Last weekend I went to visit a hidden little corner of Cornwall, and I’ve been trying to decide whether to tell. It was a secret and magical place, and the only human tiptoeing through was me…
But…I visited because I am writing a book about the wildlife and nature of the River Fal, and the Fal flows right through it, so at some point I hope to be sharing the wonder of…Crowhill Valley Woods. This Woodland Trust-owned woodland, part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest near Grampound and an important area of Alder sump woodland, is not that easy to find. Read this entry from the Woodland Trust’s ‘Visit Woods’ site to find out how some visitors spent a long time tracking it down! I was fortunate enough to have spoken to someone from the Trust in advance, so I knew where I was going. And here’s what I found…
The flora was wonderful, and there will be more to come. This is somewhere to visit time and time again. Hemlock Water Dropwort was leafy and green, its umbels of flowers waiting to unfurl. Tiny flowers of Wood Speedwell poked through the undergrowth. Lesser Celandine and the improbably-named Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage contributed notes of yellow to the Bluebell-blue, Stitchwort-white and leaf-green hues of the woodland.
There was also birdsong to die for, and I realised (once again) that it was high time I learned bird calls. In a wood, birds are, in contrast to good Victorian children, heard but seldom seen. There are many flurries through the leaves, rustles and darting flights, but the birds don’t hang around to be looked at. Nonetheless, I saw a Blackcap, a Songthrush, Wood Pigeon and several Blackbirds (plus a few small indeterminate brown ones). Bees and other insects were also buzzing – the highlight was a Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly, an immature male, presumably newly emerged, but there were also Green-veined White and Peacock butterflies a-plenty.
So, I suppose I should be recommending you visit this special place yourselves. And I do, of course. Just remember, sshhh, keep it secret!!!
Earlier this week I was going a bit stir crazy cooped up working in the house. I love being freelance, but boundaries can get blurred between work and play, so I took myself off into the fresh air to clear away the dross and breathe deeply for a few hours.
For ages, I’ve been meaning to spend a bit more time on Bodmin Moor, so off I went with a few possible destinations in mind.
First of all, I went to Golitha Falls, a National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the name of which alone is enough to stir the imagination. Park your car in the car park at SX 228692, and then step across the road to enter a delightful steep valley retreat that follows the path of the River Fowey as it drops in altitude, forming a gorge amidst the ancient oaks of the woodland. Golitha Falls is known in particular for bryophytes and lichens, but there are also dormice, otters and kingfishers here. I didn’t knowingly see any of the rare bryophytes, nor, unsurprisingly, the otters or the dormice, but I did see two kingfishers whizzing down the river in a flash of colour so fast I had to think twice about whether I had really seen what I thought I had just seen. Pretty amazing!
What is fantastic about Golitha Falls is that, even though there were a few cars parked, the place felt empty and peaceful. Although there is sort of a main path wending its way through the woods, there are many twists and side turnings, some ending in crumbling stone walls, some disappearing beyond the overhanging branches and going to who knows where…a place to come and explore again, I think…
I did pause as I walked through the woods (down one of those side turnings) to enjoy watching a couple of hoverflies doing their thing.
My next destination was Dozmary Pool, a bit further north. You can pull your car off the road at SX 190743, and follow a public right of way down to the pool…or, at least, you can if your way isn’t barred by a crowd of stern looking cows protecting their calves. Now, those who know me are well aware that, while I like cows in principle, I am actually quite scared of them. Don’t ask me why – I will happily deal with fierce-looking dogs and stare out buffalo – but that’s the way it is. So that day wasn’t the day I was going to squeeze past the cows in the narrow lane to get to the pool. But I took a few photos at a safe distance, and determined to visit again.
Dozmary Pool is one of the sites reputed to be where Sir Bedivere threw King Arthur’s sword Excalibur to be reclaimed by the Lady of the Lake. Loe Pool is another contender for the honour, but I think I prefer Dozmary. This ancient place, the largest inland freshwater lake in Cornwall, carried an air of hush, of wistfulness, of patient expectancy. One could almost find oneself believing or, at least, wishing to believe, that somewhere close by the once and future King slept, waiting for his call.
From an ancient pool to a modern lake…next I headed off to Colliford Reservoir, owned by South West Water and managed for conservation by South West Lakes Trust. There are a few spots to park round this lake, but I stopped at SX 164730 and pottered about for a few minutes. I had been hoping to see a few birds on the water, but I wasn’t in luck. This will be a great place to come when our feathered visitors arrive to spend the cold winter months with us.
There were some horses grazing round the lake (I’m not scared of horses, so that was fine…), including this delightful foal. And here he is with his mum…
After that, I intended to head off home but, as I motored down the A30, I saw a sign to Blisland. ‘Ah, Blisland!’ I cried. Well, actually, my thought process was, ‘Hey, I’ve got time and I’ve heard it’s pretty, so let’s go!’ So I did, and very lovely it was, too. Blisland is a delightfully charming village, with a good pub and an interesting church.
I found my feet drawn towards the churchyard, presumably because churchyards are often home to butterflies and bees and flowers. But, in hindsight, I wonder if I was subconsciously drawn by the lure of a footpath leading away beyond the old gravestones. I ignored it for a bit, and detoured into the church building itself. I love simple architecture, so I enjoyed this stone window framing the greenery beyond.
When I left the church, I really meant to find my car and continue home, but that footpath would not let me go. Like the Secret Garden or Narnia, it pulled at my feet until I found myself descending some steps, walking down a slope and along a grassy path, until…
…I found myself in the middle of the most wonderful meadow, full of knapweed, grasses, crickets chirping, bees buzzing, birds singing and butterflies bobbing about from flower to flower. I saw my first Small Copper of the year…
Living near to Falmouth, I am used to thinking of the River Fal in terms of its end as it joins the sea amid the activity and hustle of the world’s third largest natural harbour. Large ships anchored out in the bay, people teeming round the docks, either hard at work or visiting to enjoy the spectacle, pleasure boats, industry, and so on, are what come to mind.
But that’s not where I am now. I’m up on Goss Moor, several miles to the north-east, standing by the side of one of the many springs that make up the headwaters of the Fal. From half way across the Moor, the Fal is already a recognisable busy stream, both on the ground and from a map, but here, further to the east, the river has not yet formed, and the many small springs and trickles are making their way westward before joining together to wend their way south to Falmouth Harbour.
My day at Goss didn’t begin with the Fal. I parked in the car park at the southwest corner, close to St Dennis, and set off on the Goss Moor Multi-Use Trail eastward. Goss Moor, Cornwall’s largest lowland wetland, is one of three National Nature Reserves in Cornwall – the others are Golitha Falls and The Lizard – and Goss and Golitha tend to suffer by comparison with the more renowned Lizard reserve. I haven’t yet been to Golitha, but I can vouch for Goss Moor definitely being worth a visit. The multi-use trail is a good seven miles long, a full route round the moor, mainly off-road, partly on-road, making easy access for walking, cycling and horse riding, and a good running circuit as well, given the number of runners I passed (or who passed me!). It’s also relatively easy to leave the trail and make your way across the moor to investigate further off the beaten track.
As I set off on my walk, I was aware of many sounds – birdsong, the distant hum of traffic, cows mooing and sheep bleating, the St Dennis church bells (this was a Sunday morning), water somewhere trickling. But beneath it all, the continuous motif linking all these other notes, was the crackling hum of the pylons that are strung out across the moor, originating from the Indian Queens Power Plant to the west. Unexpectedly, this didn’t distract me from appreciating my walk, instead adding an edge to the bleak beauty of the place. People sometimes talk of pylons as ‘marching’ across the landscape, but these seemed rather to be rooted firmly in the heathlands at their feet, part of and not an intrusion on the scene. And why shouldn’t they be? – these particular ones have been here since the 1960s, and pylons have been a feature of the Moor since the early twentieth century. It is indeed amazing that a landscape that has been so heavily influenced by humans through the centuries – tin and clay mining, gravel extraction in the 1970s, the building of the modern A30, the railway and the power plant – should feel at the same time so peaceful and isolated.
I left the pylons behind, anyway, as I detoured from the main trail to take a path bending to the north, to find the Fal. This is perhaps not the most productive time to visit Goss Moor: it is known, amongst other things, for its Marsh Fritillary butterflies, the delicate flowers of Yellow Centaury, Lesser Butterfly and Heath Spotted orchids, all of which won’t appear until later in the year. I might have been able to spot the lovely little fern, Pillwort, or the rare Marsh Clubmoss, but I didn’t.
I did however find the Fal. Walking eastward, in the opposite direction to its flow, one of the most striking features is the reddish colour of the sediments in parts of the stream bed. As far as I can work out this is due to iron-rich minerals resulting from the geological and industrial processes in the area (any readers who have better information – please leave a comment as I would love to know more!). Goss Moor is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and the site description tells us that its soils have been heavily disturbed and influenced by mining, with these and the more recent gravel extraction creating open water pools.
I also noticed something I’ve seen before, but never in such abundance. The oily-looking film on the surface of still water pools isn’t in fact a small-scale oil slick, but a film created by Leptothrix discophora, a bacterium that uses iron for maintaining its life functions, much as we use oxygen, so it obviously thrives in the iron-rich environments here. You can tell it is not oil by poking it with a stick: oil will swirl around and not break up, whereas the Leptothrix discophora film breaks up into little platelets, a bit like cracking a thin film of ice. You can see this in the photograph below.
After finding the Fal and pottering along the boardwalk on the ‘Marsh Fritillary Trail’, I rejoined the main track and did the full circuit of the Moor. I wasn’t quite so enamoured with the northern section for a ‘nature’ walk: I suspect that’s more because I love investigating the heathlands and smaller tracks, and because the proximity to the main A30 trunk road in the northwestern parts of the trail was a little off-putting – there is a great view from the bridge over the A30, though.
There was plenty of interest, however. The leg running along the northern edge uses the old A30 – famous for its traffic jams in the past, but now a peaceful track with an interesting bench or two! Watch out as well for the milestone, dating from 1769 and resited to south of the bridge over the new A30. In its original location it told you that you had 10 miles further to go before Bodmin – it would have seemed much further then than in these fast-speed days.
As I came closer to my starting point, through a more wooded area, there were many signs of Spring to cheer the scene on a cold and grey day – snowdrops, primroses, catkins hanging over the path, the fresh green leaves of soon-to-be foxgloves – all promises of a richer and more colourful sight to come.
I think, though, my favourite part of the walk was in the eastern section, alongside small pools and springs that are destined to become part of the River Fal but which, for now, have no names or separate identity. I wondered what vagaries of geology and time determined that these would become the Fal, flowing to the south coast and the busy shipping lanes of the open sea.
It’s good sometimes to remember that things have a beginning, and that while returning there cannot turn back time or alter a previous course, it can nonetheless refresh the mind with future possibilities, future directions.
Yesterday started off here in Cornwall as a perfect autumn day: the sun was shining, the garden was coated with frost and the air was crisp. So I decided to head off to a local area of ancient woodland – Devichoys Nature Reserve – owned and managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust.
There is very little that can beat a woodland for an autumn walk – the colours, the leafless branches twisting darkly against the sky, wood pigeons dashing from tree to tree or bright robins perching close by hoping you’ll kick up something interesting to eat, rime-coated leaves, the roar of cars and lorries…oh, yes, Devichoys runs along the main A39 between Falmouth and Truro, and the traffic noise is constant. At first I thought I’d find it distracting, but I was surprised how quickly I shut it out (possibly a skill gained from living in London!), and focussed instead on the stillness and delicate noises of the woods.
Devichoys is a 40-acre site of ancient woodland. This does not mean it is a relic of wildwood or primeval forest – ancient woodland means a wood that is generally at least 400 years old and with a predominance of natural not human-planted trees, but which nonetheless bears the hallmarks of traditional sustainable management, such as coppicing. Look at a plantation of oaks, with their straight trunks and almost uniform shapes and height, and then look at the crooked, weaving branches of the sessile oaks (Quercus petraea), clearly of different ages, that dominate Devichoys Wood. Very little ancient woodland like this remains in Cornwall – much was felled to fuel the tin mining industry – so fragments like this are beautiful to find.
As you walk round the circular track in Devichoys you can spot the familiar signs of coppicing everywhere – several stems growing from one central ‘stool’ where the tree has been cut – making use of the natural ability of the tree to regenerate and provide a continuous source of wood. The very informative sign at the entrance to the reserve told me that coppicing stopped here about 60 years ago, but that the Wildlife Trust has now restarted it as a conservation practice.
We are used to thinking of human impact on the environment as bad for wildlife, but in fact these traditional and low-impact management practices are beneficial, by creating a varied structure and open spaces to suit different species. The Trust is also creating ‘rides’ through the wood – clear avenues where the trees have been cut to create lighter areas. I’ll definitely be visiting in the summer to enjoy the colours of the wildflowers and butterflies that will be thriving there! These spaces can also be good for some bat species that like a varied environment.
There is plenty to see in the late autumn, though. I started my walk early, so the frost was still decorating the leaves and acorns, catching the low sun.
Look at this rime-covered acorn:
And what’s been nibbling this one?
In case you were beginning to wonder about the subtitle of this post – the management of the wood also incorporates leaving plenty of dead wood lying around, and I loved seeing all the different shapes of fallen and felled logs and branches. Why is dead wood so good? Well, it is of course part of the cycle of nature for plants to decay and return their nutrients to the earth. And in the meantime it provides a home for mosses, lichens, fungi and invertebrates.
These lichens are enjoying the dead wood!
And so is this fungus!
I spent a lovely, muddy, crisp two hours in Devichoys Wood, spotting lovely old trees of hazel, holly, beech (which hold their browny-gold autumn leaves through much of the winter) as well as the gnarled oaks and the bramble (still trying to flower!).
I even managed to get lost (not a surprise to anyone familiar with my sense of direction), and found myself at the edge of the wood, admiring the trees curving away around a field edge. It always gives me a thrill to approach a wood, to wonder what I’ll find under its branches, but it is even more entrancing to stand beneath the trees, looking outward, wrapped in its peace and privacy.
For more about Devichoys Wood and how to get there – it is off the A39 close to Perranaworthal and about 3 miles north of Penryn – see the Cornwall Wildlife Trust‘s website. Be warned – parking is limited.
To find out more about ancient woodland, I don’t think you can do better than Oliver Rackham‘s Woodlands, published in Collins New Naturalist Library series.
So, in my last post, I said I would visit one of Cornwall’s hidden gems, somewhere a bit off the tourist trail. In the end, I didn’t pick one of the places I listed last week, but somewhere I’ve been passing by everytime I head towards Helston and keep meaning to explore – Porkellis Moor.
It’s been on my list for a number of reasons: 1. I love bogs, fens, ponds, puddles and mud, and Porkellis Moor is apparently full of them. 2. It is part of the West Cornwall Bryophytes SSSI, so is a haven for some rare liverwort species – very nice if you like boggy places, like me. 3. It’s pretty close to where I live, so it’s high time I went.
The first lesson was, don’t take the car. I did in the end manage to tuck my car away somewhere, but there’s not really anywhere to park at any of the entrances to the reserve. So if my description below tempts you to visit, take the bicycle, or make it part of a longer walk in the area round Stithians and the Reservoir: a good OS map will give you the footpaths.
Entering by a small kissing gate on the south side of the area, a hedgerow-lined path takes you towards the moor but hides it from sight. A fox ran across the path in front of me, stared me out for a few seconds, and then shot fast into the undergrowth. Having had a morning getting fed up doing shopping and other chores, and depressed by the dull day, it was one of those ‘entering another world through the wardrobe’ moments and, despite the drizzle, my spirits lifted. I followed the fox.
I lost sight of my guide, but soon found the moor. It is definitely, decidedly boggy. Take your wellies! It is in fact not only a lovely marshy area – I’m sure in the spring and summer it is going to be humming with butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies and lovely boggy plant species – but is also part of the Cornish tin mining heritage, with various remains, including a couple of ‘dumb buddles’. A buddle was a circular pit, fitted with rotating brushes and used to concentrate the tin ore, and a dumb buddle was the manual version. It’s fun to explore round some of these ruins, and at this time of year I suspect you will have the place largely to yourself – I did – apart from locals enjoying a good place for a walk. It would be a fantastic place for dogs to enjoy – lots of lovely puddles to splash in!
I made a half-hearted attempt to look for rare bryophytes, but I’m no expert, and will need to ask for some help from more knowledgeable friends in finding them. If any readers happen to know their liverworts, the species found here are Cephaloziella integerrima, C. massalongi and C. nicholsonii.
But I did find some other more common but still lovely things. Yellow brain fungus for one was in its full yellow splendour after the rain. This inedible golden-coloured fungus of dead and decaying wood – Tremella mesenterica – shrivels up in dry weather, but with wet conditions (of which we’ve had plenty) it swells up and contorts, looking something like a brain, and hence its common name. Not over-large (no more than 10 cm) it’s still a bright sight on a dull day!
And look at this amazing fruticose lichen – an Usnea sp., I think.
Or this beauty, which I think is Parmotrema perlatum.
It just goes to show that even on a mizzly November day, when birds and other beasts are keeping out of sight, there is still plenty that is wonderful to see, if you’re prepared to look at the smaller scale. A hand lens is a great and inexpensive investment to bring a new world to life.
Before leaving, I explored an area of wet willow woodland. Even wearing wellies it was tough going in the muddy conditions, so I stopped instead for a few moments, listening to the sounds of the wood – drippings, rustlings, scurryings – still and quiet and yet also full of noises. The more I listened, the more I tuned in to the vibrant undercurrent of life amongst the willows with their weaving branches. As I turned to go, I caught a flash of red moving through the trees. Goodbye for now, fox – see you next time!
I’ve been very busy this week, so I’ve had no chances to go exploring – which has been very frustrating! But I have had the chance to do some exploration planning while I was business journeying, so I thought I’d share it with you…
A meeting in Exeter on Friday saw me motoring up the A39 and A30. It was one of those drizzly, foggy, grey Cornish days. In the safety of my car I could have been anywhere: the mist drowned all view of what lay beyond the road verges, except for the occasional shifting shape of a tree, or a hill, or a horse close to the field edge. And the road signs, pointing to places away off beyond where I was heading …I swept by so many, and being the only material things apart from the road itself that I could see with any clarity, I paid far more attention to them than normal.
Growing up in London, I used to love finding the hidden gems – places that weren’t mobbed by tourists or people, but were enjoyed by locals and had a different charm. Oxleas Wood rather than Hyde Park, the Horniman rather than the British Museum, Dulwich Gallery not the Tate, and the independent Sydenham Books rather than the high-street chain.
So far, I haven’t really done that in Cornwall. I’ve been busy visiting the better-known places: St. Ives and Porthcurno, the Lizard, Falmouth and Cape Cornwall. There’s nothing wrong with that – they’re all beautiful – but maybe it’s time I started hunting out the hidden gems down here, too.
Because of the misty drive, and because therefore the rolling hills of Cornwall were out of sight, it was the names on those roadsigns that I noticed, places I’d only vaguely heard of, and certainly never been. Later, I got out my map to look for them, and found many, many more intriguing and beckoning names…
…Polyphant and Old Kea, Two Waters Foot, Treworgan Grove and Lawhitton, Enniscaven and Carclew. Egloshayle, Restronguet, Washaway. Should I walk Old Carnon Hill to Perranwell, or take the Old Coach Road to Bodwannick Wood? So many woods – Callywith, Lamphill and Captain’s, Roskrow, Devichoys, Follycoombe, Queenie and Horneywink. Up on Bodmin, I could choose to turn left to the village of Helland or right towards Blisland. I could look down from Hawk’s Tor, or gaze up from below, standing next to the watery depths of Siblyback and Dozmary.
So, I think it’s time I visited some of these places. I may not be able to get to all of them – some may be privately owned, and maybe some are now just names on a map. But I’m going to try…this week, I will be picking one to visit, and will write a post on how I got on and what I found – place, wildlife, people and history.
And if anyone has ideas for hidden Cornwall gems I should get to, please do let me know!
Discover Cornwalls best trails. With over 250 miles of continuous coast path, areas of outstanding natural beauty, prehistoric burial sites and abandoned mine trails, Cornwall is a great place to go trail running, hiking or walking. Get out there and enjoy the experience!