Friday, 21 January 2022

Lady B’s ‘back garden’ is natural wonderland in the Chilterns

Lady B’s ‘back garden’ is natural wonderland in the Chilterns

WHEN you love nature as much as I do, and have the chance to share your enthusiasm by writing about it, life can sometimes take quite an unexpected and exquisite turn.

A part of the local landscape that you may have looked at on an Ordnance Survey map but would normally be out-of-bounds is miraculously opened up for exploration. This is what has happened to me.

Chance had it that the Henley Standard received a call from someone that I will only refer to as “Lady B”.

I was asked to call her back with a view to having a look at her “garden” and we duly arranged to meet outside one of my favourite pubs at lunchtime.

She collects me bang on time and we drive along familiar lanes and then up a track that most folk would not notice while passing. On arriving at an idyllic cottage, I’m introduced by my host to her two dogs and her friend John.

Well, what a “garden”. There are 30-plus acres of it high up in the Chiltern Hills near Checkendon. I could easily lose myself here all summer.

Before the three of us enter the trees, a stately young oak and an elegant silver birch are pointed out, standing proud in one of several paddocks. I’m informed they simply arrived of their own accord.

Looking across this open space, Lady B tells me that with the advent of spring, swallows would normally have been flitting above the long grass well into the summer and the woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), a game bird, would have been performing its erratic mating display flight at dusk, or “roding” as it is known.

This year she has seen neither, which is a major cause for concern. According to the RSPB, the woodcock is on the “red list” of conservation importance, which means that its breeding population has been in steep decline in the UK in recent years.

The swallow is on the “green list” of least importance. I have noticed a large drop in swallow numbers so I find this a worrying trend.

I’m led into the woodland by Lady B, John and her ever playful hounds. These woods were planted about 65 years ago, I’m told, and that looks about right.

It is quite warm and Lady B decides to rest awhile on a well-positioned bench aside a ride that runs under the trees. Her smaller dog sits in the shade underneath, sharing a tranquil prospect with her.

John and I and dog number two walk on. Young whitebeam, rowan, oak and beech are flourishing on either side of our path and spread into the interior underneath the delicate fenestrations of Scots pines that frame an azure sky. There are self-seeded young pines growing here too. I’ve not seen that before.

We reach the ride’s end. Over a prominent, steep and wooded boundary a dark bridleway leads to a valley down to the right. There are some much older trees here. I need to explore further.

The three of us return to rejoin Lady B. As we approach her cottage, I ask if I can return soon. The answer is affirmative and I’m very grateful.

Some days later, I return with my friend Dave Kenny to explore further inside and around this seductive landscape.

We leave his car in a suitable spot opposite a public footpath that runs up and right through Lady B’s property. We cross the back road and walk on up a slope.

Before we hit the pines our path takes us uphill through some open woods of beech, cherry, hazel, yew and oak. It is quiet but welcoming here. A couple of small western hemlock-spruce, a native of America, are naturally regenerating here along with some small sweet chestnuts.

Our route meanders past a gloomy plantation of Douglas fir to our left. The path seems barely trod.

The pines take over but further on give way to broadleaved woodland and after a short while we find the bridleway that I’d seen on my last visit.

It is an ancient way and wide with deep gulleys and mighty banks to either side punctuated with some great old trees — a seven-trunked whitebeam with the biggest girth that we’ve encountered and some majestic rowans already bearing ripe fruit, one so tall it is almost impossible to gauge its age.

We enter an area of “open access” woodland and follow a winding path downhill. There are fine woodland grasses here, wood melick, false brome and loose silky-bent. Woodbine curls around the undergrowth and young aspens appear among the meée.

There is much more to explore here but we return to the car as I want to check a short distance away at a crossroads near Wyfold Wood where I found some violet helleborine nearly 40 years ago.

They are still here, only a few but then the roadside verge has not been flayed as at Three Corner Common. I expect them to be in full flower by next week.

This patch of woodland contains some magnificent, old large-leaved limes. These are uncommon in Oxfordshire and found in fewer than 30 sites. They are big trees with stout trunks. We’ll be back to take measurements.

Our morning is rounded off with a visit to a colony of broad-leaved helleborines barely a mile away. What a lovely sight they are when in flower.

It has been a good week with new places to see and old ones to revisit. I’m content.

Vincent Ruane

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