Brinstomes circling in a mating dance and followed them deeper into a large clearing on a sunny slope to see if I could get a picture. I no sooner had it framed than another passing male decided to barge in, resulting in this fascinating image, which showed me for the first time what the upper wings of a Brimstone look like (they always roost with their wings closed). You can see that the orange dots on the underwings are mirrored on the upper wings.

Later I chanced to read the chapter on the Brimstone in Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington's masterful The butterflies of Britain and Ireland. It seems that the female may emit some sort of aphrodisiac and that the attraction of other males is not uncommon.

To complete the joy of this particular clearing, I found this gorgeous blue and white flower, in clumps close to the ground. Unfortunately it is another one I have yet to identify.

It seemed appropriate now to try the grassland and see what that could offer so I headed back to the car park, spotting an Ornage Tip on the way, and followed the right edge of the reserve, following the line of Bokerly Dyke.

After a while without noticing anything, I reached a large mound, presumably a burial mound - the area is dotted with neolithic remains. I wondered if the south-facing slope might be a good place and I was soon encouraged by the sight of a Small Heath and of some fellow butterfly spotters.

They told that there were many Grizzled and Dingy Skippers to be seen. And sure enough within moments my first Grizzled Skipper presented itself for inspection. In real life, it seemed less moth-like than book illustrations suggest: a very dainty little brown and white butterfly. The Dingy Skipper is smaller and much more moth-like and, I found, harder to photograph. There were also a number of small blues.

It was time to head home but I could not resist the temptation to climb the mound and walk along its ridge, which offered a nice views east towards Salisbury.

A view back presents a clear image of the mound or barrow, with hills beyond.

Conditions: Mainly sunny, some cloud, a bit windy on the grassland. About 20 degrees.

Distance: probably only about 3 mile.

Map: Martin Down is very inconveniently located on the corner of two maps: Explorer 130 (Salisbury and Stonehenge) and 118 (Shaftesbury and Cranbourne Chase). The village of Martin is also on OL22 (New Forest).

Rating: four and half stars. A marvellous day out and a great start to my butterfly site project.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Lucca: inside the city

The cathedral of San Martino

Having walked round the walls of Lucca this morning, we obviously had to explore the town itself this afternoon. We first had lunch with brother- and sister-in-law Ric and Gabriella, who had come with us from Pisa, but were doing their explorations by bike, and then began our walk at the Duomo. The oldest bits, the apse and the campanile, date from 1063, but the facade dates from 1204 and the nave and transepts from the 14th century. The facade is curiously asymmetrical, with the right side being much smaller. The pre-existing campanile was obviously a constraint, and perhaps there was something on the other side too, but why not make a symmetrical facade to fit the available space?

The atrium, the area between the arches and the doors, has fine bas relief sculpture and the main door is particularly impressive.

Inside, there is an extraordinary tempieto by the 15th century sculptor Matteo Civitali. We now walked past the church of San Giovanni to Piazza Napoleone, whose forthcoming attractions included Neil Young, no less. Our next main stop was Piazza San Michele, where there was a fine loggia in one corner of the square. This seems to be the Palazzo Pretorio which dates back to 1492 and the statue under the loggia is none other than the sculptor Matteo Civitali.

The square is of course dominated by the church of San Michele in Foro, a magnificent example of the Pisan Romanesque style. The columns of the four levels of the arcade are all different. On the top there is the imposing 13th century statue (4 meters high) of St Michael the Archangel slaying the dragon.

We now headed towards the main shopping street via Fililungo and caught a glimpse of the Torre delle Ore - the Clock Tower - which dates from 1471.

In via Fililungo we noticed the wonderful terracotta windows of the 13th century Casa Barletti-Baroni, with little terracotta heads on either side of the arches.

We were pleased to find the hotel La Luna where we had stayed before and just beyond it we entered the oval Piazza del Anfiteatro, whose shape clearly bears the footprint of the Roman amphiteatre of which there is otherwise no trace. It seemed a lot busier that it had in 1997.

Nearby by is Lucca's third great church, San Frediano (Pisa also has church dedicated to this Irish monk). This time, instead of the marble arcades we have become used to, there is a 13th century mosaic of Christ in Majesty.

Now we headed for our final sight: the Torre Guinigi. We climbed it in 1997 and were pleased to see it again from the walls as we walked around them this morning. It is difficult to photograph, being surrounded by other buildings, so I bought and scanned this postcard, with its improbably blue sky.

When we got home we looked through our 1997 photo album and hilariously I had bought the identical postcard then. You could just detect minor changes in how it had been printed.

The views from the top are wonderful. In this picture, Sand Frediano is on the left and the line of trees immediately behind it marks the line of the walls. The Piazza del Anfiteatro is visible in the centre.

Conditions: warm and sunny.

Distance: probably much the same as this morning's 4 km.

Rating: five stars.

Lucca: around the walls

Porta San Pietro

We first walked around the 4km-long walls of Lucca in 1997 and today we shall do so again, but this time clockwise. We enter Lucca through the Porta San Pietro, having taken the train from Pisa where we have come to spend some time with brother- and sister-in-law Ric and Gabriella who are over from Canada on a lecture tour.

The walls were built between 1500 and 1650, replacing earlier medieval ramparts. They are 12 metres high and link together 11 bastions. Trees were planted at the top to stabilise the earth that lies within the brick walls and four species are used in succession around the four sides: plane, lime, ilex and chestnut. When they were completed all trees and buildings within 200m were destroyed, leaving the grassy surroundings that you can see today. The walls never in fact had to withstand a siege and in the 19th century Duchess Maria Luisa of Bourbon had them converted into a public walkway.

We soon saw our first lion statue. It seems to be the symbol of Lucca - and there is one over the gate of San Pietro - but I haven't managed to find out why.

Soon the walls take on their classic character: a tree-lined promenade.

At one the first bastions there is a fine statue to Alfredo Catalani, a composer of opera who was born in Lucca. His most famous opera is apparently the wonderfully named La Wally (short for the Tragic heroine Walburga). According to a seemingly unironic entry in Wikipedia she "throws herself into an avalanche. It is seldom performed, partly because of the difficulty of staging this scene ..." It is a fine statue though, which my photo does not do complete justice to.

Further along the west side of the walls we come to the Porta San Donato, which is flanked by a pair of bastions providing cross-fire in the event of an attack.

Soon we turned into the long north side and reached a point where there is a fantastic view in towards the city. On the left is the campanile and apse of the 13th century church of San Frediano, an Irishman.

While on the right is the rear elevation, with its beautiful loggia, and gardens of the Palazzo Pfanner.

A bit further on, by the Porta San Maria, a massive street market was underway and we made a short exploratory detour. Soon we reached the east side and gained our first view of one of the things we remembered most vividly from 1997, the Torre Guinigi, a late 15th century tower with a holm oak (quercus ilex) tree mysteriously growing out of the top. We found it strangely reassuring that it was still there.

On the south wall, we passed the impressive Botanic Garden and before long came to the cathedral of San Martino. It dates from 1063, although the apse and the campanile are the only remaining parts of the original church.

As we approached the end, I looked back along another typical stretch of wall.

Conditions: warm and sunny.

Distance: 4 km.

Rating: five stars.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013


View from the Ponte alla Fortezza

We are in Pisa to meet up with brother- and sister-in-law Ric and Gabriella, who are over from Canada on a lecture tour. We are staying in a hotel just by the station, so we started our walk around Pisa from there. We walked up to the Piazza Vittore Emanuale and then headed east to see the Sangallo Bastion by the river Arno. We walked round the not-very-photogenic brick fortifications to the Scotti Gardens. There was one substantial tower in the outer wall.

It was rather a low-key introduction to the city: most cities would perhaps have made more of their old fortifications - but of course Pisa has sights to trump anything so mundane. Things looked up when we first the first bridge over the river, the Ponte alla Fortezza, with lovely views down river.

We walked along the right bank to the main bridge, the Ponte de Mezzo. There has been a bridge here forever, but the present rather unispiring single reinforced concrete arch dates only from 1950. There was another fantastic view however down river. (I confess that this picture was taken two days later, when the river was calmer and the sky clearer, but the beautiful reflections justify it I think.)

We walked part way across the bridge to see the imposing Loggia di Banchi. It dates from about 1600 and once was the wool and silk market, and also housed money changers’ stalls and the cereal market.

We turned into the arcaded Borgo Stretto to soon be staggered by the facade of San Michele in Borgo, rising out of the narrow street. The facade dates from the 1300s.

Borgo Stretto leads to the Piazza Cavalier, with the imposing Palazzo Cavalieri on the right. This was rebuilt by the great art historian Giorgio Vasari at the command of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici who had decided to found the seafaring military order of Knights of St. Stephen in 1558 and provide them with headquarters.

Just to the left is the Palazzo dell' Orologio which was created in the 17th century by linking together two medieval buildings.

Another six or seven minutes walk brought us to the edge of the Campo dei Miracoli and our first sight since we were her in 1997 of the Leaning Tower. We decided to continue with our walk and return in two days to climb it, which was not possible. It is the campanile (bell tower) of the duomo (cathedral) and was begin in 1173 and apparently started to lean even before it was completed. It was closed to visitors in 1990. The solution to prevent the collapse of the tower was to slightly straighten the tower to a safer angle, by removing soil from underneath the raised side. The tower was straightened by 45 centimeters (18 inches), returning to its 1838 position. It is still 3.9m out of the perpendicular.

Then there is the magnificent duomo. It was begun before the Tower, in 1064, and defines the Pisan Romanesque style, which we expect to see more of in Lucca tomorrow.

Finally, there is the huge separate baptistry, a feature of northern Italian cathedrals. It was started in 1152, but took two centuries to complete.

The three buildings together make an overwhelmingly wonderful group, set in a huge grassy space with walls on three sides.

We eventually dragged ourselves away and walked through the grounds of the hospital back towards the river past a nameless tower to admire a handsome alms-house building on the far bank: a 15th century Benedictine monastery.

Also on the other bank, to the right of the monastery and out of view was the church of San Paolo a Ripa d'Arno, which was apparently the site of the city's first cathedral. The current church was built ion the 13th century in the style of the duomo. The church is closed and seems abandoned; we were shocked by the bad state of repair. In front of it, also looking the worse for wear, is the 13th century chapel of Saint Agatha. I suppose when you have such riches, the second division of monuments seem unimportant.

Finally, we walked along the banks of the Arno to the exquisite little chapel of Santa Maria della Spina. It was rebuilt in 1324 in the Pisan Gothic style and moved further away from the river in 1871 for fear of flooding.

Conditions: warm and sunny.

Distance: By the time we got back to hotel we had done about 5 miles.

Rating: five stars.

Reference: As I was writing this, I stumbled on the excellent site of the Commune of Pisa which has a wealth of information on the buildings of the city, walking routes and all kinds of useful stuff.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Bucklebury and Chapel Row

Bucklebury: St Mary's church

This walk started as a simple Sunday morning stroll, but ended up as a wild-flower session. I headed east from Bucklebury, passing the church on my left. It is an interesting building, with a Norman doorway and elements from many periods thereafter. The route soon left the road and followed the Pang valley across fields, with a view towards the reasonably named High Copse to the north west.

At the end of the fields you briefly join a road and then enter the delightful small wood known as Bushells Green. Here I saw a wonderful pink bluebell. I thought at first it must be a rare mutant, which perhaps it was as I saw no others. However, it may simply have been a Spanish bluebell.

Emerging from the wood, the path led across fields of buttercups towards Jennett's Hill. I thought it was time to record a Greater Stitchwort, which I had been seeing in profusion.

And on leaving Jennett's Hill and entering more woodland, I encountered a fine specimen of Bugle, with radiant purple-blue flowers.

After exiting the wood, a section of road and then a woodland path brought me to Buckleberry Common and the long oak drive that leads to Chapel Row and the Blade Bone pub. Along here I spotted a truly superb rhododendron, with a delicate pink and ochre wash to some of the petals.

The last time I walked this way (from Chapel Row to Bucklebury, by a different route) I took a photo of the pub. Today I focused on these lovely thatched cottages opposite.

The route on from Chapel Row involves a wide track which follows power lines for a mile or so. I saw a few white butterflies, and was then captivated by this bright yellow-orange moth. There were in fact two of them and they let me a merry dance as I tried unsuccessfully to get a good picture before they moved again.

The very helpful UK Moths site enabled me to identify it as the Speckled Yellow (Pseudopanthera macularia).

As well as the Primroses, Wild Garlic, Celandine, Speedwells and others which I did not photograph, I also saw Wild Strawberry ...

... Garlic Mustard (Jack-by-the-Hedge), a widespread weed whose flowers are quite inconspicuous, dwarfed by the large leaves, but actually quite impressive on a closer look ...

... and this startling Wood Forget-me-not.

Conditions: Cloudy at first, but later quite hot.

Distance: 6 miles.

Map: Explorer 159 (Reading, Wokingham and Pangbourne.)

From: Rambling for Pleasure: Kennet Valley and Watership Down (East Berks Ramblers). It's a while since I followed one of these routes and their core characteristics came back strongly to me: wonderfully clear directions and route maps, but in consequence a need to frequently refer to them.

Rating: three stars. I enjoyed - evidently - practising my wild flower photography using my newish macro lens.