Wednesday, 08 July 2020

Pristine stream provides glorious opportunity to see the cycle of life

Pristine stream provides glorious opportunity to see the cycle of life

WE drive north past Benson airfield, slow down gradually and then take a sharp left into a small lane towards Preston Crowmarsh.

After parking, we walk south along the road a short distance until Rosemary hastens me over to a brick parapet on our left. Below it a brook flows underneath the road from the east. It looks pristine.

I walk to the other side, lean over the opposing wall and see that it runs between two private gardens on its way to join the Thames. A marvel.

I’m immediately jealous as I’d give an arm or leg for a property with a stream flowing through the garden.

We re-cross the road and head a little further on. Rosemary leads me down a partially hidden slight slope into a well-trodden path that closely skirts the sparkling water, as clear as can be, babbling along towards the world-famous river.

I’ve never set foot here before. Rosemary explains that she came across it by accident. What a find. I examine my Ordnance Survey 1:25 000 scale map, Chiltern Hills West, 171, but it is barely discernible.

I notice that Benson Parish Council has laid down some superb raised walk-boards that are covered in a metal chicken-wire mesh, providing a non-slip surface above the marshy ground so we can proceed onwards with confidence as we explore the brook’s bank.

Well done to the council as this is a permissive path and not a public right of way. There is even an information sign. To either side of the path vegetation is tall and lush. Many handsome plants grow beside the stream. Pendulous sedge (Carex pendula) makes a huge statement, more than 4ft tall.

Some gigantic water dock (Rumex hydrolapathum), greater burdock (Arctium lappa), water horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile), a living fossil (horsetails spread through spores not seeds), and gypsywort (Lycopus europaeus) are abundant. Yellow iris glows, luminous. Water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides) is in its element.

To proceed further along the watercourse we have to enter a tunnel that runs under the main road, the A4074, that has led us here.

It is a dark, dank passage and we have to duck judicially under a large pipe that may funnel surface roadwater from storm drains or maybe a channel for utilities. Thankfully, it is only a brief trial and we re-emerge into glorious sunlight.

Ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) and red campion (Silene dioica) add vibrant red and pinkish colour, shining brightly in contrast to the overriding green backdrop.

A columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) glows violet-blue and yellow-flowered wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides) is growing by the water.

We come across some startlingly large-leaved plants, Rodgersia podophylla, bearing attractive ruddy leaves, a native of Japan and Korea, and the even more dramatic, huge leaves of giant butterbur (Petasites japonicus), another introduced plant and a native of the Far East.

There’s also Leopard’s bane (Doronicum orientale), a member of the sunflower family, and Asteraceae, bearing large, attractive, dreamy yellow flowers. How on earth these ended up flourishing here is a mystery.

A rare marsh fern (Thelypteris palustris) is encamped on the margins alongside hart’s-tongue fern (Phyllitis scolopendrium) and barren brome (Anisantha sterilis), an elegant grass.

An extraordinary looking hoverfly (Helophilus pendulus) with black and yellow bands and stripes is sunbathing in mixed vegetation. The water gurgles along with natural grace.

As we stroll along, we meet two men tending their allotments on our right and stop for a chat. I ask the friendly chaps if they know the name of the brook. They poke their forks into the ground and ponder, seemingly not sure what its name is but inform us that the rivulet originates in Ewelme with its famous watercress beds, maybe at the base of Firebrass Hill or Cottesmore Farm, not two miles away. It is a chalk stream, a precious commodity that arises from a natural aquifer. We bid them “good day” and move on.

The stream is as clear as can be but I see no fish below the flashing reflections of sunlight. I’m sure that there must be freshwater shrimp (Gammarus pulex) and native crayfish (Astacus astacus) along the gravelly bed as the water is so pure. I’d be surprised if there weren’t brown trout (Salmo trutta) too.

To be honest, I think that if you dipped a tumbler in and drank a cool draft from this flow you’d suffer no harm and sup a wonderful, cool gulp or two.

We turn back after scanning a much larger allotment beside a modern housing development and suburban road. We spot a scarecrow wearing some “hi-viz”.

On our return, we
re-encounter the two men that we’d spoken to before. “Winterbrook,” they both exclaim. We thank them.

We regain the road after once more passing through the little idyll, ducking in the passage beneath the busy road and head towards Benson Lock that is accessed from a narrow path to the right after short progress further south.

The lock and weir are quite impressive with loud, surging water and a mass of white spume floating to the side of the main torrent. An outstanding, large and fragrant dog rose is in flower at the entrance to the walkway, a prickly sow thistle (Sonchus asper) proclaims its presence beneath. Floating sweet-grass (Glyceria maxima) has a foothold in the water’s edge on the western side of the weir.

The water smells wonderful. Rosemary and I agree that this is so English, irreplaceable, unmatched, eternal and glorious.

A female mandarin duck with her elegant plumage and stunning face marking leads her brood as she skulks along the far river margin under some branches with a watchful eye. This species of duck nests in tree holes would you believe.

A red kite flies past with a twig in its beak. Is it for fun or for nest building? A guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) is in full, handsome flower.

We look down into the clear water and gaze at the vegetation growing below the water’s surface. Submerged grasses sway and a plant that’s name has eluded me for most of my life seems to wink at me from the glittering surface. What are you, I think, I’ll find out somehow. It looks like a big lettuce and is probably host to many small fry and predatory fish, such as perch (Perca Fluviatilis) and pike (Esox Lucius).

Swallows (Hirundo rustica) seem to be enjoying life as they dart about low down on the wing, skimming the river’s surface with a degree of nonchalance and the occasional twist to gobble up an insect. I watch as they whistle past and wonder at their incredible lifecycle. To think that they make such a long journey from sub-Saharan Africa to breed here puts other things into perspective.

What we are witnessing is the cycle of life at its most extreme. These stunning, little, elegant birds are very welcome, cherished summer visitors.

From here it is only a short walk downstream to the ancient market town of Wallingford. It once had an important, strategic castle. Oliver Cromwell, to my mind as destructive as Henry VIII, reduced it largely to rubble as a result of hubris, politics and self-importance. I often imagine how our country would look today, Corfe Castle intact, Reading Abbey in all its glory.

A Second World War pillbox stands in a riverside field, a reminder of a possible invading foe.

On our return journey we stop off at the Herb Farm off Peppard Road in Sonning Common. Thankfully, it has just re-opened and we are delighted to be able to add to our burgeoning collection of plants.

We find some beauties, in particular some fragrant sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) that will fit in perfectly. The staff are, as ever, very helpful and knowledgeable. We return home with a veritable haul to plant out.

It has been another one of those unforgettable days. The sun has shone, water has rippled, summer migrant birds have sung, the world is bursting with life and I thank it for all the pleasure that it gives me. Life is good.

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