Wildflowers On The South Downs

I’m not terribly fond of petrol mowers at the best of times but when they break-down repeatedly, I think them insufferable.   If only they would listen to reason and I could patiently explain how simple their duties really are.


At least a temporary forced-stop to mowing at The Old Forge gave me a compensation of buttercups;


and a patch of blue speedwell salved – a bit – my disgust at uppity machinery.

Flax South Downs

July 2014

As pretty as flowering lawns are however, for big colour impact on the Downs you must lift up thine eyes unto the hills.   In summer, fields are turned golden by ripening wheat; or the powder blue of flowering flax.

Poppies South Downs (2)

In July 2013, I was wowed by a remarkable field poppy display.

Poppies South Downs

Mesmerised, I took far more photos than I ever needed (or published – so here’s another two).  The sheer amount of flower hasn’t been repeated since; though poppies aren’t the only wild-flower to daub the skyline above the ‘Forge.


In May, the field next to the ‘poppy field’ glows from a mile away.

Flower Meadow South Downs (2)

At a distance one might mistake it for rape but no, it’s buttercups again.

Flower Meadow South Downs (1)

Thousands of buttercups, cowslips

Flower Meadow South Downs (4)

and some yellow rattle too.

Daisies South Downs (1)

From my new front door, a short walk leads to pasture

Daisies South Downs (2)

and small paddocks smothered by buttercups and daisies.

Daisies South Downs

And I instantly recall  a primary school hymn, ‘Daisies are our silver‘.


About the time I was singing ‘Daisies are our silver’ – for the first time

Almost 50 years later, the first verse still comes easily and I sang it again, lustily like a Welsh miner.  (There was no-one about).

Daisies are our silver,
Buttercups our gold:
This is all the treasure
We can have or hold.


As well as charming to a five-year old boy with a nascent gardening gene, the words proved prophetic too – given the chances of me ever owning a chest of treasure.

Flower Meadow South Downs (3)

Since I first visited fifteen years ago, these paddocks have been grazed by ponies and horses and, in one case, by the same pony – despite the toxicity of buttercups.  (My equine dietary expertise isn’t up to much and no doubt some horse owners will be dismayed at buttercup-rich, poisonous pasture.  I’ll just add that in East Sussex, in spring, it is a very common sight).

May South Downs

Higher up, a larger field is burnished too; mirroring distant blocks of rape.

Cowslips South Downs

Only here, the predominate species isn’t buttercup but cowslip; a colossal number of cowslips.  Which doesn’t match my usual view of them at all: as an occasional hedgerow flower or a few individuals lining a country lane.

I hope that July 2016 will see a return to magnificent poppy-red splodges above the ‘Forge.  But if they don’t, that’s OK.  I know that one year they’ll be back; and will again force people to pull over, park and whip out their camera phones – as they did in 2013.  In the meantime, buttercups and cowslips have magically transformed the Downs to cloths of gold; far more gold than I should have or hold.


I rarely meet anyone who knows the hymn I sang as a young boy, but for those of you who do, (but like me, can only remember the first verse) here are all the lyrics.  (I’m pleased speedwell gets a mention, if not cowslips).

Daisies are our silver,
Buttercups our gold:
This is all the treasure
We can have or hold.

Raindrops are our diamonds
And the morning dew;
While for shining sapphires
We’ve the speedwell blue.

These shall be our emeralds
Leaves so new and green;
Roses make the reddest
Rubies ever seen.

God, who gave these treasures
To your children small,
Teach us how to love them
And grow like them all.

Make us bright as silver:
Make us good as gold;
Warm as summer roses
Let our hearts unfold.

Gay as leaves in April,
Clear as drops of dew
God, who made the speedwell,
Keep us true to you.

The words to ‘Daisies are our silver‘ were written by Joyce Maxtone Graham, under the pseudonym, Jan Struther.  She also wrote the hymn, ‘Lord of all Hopefulness‘ (which surely you do remember?) and the novel, Mrs Miniver – one of the most beautifully written books I know.


Birdsong And What To Do About It

In a previous post, I mentioned how the midday hoot of a tawny owl – and my thwarted attempts to see him – had driven me nuts.  But that was nothing … nothing … compared to the song of a certain bird which has sent me doolally.  This unidentified bird sings a simple refrain, over and over (and over) again but however hard I tried, I couldn’t see the pesky culprit.  I checked birdsong audio files on the websites of the RSPB and BTO to no avail.  I told Jim about it but he couldn’t hear the song – even when I could – and only shook his head, looked at me sadly and gently suggested it existed only in my head.  I clenched my teeth but feared he might be right.  Then, one morning, Jim DID hear it.


But, his ID suggestion that it was the beep-beep of the Road Runner was unhelpful and met with stony silence and a hard stare.

Great spotted woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker

I needed proper help – Jim –  and after a quick search online, I found a phone app called BirdUp.  I love BirdUp.  BirdUp is free.*  Hoo.  It is ad-free.  Rah.   And it does what it says it does.  Hoorah.

Blue tit

Blue tit (you knew that)

The app identifies and records birdsong.  I tap the icon, point my phone’s microphone at a particular birdsong and, very often, it tells me which species is singing.  Brilliance.  But … it only works for a selection of British birds; doesn’t like background noise (planes, trains, automobiles and the like); nor a strong breeze blowing across the mic.  Neither can it cope with a chorus of different birds singing at once.  Even so, it has identified several common birds by song alone.  How clever is that?



Last week, I was sitting beneath a conifer and BirdUp told me that a high-pitched song above my head was that of a goldcrest.  The app has various built-in, playable bird songs and calls.  I played the goldcrest pre-record and within seconds a hitherto invisible, but now indignant, goldcrest appeared to see off the virtual intruder.


I don’t really need to tag these, do I?

I did the same with a hidden robin – who promptly showed himself too.  (I stopped at that point.  Birds have quite enough to do at this time of year without teasing from imagined rivals).

Male blackbird 2

No, I think not

But I still didn’t know the singer of that infuriating refrain.  I began to suspect a male blackbird but neither BirdUp nor various websites had recordings of the notes I could hear.   I read up about blackbirds and learnt that they are great mimics: copying common sounds, such as car alarms or phone ring-tones – and a penny clunked to the bottom of an otherwise empty tin.   And then, reader, I saw him.  Sitting high up in a tree, a male blackbird singing that bloody song.  And he isn’t alone: there is at least one, perhaps two or three others, singing from the same sheet across the garden.  Using the app, I recorded the song and, to share my pain and give you a taste of how repetitive it is, I’ve looped it several times.   Here it is:



It is pretty enough but after you’ve heard it for hours on end, all day long, the charm wanes.  Jim and I still laugh about it … through increasingly fixed grins … though we still don’t know what sound the blackbirds are copying.  Do you?

Male blackbird

(I wasn’t asked to review this app.  I just really like it.  BirdUp by Jon Burn is available at Google Play but, as far as I can tell, not on iTunes).

*As of February 2017, BirdUp is no longer free.