Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Walk 4 - Bridges and beasts: Snows Farm Nature Reserve

So far, I've done all my walks mid-morning, but I've been thinking that I should try to walk at different times of day, to see things in different lights.  So here I am at 7.30 am on a May morning of hazy sun, walking down the road towards the entrance to the Snows Farm Nature Reserve.  A black cat ambles across my path, which seems like a good omen.  As well as the normal paraphernalia - cameras, binoculars, sketchbook, sound recorder and mike - I have breakfast in my rucksack and feel rather pleased with myself for being this organised, this early in the morning.  I am not really an early morning person, you understand.

The easiest access to the Reserve is from the southern end, so the plan is to walk up through the Reserve from the bottom, along the higher part of the valley, then drop down to the stream when I reach the northern boundary, where I left off walking last time, then continue my walk back down the stream in the direction it flows.

View from stile by Snows Farmhouse
At Snow's Farmhouse I leave the road and the view from the stile holds me still for a few moments.  This is one of the valley's good viewpoints, looking one way into the hills and secret folds of the upper valley and the other way down towards Stroud.  As I cross the field towards the reserve, a bunch of reclining cows eye me askance, as if to say 'bit early for tourists, isn't it?'

The brook crosses the path just before the reserve and I become temporarily geographically challenged as I try to work out whether it's the Slad Brook here, or the Dillay. This end of the valley is confusing, with its various arms, not all of which can be seen from this angle.

The 'Roman Bridge'
Stepping down the bank to get close enough to record the stream burbling over stones, I find myself face to face with the Roman Bridge.  Until quite recently it was news to me that there was a bridge here, never mind a Roman one.  Well, obviously a bridge of some sort, since the path crosses the stream without getting its feet wet, but not a Bridge, with a stone structure and a pedigree and a place in the local history  books.  The fact is, the top of the bridge looks exactly like part of the track, so it's easy to miss the fact that underneath is a small but perfectly formed stone arch which looks like something a long-ago architect made for practice before going off to build the same thing larger, maybe somewhere like York.  It's known locally as the Roman Bridge.  Patricia M Hopf, my source of all wisdom on the upper Slad Valley ('The Turbulent History of a Cotswold Valley') is non-committal about its actual origins but notes that it was once wide enough to take a horse and cart.  Whatever its history, from this low angle the bridge looks as though it's auditioning for a Cotswold Countryside calendar, emerging as it does from drifts of cow parsley, ivy and fern.  Looking backwards from the bridge, I can now see that the path I've just walked on stands out from the rest of the field as a flattened ridge, so I can believe there was an old road here, maybe even a Roman road.

I walk up the bank towards the gate of the reserve under a canopy of alder and hazel trees.  This morning, before setting out, I looked up the difference between alder and hazel leaves because there have been a lot of them in my walks so far and the identification issue has been getting to me. Teeth, that's the point (ho ho).  Hazels have toothed leaves.

Through the gate, down the hill and across the brook into the reserve proper.  There is wild garlic still in bloom down by the brook, though it has long been over nearer to home, plus a tangle of ferns, nettles and tree roots.  Ivy has colonised the trunk of a fallen tree, the ivy still growing though the tree is not, and wildflowers have sprung up along the trunk in the spaces between the ivy stems.

Ivy is becoming one of the themes of these walks.  A little higher up the valley is a pair of ash trees held in a deep embrace by ivy stems as thick as a well-grown sapling. Looking at their sinuous lines, I can see why people of older times thought of ivy as feminine.

Ivy trees
This part of the valley feels very hidden from the outside world, a narrow strip of grassland sandwiched between the bulk of the Scrubs on one side and a steep wooded hillside (oolitic limestone, according to the reserve leaflet) on the other.   The sun is still relatively low in the sky, shining almost directly up the valley.  While I make abortive attempts to photograph buttercup petals from underneath, a kestrel dashes overhead. Rooks are swooping in and out of the trees on the hillside.  There are tractor noises somewhere, but definitely somewhere else.

On up the valley, in a little grove of (pause for study of leaves) hazel trees, I find signs of industrious digging into the roots of the trees, lots of scratched earth and a hole that looks too big for rabbits.  Fox, perhaps?  A little further on, a hank of dark hair caught on a hawthorn branch, low to the ground.  The strands are long and soft.  I fantasise about a mysterious Beast of Snows Farm (a cross between a jaguar and a persian cat).  Not here just now, obviously, or the deer I've just spotted grazing by the treeline wouldn't be hanging about.  The deer doesn't see me at first, and just for once, the wind is from him to me.  I cautiously reach for my binoculars and he raises his head, but doesn't actually move until I put them to my eyes, at which point he legs it smartly.  Which seems to support a pet theory of mine, which is that black binocs might just look a lot like a gun, from the viewpoint of a distant deer.

I've now reached a point where the slope down to the stream below me is so steep that it's almost like standing on the edge of a cliff, and the view up and down the valley is stunning. Pause for breakfast (egg sandwiches) and to watch a group of horses, on the opposite slope, indulging in early-morning rolling in the grass.  The layout of the valley is clearer from up here and I'm able to disentangle my earlier geographical muddle; the hill on the other side is The Scrubs, the valley branching off from it must be Driftcombe.

Snows Farm anthills
According to the reserve leaflet, 300 species of wildflowers grow here in the reserve, but most of them seem to be lying low at the moment.  There's quite a lot of bird's-foot trefoil around, and some little blue things with white flashes which I've also seen growing on Swift's Hill (my wildflower skills are on a par with my tree identification) but not much else.  According to the leaflet, I could also be seeing dogwood, rock rose, columbine, milkwort, thyme, yellow wort, harebell and common and spotted orchids.  Think it's a bit early for orchids, though. What I do notice is that the ground here is covered in small, solid, grassy humps, as if the land has a bad case of grass acne.  What's that all about then?   The leaflet is silent on this point.  (Later on, I discover they are in fact anthills, which makes this field a veritable ant city.)

Onward and upward, I locate the ruins of 'the Old Shop' - four low, broken walls, one of which has a tree growing out of it.  The reserve leaflet says the old shop supplied bread and (coyly) ‘other, more colourful services’.  According to Patricia Hopf, it may also have been an aleshop and a brothel.  All essentials under one roof, then - forerunner of the Tesco Metro.  Only not quite.  Now, it is fast disappearing under the onslaught of tree roots, brambles and moss.  A couple of great tits have set up home in a hole in the back wall - I can see them nipping in and out with great regularity and a calm disregard of my presence, so it looks as though they have a brood to feed.

There are more dark hairs clinging to the stile outside the Old Shop, so the Snows Farm Beast was here too.  With strange beasts in my thoughts, I notice a truly HUGE triangular bird box in a nearby tree and wonder what it's designed to attract.  Owl?  Buzzard?  Vulture?

New ferns: jewellery designs?
While I'm taking photos of the unfurling fronds of new ferns, which make shapes reminiscent of Viking horns or bits of Celtic jewellery, another deer ambles past.  I tend to be a bit blase about seeing deer because they sometimes come into our garden so I have a vague feeling that they aren't Real Wild Animals.  But they are, of course.  This one trots smartly away as soon as I stand up and start taking an interest in him.  A wildlife artist friend of mine has a theory, based on the practice of Native American Indians, that animals can feel a direct gaze, that you are a much less threatening presence if you aren't using your central vision.  Apparently, if you want to see wildlife, the trick is to learn to use only your peripheral vision, to see out of the corners of your eyes.  Which takes some practice, if you don't want to trip over your own feet.

It certainly doesn't work too well while trying to navigate around this reserve.  Finding the way is not straightforward; there are unexpected fences and the path disappears regularly.  I find myself following sinuous little animal paths.  There are signs of animals to be seen - a large hole which must surely be a fox's earth under the roots of a beech tree, a series of molehills, a lot of deer prints in the mud down by a tiny tributary stream running down to the main brook.  The brook itself is fenced off here; I wonder what the local animals make of these fences which cut across their paths, even cutting across the brook in places.  I give up on trying to locate the human path and climb dangerously over barbed wire to get down to the brook.  From the other side, it's easier to see what's what and I can spot the fence marking the upper end of the Reserve, and the path and footbridge I should have taken.  I can also see a flock of interesting sheep with shaggy, dark brown fleeces and little horns.  Now I know where the mysterious dark hairs came from.  So much for the Snows Farm Beast.

Beasts of Snows Farm
I walk back along the brook, crossing and re-crossing it to avoid inconvenient fences. The pattern is the same on this side: woodland at the top of the hill, grassland on the slopes, trees lining the stream. Hazel, alder and hawthorn, some of the hawthorn still just about in bloom.  At one point the stream goes into a steep gully so that I can hear it, but not see it.  There are buttercups in profusion here, as well as thistles and thyme.  Crossing the stream for the last time on a plank bridge, I realise with a shock that I'm back below the gate where I came in, having completely failed to recognise the place when seeing it from a different angle.  This rather sums up my feelings about the Reserve.  Despite the signs of previous human occupants, despite the sheep and the fences, it feels subtly wilder than the other parts of the valley that I know, and familiar things seem less familiar here. Although it isn't very big, and I've walked from one to the other and back, I don't feel as though I've got a handle on it at all.  A place which would stand quite a bit more exploring, I think, or even some sitting still and looking, which I don't seem to have done very much of, so far.  Maybe next time.

Google map of this walk

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