Saturday, 17 March 2018

Still snow?!

Last Saturday, with intermittent drizzle, and the understanding that the ground was still going to be rather soggy, we opted for an afternoon walk starting at Garston Wood RSPB reserve.

This is my usual bluebell wood, and although it's way too early for this spectacle, it serves as a good starting point for some walking further afield. We did spot some primroses, but we also spotted - in several points along our walk - patches of snow. It was clear that the Beast had caused significant drifts in places up here - it must have been amazing.

The reserve and wider woodland through which we walked contained numerous fresh green shoots of typical ancient woodland indicator plant species. Lots of bluebells and ramsons (wild garlic) of course, but also the often-overlooked dog's mercury. The route took us through the Rushmoor Estate's lovely ancient woodland, where it is clear much is being done to enhance it, through deer fencing to prevent copious nibbling, to recent coppicing to open up areas for more ground flora. We passed the small fort, which last year I had 'discovered', with the ramparts cloaked in ramsons, and the surrounding land in bluebells. Obviously, this was not as stark today, and actually the uniform carpet of green seemed to diminish it slightly in size.

We also encountered the strange butcher's broom plant - very spikey 'leaves' are in fact extensions of the stem, with the red fruit appearing in the middle of them. Another ancient woodland indicator of our chalky woodland fragments.

The route took us along woodland edges, with sweeping fields and pastures, and ancient sunken droveways with beautiful old oaks and beeches.

It's a wonderful part of the country to explore, and I can't wait to see it at its best in the spring, with a riot of colourful blooms.

Friday, 9 March 2018

The Thaw

It was quite a dramatic thaw, with balmy temperatures causing rapid melting. That said, such was the amount of snow, that even now some icy lumps persist at the edges of fields, representing locations of previously-deep drifts of snow.

Having slogged through the slush into town the day before - not pleasant and tough going - we opted for a less-soggy Sunday potter around Langford Lakes, to see what birds were about. Although very few of interest were, what greeted us was spectacular.

You see, most of the lakes had frozen over with a thick layer of snow during the big freeze, with the consequence that when we visited, much of the lake surfaces were still covered. The rapid melting was producing interesting patterns in the ice, and making for interesting bird access! Our approach to the lakes was also lined with a pretty avenue of diminutive scarlet elf cup fungi.

It was interesting to see how certain lakes had almost completely thawed, whilst others had really yet to get going. I'm putting this down to differences in depth and volume. Oddly, most lakes were devoid of any interesting bird life, bar the odd tufted duck or great crested grebe, instead they seemed to have made way for a Canada geese invasion.

Although their incessant honking was terribly annoying, their antics on the slippery slush were entertaining, and we whiled away many minutes watching them.

Just as well, because that afternoon, our planned additional walk in farmland around Stapleford on the A36 just outside of Salisbury was curtailed through being drenched by a sudden sleety downpour. Time to call it a day until the countryside has properly thawed out!

Thursday, 1 March 2018

From Spring to the Beast

What a difference a few days can make. Last Saturday I was walking in the sun, and now I've just got back from battling the blizzard of the Beast from the East (what a silly name).

I started the weekend by walking with friends at Testwood Lakes Nature Reserve near Totton - although a bit boggy, it definitely felt as if Spring was in the air, as we watched a pair of Great Crested Grebes warming up for their courtship dance. That afternoon, I walked along part of the Clarendon Way at Farley Mount Country Park, just south of Winchester, before looping down through woodland and along farm tracks. It's a lovely route, with stunning views across the downs, before moving into ancient woodland and droveways. The route back features a great view of the strange monument that gives Farley Mount its name. Apparently, beneath it's gleaming facade lies a horse that survived leaping into a chalk pit during a fox hunt in 1733, was renamed 'Beware chalk pit', then the following year won a notable race.

Contrast all of that with the scenes today, as snow swirls around the flat, with the cats imploring me to make it stop because they want to go outside. My original walk in the New Forest had been cancelled, and as I was on a mission to get some new gloves (bad time to lose one as everyone has already bought them it appears!) I decided to walk into town along the Avon Valley Path.

Apart from being a tad slippy - despite my full outdoor gear - it was a pretty walk and surprisingly quiet! My way was accompanied by robins, blackbirds, wrens and dunnocks, all trying to find food. It was on the way back that the snow really set in, forming an icing-sugar dusting on sheltered spots, but whipped up into swirls in the gusty easterly wind.

Pretty though it is, prolonged bouts of cold conditions can really hinder certain bird species, particularly those that rely on invertebrates for food - let's hope the thaw is quick.

Monday, 19 February 2018


Although my trip to the French Alps skiing was beautiful and exhilarating, the snowy blanket made for a quiet, almost lifeless scene. Of course, the copious animal tracks (even high up on the peaks as we drifted over in cable cars), as well as the alpine choughs, were signs of much life up here. It was great to get back out in the local countryside this weekend however.

With grey, overcast skies, we opted for a long loop across the New Forest, starting at Blashford Lakes, and heading up onto Ibsley Common for lunch at the High Corner Inn, before returning via Rockford Common.

We started with a quick visit to the bird hide on Ivy Lake - what initially appeared as bare quickly - through my trusty binoculars - revealed a good smattering of bird species. Pochard, lapwing, tufted duck, cormorant, little grebe, possibly some goldeneye. Our route took us along the pretty New Forest stream of Dockens Water, with snowdrops flowering on its banks, and the pale-yellow blooms of wild daffodil about to erupt.

We were quickly - via a great deal of mud - up on a wide and ancient track through the heathland, with good views down to Linwood Bog, and up towards the ridge top, where a kestrel was hunting. Suddenly, I rounded a gorse bush to be greeted by a large herd of fallow deer, including one noticeably pale. Having spotted us, they charged up the hill, then decided better of it and charged back down again, taking safety in the wetter lower slopes.

We continued our route, veering right, towards the bog itself, hoping to pick up a footpath and not be lost to the quagmire. It wasn't too bad, although looks can be deceiving as I found out, suddenly finding myself on a thick but most definitely-wobbling surface of vegetation, as we had stumbled into that most rare and unusual habitat, the quaking bog. A most peculiar feeling, and yet another reason why the New Forest is so special.

Finally crossing the bog, and Dockens Water again, we made our way to a cycle path through heathland and woodland, skirting farms and large trees with woodpeckers drumming out their territories. Time for lunch!

Our route back was much less eventful, although not the same, taking a lower route across Rockford Common, with its wide vistas and large herds of wild livestock - cows and ponies this time. We retraced our steps towards Blashford Lakes, stopping to admire the gall burden on some of the bushes (the remains of gall wasp larvae feeding then hatching out), before a final look in the Ivy lake hide. This time, we found the lesser-spotted Twitcher - a see of scopes as the large mass of roosting gulls that had appeared in our absence might possibly have a Thayer's Gull. We left them to it - enough excitement for one day!

Thursday, 1 February 2018

More limping

My foot is still not better, despite my attempts to rest it. Although, I did unwisely attempt one final walk before admitting defeat. I am definitely getting cabin fever now - so hard when you can't get out and enjoy the countryside!

So my final walk - in the rain - was at Micheldever Woods, north of Winchester. This is a large beech woodland owned by the Forestry Commission, particularly famed for its bluebells. Obviously, not the right time for year for that, but given how much rain we've been having, we thought the broad forest tracks would be less muddy for walking.

With my hobbling, we only had about an hour's walk - I was surprised to see so much archaeology, including an Iron Age banjo enclosure, and Bronze Age long barrow. The woodland is not particularly ancient in terms of the age of trees, but the site has been used by humans for thousands of years, which has altered the plants found here. The open forest floor due to the younger beeches, lets in enough light for the bluebell carpets later in the year, and makes for safe grazing habitat for various species of deer. We spotted a muntjac running across in front of us - if you haven't seen one before, it could easily be mistaken for a dog, as it's about that size, but obviously if you get a good look at it, it's plainly not! They're introduced from Asia, as with several other species of deer in our country. With no natural predators, deer in the UK can cause significant issues in woodlands, nibbling new shoots and saplings, and the Forestry Commission cull in some of their woodlands to maintain the habitat.

This walk was completed a few weeks ago, and since then I've been trying to be good and rest the foot. Although, I'm off skiing next week, so no doubt I'll be back limping again!

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Limping through the countryside

Yes - I've done myself a mischief. I'm not quite sure how, but I think I've given myself bursitis of the heel - very painful to walk. I therefore should not be going for long, exploratory country walks. I should listen to my own advice...

On Saturday we headed up to Pepperbox Hill - the high chalk escarpment with the old folly owned and managed by the National Trust. It's the high point on the Southampton road south of Salisbury, with sometimes clear views across to Fawley Oil Refinery on the New Forest coast and, if you squint a bit, perhaps the Isle of Wight. However, this murky, misty day was not one for spectacular views. Instead, after paying our respects at the folly, we dodged the traffic to cross the main road to talk the paths towards the River Avon. This was a part of the countryside I had grown up with viewing from afar, but had never actually walked.

We barely encountered anyone on our walk, which took in more chalk grassland grazed by various rare breeds of cattle, old droveways, and part of a dismantled railway. We skirted the grounds of Trafalgar Park, just north of Downton, with its magnificent lime trees festooned with the parasitic mistletoe, towards the Avon, via a walled garden and old mill. So many old structures to control the water here, which was a torrent following all the rain we'd had. The little chapel for the Park was also rather pretty. The most amazing thing, however, was the enormous bracket fungus in the bankside willow - obviously it had been there a while, it having its own ecosystem on top of it! We looped back via a stretch of path following more of the railway line, before retracing our steps, with me hobbling at this point.

The following day I was due to meet a friend for a walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal near Seend in the middle of Wiltshire. Due to my hobbling, the pace was slow along this ancient towpath, taking in the industrial history but much in the way of wildlife. There were many info boards along the way saying how much they had done for various species such as water voles, but none spotted. It was certainly a more peaceful spot than the hustle and bustle of stretches through towns such as Devizes, where I've only ever seen rats!

I've taken it a bit easy this week to try and protect the poorly heel, but with a weekend nearly upon us, will I heed my advice? I fear the call of the countryside will be too strong...

Monday, 8 January 2018

New Year, new explorations

We usually head away over the New Year period - it's such an anti-climax with the grand change of numbers, that we try and make more of a thing of it. This year, we went to Perranporth in north Cornwall.

We've been there before, but that doesn't stop us wanting to explore the beautiful coastline - certainly a very different place to walk than the Wiltshire and Hampshire lowlands. Dramatic though the weather was (Storm Eleanor arrived on our final day - check out what happened to the beach here), we had enough breaks in the rain and gales to admire the beauty of the wild, and rocky cliffs.

Which made all the greater contrast when we headed into the Wiltshire countryside yesterday for my birthday. As our group of friends is scattered across Wiltshire and Hampshire, I picked a point roughly halfway, and which none of the party had been to. This was the village of Wilton - who knew there were two in Wiltshire?! - famed for its working windmill, the only one in Wessex apparently!

The lovely sunny walk took us through wide woodland rides among open access young woodland, across the Kennet and Avon Canal - where we saw a rather epic battle between an angler and a pike (the angler won) - and along ancient tracks and sunken droveways. Even the drive there was interesting - so many red kites shining in the sun, hanging low in the sky.

A beautiful walk with varied scenery, history, oh, and a lovely pub!