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!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Mad dogs and Englishmen

Yes, out into the heat we go - things to do, places to see!

On Friday we walked into the city centre from my flat - a lovely walk down the steep hill to the Avon Valley Path, then following the river into the city. It takes 50 mins or so, but is so beautiful, particularly at this time of year with the water crowfoot flowering. In fact, this aquatic plant (a type of buttercup!) is actually quite rare, only being found in chalk rivers, of which the UK has the majority of the global habitat. The rivers are unique in being groundwater-fed through the porous chalk aquifer, retaining a relatively stable temperature throughout the year, and slowly releasing water into the channels. Quite amazing. And I've never seen it flowering along this stretch quite so much - so thick in places it looked like you could walk across to the other side of the channel. The walk back was still beautiful, but it had heated up even more, and of course required us to climb the steep hill we had descended.

And then today we had decided to do a family walk to celebrate Father's Day - Dad had requested a walk on the Plain, but it being 30 degrees (phew!), we headed to Langley Wood NNR instead. It actually brought back memories of walking through Mediterranean pine forest from campsites in the South of France to the beach. It was very hot and humid, and also very full of mozzies! Nevertheless, the cool, ferny undergrowth, lit by dappled sunlight, was beautiful to stroll around, with numerous butterflies flitting in the glades. The foxgloves, in particular, seem to be amazing this year.

If the weather stays like this, the beautful lush greens of this time of year will soon be replaced with scorched vegetation, so get out there while you can and enjoy the botanical spectacle!

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Time flying by

I honestly don't know where the last few weeks have gone. Thankfully, they've been filled with a lot of beautiful walks.

The last weekend in May was our Mum's 'big birthday' so we had a lovely walk along the coast down at Milford-on-Sea (New Forest coast), with masses of pink thrift and birds foot trefoil in among the shingle. Then the next day we walked on Martin Down, with great views of singing yellowhammers and skylarks, as well as carpets of flowers including horseshoe vetch and common spotted orchids.

In a shameless bid to extend her birthday celebrations, the following weekend we all headed to Devon - the weather chose this particular occasion to break from the glorious sunshine and instead our walk on Dartmoor on Saturday was adjusted to take into account a massive rainstorm. Eventually, it did stop and we managed a good long walk on the moor, crossing streams, listening to skylarks, and marvelling at the contorted forms of the scrub and trees. It contrasted with the walk before lunch where the sunshine held out a beautiful - if steep - walk up an old track, lined with ferns and foxgloves.

On the way back, we called in at Cerne Abbas in Dorset, for a quick walk and delicious pub lunch. We thought we could walk to see the famous chalk Giant, but alas you are better off viewing from a distance as the curvature of the hill obscures him. For those of you not aware of him, well, let's just say he's very pleased with himself! The walk did encounter numerous wildflowers including orchids growing in the margin of an arable field - how they're holding on I don't know!

Last weekend plans I had fell through, so instead, on the Saturday a bunch of us met for a walk around the Cherhill White Horse (near Calne, north of Devizes). Lovely views if this spectacular Wiltshire downloads, with swathes of wildflowers, including wild thyme, rock rose, birds foot trefoil and more common spotted orchids.

Finally, on the Sunday we went for a quick potter around Grovely Wood. Phew - see what I mean?!

Saturday, 27 May 2017


Phew - what a week it's been temperature-wise! Unfortunately, I've mostly been in meetings but did have a couple of opportunities to get out and enjoy the early summer weather.

Last Sunday we headed up to Martin Down. Scarcely had I finished regaling my companion of the wonders of turtle doves, than one was heard calling from the bushes around the Sillens Lane carpark. Such a beautiful sound, and when you consider their population has crashed by 91% in the UK since 1995, it makes it even more precious. Although intensification of agriculture has reduced the arable weeds upon which the doves feed, a significant reason for the decline is actually due to issues in its overwintering and migratory countries, often being shot out of the skies above the Med. Truly appalling it is allowed to carry on.

Our planned route took us across the reserve and up onto Pentridge hill, where we heard several cuckoos - another declining migratory species - as well as mediaeval field systems and an Iron Age hillfort. This area also had swathes of - now sadly gone over - bluebells, in a slightly-more acidic soil as indicated by stands of gorse. The sweeping views across Cranborne Chase are stunning, and the windswept nature leads to interesting tree formations. A most pleasant spot for lunch!

We then returned through the reserve, admiring stands of  early purple orchids and carpets of chalk milkwort and horseshoe vetch. Now is the time for the wondrous Adonis blue butterfly to be on the wing, whose larvae feed on horseshoe vetch - sadly none were seen  that day.

I was also lucky enough to have a working walk on the South Downs on Tuesday, catching up with my manager. We started at the Cheesefoot Head carpark just south of Winchester and more stunning views. when I took a delegation of Danish government ministers and advisors out here a few years ago to see some of the agri-environment schemes we have up and running, they were amazed to be standing somewhere taller than the whole of Denmark!The short route took us down ancient droveways and across arable fields, surrounded by skylarks and calling yellowhammers.

On Wednesday I managed a short walk after work down to the Avon, where once again, more cuckoos were heard (this is the most I've heard ever I think!) and I admired the rising trout catching the emerging mayfly - an idyllic and quintessentially-British scene.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Directional difficulties

Last Sunday we headed off for a recently-discovered corner of the world on the edge of the Avon Valley. Readers may recall I'd visited there a few months ago, reminiscing about the school cross country course! This time we started at Castle Hill close to Fordingbridge, which has beautiful views from high across the sweeping flatness of the peaceful Avon Valley.

We headed through Godhill Enclosure, having entered the New Forest National Park, admiring the small pockets of bluebells still on display amidst the remnants of ancient woodland. Popping out the other side, into the village of Godshill itself, we exited the National Park and attempted to pick up a small path towards the river. We missed our turning, but did find another path further along. Although this meant we had done a small loop, this turned out to be fortuitous, as the path was beautiful. It passed old cottages, a small tranquil stream, and up the hill through great swathes of bluebells, all with nobody about at all. We then found ourselves along an old drove way, again lined with bluebells and red campion, thinking about the centuries of use by farmers driving livestock between farms and to market.

We crossed a field and were then on the edge of Frankenbury Iron Age hill fort, although it was hard to make out any earthworks, it being covered in woodland now. The plan was to continue around the fort, but, whilst admiring the magnificent trees and strolling purposefully along well-made paths, we found ourselves deep in Sandy Balls Holiday Park (cue sniggering about the name). This is the trouble with public footpaths not being distinguished from permissive tracks on the estate. We managed - with a bit of help form the phone - to establish quite how far we had gone wrong and retrace our steps back to where we should have been. Again, though, this route had afforded great views!

Finally, we worked our way through a farm and up the road to the car. A lovely route through a quiet area of the National Park and beyond well worth exploring, for the woodland, wildflowers and birdlife.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Moving on

This week I've noticed that Spring really seems to be moving on. Bluebells are fading and ramsons have moved in to take their place in our woodlands.

Last Sunday we managed to blag the last spot in the small RSPB carpark at Garston Wood for a meander through this beautiful woodland reserve. You may recall, I'd already visited around Easter for a spot of early bluebell photography. Although they were very much still evident, they were starting to fade, with their deep striking blue turning to a more delicate shade trapped between cornflower and lilac. Never mind, the ramsons certainly made up for it, with spectacular drifts this year, carpeting everything in their path, accompanied by delicate garlicky aromas. The dappled light shining through the burgeoning leaves made for excellent spotlights.

I was also lucky enough to be able to call in at Martin Down on the way back from working in Blandford on Wednesday. I popped over the road to Kitt's Grave - the small chunk of woodland and scrub mosaic owned by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust but leased to Natural England to manage on their behalf. Here, the bluebells are much more patchy, but the ramsons could again be seen in drifts away from the paths, amidst the majestic gnarly oaks and hazel coppice. In sheltered spots, I saw primroses still flowering, juxtaposed with cowslips and gorse - seasons changing. Pondering the tranquility of the flowers, my thoughts were 'disturbed' by a cuckoo - I seem to be hearing lots around at the moment, which is great news considering their awful journey running the gauntlet of Maltese hunters as they cross the Med. I also saw one oil beetle, slightly late to the party - those in my parents' garden had emerged from hibernation over a month ago! Hopefully it manages to find a mate.

Although we've been lucky to have great weather recently, I'm starting to get very worried about a lack of water - the Itchen was looking low on one of my lunchtime walks this week, and although we're nowhere near drought conditions yet, I think we should always be mindful of where our water comes from and try and conserve no matter what the time of year.