Dick & Gloria & Lesley & Michael's
Chiltern Way Walk
This walk was planned before the recent heavy downpours of rain and we were all a little nervous that it might be a wet day and that the ground could be very muddy. As it turned out, this was The Hottest Day since the first day - my shoulders are still sore as I start to write this on the following Wednesday, although that's my own fault and I don't deserve your sympathy!
We started in Stonor and the first section was uphill: how fair is that? As we staggered up the grassy slope which stretched away interminably ahead of us (and this was the first 100 yards!) we were aware that the landscape was opening up behind us. Turning around whilst catching our breath we were delighted to see Stonor Park nestling in the safety of its own natural amphitheatre. On the lawn in front of the house was a covered stage ready for that night's concert, one of the 'Carte D'Or Summer Proms and Smooth Series.'
We passed through a woodland stretch and emerged into a mowed field, a sure sign that the weather has improved: the smell of newly-mown hay drying in the glorious sunshine was wonderful.
Shortly after reaching the top of the hill we crossed Russells Water common, a large area of meadow filled with a rich mix of plant species. We met two riders but these were the only horses we saw all day.
The shade of a short stretch of woodland was a welcome break from the burning sun before we crossed a large field of ready-to-harvest beans: at the edge of the imminent woodland, sitting in a dead tree , was a very healthy-looking Red Kite. The beanfield had a lovely strip of 'setaside' replete with meadow flowers, including the noxious but vivid 'official' weed Oxford Ragwort.
Entering another cool and shady wood, we passed a dead tree. Not that exciting, you might think, but this one was standing tall and upright despite having been eaten almost to a net, possibly by some kind of worm. It was very attractive! I spotted an owl pellet lying on a fallen branch: as well as hair and tiny bones it contained a beetle casing, one of those shiny black ridged ovals which cover a beetle's wings.
Bananas finished, we crossed this field going downhill, continuing downhill on some steps through a very steeply sloping strip of woodland before crossing (downhill again) another meadow where we saw what looked like wild Marjoram. After passing the start of the extension to the route (which we may walk after finishing The Walk proper, or we may not) we entered another stretch of woodland. The seasonal signs are very mixed this year and here we walked over large quantities of fallen Hazelnuts which the squirrels are already enjoying as well as Burdock, one of my favourite plants (and not just because of the cordial!), and Lords and Ladies.
We left the woodland and entered a huge field: a line of tall Ash trees running across it marked an old hedge line - even the two previously separate fields had been large. The new field boundaries could hardly be seen from this edge of the field so there was a need to consult the map: that's Dick's job. As is always necessary, out came his glasses as well as the map, both of which had to be put away afterwards, leading Dick to describe himself as Billy-No-Mates. Ahh, bless him. That role (or rather Belinda-No-Mates) is normally assigned to me as I scurry along to catch up with the others after taking a particularly difficult photograph has engrossed me for longer than I anticipated!
At the top of this meadow we entered another field in which the hay was drying and, leading off from that, another shady lane. In the next field were two treats, blackberries and Young Man's Beard: I call it that because it was newly-opened, looking very green and fresh, not at all like the fluffy grey cloud which gives it its common name. This particular specimen contained a shy ladybird. In a distant field we saw bales of silage wrapped in pale green plastic.
The path met a road in the tiny village of Park End: one house had a delightful arched gateway matching an arched wall behind it. Crossing a surprisingly busy road we entered a field whose rape has recently been harvested: walking along the grassy footpath at the edge of the field (where I spotted this lovely pink flower) was easy but I made the mistake of walking through the stubble which was very scratchy.
We had walked about 4.5 miles by the time we reached the place where we crossed the Ridgeway: we all remembered this place from that walk as it had marked the end of the third section of the walk. Lunch had been mooted some time earlier and Michael had been nominated to pick a spot (if you'll forgive the expression): he decided to sit on the edge of the huge field which had been our last crossing before the car in 2003 and it turned out to be perfect: our spot was shady and we could see the path across the field as well as the woodland beyond it. At the edge of that wood a deer was grazing contentedly. When we were ready to move again Michael spotted this chrysalis on the footpath sign: it was beyond the help of St Tiggywinkles so we left it there.
Onward and downward, through a beautiful hedge-enclosed lane which Dick told us had been the original route of the road between Henley and Oxford: with the noise of motorbikes racing along the very exposed new route in our ears, we were glad of the shade the old route provided. At one point a huge dark puddle filled almost the entire width of the path: this was run-off from an enormous heap of manure on the hillside above the path. It had been there sometime: the healthy nettles were testament to the nitrogen-rich soil.
Leaving the path and entering a field we were greeted by the sight of an old friend, Didcot Power Station: this huge and highly-visible sight had been with us for several stages of the Ridgeway but today was the only day we would see it on this walk. We turned slightly away from it as we skirted a huge field at the far side of which was Ewelme Park, a large house on a promontory of land at the edge of the Chilterns. Once again there was some discussion about where the route actually ran: as the Chiltern Way is not an adopted National Trail, the signing is a bit ad hoc in places compared to the plethora of excellent (as in informative and well-constructed) signs on the Ridgeway. The hedge around this field (which overlooked a most spectacular set of fields along the escarpment) contained some beautiful autumn fruits: elderberries, hawthorn and rowan as well as fabulous specimens of what I call Rhubarb and Custard, Rosebay Willowherb. Dick has another name for this which I hope to remember before posting this
Far too often these days I cannot remember the names of wild flowers and this lovely blue flower falls into the 'what the heck is it' category: answers on a postcard please, just as I'd like to know what this white flower is, other than attractive. I knew what these were though: plums for some very rare birds, the Lesser Spotted Haynes. A Lesser-Clothed Large Male must have passed this way recently: a t-shirt, a matching fleece top and trousers as well as five fleece jackets had been abandoned in the lay-by which marked the point where we briefly joined the road.
Dick spotted a snail which had crawled up through a sloe hedge plant until it was higher than his head (Dick's head, not the snail's) - how did it get so high and how was it going to get down? To my surprise, Michael left it there
The last stretch of level ground passed a quarry on the edge of the Chilterns: this was just to the south of Ewelme and, as Belinda caught up with the rest of the crowd, I spotted them in the shade looking at the view. What a view! Ewelme is a beautiful village with some glorious buildings of a mixture of ages. It also has one pub, The Shepherd's Hut, which was (you've guessed it!) right at the opposite end of the village from the path. Hey ho and off we go - to the pub! It was worth it, not least because it was smoke-free, of course. There was no food on offer except cake, but what cake it was: Michael's portion of cream came with a huge slice of chocolate cake. We had cold drinks to quench our thirsts followed by cups of tea/coffee with our cakes. Wonderfully sustaining.
We spotted a Goldfinch, a Brown Trout, a Moorhen walking on watercress (and I'd like to point out that the latter element, as the important part of the composition, is quite intentionally the area of the photo which is in focus[ [phew!]), some very shy ducks (that's my excuse...) and some lovely pond plants as we walked back through this watery village. It has some community-owned watercress beds through which trickles some of the clearest chalk stream water imaginable. We also spotted a sign which, tantalisingly, told that we were 24 hours too early for the cream teas: damn!
But it is the buildings which make Ewelme so perfect, from my point of view at least. There is the village hall with its tribute to the cakes we had just enjoyed. An ancient sign caught my eye too, as did this building which shows its history in its bricks.
Apart from the church (which we did not visit), the school is probably the most notable building in the village. This is apparently Tudor, at least in part, and does not look like a school from the front or the side (where marvellous faces form the ends of the drip strips above the mullioned windows) but the rear shows a reassuringly modern extension.
While we had been in the pub, Dick told us that we were currently at 300 feet above sea level and that our end point, Cookley Green, was at 600 feet. A climb of 300 feet in the remaining four miles sounds reasonable but it's not a steady gradient, of course. Above all, it involves downhill sections too so the 300 foot ascent rapidly becomes a 600 foot or more ascent. Hey ho, it's the price we pay for walking in such lovely countryside.
A vibrant Viburnum in full fruit caught my eye as we ascended the first of many such hills. What followed was not so good: a field being sprayed prior to harvest, the drift from which both Glors and I tried to avoid breathing in. Despite the chemicals, the field looked lovely with its newly-redefined tram lines. Beyond it two hedges stood in shapely contrast to one another: the first was a set of pointed teeth, waiting to take a bite out of the sky and the second was a row of cotton wool balls to soak up the tears from the sky. [I can dream, can't I?]
A bridleway led us along a flat section for a while, passing some almost-ripe apples before we were overtaken by a pick-up. I know that cars are currently allowed to use bridleways but I wish they wouldn't: horses, bicycles, walkers - that's about the limit, I think, and the law may be changed to make that officially the case. Or not: some bridleways are under real threat from motorised vehicles (cars and motorbikes especially), which are just too much for the land to bear. When it's dry they do little damage but in wet weather their wheels churn up the ground and produce deep ruts: we saw some spectacular examples on the Ridgeway, deep enough to conceal a dog should you have one to hand with which to try the experiment.
We joined the Ridgeway for a few miles at the point where it climbs the scarp slope: at this point in 2003 I had scattered some of my brother's ashes in honour of the fact that he had once run 64 miles of the path. A bee on a Knapweed (I think) caught my eye but the image did not come out quite as I would have liked. One of the loveliest parts of the Ridgeway took us across a meadow we had (illegally!) walked all the way round last time but, as it had already been mowed, we were not sorry to cut about a mile off the route. Another blue flower, possibly a Geranium, caught my eye here as did more red kites. These photos, taken where both paths cross the minor road from Cookley Green to the vale as it passes Swyncombe, shows how good the Ridgeway signing is, as well as the astonishingly distant views available from these high points.
Sywncombe has a lovely church with a semi-circular apse as well as some good stained glass: there are attractive windows in the west end as well as the south wall. After some further debate about the route (which took us across the drive to Swyncombe House), we climbed another hill and entered a stretch of beautifully dappled woodland. This cooler stretch was very welcome and took us to Church Lane, the road we had just crossed which leads from Swyncombe to Cookley Green (which does not have its own church). Just before the village we passed a large expanse of another 'weed', one of the Balsams. The car was still there and it was lovely to sit down. We had to join a queue when we reached Stonor from the north just before six because of a traffic jam: people were entering the park for that evening's concert. Once we passed that short queue, we were astonished to see that the queue stretched all the way back through the village. Indeed, once we got in the car and were heading south towards Henley (there was no point joining the queue heading north - it was going nowhere!), the queue stretched back for another three or four miles and included a number of broken-down vehicles.
We went back on Sunday evening to see Jools Holland: approaching from the north there was no jam at all and leaving that way afterwards there was hardly any hold up. The concert (which also featured Ruby Turner and Lulu) was great, as was supper chez Haynes on Saturday night: thank you Dick and Glors for a very lovely weekend.