|Steanbridge House and stream|
Steanbridge House is the Big House of the village, and for generations the home of the Townsends, who owned most of this part of the valley including Steanbridge Mill. The current estate is smaller, but includes a big chunk of the Slad brook ,which the present owners have kindly allowed me to explore.
|A genuinely good place for kingfishers|
I'm walking through a field, the grass still shining with water droplets. This part of the stream has a thinner clothing of trees than elsewhere, and the trees seem to be bigger and more varied than the usual hazel/alder combination. Here's a sycamore, a stately willow, and a beech. The stream itself looks as though it has aspirations to grow up into a real river one day, being wider and slower-flowing. It has the air of somewhere that significant fish (i.e. ones you can see without a magnifying glass) might live, which presumably it is if kingfishers hunt along here. I suspect the difference is the result of active management in place of the benign neglect that seems to operate along most of the stream up to this point.
The kingfisher is rapidly followed by fourteen teenage mallards, doing what teenagers do, viz: going around in a big gaggle, flapping their wings and making a fair amount of unnecessary noise. I wonder if some of them are the group I saw a few weeks ago on the pond. I follow them down to the point where the stream opens out and becomes a long, narrow lake, reflecting mown lawns and the handsome profile of Steanbridge House.
This is a very different environment from those I've been walking in up to now. There are only occasional trees along the bank and those that remain are well-grown, ornamental-looking specimens. Instead, the banks wear intricate sharp-edged patterns of tall grasses, reeds, bullrushes and iris, punctuated by brilliant pink spears of purple loosestrife and fluff-explosions of meadowsweet. The water is deep and very clear and full of a curly weed that I've seen nowhere else on the stream. I can't see any fish, but I don't doubt that there are some. The centre of the lake sprouts an ornamental duckhouse and a lot more ducks than would fit into it, some mallards, some more exotic. As I watch, a lone swan sails stiffly downstream, driving a swathe of ducks before him, including four baby coots (cootlets?) and a moorhen.
A little further on is a similarly venerable and beautiful willow. A scatter of Large White butterflies are enjoying the purple loosestrife. As I follow the eastern bank, I'm startled by the sharp squawk of a moorhen, apparently under my feet, so she must be hiding in the reeds right beside the bank. Overhead, a couple of buzzards are circling and mewing. The scene is a curious mixture of wild-ish and garden-ish, and it does make a very interesting change from my walking so far. The sound recorder isn't getting much action, though - apart from the occasional moorhen shout, there's not much noise on this wide, smooth, unobstructed water.
I'm now following a track through the woodland. I'm back in the world of the secret stream; even with the iron bridge as a reminder, the world of the lake and the house already seems miles away. It's that part of the year when the trees are summer-heavy with so much leaf that any view of the outside world is blocked as if by green velvet curtains. A large brown bird flaps out of the leaf-curtain above me and crashes away into the canopy, only identifiable as a buzzard by its characteristic mew. I can also hear green woodpecker laughter somewhere in the vicinity, but not, of course when I've got the recorder turned on. Think maybe I should start a list of The Sounds That Got Away, which would include the earlier moorhen squawk.
On a deep meander in the stream stands another massive tree, all dolled up in ancient ivy. It's so surrounded by smaller hazels that it's hard to make out what its own leaves are but I'm sure it's an oak. I wonder, from its size, whether it was planted at the same time as the one by the lake, and whether there were once more of them. An avenue of oaks? The ivy growing on it is so ancient that its bark is as ribbed and textured as the bark of the tree itself. It is currently home to a multitude of spiders who have spun their webs between its stems.
The woodland floor is carpeted with hazelnut shells here. Having recently been on a course with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust on identifying signs of small mammals (starting to take all this a bit seriously, you see) , I am looking out for any that show signs of being nibbled by voles or mice. Unfortunately, all the ones I can see have clearly been scrunched by squirrels. It's like searching a clover patch for the one with four leaves. But then I find a small mammal-sized hole in the ground, and satisfactorily close to it, a nut with a small circular hole chewed in the top of it. Not squirrel. Are there tooth marks round the edge of the hole? Hard to tell, in this light, but there are no tooth marks on the rest of the nut (I think) so that means it could be a vole (bank or field) or a dormouse. Probably a vole - judging by the number we saw on this excellent course (good fun - try it yourself!), voles are in the majority. It's pretty exciting to think I might be sitting on a vole's doorstep. Doing the equivalent of rootling through its dustbin. Hmm.
|Large white on purple loosestrife|
I decide to try walking back up the old watercourse to see where it goes. I think I've found it on the map, where it's shown as a straight, blue line coming away from the Steanbridge lake and parallel with the main stream. So it is supposed to have water in it, as far as Ordnance Survey are concerned. The plants growing in the bottom of it suggest this hasn't been true very recently, but its appearance on the map adds credence to the idea that it was part of a man-made water system. It runs higher up the hill than the main stream and skirts the edge of an area of beech woodland. Partway along it, dug into the steep and sandy bank in the roots of the beech trees above, is a series of holes, increasing in size and a substantial accumulation of poo. Not twisty-tailed poo but well, basically just squidgy. (Too much information? Blame Chris Packham.) Cudgelling my brains to remember what we were told on the mammal course, I wonder if this could be a badger latrine. Which adds fuel to my wistful speculations about badger cubs and the bank...
Walking in the watercourse is tricky because it's deep in branch debris and leaf litter. After stumbling along it for some distance, I emerge into sunshine and a major nettle patch behind the summer house at the end of the lake. Which proves that I've been walking along the blue line shown on the map, although from this vantage point it seems to me that the lake and its surroundings are not quite as they are shown on the OS map. The whole position of the lake relative to the stream seems to have changed.
Google map of this walk