Friday, 24 February 2012

Walk 21 - Where town and country meet: Slade House

It's a very warm afternoon, probably the warmest of the year so far.  It's only a week since it was freezing cold and definitely winter, but this feels like the first day of spring.  I'm on land belonging to Slade House in Summer Street, Stroud.  Slade House is a handsome Georgian manor house, reputedly built by the owner of the Vatch Mills, and most of the land along here was once part of its estate.   All that remains of the estate now, apart from the garden of the house, is a narrow slice of land sloping steeply from Summer Street right down to the Slad Brook, and adjoining the Wades Farm field where I stopped after my last walk.  The owner of Slade House has just given me a brief tour of the area and I'm about to start exploring on my own.

The Slade House land is part field, part scrub, with a bit of woodland by the brook.  The fields form a steep hump between two gullies which run down to the brook, even steeper than the humps and bumps of the Stroud Slad Farm fields.  From the top, almost level with Summer Street, there's another amazingly different view up and down the valley.  As we walked down the hump, the owner showed me a couple of big badger setts.  He also regularly sees deer here.

View from the top of the hump
I'm now down in the woodland by the brook, where I'm actually quite close to the road, which runs along the other side of the valley a little higher up.  As well as birds singing and the usual woodland noises, I can hear the road and dogs barking and human sounds.  From here on, the opposite bank is bordered by houses and gardens, and then industrial units, all the way to Stroud, although on this side the fields continue for quite a way.  I feel I am still very much in the countryside, here, but all the same I do have a sense of the brook rapidly approaching the town.

Green shoots
Judging by the amount of birdsong around me, the birds also think it's spring.  Down here by the brook, wild garlic is already pushing its way up through the litter of leaves and fallen wood, and I've just heard a woodpecker drumming, which is also supposed to be a harbinger of spring.  In fact, there seem to be two woodpeckers, one burst of drumming answering another, coming closer and closer.  After standing with the sound recorder poised for several minutes, I catch sight of them playing follow-my-leader from one tree to another, silhouetted against the afternoon sun.

The birds are determined to get in on the act.  While I'm trying to record the sound of the stream at this point, a burst of high-volume song from a robin in a nearby bush almost drowns out the water noise.  I can see the wall of the garden on the opposite side of the brook where I stopped my previous walk, and I can also see that the garden on the other side of it is a mass of snowdrops.  It's odd, looking into gardens from this angle, like looking into a dollshouse where the side opens up, or a stage set.  Or like peering into other people's gardens as you're rumbling past in a train and having a sense of getting a view you're not really supposed to see.

Good branch for kingfishers?
The stream has its usual cloak of trees on this side but they have no leaves yet, and there are no trees on the other side because of the gardens, so it seems lighter than usual down here.  Nor is it very overgrown as yet, though Ian says it will be chest-high in nettles come summer, and it's obviously going to be ankle-deep in wild garlic any minute now.  I'm here at the moment when everything is beginning to wake out of its winter sleep.  The banks of the stream are unusually steep and in places undercut, with interesting-looking holes in them.  I wonder about what might live in them.  There's a dead tree here with a sticking-out branch which looks like the perfect fishing-point for a kingfisher, and indeed the ground under the branch is covered in bird droppings so something has been perching here, but reluctantly I have to admit that it doesn't seem likely to be a kingfisher unless it's been extremely ill or is a genetically modified kingfisher which you wouldn't want to meet on a dark night.  There is altogether too much poo here.  And it continues further on, all over the ground and adjoining trees.  I have a Chris Packham moment and try to work out what it might have come from.  My best guess is that seagulls have been hanging out here - I have seen them flying up from the farmland at this end of the valley so maybe this is where they roost.

Old ladies gossiping
The owner hasn't been able to spend much time down here, he tells me, so at the moment it's a bit of a wildlife haven, as the signs of birds roosting suggest.  The amount of birdsong may also be to do with it being pretty undisturbed, I guess.  Many of the trees are covered in some seriously chunky ivy, ivy that’s had plenty of time to grow and has ended up as thick as a woman’s wrist.  A couple of the trees lean together like elderly women gossiping.  Here’s a dead tree which has ivy growing all over it and serious holes in the trunk, 3 or 4 inches across; the top of the tree has broken off and is lying on the ground.  The inside of the trunk is riddled with something which has made it go bright orange and sponge-like – it's easy to see why it collapsed.

There are signs of a manmade structure in the stream here, the remains of a low wall sticking into the flow, and old bits of brickwork toppled into the stream nearby. Perhaps an old outflow?  Or it may be more evidence of the old mill workings.

Following the stream, I quickly come to the edge of the wood, and a wire fence.  This is not, in fact, the legal boundary, which according to Ian is somewhere else, closer into the wood, but this is the practical boundary, stopping animals in the fields from coming into the wood and down to the stream.  Interesting thought: a legal boundary is a line on a map, a practical boundary is where something has to happen, or stop happening.  Here is another part of the practical boundary, the further of the two gullies which define the hump.  This one is now the outflow of a storm drain which takes water away from Summer Street above.  From the end of the gully is a shallow channel running across the flat land by the stream and down to the water.  It's currently dry, but surrounded by a rash of crisp packets, sweet papers and other crud brought down from the street above, a reminder of how close 'civilisation' is.

Sunlight sketch
It's been cloudy while I've been mooching around looking at crisp packets and bird poo, but now the sun comes out again, the light changes dramatically and suddenly I'm surrounded by colour.  Dark brown tree-trunks shade into buff branches surmounted by the brilliant orange of new growth twigs, intermingled with the deep green of ivy and the pale green of uppermost branches.  All these colours almost luminous against a deep blue-grey sky.  I grab my sketchbook and spend three-quarters of an hour trying to make my watercolour pencils reproduce the effect.  Then, just as suddenly, the sun goes in and the colours vanish, leaving me in a monochrome world again.

Time to go home.  I walk back up the line of the storm drain, picking my way through the undergrowth.  The gully becomes quite deep in places, almost a miniature gorge, and higher up it has water in it, which somehow disappears lower down.  At the upper field boundary is the spot where it starts, with a big pipe projecting out of the ground.  But given the steep hump-shape of the ground, I'm betting there was a stream here long before the storm drain was needed for Summer Street.

Evening light on the valley
As I walk back up over tussocky grass to the top of the hill, birds flying away from me in all directions, the evening sun reappears behind me, setting the treelines all the way up the valley afire with even more amazing colours – deep purple, dark orange, russet, bright orange and bright yellow against a blue-grey stormy-looking sky.  As the sun moves between the clouds, it lights up first the trees at the rim of the valley, then the next line of woods, then the tops of the nearer trees, with stripes of blue-green shadow in between.  When it bursts fully through the clouds for a moment, the foreground trees light up brilliant gold and everything in the background goes dark.  I stand watching the changing lightshow while around me blackbirds are singing their spink-spink-spink evening song.

Grass patterns
The vivid light changes things on the ground, too, changing an area of dead grass stalks into an abstract sea of swirling patterns, white on dark green, and lighting up a network of narrow badger-paths criss-crossing the upper field, which houses the biggest sett.

From the top of the hump, pausing to take in the view of the valley again, I'm struck by the realisation that I'm standing on a different sort of boundary -  the precise line at which the valley stops being entirely countryside and starts to get involved with the town.  From this vantage point, it looks very stark - to my right, I see nothing but fields, to my left, houses creep out to meet them, and in front of me is the leading edge of Uplands, where they join.  It isn't quite like that in reality, because there are three or four more fields between here and Stroud on this side of the brook, currently out of my sightline, but from here on, the influence of the town is going to be felt.
Google map of this walk

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