Monday, 08 August 2022

So much beauty on show as I lead bluebell walk through familiar wood

So much beauty on show as I lead bluebell walk through familiar wood

OUR new trees are bursting into leaf, including whitebeam, beech, wild service and wayfaring trees, crab apple, small- and large-leaved limes, red oak, sugar and red maples, magnolia grandiflora and a small, eager pedunculate oak, a present from a friend.

Some are more advanced than others but it’s lovely to see them all coming along nicely. They provide shelter and home to many insects and birds with their emergent leaves.

Below our long-established tree canopy red campion is already showing and foxgloves are surging. What a difference a few weeks make in spring.

I’ve been asked to lead a bluebell walk for members of the Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxfordshire.

I’ve chosen a route through Clayfield Copse and Blackhouse Wood on the edge of Emmer Green as not only are there carpets of bluebells but also many more plants and trees that indicate ancient woodland.

I’m a little nervous as I want to make sure that nature’s springtime majesty will be on show so Rosemary and I take off on a reconnaissance mission to see how it all looks.

After leaving our car outside Caversham Park Tennis Club, we head into Blackhouse Wood (in Oxfordshire), where we find swathes of bluebells gracing the woodland floor with a heady, unmistakeable scent.

The sun is shining brightly and it could not be more beautiful. It’s a thrill to see.

The birds are on form, too. We hear whitethroats, blackcaps, chiffchaffs, green woodpeckers, wrens, robins, song thrushes and blackbirds. Sadly, no willow warblers.

On the day of the guided walk itself, 13 of us meet up on time as planned.

We cross to the side of the playing field, where there is a boys’ football match taking place, and make it into the old copse.

Immediately, we take a path to our right that leads northwards. It is initially narrow but then broadens out as it snakes through a tangle of trees. The cover is dense but not claustrophobic.

Framed by towering oaks and beech trees, the path is dry, dusty and full of exposed, gnarled roots. Small saplings wriggle underneath.

I point out some sanicle (Sanicula europaea), a small, hairless, perennial umbellifer commonly found under beech. It is the first species that indicates that we are traversing ancient woodland.

Large, sturdy trees line the side of the path. We pat their trunks with affection as one would shake hands with a friend.

Small saplings of our only native maple, the field maple (Acer campestre), are in abundance. Holly, sycamore, crab apple and some hawthorns, old, big and rugged, form part of a varied understorey.

This part of the wood also includes lots of field-rose (Rosa arvensis). The flowers will not appear until midsummer, five-petalled and white. This rose is less thorny than its cousin the dog-rose (Rosa canina) with its pale pink petals.

Wood sedge (Carex sylvatica) with its nodding inflorescences forms attractive clumps.

Dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) covers much of the ground and is just coming into flower with tiny yellowish blooms that look lovely close up.

There are plenty of other signature plants of ancient woodland, including wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides).

The magic really starts as we navigate a pronounced, tricky dip and then rise to meet a crossroads where we leave notional Berkshire behind.

For recording purposes and biologically, Caversham and Emmer Green form part of Vice-county — VC23, Oxfordshire.

We enter Oxfordshire proper to find ourselves in Blackhouse Wood, which is a contiguous stretch of Clayfield Copse but with a subtly different character. My party of visitors is soaking it all up.

A wild pear tree (Pyrus pyraster) is showing on a corner with small glossy leaves. It is not in flower yet but one member of our party says she would like some of the small, hard fruits to propagate so I agree to oblige.

The paths here are wider for the most part but sometimes treacherous with big, prominent roots everywhere.

I indicate a huge multi-trunked sweet chestnut tree (Castanea sativa). One of our party thinks that it is an example of the long-gone art of coppicing, which makes sense.

Moving on, we come across a huge, deep old excavation, presumably for the extraction of clay for the old brick kilns in nearby Kiln Road.

I point out a fine old wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) with fissured, plated bark on a twisting, solid trunk.

The leaves are emerging high above. These are distinctive, the basal lobes at right angles, the others forward-pointing. They are unique.

Through old hazels, ash and rowan (one fallen but still in flower), we tread through slim paths with rafts of bluebells, wood anemones and lesser celandines, blue, white and yellow, a wonderful sight. But where are the yellow archangels that were once so prevalent?

One of the wonderful aspects of the paths is how they bifurcate around tree trunks, leaving small, green “islands” that benefit flowering plants popular with bumblebees.

Soon we step out of the glorious woodland and into a right of way, Caversham Park Village to our right, Foxhill Lane to our left.

I walk up the lane to show our party some clumps of beautiful greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) with its white five-notched petals underneath some blackthorn.

The view across towards the south-east is sublime. The sky has brightened up and we can see for miles. Only about 100 yards away we watch as a fox drinks from a water trough.

We make our way back down the pathway after examining some gooseberry plants (Ribes uva-crispa) and eventually meet the old pit where I lead us left into open country to the side of the wood.

To the left of grassy glades that are obviously kept tidy by rabbits much tree regeneration is going on. Although many young ash trees are in trouble, oak, hawthorn and silver birch are doing very well. The area is full of birdsong as it has secure nesting sites.

The open area is punctuated with clumps of hard rush (Juncus inflexus). To one side of the wood a spread of ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea) shines brightly. Oak trees and cherries are in flower. It all looks lovely. We wend our way back to the now official county border to
re-enter Clayfield Copse and walk along a bridleway that leads us to a ride full of Wych elms (Ulmus glabra), cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), redcurrant (Ribes rubrum), crab apple (Malus sylvestris), hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) and pendulous sedge (Carex pendula). There are plenty of ferns, too.

One woman has never seen a goldilocks buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus) before so I point out a large spread of this attractive plant. She is overjoyed and takes some photographs.

I mention that I used to find early purple orchids (Orchis mascula) here and another member of the party dives into the old woodland to our right and promptly finds some. Good.

On our way back to our meeting place, we pass wild privet (Ligustrum vulgare) and dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) and I point out some butcher’s-broom (Ruscus aculeatus), a strange, stiff-stemmed member of the lily family, and a favourite woodland grass, wood melick (Melica uniflora).

Some of our party have to leave at the end of our expedition but seven of us adjourn to the Crown at Playhatch for lunch and afterwards agree to meet up again elsewhere soon.

Great company and lovely woods — what more could you wish for? A splendid day.

vincent.ruane@hotmail.com

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