Saturday, 04 July 2020

What delights to be found on my favourite walks in the Chilterns

What delights to be found on my favourite walks in the Chilterns

I THOUGHT I would take Rosemary on some of my favourite walks today, so after breakfast off we go.

Our first stop is Whitchurch Hill. We leave the car by the village green, cross the road to the east and enter a gravelly lane that I was first introduced to by my friend Matt Coome last year.

We enter a wide meadow. It is bristling with grasses and flowering plants. Many are not yet in bloom but it is obvious that within a few weeks we’ll witness a spectacular sight, one not to be missed.

Field scabious is already in full flower and is striking. The blooms are unmistakeable, a beautiful light lilac-blue coveted by pollinating insects.

Also making good progress is common knapweed, which is another popular flower with invertebrates and will be fully out within a few days.

Meadow buttercups, with their translucent yellow flowers, grow alongside oxeye daisies. It is a lovely sight and will only get better as summer rolls on.

An overexcited dog is bounding around the legs of its owner, now leaping through the long, varied grasses and barking like mad, tail wagging, presumably through the pure joy of romping around outside. I love to see such happiness in an animal.

To our right we pass some sweet chestnut trees bearing their trademark shiny, lanceolate and toothed leaves while to our left is a line of English oaks.

As we progress, there are huge views southwards. The Berkshire downs are visible and look pale blue as a result of the distance.

Then we see it, the town of Reading with its increasing urban sprawl and tall buildings. We agree that we are happier here than there, a concrete jungle as opposed to a rural idyll.

As we wonder at the beauty of the flowers, meadow brown butterflies gorge themselves on the nectar of oxeye daisies.

We move on through this timeless landscape, passing hedges full of bursting field maple, dogwood, English elm, elder, wayfaring tree and hawthorn.

We drop down into a now familiar lane and peer across to Path Hill, just a meadow away. The land is wondrous, punctuated with more oaks that stand proud of the flowing, wind-blown grassland that lies beneath on gently sloping ground.

We head north along our narrow path. It is clear that there will be a bumper harvest of blackberries before long. Chicory grows here, a familiar flower of the roadside that leads to Oxford. It bears sublime blue flowers.

There are so many insects about. Hoverflies, bees and beetles crowd the umbels of hogweed, feasting like peckish children in a sweet shop.

Goat’s-beard displays its large yellow flowers, which only open on a bright day and for some unknown reason close around noon. The fruits are often referred to as “clocks” and are somewhat large.

There is teasel, beloved by goldfinches, while dog and field roses with their pink and white flowers grace the air with scent.

Further along we encounter delicately yellow-flowered ribbed melilot and agrimony. Close up they are delightful. Hounds tongue is displaying its gorgeous crimson flowers.

A yellowhammer rattles off his distinctive song, often said to sound like “a little bread and no cheese”.

We come to the end of the lane and walk along a brief section of road that takes us past the Sun Inn, closed now of course (a crying shame as we’d have loved a pint or two), and peel off down a right of way that will eventually lead us back to our car.

We leave Whitchurch Hill and move on to Newnhamhill Bottom just north of Stoke Row.

I want to show Rosemary the statuesque trees and vast array of ferns that grow here.

We are in for a treat. I’ve never seen such swathes of ferns before. They are mostly male ferns (Dryopteris filix-mas) that are shaped like giant shuttlecocks.

We stare in awe at some huge specimens, which are as green as green can be and look as fit as a fiddle.

We move on westwards to Oakingham Bottom. Paths diverge three or more ways here so you have to have your wits about you when surrounded by dense forest and ideally have a map and compass.

We take a left and head uphill along a truly gorgeous path. To either side cherries, oaks, field maple, ash and silver birch form interesting shapes in dappled light. Open arable fields lie to the west.

We emerge from the woods to the rear of the Crooked Billet, once a rural pub, now a restaurant but just as popular.

Every time I see the old building I think of my old friend “Nobby” Harris who ran the establishment. The door was never locked, you would simply walk in, shout “hello” and leave your coins in the pantry for the pint that you’d just drawn out of the wood. You could sit outside and be assailed by chickens looking out for stray crisp fragments. What days they were.

Good old Nobby, he always called me “brother”. We became good friends and I miss him sorely.

We walk back down an old path to the valley bottom. We like these woods. They are rather open and feel really old with uneven aged trees. We soak up the atmosphere and woodland scent, just magic.

A woodcock grunts not far away, a most peculiar and croaky “ert, ert”. These birds are so difficult to see as their plumage renders them near invisible among the fallen leaves of last autumn.

We reach our car, jump in and head off to our final destination.

On our way towards Medmenham, I ask Rosemary to stop off at a crossroads. Wyfold Lane lies to the east. The woods have interesting titles, Nippers Grove, Rumerhedge and Wyfold Woods.

I introduce her to some magnificent large-leaved limes, so uncommon but rugged, stately specimens. Below them are violet helleborines, another scarce but rather fascinating orchid, which will come into flower at July’s end.

We move on and after parking outside the Flower Pot at Aston we make our way through an amazing but somewhat contrived (at least initially) meadow. Oxeye daisies compete with sainfoin and yellow rattle.

A small colony of pyramidal orchids claim their space. Black medick, Lady’s and hedge bedstraws, sublime yellow, white and fragrant, sway in the slight breeze.

To me this is heaven. We smile at each other — what could be better?

Common green grasshoppers are all about, rattling away. I do love their sound, which reminds me of childhood. This is truly wonderful.

It is obvious that each species of plant has been chosen, presumably in admiration, by the owner of this lovely sweep of land. It could be more diverse but it is a wonderful enterprise. I don’t think that I’ve seen so many bees or butterflies before, so well done, Urs Schwarzenbach.

We return home for supper and eat outside. The back garden is cool and enveloping. We stare at a near blue but darkening sky.

We watch the wondrous flight of bats as they flit about on the summer solstice, some high, some low. Maybe they are sharing their pleasure with our own, celebrating the longest day of the year.

There is magic in the air tonight. It does not happen that often but when it does I think it important to enjoy that precious moment. Carpe diem.

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