Something a little different to our usual blog content, here our former site manager, Colin Wells shares a fascinating insight to some local botanical history, inspired by his coronavirus lockdown experiences.

 Burton Point (Lynne Greenstreet)

During lockdown a daily early morning walk of mine has been along the Burton Marsh Greenway from Denhall Quay to Burton Point. I realize how lucky I am to have the estuary on my doorstep especially during these difficult times we are living in. These early morning walks have enabled me to get to know my patch a little bit better and have certainly helped me with my mental wellbeing.

One thing I look forward to after a long winter is welcoming in the first migrants. The first wheatear sighting always lifts one’s spirits as we know that spring is on its way. The upper marsh is a great area for listening to new arrivals and holds a good population of breeding warblers etc. So to add some meaning to my lockdown walk I decided to count some of the breeding bird territories on route and was pleasantly surprised with some of the figures I came up with. Between Denhall Quay and Burton Point I had the following: stonechat 4 pairs, Cetti’s warbler 3 pairs, reed warbler 10 pairs, sedge warbler 38 pairs and grasshopper warbler 7+ pairs (to be honest I struggle to hear the latter species now, so I rely on other birders to point them out)! Other highlights include great views of marsh harriers, barn owl, little owl, calling quail and whinchat, but sadly no cuckoo.   

Each spring after migration, I turn my attention to botanising as there are few nice plant species along the route. It was good to see a large stand of musk thistle still in the field below Burton Marsh Farm, but sadly no sign of henbane which was present near the sheep pens last year. I was also pleased to see the white horehound doing well along the foot of the sandstone wall. Incidentally the latter was recorded at Burton Point about 1890 by Arthur Kilpin Bulley, the founder of Ness Botanic Gardens.  

This reminded me that several of the plants found in the Burton Point area were first recorded by Lord de Tabley back in the 1870’s. This made me think - who was this Lord de Tabley and have I been walking in his footsteps?

The Hon. John Byrne Leicester Warren - Lord de Tabley (1835 – 1895) was born at Tabley House, near Knutsford, Cheshire and became a distinguished poet, numismatist (yep, I had to look that one up as well), botanist and an authority on book plates. In 1887 he succeeded his father to the title of 3rd Baron de Tabley. He was an active field botanist and expert on brambles. It had been an ambition of his to write a Flora of Cheshire, so to help with this project, during the period 1873 to 1875 he employed a Liverpool based botanist, Frederic Morgan Webb. 

In the early summer of 1873 they were botanising along the Wirral shore of the Dee Estuary taking the same route that I take today. In “The Flora of Cheshire” Lord de Tabley or John Warren as he was known then, writes about their walk to Burton Point and beyond and describes a very different scene from what we see today.

We join them at the industrial landscape of “Denna Colliery” and the “Brickworks” by Denhall Quay, a residential area now, where they walked south along the beach. I have added in a few notes so that you can get your bearings;  

To quote from book:

Onto Denhall House (Now Denhall House Farm/Nets Cafe) from the Brickworks the walk is uninviting; a beach composed in great part of fragments of coal and shale is succeeded by an immense flat (mud/sand flats) showing clumps of sea meadow-grass (saltmarsh grass) when the tide is out, but for a short period every twelve hours covered by the sea (To get to this point they would have walked along what is now the Greenway from Denhall Quay towards the Decca Pools area and beyond). This flat continues up to the embankment (Broken Bank) lately formed to the westward of Burton Point (All this area now is the vast sheep-grazed Burton Marsh). Before we actually reach the rocks composing Burton Point, some excavations will be noticed from which gravel has been taken (The field just south of Burton Marsh Farm), and here occur some unusual and rather suspicious novelties Hyoscyamus and Carduus nutan (henbane and musk thistle, they are still there today). The Point is a rather handsome “Pebble Bed” bluff crested with trees and with a miscellaneous group of plants on its ledge. Here they found some plants which do not occur here today; sea campion and knotted pearlwort to name two. Another local plant which they saw at Burton Point is slender thistle which I found there a couple of years ago; it would be great to think that this was in the same spot that they saw it nearly 150 years ago!  This is where I stop and retrace my steps as there is no public access over Burton Point.

They continued on, presumably with the permission of Captain Congreve, the landowner of the Burton Hall estate at the time, “after rounding this prominence (they are now entering what is now Burton Mere Wetlands with no railway), on our left a stretch of some two hundred yards is occupied by a swampy piece of ground (where the boardwalk crosses the fen area at Burton Mere Wetlands), occasioned by the outfall of the streamlet passing down through Burton (Hampston Well stream), and the margin of this swamp is the locality for Blysmus rufous and Carex extensa (saltmarsh flat-sedge and long-bracted sedge). The habitat is not suitable for these species now. On our right, and extending for more than two miles, is a dreary flat similar to that lately left, but protected from the flow of the tide, and in process of time all this sheltered area will be brought under cultivation (this is the area which is now the pools, scrapes and wet grassland of Burton Mere Wetlands), as has been the case with the district called Sealands higher up the river. Indeed walking from Burton Point to Blacon Point, we pass from the tide-covered mud flats to fertile corn meadow and pasture lands, all originally the Dee Estuary. Most of this recovered and reclaimed land belongs politically to Flint, and is avoided in this Flora. A line of rails marks the division of the shires (The national boundary between England & Wales) across this flat, and supplies the only eye mark riverwards in the monotony of the long tramp between Burton and Shotwick”. During their tramp between Burton Point and Shotwick they came across other interesting plants like; brackish water crowfoot and beaked tasselweed which are still present nearby.

He really gives a flavour of what it was like in those days and I wonder what Lord de Tabley and Fredric Webb would have made of Burton Mere Wetlands today. I hope they would have been impressed with the variety of plants on the reserve and be pleased to know that some of the plants they found all those years ago are still present today!

Lord de Tabley completed the draft manuscript of “The Flora of Cheshire” in 1875 but then decided not to publish it. One of the reasons he gave for not publishing was that he did not want to give away the locations of rare plants because in those days Victorians were heavily into plant collecting. Sadly the botanical world had to wait until 1899 for “The Flora of Cheshire” to be published, four years after his death and nearly 25 years after he completed the draft. His colleague Frederic Webb went on to be the Curator of the herbarium at the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens. Sadly he died at Edinburgh in 1880 at the young age of forty years old.

Lord de Tabley was better known for his poetry and having read some of his poems it is obvious that he was enthused by the natural world. I would like to think that when he visited the Dee Estuary on one of his botanical excursions it inspired his writing. So, on that note I will leave you with a few words from the great man:

The passion of the wave is mute;

No sound or ocean shock;

No music save the trilling flute

That marks the curlew flock