Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Walk 11 - A Flash of Blue: Steanbridge House lake and woods

Steanbridge House and stream
It's now high summer, or at least as high as it's likely to get this summer, which has been pretty patchy to say the least.  Today's reasonably summery, though, with blue skies, high clouds, sunshine and quite warm.  I've had a break from my walking project for the last two or three weeks, due to exhibitions and other distractions, and I'm glad to get back to it.  I'm starting from the village pond and the plan is to walk follow the stream through the land belonging to the Steanbridge estate.

Steanbridge House is the Big House of the village, and for generations the home of the Townsends, who owned most of this part of the valley including Steanbridge Mill.  The current estate is smaller, but includes a big chunk of the Slad brook ,which the present owners have kindly allowed me to explore.

A genuinely good place for kingfishers
The pond is busy with ducks today and they oblige me with a volley of quacks for the sound recorder - presumably saying "Give us yer bread then" in duckish - before I climb over a gate on the opposite side of the little bridge and set off into Steanbridge estate land with the stream on my right.  I've not taken more than a few steps when a flash of electric blue darts out in front of me and disappears downstream.  A kingfisher.  What a brilliant (literally) start to the walk.  It's really good to see it, because last winter was very cold and kingfishers are one of the species known to suffer in a bad winter. And not so far away from the bit of stream I imagined as a good place for kingfishers.  Though probaby this bit is even better, being deeper and less shaded by trees.

I'm walking through a field, the grass still shining with water droplets.  This part of the stream has a thinner clothing of trees than elsewhere, and the trees seem to be bigger and more varied than the usual hazel/alder combination.  Here's a sycamore, a stately willow, and a beech.  The stream itself looks as though it has aspirations to grow up into a real river one day, being wider and slower-flowing.  It has the air of somewhere that significant fish (i.e. ones you can see without a magnifying glass) might live, which presumably it is if kingfishers hunt along here.  I suspect the difference is the result of active management in place of the benign neglect that seems to operate along most of the stream up to this point.

The kingfisher is rapidly followed by fourteen teenage mallards, doing what teenagers do, viz: going around in a big gaggle, flapping their wings and making a fair amount of unnecessary noise.  I wonder if some of them are the group I saw a few weeks ago on the pond.  I follow them down to the point where the stream opens out and becomes a long, narrow lake, reflecting mown lawns and the handsome profile of Steanbridge House.


This is a very different environment from those I've been walking in up to now. There are only occasional trees along the bank and those that remain are well-grown, ornamental-looking specimens. Instead, the banks wear intricate sharp-edged patterns of tall grasses, reeds, bullrushes and iris, punctuated by brilliant pink spears of purple loosestrife and fluff-explosions of meadowsweet.  The water is deep and very clear and full of a curly weed that I've seen nowhere else on the stream.  I can't see any fish, but I don't doubt that there are some.  The centre of the lake sprouts an ornamental duckhouse and a lot more ducks than would fit into it, some mallards, some more exotic.  As I watch, a lone swan sails stiffly downstream, driving a swathe of ducks before him, including four baby coots (cootlets?) and a moorhen.

In the centre of the opposite bank a massive oak tree spreads its arms wide over the scene.  It's a truly magnificent tree, so large that I have to retreat some distance to get its whole width into the camera frame.  It must be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, tree I have seen along the stream so far.  It makes me realise that I've seen very few such huge trees anywhere in the valley.  I wonder if it was planted when the house was originally built.

A little further on is a similarly venerable and beautiful willow.  A scatter of Large White butterflies are enjoying the purple loosestrife.  As I follow the eastern bank, I'm startled by the sharp squawk of a moorhen, apparently under my feet, so she must be hiding in the reeds right beside the bank.  Overhead, a couple of buzzards are circling and mewing.  The scene is a curious mixture of wild-ish and garden-ish, and it does make a very interesting change from my walking so far.  The sound recorder isn't getting much action, though - apart from the occasional moorhen shout, there's not much noise on this wide, smooth, unobstructed water.

At the far end of the lake, the stream flows out under a little bridge and drops down several feet into a stone-walled channel via a man-made waterfall, so there's meat for the sound recorder in that, and also further on where the stream loses more height in a series of small cascades.  At the end of its tumble the stream is once more its normal self - shallower, fast-flowing, surrounded by trees and busy with debris, like someone reverting to comfortable scruff attire after a poshed-up night out.  And the garden has morphed seamlessly back into woodland and scrub.  Hazels, alders and willows are once more the order of the day, but with an added leaven of sweet chestnuts, which is less usual.  The scrub is attracting butterflies - a pair of red admirals skitter past me, and others which won't sit still long enough to be identified - pale brown and vaguely brindled.  And here, in the middle of this wildish woodland, is an elegant little iron bridge.  It's a bridge to nowhere, since once you've crossed it you're hard up against the barbed-wire boundary fence with the field next door and there's nowhere to go except rather precariously along the opposite bank.  I can't work out why it's here, and feel there must be a story involved.

I'm now following a track through the woodland.  I'm back in the world of the secret stream; even with the iron bridge as a reminder, the world of the lake and the house already seems miles away.   It's that part of the year when the trees are summer-heavy with so much leaf that any view of the outside world is blocked as if by green velvet curtains.  A large brown bird flaps out of the leaf-curtain above me and crashes away into the canopy, only identifiable as a buzzard by its characteristic mew.  I can also hear green woodpecker laughter somewhere in the vicinity, but not, of course when I've got the recorder turned on.  Think maybe I should start a list of The Sounds That Got Away, which would include the earlier moorhen squawk.

On a deep meander in the stream stands another massive tree, all dolled up in ancient ivy.  It's so surrounded by smaller hazels that it's hard to make out what its own leaves are but I'm sure it's an oak.  I wonder, from its size, whether it was planted at the same time as the one by the lake, and whether there were once more of them.   An avenue of oaks?  The ivy growing on it is so ancient that its bark is as ribbed and textured as the bark of the tree itself.  It is currently home to a multitude of spiders who have spun their webs between its stems.

The woodland floor is carpeted with hazelnut shells here.  Having recently been on a course with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust on identifying signs of small mammals (starting to take all this a bit seriously, you see) , I am looking out for any that show signs of being nibbled by voles or mice.  Unfortunately, all the ones I can see have clearly been scrunched by squirrels.  It's like searching a clover patch for the one with four leaves.  But then I find a small mammal-sized hole in the ground, and satisfactorily close to it, a nut with a small circular hole chewed in the top of it.  Not squirrel.  Are there tooth marks round the edge of the hole?  Hard to tell, in this light, but there are no tooth marks on the rest of the nut (I think) so that means it could be a vole (bank or field) or a dormouse.  Probably a vole - judging by the number we saw on this excellent course (good fun - try it yourself!), voles are in the majority.  It's pretty exciting to think I might be sitting on a vole's doorstep.  Doing the equivalent of rootling through its dustbin.  Hmm.

Large white on purple loosestrife
The stream now disappears briefly into a pipe.  The track I've been following crosses it and heads for a gate in the field beyond, but the stream is still on this side of the field boundary, so I stick with it, despite the fact that this looks likely to involve wading through shoulder-high nettles.  Forging into the undergrowth, I disturb a wren, which darts away in front of me, calling names loudly.    Now my attention is attracted by an unexpectedly steep bank on my right, which looks for all the world as though someone - several someones -  have been sliding down it repeatedly on their bottoms.  Reasonably substantial bottoms - I have a mental image of roistering badger cubs...  On the far side is what looks like an old watercourse, perhaps a mill leat, which would explain the bank.  Following it, I find that it curves around and joins up with the stream.  I'm guessing it's probably part of an old mill system.  Only a little further on, barbed wire fences march right down to the stream on both sides and I need to cross one or other of them in order to find out where I am because I suspect that the fences mean I've now reached the end of the Steanbridge estate land.  It's surprising how difficult it is to pinpoint your position in country like this, even with a detailed map.  Some scrambling gets me over the right hand fence and into an area thigh-deep in nettles and brambles, all overlaid with a mattress of goose-grass.  A little more wading through this plant chaos gets me into a position to see ahead, and confirms my suspicion that this is indeed the church field, which is the next bit beyond beyond the Steanbridge land.  I've hit the furthest end of today's walk.  Time to retrace my steps.

I decide to try walking back up the old watercourse to see where it goes.  I think I've found it on the map, where it's shown as a straight, blue line coming away from the Steanbridge lake and parallel with the main stream.  So it is supposed to have water in it, as far as Ordnance Survey are concerned.  The plants growing in the bottom of it suggest this hasn't been true very recently, but its appearance on the map adds credence to the idea that it was part of a man-made water system.  It runs higher up the hill than the main stream and skirts the edge of an area of beech woodland.  Partway along it, dug into the steep and sandy bank in the roots of the beech trees above, is a series of holes, increasing in size and a substantial accumulation of poo.  Not twisty-tailed poo but well, basically just squidgy.  (Too much information?  Blame Chris Packham.)  Cudgelling my brains to remember what we were told on the mammal course, I wonder if this could be a badger latrine.  Which adds fuel to my wistful speculations about badger cubs and the bank...

Walking in the watercourse is tricky because it's deep in branch debris and leaf litter.  After stumbling along it for some distance, I emerge into sunshine and a major nettle patch behind the summer house at the end of the lake.  Which proves that I've been walking along the blue line shown on the map, although from this vantage point it seems to me that the lake and its surroundings are not quite as they are shown on the OS map.  The whole position of the lake relative to the stream seems to have changed.

Anyway, I'm now on the homeward path, back up the lake, past the swan, past a moorhen and her two small chicks, diving just in front of me, past the house and back to the gate by the village pond.  Here, just before I turn the sound recorder off, a buzzard flaps heavily away just ahead of me and gives me something I've been hoping for - a really good, closeup recording of his cry, which to me is one of the defining sounds of the Slad Valley.

Google map of this walk

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