Monday, 19 December 2011

Review of 2011

The number of walks I have managed was more than last year and a clocked up a total of 300 miles. Here are a few of the highlights (and lowlights).

Lowlights

These have often gone unrecorded. I managed to lose my way and had to totally replan my walk on only one occasion, I just followed a road withour checking that I should have turned off a couple of miles before: Riseley. On two walks I found I had no water to drink, this can be a bit scary on a hot day in the middle of nowhere. At Chieveley the path was blocked by the M4, I was almost tempted to try to cross it as it required a dramatic change of plan. As it turned out I did not have enough time to do the intended longer walk in any case: Chieveley M4. The paths were sometimes heavily overgrown, but none were totally blocked off. The Lambourn Valley Way proved a disappointment for all but a few miles of its course. I only got rained on once, and that was only for the first hour of the walk at Lambourn.

Highlights

As deer are such secretive creatures it is always good to spot them before they spot you, so the fallow deer near Ewelme Park was a highlight; also discovering Rose Chafer beetles in my garden in May; and finding a young and brightly coloured Peacock butterfly that stayed put: near Hurley. I am getting a bit better at locating orchids, and was very pleased to see dozens and dozens of bee orchids at Bramshill, and where I had expected to find them. The best villages that I explored were Chilton Foliat, Ramsbury and East Garston. There were many interesting churches that were not locked and the best of them were East Hendred, Long Wittenham and Ramsbury.

Looking forward to 2012

There are plenty more walks to do, but I doubt I will have the opportunity to do quite so many in 2012. As a foretoken of Spring, I was delighted to find snowdrops already in bud in my garden:

snowdrops

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Chieveley, Speen and Newbury

In the middle of November there should be sharp frosts, but a continuing southerly airflow has kept everything relatively warm with reports of confusion amongst the wildlife, I certainly saw blackbirds doing their Spring courtship displays. This walk completes the last part of the Lambourn Valley Way from Bagnor to Newbury as well as adding Chieveley to my list of visited villages. Here is a map of the walk.


View Chieveley - Speen - Newbury in a larger map

I parked close to Chieveley church (locked unfortunately). It looks a Victorian re-build from the outside. Inside there is apparently a rare beam to support a Lenten veil. Chieveley is just to the north of the M4 and the plan was to make a circular route via Curridge to the south-east, however, the recently extended M4/A34 junction has now done for the public footpath that should go underneath it, so I had to change my plans substantially, and re-trace my steps. It wasn't an entirely wasted detour as I passed a group of healthy looking hens:

hen

Some much needed rain ten days ago has allowed some fungi to show their fruiting bodies at long last. This is probably the Parasol mushroom (Lepiota procera).

fungi,Lepiota procera

In the field leading to a footbridge over the motorway the fungi were thrusting their way out of the soil. As it was not fully developed I am not sure which one it is I would guess Calvata excipuliformis in the puff ball family.

fungi

Some wildflowers were ignoring the season, but not a great number of them. This is a thistle, probably plain old Meadow Thistle (Cirsium dissectum)

thistle,Cirsium dissectum

I reached Snelsmore Common, where I have walked twice before this year. (It looked quite different from my June walk). It is such a large area that I did not have to re-walk the same paths. Some oak trees were in the process of losing their leaves, while others were still in denial.

oak

The woods as a whole had a rich autumnal look.

snelsmore,autumn

With the loss of leaves, some rural views have now improved.

snelsmore,autumn

I followed the main track south out of Snelsmore Common to Bagnor. Here I joined the infamous Lambourn Valley Way and followed the signs that took me nowhere near the River Lambourn but up a hill to the village of Speen. In my previous walk by coincidence, I mentioned Speen as a Roman settlement along the Kennet Valley. In fact it goes back further than that, and an ancient pre-roman well is at Speen called Ladywell. As is usually the case, it is alleged to have curative properties. It isconsidered older than the well I saw at Frilsham

speen,ladywell

The parish church of St. Mary's at Speen is a large one denoting its significance in days gone by.

speen,church

Sadly, half the interior serves as a village hall, a kitchen is in the process of being installed in the nave, and outside you can see a couple of toilets. Do not think Pevsner would be at all pleased. There was a Saxon church on the site but the Victorians tidied all the old stuff away and really only the shell remains. It has a number of interesting monuments; one to Charles Alexander, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach and in the chancel to Lady Elizabeth Castillion dated 1603 wearing a farthingale and a monumentally large headdress. Her father-in-law Baptist Castillion (or castiglione) provided service to Queen Elizabeth I and was richly rewarded for it.

speen,church

I continued to find fungi here and there, here is some form of bracket fungus.

fungi

The Lambourn Valley Way ends up (or starts) on the River Kennet a couple of miles upstream from where the Lambourn joins the river. Near here is the site of the Second Battle of Newbury in 1644 (geographically more correctly known as the Battle of Speen). I then followed the Kennet and Avon canal. This is a good walk that takes you into the heart of Newbury. The church tower of St. Nicholas at the centre of the town can be seen behind the house by the canal.

kennet and avon canal,newbury

I followed the canal bank through the centre and made my way through the urban sprawl back towards Chieveley. The short day length was beginning to prove a concern, as it becomes virtually dark at 4:30. My path then completed the final segment of the 'official' Lambourn Valley Way at Donnington Castle, which looked impressive in the afternoon sunlight.

donnington castle

With lengthening shadows and signs of clouds gathering on the horizon I picked up my pace to get to Snelsmore Common before being engulfed by gloom.

snelsmore common,autumn

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Ramsbury, Mildenhall and the Ridgeway

As November begins, autumn is well advanced, I wanted to capture some autumn colours. I decided to follow the River Kennet along from Ramsbury as this also (more or less) complete the section from Hungerford to Marlborough.
So where better start with than beech leaves in their finest colours.

autumn,beech leaves

Here is a map of the 13 mile walk:


View Ramsbury - Mildenhall in a larger map

As a bit of a link to the previous post on Ivy Bees, ivy flowers were still attracting a range of insects. In this case a wasp and a fly; it's the first wasp I have posted as I haven't dared get quite so close up to now.

ivy,flower,wasp

The track along the south side of the River Kennet does not pass through any villages.

autumn view

There were occasional good views of the river Kennet.

river,kennet

The track then becomes a path that takes you over the site of the Roman town of Cunetio, the scene of a Time Team excavation a few years ago. Curiously most of the Roman towns around here have been abandoned, with a large town developing nearby. Cunetio is a couple of miles from Marlborough. The Roman road north led to Wanborough just east of Swindon. The Roman road east followed the Kennet to the settlement of Speen - just west of Newbury. In a field near the site a very young calf was sunning itself.

calf

At Mildenhall (contracted to ‘Minal’ by the locals) the banks of the River Kennet look an ideal setting.

river kennet

I had visited the fine old church at Mildenhall/Minal on a walk two years ago. It is well worth a visit as it has impressive Georgian oak panelling. Indeed Sir John Betjeman description “as a church of a Jane Austen novel” bore fruit when ITV filmed scenes from “Emma” here.

Mildenhall church,Minal church

Autumn colours were spectacular in the hedgerows. This was a mixture of hazel and hops giving a vivid colour show.

autumn,beech leaves

I headed north from Mildenhall on the major Roman road towards Ogbourne St. George. The A345 has a very straight section south of the M4 towards Marlborough and this lane/track is a continuation of the traditional straight line.

A345

You can see from the topography why the more sensible route of following the valley bottom was taken in preference, and therefore probably why Marlborough became a town instead of Mildenhall. Here is the view down to Ogbourne St. George and far beyond to the north.

ogbourne st george,view

I then joined the Great Ridgeway, and followed it up to the top of the downs. I did this section seven years ago. It has all the trademarks of an ancient track, a sunken track with both a hedge and a ditch. It is also a good straight gentle slope, ideal for driving livestock. However there are other candidates for the route of the original ‘Great Ridgeway’ and I would suggest the track running straight through Ogbourne St. George onto 'Old Chase Road' is a much more likely route. I then followed farm tracks all the way south east over the downs back to Ramsbury. There is a major meeting of tracks at ‘Oak Sagger’, a very rural sounding place. Here was a view of a derelict old barn worthy of a calendar.

autumn,barn

The weather was ideal, warm for November with a gentle wind and broken 'fair weather' cumulus cloud.

cloud,cumulus

From Oak Sagger I followed a path up a valley slope. Curiously as I walked up every step was synchronised with a buzzing of insects. When I investigated further I saw that a low chalk bank was covered in flies, soaking up the warm sun on the south facing hedgerow, moving on each time my shadow fell across them.

autumn,beech leaves

All too soon the sun was beginning to head to the horizon, intensifying the autumn tints with an orange glow. This view to the south is to Inkpen ridge, which I walked a couple of years ago. You may make a tiny line that is the Hannington transmitter at Cottington Hill on the horizon.

autumn,view,inkpen ridge

Flowers were few and far between. This was about the best I could come up with, I think it is a hogweed, an umbellifer of some kind anyway.

hogweed,umbellifer

I hoped to reach Ramsbury in time for good afternoon light, I left it a little too late as much was in shadow. However I did catch an image of the 'shop front' houses along the main street - along with the shadow of the photographer himself.

Ramsbury

Finally a Ramsbury thatched house in the last rays of sunshine.

Ramsbury

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Swyncombe, Watlington and Stonor

The last two weeks have been either too hot (record breaking October temperatures) or too cloudy for a walk. For a change from villages and rivers I decided to go for a long planned walk over farmland to fill in another piece of the local patchwork of walks. Here is a Google map of the 15 mile route I took:


View Watlington - Stonor in a larger map

I started at Cookley Green, near Swyncombe, a hamlet rather than a village and headed along part of Shakespeare's Way north to Watlington. This is clearly an ancient track and has a gentle slope down through woodland. I rather doubt Shakespeare used it to get from Stratford to London but still... Near Watlington it joins the Great Ridgeway. This section of the path has been re-routed from the top of the downs to the lowlands, I reckon the original Ridgeway followed the modern 'B' roads to Christmas Common. From here I turned back towards the base of Watlington Hill. The path on the south side of the hill has some good views back to the north-west.

Watlington Hill

By the side of the path, I came across one of the few plants pretending it is still summer, and a little rarer to find. It is Yellow-wort (Blackstonia perfoliata), a member of the gentian family.

Yellow-wort,Blackstonia perfoliata

Beech nuts had been shed in great quantities.

beech nuts

Up at the top of the hill, the views were as magnificent as ever. Another walk (just other a year ago) also included Watlington.

Watlington Hill

I then followed the road back towards Christmas Common with some views back towards Didcot power station in the far, misty distance.

Watlington Hill

From Christmas Common I picked up another long distance path (the Oxfordshire Way) before continuing down Hollandridge Lane all the way down to Stonor. Along the lane the underlying chalk was exposed, and in this picture the tree roots can be seen over the chalk trying to find some soil.

tree roots

Along the busy road I liked the old barn at Whitepond farm.

barn,Whitepond farm

Stonor Park is known as the seat of an ancient catholic family (Lord Camoys), the Park gatehouses look rather prim and tidy.

Stonor Park

I then took a path west from Stonor, and happened upon the most endangered species in Britain at this time of year - a puzzled looking male pheasant.

Pheasant

In the fields above Stonor there was a cow giving a fellow bovine a thorough licking, and the recipient seemed to be enjoying the attention. If you are worried by the number of legs involved, there was a heifer behind.

cow

The view back to Stonor Park was a highlight of the walk, you can still see the cow receiving her grooming.

Stonor Park

Surprisingly for the date, I did not see a single mushroom/toadstool. It has been too dry and too warm, I hope some rain will bring them on. In consolation, all I could find in this stretch was some bindweed.

bindweed,convolvulus

And so down into the Warburg nature reserve, with no fungi and few flowers this proved an unprofitable visit. Still the beech woodlands were attractive, still in summer plumage. Compare this to what I found back at the end of May.

Warburg,beech,woodland

I then took a valley bottom track up to Park Corner, not much to see here either. However, towards Ewelme Park I chanced upon three fallow deer in the distance, and managed to quickly snap them before they made off.

fallow deer

At Ewelme Park the farm buildings stood out well in the late afternoon (now 4PM) sunshine. I joined a walk I did back in April last year.

Ewelme Park`

Reaching the Great Ridgeway again I followed it north to Swyncombe. To continue the mammalian theme, the back lighting made this group of sheep look suitably woolly.

sheep

And so back to Swyncombe to complete the fifteen mile trek, a late afternoon view showing autumn colours starting to glow.

Swyncombe

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Dorchester; Long Wittenham and Shillingford

After a cool; dull summer the end of September has seen a sudden increase in temperatures up to 25° just about too hot for walking. I chose to move to lower ground requiring less exertion. If last week was a high point on top of Liddington Hill this was a low point, as I followed the Thames. It continues the Thames Path from where I finished in April. Here is a Google map of the route I took:


View Shillingford - Dorchester - Clifton Hampden in a larger map

I started in the very historic city/town/village of Dorchester-on-Thames. I say 'city' because it has an impressive abbey and used to be an important see in Anglo-Saxon times. Saint Birinus is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as baptising various leaders into the Christian faith at Dorchester in 636 and 639CE. It has some fine early monuments. It claims to be at least important as Winchester in middle Saxon years with a diocese covering land from the Humber to the Thames. The Romans were active here long before too.

Dorchester,Dorchester Abbey

Next to the Abbey is a temptingly quaint museum.

Dorchester,Dorchester Museum

There is one main road through the village and this has many old houses, I could post many more pictures, but this will have to do, I am meant to be seeking out wildlife after all.

Dorchester,Dorchester-on-Thames

As I made my way out of Dorchester towards Day's Lock I followed and then crossed an impressive old bank. How old it is I can not be sure; I can not see how it offered much defence to Dorchester - the Thames is just behind it, I even suspect it may be more about flood management.

defensive bank,Dorchester-on-Thames

Already too many buildings and not enough wildlife, so here is one of the few flowers in full bloom that I saw, a Marsh Mallow (Althaea officinalis)

Marsh Mallow,Althaea officinalis

Day's lock was busy with many pleasure boats taking advantage of the warm spell to sail along the Thames.

Day's Lock,Dorchester

The Thames Path then follows the south bank of the river for several miles, not much wildlife; the Canada Geese have cropped back most of the plants. Here and there a fisherman (hasn't he got a long pole) was, well, fishing.

Thames,Fisherman

Avian fishermen included cormorants; herons and great crested grebes (with a grebelet).

CormorantHeron Great Crested Grebe

But the dominant birds were Canada Geese, in their hundreds.

Canada Geese

Burcot on the north bank has some fine mansions, I particularly liked this mock-Tudor house with extensive boat house.

Burcot,Boat house

A dearth of interesting plants along the way, all I found that looked a little unusual was in a solitary patch of wilderness. The fruits look a bit like clenched fists. I believe these are the seedheads of Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).

plant

And so to the end of this section of Thames Path at Clifton Hampden Bridge (not the Clifton suspension bridge at Bristol!).

Clifton Hampden Bridge

Nearby the famous thatched, 16th century country pub, The Plough Inn was a very tempting distraction. Showing great fortitude I strode on the road to the village Long Wittenham. This is a village strewn along a road backing onto the river and has many fine houses mixed in with modern infill. This house, while attractive, seemed a little bit too tidy.

Long Wittenham,cottage

The house was on the path to the church. The church has many interesting features including a rare twelfth century lead font, I wonder if H&S allow babies to be baptised with it any more. The rather ghostly figures around the base are archbishops.

Long Wittenham,church,font,lead font

Even rarer is a strange boast and strange story, it claims the smallest carved monument in England. The monument, believed rather ghoulishly to hold the heart of the deceased, is to Gilbert 'the Red' De Clare, Earl of Gloucester (1243-1295) who married King Edward I's daughter Edward I's daughter Joan of Acre (1275-1307). She had an interesting life, born in the Holy Land, hence the 'of Acre' after outliving her powerful De Clare husband she then secretly married a young squire (basically a nobody) causing a great stir. After her death a miraculous case of bodily preservation almost raised her to sainthood. Whether Joan lived in Long Wittenham after Gilbert's death is not known for certain.

gilbert de clare,long wittenham,monument

The church has a fine fifteenth century tower too.

long wittenham church

Following a back lane I came across that most evocative of rural buildings, the dilapidated thatched barn.

long wittenham,barn

And so out into farmland heading for Wittenham Clumps, a famous local beauty spot, which I have visited several times. Although I had never approached them from the west.

wittenham clumps,view

Wittenham Clumps also known as Berkshire Bubs, Mother Dunch's Buttocks or Sinodun Hills are an ancient feature. Geologically it is an outlier of chalk amongst the older Upper Greensand. They have been occupied extensively since the Bronze Age, a Time Team excavation found many round houses and rubbish pits towards the bottom of the slope. In the Iron Age the hills were made even more impressive to neighbouring tribes by exposing the white chalk around the summit of the hills. Views are panoramic and spectacular, to the west the Chilterns disappear towards the Uffington White Horse; to the east is Woodcote; Ewelme; Goring (see blog entry for reverse view).

wittenham clumps,view

To the north east the fringes of Dorchester can be seen and an ex-gravel pit where Neolithic artefacts have been found. The bullocks munching their way around the summit were thankfully engrossed with other things.

wittenham clumps,view

Here is one last view from the top of the neighbouring clump ('castle hill' with its impressive bank and ditch) towards Brightwell Barrow and onwards to Goring.

wittenham clumps,view

From the clumps I headed down into the woodland to follow the Thames eastward. Here were signs of the onset of autumn. As always I was taken by the bright berries of White Bryony (Clematis vitalba)

white bryony,Clematis vitalba

And fallen acorns. I should add that acorn is not derived from combining 'oak' and 'corn' as some people have suggested but purely from 'corn' meaning 'nut' - food for pigs.

acorns

Here the farmer has added a 'permissive' path to enable walkers to reach the south bank of the Thames. Keeping to the wildlife theme, back alongside the Thames I found a few Comfrey (Symphytum tuberossum) plants in flower, and on one of these was a 7-spot ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata). There is an in-built attraction to any picture with a little splash of bright red in them; I suspect this may go back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors requirements to spot fruit from a distance. It is certainly a trick that a lot of painters have used over the years.

Comfrey,Symphytum tuberossum,seven spot ladybird,Coccinella 7-punctata

You have noticed a lack of disappointing lack of butterfly pictures. I did see one or two: Speckled Wood; Common White; Red Admiral and I did have a Peacock come and land on my map as I was perusing it, but compared to other walks at this time of year, very few. Mainly I think down to the lack of flowering plants along the Thames and other paths, but it may be because of the cool summer. Shillingford Bridge is a single lane road like the one eight miles upstream at Clifton Hampden, this is where I linked up with my Cholsey walk

Shillingford bridge

As I crossed to the northern side to pick up the Thames Path I was lucky to spot a small boat sailing upstream

Shillingford bridge,thames,boat

The section back to Dorchester was by contrast a rather dull section, especially as you have to walk along a busy A road for part of the way. In the last stretch of countryside I did manage to catch a rabbit enjoying some late afternoon sunshine.

rabbit,bunny