Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The best discoveries canbe entirely accidental

A A A

It seems to me a curious part of the human psyche that we more deeply enjoy special things seen casually and accidentally, than those which have been expressly sought out. Certainly this applies to the natural world. So much of the wildlife which once surrounded us has been lost that to set eyes on many distinctive species we are now obliged to make expeditions. We go birding, or botanising or butterflying: you're unlikely to see a wood warbler, or a military orchid, or a swallowtail, without going in search of them. Often, of course, the results are very satisfying, and long to be remembered, and worth the journey.

Yet to come across such fascinating parts of nature quite by chance, while going about our daily business as it were, is somehow an intenser pleasure. This was how people used to encounter the natural world in all its richness. Take Shakespeare: he mentions by name more than 50 bird species and more than 100 types of plants and wildflowers, sometimes in exquisite conjunction

... daffodils

That come before the swallow dares...

but there is no evidence that young William was ever secretary of the Warwickshire Wildflower Society, or chairman of the Blackfriars Bird Club. His breadth of knowledge of nature is greater than that of any other English classic writer but it came entirely from casual, everyday encounters which are largely unavailable to us now; perhaps that's why when we do experience them, the pleasure is all the greater, as I found last month on holiday with my family in France.

We spent part of it in Brittany, in a small fishing port called Camaret. It was charming, in its setting underneath a heather-covered headland, in its old fortified harbour, its backstreet art galleries and not least in its collection of seafood restaurants facing the water. That's what people go there for, I guess. But I liked it particularly for the bits of less-common nature dotted about the place.

The harbour walls, for example, were covered in samphire, a fleshy seaside plant which has once again become fashionable eating in recent years (and was well known to Shakespeare); the harbour waters themselves, when they crept up with the tide, were full of large grey mullet, squat silver torpedoes; and on the rocks underneath the lighthouse were creatures which caused my wife to exclaim: what are those lovely birds? They were turnstones, waders in their summer plumage of terracotta and chocolate, scarcely given a second glance on birding trips but here a stunning attraction.

It got even better on a walk over the headland, whose bell heather and ling were in their full purple glory. The point of the walk was the champagne air and the stupendous sea view over the roadstead of Brest, but along the way were accidental bonuses. First were grayling butterflies, seaside heathland specialists in their subtle colour scheme of grey, yellow and orange; they perch on the path with their wings closed and suddenly they're invisible.

Then there was a sharp call in the air, pyaaa, pyaaa! which, even before my brain had finished telling me that's not a seagull delivered the inspiring sight of three choughs, Europe's rarest and most charismatic crows – also well known to Will S. – tumbling through the air with the light catching their splendid, decurved scarlet beaks.

Finally, near the end of a walk which had been enlivened all the way by clifftop wildflowers, was a wild plant of startling beauty, a flower of a crimson so deep it seemed to be glowing. It was bloody cranesbill, Geranium sanguineum, an uncommon bloom which botanists will travel to see, yet here it was growing by the side of the path in casual profusion.

None of this wildlife-fest was sought out; it was just an accidental part of a seaside holiday. But it felt all the richer for that.

Floral glory on the French roadsides

Another casual encounter with nature in France which is worth having is with the flowers of the roadside verges: they seem far showier than their equivalents in England. Right now one which is in full bloom is common yellow toadflax, the wild equivalent of the snapdragon: pale yellow with a flaming orange lower lip.

It congregates in startlingly bright masses, sometimes mixed with the deep purple of tufted vetch and the browny-pink of hemp agrimony, giving the country roads very much a decorated feel.

Once you get into the villages, of course, the flower decorationis deliberate.

Peace at last for the Devil's Punchbowl

On the way to France, heading down the A3 to Portsmouth, the last bottleneck still remained: the traffic lights at Hindhead, which have been producing 10-mile tailbacks for decades. On our return, the £370m Hindhead tunnel had at long last been opened and the A3 is now a fast dual carriageway from south-west London all the way to Portsmouth.

The tunnel is a triumph: it not only relieves Hindhead village of its vehicular burden, it takes all traffic away from the Devil's Punchbowl, one of the most majestic landscape features of southern England. As we could see at once from the car, the tunnel landscaping itself has been beautifully done. Congratulations to the Highways Agency and the chief engineer on the project, Paul Arnold.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/mjpmccarthy

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker