The story so far.....share your thoughts and photos about flowers along The Ridgeway to help us create a community Top 50!

From typical to rare, there are numerous flowers to enjoy along The Ridgeway, including scented herbs such as Marjoram and Wild Thyme and also specialities such as Chiltern gentian and Fly orchid (see image gallery below). The grassland nature reserves along the Trail are a real treasure to visit in the spring and summer because they are hotspots for hundreds of plants. Some would say these chalk grasslands are Europe’s equivalent to tropical rainforests because of their diversity – one square metre can contain 40 different plant species! Read on below to find out more….

Banner image: Scabious flowering on Brush Hill near Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire. Credit Colin Drake.

Flowers are one of the highlights of a summer’s day walk at the end of The Ridgeway at Ivinghoe Beacon, Buckinghamshire. Between the Beacon and Aldbury Nowers, there is an almost continuous display of native plants to enjoy and the ancient ditches, cultivation terraces and trackways are particularly rich because the plants have thrived there for years without disturbance or agricultural impacts. Swyncombe Downs near Brightwell Salome in Oxfordshire is another plant hotspot where archaeological features are part of the story.

There are fragrances, as well as colours to enjoy, with herbs typical of unimproved grassland growing on chalk, such as Marjoram, Wild Basil and Wild Thyme, giving off scents in the breeze or when brushed against. The food theme doesn’t stop there, with other plants growing along the Trail including Wild Parsnip, Wild Carrot, Salad Burnet and Wild Strawberry.

Coarse plants which can cope with the competition of more vigorous grasses are more common to find – Knapweeds, Cowslip, Marjoram, Field Scabious, Common St John’s Wort. The more delicate or low-growing plants such as thin-stemmed Harebell and tiny Eyebrights, are only found where grasses are kept in check by very thin soils and/or by grazing animals or regular mowing. Many of the species-rich grasslands along the Trail have a history as ‘sheepwalks’ and the Stemless Thistle (see image gallery above) illustrates some of the ways plants have evolved to survive nibbling animals! There are places along the Trail where rabbits have played, and continue to play, an important role in creating a short turf for the smaller plants. Rabbits at Shirburn Hill near Watlington in Oxfordshire, for example, keep some patches tightly grazed and this encourages Biting Stonecrop, Eyebrights, Wild Strawberry and Candytuft.

The Ridgeway boasts several specialties which any visitor would be lucky to spot, including numerous orchid species – Bee, Fly, Frog, Greater Butterfly, Fragrant and more. Another Ridgeway plant with curiously shaped flowers is the Twayblade – the flowers are like green men (see image gallery above)! As it’s name suggests, the Chiltern gentian (see image gallery above) is a local highlight recorded at White Horse Hill, Aston Rowant, Chinnor Hill, Dancersend Waterworks, Tring Park and Wormsley Bank.  Coombe Hill is the only known location for Fringed gentian in Britain and Autumn gentian is found at Holies Down, Streatley Warren, Chinnor Hill, Coombe Hill, Tring Park, Pitstone Hill and Ivinghoe Beacon. Pasque flower, with its legendary Viking associations, is a plant that any Ridgeway fan would love to see but it survives in very few places now.

This diversity of plants was once more extensive along The Ridgeway, before agricultural change caused the historic sheep pastures across the hills to be ploughed and fertilised. In fact, restoration of relict chalk grassland along the verges of The Ridgeway is now a key objective in ensuring native biodiversity can survive climate change on a local and national scale. The experimental plots in the Trail’s verges at Bury Down near East Ilsley, once the site of huge sheep markets and fairs, demonstrate how sowing of native wildflower seeds combined with a change in management to mimic historic practices can restore plants and insects along the Trail in only 3 years. Bury Down also shows how visitors can find enjoyment in the colours, scents and sounds of nature returning to the Trail.

From Ivinghoe Beacon to Overton Hill, a list is provided below of flower-rich grasslands to visit along The Ridgeway. Note that many are nature reserves where the managing organisation such as the Wildlife Trust and National Trust may provide guided walk events in the summer to show you around:

Ivinghoe BeaconPitstone HillAldbury NowersTring ParkDancersendBacombe Hill, Coombe Hill, Chequers Knap, Grangelands and Rifle Range, Whiteleaf Hill, Brush Hill (also known as Windsor Hill), Lodge Hill, Chinnor Hill, Oakley Hill, Wormsley Bank, Aston Rowant, Shirburn Hill, Watlington Hill, Swyncombe Downs, Hartslock, Holies Down, Lardon Chase and Lough Down, Juniper Valley, Aston Upthorpe Downs, Bury Down, Segsbury Camp, Hackpen Hill, Warren and Gramp’s Hill Downs, Wixen Bush, Seven Barrows, Uffington White Horse Hill, Hinton Parva Coombes, Barbury Castle and Fyfield Down.

Notes: More information about the history of sheep along the Trail, the Pasque Flower and trees and scrub of chalk hills is available in other Top 50 entries (not all Top 50 entries will be available until end of December 2023).

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