Monday, 17 January 2022

Delightful woodland but slightly spoiled by human intervention

Delightful woodland but slightly spoiled by human intervention

WE arrive at Nuffield and park outside the once popular Crown pub that sits on Gangsdown Hill. Now semi-derelict, it is yet another pub gone. Seemingly you don’t need covid-19 to kill off pubs.

We cross the busy A4130 with caution and enter Coneygear Wood before following a rambling path. It is part of the Ridgeway, probably the oldest known road in Britain, if not Europe. Once more we are walking with ghosts.

This route has been used for more than 5,000 years — what a thought. Modern road traffic roars behind our backs.

This small wood is dominated by beech but has plenty of cherry, hazel, ash, silver birch, field maple and holly.

Disturbingly, many of the trees alongside our path have been spray-painted orange with the letter “F” and have metallic numbered plates nailed to the trunks by a commercial outfit. It all looks a bit ominous and, to be frank, ruins the wood’s aspect.

In common with nearly every path we have trod of late, it is heavy going and unbelievably muddy. I guess that an unusually large number of bored people has taken to the outdoors because of the pandemic and decided to go walking.

Don’t get me wrong, as I hope that many have discovered how wonderful our countryside is and I hope their experiences will encourage them to continue to explore and enjoy nature’s beauty more often.

As we descend into the valley, we pass a recently fallen beech.

Brambles cover the woodland floor under a small larch plantation with young ash. I do not mind commercially inspired plantations but I wish the trees were not planted in straight lines as it looks so unnatural.

Underfoot cuckoo-pint, or lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum), is already in leaf, as is our native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). The latter will put on a lovely display come late April and early May.

Although our winters are becoming far wetter than in the past, I imagine that there has always been much moss here among the wintergreen buckler ferns as the wood appears to be permanently damp.

Another enchanting thing is the amount of birdsong that we hear today. Chaffinches and song thrushes are singing their hearts out and great tits sounding off too. Marvellous.

This wood, albeit small, is a gem. Rosemary wants to come back when the almost transparent beech leaves are out. I agree. I love to see early summer sunshine filtered through the tree canopy.

A conspicuous sign says that this path is for walkers only but glancing down there is evidence of the passage of horse-riders and cyclists. Some people just don’t get it.

As we approach the valley, Rosemary points out how many of the ash trees appear to be wearing green, mossy socks. I take this as a sign that there may be fly or early-purple orchids present. We’ll have to come and check in April and May when the conditions should be ideal. There is a correlation between the trees, soil, underlying geology and overall setting.

We escape the tree cover and are presented with a broad, undulating field. It is quite something. A newly sown crop is rising on this grey, misty and partially sunlit day.

We cross the wide field with great care as it is slippery and take a breather when we meet more trees. Rosemary looks north and spots an odd arrangement of outbuildings in the distance towards Ewelme Park.

After our brief pause, we turn right to join a section of the Chiltern Way. It is waymarked with clarity.

The going improves as we pass a multitude of ash saplings and young yews on either side. Although only formed by a thin strip of trees, it is rather enchanting. A flock of bramblings scatter on our approach.

A pair of beech trees seem to embrace, ash roots scramble, ivy clings, lesser celandine surges into life, woodworms are making a meal of fallen wood and another disengaged bough seems to be creeping along like a Komodo dragon. This is a funny old place.

We love the way that bluebells nestle tight among tree roots as if seeking sanctuary.

A sturdy whitebeam stands proud, still bearing some of last year’s leaves, and several beech trees display curiously ribbed bark akin to the Michelin man. A strangely indented oak appears to be shouting. I tell it gently to quieten down.

We enter more substantial woods, Hogpen Shaw to the left, Hazel Wood to the right. It is here that we meet our first pair of fellow walkers who ask to be directed to the Ridgeway and I oblige.

There is an abundance of bluebells bursting out of the fallen leaves. Male hazel catkins swing in a gentle breeze, traveller’s-joy (or old man’s beard) clambers all around. This will surely be a sight for sore eyes come May.

There is palisade fencing to our right with robust, high earthworks beyond. A sign reads: “Danger. Keep out, deep water”. I guess that this refers to a small reservoir.

Piles of bricks and lumps of concrete are strewn about, which detract from the natural beauty of this spot even on a murky day like this.

We hear the hooting of a male tawny owl (Strix aluco). They are rather handsome, solid birds, mainly nocturnal. I find their utterances rather soothing.

Rosemary hears some rustling beneath a bramble. We stop, wait and watch. A little bank vole (Myodes glareolus) reveals itself. Rosemary asks why it is so bold and not afraid. I point out that we are good cover as no owl, or anything else for that matter, is going to go in for the kill with us around.

Unlike wood mice, bank voles have smaller eyes, miniscule, exceptionally hairy ears and shorter tails. I find them cute with their little whiteish feet, four toes to the fore, five to the hind.

They eat an interesting range of food. including emergent plant buds, leaves, seeds, nuts, fruits and occasionally insects. They seem to particularly love the red outer flesh of nutritious rose hips.

Industrious little fellows, they are notoriously promiscuous and make little grassy nests slightly below ground level. Otherwise solitary creatures, they breed between the months of March and October. The offspring are born blind but become independent after only three weeks. They can run and climb trees but never hop. Amazing critters, I love them.

We are at the northern perimeter of HMP Huntercombe. It is odd to think that foreign prisoners are inside while we soak up nature only a matter of yards away across the threatening fence.

It is nearly half a mile onwards to Park Wood on open ground. It is fresh out here and we enjoy the sudden exposure.

High above, exuberant skylarks are dancing in the cold winter air, singing as if declaring their love of life. We feel it too, such heartfelt sweetness. Rosemary gives me a knowing look. So much hope and no worries, but simply the knowledge that life will go on regardless. In the wood, there are some dead but still vertical trees, useful for beetles and woodpeckers. Nature recycles naturally.

We hear a bird drumming in the distance, which is so reassuring. A wood would not be a wood without a woodpecker or two. They are a sign of a healthy environment.

We take a path that leads round Nuffield Place, the home of Sir William Morris, of car manufacturing fame.

Back home in our garden later, it starts to snow once more, initially single flakes, then bigger, congealed clumps.

Pinky-purple crocuses, dusky yellow-hued primroses, white snowdrops and green stinking hellebores are in full flower and native bluebells and foxgloves emergent, a cheery sight.

There are many red kites wheeling above. I count 15 with difficulty. It is like looking through a kaleidoscope as they slip and slide through the sky.

In the afternoon I sit in our garden and hear a familiar deep, repeated croaking. A big, dark raven flies over our trees some 80ft away. These birds are bigger than buzzards. I wonder where he or she is bound, perhaps Caversham Park?

Ravens are early incubators, specifically in February and March, so it is conceivable that there is a nest in the park with its abundance of mature tree cover. Outside the breeding season they are usually seen in pairs.

Ravens form lifelong pair bonds, just like Rosemary and me. If there is paradise on earth, then I’m there.

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