Nature

The Commons provide a diverse range of habitats from heathland and woodland to semi-natural ponds, resulting in an enormously diverse and surprising range of plants and animals.

Animals

Common frog, grass snake, robin, roe deer or sparrowhawk; what will you find while exploring the Commons today?

Don’t forget we’d love to see your photographs.

  • Birds

      For many years the Commons have been noted as a good spot for bird watching, bearing in mind their urban location and relatively small size. In the early 1960s local ornithologist Harold Betteridge listed 36 species nesting on the Commons and made a photographic record of their nests. Nowadays, around 40 resident species can be found, along with about 15 summer or winter visitors.

      Sparrow Hawk

      Birds of prey

      Among the birds of prey, examples of the kestrel (falco tinnunculus) and ‘sparrow hawk’ (accipiter nisus) have been observed actively hunting in recent times, the former in open spots and the latter in more wooded areas. The ‘little owl’ (athene noctua), ‘tawny owl’ (strix aluco) and ‘long-eared owl’ (asio otus) also have also been recorded.

      Crows family

      The large numbers of magpies (pica pica) cannot fail to be observed, and their relatives the ‘carrion crow’ (corvus corone), jackdaw (corvus monedula) and jay (garrulus glandarius) are also to be found.

      Goldfinch

      Finches

      Familiar also are the chaffinch (fringilla coelebs), as well as more elusive relatives like the bullfinch (pyrrhula pyrrhula), hawfinch (coccothraustes coccothraustes), linnet (linaria cannabina) and ‘lesser redpoll’ (acanthis cabaret). Groups of the colourful goldfinch (carduelis carduelis) may be observed on occasions feeding at thistle seeds in large stands such as that beneath Mount Edgcumbe Rocks.

      Robins & wrens

      Birds such as the robin (erithacus rubecula) and wren (troglodytes troglodytes) may also readily be seen.

      Swallows & martins

      Swallows (hirundo rustica) and ‘house martins’ (delichon urbicum) are to be seen hunting insects over open ground such as that between Victoria Grove and Wellington Rocks.

      The warblers

      Among the summer visitors are the ‘willow warbler’ (phylloscopus trochilus), ‘wood warbler’ (phylloscopus sibilatrix), ‘garden warbler’ (sylvia borin) and blackcap (sylvia atricapilla).

      Thrushes

      The ‘song thrush’ (turdus philomelos) finds abundant snails of various species on the Commons, and its characteristic ‘anvils’, stones arising from bare ground and surrounded by shell fragments, can often be spotted along footpaths. The ‘mistle thrush’ (turdus viscivorus) is also resident.

      Winter visitors include the fieldfare (turdus pilaris) and the redwing (turdus iliacus).

      Long Tailed Tit

      Tits & crests

      Familiar garden birds such as ‘blue tit’ (cyanistes caeruleus) and ‘great tit’ (parus major) may readily be seen, and there are also records of more elusive relatives like goldcrest (regulus regulus). One of the most characteristic of the resident species is the ‘long-tailed tit’ (aegithalos caudatus), often seen in small flocks moving from tree to tree; its elaborate nests of moss, spider webs and hair, covered with lichen, are constructed in gorse bushes.

      Water birds

      Few water birds occur on the Commons, but mallard (anas platyrhynchos) and moorhen (gallinula chloropus) may be seen at Brighton Lake, and a kingfisher (alcedo atthis) has also been seen.

      Woodland birds

      The nuthatch (sitta europaea) and treecreeper (certhia familiaris) inhabit the various wooded areas, where the occasional pheasant (phasianus colchicus) has also been seen. Nightingales (luscinia megarhynchos) have been confirmed as nesting on Tunbridge Wells Common in the past, and adult birds continue to be reported.

      Green Woodpecker

      Woodpeckers

      All three British species of woodpecker are to be found on the Commons, although the ‘great spotted woodpecker’ (dendrocopos major) and ‘lesser spotted woodpecker’ (dryobates minor) are much less conspicuous than the ‘green woodpecker’ (picus viridis). The latter has been noted feeding at anthills in the grassland near Wellington Rocks.

      Others

      Summer visitors include the ubiquitous cuckoo (cuculus canorus), generally heard rather than seen, as well as the ‘spotted flycatcher’ (muscicapa striata), and chiffchaff (phylloscopus collybita).

  • Fish

      Fish occur only in Brighton Lake, where they must have been introduced, as this pond was only created in 1858. However, they undoubtedly flourish there, and some surprisingly large specimens are evident. The population of sizable ‘common carp’ (cyprinus carpio) is the most conspicuous, but perch (perca fluviatilis), tench (tinca tinca), roach (rutilus rutilus) and rudd (scardinius erythrophthalmus) are also present. A small pike (esox lucius) was recorded recently. Sticklebacks (gasterosteus aculaeatus) are also to be found.

  • Insects & Invertebrates
    • Bees, Wasp & Ants

      There are about 120,000 different species in the order of hymenoptera – bees, wasps, ants.

      Holes and burrows in the ground

      Walkers on the Commons in high summer will undoubtedly have seen clusters of small holes in the sandy ground of footpaths and around rocks and may well have spotted insects of various sizes and colours, looking vaguely like bees and wasps, going in and out of them. The more observant may have noticed similar burrows in south-facing drainage ditches, root plates or banks with sparse vegetation from early spring onwards.

      These small tunnels are the nests of solitary bees and wasps, an often overlooked but important element of the Commons’ fauna. The sandy soil and rock outcrops of the Commons are ideal for these creatures, and many otherwise rare varieties find a refuge here. Over 130 species have so far been recorded for the Commons, including eighteen on the official national list of scarce and endangered species.

      Solitary and social bees and wasps

      ‘Solitary’ bees and wasps are to be distinguished from their ‘social’ relatives which live in communities with a breeding queen and sterile workers. Although solitary species often nest in proximity, congregating in particularly favoured spots, each female digs its own individual burrow and stocks it with suitable food for its offspring.

      Tawny Mining Bee

      Mining bees

      The seasonally earliest species to appear are the ‘mining bees’ (andrena), some of which can be active as early as late February while most are at their peak in March and April. The females dig burrows in bare or sparsely vegetated ground, which they stock with honey and pollen before laying their eggs. They are especially fond of south-facing areas such as Terrace Walk, at the back of Brighton Lake, and Happy Valley. Wellington Rocks and the rocks at Denny Bottom are also favoured sites.

      Mining bees are very diverse in size and colour, the largest being about the size of a honeybee, while the smallest are not much bigger than a large ant.

      The most spectacular, the ‘tawny mining bee’ (andrena fulva) has bright orange fur on its hind body, while the thorax is deep scarlet. Other species frequently observed in spring include the ‘early mining bee’ (andrena haemorrhoa), which has a golden tip to its body, the ‘yellow-legged mining bee’ (andrena flavipes), which has a golden pollen basket and pale brown bands, and the very early flying ‘Clark’s mining bee’ (andrena clarkella), with black fur behind and red in front.

      Among the few which fly in summer is the ‘white-banded mining bee’ (colletes succinctus), always seen visiting heather.

      Female mining bees

      Female mining bees are generally more distinctive than males, but the light grey males of the ‘bearded mining bee’ (andrena barbilabris) often make themselves conspicuous by flying low over areas of bare sand.

      Laying in a store of food for their offspring entails numerous visits to and from nearby flowers, so the females can often be seen entering their tunnels carrying clumps of brightly coloured pollen in the baskets of hairs on their hind legs.

      Female mining bees often make great efforts to conceal their nests from predators, carefully opening and sealing them as they travel to and fro with supplies. However, this does not protect them from the cuckoo bees whose females are highly skilled in detecting other bees’ burrows so that they can lay their own eggs inside and save themselves the trouble of gathering their own stores of food.

      Mining-bee cuckoos

      Every species of mining bee has a specialist cuckoo-bee species which is attached to it, roaming around its nesting sites in search of opportunities. The smaller mining bees have associated cuckoos of the genus sphecodes, which are red and black in colour, but the larger varieties are parasitised by the more conspicuous ‘nomad bees’.

      The nomad bees, which can often be seen in spring exploring the areas where mining bees congregate, have a close resemblance to wasps. One of the commonest, the ‘red-horned nomad’ (nomada flava), has yellow, black and brown bands, and three vertical red stripes on the thorax. The body of the larger ‘six-banded nomad’ (nomada fulvicornis), one of the Commons’ rarities, is patterned entirely in yellow and black.

      Mason bees

      Later in the year, the mining bees are joined by various smaller groups, some of which make their nests in rotten wood. The ‘red mason bee’ (osmia bicornis) has light orange fur on its abdomen, while the ‘blue mason bee’ (osmia caerulescens) is of a dark metallic colour.

      Leafcutter Bee

      Leaf-cutter bees

      The females of the Commons’ three species of ‘leaf-cutter bees’ (megachile species pluralis) use their powerful jaws to cut semi-circular pieces out of leaves. They use these to make a series of individual cells in their burrows, filling them with honey and pollen for their young. The pieces of leaf are folded into a cylinder, with smaller round portions serving as a base and lid. Female leafcutters have a rather flattened body with a brush of coloured hairs underneath for carrying pollen.

      Flower bee companions to the leaf-cutter bee

      Anthophora are one of the largest families of solitary types of bee. The scarce flower four-banded bee ‘anthophora quadrimaculata’, which resembles a small brown bumblebee with a swift darting flight, is exclusively devoted to flowers of the labiate family (flowers with lip or liplike parts), which it visits in company with the larger orange fork-tailed ‘anthophora furcata’ and the yellow-spotted ‘wool-carder bee’ (anthidium manicatum), a genus of the leaf-cutter bee.

      Solitary wasps

      Solitary wasps do not generally become active until June or later. Many species nest in similar locations to those favoured by mining bees, while others burrow into dead wood and can be found exploring sunlit timber. In contrast to the bees, these wasps provide live food for their young. The largest group, the ‘digger wasps’ show a wide range of size and colour pattern, some having the typical wasp pattern of yellow and black stripes, while other species are red and black, or all black. The nesting females capture flies, beetles, caterpillars or other insects, according to the preference of each species. They prepare their captures for use by the expedient of paralysing them with their sting, so that the victims remain fresh but unable to escape from the burrow while the wasp larva hatches from its egg and begins to devour them.

      Among the more conspicuous ground-nesting species, with substantial colonies around Wellington Rocks and Toad Rock, are the yellow and black ‘sand tailed digger wasp’ (cerceris arenaria), which hunts for weevils, and the red and black ‘astata boops’, whose prey is shield-bug nymphs.

      Spider-hunting wasps

      The ‘spider-hunting wasps’ (pompilidae), red and black or all black in colour, have similar habits to the digger wasps, but specialise in the capture of spiders. They are agile and fast-moving insects which run rather than fly as they seek out their prey.

      Ruby Tailed Wasp

      Cuckoo wasps

      As with solitary bees, the digger wasps and spider-hunting wasps have their associated cuckoo species which intrude into their stocked nests and lay their eggs there. These parasites include several species of ‘ruby-tailed wasps’ (chrysis ignita), which are among the most attractive and exotic-looking of British insects. They are active only in bright sunshine and are brilliantly metallic, coloured in various combinations of green, ruby red and deep blue. The most beautiful of all, ‘chrysis viridula’, is most often seen on Rusthall Common, exploring the nesting sites of its host, the ‘spiny mason wasp’ (odynerus spinipes), which is distinctive in its own right by reason of the curious curved mud chimneys which it constructs over the entrance to its burrows in bare vertical sandy surfaces.

      Social bees and wasps

      Although numerically abundant, social bees and wasps are much fewer in the number of their species than their solitary cousins.

      Like all insects that live in colonies, each species is divided into three castes: queens, males and workers. The queens are the fertile females and founders of the colony, surviving the winter by hibernation and emerging as early as possible in the new year to establish their nests, either in holes in the ground or in dense vegetation. The nest consists of a ball of dried grass or moss, in the centre of which the female builds wax cells for her eggs along with containers for storing food. Her first offspring are workers, sterile females which assist in the development of the colony and take over the work of gathering nectar and pollen.

      Buff Tailed Bumblebee

      Bumblebees

      On the Commons, the most widespread of the social bees are six species of bumblebees, whose furry coat enables them to fly in cold, dull or rainy weather when most other insects are immobilised. The ‘buff-tailed bumblebee’ (bombus terrestris), ‘white-tailed bumblebee’ (bombus lucorum), ‘garden bumblebee’ (bombus hortorum), ‘early bumblebee’ (bombus pratorum) and ‘red-tailed bumblebee’ (bombus lapidaries) are all familiar visitors to flowers on the Commons, as is the distinctive brown ‘common carder bee’ (bombus pascuorum). Lone queens seen flying low in the early months of the year are engaged in their search for suitable nest sites.

      Honeybees

      Honeybees (apis) are regularly seen on the Commons too, but these are visitors from domestic hives.

      Social wasps

      Social wasps recorded on the Commons comprise the two familiar urban species the ‘common wasp’ (vespula vulgaris) and the ‘German yellowjacket’ (vespula germanica), along with the ‘tree wasp’ (dolichovespula sylvestris) and two related species which have recently colonised southern Britain from the Continent, the ‘median wasp’ (dolichovespula media) and the ‘Saxon wasp’ (dolichovespula saxonica).

      Ants

      Ants are social insects found on the Commons, one of which contributes to the landscape in the form of the prominent earthen mounds to be seen in areas of acid grassland, such as around Highbury. These are constructed by the ‘yellow meadow ant’ (lasius flavus) and may be many decades old. The ants themselves remain below the surface and are unlikely to be seen unless one of their nests is disturbed. Sections of these old nest mounds are sometimes occupied by colonies of the ‘brown ant’ (myrmica scabrinodis). Unlike the meadow ant, this and its relative the ‘common red ant’ (myrmica ruginodis) are usually seen actively foraging, often high up on grassland vegetation.

      Most widespread of all, found both in open spots and in woodland, are the subterranean nesting ‘garden black ant’ (lasius niger), and the larger long-legged relative ‘black ant’ (formica fusca). It is the winged females of these latter two species that are most likely to be noticed by the general public on hot days in high summer, as swarms of ‘flying ants’. These are newly emerged queens engaged, along with the much smaller males, in their annual synchronised courtship flight, after which they shed their wings to retreat underground as founders of new colonies.

    • Beetles

      Numerous types of beetles (coleoptera) occur on the Commons. Although the majority are modest creatures, there are some whose size or colour may bring themselves to the attention of the public. The majority of the fast-moving predatory ground beetles are nocturnal, but several ‘metallic’ species make themselves visible by running across sunlit paths. The related ‘green tiger beetle’ (cicindela campestris), a brightly coloured species that flies readily in hot weather, is sometimes seen in similar situations.

      Seven-spot Ladybird

      Ladybirds

      The ladybirds, whose bright colours advertise them as distasteful to birds, are also predators, feeding on aphids. Such species as the very common ‘seven-spot ladybird’ (coccinella septempunctata) and smaller ‘two-spot ladybird’ (adalia bipunctata) hibernate as adults but are much in evidence on sunny days in winter.

      Aquatic predators

      Aquatic predators include the impressive ‘great giving beetle’ (dytiscus marginalis), found with many related forms in the various ponds on the Commons.

      Leaf beetle

      Many beetles feed on plant foliage, keeping themselves well hidden, but some of the ‘leaf beetles’ (chrysomelidae) are brightly coloured, as are the metallic ‘green leaf weevils’ (phyllobius) found on various trees and low-growing plants. The colour-variable ‘reed beetle’ (plateumaris sericea), found on emergent vegetation at the fringes of ponds, may be bronze, copper, deep blue or purple in colour.

      Malachite Beetle

      Flower-eating beetles

      Of the beetles which feed actively at flowers, the most abundant is the ‘common soldier beetle’ (rhagonycha fulva) orange with black tips, a characteristic of insects in the middle of summer.

      Several related species occur in smaller numbers, all being particularly fond of the tall flower heads of umbellifers (with their clustered heads of tiny flowers), thistles and ragwort. The red-tipped ‘malachite beetle’ (malachius bipustulatus) and the slender ‘false oil beetle’ (oedemera nobilis) both metallic-green are more likely to be seen on low-growing flowers such as buttercups. The brilliant reflective scarlet of the Commons’ two species of ‘cardinal beetle’, the ‘black-headed cardinal beetle’ (pyrochroa coccinea) and ‘red-headed cardinal beetle’ (pyrochroa serraticornis), are very noticeable, whether they are visiting flowers, sitting on foliage or in flight.

      Spotted Longhorn Beetle

      Longhorn beetles

      Many of the longhorn beetles, noted for their long antennae, are strikingly coloured or patterned, flying on sunny days and feeding at brambles and other flowers. They include the yellow and black ‘wasp beetle’ (clytus arietis) and ‘spotted longhorn’ (strangalia maculate), and two larger orange and black species, the ‘longhorn beetle’ (strangalia quadrifasciata) and the rare and impressive ‘golden haired’ (leptura aurulenta).

      Rove beetles

      ‘Rove beetles’ (staphylinidae), characterized by their short wing cases exposing most of the abdomen, are abundant inhabitants of the Commons, although most species are small and do not attract attention. Only the large black, so-called ‘devil’s coach-horse’ (staphylinus olens) running over sunlit footpaths, is likely to be noticed by the general public.

      Click beetles

      ‘Click beetles’ (elateridae), slender insects able to flip themselves into the correct position after falling on their back, are also numerous, and the common athous haemorrhoidalis actively flies by day. The large mottled agrypnus murinus is another notable member of the same family.

      Scarab beetles

      Members of the ‘scarab group’ (scarabaeidae) found on the Commons include the familiar ‘cockchafer or may-bug’ (melolontha melolontha), which is nocturnal and attracted to light, the ‘minotaur beetle’ (typhaeus typhoeus), a dung-beetle with three horns in the male, and the ‘lesser stag beetle’ (dorcus parallelipipedus).

    • Bugs

      The extensive order of bugs (hemiptera) is divided into two main sections:

      • the ‘true bugs’ (heteroptera)
      • related forms of homoptera:
        • the aphids (sternorrhyncha)
        • the ‘leafhoppers and froghoppers’ (auchenorrhyncha)
        • the ‘moss bugs’ (Coleorrhyncha)

      An often-overlooked group of insects, many species of bugs are found in grassland and woodland on the Commons.

      Hawthorn Sheild Bug

      True bugs

      Among the largest of the ‘true bugs’ found on the Commons are the ‘shield bugs’ (pentatomoidea), including the common ‘green shield bug’ (palomena prasine), often seen on bramble foliage, and the attractive green and purple ‘hawthorn shield bug’ (acanthosoma haemorrhoidale) and ‘birch shield bug’ (elasmostethus interstinctus). The large brown ‘squash bug’ (coreus marginatus) is also easy to spot, as it sits openly on dock leaves. Aquatic members of the ‘heteroptera’ include the ‘common backswimmer’ (notonecta glauca) and the familiar ‘pond-skaters’ or ‘water striders’ (gerris plural species) which live on the surface film of ponds.

      Homoptera

      The homoptera are mostly small insects which attract little attention, although the nymphs (immature form) of ‘froghoppers’ make themselves conspicuous by producing protective ‘cuckoo spit’ (white frothy liquid secreted by the nymphs), and some ‘aphids’ feed in large clusters which are attended by ants in search of honeydew. Some of the larger and more colourful ‘leafhoppers’ may also be noticed by the general public, for example the bright ‘green leafhopper’ (cicadella viridis) which frequents the damp grassland around ponds.

    • Butterflies & Moths

      The most noticeable and widespread members of the Commons’ insect fauna are the butterflies (lepidoptera), of which twenty-five species have been recorded to date on the Commons. (Note lepidoptera also includes the moths.) Some are permanent residents, somewhat inactive species with old established colonies breeding on site generation after generation, while other more mobile species are regular or occasional visitors.

      Where butterflies can most be seen on the Commons

      The majority of the permanent residents are species typically found on open grassland and heathland, and at their appropriate season most of them can be seen in areas on Tunbridge Wells Common (the acid grassland along Mount Ephraim; overlooking London Road; vicinity of Gibraltar Cottage and Rocklea ; the north-west corner of the Common; the space between Wellington Rocks and Victoria Grove and on Rusthall Common (Denny Bottom; around the Marl Pits; in front of Rusthall Church).

      Such butterflies avoid dense woodland but can be quite numerous along the open fringes of the wider footpaths, like Terrace Walk just to the north of Brighton Lake.

      Main butterfly species seen on the Commons

      The greatest variety of grassland butterflies is to be seen on the Commons from June to August, with the appearance of five warmth-loving species that produce only a single generation of adults each year, and whose caterpillars feed on grasses:

      • From the ‘Skippers’ family:
        • Small Skipper and Essex Skipper
        • Large Skipper
      • From the ‘Browns’ family:
        • Meadow Brown, and similar Hedge Brown
        • Small Heath
        • Brown Argus

      Common Blue

      ‘Copper’ family of butterflies

      The earliest of the grassland species to appear on the Commons is the ‘small copper’ (‘copper’ family; lycaena phlaeas), with its distinctive metallic orange colouration. Emerging in May, it is also one of the latest butterflies to remain on the wing in autumn. The ‘common blue’ (‘blues’ family; polyommatus icarus) also has an early generation, and it too can appear remarkably late in the year.

      ‘Skippers’ family of butterflies

      The ‘small skipper’ (‘skipper’ family: thymelicus sylvestris) and ‘Essex skipper’ (‘skipper’ family: thymelicus lineola) are the most difficult of British butterflies to separate but can be reliably told apart by the tips of their antennae, which are orange underneath for the former and black for the latter. The ‘large skipper’ (‘skipper’ family: ochlodes sylvanus) differs in size, as its name suggests, and has an orange patch on the forewing against a darker background.

      ‘Hairstreaks’ family of butterflies

      The ‘purple hairstreak’ (‘hairstreaks’ family: favonius quercus) is a much more elusive woodland resident, as the adult spends most of its life high in the branches of oak trees, where it feeds on honeydew (sugar-rich sticky liquid, secreted by aphids and some scale insects as they feed on plant sap). Its whole history centres around oaks, the eggs being laid on the leaf buds and the caterpillars feeding on the young foliage in spring. This butterfly is characterized by its metallic purple forewing patches, but it is rarely seen at close quarters.

      ‘Browns’ family of butterflies

      The ‘meadow brown’ (‘browns’ family: maniola jurtina) and the smaller gatekeeper (‘browns’ family: pyronia tithonus) are characterized by small eye spots and light forewing patches on a darker brown background.

      Currently much scarcer than any of these is the ‘small heath’ (‘browns’ family: coenonympha pamphilus), a light orange-brown butterfly related to the two browns but considerably smaller. The recently discovered ‘brown argus’ (‘browns’ family: aricia agestis), recorded only twice, is perhaps best interpreted as an elusive resident. A small brown butterfly with orange spots along the edges of its wings, it is easily mistaken for the female of the ‘common blue’, but the latter always has at least some blue scales, if only towards the base of its wings.

      Speckled Wood Butterfly

      A common resident with somewhat different habitat preferences is the ‘speckled wood’ (‘browns’ family: pararge aegeria), a distinctive butterfly with cream-white patches on a dark brown background which can be found from as early as April to as late as October. Although it breeds in open spots, its larvae feeding on grasses, the adults tend to frequent shady paths through woodland where the males defend territories consisting of a shifting patch of sunlight.

      The ringlet (‘browns’ family: phantopus hyperantus), a blackish brown butterfly with distinctive cream-coloured rings on its underside, was first recorded on the Commons in the mid-1990s and may well become a permanent resident. It is most likely to be seen in summer near brambles along rides and woodland edges.

      ‘Whites and yellows’ family of butterflies

      Late April sees the emergence of the distinctive ‘orange-tip’ (‘whites and yellows’ family: anthocharis cardamines), whose bright orange eggs are surprisingly easy to spot on their main foodplant, garlic mustard. Only the males have orange-tipped forewings, the females being mainly white, but sharing the same mottled-green hindwing underside pattern. In flight, female ‘orange-tips’ closely resemble the green-veined white, but when settled the latter’s grey-green veins on the underside of a light yellowish hindwing are distinctive enough. Unlike the orange-tip, which has only a single spring generation, the ‘green-veined white’ (‘whites and yellows’ family: pieris napi) can be found throughout the year

      The lemon-yellow males of the brimstone (‘whites and yellows’ family: gonepteryx rhamniare) are a familiar sight on the Commons in early spring. They hibernate as adults and generally appear at the same time as the small tortoiseshell, peacock and comma, ranging over a wide area. The ‘large white’ (‘whites and yellows’ family: pieris brassicae) and ‘small white’ (‘whites and yellows’ family: pieris rapae) are also highly mobile species, their British populations regularly augmented by migration across the Channel. Both are frequently seen on the Commons, and the latter may sometimes breed there on wild members of the cabbage (brassica) family, such as ‘wild rocket’ (diplotaxis tenuifolia) and watercress (nasturtium officinale).

      ‘Blues’ family of butterflies

      Also present from spring to autumn is the ‘holly blue’ (‘blues’ family: celastrina argiolus), whose plain silver-white underside with a few black specks is the most obvious feature, distinguishing it from the ‘common blue’. Its larvae feed on holly and ivy, and examples are generally seen along rides and woodland edges where its foodplants grow, rather than in the open areas frequented by its relative.

      Nymphalids family of butterflies

      There are several more mobile butterflies which regularly breed on the Commons and can be counted as residents, although they are active over a wider area, and individuals move in and out from urban parks and gardens and the adjacent countryside. One familiar group of three species, whose larvae feed on nettles, are among the first butterflies to appear in spring; they hibernate as adults on site, concealing themselves in hollow trees and other sheltered spots, from which they emerge on the first warm sunny day of the year.

      Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly

      The bright orange ‘small tortoiseshell’ (‘nymphalids’ family: aglais urticae) and the peacock (‘nymphalids’ family: aglais io) with its multi-coloured eye spots are familiar garden butterflies, but they are equally at home in the wild habitats found on the Commons, particularly in more open areas. The comma (‘nymphalids’ family: polygonia c-album,), an orange-brown butterfly with irregular outlines to its wings, prefers more sheltered spots, favouring wide rides and woodland edges and in the autumn often feeding on ripe fruits like blackberries.

      The familiar ‘red admiral’ (‘nymphalids’ family: vanessa atalanta) patterned in white and scarlet on black, is like the small tortoiseshell’ and peacock in its habits; it also breeds on nettles but, as it rarely survives the English winter, it is not a permanent resident. Its population is reinforced each year by migrants. The salmon-pink ‘painted lady’ (‘nymphalids’ family: vanessa carduiis) a much less regular migrant, although in favourable summers it has been recorded on the Commons in considerable numbers.

      There are over 2,600 species of moths (lepidoptera).

      Day-flying moths

      Day-flying moths can often be confused with butterflies (also lepidoptera), and some are surprisingly brightly coloured.

      Spring day-flying moths

      A characteristically early species is the ‘orange underwing’ (archiearis parthenias – Geometridae), which flies in March and April, sunning itself with outspread wings on the ground in the wider footpaths or feeding at sallow catkins.

      May sees the appearance of the ‘small yellow underwing’ (panemeria tenebrata – Noctuidae), a grassland species. The brilliant red and black cinnabar (tyria jacobaeae – Erebidae) is occasionally seen on the Commons, as is its distinctive orange and black striped caterpillar feeding on ragwort.

      Six Spot Burnet Moth

      Summer day-flying moths

      In high summer, the ‘six-spot burnet’ (zygaena filipendulae – Zygaenidae) can sometimes be found flying in open grassland on both Commons, together with various butterflies. This moth has a similar colour scheme to the ‘cinnabar’, but it is distinguished by the array of red spots on a forewing that is black with metallic reflections. These patterns are examples of warning colouration, which vertebrate predators learn to associate with creatures that are distasteful.

      The ‘silver Y’ (autographa gamma – Noctuidae) is a much duller coloured insect, although its intricate pattern incorporating the metallic mark from which it takes its name is attractive on close inspection. Although sharing the nocturnal flight pattern of most moths, the ‘silver Y’ is often active during the day as well, feeding at heather and other flowers.

      The metallic ‘green longhorn’ (adela reaumurella – Adelidae) and its relatives are much smaller insects, but the males with their astonishingly long antennae make themselves conspicuous in spring by flying in dancing swarms around sunlit trees and bushes.

      Nocturnal moths

      Most of the moths that live and breed on the Commons are purely nocturnal and are therefore rarely or never seen by the general public. However, the use of a light trap at several locations, mainly on Tunbridge Wells Common, on several nights through 1992 produced a list of over one hundred and fifty species. It is certain that further and more regular trapping would increase the list considerably, and it is likely that most of the six hundred or so moth species recorded from Tunbridge Wells in modern times could be found on the Commons.

      Noturnal sphingidae moths

      Although moths have a reputation for being drab and nondescript insects, they are extremely diverse in colour and pattern, and a number of those recorded from the Commons are visually impressive creatures. Among the largest are the hawk moths, including the delicately patterned green ‘lime hawk’ (mimas tiliae), the ‘poplar hawk’ (laothoe populi), and the brilliantly coloured pink and green ‘elephant hawk’ (deilephila elpenor). The latter takes its name from the resemblance of its caterpillar, found on willow herb, to an elephant’s trunk.

      Buff Ermine Macro Moth

      Noturnal erebidae moths

      As its name suggests, the ‘white ermine’ (spilosoma lubricipeda) is pure white with scattered black spots, while its relative, the ‘buff ermine’ (spilosoma lutea), has a similar pattern but different ground colour.

      Noturnal notodontidae moths

      The ‘buff-tip’ (phalera bucephala) has a remarkable resemblance to a broken silver birch twig when its wings are folded, while the related ‘swallow prominent’ (pheosia tremula) and ‘lesser swallow prominent’ (pheosia gnoma) have streamlined wings with an elegant white and brown pattern.

      Noturnal geometridae moths

      The ‘brimstone moth’ (opisthograptis luteolata), with bright yellow wings, shares its name with a butterfly, as does the ‘swallow-tailed moth’ (ourapteryx sambucaria), a large broad-winged insect of a delicate yellowish shade. Of the same grouping is the ‘light emerald moth’ (campaea margaritaria).

      Members of other moth groups

      Other strikingly coloured species include the ‘peach blossom’ (thyatira batis of Drepanidae) and the bright metallic ‘burnished brass’ (diachrysia chrysitis of Noctuidae).

    • Centipedes & Millipedes

      Centipedes and millipedes are myriapods, a branch of the arthropods, exoskeletal-bodied order of animal life, alongside the other significant branch hexapods.

      They generally keep themselves out of sight, under stones or fallen timber, although the shiny cylindrical ‘black millipede’ (tachypodoiulus niger) sometimes makes its presence more obvious by climbing the trunks of trees.

      The ‘pill millipede’ (glomeris marginate) defends itself by rolling into a ball. Unlike the slower millipedes, centipedes are fast moving predators, the most distinctive species on the Commons being the ‘banded centipede’ (lithobius variegatus) with purple bands on its legs and similarly coloured marks on its body.

    • Dragonflies & Damselflies

      Brighton Lake, Fir Tree Pond and Bracken Cottage Pond, all on Tunbridge Wells Common, and the Marl Pits, on Rusthall Common all support breeding colonies of dragonflies (order: anisoptera), although the larger spring-fed Brighton Lake is on the Commons to date, although a number of these are only occasional residents or strays from richer localities on the Sussex border.

      The early stages of dragonflies, so-called nymphs, live as underwater predators; adult females can often be seen laying their eggs by dipping the tip of their abdomen into the water.

      Medium-sized ‘common darter’ dragonflies (sympetrum striolatum) often fly in groups and are the last to emerge and continue to be active well into November, long after most other insects have ceased to appear.

      Emperor Dragonfly

      Larger dragonflies

      In contrast, the larger dragonflies, of which the commonest are the emperor (anax imperator), the ‘broad-bodied chaser’ (libellula depressa), the ‘southern hawker’ (aeshna cyanea) and the ‘brown hawker’ (aeshna grandis), live a mostly solitary existence. They are fiercely territorial, with individuals commanding a small pond or part of a larger one and driving off any potential rivals.

      Visiting dragonflies

      Visiting dragonflies include the ‘downy emerald’ (cordulia aenea,) and the magnificent ‘golden-ringed dragonfly’ (cordulegaster boltonii), the largest British species.

      Large Red Damselfly

      Damselflies

      Regular breeding species on the ponds include the smaller damselflies (order: zygoptera), of which the most numerous are the distinctive ‘large red’ (pyrrhosoma nymphula), first to appear in spring, the ‘blue-tailed damselfly’ (ischnura elegans), and the ‘common blue’ (enallagma cyathigerum) and azure (coenagrion puella), which resemble each other very closely. The scarce ‘white-legged damselfly’ (platycnemis pennipes), creamy white in colour, is less often seen. Damselflies fly together, often in large numbers.

    • Flies

      Of the 600,000 or so different species of insect, about 25 per cent of these species belong to the order of flies (diptera). Fly species are less visible although more numerous than the number of species of the order hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants), which contribute about 20 per cent of the species.

      Sawflies

      Several species of sawflies (symphyta), are quite large and brightly coloured, and may be seen visiting flowers. Their name derives from the females’ saw-like ‘ovipositor’, part of the anatomy used to insert their eggs within plant tissues. Many sawflies have larvae which feed openly on leaves and resemble the caterpillars of moths and butterflies, but others develop inside galls (growths), which their food-providing plant or tree produces in response to the larva’s presence.

      Gall wasps

      Galls, which take unique forms according to the insect species that causes them, are also produced by the ‘gall wasps’ (cynipidae), also known as ‘gallflies’ and, in this case, they are much easier to identify than the minute insects themselves. Many ‘cynipid’ galls can be found on the Commons, including the familiar ‘oak-apple’ gall, the ‘marble’ and ‘spangle’ galls, also on oak, and the ‘robin’s pincushion’ gall on rose.

      Ichneumon Wasp

      Ichneumon wasps

      Another important group of hymenoptera are the ‘ichneumon wasps’, whose larvae feed as parasites inside caterpillars or other insects. The females are generally armed with a conspicuous ovipositor, part of the anatomy used to insert their eggs, and some of the larger species are brightly patterned in yellow and black, or red and black. They are most often seen running about on sunlit foliage or flying around bushes and low vegetation in search of suitable hosts.

      Hoverflies

      Among the most prominent of the two-winged (one-pair) flies or ‘true fly’ (diptera) are the hoverflies, named for their aerial skills which allow them to hang motionless in mid-air. They are also effective mimics of bees and wasps. Young birds soon learn that insects patterned in yellow and black or red and black are either distasteful or capable of stinging, and many harmless insects gain protection by having a similar appearance. Around sixty species of hoverflies are to be found on the Commons, most of them visiting flowers along with their models.

      Volucella (hoverflies)

      The largest British species of hoverfly belong to the genus volucella. The impressive ‘hornet mimic hoverfly’ (volucella zonaria), a migrant species, has occasionally been recorded on the Commons. More likely to be seen is the ‘pellucid fly’ (volucella pellucens), which regularly hovers along woodland paths; its black and white colouration, unusual among hoverflies, is shared by the smaller spring-flying ‘leucozona lucorum’.

      Wasp-patterned hoverflies

      Many of the Commons’ hoverflies have variations on the standard wasp pattern of yellow and black stripes. These include the common ‘syrphus ribesii’, the distinctive ‘helophilus pendulus’ with vertical stripes on the thorax as well as the usual horizontal ones on the abdomen, and the latter’s larger and scarcer relative ‘helophilus trivittatus’.

      Xylota (hoverflies)

      The slender-bodied members of the hoverfly genus ‘xylota’ are to be seen on sunlit leaves rather than flowers: they include the red-banded ‘xylota segnis’ and the beautiful gold-banded ‘xylota sylvarum’.

      Drone-flies (hoverflies)

      The drone-flies, of which six species are found on the Commons, are bee mimics, and include the very common ‘eristalis tenax’, which is notable for hibernating as an adult and appearing on sunny days all through the year. This species and the similar ‘eristalis pertinax’ resemble honeybees, while ‘eristalis intricarius’ is a furry bumblebee mimic.

      Robber Fly

      Robber flies

      Robber flies are a group of fierce predators which capture smaller insects with their spiny forelegs. A number, like the widespread ‘machimus atricapillus’, are characteristic of open areas where they perch on bare sand, rocks or low vegetation, waiting for suitable victims. Other forms, such as the shiny black ‘choerades marginata’ and ‘common awl robber fly’ (neoitamus cyanurus) with its metallic blue tail, are found in woodland areas and may be spotted on sunlit foliage beside footpaths.

      Long-headed flies

      Much smaller predators are the long-headed flies, often metallic green or silvery in colour, many of which are also to be seen on sunlit foliage or around the edges of ponds. The males of the most noticeable ‘semaphore fly’ (poecilobothrus nobilitatus), have white-tipped wings which are waved in its courtship display as large numbers of both sexes swarm over damp mud.

      Soldier flies

      Soldier flies are brightly coloured sun-loving insects, of which those found on the Commons include the ‘metallic green’ (chloromyia formosa) and the three-coloured ‘twin-spot centurion’ (sargus bipunctatus).

      Bee flies

      The ‘large bee fly’ (bombylius major), as its name suggests, resembles a brown bumblebee, and is frequently seen in spring exploring the nest sites of solitary bees, in which its larvae live as parasites, or hovering in front of flowers and probing them with its long rigid proboscis.

      Marbled Winged Crane Fly

      Crane fly

      The largest member of the ‘true fly’ (diptera) found on the Commons is the impressive marbled-winged ‘crane fly’ (tipula maxima).

      Crane flies, with their enormously long legs, are an easily recognized group of insects, and the familiar medium-sized forms, some patterned with yellow and black, are widespread in the grassy areas of the Commons, as is the shiny black ‘St Mark’s fly’ (bibio marci), named after its characteristic swarming flight in spring.

      Tachinid flies

      The flies of the family of ‘tachinid flies’ (tachinidae) spend their larval stage as internal parasites of other insects, usually caterpillars, but the bristly adults often feed openly at flowers, and some are brightly coloured. One of the most numerous species on the Commons is the red-spotted ‘eriothrix rufomaculata’ which can be found visiting ragwort. The beautifully metallic greenbottles (lucilia species pluralis) are among the most abundant of many ‘true fly’ (diptera) species, which rest in open view on sunlit foliage and tree trunks; others include the shiny black ‘noonday fly’ (mesembrina meridiana) with its bright yellow wing bases.

    • Grasshoppers & Crickets

      Grasshoppers and crickets form a prominent part of the Commons’ insect fauna, particularly in high summer when the distinctive songs of several species can be heard throughout the areas of open grass and heathland. These songs are a means of communication between the sexes and can be recognized in the same way as bird song.

      Common Green Grasshopper

      Grasshoppers – with sound

      Most of the sound to be heard in summer grassland emanates from the Commons’ three grasshopper species: the ‘common field grasshopper’ (chorthippus brunneus) and ‘common green grasshopper’ (omocestus viridulus), both of which are fully winged, and the ‘short-winged meadow grasshopper’ (chorthippus parallelus).

      Cricket – with song

      Of the bush-crickets, the only one with an audible song is the ‘long-winged conehead’ (conocephalus discolor), a former rarity which has only recently colonised the Tunbridge Wells area.

      Slender Groundhopper

      Crickets – ground dwelling

      The ‘common ground-hopper’ (tetrix undulata) and ‘slender ground-hopper’ (tetrix subulata) are generally inconspicuous creatures that can sometimes be spotted in numbers on sparsely vegetated ground, often near water.

      Crickets – inhabiting dense vegetation

      The ‘dark bush-cricket’ (pholidoptera griseoaptera) and ‘speckled bush-cricket’ (leptophyes punctatissima) live in dense vegetation such as bramble thickets and may be spotted sitting on leaves.

      Cricket – tree dwelling

      The delicate pale green ‘oak bush-cricket’ (meconema thalassinum) spends its time high in the trees and is only occasionally seen at ground level, when for example it is blown down by the wind.

    • Molluscs

      Molluscs are invertebrates and a major division of animal life, alongside arthropods (which include the many species of insects); and a significant element in the Commons’ fauna, both in the various ponds and on land. The most attractive of the terrestrial snails is the highly variable ‘white-lipped snail’ (cepaea hortensis), whose brightly coloured or banded shells are often seen in fragmentary form around the ‘anvils’ of the song thrush.

    • Spiders

      Cucumber Green Spider

      Spiders belong to the chelicerates, division of arthropods (exoskeletal animals).

      On the Commons, they are the most conspicuous of an invertebrate, representing a variety of lifestyles. Spiders are most popularly associated with the building of webs, the most elaborate being those constructed by the orb weavers such as the large and familiar ‘garden spider’ (araneus diadematus) or the smaller bright ‘cucumber green spider’ (araniella cucurbitina).

      Many species, however, actively hunt their prey. These include the ‘jumping spiders’ (salticidae), often seen on sunlit rocks, the fast running ‘wolf spiders’ (lycosidae) which may be seen in large numbers on open ground, the females carrying their silken egg-sacks, and the impressive white-banded ‘nursery web spider’ (pisaura mirabilis), which is generally seen perched quite visibly on foliage. The white or yellow ‘flower crab spider’ (misumena vatia) sits on flowers, waiting to pounce on visiting insects.

    • Woodlice

      Woodlice are crustaceans, but unlike most of its cousins is non aquatic. On the Commons they are represented by the ‘pill woodlouse’ (armadillidium vulgare), that defends itself by rolling into a ball.

    • Other insects

      The ponds on the Commons also support various species of mayflies (ephemeroptera), stoneflies (plecoptera) and caddisflies (trichoptera). The larvae of the latter are well-known for the protective cases they construct out of plant material or other debris gathered from their watery habitat, but the adults, if noticed at all, are likely to be mistaken for moths. These three groups are among the smaller insect orders, as are the lacewings (chrysopidae – of the order neuroptera), which eat aphids in both adult and larval stages. Those most likely to be noted on the Commons are the delicate green species of the lacewing genus chrysopa (of the family chrysopidae). A related group are the ‘scorpion-flies’ (mecoptera) often seen fluttering among brambles or nettles. Despite the curious scorpion-like tail of the male, they are harmless scavengers.

  • Mammals

    A full list of mammals has yet to be compiled, but several species occur in addition to the substantial populations of ‘grey squirrels’ (sciurus carolinensis) and rabbits (oryctolagus cuniculus).

    Roe Deer

    Larger mammals

    Foxes (vulpes vulpes) are often to be seen, even in daylight, while badgers (meles meles) forage on the Commons at night from sets situated around the perimeter.

    Small deer (capreolus capreolus) undoubtedly occur on both Commons, although it is unclear whether they are a permanent feature or occasional visitors from the contiguous open countryside. Roe Deer have been seen on Rusthall Common, and there is some evidence for the introduced muntjac.

    Lyme Disease

    Be aware that the presence of deer means there is a possibility of being infected by tick-borne Lyme Disease. Please go to the doctor if you develop a ‘bull’s eye’ rash (a circular expanding rash with target-like appearance). This disease is easily treated in its early stages but can be serious and uncurable if left untreated.

    Yellow Necked Mouse

    Smaller mammals

    Mole (talpa europaea) hills are a familiar feature of some grassy areas such as that near Brighton Lake, and hedgehogs (erinaceus europaeus) are also resident. Weasels (mustela nivalis) have been recorded on Tunbridge Wells Common, and a common dormouse (muscardinus avellanarius) near Toad Rock.

    The areas of acid grassland with their tussocks and anthills are ideal for small rodents to feed while keeping themselves hidden from predators: voles (microtus agrestis), mice (yellow necked – apodemus flavicollis) and shrews (common – sorex araneus) all occur, although particular species have not been identified.

    In the evening bats may be seen, mostly the ‘common pipistrelle’ (pipistrellus pipistrellus), a small and very common species, although the larger noctule has also been reported.

  • Reptiles & Amphibians

      Common Lizard

      Reptiles

      The heathland environment of the Commons, along with their various ponds, have historically supported a variety of reptiles. Despite the more recent decline of heathland, species such as the ‘common lizard’ (zootoca vivipara) have managed to survive in more open areas.

      Lizards are seen quite regularly sunning themselves on anthills or similar exposed locations, although they are easily disturbed and rapidly vanish out of sight among the grass. They are most likely to be spotted in the grassland near Highbury or along Mount Ephraim.

      The ‘slow worm’ (anguis fragilis), a legless lizard, has also been recorded, but is very elusive. Another conspicuous reptile is the ‘grass snake’ (natrix helvetica), which is most often seen near water. It can swim very effectively and is regularly seen doing so in Brighton Lake.

      The adder (vipera berus), a characteristic heathland species, is much less likely to be observed.

      Great Crested Newt

      Amphibians

      The most widespread and abundant amphibians are the ‘common frog’ (rana temporaria) and ‘common toad’ (bufo bufo), which breed prolifically in all the ponds on both Commons. The adults may be seen quite some distance from water.

      The three British species of newts are also found breeding in ponds on the Commons, although the rarer ‘great crested’ (triturus cristatus) is encountered less frequently than the ‘smooth newt’ (lissotriton vulgaris) and ‘palmate newt’ (lissotriton helveticus).

Plants

The plants of the Commons provide a glorious backdrop to your walks throughout the year. Take the time to look a little more closely for our rarest species such as the coralroot bittercress and your efforts will be rewarded.

  • Flowering Plants
    Daisy and dandelion

    The daisy (bellis perennis) and the various species of dandelion (taraxacum species pluralis) can be seen in any month from January to December, but it is not until early spring that a greater assortment come into flower with small plants making the most of their opportunities to blossom before the trees open their leaves.

    Strawberries

    Much harder to find are the little inconspicuous white flowers of the ‘barren strawberry’ (potentilla sterilis), so called as it is sterile and not to be confused with the ‘wild strawberry’ (fragaria vesca), which appears later and whose fruits are like the sweet tasting small strawberries of the summer.

    Bluebells

    Bluebells

    Bluebells (hyacinthoides non-scripta), too well-known to need any description, is often to be seen growing by the woodland edges. Most people have picked bluebells and may remember that the stalks contain a sticky juice and this, in the sixteenth century, was made into a kind of starch.

    Herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612), says that bluebell juice was also made into a glue which was used for sticking feathers on to arrows and in the ancient craft of bookbinding.

    Cuckoo pint

    A plant flowering at the same time as the bluebell is the ‘wild arum’ (arum maculatum) was also used to make starch. It has other names such as ‘cuckoo pint’, ‘lords and ladies’, and ‘jack in the pulpit’, but perhaps the best name of all is one which, according to Geoffrey Grigson, was used in Kent. It is ‘Kitty-come-down-the-lane-jump-up-and-kiss-me!’ Gerard called it ‘starchwort’ and says (in The Englishman’s Flora, Phoenix House, 1955), “the most pure and white starch is made out of the roots of Cuckoo Pint, but the most hurtful for the laundress that hath the handling of it, for it chappeth, blistereth and maketh the hands rough and rugged and withall smarting!” The fruits that appear later in the year are very attractive spikes of bright red berries, but they are very poisonous.

    Violets

    There are thirteen different violets in our flora; two grow on the Commons. The ‘wood dog violet’ (viola reichenbachiana) starts blooming at the end of March and can be distinguished, by its unnotched dark purple spur, from the ‘common dog violet’ (viola riviniana) which flowers about a fortnight later. One of the most handsome of the violets, unfortunately, it has no scent, hence the name dog as a reproach.

    Lilies

    The ‘star of Bethlehem’ (ornithogalum umbellatum), a member of the lily family, is another rarity. Although it was probably originally planted, it has been established where it now grows since before the Second World War. The flowers are large, white, open, umbel-like heads with a green stripe on the back of the six petals.

    Drainage ditches are also damp places and here grows another lily, ramsons (allium ursinum), with umbels of long-stalked, white flowers and broad leaves which smell strongly of onions if trodden on.

    Another lily growing on Rusthall Common, ‘Solomon’s seal’ (polygonatum multiflorum), is an unusual plant with its arching stems and bell-shaped flowers hanging from the base of the leaves. It is quite rare and not to be confused with the garden variety which is much bigger.

    Cow Parsley

    Umbellifers

    ‘Cow parsley’ (anthriscus sylvestris) of the umbellifer family with its umbels of creamy white flowers looking like a froth of white lace, is very attractive and because of this it has acquired several country names such as ‘Queen Anne’s lace’ and ‘gypsy’s curtains’ which seem very appropriate. By mid-May they can be found growing in the open grassland and along the edges of the Common.

    There is also a smaller umbellifer growing in the grass, the earthnut or pignut (conopodium majus), also to be found growing in the open grassland and along the edges of the Common by mid-May. It is called ‘pignut’ because of the brown tubers at the end of the stalks known as ‘nuts’ by country children who enjoyed eating them. One Victorian botanist disapproved and wrote in a typically Victorian manner that “the nuts were better fitted to the digestion of the respectable quadrupeds whose name they share than for Christian bipeds of tender years”, but the children still ate them.

    A late umbellifer is ‘hedge parsley’ (torilis japonica), which is much daintier than the ‘hogweed’, and although it is not as common as ‘cow parsley’, it is still plentiful along the roadside. It has solid stems and the flowers grow in long stalked umbels, either pink or white. Its seed heads are egg-shaped with hooked bristles.

    Hogweed (heracleum sphondylium), is a stout, coarse, hairy biennial with hollow stems found on the edge of the grassland. As its name implies it was used as a fodder plant for pigs. It can grow up to five feet high but must not be mistaken for the ‘giant hogweed’ (heracleum mantagazzianum) which can grow up to ten feel high with the umbels up to four feet across and the main stalk two to four inches wide. It is usually found in damp places.

    Buttercups

    Clumps of bright yellow petals shining like stars along the edges of woodland in early March are the flowers of the ‘lesser celandine’ (Ficaria verna). A member of the buttercup family (Ranunculus), it was well known to the old herbalists who used it to cure various complaints.

    May is the month of the buttercups and all three of the best known can be found. First to bloom is the ‘bulbous buttercup’ (ranunculus bulbosus) so called because of the markedly swollen base to the stem. There is no need to dig up the plant to identify it, just look at the sepals, which turn down against the stem unlike the others which cling to the base of the petals.

    The ‘creeping buttercup’ (Ranunculus repens) flowers next and looks quite attractive growing on the Common but with its prolific rooting runners it is not at all popular in gardens where it can become a pernicious weed which is difficult to eradicate.

    The tallest and most graceful is the ‘meadow buttercup’ (ranuncul sacris) which is the latest and is often seen in great quantity in the grass.

    Ox-eye Daisy

    Ox-eye daisy

    Somewhere on the Commons in May can be found the ‘ox-eye daisy’ (leucanthemum vulgare), also known as the ‘dog daisy’, ‘horse daisy’, ‘moon daisy’, and in Scotland the ‘gowan’, but the prettiest name is ‘margeurite’, named after the French Princess Margaret of Anjou, the niece of King Charles VII, who married Henry VI in the fifteenth century. The daisy was her emblem and she had it embroidered on all her gowns.

    There are many superstitions attached to it. It was lucky to tread on the first flower of the season but unlucky to dig it up as that would lead to children or young animals growing up stunted.

    Speedwells

    There are at least six speedwells on the Common, by far the most frequent being the ‘germander speedwell’ or ‘birds-eye speedwell’ (veronica chamaedrys). It is a native and because of its bright blue flowers it has many country names such as ‘angels’ eyes’ or ‘kitty’s eyes’. The petals fall quickly when touched and that has led to the name ‘mother breaks her heart’.

    In some places speedwell was sewn on to the clothes of travellers to keep them from accident and it was also put into the shoes of those going on a journey as it was said that with speedwell in your shoes you could walk ten miles without feeling tired.

    Trefoils

    ‘Bird’s-foot trefoil’ (lotus corniculatus), a pea-family flower, is a pretty, short and rather sprawling perennial with red and yellow petals, and seed-heads resembling a bird’s foot, which has given rise to various names from ‘five fingers’ to ‘crow’s feet’. The flowers were also supposed to look like medieval shoes, so ‘ladies slipper’ and ‘socks and shoes’ were used as well, and ‘eggs and bacon’ and ‘ham and eggs’ refer to the colours of the flowers. This plant is often found in the short grass.

    Foxglove

    The well-known and hand some foxglove (digitalis purpurea) is very eye-catching with its spike of large purplish flowers, spotted inside, hanging down tall stems. They somewhat resemble the fingers of a glove so names such as ‘granny’s gloves’ and ‘fairy’s thimbles’ are very apt. It is a biennial so for the first year only a tuft of lanceolate leaves is seen, and it is the second year which produces the flowering stems. Although very poisonous, it is used medicinally in the treatment of heart disease.

    Poppy family

    On the edges of Rusthall Common is the ‘greater celandine’ (chelidonium majus), no relation of the ‘lesser celandine’ (ficaria verna). This plant belongs to the poppy family and has bright yellow flowers with four petals. The stalks contain a yellow juice, and this was used to treat sore eyes as far back as Saxon times. The fact that it was so used may explain why it is always found near human habitation.

    Coralroot Bittercress

    Coralroot bittercress

    The only species of plant listed in the red data book for threatened plants found on the Commons, ‘coral root’ (cardamine bulbifera). This is a crucifer (flowers with four petals arranged as a cross) which is rare over most of the British Isles but grows profusely along the Kent and Sussex borders including wooded parts of the Commons. It looks similar to the ‘ladies smock’ or milkmaid (cardamine pratensis) which is a familiar plant found in the grassland, but there is a difference; at the base of the upper stem leaves of the ‘coral root’ are small red bulbs, and it is these that fall to the ground to make new plants.

    Sorrel (herb)

    Growing among the buttercups is sorrel (rumex acetosa), a plant long associated with old meadows. Its spike of rather insignificant flowers becomes more prominent, reddening as the seeds open, and males and females grow on separate plants. Sorrel means bitter and the arrow-shaped leaves have long been use d as a culinary herb.

    Waterweeds

    In the ponds across both Commons invasive waterweeds such as the southern African ‘curly water thyme’ (lagarosiphon major) and New Zealand ‘pigmy weed’ (crassula helmsi) can be found. Both plants have been introduced into garden centres from abroad, sold to owners of garden ponds and when they spread too rapidly, discarded into local ponds and rivers.

    There are some native plants such as ‘broad-leaved pondweed’ (potamogeton natans) which floats on the water with dark oval leave s and a spike of tiny flowers in May.

    The ‘yellow iris’ (iris pseudacorus) which blooms in splendour in June, traditionally is the original ‘fleur de lys’, and gipsywort (lycopus europaeus), with its whorls of white flowers, follows later.

    If you look carefully other scarce specimens such as ‘water milfoil’ (myriophyllum species pluralis) with its delicate feathery leaves and bogbean (menyanthes trifoliata) whose conspicuous spikes of pink and white blossoms can be seen in June. Floating on the surface of the water can be seen ‘floating sweet grass’ (glyceria fluitans), sometimes known as ‘water grass’, which is eagerly grazed by cattle on account of its succulent foliage.

    Water buttercups

    One of the loveliest sights on the larger marl pit pond at Rusthall in May are the flowers of the water buttercups ‘water-crowfoot’ (ranunculus aquatilis) covering the whole area with masses of wide-open white petals which give the illusion of snow. Later another spectacular plant can be seen at the edge in one corner, ‘purple loosestrife’ (lythrum salicaria), looking very striking and growing up to four feet high. Loosestrife is a literal translation of the Greek name for the plant which was believed to be “so powerful that if placed on the yoke of incompatible oxen it will restrain their quarrelling” (attributable to 1st century Roman Pliny the Elder).

    Other water-loving plants

    As well as the ponds there are other wet places with water loving plants. One little area produces ‘ragged robin’ (silene flos-cuculi), bright pink with ragged petals, which makes a splendid band of colour along the edge of the tiny stream. With it grows another buttercup the ‘lesser spearwort’ (ranunculus flammula) and two small white flowers, ‘bog stitchwort’ (stellaria alsine) and ‘marsh bedstraw’ (galium palustre), all common plants of watery places.

    Nearby grows ‘Himalayan balsam’ (impatiens glanduliefra), which is relatively new in our flora. It was introduced from Asia in 1839 as a greenhouse annual and it had escaped to riverbanks by 1855. After that there is no mention of it in local or general floras until the 1940s when it appeared not only locally but along most of the rivers in the country. ‘Jumping jacks’ is one familiar name from the explosive method of its seed dispersal; another, ‘policemen’s helmet’, is from the shape of the flower.

    Common Orchid

    Orchids

    Across both Commons the ‘common spotted orchid’ (dactylorhiza fuchsia), can be found.

    Until 1970 another orchid was recorded ‘common twayblade’ (neottia ovata); perhaps it will reappear. The orchids have a unique method of propagation involving a partnership with a fungus underground and although they produce a prodigious amount of very tiny seeds, it can take from five to fifteen years for them to germinate and come into flower, so it is very important that they are never picked.

    Heathland flora

    Flowers such as ‘heath bedstraw’ (galium saxatile) cover the grass with a carpet of tiny white flowers in June and ‘sheep’s sorrel’ (rumex acetosella) gives a reddish-brown colour to the ground on which it grows.

    In July, a dainty little blue flower grows on both Commons, the harebell (campanula rotundifolia), which was once a very common flower indeed, but unfortunately its numbers are falling, perhaps due to encroaching trees. Although it looks very fragile it is quite hardy, but it does need plenty of light. Later in the year the ‘common heather’ or ling (calluna vulgaris) shows its purple spikes which are very attractive to butterflies and bees. This is a plant that has spread since the new management, but very little ‘bell heather’ (erica cinerea) survives growing along the Terrace Walk.

    Gorse

    The best-known heathland plant is probably gorse (ulex europaeus) otherwise known as ‘furze’ or ‘whin’. Of the pea family, its almond scented, bright yellow flowers can be found at any month of the year. Although it is extremely spiny it has been used for almost everything from feeding cattle, providing fuel for bakers’ ovens, to use as brushes for chimney sweeps.

    Coastal flowers

    Because of the sandy nature of the soil quite a few flowers usually associated with the coast are here. ‘Stork’s bill’ (erodium circutarium), with either pink or white petals, is a good example of the geranium family which comes out in May and lasts until the frosts start. The name ‘stork’s bill’ is from the shape of the seed head said to resemble the bird’s bill.

    ‘Buck’s horn plantain’ (plantago coronopus) is another mainly coastal plant with its attractive rosette of leaves close to the ground which look like the antlers of a deer. It has a spike of minute brownish flowers.

    On the edge of the upper cricket ground (link to interactive map) on Tunbridge Wells Common and near Toad Rock (link to interactive map) on Rusthall Common, another sand-loving plant grows, ‘bird’s foot’ (ornithopus perpusillus) a very small pea flower, which is rather infrequent in Kent but has been growing here at least since 1871 when Richard Deakin (1808-1873) mentioned it in his book The Flowering Plants of Tunbridge Wells. Its flowers are so minute that to appreciate them properly it is best to look at them with a lens or magnifying glass, when the beautiful red-veined, very pale-yellow flowers can be properly appreciated.

    Rosebay Williowherb

    Rosebay williowherb

    An attractive member of the willow-herb family, flowering in July, whose spikes of bright pink blossoms are very noticeable, is rosebay (chamaenerion angustifolium), known as fireweed in America as it springs up after forest fires. It is a native plant but until the twentieth century was very uncommon and found only in damp woods. In the late nineteenth century the botanists considered it rare in the wild but common in gardens; the Reverend C A Johns, the author of ‘Flowers of the Field’ (1853), advised owners of small gardens “not to plant it as its rhizomes creep extensively and are very difficult to eradicate”. With the felling of many trees in both world wars, forest fires became more frequent and the plant spread. Once established each plant can produce some thirty thousand seeds; with their plumes of long silky hairs these are easily blown to great distances.

    Ragwort

    On both Commons from June onwards can be seen a very handsome plant growing, usually between two to three feet high with a head of bright yellow flowers. It is ‘common ragwort’ (jacobaea vulgaris), a composite (i.e. characterised by florets – small flowers – arranged in dense heads that resemble single flowers). Unfortunately, it is a troublesome weed on farmland, poisonous to horses and cattle and on the list of noxious weeds that by law must be kept under control. But it is the food plant of the yellow and black striped caterpillars of the ‘cinnabar moth’ (link to elsewhere on this site under fauna) and these are very efficient in keeping the weeds in check. Nevertheless, it is an attractive plant to look at.

    Other woodland flowers

    The ‘lesser periwinkle’ (vinca minor) with its dark green shining leaves, reveals its [not very numerous] purple flowers in late spring and summer. Its trailing stems were used in Roman times entwined in victory laurel wreaths.

    Found on the edges of the woodland is the dainty ‘windflower’ or ‘wood anemone’ (anemone nemorosa) which has many associations with Greek mythology.

    ‘Bread and cheese’

    Another flower of the spring woodland is the ‘wood sorrel’ (oxalis acetosella) with its shamrock-like leaves and delicate white· flowers veined with mauve. Its leaves are very bitter but nevertheless eaten by country children and known as ‘bread and cheese’ (a basic food, particularly in past times of hardship), and it has been used as a salad vegetable since the fourteenth century.

  • Fungi
      Fungi

      Unlike other plants, fungi lack the green pigment chlorophyll and therefore cannot generate food through the action of sunlight: they rely on absorbing nourishment from living plants, dead wood, or organic matter in the soil. The only part of a fungus that is normally seen is the short-lived fruiting body which produces the spores.

      Sulphur Tuft

      Although some species of fungi can be found at any time of year, autumn is the season when most make themselves visible, and a walk over the Commons at this time can produce an extensive list of species. Among the more noticeable and brightly coloured are the ‘fly agaric’ (amanita muscaria), the most familiar ‘toadstool’ with its white-spotted scarlet cap, the bright yellow ‘sulphur tuft’ (hypholoma fasciculare), which grows in clusters, and the beautiful purple ‘amethyst deceiver’ (laccaria amethystea).

      Russula

      Many members of the genus russula, an extensive group with a pronounced family resemblance, exhibit striking colours on their caps, for example the deep purple brittlegill (russula atropurpurea), the ‘grass-green russula’ (russula aeruginea) and the bright red ‘bloody brittlegill’ (russula sanguinea).

      Boletus and Coprinus

      The fungus genus boletus, many members of which are edible, contains some large and conspicuous species with characteristic stout stems. They are well represented on the Commons, as are the ink-caps of the smaller group of fungi of genus coprinus.

      Eflcup

      The ‘green elfcup’ (chlorosplenium aeruginascens) is a small but interesting fungus growing on fallen timber, which itself becomes stained blue-green and was once much sought after by the manufacturers of Tunbridge ware.

      Puffball

      Some of the smaller puffballs occur on the Commons, so named because clouds of brown dust-like spores are emitted when the mature fruitbody bursts, including the ‘common puffball’ (lycoperdon perlatum), edible when young, and the ‘pear-shaped puffball’ (apioperdon pyriforme), ‘choice’ edible (i.e. deemed the best to eat by experts), as does the inedible ‘common earthball’ (scleroderma citrinum), not generally edible, and some of its relatives.

      Bracket fungi

      The ‘bracket fungi’ (polypore), some of which are edible, projecting noticeably from the trunks of trees, are represented by such species as the ‘artist’s bracket’ (ganoderma applanatum), so named as it sometimes used as a basis for pieces of art, the ‘razor-strop fungus’ (piptoporus betulinus), so named because the velvety cut surface of the fruit body was traditionally used as a strop for finishing the edges on razors, and the ‘giant polypore’ (meripilus giganteus), considered edible.

  • Grasses & Ferns

      Wood Melick

      Commons grasses

      Despite the reduced openness of the Commons, there are still areas where heathland flora can be found, such as ‘heath grass’ (danthonia decumbens) and matgrass (nardus stricta), a very typical grass of poor soil which just about holds on at one site.

      The grasses on the Commons include ‘red fescue’ (festuca rubra), ‘rough meadow-grass’ (poa trivialis), ‘Yorkshire fog’ (holcus lanatus) and ‘bent grass’ (agrostis species pluralis).

      One of the first grasses in spring is the ‘wood melick’ (melica uniflora), which is very attractive with its bright green leaves and dainty nodding heads of egg-shaped, purple spike-lets. It is often to be seen growing by the woodland edges.

      Other grasses on the Commons

      ‘Sweet vernal grass’ (anthoxanthum odorata) can be seen in many places where the grass is short. Its name comes from the dried grass which is aromatic and popular for chewing.

      ‘Cocks-foot’ (dactylis glomerata), a perennial of rough grassland and notable for the cluster of spikelets, said to look like a chicken’s foot, is known in some places as ‘cutting grass’ because when the stalks are pulled roughly, they can give a nasty cut.

      Near the orchids is the ‘common yellow sedge’ (carex demissa), which is a typical plant of damp acid soils, but strangely very close by grow two species that are more usually found on chalk grassland, the first being ‘fairy flax’ (linum catharticum), a tiny slender annual only two to six inches high with small white flowers and threadlike stalks. At one time it was used as a purgative. The other is ‘quaking grass’ (briza media) a very distinctive grass with its green and purple spike-lets hanging on slender stalks which shake in the wind and give rise to names such as ‘totter grass’ and ‘dithery docks’.

      Hard Fern

      Ferns

      Another plant to be found on the Commons is the fern (polypodiaceae).

      Everyone knows bracken (pteridium aquilinum), which can be recognised by its stalks which arise at intervals from a creeping rootstock. These branch into fronds some way from the ground. The fronds of other ferns such as the ‘male fern’ (dryopteris filix-mas) and ‘buckler fem’ (dryopteris dilatate) grow from the base of the rootstocks and they look very fascinating in May as they uncurl, resembling bishop’s croziers.

      Not so common is the ‘hard fern’ (blechnum spicant) with its stiff, leathery fronds. These are barren, but in summer, fertile ones that are taller, thinner and more upright, bear spore cases. After the spores have been dispersed the fronds die but the sterile ones remain in a dark green rosette throughout the winter.

      ‘Special’ ferns

      On Rusthall Common is a very special fern, the ‘royal fern’ (osmunda regalis), which is now only plentiful in western Ireland. It was once quite common, but since the Victorian craze for fern collecting depleted it over most of the country, it is now quite scarce. It looks rather like a flowering plant, but it is the central fronds that are covered with spores that give the appearance of a spike of brown flowers.

      A little fern, ‘adder’s tongue’ (ophioglossum vulgatum) once grew on Tunbridge Wells Common, but with improvements to paths and a lowering of the water table levels it has not been seen since 1973.

      White Clover

      Clovers

      Both well-known clovers are found on the Commons. ‘red clover’ (trifolium pratense) is a native plant and was introduced into agriculture about 1645 when it was known as ‘marl grass’. It has a host of names such as ‘bee bread’ and ‘honey-stalks’ as it was one of the plants whose stalks were picked to suck the honey from the flowers.

      ‘White clover’ (trifolium repens) is also a native connected with farming, which is sometimes called ‘Dutch clover’ as it was recognized in the Netherlands many years ago as a valuable fodder plant. When the British farmers realised its worth, they imported a great quantity of seed from the Dutch.

      Both ‘red’ and ‘white’ clovers were known in the Middle Ages as ‘clavers’ and some say this refers to the trefoil (the three leaves) and comes from the Latin clava meaning club or cudgel, hence the three-knotted club of Hercules and the club of our playing cards.

      Docks

      Docks are plants which do not raise much interest. There are at least four found here: ‘broad-leaved dock’ (rumex obtusifolius), ‘wood dock’ or ‘red-veined dock’ (rumex sanguineus) and ‘curled dock’ (rumex crispus) are common species, but one, ‘fiddle dock’ (rumex pulcher), is rarely seen away from the coast. It is smaller, only growing to about one foot high, with the lower leaves waisted or fiddle shaped, hence its name. Flowers of the ‘fiddle dock’ grow in whorls on long stiff branches which spread at right angles, making it easy to distinguish from other docks which produce a spike of flowers. This is another plant recorded by Richard Deakin in his 1871 book The Flowering Plants of Tunbridge Wells.

  • Moses & Lichen

      Although flowering plants and ferns are generally the very visible on the Commons, they form only part of the flora of the Commons. While the flowering plants reproduce through pollination and the production of seeds, these so-called flowerless plants propagate themselves by means of spores, which lack the food reserves held in the seeds of higher plants.

      Bryophytes

      The bryophytes, which comprise the mosses and the closely-related liverworts, are well represented on the Commons and are surprisingly varied when examined closely. Bryophytes rely on moist habitats, such as the shaded parts of the various rock formations.

      Since the sandstone outcrops here and elsewhere in the Weald provide a habitat unique in south-east England, the bryophyte flora of the Commons includes a number of species more characteristic of the west and north of Britain. Many mosses, such as the common ‘fire moss’ (ceratodon purpureum), ‘bonfire moss’ (funaria hygrometrica) and pohlia nutans (of genus pohlia), bear their spore capsules on long slender bright reddish stalks.

      Juniper Haircap Moss

      Heathland mosses

      Characteristic heathland mosses include the whitish green ‘heath plait-moss’ (hypnum jutlandicum) and three members of the ‘haircap moss’ (genus polytrichum), polytrichum formosum, ‘juniper haircap’ (polytrichum juniperinum) and polytrichum piliferum), whose spore capsules have distinctive hairy caps.

      Liverworts

      Liverworts on the Commons range from broad-lobed forms like the ‘common or umbrella liverwort’ (marchantia polymorpha) to more moss-like leafy types such as the heathland species ‘tumid notchwort’ (lophozia ventricose) and ‘ladder flapwort’ (nardia scalaris).

      Lichens

      Lichens differ from bryophytes in their ability to survive and flourish in dry exposed situations. They are ‘compound’ plants, formed by a cooperating combination of a fungus and an alga. The fungus provides the lichen’s protective outer structure, while the alga produces food by photosynthesis.

      Common Orange Lichen

      On the Commons, as elsewhere, a wide variety of species may be found growing not only on rocks and trees, but also on man-made structures such as posts and benches.

      Some are brightly coloured, like the familiar leafy ‘common orange[-yellow] lichen’ (xanthoria parietina) and its less common relative ‘xanthia calcicola’.

      Although many lichens form flat crusts on stone or wood, others have a looser branching structure, for example the grey-green oakmoss (evernia prunastri) and ‘ramalina farinacea’, which grow on trees.

      Heathland lichens

      Among the characteristically heathland lichens of the Commons are several species of the distinctive upright genus cladonia, primary food sources for some deer, including ‘cladonia chlorophaea’ and ‘cladonia coccifera’, both with grey-green cups but the latter with bright red spore-producing structures on the rims, and ‘cladonia rangiformis’ which has a bushy many-branched form. As with bryophytes, several predominantly northern and western lichens occur, such as the ‘brown beret lichen’ (baeomyces rufus), ‘ochrolechia androgyna’ and ‘lecanora gangaleoides’.

  • Trees
    Hazel

    The hazel (corylus avellana) is perhaps the earliest to ‘open’ in the year its hanging catkins or ‘lamb’s tails’, which can be scattering yellow pollen as early as January in a mild winter.

    Blackthorn

    Blackthorn and hawthorn

    Somewhere on the Commons in early April may be seen a cloud of white against the black branches, which is the blossom of the blackthorn (prunus spinosa), a tree from which our cultivated plums have been developed. It is named ‘blackthorn’ because it flowers before the leaves in contrast to the whitethorn or hawthorn (crataegus monogyna), which blossoms with leaves in May. Although a very common tree indeed, it looks extremely beautiful with its branches full of flowers, which can be white or pink clusters, and heavily scented. The se turn into the fruits of autumn, commonly known as haws. The old saying “Cast ne’er a clout till May be out” refers to the flowering of the hawthorn and not to the month of May.

    Juneberry

    An April flowering tree is juneberry (amelanchier lamarckii), an introduced tree, probably bird sown, which grows very quickly producing an attractive white blossom in loose clusters, followed by purplish berries. There is one old tree growing near the Wellington Rocks and quite a few younger ones, scattered over the wooded area.

    Apple trees

    In May the apple trees in blossom are a most delightful sight with their pinkish white flowers covering the branches. The truly wild ‘crab apple’ (malus sylvestris) is not very common, but the ‘cultivated apple’ (malus domestica) is a frequent product of discarded apple cores and most, if not all, of the specimens on the Commons are of the latter variety.

    Horse Chestnut

    Horse chestnut

    Introduced in the fifteenth century from the Near East is the ‘horse chestnut’ (aesculus hippocastanum), a distinctive tree at any season. At the beginning of the year the buds become very prominent, shiny and sticky and arranged in opposite pairs, which each have a horseshoe-shaped scar beneath them. As the buds open, they develop five to seven leaflets which make up the compound leaf. These are then followed by the lovely upright clusters of white flowers dotted with crimson and yellow, which are often known as candles. Later in the year they become the fruits which so delight the children, the shiny polished-looking conkers.

    English oak

    The ‘English oak’ (quercus robur) is one of the best known trees of England, and before the industrial revolution was the main provider of wood for making ships and houses. Its flowers are insignificant, but all know its fruit, the acorns. Its leaves are very easy to recognise, and they are the latest to turn colour in November.

    Beech

    Beech (fagus sylvatica) are less frequently found than oak on the Common. Its flowers tend to be overlooked. It produces edible fruits, beech nuts or mast, and its magnificent golden leaves in the autumn are outstanding.

    Silver birch

    Probably the most numerous tree on the Commons is the ‘silver birch’ (betula pendula) with paper-white bark and thin drooping branches with catkins and yellow leaves in October.

    Ash

    A graceful tree is the ash (fraxinus excelsior); its leaves are the latest to appear in the spring and they fall early. Unfortunately, the fungal disease ‘ash dieback’ is decimating this tree from our countryside? The disease was first scientifically described in 2006; in infected trees it is characterised by leaf loss and crown dieback.

    Sycamore

    Sycamore

    The sycamore (acer pseudoplatanus) is not a native but came from Europe in the fifteenth century. It grows very quickly and soon colonises an area where the seeds fall. Its dull green leaves often have large black spots on them caused by a fungus.

    Rowan

    The rowan or Mountain Ash (sorbus aucuparia) has small white flowers in May, which are followed by clusters of bright red berries. These are sour and pungent, and often used for wine making.

    Willows

    Various willows including the ‘pussy willow’ (salix caprea) and ‘crack willow’ (salix fragilis) occur on the Commons. Another ‘willow’ that is not a tree but a small undershrub, is the ‘creeping willow’ (salix repens); the Commons once recorded the only specimen in Kent.

    Yew

    As the end of the year approaches the evergreens become more noticeable. A few conifers such as the yew (taxus baccata) are to be found, mostly in one section of Tunbridge Wells Common, and are quite young trees.

    Scots pine

    ‘Scots pine’ (pinus sylvestris), can be found on the Commons (2020). There are two young specimens, commonly known as ‘derby and joan’, near Fir Tree Pond (link to interactive map). The Commons warden has also carried out some plantings of young pines in circles. These trees attract the nightjar (caprimulgus europaeus), with its distinctive churring song, out hunting for moths.

    Larch

    Larch

    One very old larch (larix decidua) is still to be seen (2020) in Happy Valley (link to interactive map) on Rusthall Common. Before the 1987 storm there was another specimen growing near Castle Road which was felled on that night. It remained horizontal for some time after and even produced new leaves and cones before it was removed.

    Holly

    Although not a conifer, the holly (ilex aquifolium) shows its shiny, evergreen, prickly leaves in many places. Holly trees are either male or female and, on the Commons, they are predominantly male which means that the familiar red berries only occur occasionally.

    Ivy

    The ivy (hedera helix) is the last plant to flower in September with its clusters of small green flowers which develop into black berries early in the year.

Geology

The Commons’ unique and distinctive rock features have earned SSSI status at Bull’s Hollow, but there are plenty of other spectacular and weird rock formations to discover.

Perhaps the best-loved features of the Commons are their rock outcrops, including Wellington Rocks on Tunbridge Wells Common and Toad Rock on Rusthall Common. There are plenty of other rock outcrops to explore too, with strange forms like the Loaf Rock at Denny Bottom, the Cheesewring in Happy Valley and the Parson’s Nose.

The rock formations around the Toad Rock in Denny Bottom are sufficiently important to have been designated as a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Technical details

The rock outcrops consist of Ardingly Sandstone, a layer of Tunbridge Wells Sand which contains small pebbles. The stone was originally laid down in the Lower Cretaceous period, around 130 million years ago, as deposits from a vast freshwater lake covering much of southern Britain. The outcrops as seen today were eroded by wind action during the last Ice Age, around one million years ago. They lie on top of the Upper and Lower Tunbridge Wells Sands which form part of the Hastings Beds of sands and clays.

If you want to find out more about the geology of the area surrounding Tunbridge Wells, there is an excellent guide on the High Weald AONB website.

Habitat

The Commons provide an important and most unusual refuge for wildlife within an urban area. Unlike most public open spaces, they have never been landscaped or cultivated.

The Commons – a genuinely ancient landscape

The Commons represent a genuinely ancient landscape, which long ago achieved a state of equilibrium between the needs of humanity and nature.

At the end of the last Ice Age, as temperate conditions returned, the vast expanse of the primeval Wealden forest gradually came into existence. Within the forest, open heathy areas became established on thin soils, and quite probably around the rock outcrops which brought the present Commons to the attention of their prehistoric inhabitants.

Deliberate clearance of the forest cover, for hunting purposes, very probably took place as early as the Mesolithic age, some 7,000 years ago. This would have transformed the Commons into a mixture of open grassland and heathland, with heather and gorse the most conspicuous vegetation; it remained that way until the early twentieth century.

The Commons – human impacts

Deliberate planting of commemorative and ornamental trees, mainly between 1860 and 1940, led unintentionally to the reestablishment of woodland, as the traditional practice of grazing declined and finally ceased altogether in the inter-war period of the twentieth century.

The Commons today consist of a mosaic of habitats, in which surviving areas of heathland and grassland, along with the open sandy areas around the major rock formations, coexist with tracts of woodland. Further diversity is provided by a series of semi-natural ponds.

Current management aims to preserve this diversity – with a reasonable balance of the different elements – by expanding the open areas and holding back the spread of woodland.

The Commons conservation programme

The present conservation programme on the Commons continues to improve it as a habitat for wildlife, and long-established resident butterflies and dragonflies are flourishing in consequence. In addition, new species continue to appear. Some of these may have been present all along, but in such small numbers as to escape detection, while others are evidently new visitors or colonists for which conditions have now become suitable.

Tunbridge Wells Common is open on its western boundary to the woodlands and meadows of the county border, and these same extensive habitats are adjacent to the southern edge of Rusthall Common. It is fortunate for the Commons that the development of Tunbridge Wells has never cut them off completely from access to the open countryside. If they had become isolated islands in an urban landscape, it would have been much more difficult for wildlife from outside to reach them.