A Walk With Dinosaurs and Romans

One of the perks of getting older is retirement or, in my case, semi-retirement.  Suddenly, I no longer need to keep checking my watch to see if I have enough time to do things without racing onto something or somewhere else.  It has given me time to re-visit some of the pleasures that I enjoyed in the past. One of these is walking.  When I was much younger I used to walk the long-distance footpaths and trails that were then just beginning to be created.  Now there are literally dozens of them to be enjoyed varying in length from a few dozen miles to several hundred.  I’m not up to the lengthy walks of my youth yet – the longest took a fortnight to complete.  At present, I’m content to be out for a few hours and, hopefully, the mileage will increase over time. 

England is criss-crossed by public footpaths and longer trails

The other day my partner and I decided to visit the Roman villa at North Leigh not far from the small, Cotswold town of Woodstock.  Unlike the Roman villa where you rarely see anyone, Woodstock is visited by thousands of international visitors every year, for it is where Blenheim Palace, a World Heritage Site, is located.  The two houses, six miles apart in distance but fifteen hundred years apart in their building, are very different.  Whereas the Palace is full of priceless treasures, all that is left of the villa are the foundations and a single mosaic floor.  At its peak in 300AD, the villa was one of the largest in Britain with suites of rooms, many mosaics and several baths.  Now it is quiet, wildflowers scramble over the walls and it is set in glorious countryside close to the River Evenlode.  With parking close-by, this was the starting point for the walk.

The Roman Villa, once busy – now a haven of peace and quiet
Wildflowers scramble over the ruins of the Roman villa

The path to the villa and those leading away from it are well maintained and marked, making the trail easy to follow.  Most of the route we took was on the network of public footpaths that criss-cross England, most of them dating from the time when all travel was either on foot or horse.  At one point, the paths joined the Oxfordshire Way, a path of 66 miles in length.  This in turn links to other long-distance paths so how long you walk for is entirely up to you!  After ten minutes or so, the Evenlode was reached and crossed.  Originally known as the Blade, its present name is relatively modern, first being recorded in use in the 1880s.  It meanders through the Cotswolds for nearly fifty miles before entering the River Thames. Crossing the river, the path turns to the west and the country changes in character with steep grassy banks rich in wildflowers rising high to our right, the river to our left.  Here we’re walking along Akeman Street, an ancient Roman road, once busy but now a quiet, grassy track.

The paths cross meadows until the river is reached

“The tender Evenlode that makes her meadows hush to hear the sound of water…”

Before long, the character of the path changes once more.  The Evenlode changes in character too for there is a wide ford – perfect for wild swimming.  Various paths meet here but we walked the steep path towards the village of Stonesfield, known locally for its history of making the stone rooftiles that are a feature of old Cotswold properties.  In pre-history, the Cotswold Hills were submerged by a warm sea and now fossils can be found quite easily; they can even be seen occasionally in the stones that have been used to build the houses.  It was in the Stonesfield loose and flaky rock that the very first dinosaur fossil to be found anywhere in the world was discovered.  Close to where it was found, a steel bench inscribed with the words of the French poet Hilaire Belloc has recently been placed – welcome indeed, after clambering up the steep path that leads from the ford to the village.

The view of the river from the ford
The rocks around the village of Stonesfield yielded the world’s first dinosaur fossil
The steel bench engraved with the words of Hilaire Belloc

After a short walk along the edge of the village, our path left the Oxfordshire Way to descend steeply through meadows before reaching a strip of woodland, Stockey Plantation.  Although there are firs planted there, there are also many native beech trees which are, arguably, at there most glorious at this time of year.  The newly unfurled leaves are of the most intense green which, along with the deep blue of bluebells and the yellows of other spring flowers are almost too bright for the eyes to bear.

The descent to the woods becomes more gentle as it crosses the meadow
The path through the beechwood
The intense colours of the beech leaves and bluebells almost hurt the eyes

Leaving the woodland we reach the Evenlode ford once more but this time cross it – there is a footbridge, so no need to get wet – before striking off across the fields again to return by an alternative route to the Roman villa and the car beyond.  The walk probably took no more than a couple of hours and is relatively easy.  The weather, this April has been very dry.  At other times, the paths can be muddy and so sensible, walking shoes or boots are recommended.  The route we chose does have some steep hills to climb but these can be avoided for there are many paths that keep to the level ground.  An Ordnance Survey map of the area is handy to work out routes – I used the app on my phone but paper maps covering all parts of the UK are readily available. 

The sun seemed to shine brighter in the water than overhead
In the damper woodlands Ramsons, the wild garlic, carpeted the floor

To see more photos of the Roman villa and read of its history take a look at one of my earlier posts by clicking on the link here.

To read the full text of Hilaire Beloc’s poem of the Evenlode river click here

A Hurricane in a Teacup

With much of Britain recovering from the effects of three storms – Dudley, Eunice and Franklin – within ten days and Storm Gladys about to arrive, it seems appropriate to have some up-to-date thoughts on the time when we England experienced a hurricane. Or did we experience one? After the ridicule that poor Michael Fish, the weatherman, had to endure after he proclaimed in 1987 that “Britain doesn’t have hurricanes” only for the nation to wake up to find itself flattened, the forecasters have avoided using the ‘H’ word. Instead we have storms that are now named in the same way as hurricanes. Even more recently still, we are told we have ‘red alert’ storms. So, were these latest storms hurricanes or in reality were they, as my late father would have said, “just a bit of a blow?”

I wrote the thoughts below many years ago when pondering on the English Hurricane and the later 1990 storm. That wasn’t officially a hurricane either but did far more damage – hurricane-like damage, in fact. The only thing that this and these latest storms prove is that the debate hasn’t moved on very much over the intervening years…

The dangerous work of reconnecting electricity continues through the night

English people constantly talk about weather. It’s in our makeup, our genes – we can’t possibly walk past someone, even a total stranger, without saying something about it. We can’t help it, no matter how much we realise that the person isn’t that interested (or, for that matter, even if they don’t speak English, when we madly gesticulate skywards). We rattle on about too much rain, too little rain, too much sun, no sun, cold for the time of year, how warm it is. So, in the spirit of being a true Englishman, despite my part-Polish ancestry, I’m just going to mention that we had a fantastic sunset in the secret valley a couple of days ago.

I think the reason we may behave like this is because English weather is nearly always gentle. The landscape that makes up England is beautiful and can be dramatic but not in the way of so many other countries. Take the USA, for example. Where’s our Grand Canyon, our towering redwoods, our Rocky Mountains, our Great Plains and our Niagara Falls? We have them in miniature and, perhaps, that is just as well as we are such a small country. And likewise, our weather: we have heatwaves, we have floods, we have blizzards. But they are rarely anything truly spectacular (except to those poor people affected by them, of course). And so when we were told by the weather men in 1987 that reports of a hurricane were completely exaggerated, we believed them totally. And despite the fact that much of the country was hit hard by it when it arrived, my part of the Chiltern Hills where I lived at the time was not much affected, even though it is one of the most wooded parts of the country.

The night in January 1990 was different. This time we had winds, whilst not as severe as three years earlier, which created total havoc with the already weakened root systems of the trees. Great swathes of the magnificent beech woods that are the very heart and soul of the Chilterns were flattened in a couple of hours. I lived at that time in the middle of one of these woodlands and am frequently reminded that, as the rest of the world cowered in their beds and the trees came crashing down all around our house, I woke up to say “a bit windy out there” before falling asleep again. As dawn broke the true damage to the landscape (but fortunately not our home) could be seen.

It is now over thirty years since that storm and the woodands have been transformed. Those of us that remember the 200 year old beech know that the majority are gone and, in their place, are new trees of mixed species. It will be many years before the magnificence of the woods return but they are healing. This photo below is taken from the same spot as the one above. Some of the biggest old stumps have been left, too difficult to move – time has hardly changed their appearance apart from their ‘roof’ of mosses.

One of the unforeseen benefits of the hurricane is the increased amount of light reaching the woodland floor, for beech trees cast a dense shade where little can grow, other than where the canopy is lightest. Apart from the view to the valley below, which was unseen before, many wild flowers are better now than ever. Roll on April when we can see the blue carpet of tens of thousands of bluebells disappearing into the distance.

Oh! And I nearly forgot to say, the weather today is a mix of sunshine, cold winds, rain and sleet. Don’t forget to tell the next person you meet!

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Discovering the Five Senses in Lockdown

It sometimes takes a crisis to make us re-evaluate what is of importance in our lives and the present one of Coronavirus/Corvid-19 surely has to be the greatest that we will collectively face. Now, several weeks into lockdown we have all been developing new patterns to our daily regime, one of which may well be taking more exercise. Never before have we placed so much value on fresh air and being able to walk freely whether it be in our parks, gardens or open countryside.

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                           Riverside path, Higginson Park, Marlow (before social distancing).                                 The river is the River Thames in Buckinghamshire

Living where I do in the Cotswolds surrounded by fields and with woodlands and the river close by it is relatively easy for me to enjoy the open space. For others able to take advantage of their enforced free time, it may involve a longer walk and I have certainly noticed an increase in the numbers of walkers and cyclists here in the valley. I have also noticed that for many of them one aspect of their lives hasn’t changed: as they walk their eyes are glued to the screen of their mobiles and headphones are clamped to their ears, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. It has made me think all the more of our five senses and how we use (or should use) each one of them when out exercising.

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Cycling in the Chiltern Hills

SIGHT For those of us blessed with the gift of vision, perhaps sight is the most important sense we use and perhaps the one we most take for granted.  Without it, it is still possible to enjoy one’s surroundings for the other senses become heightened but I doubt if anyone would deny the pleasure of seeing the beauty that surrounds us on our daily walks. Even within cities there is much nature to be enjoyed although I admit that sometimes it has to be sought with more vigour and awareness.

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Look everywhere – self-sown violas peep out from overhead guttering!

At this time of year, more than any other season, there is much to see. Tight leaf buds unfurl into an explosion of vivid green foliage, iridescent wherever sunlight filters through; young ducklings tumbling into the park pond to take their first swim. But it isn’t just the natural world to be seen anew, there are other things too. Although it had been there for more than a hundred and forty years (and I’d walked past it very day for twenty) the date scratched into the stone on this wall had gone unnoticed.

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Who scratched this date into the old stone wall and why?

HEARING Along with sight the second most important sense we use on our daily amble. Apart from the glory of birdsong there are other sounds that bombard us when out walking. The wind flurry that makes the catkins tremble and shed their pollen, the stronger breeze that make the twigs and branches clatter gently against one another. Then there’s the rustle in the undergrowth. Stop and wait silently and with patience you may be rewarded by the sight of a little field mouse going about its daily chores or a rabbit venturing out to feed.

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patience was rewarded when this little field mouse ventured into the open

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… and also this rabbit

The sound of the river alters constantly. The smooth, barely audible glide of the water changes to a tinkling of soft musical sounds, its flow interrupted by a fallen branch. A few yards further downstream they rise to a crescendo as they crash and tumble over the old millrace before returning to silence as the flow stills in the calm of the millpond.

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The old millrace 

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the calm of the millpond

TOUCH   In the present crisis we are sensibly being discouraged from touching things unnecessarily. Out on walks perhaps care may be advisable when opening gates or climbing stiles but, if you do, take a moment to think about what you feel. Heed the cold steel of the metal five-bar gate and the way it slowly warms beneath your hand; feel the rough timbers of a stile worn smooth from much use over the years. Of less concern health-wise – and all the more pleasurable for that – become aware of the softness of new horse chestnut leaves; later in the year they will become as harsh as sandpaper. Run your fingers across the twisted, grooved bark of the sweet chestnut tree and stroke the furry softness of the aptly named ‘Lamb’s Ears’, the favourite garden herbaceous plant Stachys byzantina.

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The deeply grooved bark of the Sweet Chestnut tree

Stachys byzantina  Lamb’s Ears

SMELL   The scent of spring is everywhere at the moment and to be delighted in. However, the sense of smell is also a powerful trigger of long-forgotten memories. In a few weeks’ time the sweet scent of drying hay in the meadows may recall childhood farm holidays but for now there is the unique smell of new-mown lawns. Both start off as freshly cut grass yet their scent is so surprisingly different. Likewise, compare the subtly differing fragrance of apple and cherry blossom, both in their full-blown glory right now.

Drying hay before baling

The smell of freshly-mown grass…

Without even leaving home, squeeze the leaves of the herbs on the kitchen sill and notice their variation in scent, their colours and textures too. Early morn in the woodland, especially after warm rain, the delicate perfume of bluebells quickly disappears as the sun becomes stronger. Half-close your eyes and glory in their colour, in the silence and in their perfume and leave all cares behind you – if only for a while.

discover the different textures & scents of herbs

The vivid greens & blues of an English beechwood in spring

In town, the scents are also there just waiting to be noticed. Rain falling on roads and pavements or scorched by hot sun both produce delightfully tarry smells, one mild, the other strong. In the formal beds of the local park flowering bulbs stand in regimental rows; each have a unique scent which rises in the air to mingle with the vanilla fragrance of wallflowers. The wallflowers, their dull green foliage barely noticeable throughout the winter, now shout out the arrival of spring through the colours of their flowers of brick red, orange and yellow.

Tulips & wallflowers – a favourite park bedding combination

TASTE   In shaded places where the soil stays moist you may be greeted – even before you arrive – by the pungent scent of wild garlic. A prolific carpeter of the woodland floor its leaves and flowers make a useful ingredient to spring salads. Wild garlic or Ramsons to give it it’s country name, is fickle where it will grow. In some places that would seem suitable, not a single plant can be found. A less common member of the onion family to be found in the wild are the chives of our gardens, they grow along road edges and field boundaries locally. It is thought that they were spread by the old drovers of centuries ago so that they could harvest them along the way to liven up a bland meal. There is no doubting its identification, disturb the tubular green leaves and the familiar scent is immediately released.

Ramsons grow in damp, shaded places

It is not only the onion family that can be nibbled en route. Richard Mabey in his book Food for Free, published many years before foraging became a ‘craze’, suggests nibbling on the half-open buds of hawthorn. Many a country child has done so over countless generations and perhaps that is how they got their old name of Bread and Cheese. To me, they only have a slightly nutty taste and texture.

Hawthorn leaf buds are not really worth eating!

As a boy, brought up close to the River Thames, the hollow stems of the common reed were a regular source of pleasure for the soft pithy centre could be drawn out by pulling the stems through clenched teeth. Close to my present home there is also a small reedbed. These tall reeds have something to offer every one of the other senses too: sight – the pleasure of watching petrol-blue damsel-flies sunbathing on the stems; hearing – as they sway and rustle with the slightest breeze; touch – the coarseness of the leaves, a contrast to their smooth stems; smell – those of the river as it seeps around the roots, a heady mix of wet mud and wet greenery.

Only the male of the Beautiful Demoiselle damsel-fly has petrol-blue wings & body

So, within the bounds and restraints of the Covid-19 advice when out on your daily exercise, remove the earphones, place the phone in your pocket and use, really use, every one of your senses. Not only will you notice more, you will wonder how you never managed to notice them before. Stay safe, stay alert and take this unique opportunity to discover a new world on your doorstep.

Finally, one word of warning. Only try tasting wild plants if you are confident they have been identified correctly. If you decide to forage, do so responsibly and only pick a few leaves at a time. Make sure that all plants for consumption are free of pesticides and other contaminants, especially those growing in or near water.

 

 

The Glories of a Beechwood

Buckinghamshire, one of the so-named Shire counties, lies to the north-west of London.  A long, narrow county; the southern part is renowned for its beech woodlands.  Although greatly diminished in size over the centuries, many of them are still there, remnants of the ancient woodlands that once covered much of Britain, although the industries that they supported are long gone.

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In the Chilterns the beechwoods can almost engulf the lanes

Straddling the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire borders the Chiltern Hills extend diagonally northwards into neighbouring Bedfordshire where they change character from dense woodlands to more open downland.  It is within the shadow of the southern woodlands where I was born and where I lived for the greater part of my life before moving to the secret valley in the Cotswolds.  Inspired by Enid Blyton’s The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, my childhood was spent crawling around the fields, woods and hedgerows learning as much as I could about the wild birds and animals that lived within them.john david shortland 1965 watermark

Although nowadays the woods appear mostly deserted, they are still made use of.  The old tracks and paths that were once used by the men and women that worked and lived there are trodden by walkers, and by the wildlife that remains elusive for only those that move quietly have the pleasure of seeing anything other than a glimpse of a fleeing animal.

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This centuries old track leads down into a deep valley

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Fallow deer can often be seen at rest in clearings if you walk quietly

The making of chair legs to keep the flourishing furniture industry of High Wycombe, the local market town, was carried out within the woodland by men who would set up shelters there.  Known as chair-bodgers, a local dialect word originally confined to this immediate area, they were highly skilled craftsmen who could earn relatively high wages for their work.  The Second World War virtually ended the centuries old tradition, the last being Samuel Rockall who died in the early 1960s.  I had been unaware of Rockall’s life until I researched for this blog post and it seems as if we may have been related for I have Rockalls in my family tree.  In the 1851 census return one of my ancestral cousins is described as a chair turner living in the village where I spent much of my adult life.  More research required!

1851 census - Rockall

Jonathan Rockall, chair turner and ancestral cousin in the 1851 census return.  His wife, Ann, a lace maker,- another local craft

Some of my cousins?! Photo from an old book ‘English Country Life & Work’

It is, perhaps, springtime when the beech woods are most visited for the forest floor is carpeted with bluebells.  The intensity of their colour plus the iridescent green of the tree’s unfurling leaves almost hurt the eyes.  With early morning sunshine the scent is unique and difficult to describe – gentle is the best I can come up with.  As the day progresses the scent is quickly lost.Chilterns Beechwood copyright

During midsummer, the woods become visually silent: the leaves have turned a dark, leathery green and the bluebells gone to lie dormant for the rest of the year.  With autumn, the trees become alive once more with colour, this time as their leaves turn into every shade of copper, gold and brown before they drop to the ground for winter.  It is then that the smooth bark of the trees come to the fore with a silvery sheen that catches the low light of a winter’s day.  Although it may seem as if the woodlands are sleeping, in places the first bluebells are starting to poke their noses through the leaf litter.  Spring is on its way.Autumn colour watermarkIbstone 1984 watermark