On yesterday's session of government sanctioned exercise, this field in the eWoodhall estate near Tewin in Hertfordshire stuck out to me.

At first I thought it was rape coming into flower... I then noticed it seemed to be a volunteer crop... and the leaves were wrong. Then out of the blue a quote "...Fields yellow with charlock..." popped into my head. I took a closer look, got out my faithful friend Francis Rose's Wildflower Key and I checked it out.

It was indeed charlock (Sinapsis arvensis)

For me this sight had brought to life a quote from Arthur Young's General View on the Agriculture of Hertfordshire (1804). The work of this eminent agricultural improver captured a moment of transition between pre and post improvement agricultural practices.

As a conservationist it was a valuable read as it gave me a new perspective into the reality of those pre fertiliser, pre pesticide days of abundant plant life. It made me realise just how much farmers struggled with those crop weeds we now try desperately to conserve as they spiral towards extinction. Many of us are guilty of looking down on the agricultural improvers as callous destroyers of biodiversity, but they believed they were making things better for everyone, however tragic the story of loss that subsequently unfolded.

It bolstered the idea that conservation should never be all or nothing. To be truly sustainable, it needs to balance the needs of both nature AND humans.

Anyway, I digress.

In an excellent chapter about turnips (Young really loved a turnip), he commented with scorn on the state of the turnips "over-run with charlock in full bloom" all about Hertford and Hatfield (Young, 1804 p,103-4). On enquiry he found a decline rather than advancement in Hertfordshire husbandry.

Advanced practice held that one should hoe for weeds at least twice, but many mid Herts farmers were taking the lacksadaisical approach of hoeing but once, which he disparaged as "..a most reprehensible fault in their husbandry; every motive should incline them to the necessary exertion of giving a second hoeing", going on to emphasise that GOOD farmers in other counties might even give them a third going over.

He concludes his assessment of the situation with the the damning indictment that " they are contented with fields yellow with charlock", hoping that by drawing attention to it, he might shame farmers into upping their game and getting with the 20th century program!

Charlock was considered by other authors of the time (e.g. Long, 1938) as the most problematic arable weed in the UK. In another of Young's writings (sadly I cannot recall which), he dreams of a day when the scourge of Charlock is eradicated from the countryside. He would be ecstatic to see that today his dreams had largely come true.

All apart from this field, which takes us back to that very scene he described so venomously back in 1804.

Frequnt in most soil types, other than acid; charlock abundance increases with the calcium carbonate loams (Bond, Davies & Turner, 2007). In central Hertfordshire's geological mosaic, this is one such place; a hilltop patch where the chalk rises through the gravels and clays to be exposed at the surface. The green patches on the below map show where this is happening.

One soil charlock isn't so keen on is an acid soil (Bond, Davies & Turner, 2007). As many soils in this area are disposed to acidity, it's likely the old practice of chalking (to bring the acidity down to the neutral range) allowed it to gain a more widespread hold over the county.

Now the big question is why would this farmer have allowed this situation to arise? Charlock doesn't just compete for space and resources, it is a host of pest and disease, their seeds reduce the quality of oilseed rape oil and poisonous to stock. However the seeds are important to farmland birds (Bond, Davies & Turner, 2007)

Well from what I can gather, this and the adjacent Bramfield Park woods are probably an outlying part of the Woodhall estate, centred a few miles north at Watton at Stone. This is an innovative estate that works closely with the University of Hertfordshire on a wide range of agro-ecology research projects in the aim of marrying the twin goals of quality local food production with rewilding.

It could be they're testing control mechanisms on our local genetic variant whilst working out how it can be tolerated as part of the agricultural ecosystem, Whatever it is they're up to. I'd love to know more!

You can find out more at their website (

Bond, W., Davies, G., Turner, R. (2007). The biology and non-chemical control of Charlock (Sinapsis. arvensis. L). The Organic Association. Available at:

Young, A (1804). General view of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire, drawn up for the consideration of the board of agriculture and international improvement. London: G & W Nicol.

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

I took myself out for a goodly 5m hike for todays allocated exercise and to brush up on my botanising.

Here's one member of a patch of Field woodrush (Luzula campestris) scattered across the green in Ayot Green, Hertfordshire..

I am fond of this little guy. I like his yellow and russet head and the long messy hairs on his leaves. I like his diminutive size. He is small and neat, where rushes are usually large and bulky.

I am not fond of how he is referred to on many blogs as a "nasty lawn weed that's impossible to get rid of". It's a great little plant that can invade my lawn any day!

Field woodrush can be an indicator of nutrient poor, moderately acidic soils (Biological records centre, n.d) and can be an additional indicator of historic acid grassland or heath

But before you exitedly start wondering if your front garden was part of some ancient park, this is a common species that can pop up in any undernourished lawn or playing field. It can also tolerate mildly alkaline soil (Biological records centre, n.d) and may pop up in nutrient poor chalk grassland.

A quick scan through google seems to reveal a disagreement between sources as to whether it is typical of highly acidic soils or prefers soils closer to neutral.

Mabbet (2009) and The Royal Horticultural Society assert that acidification of topsoil through poor management and environmental means is a more important factor than native soil pH, particularly in calcarious grassland.

(If anyone can contribute with reputable knowledge and citations, I'd be appreciative).

All that considered, please don't consider it an "absolute" indicator of acidity or history.

You need to use your knowledge of the local area to ascertain whether or not it's likely to indicate either acidity or anything of historical interest. In my area, whenever I see it I suspect acidity and antiquity and I am usually right. Not because I'm dead clever, it's just I'm a massive local/ landscape history and soil science nerd who loves figuring out what plants can tell me about former land use!

Ayot Green is a prime example of antiquity. Dotted with veteran oaks, it is a hamlet set about a triangular green; a characteristic feature in mid Hertfordshire. These tend to be of Saxon origin, probably born from piecemeal enclosure of the woods (Branch, 1970; Munby, 1977)

However Ayot Green lies immediately adjacent to the historic Brocket estate; its houses once workers cottages. The estate, which dates from at least the 1200's may once have incorporated the green. The below historic overlay map from the National Library of Scotland (2020) allows you to visualise the place as it is now and as it was in the late 1800's.

I personally think the green, with its traditional "triangle green" setup may well pre-date the estate, however the green was probably swallowed into it as meadow or wood pasture as evidenced by this photograph, collected by V. Richards on Herts Memories (2010). This shows that in the early 1900's the village was managed as meadow. Tree guards are erected around young trees, indicating livestock have access.

Similarly to many places in Hampshire's new forest, there is a distinct entrance, marked by two (now defunct) gate posts. This provides more evidence that it was enclosed for livestock. From the ornatenes of the posts I suspect it was a part of Brocket park and represented a northern entrance

If any local history buffs have any sexy sources confirming or disproving my hypothesis, do enlighten me!

The soil is underlain by the gravels, clays and sands of the Lowestoft formation For any geology fans in the audience, I've included a map and key (Edina Digimap/British Geological Society, 2020).

The Lowestoft formation produces highly acidic soils, described as "sharp and burning" by Wooldridge & Smetham (1931). On top of this they are so free draining they struggle to hold on to water or nutrients. At the same time, springs formed in the underlying clays make them prone to waterlogging.

These traits made them incredibly difficult to farm and agricultural improver Arthur Young was wonderfully vocal about it. He had the misfortune to farm these soils for nine years and his disdain for them ran through his work as an ongoing theme (Young, 1804). This provided me with much entertainment whilst I was reading his work for my MSc dissertation! I shall write a future blog about this, as my exploration of their rubbishness was fascinating stuff!

These soils were clearly something else and their presence probably explains why Brocket Park and nearby Sherrardspark wood were never lost to arable farmland.

But field woodrush doesn't like highly acidic soil does it?

Well in this part of Hertfordshire, the gravels are influenced by the underlying chalk of the Chiltern dipslope, which comes to the surface in many places, creating an interesting geological mosaic of chalk, clay and gravel. The chalk gets into the soils, creating a a buffering effect on pH that gave rise to heaths and grasslands that guessed it! MODERATELY acidic!

However, arable fields were still acidic enough to require a regular dose of chalk if the pH was to be maintained at the level optimal for crop growth (around 6). Today, the control of field wood rush in lawns is best achieved by addressing pH (RHS, n.d). We can therefore predict that any soils on which it occurs has only a minimal influence from the chalk and is pretty acidic.

Where I see field wood rush in and around Welwyn Garden City, I look for encapsulated old acid grassland. Thanks to the garden city ethos of marrying town and country, the retention of field trees and open space was central to its design, which left behind an interesting relic community.

Here, I think its presence is a pretty reliable sign of both antiquity and acidity..


Branch, J.W. (1970). Hertfordshire. London, Batsford.

Biological records centre (n.d.) Field Woodrush (Luzula campestris). Available at:

Edina Digimap/British Geological Society, (2020) Geology Digimap. Available at:

Herts Memories (2010). Ayot St Peter - Ayot Green. Images of Ayot Green. Available at:

National Library of Scotland (2020) Overlay maps.

Mabbett, T (2009). Field woodrush The grass lookalike weed. Available at:

Munby, L. M. (1977). The Hertfordshire Landscape. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

Royal Horticultural Society (n.d). Woodrush in Lawns. Available at:

Wooldridge, S. W., & Smetham, D. J. (1931). The Glacial Drifts of Essex and Hertfordshire, and Their Bearing Upon the Agricultural and Historical Geography of the Region. The Geographical Journal, 78 (3), 243-265.

Young, A (1804). General view of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire, drawn up for the consideration of the board of agriculture and international improvement. London: G & W Nicol.

When trying to draw people, many get stuck on achieving perfectly symmetrical eyes. Once achieved it looks....wrong.

You remain stuck on a loop of erasing and redrawing for the rest of your life, getting more and more frustrated. You have no idea what you are doing wrong and why it's not working.

There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, photographers rarely capture a 100% front facing image. The face is usually angled ever so slightly to the left or right.

In turn the shape of the eyes change. They are no longer symmetrical.

It is your job as an artist to notice this. It will be a very subtle difference. If you don't, the image will look wrong. What tends to happen is you copy the slight angle change in the nose and mouth without realising is and your symmetrical eyes make them look wonky.

Secondly, despite our supposed attraction to symmetrical people, no-one is 100% symmetrical. Those who appear so are just.... a bit more symmetrical..... than the average person.

Conversely, have you ever seen someone with a "face full of character"? Chances are their features are a tad wonkier than Mr/Miss nearly perfect described above. Not obviously so; that would make them look deformed. It's still very subtle.

Thing is, when you're made of squishy animal cells you can never be perfect. Plant cells come closer to achieving perfect symmetry because they are more rigid and geometric. However they often still fall short.

Anyone who regularly wears eyeliner knows one eye is different. One underline forms the perfect eye shape. The other has a slight bulge. One wing is a perfect sweep, the other ALWAYS has a kink. It's not that you lack skills. It's not a product of using your non-dominant hand. It's your wonky eyes!

Until an artist realises that faces are inherently wonky, their work will look amateurish It can be a frustrating time in your development!

Choosing Steve here as an example of a front on pose, he has what I would call a face full of character. I faithfully reproduced what I saw in the photo, and you can see a slight wonkiness in the nose, eyes, eyebrows and lips. This is what what what conveys his characteristically wry demeanor. Had I tried to make him symmetrical, he would not be Steve.

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© 2020 by Fay Brotherhood Fine Art & Music, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, 

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