Monday, 06 July 2020

‘Where peace and serenity are timeless and it feels like always afternoon’

‘Where peace and serenity are timeless and it feels like always afternoon’

OUR garden is effectively a small forest with woodland shrubs and flowers and an eccentric black cat (Cilla) thrown in for good measure.

As we explore the depths of the garden, a greater-spotted woodpecker dines on a suet block after three squabbling starlings depart in a mini-riot.

Our lonesome female blackcap fends off Fred our robin and snaffles a breakfast from a grain dispenser and a coal tit attacks some peanuts.

Although we have many exotics here, we are planting many natives.

I’ll be planting a hedge of hawthorn, hazel, hornbeam, holly and field maple, some sourced from our local garden centre. We will try to source some beech, spindle and dog rose to add to the hedge’s diversity.

It should grow rapidly, the smaller the plants are the quicker they establish and grow. I’m looking forward to witnessing its progress.

Overnight some muntjac deer (Muntiacus reevesi) — introduced from the Far East around 1900 — have eaten all the flowers on our fritillaries and munched on our native bluebells. Grey squirrels have dug up bulbs.

I’m very annoyed and have threatened to invest in a weapon to eradicate the critters, much to Rosemary’s horror. I point out that we may be able to dine out on venison and squirrel pie for a while but am met with a steely gaze.

I study my Ordnance Survey map and propose that we travel to the hamlet of Homer, which ies between Nuffield and Checkendon.

We do so and park in a dip just short of Homer Farm. There is a wonderful fragment of old Chiltern woodland here, part of the Ipsden Heath complex and thankfully with open access.

An intriguing old flint quarry (I presume) lies in the middle of beech and yew trees. Perhaps the material extracted is present in old local buildings. On the dip’s rim beech trees grow tight to the precipitous edge. One has recently toppled, its uppermost twigs flailed against the chalky earth.

At the northernmost end of the wood some trees lean, wind-bent, towards each other as if seeking a sylvan embrace. Other species are present too — oak, field maple, cherry, whitebeam, hazel and holly.

We leave the woodland and head down the lane that leads on past Homer House and farm.

The former is a fine, handsome old building, brick and flint, the main body from the 17th century. Some parts of the solid edifice can be dated back to earlier times.

According to J H Baker in his The Ipsden Country, the kitchen has “a fine medieval post supporting the ceiling — the mouldings of which show it to be early 15th century”.

As we pass this lovely old house, Rosemary spots some large rabbits hopping around while white geese and guinea fowl strut in the background.

A red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) flutters past as if from nowhere, a glorious sight and the first of the year.

Rosemary spots another muntjac and I spot a cluster of fox-and-cubs, or orange hawk bit (Pilosella aurantiaca). An introduced species but a relative of our native mouse-ear hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum), it is now naturalised but rather uncommon. It is in flower three months earlier than usual.

There is a warm feeling about the land here. Baker says: “Homer is well and delightfully named, though it might well be ‘home,’ as that seems to be its real significance. Its peace and serenity are timeless for there one feels that it is ‘always afternoon’.” I agree.

As we continue, the banks are full of stunning drifts of yellow flowering lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). These are a sure sign that spring is well under way.

What I like most is watching the attendant small honey bees and heavy bumblebees. As they alight on the shining flowers the stems bend, happily bearing the insect’s weight. I could watch this spectacle for hours on end.

The striking blue flowers of lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor), with their dark and shiny leaves, line the bank to our left.

Some curious wild roses that seem to lack thorns grow on the right bank. I’ll have to return when these are in leaf and flower to make a proper identification.

All along the lane the swathes of lesser celandine and roses are punctuated with sprays of white-flowered and fragrant sweet violet (Viola odorata), common dog violet (Viola riviniana), dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis), bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and primrose (Primula vulgaris).

To our left we are afforded views across the valley below. Brown-coated sheep are having an ovine siesta.

To our right we meet Little Common, actually a wood and described as “open access”, though partially fenced off. We scramble in to take some pictures of handsome trees and view another pit.

We walk past Bixmoor Wood, which is deep and full of old and shapely beeches. Sturdy silver birch add to the sheer beauty of the surroundings. This wood cries out for an intimate visit as it possesses a character all of its own.

The ever-perceptive Rosemary points out that no tree looks exactly the same and no wood either.

As we gain the hill’s crest, we stride through a muddy patch to our left. We open a broad metal gate to cross a field and enter one of the most perfect places to visit come summertime.

The views from the Warren Bank nature reserve are wonderful, a relic of once common chalk grassland. The range of flowering plants to be seen in summer is large for such a small area. It is comprised of three paddocks and contains local rarities such as squinancywort (Asperula cynanchica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and bee orchids (Ophrys apifera) to name but a few.

Today we can only speculate (or remember in my case) how it will appear come summer but today the panorama has an almost eternal feel to it and soul-enriching it is too.

We leave and head down the long lane past Hill Farm to Hailey and the King William pub where we admire the views.

I whip out my binoculars to scan the landscape and am glad that I remembered them as I spot a small group of sika deer (Cervus nippon) on a far hillside: six of them, three males, three females, and not in any great hurry so I watch them as they graze the grassland.

They finish eating and then leap with ease over a wire fence to disappear into a copse. As their Latin name suggests, they are a native of Japan and unfortunately prodigious tree bark strippers. As bad as this sounds, they are a handsome sight on this bright day. On the way home, I feel very content. Utterly splendid.

Vincent’s column was based on an outing before the coronavirus lockdown.

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