Champneys Forest Mere Spa Hotel (all images Dan Lay)

Go Slow in Hampshire

Dan Lay
By Dan Lay
Operations Manager
19th July 2021
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160 acres of habitats —comprising woodland, bog and acid grassland— surround Champneys Forest Mere Health Spa, the elegant base for our 4-day ‘Go Slow in Hampshire’ holiday. Arriving at the hotel via the long, leafy, driveway, it was quickly possible to observe such species as Roe Deer, Green Woodpecker and Egyptian Goose foraging in the grassland. For those who wished, there was a chance to use the hotel’s sauna, steam room, quartz beds, monsoon showers and, for the brave, even the icy snow room! Later, we met together in the piano room for drinks, introductions and to outline the itinerary for our exciting days ahead.

On a warm but overcast and humid morning, our inaugural excursion took us to Thursley National Nature Reserve, one of the largest remaining fragments of heathland in neighbouring Surrey. The bogs which surrounded the pathways held an eclectic but enjoyable mix of Cotton Grass, Bog Asphodel, Early Marsh-orchid and the carnivorous Round-leaved Sundew, the latter with flower spikes which stood tall, away from their sticky, 'dew'-covered tendrils, to prevent their invertebrate cross-pollinators from getting unwittingly stuck and consumed!

Further along the grey sandy path we enjoyed a fine male Reed Bunting singing from an exposed dead tree and a family of six Woodlark flew overhead. Much to our surprise, whilst we were in bogland, two Common Tern shortly followed, emitting their shriek call. Reaching drier habitat, Tree Pipit, Linnet and Stonechat displayed well whilst Common Whitethroat and Dartford Warbler gave fleeting views. The group enjoyed studying delicate Hare's-foot Clover flowerheads, a robust scorpion fly and, after a lovely morning of gentle wildlife watching, we began making our way back to the vehicles. En route we continued to discover excellent species such as Royal Fern (with spore fronds), Eurasian Treecreeper and an Azure Damselfly, the cool overcast conditions obliging the specimen to remain static and give prolonged views of its brilliance.

The group at Thursley National Nature Reserve

A fine lunch at the historic home of 18th century naturalist Gilbert White followed, before making a short 5-minute drive to the majestic Noar Hill, a 20-hectare chalk downland managed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. With the sun beaming, a Yellowhammer was singing its beautiful ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheeeeeese' song from an exposed branch. A Red Kite soared beautifully low against a backdrop of the surrounding tree-lined hilly pastures. Moving further into the site of historic chalk workings, a sheltered former pit caught our attention. In this curtained spot we began to gorge our senses with Chalk Fragrant, Common Spotted and Pyramidal Orchids set amongst grasses, vetches, vetchlings, trefoils, and fragrant herbs.

Continuing along the footpath, the flora was so rich that it was hard to know which way to look, as it engulfed both sides of the path. We delighted in Knapweed and Greater Knapweed whilst bedstraws and orchids, including our first Twayblades, appeared to try, unsuccessfully, to barrier the knapweeds from the parasitic Knapweed Broomrape.

Orchids of Noar Hill; Bee, Chalk Fragrant & Twayblade

Next, a euphoric blanket of yellow flora polka-dotted with purple orchid hues drew us to our hands and knees, where we were able to sort out from the beautiful mess some exquisite Bee Orchids. Another sheltered nearby spot produced impressive numbers of the delicate Musk Orchid, whilst nearby freshly pupated Scarlet Tigers rested on leaves. Having over-indulged in a spectacle of wildlife in prime condition, it was time to reluctantly leave.

The late afternoon provided time for more treatments and use of the spa facilities for those who wished, before we set out on an evening excursion to seek Nightjars. Making our way to heathland, which can be found just a 10-minute walk from the hotel, Roe Deer were seen grazing on the skirt of bracken, and a Siskin flew overhead calling. A Sand Lizard test egg-laying burrow was discovered on the edge of the path, and as the light faded, we waited with bated breath for the chur of a Nightjar. Two Woodcock made roding flights over the treeline and a search with a UV365nm torch produced fluorescing Beautiful Yellow Underwing caterpillars, which otherwise would have gone completely undetected. Disappointingly, for unknown reasons, the Nightjar did not chur at this spot, even though one of the participants had heard one from her bedroom window the night before!

The next day we woke to a sunny final morning as we headed to the south coast for our visit to RSPB Pagham Harbour. The educational pond near to the entrance held Smooth Newts, with both adults and larvae present. Nearby, the group and the leaders were mesmerised watching iridescent cuckoo-wasps shimmering in the sunlight around the ‘bee-hotel’. From a raised bird hide we observed Avocet, Common Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, and Black-tailed Godwit, a couple of them exceptionally beautifully hued, feeding.

Beside the footpath a Common Lizard was basking contentedly, giving the group prolonged views, to the background chorus of Marsh Frogs calling in a nearby stream channel. Emperor Dragonfly hunted intently over the reedbeds, with Black-tailed Skimmer and Broad-bodied Chaser also in flight.

Fluorescing Beautiful Yellow Underwing caterpillar

A quirky nearby café provided lunch before we made a visit to the Church Norton end of Pagham Harbour where, from a shingle beach, we thoroughly enjoyed watching 10+ Little Tern feeding amongst Sandwich and Common Tern, with an accompanying cast of Ringed Plover, Mediterranean Gull and Curlew to boot.

Retracing our steps north, our penultimate excursion took us to Havant Thicket, located within the Forest of Bere. An impromptu search on Alder Buckthorn produced the lime-green caterpillars of Brimstone butterfly, and White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary were also enjoyed in the glades.

On the final morning we set upon another distinctive habitat, Chappetts Copse Nature Reserve, a stunning beech wood on chalk in West Meon. A serene, ancient woodland, it was not long until we had noted the cathedral-like ambience and, with soothed senses, we found helleborines: White, Sword-leaved and Broad-leaved. Here too we found numbers of Birds-nest Orchid and, in beautiful light, we had fine views of both sexes of Beautiful Demoiselle resting.

With the stage set in dappled light, ancient trees, and huge Old Man's Beard resembling liana vines, we could easily have been watching manakin birds in the American tropics, as we watched a pair of Bullfinch switching rapidly between feeding and perching in the thick forest undergrowth. A perfect end to a wonderful 'Go Slow in Hampshire' holiday.

Watching Bullfinch pair at Chappetts Copse Nature Reserve