19 April 2015
Our little group left Monks Brook through the gate and crossed the road at the roundabout. This is where I usually carry on along Wide Lane to Eastleigh but Bob turned to the right and began to walk towards the railway arch. There was a milestone beside a fence that I’d never noticed before, much like the one on the Main Road that I keep meaning to take a picture of and never quite get round to. Close by there was another gate between the modern housing complex called The Grange and the Fleming Arms Pub. Bob went through it and we followed.
Part of me wondered why I’d never spotted the path before but I suppose I’d always been too intent on my destination, looking ahead instead of looking around. It had never occurred to me to turn left towards the pub because I’m not a drinker. Sometimes my dislike of alcohol is my undoing. We wound along a path that was eerily similar to the first part of Monks Brook, so much so I felt faintly disoriented. Then we came to a railway bridge. Unlike most of the bridges I’ve seen, it had two arches like a mini viaduct. A Blue butterfly was flitting around and sneaked into my photo. from the size and colour I’d say it was a holly blue. They’re common here, I often see them in my garden, but they’re susceptible to the parasitic Listrodomus nycthemerus wasp which lays eggs in the holly blue pupa. It’s a pretty little thing but doesn’t stay still long.
We followed the brook as it jinked this way and that, stopping every now and then to look at flowers. There were white anemonies, doing far better than the blue ones in my garden and more of the ubiquitous ramsoms. We stopped for a minute or two to listen to the burbling of a little side stream as it tumbled into the brook. It felt like a place of meditation.
There were butterflies everywhere, especially orange tips, but they fluttered around giving me no chance to capture them. There was evidence of woodpeckers in the trees too and Bob said he has often seen them but, on Sunday, they were feeling shy, which is a shame. Apparently Bob has seen kingfishers here too and deer. Obviously I will have to spend more time in this place.
We crossed a flat wooden bridge, more boardwalk than bridge really, and came to a steep gravel slope with blue sky at the top. A peacock butterfly fluttered down and landed on the gravel. When I crouched and raised my phone I expected it to flutter off but it didn’t and I snapped away as it opened and closed its wings in a languorous manner, hoping to get one shot when they were open. As it happened, amongst a dozen photos of closed and closing wings, there was one where the peacock eyes were visible, if slightly blurred. How many times on this walk would I wish for a telephoto lens?
The peacock is probably my favourite butterfly. Those bright colours are so cheerful and they appear early in spring, having over wintered in buildings and trees. Those eye spots are probably to deter predators, which must work well as they’re always plentiful. Maybe it had been feasting on the nettles that have sprung up all over since the weather warmed. It was so settled on the gravel I took another photo from a standing position and then carefully stepped over it.
At the top of the slope a meadow opened out before us. This was Monks Brook Meadow. In the far distance the motorway rumbled. A road and railway bound the other two sides of this triangle of land but there is more wildlife than you’d expect. We veered off to the left where there were little squares of what looked like roofing felt and old mats. At first I thought they were rubbish dumped there but Bob soon explained. These had been put down for the grass snakes, some of them by Bob himself. We wandered along barely discernible trails through the long grass and low growing vegetation stopping ocasionaly to gingerly lift the corners of these snake hidey holes.
Eventually our luck was in and Bob straightened up with a grass snake in his hand. It was quite beautiful. They are non venomous and feed mostly on amphibians, especially frogs and toads which is probably why they’re often associated with water, in fact they are strong swimmers. This was, by all accounts, a small snake, they are the largest reptile in Great Britain, growing to as much as six feet long. The females are larger than the males although I wonder how you could tell which was which. Being reptiles they need warmth to become active and often spend the winter underground or hiding under logs, rocks, or, in this case, bits of carpet. Some of the group were a little uneasy seeing a snake but I was happy to hold this one until it tried to slither up the sleeve of my parka.
We lifted a few more pieces of carpet and found two more snakes sleeping quite happily on top of a red ant’s nest. This seems like a rather uncomfortable bed to me but what do I know? Under another square we even saw a lizard but it shimmied down a hole before I had time to open my mouth never mind raise my phone.
All snaked out we walked along a narrow gravel trail screened from the road by trees. There was an opening with a large concrete barrier, put there, Bob explained, after travellers set up camp on the meadow and wreaked havoc. They caused a lot of damage, filling the place with rubbish and using the path as a toilet and not in a pee in the bushes way. When the combined power of Southampton, Eastleigh and Hampshire Councils finally moved them on there was a costly clean up.
Sadly, there are plans afoot to turn this into an approved traveller camp. The locals and conservationists are fighting tooth and nail against it. So many wonderful plants and creatures would be lost, like badgers, bats, fallow deer, buzzards, egrets, bee orchids and, of course the grass snakes. The travellers may want to live off the grid, pay no taxes and move from place to place but, in my experience, they can turn even the most desolate wasteland into a rubbish dump within days. Perhaps there is a case for permanent camps but I think the travellers should foot the bill themselves and not the tax payer. Rant over.
The path led us to the other end of the meadow where new trees are being planted, possibly to screen off the motorway. Sadly, we didn’t see any of the raptors that are often found there. We did see an underpass though and, when I asked where it led, Bob told me across Monks Brook Playing Fields and out onto Stoneham Lane. The map tells me this is about half a mile from Lakeside which is quite exciting for future walks, even if Stoneham Lane has no pavements.
We walked back along the other side of the meadow where we found a mass of lady’s smock. The pretty little pinkish mauve flowers were said to be sacred to the fairies and were unlucky to bring indoors. The leaves were once used as a substitute for watercress and they are one of the favourite foods of the orange tip butterfly.
As it happened we found an orange tip resting as we made our way back to the water. This distinctive butterfly had been evading us all morning but finally decided to play nicely. The males are actually the ones with the bright orange wing tips, the females being all white with with black wing tips. This was a male. The males rarely land when it’s warm and sunny so they’re best photographed on cloudy days
So we made our way back long the brook with the occasional stop for photos. although it’s late in the season I saw bracket fungus high in a tree and some other rather dried out fungus on a log. More marsh marigolds were hanging over the brook where the bare trees reflected in the rippled water reminded me of ink blown paintings. There was even a lone duck swimming frantically upstream.
We did stop off at the Fleming Arms for a drink. Of course I had a coffee. Then I left the rest of the group to their second drinks and made my way back home. As I walked I couldn’t help thinking about going back to try out the new route to Lakeside and feeling rather glad I’d accepted the invitation. Before I knew it I was back at Riverside where the little train was going round and round.
There were a few swans around and, just after I passed the jetty, I witnessed a territorial battle between two cobs. There was some loud wing flapping as the dominant male half flew, half walked on water after the interloper into his territory. The seagulls got into a bit of a flap but the other swans seemed largely unconcerned. Eventually the challenger escaped behind a small boat and the fuss died down. It was thrilling while it lasted though.
A little way down river the pen floated serenely as if she was unaware of the battle that had just raged over her. There were ducks too, marching up and down like little soldiers. Much as I’d enjoyed my exploration along Monks Brook, and the new route it had opened up to me, this is the part of the river that really feels like home.