Fish eggs, turkey tails and a triangular tale – first published 30 November 2013

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After getting lost in the woods on my previous walk I thought I’d have a proper plan for my last November walk in 2013.  Due to a blog post I’d read I knew exactly where to go.  Alan in New Hampshire writes wonderful articles about the things he finds in the woods and he’s especially knowledgeable about fungi. His beautiful photographs of turkey tails that had me heading towards the river.

30 November 2013

This morning I headed for Riverside Park where there was no danger of getting lost.  The first surprise of the morning came along Mousehole Lane where two white roses, slightly burnt by frost but otherwise quite beautiful, hung over a garden wall. Roses on the last day of November, whatever next?

At the top of the winding lane I stopped to take a picture of the peeling eucalyptus bark. There may have been an element of getting my breath back after the hill but there’s something enchanting about the long ribbons of pinkish brown bark hanging down, revealing the smooth pale trunk beneath. It’s very tactile and makes me want to reach up and feel the trunk. Eucalyptus shed their bark to rid themselves of fungi and parasites but the pale inner bark may also be able to photosynthesise in the dull grey winter when sunlight is at a premium.

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For once there actually was sun too. After a week of nothing but leaden skies it was a treat to look down over the Triangle and see blue overhead. There were clouds but, between them, was more than enough blue to make me smile. While I waited to cross the road I took a photo of the ornate gothic clock with its drinking fountain, horse troughs and a spire that would be the envy of any church. Surprisingly, it didn’t always stand on the triangular island overlooking Cobden Bridge.

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It was bequeathed to the city by Mrs Henrietta Bellenden Sayers to provide drinking water for people, cattle and dogs and stood in Above Bar at the junction of New Road. These days a need for somewhere for cattle or horses to drink in the middle of the city seems odd but, back then, horses were the main form of transport and horse trams ran through town. The four dialled clock, illuminated by gas light probably came in useful too. I wonder how many romantic trysts took place under that clock tower over the years?

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There was pomp and ceremony on 9 December 1889 when the new clock tower was unveiled. It began with a mayoral procession from the bottom of the High Street through the Bargate to Palmerston Park. Crowds lined the route, horse trams trundled past. The aldermen and councillors stood in front of the veiled tower in their civic robes surrounded by all the local big wigs in their top hats and frock coats, the ladies in long silk dresses protected from the winter cold by bonnets and fur trimmed stoles.

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When Mayor James Bishop unveiled the tower, people gasped at its splendour, there may even have been polite applause. Then the mayor stepped inside to turn on the water and it all went horribly wrong. The water spurted out with such force it drenched poor Alderman Burford, much to the amusement of some of the gathered hoi polloi. I imagine people talked about it for weeks.

By 1916 a cup on a chain for the public to drink from suddenly didn’t seem hygienic and the water to the drinking fountain was cut off.  The advent of the car meant heavier traffic. By 1929 the fountain was in the way. It was moved, presumably one brick at a time, to its present site. Locally it’s come to be known as the leaning tower of Bitterne Park because, over the years, it has slowly begun to tilt. There’s no mystery about it, the soil underneath is soft, and these days it leans about seven inches, or one degree, to the west. There’s been talk of moving it again but the people of Bitterne Park quite like their clock tower, it’s a famous landmark.

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At the top of the slope down to the park there’s a wonderful sign celebrating all the things Bitterne Park is famous for, the clock tower, the foliage and, of course, the swans. I stopped again to take of photo of it with the blue sky as a backdrop. Looking down over the park, a wide expanse of grass dotted with trees filled with balls of mistletoe, like untidy green birds nests,  it felt like I was coming home.

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By the bend in the river I saw my first swans, paddling close to the bank waiting for someone to throw bread. One looked at me expectantly but, as usual, I had nothing for them. Near the jetty, the riverbank was crowded with swans. A couple of brave canoeists were approaching them. Rather them than me. Swans may look serene but I wouldn’t want to argue with one, especially on the water in their territory.

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So far there’d been more stopping than walking. If I wanted to make it to Mansbridge and back again before the butcher ran out of meat I was going to have to get a wriggle on.  Apart from a quick stop to look at some bright red berries, I marched at a fast pace. Leaves fell on me, crunched under my boots and fluttered in front of my face.

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At the mill I couldn’t resist another stop for a photo of the mill reflected in the still, calm river, a row of seagulls on the roof like a line of decorative ridge tiles. As I made my way back to the path I came close to stepping on something strange on the grass. At first I thought someone had dropped some sweets but, when I looked closer, they were fish eggs. What were they doing on the grass a good meter from the water and why were they in a long thin strip, seemingly all stuck together? Later, with the aid of Google, I found the answer. They were salmon eggs and they’d probably been cut from a fish as it was gutted. I wonder why they left the eggs behind? Salmon roe is quite a delicacy.

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Across the road someone had spread a line of seed on the path by the water’s edge. The birds were taking advantage, ducks squabbling over the best feeding stations on the bank and, in the water, swans making sure they got their share. I was pleased to see a couple of cygnets from this year’s family of seven amongst the throng. Their white feathers are coming in now, turning them into tortoiseshell birds. I only spotted two but I’m hoping the others are still around somewhere.

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Upstream a pair of white ducks were unaware of the feast. One of the pair had a cute little crest like a tiny punk Mohawk. The water around them was a riot of greens and golds, reflections of the trees, and littered with floating leaves, like a thousand tiny boats sailing down river. I wondered if the ducks noticed or if they were too intent on searching for food under the water.

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Around the next bend something was going on. A crowd of people were gathered on the grass but I couldn’t make out what they were doing. The seagulls, perched on the branches of the dead tree at the apex of the bend, certainly seemed interested.

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As I got closer I saw it was a canoe club carrying their canoes to the water. I was surprised at how light and small they looked on dry land. One man had lifted his up onto his shoulder and walked along as if it weighed nothing at all. As I passed I had to duck to avoid being hit in the head by one as someone made a sudden turn.

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I watched as the first canoes took to the water. Getting in looked awkward and I half expected someone to end up in the river but no one did. One by one they passed me as I continued up stream. When they began to hoist themselves back out of the water I was puzzled. They’d paddled less than a hundred yards, a very short journey for so much effort. Then I spotted the fisherman, his lines stretched out almost to the other bank, they were getting out to avoid getting tangled in them.

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The first canoe reached the little bridge just before I did. They were going further up river and I had almost come to my turning point. Now I crossed the bridge and started peering into the undergrowth looking for the dead tree stump where I’d seen the fungus flowers in the spring. When I actually found them they were half hidden by brambles which I had to carefully move out of the way. Not carefully enough because my woollen mittens got tangled in the thorns and it took me a while to extricate myself. Every time I got one mitten untangled the other seemed to get caught up. I’m pretty glad no one was watching.

In the end the turkey tails were disappointing. They were much drier and more shrivelled than I’d expected and not quite as colourful. There was a lot more green than blue and some of the rings looked distinctly purple. According to Alan turkey tail fungi come in many different colours, from reddish brown to blue and even purple. Apparently their colours are affected by the environment. I shall have to keep my eye on these.

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Now it was time to make the return journey. The line of maples just down from the bridge have lost almost all their leaves now. A few were still hanging on, fluttering in the breeze. The keaves on the grass were deep red. They must have looked glorious when they were still on the trees.

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The fisherman was still sitting in the same place, huddled over his rod looking quite miserable. There are football pitches marked out on the grass opposite Woodmill and a game was in progress. The goalie was about to take a goal kick. A man with two big dogs stood right at the edge of the pitch and, for a moment, I thought one of the dogs was going to make off with the ball. The goalie got there first though and the game continued. It wasn’t until I looked back and the sun was no longer in my eyes that I noticed the footballers were playing with two balls. Maybe it’s some new version of football I’ve never heard of before but, if the FA catch onto it, I should think it would make the game quite interesting.

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Back at the first bend in the river, or the last depending on which direction you’re going, I could see another seagull frenzy going on by the little jetty. With the bright sun in my eyes I couldn’t quite make out what was going on but I could see dark shapes on the jetty so I guessed someone was feeding them. As I got closer I saw three young boys, one with a fishing rod. The two boys without rods were throwing something onto the water, perhaps to attract fish, but all they succeeded in doing was attract hundreds of seagulls and a hoard of swans.

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Then I heard the boy with the rod say, “that swan went for me, I’m not fishing here it’s too dangerous.” With that he ran back to the path as if he was being chased by wolves. The other two boys didn’t seem all that bothered by the swans and stayed on the jetty laughing while the first boy stood uncertainly on the bank. I felt a little sorry for the him. It’s hard for a boy to lose face and swans, up close, can be quite intimidating.

Every so often a swan or two decides to land on Northam Bridge. I’m pretty sure they find it funny to hold up the traffic and, as swans are a protected species not to mention large enough to make quite a dent in a car, the drivers all grind to a halt. Usually the police turn up quickly to sort things out although they never seem to know what to do.

It always amuses me to see the big burly police officers in a stand off with the swans. The majestic birds stand there looking threatening with their feathers all puffed up, flapping their huge wings aggressively. The policemen stand at a safe distance looking at them. Sometimes they flap their arms a bit but, if a swan makes a move towards them, they move back pretty sharppish. This can go on for quite some time before the swans get bored and fly off.

One morning, a few years back, when I was working at the Mad House, I could see two swans on the path right in the middle of the bridge as I made my way to work. They were wandering along the pavement towards me and, other than step into the road in front of the traffic, it looked like I’d have no choice but to pass them. I carried on walking, wondering what I should do. I actually thought about trying to cross the road, even though I knew it would be hard and I’d have to cross back again at some point. As luck would have it the swans decided to fly off before I got to them. It felt like it was my lucky day. Mind you, it would have been even better if I’d thought to take a photo.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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