A Mother’s Day walk from Watlington, Oxfordshire

What would your perfect Mother’s Day look like? Mine would start with breakfast in bed followed by a walk and picnic. Later on the children would complete the housework with not a moan or groan to be heard. Likelihood of this happening in our family? Zilch. But at least the walk and picnic happened!

Along the Ridgeway, Watlington

Our walk began in the small market town of Watlington, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. It’s home to some interesting looking independent shops (OK, it has a chocolate shop) but the shops were closed on Sunday and the town deserted.

Watlington is also home to the actor Jeremy Irons. I saw him here a few years back; out riding a horse and accompanied by a couple of dogs. He greeted us cheerfully but I didn’t recognise him; fortunately my fellow walkers did!

There was no sign of Jeremy on this walk. Surprisingly, for such a lovely spring day, we saw very few people.

Walking the Ridgeway, near Watlington
Walking the Ridgeway, near Watlington

From Watlington we joined the Ridgeway National Trail, our local long distance path. We walked for a mile or so between fields and the edge of woodland, listening to skylarks and spotting the first butterflies of the year. A little further along we left the Ridgeway and walked through fields of lambs. Although inquisitive and playful they ran to their mums as soon as I attempted to photograph them.

Lambs near Aston Rowant reserve
Lambs near Aston Rowant reserve

Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve

I’d checked the map for possible picnic sites before leaving home. We were following a walking trail leaflet but I decided a diversion was needed for a good lunch stop. The viewpoint on top of Bald Hill, which forms part of Aston Rowant Nature Reserve, was slightly off route and, of course, uphill but proved the perfect location. Although my son wasn’t enamoured with the climb and announced he’d eat at the bottom instead.

Walking up Bald Hill, Aston Rowant Nature Reserve
Walking up Bald Hill, Aston Rowant Nature Reserve

Despite my son’s protestations we set out our picnic on the summit. Thanks to my daughter we enjoyed a special Mother’s Day picnic that was a more elaborate affair than our usual sandwiches, with quiche, dips, homemade sweet potato crisps and fruit kebabs.

Picnic on Bald Hill, near Watlington
Picnic on Bald Hill, near Watlington

Rather incredibly, the M40 splits Aston Rowant Nature Reserve in half. If you’ve ever driven from Oxford to London along the motorway you’ll have passed through it at Stokenchurch Gap, usually signalled by red kites flying high above the traffic.

Red kites were reintroduced here in 1989 and are a huge success story. They’re now widespread across Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties with more than 1000 breeding pairs recorded. Ironically we didn’t see a single kite as we ate our picnic.

Instead we sat on our peaceful hilltop and watched the mesmerising stream of motorway traffic, wondering where everyone was driving to. How happy we were not to be in a car!

Aston Rowant nature reserve
Aston Rowant nature reserve

After lunch we walked downhill to rejoin the trail. I’m glad we visited the reserve; great views are an important part of any walk for me and Bald Hill was well worth the climb. Dare I say the walk would have been a tad boring without it?

Lewknor village

We crossed the road into Lewknor and walked through the village, resisting temptation to stop for a drink at the Leathern Bottle. Many of the houses in Lewknor and the small hamlet of neighbouring South Weston are constructed from brick and flint which is abundant in the Chiltern Hills. I love this style of building; a pity we live in a 1960s house.

Back on farm tracks we passed near to Model Farm. Its imposing chimney harks back to the days of steam power but the farm also has a more controversial recent history. In 1999 it was one of the UK trial sites for genetically modified crops. That’s until protestors converged on the farm and destroyed the GM oilseed rape crop!

A boy, a stick and a stream!
A boy, a stick and a stream!

The fields around here were also used as the filming location for the 2014 war epic Fury, starring Brad Pitt. I wonder if he fought in the same area as the GM crop protestors?

St Mary’s Church, Pyrton

There were more signs of spring in Pyrton where the churchyard is famous for its spring daffodil display.

St Mary's Church, Pyrton
St Mary’s Church, Pyrton

The weekend before our visit was Daffodil Sunday when, in addition to visiting the daffodils, there’s afternoon tea on offer in the village hall; something to remember for next year.

As we walked around the churchyard my son spotted a headstone for a young sailor lost in the 1914 sinking of HMS Aboukir. Just as sad was his brother’s gravestone next to it; another casualty of World War I. A sobering reminder of the importance of European unity.

Daffodils at St Mary's Church, Pyrton
Daffodils at St Mary’s Church, Pyrton

Back in Watlington we looked in vain for an open cafe. We were out of luck. Thankfully our drive home took us past a waterside cafe where we stopped for a break. Along, it seemed, with half the population of Oxfordshire!

  • We followed the Watlington to Lewknor and Pyrton walk with a side diversion into Aston Rowant Reserve. The main walk is flat and six miles long. The diversion up and down Bald Hill adds about one mile.
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2016 starling murmuration, RSPB Otmoor, Oxfordshire

I hadn’t planned to write about our latest visit to RSPB Otmoor. I’ve already written about our previous trips to watch the starling murmuration here and here. Added to this I have loads of half-drafted blog posts which I really need to finish! Yet an estimated 50,000 starlings and an almost supermoon changed my mind.

This way to the starlings, RSPB Otmoor
This way to the starlings, RSPB Otmoor

Starling murmuration

Our previous trips to watch the Otmoor starling murmuration were memorable for the wrong reasons. We turned up way too early the first time, and although we had a great view of the murmuration we were almost frozen to the spot. The second time we decided to visit later so that we didn’t have to hang around. But we were too late. Never mind, at least we saw a good sunset.

Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor
Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor

Our timing, and the weather, were spot on this year. It wasn’t all perfect though; so many people come to watch the murmuration that the small car park gets very busy. We were fortunate to get a space but do car share if you plan to visit, otherwise you may have a long walk down from the village.

Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor
Starling murmuration at RSPB Otmoor

Back to the all important timing. We left the car park at 3.30pm, and took about 20 minutes to walk to the starling viewpoint. We passed several serious looking bird watchers heading the opposite way so I worried we were too late. I needn’t have been. An RSPB warden at the hide informed us the starlings would arrive in 10 minutes.

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

The warden must have had a direct line to the starlings as they flew in almost to the predicted minute (which strangely was later than the previous time, when we missed them). Flocks started arriving from all directions. Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any starlings left elsewhere in Oxfordshire another flock would swoop and swirl in. And then another. And another. All settling down into the reedbeds for the night. Not that I think they’ll have got much sleep given the noise they were making.

Moon from RSPB Otmoor
Moon from RSPB Otmoor

Supermoon

Almost as spectacular as the starlings was the rising moon. We visited the day before the supposed ‘supermoon’ (which was a non-event in Oxfordshire due to cloud). There were no clouds to spoil our view that night at Otmoor. Simply a huge illuminated ball rising above the flat plain. Absolutely breathtaking. The perfect accompaniment for our walk back to the car park.

More info

  • The RSPB website has travel directions and further information on visiting Otmoor. Please park responsibly!

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Untold Morsels
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Searching for orchids at Warburg nature reserve, Oxfordshire

I’ve become obsessed with orchids lately. In May we visited the orchid slope at Hartslock nature reserve to see rare monkey orchids. Last weekend we headed to Warburg nature reserve, one of BBOWT’s flagship reserves near Henley-on-Thames.

Great butterfly orchid (left) and white helleborine (right), Warburg nature reserve
Greater butterfly orchid (left) and white helleborine (right), Warburg nature reserve

We’re regular visitors to Warburg and often walk the waymarked Wildlife Trail. This time our route was determined by a map in the visitor centre marking the orchid flowering spots.

Orchids at Warburg

My main reason for visiting was to see a bee orchid, and joy of joys, they were marked on the map! And is wasn’t just bee orchids. Greater butterfly, bird’s nest, white helleborine and green hound’s-tongue were also marked. I photographed the map and then headed out into the reserve.

Summer walk in Warburg nature reserve
Summer walk in Warburg nature reserve

We found our first orchid, the greater butterfly, just a few steps away from the car park. This orchid has greenish-white flowers, grows on chalk grassland and in woods. A similarly coloured orchid is the white helleborine, which we found beside the path in the beech woods.

Our next spot was the strange looking bird’s nest orchid, so called because its roots resemble a bird’s nest. Hidden amongst decaying leaves in woodland it’s a strange looking flower. Not one of the prettiest. It lacks chlorophyll, is light brown in colour and blends well with the background. This is my excuse for belatedly discovering my photos of them were rather blurry!

Now it must be said that the rest of the family aren’t as smitten with orchids as I am. Particularly the teen daughter, who decided she’d had enough at this point and headed back to the car to listen to music.

Meadow brown butterfly on bird's foot trefoil, Warburg nature reserve
Meadow brown butterfly on bird’s foot trefoil, Warburg nature reserve

Spotting the bee orchid

Walking out of the woodland and into the open, I finally got to see my bee orchid. Standing alone in the chalk grassland it looked exactly as expected. It mimics the bee in looks, scent and touch in order to attract male bees and help aid pollination. I’ve wanted to see one of these for a couple of years now and was very happy with the find. The irony is that I’ve subsequently found several less than a mile from my house!

Aside from the bee orchids there were loads of common spotted and a few pyramidal orchids just starting to flower. A variety of butterflies were out too, enjoying the temperamental sun.

Common spotted orchid (left), bee orchid (right), Warburg nature reserve
Common spotted orchid (left), bee orchid (right), Warburg nature reserve

My son and I continued on to the last flower marked on the map, green hounds-tongue. I’ve never seen this plant before and had no idea what I was looking for. It also took us further away from the car park in the direction of some ominous looking clouds overhead. I don’t mind getting wet on a walk but thunderstorms were forecast and I had no desire to get struck by lightning.

We went slightly off piste in our rushed quest for the last flower and ended up with very wet legs from walking through long grass. Although it rained a little the storm didn’t materialise and we were able to find the green hounds-tongue. That said I wasn’t exactly sure which plant it was so took photographs of a couple of contenders and identified it properly once I got home.

Super-sized slugs!

On our return to the car park we kept finding super-sized slugs. The paths were dotted with large black and brown varieties; we had to watch our step to ensure we didn’t squash any. I’m not a great fan of slugs in my garden but they were quite interesting to examine close up, away from lettuce plants!

Warburg nature reseve pond hide
Warburg nature reseve pond hide

Before leaving we met up with my other half in the visitor centre bird hide. We’ve often sat here in the past but haven’t always seen that many birds. This time was different; a couple of greater spotted woodpeckers were in control of the feeders, attacking any other bird trying to feed. Whenever they flew away normal service resumed with chaffinches, goldfinches, a nuthatch, blue tits and marsh tits all hastily returning to feed. I could have watched for hours but the kids were restless and it was time to go.

If you’re visiting Warburg why not tag a trip to Homefield Wood too? Lots more orchids to find, including military orchids in late May and June.

More info:

  • The best time to visit BBOWT’s Warburg nature reserve to see orchids is around June, although this does depend on seasonal weather conditions. However Warburg is a great reserve to visit all year round. There’s a small visitor centre (not usually manned), toilets and picnic site.
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Orchid spotting at Hartslock Nature Reserve, Oxfordshire

One of my early summer treats is an evening walk to view the orchids at Hartslock Nature Reserve. Covering 11 acres the reserve is relatively small but a favourite of mine. Partly because it’s one of the best picnic spots in Oxfordshire and partly because of the orchids which cloak its slopes.

Summer evening view over the Thames, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Summer evening view over the Thames from Hartslock Nature Reserve

I walked, with two friends, from Goring to Hartslock, along the Thames Path, surrounded by the bounty of late spring. Swallows diving for insects, fluffy goslings paddling along behind mum and knee-high nettles. We spied on the mansions on the opposite river bank, wondering who might live in them.

Orchids galore, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Orchids galore, Hartslock Nature Reserve

After a mile or so we turned away from the river for a short steep climb up the chalk slope to the reserve. At the top is a bench with fantastic views down to the River Thames. We stopped for a while to catch our breath and admire the Oxfordshire countryside before heading through the gate to the orchid slope.

Monkey orchid, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Monkey orchid, Hartslock Nature Reserve

Hartslock Nature Reserve

The reserve is home to the rare monkey orchid which aside from Hartslock only grows in two other places in the UK. The orchids are taped off to stop visitors trampling on them but it was still easy to kneel and take photographs. Although the small prickly thistles hidden in the grass liked to remind you of their presence too!

Monkey x lady orchids, Hartslock Nature Reserve
Lady x Monkey orchids, Hartslock Nature Reserve

Even rarer than the monkey orchids are the hybrid lady x monkey orchids. This is the only place they grow in this country but there were so many you’d never realise they were rare. Sadly it has been a bad year for lady orchids and we didn’t see any of these.

I could have spent hours exploring the orchid patch but the setting sun reminded us we still had another couple of miles to walk. It wasn’t exactly a forced march home through the woods but we didn’t hang around.

Orchid slope at Hartslock Nature Reserve
Orchid slope at Hartslock Nature Reserve

At various points I could see the bright orange glow from the disappearing sun peeking through the trees and I was hopeful of an amazing sunset. But we were too late. By the time we emerged the sun was tucked up in bed. Not that it mattered of course as the orchids were the true highlight of our walk.

If you’re interested in orchids you might also enjoy my posts about them at Homefield Wood and Warburg Nature Reserves.

More info:

  • The monkey, lady and lady x monkey orchids are at their best during May although this is weather dependant. Different orchids and plenty of other chalk loving plants flower later in the summer.
  • For access details visit the Hartslock Nature Reserve page on the BBOWT website. This also includes a link to the walk route we followed above.
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