Jewels of color leap us from the prairie floor and the riverbed
WE walk in the Champs Elysées. Did the gods send us here for a brief moment? The sky is cloudless and blue, the ground full of grasses, flowers, bees and butterflies. What could top that? Down a steep slope and beyond a line of trees the Thames flows, glistening and rippling in the summer sun, silent to us, far below, eternal, welcoming and full of grace.
On the other side, near the enchanting village of Hambleden, the land rises dramatically, culminating in a large forest in Ridge Wood crowned with giant sequoia or wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum).
It’s an exceptional day, welcome too, after the recent almost unbearable heat. It is a godsend to venture out after such agony to stroll, hop and explore.
After parking outside the Flower Pot Inn in Aston on the Berkshire side of the river, we follow a public footpath which leads to Culham Court and Medmenham on the opposite bank.
I must say it is a beautiful part of the world. Is there any part of southern England to compare with? I do not think so. Only the presence of my wife tells me that I am not dreaming. We haven’t been here for many months but what a reward it is.
As we move along a track past Holme Farm, I spot a small colony of Green Flowering Hellebores (Epipactis phyllanthes) to our right. There are seven of them, there are surely more. A national rarity and a very unusual plant in this part of the world. I know him from Warburg Reserve in Bix Bottom and Lambridge Wood near Henley and Clayhill Wood near Stoke Row. I’m surprised but delighted to find it here in Berkshire. I think it’s an often overlooked and inconspicuous plant, but I have an eye for orchids. Flowering finished, they bear fruit. I believe they self pollinate. A good sign of the health of the field and a totally unexpected find. What is the next?
Nearby and above an old iron fence, we admire the tall, yellow-flowered spikes of black mullein (Verbascum nigrum) and the fragrant pink flowers of wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare). A small golden scaly male fern (Dryopteris affinis) stands out in the daytime glow.
We walk through a wooden gate and the open meadow is spectacular and blooming with wildflowers. What we see is something quite extraordinary.
Trembling grass (Briza media), with its distinctive white spikelets, locally common and largely restricted to calcareous soils, abounds. It is an attractive and delicate species. The flowers that mingle with the wide variety of other grasses are out of this world.
Hairy-stemmed scabies (Knautia arvensis) with its bluish-purple flower heads makes a statement. Spear thistles (Cirsium vulgare) nod. A pyramidal orchid passed, turning deep purple.
The wild carrot with its dense white umbels is an attraction for a wide variety of insects. The wild parsnip with its yellow umbels is also a major draw.
Lady’s bedstraw, yellow and fragrant, crawls surreptitiously across the rolling meadow. The much maligned ragwort is visited in large numbers by determined bees. The great centaury with purple florets stands proudly.
Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) and black knapweed (Centauria nigra) with pink and purple flowers adorn our path.
The yellow flowers in open clusters of the nipplewort (Lapsana communis) are widespread, as is the sainfoin (Onobrychis vicifolia), a member of the pea family, with its pink flowers veined with red. Once grown, no one knows if it is native, but it blends into the landscape.
Other wild plants typical of the region are also present. St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) with its small yellow flowers is always a cheerful plant, again an insect magnet.
The yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) passed its peak a little early. A semi-root parasite of other plants, it is most attractive when in flower. We’re gathering some seeds to take home to see if anything happens.
A scary flesh fly with red eyes, with a black striped thorax (Sarcophaga carnaria), looks at me from a wild carrot. It gives me goosebumps. His name does him no favors.
Pink and white flowering field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis), white daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), yellow hawkweed (Heiracium agg) and blue meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) add color under our feet. It’s quite a show.
I only have one problem and that is that a large area has been mowed. Seems a bit silly because it was home to quite a large community of Pyramidal Orchids. I don’t see the meaning at all.
We return to the pub for a hearty and generously proportioned lunch served by Johnny and Giles and as always it is also very good. Tony Read, the 30-year-old owner, informs us that he and Pat Thatcher will be retiring in October – a great shame. I wonder what Brakspear’s plans are for the locals, with their unrivaled collection of stuffed fish in their wonderfully constructed glass display cases, the somewhat menacing heads of wild boars, and many other taxidermy curiosities? I imagine the cheeky African gray parrot Paddy will move with them.
Tony and Pat own a house a few yards away so we can keep in touch and visit them which is a big relief. All is therefore not lost.
Before returning home, we walk down Ferry Lane towards the river. It is green, full of osiers (Salix viminalis) to our left. A small stream runs alongside gin-clear. For a brief moment, I stand and stare at the sand and gravel that glistens like little jewels under the crystal clear water.
As we approach our car, Pat appears to show us both footage of a Great Spotted Woodpecker feeding one of his young catches on his cell phone. A nice sequence.
We promise to return as many as possible over the next few months. Rosemary and I had our first drink together here after our first excursion. For me, an eternal memory.