The persistent rain has had wide reaching effects. Not only are paths muddy, the Thames still flooded and trees down in many places but even the sheep have turned a bright white in contrast to their normal greyish colour!
The floods of the past weeks have brought misery to many local businesses and home owners and the recent sunshine has brought a definite change in mood. It seems only a few months ago that we were basking in sunshine and the river was a gentle stream.
Bridges have been closed causing chaos and potholes abound concealed by the water covering them.
Walking, however has been an enjoyable way of getting around and it is very satisfying when the sun comes out and you return having dodged the latest shower and remained dry. On other occasions a brisk soaking makes coming home even more enjoyable!
Spring has now emerged and the snowdrops and primroses are providing colour and interest. This morning walking the dogs the larks were soaring skywards with their wonderful song filling the air. We can cast off all the winter clothes and rejoice in springtime.
It has been a very stormy January and the river has remained flooded for much of the month so far.
We are therefore forced on to the higher ground but the benefits are finding new and different walks and experiencing lovely views when the sun shines. Even the rain does not dampen the spirits – it is invigorating to return after bracing the elements and the reward of a hot drink and warm kitchen make it even better.
Today we scaled Wittenham Clumps http://www.nashclumps.org/ and the sun shone. There was a keen wind and we were grateful for the exercise pushing ourselves uphill with the nordic walking poles. The group were on the second lesson of the 4 week course and manged extremely well in the sometimes rather slippery conditions but the terrain ensured that they all got a good grasp of both up,and downhill technique.
After the recent winds the leaves are mostly off the tress and whole new vistas have emerged as a consequence.
The winter sun continues to offer some warmth and you finish feeling invigorated and refreshed. Animals that are not easily seen when the leaves are abundant and the grasses tall, are often now glimpsed as they sit and watch, or scurry away to the safety of the undergrowth.Today we saw muntjack deer, brown hares and fallow deer plus plentiful birdlife.
The light has changed and it has been a fantastic autumn with lots of sunshine and beautiful autumn colours. The leaves stayed on the trees so that they could be seen in all their glory. One of the great pleasures of the beginning of winter is walking through the beechwoods with the rustle of leaves underfoot and a gentle sound as they are moved in the breeze.
For the final walk in the current Learn to Nordic Walk course it was decided to put all that had been learnt into practice while going on a scenic tour of the local menagerie. The weather was bright and the autumn colours resplendent in the sunshine. We set off along the Oxfordshire Way following our warm up and adjustment of poles. Participants were using their new poles purchased through Nordic Walking UK so they were all bright and gleaming and ready to take on a few muddy paths.
The route took us to the top of the ridge and then down through grassy fields to the McAlpine estate http://www.fawleyhill.co.uk where many native and non native species of deer can be seen alongside tapir, llamas, emus, capabara and many other exotic animals. After crossing the lane we passed the sentry box marking one of the entrances and were soon walking rhythmically along the path between the animals.
A sign advising of dangerous animals and many gates and other memorabilia for the railways are positioned around the estate and there are glimpses of the full size steam railway and the museum.
We soon start downhill and come out of the woods to a wonderful view of the River Thames and the landscape beyond. The path leads down the hill between fields of the Black Bears polo ponies. Every field is populated by shiny thoroughbred crosses bred for the sport and grazing happily in the autumn sunshine. They pay us some attention before returning to the still plentiful grass. At the bottom of the hill we turn to ascend the other side of the slope and walk up towards woods again. There are signs of a fallen tree, a victim of the recent storm. Thankfully it has largely been cleared away from the path which is no longer blocked and we can walk along the path beside the wallabies and deer. The woods here are mixed deciduous hardwoods and pine and the path is littered by leaves, cones and pine needles made more plentiful by the windy weather. The group are fascinated by the various animals and glimpses of the house and gardens beyond. The wallabies evidently feel safe behind their fence and sit and watch us with interest. It is the rutting season for the deer who are now in groups of hinds with whichever stag has manged to win the herd and they are more interested in each other than passing humans. There is a distinctive smell and periodically you can hear the stages roaring a challenge to competing males.
On leaving the estate we walk up towards Fawley village passing a small vineyard on our right and in the gateway is a box with free range eggs for sale and an honesty box for payment which is a pleasure to see in these days of distrust and opportunism. We turn left through the gate to an impressive house called Benhams. The resident of the lodge is sweeping up acorns which have fallen all over the drive and we exchange conversation for a few minutes before continuing downhill again and back in to Fawley Hill Estate. Another fallen tree has been cleared from the path and we can walk up by the fence to the alpaca field. The lead animal gives the alarm call and the herd move towards us to investigate.
We pass through a gate and along a narrow path to a very wobbly stile but once all safely over are back on top of the ridge and heading for home. The views to the right towards the River Thames and to the left towards the Stonor valley make the uphill exercise well worth the effort.
We are soon back at the Oxfordshire Way and striding out towards Red Kite Cottage and a well earned cup of tea. Well exercised and full of all the things we have seen in this varied and interseting part of the Chilterns we have plenty to talk about.
This autumn has been a wonderful year for all fruit in the area and this includes a bumper harvest of grapes in many of the local vineyards. The leaf colour on the trees and the vines is wonderfully bright and the birds and wasps are still feasting on the grapes that have not been picked.
A smallish team turned up at Brightwell vineyard http://brightwellvineyard.co.uk to help with the harvest and were rewarded by a tour of the works and delicious lunch with the opportunity to taste previous vintages with our meal.
People had come from as far as Wiltshire to join in and thankfully the weather was reasonable and not at all cold. Picking grapes with freezing hands as has been the case in some years it not the most enjoyable experience! The constant chatter speeds the process and friendships are made, information traded and I even learnt all about medicinal honey and how it triumphs over Manuka in its properties and its cost.
The vineyard and its tasting tours are certainly on the map for themed walks in the future!
The current 4 week Learn to Nordic walk course has been blessed with warm weather and sunshine to date. Half way through the course and we could not have asked for a better start but I suppose that there is still time for that to change. A group of 6 people are enrolled on the course and not only are they great fun with infectious enthusiasm but they are also quick learners and progressing very well. They will soon be striding through the lovely Chiltern countryside enjoying the autumn colours and motivating each other to become fitter and healthier. Nordic walking can be beneficial to almost anybody whatever their previous fitness level and it is so rewarding to see people enjoying their new found skill. The rolling hills and extensive beechwoods make for ideal walking conditions and the views from the top make it all the better. We all look forward to an autumn and winter of outdoor exercise. Headlamp walks start at the end of the week!
Sunday dawned to grey autumn skies and drizzling rain unlike the warm and sunny weather of the Henley Show. Henley Show had been a busy day in September with good crowds and plenty of competition.
Henley show is one of the highlights of the year in the countryside where locals meet up to support each other and engage in healthy competition. There really is something for everyone and it is truly a family occasion. This year the cattle entries were down but there were plenty of sheep and lots of educational displays including a foraging demonstration put on in the main ring by the young farmers.
Dogs were plentiful enjoying the day with their owners and the dog and duck display was as popular as ever.
Today, however, was the turn of the Ploughmen at the annual Henley and District Agricultural Association Ploughing match. Contestants were operating machinery ranging from horse drawn ploughs to vintage tractors and some more modern equipment. The appalling weather had done nothing to soak the ground which was dry beneath the surface and made the job very difficult especially for the older machinery.
There were record numbers entered and despite the weather they arrived ready to show everyone how it is done without GPS and other modern gadgetry.
Their sheer determination was admirable especially as some had driven a considerable distance to get there. The volunteers working in the car park, bar and elsewhere were cold and wet but somehow managed to be welcoming and efficient. The whole event showed the British at their best – carrying on despite the inhospitable conditions and seeming to enjoy themselves!
The sun shining again and the forecast hot so we set off from Henley Park across the deer park and were soon approaching Henley on Thames. We opted to walk through Phyllis Court Club where a croquet match was in full flow – a very English spectacle with all players dressed in white playing on perfecty maintained lawns against the backdrop of the river.
The walk takes us through the town along the riverside, passing the classical Henley bridge with the Regatta headquarters and Leander club on one side of the river and the Angel on the Bridge www.theangelhenley.com on the other. The pub is always busy – being one of the few places right on the riverside and today is no exception.
We pass Hobbs boatyard offering boats for hire and they too are busy as it comes towards the end of the season, making the most of the good weather and river conditions. On towards Marsh Lock we pass the River and Rowing Museum www.rrm.co.uk and then Rod Eyot with houses only accessible by boat. It looks like a romantic dream when the river is like this but in the winter floods it is a different story. A notice board has been put up at Marsh lock to tell you about the fish to be found in the Thames and about the fish ladders that have been installed at the weirs to help the fish journey upriver to spawn.
The path now opens out on to water meadows alive with with flowers that thrive in marshland and wends its way beside the river towards Shiplake. We pass over a small bridge and alongside a garden with a miniature railway, past other large riverside homes and over the level railway crossing to Lower Shiplake. We are soon at Shiplake lock where there are permanent tents used in summer by their owners, some still in use as the season draws to an end. We cross fields of livestock and pass beside the Shiplake college boat houses with a glimpse of the college and church high up on the hill. The path narrows and follows the river closely with open views to our right looking over towards Binfield Heath.
We are coming towards Sonning on Thames a very picturesque village but, as it is one of the few river crossings for vehicles, the bridge is always busy with a steady stream of traffic. There are a number of luxury hotels and restaurants here but we are heading for the tranquil lock keepers garden. This little oasis serves sandwiches and homemade cakes to passers by with tables and chairs under the apple trees. There is some indoor space if the weather makes it neccessary to shelter but it really comes in to its own on a day like today. You feel as though you are miles from anywhere with not a care in the world.
A heron watches from the weir and a light breeze offers respite from the powerful sun. Beside the lock is a small wrought iron gate erected as a memorial to a teacher from Reading Bluecoat school whose grounds lie behind the gate. There is a path nearby that leads to St Andrews Church and the village without going near the busy traffic on the bridge.
The path downstream of Sonning has been upgraded to a level and pleasant path and the lock keeper has ramps that can be connected to the lock gates to make wheelchair access possible which is not the case on all locks and I plan to write to the environment agency making a suggestion that other locks follow suit.
Today we are fortunate enough to be offered a boat ride home on a Drascombe Lugger but the alternative is to use the regular boat service provided by Salter Brothers that conveys passengers from Reading to Henley on Thames http://www.slaterssteamers.co.uk
The birthing season has come to an end for us and the new cria (baby alpacas) are enjoying the good weather and growing fast.
Alpacas are such lovely animals to be around, their quiet and gentle nature is a wonderful antidote to a stressful day and they are endlessly entertaining to watch. Two of our visitors had never seen them before and were utterly enchanted.
Halter training was the order of the day as some of last year’s cria had not been fully trained and life is so much easier for them and us when they are happy to be handled and led. Even if they are not destined to be show animals, which clearly they cannot all be, we make sure that they are handled regularly and given a cursory check over. This has been a bad year for flies and problems can come on very quickly if flies get in to a wound.
Some of the boys were reluctant to co operate with the walking part of the exercise. Although happy to be handled and wear a halter some just take longer to get the idea. I am told it is handler error and as long as they understand what is required they will comply. While this is usually the case some are just not prepared to understand your point of view!