Monday, 20 January 2020

Walks by the river and in rural woodland... and more to come in 2020

Walks by the river and in rural woodland... and more to come in 2020

ROSEMARY parks close to the entrance to some of the first big commercial gravel pits at Sonning Eye.

The old road that leads to the narrow and “weak” bridge that still spans the River Thames from Oxfordshire to Berkshire once linked up directly with Spring Lane.

Today there is a small bypass close by and the old road is pleasantly quiet. Mammoth bones were discovered nearby on part of the ancient flood plain in a pit off the Henley Road that was part of the parish of Caversham in the 1800s. Once on display in Reading Museum, I don’t know of their current whereabouts.

The fishing rights within these deep pits are afforded to the Reading and District Angling Association.

If allowed, we will take a peek along the pit’s shores another time as pochard and wigeon ducks have been reported here with snipe, redshanks and sometimes sandpipers too.

We’re not fishing, of course, but out on a walk that will take us along a section of the Thames Path that eventually leads westwards towards Reading.

The river is very high and is encroaching the manicured lawns of the French Horn hotel and restaurant.

We pass the entrance to the Mill Theatre at Sonning that is also the portal to George and Amal Clooney’s fabled domain.

Their home lies on a large river island, or ait. I must admit that it must be an absolutely wonderful place to inhabit in summertime. I hope that they like it — we would.

We cross the bridge and enter a gentle slope down to the right. The path here may be a tad muddy and puddled but otherwise it’s solid and well-maintained.

Other walkers, some with dogs, are enjoying a stroll too. Some Lycra-clad folk are out running as if possessed with an otherworldly form of berserk determination as they whizz past.

The path unfolds as we approach the lock. Sturdy benches dedicated to deceased loved ones welcome the passer-by. Some grand old trees on the near bank make their presence felt — large oaks, horse chestnuts and beech with odd shapes. Jackdaws clack and caw.

At the lock’s end a willow has nearly fallen into the water. Birds seem to love to perch on the decaying boughs. Without their leaves, the trees on the rising ground to our left cast stark patterns against a steely sky. The path narrows a little as we pass the grounds of Reading Blue Coat School.

Riverside trees are engulfed with water but seem used to taking these periodic floods in their stride. Fallen branches rattle along in the flow.

As we progress, other oddly shaped trees grow on the increasingly steep ground beside the perimeter of the school grounds.

We cross a small “troll” bridge (signposted as such) and then encounter a tree with a tiny green door fixed to cover a hole in its trunk. It has a lock and a door knocker in the shape of a tiny gremlin. Quaint or otherwise, it is a lovely touch and rather mysterious to say the least. The river is still on the rise. Some folk have moored up their large houseboats. It must be a little chilly to live this way, I think.

We push on and after a short while Rosemary indicates a nature reserve to the left and what a splendid place it is with rivulets, wooden bridges and marshy ponds.

Common reed and great reed mace grow in abundance. Mallard ducks, herons, coots and a sole buzzard provide a healthy looking mini-community of larger birds. Titmice, robins and blackbirds inhabit the waterside undergrowth.

There has been some sensitive and appropriate planting here. Thames Valley Park lies close beyond. The nature reserve runs to some 80 acres of enhanced flood plain. We will return come the summer as we’re sure to see and hear reed warblers and reed buntings. Dragonflies, damselflies and, I’m sure, grass snakes will abound.

We hear the rather strident call of a water rail. Smaller than a moorhen, these elegant and secretive birds are seldom seen but they are quite handsome. With a chestnut coloured back, red beak, dark, barred sides and light grey underparts, they move cautiously among the reed beds.

Although resident, many migrants arrive in winter to bolster their numbers. Some may remain. How many is anyone’s guess.

Back in the car, we drive to the Flowing Spring pub nearby. The water is rising fast and indeed a few days later the car park was inundated. We feel sorry for Nick and Hazel, who run this cosy hostelry.

Over breakfast the next day we examine our Ordnance Survey map and decide on another stroll, this time to some woods near Ipsden.

I want to show Rosemary an ancient rowan tree and pick her brains on some strange plants that I cannot identify (I don’t know everything).

The rowan has fallen, alas, but the alien (to me) plants are still growing. No hesitation from Rosemary — Himalayan honeysuckle, Leycesteria. Sounds like an illness to me.

As the weather closes in, we take a path back through some rising woodland. Young rowans are growing in profusion. The views are excellent.

The track leads on to an open field with friendly horses. Gaunt oaks frame the scene.

A group of at least 10 red kites is having some festive fun in the darkening heavens.

The path that indicates a stile into a country lane leads squarely to a thorny hawthorn hedge. Brilliant! We find and scramble over a metal gate to head home. Fun indeed and more to come, I’m sure.

The shortest day has been and gone and as you read this the New Year will have dawned. I hope and wish for a great 2020 to everyone.

I’ll be out enjoying our super countryside, I can’t recommend it more.

Vincent Ruane

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