Friday, 22 January 2021

Fun on Streatley Hill with its wonderful wildlife and superb views

Fun on Streatley Hill with its wonderful wildlife and superb views

EARLY in the morning Rosemary and I agree to drive to Streatley to visit Lardon Chase and Lough Down.

They are both on Streatley Hill, west of the lovely Berkshire village, and at their peak stand some 138m above sea level.

In my youth I once cycled, without a breather, to the top and onwards to Aldworth.

The Chase and Down are owned by the National Trust, to which we both belong.

The steep hillside forms part of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I’ve visited only once before in late spring some 25 years ago with a dear old family friend.

Rosemary has never been here before. I’m not sure what to expect on a sunny day in early September but know that she will like the outstanding views.

We head off soon after breakfast and take the scenic route through Goring Heath and stop briefly to check on Gutteridge’s Wood, Thicket Copse and Nuney Copse, which are behind the old King Charles’ Head pub. We have not walked here since April.

As we make our brief foray, we see that many ash trees have been felled near the valley floor. A sad sight, but I’m pleased to find the fruiting stems of some white helleborines that I missed in spring. Along with the early purples and bird’s nest orchids, these are a welcome addition.

I recently acquired a book entitled How to Grow Native Orchids in Gardens Large and Small by Wilson Wall and Dave Morgan. I will have to ask permission from the owner (a friend) to collect some of the tiny seeds. They may take a few years to grow to maturity and flower. The more that I can do to spread rare plants, the better.

The woodland is also host to some notable fungi. A bracket fungus that I think is Inonotus dryadeus is attached to the bole of an old oak.

Cramp balls (Daldinia concentrica), a saprotroph, has formed on fallen, dead and decaying branches of ash. Some form of boletus has been knocked over, maybe by deer.

We encounter a huge, dark-coloured slug sliming its way along a fallen ash bough.

We leave the woodland and Rosemary drives us towards Goring. There is a diversion sign but no coherent information. When we arrive near Goring station our route is blocked and we cannot traverse the railway bridge. No work is in progress, so what is going on? We have to turn back and cross the toll bridge at Whitchurch (60p) and drive to Streatley and then onwards via Pangbourne.

After travelling under the railway bridge, we pass a row of gothic-style houses on Shooter’s Hill nicknamed the “Seven Deadly Sins” that face the Thames. These were built in 1896 by D H Evans, a shop magnate.

One theory for why they are so-called is that the shop owner kept a mistress in each one, another that they were created for the female “friends” of the future Edward VII, at the time the Prince of Wales.

Notwithstanding the rumours, they are handsome buildings and quite desirable, if you get my drift.

Eventually we arrive at the small car park at the top of Streatley Hill and enter the open land. The panorama is extraordinary.

There are cattle up here and some trees have had wooden guards wrapped around to protect the trunks. Cows can be rather destructive when it takes their fancy.

We don’t worry about unsettling them as we have no dog. Tails swishing, they seem oblivious to our presence and munch on grass.

Using my binoculars, I can spot the water tower at Tilehurst way off to the east, Wittenham Clumps to the north-west and the ghastly, brutal building of Handsmooth with Fludger’s Wood behind.

The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust’s Hartslock nature reserve on the steep hillside on the other side of the Goring Gap is clearly visible, as is the King William pub at Hailey.

It is so bright today with very little wind, the sky a luxuriant blue with some shapely cumulonimbus clouds. The villages of Goring and Streatley below seem so small, like toy villages.

To our left a windswept band of trees separates the “chase” from Goring and Streatley Golf Club, which in summer has vast swathes of grassland that move like the waves on a seashore.

There is a good mix of tree species that separate the trust’s property from that of the golf course — beech, ash, hazel, blackthorn, holly, hawthorn and some ethereal whitebeam.

I once walked around this area as a caddy for my friend John Larrad (former professional at Reading Golf Club) in a pro-am contest with the comedian Tom O’Connor. A great day.

We pay attention to what lies beneath (the underlying strata is chalk, as you would expect in this part of southern England) and around our feet. Even at this time of year there is much to see.

Wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare) grows in abundance with adjacent wild marjoram everywhere. It has a pronounced scent that fills the hillside even today with reminiscences of food eaten abroad.

Lady’s bedstraw, with its aromatic tiny yellow flowers, and field scabious, a light violet, add to the colour. Just lovely. There are plenty of wooden benches. I take advantage of one to admire the landscape.

Red bartsia (Odontites vernus) and red clover are the third and fourth flowering plants that we come across alongside some mouse-ear hawkweed.

We find a dog rose on the slope with a gall known as a robin’s pincushion. A small wasp, Diplolepis rosae, will have laid its eggs in a rosebud in spring. It is a strange looking, furry thing.

We take a break and I sit down on one of the strategically placed wooden benches in front of a large two-trunked ash tree.

Across Streatley Hill is Common Wood, on equally steep land, looking green and very inviting.

As we move on along a curve to the north, we come across more plants and plenty of butterflies too. A small white (Pieris rapae) sits on some marjoram, small heaths (Coenonympha pamphilus) chase each other in circular fashion.

Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) are so delicate that they swing in the slightest of a breeze and gorse occupies the brow of the hill.

Anthills are scattered about and a large mob of carrion crows are having fun above.

We pass through a gate that leads to Lough Down. The grassland is taller here with no cattle.

We find yellow-flowered agrimony and pink common restharrow in full flower. So late on in the year, it’s a lovely sight. White and pink yarrow form tight clumps. Grasshoppers chirr. We agree that we will have to return in spring to see what else we can find but also to return in late autumn when the leaves on the trees will turn golden.

It has been a great day out for the both of us.

After our splendid stroll on the south side of the Goring Gap we drive through Streatley, cross the Thames and park in Goring behind the Catherine Wheel.

The pub is closed so we go around the corner to the John Barleycorn, which thankfully is open. We are greeted by Peter Fisher, the landlord of just a week, and his friend and business partner Jim Ayliffe, the head chef. We order a pint each of Ringwood Forty Niner. The beer is good and so is the food we order.

Chatting with our hosts, we discover they have been in the hospitality business for many years. Jim reveals that he has cooked for the Queen on three occasions. He can’t be a bad cook as she’s still going!

Peter is local and, when we reveal where we have been, he recounts tales of sledging down the hillside that we have just explored in winter snow. I would not try that but when will it ever snow here again?

As we leave the pub, I glance back up at the high hill and realise how dramatic the landscape is here.

There are more roadworks so we have to return home via Cleeve and Woodcote. We make it back eventually and smile after another day’s adventure. We do have fun together.

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