Saturday, 24 October 2020

Good company and lovely sights amid the mud and autumnal gloom

Good company and lovely sights amid the mud and autumnal gloom

WHAT a day it has turned out to be. The sky is blue and the vapour trails of transatlantic aeroplanes criss-cross the sky without a sound.

Nothing else can be heard. The once incessant rain has stopped abruptly. Joy of joys for the limping walker.

An hour later my friend Rosemary Henderson collects me and my mother. We surge onwards in Rosemary’s trusty car towards the Black Horse pub at Scot’s Common, near Checkendon. Rosemary and I are going to take a stroll later.

About 400 years old, this pub is a Chiltern gem and possesses all the characteristics of a true country pub — beer straight from the barrel, a glowing, warm fire and honest, tasty fare.

As we absorb the singular charm of this pub, I realise that it is a relic of days gone by. On enquiring, I’m told that the pub has familial links with the Crooked Billet and Cherry Tree pubs in Stoke Row.

The Black Horse is still run by the same family, descendants of the Stallwood and Saunders lineage, and what supremely welcoming hosts they are.

After beers have been guzzled and sarnies scoffed, we leave mum behind for an hour or so with a copy of the Henley Standard and a pen to try to conquer the “challenging” (her word) crossword.

It is muddy, very muddy. Somehow we squidge along a path towards Scot’s Farm to gaze at the ancient hollow oak that marks the corner of an old thoroughfare.

A glorious old specimen and a tree that I referenced some while back. It stands defiant, deep-rooted and apparently immoveable, aged and proud.

That aside, there is much more to encounter here. Gnarled beech, tall rowan and cherry with peeling bark, statuesque young oaks with near perfect vertical trunks and tall holly provide the definitive scent of a sublime Chiltern woodland at the end of autumn.

I believe that this area should be given the status of a national park. Nearby a large pond appears to be healthy. An amphibian’s dream.

We return to the pub to gather my mother along some straight but stunning lanes. Mum has made some new friends.

Two days later, Rosemary and I are off again, this time to visit Shiplake Lock and a slice of the Thames Path that leads to Shiplake College.

It is even muddier here. A total morass and an absolute horror but the walk is well worth it.

After a brief scan around the lock, we head upstream towards the school. Without Rosemary’s presence this would be a dour and frankly depressing walk as the sky is dark and gloomy but I’m in good company.

Field maples have dropped this year’s crop of yellow leaves. What colour. The Thames is flowing at speed and means business.

Alder, hazel and white willow have been pollarded on the riverbank for some unknown reason.

On higher ground, graceful Shiplake House commands a wonderful view to the south. The languid St Patrick’s stream joins the main flow to the east of Phillimore’s Island.

Some ring-necked parakeets (they seem to be everywhere now) are having a very noisy argument on the tree-filled ait. Two mute swans are trying to drive off one of their cygnets. So much for parental care!

We encounter two of the most impressive oriental plane trees (Platanus orientalis) that I have ever come across, one right on the river bank, the other a large step back.

They are huge with muscular trunks and roots that announce their fiefdom. One has grotesque hanging boughs and a footprint so big that you feel tiny just looking at it. They are both shapely and magnificent.

A flotilla of tufted ducks gives us a quick glance and drifts by. A proud-looking heron watches for a short moment and then flaps away upstream beyond a bed of great reedmace.

On our way back we meet two women striding towards us. They return in a trice as one has lost her spectacles. And there they are just as my right boot was going to crush them. How fortunate.

As we drive home to Caversham, I notice that the majority of trees have taken on beautiful colours. Utterly splendid. Bramblings scatter amongs the hedgerows.

We stop off at the Flowing Spring pub near Playhatch for an hour, a beer and a bite.

Back home in the warmth, I know that I could never have asked for more on an otherwise grim and overcast day.

Vincent Ruane

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