31 December 2015
It seemed fitting that my last walk of the year should be one of my oldest routes. In fact, looking back. It was my last walk of 2014 too so it seems to be a bit of a tradition. The weatherman said it would stay dry until mid afternoon but I didn’t really believe him so I made sure I was well waterproofed when I set off. The sky was blue, I’d almost forgotten sky came in colours other than grey. Although it was colder than it has been, the proof that this has been one of the warmest December’s on record came as I headed for Monks Walk and saw blossom on a tree.
Walking down into the park it could have been spring with the blue sky, bare trees and the slight nip in the air. It was too much to hope that the black swans and their cygnets would be on my side of the river and a quick glance told me they weren’t but I kept my eyes on the opposite bank as I made my way towards the jetty. If I hadn’t been looking that way I might have missed the faint hint of a rainbow above the houses of Priory Road. Maybe I would walk back that way in case there was a pot of gold lying about.
Of course a rainbow means rain and I looked around at the sky nervously, wondering if I was about to get wet. When I looked back a mele of seagulls were congregating around the jetty and I could see someone digging into a carrier bag, no doubt throwing bread. Then something else grabbed my attention, the bread was attracting more than gulls. The black swans were swimming across the river towards the jetty.
Hardly able to believe my luck I hurried along but, once there, it was obvious I’d never get a decent photo from the bank. The black swans and their cygnets were too far from the bank and there were just too many white swans and gulls for a clear shot. If I wanted a closer look I’d have to go down onto the jetty. The tide was out and the river very low, meaning the jetty was low in the water and the bridge to it very steep.
While I was dithering the woman ran out of bread so I knew I didn’t have much time. Very carefully I picked my way down, holding the rail the whole way. My reward was a close up and personal visit with four cute black swan cygnets and their parents. From a distance the black cygnets looked very much like mute swan cygnets, although a little darker. Up close I could see their fluffy feathers had a curliness about them and the new feathers underneath were very dark grey. Of course they started out as pale grey balls of fluff, just like newly hatched mute swans but these must now be three months old.
Mum and Dad were keeping a very close watch on their precious babies making sure the mute swans didn’t get too close. With mute swans I am usually able to tell the cob from the pen because the cob has a larger black knob at the top of his beak between his eyes. With the black swans it isn’t that simple. Apparently the males are larger and have slightly straighter beaks but, even seeing them both together, I really couldn’t see a difference.
All in all my time with the black swans lasted less than three minutes before whatever bread there was floating about ran out. Then Mum and Dad gently rounded up their brood and ushered them back towards the far bank. It seems an odd place for them to be living but I suppose there is shelter there between all the little boats.
Before I clambered back up the steep slope to the bank I stopped to take a picture of the mute swan cygnets, now more or less fully grown. I didn’t want them to feel left out, esecially as, not so very long ago, I had been ecstatic to see them. What is it about the cygnets on the Itchen this year? I’ve never known them so tricky to find.
Grinning from ear to ear I carried on towards the reed beds. It was hard to see how my walk could get any better, what with the rainbow and then the cygnets. The little balls on the tree that had made me think of Christmas have began to turn a reddish orange, making me think they’re some kind of crab apple. A few of the fruits had fallen to the ground but the grass was slippery with mud so I left them where they were.
There were gulls dotting the reed bed mud and the muddy path sucked at my boots as I picked my way across. The mud would have been easy to avoid if I’d stuck to the path but I wanted to see if I could still get to the back of the reeds. It’s a part of the river I don’t normally get to see and I wanted to make the most of it while the trees were leafless and I could get through them.
The grass was almost as slippery as the mud but I made it without falling on my backside which was a bonus. Behind the trees it was muddier still but I squelched my way through somehow. It was worth it to see the sea of golden stems with their feathery flowers. I couldn’t help thinking this is probably the first view cygnets see when they hatch as this is most likely where the mute swans nest. As a reward for my muddy perseverance I was treated to a lovely display of turkey tails on a rotting log.
When I felt a spot or two of rain I thought I’d better turn back. If the mud got any wetter I might have been stuck there forever. As I was clambering back through the undergrowth the rain began to fall in earnest. The shelter of the trees kept me dry, more or less, but I couldn’t just stand there all day. It looked as if I might have to cut my losses and turn for home.
In the end the rain disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. By the time I got back to the slippery grass the bright arc of a rainbow had painted itself across the blue sky. It was hard to see how the last walk of the year could be any better.
With one last look at the golden reeds through the trees I set off again. With no leaves there were some unusual views of the mill to be had with a little clambering down the muddy bank. Sadly, there were still brambles and the prickly devils caught in my hat and the hood of my coat as I turned to go back to the path. It took me some time and a few spikes in my hand before I got untangled.
Further on I took a more conventional photo and, for good measure, one from the other side of the road. The threat of rain was apparent from the dark clouds hanging overhead but the light was perfect. On the second half of the path a hardy fisherman was standing at the water’s edge and a pair of ducks were slowly ambling upstream.
The sun was trying to hide behind the clouds as I passed the pitch and putt but a few rays were escaping, giving the game away. When I got to the final bend before the bridge the path was flooded. With all the rain we’ve had it was hardly a surprise. It wasn’t too deep though and I had my stout boots on so I waded through, keeping well away from the edge just in case. Somehow I didn’t fancy a swim.
The river here was high but not spilling over the bank as it sometimes is. On the bridge I dithered, unsure whether to cross and make my way back via Monks Brook, turn back the way I’d come or carry on towards the White Swan. Briefly I thought about heading onto the Itchen Navigation but the thought of more rain and the inevitable mud put me off. In the end I decided to have a look at the White Swan and see how the flood defences were holding up.
This time in 2014 the pub was flooded and it took months for them to clean it out, redecorate and reopen. They built up new flood defences at the back along the river’s edge and, as far as I could tell looking down the river, the pub was doing just fine although it was too early for it to be open.
Of course the route I’d chosen was all uphill from this point. Half way up Gaters Hill, I did wonder why I hadn’t just gone back along the river. It’s a killer hill but it did warm me up. As a reward for my efforts I found a couple of interesting things along Cutbush Lane. On the first section were jelly ear fungi on a log. Along with the full grown fungi lots of little raised bumps told me there would be more ‘ears’ soon enough and it might be worth a return visit.
Finally, almost at the crest of the last hill, just when I was thinking about a nice warm coffee at home, something caught my eye in the hollow of a rotting tree. When I bent to look closer I was surprised to see a fat bumble bee resting. He was gently wiggling his legs and antennae so I knew he was alive but I’m guessing his days are numbered now the weather is getting colder.
So, that was my last walk of 2015. It had all the ingredients of a great walk with the black swans and some interesting fungi. Even the rain was over quickly and left behind a rainbow. Hopefully there will be a lot more like it in 2016.