Sunday, 05 July 2020

Sights and sounds of summer on memorable return to the riverside

Sights and sounds of summer on memorable return to the riverside

TODAY will be forever imprinted in my mind. What I see, hear and smell sums up everything that I cherish in the world.

What makes it even better is that I can share my experience with someone that I love.

Before another little adventure at the Tesco “superstore” off Reading Road in Henley, to glean some essentials, Rosemary and I take a walk from Lower Shiplake heading southwest.

I have not been along this enchanting stretch of the Thames for quite some time.

We depart from Mill Lane and walk down a path with an old wall to our left that leads towards a riverside meadow opposite Shiplake Lock.

To either side many plants are fighting over the sunlight — common mallow (Malva sylvestris), smooth sow-thistle (Sonchus oleaceus), woody nightshade or bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara), hedgerow crane’s-bill (Geranium pyrenaicum), fool’s parsley (Aethusa cynapium) and spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) with its gorgeous purple florets.

We pass through a kissing gate. Looking down at the shallow, sandy water to our left, I see that it is full of fry, so I’m not now unduly worried about fish populations in the Thames.

These tiddlers are truly tiny with disproportionally large eyes. What will they become? Only time will tell.

To our right is a small wood. The trees are now a lovely, fresh green. Two horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) are in full flower, looking straight out of a Samuel Palmer painting with their candle-like flower panicles.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) are rising, verdant, from the cracked earth along the side of our path.

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina), tormentil (Potentilla erecta) and lady’s-smock (Cardamine pratensis) are abundant. Some walnut trees (Juglans regia) complete the picture.

In common with the stretch downstream towards Henley, this area has a large amount of wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) growing together with meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).

Greater pond-sedge (Carex riparia), with its chocolate and banana coloured spikelets, is abundant. Water dock (Rumex hydrolapathum) is already tall. Yellow iris (Iris pseudacorus), is in full, beautiful bloom and strikes a vivid contrast to the rippling, greenish, wind-blown water of the river’s surface.

Water mint (Mentha aquatica) abounds, as does bugle (Ajuga reptans). Cock’s foot (Dactylis glomerata) and barren brome (Anisantha sterilis) are common grasses here but elegant.

Mayflies (Rhithrogena germanica) are dancing about in their thousands. Rosemary removes one from my back with care.

A member of Ephemeroptera, an ancient order of insects, they are a sign of healthy clean water and provide food for many species of birds.

We encounter a large-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyllos) with flowers pendant. Huge in girth, it has lost its crown but is otherwise very healthy.

The next tree is a Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’), a handsome beast to say the least. I love the scent of these trees.

A pair of Oriental planes (Platanus orientalis), one of my favourite riparian trees, stand with massive presence. With their huge gnarled trunks and twisted, heavy spreading boughs, they defy logic. Unrivalled specimens.

Although non-native, I love them. As far as I’m concerned, any and every tree is welcome. They provide not only oxygen but beauty.

As we move on a moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) is vocal and “crecking” as it scuttles about on the water a few feet from its nest in the riverbank vegetation in the shadow of the huge trees.

We walk past Phillimore’s Island, the first ait that we encounter on our walk. Shiplake House stands on the high ground above to our right, Shiplake College lies ahead.

The bank here is home to many young white poplar trees (Populus alba). The leaves produce a unique timbre as the breeze barrels through them, quite distinctive and akin to aspen.

We find, rather surprisingly, a red snakebark maple (Acer capillipes) but then this is an unusual part of the world. Wild roses, dog (Rosa canina) and field (Rosa arvensis), display beautiful scented blooms.

Young oak trees and multifarious willows grow along the bank. I examine a grey willow (Salix cinerea), a variable species with small leaves but with a charming aspect.

Heading towards the school, we close in on a wooden footbridge that spans a small tributary. Along the right-hand side of the path is a hedge, predominantly comprised of dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) and field maple (Acer campestre), that screens the ascending grounds of Shiplake House.

A crack willow has fallen over into the river but is still vigorous and flourishing. In a poplar an old wasp’s nest, brain-sized and made of chewed up wood, looks incongruous.

As we approach the college’s boathouse along the now dangerously rooty path, I note many youngish English elms (Ulmus procera) at the river’s edge. I did not expect to see this.

We cross a small open lawn where traditionally there is much boating activity and step over another steeper wooden construction where the Berry Brook dispenses its water into the old river. It is deep and full of submerged aquatic vegetation.

The path that leads to Sonning Eye takes on a new prospect. The river has grown wider. Herring and black-headed gulls swoop across the water and a greylag goose seems happy with its own company as we pass The Lynch (a large ait).

There is an impenetrable but enticing woodland here to our right, marshy, deep and dark. A whitethroat (Sylvia communis) sings from within.

At the bank, somewhere among great reedmace (Typha latifolia) and Common reed (Phragmites australis), a reed warbler is singing his heart out. I try to see him. He’s in the depths, shows up briefly and then disappears somewhere near the base of a willow tree. Typical.

Across the now flat water a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) yaffles away in a somewhat mocking tone from Hallsmead Ait. Mallards laugh.

Damselflies settle to soak up the sunlight on the nascent leaves of meadowsweet and on the ground beneath our path.

They are strange looking creatures up close, their eyes spaced wide apart, akin to those of a hammerhead shark. Pretty they may be but dedicated hunters. These are banded demoiselles (Calopteryx splendens), the male a shimmering blue, the female a dazzling, emerald green.

A red admiral butterfly (Vanessa Atalanta) sunbathes on the riverside path and an orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines) sips nectar from a comfrey. A peacock (Inachis io) is settled on a stinging nettle, probably laying eggs.

A sole cormorant flies past, a pair of Egyptian geese float by. A pair of common terns squat atop a river stanchion.

At Buck Ait a pair of mute swans are taking their cygnets for a paddle. A heron nonchalantly glides by. There is something so comforting here almost as if time has stood still for ages.

A dark spaniel careers through the grass loving life and bouncing with happiness.

We hear a cuckoo, the first that either of us has heard in many years. We’re thrilled.

I’m reminded of the incipit of a medieval round or rota of the mid-13th century discovered at Reading Abbey and now preserved in the British Library. It is known as the cuckoo song or summer canon.

“Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu, Groweþ sed and bloweþ med and springþ þe wde nu, Sing cuccu.”

Summer has arrived, loudly sing, cuckoo! The seed is growing and the meadow is blooming, and the wood is coming into leaf now, sing, cuckoo!

Our sentiments in a nutshell. Sheer bliss.

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