Driving up and down the A31 through Hampshire (and on many other roads across Britain) in late January and you may be aware of numeous patches of fine dark green leaf spikes sticking up from the otherwise closely cropped verges. Only after the rabbits have eaten away everything else does the sheer abundance of Wild Onion or Crow Garlic Allium vineale manifest itself. It’s a plant you can miss with ease amongst the summer luxuriance of our verges and grassy banks, but rabbits even very hungry ones obviously dont like the taste of the stuff, and give it a head start by nibbling the competition!
Yet again Countryfile blindly rubber stamp another eco-fraud, this time it’s the ‘wonderful restoration’ of the old A3 in the Devil’s Punchbowl. What a joke! The lack of imagination at this very high profile site beggars belief. The old road lies above superb restored heathland yet the carriageway has been plastered in clayey topsoil and is developing into a completely inappropriate neutral grasland mix with areas actually planted with trees! Very little exposed sand is present (less than that beside the active A3), Despite the great aspect and obvious value to bees and wasps etc. I was commissioned to do a survey of the old trackways pre tunnel as in the days of the horse and carriage Fairy Shrimps bred in the rutted roadways. Obviously they were long gone in the shady acidic pools that remained, but how hard would it have been to make little rutted area and allow some seasonal pools development, and reintroduce the lovely things. All those dogs would help keep them from revegetating too much..so..win..win!!
Boundless Copse disappeared under the approaches to the southern tunnel entrance. The slopes of which are covered in a grassy monoculture. The Copse had superb acidic seepages, relict heathy glade edges which hade numerous rare and nationally scarce invertebrates, and plenty of reptile, bird and mammal interest. All gone without an ounce of compensation. All that dull plantation woodland sits on former heathland. I cannot see a single tree removed to compensate for those glades and seepages. Just classic Noddy Town species poor dross. EIA what is the point!!
You join me at the bottom of Chalky Hill, a quiet little byway too remote to warrant one of those gradient warning signs: You know the ones, they used to say 1:5 (blimey) or 1:3 (help!), but now give a percentage which I don’t get despite the (doubtless EU inspired) public information film! Anyway Chalky is on one of my regular circuits and as I turn to begin the long drag I mutter to myself,
Hello old chum, I’m here again. The hill is silent, never changing, the same challenge no more no less, as it is sheltered from the wind beneath a lofty chalk plateaux of high Hampshire downs, so one is spared a malevolent head wind, but equally, denied a welcome boost.
To a weekend rider like me it is a killer, and in post xmas cathartic mode when I am nearer 16 stone than 15 to get to the top without stopping requires a special tactic: For as I turn, I imagine I have 4 minutes on a chasing peloton with ‘the Big Mig’, ‘Wiggo’ and ‘the Cannibal’, straining to reel me in, an imagining so strong that half way up with thighs burning and vision narrowing, I look over my shoulder and seeing them not there, renew my effort and grind to the top counting each turn of the pedals. A 100 turns gets me over the top and a little downhill respite, slowing to gob at the horrid, barking golden retriever which flies out scaring passers-by. Whether it is oxygen deprivation, I cannot say, but the feeling of height is palpable. Pausing I look across at Butser Hill to the east, and the Berkshire Downs way away in the North West. The escarpment has been planted with a vineyard, it seemed a good idea 6 years ago, but just as the young vines began to climb, the winters which had been so mild for so very long, returned with a vengeance.
It is a good place to stop and think, or at least clear one’s head of unwelcome thoughts. Lately I have seen Ravens ( the first to grace these parts in two centuries), flying over that same seemingly anonymous expanse of ground which on winter evenings becomes very hallowed ground indeed, host to a special scene which may have gone on for centuries, for if the winter wheat isn’t too high or it is left fallow, it is used by roosting Golden Plover. As the sun sets my eyes search the big sky in this open place, but it is often the ears which first pick up those lovely nomads. The haunting wolf whistle call rings out as the sub-flocks circle at amazing speed, nervously checking that the landing zone is safe. They drop in almost in a free-fall. After ten minutes as the light fades I leave them nestling down all facing into the wind, and wish them luck. They will need it in such a biting wind, how tough they are. The huge field is a shallow saucer shape, which provides some protection from the wind, whilst enabling whoever is on point duty to spot any approaching predator such as a fox.
This is a timeless place, a road sign says ‘Godsfield 2¼’, I’ve been.. blink and you’ve missed it! In the distance you may catch a glimpse of the smoke and steam rising from engines snorting up the incline to Ropley, pulling trains of day-trippers on the Watercress Line. The cows are black and white, and the sheep are mostly Dutch, but the smells and noises are the same. In Highways and Byways of Hampshire the author’s visit to Medstead in 1908, describes a conversation with an old lady, which is interrupted by the rasping calls of Corncrakes. Alas long, long gone, a victim of agricultural improvement (fertilizer and silage growing), but Hares are still common, and one spring afternoon I was delighted to show my young children ‘boxing hares’. A female with no less than seven would be suitors who’s attention she wasn’t finding wholly welcome.
We cycle around these lanes in the summer, and without any planning our excursions have often been filled with lovely serendipitous moments. From a meeting with the gentle giant Shire horses who always seem pleased just to stand with anyone passing their little corner of Upper Wield, and one time we came upon a ploughing match with veteran tractor enthusiasts cranking up immaculate Fordson Majors and Grey Fergies.
‘ It is like living in a Ladybird book with you’ , and I count myself very lucky indeed! For the pace of life, the quintessentially British feel that those lovely little books captured, is still very much alive in this little corner of Hampshire.