Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Moulsford and the Fair Mile

One last walk to squeeze into 2015, as it was one of only one or two sunny days in the whole of the last couple of months. Today should really be New Year's Day as the winter solstice was yesterday (22nd December). Wouldn't it be much simpler and tie both Christmas and New Year to the winter solstice to tie the calendar to the solar year ?

The choice of walk was to do more field research into the ancient crossing of the Thames. It is not clear which is the original route from the chalk Downs to the Thames. I have only walked the Fair Mile once before, eleven years ago, so it was due for a re-visit. The Fair Mile is an ancient track that runs from Moulsford to the high Berkshire Downs and I have long considered it a candidate route for the real 'Ridgeway' (for more of my musings on ancient trackways please see here). Moulsford is an ancient crossing point of the River Thames (a ferry was still running as late as 1885), the Brunel railway line crosses it there today, there is a section of islands with shallow water that would have been easy to cross from ancient times. However Moulsford is a tiny place, it does not seem like a true village - just a set of modern houses along a main road - it has no real centre and the church is tiny, more a chapel than a church. The ford leads to the village of South Stoke on the other side, but that is another small village, not a town like Goring. If the Ridgeway came through it may have moved further south in or before before Anglo-Saxon times. The idea for an early crossing is supported by the discovery of the Bronze Age gold 'Moulsford Torc' near the village. Here is a map of the ten mile walk:

The church is a 1846 Gilbert Scott recreation of a 13th century chapel/church. It looked good in the winter sunshine. It is only ten yards from the River Thames.

Moulsford church

On the path to the church daffodils were already showing themselves, not in flower as they are in some places in this unseasonably mild December.

I then turned onto a track that may be an ancient trackway that extended the current Fair Mile all the way to the river. Along the way I saw knapweed seedheads making an attractive display against the blue sky.


Just before joining the Fair Mile at the junction with the A417 the view back down to Moulsford includes the Chilterns on the NE side of the Thames.

view east

Now I reached the Fair Mile track, this is a steady slope and the track is wide making it an ideal route for droving animals. It is straight so you would have good eye contact with your flock/herd, it is all very convincing . However in terms of providing views and wildlife to photograph it was not great, the first stretch has high hedges on both sides. Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) was one plant in the hedgerow now in fruit.


I kept a look out for plants in flower that shouldn't be. There were quite a few but not in huge numbers. This ragwort must think it is still November.


To the north a farmer has been enterprising and set up a motorcross circuit at Ashdown Farm through fields and woodland, so there was a fair amount of noise of bikes, and in the distance the odd competitor could be glimpsed.

motor cross

Where the Fair Mile track reaches a flat area of the downs (now up to 500feet) views to the west open out, the track still continues straight as a dye.

fair mile

It was a very good day for bird watching, but without binoculars I could not identify everything and often the bird flew off before I had the camera trained on it. This chap is a first for me, it is some kind of redpoll - you can just about see the red blotch on its forehead but is it a mealy or lesser redpoll? As we are into the season of winter migration I'd suggest a mealy redpoll (Carduelis flammea).

Another winter visitor that must be enjoying the mild conditions are fieldfares (Turdus pilaris). This one I chased from bush to bush along the Fair Mile.


Views down to Aston Upthorpe gave views north into Oxfordshire.


This was an attractive light barked tree just about where the Fair Mile track joins the official Ridgeway on its way SE from the Compton Downs.


This is the 'spaghetti junction' of ancient trackways at Roden Downs with ancient tracks to East Ilsley, Compton, Blewbury, Aldworth, Aston Upthorpe, Streatley and Moulsford all meeting here. The Roman Temple at Lowbury Hill emphasises the historic importance of the spot. For anyone following the ‘Last Kingdom’ it is also the site of the Battle of Ashdown where Alfred defeated the Danes. There is a grave of an Anglo-Saxon 'king' just by the temple - and hence name ‘Lowbury’ (Low burrow).

While I contemplated all this history in peaceful isolation I watched a crow successfully chase off a red kite.


Close by I noticed a tree was full of roosting fieldfares, may be fifty of them all together.


I then followed what is signposted as the ‘Ridgeway’ east towards Goring. This stretch is an old track but nothing to suggest it was the major route over the downs, the Fair Mile is my favoured candidate for the true ancient track. I then took a path north to Unhill Wood. Along the path were a number of plants enjoying the mild weather. This strawberry was in flower, although it has lost one petal, however no chance of fruit in January as it is a barren strawberry (Potentilla sterilis).


I last walked this path in April last year (2014) and the views along the valley were fine.


Nearing Moulsford again I saw a fine display of sloes, they just need soaking in gin!