Sunday, 31 May 2009

Boxford and Bagnor

Boxford Mill

A lovely sunny Sunday morning. This walk begins in the pretty village of Boxford, by the mill, and follows the Lambourn valley southeast to Bagnor. Initially you walk close to the river bank ....

... but the path fairly quickly diverges and most of the route is out of sight of the river. We did take one opportunity to make a detour down to and were rewarded with the best sights of the walk.

After this, the route goes through a wood and then follows a hedged track down to Bagnor. From, here the route in the walk book followed the road back to Boxford, but this seemed too dull so we looped back through a nature reserve and retraced our steps.

From: Village walks in Berkshire by Berkshire Federation of Women's Institutes (Countryside Books).

Map: Explorer 158 (Newbury and Hungerford).

Rating: three stars. Very pleasant walk, but frustrating to be near but out of sight of the river for most of the way.


Quite a few blue Banded Demoiselle damselflies and one or two Beautiful Demoiselles.

Flower of the day

The main reward from our detour was a slow stream running to the Lambourn where there was a profusion of Water Crowfoot.

Chalk Stream Water Crowfoot

Monday, 25 May 2009

St Petersburg: Mariinsky

The bronze horseman: Equestrian statue of Peter the Great

For our third and final walk in St Petersburg we headed into the Mariinsky district. the starting point was Pl Dekabristov (Decemberists' Sq) to the east of the Admiralty, where we started yesterday's walk around the Neva. (The Decemberists in question were of course the brave revolutionaries of 1825, rather than the wonderful indie band.)

The centrepiece of the square is the bronze horseman, a statue of Peter the Great erected by Catherine the Great. The inscription in both Cyrillic and Latin letters says "to Peter I from Catherine II - 1782". This is generally interpreted as an attempt to bolster her doubtful legitimacy as a successor of Peter.

From here it is a short stroll in the park to another of the city's landmarks, the enormous St Isaac's cathedral. Yet again there is a link to Peter - he was born on St Isaac's feast day. The cathedral was completed in 1848 after nearly 40 years' construction. The views from the colonnade under the golden dome are impressive - although partially obscured by cranes engaged on building work.

The best view from the colonnade is south towards Isaakievskaya pl, with the Mariinsky palace on the far side.

The baroque interior is lavish, but seems relatively restrained by comparison with the St Peter and Paul cathedral. The pink marble gives it a delicate tone.

We then walked east almost as far as the beautiful, recently restored bridge connecting the two buildings of the main post office.

From here we went down to the Moyka river embankment and at the next bridge had this lovely view of St Isaac's on the left and the Yusupov Palace on the right. This is where Rasputin was killed. There is a wonderful portrait of the young Prince Yusupov, his assassin, in the Russian Museum by Ilya Repin, regarded as Russia's greatest artist.

Our route then took us past the famous, but from the outside at least, not particularly inspiring Mariinsky theatre, to reach the Nikolsky Cathedral. The Cathedral is under restoration, but is still operating, as it apparently did throughout the soviet era. The devotion of the worshippers, crossing themselves three times as they left in the Orthodox fashion, was readily apparent.

Some distance in front of the cathedral is the wonderful bell tower which faces on to the Griboedov canal.

Not far away along another canal we saw, but did not succeed in identifying, another splendid onion domed structure.

Perhaps the only flaw in this walk was that we now had to simply retrace our steps back to St Isaac's and our nearby hotel.

Rating: four stars.

Friday, 22 May 2009

St Petersburg: Around the Neva


Yesterday we walked around the historic heart of St Petersburg. Today we decided to cross the Neva river and explore some of the islands (all connected by road bridges) to its north. We began at the park in front of the Admiralty building, the headquarters of the Russian navy from 1711 to 1917. The golden spire is a landmark from all directions, but is in fact painted wood. The building is now a naval college.

From here it is a few steps to the beginning of Nevsky pr at the side of Dvortovskaya pl (Palace Sq). We turned left and crossed the bridge to Vassilievsky island. As you look back, there are wonderful views of the Winter Palace.

And as you look ahead to the left you see the Kunstcamera, the museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, founded by Peter the Great himself in 1714.

We just skirted the corner of Vassilievsky island, crossed to Petrogradsky island and then to Zayachy island, where the St Peter and Paul fortress was our target. It was here that the city of St Petersburg began. The fortress walls, built in 1703, were its first defences and the fortress is naturally the oldest major building in the city.

We followed the side of the island nearest the Neva river and soon found ourselves walking under the fortress walls. On turning a corner however we were surprised to come on a beach, complete with a few sunbathers.

A bit further on, we entered the riverside gate of the fortress and walked on top of part of the walls. We then made our way to the central square in front of the resplendent St Peter and Paul cathedral.

The 122m high bell tower is still the tallest structure in St Petersburg. The cathedral itself has an extravagant - OK, completely over the top - gilded baroque interior. Most of the Tsars are buried in the cathedral.

From here a delightful tree lined avenue leads past the Ducal chapel to the main east gate where you cross back to Petrogradsky island.

Here we made a bit of a mistake and walked some distance up the main boulevard in a largely futile search for more style moderne gems to add to those we saw yesterday. We then crossed the Neva again to return to the historic heart and seek a place to rest in the Summer Garden, with the Fontanka river on one side and a canal on the other.

The 18th century Garden was Peter's retreat and housed his first Palace - the relatively restrained Summer Palace, which dates from 1704-14.

The entrance to the garden facing the Neva is distinguished by a late 18th century cast iron fence between granite posts.

Inside the Garden is an oasis of green ...

... but happily there is also a bar.

We left by the southern exit and followed the Moyka river back into the historic heart.

Rating: four stars. Actually more enjoyable than the historic heart walk: more open, less bustle and traffic. The "Venice of the north" claim seemed much better founded.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

St Petersburg: historic heart

Dvortskaya Pl (Palace Square)

Just arrived in St Petersburg for a six day break, and a walking tour of the "historic heart", as our guidebook described it, seemed the ideal way to spend the first afternoon. The area is defined by the Neva river to the north and the Fontanka to the south.

The starting point was the top end of the busy, long main boulevard, the Nevsky Prospekt. We turned off down an inconspicuous side street and were quickly greeted by this wonderful archway leading through to the Winter Palace (home of the Hermitage museum) and Dvortskaya Pl (Palace Square) with its statue of Alexander I.

From here we followed the bank of the Moyka River, the third of the city's rivers, and soon reached this pleasing bridge, with the massive but decayed 18th court stables building on the right bank.

At the next bridge there is a stunning sight on the opposite bank: the church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (officially known as the Church of the Resurrection of Christ). This extraordinary structure, which was influenced by St Basil's in Moscow, was built between 1883 and 1907 on the site where Tsar Alexander II was fatally injured in an assassination attempt. After a long period of decline, restoration of the church started in 1970 and was completed 27 years later - thus taking longer than the original construction.

From here we continued along the banks of the Moyka passing the former military parade ground, Mars Field, now a rather drab park. On the opposite bank was the Mikhailovsky Palace which now houses the wonderful Russian Museum of the history for Russian painting.

At the next bridge we crossed and doubled back through Mikhailovsky Gardens to emerge at the side of church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. The curved park wall was impressive.

We then walked round to the square at the front of the Mikhailovsky Palace, known as Arts Square because of the collection of cultural buildings which surround it. A handsome statue of Pushkin, dating only from 1958, dominates the square.

From here we walked the short distance to the Griboedov Canal which intersects the Moyka by church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood and followed it along to where it passes under Nevsky pr. Here we were entranced by the art nouveau Singer Building and noted that it now housed a bookstore and coffee shop.

Opposite is the extravagant neo-classical Kazan Cathedral which dates from 1801-11. The influence of St Peter's in Rome is apparent in the colonnaded wings. The space they enclose is a popular place to hang out.

Continuing a little further along the canal side we reached the lovely Bankovsky most (Bank bridge), with its four golden griffins. It is deservedly St Petersburg's most photographed bridge.

We now cut back towards Nevsky pr, skirting the side of the huge 18th century Gostiny Dvor, one of the world's first shopping precincts. The Nevsky pr side has a splendid arcade.

Walking further down Nevsky pr we passed the Armenian church ....

... and then another fabulous art nouveau construction not mentioned in the guide book.

The walk ended at the point at which Nevsky pr crosses the Fontanka river. The palaces on the far side of the river offered a pleasing vista.

All that remained was to walk straight back up Nevsky pr to the point where we could turn off to our hotel for a restorative glass of (very expensive) wine.

Rating: four stars.

A good introduction to some of the beautiful buildings of St Petersburg, but it is not the "Venice of the North" as has been claimed - there are not sufficient waterways and the roads are too busy. At one point Nevsky pr has four lanes of traffic in each direction.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Stratfield Mortimer: Admiral's Copse and Foudry Brook

St Mary's, Stratfield Mortimer

A sunny, windy late afternoon and just time for a nice stroll. This 4.5 mile walk is close to home but surprisingly good.

The walk begins at Mortimer station, and does a loop around the north of Stratfield Mortimer, before heading south along a lane to the pretty Admiral's Copse. Lots of swallows (always an uplifting sight) on the first part of the walk. There is a nice view over north Hampshire farmland as you emerge from the copse.

You soon reach the meadows by the Foudry brook, today, like others in the area, covered with buttercups. The spire of St Mary's - a landmark for miles around - can be seen in the background.

From here you continue south and skirt around some fields with a crop of peas coming strongly through. I saw some lapwings here, taking off from the ground and landing again with their harsh pee-wit cries.

From here a lane and a field - with St Mary's now looming large - bring you to the Foudry brook again and then the church.

St Mary's (by R Armstrong) dates from 1871 and Pevsner describes it as "quite a stately church". There is a rather French tourelle tucked in between the tower and the chancel.

From St Mary's you follow the road back to the start.

From: Rambling for pleasure around Reading (first series) by David Bounds for the East Berkshire Ramblers

Map: Explorer 159 (Reading, Wokingham and Pangbourne)

Rating: three and a half stars. Green, handy, varied, nice views.

Flower of the day

Lots of Common Veitch, especially in the early part of the walk. Some close to the ground and more maroon in colour, this one taller having grown up through a bramble bush and with a more pinky hue.

Common Veitch

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Vyne

This seemed to be the answer to where to take friends for an interesting, but short walk before lunch. Only 2.3 miles through Morgaston Woods and around the edge of the Vyne, a delightful Jacobean mansion north of Basingstoke. We last did this walk in December (full description).

The main differences today were of course the trees in full early season leaf - and a very large variety of species in a small area. Many fewer wildfowl on the lake.

Flower of the day

White Campion was the signature plant of the day.

White Campion

Monday, 11 May 2009

East Hendred and Ardington

Ardington Church

My birthday. A lovely sunny day, so what better than a walk on the downs? This 6 mile walk begins in the Oxfordshire village of East Hendred. Initially, you walk across fields - of newly-mown hay, so quite hard work - to the nearby village of Ardington.

The nave, chancel and north doorway of the church of Holy Trinity date apparently from around 1200, but Ardington's main claim to fame is Ardington House.

This handsome baroque house dates from 1720 and has long been the home of the Baring banking family. It is now available for weddings and corporate events.

From here the path leads south to join the Icknield Way which you follow for the best part of two miles, as it rises and falls in a straight line over the downs. Very windy up there today, but exhilarating too. Nice views to the north. It really does feel like an ancient route that has been trodden over long ages.

This is the view looking back towards the interestingly named Roundabout Hill.

Eventually you turn left to return to East Hendred. Quite soon we saw this rather autumnal sight, which revealed itself to be a line of maples.

The first sight of East Hendred is quite picturesque: this group is the catholic church, presbytery and school, with the C of E church in the background.

East Hendred is a pretty, spread-out place with many delightful buildings ....

.... which seems to have once been a more important settlement.

From: Berkshire and Oxfordshire Pub Walks for Motorists by Les Maple (Countryside Books).

Map: Explorer 170 (Abingdon, Wantage and Vale of White Horse.

Rating: four stars. Varied, exhilarating, great views.


The main highlight was a Painted Lady. But today was also notable for the definitive identification of a female Orange Tip. As it rather unfairly lacks an orange tip to its wings, it can easily be mistaken for a Small White - the underwings are very different however.

Also a Red Kite flying low over the fields on the edge of East Hendred.

Flower of the day

Remarkably few flowers in fact on view today, apart from prodigious quantities of cow parsley. This Purple Comfrey was the most interesting.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Finchampstead and Moor Green Lakes

Grove Lake

A pleasant stroll on a warm afternoon. This five mile walk starts in Finchampstead, but the first half mile is simply down a road, so we started near the lakes and made it four. The car park was temporarily closed for roadworks, as allegedly was the path, but this turned out to be a false alarm.

This is a very simple walk. You follow the path along one side of the three lakes which make up the Moor Green Lakes Nature Reserve and when you meet the Blackwater river, you turn left and walk for a mile or so with the lakes on the left and the river on the right.

We particularly enjoyed this display of azalias and camellias exploding out from a house on the opposite bank.

At the end of Horseshoe Lake you turn left and follow the lake edge past the watersports centre to eventually enter the woods and fields on the edge of Finchampstead ridges. After another mile or so you are back at the road in front of the lakes.

From: Waterside walks in Berkshire by Nick Channer (Countryside Books).

Map: Explorer 159 (Reading).

Rating: three stars.


The highlight was this heron standing imperiously at the side of the Blackwater. We spoke to some people who were taking photographs and learned that he (the heron, that is) had been there for many weeks. He was not troubled by people passing by, but did not care for noisy dogs.

Flower of the day