Friday, 28 January 2022

Westfordhill, a special place where the wildlife helps lift the spirit

Westfordhill, a special place where the wildlife helps lift the spirit

I WAKE up this morning to bright sunlight. It’s only 6.30am but I get up with the knowledge that I have hours to go before my walk to Caversham to meet my friend Dave Kenny and we make a small pilgrimage to one of our favourite spots.

When I set off along the road the sky is blue and cloud-free — beautiful. High above four buzzards wheel around. I have never seen more than a pair before, so it’s quite a sight.

Once I’ve joined Dave, we set off and are soon making our way through a sturdy kissing-gate that reveals Westfordhill with its superb views either side of the Thames, Mapledurham to the east and Hardwick, Pangbourne and Whitchurch to the west.

A wealth of wildflowers is emerging on this unusually warm March day.

This spot has always been fairly rich in its floral diversity but something has changed for the better, perhaps because the flock of grazing sheep has gone.

We both note that many chalk-loving, flowering plants have increased in number. All around are hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo), agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), vervain (Verbena officinalis), salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor), silverweed (Potentilla anserina) and creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans). We’ll have to wait a while to see their flowers, though.

Sweet violets (Viola odorata) are in bloom and form a large carpet on the crest. Their white flowers flutter gently in the breeze. Dave munches on a leaf and confirms that they are indeed sweet. Dog-violets (Viola riviniana) decorate the slope like little purple jewels.

One of the prime reasons for our visit is to check on the health of an old field maple (Acer campestre) that stands proud here. It’s particularly well known to Dave as he is the lead verifier of ancient and veteran trees in Berkshire and Oxfordshire,reporting to the Woodland Trust.

A monster for its species, the tree measures 5.09m around the trunk so it must be at least 500 years old and is possibly the oldest and largest acer in the UK. It is still growing steadily and appears to be in good health. A remarkable and handsome veteran.

After sitting on the hillside for a while to admire the panorama, we head home but stop to admire a fine old ash that guards the entrance to some charming woodland. Old cherry trees surround the path and I am looking forward to their brief but glorious blossoming.

There is also a huge amount of ramsons or wild garlic (Allium ursinum) here. What once was a small patch has now spread and competing with bluebells to dominate the woodland floor.

In a few weeks their star-like white flowers will turn the woodland floor into a Milky Way-like brilliance. If you can’t recognise this plant, you can certainly smell it!

Progressing along the bridleway that leads slowly down to the very depth of the wood, we stop to allow two children on horseback with their guardian to pass.

We are greeted by a new prospect. Where all the diseased and newly felled ash trees once stood a huge plantation of saplings has replaced them.

Dave checks. The replacements are largely oak. I wish them well for the future, realising that I’ll be long gone by the time that they have matured.

They are clustered tightly together, like war graves in a cemetery, with plastic guards around them to prevent deer from chomping on them.

Thankfully, a fine wych elm, hawthorns and beech remain among the newcomers.

Further along the old track there is the butterfly bush (buddleja davidii) that is the curse of the railway as it is invasive but beloved by insects. It will only proliferate.

In the distance a greater spotted woodpecker is drumming to attract a mate.

My cousin Mark recently saw one doing this on a metallic chimney cowl, presumably to make even more noise to impress a prospective partner!

Making our way up the opposing hill, we take a detour to find that mezereon is in full flower with pollinating insects queueing up. It is such a beautiful shrub and the sight lifts my spirit. This tapestry of wood and open land is extraordinary and I love it.

For the record, I’ve encountered 12 species of orchids in this small area. That’s quite a tally when you consider the UK total is around 50.

Today has been most surprising. Many people were about with their dogs, children and horses. The clement weather was surely responsible.

I only hope that they appreciate what they have seen and hope that the children will return to respect and protect such special places as this.

Vincent Ruane

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