"At Watlington Hill you might see any one of three types of deer on a winter walk."
I’m standing on the very edge of the Chilterns overlooking the Vale of Oxford at Watlington Hill. It’s one of those magical winter days with a bright blue sky, melting frost underfoot and a steely sun that you can’t help turning towards, even though it hurts your eyes.
There’s the tiny market town of Watlington nestling below and a patchwork of fields in infinite shades of grey, brown and green unfurling into the distance.
The M40 snakes through the landscape to the right. It’s so peaceful here, it’s hard to believe we’re only minutes from the M40 cut-through at Stokenchurch.
I’m here to meet Jerry Page, who has been a National Trust Ranger for 32 years in the Chilterns and knows these hills like his own back garden. We’re doing the ‘Watlington Hill short walk’ downloadable from the National Trust website. There are longer hikes for when you’ve more time, but the short walk is great for a blast of winter fresh air, big skies and awesome views. On the second half of the walk, we head into dense yew woods with their intricately twisted trunks, evergreen needles and bright red berries before returning to the car park.
At the moment we’re on the chalk grassland. It’s been cropped golf-course short by grazing rabbits. That’s not a bad thing, as their grazing keeps down the dominant coarse grasses, which allows a wealth of wild flowers to bloom in summer. They’ve shut up shop for the moment, but there’s a stark, architectural beauty to the gnarly yew and thorn trees clinging to the slope.
Jerry and his fantastic team of volunteers, Friends of Watlington Hill and the Green Gym, look after the hill by keeping down the scrub. ‘Scrub is valuable as a habitat for a few species, but the chalk grassland we have at Watlington Hill is the British equivalent of tropical rainforest. It supports a huge range of wild and rare flowers, butterflies and invertebrates, but it’s under threat and would be lost if we didn’t manage the scrub,’ says Jerry.
You might see Jerry and the volunteers in the wintertime, pulling birch seedlings or digging out larger trees and shrubs with mattocks. Work slows down in the spring so as not to disturb nesting birds. Next on their list is a hazel copse that they’d like to bring into a coppicing cycle again. Coppicing is when you cut young trees back to a short stump above the ground. The following spring, the tree sprouts a mass of new shoots which quickly reaches head height.
‘Coppicing was done in the past to produce poles for fencing, hedge laying, firewood and charcoal,’ says Jerry. ‘From a conservation point of view, it also opens up the ground around the tree, letting in the light.
‘You’ll always see a mass of new flowers arrive as if from nowhere when you coppice.’
The coppice will have to be protected from deer who love nibbling the new shoots. At Watlington Hill you might see any one of three types of deer on a winter walk. The most common are fallow, but there are also little muntjac and roe. ‘Their territories range far and wide,’ says Jerry, ‘You can see their tracks in winter and they’ll easily cross roads and jump fences.’
As we head down the hill, the red kites wheel and shriek overhead like prehistoric creatures. People feed them, but Jerry would rather they didn’t. They’re mostly carrion feeders and get plenty of food throughout the year, and feeding them can make them lose their fear of humans. ‘They’re a very big bird with sharp claws and we wouldn’t want them to start stealing picnics like seagulls at the coast,’ he says.
There are also buzzards, kestrels and sparrowhawks hunting the grassland in winter. When there’s one close by it sets the redwings chattering noisily in the thorn trees. You can also see bullfinches and waxwings if you’re lucky.
One of Jerry’s favourite birds to watch at Watlington Hill is the raven. ‘You’ll see them most days,’ says Jerry. ‘Sometimes singly, or in twos or three. You’ll see them close their wings, then tumble and sweep on the thermals like a falcon, sometimes turning 180 degrees in flight in an extraordinary air display. They have this wonderful deep, throaty call they make whilst they’re flying, like they’re really enjoying themselves.’
I’m enjoying myself too. There’s something pure about a winter walk, no distractions from picnics or pretty flowers, just the cold air refreshing your lungs and a real appreciation of the form of the landscape and the shapes within it.
Soon we’re off the grassland and plunged into the spooky gloom of the yew wood. Yews are a slow-growing, long-lived tree and their trunks develop wonderful furrows and ridges as they age. The wood has been sought out throughout the ages for bows and tool handles and is prized by furniture makers today for its interesting grain, durability and water-resistance.
Whilst almost all of the yew tree is toxic if eaten, the berries, or arils as they’re more correctly termed, are not. They’re a valuable source of food for birds through the winter and the black seeds pass through without harming the bird and so get distributed to start a new tree.
There’s a sunken path – probably an old drovers’ track that runs along the edge of the yew wood at Watlington hill. There are shades of Hansel and Gretel about a dark, dense yew woodland and it’s reassuring to have the open landscape close by. Soon we’re climbing the hill through more familiar and friendly beech woodland back to the car park.
I thank Jerry for his time and insights into what to see in winter at Watlington Hill. He reminds me that there are similarly stunning walks with wide-reaching views and wooded paths on the Buscot and Coleshill estates near Faringdon with downloadable trails on the National Trust website. I’ll certainly be giving those a try too.
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