8.5 miles (13.5 kilometres) walk on a grey January day. Scattered showers, grey, warm. Solo with dog.
It is January, and so warm I end up getting undressed on a hillside. One of those days when the rain is so light it is tiresome, it just can’t get the energy together to rain and I can’t be bothered to put my hood up. My insides are steaming. How very English, to begin with the weather, then complain about it, then take ones clothes off in a nature reserve. Except for the last part.
Pangbourne is another one of those wealthy villages which is largely fenced off, which means the start of my walk is convoluted, someone owns the Thames and won’t have you on their lawn. I really should read The Book of Trespass, I have a feeling the book and I would get along. Under the dull grey of the winter sky, Old Father Thames is as bloated as the rest of us post-festivities, but racing along with the energy to work it off. There must be something very exciting going on downstream in Reading. Or perhaps the geese have asked for the ride to go faster.
I cross over the racy Thames to Whitchurch, for which there is a toll. It dates from 1792 when crossing would cost you a ha’penny if you were on foot, trotter or hoof, or tuppence a wheel if you have wheels (woe betide wheelchair users in the 18th century). Fortunately for me pedestrians now cross for free (which is just as well as I have no cash on me so someone would have to chase me down the street.) It looks like a disgruntled driver has driven into the barrier as it is wrecked on one side. I guess 60p was too much, £4 if you’re over 3.5 tonnes, whatever that is (a rhinoceros, a saloon car driven by a giraffe, a box containing 76 emperor penguins).
I pass St Mary’s Whitchurch, a pleasant enough flint church where the gravestones huddle under the tree for shelter. It is locked. Of course it is. So Mr. Dog and I walk up the hill to find the bridalway to Hartslock. I love Hartslock. After a long detour along the edge of Coombe Park, eventually the path comes to the steep flight of steps down to Hartslock Woods.
I breathe deeply: It is, finally, relaxing. As I stop to gaze down at the wide flooded Thames there is a watchful cormorant, bent and Dickensian, staring at the river. As I watch him he takes off upstream and I see the flight of a second cormorant passing him from the other way to take his place. It reminds me of the giant Cormoran who made St. Michael’s Mount and terrorised the people of Cornwall. That’s another splendid walk into the sea I need to write about.
The wood leads to Hartslock Nature Reserve, a beautiful chalk upland reserve which is the site of a remarkable colony of orchids. Today of course they are underground, but this is what it looked like back in June.
Had I been there in May I might have been lucky enough to see the monkey orchid, a very rare species which thrives in only two other places in the UK. As I catch my breath on a bench at the top of the hill, the view is excellent, if a little more understated than my last visit. Anyone who pauses here is surrounded by the beating hearts of orchids and may not even realise. Hearts lock. It’s so warm for January I have to disrobe and take my thermals off. The distant sheep take no interest, I have no idea if anyone else is watching, I should do this more often, it feels excellent.
I consider going back down and walking to Goring along the river which I know is a lovely walk, but I want to see the Great Chalk Wood so, half reluctantly, dog and I continue over the hill and up a steep hill to the wood. And it’s a lovely wood, but my how muddy. I had hoped to keep the dog from needing another bath. It is very muddy. I hear myself asking him if he can try to keep his paws dry as he walks straight into a mud swamp.
The wood is over far too quickly, and then a lovely stretch through a smaller wood, I make a mental note to come back in the spring and do some proper exploring.
We make friends with a very noisy dog that even Shovell isn’t prepared to argue with. I decide to take a detour through Crays Pond, the pub is long gone but there’s a phonebox library so naturally I have a good look and come away with a book. There’s a sign saying no more books please so I reckon I’m ok if I don’t return it.
A car swings by so close to me I slide on some green algae by the verge and go over, fortunately falling away from the car. He of course doesn’t stop to check if I’m ok. I check myself and swear at him. I’m glad to get off the road and it’s a decent trek back through the fields and copses. I see the first snowdrops of spring, always a welcome sight, and then an even more welcome one.
A thoroughly adequate fence, and lovely since it’s so full of holes that it’s more holes than fence. If I was a hedgehog I would live here, and I hope the houses are rewarded for their fence diligence with plenty of wildlife on their lawn.
I seem to have found myself on the Chiltern Way and more mudbath. I must be nearing town as I meet a pink and healthy jogger, the jogger and I slip slide all over and try unsuccessfully not to slide into one another, apologising to each other in that fashion where we both claim what is nobody’s fault. She runs up the hill laughing and I emerge onto a road that is familiar and a path that in 1792 would set me back another ha’penny.
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More walks in this area
You can follow the circular walk as I did from Pangbourne, but there is an alternative if you wish to visit Hartslock and the Great North Wood which is to start at Goring and visit both via the Thames path before returning via the Chiltern Way. That walk has much to recommend it although it is much shorter.
The GPX for the walk I took is here, the GPX for the alternative version from Goring is here.
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