Saturday, 23 January 2021

Enjoying the glorious countryside on sunny but chilly winter’s day

Enjoying the glorious countryside on sunny but chilly winter’s day

AFTER our enjoyable tour around Coombe End Farm, I suggest to Rosemary that we explore some of the surrounding public footpaths and bridleways that lie beyond the farm and take in the extensive views across to the Berkshire bank of the Thames and the distant downs.

I have booked us in for an early afternoon lunch at the Maltsters Arms in Rotherfield Greys. She agrees.

The fog has lifted and it is a brilliantly bright morning so off we go at the break of day. It may be winter but it is still dreamland out in these parts.

We park close to the farm and walk down the lane that forms part of the Chiltern Way and eventually leads to Goring.

We pass Cockpit Plantation, me with a wry smile. What a super lane it is too. Where nearly everything had been shrouded in mist days ago, all is now clear.

An oak tree glows in the winter sunlight, a vapour trail high up beyond. A leafless ash is framed against the blue sky with a solitary carrion crow aloft. All looks sublime.

We pass a large property with a rather nasty warning. Whoever owns the premises obviously has some aggressive guard dogs.

Our lane now takes on a shape all of its own. The hedgerows on either side are extremely tidy and punctuated with oak trees.

Blackthorns bear blue-grey sloes, hollies are laden with glossy berries, dog-rose with startlingly colourful hips, hawthorn with more red clusters of inviting goodness, spindle with its pinkish-orange fruits and butcher’s-broom, only locally common in the South, displaying vermillion fruit. A splendid combination. It is nearly too neat but, in its way, almost perfect.

Old man’s beard, or traveller’s joy, clambers about with its woolly, white plumes, our only native clematis.

A dead oak is enveloped by rampant ivy (more of which later).

The lane leads on and, all of a sudden, a panorama opens up and we are presented with some spectacular views. We can see far into the distance. Lardon Chase and Lough Down dominate and cloister a diminutive-looking Streatley from high above.

My word, there is a chill wind up here. I miss my gloves as my hands are cold.

We head north-west towards Upper Gatehampton Farm. This is open country that must be singularly splendid in summer. I imagine the presence of skylarks.

We can see the four-track railway line below, now scarred by overhead, electric gantries ruining the view of the river.

On the ground shepherd’s-purse, wavy bitter-cress, hogweed and yarrow are still in flower, cock’s-foot grass sways, quivering in the breeze, and common mallow is caving in to winter’s grip.

We gaze down on the dramatic shapes of Hartslock and other steep land by Hattonhill and Primrosehill Shaw, which seem to be inviting us for a summer picnic.

Our now straight path is lined with more hip-laden dog-rose and the dry hollow stems of poisonous hemlock.

As we approach Upper Gatehampton Farm, we are offered a choice, left and downhill to the old farm or right into a perimeter of Great Chalk Wood. We opt for the latter to shelter from the cold, penetrating wind. After a minute or so the temperature rises somewhat, a welcome change.

After crossing an initially narrow, muddy path and passing some regimented hay bales and a suspicious looking structure like a pill box, we enter the wood’s warm embrace.

The wood is maintained by Wessex Woodland Management. Apart from public rights of way and a section of the Chiltern Way, there are also permissive footpaths, which is just great to see advertised on a notice board.

The wood is populated with a large number of Douglas fir, which create a dark and forbidding aspect and nothing of any note grows underneath.

The woodland margin, however, tells a different story. Holly, beech, pedunculate oak, silver birch, yew, hawthorn, ash and hazel deliver an image of how the whole forest would have once appeared years ago. A pair of ash trees rise skywards like twins. This is a big wood, half the size of Goring, quite open and favoured by cyclists and walkers. There are plenty of both around today.

We find some milky bonnet. This fungus has a preference for growing on fallen coniferous needles but we look upon the caps amid fallen beech and oak leaves. What looks like a green frog with a human hand seems to be climbing a beech trunk. Another beech seems to have made its way from Easter Island bearing a stern and ancient face.

In the dark forest a pair of ravens either side of us make their unmistakeable deep croaks. The species bond for life. We’re happy to hear and see them, such intelligent birds.

I’m very fond of cherry trees and often marvel at the size that they can attain, hence my utter amazement at a pair that we encounter near Stapnall’s Farm. They are simply huge. I need to get our friend Dave Kenny out here to measure and record them.

Outside the farm entrance is a small orchard of apple trees. Some of the fruits glow as if trying to tempt Eve. We see no snakes.

We make our way back to our car down a pleasant lane full of oak, field maple, crab apple, holly and hazel. What a beautiful part of the world this is.

We arrive at Rotherfield Greys early with an hour or two to spare so invest in another wander — why not, as it is a lovely day?

We walk past the churchyard of St Nicholas with its fine brick and flint wall and then cross a small compound into a path across a field heading west. There are some elegant oak trees out here.

We meet John and Jane Case and their 16-year-old small and friendly but now deaf dog. Jane tells us that she reads aloud and records my column in this newspaper for the blind and partially sighted.

The Henley Talking Newspaper is sent out on memory sticks to places such as Wallingford Community Hospital and is listened to by about 100 people. How lovely is that?

Jane informs me that my column is popular and I’m faintly embarrassed. Then we part company.

To our right we see two dead oak trees, one a roost for half a dozen red kites.

We reach another section of the Chiltern Way and head south towards Crosslanes through an old track lined with hazel and ancient field maple. I suggest to Rosemary that we’ll have to return in spring when it becomes a wondrous green tunnel.

To our left, some sheep of an unknown breed are relaxing without a care in the world. Our path takes us alongside The Paddock, an old hazel coppice with contorted oaks.

We come across White Cottage, now sadly abandoned in such a lovely setting. It would be a super place to live.

We encounter some very knobbly-trunked field maples. They really do have character all their own. Larches make up a large section of the interior.

Our path is moderately hard-going, squelchy. I’ve no cause to worry as I’m wearing a decent pair of wellies. Rosemary persists with some flimsy-looking waterproof shoes.

On our right is Flowercroft Wood. A sign says that we are welcome to explore it. We’ll have a good look around next time we visit the area.

There are many common male-ferns that look like giant green shuttlecocks. On our way south towards King’s Farm at Kent’s Hill, we admire some rugged and very broad-formed old oak trees, one with large apertures at ground level, animal friendly, heartwood gone. Stooping, you can see right through the hollow trunk.

We then pass some attractive cottages by King’s Farm and head north to our destination for lunch.

The country has opened up, the soil in the arable fields looks rich and not too stony.

Passing Round Wood to our left, we meet some attractive horses and then head on towards Cowfields Farm before crossing an arable field towards Greys Road and our destination.

The brief portion of road that we have to walk along is heavy going, full of speeding drivers, but we make it intact.

The holly and the ivy are synonymous with Christmas, of course. Both evergreen, they grow in defiance of winter’s harshness.

The holly is a lifesaver with its nutritious berries that provide food for native and migrant birds. The ivy is very important too. One of our latest flowering plants, it not only dishes out vital nectar for insects but also wholesome berries for birds. And it provides valuable shelter for so many creatures.

We retire to the Maltsters Arms, where we are welcomed with warmth and seated at our favourite table by Jack, the front-of-house manager.

We have a most enjoyable lunch. I have catch of the day, which is brill — and it is. Rosemary has a bavette steak.

Another wonderful day. I’m looking forward to mistletoe moments in the days to come. Happy Christmas to you all.

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