February 2016

 View from the hill                                                                              7th February 2016

>click pictures to enlarge

Winter didn’t last long did it?  Just a handful of frosts in the middle of January.  Soil temp is now down to 8 degrees, though still too warm for the time of year.  Our daffodils are beginning to flower so I suspect there is no going back.  More rain this weekend is putting paid to any thoughts of spring cultivations quite yet.  Rumour has it that one local farmer has already sown some spring barley.  Madness in my opinion!  The seed is likely to sit in a wet seedbed for some weeks before growing very much.  I remember trials data from years ago which showed that spring barley sown too early will always suffer far more disease pressure throughout the season than when sown at more conventional timings in early March.  On this farm we like to see freshly cultivated soil drying in the wind and sun before trying to sow anything, if the soil is too damp it is very easy to compact it with the machines and leave unpleasant wheel marks in the crop, which can remain visible for the whole season.  Our seed will stay in the bag for another week or two yet.

We have started to take delivery of chicken manure for our spring crops, and we will only start to spread this when we feel the weather is on an upward curve.  Muck, followed by cultivation then sowing into a drying seedbed is how we try to do it.  My apologies if the muck is a bit smelly locally for a day or two, the smell will soon pass once we have cultivated it into the soil.  A good dose of manure always gives the crops a great start to the season.

Last week I had the good fortune to join a two-day canoe trip along the river Stour.  The original plan had been to paddle from Sturminster Newton to Christchurch over two days, this may seem feasible in terms of geographical distance, however once the course of the river had been measured properly, we realised how extensively it meanders across its wide and attractive valley.  We had set ourselves 45 miles paddling in two days, which in open Canadian canoes, was a frankly ludicrous idea!  The plan was suitably altered, and a b&b was organised in Spetisbury for the half way point.  We would now skip the middle fifteen miles and put in at West Parley on Tuesday morning, for an easy 10 mile run down to Christchurch harbour.

The team gathered in Stur on Sunday afternoon, where a very congenial evening was spent in the Swan Inn, discussing our plans for the next two days, and all sorts of other nonsense, the kind that is common amongst old friends in search of an adventure. 

The night could have been more restful.  The heating seemed to be on full blast all night even though we had turned off the radiators; my room mate decided that it was time to get up and shower two hours earlier than we had planned the night before; and to cap it all, we had overlooked the fact that the Farmers market was due in town on Monday morning, and they arrive good and early to set up.  It sounded like a team of scaffolders at work just outside our window.

 

After a hearty breakfast, we headed for the river, where there is a handy car park and launch point just below the beautiful old bridge.  Once on the water, a peaceful aura develops, the river takes over.  You soon forget the cares of the world, the traffic noise soon disappears into the background, and a beautiful vista opens up at river level.  We couldn’t resist a quick upstream paddle to get closer to the Mill, where the water gushes over the weir in powerful fashion.  It was interesting to see the bridge from underneath, where it was repaired a few years ago, a complicated process over many months which involved isolating each pillar in turn so it could be attended to below the water line.  We pointed our boats downstream, and headed off for Fiddleford.

The river skirts around the south east corner of the town, where some lovely properties, and the church, overlook the bank, then after some open fields on both sides it runs past Girdlers Coppice on the right, which separates it from the road, before arriving at Fiddleford Mill.  Having scoped the potential hazards over the weekend, I knew this was not a weir for taking on.  We landed on a grassy bank, and crossed the footbridge above the sluices to investigate the sluice gates and the old mill building.  After more than an inch of rain three days earlier, the river level was falling again.  It is said that the Stour here reacts to large rainfall events within around 20 hours, however today the volume of water and its force through the sluices, as well as over the weir, was still impressive.  I am sure braver people than I might risk it in a boat, but I for one did not fancy a ducking this early in the day.  Whilst examining the area, we discovered a fairly new hydro electric installation next to the old Mill, it operates using an Archimedes screw, and can generate up to 50kw of electricity when the river is at its optimum height.  A notice on the wall tells you that this is enough to power 35 homes.  What it doesn’t tell you is that it only runs at capacity for half the time.  We didn’t feel that this was very much for an investment that clearly involved a lot of concrete and money.  As luck would have it,  we happened to bump into someone who knew quite a lot about this particular site, and he was able to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge.  It turns out that the environment agency put very tight controls on how much of the river’s flow can be used by a hydro plant like this.

Readers may well be aware that renewable generation schemes like this attract useful levels of subsidy, paid for by surcharges on our electricity bills, in the same way as solar panels, and wind turbines (in counties other than Dorset anyway).  On the basis that this generator cost something like £400,000, that the electricity generated is worth say 13p per kilowatt, and that it works for approximately 50% of the time, my simple calculations show that it produces a 7% return on capital, which isn’t bad for the current climate.  Payback would take 14 years, after which the electricity would be almost free.  Running costs would need to be accounted for, but it is a simple machine with few moving parts. 

 

Another interesting discovery at Fiddleford is the Manor house.  Maintained by English Heritage, this small and beautiful stone manor house, probably begun around 1370 for William Latimer, Sheriff of Somerset and Dorset, contains splendid roof timbers and panelling in the great hall, said to be the most spectacular in Dorset.

 

This and the hydro plant gave us plenty to discuss on the next stretch of river, which follows a long series of bends sweeping out to Hammoon via Manston.  Long tailed tits were to be seen busily hopping amongst the reeds, and small family groups of swans were encountered in many places.  Fortunately they were a bit more frightened of us than we were of them, and we were able to pass them quietly on the other side.  There is a weir under the new bridge at Hammoon, and when viewed the day before, the water had practically no fall, so I was confident of a smooth passing.  Today the water was nearly 10 inches lower on the downstream side, but by the time we got close enough to notice it was too late.  Luckily both boats crossed the weir with no trouble.

 

One of the most noticeable features of the river, all the way along, is the neglect it has suffered for the last 20 years at least.  Anywhere there are trees on the bank, many have shed branches into the water, the banks are completely overgrown, and many whole trees have fallen in, narrowing the river down to less than ten feet in a number of places.  There are branches washed up against the pillars of footbridges.  It is quite easy to foresee a situation where, during a flood, a whole tree could catch up against a bridge, then with smaller branches and debris filling in the gaps, the bridge could quickly turn into a dam, or be pushed over by the weight of water.

It seems to be fashionable to let rivers do their own thing, silt up, become overgrown etc.  This attitude led to the problems last year on the Somerset levels. 

I can quite see how slower flowing and meandering rivers are more favourable to wildlife.  Fish can find more places to spawn safely, insects have more habitat to thrive in, and birdlife will benefit from a better food supply.  We are told, by those who think they know best, that the dredging and straightening carried out in the earlier and middle parts of the last century helped to reduce wildlife diversity, it made the rivers flow faster, and removed eddying pools where fish might live and breed.  The intention of course was to prevent flooding of human habitation, amongst housing perhaps rashly built on the floodplains.  It is quite easy to see that a less ‘tidy’ river can create more interesting habitat, but it seems to me that we have possibly let things go too far, as with so many areas in life, we need to find a balance.  It should be possible to have both a healthy environment for wildlife, and safe dry houses for our citizens.  For a start we should stop building houses on floodplains.  Secondly we should make sure that fallen trees and branches do not pose a risk to our ancient bridges, or cause wide scale flooding.

 

The rest of the morning was a mix of gentle paddling where the river is narrower and faster, and harder stretches where it is wide and slow, here we had to dig deeper to make any progress, especially when we had the wind in our faces.  From Hammoon we pushed on past Fontmell Parva, along the back of Child Okeford, then through more bendy bits down to Hayward Bridge at the northern end of Shillingstone.  All along this stretch we had a very fine view of Hambledon Hill, a wonderful freak of chalky outcrop jutting out of the vale landscape, topped off by the remarkable earthworks built with the sweat of long lost civilisations.  Hambledon is the first of seven Iron age hill forts that populate the Stour valley from here to Christchurch.  I wonder if readers can name all seven?  Back in those days the river must have been like a motorway, it would have been a main transport hub up and down the valley.

 

At various points along the way we were treated to the sight of a fine variety of birdlife.  Flocks of cormorant, and egret were spotted, as well as the occasional heron.  Grey wagtails are a treat to spot along the river bank, not the commonest of birds.  Sadly we saw no Kingfishers on this trip, one would hope they would be hiding here somewhere, perhaps they didn’t like the weather.  There were many duck, mostly mallard, and to make a change we saw an otter in the braided area of the river between Charlton Marshall and Spetisbury.

 

At Shillingstone we got a good view of the old station, where an old steam engine is being restored, then we were off into a couple of very large loops, firstly out to Little Hanford, then back nearly to Gains Cross before tracking across again to Hod wood at the very base of Hod Hill.  There is a long straight pull from there up to Enford bottom, then around Pressham wood and along to Durweston weir.  Strangely the water here was at least a foot below the weir, which, even with water, no paddler in their right mind would attempt to shoot, it is very high and concretey.  When checking the weirs only the day before, there had been a big volume of water cascading over them all, including this one.  The fall in water level had not been matched by a closing of sluice gates at the Mill to keep the left branch of the river flowing.  From our put in below the weir, it is only a couple of hundred yards to the footbridge between Durweston and Stourpaine.  Lunch was beckoning, in the shape of the White Horse.  We dragged the boats out onto the bank and squelched our way up to the pub in Stourpaine, the thought of a pint of good old Badger Ale and a pie or two was all that had kept us going since the bottom of Hod.

 

Boiling water below Durweston Mill

The cheerful welcome of the smiling barmaid lost some of its allure when she informed us that they don’t serve lunch on Mondays.  Disaster loomed, as the local boy this would be all my fault.  Luckily for me of course, the imaginative Landlord at the White Horse had wisely thought to start up a village shop for Stourpaine several years ago, in part of the pub.  So without further ado we trooped into the shop, without even having to put our wet footwear back on, where we found pasties, pies, cakes and buns to satisfy even the hungriest paddler.  Not only that, but on returning to the bar, where we had been assured they would have no problem with us eating shop purchases on the premises, we were offered a microwave service for our pasties and pies.  Disaster averted, we enjoyed our refreshments, washed down with ale, followed by hot chocolate and biccies to fortify us for the afternoon paddle to Spetisbury.

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