Friday, 6 May 2011

Walk 3 - The tree cathedral: lower section of Dillay Farm

I'm back at Dillay Farm on a breezy day of early May to walk the lower part of the valley, from the farm to the boundary with the Snow's Farm Nature Reserve.  This is partly because I wanted to spend more time with this part of the stream on my last walk and couldn't, and partly because I'm determined to find the Nature Reserve boundary this time so that I can be sure I've walked every inch of the stream on Dillay Farm land before moving on (do we detect a little obsessiveness creeping in here?).

Things have changed noticeably since I was last here.  Weirdly, we've had almost no rain in the last six weeks (the thunderstorm which chased me out of the valley last time turned out to be a flash in the pan) and it's been unusually warm.  Spring seems to be rushing headlong into summer at least a month early.   The field of dandelions I passed on the way here last time is now a field of something else entirely, though still spring-yellow.  I wonder if I will see the difference in the level of the Dillay.  Dillay Farm gets its water from springs in the valley, Mrs Barrington tells me, and if the dry period continues too long they could be badly affected.  I know that our own little stream, a very minor tributary of the Slad Brook, is much lower than usual.

Nearly all the trees are in leaf now, though some only just, and everything looks significantly more luxuriant.  Down by the footbridge, thistle flowers are coming into bloom, intriguing with their slightly surreal shapes.  Hawthorn blossom is new since last time.  The laid hedge which lines the stream at this point has a lot of hawthorn in it and looks quite lovely. There seem to be a lot of insects around today; I whip out my sketchbook to try to capture the intricacy of a filmy-winged fly sitting on the ivy-covered trunk of a tree, apparently basking in the hazy sun.  Naturally the fly moves as soon as I've got my pencil poised, but then settles on the knuckle of the hand I was about to draw with. Very cautiously, I trace the lines of its wings and it clings there just long enough.

As usual, I'm getting distracted by detail.  Further downstream, just before the track, the ground is boggy and already covered in a carpet of new plants. There are so many different shapes of leaves that it's mesmerising; I recognise only buttercup and birdseye but there are many others.  If you took a square foot of this bit of ground and worked out what all the different species in it were, it looks to me as though it would be dozens.  The odd flower is almost too much, too bright a splash of colour in amongst all this line and texture.  Must move on, because I am supposed to be focusing on the lower part of the valley.

In amongst all this richness is another death.  A pheasant met its end a few yards away from where I'm standing, fairly recently, I guess.  Two beautiful sections of wing remain, with even the smallest top covert feathers all intact, and a few bits of bone, absolutely picked clean.  Sitting on them are two bright bottle-green and blue-green flies.  A sight both beautiful and slightly ghoulish.  Their jewel-like bodies are exactly the colour and quality of dichroic glass, which gives me an idea I may follow up.  I'm very tempted to collect one of the wing sections because it's so complete, including the joint on which all feather structures swivel. You don't normally get to see a working wing up close (at least, I don't) and it would be marvellous reference material for drawing.

I cross the footbridge near Rose's cottage and pause to frown at the map.  What's on the ground here doesn't entirely seem to fit with the official version and I'm wondering if that's why I got confused last time.  I decide that the only thing to do is to follow the footpath running along the side of the valley which crosses into the Nature Reserve; that way I'm bound to find out where the Reserve is, and I can then drop down to the stream and walk back up it to the farm.  This looks easy on the map...

I'm now walking on a beautiful, secret path which looks as if it's auditioning for the part of 'the Old Way' or 'the path to fairyland' in some story or other.  It runs uphill between trees close-hugged by thick cords of ivy and through a carpet of wild garlic flowers.  A good opportunity to try out a recent inspiration: my plan is to use my small camera to get ground-level views of plants from underneath, as a small animal, such as a bank vole, might see them. We always seem to be looking down on flowers, or at them from the side on occasion; how would it be to see a wild garlic bloom towering above you?  Difficult, is the answer.  The camera simply can't be persuaded to focus on the plant itself though it produces nice sharp pictures of the trees above.  The sort of view that only a profoundly long-sighted vole would get. Ho hum.  Back to the drawing board on that one.  However, getting down close to ground level for this exercise means I notice some small droppings and a hazelnut with a neat section gnawed out of it.  I pocket this to consult my mammals field guide with in case it should turn out to have been chewed by something more exciting than a squirrel, but without much hope.
Vole's-eye view of a bluebell

Must move on.  The footpath now runs quite close to the stream, shaded by a wall of low, leaning-over trees.  I quicken my pace and immediately pheasants and other birds explode out of the undergrowth ahead of me.  A wren, braver than the others, shoots up right beside my feet.  I've noticed this with 'my' birds in the garden at home - birds seem to be hard-wired to react to abrupt movement.  If you amble along gently they don't seem too bothered.  There are plenty of them in the trees here - I can hear numbers of great tits going 'teacher, teacher, teacher'.

Even down here near the stream and in the shade the path is very dry and has cracks in it.  Ahead of me an earthworm is crossing it, determined, but painfully slow.  The distance I am about to step over in one stride will take him several minutes at least to cover.

Now the path is climbing away from the stream through a handsome bit of woodland with a side order of scrub in the spaces between.  Here drifts of bluebells still blow although they've been over for a fortnight or more elsewhere.  Everything looks very sharp-edged and new and I'm having the same problem as before - the more I look, the more I see, and the slower I walk.  New ferns shooting up in exquisite curlicues; orange tip butterflies; pheasants in the scrub; a snail browsing on a nettle leaf.  How would one express a snail's eye view of things?

At last I come upon the entry to the Snow's Farm Nature Reserve.  There is a token bit of fence, into which someone has jauntily stuck a cock pheasant feather, an information board, and a mass of wild garlic flowers so that it really does look like a 'snow farm'.  Now that I know where I am, I try to find a way down to the stream, which is easier said than done thanks to the nettles colonising the shaded hillside.  I spot and follow a tiny animal path which leads straight to a shallow bit of the stream bank where it would be easy for animals to drink.  Whose regular path is this?  Slots in the earth bank opposite suggest deer.

I turn away from the nature reserve and walk back up the stream, which is flowing through a cathedral of taller trees here, their branches clad in new leaves forming a fresh green curving roof.  And down on the bank amongst the spring greenery is another kill - a small deer, this time, by the look of it.  There is fur everywhere, a section of backbone with pelvis and back leg bones still attached, and a tiny, perfect hoof.  I estimate from the length of the leg bones that this deer probably stood about 3ft high at the shoulder, and wonder what killed it.

Further on, I make a semi-successful attempt to record the sound of a fat bumblebee, striped yellow and orange, which is a new one on me.  Must remember to look him up. He's buzzing around by a small spring which is running out of the ground and down into a trickle of a tributary which flows into the main stream.  Looking at this I suspect I can thank this dry spell for being able to walk along here without wellies; the ground has the air of a natural bog. There are some very striking fern shapes growing up here, all new-minted and perfect.  It's frustrating trying to photograph them because as far as the camera's concerned it's all just green on green.  Not having a brain, as such, it can't focus on the shape the way I can.  Mind you, my brain has some trouble when I try to draw one of the ferns.  My eye can follow the strong shapes, such as the sweep of the stem, but when it gets to the areas of low contrast and high density of detail, such as where the different leaves fold over into each other, my brain kind of goes 'bler' and gives up the struggle to focus, and the resulting drawing is frankly crap.  It takes a couple of goes before I get a reasonable result, by which time my eye has sorted out where to look, as it were.  Now with my brain 'tuned in' to drawing, I could happily stay for hours trying to get it right, but time is going on and I have to drag myself away.

Harassed pheasant
The next part of the valley floor really is a bog and one which my walking boots can't cope with, so I have to move higher up the side of the hill following another animal path.  This leads me to yet another killing - a pile of pheasant feathers this time.  It's definitely nature red in tooth and claw around here.  Further on, I attempt to stalk a very handsome cock pheasant in order to take a photo of his beautiful red comb appearing over the undergrowth.  He bobs in and out of cover, uneasily aware of me but not ready to fly away, and I suspect that given what might happen to him if I was a real predator, what I'm doing probably constitutes harassment.

As I arrive back at the stile by Rose's cottage, I notice that the stream flows in a pipe under the track and scramble down the bank to get a recording of the resonant glopping noise it makes coming out of the pipe.  I pause to collect the pheasant wing and as I walk away, the wind riffles through the feathers and makes the whole thing vibrate and buzz weirdly, as if the ghost of the bird was trying to escape from my grasp.  While I've been in the woods the haze has cleared and it has turned into a blue and gold afternoon.  On the grassy hillside below the farm the ewes are calling their lambs (now appreciably fatter then when I last saw them) to them as I pass by.  I spot a spent cartridge on the ground, reminding me that man isn't necessarily just an observer of the whole predator-prey thing that goes on in this apparently peaceful valley.

Google map for this walk

No comments:

Post a Comment