It was about as wet a day as it is possible to have in January, without it snowing. Persistent, doggedly determined precipitation meant that, understandably, many people who had been in touch to say they would be joining the walk, cancelled when they saw the weather that morning.
But twelve intrepid adventurers gathered at the white cycle bridge, the confluence of the Hogsmill and Bonesgate Stream! A wonderful turn out for the first walk in our Tolworth Treasure and the Hogsmill Hum series.
Meeting at the White Bridge
Walking the Hogsmill
The walk began with Alison talking about the sediment that comes into the Hogsmill from the Bonesgate Stream, and how this affects the wildlife, depending on the amount, for good and bad. As with all waterways there are many complex issues with keeping them healthy, including sewage spills, industrial pollution, the level of water, making sure fish can travel and they have places to spawn; how this affects the surrounding and connected flora and fauna- including kingfishers who are regularly spotted on the Hogsmill.
I read a light-hearted John Clare poem, A Ramble by The Riverside, and spoke about how Richard Jefferies, one of our most famous nature writers, wrote about standing on ‘Tolworth Court Bridge’, which was somewhere very close to the spot we were standing on, describing the river, and the brown trout, which he watched in the same spot for three consecutive summers. It became a place of pilgrimage for him.
“It was at the tail end of one of the arches of the bridge over the brook that my favourite trout used to lie. Sometimes the shadow of the beech came as far as his haunts, that was early in the morning, and for the rest of the day the bridge itself cast a shadow…For three seasons this continued. For three summers I had the pleasure to see the trout day after day, whenever I walked that way, and all that time, with fishermen close at hand, he escaped notice, though the place was not preserved.”
We walked along the rainy river to Riverhill Copse, where Alison talked about the efforts Epsom and Ewell Borough Council has made to create places where people can walk and enjoy nature. Riverhill Copse is beautiful: a lovely little walk through trees, which, if you didn’t know, might assume had just grown there, rather than being purposefully planted in a designed space.
At the other end of our mini-woodland ramble Alison talked about the importance of the yellow meadow ant mounds for birds and small mammals, and some of us were amused by the knowledge that woodpecker droppings, one of the birds which benefit from the ant mounds, look like the crumpled ends of cigarettes!
Chris Packham waxes typically lyrically about woodpecker poo: “Perhaps my favourite bird poo (and I’m sure many other people’s too) is produced by the green woodpecker. Again cylindrical, it can be found on short grassy areas where the birds have been foraging. It is about 6-8mm in diameter and somewhere between 25-35mm in length. Its outer skin is white and the interior, visible at either end, is tan brown and roughly textured, so it can look a bit like a crumpled length of a cigarette.”
Continuing our walk along the path by the river, towards Ewell, we stopped just before the road bisects the path, to listen to the exquisite sound of a song thrush singing.
hedge at Ruxley Lane
We crossed over Ruxley Lane and stopped again to admire the hedgelaying along the side of the road. This is a traditional country craft and it is good to see it used as a green boundary along this busy suburban road.
Slightly further on, there is a section of willow spiling along the river bank. The river looks noticeably different here because of it; spiling is used to help the banks and vegetation to naturally re-generate and helps to prevent erosion. It also creates good habitat for various wildlife.
William Holman Hunt in his Eastern Dress by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864
Pamela watches white-letter hairstreak butterflies, whose favourite habitat is the tops of elm trees. She showed us her favourite elm tree, and told us how she watches them: lying on her back, looking up through binoculars! A good conversation starter for passing walkers if ever there was one!
White-letter hairstreak on bramble (note the W) photo by Pamela Harwood
Lucy Sustrans ‘in the river’ at the Stepping Stones
Looking at brown hairstreak butterfly eggs on blackthorn- tiny!
Alison pointed out the Ewell storm tanks, which, if there is heavy rain, sometimes empty excess sewage directly into the Hogsmill. It happens more frequently now and there have been big sewage spills recently. It is a facet of life on and around the river which cannot be ignored, and vital to understand the different pressures, due to population growth and urbanisation, which are placed on this unique river, when we are walking and enjoying this space. It is good to know that the river is monitored by volunteers.
We walked on past the stepping stones, halting briefly so that Lucy Sustrans could hop across and Alison could show us the chalk – the Hogsmill is a globally rare chalk river. Pamela searched the blackthorn growing at the side of the path and we looked at the eggs of the brown hairstreak butterly- they are beautiful- like tiny sea anenomes!
At Green Lane stream we stood on the recycled bridge and were treated to an extended visit from a kingfisher- who stopped to perch on a branch over the water, showing the full spectrum of its plumage- the best view I have ever had of the red and orange hues, rather than that flash of iridescent blue as it zooms downriver, over the water. It then flew around us, around the bridge, to avoid us, bestowing us with another glimpse of its halcyon feathers.
And then, finally, we processed along a muddy path, through an avenue of young trees, which gave way to the oldest tree in the borough. A commanding 500 year-old oak. It was a joyful moment – we delighted in discovering a tree that has endured and witnessed all that has taken place in the last 500 years, since Shakespeare died. I read a poem and we all held hands around the tree. It was magical- our friend the tree!
We continued on again to the source of the Hogsmill, which comes bubbling up in ponds at Ewell Village, by Bourne Hall, which always looks to me as if a 1970s space ship has landed in a pleasant Surrey garden. There we were glad to stop, dry off and get warm in the cafe, talk about what we had seen, and do some writing.
We will meet at the white cycle bridge, at the confluence of the Hogsmill River and Bonesgate stream. This can be found off the A240, Kingston Road, Tolworth, just on the boundary with Epsom and Ewell.
Walking along the Hogsmill River towards Ewell we will have time to stop and talk, and take photos. Please join us afterwards for tea, chat and a chance to write at Bourne Hall cafe at the end of the walk.
Please note this is a linear walk. It will take approximately two hours, so allow an additional hour in the café as well as time to get home. From Bourne Hall it is easy to catch a bus back to Tolworth / Surbiton / Kingston, or jump on a train at West Ewell station, which is nearby.
We will walk along the river, through fields and woodland, up to where the oldest tree in the borough of Epsom and Ewell, and onto the Hogsmill springs near Bourne Hall.
Alison will talk about what happens when two rivers meet and about the ecology of the area. On the way we are likely to see and will look out for: kingfishers, little egrets, various types of fungus including ‘ear fungus’; the eggs of the brown hairstreak butterfly, discuss the importance of yellow meadow ant mounds and much more!
Lucy will talk about how you can experience this walk from a creative perspective, and about some of the famous artists who were inspired by this landscape. There will be a chance to take part in some brief writing activities at the end, if you would like to.
It may be muddy and slippery so please wear stout footwear, bring water and a snack to share on the way. This walk is not suitable for young children – over 12’s are welcome- and there will be other walks coming up which will have a family focus. Facebook event here.
Disclaimer- all walks undertaken at the participants’ own risk and responsibility. Please contact for further information and regarding accessibility and mobility.
I was shocked to hear Tolworth referred to as a ‘ghetto’ by staff and students at Kingston University while I was studying there. It is one of the oldest parts of the Borough- with ancient and deep historical roots. There are the remains of a medieval moated manor at Tolworth Court, where Kingston Biodiversity Network holds open days. Tolworth Court Farm Fieldsis a wonderful wild treasure, which should stay that way.
On the borders of Tolworth is the Hogsmill Valley, where Millais painted the backdrop to his painting Ophelia, something I have written about in my poetry map, Over the Fields, an exploration of four generations of my family’s relationship with the greenbelt, which is at the end of the Sunray Estate, towards Malden Manor.
Tolworth is remarkable for its open green spaces, and we have a choice now- do we value them, and protect them, recognising them as our lungs and our unique heritage, or do we lose them and become more urban, more polluted and a lot less interesting?
As the mum of an enthusiastic 10 year old boy scooterer (is that a word?), I am pleased to have somewhere cool to take him, which is also a pleasure for me to spend time in, has a great cafe, and as a writer about place, is not too smoothed over. It feels honest. The music is great too!