Close encounters of the swan kind

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30 November 2015

The final day of November was cloudy and cold but, as it wasn’t actually raining, I thought I’d try to fit one more walk in to bolster my woefully inadequate November miles. The forecast was for rain later and I didn’t want to stray too far from home so a quick circuit of the river seemed like a good idea. Of course I might just bump into some black swans but I tried to put that thought from my mind. So far this year cygnet hunts seem to have been doomed to failure. If I didn’t think about them they might appear. Continue reading Close encounters of the swan kind

Big guns and pillboxes

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26 November 2015

This month a morning with no rain seems like a remarkable thing so, when it wasn’t tipping down this morning I figured I’d best get outside and make the most of it. A few days ago I’d been telling CJ about the Bofors gun on the shore at Hamble so I thought it might be fun to take him down there to see it. Maybe we could have a little wander on Hamble Common too if it wasn’t too muddy. Continue reading Big guns and pillboxes

Some you win, some you lose, black swans and boundary stones

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23 November 2015

For all my plans to walk down to the river every day until I spotted the black swan cygnets I hadn’t been back once since the beginning of the month. This was mostly down to terrible weather so, when I looked outside this morning and saw blue skies I knew it was time to have another look for them. Maybe this time I’d have more luck.  Those sky and the unseasonable warmth made it feel quite springlike, a feeling compounded when I spotted blossom on a tree near Monks Walk. For a moment I thought I’d entered some kind of time warp and it was actually May, then I remembered seeing this same tree flowering last December too. Either it’s a magical tree or it’s totally confused by the weather. Continue reading Some you win, some you lose, black swans and boundary stones

Shawford, dung fungi and a tragic bridge

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18 November 2015

Driving from Twyford to Shawford really was new territory as I’ve never even walked this way before. The road is narrow and winding with lots of parked cars and there were a few moments when I wondered  if I’d lost my mind to even think of such a thing. From the maps I knew there was a small car park hidden amongst the trees a little way after the railway bridge. Thankfully I found it easily and it wasn’t full. I felt CJ should have been more impressed than he seemed by my amazing driving and parking skills. Surely I deserved a round of applause or at least a “well done,” but all I got was “are we having coffee now?” Continue reading Shawford, dung fungi and a tragic bridge

Footpaths, stained glass and a thousand year old tree

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18 November 2015

This morning there was a break in the rain and a hint of sun between the dark clouds. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss so I grabbed the car keys and my walking boots. CJ who doesn’t like to miss an opportunity to get out, especially if it might mean conning me out of a coffee, tagged along for the ride. Over breakfast I’d worked out a route and even found a couple of likely parking places and somewhere to stop for that coffee. It all looked suspiciously like a plan. Continue reading Footpaths, stained glass and a thousand year old tree

Gosport half marathon, disappointment and surprises

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15 November 2015

As if running a marathon in Toronto in October wasn’t quite enough, Commando had also signed up for the Gosport Half Marathon in mid November. Yesterday, in the wind and rain we went to collect his race pack. We parked up behind the lifeboat station and, with the wind at our backs, we walked the half mile to the scout hall where Commando confidently reeled off his race number. The ladies behind the desk looked at him a little strangely.
“Are you sure?” one said, “only that number belongs to Jane Smith and you don’t look like a Jane to me.”
For once, Commando, who usually remembers every number, from his National Insurance number to his bank account, had got it wrong. Maybe the rain had got into his brain. There was some laughter, some checking on his phone and, eventually, we left with the right race pack. Continue reading Gosport half marathon, disappointment and surprises

Rain, rain go away

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11 November 2015

After my first, unsuccessful, hunt for black cygnets I was determined to go out every single morning and trawl the riverbank until I found them. Unfortunately this didn’t happen. The rain that began as my walk ended continued unrelenting over the next week. Once or twice I got my boots and coat on but was beaten back at the door. There was some struggling up the hill to the shops getting soaked and some driving up the hill to avoid getting soaked. On Saturday I foolishly went with Commando to watch the Parkrun. The Common was all giant puddles and soggy leaves and I somehow got volunteered as a marshal. Wet and cold don’t even cover it. Continue reading Rain, rain go away

A whole new cygnet hunt

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2 November 2015

This morning I was looking through some of the posts I’d missed on the Southampton Heritage Facebook page and could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a picture of the black swans on the Itchen with five little cygnets. This is more unusual than you might think. The black swan, Cygnus atratus, is actually a native of Australia and New Zealand, not England. The first black swan arrived in 1791 as an ornamental bird and they became quite popular in zoological gardens and private bird collections. Over time a few escaped and wild birds, like the ones on the Itchen, all have their origins in captivity. With so few in the wild, breeding pairs have always been a rarity and until 2005 just twenty pairs were reported to be breeding throughout the whole of the UK. At the last count, in 2011, this number had risen to twenty eight. Continue reading A whole new cygnet hunt

More Exbury Garden secrets

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31 October 2015

Commando, the keeper of the map, knew exactly where he was taking me and, as usual, I was following blindly, enjoying the show of hydrangeas and the crunch and scent of the dead leaves beneath my feet. After a while I could see water sparkling through the trees. We’d reached the Beaulieu River, which borders one side of Exbury Garden. Through the branches of the oaks we could see small sailboats and the hazy trees near Bucklers Hard on the other side of the river.

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Exbury House was requisitioned in 1942 and used as HMS Mastodon in the planning, arming and training of the D-Day landing crews. There was a sign near the water explaining this. For many of the men and women who took part in the D-Day landings, this view would have been the last sight they had of England, or so the sign told me. The thought of women landing on those beaches was something I’d never even considered but it seems they did although information about them is hard to come by. Certainly there were women there. British women were parachuted into France before D-Day to act as intelligence agents and there was at least one woman amongst those brave men on 6 June 1944. A female journalist called Martha Gellhorn stowed away on a hospital ship and came ashore disguised as a stretcher bearer. The women of the Red Cross, supplying food, water and other necessities were there too and the nurses of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. They may not have been in the first wave of troops and they weren’t there with guns but they risked their lives all the same. It seems a shame that their efforts and sacrifices have been largely forgotten.

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Beside this interesting sign was a large stone bearing a plaque in remembrance of the sailors and Royal Marines of the British Royal Navy who lost their lives during those terrible hours. This was originally set into the Allied Forces Memorial at Arromanches at Gold Beach. Possibly I even saw it there when we were in Normandy visiting the beaches. When the memorial was replaced in 2002 it found its final resting place here at Exbury where it all began.

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After standing for a moment reading the signs and thinking about those men and women we strolled along the leafy trail beside the river in thoughtful mood. Through the oak trees along the shoreline the river seemed peaceful and it was hard to imagine the urgency of those far off days when the place would have been filled with troops and landing craft preparing for D-Day. A tree, half fallen, it’s rootball ripped up but still somehow tenuously clinging, had been saved by the trunks of other trees nearby. It seemed a good metaphor for those landings somehow.

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Soon enough the riverside walk turned away from Beaulieu River and the salt marshes and we climbed a gentle slope through the woods. The trees here were mostly oak and maple and the trail was thick with their leaves. As usual, it wasn’t long before Commando was way ahead of me, mostly because I kept stopping to take pictures.

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When I spotted gem studded puffballs, lycoperdon perlatum, beside the path I got even further behind. For me these were a rare find, although I’m told they’re common in fields, gardens, woods and even along roadsides. Apparently, they’re also edible when young but I wasn’t about to test that theory. When mature puffballs explode and release their spores when touched and closer inspection revealed that one of the mushrooms did have a hole on the side. Whether this was caused by the release of spores or by something eating it I couldn’t tell. Either way I left the other alone to let nature take its course.

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There was some running to catch up and, a few minutes later, we’d reached Lower Pond or Bottom Pond, depending of which guide you read. The water was murky and part of the pond was roped off where workmen are cleaning it and securing the concrete linings. In early November the gardens close for winter so I suppose this is the ideal time for maintenance work. We carried on across the stone bridge but, with the water so low, there wasn’t much to be seen.

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Now we were skirting the edge of Daffodil Meadow where thousands of bulbs have been planted since World War II. Obviously, being autumn, the hosts of golden daffodils were nowhere to be seen but there were red berries to add a little colour to the green.

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Soon enough the maples were adding to the colour. We came upon a whole group of them with leaves in brightest red and orange. Its hard to believe that most of this autumn colour is there all the time but we just haven’t been able to see it. The brilliant yellow and orange is actually the natural colour of most leaves but, during the spring and summer, the deep green colour of chlorophyll masks it completely. The trees use chlorophyll in photosynthesis, allowing them to absorb energy from light but, as the weather gets colder, the chlorophyll is broken down and the nutrients stored in the roots until spring. As the leaves lose their chlorophyll we begin to see the yellows and oranges that were there all the time. Towards the end of summer the sap cells of the leaves begin to produce another group of pigments, the anthocyanins. These give us the bright reds and are brightest in cold bright autumns.

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This was where we got our last look at the river and headed off into the trees. Amongst them was bitter orange, poncirus trifoliata, filled with downy fruits. The little bitter oranges were still green but, even when they ripen and turn yellow, they’re too bitter to eat although some people make them into marmalade. Edible or not, they were the first I’ve seen growing outside in England.

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With all the stopping for photos I was getting further and further behind even though Commando was dawdling along, at least for him, and kicking at leaves. Despite this I couldn’t help myself. The leaves were just crying out to have their photos taken as were the blue green lichen growing on the bare twigs. In the end I had to concede defeat and run onece again to catch up. Sometimes I wish he’d just wait for me.

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Still, I shouldn’t complain because, when I did catch up I discovered the kicking about in leaves had all had a purpose. He’d discovered some interesting fungi. There was a whole group of them growing beside the path and, when I got closer, they looked like stylised flowers rather than fungi, with convex centres, wavy edges and deep splits. A lot of Googling hasn’t helped much with identifying them although they could be Clitopilus. Whatever they were I liked them and I was glad Commando found them.

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A few minutes later he’d done it again and this time I was pretty sure I knew what I was looking at. For all the world it looked as if someone had been peeling satsumas or tangerines and scattering the peel amongst the leaves. I’d read about orange peel fungus on New Hampshire Gardeners’s blog and now I thought I was seeing it. Crouching to look thought I wasn’t quite so sure. For one it didn’t look quite as orange as I expected, although I couldn’t remember the photos I’d seen as much as I remembered the name. Once again I resorted to Google and I think I was right to think I was wrong, if that makes sense. Now I’m almost convinced that what I saw was Hydnum, or Hedgehog fungus. Of course I could be wrong.

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Just when I thought all the fungi were over, Commando came up with more growing amongst the fallen rhododendron leaves. These were fairly unremarkable, small and brownish and I think they were probably waxcaps. Even so I took a photo because he’d gone to the trouble of pointing them out so it would have been churlish to ignore them. These were the last we saw because, a few moments later we were back at Gilbury Bridge and our walk in the garden was almost over.

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We’d had a wonderful adventure in this enchanting garden although we hadn’t seen everything by any means. The garden covers two hundred acres after all and two hours of wandering about was never going to be enough time. Perhaps I’ll come back in spring for another look.

The not so secret garden

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31 October 2015

As October drew to a close Commando had a trick up his sleeve to cheer us both up and banish the post holiday blues.
“Let’s go out for a drive and a little walk,” he said late on Saturday morning, when he’d come back from his Parkrun.
“Where to?” I wondered.
“That would be telling,” he said.
So we got in the car and, before too long, I realised we were heading for the New Forest. When we turned left at Totton I thought maybe we were going to Calshot or even Lepe Beach, although it seemed a bit chilly for a beach walk. In actual fact we were heading for Exbury. To be more specific, Exbury Gardens. Continue reading The not so secret garden