Friday, 24 June 2011

Walk 8 - Slad Brook rising: Detcombe Woods

7.45 and a beautiful morning.  The forecast is not so good for later on, which is why I'm up and about so early.  Having last week reached the point where the Dillay brook joins the Slad Brook, I'm now making a start on the Slad Brook itself and this morning I should find where it rises and trace it down as far as the end of a chunk of woodland variously known as Longridge Woods, Downwood and Detcombe Woods.  The woods belong to a shooting consortium and I have permission to walk in them once before the end of July and once after the end of January, so as not to impinge on the shooting season.  I'm starting right at the beginning of the valley, from the very top of the hill, where the lane which goes to Dillay Farm leaves the main road.

There are no public footpaths in this part of the valley until much lower down, and passing through three signs saying 'No Public Right of Way' and 'No Footpath' gives me a frisson even though I do have permission to be here.  I find myself walking very quietly and whispering into the tape recorder as I descend on a steep forestry track into a green tunnel of beech trees.  This has the advantage that I can hear the blackbirds who are shouting abuse at me for disturbing their morning. Apart from that, and the occasional noise from the road, it's surprisingly quiet.  I have the impression that the birds are taking it in turns to sing; the blackbirds are succeeded by wood pigeons, and then by a thrush. Individual sounds arise, crystal clear, like the purr of a bumble bee browsing amongst the nettles beside the path.   I catch sight of a deer running away into the trees.

The shape of the valley is very distinct here. It's satisfying to see it widening out from the lip of the hill into a textbook v-shaped valley.  Where three tracks meet, I choose the middle one, which is the only one heading downhill, at the point of the 'V'.  By now, the beeches have given way to a mixture of evergreens and other trees and the presence of the evergreens makes the valley feel a little steeper, a little darker.  I think they have a damping effect on sounds, too.  At the moment I feel very large, and very loud, clumping along like an elephant in a public library.

There are plenty of signs of this being a shooting wood - fenced-off areas, water dispensers for the birds (at least, I assume that's what they are) and various other bits of intriguing gamekeeper paraphernalia,  including wooden structures like miniature gibbets, which are slightly unnerving. All this, and the evergreens, and the quiet, make this part of the valley feel unfamiliar - not unwelcoming, but a little strange, and fascinating, a place where secrets might lurk.

The spring where the Slad Brook rises?
I'm scanning the ground, and the map, for signs of the stream, but there's nothing until I come to a small pool by the path.  It looks man-made - there's a board restricting the flow of water from the lower end - and is surrounded by lush undergrowth, flowering elder, and sprays of bramble flowers reaching down to touch the water.  A trickle of water emerges below the board and becomes a small but steady flow beside the path.  Casting around above the pool, I can't find any water source, so I'm guessing that this is the position of the spring marked on the map, in which case I think I have just located the beginning of the Slad Brook. It's a nice spot, but being by the track, and the pool obviously man-made, it's somehow a little more humdrum than the beginning of the Dillay with its romantic dome of hawthorns.  On the other hand, it's a very definite beginning, and to judge by the bubbles rising to the surface, it has things living in it.  And just like the Dillay, its rising makes no sound that the digital recorder can relate to.

Below the pool, the stream continues as a slow trickle in an incredibly overgrown ditch, winding through a confusion of long grass, cow parsley, buttercups, ragged robin and a dozen other things I can't put names to. Sometimes the water is visible, sometimes not.  I think the ragged robin will stay in my memory of this place, because it is such a jaunty plant and not so often seen, at least by me.

A little further on, an aggressive whistling at knee-height means I've disturbed a wren.  He comes closer and closer, making a noise considerably larger than he is, until he's just the other side of the stream from me, still loudly warning me off, which I think is very brave for such a tiny bird.  (Still, you know what they say about small men and small dogs, so probably it applies to birds too.)  I can see plenty of small birds, in fact, though none so close, all flitting around in the green canopy of the wood.  Perhaps it's the relative isolation, or the lushness of the undergrowth, but somehow this wood has a slightly exotic feel, as if it's great-great-grandmother was a rain forest.

The stream makes a brief appearance, flowing over a cross-track, and in the middle of it I find a swimming earthworm.  At least, it appears to be swimming, since it's making extraordinary writhing movements, curling like a sine wave.  Do earthworms swim?  This is one of many things I don't know about earthworms.  I wonder if I should be rescuing it.  Not waving but drowning?  Decide to be a proper naturalist and let nature take its course.

Presently the stream debouches (I like that word) into a little lake.  Checking with the map, I realise I've reached the point where the forest tracks join up with the footpath which comes down from Bulls Cross.  It's a pretty lake, there is sunshine, and I decide it's time for a drawing, and my somewhat delayed picnic breakfast.  Finding somewhere to sit is interesting; we've had a fair bit of rain in the last few days and all the ground around the lake has some level of wetness ranging from damp-ish to seriously soggy, with the added interest of waist-high nettles and shoulder-high bracken and brambles.  In my search for somewhere to sit which won't involve a short, sharp, prickly shower I come across a little clump of spotted orchids growing taller than I've seen them  elsewhere.

Following an animal path, a narrow gap in the greenery, I find my way down to a miniscule beach.  This is something I've learned - there are always animal paths, and they nearly always go down to the water.  That's not the only sign of life here - in a distinctly Jaws-like moment, a large fin scuds across the surface of the water, and I notice other large shadows moving slowly across the lake.  While I'm looking, one of the fish comes up quite close; he's about 10 inches long, largish, I would have thought, for this size of lake.  I wonder if the lake is lower than usual, and that's why the fish are so visible.  It's possible, because although we've had a fair amount of rain this month, the earlier part of the year was very dry, with hardly any rain at all in April.

After drawing the lake and its surroundings for about an hour, I tackle the final stretch of stream on the shooting consortium's land.  There is no track here, and to begin with the stream itself disappears underground, so all I can do is to try to follow the lowest point of the slope and wait for the stream to reappear. Not so easy, this, as I'm in woodland red in tooth and branch, a grand mixture of different trees, some of them hosting bizarre fungi, growing up amid a deep litter of fallen wood ranging from fine twigs up to whole trees.  I feel very definitely off-piste.  Quite quickly the bottom of the valley becomes a miniature gorge, clogged with debris, and the walk becomes a scramble.  Suddenly the ground beneath my boots is wet; retracing my steps I decide that the stream is seeping out of the ground somewhere beneath a fallen tree, but, frustratingly, I can't see exactly where.  Gradually, the seep becomes an extended puddle, but it isn't until the flow from another little spring joins in that it becomes a running stream again.  Now the banks are so steep and covered with fallen trees that I'm forced to walk, or rather stumble, in the stream itself.

Eventually this all becomes a little too outward-bound for me and I climb out of the stream and further up the slope in an effort to find a level at which walking is a bit easier.  As a result, I happen across two more tiny streams running towards the main one at an angle.  Investigating further up the second stream, I find a section of elderly paved stonework and a chunk of pipe, from which the stream emerges in a rush.  Now a new sound is making itself felt, literally - a steady thump, thump, which can only be a ram of some sort.  Following up the second stream, I find the ram, reposing in a brick-built hutch, from which a heavy pipe emerges, its lip stained orange by the water.  The action of the ram makes the pipe clank and jump so that all the plants growing around and over it quiver in unison with each thump.

Coming back to the main stream, a little further on from where I left it, I find it has doubled in size and now looks like something that might be big enough to have things (fish? lampreys?) living in it.  Now I seem to be hearing stereo thumps, and sure enough there's another ram, this one housed in concrete, which gives a gothic hollowness to its sound.  I wonder where the rams are pumping water to?

As I turn back to the stream, a bird whizzes through the wood quite close by and not much above head height, making that characteristic mewing cry of a buzzard. Inevitably, it's against the light and no more than a silhouette, but to me it looks too small for a buzzard.  Do buzzards fly through woods in this reckless fashion?  I know sparrowhawks do, and they are smaller, but consultation with my mobile bird-calls app tells me that sparrowhawks sound quite different.  So is this a young buzzard indulging in teenage dare-devilry (buzzing the tourist?) or what?  Another unanswered question.  My walks throw up dozens of them.  The next few yards add to the list.  What are these holes in the earth, about two inches across, and who dug them?  Are they for food, or to live in?  And here's a fallen tree, snugly lodged across the stream and making a perfect bridge which, by the look of it, has been there for some time, and here are deer slots in the mud beside the bank.  Do the deer use the tree as a bridge, I wonder?  And do other animals?  I picture a solemn procession of badgers making a slow and stately crossing while a traffic jam of voles, mice and other small fry fume impatiently behind them.  Ingrained anthropomorphism, I'm afraid.

Another small tributary joins the main stream, one of several streams rising from springs that are marked on the map.  Depending which one it is, I may or may not have reached the end of the consortium's land and be wandering into the sliver of the wood which belongs to Down Farm.  I've not yet hit a fence to say so, but I do cross the mental boundary of a pair of wrens who shoot out of the undergrowth to warn me away from their nest.

Presently I can see stronger light ahead; the end of the wood is looming on this, eastern side of the stream, so I now know where I am and where the end of the shooting consortium's land is.  Hunkering down to take a final recording of the stream, a flicker of movement in the water catches my eye; a minute fish, not much bigger than my little fingernail.  I wonder how, if at all, it's related to the monsters I saw in the lake earlier. Downstream of me are two massive fallen trees bisecting the stream and making a landmark for when I come back to this point from the other direction to start the next walk.

For speed of exit (it's now very much lunchtime) I climb straight up the hill following the line of the field (surprisingly hard work) to rejoin the footpath to Bulls Cross.  I've walked this path before, but not previously noticed how striking are the huge beech trees which line it.  Just now, they are trailing many thin strands of ivy, as though they had run straight through the Christmas decorations without looking, and they make an imposing guard of honour for the end of the path and of this walk.

Google map of this walk

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