What better way to spend Christmas Day than up in the sunshine on the downs? As Christmas Day this year was the only clear day in the forecast I decided it would be nice to experience clear roads on a mild winter's day before winter - promised for Boxing Day - sweeps in. Here is a map of the walk (9.5 miles):
I started at the old village of Blewbury, it is on the spring line and has the feel of an Anglo-Saxon village; so old that even the walls are thatched! This is a cob wall - the base is stone but the main part is clay and has to be protected from the elements with a piece of thatch on the top.
I was interested to see how many plants were in flower at mid winter. One of the first I spotted was a red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum), and close by was an umbelifer - possibly angelica.
Fruit were still around in abundance, here are some rose hips.
The path over the fields led direct from Blewbury church to the centre of Upton village. The path is probably the line of the ancient Icknield Way it can be traced to Wantage and beyond. Upton has a few attractive, old houses but not as many as Blewbury.
Leaving the village I took a path to the south towards Chilton, and along the side of track were huge numbers Black Bryony berries of (Dioscorea communis) shining in the sun.
With the leaves gone birds were much more evident, some are winter migrants, choosing to come to the UK for its relatively mild winters. I saw flocks of a few hundred Field fares (Turdus pilaris). In the fields they hunt their invertebrate prey with the same short trotting action of thrushes.
Crossing the disused railway that ran from Southampton via Newbury to Didcot, I passed a farm where there were goldfinches, hens and strange looking Guinea-fowl that originate from sub-Saharan Africa, so British winters must be quite a shock!
Keeping to the ornithological theme, an area where a farmer had dumped a load of top soil was being closely checked over by pied wagtails and, here, meadow pipits.
The path, over the fields converged with the line of the old railway and on a bridge over it were quite a few fine examples of a strange looking plant. It is Wall-rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria) which is a fern rather than a flowering plant. However the colour and shape make them look more like ordinary plants than a fern.
I then headed up to the 'high' downs to join the Great Ridgeway. Views to the north began to open up.
The Ridgeway takes a rather unlikely sharp left turn at this point, close by was a White dead-nettle adding to my tally of plants in flower. Along this stretch in the clean upland air lichens were doing well, they do show up well in winter. This one is the common bright yellow/orange lichen (Xanthoria parietina) .
The actual route of the Great Ridgeway at this point has been widely debated. The ancient track-way from the downs must cross the Pang valley somewhere close by. I think it most likely it crossed at the village of Compton, but the modern route is more photogenic so people prefer to follow the alternative tracks to the north. Here is a topology map demonstrating what I mean, the false colours have light blue as lowest and bright green as the highest ground. The well established Ridgeway is in yellow, the hexagonal nut shows the position of the unlikely turn on the brown route to Streatley. Looking for gentle slopes and following known track-ways the more likely main route would be in green through Compton and then towards Pangbourne, it avoids unnecessary steep slopes. A more convincing northern route of the Fair Mile is shown in orange.
My path took me back towards Blewbury along a narrow stand of Scots Pine.
At the top I was surprised to see knapweed in flower and also in bud, another sign of a mild winter so far.
And down the over side of Churn Hill were excellent views to the north. The most impressive landmark is Blewburton Hill, the Iron age hill-fort that stands next to Blewbury. Now where did I hear about finding my Thrill on Blewbury Hill? Ah yes it was here, it wouldn't be Christmas without Vladimir Putin singing! (here is the proper version).
Walking down to the village I came across another plant in full flower, it covered a whole bank, it is white comfrey, which really should not be doing that in mid-winter.
The path back to Blewbury took me directly into Nottingham Fee, a very old lane with old houses and the Red Lion pub.
As it is Christmas Day I should end with a view of Blewbury Church, Happy Christmas!