|View down the valley across Stroud Slad Farm's fields|
I know the beginning of the walk very well because it's almost outside my house. The stream emerges briefly from the culvert, currently almost invisible under the weight of undergrowth, before disappearing under a bridge of railway sleepers which gives acess to our cottages. Just here, I know the brook mainly as a noise of water, but I've learned to tell its likely depth from how it sounds. I've learned not to underestimate it, too. It's perhaps three feet wide here, if that, but in 2007, the year we moved to the The Vatch, after days of heavy rain, the culvert backed up and the stream burst its banks, surging thigh-deep down our little lane. Vatch residents in pyjamas and wellies lugged sand bags, cleared drains and lifted the railway sleeper bridge so that the water could flow back into its course. (It's a strange but curiously effective way to meet your neighbours!) The water lapped at the doors of the lower cottages and then subsided. I regard the brook with more respect now.
Needless to say, there's no sign of the dipper when I get there, but Rod's pretty plank-and-rail bridge is a good place to stop and watch the stream finding its way round the roots of several big alder trees. These trees are still mainly green, but a nearby silver birch is bright with orange and yellow and there's a scattering of red rosehips and other berries. With much of the colour leached out of the landscape by the change of season and the flat, low light, these bright spots really stand out.
Google map of the first part of this walk
The valley feels much narrower and more single-minded from this angle, with only a field's width actually visible on either side of the brook, fringed by woodland on the heights. The mistiness of the upper edges, reduced to grey silhouettes, helps to close down the perspective. This is what my mother calls 'quiet weather', with hardly a breath of wind. Everything is cloaked in droplets of water and the trees by the stream are wading in wet brambles and hung with soggy-looking ivy. There are plenty of birds around - I disturb a blackbird having a bath in a puddle and spot a robin on the wing snatching a blackberry from a bramble thicket. In the trees above, any number of others are providing material for the sound recorder. It's bad light for identifying birds because most of them are just black shapes in black trees against a dead white sky, so I'm rather pleased with myself for spotting the bird I've just been recording - a nuthatch, lurking in a hawthorn bush.
As at Down Farm, I have to zigzag up and down the fields to cross from one to the other via gates at the top. It's brighter up here, with open views towards Stroud, but also feels wetter. I seem to be closer to the mist and cloud - almost in it, rather than merely under it. At the top of the first field is a hawthorn tree heavily colonised by mistletoe. . It's a good time of year to enjoy the shapes of trees, especially the ones that have already lost their leaves, and from up here, I can take them in better than when I'm right underneath them . Down by the stream I notice an unusual shape for the Slad Brook treescape - an oak tree. The only others I've seen so far growing actually by the stream were the giant by Steanbridge House lake and another one just downstream from the lake. Were there once more oak trees, I wonder, and are these few the survivors of felling in an earlier age?
There's no doubt that this is an oak tree because, apart from the leaves, the ground beneath it is covered in acorn-cups. The actual acorns are missing, but the cups are mostly undamaged, which means that whichever nut-eater took the acorns sat down and carefully extracted them from the cups first. Does that sound like squirrels to you? No, me neither; in my garden I get hefty, thuggish squirrels with a very direct approach to food gathering. But perhaps a colony of dainty, maiden-auntish squirrels lives in this oak tree. Something fairly thuggish has stripped a couple of small trees nearby of most of their bark, though.
While I'm musing into the sound recorder about the way trailing tree roots have coralled dead leaves into patterns in the stream, bright yellow against dark water like an Andy Goldsworthy artwork, I'm stopped in mid-sentence by an unexpected sound. A tawny owl, unless I'm much mistaken, hooting from one of the trees in the woods above. Unusual, but not the first time I've heard them in the daytime around here. There is other evidence of the local mammals - badgers have been rooting up patches of grass just here, and as I pause to look more closely, a deer dashes out of cover and away from me. It was lurking in a triangle of rough scrub which is fenced off from the rest of the field.
And while we're on the subject of colour, here's an interesting thing. The hazel and alder trees by the stream are mainly still green, but the ground beneath them is carpeted with yellow and brown leaves. In this third field I find a beautiful example; a classic hazel clump, its remaining leaves mostly green, but with a russet-coloured leaf shadow beneath it. Which means that the leaves must be turning in stages and falling off almost as soon as they turn - perhaps because of last week's rain?
|Leaves and reflections of leaves|
And a flash of black-and-white to end with. As I climb back through Rod's garden, I'm passed by a fast-moving streak of black wing and white underbelly shooting up from the stream. I'm almost certain it was the visiting dipper. Almost.
Google map of second part of walk - Stroud Slad Farm