HUNGER PANGS: a red kite drops in for a snack [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]
RED KITES have become virtually synonymous with the Chiltern Hills over the past 20 years, but it wasn’t always that way.
Once a common sight in the towns and cities of medieval Britain, the birds had become virtually extinct by the end of the 19th century after a couple of centuries of human persecution, with perhaps as few as a dozen pairs surviving against all the odds in a sparsely populated region of central Wales.
Nowadays the Chilterns is one of the best places in the UK to see red kites, thanks to a successful re-introduction project between 1989 and 1994 – and it was that re-emergence of the species which prompted Emmi Birch to set up a Facebook group for people to share photographs of the magnificent birds.
“The group was created in May 2016 to purely enjoy photographs and film of the red kites,” Emmi recalls. “Living in Buckinghamshire, I have had the pleasure of seeing the red kite population grow rapidly.
“Years ago, we would very occasionally see one and everyone would stop what they were doing and rush outside just to get a glimpse. We now have the privilege of seeing these incredible birds every day in the skies above us.”
Indeed the Chilterns Conservation Board nowadays publishes a leaflet about where to see red kites in the Chilterns, where there are now more than 300 breeding pairs.
Emmi is not alone in her appreciation of the birds, it seems. When she set up the group Red Kite Sitings UK she hadn’t anticipated that it would soon have more than 1,000 members.
SPLASH LANDING: a Welsh sighting in Ceredigion [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]
On the site’s welcome page, she wrote: “I’m hoping that this group will allow others to post their photographs and film of red kites from around the UK, so that those who aren’t familiar with these magnificent birds can enjoy them and those, like me, who never tire of seeing the kites can just indulge themselves looking at yet more photos and film of these beautiful birds of prey.”
Fellow enthusiasts haven’t been slow to share their pictures of kites soaring on the breeze all over the UK, a reflection of the extraordinary success of this conservation movement, which had its roots in the foresight of some pioneering visionaries in the early 20th century who realised how close the birds were to extinction.
Contributors to the website include Fife-based enthusiast Allan Brown, who has posted a number of stunning pictures of the birds on the wing north of the border.
ON THE WING: a red kite at Argaty in Perthshire [PICTURE: Allan Brown]
Describing himself as an “enthusiastic amateur” photographer, Allan says: “I am interested in all raptors, but I particularly like red kites for their agility, acrobatics and colours.”
Another enthusiast who describes himself as “just an amateur with a camera” is Alan Ewart in Wales. He says: “I took up photography less than two years ago and I’m lucky enough to have two feeding stations both within an hour’s drive. Once I’d been once I was hooked on these magnificent birds.”
WELSH WONDER: a red kite at Bwlch Nant yr Arian [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]
The full story of the birds’ reintroduction is told in detail by Elfyn Pugh in an article for the online birdwatchers’ magazine Birds of Britain.
By the turn of the 20th century the remaining population were clinging on in their Welsh stronghold, having been plagued by unscrupulous egg collectors, shot for their skins and mounted as stuffed birds in glass cabinets.
PHOTO BOMB: Emmi’s site has contributors from all over the UK [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]
A determined group of individuals and landowners were appalled at the continuing destruction and formed the first kite committee in 1903 to start protecting nests, with the RSPB becoming involved a couple of years later.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s, with the red kite identified as a globally threatened species, that the RSPB and Nature Conservancy Council got together to discuss reintroducing the red kite to England and Scotland.
The programme has continued ever since, with colour-coded wing tags identifying the different places of fledging or release, from Yorkshire to Aberdeen and the Black Isle.
MAJESTIC: on the hunt at Glen Quaich [PICTURE: Allan Brown]
But the Chilterns remains a major stronghold and a perfect place to photograph the birds soaring on the thermals above Stokenchurch and Radnage.
Says Emmi: “My interest started around 13 or 14 years ago when I saw my first red kite fly over the garden. I was absolutely amazed by the size of it.”
In Wales the kite is a national symbol of wildlife and was voted the country’s favourite bird in a public poll run by the RSPB Cymru and BBC Wales poll and announced by Iolo Williams in the final episode of Iolo’s Welsh Safari.
He said: “The red kite is an extremely deserving winner with a hugely uplifting story of recovery from the brink of extinction. We can be proud that, when red kites were facing such a difficult time elsewhere in Britain, they hung on in Wales and have since gone from strength to strength.”
FEEDING TIME: Bwlch Nant yr Arian visitor centre [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]
The enthusiasm is not universal – the tabloids do run occasional stories of residents complaining about being dive-bombed by birds of prey, but Emmi’s page followers are sceptical about such lurid claims, pointing out that the birds are natural scavenger, not hunters, and tend to gather to feed on carrion, mainly dead rabbits, mice and pheasant, and animals killed on the road.
An RSPB spokesperson was quoted in one Daily Mail article reassuring people: “They are not the fearsome predators that people in the Victorian era thought them to be and they are not like a sparrowhawk or kestrel, which would go for a live prey.”
NATURAL SCAVENGER: kites prefer to feed on carrion [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]
Outside the breeding season the kite is a gregarious species and can be found in communal night time roosts, with up to 100 being counted in Britain and some 500 birds being counted in Spain, where large numbers of European kites spend the winter.
As Elfyn Pugh writes in his 2005 article: “It is a sobering thought but it is now clear that the remnant “native” British population of the red kite came perilously close to the brink of extinction. If that had been the outcome then we in Britain would have been deprived of one of our most magnificent and majestic birds of prey.”
That’s a sentiment Emmi and her fellow red kite enthusiasts would endorse. The distinctive whistling call of roosting kites is echoing loud and clear across the Buckinghamshire countryside these days – and long may that continue.
NATURE RESERVE: spring sunshine transforms the quarryside path at Spade Oak
SPRING has sprung with a vengeance at the Spade Oak Lake in Little Marlow – and not before time after the unseasonal March snowfalls and recent riverside flooding.
For weeks, the path round the border of the former gravel pit has been a mudbath, deterring even the hardiest of anglers and birdwatchers.
But with the sudden April rise in temperatures, the site has been transformed and the nature reserve has come into its own again.
It was here during the 1960s that aggregate was extracted that would be used for the M40 and M4 motorways. But the restoration of the site saw the creation of a remarkable nature reserve comprising the lake and surrounding woodland.
DEEP WATERS: nowadays the lake is a sanctuary for water fowl
Much of the restoration work focused on encouraging birds to use the site as a breeding sanctuary, and breeding birds include little ringed plovers, kingfishers, reed warblers, great crested grebes and terns.
Alongside these are the ducks, gulls and geese who provide a cacophony of background sound on a still evening as the bats come out to flit and flicker around in the gloaming on the permissive path which runs around much of the lakeside perimeter.
This is one of nine fishing venues operated by Marlow Angling Club and is said to host carp, tench, bream, pike, perch, roach, rudd and eels.
GONE FISHING: Marlow Angling Club members fish at selected spots around the lake
It was back in 1966 that the Folley Brothers began to dig the former farmland in Coldmoorholm Lane to extract the valuable flood plain gravel that was in great demand for the motorway building program. Gravel is no longer dug from Spade Oak but the area is used by the current owners, Lafarge, as a depository for gravel dug elsewhere.
In 1999, Little Marlow Parish Council and Lafarge began discussing a permissive path around the lake to celebrate the millennium, and the official opening took place in 2002.
IN FULL BLOOM: the lake path through the trees towards the Spade Oak pub
And a very pleasant waterside ramble it is on a spring or summer’s evening, with the gulls and geese shrieking in dismay at some temporary disturbance and the gentle clank of the two-coach train lazily meandering its way from Bourne End to Marlow alongside the lake path.
Ah, bliss! Nature has been quick to reclaim the former quarry, and the millennium project has proved a wonderful resource, not just for the villagers of Little Marlow but for all those tempted to take a waterside ramble on a warm evening.
GETTING UP STEAM: the preserved railway at Chinnor
THERE could hardly be a more atmospheric little station than Chinnor, on the old GWR branch line to Watlington, especially with the steam mingling with the drizzle of a foul wet Sunday.
But it takes more than a little bad weather to dampen the spirits of railway enthusiasts, and the little branch line was bustling with activity as we arrived to take our seats in the buffet car for a birthday cream tea celebration.
This was a day out booked before Christmas, but the limited winter timetable delayed the opportunity to sample the delights of what is now known as the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway.
END OF THE LINE: semaphore signals at Chinnor station
Originally the Watlington and Princes Risborough Railway Company, the eight-mile light railway was largely promoted by local land owners and authorised by parliament in 1869. It opened in 1872 with two intermediate stations at Chinnor and Aston Rowant.
But the company immediately ran into difficulties and the Great Western Railway acquired it in 1883. Under GWR ownership the track was re-laid, with rail level halts being opened at Bledlow Bridge, Kingston Crossing and Lewknor Bridge in 1906 and Wainhill Crossing in 1925.
But after the Second World War passenger traffic on the branch started to drop and by the mid-1950s had fallen to such a level that on July 1, 1957 the line was closed to passenger traffic.
From a personal perspective, the date is a little ironic, since the birthday we are celebrating is my own – just six months later in December, 60 years ago.
GUEST APPEARANCE: Prairie tank engine 5526 backs on to the coaches
And talking of birthdays, this is also a special year for the engine now backing on to the train, No 5526, one of a series of small ‘Prairie’ steam engines built at Swindon in May 1928.
The ‘4575’ class engine has been loaned to Chinnor for her 90th birthday year courtesy of the South Devon Railway, another former GWR branch line which runs along the stunning valley of the River Dart between Buckfastleigh and Totnes.
There’s another small irony here, although not one I become aware of until researching the history of the engine, which will be hauling all steam services on the Chinnor line throughout 2018. This is not the first time we have met, it seems – although on the last occasion the engine was in a pretty sorry state and it would have been hard to visualise it ever being in steam again.
It’s one of 100 small mixed traffic locomotives designed by Charles Collett and mainly used on branch lines. A development of Churchward’s 4500 class, they were numbered 4575–4599 and 5500–5574; this one was apparently built at Swindon Works as part of Lot 251 and cost the princely sum of £3,602.
GETTING UP STEAM: conversation on the footplate of 5526
For 30 years the engine was almost exclusively based in the West Country, for much of the time at Truro, where workings would have included branch line services to places like Falmouth and Newquay.
These are the sorts of routes which get enthusiasts all misty-eyed because they were often so atmospheric – and in many cases long gone, especially once Dr Beeching got to grips with the loss-making network in the early 1960s.
In my pre-grouping atlas showing the old Great Western lines which existed before the war, these little spurs on the map always smacked of tiny stations like this one at Chinnor, condensation on the windows and steam and smuts in the air. And the branches down in Cornwall and Devon always counted among the most intriguing because of their picturesque seaside and moorland locations.
But there were plenty closer to home too, like this one to Watlington and those nearby, like Wallingford, Abingdon, Blenheim & Woodstock and Henley-on-Thames.
TIME FOR TEA: passengers gather at Chinnor Station ahead of the 3pm departure
By March 1959 5526 had moved from Truro to Westbury and its final years in British Railways days were spent on local passenger and goods workings to destinations like Swindon and Bristol.
It was withdrawn from service in 1962 after travelling almost a million miles in 34 years, and sold for scrap to Woodham Brothers in South Wales on August 28, 1962.
And that’s when I last saw this particular engine, it transpires, because Dai Woodham’s famous Barry scrapyard became a place of pilgrimage for railway enthusiasts as the last resting place of almost 300 steam locomotives.
The story of the scrapyard is an extraordinary one, told on the Great Western Archive. Dai Woodham admitted having to travel to Swindon Works for a week in 1959 to “learn” how to scrap a steam locomotive, with old engines lining up in their hundreds in sidings around the country following BR’s 1955 modernisation plan decision to scrap some 16,000 of them.
By the end of steam in August 1968 there were still some 217 engines remaining at Barry, with the realisation dawning on enthusiasts and preservationists that this was now the only remaining source of steam locomotives which might be rescued for future generations.
GRAVEYARD: Floyd Nello’s Wikipedia picture of Barry
5526 languished for 23 years in the corrosive sea air of Barry, and it was there that I stumbled across it as a teenager in June 1971, one of 70 former GWR engines in those grim sidings on that summer’s day, stripped to rusting shells but many reserved for posterity by different groups of enthusiasts desperately raising funds to rescue the locomotive of their choice.
And so it was for 5526, it seems, which was finally reprieved in July 1985 when it became the 166th locomotive to be saved from the cutter’s torch at Barry Island, moving initially to the Gloucester and Warwickshire Railway before finally arriving at Buckfastleigh on the South Devon Railway, to be fully restored.
Looking at the engine today, it’s hard to believe the transformation from that rusting hulk at Barry – and it’s quite an emotional reunion.
BACK FROM THE DEAD: 5526 prepares for the short journey to Princes Risborough
Back on the station platform at Chinnor, passengers are beginning to mill around in the drizzle while volunteers prepare the buffet car ahead of the 3pm departure to Princes Risborough.
These days that’s all that’s left of the branch, and the volunteers are currently working on restoring a platform at Princes Risborough so that the preserved line can link up with Chiltern Railways main line there.
Back in 1957 when the line closed, the various halts were shut immediately, but the stations remained open for goods and parcel traffic until January 1961, after which the section from Chinnor to Watlington was closed completely and the track lifted.
The line from Chinnor to Princes Risborough was retained to serve the cement works and the wood yard in the village, with the final freight train to the cement works running in 1989 and maintenance of the branch being handed over to the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway Association the following year.
The first passenger service ran in 1994 and was extended to Thame Junction in 1996, although the battle to run trains into Princes Risborough was to take another two decades, as the railway’s website explains.
For now, though, all attention is beginning to turn to afternoon tea as we are ushered to our seats and get ready for the seven-mile round trip.
BIRTHDAY GREETINGS: on board the 1959 buffet car
Our end of the carriage has been cheerfully decorated in honour of the various birthdays being celebrated by diners – I’m one of three, it seems, and feel a bit of a fraud as four months have passed since the milestone in question, but the buffet team are determined not to let the occasion go unnoticed. There’s even a birthday card on the table from the staff.
This is one of the old British Railways Mark I coaches built in the 1950s and early 1960s and once to be found on locomotive-hauled trains pretty much everywhere across the system.
They were long-lived too, gradually disappearing during the 1970s and 80s as new coaching stock was introduced, although remarkably some stayed in use until 2005, with many subsequently turning up on preserved railways like this one.
Reinvigorating these old carriages doesn’t come cheap, though – and there’s an envelope on the table for contributions as a reminder of the high price of our plush-looking seats and the long slow progress of restoration generally.
This particular 1959 carriage (a “restaurant miniature buffet” in formal railway parlance) was off the rails for 10 months in 2010 for a make-over that cost more than £42,000.
COSTLY MAKE-OVER: smart-looking seats in the restored buffet car
This carriage earns its keep, though. It’s used to serve up cream teas and ploughman’s lunches on services throughout the year and the volunteers are already hovering with teapots of boiling water to make sure that these scones and cream won’t be too easily forgotten.
Outside, the signal clangs, the guard shows a green flag and our driver gently eases the regulator open. Because the engine is running behind the train, there’s little obvious sign of steam or smoke, but in any event all eyes are on the scones and refreshing cups of tea being poured into authentic GWR cups and saucers.
The lineside guide on the railway’s website tells us we are heading for the outskirts of Chinnor and Keens Lane Crossing, where the driver may give a warning toot to walkers waiting to cross the line.
This crossing is known locally as Donkey Lane, harking back to the time when the furniture industry was in full swing and chair legs fashioned by ‘bodgers’ (itinerant wood-turners) on the beechwood slopes above, would be brought down from the hills by pack animals to be taken by train to High Wycombe.
Although the windows are beginning to steam up with the hot tea and convivial conversation, it’s still possible to return the waves of walkers on a footpath which runs parallel to the ancient Upper Icknield Way.
What is it that makes it impossible to see a steam traing without waving at it? Looking across the open fields and returning the walkers’ cheery waves, it feels like a scene from the 1970 classic film of E Nesbit’s celebrated novel, The Railway Children. It also reminds me just how evocative the idea of enjoying a meal on a train actually is.
MEAL ON THE MOVE: the train trundles towards Princes Risborough
As a young boy in short trousers I always remember standing on the platform at South Croydon station watching the legendary Brighton Belle thundering through. The iconic 1930s luxury pullman train was electric, not steam, but with its beautiful art deco interiors and distinctive table lamps it seemed to be the epitome of fine dining to the envious eyes of a 10-year-old.
The mythology was only increased by reading articles about the train – reminiscences by the actress Dora Bryan, for example, recording the extraordinary atmosphere of breakfast on board the one-hour journey from Brighton to London.
Our meal may not quite capture the exoticism of the Brighton Belle or the Orient Express, but the stewards are avidly refilling the metal teapots and the scones are going down a treat as we slow down for Wainhill Crossing Halt.
We cross the road at a sedate pace and head on towards Bledlow Cricket Club, the overgrown watercress beds which once provided many boxes of produce to the London markets, and Thame Junction at Princes Risborough, where we pause for a few minutes before tackling the return journey.
Eventually there will be an interchange with the main line here, but for the moment volunteers are busy restoring the platform and passengers are not able to alight.
Of course the incorrigible volunteers can’t let those birthdays pass without a formal announcement, a ‘Happy Birthday’ singalong and a celebratory cake and candle for the lucky trio.
BIRTHDAY SINGALONG: the buffet car volunteers spring a surprise
John and Sue look similarly embarrassed by all the attention, but at least it’s actually John’s birthday…it’s a sweet touch, though, and their efforts and enthusiasm are much appreciated. After all, this isn’t how I remember buffet car service in British Railways days.
A few minutes later and we are back on the move, this time with the engine in front and authentic wafts of steam and smoke floating past the window. It’s a picturesque trip along the foot of the Chilterns escarpment but although the weather is closing in and the windows are steamed up, in some ways that just makes the journey seem even more atmospheric.
It’s not long before we are back in Chinnor and saying our farewells to the buffet staff. It’s been a lovely outing, despite the drizzle: not exactly cheap at £18 a head (the normal adult fare for a round trip without the cream tea is £12), but you can’t grudge the outlay given the energy of the volunteers and the eye-watering costs involved in trying to bring the past back to life.
JOURNEY’S END: 5526 arrives back at Chinnor
The railway is open on Sundays from mid-March to the end of October, with occasional other dates, including Thursdays in August and Santa specials in the run-up to Christmas.
There are diesel days and special galas, Hallowe’en ghost trains, fish and chip quiz nights and even murder mystery evenings, so there’s certainly no shortage of ingenuity when it comes to attracting different types of visitors, and not only those who mourn the passing of steam.
SIGN OF THE TIMES: the restored GWR signalbox at Chinnor
Facilities at the station include a small bookshop and an 1895 Cambrian Railway coach which has been converted to a tearoom. There’s disabled access and toilets too.
Without doubt it’s a labour of love for the regulars who give up their spare time doing everything from cleaning the trains to maintaining the station gardens. There are no paid staff on the railway, so there’s always an appeal for newcomers to join the team working behind the scenes to make the venture a success.
And all credit to them, say I. Everyone went out of their way to make us feel welcome – and we’ll certainly be back.
BACK in the darkest days of winter, the aim was always to see the Beyonder website go “live” over the Easter weekend.
That’s the weekend, after all, when many attractions reopen after the winter, when families are hoping to get out and about and make the most of the holiday weekend and when the roadsides and footpaths are finally bursting into bloom in a big way.
Unfortunately the long rainy spell made it difficult to get too many sunny pictures during March. Many footpaths are still mudbaths, there was snow on the ground until late in the month and other work commitments made it difficult to sort out some of the practical problems of adding content and social media links to the website before formally inviting friends and interested strangers to ‘visit’.
MUDBATH: the Thames Path outside Bourne End disappears under water
Hopefully the worst of the wintry weather is behind us. The blossom is certainly out in the hedgerows and there’s a little more free time to get out and about to speak to some of the local people we want to interview.
There’s a great deal to organise, though – especially on the campaign front. Although many parish councils have been doing a sterling job with their spring cleaning, the litter problem on our roads is still a blight on the landscape and a depressing testimony to the selfishness of today’s throwaway society.
That’s something we want to do something practical about – but there are still a lot of people to talk to before we can properly share our plans for the best way of tackling the problem.
There’s also no point in encouraging people to find the website until there’s plenty to read – so we are also in the process of looking for features, reviews and photographs to help give the magazine a proper sense of identity and purpose.
Bear with us while we work on that – and do get in touch with your ideas, suggestions and contributions. We are still hoping to go “live” this spring, so watch this space!