Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Pit Lane, Byfield

Mention Pit Lane to most Byfield residents and you could be met with a puzzled stare, but replace it with 'Muddy Lane' and you are on safer ground - even though the former is apparently the official name. Its popular name needs no explanation because, although it is currently dry, for much of the year it can be something of a quagmire. An alternative name could be 'Dog Poo Alley'. An appropriate bin is provided but it is so much easier to let your pooch evacuate its bowels and then saunter on, feigning not to have noticed.

So why did I venture down this noisome track today? The fact is that a pit does exist about three hundred metres from the start. It was, I suspect, a source of stone two or three centuries ago for parts of Byfield. It fell into disuse and a small pond developed so my plan was to have a look at this potentially interesting site for insects.

As it happens I abandoned the plan because the area had become overgrown with nettles and brambles to such a degree that it was unapproachable. But all was not lost since for many years villagers dumped refuse there, often including throw-outs from gardens, and many of the plants had found it to be a congenial home.

One of these is the Musk Mallow, Malva moschata, in its white form 'alba'. Docks, nettles and other thugs of the plant world are overwhelming many of the less robust plants, but the mallows are currently holding their own. The flowers do indeed have a musky scent but this only become obvious indoors.
Musk Mallow at Pit Lane, Byfield. 5 July, 2017
Common Mallow, Malva sylvestris, arguably has prettier flowers but tends to sprawl rather untidily and gardeners usually weed it out. It too was growing nearby where it will, if undisturbed, remain in flower until around October or even November.

Common Mallow at Pit Lane, Byfield. 5 July, 2017
Richard Mabey, in his Flora Britannica, reminds us that the pollen has been found at Roman excavations near Glasgow. The plant was valued medicinally by them and the mucilaginous leaves (marshmallows were originally made from the mucilage of the related Marsh Mallow) were consumed as food.  I also have it on good authority - my wife - that mallow is currently being used to flavour gin in The Archers. The seeds are edible too, with a slightly nutty taste, and in Lincolnshire the children called them 'Fairy Cheese'. Sad that these old country names are being lost, even though they live on in poems. In his Shepherd's Calendar John Clare wrote:
                                           The sitting down when school was o'er
                                           Upon the threshold of the door
                                           Picking from Mallows, sport to please
                                           Each crumpled seed he called a cheese.

Many old country names allude to cheese, not because of the taste but for the shape and way in which the seeds are arranged.
Also present at the site were a few plants of Mullein. The common plant in Byfield gardens is Great Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, a robust species, growing up to five feet in a season and with thickly felted leaves. This however was the scarcer Dark Mullein, Verbascum nigrum, an altogether more garden-worthy plant growing only two or three feet in height and with narrower, less felted leaves. Was it a garden throw-out? Perhaps, but both these species are native to Britain and the species was recorded from Byfield by the Rev. Miles Joseph Berkeley (1803-1889) but the date of his visit to the Byfield area seems unclear.
Several plants of Dark Mullein were present.
 Pit Lane, Byfield. 5 July, 2017

I will restrict myself to mentioning only one other plant, the Weld, Reseda luteola. Otherwise known as Dyer's Rocket, this is a native British plant whose natural range is unclear as it has been widely grown for its highly-regarded yellow dye. It may be regarded as coarse by some but I like it for its graceful spires of tiny flowers, which incidentally are much-loved by bees. It grows in considerable quantities around the nearby Boddington reservoir. Although it is related to the very fragrant Garden Mignonette, Reseda odorata, I could detect no scent.
Weld, aka Dyer's Mignonette, adjacent to Pit Lane, Byfield.
5 July, 2017
So, although I spent barely an hour up 'Muddy Lane' there was much to see and I was able to record a large number of insects too. An hour well-spent.

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