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!
Another sunny day – this has been the most wonderful summer and although the days are getting shorter and the mornings cooler it is clear and warm.
We set off slowly up the hill towards the old deer park which is now mainly used for sheep grazing but attracts wild fallow deer which can be seen usually in the early morning or at night. It was originally a deer park for Fawley Court – an imposing property on the banks of the Thames and provided venison for the house.
The route up the hill is a bridleway with a level tarmac surface, and taking it slowly, everyone is soon at the entrance to the park ready to witness some wonderful views in the clear morning light.
Just before the gate we stop and gaze at an impressive oak tree with a massive trunk and branches. Where it crosses the bridleway it has been damaged by high sided lorries making deliveries to the houses above. It is no longer in the best of health but makes a wonderful sight while it is still standing.
As you pass through the gate there is another massive tree – this time a cedar. Parkland often mixes native and non native trees – placed as specimen trees, they are allowed to grow to their natural shape, with no competition from neighbours.
The path now becomes a level track as it crosses the park towards Henley on Thames forming part of the Oxfordshire Way. We are truly on top of the world surrounded by grazing sheep who seem undeterred by our presence, being used to passing walkers. We are heading past newly planted trees – planted by the current owners to represent the Swiss and Australian flags.
Further on there is an historic group of oaks planted in formation to represent the Maltese Cross and I can only imagine that this gave them the idea of leaving their mark on the landscape.
It will be a number of years before the trees will grow to become an obvious representation but their presence will long outlive those that instigated their planting which is presumably the intended purpose.
We woke to grey skies and rain but in true British tradition decided that the walk would go ahead despite the weather. The plan was a foray in to Buckinghamshire starting at Hambleden and by the time we arrived at the car park in Hambleden the skies were clearing. The walk took us towards the Thames and Medmenham with glimpses of the river and flat terrain so easy walking. We were soon in Medmenham village, where the original 12th century Cistercian abbey was once the headquarters of the notorious Hell Fire Club but is now a private house, and walking through fields and wildlife areas towards Danesfield House Hotel.
The rain had given way to sunshine and encouraged the emergence of butterflies and birds criss crossing the path as we walked. The green woodpeckers (yaffles) were enjoying the recent rains and easy pickings. Geese were grazing in the fields and the harvest had given way to stubble. There were the native Greylags, Canada geese and also some Egyptian geese all sharing a field but firmly sticking to their groups. It is evident that the native birds are in the minority with the Egyptian geese fast catching up in numbers with the all familiar Canadians. As we walked along the riverside below Danesfield we passed a Capstan lock. There was a flash weir here in the 1580s, known as Newlock.
Flash weirs used capstans or winches to pull boats upstream against the river’s flow. On the river bank is the partlyrefurbished flash lock capstan – the only one existing on the Thames www.archaeologyinmarlow.org.uk Hurley lock has now replaced this with a pound lock and weir which copes with all the modern day river traffic and we spent a few moments watching people enjoying canoes and leisure craft on the river.
From here the path took us up a steep cliff and on towards Harleyford estate – a beautifully maintained area sweeping down to the banks of the river. The path passes alongside the golf course and across mown areas to a wildflower meadow humming with bees and butterflies and finally leaves the estate on its way to Marlow.
As we came to the Hare and Hounds, a 16th century inn, we stopped for a well earned cup of coffee. The pub is up for sale due to the landlord’s retirement but we were given a warm welcome and even the dogs were well catered for.
The woods have relics of trenches that were used for training in the first world war – these trenches in Pullingshill wood claim to be the best examples in the UK and the woodland trust has erected an information board telling visitors about them. We left the woods and enjoyed views of steep chalk escarpments and wide paths with the red kites noisily circling overhead and bright and welcome sunshine after the shade of the trees.
Then once more in to woodland, this time an SSI managed by the forestry commission full of wild flowers and mixed woodland. The characteristic swallow holes found in the Chilterns are plentiful in these woods and in places a rope swing has been attached to provide entertainment to local children but we were not tempted to test the rope!
On up to the top of the hill and out of the trees to fields with fabulous views to the south and west – it seemed like a good place for a picnic in the shade of an oak tree. However tempting it was to lie down and enjoy the peace, the dogs made it clear that it was not their intention to linger, so it was up and off again. The path crosses farmland where contented animals grazed, enjoying the recent showers and fresh breeze, it felt surprisingly high up. More kites circling in the breeze and calling to each other with the occasional buzzard appearing and disappearing from sight. Conservation areas and game cover crops add to bio diversity and encourage a rich mix of flora and fauna.
We were soon passing Kenricks – an imposing house overlooking the valley that was originally a rectory, with views of Hambleden village and the brook, twinkling in the afternoon sun. Hambleden village retains the character and charm of a chiltern village with houses built of traditional brick and flint. Shop fronts remain unchanged despite many no longer operating having beeen converted to houses.
Hambleden is the site of many films including 101 dalmations and Midsomer murders. On Sunday the church was hosting an afternoon concert featuring the Syrinx trio and offering teas in the churchyard with home made cakes. The village shop also does very good teas so it was a difficult decision but the church won on this occasion.
Full of food again and then off down the brook which wends its way along the Hambleden valley to join the Thames. A spot of blackberry gathering and home to make some jam.
Well fed, well exercised and feeling happy and relaxed after a varied and pleasant walk, fired up to explore further on another occasion.