16 February 2016
There were still things to be done in the kitchen today but the sun was shining and the river was calling. After a week of painting and cleaning I didn’t feel up to steep hills so decided on a gentle climb through Hum Hole. From there it would be more or less down hill all the way. CJ sensing a coffee stop at the Swan Garden centre, decided to come along.
The fallen silver birch I climbed over last time I walked through Hum Hole had been sawn up, the segments left beside the path. A look at its inner core showed this was a victim of disease rather than high winds or soggy soil, probably white heart rot. A tracery of black lines like an oil and water marbled painting showed how the rot had set in. Two fungi lay on the grass where the poor tree had fallen, possibly the culprits.
At the top of the trail a lovely show of purple crocus greeted us. These little beauties are early but, with a just a couple of weeks of February left, a sure sign spring is on the way before winter has really got going. Of course, I, and the crocuses could be speaking too soon. The weatherman is still talking about snow and there has been frost for the last couple of mornings.
We descended Cutbush Lane, past the tree whose roots seem to cling to thin air, talking about the extra day this year and how odd it must be to be born on 29 February and get one real birthday every four years.
“I’d be fourteen this year if I’d been born on leap year’s day,” I said after a little, painful, mental arithmetic. My brain is not wired for maths.
“That would make me six and a half,” CJ said. “You must have been born in a leap year to get a whole number.”
When we got to the Swan Garden Centre I Googled a list of leap years while we drank our coffee and sure enough he was right. He’s too clever for his own good sometimes.
Fortified by caffeine we set off towards the river. Going down Gaters Hill was certainly easier than coming up it. At the bottom CJ wanted to cross the road and explore the mill.
“It’s private land,” I told him pointing at the signs.
“Well, if anyone stops us we can say we didn’t see them,” he said.
There has been a mill here for almost two thousand years. It was mentioned on a charter for North Stoneham back in 932 when King Athlestan granted the estate to someone called Alfred. Until the eighteenth century it was called Upmill or Allington Mill and there may have actually been three or more mills on the site, probably grinding corn. After the Norman Conquest it was recorded as Gater’s Mill and was a fulling mill where woolen cloth was cleaned and thickened.
Of course, these red brick mill buildings were not the originals. In 1685, the mill beame a paper mill run by fifteen men, mostly French refugees. By 1865, paper gave way to flour. Many of the buildings were rebuilt. A fire in 1916 or 1917 meant more rebuilding and further damage was caused during World War II when the mill was used as a munitions store. The redevelopment and refurbishment of the 1990’s further blurred the lines between old and new leaving a hotchpotch of structures spanning three hundred years.
By crossing the bridge and walking, albeit tentatively, towards the buildings we had trespassed. Through arches there were tantalising glimpses of the land behind the mill where I knew a riverside path meandered. Much as I’d have liked to, I didn’t dare go further for fear of being caught and sumirarily marched off the premises. Instead CJ and I contented ourselves with a snatched glimpse then stood on the bridge looking down river towards the White Swan. It seems a pity such an interesting place is off limits.
When we walked on our conversation turned to the number of closed pubs in the city.
“I’d be terribly sad if the White Swan ever closed,” I told CJ, “but, if the latest flood defences don’t work, I’m not sure how long it will survive.”
“Surely they’d never close it,” he said, “it’s such a great location right on the river.”
“You’d hope not but the river is also the problem. It’s been flooded so many times and the last time it was closed for so long and cost so much to restore I was afraid it would never open again. Everything is about profit these days. They can’t keep spending hundreds of thousands on flood repairs, not to mention the money they lose while its closed.”
“There are loads of cars in the car park today,” CJ noted as we passed.
“Long may it continue,” I said. “We probably should have had our coffee here to boost their profits a little.”
Heading down the slope towards the bridge the ground was surprisingly dry although the river still looked high.
“If it’s too bad along the path we’ll have to cross the bridge and head along Monks Brook to Woodmill,” I said, looking at CJ’s trainer clad feet. “You really need to get some waterproof boots if you’re going to come walking with me.”
As it turned out the path was bone dry, a first for this time of year.
There were mallards by the bend in the river. CJ reached into his pocket for duck food and realised he’d left it behind on the kitchen counter in our haste to get outside.
“We’ll have nothing to tempt the black swan cygnets now,’ he grumbled, probably blaming me.
So far he’d only seen them once, from a distance, and had been hoping to get a closer look today. The disappointment was soon forgotten as a small duck drama played out before us. The mallards are pairing up in preparation for spring nesting and an interloper was trying to muscle his way between one pair.
He swam beside the loving couple, at first just giving the female longing glances and getting evil glares back from her mate. Soon he began to get bolder until, eventually, he overstepped the mark and got a little too close for the drake’s liking. A fight ensued with lots of splashing and quacking. The lady in question turned her back and swam away while the two males battled it out. Finally, the interloper, who was the smaller of the two, was soundly chased off. He swam away licking his wounds and trying to pretend nothing had happened. As the victor made his way back towards his mate she rose out of the water flapping her wings as if to say “look at me, I have the drakes fighting over me!’ CJ and I chuckled as we walked on.
“She thinks she’s queen of the river now,” I laughed.
If the courtship squabbles of the ducks weren’t enough to convince us spring is just around the corner the return of the greylag geese certainly did. These are migratory birds and they have been conspicuous in their absence all winter. In some parts of England greylags appear to be year round residents but things may not be quite what they seem. Those who breed in the British Isles fly off to Spain and North Africa in late autum but are often replaced by birds who breed in Iceland and overwinter in Britain. Obviously, none of the Icelandic geese found our little river.
They’re back now though, fresh from their warm holiday and preparing to nest. The next bend in the river was filled with them and, unlike the ducks, they’re not shy. A little bread or grain will easily tempt them onto the path at your feet but, of course, we’d left the food at home so they stayed in the water. Even so, they came close to the bank to see if we had anything and protested loudly when they discovered we didn’t. Greylag geese were some of the first domesticated animals and have been kept for eggs and food for over three thousand years. Like swans, they mate for life so this part of the river was far calmer with none of the squabbling we’d seen from the ducks.
Approaching Woodmill we saw our first swans and some intrepid canoeists just about to take to the water. Across the road the bank was filled with bright daffodils. It really did feel like an early spring day with the flowers, the birds and the blue sky above us. As we walked on CJ grumbled on about the forgotten duck and swan food.
“I’m never going to see the black swan cygnets at this rate,” he moaned.
“They may be there anyway,” I said. “I’m sure, as they get bigger, the parents will be less protective and they’ll come across the river more often. Besides, there’s nearly always someone feeding birds at the jetty, even if we don’t have any food.”
It turned out I was right. Rounding the final river bend we could see swans gathered at the jetty although there didn’t seem to be anyone about with food for once. The closer we got the more certain I became that some of those swans were black. CJ could hardly contain himself when we got close enough to see for sure. We dashed down the ramp and there they were, all five babies still together and one parent watching them.
They’ve grown since I last saw them, almost to adult size, and have lost most of their fluffy feathers but CJ didn’t seem to mind. They’re still much lighter than their parents and seemed keen to practice their diving so we got a lot of pictures of dark bottoms thrust into the air. When they did put their heads up I could see their beaks, that had started off dark, are slowly turning red. We really are lucky to have wild black cygnets on our little river.
Later I found out the body of a white swan was found in the park today. Apparently the bones had been picked clean and the poor park keepers had to gather them up. I’m guessing a fox was probably the culprit and I’m glad I didn’t stumble upon them myself. That would have been too sad.
Please see my copyright information before you copy or use any of the above words or pictures.