Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Neighbouring woods remind me there’s no place like home

Neighbouring woods remind me there’s no place like home

AS I nurse a broken shoulder, I reminisce about all the wild places that I have experienced so far in life.

Since childhood, and in common with other like-minded people, I have always loved to “get away from it all” and submerge myself in the natural world. Whether on my own or in company, I always find the experience uplifting.

I have stood in a birch forest in Russia as fine snow fell silently around me, trekked through a vast wet alder woodland in Poland in search of goshawks, crossed flower-filled alpine meadows and stream-filled beech and oak woodlands in the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain, passed some wonderful days sitting in olive groves in Portugal and explored the forests, rivers and tundra of Nova Scotia.

But as I emerge from my reverie one thing is for sure — my heart lies here and here I stand in front of one of my favourite old woods, a stone’s throw from home and one I have known for many years.

Clayfield Copse, Reading’s first local nature reserve, and the adjoining Blackhouse Wood in South Oxfordshire have a wealth of flora and fauna for their combined size. They lie about six miles south-west of Henley. I enter from the south at the junction of Kiln Road and Caversham Park Road. The copse sits on London clay, the only example north of Reading, which has a great influence on what grows here.

Hornbeam is a standout tree here. Superficially similar to beech, the leaves are toothed and the trunk a silvery grey and often twisted.

The path running north-eastwards opens up into a narrow glade with plenty of pendulous sedge, field rose and spurge laurel along the way. Mature oaks rise either side along with wild cherry, beech, hazel, crab apple, field maple, ash, hawthorn and the uncommon wild service tree. There is a really broad mixture of tree species in these woods.

If you visit in April and May look out for early purple orchids (Orchis mascula) here.

As the path ends, I head to the right and south-east towards Blackhouse Wood. Where the woods join I encounter a small and solitary wild pear. I shall be keeping an eye on this and look forward to seeing it in bloom come the spring.

This wood is subtly different and initially more open with beech, silver birch, rowan, wych elm, common lime and sweet chestnut present. Honeysuckle or woodbine clambers about. A large old wild service tree stands by a large depression in the forest floor.

In the spring there is always a show of bluebells with yellow archangel and greater stitchwort here that form a glorious carpet of white, yellow and blue.

I move on and enter Foxhill Lane, heading north-west along the woodland margin. It is much damper here with the occasional osier with its long, narrow and tapering leaves.

I begin to retrace my steps towards the pear and head towards Kiln Road, named after the brick kilns once here.

I head down the roadside to view the autumn colours and am not disappointed as the wild service trees here are turning red.

A very rare summer visitor to our shores is the beautifully coloured golden oriole. The male is a stunning yellow and black (the female being a drab green). This exotic bird has recently been recorded at Clayfield.

Back in 1986 I used to watch and listen to them high in the poplar trees by the River Vistula in Poland. I have not seen or heard one here yet but I’ll be patient and maybe it will return. What joy that would be.

Clayfield and Blackhouse form a splendid combination of woodland with their own unique character. There are almost too many species to enumerate here.

I’ll return in spring when these woods are truly magical. As the saying goes, there is no place like home.

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