WHILE Rosemary is going through her morning yoga exercises, I go outside to check on the weather as I never entirely believe the forecasts.
It does not look too bad today, although I learn that later we may have rain, sleet or snow.
Bird activity in the garden is on the increase. Greenfinches and goldfinches trill away, high in our trees, a green woodpecker “yaffles” not far off.
On the ground, dunnocks, blackbirds and robins hop about. A pair of collared doves coo. Magpies, carrion crows and jackdaws perform juvenile gang warfare. I notice there are more blackcaps and goldcrests than normal. There seem to be more coal tits too, daring little fellows. Many of the little birds are pairing up.
Back inside for breakfast, the pair of us decide to visit Crowsley Park, only a few miles west of Henley.
I have received an email from Tim Woods-Ballard, who is puzzled about some large trees growing in deep depressions on the eastern edge of the land facing Coppid Hall, which is owned by the BBC.
Tim says these pits are known as “pots” at Huntercombe and he wonders if they are early workings for clay, chalk or flints. Intriguing.
I ask our friend Dave Kenny (ex-BBC) if he has any ideas. He responds: “The first edition Ordnance Survey map (c1860) shows several old chalk pits in that part of Crowsley Park.
“I should think those oaks were planted as part of the landscaping, or grew naturally, in existing pits. The map shows a thick ring of trees around the perimeter of the park but only a few of the oaks now remain on that southern boundary.”
What a great help and I pass Dave’s response to Tim.
Rosemary drives us towards Binfield Heath along Kiln Lane but a driver coming the other way stops to say the road futher along is badly flooded and advises turning back, which we do.
Rosemary finds another way via a narrow road that goes past Bishoplands Farm through some shallower water and then into Blounts Court Road. She is very cautious at every twist and turn, which is just as well as there are many walkers and cyclists out today. At the valley’s base we park by the entrance to some woodland leased to the Forestry Commission. All looks quiet — ideal.
We walk up a broad track that we remember from last summer, passing deep excavations on either side.
A couple with a dog emerge from our right and head up a sinuous path on our left. We follow them at a distance as we are not in any hurry.
It is muddy and slippery on this relatively steep slope that rises through a gloomy plantation of Douglas firs with a scattering of silver birches and beech trees rising above the bracken that’s eveyrwhere. Some of the firs are massive.
As we climb, the wood changes character and is now dominated by beech trees, one huge beauty in particular. It is much more open.
We encounter some old iron fencing that surrounds the grounds. Much of it has fallen down and has been patched up with barbed wire and mesh.
I spot the trees that Tim enquired about. This area does look quirky but charming.
The landscape changes subtly as it levels out, our path populated with old field maples, hazels and some stunning Scots pines. The ground is strewn with dead branches covered with mosses, some green, others yellow, a striking sight among the fallen leaves.
A greater-spotted woodpecker drums somewhere ahead, another responds from behind. Though the damp is tangible, the air is clear and full of woodland scents. Moving on, letting mountain bikers and dog walkers pass by, we soon meet some lovely old hornbeams. I love their silvery and sometimes fissured bark. Hornbeam makes a good hedge. One here has the appearance of a hare in flight.
After a right old trudge along the muddy path, we enter the park proper. It is lovely and open up here on the high ground.
The grass shows no sign of having met a ploughshare. In summer the ground will be decorated with blue harebells and more, full of grasshoppers that are beloved by kestrels.
The parkland is full of horses, some white, others brown or very dark, with the occasional white blaze. One in particular is a lovely shade of chestnut. Most are munching away contentedly on the turf. Others are simply standing or lying down below the stout boughs of trees.
The yellow flowers of gorse are a splendid sight.
We are not alone. Many people are pouring in, left, right and centre, adults snapping away on smartphones, children amazed at the equines and dogs running amok. As ever, we keep our distance.When we were here last in summer with Dave we saw just one other person.
One of the most notable things about Crowsley is the wonderful array of mature, stately trees. There are so many of them, some in avenues, some in clumps, others standing proud and alone.
Powerfully built oaks, English and north American red, mistletoe-engulfed lindens, sweet chestnuts, field maples and a sturdy silver birch are the trees that we admire first. We stop at a signpost almost central to the 160 acres and admire an ageing cedar of Lebanon, some of its boughs touching the ground. Very handsome indeed.
There are not many birds about apart from carrion crows and red kites. Perhaps the volume of people has scared off the smaller ones.
I point out the cottages at Kent’s Hill by King’s Farm to the north across the deep valley and road that runs between Harpsden and Sonning Common. On a previous walk we passed these buildings.
After passing some more remarkable trees, one nearly broken in half, we gaze upon 11 large satellite dishes and then walk on towards the 18th century manor house.
We pass through the official right of way via a pair of gates to gain a view. The ground is like a swamp. We note that others are avoiding the path and walking around it.
The Grade II listed house was once inhabited by a family called Baskerville. One, Henry, became high sheriff of Oxfordshire in 1847.
The family seem to have become friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Sir Arthur surely drew inspiration from the tales he heard, reinforced with the heads of the “hell hounds” speared through the mouth that adorn the main gates and the high point of the house. One of the leading characters in the book is Sir Henry Baskerville. It’s a cracking read. In a lawn in front of the house is another cedar of Lebanon and a giant redwood, both large, impressive specimens. They must have been planted long ago. We take a good look at the house. I find it somewhat creepy.
Rosemary points out three little dogs off for a walk, fitted with brightly coloured jackets, red, blue and yellow. They look rather funny.
We bump into my old friend Colin Rackley and his wife, have a quick chat and advise them of the mud before parting company and moving on towards the main entrance and South Lodge. We get up close to the speared hell hounds on the entrance gateposts. Was there a family curse, I wonder?
We head down Blounts Court Road towards our car. A lovely old signpost indicates the hamlet of Crowsley. The lane becomes narrow with a steep bank on our right full of ferns and emergent dog’s mercury. A skylark sings overhead. Oh joy.
Deep in the undergrowth to our left is a large, broad and deep dip, where I’ve been told that devil-worshippers dance naked…
As we approach the car, Rosemary and I are astonished at how many vehicles there are, many in passing places. We guess about 50. Unreal.
Wherever we venture next it will be somewhere obscure, away from the madding crowds and mud-churning cyclists.
Despite all the people, this was a pleasant, informative walk. We’ll be out again when it stops raining…