Basking at Bicknoller

Some mornings ago I spent a quiet hour in Bicknoller Quarry, much of it sitting on a rock in the sun and just listening and looking. I heard stock dove and wood pigeon, song thrush, blackbird and blackcap, robins, a woodpecker and, as so often, a vociferous wren. A jay flew quietly into a small tree, considered me from a distance, decided that I was alive and discreetly flew away.

The floor of the quarry is flat and sheep grazed; rushes show places where it lies damp. At this time of year, as the name suggests, sweet-vernal grass is very evident with its characteristic rather bristly-looking flower spikes. Within the sward there are more kinds of small flowers than I see on the common – germander speedwell, dove’s-foot crane’s-bill, cut-leaved crane’s-bill, herb-Robert (also a crane’s-bill as well as being a beguilingly pretty but annoyingly persistent garden weed) and early forget-me-not with minute blue flowers. The names of common plants are intriguing. Crane’s-bill from the elongated seed pod is clear enough but why call one kind herb-Robert, and why ‘speedwell’ or ‘forget-me not’?

On one bank there are several spikes of carline thistle, a plant that to the unfamiliar eye appears dead, with silvery-greyish foliage but a gold centre to the flowers, most attractive to bees. Its Latin name Carlina,which means ‘old woman’ in Old Norse, was given it by Karl Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish botanist who invented the binomial system that is used worldwide for naming plants and animals. I wonder why he chose that name – grey but enduring and useful – a back-handed complement to both parties perhaps?

Etymology apart, carline thistle is interesting because it usually favours chalk and limestone but here grows on the acid Hangman’s Sandstone and west of the Quantocks is almost entirely coastal in Somerset and round Devon and Cornwall. So a plant to treasure.

Turning to the face of the quarry itself we look up at a complex of bare rocks, some recent slips and a scattered ground-flora that is tricky to ID with binoculars. A cover of sycamores is developing but possibly not all that stable as they get bigger. There are also one or two oaks and a few ash trees at the margins that show signs of ash die-back and may need to be felled if it develops further as they overhang the bridleway up to Bicknoller Post.

To enter the quarry from the bridleway, you cross a small clear stream, fairly insignificant at first glance but on my visit busy with one of the most lovely of damelflies – the beautiful demoiselle; males with blue-black wings and metallic blue bodies, the females with orange brown-wings and bodies metallic dark green. Both have a slowish fluttering flight and pose obligingly for photos.

Clearly the quarry is loved. There is a bench carved from a log in memory of John Greswell JP DL and two trees, a red oak and a horse chestnut, which we will tend if needed when the transfer of ownership to us from the Somerset Council is complete. And when that happens, one of the first jobs will be to review the fencing which currently allows over-adventurous sheep to access the quarry face, potentially creating problems for all parties.   

Although the quarry comes to us gratis we have legal costs and practical work to pay for so we may well be looking for help with our costs and I know Robin has a bioblitz in mind to discover more of what lives here and help with that will be useful and good fun.  

Last but not least, can somebody tell me about the history of the Quarry? It is on the OS map for 1873-88; who owned it, who worked in it, what was the stone used for, when did it close? Quarries are interesting and essential, for roads, walls, houses, cowsheds and cathedrals. They underpin, literally as well as metaphorically, the development of settlements and society. 

John Andrews. May 2024