A mere 4 miles (6.4 kilometres) although you can combine with the following walk if you want more meat. May, sunny and warm, solo.
It was a chance remark on Twitter that caused me to get up early and bag a return ticket for Goring and Streatley station. It was a casual question about the best time of year to go orchid spotting and I suddenly remembered the promise I made to myself last year, to get to Hartslock early in May to see some very special flowers.
I’ve written before about this beautiful steep chalk hillside where in June you can see hundreds of common spotted orchids stretching down the hill on the flanks of old father Thames, it’s one of my favourite places to be and Goring is a lovely village to start from. Goring proclaims on self aggrandising street signs that it is village of the year, and indeed it was: Oxfordshire’s village of the year in 2009. Goring, you don’t need to push your sash in our faces, have a little modesty and cover your skimpy decades old bathing suit.
It’s another beautifully sunny day and the path from the station takes me past neatly manicured lawns and topiaried shrubs. Pretty it may be but this kind of fresh air costs, the average house price here is well over a million, compared with the place I grew up which is £280,000. Soon the road peters out to a country footpath and I’m surrounded by fresh, lush, newly unfurled greenery, and a rabble of brimstone butterflies.
I’ve read somewhere that butterflies are named after the brimstone as it’s the colour of butter, but it really isn’t. It’s the colour of brimstone or sulphur, the colour of medieval purgatory, an essential element in the search for the philosophers’ stone. I’ve been reading a fabulous book recently, Lapidarium by Hetty Judah; I’ve been learning about rocks and more importantly the stories they tell. I’ve seen so many brimstones already this year, I hope their numbers are increasing. I also see my first orange tip of the year. It really does look as though it has been dipped in paint and left to dry. Then I see more. Like looking for magic mushrooms, you have to get your eye in. I can see Hartslock getting closer. Then I reach the edge of Hartslock Wood and I’m there, climbing slowly up the small but steep slope.
There’s a nondescript wooden gate that leads up onto the chalk hilltop and it’s there you’ll find one of Britain’s rarest and weirdest orchids, the monkey orchid, so called because the flowers look like tiny long limbed monkeys dangling from the inflorescence. Here too are lady orchids, also rare and because nature is magnificent, hybrids of the two species.
When the Wildlife Trusts took the site on there were just 7 plants, there are now over 400, including the very rare hybrids. It feels like a real privilege to be able to see them here in the wild. All that’s left for me now is to find the ghost orchid. This most elusive of orchids has no chlorophyll and is pale and colourless, needing the help of a fungus to grow. Sometimes with gaps of thirty years between flowering, it appears above ground for just a few days, in moist beechwoods, or rather it doesn’t. After decades of searching since the last recorded sighting in 1987, one was found in 2009, its location a heavily guarded secret, but the next year it had gone and the ghost orchid was declared extinct in the UK. I don’t know if the Ghost Orchid Project is as extinct as its ethereal flower, but it’s possible that some live on in a beech wood near you, hidden or at least unseen. Some of us will keep looking in the leaf litter for this little flower, because you just never know.
Eventually I go down to the river and walk slowly back along the path towards Goring. There are more butterflies including a green veined white, I haven’t seen much of the large and small whites yet which are usually ubiquitous in this part of the world. In the vast and unknowable world of nature I feel butterflies are something I can take on, but I’m drawn to moths like a flame. There are thousands of those and most of them live in a netherworld of darkness. I feel a trip up north to see my dad (and his moth trap) coming on.
As I approach Goring I watch the heron which seems to always stand on the same post in the middle of the river, like most of us Old Nog has found a comfortable favourite chair. The path becomes suddenly busy with dog walkers and strollers on the stretch up to the lock.
After my extremely gentle walk I feel I’ve earned coffee in Goring. Goring has gone coronation crazy. When my grandchildren ask me, Granny what did you do in the last coromation? I’ll tell them I really can’t remember, but it was around then we all began to organise the revolution. It’ll probably be somewhere like here that it begins.
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More walks in this area
This walk is very simple to follow on the most basic of maps. Should you need it, my GPX is here.
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