Beacon Hill is a prominent point on the Wessex chalk ridge in Hampshire that broods over the A34. It was the outline seen from a car window that I learned to love, years before I ever visited. The long, unfenced open ridge, a great expanse of close-cropped green rising up to Iron Age earthworks at the summit, called to mind the hill and moor country of the north and west. An outcrop of remoteness and wildness, or so it seemed to a child of the south Hampshire suburbs. The climb from the car park is a short, popular walk but steep enough to knock the breath from you. The summit is not exactly high altitude, at 267 m, but it is lofty for the region and as a result views are fine in all directions, especially looking north with Highclere Castle in the foreground (much more famous than the hill itself, thanks to the in my view largely inexplicable Downton Abbey phenomenon) and the Newbury area beyond.
Looking north and northwest from Beacon Hill
All in all, it feels like a ‘proper’ hill, though a close look reveals that the brooding, remote impression I had from quick drive-bys is something of an illusion. On Easter Saturday I found the hillside bustling with families on excursions, walking dogs, flying kites, and spotting orchids. I am usually a bit of a grouch about places being busy when I’m there to find wildlife, but on this occasion I was heartened to see such a varied group of people enjoying the outdoors, most of them not usually the ‘outdoor type’ if I may be permitted just briefly to judge by appearance and attire. It is good to see open countryside democratised, a place for everybody, even if our demands of it might differ quite widely. The landscape laid out below Beacon Hill is full of its own contradictions. Wildlife-rich grassland is adjacent to intensive pasture, pony paddocks and neatly mown verges. Skylarks and meadow pipits sang into the blue sky but may not thank those free-running dogs for disturbing their nests. Stray rubbish was caught up in bushes near the car park; further up the hillside, a sad lost helium balloon in the shape of the letter S twisted gently in the breeze like a charmed snake.
A fine view to accompany a flask of coffee
I did find a quiet spot near the northwest flank of the hill and stopped in the shade of a small hawthorn to pour some coffee from my flask. This is a good place to see ring ouzels during migration, with birds bound for the ‘real’ uplands of the north stopping off at similar-looking scrubby grassland slopes on the way. I saw none on this visit but was delighted to hear a firecrest singing from a pine overlooking Highclere Castle. This diminutive, fiercely beautiful bird is beginning to be at home in even the smallest patch of suitable habitat in this part of the country, many probably overlooked. This firecrest in particular may well have a finer view from its territory than any other in the country! My favourite find of the day was a lesser bloody-nosed beetle. Like its larger relative, it is a charming animal that appears as a child might draw a beetle: a rounded, black, trundling creature that is all shine and smooth edges. The only other place I’ve seen this species is on St Catherine’s Hill outside Winchester, another steep popular walk up a chalk hill with views to a famous building beyond. Both hills have been special places to people for thousands of years, both will likely remain so for as long as we’re around.
Looking back down the walk up from the car park, from where the beetle lives
Lesser bloody-nosed beetle
Highclere Castle aka ‘Downton Abbey
One of the chief joys of the chalk ridge in this part of the world is watching kites soar below
A sad lost S
A34 and farmed landscape beyond
Patch of blackthorn attracting plenty of bees
With friends on a visit in January
Same landscape, colours muted
After the strange heat of February came stormy March, with windy spell running into windy spell such that it seemed, as I’ve always liked to say, that we were living at sea. A good reminder that, as inhabitants of an island perched on the edge of Atlantic, we pretty much do. Alas that of late it feels like an end-of-era Atlantis, an island that is gradually sinking. The good ship SS Great Britain is holed below the waterline and foundering, not so iron-hulled and sturdy as her more noisy cheerleaders would have us believe.
Just as the political storm gathers full strength, the real winds have died down and given way to a gloriously temperate spring. Mild, not hot; cool breeze, warm sun and air with a delicious, fresh-laundered scent. The air is rich with the fruity song of blackbirds, especially in the early evening. Their song always strikes me as so beautifully homely. Woodlarks or nightingales may have wilder toned or more showy repertoires, respectively, but they’re birds of special habitats these days, not part of the everyday nature that soundtracks our lives. Conservation action targets the rare, but arguably we need blackbirds more. That may be one reason the recent epidemic of netted hedges and trees has stirred up such strong emotions.
This afternoon I’ve heeded the blackbirds’ song and stayed here in our garden. I mowed those parts of the lawn that I keep short, navigating round some blooming celandines. Sowed vegetables, herbs and wildflowers. Trimmed some ivy and dead stems round the edges, pausing for a few minutes here and there to watch the small creatures disturbed by my gardening – woodlice, yellow ants, springtails, millipedes. Watching life in miniature is as effective a form of meditation as I’ve ever known, one I have probably practiced without knowing it since I was a child. I don’t often enough. When everything in the world seems to be changing, it can feel like the only appropriate response is to take a view, to move, to act. Sometimes, it’s better just to sit under the tree where the blackbird sings, and be.
As I write, we’re in mid-March and experiencing perfectly seasonal conditions – blustery days that veer between sharp cold showers and warm spring-like spells of sunshine. It makes what went before all the more surreal. February ended with a week of full-on spring. The landscape was bathed in soft, hazy light and warm sun that tempted insects to emerge and birds to raise their voices to the blue sky. On Greenham Common, what I would usually regard as classic mid-March sightings were the highlights of a few-hour survey. Brimstones passed me frequently: animated scraps of such intense yellow-green that they are enough to persuade me hope yet remains in the world by sheer force of colour alone. In the woods on the edge of the common I saw two chiffchaffs working the tree-tops for insects. The woods shield a series of damp south-facing gullies, well-sheltered and probably harbouring plenty of winter gnats and midges for a wintering warbler. As I headed east back on the open common at noon, another unseen chiffchaff broke into full song – the earliest in the year I have ever heard one.
At dusk each day the spell was broken with the return of winter chill, a daily reminder that such conditions are far from normal for late winter. Perhaps the most outlandish statistic I saw during the warm spell was not the high temperature record (though this was impressive enough) but that under cloud cover a part of northwest Scotland did not drop below 16 degrees on the night of the 22nd. That would be a fairly normal daytime temperature in July in that part of the world, let alone an overnight minimum in February.
Did the unseasonable heat hint at a more dangerous fire to come? Similar weather patterns have certainly occurred in February before, though it is undoubtedly a rare event. Even under climate change we should not regularly expect these temperatures in winter. The greater threat to spring wildlife is not so much high temperatures triggering breeding cycles early but the possibility that the pendulum will swing quickly back to winter. More energy in the climate system means more variability, more extreme weather. Many have made the comparison between this year and late February / early March 2018 when we experienced consecutive subzero days, but it doesn’t take weather that extreme to wreak havoc. A few weeks of cool and damp will soon take its toll on newly emerged insects or snuff out early nesting attempts. Hopefully this spring will have just enough sunny spells to keep the early birds and bees going.
Absurd February weather at Greenham Common