Bexley is one of the 5 boroughs left for me to visit as part of the 33 Butterflies Challenge and it is one of the greenest in London so I was looking forward to exploring. I chose two differing habitats: Joyden’s Wood which straddles the Bexley-Kent border and Foot’s Cray Meadows which unfold alongside the River Cray.

Conifers

Walking distance from Bexley Station, Joyden’s Wood is a vast 135-hectare site of planted ancient woodland containing a mixture of broadleaved native species and conifer plantations. Rich in history it comprises remnants of Saxon and medieval structures as well as World War 2 bomb craters. As soon as I entered the wood, I was immediately struck by how quickly it envelops you. Wide, sprawling oaks seemed to scoop their gnarly branches around me as I wound up slopes rutted and gullied by recent heavy rainfall. Little light reaches the woodland floor here, giving rise to a slightly eerie, mystical quality. The only splashes of vibrancy came from bright orange rowan berries splashed around at mid-height beneath scattered beech boughs and ranks of uniform conifers standing to attention. Shade-loving Wood Sage and the wonderfully named Enchanter’s Nightshade decorated the path edges but other than the occasional Speckled Wood, there were no butterflies. I had heard of both White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillaries being resident in the wood but despite criss-crossing the site several times, there just wasn’t quite enough sun to break through the canopy and tempt them out of the shadows. One species that does thrive in conifer woodlands such as Joyden’s is the Southern Wood ant, as I found out in abrupt fashion. Pausing for a few moments in one of the woodland glades, I felt a sharp nip on my shin. Looking down I realised I had been stood on an ants’ nest and several hundred of its residents were now manically scuttling around my foot and ankle. Cue much jiggling and yelping as I shook them off with far less style than Taylor Swift. Everywhere I looked then, I could see these ant hill forts rising from the woodland floor and marvelled at the impressive engineering skills of these tiny creatures – no wonder they defended with such ferocity.

Brown Argus

Unable to shake off the images in my head of tripping face-first into an anthill, I gravitated towards the ant-free edge of the wood. Clambering over a ditch and bank that would once have marked a land boundary, moth-like, I followed the light out into some meadows. Billows of pink blushed Yarrow and bulbous clover flowers carpeted the ground providing a butterfly buffet. Within minutes I’d seen Common Blue, Meadow Brown and Green-veined White before catching sight of one of my favourite butterflies at this time of year, the Brown Argus. This dainty butterfly, silver in flight, has deliciously chocolatey wings fringed by orange crescents. It can often be confused with the very similar-looking female Common Blue but the Brown Argus lacks any blue scales on its upperside and also has a prominent dark spot on each forewing that is not present in the Common Blue. Once restricted to chalk grassland where its favoured larval foodplant, Common Rock-rose, grows the Brown Argus has now increased its range across London by including geraniums into its diet, especially the widespread Dove’s-foot Cranesbill. Buoyed by this meadow butterfly bonanza, I decided to head to my second Bexley greenspace.

Small Copper

Once part of the 18th Century Foots Cray Place estate, Foots Cray Meadows has been a public park since the country house was demolished in 1949 following a fire. The 97-hectare Local Nature Reserve is a mixture of meadow and woodland, and meandering along the winding paths felt a world away from London. Fifty shades of copper were on display as more Small Coppers than I’ve ever seen darted between umbellifers, dwarfed by Small Tortoiseshells intent on chasing them away. Common Knapweed and thistles punctuated with pops of purple and one of my favourites, Pineappleweed, was growing abundantly along the path. I plucked one of the spongy flower heads and squeezed it between my fingers, breathing in its sweet piña colada fragrance. Common Red Soldier beetles jostled for space on Ragwort heads and crickets zinged in the grasses, pinging in all directions as I wandered into the woodland in pursuit of a Holly Blue.

Pineappleweed

Willows and Hornbeams line the river stretching out their limbs arm in arm but every so often a break in the formation provided an open window onto the burbling waters. Revellers were enjoying a paddle though many seemed to be a tad unprepared for the occasion with sodden-bottomed jeans hoicked up around their calves. The path emerged by the most notable landmark on the site, Five Arches bridge, a resplendent stone bridge, renovated in 2000, that could easily illustrate the pages of a Jane Austen novel.

Grand old sweet chestnut trees are dotted around the meadows including some that are the oldest documented trees in the area. An avenue of them leads back to the exit, much older trees on one side and more newly planted ones on the other, a nice reflection of the historical significance on this site alongside its present and future use as a modern urban green space.

Full species lists:

Joyden’s Wood (and surrounds): Peacock, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Brown Argus, Speckled Wood, Small White, Green-veined White and Common Blue.

Foots Cray Meadows: Large white, Small White, Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Holly Blue, Gatekeeper, Small Copper, Brown Argus, Small Tortoiseshell and Common Blue

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