Crowhill Valley, which lies not far from Grampound, is one of my favourite woodlands in Cornwall. I wrote about this wonderful place back in May, 2014, when the bluebells were blooming merrily and the sun was shining (read about it here). The path through the wood wanders along by the side of the River Fal. It is a very watery place, with an old mill race running to the west of the Fal, just out of sight behind the trees, and numerous small man-made and natural streams chuckling along between the two main watercourses.
I was in the area today, so I decided to call by and have an afternoon walk. There was a particular tree I wanted to get a photograph of, and I had my camera with me, so it made sense. Hmmm…I should maybe have thought ahead, or even read the SSSI citation for the site, which states very clearly that “the water table fluctuates and in periods of high rainfall much of the woodland is inundated”. We have had quite a lot of rainfall recently.
Here’s what the path through the woods looked like in May…
…and here’s what it looked like today.
The path is in the foreground of this photo, I promise you. Occasionally it made a brave effort to break the surface, but mostly it was forced to lurk beneath all this water. I did walk (wade) a bit of the way in to the woods – the water was fairly shallow – and it was quite fun, in a wet sort of way. Eventually, I gave up. I was the only person there and, being quite a risk-averse soul, I had visions of tripping over a submerged bramble branch and spraining my ankle, or worse.
The tree I wanted to photograph was way ahead, so I’ll have to go back another day. Maybe I’ll wait until May.
When I think of autumn migrations, it’s the Whooper Swans, Fieldfares and geese that first come to mind. Or I might think of the birds that leave us in the autumn – the Swallows, Arctic Terns and warblers that have been here for the summer. The distances many of these birds fly is astounding, from the Arctic Terns crossing from one polar region to the other, to the many species that travel between northern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
If these migrating birds make us marvel, then what about the even more fragile creatures that cross to our shores through the summer and autumn? I mean the butterflies and moths, of course. It’s hard to believe that these insects with their delicate wings make it here intact across the sea, buffeted by winds and yet flying strongly. And make it they do. The Monarchs of North America are perhaps the most famous migratory Lepidoptera, but they are far from alone in their travelling habit.
Here in Cornwall, we are still getting new arrivals. Some are regular migrants, like the Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum) or Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) butterfly, while others are more exotic and rare, blown across on prevailing winds. We’ve even had a handful of sightings of Monarchs in Cornwall over the last few weeks, carried here across the Atlantic.
I’ve just been reading a press release from Atropos (the UK journal for butterfly, moth and dragonfly enthusiasts) about the visiting moth species sighted here around Halloween. It’s well worth a look at the Atropos website – they have a page dedicated to recording new arrivals. From their list, I can see that someone saw a Hummingbird Hawkmoth – a moth associated with the sunny days of summer – in their garden in Penzance on 2 November. It was a warm day for November, but if a moth could shiver…
Also visiting Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in the last few days was a rare immigrant – the rather exquisitely named Slender Burnished Brass moth (Thysanoplusia orichacea). A native of the warmer Mediterranean and Africa, there are only about 100 records ever for Britain (and now five more this year in Cornwall!), where it cannot survive the cold winters.
I also learned from the press release that Cornwall has received some less welcome moth visitors this year. The Box Tree Moth (Cydalima perspectalis) is an Asian moth, introduced to Europe over the last decade. The moth itself is rather lovely, with white, almost transparent wings. It’s the caterpillars that are the problem, with their ability to rapidly defoliate the Box shrubs (Buxus ssp.) beloved of topiary and ornamental gardens. The first British records of this moth were made five years ago, and this year there are two records in Cornwall. Oh dear.
But let’s console ourselves by remembering that, in our mild-to-date autumn weather, everyone is still reporting sightings of our regular migrant butterflies – Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta), Clouded Yellows and Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui). It’s already turning colder, so let’s enjoy them before we finally have to wrap up warmer for the winter.
If you want to find out more about butterflies and moths, and/or migrant species in particular, here are some useful websites.
Atropos, the journal for butterfly, moth and dragonfly enthusiasts. This website has information about new arrivals, how to get involved in recording and sharing information. http://www.atropos.info/site/index.php/
Butterfly Conservation. This national charity’s website has information about butterflies and day-flying moths, how you can help, including recording, and news on their research and conservation projects. http://butterfly-conservation.org
Cornwall Butterfly Conservation. The local branch of the national charity. If you live in Cornwall, you might like to go along to their annual AGM and members’ day on 7th March 2015, when Paul Waring, a nationally renowned moth expert, will be giving a talk. Details are on their website. http://www.cornwall-butterfly-conservation.org.uk
I love poetry, I love Cornwall and I love the natural world, so this is a chance to celebrate with a trio of verses (proper poet’s verses, not my own!).
Let’s start with the Chough, a potent symbol of Cornwall with its red beak and legs and poignant cry over the cliffs. The nineteenth century poet John Harris, the son of a miner from Bolenowe, near Camborne, wrote about this wonderful bird in his poem ‘The Cornish Chough’, beginning with the lines:
Where not a sound is heard But the white waves, O bird, And slippery rocks fling back the vanquish’d sea, Thou soarest in thy pride, Not heeding storms or tide; In Freedom’s temple nothing is more free.
John Harris, speaking to us from the past, would have had no idea that the Chough was to disappear from our shores in the twentieth century, followed by its dramatic reappearance in Cornwall in the twenty-first century. He would have been pleased, I’m sure, to see it getting itself established again.
The cliffs of Cornwall are rightly renowned for their spectacular scenery and wildlife. John Betjeman loved the cliffs of Cornwall, and is buried at St Endonoc Church, close to his home in Trebetherick. His poem ‘Cornish Cliffs’ brings to mind Cape Cornwall and Gwennap Head, although I expect he was writing about the north Cornwall cliffs he loved so well. It is a special sight in the late summer and early autumn when the rich yellow of the gorse and pinks and purples of the ling and other heathers roll away over each other across the hilltops, but Betjeman chooses to describe the scents of the plants.
Nut-smell of gorse and honey-smell of ling Waft out to sea the freshness of the spring On sunny shallows, green and whispering.
I can definitely smell the coconut scent of gorse and the honey smell of ling as I read those words!
And to finish, some lines from the famed Cornish poet Charles Causley. Writing in the twentieth century, he described his love for his homeland in many of his poems. Pertinent to the current season, his description of autumn in ‘The Seasons in North Cornwall’ is one of my favourites, especially the vision of the tall woodland trees as ship masts.
September has flung a spray of rooks On the sea-chart of the sky, The tall shipmasts crack in the forest And the banners of autumn fly.
Recently, I went on a trip to Newlyn Downs on a sunny day in North Cornwall, not far from Newquay and St Newlyn East. It’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation, and it’s not hard to see why.
Newlyn Downs forms the largest area in Cornwall of a vegetation type known as Southern Atlantic wet heath. It’s also the largest area of heathland in Cornwall that is rich in the nationally rare Dorset heath (Erica ciliaris). The SSSI citation gives more detail if you want to do a bit of fact-finding about what else is there. It’s a site influenced by past mining; capped lift shafts are dotted about, and the soils are a rusty red in the wetter parts of the Downs due to the iron-rich mining spoils.
My main observation, however, was that a lot of it is very boggy, and that’s fine by me as I love bogs and bog-loving plants! I was very happy as I tramped across the sphagnum.
We were on a Cornwall Butterfly Conservation field trip, and saw a fair few butterflies, moths and other species: butterflies – Gatekeeper, Brimstone, Small Skipper, Large Skipper, Meadow Brown, Small White, Large White, Small Heath, Green-veined White, Grayling; moths – Drinker (and some eggs), Magpie, and a marvellous Emperor caterpillar; other – Golden-ringed and Keeled Skimmer dragonflies. There were lots of Yellowhammers as well, perching, singing and dashing about for the benefit of the birders amongst us.
The beauty of a field trip with a group of fellow enthusiasts is that everyone has different things to bring. We had moth, bird and plant experts with us, as well as folk who know their butterflies, and everyone was friendly and willing to share their knowledge. I learned more about how dragonflies lay their eggs in the water as we all watched a Golden-ringed female doing just that, guarded by the male.
But my main focus, I have to admit, was on the plants. It was great to see comparative rarities, such as the Dorset Heath and Babington’s Leek, but best of all was the Round-leaved Sundew, one of our native carnivorous plants. I have never ever seen so much Sundew in one place. We were all trying very hard, but without much success, not to tread on it as we walked across the boggy areas. It was flowering, but the leaves were even more impressive, postbox-red against the rusty-coloured soil, and with their sticky ‘dewdrops’ glistening prettily but with sinister intent as they wait to trap unfortunate insects.
I tweeted a photo of the Sundew, and Plantlife tweeted it as their wildflower of the day.
It’s well worth a visit to Newlyn Downs – there are clear footpaths throughout – but take your wellies or a good pair of waterproof boots! The grid reference for where to park is SW8368355209 – in the ‘lay-by’ in front of the gates to the old golf course. Cross the road and follow the signed footpath.
If you’d like to come along to a Cornwall Butterfly Conservation field trip, there are still a few more this year. Link here for a list. Everyone is assured a friendly welcome: you don’t need to be a member to attend.
Link here and here to find out more about wonderful Sundews: Plantlife’s Wildflower of the Day on 30 July, and my favourite wildflower on most days!
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…
Last weekend I went to visit Bissoe Downs, a little west of Truro, with a group of like-minded people from Cornwall Butterfly Conservation in search of Graylings (the butterflies, not the fish…).
Leaving your vehicle in a small car park (SW 783408), there are various well-made paths you can take. Dodging cyclists and joggers and enjoying the warmth of the day, we headed towards the nine arches of the Carnon Viaduct, which carries the Falmouth−Truro trains, opened in 1933 to replace an earlier mixed masonry and timber construction designed by Brunel. Take a look at the picture at the top of this post: the topless masonry piers below the arches are the remains of the previous viaduct, which once supported a timber frame along which the trains ran, and which are referred to as ‘Brunel’s stumps’ – there are several across Cornwall.
The area around the paths is in fact a previous arsenic mining site. Just up the road, Bissoe Valley Nature Reserve, owned and managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, is an excellent example of how these previously mined sites can be restored, providing a haven for wildlife and recreation for us humans. Here, on Bissoe Downs, to either side of the path the land is naturally regenerating, with a succession of heathland scrub and trees such as birch.
Contaminated old metalliferous mining sites can, perhaps surprisingly, be more ecologically rich than you might think. This short report from Cornish Mining World Heritage makes interesting reading. These sites can even provide homes for species that are otherwise nationally rare but are tolerant of heavy metals, such as Cornish Path Moss (Ditrichum cornubicum), now found in only two copper-contaminated locations in Cornwall.
Here at Bissoe, the case in point is that of the Grayling (Hipparchia semele), a butterfly that likes to bask on patches of rocks or dry bare earth, of which there are plenty of the latter on the thin soils of this site. The colouring of the undersides of its wings, which it holds closed when at rest, with hind wings covering the forewings, also camouflages it well in this habitat. You’ll spot it quite quickly in the photograph to the left, but imagine trying to find it in the middle of an entire heathland!
Here it is a bit closer…
This photograph was taken almost directly from above the butterfly, so notice how it has tilted its wings at an angle away from the vertical. The sun was behind me and to the right – perfect for the photograph, and perfect for the Grayling which has exposed as much surface area of its wing as possible to the sunlight. Not only is this good for basking but it also means that this cryptic butterfly casts hardly any shadow – excellent for camouflage. It is not often one gets to see the more orange coloured upper side of its wings.
Graylings have in fact only recently been discovered at this site (by Phillip Harris, a committee member and previous Chairman of Cornwall Butterfly Conservation, as well as all-round expert naturalist). Graylings are now most often found on coastal sites in Cornwall, with only a small handful of inland locations to their name, so this site was an exciting find.
There was a time when Graylings would have been much more widely distributed. I’ve mentioned before on this blog my butterfly book from 1968. There it says that the Grayling is “widely distributed all over the British Isles, usually in dry, exposed places. Colonies may be found on steep granite cliffs above the sea, on rough moorland and commons, stony hillsides and chalk downs” (Mansell, E. and Newman, L.H., 1968. The Complete British Butterflies in Colour. Ebury Press, London).
Today, the picture is very different. Butterfly Conservation’s 2011 report on The State of the UK’s Butterflies cites the Grayling as one of the many British butterflies that have been suffering in terms of both overall population numbers and distribution. A recent paper (Fox et al., 2010) places Graylings as being nationally vulnerable on the basis of their reducing 25-year trends for both population numbers and distribution. This is probably mainly due to the loss of suitable habitat.
The Grayling is the largest of our ‘brown’ butterflies. It exhibits variation between populations across the country, with six subspecies in the UK. The main food plants of its caterpillars are grasses such as Bristle Bent, Red Fescue and Sheep’s Fescue, and the adults like to nectar on plants such as Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Heather and Red Clover. It is a priority species under the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan.
The Grayling, and other butterflies, are of course not just important for their own sake (which they are) but because they are sensitive indicators of climate and habitat change. With annual broods and specific habitat requirements they are often amongst the first species to respond to changes in the environment. If we want to continue to enjoy the sight of butterflies in Cornwall and the wider UK, we all need to take note and support those, such as Butterfly Conservation and its local branch, and the RSPB’s Give Nature a Home campaign, as well as our own Cornwall Wildlife Trust, who are all working to preserve habitats and species.
Did we find Graylings at Bissoe? Actually, yes…well over 30! Which just goes to show there is always hope.
Earlier this month, I went to visit Bunny’s Hill, near Cardinham and Bodmin, with Cornwall Butterfly Conservation (CBC). A beautiful spot in so many ways, our main reason for being there was to see if we could find Pearl-bordered Fritillaries (Boloria euphrosyne).
Sadly, we didn’t: the unseasonal cold weather and blustery conditions had presumably delayed the butterflies’ emergence.
It made me think back to 2012 when we made the same trip on the same weekend (and my first ever field trip with my new friends in CBC). Here’s what I wrote in my notebook from that earlier trip:
We were lucky to see a few Pearl-bordered Fritillaries on this, the first warm day of May (and the first warm day since March!). The males fly a little before females and, newly-emerged, they were pristine and beautiful. We found them feeding on nectar from bugle flowers – maybe they like blue, as Common Violet is the only foodplant of their caterpillars. They are also choosy, as Heath Violets won’t do at all..! The silver spots on the underside of their wings were gorgeous: photographs cannot do justice to the iridescence.
I obviously enjoyed the day! I also very much enjoyed Bunny’s Hill this year, even without the butterflies, but it just goes to show what a difference a year can make for wildlife. Natural fluctuations in the weather can obviously affect the timing of emergence and cause short-term population setbacks, and wildlife has survived that for thousands of years. However, these natural variations are increasingly becoming the ‘last straw’ when they overlie habitat loss, pressure from human populations and agricultural intensification (link here to Butterfly Conservation’s recent report on the state of our British butterflies, and here to the equivalent report for moths).
The Pearl-bordered Fritillary is a rare species nationally, and found on only a handful of sites in Cornwall. It is a butterfly traditionally associated with coppiced woodland, of which there is now precious little left, and sites like Bunny’s Hill, with its open bracken-y habitats, perhaps provide an alternative. The good news is that much habitat management work has and continues to be undertaken at Bunny’s Hill by CBC in conjunction with the owners, and this has helped maintain the Pearl-bordered Fritillary population since it was discovered there for the first time by CBC co-founder, Lee Slaughter, on 14th May 1998 – an exciting day he will never forget!
Bunny’s Hill is a delightful spot to visit. The Gorse was in full and glorious, coconut-scented bloom, and the views across the landscape were inspiring, even on a windy and chilly day. Looking at my species lists for the two visits, in 2012 and 2013, there is an amazing amount of wildlife to see if you pay attention. Last year, as well as the Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, we also spotted Brimstones, a Green-veined White and a Green Longhorn moth. This year we saw my favourite caterpillar – the Drinker Moth.
What else can you see? Well, you might find the wonderful Bloody-nosed Beetle, which exudes a foul-tasting red liquid from its mouth when threatened. We found nuts nibbled by Dormice and Wood Mice, and this year we even fleetingly saw a Badger, unusually out in the daytime. Plants include Tormentil, Wood Anemone, Wood Sage, Lousewort and Betony (the last of which, together with the Violets and Bluebells also found there, is an ancient woodland indicator species). We also saw Adder’s-tongue Fern, an indicator of ancient meadow. And, of course, Cornish Bladderseed. This rare umbellifer (a plant of the Carrot family) is only found on a small number of locations in Cornwall and Buckinghamshire, but there is plenty at Bunny’s Hill. It flowers later in the year, in July and August, but its leaves have a delicate beauty underfoot.
Some of Bunny’s Hill is accessible to the public via footpaths. If you would like to visit and experience it for yourself, the grid reference is SX117675: at the fork in the road, turn left, with further parking 50 yards up the track.
I was on my way to somewhere else with a couple of hours to kill, and the closest place on the map was Cardinham Woods, about three miles north-east of Bodmin. This was not a spot that had been on my list to visit in Cornwall – a plantation, lots of created trails – it didn’t seem, on paper, to have enough wildlife interest for me to make it a priority for a visit. How wrong was I, and how glad that I made the effort to go there!
For one thing, while this Forestry Commission-owned wood does include plenty of plantation trees (mainly the stately larch), there is a great deal of mixed woodland and understorey vegetation there as well. I spotted hazel, beech, ivy, oak, honeysuckle and bramble. Birdsong was constant, and a Jay, a Blackbird and a Thrush all came down from the trees to see me, while woodland plants were growing within a camera-lens distance of the path – the fresh green leaves and pretty white flowers of Wood Sorrel, Bluebells (not as advanced here as further west in Cornwall), the delicate winged flowers of Yellow Archangel, young Bilberry, Common Dog-violets, Foxgloves still green with the promise of their luscious flowers not yet delivered…all this, and ferns and moss and lichens in abundance…
The Woods here are very popular with cyclists, walkers and horseriders alike, and the paths were easy to follow and clearly signed. There are four walking routes: I took the Callywith Wood Walk, which circles an area where a long-term dormouse conservation project is being undertaken.
After a few minutes, I largely had the path to myself, although there were occasional flashes of cyclists whizzing by on a parallel trail. The way is fairly gentle, but climbs through the trees, both the rows of larch and the more untidy mixed woodland that sits alongside it. A small but busy river winds alongside the track for a while, chattering and splashing along.
Most of my childhood holidays were spent in Scotland, and I remember many a walk through mountainside conifer plantations. They are often scorned for their regimented rows and lack of variety in structure and height, but I thought then, and I was reminded in Cardinham, that they do have their own strange, wistful charm. The wind has a quality of constantly rushing though the trees as if it is come from some wilder time and place and has found itself lost in this far-off wood.
And every so often a gap through the tall upright trunks opens to a glimpse of a wider horizon. Cardinham was no different, with its views towards Bodmin and down the Cardinham Valley.
There are many different ways for all sorts of folk to enjoy a day out at Cardinham Woods. There are miles of walking and cycling trails, bridle paths, a picnic area, a play area for the children, and a great place to eat – the Woods Cafe – where I had a welcome cup of coffee and large slice of home-made carrot cake at the end of my tramp through the woods. It’s fairly easy to find – from the A30 turn east down the A38 towards Liskeard and from a few hundred metres further on follow the brown tourist signs to the woods. There is also a large and relatively inexpensive car park.
As I left, the car park was busier than when I arrived, but beyond the laughing children, happy dogs and chattering people, I could still hear the sound of the birdsong, and beyond that again, the same wind, still searching through the trees.
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.
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!