See  below for details of the footpaths which are legal rights of way in Harlton and some of the commoner wild flowers, trees, butterflies and fungi that you will see as you walk the footpaths.

Harlton to Barrington
Link provided by Wagipedia

Harlton to Shepreth – voted by the Independent as one of the Best 10 UK Autumn walks!
Link provided by the Ramblers

Herb Robert (wild rose)

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One of the loveliest flowers, which is around from May right through to the first frosts, is Herb Robert. Less than half an inch across, the flowers appear in their first flush like a rash of pink jewels across the woodland floor on fairly straggly plants that are anything from 12 to 24 inches high.

It shows earlier than this, though, when the leaves and stems start to develop. The stems are often a rich red colour, almost maroon, and are very distinctive. Because of this, it’s sometimes known
as “Redshank”.

Herb Robert is our commonest British geranium, or cranesbill. The cranesbill bit comes from the shape of the seed head, which is remarkably like that of a crane. The nearest picture I have to a crane is one of a Saddle Bill Stork, but I think that cranes and storks are very similar. Their bills certainly are, and they certainly look like Herb Robert’s seed heads!

The name Robert has two possible derivations. The first is that it was named after Robert, an early Duke of Normandy to whom a medical treatise written in the Benedictine School of Physic in Salerno, Italy was dedicated. The Robert in question was probably the oldest son of William the Conqueror. The other possible derivation comes from a corruption of the Latin word for red, ruber.

The leaves of Herb Robert often turn a bright red in the autumn: in the Middle Ages, the “doctrine of signatures” was widely believed. This means that a plant that had medicinal value would show itself in its shape or colour. Herb Robert, therefore was used in the treatment of blood problems and to stop bleeding. One of its other names is bloodwort.

Culpeper, in his “Complete Herbal” suggests that Herb Robert is also “effectual against ulcers in the privy parts or elsewhere”. Herb Robert is also known as “Stinking Bob” because of the strong odour it gives off.

Herb Bennett (Lords and Ladies)

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Another favourite flower of the woods, Herb Bennett produces its small – quarter inch – flowers from June to August. The flowers are followed by small, burr-like seed heads that catch on clothes and ansimal hair alike and can be transported miles before dropping off to start a new patch.

The leaves are reminiscent of strawberry leaves and grow as low clumps. The flower spikes grow up to two feet high, with the yellow flowers standing out against the dark woodland floor.

It got its name Herb Bennett from its association with St Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order of monks, and with this association came magical powers: an early medical book – as long ago as 1491 – suggests that “if a man carries the root about with him, no venomous beast can touch him”

Herb Bennett was used as a pot herb in the sixteenth century and was added to broths and soups.

Laurel Spurge (Burdock)
Daphne Laureolum

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Daphne Laureolum, the evergreen laurel spurge is a poisonous plant in all of its parts. Even the sap can cause dermatitis in some people, so take care!

It grows quite commonly on chalky clay, and is prevalent under the trees in the long plantations. It has attractive, lustrous, polished green, leathery leaves.

Its yellow-green flowers appear at the top of the stems under the crowning rosette of leaves in February and March and have a sweet scent; later on these produce black berries.

The plants are rather straggly and can be up to about 3 feet high. One or two of the plants in Harlton woods have produced double flowers, but the majority are the standard single type.

Horse Chestnut

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There are so many easily identifiable and well known parts of the horse chestnut that we almost don’t need to mention them!

Sticky buds in the late winter, distinctive “candles” of flowers in the spring, big leaves made up of five or seven leaflets on each leaf stalk and conkers in the autumn.

The Horse Chestnut isn’t a native tree – though it’s been around since sometime in the early sixteen hundreds (a number authorities suggest it came to England in 1625, and others a year or two either way), so it could almost be regarded as a native by now.

It’s certainly well established all over the country, be it planted or growing naturally from its conkers wherever they fall.


This magnificent group of conker trees stands at the western end of the churchyard at Great Eversden.

The sticky buds start to go really sticky in the late winter just before they break, and at this stage they can be cut and brought indoors where the new leaves break out in a bright fresh green.

A mature horse chestnut tree in full flower is a magnificent sight, the tree covered in thousands of candles of blooms, each of which can be as much as a foot high and be made up of over 100 individual flowers, although generally they are smaller and have about 60 flowers. The flowers start out with yellow centres and these turn red as they age. You sometimes see red flowered horse chestnuts: these arose as a hybrid with the American species, Aesculus pavia, and they are now propagated by grafting, so they don’t occur naturally.


This picture shows the magnificent horse chestnut on the corner of Washpit Lane by the village pond. It is in full flower with a much smaller red chestnut tree, also in flower.

The conkers ripen in September and October, and few colour and texture combinations in nature can be as amazing as the shiny brown of the nut contrasted against the white pithy inner lining of the shell.

There are various stories as to how the horse chestnut got its name. One is that when the crusaders were fighting in Turkey, they saw that the locals fed their horses on the conkers.

Another comes from the fact that where a leaf breaks off from a twig it leaves a scar that looks rather like a horse’s shoe, complete with the nail marks (below left and middle). No-one will ever know, so you can choose for yourself! The conkers have been used in the treatment of rheumatism and neuralgia, and even as a cure for piles. The bark has been used as a tonic and to reduce fevers as well as a treatment for ulcers.

Sadly a significant number of the trees in the plantation are suffering from bleeding canker – this shows up as red or black fluid that weeps out of wounds in the bark in spring and autumn.


When these sores reach all round the trunk, the tree will die. There is no cure for this, and in a decade or so bleeding canker will have taken a lot of trees. Nature will surely replace them with new growth – especially as more light will reach the quarry floor: in thirty or forty years time the quarry will be a very different place to walk in – but no doubt it will be just as diverse, if not even more so.


The above picture shows another pest – not a fatal one – a leaf miner that has caused early browning of chestnut leaves in recent years.


Everywhere in the woods and hedges, hawthorns bring in May the second great flush of flowers of the spring. The blackthorn is just about over when the Hawthorn comes out in huge profusion! Mainly white, but also in various shades of pink, the heavily scented flowers light up the countryside.

Unlike the blackthorn flowers, the hawthorn’s come after the leaves. The leaves grow from tiny pink buds and burst into fresh greenery, sometimes tinged with red, in March and early April. In the autumn their colours can be spectacular, anything from golden yellow to brown to really rich maroon.

The berries, which ripen fully in October, can range from a bright red to a dark maroon. The flesh is edible and tastes rather like a sweet potato – but not as nice!

The species’ Latin name (Crataegus oxyacantha) derives from the Greek words kratos meaning hard (of the wood), oxcus (sharp) and akantha (thorn). These characteristics make it an ideal small tree for use as stock-proof hedging.

The wood of the hawthorn is good for burning – it burns hotter than any other wood, and makes very hot-burning charcoal. Being a hard wood, it has been used to make small objects – boxes, combs and tool handles.

Hawthorn is one of those trees surrounded by folklore. In ancient Greece, for example, each guest at wedding feasts in Athens would carry a sprig of it as a token of happiness and prosperity for the future of the newly married couple. In Burgundy, mothers would carry sick children to a flowering hawthorn as they believed that their prayers would ascend better to heaven in company with the fragrance of the flowers.

The hawthorn was reputedly used to make Christ’s crown of thorns, and a close relative – crateagus pyracantha – is though by some to be Moses’ burning bush.


The hornbeam is often mistaken for beech, although in fact it is a member of the same family as the silver birch.

We are lucky to have a row planted all along the first long plantation between the Harlton clunch pit and Barrington Cement Works as well as a number of others scattered along the top long plantation.

The hornbeam can grow up to 70 or 80 feet tall. The grey bark is quite distinctive (but this, along with the leaves, are what make it easily confused with the beech).

One easy identifier is that the bark of the hornbeam carries in the early stages clear marks that look a bit like stretch marks in human beings: these later turn into the furrows and ridges of the mature bark. The leaf buds that swell in the spring are quite distinctive.

The male catkins appear in late March and April. Once the tiny female flowers are pollinated, they soon start to grow into the showy seed heads. The seeds are distinctive, with small nuts at the base of large wings. They stay on the tree for some months, often until long after the leaves have fallen, even as late as December when the dried up seed heads have turned brown and are still on the trees.

Hornbeam is a Saxon word that means “horny wooded tree”. Its wood was used for ox-yokes, mallets and gears in wooden mill machinery. And – if you are into wizardry – it apparently is a good wood to use to make your magic wand!


One of the earliest trees to show new growth in the spring, elder is a really common small tree in the woods and the hedges.

The reason for this is that the birds love to eat the berries and they spread the seeds everywhere! The foaming creamy-white flower heads are out in May and June. They have a musky scent that some people liken to the smell of tom cats.

By September the dark, almost black berries hang in great bunches from the tree. The branches of the elder tend to be fairly brittle and they have a pithy centre: they are easily hollowed out and can be used to make whistles and pea shooters. Older wood is very hard and has been used to make combs and chessmen.

Legend has it that the tree that Judas Iscariot was hanged from was an elder tree, and it is this legend that gives rise to the common name of the fungus known as Jew’s ear (probably a politically incorrect name nowadays!) The fungus is somewhat ear shaped and when it is damp it has a soft consistency and feels rather like earlobes! It is edible, but it’s certainly chewy as well!

All sorts of folklore surrounds the elder – one belief even being that the cross used to crucify Jesus was made from a giant elder tree. Add that to the Judas legend and you get a tree that is associated with death: as a result, farm workers would often go round elders when cutting the hedges.

In the middle of the seventeenth century (Art of Simpling, Cole, 1656) “in order to prevent witches from entering their houses, the common people used to gather elder leaves on the last day of April and affix then to their doors and windows”. This was seemingly a widespread belief: green elder branches were buried in graves to protect the dead from witches, and in some parts of the country the drivers of hearses would carry a whip made from elder wood for the same reason.

Such a significant tree also had many medicinal uses from curing sciatica and neuralgia to being used as an ingredient in ointments and poultices. It has also been used as a purgative and an emetic, to cure fever and as a diuretic. If you “Google” elder, you will find pages and pages of more information, recipes and folklore. Wow – what a tree!


The spiny plum – for that is what this tree’s Latin name means – provides us with one of the first masses of flowers each year. Around our way in the hedges and woods in March and April we get the first signs of spring with the blackthorn with its flush of cheery white blossom that comes before the leaves.

The blackthorn is followed in May by the hawthorn with its white and pink flowers and then the third great flush of spring flowers comes with the wild roses in June.

The spines of the blackthorn are truly vicious – long and sharp – on trees that grow 12 to 15 feet high. The spines arise from short branches that grow at right angles to the main stem: when these lose their leaves, the stalks persist as thorns.

The leaf buds are tiny, less than 2mm across, and – unlike the solitary spaced out buds of the hawthorn – they grow in clusters. The flowers usually come before the leaves, and each has five startlingly white petals. In a cold, late spring sometimes the leaves come first, but this is a rarity.

The bluish fruit – sloes – are the ancestors of our modern plums, though they are far too sharp to eat! One of the best ways to use them is in sloe gin. All you need to do is to collect a third of a bottleful of sloes in the autumn – ideally after the first frost, although in recent years with warm late summers they are ripe too soon to wait for the first frost! Just pick them when they start to go soft. The boring bit comes next: you have to prick each one a couple of times with a fork. Then they go into the bottle.

You then fill the second third of the bottle with sugar and top the whole lot up with gin (it doesn’t need to be a good one!) and put the top back on. Keep the bottle in the kitchen for a week or so and shake it up every day until all the sugar has dissolved. At this point put it into a dark cupboard and forget it until about Christmas when you can decant it and enjoy it as a warming winter drink that has a certain taste of cough mixture…

Some say you should never throw away the remains of the sloes: what is recommended is that you should get rid of the stones and mix the flesh into melted chocolate. Sounds pretty good!


The English oak – also known as the common or the pedunculate oak – is a tree that has been really important to Britain. Not for nothing were British sailors known as “hearts of oak” in the days of Nelson and the Napoleonic wars: the great warships were built from oak trees from the Weald of Kent, and up to 3000 had to be felled to make each ship of the line.

A really old oak can be 250 years old or more: those in our woods aren’t that old, but they are certainly imposing trees. The leaves are distinctive, as are the fruit, the acorn.

One of the strange things about the oak is that is sends out an enzyme from its roots that prevents acorns that fall within about 30 feet from germinating, and by this means it ensures that it doesn’t suffer from competition from its offspring.

The male flowers hang in long catkins in April, and the female flowers are insignificant bud-shaped catkins (so small that I haven’t seen them or taken any photos of them!) These eventually grow into the acorns that we all recognise as the fruit of the oak and which were once used as pig feed.

A mature oak tree is a bit like a town: it teems with life of all sorts, and many books have been written about it.

One such was “The Secret Life of an Oak Wood: A Photographic Essay” by Stephen Dalton and Jill Bailey – sadly now out of print but still available from Amazon. Some of this life includes parasites: the acorn weevil grows from a single egg laid in an acorn and causes a horrible twisting distortion of the fruit as it grows and eats its way through the flesh. Spangle galls appear in huge quantities on the underside of the leaves: each of these produces a gall wasp which goes on to lay even more eggs on even more leaves! The oak apple grows where another gall wasp lays its eggs, and another sort of oak apple is the hard brown one that is so clearly seen in the winter.

Old oaks have distinctive bark, with a strong deeply cut pattern which was once used for its tannin in making leather. Oak wood has been used for houses and furniture as well as for shipbuilding. While oak wood is green it is easy to work, but when it is seasoned it gets very hard and lasts for centuries. Old oak beams often survive house fires simply because the older they are the denser and stronger they are.

There’s an old country saying:

“Oak before ash, you’ll just get a splash
But ash before oak, you’re in for a soak”

Maybe it’s true – and maybe it’s not.

Certainly in recent years our summers have been so unusual that there seems to be no correlation between rain and drought and the opening of the leaves of these two trees.



The comma – presumably it gets its name from the shape of the scalloping of its wings – is a great butterfly to look at and an easy one to see: it spends a lot of its time basking in the sunshine with its wings spread open. Commas are fairly long-lived butterflies: the second generation each year hibernates throughout the British winter and comes out again in March to mate. Their offspring emerge in July and in turn mate to produce the generation that will emerge in September or October and hibernate through the next winter to start the cycle again in March the next year. The second generation – the one in this picture was taken in September – are darker in colour than the July generation.

They stay in a very small territory and their food plants are brambles, thistles and knapweeds – all flowers we have in quantity in the woods; they also like buddleia and Michaelmas daisies, and are thus often garden dwellers.

Wingspan just under 2 inches.


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This is another of our longer-lived butterflies, emerging in July and living until the following May.

It’s also one of the tougher ones and it will hibernate through the winter. They are among the first butterflies you will see in the spring: this picture was taken in April soon after it had come out of hibernation to lay its eggs on stinging nettles – which are what the caterpillars will eat – until they pupate in July or August. A mass of black caterpillars on a nettle is likely to be those ocf the Peacock butterfly.

The eye spots which give it its name evolved to deter predators. Wingspan 2.5 inches

Painted Lady

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These are among the longer lived butterflies – and tougher as well: they spend their summers here and fly off to the Mediterranean (either Southern Europe or North Africa) to avoid our wet, cold winters!

With a wingspan of something over 2 inches, they love the knapweeds on the path on Rod’s Walk down to the village and they lay their eggs on nettles, thistles and mallows.

Red Admiral

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The beautiful red admiral is another butterfly that spends winter in Southern Europe and North Africa.

It gets back to England in May or June and lays its eggs singly on the upper side of stinging nettle leaves.

They love feeding on rotten fruit and you will see them in the garden feeding on windfall apples and pears and on the nectar of ice plants and michaelmas daisies in the late summer before they migrate to the Mediterranean for the winter.

Wingspan 2.5 inches



Female – and rather a tatty one at that: she’s been through the wars! Wingspan about 1.5 inches


Male. Smaller and more richly coloured than the females


Underside of the wings (this is the same female as in the other picture) is similar in both sexes

Gatekeepers are fairly short-lived butterflies, living only about 3 weeks. They are to be seen in July and August in and around the woods. It is their caterpillars that hibernate: they then pupate in June and emerge to fly in July.

They get their name from the fact that they tend to guard their territory (often near brambles which are rich in nectar) from other insects.

Note that the false eye on the wing has 2 white spots: the similar-looking meadow brown butterfly has only one white spot in each false eye.

Speckled Wood

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Left to right: Male, Female, underside of wing

This is a territorial butterfly – you will see the same one patrolling the same place in the woods throughout its short life of just 20 days.

There can be up to 4 generations each year, and the caterpillars of the autumn generation live through the winter, taking 8 or 9 months to reach full growth, while the summer ones mature in about a month.

Wingspan 1.75 inches.

Dryad’s Saddle

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This is one of the largest of the fungi we find, particularly in the woods, and growing up to a foot across. It’s a common species and is easy to recognise with its scaly cap and strong lateral stem and can be seen from early summer to autumn. Dryad’s saddle occurs mainly on ash, elm and sycamore, on stumps and logs and even on living trunks. The underside has pores rather than gills for the release of the spores (hence the Latin name, Polyporus squamosus)

Shaggy Parasol

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The shaggy parasol is fairly common in the late summer and early autumn. Apart from the umbrella-like shape and the scaly top, the main distinguishing feature is the fact that the flesh reddens when damaged.

Earth Star

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These strange fungi have an outer layer divided into triangular segments and a spherical spore sac. The outer segments fold over the spore sac in dry weather, and open out in wet, going so far as to raise the whole thing off the ground. Raindrops falling on the sac cause it to puff spores out. It is quite common in the long plantations and can be seen from August to December, but it’s quite small and can be hard to spot among the leaf litter: well worth a search on your hands and knees!

The Wrinkled peach


This is another of the really attractive fungi that you can find quite commonly in the woods where it grows mainly on decaying elm logs (it’s one of the very few beneficiaries of Dutch Elm Disease!). The cuticle on the cap is thick and tough, and as it dries it wrinkles, resulting in a netted or veiled appearance, hence its names the netted or the veiled rhodotus. Its attractive pinkish colour gives rise to its common name of the wrinkled peach. The flesh is a distinctive salmon pink colour and you can see it in the autumn and early winter. This example in Harlton Woods was weeping clear red fluid from the stem. The larger older specimen is paler in colour, but the distinctive netting pattern can be seen around the lower edge. The Latin name is Rhodotus Palmatus.

The Velvet Shank

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The velvet shank is an exciting one to find. It’s quite common, and this one was growing on the base of a dead tree at the edge of the long plantation, and the colour just shone out! But it gets better: the colours of the gills and the stem are staggering! The delicate apricot colour of the gills against the dark, almost black, of the velvety stem was a complete surprise! A lovely autumn and winter fungus, and one really well worth looking for.

Cramp Ball

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This strange and very hard knobbly fungus is common in Harlton Woods and can be seen all year round: it grows mainly on dead or dying Ash trees. The Cramp Ball gets its name from the old belief that if you kept one of these in your pocket, you wouldn’t get cramp. (If you do decide to try this, make sure that you pick an old one as young specimens throw out millions of black spores that will stain your clothes badly!) Another of its country names is King Alfred’s cakes, as the fruit bodies look like the buns that King Alfred was supposed to have allowed to burn while he was hiding fromn the Danes after a battle in Somerset. Sometimes they are called coal fungus or carbon balls because of their brittle carbony texture. They can be up to about 5cm across, and their Latin name is Daldinia Concentrica.

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