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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Bookham Commons. Birds, Wild Plants & Butterflies. White Admiral. 27.06.22

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

Bookham Commons, National Trust (Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its flora and fauna yesterday. It is an extraordinary wilderness in the highly urbanised home counties. It is ancient landscape, mentioned in the Domesday Book, with grassland plains, heathland areas, mighty oak woods and serene ponds. It is famous for being one of the only sites in the UK where Purple Emperor Butterflies are extant; I saw one at a distance, far up in a tree, barely visible; but I did see lots of White Admirals. Small Skipper, Larger Skippers, Ringlets, Meadow Browns and Commas up close. On several occasions I got lost; and this was intentional, as rather than try and follow a route I just followed paths as I encountered them, and felt the urge to follow them; but as I have GPS OS maps on my phone, I knew I could find my way back to Bookham Station when I decided to go home. Bookham Commons are an easy place to get lost in!

I reached Bookham by train (Brighton-Clapham Juntion-Bookam). The journey takes around 1hr 55 mins.

All sections of text in italics are quotations, sources given.

What are Commons

A Trusted Source article created in partnership with the University of Oxford What are commons? | National Trust

Commons today are valued for their protection of wildlife and ecology, where people are welcome visitors but the natural world takes priority. However, these sites survive in an unspoiled state thanks to a fascinating and often contentious human history of community identity, local memory and the rights of common people.

For the common people

The name refers to their status as places where local people, rather than just the lord or land owner, had the right to access the land for pasturing livestock, fishing, taking wood or turf for fuel or collecting part of the harvest for personal use.

The poor in particular relied upon the right to exercise these ancient customs to support themselves. While much common land across the country was eventually enclosed, those that remain are often well-documented sites of sustained resistance.

Commons Preservation Society

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was increasing interest in saving remaining open spaces.

The Commons Preservation Society campaigned to protect open spaces in London, occasionally leading to dramatic encounters. One such event happened at Berkhamsted Common, part of the Ashridge Estate. One night in March 1866, a special train arrived full of East End labourers to pull down the fences put up around the common by Lord Brownlow, resulting in a historic victory.

Founding members of the Commons Preservation Society, Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter, also went on to establish the National Trust, which shared its interest in protecting historic and natural spaces for the public good. Inspiring landscapes

Today, we benefit from the legacy of these campaigners, both in urban areas and the countryside.

These still wild places have provided inspiration for writers and artists. Hindhead Common is said to have influenced Arthur Conon Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, while Cookham Common became a post war refuge for First World War painter Stanley Spencer. What are commons? | National Trust

Book Common's biological diversity has been studied extensively by the London Natural History Society, see London Natural History Society - Bookham Common Survey (

Bookham Common is an area mainly of of oak woodland and scrub grassland, with a stream and nine ponds, some 400 acres (160 ha) in size. It is situated near Leatherhead in Surrey and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest owned and managed by the National Trust.

The ecological survey of Bookham Common by members of the LNHS has been running continuously for over fifty years. Bookham common is now one of the best-documented sites in the UK. Data from previous decades can be used as a baseline against which to compare current and future changes in the site's ecology. London Natural History Society - Bookham Common Survey (

At the end of this post is more on the history of Bookham Commons

This photographs within this post are not chronological, as is my usual practice, rather the post is divided into categories:

  • Butterflies (species presented alphabetically)

  • Birds (species presented alphabetically)

  • Wild Flowers (within this category the plants are shown chronologically i.e. order of encounter)

  • Trees

  • Views (presrent chronologically)

The station, like Box Hill station, opened in the nineteenth century; built and opened for the many day-trippers of Victorian London who wanted to spend a day in the countryside.

Bookham's most famous inhabitant!


All the butterfly photos are of different individual butterflies unless stated otherwise


Comma, Polygonia c-album

The Comma is a fascinating butterfly. The scalloped edges and cryptic colouring of the wings conceal hibernating adults amongst dead leaves, while the larvae, flecked with brown and white markings, bear close resemblance to bird droppings.

The species has a flexible life cycle, which allows it to capitalize on favourable weather conditions. However, the most remarkable feature of the Comma has been its severe decline in the twentieth century and subsequent comeback. It is now widespread in southern Britain and its range is expanding northwards. ... Open woodland and wood edges are the main breeding and hibernating habitats.

Prior to hibernation individuals range more widely in the search for nectar and rotting fruit and are often seen in gardens and many other habitats. Adult Flight Period: late June-July Comma | Butterfly Conservation (

The Comma is one of the few UK butterflies that hibernates; the Commas I saw probably were newly-emerged Comma, as they looked fresh.

Large Skippers

Hesperiidae (Skippers): On a worldwide basis, approximately 3,500 of the 18,000 species of butterfly belong to this family, which is often referred to as the skippers since adults are characterised by their rapid and darting flight. In some species the adults rest with the forewings and hindwings in different planes, a characteristic never found in other families. The key characteristic of this family, however, is that all of the veins on the forewing run unbranched from the cell to the wing margin. UK Butterflies - Hesperiidae

Male Large Skippers are most often found perching in a prominent, sunny position, usually on a large leaf at a boundary between taller and shorter vegetation, awaiting passing females. Females are less conspicuous, though both sexes may be seen feeding on flowers, Bramble being a favourite. Males have a thick black line through the centre of fore-wing. Undersides have faint orange spots unlike the bright silver spots in Silver-spotted Skipper.

The presence of a faint chequered pattern on both sides of the wings distinguishes this species from the similar Small and Essex Skippers, which fly at the same time. The Large Skipper is widespread in southern Britain and its range has extended northwards in north-east England since the 1960s. ... Caterpillar Foodplant: Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata) and occasionally Purple Moor-grass (Molinia caerulea) and False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum) are used. Females have been observed laying eggs on Tor-grass (B. pinnatum) and Wood Small-reed (Calamagrostis epigejos). ... This butterfly favours grassy areas, where foodplants grow in sheltered, often damp, situations and remain tall and uncut. It is found in a wide variety of habitats where there are shrubs, tall herbs, and grasses, for example; woodland rides and clearings, pastures, roadside verges, hedgerows, and wet heathland.

It is also a species of urban habitats, occurring in parks, churchyards, and other places with long grasses. ... Adult Flight Time: June-August. Large Skipper | Butterfly Conservation (

Meadow Browns

Red Admirals

same individual as above

same individual as above

same individual as above


When newly emerged, the Ringlet has a velvety appearance and is almost black, with a white fringe to the wings. The small circles on the underwings, which give the butterfly its name, vary in number and size and maybe enlarged and elongated or reduced to small white spots; occasionally they lack the black ring. They are a dark brown butterfly and similar to male Meadow Brown

Bramble and Wild Privet flowers are favourite nectar sources, and adults continue to fly with a characteristic bobbing flight in dull, cloudy conditions when most other butterflies are inactive.

This widespread butterfly has extended its range in England and Scotland in recent years. Widespread on damp grassland throughout Britain and Ireland...

Caterpillar Foodplants

Coarser grasses are used, including Cock's-foot (Dactylis glomerata), False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), Common Couch (Elytrigia repens), and meadow-grasses (Poa spp.). Other species of grass may also be used.


Woodland rides and glades and damp grassland where grasses are lush and tall (it likes damp situations with partial shade). The butterfly also occurs on commons, verges and riverbanks, especially on clay soils. In Northern areas, it is found in more open and less shady habitats.

Adult Flight Times: end of June to mid August Ringlet | Butterfly Conservation (

same individual as above

same individual as above

Speckled Wood

Small Skippers

White Admirals

same individual as above

This butterfly is widespread in southern England, extending just into Wales and northwards. It has white-banded black wings and a distinctive delicate flight, which has short periods of wing beats followed by long glides. It could be confused with the larger Purple Emperor.

Adults are often found nectaring on Bramble flowers in rides and clearings. It is a fairly shade-tolerant butterfly, flying in dappled sunlight to lay eggs on Honeysuckle.

The White Admiral occurs widely in southern Britain and has spread rapidly since the 1920s, after an earlier contraction. However, population monitoring has shown a dramatic decline in the last 20 years, for reasons that are as yet unclear. Butterfly Conservation priority: High; Section 41 species of principal importance under the NERC Act in England; Listed on Section 7 of the Environment (Wales) Act 2016; UK BAP status: Priority Species. Caterpillar Foodplant. The sole foodplant is Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), usually in shady positions. Adult flying period: late June to August. White Admiral | Butterfly Conservation (


Possibly Common Nettle-Tap


Black-Tailed Skimmers


Juvenile Blackcap

same individual as above

same individual as above

same induvial as above

Juvenile Blue Tit

Grey Herons

same indivudual as above

same individual as above



Juvenile Robins


same individual as above



same individual as above

same individual as above

Juvenile Wren being fed by parent bird

Roe Deer

Wild Flowers

Common Spotted Orchids much larger than those I see on the South Downs

Blue Vetch


Wild Celery

Bird Vetch

Large Yellow Loosestrife

Native to wetlands, damp meadows and forests of south-east Europe, cultivated for gardens in the UK, probably an escapee form a London gardens

A species of Coronilla genus

Buttercup and Heal-All

A species of Foxglove genus


Herb Robert

Creeping Thistle

A species of the Hawkbit genus

Common Poppy


Galega, Goat's-Rue, native range is Caucasus, probably naturalised from an escaped garden verity

Heal All

Red Sorrel

Typical of acid soils, found in the heathland parts of Bookham Commons

Lichen, possibly Physcia adscendens on Hawthorn

Yellow Iris

Meadow fescue (?)

Pendulous Sedge

Hedge Woundwort

A species of the genus Coronilla

Bird-s Foot Trefoil


Creeping Thistle


Creeping Thistle, with Common Red Soldier Beetles


Spear-Leaved Willow-Herb





From wild woods, Victorian tourism to being saved by the National Trust and becoming a home for troops during the Second World War, Bookham Commons has a history which reflects changing times in society.

The early days Bookham Commons are a small remnant of a wildwood that covered most of southern England. Boar, wolves and bears roamed the woods. Victorian day trippers In the late 1800s the commons became a popular destination for Victorians wanting to escape busy London for the day. The railway, close to the commons, made it easily accessible. You can still hop on a train to visit the commons today. Locals save Great Bookham Common In 1923 Eastwick Park in Great Bookham was sold to a property developer. He found that he also held the deeds to Great Bookham Common. Outraged locals got together and raised enough money to buy it back and present it to us to look after forever. In those days the Trust was in its infancy and the local people formed a management committee that cared and funded the common. Little Bookham and Banks Common Little Bookham Common was presented to the Trust in 1924 by Mr H Willock-Pollen, Lord of the Manor of Little Bookham. Banks Common was donated by Mr R R Calburn in 1925. Your commons Today we look after Bookham Commons to protect the wildlife and for you to enjoy too. Many locals, like in 1923, still help us with this huge task and have joined the Friends of Bookham Commons. Wildlife survey for over 70 years In 1941 the London and Natural History Society started making detailed surveys of our special commons and their wildlife. The commons are now one of the best recorded and thoroughly studied areas in England. The commons at war During the Second World War the commons were occupied by many troops, ant-aircraft guns, a search battery, lorries and tanks. They were frequently bombed. Did you know? You can still see the traces of war today:

Large herds of red deer, wild cattle, boar and even bears, lynx and wolves used to roam across the commons and southern England. European beavers made ponds along the stream valleys and the occasional elk kept the forest glades open by munching the trees.

Man and the commons The commons have been influenced by man’s activities since the Stone Age. Our distant ancestors hunted many of the wild roaming animals to extinction, but took over their role by grazing domestic animals, coppicing and chopping wood for fuel and building. Today we still manage the woodland and harvest some of the oak. Chertsey Abbey monks From around AD666 all the land around the Saxon settlement of Bochham (meaning ‘the village by the beeches’) was owned by the monks from Chertsey Abbey. Pannage (the right to graze pigs on acorns) is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). Five of the 12 ponds on the commons were created by the Chertsey Abbey monks for storing fish. Henry VIII and timber for Nonsuch Palace It’s believed that King Henry VIII used to pass through Bookham on hunting trips and he was not adverse to plundering local commons for timber. In 1538 the building accounts for Nonsuch Palace states that the royal carpenter, Stephen Crispian, rode out to various commons including Bowcham (Bookham), to choose suitable oak for the new palace’s beams. When Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries in England, he gave the land (1551) to the Howard family, the Earls of Effingham. If you’re interested in reading more about the early history of the commons a good reference book is The London Naturalist ‘Bookham Common: a short history’ by John H Harvey (published in 1942). Bookham Commons long ago | National Trust



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