Monday, 23 May 2022

Strange finds in woods like something out of Alice in Wonderland

Strange finds in woods like something out of Alice in Wonderland

AFTER waking up at 6.30am, I listen to the weather forecast on the radio. It seems that it will be fine today.

Downstairs, Rosemary feeds our ever-hungry family of cats before checking online. Apparently, it will be raining, dark and dismal tomorrow.

We agree to shoot off early on this bright, crisp morning to explore some tracks through relatively high Chiltern country, some that we have not trod before.

Best to keep clear of riverbanks, as much as we love them, as it can be mightily cold and windy by the water on an early December day like this.

After parking the car outside the Black Horse at Scot’s Common, to which we will return for lunch later, we head off westwards towards Scot’s Farm.

Although our path is only designated as a right of way, and not a bridleway, many horses have been along here. Consequently, the leaf-covered ground is difficult going, to say the least.

It’s muddy, slippery and puddled as we make our way towards Checkendon.

There are ancient buildings in this timeless old village, which is not surprising as the settlement dates back to the 7th century.

In the centre stands a fine 12th century Norman church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul. Just behind it to the northwest is the Grade II listed Checkendon Court, which was built in the 17th century and is a glorious edifice, one of many in our part of the south Chilterns.

Walking with caution through the woodland that comprises the majority of the common, I note all the fallen leaves on the ground, predominantly beech, oak, sweet chestnut, hazel, cherry and hawthorn.

Tall, evergreen but berryless hollies loom with seasonal benevolence.

Underneath the trees, a garden escapee and subspecies of yellow archangel (ssp argentatum) with variegated leaves forms large carpets. Ferns, some still green, accompany golden bracken that lines the footpath and also fills the dark interior as far as the eye can see.

There is a chill in the air. Early morning’s frost lingers on the blades of woodland grasses in occasional, open glades.

The few remaining golden beech leaves shiver and twist as if in a near silent conspiratorial whisper.

Despite the presence of old trees in this woodland, many younger ones were clearly planted just a few decades ago. We see larch, Douglas fir and beech. They do not seem to be growing very well. Perhaps a high water table is to blame.

Silver birches have staked their claim in between the regimented lines that spoil the look of this quiet but otherwise tranquil place.

Maybe this was meant to be a cash-crop. At least many of the trees will not be suitable as Christmas trees.

We find ourselves in a lane about 100 yards from Scot’s Farm with its ancient hollow oak, home to bats and much more and where a human could hide if need be.

Beside a small cottage, a tractor looks as if it has taken a deserved retirement.

Walking eastwards towards Judges Road (I wonder at the name), we find the path that I was looking for to our right. We enter through a green, metal kissing-gate, once again provided by the Chiltern Society.

The right of way cuts across a grassy but muddy paddock. Rosemary remarks that the grass seems to slide as we walk, floating on mud. Horses have clearly been romping around here.

How the wind blows in this exposed parcel of land.

Crows caw and one sits on a fence post and glances at us as if in warning.

I stop to look around, get my bearings and check the map. Before going anywhere new and unfamiliar, I study the map to take in contour lines and look for memorable landmarks — the spire of a church, a prominent hill or maybe an inviting pub.

Later, having digested all the information on a walk, I check the position of the sun and the predictable trajectory of the moon.

I can use a compass or binoculars if truly confused, which I hasten to add has not yet happened. Rosemary is happy to follow as she has no innate sense of direction.

On reaching the field’s end, we squeeze through a narrow and rickety wooden fence.

Two handsome horses are grazing on either side of us but within reach.

Red kites and buzzards scan the ground in the hope of spotting a morsel. The remains of summer’s yarrow, now dried, spill seed in the breeze.

Crossing the tight constraints of Lovegrove’s Lane, which leads past Hammond’s End and Wheeler’s Farm and onwards to Braziers Park, we slip into a pinched alley alongside part of Checkendon Equestrian Centre. If you are into horse riding and archery, then this is the place for you.

Low winter sunlight hinders my sight as it glints off my newly polished spectacles.

When we enter the shade of Church Copse, we find ourselves in a curious place, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

To our immediate left is a large, deep-looking pond with a pair of resident mallard ducks and moorhens. This beauty
reinforces my deduction of a high water table around here.

Across to a man-made island in the centre, there is a neat wooden bridge. A stone, moss-covered horse looks the other way. Decrepit wooden seats look likely to melt into the topsoil.

Strange geometric sculptures are arranged on random plinths. An oblong stone sign indicates the direction of Rome (in English, of course).

Fake Roman pillars add to the scene and we come across the bust of a curly-haired chap. All very odd. Whoever owns this land, they obviously have a taste for the semi-exotic. In fact, we notice a certain similarity to our own garden in Caversham.

We note some attractive shrubs with exceedingly large leaves which have been planted recently. Rosemary identifies them as Rhododendron sinogrande, a native of China and north-eastern Myanmar. We will return to see them in flower in late spring.

My wife also identifies an uncommon mahonia (she knows her exotics) and informs me that it is a hybrid, Lionel Fortescue.

Once again, I check my map as the path is poorly waymarked. I spot a gap in another fence and guess that it is the way to the church and village.

We are running out of time and Rosemary is getting hungry so we retrace our steps after agreeing to approach from the other direction.

We enter the Black Horse after removing the clinging mud from our boots. We sit in the warm embrace of the pub and reminisce about all the places we have travelled through and lived in. This place feels like home.

Back at our actual home later, I notice some strange activity high up in one of our maple trees. Our itinerant jackdaws seem possessed, tearing apart a squirrel’s drey, leaf by leaf. I wonder why. Nature is full of surprises.

vincent.ruane@hotmail.com

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