Country diary: heathers and restless grasses are arresting

My daily walk during four months of coronavirus lockdown took me only as far as the end of a lane where I could see distant North Pennine fell tops. Today, I am standing on open heathland with nothing above me but sky, looking down on a landscape that falls away at my feet, where cloud shadows race across a deep valley and slide over the horizon.

I had almost forgotten this vertiginous feeling of exhilaration that comes from climbing to a high point where the only sounds are of the wind, my own laboured breathing and the distant yelp of curlews. Their breeding season is over, but the meadow pipit that rises from under my feet is probably raising its second brood. It hovers for a few seconds, almost level with my head, then sideslips away to land 20 yards ahead, repeating the performance as I draw near, evidently trying to lure me away from a nest.

Patches of bell heather, Erica cinerea, are in bloom, but it will be a fortnight before ling, Calluna vulgaris, with its paler flowers, and cross-leaved heath, Erica tetralix, coalesce to become a purple carpet that will be visible from miles away. For the moment, the colours are more muted.

Fresh new fronds of hard fern and emerald cushions of sphagnum moss adorn a drainage ditch beside the path. Sorrel, the food plant of small copper caterpillars, fills patches of bare ground with flower spikes that are the colour of dried blood. In the shelter of a drystone wall, soft cushions of heath bedstraw, covered in a constellation of minute white, star-shaped flowers, attract small heath butterflies.

Wavy hair-grass

But the most arresting plants here are grasses, in restless movement when their flower heads bend before a blustery wind. White pennants of cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium – botanically a sedge) sway in wetter hollows. Drifts of Deschampsia flexuosa, wavy hair-grass, with wiry red stems and dense panicles of shiny florets, sparkle in the sunlight; from a distance they look like puffs of smoke.

Ahead, the sandy track snakes across the moor, shimmering in sunshine that’s interrupted only by a few passing clouds. I could not have wished for a better day to return to the fells.


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