Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Moulsford and the Fair Mile

One last walk to squeeze into 2015, as it was one of only one or two sunny days in the whole of the last couple of months. Today should really be New Year's Day as the winter solstice was yesterday (22nd December). Wouldn't it be much simpler and tie both Christmas and New Year to the winter solstice to tie the calendar to the solar year ?

The choice of walk was to do more field research into the ancient crossing of the Thames. It is not clear which is the original route from the chalk Downs to the Thames. I have only walked the Fair Mile once before, eleven years ago, so it was due for a re-visit. The Fair Mile is an ancient track that runs from Moulsford to the high Berkshire Downs and I have long considered it a candidate route for the real 'Ridgeway' (for more of my musings on ancient trackways please see here). Moulsford is an ancient crossing point of the River Thames (a ferry was still running as late as 1885), the Brunel railway line crosses it there today, there is a section of islands with shallow water that would have been easy to cross from ancient times. However Moulsford is a tiny place, it does not seem like a true village - just a set of modern houses along a main road - it has no real centre and the church is tiny, more a chapel than a church. The ford leads to the village of South Stoke on the other side, but that is another small village, not a town like Goring. If the Ridgeway came through it may have moved further south in or before before Anglo-Saxon times. The idea for an early crossing is supported by the discovery of the Bronze Age gold 'Moulsford Torc' near the village. Here is a map of the ten mile walk:

The church is a 1846 Gilbert Scott recreation of a 13th century chapel/church. It looked good in the winter sunshine. It is only ten yards from the River Thames.

Moulsford church

On the path to the church daffodils were already showing themselves, not in flower as they are in some places in this unseasonably mild December.

I then turned onto a track that may be an ancient trackway that extended the current Fair Mile all the way to the river. Along the way I saw knapweed seedheads making an attractive display against the blue sky.


Just before joining the Fair Mile at the junction with the A417 the view back down to Moulsford includes the Chilterns on the NE side of the Thames.

view east

Now I reached the Fair Mile track, this is a steady slope and the track is wide making it an ideal route for droving animals. It is straight so you would have good eye contact with your flock/herd, it is all very convincing . However in terms of providing views and wildlife to photograph it was not great, the first stretch has high hedges on both sides. Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) was one plant in the hedgerow now in fruit.


I kept a look out for plants in flower that shouldn't be. There were quite a few but not in huge numbers. This ragwort must think it is still November.


To the north a farmer has been enterprising and set up a motorcross circuit at Ashdown Farm through fields and woodland, so there was a fair amount of noise of bikes, and in the distance the odd competitor could be glimpsed.

motor cross

Where the Fair Mile track reaches a flat area of the downs (now up to 500feet) views to the west open out, the track still continues straight as a dye.

fair mile

It was a very good day for bird watching, but without binoculars I could not identify everything and often the bird flew off before I had the camera trained on it. This chap is a first for me, it is some kind of redpoll - you can just about see the red blotch on its forehead but is it a mealy or lesser redpoll? As we are into the season of winter migration I'd suggest a mealy redpoll (Carduelis flammea).

Another winter visitor that must be enjoying the mild conditions are fieldfares (Turdus pilaris). This one I chased from bush to bush along the Fair Mile.


Views down to Aston Upthorpe gave views north into Oxfordshire.


This was an attractive light barked tree just about where the Fair Mile track joins the official Ridgeway on its way SE from the Compton Downs.


This is the 'spaghetti junction' of ancient trackways at Roden Downs with ancient tracks to East Ilsley, Compton, Blewbury, Aldworth, Aston Upthorpe, Streatley and Moulsford all meeting here. The Roman Temple at Lowbury Hill emphasises the historic importance of the spot. For anyone following the ‘Last Kingdom’ it is also the site of the Battle of Ashdown where Alfred defeated the Danes. There is a grave of an Anglo-Saxon 'king' just by the temple - and hence name ‘Lowbury’ (Low burrow).

While I contemplated all this history in peaceful isolation I watched a crow successfully chase off a red kite.


Close by I noticed a tree was full of roosting fieldfares, may be fifty of them all together.


I then followed what is signposted as the ‘Ridgeway’ east towards Goring. This stretch is an old track but nothing to suggest it was the major route over the downs, the Fair Mile is my favoured candidate for the true ancient track. I then took a path north to Unhill Wood. Along the path were a number of plants enjoying the mild weather. This strawberry was in flower, although it has lost one petal, however no chance of fruit in January as it is a barren strawberry (Potentilla sterilis).


I last walked this path in April last year (2014) and the views along the valley were fine.


Nearing Moulsford again I saw a fine display of sloes, they just need soaking in gin!


Sunday, 29 November 2015

Garden in 2015

I noticed when reviewing my posts for 2015, with the year all but over, that I had neglected to post a set of garden photographs - apart from one on garden spiders. As the years go by I seem to have been more impressed by the insects than the shrubs and annual flowers I grow, perhaps because I have already have taken pictures of them all. The other reason is that November has proven a wet and cloudy month with no opportunity for a long walk. Still we did need the rain, October had been dry but as a result of the recent rain the area has come out overall as an average year for rainfall.

Starting the year in January I was delighted that a migratory Fieldfare took up residence in my crab apple tree for a week or so. I have always seen them in flocks, so was surprised to see one all on its own for a long period. It looked very fit and healthy.


My Viburnum farreri 'Fragrans' shrub has grown to quite a size. It is confused by our climate and regularly flowers from October to May each year. It attracts a range of insects whenever there is a warm, sunny day during the winter. In this case a fine Red Admiral butterfly was seen in late March. The winter proved mild with no persistent snow.

red admiral,butterfly

I used to think there were only two kinds of bee: honey bees and bumble bees there are in fact hundreds of different species. One of the early ones are the hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes). Perhaps the hairy feet help keep it warm in the early spring! I grow a patch of lungwort (Pulmonaria) and this is very popular with all kinds of bee when it flowers in April, but particularly with the hairy-footed variety.

hairy footed bee

Also in April over-wintering peacock butterflies emerged in the Spring sunshine. This one was feeding an rock cress (Arabis), an early flower liked by many insects.


Come Spring, and you think of flowers, but it also the time for the awakening of insects. For the first time I had planted a lily bulb in a container; amazing how little time it took for these lily beetles to find them - I presume they have a very keen sense of smell. They were so successful in laying their eggs on the leaves that I had to resort to insecticide.

lily beetle

At the same time a strange insect was often hovering over the Spring flowers. It is a bee-fly, a type of fly that is a mimic of and parasitic on bees. It puts its eggs among the eggs of bees which the larvae then eat. So in terms of supporting bees they are bad news.

bee fly

I have two colonies of solitary bee in the garden, one is active in Spring and one in Autumn. I have a separate long posting about my Ivy bees. The other colony are of a smaller bee I think it is Andrena minulata but there a lot of similar, small miner bees. I first spotted it last year, and it was very active for a couple of months digging many holes in the dry weather during March and April. You can see this specimen has a heavy load of pollen to take back underground as food for the young when they hatch out next Spring.

miner bee

With no standing water around it is rare to see damselflies and dragonflies in the garden, so I was pleased to see a large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) in early May.


A huge range of insects is often neglected by us because they hide away so effectively. Moths are one such group and if we called them 'night butterflies' our perceptions might change. This is a lovely bright yellow one that happened to fly into my kitchen - a brimstone moth much more colourful than a brimstone butterfly.

brimstone moth

In the middle of May I saw this female holly blue butterfly in the garden a fair deal, it seemed to have taken my garden as its territory. It is quite rare to see the open wings, they usually hold them tightly closed.

holly blue butterfly

in May 2011 I spotted a couple of Rose Chafer beetles cavorting on a pyracantha bush. I have kept an eye out for them ever since and was glad to see another couple in early June this year. They seem particularly keen on 'Firethorn' blossom .

rose chafer beetle

Also in June I saw a young speckled bush-cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima) clambering around my newly planted out containers. The speckling makes it quite an attractive insect and it is beautifully camouflaged.


Moving on to the end of June another insect caught my eye, it also seemed resident among the plant tubs. It's a hawthorn shieldbug.

hawthorn shieldbug

Moving into July there were more flowers to be seen. The lily that I had rescued from being eaten by lily beetles came into flower.


There was a continuous dry spell up to the middle of July, and I was for ever watering containers and a few garden plants. My prayers for rain were then answered and the rest of July and August proved fairly wet and overcast. By the end of July most of the plants I had grown from seed were in flower including a Canary creeper (Tropaeolum peregrinum) which has lovely flowers. Unfortunately when it turned wet it was eaten away by snails and did not prosper.

canary creeper

A plant that really prospered from July to November was Black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata). It is a vigorous climber and it grew eight feet up canes. I had it in pots either side of the front door. Here it was in September.

black-eyed susan

Another climber is the Passion Flower that seeds itself around the garden, I can't remember where it I originally planted it. At one stage it had clambered all over the garage.

passion flower

On to November and without a sharp frost, quite a few ‘summer’ flowers have kept going. My hollyhock were attacked by snails and then fungi, so I was left with only this fine specimen very late into flower.


Finally a week ago (mid November) a rare glimpse of the sun caught this nasturium giving it a lovely golden glow. It's still flowering.


Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Beenham, Aldermaston Wharf and Rotten Row

Occasionally I look at the walks I have done (165 now on this blog) and spot an area yet to be explored. This one is fairly close to home; Beenham is a village I can't remember ever driving through let alone walking around so this was another travel of discovery. Here is a map of the ten mile walk:

As it is only two months to the shortest day we ought to be deep into autumn. Each year I am surprised on how late oaks and beech lose their leaves, as there was no real sign of this yet. For autumn colour I needed to mainly look at ornamental plants in gardens. This is some sort of dogwood giving a fine purple colour.


During the whole walk I was hearing an almost continuous sound of acorns showering down from the oak trees, denting any cars parked underneath them. I walked from Chapel Row to Beenham, this has a prize-winning pub the Six Bells. The roof tiles looked particularly a particularly striking shade of orange.

six bells at Beenham,pub

There were fine views of the countryside to be had with autumnal tints here and there.


Previous postings for October have included a fair few butterflies feeding on autumn flowers and fruit. The rather cool and overcast conditions seems to have cut numbers substantially. On this walk I saw three butterflies, two in the distance but one was sunning itself and let me get quite close. It's a particularly dark example of a comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album).

comma,butterfly,Polygonia c-album

If there were more butterflies they could have made good use of the many flowers that were still out. There has yet to be a sharp frost. Here is a favourite late flower - borage - anyone for Pimm's?


I walked south from Beenham into the Kennet valley, on a farm on the way were some hens on the loose, with a lordly cockerel keeping an eye on them and here hoping for some food.


The valley holds the River Kennet, the A4 road, a Railway line and the Kennet and Avon canal - a busy transport corridor. There were a large number of boats stacked up on the canal at Aldermaston Wharf.

kennet and avon,canal,boats

Close by, I saw a mallow in full flower. This is, I think, a cut-leaved mallow (Malva alcea), a probable garden escape.

mallow,Malva alcea

The reason for the walk down to the valley was, as is my wont, to link up two networks again - the Kennet and Pang valleys. Having achieved that I set off back towards Beenham, past the busy Beenham Industrial estate. I was surprised to see an old, mature Lebanon cedar on the way. Reaching the top of the valley side I came to Beenham church which is some distance from the village centre. It is a Victorian total rebuild after two previous fires had reduced it to ashes. I found little of great age, even the font was 'modern' but there are records of settlement back to Norman age. The village of Beenham is just a scattering of old houses now linked up by modern development this is because it is on high ground and there was no water until technology allowed deep wells to be dug. Talking of water supply the roads were awash in several places - it seems the water mains still struggle to maintain pressure to supply houses in the village.

Beenham church,church

Beenham's main attraction is that it is the only place in the UK you can see wolves in the wild. The UK Wolf Conservation Trust is just north of the village, it is well worth a visit, you can go for a walk with the wolves - they treat us as members of the pack. I don't think there have been any escapes to local woodland - so this next shot is not one that I took!


I headed north through Bradfield Southend and on the track was a lovely cottage and barn. I had to wait a couple of minutes for a cloud to move over, it was worth the wait. Hidden behind the quaint thatched barn was a horrid concrete garage which you can fortunately not see from this spot.

thatched house and barn

Bradfield Southend is another case of rural ribbon development that has grown out of hand. I then headed towards Stanford Wood, just over the road from here was a cherry in fine autumn colour.

autumn colours

Rotten Row is a hamlet on a steep slope down to Stanford Dingley in the Pang valley. It has some nice old buildings with fine views. One of the house names is called ‘Wits End’ which is probably amusing to begin with and then get rather wearing, at least the owner can say with some truth ‘I am at my Wits End’!

rotten row,tutts clump

I followed the woods along the bottom of the steep slope. At one point good views open up north over the Pang valley.

autumn view

It being mid-October I would hope to see lots of fresh fungi at their best. Not so this year, it has been totally dry for a week or two which has probably held them back, the only places I saw fungi were in very damp places. The specimens I saw were rather old and bedraggled, but I retain hope for a late showing. This little group could be Sulphur Tuft.

fungi,sulphur tuft

I made my way way south to my starting point at Chapel Row. The shop over the road is a strong hint that this is a posh area, it is on the fringes of Bucklebury and just half a mile from the Middleton family property (that's Prince George's other grandparents). The L Interiors shop has a rather expensive range of items for sale.

chapel row shop,L interiors

My concluding shot is a bit of a cheat as it was not taken in the area but on my way back home. I had seen had seen rather little autumn colour in native trees and shrubs. I had been given a tip off that the Wild Service Trees less than a mile from home were worth a look, and they were.

wild service tree,autumn