Country Diary: Days of steam remembered on disused rail-track stroll

Oxford ragwort finds its home along rail-track beds.
Oxford ragwort finds its home along rail-track beds.

Nostalgic memories of steam trains returned, when we strolled along the disused rail-track between Scarborough and Whitby. Development of the railway system caused the eruption of Oxford ragwort!

Originally a native of southern Italy and Sicily, it flourished on volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna. Linnaeus introduced it in the 18th century, where it was planted in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens. In 1794 its seeds escaped and established themselves in walls. Spreading towards Oxford’s station, it found the clinkers, cinders and stones beside the tracks resembled its native habitat of volcanic scree.

As our railway system expanded, more industrial landscapes were colonised. Plumed seeds were transported in the vortex of air behind trains, to alight in new destinations.

World War Two bomb sites provided new habitats, and Oxford ragwort gradually masked the scars with golden yellow flavours. You’ll find them on walls and embankments of railway lines today.

The fluttering of wings in the grassed verge near our local mere, drew our attention to a grey wagtail. The handsome bird with grey crown and back, contrasted with its bright yellow underparts. The long, white-edged tail gives the bird its name. It has a vertical wagging motion.

This bird however had met with some injury. Despite efforts to help it to safety, it swiftly vanished into the dense vegetation.

Driving through the village of Silpho, our progress was halted by the golden glory of buttercup-like flowers growing from the dew pond. We were so pleased to see this tall, hairless perennial, as it’s becoming increasingly rare, and is found only in scattered localities. Though resembling a large-flowered buttercup, its leaves are narrow and spear-head shaped.

A far more common and familiar sight beside ditches and wet areas of woodland, is meadowsweet.

Its creamy-white flowers are in dense clusters and quite fragrant. They used to be used as a strewing herb – being scattered on floors in the 16th century as a means of masking other less-desirable smells! Meadowsweet is a name derived from mede-sweete, because the plant was used to flavour mead, the Anglo-Saxon drink made from fermented honey.

Now adorning hedgerows is the convolvulus or hedge bindweed, a plant with an ability to wrap around things. It climbs up shrubs by means of its stems which twist in an anti-clockwise direction.

The large, trumpet-shaped flowers cannot be mistaken. The petals are pure, snowy-white, and at dusk seem almost luminous in the fading light. Although scentless they attract the convolvulus hawk moth, which uses its long ‘tongue’ to extract nectar from the base of the flower. When dawn breaks the flowers open once more. Maybe that’s why in the west country they’re called Morning Glory.

Remember 1976 and the ladybird plague? Where are they now? I’ve seen two this year?