Thursday, 17 August 2017

The old and the new

Last week was a bit of a mix of visiting new places and revisiting old haunts.

I managed a quick walk after work along part of the Clarendon Way at the Winchester end - the views are spectacular, even with a storm front coming in. Much of the land is in Environmental Stewardship, with wildflowers, birds and insects abounding.

We then headed off to Langford Lakes Nature Reserve - this is owned by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, and is a small group of flooded gravel pits, now home to a variety of interesting birdlife, insects and plants. I had my best view of a kingfisher - normally I'm too busy walking and talking to notice, and they're usually a blue blur! This one perched obligingly in front of the hide before flitting off along the lake margin. It's a great place for this protected and declining species to live - they need banks to burrow in for their nests, and a good abundance of small fish. Often, our banksides are modified so they don't have access. We also saw tufted duck, gadwall, the obligatory cormorants, swans and mallards, and great crested grebe. It's a work in progress too - they took on some more land in 2011, and they're attempting to return it to its former glory of a flooded watermeadow, grazed with cattle. A very interesting corner of Wiltshire (just off the A36 heading out of Salisbury) and we didn't encounter anyone at all on our walk!

Finally, last weekend we had a good long walk in the South Downs National Park. We started at Beacon Hill NNR - owned and managed by Natural England, it's an area of steep chalk grassland, scrub and ancient woodland, great for butterflies and wildflowers. Our route skirted the reserve, before heading out along the South Downs Way down into the Meon valley, before crossing the old dismantled railway line and heading towards Old Winchester Hill NNR. We then headed north along the Monarch's Way, stopping for refreshment at the pub in Warnford - the perfect spot, as their beer garden has the Meon flowing along one side. This is one of our very rare chalk streams, but notable in that it isn't legally protected as it's a much shorter river and doesn't have some of the species found on the Test and Itchen. It's therefore often not in a great way - over abstracted, receiving agricultural runoff and modified in parts. However, recently, as part of a partnership project with the South Downs National Park Authority, water voles were reintroduced to the river after years of absence. Fingers crossed this marks a new beginning for this beautiful little river.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

In our ancestors' footsteps

I've been lucky enough to explore some ancient landscapes in the last week, together with a project all about returning to a wilder landscape hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

Last Sunday we headed off to Avebury World Heritage Site for a walk among the ancient earthworks, burial mounds and standing stones. Our route took us passed the mysterious Silbury Hill (man-made but for no apparent reason), up to the West Kennet longbarrow, and along part of the Wessex Ridgeway before turning back to the village. Although it's now a relatively-intensive agricultural landscape, it's scattered with numerous signs of a much more culturally-important use for the land, with fragments of remnant chalk grassland clining on to slopes, such as on the Avebury stone circle.
The Hill dominates the landscape, and the longbarrow sits high on a hilltop, visible for a great distance. Notably, you can actually go inside part of the longbarrow, and it was made even more special by the presence of a swallow nest, full of chicks. The parents weren't put off by people walking by, as they swept in to feed them.

During the week, as part of a work trip, I was lucky enough to go glamping on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex. here, they've given up intensive agriculture and left 3500 acres to return to wilderness, grazed by enormous herds of free-roaming (no fences!) long-horn cattle, red and fallow deer, Tamworth pigs and Exmoor ponies. It's on its way to becoming a landscape more typical of the Bronze Age. What's interesting is not the botanical interest (relatively poor in parts) but the scale of the mosaic of habitat - ideal for a great wealth of invertebrates and birds, including purple emperor butterflies and rare arable plants found in the rotavated earth left by the pigs. Can we take some of this practice back to other areas in the country? Food for thought.

Finally, yesterday we headed off to Stonehenge, for the free walk I've talked about before. The old dismantled railway was looking beautiful in a kaleidoscope of chalk-loving plants such as wild parsnip, knapweed, field scabious, wild carrot, self-heal and red clover. Although there weren't any skylarks to accompany us (I'm pretty sure they've now finished breeding), it's usually a cacophony when you come earlier. We walked the whole length of the Cursus in the end - 1.7 miles of earthwork, possibly built for a ceremonial purpose. as with everything this old (4500 years in some cases), it's hard to tell exactly what some of the features were for, but I feel this mystery makes it even more amazing to walk in their presence.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

In the tropics?

Last weekend was one of torrential deluges and steamy humidity. And to go with these tropical/monsoon-like conditions, I ventured into Grovely Wood with a friend.

Hardly a tropical rainforest I know, as it's a mixture of commercially-harvested conifer plantation and pockets of ancient woodland. However, in one of the many woodland rides, prior to the deluge that was to follow and soak us through, we encountered some silver-washed fritillaries.

These beautiful butterflies specialise in woodland clearings, basking in the sun and feeding on the flowers blooming. Their enormous, bright orange forms, swiftly flitting through the sunlight, is reminiscent of a butterfly house.

sadly, the experience wasn't to last - we left the ride and the rain started and never stopped. Not even the tall, stately beeches lining the main drive could hold back the torrent.

Oh well - such is the British summer!

Saturday, 22 July 2017

In raptures over rampions

Hurrah for summer, when our beautiful chalk downlands are at their kaleidoscopic-best.

Last Sunday I was very grateful to Marin Cilic for a bit of a damp squib of a Wimbledon Men's Final, resulting in a longer walk on Old Winchester Hill NNR. It was humid and overcast, but somehow this only made for a more atmospheric yomp.

Situated on a chalk escarpment in the South Downs National Park, it's notable for it's myriad of wildflowers and insects, and ably grazed by a herd of hardy Herdwick sheep from the lake District.

They need to be hardy - on a bleak winter's day, there is little cover, apart from the large blocks of woodland near the bottom of the slope, including an ancient yew woodland. And some of the paths are on some formidable slopes!

We walked across to the Iron Age Hillfort, where the ramparts are wonderfully defined and smothered in all manner of beautiful plants - betony, small scabious, ox eye daisy, ladies bedstraw, hawkbits, knapweed and marjoram. But to top it all off, now is the time to view the spectacle of the bright blue flowers of round-headed rampion.

Every time I've been on the reserve - and I've done a fair bit of surveying up here - it's been earlier, missing out on seeing this beauty. So, my reaction was rather predictable! Apparently, they are most common in the South Downs than anywhere else in the country.

Looking further than the flowers, the views from up there are spectacular, across much of the downs inland, and out across to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

Our route back to the carpark meandered along the slope, down through dark, ancient woodland, then up an incredibly steep slope - much pausing to admire the view along the way!

So, with National Parks Week about to start, use this opportunity to get out there and explore this wonderful park and especially the NNR.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

There and back walks

I don't know about you but I crave a nice circular walk when I'm out and about - I usually get bored retracing my steps.

Last weekend we spent much of the day in the Test Valley - starting at West Down and walking to the beautiful Chilbolton Common. unfortunately, although a circular route is available, we didn't have the time due to impending barbecue. Nevertheless, it's a beautiful walk and actually, going back the same way gives you a new appreciation of the route, noticing different things from that different angle. The Common is a SSSI and a great swimming hole for the surrounding villages - lots of people out that day as it was hot! The wildflowers were blooming - yellow swathes of ladies bedstraw in particular, and the fluffy, creamy clouds of meadowsweet in the wetter spots. The clear chalk river water had a healthy growth of water crowfoot too - I hope the locals appreciate how lucky they are!

 After lunch we had a longer walk along the Test Way (which we had also travelled a short way along earlier in the day) - this is a 49 mile route tracing the course of this prized chalk river - the birthplace of fly fishing. People travel from all over the world to fish along its banks. The footpath, though, is actually the route of a dismantled railway, and largely shaded with trees and scrub - handy for the day we were walking along it! It does pass through some lovely bits of countryside, notably, alongside Stockbridge Common Marsh - another SSSI for its wetland plants and insects. These wetland areas usually have peat deposits under the vegetation, and it was noticeably bouncy walking along the marsh that day.

Thankfully, yesterday featured a short but circular route at Martin Down. We are now in the 'purple' season - masses of knapweed and small scabious spread throughout the site, with tonnes of yellow hammers, skylarks and even corn buntings - all declining species, and all finding a haven at the NNR.

I think by the end of the day on the Test I'd learnt to love the there-and-back walk - noticing new things along the same route, making me even more grateful we live in this country and have these beautiful places nearby.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Ancient ramblings

So I've been making sure I'm able to get out and enjoy this lovely weather we've been having, and trekking slightly further afield to share some of the beautiful sites we have with others.

Last Sunday was just that - a trip to Cerne Abbas in Dorset, not just to view the Giant on the hillside (see previous posts) but to admire the ancient tranquil village buildings and the beautiful chalk grassland upon which the Giant sits.

We started with a wander around what remains of the ancient Abbey - not much is the answer! Then, heading on up the back of Giant Hill, we encountered a myriad of wildflowers and insects, including 6 spot burnet moths feeding on small scabious. I love June/July on a downland - the 'purple season' of knapweed, thistles and scabious acting as watering holes for a mass of butterflies and other insects.

The lovely riverside walk back into town followed a beautifully-clear little chalk stream, with abundant water crowfoot, and buzzing with damselflies.

Then yesterday we headed up along part of the Clarendon Way (which runs between Salisbury and Winchester Cathedrals), walking through Clarendon Park, up the hill to the ancient ruins of the mediaeval royal hunting lodge grazed by llamas (see previous posts!), and along the path to the village of Pitton. The ruins are actually very valuable for a variety of wildflowers, including dark mullein, self heal and hawkbits - slowly returning to chalk grassland under the llamas grazing! The footpath also had some beautiful chalk grassland margins with orchids, scabious, knapweed and ladies bedstraw - such a kaleidoscope of colour.

So get out there and enjoy the colours now before the sun scorches them all away in this drought!

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Being observant

I often wonder if it's just me that notices certain aspects when I'm out walking. I'm not the most observant of people, but I appear to be able to spot when a sound or sight is out of the ordinary in an urban setting particularly. The sound of a calling peregrine from the roof of a converted church in Winchester, or the yellow flash of a grey wagtail foraging for insects on the river in Salisbury town centre.

With this hot weather, it's made walking a tad knackering! Last Sunday - for Father's Day - we abandoned the planned Salisbury Plain walk (baking!) to a cooler amble through Langley Wood NNR. The foxgloves were amazingly tall, and the clouds of mozzies accompanying us very annoying, but it was the dappled light highlighting patches of ferns that I noticed. Standing still to photograph them, however, would have resulted in being bitten!

And then on Wednesday I walked into town for the annual eye MOT. This was probably the hottest day of the week! The walk in was calm, reasonably breezey, and particularly beautiful. So many people wander passed the carpets of water crowfoot without batting an eyelid, not really appreciating the beauty or the rarity. The walk back was sweltering, but did feature ducklings, cygnets and baby moorhens. I marvelled at the fact that the water crowfoot was flowering (albeit not quite as profusely) in the very heart of the city - how many people just pass it by without looking?

And just before I began my great climb of the hill back to mine, the hedgerows were alive with banded demoiselles. These dainty damselflies were mating and fighting each other for position on top of the bushes. I'm not quite sure why they had chosen there, so far away from the river, but again, I thought, how any people would have stopped to look? they're stunning close up, but of course, they weren't going to hang around for me!