Into the Wild Woods at Allen Banks

Spurred on by the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions in England, this weekend past saw us venture forty-five minutes inland to the wild reaches of Allen Banks. An ancient woodland site situated on the banks of the River Allen and maintained by the National Trust.

Now, I visit Allen Banks at least once every year to make the most of the aged woodland setting and enjoy the species that come hand-in-hand with such places. This visit, however, felt extra special following months couped up at home with only short, urban walks from which to derive enjoyment. After a few minutes of gazing upwards at the canopy of old oak, ash and towering beech trees, it was clear I had made the right decision.

Allen Banks is a fantastic location at which to enjoy a suite of scarce Northumbrian birds and, sure enough, upon entering the wood, the song of a Pied Flycatcher drifted down from the canopy of a, particularly tall beech. One of four heard during the course of the day. Elsewhere, a Sparrowhawk rode the thermals above the river and riparian species – Dipper and Grey Wagtail – held our attention for some time.

Rather unusually, birds were not the purpose of the day’s visit, however, and we soon set off uphill intent on some botanising around Morralee Tarn. On route, we were pleased to note a single Early Purple Orchid blooming amid a rather desolate patch of brash. A new species for me and one which stood out like a sore thumb, the purple flower spike contrasting sharply with the browns and greys of the fallen timber.


Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula)

At the tarn, we noted another new species for this [very] amateur botanist: Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, a rather lovely, moisture-loving plant characteristic of stream-sides and damp places in upland Northumberland. Other plant species observed here included Wood Ruff, Mare ‘s-tail, Marsh Marigold, Marsh Cinquefoil and introduced White Water Lily. I confess I was unable to identify the small Stitchwort species growing around the pool margins; though a patch of Wild Strawberry in bloom was less tricky.

On the tarn-side vegetation, Large Red Damselflies rested, freshly emerged and looking rather radiant; while the shallows held the tadpoles of Common Toad and what was likely a Palmate Newt.

Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium), Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) and Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

Heading downhill this time and west along the river, the diversity of ferns on show in the lower reaches of the wood was impressive. Hart’s-tongue and Polypody were identifiable though the rest, not so much. As such, we made do with appreciating the somewhat primordial sight before dashing off in search of something a little more colourful.

Upstream, we spent a good hour combing the tussocky grassland of a riverside meadow having been stopped dead in our tracks by a sprawling patch of delicate Mountain Pansy – more on these later. Here, the queer-looking flowers of Crosswort were obvious, as were plenty of English Bluebells; though more interesting were the sunny, yellow flowers of Yellow Pimpernel. A low-growing plant with a Northumberland distribution limited [in the most part] to inland sites such as this.

Yellow Pimpernel (Lysimachia nemorum), Mountain Pansy (Viola lutea), Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Crosswort (Cruciata laevipes)

With plenty of wildflowers in bloom, there were a great many invertebrates to admire here too. The best of which, a rather large and colourful sawfly apprehended for closer inspection. Advice from the knowledgable folk on Twitter would suggest this is Tenthredo maculata, a rather impressive, if intimidating looking beastie and a species with few records in the North East.

Other insects observed were Gipsy Cuckoo Bee, Orange-tip, Green Long-horn and the unusual, outlandishly hairy fly shown below. After some excited Googling, I suspect this is Tachina ursina.

A Sawfly (Tenthredo maculata) and a fly (Tachina ursina)

Crossing the river further upstream and doubling back towards the car park, we were surprised to stumble upon a glade chock-full of purple blooms. Mountain Pansies, yet again, blooming en masse right across the clearing. Closer inspection of these beautiful little flowers revealed an impressive mix of colour forms: deep purple, violet and yellow.

Further reading on this eye-catching viola seems to suggest that they grow and proliferate so well here due to the presence of heavy metals in the soil – a relic of the [thankfully] long-gone days of lead mining in the county.

Mountain Pansies (Viola lutea)

Setting off towards the car, it was wonderful to see another, a far larger swath of Early Purple Orchid blooming on a south-facing bankside. These, alongside the countless flowers of Ramsons, Wood Speedwell, Dog Violet, Wood Ruff and Red Campion painting the woodland a vibrant mix of colours. A stark reminder of what could and should be in woodlands across Northumberland.

Another new species on walk home came in the form of a dense clump of Wood Crane’s-bill; while Barren Strawberry was also noted and it proved impossible not to pause briefly to admire the deep-blue spikers of Bugle protruding from the riverside grasses.

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