Last Sunday was the annual outing of Tongham Wood Improvement Group, aka TWIG. This year all of us TWIGlets got together and visited Magdalen Hill Down Nature Reserve in Winchester (Hampshire), where we were treated to a guided tour by the venerable Jenni Mallett. A former famer in the area, Jenni now volunteers as Branch organiser of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Branch of Butterfly Conservation. Jenni has been fighting to preserve Magdalen Hill Down for decades now, and one thing is for sure: she knows her butterflies!
For a first of August, we enjoyed fairly decent weather — slightly overcast with patches of blue and hardly any wind. It’s important not to go looking for butterflies on a windy day, because chances are very good that you won’t find any. Butterflies are amazingly light and get buffeted around in the wind, so they generally hide from it. So we were quite lucky in that respect, and literally thousands of butterflies delighted us with their flight and their fancy.
According to their brochure, Magdalen Hill Down is a surviving fragment of the sheep-grazed downland that once encircled Winchester. Intensive farming and urban expansion obliterated much of this flower-rich downland. Then the decline in traditional sheep grazing and the decimation of rabbits by myxomatosis allowed dense scrub to develop on much of what remained.
The Western half of the reserve is unimproved chalk grassland rich in wildflowers. Over 400 moth species and some thirty butterfly species have been seen here, including Brown Argus and Green Hairstreak (yes, that’s the real name but we didn’t see either of these) which breed on Common Rockrose. We saw literally a thousand Chalkhill Blues breeding on vast patches of Horseshoe Vetch, which is a prettier flower than its name implies. The eastern half of the reserve was intensely farmed for over fifty years. In 1997 it was sown with native wildflower and grass seed collected from Hampshire nature reserves. Other wildflowers and butterflies from nearby areas are already beginning to colonise the area, and on a good day like ours, the natural spectacle is wonderful indeed.
Butterfly Conservation is a registered charity with a national membership of over 11,000. Dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and their habitats, it has more than 30 branches across the UK, of which the Hampshire and Isle of Wight branch is the largest.
Visit the branch’s website at http://wwww.hantsiow-butterflies.org.uk/ for more information on Magdalen Hill Down Nature Reserve and the other reserves in the Hampshire and Isle of Wight conservation area.
After our walk we all moved down the road to The Golden Lion Pub where we enjoyed a brilliant Sunday Lunch. There were 15 of us and we hadn’t booked (oops!) but the owner and his staff graciously and without fuss set us up their biggest table and we had food in front of us in a jiffy. It was as fine an end to a fine day as was our beginning, which was
Magdalen Hill Toad in the Hole
(Many thanks to Janie Turner and the Fast and Easy Cooking Thermomix cookbook for most of this recipe which is so fast and easy I make it all the time!)
6 organic, free-range pork sausages from your local butcher or farm shop
2 large organic, free-range eggs from your friendly TWIGlet at the end of the road
150 g plain flour (wait for it: organic if possible but I’ve never heard of free-range flour!)
400 g milk (while we’re at it, we might as well make it organic from free-ranging cows)
salt and pepper (you know what I’m going to say…)
a few sprigs of thyme or rosemary
lard, goose or duck fat, or oil for baking tin
- Pre-heat oven to 230°C/450°F/gas mark 8
- Mix eggs, flour, herbs, salt and pepper 12 to 15 seconds/Speed 6 in your Thermomix. Check the consistency: the batter should be the consistency of single cream. If it is too thick add a little more milk and mix again a few seconds.
- Place a large tin with about 2 tbsp fat in it into the hot oven until the fat is very hot and smoking, about 5 minutes. Prepare your sausages by cutting them apart if required.
- Carefully take the hot tin out of the oven. Carefully place the sausages into the tin and then pour the batter over it. Return the tin to the oven, and set your timer for 10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes baking at 230°C/450°F, turn the oven down to 200°C/400°F and continue baking for another 30 minutes or until the batter has gone fluffy and brown and the sausages are cooked through.
- Serve immediately at breakfast, lunch or dinner with lots of gravy that you can also make in your Thermomix (see page 137 of Fast and Easy Cooking).
Bon appétit !