In preparation for a walk scheduled for June I decided to check out the logistics of the route. To make it a longer walk I added on a section to take it to the town of Watlington, one place I have often driven through and never explored on foot. Here is a map of the 9 mile route:
It was another cool February day with some ice still on ponds but like last time it was cloud-free. Watlington has a feeling of great age, with many buildings going back centuries. The church on the northern fringe is near to springs that are the reason the town grew up here. The church is a rather disappointing Victorian rebuild, little of any age remains apart from pillars. However the town does have some old buildings remaining.
I took a path over fields and found a very poor wobbly stile that led to a stream without a bridge, this led me to a section that claims to be part of three long distance paths: The Ridgeway; Shakespeare's Way and Swan's Way. Now from previous postings you may know that in no way is this the 'real' Ridgeway, that runs along the top of the chalk downs through Cookley Green, Park Corner and Christmas Common. This track is probably the upper strand of the Icknield Way. The lower Icknield Way is the modern road (B4009) which runs through villages on the spring line beneath the downs. The upper Icknield Way is above this line and so would be a little less wet and boggy in winter. It's all quite confusing. Here is the view to Watlington Hill and the high downs; just by the hill a wedge shape has been cut into the chalk. The story is that the local squire thought the church would look more impressive from his house if it had a spire, so he dug one in the chalk to give this effect.
The conditions were very favourable for distant views, there needs to be a cool breeze to keep the haze at bay.
It was still birds that were the main wildlife interest of the walk. I heard skylarks already proclaiming territory, and robins were very active too.
If I need a sign of Spring stirring in February and March it is often Arum lilies (Lords and Ladies) that provide it. As woodland flowers they need to get moving early before the trees burst into leaf.
And of course other thing to look out for are catkins. I didn't see that many, but this shrub was in a sunny spot and the catkins were fully out.
This brought me to the old, very small village of Britwell Salome. An unusual name that seems to be a corruption of 'Sulham', however 'Sal-om-e' sounds much more exotic. It is on the spring line and has a small chapel sized church. The yew in the churchyard is reputed to date to King Alfred's time (1,100 years old) but I missed it. I did note the early Norman ornamentation around the door on the south side of the chancel.
The churchyard did have a nice drift of snowdrops.
Close by one of the gardens in the village had a carpet of winter aconites.
The track out to the west gave good views of Britwell Salome House, one of my favourite mansions.
I came across a large mass of rotting manure, and as I had on Christmas Day, found pied wagtails and meadow pipits feeding on the insects. Talking of insects a little further along I briefly saw my first bumblebee of the year.
I then climbed up onto Swyncombe Downs, an open access area which in summer has some rare plants. I thought it was a promising area when I visited it last September. Not that much to see in winter, the large number of ant hills and a couple of very old juniper trees are a sign that this is long undisturbed land.
Munching all the rare flowers was a flock of sheep. However the curious thing was that some had bells around their necks and so the downs were alive with the gentle tinkling of bells, suggesting I was up in the Alps.
I then walked back down and enjoyed good distant views to the north. The bank on the left is part of an old hill fort that surrounded the top of Swyncombe Downs.
Along the side of a wood, a strawberry plant was showing determination to leap into life. It could be Barren or Wild Strawberry difficult to tell without flowers.
My path then followed the 'Ridgeway' back to Watlington, little more to add, as the same views opened out. I have visited this section before. Very near Watlington I entered a patch of scrub and woodland that was full of birds. The best shot I got was of one of a pair of fieldfares.