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.
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.
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.
At Ewell Court Stream I mentioned the the Pre-Raphaelite painters who lived and worked locally, particularly William Holman Hunt, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Inspiration for his most famous painting, The Light of the World came from Hunt following the course of the Hogsmill, and discovering an abandoned hut once used by workers at the gunpowder mills at Old Malden: “On the riverside was a door locked up and overgrown with tendrils of ivy, its step choked with weeds.” Hunt visited the hut at night-time to capture the effects of moonlight – and was suspected by the village policeman of being a ghost!
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!
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.