Friday, 22 January 2021

From Hardwick horses to heavenly Hurley (and a nasty wasp sting)

From Hardwick horses to heavenly Hurley (and a nasty wasp sting)

THE weather is fine today so we take a drive to Lin’s VegShed in Hardwick Road, Whitchurch, only a short distance from our lovely old River Thames.

The produce is sold by Tolhurst Organics.

The “shed” is a smart little building, solid and well-made, presumably out of local wood.

After choosing what produce you want, all you have to do is leave the correct remuneration in an honesty box.

We buy some potatoes and a mixture of green vegetables, all fresh and nicely displayed, leeks, cavalo nero and calabrese.

All the produce from the Hardwick Estate is grown without artificial chemical treatment. As a result, everything is really tasty and the potatoes we bought turned out to be the most flavoursome we have eaten in years.

What a wonderful enterprise. Keep going as we will be back.

From the shed we head eastwards towards historic Hardwick House.

The private road is lined with Norway maples, common limes and sycamore trees and fine they are too. Many saplings of similar species have been planted to enhance the roadside.

In the grassy fields on either side horses frolic, galloping about. Some wear what look like face masks.

I approach a diminutive pony, possibly a Shetland, I don’t know. It is very friendly anyhow, the pretty little thing. The occasional passing rider greets us while trotting past. We come across some of the grand old house’s outlying buildings that include an old real tennis court.

I am sad to see there is no roof on one of the largest buildings, so it will crumble in a few years’ time unless remedial action is taken soon.

As we continue walking, the meadows on either side are full of flowers and look decidedly healthy.

Next up is Hardwick Stud Farm. Horses look longingly at us as if wanting to be released from their stable. One is called Kinky.

The stud building is very handsome and for some reason has some extraordinary gothic-looking chimneys. I wonder why.

The Thames runs to the south where the meadows meet the old river. Above and to the north, the deep, dark but welcoming woods stand high on top of a steep slope. I know them well and find them magical.

This is a glorious stretch of land and I believe, despite rival claims, that this is the true setting of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. It all fits so perfectly.

We return home to study our Ordnance Survey maps and agree that we will go for a riverside walk as woodland walks could be hazardous after the recent high winds.

We drive through Henley and up White Hill and then Remenham Hill. A few miles further on we arrive at Hurley and park near the former Benedictine priory.

There are some truly lovely buildings here with two pubs that I’ve never set foot in. Some of the houses have interesting weather vanes. Rosemary seems obsessed by them.

A short, narrow path leads to the river that traverses a small stream that flows from an ancient fish pond, now full of hemp-agrimony and great willowherb still flowering.

A rather steep pedestrian bridge with slats to help horses not to slip spans the flow. We go over it and then head east to Hurley Lock, where we are greeted by the sight of a large copper beech.

A female mute swan glides downstream, four cygnets following, two ahead. Are the pair in front cocky, young males, we wonder? The hips of dog-rose (Rosa canina) add to the wonderful spectacle. We encounter a picnic area where we learn that barbecues and fires are banned. A sign reading “Mind the Gap” is reminiscent of the London Underground.

This is an attractive spot with orange balsam in flower. Now a naturalised plant, it is rather invasive but still lovely to behold.

The riverbanks are filled with plastic boats. Horrid, tawdry looking things to my mind.

Across the way a man cleans the external windows of a traditional Dutch barge. That’s more like it, a proper boat.

Along our bank I’m astonished to find nipplewort still in flower. Later on, I read that it can continue to bear flowers into October, such is the determination of this lovely little plant.

After a very pleasant wander around this river island, Rosemary guides me to our second wooden river crossing that forms part of the Thames Path. It is also well made and called Silly Bridge (how many have this title?)

I look below and spy an aquatic plant that looks like Canadian waterweed, yet another North American introduction.

Back on the Berkshire bank, we are met by a lovely row of very old horse chestnut trees. Sometimes their boughs seem to deliberately dip into the river.

I think they must have been planted deliberately but in random fashion, which for me is much better than the regimented lines of some newer planting that dismays me. Don’t get me wrong, I love to see new trees planted but I simply wish that they were not in rows with plastic trunk guards that never seem to be removed.

Many here are genuinely old and bear number tags. The leaves are already turning autumnal.

The riverbank is, as expected, full of a variety of attractive plants. Purple loosestrife and common fleabane are ever-present. I love the contrast in colour.

Greater and lesser burdocks (Arctium lappa and minus) jostle for space and gipsywort and water mint are still in flower. Ribwort plantain grows right up to the river’s edge and we encounter a single vervain.

A herd of cows browse under a small copse to our right. We admire some large common lime trees and then a smallish, open and attractive woodland.

We approach a third river crossing. Two young lads decide to play Pooh sticks, one with a large branch, the other with a log. A prominent danger sign stands in the water with a cormorant atop.

We decide to take a break as I’m thirsty. We sit down on a welcoming bench. I open a beer and take a long slug of a favourite Polish brew. Rosemary drinks water.

Unfortunately, a wasp has entered my beer can undetected and on my third sip it stings me on the inside of my lower lip. Ouch! I spit it out and in a moment of sheer fury stamp on it.

Within a few minutes, I resemble the loser in a boxing match. At least it did not get my tongue but the pain is horrid.

We turn back just short of Temple Lock as Rosemary is worried about me. The walk back is pleasant though. The river smells good and I spot a few plants that I cannot identify with any certainty. We spot what I think is a red oak.

Back home I swallow an anti-histamine pill. Rosemary advises that I apply toothpaste to my lip. I don’t know where she got this from but it works and after a short while all is well and I can speak properly again.

Apparently I resembled a duck — how kind.

Neil Young, the Canadian singer-songwriter, wrote:
A natural beauty should be
Preserved like a monument to nature

And I truly love part of the primary stanza of Robert Frost’s poem God’s Garden.

God made a beauteous garden
With lovely flowers strown,
But one straight, narrow pathway
That was not overgrown.
And to this beauteous garden
He brought mankind to live,
And said: “To you my children,
These lovely flowers I give.
Prune ye my vines and fig trees,
With care my flowerets tend,
But keep the pathway open,
Your home is at the end.

It gives me great reassurance to know that Rosemary and I are not the only ones to appreciate that what we see, admire, sent, touch and cherish is a shared love of nature, right now, in the past and, most hopefully, in the future.

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