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!

Friday, 22 December 2017

Another local patch

Last weekend I was at my boyfriend's in Winchester, and with a slightly murky and drizzly weekend ahead of us, we weren't that inspired for choices of walks. However, a quick peruse of the map yielded some interesting exploration of his local patch, which he'd never walked around.

The first walk from his house took us through the scenic delights of a housing estate and the Sainsbury's carpark, before crossing the main road on an elevated footbridge - suddenly we were out in the countryside. It's always amazing how quickly in some places one can do that.

We walked along ancient boundary hedges, the tufts of the year's wild clematis festooning the fences, beside remnants of chalk grassland grazed by British White cattle owned by the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, and along old droves along a ridge top. We descended steeply, with gnarly old yews marking the way, as they have done for centuries. Very tranquil and seldom walked, and definitely a route to do again in the future (the Sainsbury's carpark is actually a very handy point on the route!).

The second walk on Sunday was a bit of a race against time before the rain moved in. We walked a loop from Kings Worthy, skirting wild wet woodland, streams and wetlands in the Itchen Valley, walking underneath the M3 and across the A34, through the picturesque villages of Easton and Martyr Worthy, and again encountering more British White cattle - the Wildlife Trust are busy making contacts with landowners to restore these fragments of rare wetland and chalk downland habitats. Alas, the rain came just as we started our route back, but despite this, it was a great loop through some less well-travelled bits of the valley. Sometimes it's really worth looking at the map to discover these hidden treasures.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Rewarding perseverance

We've had some wild weather lately, which has perhaps decreased my motivation for getting outside.

The final day of the Christmas Market, just before packing up, we managed a swift walk along the Broken Bridges footpath. This meandering path crosses many short bridges, winding its way across water meadows grazed by Highland cows on one side, and more commercial cattle on the other. On this cold afternoon, we encountered very few people in this surprisingly tranquil spot sandwiched between Harnham and Churchfields Industrial estate!

But the real reason for the title of this post was our walk into town along the Avon Valley Path on Sunday. You may recall this was the day of rain, sleet and snow, depending on where in the country you were. The wind whipped our faces, with squally showers blowing in intermittently. Funnily enough, this usually-busy path was rather devoid of crazy people like ourselves.

Having made it into town, and had a quick mooch around the Christmas Market (so dull now our chalets aren't there!), we retraced our steps back home. The observant in the party quickly spotted something moving along a tree trunk overhanging the river - a woodpecker! We were able to watch it for a little while, hopping along trunks and hammering for insects. Certainly the best view of a greater-spotted woodpecker I have had.

And then, walking along the boardwalk by the river and the reedbeds, he again spotted something interesting - this time a magical flash of blue. Yes, a kingfisher! It flew into the reeds and turned to face us - the rufous breast camouflaging perfectly with the surrounding habitat. The path split off in its direction, so we decided to follow it for a closer look, resulting in it zooming away from us, a beautiful splash of azure on this otherwise-drab lunchtime.

I was so glad to have been 'forced' out of the flat that morning, to the best views I've had of these beautiful birds.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Goldeneye on the water

I'm busy with the Salisbury Christmas Market at the moment (do come down!) but did manage to meet up with some friends and potter around Langford Lakes Nature Reserve this weekend.

It's definitely best in the winter, with an interesting and diverse array of wildfowl present on the old gravel pits. Although it's a small reserve, it's very quiet, unlike the larger complex of gravel pits Blashford Lakes, which we visited a few weeks ago.

This meant that we had most of the hides to ourselves - I'm no twitcher, and can only identify a handful of species out there. Lots of tufted ducks of course, but also gadwall pootling about, male wigeon looking resplendent in their chestnut heads and creamy facial stripe, many rear-ends of shovellers, the obligatory cormorants and grey herons and a possible kingfisher sighting.

One hide mostly looked out onto bird feeders, with great tits, robins, dunnocks and even a goldcrest flitting about. However, the real star of the show was mammalian. I have never seen such fat rats, for such an extended period and so close-up. They really are much-maligned. Can you blame them for hanging around a free and easy food source?!

One of the people in a hide told us of a male goldeneye on one of the lakes. We really didn't expect to find it but lo, there it was. It seemed to have befriended a black-headed gull, and looked very lonely. It really is a beautiful bird - crisp black and white patches, almost like black dominoes, and with that startling golden eye. Sadly no pics due to lack of telephoto lens!

Now, I said I am no twitcher, but that was a new 'tick' for me!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Winter is coming

Yes, I know, somewhat predictable - but with most of the leaves finally on the ground, and autumnal wildlife on the wane, there's definitely a sense of things winding down to wait out the forthcoming cold snaps.

Although it was a tad muddy and drizzly yesterday, I dragged us out for a walk around Bramshaw Wood in the New Forest. It's near Nomansland (which has a pub, so hardly lives up to its name), on the northern end of the Forest, and hence not many people visit. It's a lovely mix of ancient woodland, with small streams and ancient Saxon boundary banks among other earthworks.

There are numerous paths - it being Open Access - making plotting a route rather difficult. An OS map isn't that useful BUT GPS is - on several occasions yesterday I was just pointing us in the right general direction. It was rather slow progress - negotiating extreme muddiness - it having rained a lot the night before - and tackling the holly bushes - but we were rewarded with beautiful mossy, gnarly beeches and oaks, fern-lined streams, and beautiful golds, oranges and yellows of the leaves falling around us. We saw one set of amazing fungi (look - don't pick, following the clear signage on most Forestry Commission car parks, to safeguard the amazing richness of fungi here), but apart from that, the fungi season appears to be over.

This morning was a different picture - sunny, with a cold biting wind on our walk into town along the river. Again, very muddy, but the beech and field maple leaves seemed to sparkle in the wind, and on our way back, we saw a kestrel hovering and had a fantastic view of a red kite effortlessly circling above us. So great to see these once-rare birds becoming a frequent sight in Salisbury.

Oh yes, and we also saw a red admiral butterfly - here we are in November, and without a really hard frost yet, some surprising species are hanging on! This week may bring an end to that :(

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Blowing Autumn away

I've really noticed the pace of the season lately - all of those autumnal gusts are really blowing the beautiful leaves off the trees, seemingly before they've really had a chance to change properly!

This weekend I've tried to catch some good autumn colours before it's too late, firstly via a loop starting from Hinton Ampner, and then today at Stourhead.

Some of you may recall I HATE a 'there and back' walk i.e. not a loop. Therefore, I managed to construct a loop, starting from the road to the ancient and pretty village of Hinton Ampner (off the A272 towards Petersfield, about 30 mins from Winchester). I had inadvertently also taken in part of the Cheriton battelfield from the Civil War, which has various interpretation panels dotted about - very interesting. It was a rather grey and cold day - very autumnal. The walk took us down ancient old droves with beautiful thick hedges laden with berries (refer to my post about mast years!), towards the Open Access of Cheriton Wood. I'd never been before - it's an interesting mix of native broafleaves, various conifers, and wide glades being planted up with new trees. Lovely colours, particularly from the beeches. On battling our way to the edge of the wood (no paths!) to pick up a footpath back, we came across a sign welcoming us to the wood. Unfortunately, it then turned out that the open access excluded August - Feb - whoops! The path then took us to the village of Bramdean via some fields of what looked like Phacelia (good for farmland birds and often planted as part of a Stewardship scheme) - not much to it apart from an enormous manor on the road, but not even marked on the map! Bramdean Manor itself was tucked away up the hill on our route, nestled next to a 12th century church being renovated, and with stunning views back across the valley towards Hinton Ampner. Here, we're at the very top of the Itchen catchment, and indeed, Cheriton is where the springs forming the source of this amazing river can be found. In the gathering gloom we quickly yomped back along a beautiful ridge towards the car.

And then today we braved the crowds and headed to Stourhead. It was chocker but, it seems to absorb the vast hordes well and we were able to enjoy the stunning autumn colours (perhaps a week or two too late?) without too many people blocking views! I'd not been before, but the constantly changing light made for some beautiful photos. The low autumn sun caught the edges of the tulip trees, planes and beeches, seemingly setting them afire. Beautiful but fleeting - some patience required!

So get out there (a recurring message of mine!) before this brief spectacle is over!