30 day challenge – 24. Saltbox Hill, Bromley

We visit more chalk grasslands today further east along the North Downs.  Riddlesdown was the most westerly on my list of sites to visit this month, then Hutchinson’s Bank and now Saltbox Hill.

After parking in a strangely quiet housing estate, we follow a footpath between houses and into a small woodland. Despite the heat on the street, it’s fresh and cool under the trees.  Out of the woodland and into the open again, a grassland falls away to our left down to the valley bottom and then rises steeply to a road we both know well from road cycling days. Even from here, we can see there are pyramidal orchids everywhere and it’s teeming with butterflies. Left to botanise, I feel like a child let loose in a sweet shop.

I’m pleased to find yellow-wort. In the gentian family, it’s a new species for me with its distinctive blue-green leaves joined around stem and my guide says its found on lime. Here it is, complete with flower beetles. Nearby is a rather tatty musk mallow, with pale pink petals and feathery leaves.

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I also find common centaury (pink stars with yellow stamens), vervain (pinkish white flowers in a spike on a stiff square stem), perforate St John’s wort (with see-through leaf spots and black dots on the flower), field rose (with styles joined into a column), common spotted orchid and tufted vetch (purple and slightly downy).

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There’s a mystery plant too which I key out to be red bartsia, a plant which is partially parasitic on grasses but I’ll check it with the Twitter experts.

At a stile into the next field, a voice asks what I’m doing? A walker is looking down on me as I’m crouched with my camera. “Trying to photograph a moth,” I say. “Kill it!” he says, and I laugh tentatively, hoping he’s joking. He entertains us for 10 minutes with a brief synopsis of his life, how much he loves this area, the local gossip and his views on the warden whom he clearly has respect, if grudging.

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