Big problems in Little Marlow

IT’S A shame Thames Water can’t do a little more to clean up its act around the Little Marlow sewage treatment works.

Given that the works lies next door to a nature reserve, you might think some effort could be made to keep the approach road neat and tidy.

But ramblers enjoying the otherwise picturesque circular tour of Spade Oak lake down to the River Thames are once again greeted by a growing pile of fly-tipped debris just where the footpath crosses the approach road to the works.

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The pile looks remarkably similar to the rubbish dumped in the same spot some months ago, pictured below.

And given Thames Water’s pledges to invest in the area following its disastrous pollution problems some years ago, you might hope for just a little more effort to prevent the lane becoming a fly-tipping hotspot.

Back in March 2017 Thames Water was fined a record £20.3 million for polluting the River Thames with 1.4 billion litres of raw sewage.

The company allowed huge amounts of untreated effluent to enter the waterway in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in 2013 and 2014, leaving people and animals ill, and killing thousands of fish.

Judge Francis Sheridan handed down the largest penalty for a water utility for an environmental disaster at a sentencing hearing at Aylesbury Crown Court.

Richard Aylard of Thames Water said outside the court that the company had learned its lesson, changed its ways and was also proud to be working in partnership with environmental groups across the area, working to improve rivers.

Following sentencing, Thames Water also announced it would allocate £1.5 million towards projects to improve the rivers, wildlife and surrounding environment at the six locations.

One small step might be to improve the approach road to the Little Marlow works. No one is blaming the company for the fly-tipping itself – but if future incidents are to be prevented, more needs to be done to prevent this becoming a permanent blot on the local landscape.

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Quarry lake teems with life

THERE’S a lovely autumnal chill in the air as we return to Spade Oak quarry for the first time in a few months.

This time we leave the car at Little Marlow and cut across the fields to the top edge of the quarry before circling round the gravel pit to the railway line and back up the other side of the water.

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The sun’s out but the temperature’s dropping as evening approaches. Although we only find out later, this is a good slice of Walk 16 of the Chilterns AONB website, which takes walkers on a three-mile level ramble from Bourne End station to Little Marlow and back, savouring the picturesque village and nature reserve on the way, along with a very pleasant stretch of the Thames Path.

Our circuit of the lake is uneventful and a little on the chilly side; the last time we were here, the rabbits were lolloping around in the evening sunshine and the lake was busy with all kinds of birds, from cormorants to moorhens.

There’s a lot less going on today, it seems – at least that’s how it appears on the surface. But with a little help from the Buckinghamshire Bird Club it’s possible to piece together a more detailed picture of what you might be able to see here, especially if you come armed with binoculars and know what to look for.

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At this time of year, gull and cormorant numbers are beginning to build up and just before winter gets under way redwings and fieldfare start to appear in the hedgerows, particularly along the railway bank.

Winter is one of the more interesting times to visit for bird enthusiasts, it seems, with good numbers of the commoner ducks including wigeon, teal, gadwall and shoveler.

The biggest concentrations of birds can be found around the large sand spit, best viewed from the west bank, with better views of the main island from along the south bank by the railway line.

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The list goes on, with buzzards and red kites over the fields and woods to the north of the lake. while the riverside meadows may attract geese, pipits, wagtails, various migrant passerines and sometimes waders.

Having made a mental note to return with binoculars, we nod our way past the anglers who are taking advantage of a similar amount of life under the surface of the lake.

This is one of nine venues frequented by members of the Marlow Angling Club on the look-out for carp, pike, tench, bream, rudd, roach and perch. Busy place, this quarry.

The waft from the sewage treatment works is a little riper than usual as we round the south side of the quarry, but the smaller gulls love the place amd sometimes there can be thousands of black-headed gulls gathering on the lake during the last hour or two before dusk.

Back in Little Marlow, the 12th century St John the Baptist Church has provided a picturesque backdrop for the antics of such famous fictional detectives as Poirot, Miss Marple and Lewis.

It also provides the focal point for a conservation area that incorporates the 16th century manor house and a score of other listed buildings: not to mention a couple of welcoming pubs for thirsty ramblers eager to take the weight of their feet.

Get snapping to win a prize

WHAT does the Chilterns mean to you?

Budding landscape and wildlife photographers of all ages are being invited to answer that question in pictorial form for a new competition being launched this month by the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

IMG_0281The competition is intended to highlight the importance of getting out and about and to encourage participants to celebrate the beauty and enjoyment of the area.

Images can be of anything from a landscape to a building, community event or wildlife, but there are prizes in two categories, for those over 16 years and those under.

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Prizes donated by local businesses include a framed copy of the winning image courtesy of Pretty Like Pictures Framing Studio in Thame, an exclusive 50-minute ride with the driver on a diesel engine offering a unique photo opportunity courtesy of Chiltern and Princes Risborough Railway or a Tree Top experience for four at Go Ape.

Finalists will be selected by an in-house judging panel and short-listed photos will be displayed on an online poll where the public will be able to vote for their favourite. To take part, click on the link above.

Home truths from the fells

THERE’S a brutal and unflinching honesty about James Rebanks’ memoirs of a shepherding life in the Lake District that takes you by surprise.

Not that you would expect a book of this type to shrink from telling tough tales of a harsh climate, a difficult lifestyle, an imposing landscape…

But what gives Rebanks’ 2015 bestseller such a resonance is the author’s lack of equivocation when it comes to discussing his own flaws and shortcomings – as well as those of the education system, politicians, bureacrats, thoughtless incomers, naive consumers, irresponsible dog walkers and all those who understand little about the practicalities of a modern farmer’s life.

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The last time I read a book about shepherding it was 1983 and Iain Thomson had just published Isolation Shepherd, an extraordinary account of 1950s shepherding in the wilds of Wester Ross.

Although there are inevitable parallels in that account of an intimate and often harsh contact with the untamed world, and the shared all-consuming sense of purpose which shepherds share, Rebanks’ starting point is very different.

Indeed the opening pages are a devastating indictment of the comprehensive schooling offered to his generation of rebellious 1980s teenagers that has more in common with an Alan Sillitoe novel than a rural memoir.

Rebanks pulls no punches about the negativity and disillusionment this engendered in his 13-year-old self and  he is equally open about the fractious nature of family relationships at times: “Fathers and sons in our family tend to  bicker like hyenas around the remains of a zebra,” he recalls.

He is equally straightforward about the positive influence of the young woman who would become his wife: “From the moment we got together twenty  years ago she made me want to buckle down and make our life a good one. She makes me better than I am.”

But there is a pattern emerging here, of a straight-talking, unsentimental portrait of a way of life that has changed little across the hundreds of years when previous generations of his family tended flocks here.

The narrative is as firmly rooted in the landscape as a Grassic Gibbon novel, and some aspects of that daily routine are every bit as harsh and unforgiving. This is the land where Rebanks trailed around in the footsteps of his grandfather as a child, argued with his father as a young man and which he still works today with his wife and three children.

This is where he tends for the beloved Herdwick sheep which are such an intrinsic feature of these fells. And while his book chronicles a year in the changing landscape, it also flashes forward and back from boyhood to manhood, chronicling not only the daily challenges but some of the momentous memories across the years, from his grandfather’s death to the horrors of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.

There is irritation and anger here too, inevitably. Farmers are vulnerable to the whims of too many people far removed from their isolated farmsteads not to have strong opinions about the impact of the policymakers, bureaucrats and supermarket buyers on their precious but precarious existence.

Hence too that youthful frustration and anger with teachers who seemed to believe that anyone with the remotest hint of talent and ambition would surely want to seek a living elsewhere.

Rebanks detested school and left at 15, able to write only in block capitals. But that didn’t snuff out his desire to learn — far from it. At 21, he took his A-levels at evening classes in nearby Carlisle, where in due course he discovered that he might actually be Oxbridge material.

The dreaming spires beckoned, but if they helped to cement his literary credentials, they were to provide only a temporary change of scene from those beloved fells. The young couple spent a couple of years in Carlisle after Oxford, but moving back to the farm was always Rebanks’ longer-term dream.

Much of his autobiography chronicles the trials and tribulations of that life, the colourful local characters, the high points in the farming calender, the crises, the triumphs, the sheer blood, sweat and tears.

Rebanks could hardly have hoped for a more effusive reaction from the literary establishment for his authentic, moving and passionate book, as lean, sharp and tough in its writing style as one of his loyal sheepdogs.

But if the author is always keenly aware of that link across the generations that ties him to the land, he is also no enemy of modern technology, with more than 110,000 Twitter followers enjoying his words and pictures chronicling his family’s way of life (and perhaps half a million or more sharing the farm’s puppy videos).

That disgruntled 13-year-old has come a long way — if not geographically, then at least in his knowledge of the ways of the world.

And as he later wrote, reminiscing over those fiery family clashes: “I know my dad, and grandad, in ways that most people never do. I saw and shared in their finest moments. I was part of their world, and understood the things they did and cared about.

“I let them down at times, as they let me down to. I made them proud at times, as they, too, made me proud. We clashed sometimes. But who wouldn’t.

“Our lives were entwined around something we all cared about more than anything else in the world. The farm.”

The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks 2015. The Herdwick Shepherd is on Twitter @herdyshepherd1