Event review: the Riddlesdown wildflower walk, Saturday 29th July

By - Wednesday 30th August, 2017

A wonderful walk through a botanical paradise in the south of Croydon

Riddlesdown quarry.
Photo author’s own.

Anyone who knows me knows how keen I am on wildflowers and how impossible it is to go anywhere with me without having to stop every few minutes and wait while I examine and photograph some interesting plant I have found growing in a pavement crack/in the grass/in a pond/up a wall/by the side of the road (delete as applicable). If you have spotted a enthusiastic-looking woman in Croydon crouched down on a road verge, beside the tram tracks, or darting on to the grassy central reservation of the Kent Gateway, it is most likely to have been me.

We are extremely fortunate in Croydon to have a wealth of wonderful parks, commons, woodlands and nature reserves in which to go botanising, so I rarely have to travel far to indulge my habit. I try and get out at least once a week looking for wildflowers as they come into bloom with the changing seasons, so when I saw that there was to be a guided wildflower walk through Riddlesdown quarry I signed up straight away, and recruited my friend Sue to come with me.

Riddlesdown Common, along with its disused chalk quarry, is a nature reserve and SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). It is one of seven open spaces managed together by the City of London Corporation as the City Commons. Although the common is easily accessible, the quarry is normally closed to the public and surrounded by a high security fence. The only way to gain access is to join one of the pre-arranged guided walks given during the summer months by the ranger, Matt Johnson. As well as being a fantastic place for wildflowers, butterflies, insects and birds, the quarry is also a site of geological interest.

Round-leaved wintergreen.
Photo author’s own.

Our group of about twenty, led by Matt and the wonderfully botanically knowledgeable Frances, set off in the sunshine from the car park and walked through Riddlesdown Common towards the quarry. Already there were many wildflowers to see – yarrow, common knapweed, agrimony, wild marjoram, red bartsia, greater yellow rattle, wild carrot and vervain to name but a few.

In the eighteenth century, local people simply helped themselves to the chalk in the quarry until Riddlesdown Lime Works Ltd opened in the 1820s. Tons of chalk were extracted over the years and lime was produced by burning chalk in kilns in the quarry. During the Second World War, prisoners of war were sent to work there and after the war it was owned by the Blue Circle Cement Company until its closure in 1967.  Now the vertical, warm, sheltered, south-facing slopes of the quarry have reverted to nature.

Disused quarries can quite often become totally wooded, as they are colonised first by silver birch and then by oak, so Riddlesdown is actively managed to keep large areas free from trees and scrub. This has enabled many chalk-loving plants to become established. As well as human volunteers working to keep the site free from scrub, several years ago a herd of goats was employed to graze the site. Goats are especially good at eating the birch saplings. The goats liked it there so much that it proved quite difficult to catch them when it was time for them to be removed. Apparently it took several weeks of training them to come and eat from buckets before they could be caught. They are now retired and living with other goats at Buttercups Goat Sanctuary in Maidstone, but keep themselves to themselves and do not mix with the others!

Approach to the quarry.
Photo author’s own.

For me, the quarry was quite the botanical paradise – yellow wort, common centaury, eyebright, common toadflax, meadow vetchling, common restharrow, small and field scabious, hop trefoil, black medic, kidney vetch, tufted vetch, common vetch, broad-leaved everlasting pea, wild basil, oxeye daisies, common rock rose, rosebay willowherb, greater willowherb and probably many more. We also found one solitary pyramidal orchid, a bit past its best but still lovely to see. I also found a plant I have only seen before in books, the unusual carline thistle. The real jewel in the crown, however, was the nationally scarce round-leaved wintergreen, which is associated with old quarries. Frances had promised us a rare chalkland plant, but not told us what it was. As she was about to lead us off to where she thought it would be growing, I spotted something I hadn’t seen before and asked her what it was. It turned out it was the round-leaved wintergreen! So I felt quite chuffed with that!

Although we were focussing mainly on the wildflowers, we saw several butterflies including meadow browns, common blues, small heaths and a marbled white.  We also got wonderful views of a peregrine falcon circling above us. Anticipating the absence of a coffee shop, Sue had brought some pains au chocolat with her, so we happily munched on them as we made our way out through another gate at the top of the quarry, and set off back to the carpark through the common.

I thoroughly recommend anyone with an interest in wildflowers to look out for and sign up for the next guided walk to this special place.  You can sign up to the Common’s newsletters here.

You can follow #wildflowerhour, a Facebook and Twitter forum where people share pictures of wildflowers they have seen in bloom during the last week and can get ID help, from 8.00pm 9.00 pm on Sunday evenings. I am always keen to connect with other local people who have an interest in wildflowers, so do contact me via the comments if you want to share sightings or interesting locations!

Moira O'Donnell

Moira O'Donnell

Originally from Dundee, Moira has lived in Croydon for over twenty years, ever since her return to the UK from an overseas posting to the British Embassy in Brussels. When not at work, singing with the Croydon Bach Choir or having a cup of tea, she can be found avoiding housework by scampering about in one of Croydon's many green spaces and woodlands hunting down wildflowers, butterflies and any other interesting plants or creatures.

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  • blath8@googlemail.com

    Agree entirely – this was a fabulous site with a fantastic array of wildflowers (and butterflies). The same group, City of London Corporation, ran an “identify birdsong” walk earlier in the year on Coulsdon Common which was also excellent. Definitely book ahead.