Hounslow Heath has a long and rich history with records from the area dating back to Roman times; it was also the site of the first civil airport in the country, a predecessor of Croydon Airport. In the 17th and 18th centuries the heath was a favoured spot for highwaymen and women as the main routes out of London to the west crossed the land. Thankfully, a walk on the heath these days doesn’t mean taking your life into your own hands and the abundant paths through heath, woodland, wetland and meadows offer a welcome respite from urban surrounds.
I visited on a warm August morning but stodgy clouds were obscuring the suns rays for all but the briefest of moments. Despite this, a pristine Painted Lady was spreadeagle on a patch of bare earth, shivering here coppery wings ever so slightly and no doubt wondering why she left the warmth of sub-Saharan Africa for a British ‘summer’.
Wide paths meander around the heath and were being well-used by locals; the less-beaten tracks veering off through fenced paddocks were less popular and perhaps the signs warning of the heath’s healthy adder population were putting people off. I hoped I might catch a glimpse of these elusive reptiles but they favour basking on much sunnier days so remained hidden from view. Several Small Whites danced along the path edges, dipping down to nectar every few meters on the abundant red clover. The ling and bell heather were just starting to blush but autumn is when they will really embroider the heathland areas with their pinky-purple hues.
Bimbling Meadow Browns flounced along hedgerows and only moved with any urgency when chased by territorial Red Admirals flashing their scarlet-striped wings. I was also not moving with any sense of purpose, meandering vaguely back the way I had come when an unusual flurry caught my eye. A rippling flight and blaze of the brightest orangey-red – a jersey tiger moth, my first of the year. These splendid moths, dressed in monochrome striped jackets only reveal their peachy petticoats in flight. They used to be restricted to the Channel Islands and the south coast but are now widespread across southern England and have a thriving population in London. Such a treat to observe them – settle, pause, reveal – the ultimate quick-change artists. I watched them for several minutes, even pointing them out to a couple of passers by who weren’t nearly as entertained as me; they don’t tick a box on the 33 Butterflies Challenge list but moths like these are just an added bonus.
In the Alfred Noyes poem, The Highwayman, one of the threads running through each verse is repeated references to shades of red – ‘claret velvet’, ‘dark red love knot’, ‘red lipped’ – so as I reflected on my visit to Hounslow Heath it felt very fitting that this site, once frequented by such bandits, was now decorated with wings displaying their signature colours.