Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Walk 9 - Root, branch and green canopy: Down Farm fields

This morning's problem is to find my way back to the point in Detcombe Woods where I finished the previous walk, via a footpath through Trillgate Farm which turns out to be easier to find on the ground than it is on the map.  It runs through the corner of a field full of red and white clover, dusted with a scattering of Meadow Brown butterflies.  Last week we had temperatures in the 30s, but today is slightly chill and altogether better for walking.

Green marquee
I can hear the stream even before I reach it, tumbling over a little waterfall before vanishing behind a curtain of undergrowth.  My aim now is to walk back upstream until I find the big fallen trees which mark the point where I finished the last walk.  As usual, the stream is wrapped in a protective shroud of trees and undergrowth.  An animal path gives me an entry point into a world made even more than usually secret by the steepness of the bank which means that the first branches of the trees growing out of it are on a level with the ground.  It's like being in a big green marquee, formed not only by the usual multi-stemmed hazels but also one or two really large trees, including beeches, which, so far, have been rare beside the stream.  The sun breaking through the clouds at this point carpets the ground with golden dapples. This closed-in area has the appeal of a child's den, and I'm tempted to stay a while, but I really need to get on because I'm not sure how much further up the stream I need to go to get to where I ought to be starting.

The boundary on the stream between the shooting consortium's land  and the land belonging to Down Farm, which I'll be walking through this morning. is easy to spot from this direction.  It's marked by another little waterfall, caused by the build-up of debris against the wire fence which runs right across the stream.  The stream above the fall is muddy and below the fall is quite clear and sandy as if the impromptu dam is acting as a filter.   This isn't where I left off, though, so I forge on through the trees, startling a deer which had been grazing on the edge of the meadow beyond.  It seems a shame that my first sight of wildlife on these walks is invariably the movement as the animal turns to flee, and I resolve to walk more quietly.  That's not so easy; I have the impression that humans don't take much interest in the stream along here - the banks are steep and littered with twigs and the stream itself is bridged by so many fallen branches so that just walking alongside it is a tricky exercise, never mind walking quietly.  I'm eventually forced out into the meadow beyond.  There are compensations - sunshine on dew-soaked grass picking out many spiders' webs in shining droplets; the occasional spotted orchid; a vociferous marsh tit bouncing about in the low-stooping branches of an ash tree.  I like marsh tits, with their neat black heads and dapper buff waistcoats, and the way they whisk to and fro with verve and confidence, like James Bond birds on a mission.

Spider's webs in the meadow
At the corner of the meadow I recognise the point where I climbed the hill away from the stream last time and after climbing through the fence to rejoin the stream, lapped about by the scent of wild garlic, I find the big fallen trees and know I've rejoined my previous path.

Heading downstream again, I decide to try and stick with the stream this time rather than climbing back up to the meadow.  The green marquee effect continues.  Along the banks, areas of dead leaf-litter with no sign of greenery alternate with areas thick with very-much-alive nettles and other colonising plants.  I guess it must be the amount of light penetration through the canopy that makes the difference.  Many of the trees are clad in a fretwork of ivy.  The stream itself is noisy with many little rivulets and mini-falls caused by the amount of fallen wood which has landed in it.  In spite of which, the water seems very clear.  I spend a little time looking hopefully for anything that might be living in it, but can't spot anything.  A fat bumble-bee drones around me and I wonder what he might be looking for, because so far I haven't seen a single flower down here under the shroud of trees, but perhaps he's just come down to drink.

My progress down the stream is slowed by fences which regularly veer right down to the water and force me to cross and re-cross it.  The fences are presumably to control the access that stock has to the water and walking along this part of the stream is obviously not normally on anyone's agenda.  This a problem I've encountered before with trying to walk through the valley on a route which doesn't correspond with human pathways or ways of thought.  Arriving at a particularly serious fence which coincides with a small, steep-sided tributary coming in from the hillside, I debate whether to cross the stream again or attempt to cross the fence.  Someone else has gone ahead of me; there are scrabble-marks in the soil of the steep bank below the fence and a fairly significant dint in the bottom of the wire where something largish has pushed its way underneath.  Badger, maybe?  No helpful hairs on the fence to tell me.  I consider trying to do the same, but decide that as I haven't got a thick fur coat and claws it might not be such a good idea.  Instead I wade through deepish mud, cross the stream with the aid of a discarded tyre and move on to a point where a semi-collapsed alder tree has helpfully pushed the fence down to a point where I can step over it.

Self-Heal (not vetch!)
There seem to be far fewer birds here than there were in Detcombe Woods - perhaps because it's basically an area of fields and the only trees are the ones along the stream.  It's very quiet, apart from my galumphing, twig-breaking steps, and very still, apart from the small, subtle movemenf of the stream.  After a while the green gloom gets a little oppressive and I take a detour into the adjoining meadow to recover the sun, marvelling afresh at how its corridor of trees effectively isolates the world of the stream from the valley around it.  It's a nice meadow, with buttercups and red clover and something small and purple which I feel should probably have the word 'vetch' attached to it.  (My knowledge of wildflowers, beyond the obvious ones, is incredibly hazy.  Like my mother before me, I go out on walks, spot flowers, wish I'd brought a spotter's guide with me, mean to look them up when I get home, and hardly ever do.)  Lots more spiders' webs amongst the grass, too.

I've now arrived back at the point where the path from Trillgate joins the stream.  Continuing on the eastern side of the stream through Down Farm land, I presently come across an old brick housing half-drowned in nettles and containing what looks to me like a non-operational ram.  The sound recorder and I can hear water trickling down inside the housing but there's no movement in the mechanism.  A brass plate attached to its corroded dome declares it to be a Blake's Hydram.  I wonder how old it is and whether it would have provided water for Trillgate Farmhouse, which is just visible from here, prettily framed by the trees.

Old ram mechanism
I'm now walking down a narrow field.  The stream here is a couple of feet wide, shallow and boggy-edged, and its cloak of trees has become ragged, with gaps.  In fact, the whole area is much more open than it was higher up.  As a result, the likes of thistles, nettles and bracken have managed to get their feet under the table, so to speak, and the stream is a good deal more overgrown.  It's also narrower and deeper, maybe half the width it was before.

Here's a spot where two alder trees growing opposite each other have forced it into a narrow squinch (is that a word?  If not, it ought to be) between their roots and created a rapid and a waterfall.  Further along is a major gap in the trees and the stream runs over what look like stone blocks.  It's obviously been a crossing point for animals for some time - the banks are well worn down - and I wonder if there used to be a bridge, or a ford, which would explain the stone in the stream bed and the lack of trees.

Further along, another gap in the trees reveals where the racehorses are today, viz, in this field, but on the far side of the stream.  Discretion being the better part of valour, I decide to walk further up the field in the hope that they won't notice me.  Not really out of non-valour (honest, guv) but because being surrounded by racehorses, or doing a fast dash to the edge of the field to avoid being surrounded, isn't going to help my powers of artistic observation.

The upside of being forced further up the slope to avoid the horses is that I get a broader perspective on the stream in its surroundings.  The fields on either side of the stream slope more gently from here on as the valley widens and I can see right up to the woods on the other side of the valley.  I've stepped out of the secret world of the stream and back into the human world, where the network of fences makes more sense and human sounds of chainsawing and general activity are carried up to me on the breeze.  Ahead of me, a rabbit's white scut vanishes into the hedge.  (Once again, I'm seeing the wildlife back end foremost.)  I can also hear the horses huffing and puffing on the far side of the stream; I suspect they know I'm here, but apparently I haven't done anything to arouse their curiosity.

The rest of the valley may be opening out but the stream is still running in a steep little gully and hanging onto its cloak of trees, only one tree deep on each side now, but still an effective screen so that unless I'm actually inside the line of trees I can't see what's happening by the stream at all.  When I walk back into the trees to check, I don't seem to have missed much.  The stream continues in its v-shaped gully, full of fallen wood, devoid of any sign of fish or other inhabitants.  To my eyes, anyway.  Something is happening in the trees at the end of the field, though - I can hear a lot of bird fussing noises, probably not caused by my approach because I'm still too far away, so possibly someone is trying to steal someone else's eggs or impinging on someone's territory.  We humans like to think of 'nature' as calm and peaceful but in the course of my walks there always seems to be something to remind me that for the non-human participants it frequently isn't.

When I reach the end of the field, and the end of today's section of stream, because here it stream vanishes into another chunk of woodland and is crossed by a fence marking the boundary between Down Farm land and the garden of the other half of Steanbridge Mill.   - which I have yet to get permission to enter. Before climbing over the gate back into Steanbridge Lane, I take a final sound recording.  Debris has gathered against the fence, where the stream goes under it, creating another dam-and-waterfall effect as the water forces its way round.

I think this is what I'll take away from this walk for future consideration and/or inspiration - the way in which trees shape the stream and give it voice.  Tree roots influence its route and its depth, forcing little meanders and narrow rapids; tree debris creates mini-dams, waterfalls and small pools; the thickness of the tree canopy dictates what can grow along its banks and (I guess) what can live in the water.  It strikes me that without all the small obstacles created by the trees, the stream would run smoothly and almost silently and there would be nothing in the way of noise for me to record.  As if to make the point, as I walk back through the section of woodland owned by the Fairgreaves', I'm struck afresh by how open and uncluttered their section of the stream seems compared with what I've seen elsewhere.  I think the Fairgreaves do regularly clear it and remove fallen wood, and I'm guessing that's why the stream is a more even width and seems stronger-flowing. Is that also why lampreys flourish here?

I'd assumed a tedious walk along the lanes and the main road to get back to the Bulls Cross layby, where I left the car, but I'd forgotten about King Charles Lane, an old sunken track which runs from close by the lake straight uphill to the main road.  I'm told it forms part of the route that the armies of Charles I took from Bisley to Painswick during the Civil War - hence the name. Today it's a demure tunnel of green, its steep banks overflowing full of ivy and wild garlic and mother-in-law's tongue and all manner of other things, the surface of the track faced with white stone.  Too pretty to have much military cred now, but a much more satisfactory way to finish my walk.

Google map of this walk

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