Taking a walk on the wild side
Published on: 03 Feb 2016
Linda Tanner sees the Frome Valley through the eyes of Bristol’s answer to Ray Mears, wildlife expert Steve England
STEVE England is a man on a mission – to make more of us aware of the amazing natural history on the doorstep in our part of Bristol.
“It is literally underneath our feet,” he says. “With every step you take from Stoke Park towards the Frome Valley, you are travelling back in time 100,000 years.”
Steve left school without qualifications but has built up encyclopaedic knowledge of the area he has lived in all his life. At almost 50, he still has the infectious enthusiasm of a schoolboy about the wildlife and geology all around him.
I have walked from Snuff Mills alongside the River Frome to Frenchay dozens of times but will see it with new eyes after treading the path with Steve in the mild early part of this winter.
He leapt about, discovering fossils and fungi, spotting flowers blooming out of season, and pointing out birds and insects.
“A seven-spot ladybird, a woodland buttercup (lesser celandine), an arum lily – we should not be seeing these,” he exclaimed. “It is all evidence of climate change.”
Steve is a man who likes to ask questions and study evidence, and he believes school children and adults can learn a great deal from getting out in the wild and doing the same.
“The Frome Valley is a goldmine. Its potential has never been exploited,” he said. “What excites me most about it is its geology – three sets of time periods – and its incredible diversity of wildlife.”
Steve’s studies were boosted three years ago when a professor of palaentology from Imperial College and two students came down to help him “read the rocks”.
“We combed every rock looking for evidence of prehistory. Rocks are like a book. Each layer is like a page. They tell a story of what happened 300 million years ago,” he said.
“We won’t find any dinosaurs in the Frome Valley, because it predates them. It was formed in the Carboniferous period. Probably the Amazon basin is the closest to how this place would have looked then.”
Towards Duchess Gates, evidence is found from the Triassic period, 200 million years ago when Bristol resembled a tropical island. “It was like the Bahamas, with a deep blue ocean. The remnants of it can be seen in the sandstone cliff at Frenchay Park Road.”
Stoke Park dates back to the Jurassic period, 120 million years ago. Fossils showing some of Steve’s findings are on show in the Glenside Museum, while many more can be discovered in the Frome Valley.
Treasures Steve has uncovered include a Bronze Age worked flint, which would have been used 3,000 years ago to scrape rabbit skins, and an Ice Age horse tooth.
He has found evidence from relatively more recent history too: from the 11th to 14th centuries when the area was owned by the Priory of St James in Bristol, through the 16th century when Pennant stone from the Frome Valley was quarried to build the Dower House at Stoke Park, to the present day.
The mills along the river and the quarrying have left their mark. Quarrying ceased much earlier on one side of the river than the other, which has had an impact on the landscape.
Twentieth century history includes a tree carved during World War Two by a jilted local with the words Yanks Go Home to the site of the filming of Robin Hood for television in the 1980s.
“It is like walking through a museum,” said Steve. “I used to play here when I was a boy and I have always been fascinated by the history and wildlife of the area. Now I want to pass it on and leave a legacy.”
While global warming might be bringing some alarming signs, not all change is bad. The River Frome in which Steve used to swim as a lad “before health and safety was invented” was very polluted in the 1970s but today its quality is much improved – as evidenced by the fresh water mussels to be found in the waters.
Steve is a master forager – quite the Bear Grylls – and one of his popular wildlife walks helps people identify food for free and, of course, to know which plants are safe to eat and which are definitely not.
“You could find up to 100 species of mushroom in Stoke Park - I found 11 on one beech tree,” said Steve. While some are delicious cooked or raw, others could be deadly. Fungi have other useful properties too, from health benefits to sharpening knives; plants and their uses is another of his walk themes, as are craft activities involving natural materials such as ivy and sedge grass.
The birds of the Frome Valley are another delight: on our walk we saw a buzzard, a kingfisher, and longtails (aka lollipop birds). Dippers, tawny owls and ravens can also be seen regularly.
Steve carries out wildlife and natural history walks all over Bristol, but especially in his home habitat of the Frome Valley and Stoke Park and in 2016 is increasing his offer to schools, bringing in support from other experts.
He would like to see more Bristol children learning about their area, rather than travelling to other places for field trips.
More information can be found on his website, steveenglandoutdoorlearning.com