Sweet Box

‘Purple Stem’ Sweet BoxSarcococca hookeriana var. digyna*, is now tasseled with sweetly fragrant blossom on the woodland bank behind the bench by the Druid Bridge below the Cascade at Nostell Priory. Each blossom has just two styles and one central stigma; with a scent like that, who needs petals?

The generic name, Sarcococca,  is from the Greek, ‘sarc’ meaning flesh and ‘kokkos’, berry.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Joseph Hooker.

The species name honours botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) who collected this winter-flowering shrub on a plant-hunting expedition in southern China. Hooker was a friend and confidant of Charles Darwin; Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Hooker in Creation, the biographical movie about Darwin. This weekend he appears in the final episode of Sherlock, so perhaps he’ll now be able to get back to playing Victorian botanists, which he does so well. 

The newly planted Sweet Box by the bench should spread by suckers to form a thicket a metre in height.

* I guess that it’s possible that this is a garden hybrid, closely related to S. hookeriana.

After a week of wintry and sometimes very windy weather, it’s good to be walking through the parkland under blue skies with low winter sun picking out the textures on the trunks of the old beeches and oaks. It’s also picking out the bark-like layers in the sandstone of the old quarry in the Menagerie garden.

Walled Garden


Winter aconite

In the walled garden the first snowdrops have appeared and the winter aconites that we first saw opening midweek are continuing to come into flower.

In the shady shelter of the far northeast-facing wall of the garden, Timperley Early (right) is one of the few rhubarb varieties to have started sprouting leaves but Victoria is just ahead of it, with some of the leaves already opening out.

Adder Bite

A dramatic incident on a Wakefield Naturalists’ Society meeting on a summer’s day in 1881:

In an attempt stop the poison spreading the ‘venomed finger, as well as the wrist and arm, were bound round with twine as tightly as possible’.

Messengers were despatched to Pontefract for medical assistance and a Doctor Simpson hurried to the place, and recommended that the sufferer should be removed to Pontefract:

“but Mr. Wainwright decided to be driven to his own residence. On reaching Wakefield about midnight, Dr. Wade, the medical officer for the borough, was called. Notwithstanding that poultices were applied at frequent intervals through the night, the sufferer became delirious, the hand and arm assumed unusual proportions, and Mr. Wainwright had evidently much pain. On Sunday afternoon, on a Wakefield correspondent calling at Springfield House, he was informed that the sufferer was sleeping soundly, and that he appeared to be progressing as favourably as could be expected.”

Fortunately Mr Wainwright survived. He died in Wakefield on the 10th April, 1884.

Yew Male Flower Buds

The wind has blown a few shoots off the yews in the woods around the lake at Nostell Priory. Yew, Taxus baccata, is dioecious – each tree is either male or female – and these mini-Brussels sprouts clustered on the stem in the axils of the leaves are the buds of the male flowers.

They will open in February to shed yellow pollen.


Male flowers.

Female flowers are less conspicuous and are solitary, borne at the end of the stems. They produce berry-like fruits each with a single poisonous seed surrounded by a bright red fleshy cup, the aril.

Woodpeckers Drumming

Quarry in the Menagerie area, Nostell Priory.

Nostell Priory, 10.10 a.m., 4°C, 39°F: The rival great spotted woodpeckers are drumming again, one in the middle of the Pleasure Grounds, the other, from the sound of it, from the far side of the Lower Lake. The first time that I heard it, I was likening the drumming of the nearer bird to the percussive sound of castanets but today I realise that a castanet is too clackety; the tree that this woodpecker has chosen resonates with the more satisfyingly hollow sound of a Chinese block; ‘tockety-tock!’, not ‘clackety-clack!’.

Also calling, a green woodpecker; we hear it’s ‘yaffle’ call a couple of times from the woods on the west bank of the lake but this morning we don’t actually see either species of woodpecker.

We’ve done well for seeing goldcrests this winter. In previous years, the few views that I’ve had of them have been of silhouettes amongst the branches of tall pines but this year they seem to have been more confiding, oblivious of our presence. This morning a single goldcrest is the first bird that we see as we walk out of the courtyard into the gardens, as it checks out the branches of a yew.

In the Pleasure Grounds a treecreeper is working its way methodically up the trunk of a tall oak. It ascends in a straight line; unlike the nuthatch, it doesn’t have the option of going downwards and this one isn’t even tempted to veer off sideways.

There’s a bright spot of colour on a dull morning as a kingfisher flies diagonally across the Middle Lake.

Goosander Central

You could imagine The Lady of the Lake emerging with Excalibur from the Lower Lake at Nostell Priory this morning. There’s a mist hanging over it, which melts away as we walk along the shore. In the shade of the trees, ice still covers half of the surface but it’s covered by a film of water so that mallards can stand about in groups in the middle of the lake.

Most of the Middle Lake is ice-free and eight drake goosanders have gathered in the middle of it, probably accompanied by as many females, but it’s difficult to make a definitive count as at any time one or more of them is likely to be underwater.

As we stand on the top of the banking, trying to count them, I’m aware that the lake’s resident pink-footed goose has started swimming towards us. As I lower my binoculars, I’m astonished to find that it’s waddling along beside us. While we were counting goosanders it must have walked up the near vertical banking!

Herons over the Viaduct

It’s gone midday but the gloom has never lifted. Two grey herons fly over the century old grey-brick viaduct.

A small group of long-tailed tits descend on the fat-ball feeder, leaving the sunflower hearts to the great tits.


11.30 a.m.: In the woodland glade of the Menagerie at Nostell one nuthatch is chasing another. There’s an exchange of ‘tickety-tick’ type calls followed by a high-pitched repeated ‘Chuieee’ call.

What I take to be the male bird is posturing, following the female from tree-trunk to the bough of the neighbouring tree.

In subdued winter plumage, the yellow on the breast of a grey wagtail is a good match for the buff colour-wash on the buildings of the stable block that overlook the walled garden.


In the opening pages of The Wind in the Willows, the Mole ‘scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged’ his way to the surface. This winter there’s been a lot of scrabbling and scrooging around the lakes at Nostell Priory. Molehills have been popping up on verges, path edges and even under park benches, many of them just the size of a pudding basin but there are several that are the diameter of a dustbin lid, containing two bucketfuls or more of soil.

We’ve seen fieldfares using molehills as vantage points on the open parkland. Around the lakes, the resident robins often perch on them; they’ll give one that has been freshly excavated a close examination, picking out any food items (presumably invertebrates) that might have been brought to the surface.

Useful as they might be to some of the local birds, the mounds will present an obstacle when mowing starts again in the spring, so now is the time to rake them out. The freshly turned soil can serve as a mulch, bringing minerals back to the surface.

Sprouting bulbs uprooted in a molehill.

For regular-sized molehills a little footwork is all that is needed but for the mole-mountains there’s a garden power tool that can help. Leaf blowers can be eight times faster than traditional raking and sweeping and this morning one of the gardeners is using a powerful leaf blower to spread the earth of a mound over a lakeside verge. Noisy but effective!

Crow Courtship

10.30 a.m.: Four carrion crows are foraging towards the lower end of the parkland below the Obelisk Lodge at Nostell. I’m guessing that there are two males and two females because two of them are bowing and cawing: rival males. This genteel approach to courtship doesn’t last long.

 The rivalry erupts into a scrap as the males go for each other. At one stage, one of the males briefly ends up on his back, defending himself with legs and beak. Despite the fracas, the foursome stays together as we walk off up the slope.

Squirrel Baffle

8.45 a.m.: We’ve been waiting to see whether the squirrel baffle on our new bird feeding pole would defeat a really determined squirrel.

After nibbling a few spilt sunflower hearts from the lawn beneath, a grey squirrel looks up quizzically at the feeders. Taking a leap at the pole, it gets to within a foot of the steel cone and hangs there for a moment until gravity kicks in and it starts to slide back down, like a fireman on a pole.

It scampers off towards the patio then climbs to the top of the cordon apple and looks back towards the pole. After checking out the patio table and discovering the odd sunflower heart that I’d spilt there, it goes over to the shed and climbs to the apex of the roof, to check out the challenge from another angle.

You can imagine the thought processes that it’s going through. It completes a circuit of vantage points by climbing the clothes pole and the crab apple (where it samples one of the squishy apples).

Then it’s back to the feeding pole for one last attempt. Taking a running jump, it succeeds in propelling itself right up into the cone. For a few moments all that we can see of it is a bushy tail, dangling and swishing slightly. That’s as far as it gets, then it lets itself gently back down to earth via the pole.

I think that now we’ll be able to go back to using plastic feeders, in addition to the robust ‘squirrel-proof’ metal feeders that we had to start using a year ago.


RSPB Pole-mounted Feeder Squirrel Guard