Friday, 28 January 2022

Ancient Chiltern landscape that inspired poets... and now me too

Ancient Chiltern landscape that inspired poets... and now me too

IPSDEN is a small, isolated village in a beautiful vale almost unparalleled in the South.

The Ridgeway and Icknield Way both run through it, the former being some 5,000 years old and probably the oldest track or road in Europe.

Ipsden also has reputedly the longest old barn in England.

The village lies at the base of a natural geological frontier that divides the Chiltern escarpment from the riparine valley below.

To the north and on slightly higher ground is Hailey and the King William Inn, which boasts a stunning view towards the Chiltern hinterland.

At the valley’s base, rooks looking for leatherjackets stride across the grassland between flocks of sheep.

Further up the hillside and to the south-east, the Black Horse pub at Scots Common rests in its sylvan cradle, almost unknown except by the local cognoscenti.

When descending either Berins Hill or Garsons Hill from the east it is impossible not to admire the views below and beyond. The open land has extensive views to the north-west with scattered buildings and inconspicuous landmarks.

Nestling about halfway between Caversham and Oxford, Ipsden does feel like a rural outpost and has inspired many a writer. The poet Martyn Skinner wrote:

To think you stand again, as once you stood,
Marking where bluebells turn a hillside wood
Suddenly sapphire; or the clammy glare
Exchanging for a gust of Chiltern air

We will have to wait until May for the next rising of bluebells, but an old friend, Michael Lindsay, a gardener now sadly deceased, was an Ipsden man born and bred.

We once had a chat about his childhood and talked about the local flowers that grew back then and took a look through J H Baker’s book The Ipsden Country (Wm Smith & Son, Reading, 1959. Price 10 shillings). It lists flowers found by the children from the local primary school a century ago. Among the familiar cowslip and coltsfoot that we can see today there is mention of wild snap-dragon, tom-thumb, hardhead, spotted knotweed and charlock.

It is September now and too late in the day to search for those plants that the children recorded all those years ago but there are still many to see at this time of year so I’m taking a look together with my friend and driver Matt Coome.

Our first port of call is Nuffield to the north-east, another small but old community that stands proud on the Chiltern escarpment with its magnificent views and ancient church of the Holy Trinity.

We have a look around and, stopping for a moment, we stand by the grave of William Richard Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield and founder of Morris Motors. I’m led to believe that he applied to become a member of the local golf course and on refusal bought it outright.

Surrounding the grave are the white flowers of an umbellifer burnet saxifrage that swing nonchalantly in the breeze. We move on and stop at the church of St Mary the Virgin that lies near the centre of Ipsden.

The building dates back to the 12th century and is quite charming while the churchyard provides shelter for some dark mullein plants, among others, that are still in flower.

Later in the week, I return with my tree expert friend Dave Kenny and visit Garsons Hill. We leave the car at the Black Horse and walk towards Scot’s Farm. An oak tree that I would estimate to be at least 900 years old stands by the old farm. Gnarled, hollow but defiant, this tree must have seen it all.

We move on towards Garsons Farm that sits on the crest looking eastwards. As we descend towards the valley bottom, we stop to look at an ancient but now dead rowan tree propped up by a stout beech.

Around and below this once handsome tree are the fruits of its brief life, rowan saplings that share their space with those of young beech.

Holly, cherry and yew seem happy to co-exist with the oak, beech, rowan and whitebeam with glaucous sedge, hedge woundwort, common figwort, raspberry and, in the dampest areas, redshank.

We are briefly arrested by the gentle purring of a rare turtle dove, one of the last summer migrants that will soon take a perilous journey back to its winter home in southern Africa.

We scramble up a hillside towards the farm and another bird announces itself from the edge of the woodland. One raucous croak after another. In fact, there are two of them — ravens. I’ve not seen or heard one since the Nineties on a Spanish mountain. What a treat.

These extremely clever birds fly off and a large host of carrion crows disperse as we emerge into the open by the narrow road.

Across the vale rain clouds approach. We are both very pleased to have worn our waterproofs.

Ducking into the woods, we head towards the only working coppice that I know to the west of Yewtree Brow. It’s tidy and well-maintained. Turning back towards our entry point, we follow a sublime and little-used path to the valley bottom. Heavy rain falls.

Pink-flowered Indian balsam, an invasive species, is either side of the damp path and seems out of control. A frog hops away and disappears into its verdant, moist cloak. We make our way uphill towards Dave’s car along a path now decidedly dark under a threatening sky.

The Black Horse is a welcome treat. We sit outside under its covered entrance for a deserved beer as the rain continues to fall.

Vincent Ruane

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