4 October 2015
Back in June, when I was visiting the dentist, I discovered a new park, Hatch Grange. In fact, the park had been there since the fourteenth century when John de Hache lived there but somehow, in all the times I’d gone past, I’d never noticed it before. Unfortunately, a torrential downpour cut my exploration short and I promised myself I’d go back when the weather was better. It seemed as if the trip was doomed because every time I so much as thought about visiting it rained. When Sunday morning started off bright and sunny I thought I’d give it another go, even if I did risk causing a rainstorm. After all I needed something to take my mind off my Monday interview even if it did mean getting wet.
Commando got up extra early for his fifteen mile tail off run and I’d meant to go out early myself but I went back to sleep and then spent ages looking at Google Maps working out the best route. He got back just as I was putting my shoes on so I stopped for a moment to find out how the run went (well with no ankle problems) and tell him what I was planning so he’d be prepared when the rain started.
“Are you going to drive there?” he asked.
“No, I’ve looked on Google Maps and I can’t see anywhere to park except the supermarket. I don’t want to risk getting clamped. Anyway, it’s not that far and I could do with some miles under my belt for October.”
So, I set off just before eleven, way later than I’d wanted, with my plastic Mac in my rucksack just in case.
In an effort to keep away from the roads as much as possible I started with a walk through Hum Hole. There was still a chill in the air and a touch of mist clinging to the bottom of the dip. Walking, with leaves fluttering down around me, up the steep slope to the top of the park soon warmed me up. The view along a path dotted with fallen leaves to the sun gilded trees below was well worth the climb and I smiled to myself as I carried on along the rough, leaf mould trail to the top of the hill.
There was no avoiding the road for a while although, as roads go, it’s a pleasant enough walk. It also gave me the chance to pop into Tesco Express and pick up a drink to go with the snack I’d put in my bag. There were no chocolate milkshakes but they had small cartons of iced coffee so I chose the skinny version. On Chalk Hill I spotted a bumble bee on the path. He was alive but just sitting there and I stopped for a moment wondering if I should attempt a rescue. There was a half hearted effort to coax him onto a fallen leaf but I was half scared of being stung and he wasn’t very cooperative. Maybe if I’d had some honey in my pocket to revive him my rescue operation would have stood a chance but I don’t usually carry honey about with me.
Feeling a little bad to leave the bee to his fate I carried on down the hill and pretty soon I’d reached the first gate to the park right next to the road sign for West End Village Centre. Shortly afterwards I discovered a small car park, hidden from the satellite map by the canopy of trees. Oh well, I’ll know for next time. Having said that, there was a rather confusing No Parking sign right on the edge of the car park next to the parked cars. Feeling slightly bewildered I set off along the trail into the park.
West End began as a rural area of farms and market gardens and there were two farms on the land, Hatch Farm and Grange Farm. In the mid 1800’s, the Gater family, who owned the paper mill just down the road on Gaters Hill, created the three hundred acre Hatch Grange estate. By 1872 Wareford Fletcher was living in the large house and, to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, he planted an avenue of lime trees. The trail I followed took me to them. In spring this must be the most beautiful walk through a haze of honey sweet flowers. Even without the flowers it’s spectacular, one of those places that looks like an impressionist painting come to life.
When I stopped to take a picture a lady walking a small dog stopped beside me not wanting to get in my shot.
“Lovely isn’t it?” she said. “When the leaves turn it’ll be even better.”
The lady and her little dog went off across the grass to the right leaving me to wander along the avenue. Between the limes I could see some of the trees in the park were already changing colour and, as I progressed along the avenue, I noticed touches of yellow amongst the lime tree leaves. This is certainly a place to revisit a little later in the autumn.
Despite my long perusal of the satellite map I didn’t really have a plan of action other than to see as much of the park as possible so, when I came to the end of the avenue, I followed the trail that led off to the left not really knowing where it would take me. A handy sign told me I was now entering Hatch Grange Meadows, a nature conservation area. The meadows consist of two fields separated by an ancient hedgerow (at least that’s what the sign said) and, in the spring and summer the marshy grassland is alive with wild flowers. Sadly, in October, all that remains are the dried up stems and seed heads. The sign also warned of cows grazing. Thankfully that part was wrong, unless they were hiding behind the trees.
Just before I got to the gate in the hedgerow I spotted a sign for Hatch Grange Pond. Further reading told me the pond had been cleared of an infestation of parrots feather in 2008. This seemed too interesting to miss so I went through the gate. Although I knew parrots feather was probably some kind of invasive pond weed I couldn’t help picturing colourful birds in the trees, maybe slightly bald colourful birds. The pond turned out to be a little disappointing. It was quite a bit smaller than I’d expected and it looked very much like the parrots feathers were back, the water was almost completely covered by a thick layer of bright green weed.
At the gate for the second meadow I bumped into the lady I’d seen earlier with her little dog and we said hello again before going off in opposite directions. There were houses just behind the trees but the trail led me away from them into a small wooded area. Here I met a squirrel sitting in the middle of the path but he scurried up a tree when he saw me. Although I had my phone at the ready the best I could manage was a slightly blurred shot of him half way up. It’s amazing how quickly squirrels can move.
A very pleasant stroll along the woodland trails followed. Large fallen trees had been left to rot and I had high hopes of fungi but saw none. The sun dappled the leaf litter floor and turned the canopy overhead to a mass of green and gold and trails threaded through the trees in all directions. It was hard to choose which way to go until I saw a wooden bridge across a small brook and some steps leading upwards.
On the other side was a clearing and another dilemma. Did I follow the track through the grass or take the path to my left through the trees? A look at Google Maps told me the grass led to the road so I plumped for more woodland walking although I had no idea where it would lead me. There really is no way anyone could ever be bored walking through trees as far as I can tell and every turn brought a change in the quality of the light and the colours of the leaves. In the end the route I chose was academic because the trail led me out close to the road, the exact same place I’d have been if I’d chosen the grassy walk.
So it was back across the thin strip of grass, past a mass of rosehips that made me wonder what this place must look like in summer with the roses in bloom, to the bridge and the woods. Everywhere I looked it seems I’d just missed the best time to visit. A little earlier and I’d have seen the flowers in the meadows and the roses beside the green, a little later the leaves would be bright with Autumn colours. Still, at least it wasn’t raining and the bright red orbs of the rosehips were stunning against the backdrop of green.
This time I took a different trail. The sun slanted down in golden rays through the leaves and soon I was entering another grassy glade. Beside me a hillock of rough grass was filled with crocosmia, mostly over but a few were still in flower. Behind the trees there were houses and the crackle and pop of a bonfire. A slight pall of woodsmoke hung in the air, the smell of autumn.
Ahead was a wide, rolling expanse of grass surrounded by trees on the verge of changing colour. Passing the back of the Parish Centre with its little clock tower I climbed the hill and found myself facing the beacon I’d stood beneath in the pouring rain on my last visit. Finally I knew where I was. This was one of four hundred beacons lit across the country on 19 July 1988 to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the sighting of the Spanish Armada. Hundreds of West End locals gathered to watch and the beacon has remained to this day.
A little way off was a stand of pine trees and a bench so I made my way towards it thinking about the house that once stood somewhere on this land. There’d been no evidence of it in any of my wanderings and I had no idea where it had been although I knew it had been sold to developers after Fletcher’s death in 1924 and become derelict and burned down. The Parish Council now own the land and have, so far, resisted the developers who want to build on it. As I ate my snack and sipped by iced coffee I looked out at all the people enjoying the park and hoped that the council stand strong against those developers.
Despite my misgivings about the weather the sky was still blue and the sun still shining. Once I’d stopped walking though I felt the autumnal chill in the air. There was undoubtedly more to see but it was time to go home.