Friday, 2 March 2012

Walk 22: - Under the eaves of Stroud: Baxter's Fields

This morning's walk feels like a bit of a landmark.  This is partly because it's taken some time and effort to discover and make contact with the owner and tenant of the fields I'm about to go and walk through - at one point I thought the Slad Knowledge had finally failed me - but in the end I ran them both to earth and, like everyone else so far, once found they've been more than kind in allowing me to walk on their land.  These three fields are also the last rural section of the Slad Brook before it runs into the industrial edge of Stroud.

It's a misty, moisty morning with a hazy sun struggling to break through the early morning fog.  No wind to speak of - we've now had three very still, mild and sunny days in a row, which is giving the season a massive kick-start.  Buds are bursting, birds are nesting and I can't believe we're not now on the slippery slope to spring.

Access to these fields isn't straightforward, so I'm starting from where I left off, at the corner of the land belonging to Slade House.  This little patch of woodland is just as appealing the second time around.  The air smells soft and sweet, the wild garlic is two inches taller than when I saw it last week and everything is heavy with dew.  The trees resound with purposeful birdsong.  As I enter the wood, I disturb a deer who was couching in a patch of bracken and bramble not 8 feet away from me.  I'd have had no idea she was there if she hadn't lept up with a great flurry and legged it.

It's tempting to hang about here taking more photos and enjoying the ambience, particlarly as I'm mildly apprehensive about the forthcoming walk.  The fields in question are in use by polo ponies and I've been warned that they may be both inquisitive and jumpy.  I'm not at all scared of horses in the ordinary way, but I remember from my encounter with the racehorses on Tom George's land that a close inspection by a group of skittish horses can be a tad intimidating.  Aiming to be fairly inconspicuous, I've dressed in my darker coat, forgetting that I would be carrying a bright red rucksack.  But in any case, the ponies are in the first field, and have already spotted me, all heads turning in my direction as I walk  down the hill.  However, when I climb over the fence into their field and aim a camera in their direction, they sheer off like unwilling celebrities and head for the top of the hill, which is fine with me.

The air smells soft and sweet and the grass is heavy with dew. The sun now seems to be winning its battle with the mist.  The first field slopes gently down to the brook but the bank on the opposite side is steep and lined with modern houses at the top, well above me, and all well-fenced off from the bank.  On this side, the brook is fenced off from the field with barbed wire.  So once again, because the uses human beings are putting the land to don't include the brook, it's as if it's in no-mans-land, shut away from view, and when I climb over the barbed wire to get closer to the water, I feel that I've stepped into a different world.

No-man's-land sketch
I decide to try to put this thought into a sketch, and find a prominent tree root to sit on, a little below bank level.  I am right under the eaves of Stroud here, and from above me come many human sounds - voices, car engines and some sort of industrial noise.  I can also hear the ponies whinnying some distance away.  Yet I feel quite separate and hidden from both field and houses here, down in the world of the secret brook.  While I'm drawing, a bird (robin at a guess) starts singing apparently right in my ear, but remains frustratingly hidden.  I have a theory that birds can throw their voices because they never seem to be where the sound would suggest they are.

The brook runs quite smoothly and quietly through this field but as I approach the boundary the water noise increases and I come to what must once have been an old sluice.  The brook runs between solid stone walls which still show slots where the sluice gate would have been.  The water drops a short way but enough to sound like a small waterfall.  The opposite bank is faced with brick and further downstream, amongst the trees and hanging ivy, stands a massive piece of stonework, a single square column, which I suppose must be all that remains of an old mill building.  Must try and find out which mill.

I cross another fence into an area of trees, a small, steep and wooded coombe.  I've now got very steep banks on both sides and I feel like I'm at the bottom of a cup full of trees.  A movement at the treeline catches my eye and between the trees I spot a deer, silhouetted against the sky, its ears twitching.  Two more deer shapes, one large, one small, appear in silhouette.  We watch each other for about a minute and then the deer make a strategic withdrawal.  After giving them a chance to move on, I divert from the brook and climb the hill because this bit of wood looks enticingly explorable.  As I scramble over a fallen tree, a tiny wren shoots up from somewhere along the trunk, scolding loudly. Most of the trees here are hung with ivy, which gives the whole place a closed-in feel; this fallen tree also has grasses and mosses growing in amongst the ivy on its bark, so I can see why the wren fancied it as a hide-out.  Just before the crown of the hill I start another deer, which flashes me a glance of disbelief before high-tailing it into the field.

Following a small animal path, I cross under a hefty line of electricity wires and emerge on the top of this hill at the edge of the trees.  From here I can see that this is not a separate hill, but one finger of the handful of hilly spurs which makes this side of the valley. I'd love to see a topographical map of this area, which seems even lumpier and bumpier than the top end of the valley.  I'm now looking out through a window of tree branches towards the industrial edge of Stroud, the misty townscape punctuated by an old red factory chimney down in the Libby's Drive area and, in the distance, the tower of All Saints church. Above me is the line of houses which is Summer Street.  The air if full of chain-saw-and-digger noise from a construction site below Slade Brook on the Uplands side.  But in spite of that, I still have a sense of encapsulation, of this small bit of wild wood being a world entirely separate.

There are some splendid old oak trees here which seem to be growing in a line down the middle of the hill from Summer Street towards the brook.  In the field above me is another great tree trunk, now dead and truncated, which I guess to have been a similar oak in the same line, which makes me wonder if someone planted them deliberately.  A grand avenue perhaps - could they have been part of the Slade House grounds?

This is the perfect time of year to appreciate the monumental structure of these trees; no leaves yet, and the branches outlined against a misty-white sky.  I try to make a sketch but am distracted by the sound of small birds alarming, or perhaps quarrelling, raucously from inside a big holly bush beside me, accompanied by a repeated tapping sound like a thrush dealing with an oversized snail.  What's going on here?  Are the birds complaining about my presence, and is the tapping another form of alarm call?  Or is the tapping (whatever or whoever it is) a threat to them and the source of their alarm?  I mentally add this to my Unanswered Questions List (now longer than all my arms and legs) and try to record the sound in case I can find someone who knows the answer.

After using this vantage point to work out where I am on the map, I return to the brook via the bottom of the combe.  Tiny primroses are coming into bloom on the sides of the hill and the ground is starred with the rosettes of new-born nettles - like many other babies, very cute now and a perishing nuisance when bigger.  I've chosen the right time to be here from the point of view of getting around; I predict this wood will be seriously overgrown come summer. There's some evidence that this combe is also a hang-out for humans, judging by the odd can, drink bottle and other bits of rubbish entwined in the undergrowth.

From the wood I cross into another field, a grassy dip between two humps.  On the far side of the stream I'm now looking into people's gardens.  Here, the stream mostly isn't fenced, and the gardens slope gently down to it. It's crossed by a massive sewage or water pipe, and someone has also laid a sort of grating across it, the purpose of which isn't clear, though it could serve as a precarious footbridge.  These gardens look as though they welcome the stream, or at least acknowledge its existence.  I imagine the inhabitants of the houses coming down to look at it, maybe even sit by it with a gin and tonic or similar.

A fat pigeon lumbers over my head, weighed down by an enormous chunk of nesting material, and vanishes into the ivy-hung crown of the largest willow tree I've seen on the stream so far.  Its roots are on the far side but its huge, craggy trunk leans right across the stream and half of its branches are on the ground.  Its bark makes me think of elephant hide and it is bearded with moss and ivy and other trailing plants.

Last of the stream before Stroud
Beyond here, the field runs into the little industrial estate at Libby's Drive and the stream vanishes behind the car park of one of the units.  I brave barbed wire and lean precariously round another willow, pushing aside curtains of ivy, to see the last of it before it plunges into the depths of Stroud.  My eye is also caught by a treeful of catkins and the first real new leaves I've seen this year.

Turning to retrace my steps, I'm startled to find the field now occupied by horses, which seem to have sprung out of nowhere.  They must have been hidden by a fold in the ground, or else this field has a corridor to the other one in some way I haven't quite figured.  The horses are equally startled to see me, and retreat rapidly to higher ground, where they line up to watch me nervously, as if I was an interesting but dangerous animal, which, now I come to think about it, I suppose I am, species-ally speaking.  Ironically, it's clear that they are a lot more worried by me than I am by them.

Interesting poo?
Skirting the wooded hill, my eye is caught by some attractive poo.  Now I realise this makes me sound worryingly like Chris Packham, but it really was.  About an inch across, round and wrinkled like a walnut, shining in the midday sun, and unlike anything I've noticed before.  What makes poo like that?  Add it to the UQL.

I often find I notice things on my way back from a walk that I missed on the way out, as if my eyes are more 'tuned in' after several hours of solid looking.  This one is no exception - here's a six-trunked hazel clump I missed before, and here, on the opposite side of the stream, I catch the sparkle of water in a hole in the bank. It's like one of those pixellated pictures you have to stare at for a while to realise what it is - at first it's a hole, and then after a while I see the contours of a pipe in the ground, shrouded in grass and ferns.  My guess is that it's a spring or small tributary which has been pushed into a pipe to take it away from the houses above.  The pipe has fractured close to the stream, and what I saw was the water glittering in the resulting hole.

I'm back in the Slade House field, with the sound recorder turned off and the cameras put away, when I happen upon three more deer, grazing the field and luckily turned away from me.  I manage to get several snaps before they notice my movement and run.  Dangerous animal, you see.  If we weren't such a self-confident species, the fact that almost every other species prefers to avoid us if possible might worry us more.

Google map of this walk

Afterword:  A year after I did this walk, this block of fields between the brook and Summer Street is under threat of development into a huge housing estate.  If this plan goes ahead, the area I walked would become a so-called 'Country Park' - a curious name for the blatant urbanisation of a bit of real countryside, and probably no more than a half-way house to building on it later on.  So my comments on my species being dangerous now seem remarkably apposite.

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