Its a good job we don't let the weather spoil the day. February may be turning out to be one of the mildest on record with average temperatures 3 degrees above the norm (Philip Eden in the Telegraph on Saturday) but with pretty much continuous dull, wet and miserable days, it still feels like the dark days of December to me. So much so in fact that on Saturday we popped over to Stow in the Wold and with all the shop lights blazing across the streets, people bustling about shopping, and it feeling cold, it really did feel like the run up to Christmas.
So yesterday, undeterred by the cold grey start to the day, herself and I pootled off to do a 2 hour walk around the Chutes. The Chutes are a collection of villages on the Wiltshire/Hampshire border and a favourite area of mine. Back in 1983, when I still lived in the North East, we had a holiday at Hurstbourne Tarrant and stumbled across the Chutes by accident. I find it strange these days that from Julie's home they are just 8 miles away.
I digress. So armed with a book of walks, we arrived at Lower Chute. The walk we were going to follow began at Upper Chute, but Lower Chute has a fabulous pub, more of that later, so I felt it was a good start and more importantly end to the walk.
So off we started. Now because we began the walk mid flow, so to speak, trying to work out exactly where we were on the planned route in the book was a lot more problematic than we envisaged. However after a couple of false starts, we headed past the war memorial above and turned right up a hill and onto the open landscape.
The soil here is amazing, it is nearly 50% flint shards, very heavy soil but very productive. Must be a nightmare to work though. There was little wildlife of note here but a Jay held our attention for a while crarrcking in a tree, and a lone buzzard. Interesting too how once one stops looking at the miserable weather from inside and actually goes outside, it seems much more cheerful.
Even these snowdrops just by the side of the road we'd now turned onto were cheery. Mind you herself eclipses the snowdrops, especially in that hat.
Eventually we arrived in Upper Chute where the churchyard of St Nicholas was awash with snowdrops. Not far from here is the settlement of Chute Forest. Now here's a thing. The word Chute dates back to Norman times and means forest or wood, and in those days this area was an extensive forest, which joined up with the huge hunting forest of Savernake, also owned by the Crown, just a few miles away to the north, and to the south the Salisbury Forest which then joined onto the New Forest. Deforestation began in the reign of Charles 1st when he granted parcels of the forest to favoured noblemen. So here's my conundrum. The hamlet of Chute Forest actually translates as Forest Forest. A bit more imagination was needed back then I feel, in hamlet nomenclature.
Continuing through Upper Chute we then headed down a wonderful track, which dipped and weaved through the landscape. There were more birds here, flitting about, mainly the common species, but a welcome diversion.
But I love these ancient tracks for the history they bring to the present. How many people and for how long have been using these tracks? My guess is they're at least 500 years old and probably a lot older, as this area was inhabited in the iron age. We often take landscape at face value, but what we see today is a result of centuries of management and change. This wood by the track is a good example of this. Those trees by the fence were coppiced at some point, but are now at least 100 years old mature trees, albeit with multiple trunks. Beyond these bluebell foliage was beginning to show, again indicating an ancient woodland. We made a note to return when the bluebells are in flower.
Further along the track we turned uphill and began walking along a muddy track called Breach Lane, alongside which we came across this ancient hazel coppice stool. Still healthy on the outside but completely hollow in the middle. Looking around there were other ancient hazel stools, in a line. Presumably then a boundary hedge along the track. I'm no expert in dating such features, but I'd guess about 200+ years old as the hollow area was at least 18 inches across. I find such permanent reminders of our past in the landscape inspiring. As for whatever happens, wars, famines, economic growth and decline, these sentinels to permanency bring me back to earth and make me realise there are bigger and longer lasting forces at work than me. Nature will always be supreme.
Further along the lane a sight not often associated with mid February, windfall apples. I love the fact that this apple tree was possibly the result of some passing wayfarer tossing his apple core into the hedge, from where it then germinated and grew. There's a rising phenomenon along trunk roads in Britain in that apple cores thrown from cars as they speed past, now mean there are a lot of apple trees growing alongside our roads. Over in Dorset a viewpoint in Duncliffe Wood now has an orchard around it, just from the discarded apple cores of walkers after the climb. Next autumn keep a look out for apple laden trees in our hedgerows and you will be surprised how many there are.
Not far from the apple tree we spied a group of deer, miles away across a field but at least I managed a record shot photo.
Eventually we joined the so named Chute Causeway. Today it is a country lane, but originally it was a Roman road connecting Winchester with Mildenhall, near Marlborough. On our walk it was quiet, so quiet in fact we disturbed 2 roe deer, one a stag in full antler, which was surprising but not unusual. We watched these for a while before they bounded over a fence. The photo above shows a well used deer jump over the fence. I know deer are becoming a bit of a problem at the moment as their populations are expanding rapidly, but no matter what damage they cause to wildlife sites, farmland and gardens, they're still magnificent to see. As was the marsh tit pchew pchewing in a tree beside us.
We'd been walking nearly 2 hours now so it was time to head back to the pub, via Conholt Park, which I later discovered has an interesting past, and is one of the most important conservation estates in southern Britain as they marry conservation (the biggest downland restoration project in England), farming and shooting in a very profitable way. The house also has a fabulous garden apparently, open occasionally to the public. Our main concern however was would we make it through the Park........ mmmmm worrying sign that!
All was well though, phew! We then passed by a small woodland. I'd love to know the history of this. Its marked on the Ordnance Survey map as Mafeking Clump. The name suggests it was planted in response to the Mafeking Siege at the turn of the 19th Century, but why here? Its difficult to see in the photo, but the periphery of the clump is delineated by regular spaced conifers, almost like soldiers in a circle laying siege to the broadleaved trees inside. A flyte of fancy or a meaningful memorial to a fallen soldier. I must investigate further.
One last hamlet to walk through, Chute Cadley, who's entire woodland seemed to be taken over by snowdrops. This is a wonderful area for snowdrops, every village is just a sea of white at the moment
And then we were back to the car which we'd left at the Hacket Arms, Lower Chute. Its nearly 30 years since I first visited this pub and it has never changed. Still tucked away and hard to find, inside is all beams, open fires and relaxed. A welcome end to a walk, as was the cider and cheese and onion crisps. Never let it be said a dull day is wasted in the country.