a hawthorn in Wiltshire

During the winter it sometimes seems that the need to get out and walk is stronger than at other times of year. Perhaps it is because of the short, dark days that a kind of opportunism sets in. Any chance to counteract the symptoms of cabin fever.

One of those days recently finds us at home with itchy feet. A thick fog envelopes us, so we head for the chalk hills of Salisbury Plain, hopeful that getting up on to higher ground will make for better conditions. The gamble pays off, as just a few miles down the road the fog blanket ends abruptly, and by the time we arrive at our start point we have a cirrus-patterned sky above us, and the sun is climbing its low trajectory.

We walk up Cold Kitchen Hill – from the Celtic for ‘Hill of the Wizard’ – the path following a comfortable gradient around the southern flank. Looking in the direction of the sun, the low-angled light shows up a silvery patina on the grass that would otherwise be invisible – innumerable spider’s webs. Meadow pipits fly up from the ground around us and the short grazed turf makes for easy walking. I always find the process of climbing a hill to be a mentally uplifting experience; the fact that it is such a beautiful day makes it truly joyous.

Once on the flat top of the ridge we find our rhythm, with a light breeze and cronking ravens for company. Here on the western edge of Salisbury plain, the hills extend like a hand outstretched above the surrounding farmland. In the clear air and low winter sun, the surrounding views are mapped out in sharp relief – every hedge, fence line and beech hanger underlined with long shadows. We walk almost to the far end of the hill, where scrub bushes and a small wood mark the end of the ridge before it descends sharply to the fields below. On the edge of the scrub, a hawthorn tree stands, leans, hangs on to the soil. A startling wreckage of a tree, it is a testament to what conditions can be like up here. It is tangled and broken, such that it is not easy to follow any one branch from its starting point through to the tips.

The weather here today is so pleasant it is unseasonable, the sort of day you might get in late February, a suggestion of spring. But the hawthorn tells a different story – one of unabated wind and raw exposure. It is difficult to picture on a day like this, but when the weather turns bad this must become a hostile and alien place. I try and imagine what it would sound and feel like to be here in a blizzard or when gales come in from the west. I like to think I’d come back to find out – but that’s perhaps for another time.

It is warm enough today to stand for a while and enjoy the sights and sounds without getting cold. A couple of Nuthatches chase and call loudly at each other, and a Jay scolds from nearby. From just the other side of the hill a hot air ballon appears on a level with us, unexpectedly close. It is caught by whatever slight air movement there is, and drifts slowly away. On the way back down we watch a hare. It appears at the edge of an empty field below us, loping across the pale chalk and stubble, and just as quickly it is gone.

As we finish we realise the toes of our boots are festooned in cobwebs – we have each collected hundreds of them as we have walked, along with dozens of tiny black spiders. Even the dog has them draped across his nose.

On the drive back home I can’t stop thinking about the hawthorn tree; I think its chaotic framework will stay etched in my mind’s eye for some time to come. The fog is where we left it on our way out, and reduces the daytime high from a just-about-comfortable 9C to a rather cold and dank 4C. However, sunshine, fresh air and exercise have done their work – the cabin fever will be held at bay for now.


wet woodland, a stately tree

It rained non-stop on the second day of our trip to Scotland. Not wishing to spend the whole day indoors kicking our heels, we went in search of a short local walk.

Balmorino is a small village that sits on the southern shore of the Firth of Tay in Fife. Parking near the ruins of the 13th century abbey, we followed a path past a large barn, behind which stood another ruin – an unidentified if impressive bit of industrial/agricultural machinery.

Following the path, we soon entered woodland that follows the shore of the Firth westwards from Balmorino. The wood is a mix of Scots pine and other coniferous species along with broad-leaved trees such as Beech, Sycamore and Sweet Chestnut, some of them truly impressive specimens. We had also read that red squirrel can be seen here, so we kept our eyes peeled, which presents a challenge as you can’t look up at the trees and look where you are going at the same time. Fortunately there were no twisted ankles, but sadly no squirrels spotted either.

The tide was out so at various points we were able to get down onto the beach. Because of the rain, visibility was not that great, but we could see across to Dundee. We did an out and back walk, backtracking on our route, partly because the rain came on heavier and we preferred the shelter of the trees, partly because we just liked the woods. Should we ever come back the area would be worthy of much further exploration – the walk can be extended, and then loop back inland, for example.

We had a quick look around the abbey ruins, but what really got our attention was a magnificent Sweet Chestnut, standing on the edge of woodland behind the abbey. Said to be about 430 years old, this is one elder statesmen of a tree, all twists and bulges. Sweet chestnuts have a tendency to produce a beautiful twisting pattern in the bark – this one is no different and the urge to touch it is irresistible. I love the way an ancient tree like this evokes a sense of awe.

a short walk in Aller & Beer Woods

Overlooking the Somerset Levels, this stretch of broad-leaved woodland is both a nature reserve and SSSI.

Making the most of a nice morning for a walk, this is the first time we’ve visited Aller & Beer Woods. A few woodland flowers were showing themselves, including what we think is Toothwort.  An unusual looking plant, it is parasitic, living on the roots of other plants – my wildflower book says it particularly likes Hazel, of which there was plenty. The adjoining Turn Hill affords great views across the Levels. Lots of bird activity, including Song Thrush, Green Woodpecker, a pair of screeching Jays, and as a bonus, we heard our first Blackcap of the year.

More info at the Somerset Wildlife Trust website here.