Time to go down to the woods

WORRIES about coronavirus may have brought chaos to the supermarkets, but with 500 acres to get lost in, Burnham Beeches should be an ideal place to put social distancing to the test – although gathering in groups to socialise in the park totally defeats the whole purpose of the Government’s strategy.

Few places are more welcoming on a sunny day than this national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

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Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.

A pollard is a tree that has been cut to just above head height, forcing the tree to send up new multiple shoots and preventing livestock grazing among the trees from eating the tender new shoots.

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The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.

Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.

However the Mother’s Day weekend also brought government warnings that young people in particular were not taking social distancing seriously – and across the country there were concerns about crowds inundating beaches, parks and other public spaces.

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The tarmac roads around the site are mainly closed to cars, so are ideal for cyclists and buggies, although the sensitive habitat here limits the scope for off-road cycling.

There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.

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If the landscape looks familiar, it might because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.

Filming is restricted to no more than 20 days per year and is banned in environmentally sensitive areas, but the revenue goes directly to fund the upkeep and management of the site.

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For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website.

Nature lovers needed now

NATURE enthusiasts across the Chilterns are being invited to help monitor and protect local species on their patch.

A four-year citizen science project has started to recruit volunteers who can study how birds, butterflies and plants across the area are coping with climate and habitat changes.

WHAT’S OUT THERE?: a Duke Of Burgundy butterfly and cowslip PICTURE: Roy McDonald

The Tracking The Impact project is part of the five-year Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and spearheaded by the Chilterns Conservation Board.

Volunteers will survey the state of nature in the Chilterns and benefit from training courses in species identification and surveying techniques, with enthusiasts and experts joining forces to “own their patch”.

The data will then be used to track trends across the landscape and inform practical woodland, grassland and farmland habitat management projects.

To deliver the project the CCC has teamed up with Butterfly Conservation, British Trust for Ornithology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Plantlife, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust and the Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Environmental Records Centre.

Following on from the recent State of Nature report the project is calling for amateur surveyors to work with the experts across 50 1km survey squares to tell the story of the landscape, through understanding the relationship between different species groups.

BIRD IN THE HAND: a corn bunting PICTURE: Roy McDonald

The project will dovetail with existing national recording schemes (Breeding Bird Survey, Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and National Plant Monitoring Scheme) to bolster coverage in a ground-breaking new partnership.

Unique to the project is its mentoring programme for those who can identify quite a few birds, butterflies or plants but want to learn more about surveying these local species.

The project will last initially for four years, starting in spring 2020. Volunteer surveyors are needed during the spring and summer.

To register an interest or find out more, contact the project lead, Nick Marriner, at nmarriner@chilternsaonb.org.

Chalk, Cherries & Chairs is an ambitious five-year scheme which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns through 18 interweaving projects.

The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts working across the UK to protect .wildlife and special places for generations to come.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a UK charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why bird populations are changing.

Butterfly Conservation (BC) is the UK wildlife charity dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and our environment.

Help chart the Chilterns sound

IT MIGHT be a barn owl, steam train or buzzing insect.

But whatever the sound, young people across the Chilterns are being encouraged to “listen to their landscape” in a unique project designed to promote mental health and wellbeing.

The ‘Echoed Locations’ project encourages 16- to 20-year-olds to get out into nature and urban spaces which are significant to them and contribute to the first sonic map of the Chilterns. 

As part of the five-year Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and spearheaded by the Chilterns Conservation Board, the project will provide free sound recording workshops and online resources to empower youth groups and schools to map the sounds of the Chilterns.

Echoed Locations wants audio recordings from across the Chilterns, from the hoot of an owl to the first songs of the dawn chorus or the morning rush hour.

As the world becomes noisier and yet increasingly focused on the visual, Echoed Locations aims to reconnect people with their local wildlife and cultural heritage through the medium of sound.

Sometimes we can forget to listen to the world around us in an active way, and the project encourages residents to record the sounds around them and help create a sonic legacy of the Chilterns today.

Sound recording workshops help to hone people’s ability to disconnect from the hubbub and distractions of day-to-day life and enjoy the natural sounds all around them.

Anyone can participate by adding audio recordings via the Echoed Locations website page and schools, local community groups and youth groups are encouraged to reach out to book a free sound recording workshop in 2020, although spaces are limited.

Volunteers willing to act as ‘Sonic Champions’ in High Wycombe, Amersham, Aylesbury and Princes Risborough (or the surrounding areas) will help promote the project and be given full training.

Contact Elizabeth Buckley on lbuckley@chilternsaonb.org to sign up for a sound recording workshop or as a volunteer, or with any other questions about the project.

Feast of light in the darkness

WRITING in The Independent a few years ago, then environment editor Michael McCarthy pondered on how many people today know what Candlemas is all about.

One in a hundred, perhaps? Maybe even fewer than that. But as well as explaining the background to the Christian holy day he also painted a marvellously evocative picture of what this day would have looked and felt like in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the parish brought their candles to church to be blessed by the priest.

On that gloomy February day the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of light when the candles were lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary – making it literally the brightest day of the year and a welcome reprieve after the gloom of January.

February 2 is also the day of snowdrops, with windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches decorated with the pure white flowers, or Candlemas bells as they were once called.

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SYMBOL OF PURITY: snowdrops in bloom [PICTURE: Presian Nedyalkov, Unsplash]

As flawless symbols of purity, they were the perfect flowers for the feast, and even today many of the country’s best snowdrop displays are clustered around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

This year’s warm January has meant plenty of snowdrops have flowered early, along with primroses, winter jasmine, gorse and other splashes of January colour, despite the old rhyme which says: “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day.”

And there are numerous locations where sheets of the small white blooms provide dramatic displays for visitors braving the chill January air, including great houses like the National Trust gardens at Cliveden.

EARLY ARRIVALS: snowdrops at Cliveden PICTURE: National Trust/Hugh Mothersole

A powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, Galanthus nivalis means “milk flower” in Latin and the “drop” is not a drop of snow but a “drop” as in eardrop, the old word for earring – although legend has it that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve was despairing that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared and transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers to prove that even the harshest of winters eventually give way to spring.

Snowdrops are popular among gardeners and galanthophiles are avid collectors of different snowdrop varieties. But it’s not just the simple beauty of the snowdrop which appeals.

CANDLEMAS BELLS: snowdrops at Cliveden PICTURE: National Trust/Hugh Mothersole

As McCarthy argues in his Independent article it’s the timing of the flowers’ appearance that is symbolic too: “They’re the very first sign of something else, the Candlemas bells, an undeniable signal that the warm days will come again; and I’m sure they fill me with elation because what I am looking at, against the dead tones of the winter earth, is Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white.”

Get up early to catch the choir

JANUARY brings the first signs of spring – and along with the early snowdrops and primroses, that also means the first echoes of the dawn chorus.

You have to be up early to catch it, but from now until July, the volume is steadily growing, from those first wintry warbles early in the New Year to the most spectacular natural orchestra on earth.

As the first snowdrops start to peek through the frosty January soil and the birds swarm to the birdtable to squabble over scraps of food, the slow increase in daylight means that love will soon be in the air, which means staking out your territory and trying to attract a mate.

During the dark days of winter, life has been all about survival, trying to find enough food during those bleak chilly days to survive the night to come.

But as the days start to slowly lengthen, songbirds start to switch into breeding mode, timed to coincide with the warmest part of the year when food is plentiful and days are long.

The first songsters of the season are residents such as robins and great tits, joined later on by migrants like chiffchaffs and blackcaps to make May and June the peak time to enjoy the chorus.

But listen out early in January and you can already hear them, with the noise growing day by day and more than an hour of daylight being added between New Year and the end of the month.

The collective chirps and tweetings start to grow in volume as the year progresses, starting about an hour before dawn with a few songs from the robins, blackbirds and thrushes before the rest of the gang join in and the chorus gets into full swing.

As with an orchestra, there’s a set sequence. Skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds are among the earliest risers and their songs are complex and detailed, full of meaning and uttered from high perches.

Then the pre-dawn singers are joined by woodpigeons, wrens and warblers, while great tits, blue tits, sparrows and finches only add their voices when it’s light enough for them to see.

The most formidable defenders of territory, the robin and wren, are well into their flow by the turn of the year, soon to be joined by the blue, great and coal tits, dunnocks and chattering starlings.

Stars of the show are the loquacious song thrushes and glorious blackbirds, their music a clear signal that winter is giving way to spring.

If you’re prepared to get up early and head into the woods with a picnic, the singing last right through until July, but reaches its peak during May and June.

Early mornings are too dark to search for food, and too dark to be spotted by predators. That makes it the perfect time to sing, and because there’s less background noise and the air is still, sound carries around 20 times further than it would later in the day – an important consideration when you are looking for a mate.

Singing is hard work on an empty stomach and after a chilly night, so it will be the strongest, best-fed males who will produce the loudest songs. As the light strengthens food becomes easier to find, so hungry birds begin to move off and the chorus gradually diminishes.

There is another chorus at dusk, which is considered quieter, though some birds – like tree sparrows and blue tits – seem to prefer to sing at this time of day.

The best days to listen are fine, clear mornings with little wind. Dawn chorus peaks half-an-hour before to half-an-hour after sunrise, but the variety of song can be confusing by then so why not get into position early to savour the arrival of the performers as each takes their turn on stage…

Sunday 7 May is International Dawn Chorus Day. All pictures for this article are reproduced with the kind permission of Roy Battell, whose Moorhens website chronicles an extraordinary rewilding story.

Going nuts about squirrels

IT’S Squirrel Appreciation Day, apparently, so a suitable occasion to be celebrating the agility of our furry grey visitors here in the Chilterns.

Sadly my camera can’t really do justice to the incredible acrobatics of the pair doing their best to steal the peanuts and seeds from the blue tits and robins outside our kitchen window.

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Nonetheless although the grey squirrel has plenty of detractors, it doesn’t seem a bad idea to have a day dedicated to the little rascals, bearing in mind the extraordinary variety of squirrels, with more than 200 species around the world, many of them capable of some quite extraordinary feats.

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Squirrel Appreciation Day is observed annually on January 21, it seems, thanks to Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in North Carolina who launched the day in 2001.

But the true extent of squirrels’ talents was revealed in a 2018 BBC Natural World documentary The Super Squirrels, which introduced us to such exotic variants as the Malabar giant squirrel in India and put some home-grown varieties to a gruelling hazelnut-laden assault course to help demonstrate just how clever, ingenious and adaptable they are.

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Of the various species, Christy confirms these fall into three types – ground squirrels, tree squirrels and flying squirrels.

The former include the rock squirrel, California ground squirrel and many others which blanket the prairies and deserts of North America.

Tree squirrels like our own red and grey squirrels make their homes in the trees and can be found all over the globe. The third type of squirrel leaps farther than the others with flaps of skin between the legs.

Flying squirrels glide greater distances giving the impression they can fly. When they leap from tree to tree or building to building, they spread their legs wide and float on the breeze to escape predators.

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Thankfully there are plenty of better photographers around to do justice to the cheeky visitors, including the wonderful Roy and Marie Battell (or the Moorhens), whose weekly newsletter contains a host of high-quality images like the one above, taken in their own miniature nature reserve near Milton Keynes.

Their most recent round-up of visitors to their back garden includes not only squirrels, but deer, a tawny owl, sparrowhawks, chaffinches, woodpeckers and fieldmice.

To sign up for the Moorhens’ newsletter, visit their website. And check out the BBC to catch the Super Squirrels while you can. You can also look up the programme on Facebook to find out more about the tiny orphaned red squirrel featured in the programme and named after Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.



Let’s get lost in the woods

CHILLY nights and rainy days can turn your favourite walk into a muddy morass and take some of the fun out of November rambles.

But the weekends around Armistice Day are a perfect time to capture autumnal colour on those rare occasions when the sun breaks through the clouds, turning local parks into places of wonder and mystery.

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Nowhere is more inviting in the sunshine that Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.

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The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.

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Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.

This is also a very different world from your visits back in the spring (below), with so many of the vivid greens replaced with russets, reds and golds.

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There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.

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And if the landscape looks familiar, it might be because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.

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Mind you, the same can be said for nearby Black Park, another perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.

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Although the 14-acre lake and popular San Remo cafe tend to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.

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Nearby Langley Park is another favourite autumn retreat, offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.

This is a world of pooh sticks and Eeyore houses, where toddlers decked out in bobble hats and wellingtons are kicking leaves and splashing in puddles like generations before them.

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For those wanting an even more spectacular vista, there is also the sprawling Cliveden Estate, 376 acres of magnificent Grade I listed formal gardens and woodlands with panoramic views over the Berkshire countryside.

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Owned, managed and cared for by the National Trust, the dog-friendly grounds slope down to the River Thames and feature a number of woodland walks suitable for families, as well as perfect picnic spots for when the rain lets up.

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This estate was the meeting place for political intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s, and in the early 1960s was the setting for key events in the notorious Profumo sex scandal that rocked the Macmillan government.

In 1893, the estate was purchased by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who moved to Hever Castle and left Cliveden to his son Waldorf when he married in 1906.

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The young Astors used Cliveden for entertaining on a lavish scale and it’s not hard to see how the spectacular location made it a popular destination for film stars, politicians, world leaders and writers of the day.

Witty, glamorous and fashionable, Nancy became a prominent hostess among the English elite and followed her husband into politics, in 1919 becoming the first woman to sit as an MP in the House of Commons.

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That sense of history is all about you here, on the banks of the Thames – memories of autumn walks across the centuries where the timeless beauty of the trees has provided a backdrop to countless human dramas, hopes and fears…

For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website. For Black Park, visit the park’s website and Facebook page or call 01753 511060. For Langley, visit the website or call 01753 511060. For more information about Cliveden, see the National Trust website.

We want to hear from some of the amazingly talented photographers out there in the Chilterns who are chronicling the landscape and its wildlife all year round. Drop us a line at editor@thebeyonder.co.uk or use our contact page.

Tales from the riverbank

IT’S hardly surprising to hear the mental health charity Mind saying how time spent surrounded by nature benefits both our mental and physical wellbeing.

It’s almost self-evident that nature heals, connects and gives us a clearer sense of perspective, not to mention all those measurable bonuses in terms of blood pressure, heart rate and reduction of stress hormones.

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Half an hour out of the house and striding through open meadowland with only the whistle of the red kites for company, I’m already feeling the benefit of escaping from the computer, the news feeds and the endless soul-destroying political intrigues about Boris, Brexit and our relentless destruction of our beautiful planet.

Apart from the startling view over the valley and the site of the soaring kites riding the thermals, there’s also a flurry of activity among the wild flowers as a handful of small heath butterflies flutter about in the breeze.

I wish I could accurately identify more of the insects and plant life around me, but for once, this one hung around long enough for me to see the markings…

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I’m nipping across the fields to explore a section of the ‘Berkshire Loop’, an extension to the Chiltern Way created in 2010 by the Chiltern Society to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the 134-mile circular walking route.

As explained by Pete Collins on his excellent walking website, the 28-mile loop starts near Penn and branches south from the Chiltern Way, passing just west of Beaconsfield to cross the Thames at Cookham.

It then heads west through Cookham Dean, before re-crossing the Thames at Henley and eventually meeting the southern extension of the Chiltern Way at Harpsden Bottom.

From my lofty perch in the meadow on the climb up to Kiln Lane, it’s a picture of Buckinghamshire peace – although in times past from here you might have spotted a puff of steam across the valley from a train taking the old Great Western line from Maidenhead to High Wycombe.

Nowadays the rails stop at Bourne End, but they used to run through single-platform stations in Wooburn Green and Loudwater, closed with the line in 1970.

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I pick up the Berkshire Loop in Wooburn Common just past the Chequers Inn, a 17th-century coaching inn which has been transformed into a welcoming modern hotel and pub with an interesting menu which will provide a welcome venue for my evening meal at the end of my six-and-half-mile ramble.

For now, open country is beckoning and I’m heading down a road marked as unsuitable for motor vehicles before taking the picturesque path through the woods which heads down towards the 12th-century church of St Nicholas.

The footpath leading across the field up to the church is particularly inviting – a real flashback to a bygone era and a well-trodden path across the centuries.

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Given the spectacular location, there may well have been a Saxon church on this site – or even an earlier Pagan temple, as an old Roman road from Silchester to St Albans is rumoured to have crossed the Thames at Hedsor Wharf close by.

Hedsor Wharf is the where the route heads next, past a field of what look like coal-black dragonflies dancing in the breeze as the path leads down to the Thames at Cookham.

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It’s not hard to see why this area has known different civilisations across the past 4,000 years. There is a small Bronze Age settlement between Marlow and Cookham, signs of a Roman settlement to the southern end of Cookham Rise, and crossing points were always crucial on a great river like the Thames.

Here, the stylish Ferry pub harks back to earlier times, before the building of a bridge in 1840 provided an easier crossing point. The current single-track road bridge dates from 1867 and was a toll bridge until it was bought by the council in 1947.

From here, after the briefest of encounters with the traffic queueing to cross the old bridge, it’s a pleasant and much less polluted riverside ramble west to Bourne End, accompanied by swans, coots and geese, and still pleasantly warm in the late-afternoon sun.

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The narrow boat and cruiser owners are out tinkering with their mooring ropes, the dog walkers from Cookham are taking the air and there’s more of a bustle on the footpath than on the deserted sections north of the river.

But then this is a popular saunter down to Bourne End, and a more conventional route would be to cross the river there on the railway bridge and continue to take the Thames path on the other side on into Marlow.

Past the rail bridge, families are chilling out in the terrace of The Bounty pub at Cockmarsh, and an alternative option would be to follow the four-mile National Trust circular tour back across Cock Marsh to rejoin the Chiltern Way near the Winter Hill Golf Club.

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Or you can stick to the riverside path a little longer before cutting away at an angle towards Winter Hill, another section of National Trust land where the terraces are known to have been colonised by the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age (350,000 – 10,000 BC).

Habitation at the site has continued ever since, as is evident from the Bronze Age burial mounds at Cock Marsh, and huge amounts of Roman pottery were removed from the foot of Winter Hill in 1906, which is thought to have been the site of a ferry across the River Thames.

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For now the marshy terrain looks slightly less welcoming, although it’s a very pleasing outlook over the valley and runners and dog walkers are out on the main paths, where the National Trust is working to maintain what it can of the surrounding chalk grasslands.

It makes a perfect hunting ground for a sneaky heron, however, whose hungry stance is a reminder that it’s time to get a move on and complete the final lap of the journey towards Marlow and dinner…

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The weather becomes a little duller for this stretch, as I depart from the Chiltern Way again and make tracks towards Marlow, utilising part of the 11-mile Cookham Bridleway Circuit and being side-tracked through Longridge and Bisham before finally emerging onto the welcome last leg.

The historic bridge beckons, along with the equally iconic image of All Saints Church. From here, it’s an easy wander through the town’s picturesque back streets to the station, from where the weary traveller can still catch the “Marlow Donkey” back to Bourne End or Maidenhead.

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It seems likely the nickname was actually bestowed on the little Great Western Railway 0-4-2 saddle tank locomotive which used to provide this service back in the early part of the 19th century rather than the two-coach multiple units which run the service today, but the name lives on the local Greene King pub and is too atmospheric not to treasure.

Back at the Chequers Inn for dinner, there’s  time to ponder an earlier form of transport. What must it have been like travelling in these parts three centuries ago, when the first regular stagecoach services began?

By the mid-18th century, England was crisscrossed with coach routes, and hundreds of inns were spread out at seven to 10 mile stages across the land. The coach stopped at the end of each stage to change horses and allow passengers to refresh themselves.

From the 17th century onwards, a stage coach service was well established from London to Oxford, passing though Uxbridge, Beaconsfield and High Wycombe. By the end of the 18th century as many as twenty coaches might come by in a day – and as Clare Bull explains on the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society’s website, those early travellers must have been glad to reach a place of safety, as well as comfort.

Whether coming from London or Oxford they had to pass through some of the most notorious highwaymen’s haunts, it seems.

From Oxford, the steep climb out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur presented ideal conditions for attacks on slow-moving coaches with tired horses. The wood through which the road passes just before reaching Holtspur is still known as Cut-Throat Wood, and The King’s Head at Holtspur had a reputation as one of the marauders’ favourite drinking dens.

On the Oxford Road the most notorious marauder was Jack Shrimpton, a native of Penn who was hanged in 1713. Earlier still, Claude Du Val, renowned for many stories of his gallantry, was hanged at Tyburn in 1670 at the age of 27.

The last man to be condemned to death for highway robbery in the area was tried in 1800 for holding up a coach at Beaconsfield and stealing thirty shillings; he was hanged at Gallows Road, Aylesbury – a suitably gripping fireside story to regale the weary traveller before a welcoming bath and bed.

It’s high time to build an Ark

PAUL Kingsnorth has chilled out a lot since the days when he was chaining himself to bulldozers and saw direct action as the best way of changing the world.

We saw this very clearly in the recent documentary by the Dutch TV channel VPRO, which visited him at home in Ireland for a few days to make a film themed around his essay collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.

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But that doesn’t mean the writer and environmentalist has given up fighting for what he believes in – as a recent post from his Facebook page shows. And since it speaks for itself, here is Paul’s post in full, complete with links to his own website and that of Mary Reynolds, whose project he is discussing.

It’s by no means an isolated project, and the theme has been repeatedly reflected in other Beyonder stories and Tweets, as well as on the most recent series of BBC’s Springwatch. But that doesn’t make the story any less important, so over to Paul:

“Here is something entirely unrelated to my books, etc, which I want to tell everyone about, because I think you should all hear of it.

People often ask me ‘what can I/we do?’ about the ongoing grinding-down of life on Earth by industrial humanity. My twin answer is: nothing. And also everything. My other answer is: action, not ‘activism.’

What I mean by this is: future climate change is inevitable, and we are unable at this point to halt the momentum of the industrial machine, which needs ‘growth’ in order to sustain itself. ‘Growth’ in this context translates as ‘mass destruction of life.’ The human industrial economy is like cancer: literally. It metastasises, it must grow in order to survive, and it grows by consuming its host.

At some stage, this thing will collapse; I would say this is already happening. This creates despair in many people – as does the inability of ‘activism’, argument, campaigning, rational alternatives presented in nice books by well-meaning people, etc, to make any dent in the greed, destruction and momentum of this thing we all live within.

So far, so depressing. And yet, on the human scale, and on the non-human scale too, everyone reading this has the power of rescue. Everything I have just written is, to some degree, an abstraction. Reality is what you live with, and live within: grass and trees, hedgehogs and tractors, people and pavements. Reality is land, and how it is used. The planetary crisis is a crisis of land use. We are using it disastrously, as if it were a ‘resource’, not a living web. We think we own it, and can control it. The Earth is in the process of showing us just how wrong we are.

The alternative is to do the opposite: to build an ark, in which life can thrive. Or rather: a series of arks, all over the country, and the world. Here is a new initiative, set up and run by an Irish woman, Mary Reynolds, who calls herself a ‘reformed landscape designer.’

It is beautifully simple – home-made, very local, accessible to everyone. Its aim: not to ‘save the planet’, but to build small ‘arks’ in our own places – and then to tell people about them. To spread the word, and the idea. Whether you have a field or a window box, this is possible and inspiring and entirely doable. It is real action, and it has real, deeply valuable results. Best of all, it mostly involves doing nothing: just leaving things alone. Which, in my humble opinion, is probably the best way to ‘save the planet’ in the end.

I’d encourage you all to look at Mary’s website, and to ask yourself how you can build your own ark – and tell the world it exists.”

Time to give pigeons their due

I HAVE to confess that I’m feeling a little guilty.

There’s me thinking I love all our feathered friends equally, and it seems I have a secret prejudice against one particular garden visitor.

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I’ll gush over the antics of visiting robins, blackbirds and blue tits, and chuckle at the acrobatics of the thieving squirrels. But I have been rather less than generous in my welcome to the local pigeon population.

We relish the friendly quacking of the hungry ducks, the cute scuttling of the moorhens and the bewildered meandering of the stray pheasant, so why do the ubiquitous Percy, Woody and their tubby pigeon pals – who mysteriously all have stolid names like Stan, Clive and Norm (from Cheers) – not get the same red-carpet treatment?

The real extent of my subconscious discrimination was brought home to me last year when we stumbled across an injured pigeon. Doubtless indoctrinated by press references to pests and vermin, not to mention the disdain for the birds expressed by the shooting fraternity, I presumed we would be leaving the limping victim to its fate, and natural selection.

Partner Olivia had other ideas and after a quick call to the RSPCA our injured friend was duly delivered to the local vets’.

So where does this prejudice of mine stem from? Don’t I harbour dim memories of Jack Duckworth cooing over his beloved pigeons in Coronation Street, and weren’t many of these birds hailed as heroes during the war?

Our Buckinghamshire visitors are wood pigeons (columba palumbus) rather than the feral pigeons of the grimy London streets, and to be fair their purple and grey colouring is quite gorgeous in its own way, with those striking white neck patches.

But although they do tend to waddle round the neighbourhood like burly gangsters, there’s also something cute about the way they collectively roost in the local hedges, and a soothing reassurance in their constant cooing.

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But then even their grubby London counterparts have their supporters, despite being dubbed flying rats or being persecuted as pests, as Steve Harris explains in a feature for the Discover Wildlife website.

Oddly enough, the ancestors of these city slickers were the first birds to be domesticated, thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Since then, the rock pigeon (columba livia) has made an astonishing contribution to human wellbeing.

To help with background research, I turn to Aimee Wallis from the Corvid Dawn wild bird rescue sanctuary, remembering her enthusiasm for the birds from our visit there last May.

She says: “After corvids, pigeons were the second bird I completely fell in love with, mostly because I’d never paid them much attention before, but since rescuing them and working with them closely, I realised just how remarkable they are.

“Not only were they calm whilst being stitched up or glued together, like they knew you were helping them. They never forgot you: even as adults you can build a strong bond with a pigeon.

“They recognise faces, but not only that, they are extremely loving. They also pair for life. They will happily sit on your shoulder, preen your hair and try and follow you to work if they could.”

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Back in the day, a dovecote, rabbit warren and carp pond were the three essentials to provide fresh meat throughout the year, and in addition to food, pigeons produced guano so rich in nutrients that it played a key part in agricultural development.

Perhaps best of all, there was no need to catch and breed the birds. Just providing an alternative place to nest, usually a dovecote with rows of ledges or clay pots along its internal walls, was enough – and some designs could accommodate thousands of sitting females.

Typically producing about 10 squabs a year, pigeons were a perfect source of protein until chickens emerged as being better suited to mass production.

But Darwin devoted much of the first chapter of On The Origin of Species to pigeons, and Aimee is full of respect for pigeons as parents. “The male bird produces crop milk as well as the mother and they share parenting equally,” she says.

“They make wonderful pets, you can free fly them and they will greet you from a long day and show up at your window in the mornings cooing away. They really are very special birds, with bags of character.”

Though pigeons were still an important food source in the 1800s, they were stolen from lofts in large numbers as live targets to supply the newly fashionable sport of pigeon shooting. When the practice was made illegal in 1921, clay pigeon shooting was invented.

Even those who use pigeons largely as training tools for bird dogs are quick to praise their stoicism and endurance – even if the idea of surviving numerous retrieves “mangled and bloody” does not sound like the perfect life.

Writing in Outdoor Life in 2015, Scott Linden wrote: “But watching them roost, calmly ruffling feathers on a nest, elegantly circling the loft, even pecking the ground for grit, they are in many ways like our horses. Both exude a calming influence, a soft and peaceful aura enveloping nearby humans. There is therapy in being near them.”

Says Aimee: “One thing people aren’t aware of is these grey street birds are descendants from the war. Pigeon lofts were popular back then and people would eat their eggs and keep a flock in their garden, but sadly that died out and the lofts were brought down.

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“Many pigeons couldn’t be caught so they were left to fend for themselves. Once family pets and companions, they had to learn to scavenge around humans that once fed and housed them.

“Thankfully they managed to survive even as domesticated as they were. They stayed among humans in towns as they have no wild instincts as such, only their racing skills that help them escape the city sparrow hawk.

“I continue to crave raising these gorgeous Jurassic little babies each spring and love their speaking voices.”

What about pigeon racing, then? Although the pastime of rearing and racing pigeons is waning in popularity, this year saw an extraordinary story about the “Lewis Hamilton” of racing pigeons selling for over £1m at auction.

The headlines revealed how the sport had become a multi-million pound enterprise in China, with millionaire enthusiasts struggling to outdo each other with extravagant coops and outlandish bets.

But Aimee believes the story behind the headlines is not such a happy one.

“Sadly this industry took off in the wrong direction,” she says. “The pigeons turned from an idealistic garden hobby to a huge money-making business.

“They use the term ‘necking them’ if they don’t come home to their mate on time, which is ringing their necks: this is very common. They exhaust the birds and hundreds over the last seven years have turned up tired and skinny. Nine times out of 10 the owners don’t want them back.”

The sport has been associated with flat-capped pensioners ever since Coronation Street’s Jack Duckworth and workshy cartoon character Andy Capp first expressed their enthusiasm for pigeon lofts.

Yet racing has also attracted devotees as diverse as Walt Disney, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Pablo Picasso, who loved the birds so much he named his daughter ‘Paloma’, the Spanish word for a pigeon or dove.

Pigeons are probably most famous for their ability to find their way home and deliver messages. This was first exploited 3,000 years ago and by the fifth century BC Syria and Persia had widespread networks of message-carrying pigeons.  Pigeons carried the news of the winners of the first Olympic games, while Julius Caesar used them to send messages home from his battle campaigns.

In 1850, Paul Julius Reuter’s fledgling news service used homing pigeons to fly between Aachen and Brussels, laying the foundations for a global news agency, and the birds’ homing ability was extensively harnessed in the two world wars.

There’s even a display at Bletchley Park telling the extraordinary story of pigeons in wartime, when the avian secret agents saved countless lives – of 54 Dickin Medals (the animal’s VC) awarded in World War II, 32 went to pigeons.

The exhibition has been organised by The Royal Pigeon Racing Association, which also offers advice on its website for anyone interested in the sport (although animal activists PETA kicked up a storm in 2013 with claims of cruelty and calls for the sport to be banned).

The birds’ achievements are also recognised at the moving Animals in War memorial at Brook Gate on Park Lane. Along with millions of horses, mules, donkeys and dogs, some 100,000 pigeons served Britain in the First World War and 200,000 in World War II.

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They saved thousands of lives by carrying vital messages, sometimes over long distances, when other methods of communication were impossible, from behind enemy lines or from ships or aeroplanes.

Stars like Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Hurt, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall teamed up to tell something of the birds’ story in the 2005 animated film Valiant, but it was something of a box-office flop and reviews were mixed.

Amazingly, despite decades of research, we are still not precisely sure how pigeons find their way home over terrain they have never seen before with such apparent ease.

How extraordinary. They have played a vital role in medicine (one study even trained pigeons to detect cancers), they have saved countless lives in wartime and they continue to entertained tourists in their millions, from Trafalgar Square to Venice’s Piazza San Marco, yet they are still widely regarded as a nuisance.

It seems wrong, somehow. Sorry, Percy, Woody and friends. You have been much wronged, but I for one will be looking with fresh eyes and a new respect at the “small blue busybodies” of Richard Kell’s poem, “strutting like fat gentlemen/With hands clasped/
Under their swallowtail coats…”