Thursday, September 25, 2008

Once more unto the breach...

Today was another warm sunny and almost perfect day in the centre of England. I wanted to savour the sun and the life around me today, so I did not hurry. The walk itself was not long but I took almost an hour to complete the circuit shown on the aerial photograph taken from Google Earth.

The first part of the walk is across the village football (‘soccer’ for my American readers) pitch. You might just be able to make out the white goalposts at one end. The very large building with three pitched roofs is a derelict warehouse. Originally it was served by the railway, which you can see running alongside it. The site of the village railway station lies just to the east. No road serves the warehouse, so it was left stranded when the railway closed.

My perfect day today was, rather paradoxically, punctuated by thoughts of war. The warehouse is now empty for a number of years after the railway was shut, it was used by the Ministry of Defence as a long-term store of emergency supplies for use in the event of a nuclear war (or so it was rumoured). When the cold war ended in the early 1990s (just after we moved to the village), the warehouse was emptied. In addition to this, the peace of the countryside was also disturbed about once every 10 minutes throughout the hour, as giant Hercules transporters, flew low over the field on their approach to landing at a nearby RAF station. The station is one of the most important air bases in the UK for transporting goods and troops to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is strange to consider how directly world events can affect such a tiny rural community.

The late sun of autumn has awakened the insect community alongside the track. The gloomy, wet summer was not ideal for our cold-blooded neighbours, so this late sun is welcome. Most butterflies completed their lifecycles long ago, over-wintering now as pupae buried in the soil or undergrowth. Some butterflies hibernate as adults and they will keep flying as long as the air is warm enough. However, flowers are scarce, so refuelling is difficult. The only butterflies I saw today were Speckled Woods. These delicate insects are only ever found in the sorts of habitats that suit their camouflage. The lighter speckles on the wings look like dappled sunlight and that is where you will find them, forest glades and overgrown paths where shafts of sun are filtered through the trees.

I continued up the section of track marked on the photo and then emerged out onto a stubbly field. Crossing over this, I then entered the pasture that I described in an earlier blog post ('Ancient and modern'). You can clearly see the ancient 'ridge and furrow' from the air and I always try and imagine the teams of oxen ploughing this land once a year, maybe 700 years ago. I suspect the ploughmen then were almost entirely unaware of the world events and politics of the Middle Ages. Back when these fields were shaped, the war between France and England raged for 116 years and the battle of Agincourt was fought and won. The village would have been very remote indeed from the events that shaped the day, except perhaps paying the taxes to fund a war that was not theirs.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Treading carefully

I have made the decision to widen my net a little for this blog and start to include other walks around the village, not just the railway track. The land around here is criss-crossed with public footpaths that run along what used to be farm tracks wide enough for a horse and carriage. Many of these tracks would have been the commute to work for the people who lived and worked here 50 or more years ago.

As I write now, the weather has closed in and we have returned to typical British grey drizzle. This morning when I walked, it was glorious autumn sunshine and for a few moments, the world was a simpler and wonderfully peaceful place.

My aim today was to get a little closer to the pair of Buzzards that inhabit a large old oak tree that sits about a half mile from our house, up a gentle slope. From our front garden you can easily make out these magnificent birds as they perch on a protruding dead branch. They have raised chicks here before, but I fear not this summer.

The red circle on the aerial photograph locates the Buzzard tree.

I approached the field from the east (right of the map). The broad band of small trees on the photograph must have been planted around 30 years ago, perhaps as shelter to nurture pheasants. I ventured into this dense vegetation with the aim of finding a short cut across. I quickly realised that this was a bad plan and emerged unsuccessfully 15 minutes later, scratched all over by hanging brambles. I did, however, find many deer prints in the mud in there and also the skull of a badger (blue dot on the photo).

Badgers are omnivorous (eating fruit, seeds as well as meat), which is reflected in their general purpose teeth. The large canine teeth are missing from my skull (original photo to follow) but otherwise it is almost perfect, if a little smelly. The large crest of bone on top of the skull marks the main difference from the skull of a red fox which is also a little more slender and dainty. There are a lot of badger setts around here and I will aim to cover them in a future blog entry.

When I retraced my steps and found a new route to the Buzzard tree. The bird obviously spotted me, or heard me, long before I saw him. By the time I emerged around a hedgerow I was just in time to see him take off and wheel around before flapping out of sight to the north. Time to hone my tracking skills a little more I suspect.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

First steps

Over the last three years I have not only failed to update this blog but I have failed to walk this path. That is shameful and short-sighted of me. The natural world and the changing seasons are what keep me sane, balanced and centred, and I need to keep reminding myself of that.
I was unsure how passable the track would be now with so few people using it, so I looped round and came onto it from the far end. The weak autumn sunshine shone this morning and the air was warm. However, after a summer of little sunshine and plenty of rain, the ground was very wet indeed underfoot.

The summer buzz had now gone and the walk was quiet. Harvest is just over and the landscape is changing fast as winter approaches.
The hedgerows are crowded with blackberries, haws, sloes and rosehips. I will remember to bring bags next time and return with some plump, succulent treasure for supper.

The track was over grown but as you can see from the picture below it is just passable if you can ignore the nettles and prickly bramble overhanging.

This morning was a first step. As I walk I know that my senses will start to sharpen once more and I will be able to describe the life around me.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Returning and restarting

I am now back after a three-year gap. I intend to restart this blog soon, partly to finish what I started and partly to try and rediscover the sense of peace I achieved when I began in 2005.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Happy Christmas!

.....back in a week......or two!!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bleak midwinter

December 14th, 2005

It's been almost 2 weeks since I posted my last entry - partly because of daily domestic hassle and partly because I think I cracked a rib while pulling up fence posts at a local nature reserve and it's still sore. So long a gap does me no good and today I set out, my head filled with mundane worries and stress. Once my boots were on and I set off though, it took me about 5 minutes to relax. My first sighting was the beautiful chestnut brown back of a kestrel as it rested on a telephone wire next to the road. I spent a few seconds looking at it through binoculars and feeling my heartbeat slowing.

As I started up the track, it became clear that the landscape had changed noticeably since my last walk. The browns were more prevalent on trees and bushes, the stark red rosehips were there, but there were very few sloes left. The colour and life was draining away. All the leaves on the bushes had gone now and the blackbird's nests were all clearly visible.

In mid November, when I started this diary, we were enjoying a late autumn and life was still buzzing. A month later, after some high winds and solid frosts, winter is deep and bleak. Now only the winter birds provide movement. The temperature has risen recently though (up to about 7 C), so the air is relatively warm and walking is comfortable.

Along the route, I noticed footprints other than mine, but no accompanying dog. Someone else has been along here in the last few days and they brought tools. Several of the larger brambles had been snipped back to clear the path, but only at the near section of the route. As I progressed further up, the footprints stopped and the brambles were untouched. Activity again as I headed back to the village along the bridleway - a tractor had been up and someone had been chainsawing fallen Elm saplings.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Further afield

November 29th, 2pm

Having looked at a map of the area, I planned a longer walk that included part of the railway and then moves away at right angles. A public footpath crosses the disused railway track and heads west towards the river - about a four mile circular walk. The day was painfully clear and bright and a pair of Buzzards were elegantly traversing the fields and meadows looking for food. Their occasional high-pitched 'pee-oo' call carried for miles. I stood and watched one bird soar right over me. He was heading east but his progress was interrupted by a series of little eddying turns, left and right, as he looked and tried to retain height. Although the bird was several hundred feet up, the air was so clear that I could make out individual primary feathers each time he turned.

About half a mile after its crosses the railway, the landscape here changes in character. The soil near home is heavy clay and supports a distinctive landscape. Nearer the river the soils are alluvial and well-drained because underlying the soil are deposits of sand and gravel, laid down after the last ice age. Only a few miles from here mammoth tusks have been unearthed by the gravel extraction companies.

For the past four or five years, the contractors have been working the gravel pit that is closest to us. They now appear to have finished and the large hole has been filled with water. A number of tiny islands have been created and they poke through the water at irregular intervals. Any pioneering vegetation is sparse and the only birds visible were a few disconsolate gulls. I look forward to coming out to this place regularly over the next few years to see how nature fully reclaims this new habitat.

At the point the path crosses the river is an old water mill that is now simply a (rather beautiful) private house. The mill stream still runs fast past the side of the existing building but the footpath follows the route of a looping meander in the river course, now dry. The course of the meander is clearly marked by large pollarded willows that still line an imaginary bank. Local records show that a mill has existed on this site since 1279 and this one only stopped working in the early 1800s. I'm very much hoping to find kingfishers along this gorgeous stretch of river next year....keep reading!