Thursday, 20 January 2022

Perfect spring day for a walk in the woods (ignoring HM prison)

Perfect spring day for a walk in the woods (ignoring HM prison)

IT is another sweet early spring day. The sky is clear, leaves are emerging from their winter cloaks and birds are singing. There is a full-on dawn chorus in the early hours, which has woken me up but what a pleasant reveille!

A blackbird, robin and dunnock are belting out their love (and territorial) songs. Great tits, a wren and a blackcap add to the early concerto that is spoiled only by the screechings of a jay.

I love them for providing lovely morning music and can’t imagine a world without them.

My friend Matt Coome and I are heading towards Nuffield in his new car and on the way I notice how many primroses garland the roadsides.

These flowers are really important for the bumblebees that are waking up and making their way out of their burrows hungry for breakfast.

After turning left out of Timbers Lane, we leave the car near the entrance to Huntercombe Golf Club and walk northwards on part of the Ridgeway, one of the most ancient thoroughfares in the British Isles, if not Europe.

The path traverses several fairways on the golf course. We are careful not to interfere with play but are waved across the front of a tee by a pair of polite women clearly enjoying themselves and in no hurry.

As we cross the remainder of the manicured landscape towards the A4130, we pass through some miniscule copses and are pleased to see bird-nesting boxes attached to some trees.

We cross the road at Gangsdown Hill by the side of the now defunct Crown pub and then a path takes us into a small wood, the traffic still audible.

Suddenly we are overtaken by a determined hiker who looks like he is attempting the Appalachian Trail with his two poles and extensive kit. Then we are in open country as we head towards the Chiltern Way along a straight and dipping path. I feel happy when we reach a corridor of trees as it feels cosy.

We head to the east along a well-trodden path. Delicate wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) and common dog-violets (Viola riviniana) are in flower. They complement each other beautifully.

Hazels, dogwood and spindle are coming into leaf all around.

We stop to assess our surroundings and hear this year’s first notes of a chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita). Bravo little warbler, bring on summer.

If you see one close up you can identify it by its little dark legs that distinguish it from its cousin the willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) that has yellowy shanks.

Both are beautiful summer visitors that cheer me up no end. They build neat little domed grassy nests close to the ground and rely upon a good supply of insects for their broods.

As the summer visitors arrive, so the winter migrants return north. My last redwing departed a few days ago, fieldfares before that. They’ll be back when the cold winds blow once again in late autumn.

Our trail is slowly and gently ascending as we pass Hogpen Shaw to our left and Hazel Wood to our right. Only by looking back is it possible to discern this rise. A chaffinch chatters away and a couple of pheasants make a lot of noise. A huge fallen cherry lies across the footpath among a diverse understorey of plants.

There is a carpet of bluebells that heralds a fragrant heaven come May and a large patch of wild gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa) with its protective spiky stems in leaf.

Reaching a crossroads, we turn right and head south to pass the side of HM Huntercombe Prison, which looks grim compared with the lovely open country around it.

All of a sudden the joyous song of a skylark (Alauda arvensis) fills the sky. These birds are notoriously difficult to spot as they ascend like little angels before dropping back to the earth like a stone.

They nest on the ground and often feign injury to lure predators away from their eggs or recently hatched brood.

After cautiously crossing the busy road again, we head back across the golf course, watching out for small white missiles.

There are some tremendous views towards Didcot and the Vale of Oxford but I don’t want to encroach on the golfers to take a picture.

Arriving back at the car, I am reminded that it is now the spring equinox — how wonderful. The earth turns so we do too. I long for a clear night sky to look up and know that I am part of the universe looking upon itself.

Vincent Ruane

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