The Cranleigh landscape looks at its best in spring. Surrounded by deciduous trees and mixed native hedgerows (mainly hawthorn, blackthorn and beech) and with small copses both on the Cranleigh land and the neighbouring Van den Burgh field, the gradual greening and re-awakening is always uplifting. The oaks began to come into leaf on April 12th this year, and from then on every day provides a different view.
‘Gradual’ is the important word, since the slow growth of leaf cover allows the wildflowers to bloom before the dense leaf cover provides too much shade. The purple of blue bells is set against the yolk-yellow of the celandine and the pale lemon of the primrose and the white of wood anemones. The copse that runs between the Woodland Fitness Centre and the paddocks is particularly good. On the edges of the copse adjacent to Loveday and by Gatley’s pond look out for wild garlic with its upright spray of bright white flowers. Don’t all try it at once, and please do not dig up the flowers for the garlic bulbs, but do take a taste of the leaves which are great in salads and sandwiches.
With the flowers come the insects, Sadly, the cold start to spring has not brought out butterflies in large numbers yet. I have only spotted wood white and peacock so far, but the St Mark’s flies (pictured below), usually amongst the first of the spring insects, and so called because they emerge around St Mark’s day on 25th April, were punctual and around for the first fixtures of term up and around the Prep School fields. After a warm winter, the slight cooling appears to have got things on track. During a couple of very warm early Easters during my Somerset days, I have seen St Mark?s flies emerge in mid March.
One insect I was particularly pleased to discover by chance while talking to one of the gardeners outside the South field entrance to the English corridor. If you look closely at the foot of the conifer, you will see a series of perfectly round holes surrounded by a circular spoil heap of fine grains of earth. Wait for a while as the temperature warms and you may see emerge a ginger-brown bee, a tawny mining bee. Mining bees are solitary rather than colonial so large swarms are unlikely making them difficult to spot. Tawny mining bees emerge in spring after hibernation and only fly from March until May, so you may have missed them but the holes are still there.
Spring marks the return of migrating birds heralding their return with song, adding variety to the robins, blackbirds, thrushes and finches that have been in fine voice for a while. For me, I know spring has arrived when I hear the chiffchaff, a small olive-brown warbler which is probably the easiest to recognise, a repeated calling out of its own name chiff chaff, chiff chaff from high up in the branches. The best place to hear them is up near the Prep School and on Winterfold. I was away on holiday at the end of March, so I cannot be absolutely certain of the date the swallows returned but the numbers have been growing steadily through April. The house martins started returning as we term began and by the end of the first week of May were back at home in the quad in good number. My favourite, the swift, with its sickle- shaped wings and screaming dives and darts usually returns to Cranleigh around the 3rd May- and when I returned from Manchester from a conference on the 4th, it was here! Magnificent rhythm.
Having been persuaded after many years to get a dog, I have spent more time out on walks. I should have listened to my family! I recommend the circuit that goes from the Prep School to the fields by St Joseph’s, through Wyphurst farm (always a good place for swallows) through the Alderbrook estate, crossing Horseshoe Lane and into Van den Burgh field to return back to the stables. The song of the lark ascending is one of the great sounds of an English summer. During the second week in April there were six singing in the fields of the Alderbrook estate and two in Van den Burgh field. These farmland birds are now on the red list having declined 75% between 1972 and 1996 due to changes in farming methods. The long grass not used for heavy grazing is clearly benefitting these ground nesting birds.
In my October blog, I focused on the bird I always associated with school playgrounds, the black and white pied wagtail which regularly frequents the quad. Just before the beginning of term, another type of wagtail, the grey, with a pale grey back and yellow rear began visiting the quad, or rather a pair. These are usually riverside birds so I was surprised to see them so far from the water. However, I am informed that they like the water around drain pipes and are seen quite frequently around Sainsbury’s. When all is quiet during lessons, our windows are proving to be good observation ‘hides’ – or possibly opportunities for distraction!
One of the pleasures of the summer term is to witness the boys and girls spending time on golf course and tennis court in between supper and prep; imitating the awakening around us. It is good to know we ourselves follow the natural rhythms of the seasons as all life responds to warmth and light. And then there is cricket and cricket takes time. Please spend some of that walking and enjoying the site; perhaps come back a little early on a Sunday, stand on the balcony of the Jubilee Pavilion and enjoy one of the best views in Surrey.