Thursday, 24 June 2021

Mysterious Ladder Tree goes missing (or I can’t follow instructions)

Mysterious Ladder Tree goes missing (or I can’t follow instructions)

SHEILA WALKER, from Sonning Common, has been in touch with me.

We met last year when she was walking her deaf dog at Kingwood Common. We had a chat about the large colony of broad-leaved helleborines growing just past Barn Farm. As I recall, I mentioned the violet helleborines thriving not far away.

After we parted company, Sheila was kicking herself as she’d forgotten to inform Rosemary and me of a locally famous and strange landmark on the common known as the “Ladder Tree”.

I have mentioned uncanny arboreal fusions in the past but this one, as described, seems rather special, if not unique. I think the name gives the game away.

Sheila gives us directions and we promise to go and see this wild marvel.

The next morning, we try to do just that but can’t find the fabled tree.

I have to say that it is a complete maze out here so I’m not entirely surprised. We’ll have to come back with Sheila, who was born and bred locally and loves the countryside.

Despite this failure, we have a lovely walk anyway as there is much on display.

We take a familiar path through one of our favourite glades that is now home to suitable log piles.

We chat about the wildflowers that we admired last summer and our longing to see them again.

We’ve been through here many times before but there is always something new to see whatever the season. We are always amazed by the tree shapes, entwined, fused and unworldly. Hollies grow tight with oaks and beech. This is fairytale territory.

Rosemary spots what seems to be another wooden piglet emerging from a beech. It does indeed have an uncanny resemblance. My wife does have a strange ability to see animal shapes in trees.

We amble down to the bottom of the valley, once more passing an adorable row of conjoined beeches.

As we stop by a young wild service tree, we agree to explore Greyhone Wood and the adjacent plantation to the east the next day when the weather is expected to be clement.

I have looked at this wood longingly for years so I’m looking forward to seeing what we find.

A raven to our left croaks, another to our right, obviously a pair. It’s a treat that these intelligent and once rare birds have set up home here.

They have not been
re-introduced like the red kite but have seemingly spread eastwards from what small strongholds they defended in the West Country, Cornwall and Wales.

There are the most beautiful open glades here full of heather and gorse, dotted with silver birch, oak and holly.

On our way back along Colmore Lane some beech trees appear to be having an argument.

An oak seems to be exhibiting a woodpecker’s tongue, another looks to be about to cough and two more look like they are parting company.

Rosemary points out a tree that looks a bit like a dog with a wagging tail (I told you).

The bark of the silver birches is pronouncedly rugged, plated and grooved. A snapped hazel is now home to fungi, which is not unexpected in this land of curiosities.

The next day we do as planned and explore territory that neither of us has visited before.

After parking in a convenient spot in Colmore Lane, Rosemary almost immediately indicates a subspecies of yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon ssp argentatum) growing out of the trunk of a beech. Wonders never cease.

A wall cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) bears a host of bright red berries. The plant likes chalky soil.

Woodbine smothers an oak, its now dainty, blue-green leaves emerging to soak up the sunshine. We pass an old orchard on our right with what looks like a pair of splendid young Scots pine. The two of us stop briefly to gaze upon our dream home. More lottery tickets then.

We head north along the lane, passing Great David’s to meet our destination, a bridleway that runs between Greyhone Plantation and Greyhone Wood to the east.

Beforehand we meet two entertaining ladies and have a jolly good conversation. They are both Henley Standard readers and are inquisitive about today’s manoeuvres.

We tell them of our plan and are informed of a great carpet of bluebells that will flower soon on the floor of a valley. We part company, thanking them both and waving goodbye.

At the bottom of the lane we find out intended bridleway and have to step over two rungs of stout wood like railway sleepers to gain entry. Rosemary suggests that they may be to deter motorcyclists. I think she’s right.

Strangely, a large camellia is growing to the left of the path and is in flower. How did this come to pass? It must have been planted here deliberately.

Rosemary spots a now defunct beech tree bole and declares that it is a sylvan hippo (she’s at it again with that vivid imagination of hers).

One of the first things that we notice is the volume of birdsong, which remains throughout our walk.

Chaffinches with their lilting, rattling songs in an Oxfordshire accent (yes, it is true), the twittering of greenfinches and goldfinches, green woodpeckers “yaffling” everywhere and great tits and bramblings making the most of it.

Brimstone butterflies flutter about like ballet dancers in Swan Lake.

This is another rather open wood. Dominated by beech with an understorey of holly, it is most enchanting.

Mosses of wonderful countenance fill the forest floor.

We come across a splendid crab apple and some stately larches among the ever-present beeches.

We feel like we have the woods all to ourselves today, We both love it as it has a feeling of permanence, longevity and antiquity. Superb.

Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) with its shining yellow flowers is already proclaiming the advent of more to come. It only blooms when the sun is shining.

As we descend towards the valley floor, we note the promised bluebells. There are thousands. We can’t wait to return to see and smell them in all their glory very soon.

I’m reminded that a single flower does not seem to have much scent but an immense drift does.

Rosemary takes my hand as we descend to the bottom of this attractive wood where we find a little meeting place. Five tree “stools” surround an old tyre. It is rather quaint.

I take a break as it is rather peaceful.

The beech woodland to the north-east on a soaring slope is utterly beautiful. We will be back here in summer without a doubt.

The path ahead and uphill leads to Satwell, home of the now extinct Lamb pub. I could cry as it was one of my favourite haunts.

Every vista is incomparable. Left, right, ahead, behind. Glorious, open Chiltern woods.

We take a turn left that leads eventually to the base of Witheridge Hill. It is a lovely walk but marred by a horrible metal, green fence to our right.

The land may be privately owned but what is the point? It is anti-wildlife and spoils the panorama.

Through the green barricade we discern a man-made, formal stepped path leading down the slope to the woodland bottom, presumably to prevent shoes getting dirty. Oh dear.

We continue along our way, admiring another raft of bluebells. I imagine that they may be accompanied by wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) with its white and sometimes pinky sepals in a few weeks’ time.

Gnarled old field maples and cherries add to the mix of trees. A pair of blue tits chatter away in a blackthorn.

We take an abrupt turn left and head south up a steep slope through Greyhone Wood to regain the high ground. It is quite arduous but we make it after having to stop once or twice.

We now meander along our way. Douglas firs to our right, deciduous forest to our left. We encounter a large patch of seemingly regenerating, small western hemlock-spruce.

We regain Colmore Lane and the car and head home.

We have had a happy time as we always do. It is so important to get out.

Vincent.ruane@hotmail.com

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