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BylineMaryGreen

Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Walking by water

Posted on September 15 2010 at 9:18:36 1 comments

Pear tree, Eades meadow

Mary Green goes for a wander around Upper Bittell reservoir.

The drought of summer broke with a vengeance at the end of August, but at least we had some nice weather over August bank holiday weekend and a glorious start to September. In some eastern cultures there are five seasons identified, not four, and one of them is the harvest season. I can see the logic to this, as it’s recognisably different from high summer and true autumn.

I had the pleasure of finding some good mushrooms in the fields locally. It’s best to pick mushrooms on a sunny day after rain, partly because there will be lots and you will enjoy the sun, but also because they shine nice and white in the sunlight so you can find them more easily.

The wild fruit on our local trees is mirroring that on cultivated trees: very variable. Some blackthorn is thick with sloes, some almost bare, as with crab apples and wilding apples, just like the patchy crop of plums, apples and damsons in the gardens.

Apparently the season has been very variable across England, with some places reporting that fruit is not ripening (my tomatoes are fine!) and some saying migrating birds are coming earlier than usual. Experts predict a short-lived and not very colourful autumn after the rains of August. It certainly seems the leaves are not turning colour particularly early.

I had some good news about the swans in the neighbourhood too. The one that nested up near Cofton has been seen again with six grown-up cygnets. That means the pair I saw with only two left must have been a different family. You may see the large swan family on the walk I describe below.

While the fruits are the main focus of this time of year, you can already see signs of next year’s growth. On the hazel bushes, the little catkins have already formed, ready for the spring “lambs-tails”.

I have recently seen the kingfisher three days running, which is a record for me. A local resident who overlooks the canal told me he had watched it for half an hour, as it sat on a branch and dived for fish, which it mostly dropped! It did eventually get one. He thought it was a young one, which bears out my conviction that they are breeding round here, having seen the two together in the spring.

I still haven’t managed to photograph them for you – they are so fast. But of course you know what they look like – everyone does. Strangely, though, people who see them for the first time are always surprised how small they are, just sparrow-sized. They always lift my heart when I see one flash by.

I visited Eades meadow recently to see the meadow saffron, which was gorgeous this year. I hope some of you got there too, as it’s quite a rare treat to see it growing so profusely. While there I noticed the apples and pears on the old trees were better than I had originally thought they would be, especially the red pears. Even the really ancient hollow tree covered with mistletoe had some apples on it.

My walk this month is around Upper Bittell reservoir. I do it as a long walk from Alvechurch, but you could shorten it by driving to one of the road points, or start from Barnt Green or Hopwood. It links with the walk round Cofton which I described at the beginning of the year. The walk is all on the Birmingham ordnance survey map (Explorer 220).

There are two good ways to do the stretch from Alvechurch. The simplest is to walk up the canal to the bridge past the Bittell moorings (grid reference SP 023744). Near the moorings, look right for the big new wood which has been growing for a couple of years, and is doing well.

The track over the bridge to the left goes up to Bittell farm. The path does a little jink round the farm, but is marked well. There is a lovely cherry-plum here and some good farmyard wild flowers. Follow the path to the road, Bittell Farm Road. Cross it and follow a good footpath over fields.

This path can be a bit muddy, but it has lovely views and passes some interesting trees. Some of these show signs of earlier coppicing and have grown into lovely shapes. The path takes you down to a grassy bank raised above the south-west side of the reservoir. This is a very attractive place in summer, and families often picnic here. Nearby is the sailing club and there are usually dinghies out on the water. 

In spring, this bank has coltsfoot and cowslips. In summer it has self-heal, speedwell and other flowers depending on how the grass has been cut, and later I have seen a lot of water bistort here.

Carry on across the bank and follow the footpath to the left, which takes you down to the end of the little road that comes past the sailing club. (grid reference SP 017752). This is the end of the Cofton walk I described in the February issue.

Turn right, to the north, and follow the road along the edge of the large pond towards Cofton Church Lane. This is one place you might see the swans, and other waterbirds, and water plants such as watercress. At the end of the little road where it joins Cofton Church Lane, there is invasive Indian balsam in late summer.

Turn right at the road (turning left will take you back to Barnt Green or Cofton) and follow it to its end at Cofton Richards farm. You are now on the North Worcestershire path. Take care at Cofton Richards Farm to take the correct path, which goes to the right of the farm. It crosses fields, and may be a bit tricky to follow here so look out for the North Worcestershire path signs. Then it goes back into the wooded stretch by the reservoir and follows it across, to the east, a little way from the north shore.

This stretch is on the edge of an SSI (site of special scientific interest) which has rare shore-line plants. Unfortunately this means you can’t get near the water, but instead get tantalising glimpses of the lake and waterbird noises. However, the bushes include lovely blackthorn, and the views in the field stretches are good.

When you get near the end of the reservoir the North Worcestershire path diverges to the left up towards Grovely. Don’t take this, but if you walk a little way up it in spring you will find the lovely moschatel, the town-hall clock plant, which I have mentioned before. Go straight on instead, continuing east.

When you leave the woods you cross fields to the end of the lane at Hopwood Grange. The field can be lovely and grassy, or, if there have been cattle and rain, very muddy. Follow the lane to the main A441, turn right and walk down to the Hopwood pub by the canal.

There are sweet chestnut trees along this stretch of road. In July they have musky-smelling sprays of flower: in autumn after a good summer you may find nuts. The pub has good long opening hours, so you might stop for refreshments! From here you can walk straight back down the canal to Alvechurch.

The other route is one I do from Withybed, and it provides a round trip from Alvechurch if you don’t like coming back on yourself. From Withybed, walk up Birches Lane and the Birches bridleway to Cooper’s Hill. Turn right then left across the motorway, then right again down Aqueduct Lane

When you get to the house called The Paddocks on the left, take the footpath marked and follow it across field till you get to Bittell Road. Turn left and follow the road till you reach Bittell Farm Road. I have described the wildlife of this route before, in the June issue.

If you do the walk from Barnt Green, you can also get to this point by Bittell Road. Walk along Bittell Farm Road until you reach a sharp right hand bend. There is a good track that goes straight on. Follow this along the side of the top part of Lower Bittell Reservoir, which you can’t get near, but has tantalising glimpses and may have swans, herons, coots and other waterbirds.
This track brings you to the point near the sailing club where the ponds are and the little road begins. Follow this north as described above.

For a short walk to just the lower reservoir, you can follow the first route as far as Bittell farm. Then turn left down the road and cross Lower Bittell reservoir. At the end of Bittell Farm Road you will meet the other route to the reservoirs, which you can follow in reverse back to Alvechurch. You do get a good view of the reservoir and its birds from the middle of the road section.

Apart from waterbirds, there is a wealth of wildlife on this walk at all times of year. The canal and lakeside stretches are full of flowers except in winter, and even then there are berries, thistledown and dried flower-heads. I will just pick out a few for you to look out for at different times of year.

In late summer and early autumn, you might find an unusual plant right by the water called bur marigold. It has pretty feathery leaves and a tiny bright gold flower. It doesn’t flower till the end of August or September, and apart from ivy is the latest flowering plant I know. It was quite plentiful along the canal after it was last re-modelled and replanted in the late 1980s, but has suffered from being mown down while still flowering and there are now only a few left.

Also at this time you will find the last flowers of purple loosestrife and gipsywort. These have fascinating names, referring to the way they were once used. Purple loosestrife is that spectacular long purple flower that grows from July to early autumn. It was supposed to prevent conflict (hence the name, loosen strife) and was often placed on the harness of pairs of horses that needed to work together harmoniously when ploughing.

Gipsywort is a tall plant with jagged, nettle-like leaves all up the stem and tiny white flowers. It is very common by water. It produces a dark brown dye, and it was believed at one time that gipsies used it to dye their skin dark.

In spring you will find all the usual flowers such as bluebells and cowslips somewhere along the stretch. Blackthorn will be profuse, followed by hawthorn. You should also look out for white violets, which have become common along parts of the canal. Next to it you may find barren strawberry, very much like the true wild strawberry but earlier flowering.

Also at this time you will see ground ivy. This is not an ivy at all, but a small herb of the dead-nettle family with heads of blue flowers. It has a distinctive scent when you crush the leaves, and was once made into herbal tea. It was also used to provide the bitter flavour in beer, before hops were widely available.

These examples remind us of how much plants were used for all sorts of purposes. In the same family as the ground ivy are the two woundworts. Hedge woundwort is common as a garden weed and grows all along the lanes and towpath too. It has small dark red flowers and a bitter smell to its soft leaves. It was used to heal wounds, and does have styptic properties.

Its cousin, the marsh woundwort, is more delicate and prettier, with larger pink flowers, but still the same distinctive smell and use. You will often find this on the water side of the towpath, with the hedge variety on the landward side.

On patches of rough ground you will find greater plantain. This has long thin hard flower heads sometimes called rats-tails, and broad oval leaves. These leaves have anti-histamine properties, and are particularly good if you have been bitten by horseflies – just crush and rub onto the bite.

If you are walking this route now in autumn, you will find beautiful hawthorn and rosehip berries, and can probably still get some blackberries for a week or so. There should still be some elderberries, and crab apples, all of which can go into jam. You will see sloes on the blackthorn bushes, ready to harvest for sloe gin now.

You can also find spindle berries, not edible but beautiful in their shocking-pink and orange colours. The leaves will be turning, though the countryside may be still quite green at this time. It is a lovely time, fruitful and colourful, and we may even get a bit of Indian summer before autumn proper starts.

This is an autumnal poem I wrote last year:

Fire

Today was the day the ash tree caught fire
The rising sun lit it outside my window
And it blazed yellow into my head
This only happens today, I thought

Like the day of the first log fire
Red in the grate, driving out summer
Smelling of twenty year old fir tree
From my first Christmas here

Plums load down my tree
Gold like honey, like sun
Then the skins fire russet red
Eat them, quick, before they rot

For hours in the autumn sun we wait
To see tiny wrought pieces of gold
Flame with exquisite garnets
Released for this moment from the Mercian mud

I have always loved fireworks
But I remember in Tottenham
In my fortieth year I jumped
Thought they were gunshots

And another fifth of November
Flying into Heathrow, I saw
All of London’s fires and a
Champagne of rockets and stars

Fire in the heart of the year
Holly and hawthorn and robins’ breasts
Red wine and scarlet cloak
Brings me the present, always the present

For none of it will last
Fire is the moment
Caught between life and death
And so is poetry.


What Villagers have been saying about this story . . . most recent comments first


Comment posted by Tony Keating
from Blackwell on August 28 2011 at 12:54:56

Just wanted to say a big thank you to Mary and the Village magazine. About 5 years ago i became disabled and cannot walk very far now. Prior to my health problems my main interest was exploring the countryside by foot and bicycle. I cannot do it now but enjoy Mary’s descriptive writing so much. It is almost like being on the walk with her.




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