Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Walk 6 - Up hummock and down cleft: Dillay through Down Farm

It's a blustery, damp morning and I'm once more starting off from the path by Snows Farm, but this time to go south from the nature reserve, through fields belonging to the racing stables at Down Farm, courtesy of the owner.  Down Farm's ownership extends right across the valley at this point, taking in sections of both Slad and Dillay brooks, but I'm sticking with the Dillay today.  The BBC forecast promises 'a light shower' at 10.00 am and by the look of it, it's on its way.  One of the things I like about this valley is the way you can generally see the weather approaching, especially if it comes from the south west.  From the lane to Snows Farm, I can see the fields I'm about to walk, and it looks like it's going to be a very up and down business, the land sloping steeply down to the brook.

What I can't see from here is whether I will have racehorses for company or not.  I've been given a mobile number to call if the horses should decide to bother me but I'm not unduly worried at this stage and remark insouciantly to my sound recorder that they couldn't be more bothering than the ponies who interrupted my drawing in the nature reserve last time.

One thing about wet weather; it makes you realise how lush all the foliage is.  After rain, every leaf and branch leans down towards you, heavy with a load of raindrops to shed.  We've now definitively moved away from the neat, new leaves of spring and into the extravagance of summer greenery.  In other ways, it's still spring-like, though - this showery weather feels more like spring than spring itself did, this year, and also there are any amount of baby birds about.  I can hear them cheeping unwarily from hedgerows and trees.

The promised shower arrives ten minutes early and I take shelter under the trees below the 'Roman' bridge.  The ground here is boggy and sodden and sports several spotted orchids, which is good to see as apparently it's supposed to be a bad year for orchids - wrong combination of weather conditions or something.  There are plenty of other interesting plants down here in this damp bit under the trees, none of which I can name, but once again I'm impressed by the sheer numbers.

Entering the first of the Down Farm fields, I find the brook very thoroughly fenced off, both by barbed wire and undergrowth, which is frustrating.  The fences thing is interesting: I must admit that I find fences a little intimidating because they so obviously say 'keep out' even when, as now, what they are intended to keep out is not me, as such, but livestock. They very clearly define what's 'in' and what's 'outside'.  But for other animals in the valley, our boundaries have no significance and, presumably, a fence is only a barrier if they are too big to get through, over or under it.  Which means that if I'm considering the valley from their point of view too, it's no good always staying this side of the fence.

So I start looking for a way over it, which is not so easy. Lots of nettles by the fence, too, grown to summer height, i.e. you don't want to tangle with them.  Meanwhile, the green meadow I'm walking through provides lots of incidental entertainment of its own, such as a hawthorn tree gloriously covered in wild honeysuckle, a scattering of wildflowers among the wet grass, a handsomely striped snail and a juicy selection of fat slugs of various colours, brought out by the rain.  I don't object to slugs in principle, though I do object to them eating my pansies, which of course is not really their fault.  How far, I wonder, do slugs travel?  Has anyone bothered to find out?  What is the world, to a slug?  This field?  This section of this field?  Do they stay put so long as there's plenty of food, or do they wander about all the time?  Do they have territories, and notional fences, of their own?

I debated whether or not to come out this morning, because it looked as though it was going to chuck it down, but decided that it was no good only seeing the valley in bright sunshine - I need to see it in all sorts of weathers if possible.  As it turns out, the shower was only brief and I've now not only got sunshine, but also a myriad raindrops for it to sparkle off in the grass and trees.  Plus plenty of slugs and snails of all descriptions, not to mention a few dusty-looking moths.  The stream is deeply hidden by a cloak of trees all the way along this field, just audible, barely visible.  I follow a faint animal path through the wet grass and it leads me to a point where the fence has, inexplicably, moved to the far side of the stream.  It's clear that other largish animals regularly come down to the water here.

Out comes the sound recorder to capture the delicate glooping of the stream finding its way around and underneath a fallen tree and other obstacles.  It strikes me that if it wasn't for these obstacles - either tree roots or fallen wood collecting debris - there wouldn't be any noise for me to record.  Where there's nothing in its way, the water flow is almost completely silent.  I try to make a drawing of one of the more intricate accumulations of wood and debris.  Not so good, except as an exercise in looking.  To me, drawing detail is never easy.  My mind seems to shy away from getting to grips with it.  I'm happier trying to sketch the sream itself, in its tunnel of trees.  While I work, I can hear various baby birds somewhere overhead, demanding to be fed.

In this area, it's even more obvious than usual how the land has been shaped by water running through it.  I am walking through a series of fields which are like the sections of a mattress, bulging grassy hummocks separated by sharp clefts, in each of which is a tiny stream, or the signs of a stream (i.e. boggy ground), flowing down the hill to the main brook.  It's as if the stream and its tributaries formed were a wire grid and the land was flesh being pressed up against the grid, and bulging through the gaps.

Trees also follow the water.  The main stream is shrouded in trees all along its length, and you can spot the smaller streams by looking for lines of trees running up the hill.  Under the trees, there are drifts of nettles and not much else.  I find a stretch of the stream where there are no trees on this side, and here, even though the ground is chopped up by animals coming down to the water, there are water forget-me-nots and buttercups taking advantage of the extra light.  Then the trees close in around the stream again, and the fences (and the nettles) return.

The field gates are mostly at the top of the hill, not down by the stream, so to follow the stream I am forced to zigzag up and down a series of fields from top to bottom, up hummock and down cleft, changing my viewpoint all the time. From one of these higher vantage points I see that the next field is frosted with a golden haze of buttercups.  Why, I wonder, is there an EU butter-mountain of buttercups in that field, and none in this one?  Just one more question to which I don't have an answer.

I get a glimpse of civilisation here; across the stream, framed by a gap in the trees, is the grassy hump of Down Hill and peering over the edge of it is Down Farmhouse.  Beyond here is a track which crosses from this field into the one on the other side of the stream, and to my surprise it's being carried on another ancient-looking arched stone bridge, very similar, to my eyes anyway, to the 'Roman' bridge up by Snow's Farm.  I fantasise about some ancient Roman student engineer making these bridges as apprentice pieces before going on to (literally) higher things.

As I approach the next field, a strong smell of horse floats down the wind to me so I'm not surprised to find a group of seven or eight young horses regarding me with deep interest.  One of them is having his hooves seen to by a competent-looking person who pays me no attention whatsoever.  The same cannot be said for the rest of the horses, who come hurrying over to see what I'm about.  I make the mistake of talking aimiably to them, with the intention of showing them that I'm (a) not scared and (b) not scary, but this immediately convinces them that I'm a person of goodwill who can be relied upon to produce something interesting out of my pockets.  Thereafter they stick to me so closely all the way down the field that I begin to fear I shall end up taking them home with me.  Too late, I remember that horses are like dogs and the thing to do, if you don't want their attentions, is ignore them.  There is an exciting moment when one decides he's being left behind and sets off towards me at a straight gallop, but nothing untoward happens and I reach the edge of the field quite untrampled, at which point all the horses finally lose interest.

This field is skirted by a sunken lane, and beyond here, the stream flows into the grounds of Steanbridge Mill.  So this is the furthest point of this morning's walk, but not the end of it, as I now have to retrace my steps, hopefully without re-acquiring my entourage of horses. Walking back along the higher edge of the fields, instead of by the stream, now looks attractive.

From the top of the field, under the eaves of the woods which rim the valley, it's even clearer how tiny streams have cut into the land to create a series of humps and clefts all the way up the valley to the nature reserve. This 'mattress' terrain makes it much harder work than walking along the flat bit by the stream, but it's worth it for the lovely and unusual views. Halfway along the field, the horses down by the stream finally realise where I am, visibly consider playing grandmother's footsteps with me, but decide that it's all too much effort.  Still, I'm not short of company; climbing out of one cleft, I come upon a handsome full-grown fox moseying about, presumably in search of small prey. He gives me a sharp look and, unlike the cubs I saw in the nature reserve, doesn't hang about to ask questions.  He looks in pretty good condition, so presumably the hunting is good just now.

The next field boundary is along a damp bit of nearly-stream and here I find a particularly dense patch of stinging nettles which is home to all sorts of mini-beasts.  There are lots of ladybirds, mostly, I think, of the non-native harlequin variety, but I do see a normal two-spot as well.  I know I should disapprove of the invading harlequins but (speak it softly) they are rather pretty...  There are also snails, and a whole series of interesting bugs.

There are also a lot of rooks up here by the woods and every now and then a flurry of them whirl up into the sky like bits of ash blown on the southwesterly breeze.  Visually, it's a splendid day, because the wind is moving the weather on so fast that you get constant changes of light and shade.

This particular damp gully is populated by elder trees covered in blossom, but a little further on is a wonderful old oak tree, rugged and spreading, the sort a king could hide in, even quite a small and unathletic king, since the lowest branches aren't more than about five feet off the ground.  Such trees aren't all that common in the valley. I hunker down underneath it to try to take a photo of as much of the spread of branches as I can, and it occurs to me to wonder how small beasts, such as voles, perceive trees, so much more massive then they are. Are they aware of them, except as an obstruction in their path?  Do they look up? I lie on my back and look up, to get a sort of vole's-eye view, and find that I can now only see a small part of the canopy.  For a vole who did look up, I imagine, a tree like this would fill the whole sky, perhaps the whole world.  So, to a vole, is a tree just a vast pattern of light and shade, or do they perhaps smell them and sense them in more complex ways than we do?  Or are voles more likely to be aware of the roots of the tree, which might perhaps provide runways, or hiding places, for small animals?

Looking up at the tree from this angle, I can also see lots of spiders webs in the hollows and holes in the trunk and between the branches, which reminds me that a tree this size is likely to be home to all sorts of beasts. And I become aware of something unusual about this particular tree: as well as the normal leaves growing out of the branches, it has leaves on slender stems growing directly out of the main trunk in dozens of places, even right down by the ground, so that it looks as though it's covered in soft green fur.

Emerging from my tree-reverie, I realise I've disturbed a deer, a female, by the look of it, or a youngster, which was couched in the long grass a stone's throw from me, quite invisible until she stuck her head up to look about. I can see her head and ears triangulating, knowing that something is amiss, but not yet sure whether it's necessary to move.  I sit still and try to draw her, or at least the bits I can see above the grass.  A couple of quick sketches, and then, as I look down to add something to the last one, she slips away; I look up, and she's gone, as silently as the shadow of the clouds racing across the sky.

It's time I was gone too, peaceful and lovely though it is under this tree.  Climbing up to the top of the field, I can see even more clearly how the slope of the land, smooth at the top, breaks into a sort of bugs-in-the-bolster topography (that may not be a geographical term of art) further down the slope, defined by the many small streams running down towards the brook.  From here I can look downstream and see the whole of the rest of the Slad valley opening out in front of me, or I can look upstream to the shoulders of the nature reserve and the Scrubs.  I think this is the first walk where I've had a really good, panoramic view of how a large part of the valley works.  It's sunny now, but still briskly breezy.  Above the sound of the wind the chirr of a grasshopper is just audible, a definite sound of summer. I also find a pathetic pile of pigeon feathers (possibly courtesy of the fox I met earlier) to remind me that life round here isn't necessarily that peaceful.

There is an official footpath crossing the last (or first) field diagonally from Catswood and leading me back towards Snows Farm via a plank bridge over yet another small tributary stream.  Back up the main stream, I come to the boundary of the nature reserve where a fence crosses the stream.  The stream has deposited a lot of debris against the fence, which has created a small lip and mini-waterfall.  In front of this, it looks as though a couple of beavers have been at work.  Someone has been piling big branches and chunks of tree trunk across the stream like the beginnings of a dam.

Retracing my steps over the 'Roman' bridge and up the lane, that's the end of one of my longest walks (time-wise) so far.  There seemed to be a great deal to see and think about today.

Google map of this walk

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