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Bishop's Stortford Independent Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham explores the Gardens of Easton Lodge in Little Easton near Dunmow

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Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...

A week last Monday found me wandering around the perimeter of the Gardens of Easton Lodge in Little Easton, near Dunmow, at 7.30am, checking out the vicinity, before trustee Jill Goldsmith arrived at 8am to open the gates and offer me a quick tour before I set off to find what was present.

The forecast was for decent temperatures later in the day so I was hopeful of coming across the last butterflies and dragonflies, the latter being found by the glorious sunken Italian garden with its ornate pond. Just wonderful.

After a tour of the 20 acres and a mug of coffee (served in an Indie mug, no less) I wandered off to check the area around the Japanese garden at the far end of the habitat. From here I could overlook the large, lily-covered pond upon which coots, moorhens and mallards paddled about. A skein of Canada geese flew overhead, one of which was a hybrid with a presumed greylag goose. Plenty of wing noise and cackling.

I stood by a large lime tree, trying to blend in and therefore not creating a shadow as the sun climbed higher. I was interested in an area of scrub that included seed- and fruit-bearing plants and it wasn't long before I was rewarded with views of wren, blue tit, coal tit, great tit, robin and, best of all, a marsh tit that totally eluded photography. A pair of nuthatches had a conversation in a nearby oak before I caught a glimpse of a tree creeper spiralling up the trunk of another lime. A great start to my visit.

Rooks, jackdaws and crows called noisily as did both a great spotted woodpecker and a green woodpecker that I had failed to notice as it probed the lawn for ants and leather jackets. It was off into the canopy before I had a chance to get a snap. A chiffchaff called and then posed well for a photo before my attention was drawn to the adjacent field where a dogfight between a common buzzard and carrion crow was taking place.

I wandered up the side, checking the trees which were dripping with birds. Plenty of long-tailed tits flitting through the leaves, often hovering to pick off an insect. Goldcrests called from a yew and another coal tit put in an appearance. Jill had asked me to check for any signs of hedgehog activity, which I did without any success. Most of the earth scratching would have been either rabbits or the prolific grey squirrels that scurried frequently across the lawns. I crossed over and checked the other side. Here, several wrens popped up from brambles, fired off their Tommy gun-like alarm call and disappeared back into the dense vegetation.

I stood on the Japanese tenboudai (viewing platform) but nothing new to add from the lake. This platform, like all the rest of the garden, has been restored, the platform specifically in 2017 having originally been constructed in the 1990s. Before this, there had been a thatched tea house, built in 1902 before falling into disrepair in the 1940s.

The sky was blue and the temperature perfect so off to the pond in the Italian garden. Here, plenty of nectar-bearing flowers to attract insects. A migrant hawker dragonfly patrolled his territory but didn't alight for a photo whilst a common darter did, posing on the rocks surrounding the pond. This rock was brought in especially for this, having been carved from honey-coloured ham stone in Somerset when the Italian garden was designed by Harold Peto in 1902. The dedicated band of trustees and volunteers have worked wonders to bring the pond back to life and make it a main feature of the garden.

Western honeybees (Apis melifera) fed on the plants, particularly the sedums, now with their large heads coming into full colour. In amongst these bees were several hoverfly species, Syritta pipiens and Eristalis pertinax. Small and large white butterflies winged their way over the flowerbeds, occasionally stopping to nectar and rest.

Next stop was at one of the many wood piles that are to be found scattered around the garden. Even though the main aim is to return the site to its former glory there is also an underlying philosophy of catering for nature. These wood piles provide home and feeding sites for numerous invertebrates, so I spent some enjoyable time looking under these. Much was discovered. Numerous woodlice, as anticipated, centipedes, millipedes and at least five spider species including Laranoides patagiatus. This I knew would be present as I came across her web first and usually there is a retreat for the spider to hide away in under loose bark. Another species that dashed off upon discovery was the smaller Pholcomma gibbum, a spider that associates with leaf litter and dead wood. Small beetles remained unidentified as they burrowed into the rotten wood.

I moved on as there was so much to cover and discover. Off to the fabulous walled garden which has also been returned to its former glory as from 2014. Left abandoned and derelict in 1950, it became totally overgrown. Once cleared, volunteers found many of the edging stones from the original path and have used these to border the beds. New ones were also ordered from the original company to complete the job.

Here, vegetables such as squashes and pumpkins grow, with plenty of herbs and flowers. The dahlia bed was stunning, really healthy and vibrant with colour. Apple trees grew in the corners of each lawn area and an apple expert was brought in to inform as to which type of apple they were. One had him totally baffled and DNA was taken, proving that it is a species previously not known. The volunteers therefore had the opportunity to name the tree, choosing Easton Countess. Very appropriate. An unusual shaped apple, in some cases almost rectangular, offering a lovely blush red hue to this corner of the site.

A red admiral butterfly nectared nearby and many honey bees went about their daily work. Their hive is in the far corner of the walled area, tucked away in an overgrown area.

Volunteers were busy preparing ground for new plantings, mowing the lawns and collecting squashes which were stored in a polytunnel nearby ready for Open Day on Sunday October 11. This is an opportunity for locals to spend time wandering this fantastic garden. If readers have not already been to have a look, I highly recommend going along. Details can be found at www.eastonlodge.co.uk . Tickets need to be pre-booked online and much effort has been made by all the trustees and volunteers to make this event Covid-secure. By the time the Open Day comes round I anticipate the leaf colours on the main lawn down to the lake will be absolutely glorious.

Several plaques can be found attached to trees. One informs that the now huge cedar tree was planted by Edward, Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VII, in 1886. A vintage bicycle leans against this tree with an arrow pointing to Daisy's Refreshment Area. Daisy was the Countess of Warwick who lived here in the late 1800s and was the mistress to Edward VII. Other signs show that certain trees have been awarded Champion Tree status. A field maple on the main lawn is county champion. A quick study of the tree species showed them to be both native and non-native, with walnuts, limes, acers, a variety of oaks including English oak and Turkey oak along with an interesting specimen new to me; Indian chestnut.

All around the garden there are opportunities for nature to thrive and a discussion with Jill showed that, whilst the garden looks amazing already, there are plenty of plans to develop and improve in the future, in particular a woodland walk in an overgrown area adjacent to the walled garden where there was originally a path which the trustees hope to restore. All sounds promising and I look forward to visiting again to see how things have developed.

Before I left I popped over to inspect the bee and bug hotel that has been placed near the refreshment area. Here, signs of bee occupation as some of the holes drilled into wood have been filled in by possibly a species of mason or leafcutter bee.

Finally, many thanks to Jill and all the volunteers that helped me with information. As is always the case with such places, the dedication of the volunteers has made this garden such a marvellous place to visit.

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