Summer, sunshine and seabirds

After such a long, cold and wet winter, summer has come early to North Devon.

 

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And what better way to make the most of it than a trip along the coast on a small boat. A group of wildlife enthusiasts invited us along on a local lobster boat for a cruise along the cliffs to see and count the seabirds breeding there.

 

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What an adventure! We boarded the Our Jenny in Ilfracombe harbour, and headed East along the coast.

 

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There were fulmars nesting at intervals along the coast, but once we passed Combe Martin we started to see shag nests, and a few auks. There are three speciesĀ  of auks breeding in the UK, but only two are found regularly on the mainland cliffs – razorbills and guillemots. The third species, the adorable puffin, is found only on offshore islands, apart from a colony on Anglesey.

 

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This is a little raft of guillemots resting on the water. Razorbills look similar, but are black rather than chocolate brown, and have a broader bill. As we travelled east, the colonies started to get larger, until we reached the best breeding areas between Heddon’s Mouth and Lee Bay.

 

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Here there were hundreds of razorbills, and over a thousand guillemots, which was a very impressive sight, and hard to count!

 

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We continued as far as Lynmouth, where we had a short breakĀ  for tea and doughnuts, before heading back along the coast.

 

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Our total seabird counts for the day were:

Fulmar: 109 nests

Razorbill: 621

Guillemot: 1596

Kittiwake: 90 nests

These are only estimates, but are still valuable, as these birds are impossible to count apart from by boat.

It was a most enjoyable morning, with wonderful weather, and we rounded it off with a huge plate of mostly local seafood on the quayside.

 

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Snow in March

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For the second time this year, we have laying snow here in North Devon, and very pretty it is too. Thick enough to completely cover the grass on the unmown, shaggy lawns, it has turned the garden into a winter wonderland.

 

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Icicles drip from every overhang, and the sheltered side of every tree trunk is plastered with layer of snow.

 

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The poor spring bulbs have had a bit of a shock…

 

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The larger daffodil varieties are looking particularly sad, but the small ones such as Tete a Tete are coping better, poking bravely through the snow.

 

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My big drift of snake’s head fritillaries was about to burst into flower, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to being snow-covered.

 

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The camellia is still flowering profusely, but the current crop of flowers may well go soft and mushy when they defrost. They do best when sheltered from the morning sun from the east…if the flowers defrost slowly, they are less likely to suffer.

 

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This Corylopsis is looking particularly fine, with the snow as a backdrop.

 

 

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Many shrubs have started to produce their spring leaves, such as this red-leaved Spirea. I hope they don’t get too cold!

 

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Some native flowers will cope fine, such as this little primrose, tucked on the sheltered side of the garden wall.

 

 

 

 

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And the gorse on the hill is flowering well, as it does all year round.

 

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The spring catkins will also be unconcerned by a bit of snow.

 

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Last summer’s seedheads look particularly fine against a white carpet.

 

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So it may be cold, and difficult to drive around, but there is no better time to go explore the garden!

 

 

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Wind on Woolacombe Down

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Where do you choose for a walk on a blustery November day? Somewhere in a sheltered valley, perhaps? Not us – we choose to go to the windiest place we know – the top of Woolacombe Down, to experience the full force of the weather. There is a lovely network of paths over the downs and through the dunes behind the beach.

 

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According to this plaque they were opened to commemorate the coronation of King George V on 22nd June 1911. I didn’t know that..

 

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Looking back down the slope you can see Woolacombe nestled at the northern end of the beach. Bustling in summer, it is quieter this time of year, but plenty of people come down even in winter to surf and walk and generally enjoy the views.

 

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And you can see why, as the views are just stunning. Woolacombe beach is long, smooth, sandy and unspoiled. The headland to the south is Baggy Point, separating Woolacombe Bay from Croyde Bay.

 

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The headland to the north is Morte Point, on the north-west corner of the North Devon coast. The views from this walk are really superb.

The top of the down is grazed by a domestic herd of Exmoor ponies, looking perfectly at home despite the wind.

 

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Once over the brow of the hill, the wind dropped a little, and we took a path curving round the front of the down back towards Woolacombe.

 

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Faced with a choice of returning through the dunes, or walking along the beach, we couldn’t resist getting closer to the fantastic waves.

There were a few hardy dog-walkers on the beach, and three lucky riders cantering their horses across the sands.

 

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What a perfect place to spend a windy Sunday morning, especially as it was followed by brunch in a cafe in Woolacombe, overlooking the sea. I can highly recommend a winter weekend in North Devon to blow the cobwebs away!

 

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A few Home Improvements

We have starting making improvements to the house this year, starting with a whole new heating system last May.

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We ripped out the old, noisy and smelly oil-fired boiler, and the unsightly oil tank, and replaced it with an air source heat pump. It is cheaper to run, more environmentally friendly, and less unsightly. The house stays pleasantly warm day and night, and we are very pleased with it so far. We need a really hard winter to give it a proper test, but I am sure it will cope.

Next on the list was to rip out the extremely dated bathroom, and replace it with a more modern suite with an over-bath shower. We had a local firm of builders do the entire job, and we are very pleased with the result. I wanted a soft, natural, spa-type feel, with matt finishes and neutral colours, and it is a such a pleasure to walk in there now.

 

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The last little job was the front door. An extra-wide half-glazed softwood door, it was badly warped, letting leaves blow in and heat escape. The large window gave little privacy, especially as the bedrooms are downstairs. We had a nice hardwood door custom-built, with a smaller viewing pane, and think it looks very smart.

 

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Studying Fungi on Lundy

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This is the view from the dining table in Bramble Villa East, on Lundy. Not a bad place to have breakfast, especially when the weather is kind, as it mostly was for my week on the island. I was there partly to have a holiday, and partly to study fungi. The first couple of days I went for long walks around the island, visiting my favourite places and watching the wildlife.

 

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There were several groups of climbers on the island, enjoying the classic sea cliff climbs now that the seabird nesting season is over.

 

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Then the hard work began with the arrival of the Lundy fungus recorder, a wonderful mycology professor who had offered to help me improve my fungus identification, and teach me the necessary microscopy techniques.

 

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We surveyed, and searched, and knelt, and examined, and photographed, and collected specimens, such as these stunning Parrot Waxcaps, which can be shades of yellow, orange, and even lilac, but always have some green on them as well.

 

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After a morning collecting, we would then spend the afternoon studying the microscopic details of each fungus, and comparing them to the reference books and keys. This is a Bog Bell, found growing on damp sphagnum moss in the quarries.

 

Bog Bell

 

I learnt to cut fine sections of the gills and mount them. I learnt how to examine the structures that make up the cap of the fungus. I learnt how to measure the spores. It was fascinating, and by the end of the week I was getting quite competent. This is the Blackening Waxcap, which, as the name suggests, goes black if damaged, and also as it ages.

 

Blackening Waxcap

 

My mentor and I ran a guided walk for some of the visitors and island staff, showing them some of the grassland species that grow so well on the flat top of the island. Below is the Egghead Mottlegill, a tall fungus that looks like half a hen’s egg on a stick, and grows on dung.

 

Egghead Mottlegill

 

Puffballs are very common, and there were several different species, including this Dusky Puffball, which is covered in tiny dark spikes which rub off to leave a mosaic pattern.

 

Dusky Puffball

 

Not all of the grassland species are so large. The Golden Spindles are tiny, especially when they first appear, like these little ones.

 

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Other parts of the island have their own different fungi. In the wooded copses on the east side we found woodland fungi such as this beautiful Porcelain Fungus.

 

Porcelain Fungus

 

 

I really enjoyed my five days immersed in the study of fungi, and feel better equipped now to identify any I find on my wanders.

All too soon, though, Saturday rolled round again, and the Oldenburg arrived to take me home.

 

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Spiced Apple Chutney and other Autumnal Delights

It is apple season again, and our four trees in the orchard have responded well to their second winter of proper pruning, and given us an increased crop. The small red variety ripen early, and we have already picked and used some of these, and they are a sweet, if slightly woolly, eater. The other three trees were not quite ripe when storm Aileen hit, and this little lot was waiting on the grass for me in the morning. Ah well, it saved me picking them. There are still a few left on the trees for later.

 

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First priority for me is always a few dishes of savoury apple sauce to serve with roast pork through the year. Cooked up with a little salt and pepper, I like to freeze it in individual portions which I can remove from the bag while frozen, and pop in a ramekin to defrost. It is then ready to serve. By placing the bags in the ramekins to freeze, they are the correct shape and size, and once frozen I remove from the ramekins and place all the small bags in a large , labelled bag.

 

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Next I cooked up some of the riper apples with some blackberries from the garden for a crumble later in the week.

 

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All I need to do later is add the crumble topping and bake for 20 minutes.

 

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My favourite autumn apple recipe is for an Old Fashioned Scottish Apple and Ginger Chutney, which is delicious with cold meats, or even hot ones. Apart from all the apple and onion chopping, it is fairly straightforward, as you just throw everything into a large pan and boil until it is the right consistency.

 

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Old Fashioned Scottish Apple and Ginger Chutney

  • 450g onions, weight is for onions when peeled and finely chopped
  • 900g cooking apples, weight is for apples when peeled, cored and roughly chopped
  • 100g sultanas
  • 25g fresh ginger,peeled and grated
  • 1 tsp dried ginger powder
  • 2 tsp mixed spice
  • 450g soft brown sugar
  • 300ml malt vinegar
  • 300ml cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  1. Place all the prepared onions and apples into a large preserving pan and add the remaining ingredients.
  2. Bring slowly to the boil and then lower the heat so that chutney cooks at a rolling boil.
  3. Stir the chutney regularly and make sure it does not “catch” and burn on the base of the preserving pan.
  4. Keep on cooking until the chutney is the consistency of a thick jam and all the liquids have dissolved.
  5. (A trick to check if it is cooked is to draw your wooden spoon across the chutney, if the space that is left fills up with liquid, the chutney is not ready yet).
  6. Spoon the hot chutney into hot and sterile jars and seal immediately.
  7. Makes about 2kg chutney.
  8. Store in a dark and cool place and leave to mature for at least 2 weeks.
  9. Will keep in ideal storage conditions for up to 2 years+.
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Swimming and Al-fresco Dining

August in Devon means visitors – friends and family wanting the best of the British seaside. They are most welcome, as I get to have a holiday too, showing them the sights. We have walked and surfed and photographed, and have eaten ice creams and cream teas and fish and chips.

Not everyone wants to come bodyboarding with me in the strong Atlantic waves, so I have been searching out some quieter swimming spots on the north coast, in the shelter of the Bristol Channel.

 

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This has to be my favourite, a little cove called Broadsands, accessible via 240 steps down from the coast path. Peaceful most of the time, it does however get visited by the boat trips that run from Ilfracombe, but they don’t land, just admire the view from the boats.

Another cove that we swam in last week is Lee Bay, which at mid-tide is just a rocky mess. But as the tide drops it reveals a smooth strip of golden sand, perfect for a gentle swim.

 

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We also discovered that by passing through a narrow gap in the rocks, one finds a smuggler’s path…

 

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…which leads through rocks and gullies…

 

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…into the next bay.

 

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Not as sandy, but nice and secluded.

Lee has another wonderful aspect – the little cafe serves pizzas on a Tuesday evening in the summer, and very good they are too. Sitting outside at high tide, with the water covering all the rocks and lapping at the wall ten feet away, and eating delicious food by candlelight as the sun set has got to be one of the most magical experiences in North Devon.

 

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Another reasonably quiet beach, just north of the busy stretch of Woolacombe, is Combesgate. Descending the steps at mid tide it looks like a small cove.

 

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But once the tide goes out it opens up to a wide stretch of sand, with huge rock pools and gullies to explore.

 

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But the best bit about Combesgate at low tide is that you can walk round the end of the rocks to the best Sri Lankan restaurant in North Devon!

 

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Here it is…walking up onto Barricane Beach…doesn’t look much, does it? Just a narrow strip of sand, and not soft golden sand either, but sharp, shell sand. With a tiny cafe in a cabin at the top.

 

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This very unprepossessing little shack is owned by a Sri Lankan, and every evening through the season, it turns out plate after plate of delicious authentic curry. Served on china with proper cutlery, and eaten on your knees sitting on the sand, it is a real experience. After all, how many restaurants have this as a view?

 

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Locals and tourists alike love it, and we turn up in our droves with clinking bags of wine and beer, folding chairs, and huge smiles. I like to get there early and have a dip first, and check the beach for cowries and sea glass. Unfortunately on a busy sunny day it can get rather busy, but the atmosphere is still great!

 

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So there you are, some of the best swimming and eating beaches in North Devon. And if you really prefer the huge stretches of sand and the surfing waves, then Woolacombe is just around the corner.

 

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July is Hydrangea Month

Our first spring here, I pruned some of the hydrangeas a bit too hard, and therefore they failed to flower last summer. I have had to wait another year to find out what colour they are.

 

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So the line of four huge bushes are all the same blue – nice enough, but I have the same variety elsewhere as well. I may take one or two out and replace with something different. There is a white-flowered one tucked behind them, which at least makes a change.

 

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In the Pond Bed, however, several have turned out to be much more interesting – they open white, then intensify to a lilac/pink, and continue to darken to a rich purply pink. Very nice both on the bush and in a vase.

The blue shrub in between is a deep blue lace-cap, which is unique within the garden. It is also huge, though – not a delicate plant at all.

 

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I also have Hemerocallis flowering for the first time. The above is ‘Christmas Island’, a big, bold red. Below is ‘Frosted Pink ice’, which is delightful.

 

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The rest of the garden is looking fairly nice, if you don’t look too closely at the weeds!

 

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Down among the Dunes

Every Friday evening though the summer, a local expert gives up his spare time to lead a free walk through Braunton Burrows, finding and talking about some of the very interesting flowers and insects that live there.

 

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Braunton Burrows is a vast sand dune system which is of huge national importance, as it is home to a large number of species, many of them rare. Most of these don’t live in the new, sandy dunes just behind the beach, but in the rolling, grass-covered older dunes behind, and particularly in the damp areas between the dunes.

 

Water Germander

 

This rather uninteresting flower looks very like mint, but is in fact Water Germander, so rare it is now only found in three sites in England!

 

Sand Pansy

 

The Sand Pansy is much prettier, but much less rare!

 

Eyebright

 

There were many tiny flowers growing amongst the rabbit-cropped turf, but they were hard to photograph in the dull evening light. This one is Eyebright.

 

Angelica

 

Remember angelica? Green candied stuff that you used as a cake decoration? Well this is angelica plant whose stems are used.

 

Marmalade Hoverfly

 

Despite it being a cool, damp evening after an entire day of rain, there were a few interesting insects to be found. This is a Marmalade Hoverfly, presumably named for the stripes on its abdomen rather than its taste in conserves.

 

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

 

This gorgeous creature is the caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth, which only feeds on ragwort. Like every other horse-owner, I have spend many an hour pulling up ragwort from horse fields, as it is very toxic to them, especially when dried in hay. But the ragwort plant is a very valuable plant for a large number of insects, especially the Cinnabar Moth, so it is important that in places like this, well away from horse fields and hay fields, it is allowed to flourish undisturbed.

 

Six Spot Burnet Moth Caterpillar

 

This is the caterpillar of the Six-spot Burnet Moth, which metamorphosizes into…this!

 

Six Spot Burnet Moth

 

Now the summer rains have reached Devon, I was hoping to find a few fungi on the burrows, but there were only a couple of tiny ones, including this minute Milky Conecap.

 

Milky Conecap

 

It was a beautiful place to spend an evening, and we learned so much from our expert guide. Now we need to go back on a hot sunny evening to see all the butterflies and dragonflies!

 

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Wild Flower Wander

Sunday was foul. A rainy morning slowly dried up leaving our relatively high valley still in the clouds. The only way to get out of the damp was to head downwards, so we set off for a walk along a section of the Tarka Trail which we had yet to visit. Parking the car at the northernmost point of the trail near Braunton, we caught a bus to Barnstaple and picked up the trail in the town centre.

 

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Soon we were past the town, and the trail was very easy walking, with the river on one side and pleasant countryside on the other.

 

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We had been expecting to see a few birds along the way, and we weren’t disappointed, with a few gulls, a couple of little egrets, oystercatchers, curlew, common sandpipers, shelduck, redshank, black-tailed godwits, cormorants, little grebes, linnets, and a buzzard.

 

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What we hadn’t been expecting was the huge variety of flowers that we found. Some were common, and easily recognised, and some were a bit more unusual or new to us. In total, we counted 43 species! Luckily for you, I didn’t take photos of all of them, but just a few.

 

Tansy

Oxford Ragwort poss

 

Black Nightshade

Black Nigthshade

 

Speedwell

Common Field Speedwell

 

In places the origins of the trail as a railway line were evident.

 

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There were banks of buddleias in flower, scenting the air, but as it was so dull, we saw few butterflies.

 

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We did spot this chap hiding on an embankment

 

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We kept finding more new flowers.

Melilotus

Meliotus sp

 

Wild carrot

Wild carrot

 

Agrimony

Agrimony

 

I was also very pleased to find a selection of nice fungi – the first of the new season. These were all boletes, which have pores underneath instead of gills. The tasty and well-known Cep is a bolete. These were new to me, and I am still not sure of their names, but I think this one is the Scarletina Bolete

 

Fungus 2a

 

And this one might be the Lurid Bolete.

 

Fungus 4a

 

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At a convenient point on the path, there was a lovely new cafe overlooking the river, so we felt it necessary to support their endeavours by stopping for a snack. Refreshed, we continued on past the Marine base at Chivenor, where the guards with guns made me a little wary of taking photos!

Once past the base the trail passed through some pleasant countryside, and showed us a few more flowers, before returning us to our car.

 

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St John’s Wort

St John's Wort sp

 

Toadflax

Toadflax

 

Rosebay Willowherb.

 

Rosebay Willowherb

 

I hope you enjoyed the photos, and please feel free to correct me if any of the flowers are wrong – I am still learning!