Thursday, 25 December 2014

Blewbury Downs on Christmas Day

What better way to spend Christmas Day than up in the sunshine on the downs? As Christmas Day this year was the only clear day in the forecast I decided it would be nice to experience clear roads on a mild winter's day before winter - promised for Boxing Day - sweeps in. Here is a map of the walk (9.5 miles):

I started at the old village of Blewbury, it is on the spring line and has the feel of an Anglo-Saxon village; so old that even the walls are thatched! This is a cob wall - the base is stone but the main part is clay and has to be protected from the elements with a piece of thatch on the top.

cob wall

I was interested to see how many plants were in flower at mid winter. One of the first I spotted was a red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum), and close by was an umbelifer - possibly angelica.

red dead nettle

Fruit were still around in abundance, here are some rose hips.

rose hips

The path over the fields led direct from Blewbury church to the centre of Upton village. The path is probably the line of the ancient Icknield Way it can be traced to Wantage and beyond. Upton has a few attractive, old houses but not as many as Blewbury.

Upton village

Leaving the village I took a path to the south towards Chilton, and along the side of track were huge numbers Black Bryony berries of (Dioscorea communis) shining in the sun.

black bryony

With the leaves gone birds were much more evident, some are winter migrants, choosing to come to the UK for its relatively mild winters. I saw flocks of a few hundred Field fares (Turdus pilaris). In the fields they hunt their invertebrate prey with the same short trotting action of thrushes.

field fares

Crossing the disused railway that ran from Southampton via Newbury to Didcot, I passed a farm where there were goldfinches, hens and strange looking Guinea-fowl that originate from sub-Saharan Africa, so British winters must be quite a shock!


Keeping to the ornithological theme, an area where a farmer had dumped a load of top soil was being closely checked over by pied wagtails and, here, meadow pipits.

meadow pipit

The path, over the fields converged with the line of the old railway and on a bridge over it were quite a few fine examples of a strange looking plant. It is Wall-rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria) which is a fern rather than a flowering plant. However the colour and shape make them look more like ordinary plants than a fern.

wall rue

I then headed up to the 'high' downs to join the Great Ridgeway. Views to the north began to open up.


The Ridgeway takes a rather unlikely sharp left turn at this point, close by was a White dead-nettle adding to my tally of plants in flower. Along this stretch in the clean upland air lichens were doing well, they do show up well in winter. This one is the common bright yellow/orange lichen (Xanthoria parietina) .

lichen,Xanthoria parietina

The actual route of the Great Ridgeway at this point has been widely debated. The ancient track-way from the downs must cross the Pang valley somewhere close by. I think it most likely it crossed at the village of Compton, but the modern route is more photogenic so people prefer to follow the alternative tracks to the north. Here is a topology map demonstrating what I mean, the false colours have light blue as lowest and bright green as the highest ground. The well established Ridgeway is in yellow, the hexagonal nut shows the position of the unlikely turn on the brown route to Streatley. Looking for gentle slopes and following known track-ways the more likely main route would be in green through Compton and then towards Pangbourne, it avoids unnecessary steep slopes. A more convincing northern route of the Fair Mile is shown in orange.

Ridgeway routes

My path took me back towards Blewbury along a narrow stand of Scots Pine.


At the top I was surprised to see knapweed in flower and also in bud, another sign of a mild winter so far.


And down the over side of Churn Hill were excellent views to the north. The most impressive landmark is Blewburton Hill, the Iron age hill-fort that stands next to Blewbury. Now where did I hear about finding my Thrill on Blewbury Hill? Ah yes it was here, it wouldn't be Christmas without Vladimir Putin singing! (here is the proper version).

Blewburton Hill

Walking down to the village I came across another plant in full flower, it covered a whole bank, it is white comfrey, which really should not be doing that in mid-winter.


The path back to Blewbury took me directly into Nottingham Fee, a very old lane with old houses and the Red Lion pub.

Blewbury,Red Lion

As it is Christmas Day I should end with a view of Blewbury Church, Happy Christmas!


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Ashampstead in Winter

With the newspapers full of the prospect of a 'weather bomb' hitting the UK today it did not seem likely that it would be suitable for a walk. In actual fact a 'weather bomb' is just a very rapidly developing area of low pressure, but as it was over Iceland the only severely affected areas were in the far north. Down here I braved the teeth of the storm, as it turned out to be a day of mainly sunshine with a gentle breeze. Here is a map of the walk:

My first port of call was the small church at Ashampstead.

ashampstead church,church

The Church of St Clement, Ashampstead is Grade I listed, principally because of the 13th century murals on its walls. Unfortunately recent weather damage has required repair work to the monuments and wall. Quite appropriate for the time of year, this scene is of the Nativity with an ox and ass looking onto crib. The baby Jesus is just a scaled down adult figure.

ashampstead church,church mural

I then headed out through patches of woodland to the west and reached the B4009 road, here I was delighted to spot a buzzard sunning itself on some bales of straw.


Heading back towards the village through more woodland there were one or two patches of fungi still intact. The lack of sharp frosts must have helped them survive.


In my last posting (31st October) autumn was only just beginning, six weeks later the leaves have fallen; only a few beech leaves were hanging on to lower branches.

beech leaves,autumn

Retaining lush green leaves was a patch of hemlock (Conium maculatum); the purple blotches on the stems are the main identification from other similar looking plants such as carrot.


Oak trees are often the last to lose their foliage, and this one had one or two leaves clinging on.

oak leaves

As I took a bite to eat in the middle of woods south of Ashampstead, a robin came and had a good look at me. This one has quite a marked 'orange' breast. Apparently they are called 'red-breasted' because at that time the colour 'orange' was not in the vocabulary. It was only available after the 'orange' fruits started to be imported in the 16th century.


No views so far, and I ought to include a typical picture of the woodlands I walked through.


I saw a lot of birds, there were two gangs of tits that I came across and a band of finches too. While I tried to catch a picture of a blue tit, this grey squirrel came into view.

grey squirrel

In winter, with less wildlife around, I find myself relying on farm animals to add a bit of interest. I think these chickens were quite photogenic in the winter sun.


I can't get through a posting without including at least one flower. There was not much choice in mid-December, and yet it was surprising to see a blackberry still in bud and flower.


Friday, 31 October 2014


Unusually I managed another long walk today - two in the same week - mainly because was so unusually warm and sunny. It was record breaking warmth too at 23.6°C (74.3°F), it was hotter than many days in August; but normal conditions should resume in the coming week. I planned to redo a stretch of the Ridgeway I walked ten years ago, but as this was about 14 miles the shorter day length did not permit it, so I settled for a more modest one to explore sections of the Icknield Way and Chiltern Ways. Here is a map of the walk:

I started at the church at the small village of Ipsden. Ipsden had a church in the days of St. Birinus (600-649CE) when the Anglo-Saxons were still heathens, the present structure started as a small chapel in the 12th century on the north side, later extended into a church to the south.

ipsden church,church

The northern chapel has old wooden timbers showing its ancient construction.

ipsden church,roof

Leaving the church, I headed off north on the Icknield Way, and there were quite a few flowers along the side of the track, including Chicory.


I then turned onto the Chiltern Way Extension to the east past Woodhouse Farm, the turning is marked with a charming metal sign for the farm. The Great Ridgeway is only 200 yards away to the north from this point.

Farm sign,Woodhouse Farm sign

Along the track I was buzzed by a dragonfly, defending its territory, which for the end of October is unusual, they are usually one of the first victims of colder weather. I think it was a Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum).

Common Darter,Sympetrum striolatum

The farm itself is set in a narrow valley in the chalk downs.

Woodhouse Farm

I then climbed up onto the chalk downs, following a track I last walked five years ago (almost to the day). It took me into Mongewell Woods where I hoped to see lots of fungi. In fact there was not an awful lot to be seen in the woods, there were some but all rather old and the worse for wear. However one spectacular example was this one. It looks as if the whole top of the mushroom had been eaten away leaving just the skeleton; but there were many of them in exactly the same state so I think it more likely this is how it normally decays.


It was on a pile of saw dust and there were some fresh fruiting bodies coming up making me think it is Hare's Foot inkcap (Coprinopsis lagopus) .


I then headed south over fields to Homer Farm, where I was surprised to see a freshly made stylish sculpture of an African!


Continuing south I reached Ipsden Heath, which is an area of mixed woodland on the high ground. It is capped with clay in places which gives rise to muddy patches and it was in these areas where I saw the most fungi on the day - in all colours and shapes. This is probably Rosy Bonnet (Mycena rosea)

fungi,Rosy Bonnet,Mycena rosea

And a rather old Parasol (Macrolepiota procera)

fungi,Parasol,Macrolepiota procer

There was a patch of Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina), these are meant to be reasonably pleasant to eat!

fungi,Amethyst Deceiver,Laccaria amethystina

I then passed Three Corner Common and headed down Yewtree Brow, this repeats a part of a walk I did five years ago. The walk goes down a track along the valley bottom. There was far less fungi here, probably because it is drier. I did spot one, Red Cracking Bolete (Boletus chrysenteron), rather slug damaged and another edible one.

fungi,Red Cracking Bolete,Boletus chrysenteron

One of the most common fungi, Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) was not much in evidence, but some old, much decayed stumps had some of this brightly coloured mushroom.

fungi,Sulphur Tuft,Hypholoma fasciculare

In a recent post I was enthusiastic about a Stagshorn fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon). Well I found an equally impressive specimen in these woods, like sulphur tuft you find on wood in its final stages of decay.

fungi,Stafgshorn,Xylaria hypoxylon

This does not seem to be a good year for autumn colour, there has been a few bursts of strong wind and it is a little early still for the beech trees to be at their best. So a single leaf will have to do for now.

autumn beech leaf

The warm conditions gave only fairly hazy distant views.


It was a bit breezy for butterflies, and I had seen some earlier in the week at Overton so I was delighted to see four red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) all on a single ivy bush.

red admiral,Vanessa atalanta

My path passed the remarkable building at Brazier Park, an amazing piece of mock-medieval dating in parts to 1688. It has associations with Cook's ship the Endeavour ; Ian Fleming and Marianne Faithfull. It is a working green community with some very unusual courses including Open to the Goddess.

Brazier Park

On the way back to Ipsden church there were yew trees with a phenomenal amount of fruit on them. Although the seed is poisonous the surrounding 'aril' is sweet if a little insipid.

yew berries