Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Walk 39: Dawn Light and Daw's Lane

Frosted horse-apples, Swifts Hill
5.30 am and I'm standing on the road that runs by Swifts Hill trying to get my brain to take an interest in life.  As I may have mentioned before, I am not a morning person.  I am not in favour of there being two five o'clocks in one day.  But it seemed to me that my investigation of the valley wouldn't be complete without seeing it, or part of it, by dawn light.  So here I am, just making it to Swifts Hill by first light, dawn in ten minutes' time, in theory.  The Met Office promised me a cloudless day (I wasn't prepared to get up otherwise) and indeed the sky is clear, with a bulgy moon taking its last bow.  It's also lightly frosty - ice on the car windscreen, which was a nasty surprise - and my fingers are freezing.  For heaven's sake, it's going to be May tomorrow!

It may be a late, cold, spring, but the birds are getting on with it.  As I left the house, the blackbirds were doing warm-up 'spinks' and are now in full voice from Trantershill Wood as I walk up the track that runs between the wood and the hill.  Other birds begin to join the chorus; a green woodpecker contributes a hysterical cackle to the top line and I can also hear a spotted woodpecker drumming in the base.  It's not quite a full-scale dawn chorus, more of a rural church choir, but it's pretty impressive, even so.

By the time I get to the top of the hill, there's a rosy light warming the very tops of the trees at the rim of the far side of the valley.  Dawn is a rather drawn-out affair in this valley because the sun is coming up behind Bisley and even after it's technically risen, it still has to climb up over the hill.  This is helpful, as I stand trying to engage my brain with the camera in order to get all the photographic ducks in a row.  I am getting to grips with my (newish) SLR but before six in the morning I struggle with putting one foot in front of the other, never mind the whole aperture-shutter-speed-ISO-white-balance thing.

Dawn light over Slad
While I'm faffing about, the rosy light slowly creeps down into the valley, taking first the woods and then the houses of Slad into its warm embrace.  It paints the leafless trees a colour which is almost like autumn, but a little more girly.  Below the sun-line, the shadows are blue, the fields sea-green.  A pink mist floats over the Severn Vale and puddles of gold lie in Stroud.  At my feet, the frost picks out new leaves springing out of the short turf and some brave cowslips and celandines.  Even a patch of horse apples becomes interesting under frost.  (Either that, or I'm channelling Chris Packham.)

I now walk along the side of the hill and cross the stile into the field above, where I spend a chilly few minutes trying to photograph the pink edges of closed daisies and the dew-lapped seed-heads of something smaller and neater than dandelions while the light behind the skyline grows.

Golden light in beech tree
As well as seeing the dawn, the aim of this morning is to walk along part of the eastern edge of the valley, via a track from the Bisley Road known as Daw's Lane.  So when my fingers get too cold to press the shutter, I retrace my steps over the stile and follow the footpath south-east towards the Bisley Road.  At the head of the combe by Swifts Hill I pass my most favourite tree in the valley, a huge and beautiful beech with widespread roots and a crown that fills the whole sky.  It's inside the Swifts Hill nature reserve, thank goodness, so safe, I trust, from felling.  Just now, its uppermost branches are gilded with sunlight, as if it had leaned down and stuck its head in a bucket of gold paint, while its lower branches have a sprinkling of brand-new green leaves.  The path takes me up into the field above the beginning of Abbey Wood.  Small birds are flipping to and fro in the trees and singing loudly.  One green woodpecker is answered by another, a few trees away.  The first row of trees in Abbey Wood have pink heads now.  There are drifts of wild garlic everywhere, with green buds but no flowers yet.  I'm following a narrow path through the garlic and along the very edge of the wood, looking down into the combe below.  It turns out to be an animal path which disappears underneath a barbed-wire fence and clearly continues downwards into the garlic-coated combe. There are strands of animal hair caught in the fence but too high up to belong to any animal which shimmied underneath it.  The arms of the big trees make odd-shaped frames for sunlit glimpses of the opposite side of the valley.

Leaving the wood behind, I rejoin the footpath and cross the dew-drenched field through an area which the map calls 'Purgatory'.  Why, I wonder?  And is it connected with the 'Paradise' valley near Painswick, and the fact that Elcombe was originally 'Hell Combe'?  It isn't at all purgatorial today, though I imagine in winter wind and weather it could be a bit grim up here.  The footpath skirts an attractive stone house on two sides, then up a short flight of steps past a tiny stone building with oriel windows like a miniature chapel or the housing for a sacred well.  (As far as I can see, it's neither.)  In the garden of the house, a horse chestnut tree has brand-new leaves hanging limp, like recently-hatched butterflies waiting for their wings to dry.

Green shoot patterns, Fennell's Farm
Now up onto Bisley Road via a path past Fennell's Farm, one of the farms on the edge of the valley which you can only see from other edges.  There's a long view out over the southern end of the valley to a straggle of housing which might be Uplands or might even be the other side of the Painswick Valley - I can't tell - and beyond that to the Severn.  The Fennell's Farm buildings really are right on the edge, and the land behind them is pancake-flat and definitely part of the plain that looks towards Bisley.  The low sunlight catches the new green shoots of some crop planted in the fields and makes stark patterns of the gaps between the planted rows.

Bisley Road is busy with the beginning of rush hour traffic but I don't have to walk far along it before turning left into Daw's Lane, which is a green track flanked by gnarled sort of trees which give it an ancient air.  I suspect it is old, since its name appears on the OS map.  Like the stream, its trees provide windows onto the outside world - views of the valley on my left and planted fields on my right.  As the track turns towards the north, the views begin to include Slad village.  There are few birds up here - possibly because there's a shotgun birdscarer somewhere nearby which goes off startlingly at regular intervals.

Daw's Lane
Abruptly, Daw's Lane dwindles from a broad track to a winding path and the trees overhanging become lower and more bent as though auditioning for roles in Macbeth.  Beyond a gate, it has definitely become a footpath, though still lined by trees.  From here it continues on to the Catswood road, but I'm late for a rendezvous with my puppy and her Alpha Dog, so I step through the trees and into the field at my left, which I judge to be level with the top of Trantershill Plantation, and pick up the lower footpath going back towards Swifts Hill.

Unexpectedly, I come across a small but determined stream running across the path and over the edge of the hill down into the wood.  I don't remember seeing it last time I was here, but that was a year or so ago - I'm wondering if it's part of the water source that becomes the stream which runs down the crease of the valley at Elcombe.  After last summer and winter, all such springs and streams are running at full pitch, I would think.

It's surprisingly hard to tell exactly where I am as I skirt the top of the woods - this is an edge, all right, but it's impossible to see into the valley from here to judge how far along I've come.  I'm slightly relieved to recognise the field above Swifts where I was trying to photograph daisies earlier.  Some of them have opened their eyes now, but not many - it's still perishing cold.  Now as I walk back along the side of the hill, the sun is picking up the tops of all the trees in Abbey Wood and the one or two which have already turned green stand out starkly.  Below, the valley has already filled up with sunshine.  From there it's but a hop, skip and jump (not literally) to the hill, where I'm just in time to disrupt a puppy training session.

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