Saturday, 23 January 2021

If you go down to this wood, you’ll be in for lots of lovely surprises

If you go down to this wood, you’ll be in for lots of lovely surprises

THESE days, Rosemary and I are determined to explore as many woods, meadows and river banks in the Henley area as possible.

Longed for through the dark, cold and (sometimes) short days of winter, summer when it comes seems so brief, which is why we try to make the most of it.

Often that means visiting multiple sites during a single day but today is different in that there is only one destination, Bear Wood, which lies between Stoke Row and Witheridge Hill.

We are fascinated by the name and wonder if, just maybe, it is so called because long ago there was a bear or two hereabouts.

It certainly has all the characteristics of bear territory that I encountered in the maritime province of Nova Scotia some 26 years ago.

I sometimes wonder how apposite it would be for brown bears to roam through our forests as they once did. A bit scary, I acknowledge, but then the one thing that is missing is a top predator to restrict the destruction of trees and flowering plants by various species of deer, both native and introduced.

Maybe the odd lynx or two might not be amiss either. There is a growing movement keen on “rewilding” and we’re all for it.

This morning the weather is fair and the sun is shining. What we will find we’ve no idea as Rosemary drives through the now glorious green canopy towards our destination.

Our excursion turns out to be a marvel. We stop once again to study the array of broad-leaved helleborines that I described last week at Kingwood Common.

We chat with Sheila Walker, a local resident with whom we have friends in common, and the three of us agree that this is a lovely place. We part company with Sheila and her well-behaved dog, wishing them well and move on.

The woodland clearing is as lovely as before, alive with various species of butterflies — gatekeeper, small white, peacock and silver washed fritillary.

We stop and take a left-hand turn into Burnt Platt and Bear Wood. The landscape changes in a trice.

Young Scots pines proliferate. Bracken stands 6ft tall under the boughs of the tall, reddish trunked trees. This is classic treecreeper territory, yet there are none. I wonder why.

We enter a wide ride that leads to Stoke Row. Apart from the distant sound of a chiffchaff and the song of a blackbird, the woodland is silent, ghostly but serene and green.

Along both sides of the path are perforate St John’s wort, common centaury, white clover, yellow, umbel-flowered wild parsnip and welted thistle (Carduus crispus, ssp multiflorus). There is also heath bedstraw and vervain, both bearing dainty flowers, white and lilac-pink respectively.

An extremely dense cover of silver birch, grey and goat willow, young oak, rowan and beech darken the interior. It would be easy to get lost.

The ride is very wide, open and warm, full of a multitude of fascinating insects. We discover yellow pimpernel in abundance. Hemp agrimony is a surprise, the heather not so. Wild marjoram is coming into flower, the whole plant aromatic.

The much-maligned ragwort grows here, too, the food plant of cinnabar moth caterpillars. The imago is stunning.

Selfheal forms little pincushions of purply delight. Everything has its place in the great scheme of things.

Looking at my map, I get a bit confused as there are many well-trod paths to our left and right, all leading somewhere but I don’t know where. I have to refer to my compass.

We scramble through Bear Wood down a stony, winding path to the base of Witheridge Hill. Coniferous plantations lie to either side, comprising mainly Douglas firs and Scots pines. The path is lined by western hemlock and it is a surprise to see Lawson’s cypress so far from a domestic garden.

We turn back up the gentle slope to re-examine our path. It is full of sedges and enchanter’s nightshade, the ground changing from stony desiccation to being quite muddy. This is an aspect of our Chiltern woods that I have observed over the years. Ponds exist at high elevations and the soil character can change within a few paces.

Nothing here is uniform. There is thin and bare chalkland, so important for some of our most beautiful wildflowers that would be unable to compete with nitrogen-loving plants, such as stinging nettles.

In the deeper, rich topsoil grasses thrive and claim all the sunlight.

Clay with flint is a local classic and charming and vegetation varies as a result.

There are huge dips in the woodland floor, some as much as 15ft deep. These are far too big to be saw pits and are wide and deep so maybe are simply sinkholes. They are older than the trees that now occupy these curious micro-environments.

We hear a snipe from within the birch-filled woods and coniferous plantations somewhere to our right. One of the most incredibly camouflaged birds, it possesses a long bill with which it probes damp ground to extract earthworms. Its sound is quite distinctive, a “chack chack” accompanied by an unforgettable whirring, churring noise. The birds were once common in the British Isles but are rarely encountered these days. We are most pleased to hear this one.

As we retrace our steps back to our vehicle, we stop to watch all the butterflies again. The name butterfly is interesting, maybe named after the brimstone that is first to show in spring due to its colour. We still have one or two in our front garden.

We stop to explore a road salt depot close to the orchids near our car. Inside we find more wild parsnip and a delightful scarlet pimpernel growing through the cracks in the concrete. Delightful.

On the way home, we decide to visit the Maltster’s Arms in Rotherfield Greys and are glad we do so.

Landlord Gary and his staff are pleased to receive us and we enjoy a wonderful lunch with a very tasty wine. We feel at home and welcome. We will definitely return to this excellent establishment.

After leaving the pub, we walk a few yards to the Church of St Nicholas, where many of the old gravestones are lichen-engraved and bear surnames that are now rare.

Wildflowers inhabit the churchyard. The delicate yellow of lady’s bedstraw and the bold white of oxeye daisy grow on the graves as if in fond recognition of those that lie below. I am moved. Whoever tends this is understanding and has a love of nature. The grass between the graves is tidy.

We enter the church as I want to show Rosemary the monument to Sir Francis Knollys but unfortunately it is cordoned off, so we are disappointed.

We drive back to Caversham to plant two recently acquired Verbena officinalis.

Later, we sit outside and are greeted with the strange wailings of what turns out to be a large frog, the country’s most frequent amphibian.

I am about to pick up the distressed creature and move it near our pond when Rosemary intervenes and tells me not to as I could inadvertently infect it through its permeable skin and that the salt from my skin could harm it too. She deftly gathers the squeaking creature into a plastic dustpan and delivers it to a lily pad in the pond, disappointing our cat Cilla.

This reminded me of some philosophy from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.

Just about sums it all up, apart from ugly venomous toads, which I love — warts and all.

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