Archive | September 2015

An elephant up our lane

Last Thursday while walking up our lane I saw Alfie, one of the neighbourhood cats, with his nose deep in a sedge plant, clearly on the hunt. I wondered if he was after a mouse or some similar small critter, and bobbed down to have a look. At first glance, from the head of it and the way it was rearing up, it looked like a small snake, but I then realised it was an elephant hawk moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor). These are huge caterpillars, and I guess the moths are named after their caterpillars’ similarity to an elephant’s trunk.







Elephant hawk moth. Photo by Orchi.

As a defence mechanism, the caterpillar will rear up on its front legs. It did it to me again as I was holding it: it’s quite impressive! The caterpillars overwinter as chrysalids in leaf debris on the ground, and metamorphose into their adult moth form in May the following year.

The caterpillars feed on willowherbs (Epilobium) and bedstraws (Galium), such as Galium verum (Lady’s bedstraw), and have been known to feed on fuschias as well. None of these grow up our lane so I’m not sure what the caterpillar was feeding on, or whether it was looking for somewhere to overwinter. Interestingly, last year Chap rescued another elephant hawk moth caterpillar from Alfie at about the same spot. Both times we put the caterpillar in among our densely-planted and sheltered flower beds, and hoped that they would be able to successfully overwinter there.

Wildlife Trust information on elephant hawk moths

UK Moths information on elephant hawk moths

The Piet Oudolf garden at Hauser & Wirth, Bruton

We had a look round here on Saturday. The old farm buildings have been beautifully restored and altered for use as a gallery exhibition space, and new buildings have been added. My favourite part was the modern cloister, with clever planting. I assume the planting is by Piet Oudolf, who designed the beautiful meadow garden behind the gallery. The gallery and gardens are free to enter. The next exhibition there is one of photos by Don McCullin.








The late summer prairie-style planting was looking spectacular, and the garden was alive with bees and butterflies and hoverflies and dragonflies and damselflies and other assorted bugs and beasties. I think any beekeepers round there must be delighted!

Hauser & Wirth Somerset website

Someone needs a pedicure …

Ballou, to be precise:

DSCF3204 (2)We have bank voles (Myodes glareolus) living in our lawn and in our flower beds, and this is the result of Ballou’s particularly vigorous attempt at excavating one out of the lawn.

(The little critter got away, I’m pleased to report).

Animals riding other animals

News today of another animal hitchhiker: a seal on a humpback whale off the coast of Australia:

A seal hitching a ride on a humpback whale. Photo by Robyn Malcolm.

A seal hitching a ride on a humpback whale. Photo by Robyn Malcolm.

This follows on from the weasel on the green woodpecker in England:

Weasel on a green woodpecker. Photo by Martin Le-May.

Weasel on a green woodpecker. Photo by Martin Le-May.

and before that, the Cape Genet riding on buffaloes and rhinoceroses in South Africa:

Cape genet on a rhinoceros.

Cape genet on a rhinoceros.

I wrote a blog post about this last example last year, with more photos.

I think I might have to make animal hitchhikers a regular feature …

Sunday stroll: Down through Dorset

Not really so much a stroll as a bimble in the car with a short walk at the end of it. Chap and I headed for the seaside yesterday, taking a long and slow route through Somerset and Dorset’s winding country lanes.

We stopped off at several places en route. First stop was the church of St Andrews in Yetminster. Here we admired the 15th-century painted decoration still surviving on the stonework and woodwork and a reminder of how our mostly now-plain parish churches would have looked in the past. There was a splendid brass monument to John Horsey (died 1531) and his wife on one wall, and another, stone this time, to Bridgett Minterne, who died in 1649. While we were there we were surprised by the church bells, which rang out ‘God Save the Queen’ – very unexpected. Apparently this happens every three hours to remind the villagers of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897. I wonder if it happens through the night? There are some fantastic gargoyles on the tower, and a beautiful golden weathercock, but my photos of these haven’t come out very well and so don’t do them justice.


15th-century painted decoration at St Andrew’s, Yetminster.


Brass monument to John Horsey (died 1531) and his wife, St Andrew’s, Yetminster.

DSCF4335 (2)

Monument to Bridgett Minterne (died 1649), St Andrew’s, Yetminster.


The tower with gargoyles and golden weathercock, St Andrew’s, Yetminster.

Next stop was the reservoir at Sutton Bingham. We went for a short walk along the edge of the reservoir through the wildflower hay meadow that is managed by Wessex Water, but as it had been given its annual cut not too long ago there wasn’t much to see. On the water there were mainly gulls and a few ducks, and a heron perched on the opposite shore. Sadly we didn’t see the osprey that are summer visitors here. A few dinghies and sailboats from the yacht club were pootling up and down the water, all very Swallows and Amazons.

A Mirror dinghy on Sutton Bingham Reservoir.

A Mirror dinghy on Sutton Bingham Reservoir.

Then down into deepest Dorset and the Marshwood Vale. We stopped at the village of Stoke Abbott, parking near a lovely lion’s-head fountain of spring water with a spring-fed stone trough for horses nearby, both under a mighty oak planted in 1901 to celebrate the accession of Edward VII to the throne following the death of Victoria. We wandered off to look at the church of St Mary the Virgin. There had been a wedding there recently, as the fresh and dried flower confetti lay on the path and the church was still adorned with the wedding flowers. The church is in such a pretty setting, and has a 12th-century font with wonderful carvings.


Lion-headed fountain for spring water at Stoke Abbott.


Spring-fed water trough for horses, Stoke Abbott.


St Mary the Virgin, Stoke Abbott.


Wedding flowers at the porch, St Mary the Virgin, Stoke Abbott.


The 12th-century font, St Mary the Virgin, Stoke Abbott.


Wedding flowers and the simple lectern, St Mary the Virgin, Stoke Abbott. The flowers included agapanthus and Mollucella laevis (Bells of Ireland).


Notice in the porch, St Mary the Virgin, Stoke Abbott.


The sadly sheep-free graveyard, set in the most beautiful countryside, St Mary the Virgin, Stoke Abbott.


A lovely thatched house near the church in Stoke Abbott.

When we got back to the car a family (grandparents and wee granddaughter, we guessed) were filling up a car boot-load with numerous bottles and containers of the spring water, so I assume it’s safe to drink.

After a fruitless search for the cottage in Ryall where my family had spent several summer holidays in the late 60s (Mr and Mrs Kinchin’s B&B), we headed for the sea at nearby Charmouth. The weather was wild and windy, and we had a chuckle over the couple braving it out with their windbreak and deck chairs. We watched a kestrel quartering the top of the landslip cliffs, searched in vain for fossils, walked a short way up the beach and then decided to head home, via Bridport, Dorchester and Shaftesbury. We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world.


A blustery afternoon at Charmouth.


No-one in the water, unsuprisingly.

The well-named Golden cap on the right.

The well-named Golden Cap on the right.

The shell grotto at St Giles House

One of the nominations for the recent prestigious Historic England Angel Awards was for the craftsmanship in the restoration of the shell grotto at St Giles House near Wimborne St Giles in Dorset. Chap and I were very disappointed when it didn’t win – we thought it deserved the title, but then again, we are a little biased as we know the team from Sally Strachey Conservation that undertook the work.

The grotto is featured in the video above, from 2:10 onwards.

The grotto was built in the grounds of St Giles House, the family seat of the Earls of Shaftesbury. It dates from the early 1750s, and was built by John Castles (d. 1757) of Marylebone in London. Unlike some other grottoes, this one is free-standing rather than built into a rock face or hill slope, and is built over a springhead in the grounds. It is now safely roofed once more and even though it is not quite ordinary-looking from the outside, nothing prepares you for the fantastical realm within.

The grotto comprises an entranceway leading to a central room – the inner chamber – with tiled floor and a fireplace. This is flanked on either side by a curving side passage.

The main room is described in the Shell Guide to Dorset by Michael Pitt-Rivers (1966) as ‘an attempt at an underwater room rather than just a shell room’, and you certainly get the sense of being in some mysterious and magical undersea kingdom. The decoration comprises shells of all sorts of kinds, sizes and colours – huge conches are fixed to the walls as well as tiny jewel-like bivalves – and the marine effect is heightened by the clever way corals and sparkling mineral crystals, such as quartz, have been incorporated in the decor, as well as the way the shells have been attached to branches to mimic life in a coral garden. (You wouldn’t know there are branches under there, as they have been fully covered).

The main chamber of the shell grotto at Wimborne St Giles. Photo by SPAB.

The main chamber of the shell grotto at Wimborne St Giles, following the recent restoration work. Photo by SPAB.

Old photo of the grotto used by the conservators as a guide.

Old photo of the grotto before it fell into disrepair, used by the conservators as a guide.

Apparently some of the original shells came from the Caribbean, courtesy of the father of William Beckford of Fonthill Abbey: we know Fonthill and its grottoes well. In the restoration many of the shells had fallen from the walls and part of the work included sifting and storing those that could be saved. Replacement shells were sourced from all over, including eBay and beaches!

Repair work under way, rebuilding the shells on to the lath and plaster work.

Conservation work under way, rebuilding the shells on to the lath and plaster work.

Conservation work underway.

Conservation work under way. Photo by Sally Strachey Conservation.

Photo by Sally Strachey Conservation.

The main chamber after the completion of the conservation project. Photo by Sally Strachey Conservation.

We were impressed with how meticulous and intricate the work was, and the great care that was being taken by the team.

The side passages are mainly decorated with huge, knobbly flint nodules, though hiding in amongst these are the occasional whale vertebra and piece of architectural stone. The floors of the passages are set with smaller flint pebbles, much like the wonderful grotto at Stourhead and the much smaller one at the Larmer Tree Gardens.

The grotto is described as ‘recently restored’ in the 1966 Shell Guide; clearly it fell back into disrepair not long afterwards as by the time of its listing by English Heritage in 1986 it is described as ‘overgrown and in a state of dereliction … The main grotto which cannot now be easily entered has walls lined with shells, fossils, coral and stone mounted on a lathe and plaster vault, partially collapsed … An important example of this type of grotto but now in a state of considerable disrepair.’ It was placed on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register, and its fate looked bleak.

However, in the past few years the present Earl of Shaftesbury instigated a sizeable programme of works to save not just the grotto, but St Giles House itself, which was also on the Register. The work was largely funded by various government bodies. The work done on the house won the Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury the Award for the Best Rescue of Any Other Type of Historic Building or Site at the recent Angel Awards.

Repairing the roof.

Repairing the roof of the grotto.

Huge congratulations to everyone involved in the work, both at the grotto and St Giles House, both of which are now firmly off the Register.

If you want to know more about John Castles’ grotto work, this blog post is an interesting place to start.

Further information and reading

The English Heritage Grade 2* listing of the grotto

Sally Strachey Conservation page about the project

A blog post about a SPAB visit to the grotto while the restoration work was underway last summer

RCHM (Royal Commission on Historical Monuments), Dorset vol V, 1972, p. 97, no. 6.

Newman, J and Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Dorset, 1972, p. 473.

Pitt-Rivers, M,  Shell Guide to Dorset, 1966, p. 141.

Jones, B, Follies and Grottoes, 1953, pp. 47-49.