Longparish and its river – April and May.
The River Test is a monarch of a waterway. Its springs arise directly or indirectly from the chalk that lays beneath the surface layers of silt, clay or gravel. As such, it is crystal clear and carries with it traces of the calcium from which it has been born. As with most similar rivers, its course is often broken into many smaller rivers – it is braided, and our exploration starts with one of these braided waterways.
I’ve parked beneath the old yew tree that overhangs both the river and the sidetrack that leads off the Longparish road towards Upper Mill (that we will encounter later). Looking westwards the damp garden is rich in wild southern marsh orchids in June and July and offers a contrast in vegetation to the other bank.
Especially in the early hours of daylight, the easterly facing side of the bridge shows the wild side of the river. Tall trees dominate the area allowing little light to reach the water and, as a result, its gravel bed has little vegetation. It appears as if man has little impact here – no grassy path to allow fishers access to the river and the banks look natural. It is cool and calm and a delight to the eye.
I chatter over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles.
With many a curve my banks I fret
By many a field and fallow,
And many a fairy foreland set
With willow-weed and mallow.
I chatter, chatter, as I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.
Part of The Brook by Alfred Lord Tennyson
I walk along the road, away from Longparish, for just a short distance, with that wild river to my right. So, shortly encounter a bridge and footpath leading over this arm of the River Test. Upstream I can glimpse the mostly unused commercial watercress beds that are now filled to overflowing with the deep green leaves of the slightly peppery tasting crop. A crop synonymous with Hampshire as it loves the never cold, clear and chalky water found here.
Cross the bridge.
With willows being dominated by the tall trees to our right we wander into a damp meadow. The grasses will grow waist high in summer, yet now are only just starting their growth spurt as the air and, eventually, the damp soil warms. The bulk of their height will be their flowering stems, while, at ground level, their laminate leaves mat together to thickly cover the soil. Beneath this green coat there is a network of short-tailed vole runs. These voles are short-lived but exuberant in their production of babies. They could already be on their second brood – all swaddled, at ground level, in a nest made of dry grasses.
The grass is mainly cocksfoot and it is one of the favourites of the minute harvest mice that also live here. I have found their nests in late summer woven into the tall flower stems well above those of the voles. These days harvest mice are much more likely to be found in slightly rank, over-grown meadows and in reedbeds than in a farmer’s field. The animal needs year-round cover and that is not found in a modern wheat or barley field.
With broad, bristly leaves you should spot wild comfrey (Symphytum offinale) with its pale cream or purple flowers showing. It is a plant loved equally by bees, gardeners and herbalists. The insects thrive on the nectar, the gardener can use it as a ‘green manure’ or to make up a liquid feed, while it has been widely employed (with success) as a healing poultice for sprains, bruises and abrasions. Its leaves contain allantoin that promotes the healing of the skin’s connective tissues. Richard Mabey reports that medieval herbalists called the plant ‘bone-set’ and its roots were used much as plaster of Paris is today. However, it is not a plant to use as a vegetable as eating it can, it is said, cause liver damage.
To our left the water, briefly, flows with grassy meadows on either side – that beyond the river is owned as public space by the village and a fine spot to search for signs of mouse activity.
The Long Bridge is ahead and the views here delight everyone. With deep river channels and shallower areas in which the massive trout play in the current. With light and shade inter-playing with the never still water’s surface and the aerial insects and birds catching the eye it is difficult to know where to look first.
The Middleton Estate, I understand, enhances the wild population of brown (Salmo trutta) and there are also some rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). You could see either of these species here. Both fish species are carnivores, eating invertebrates and smaller fish. Brown trout are natives while the other species has been introduced from rivers bordering the Pacific Ocean.
The brown trout is a silvery-brown, dark-spotted fish with a plain, dark tail fin. The rainbow trout can be distinguished from the similar brown trout by the broad purple stripe running down its flanks … which I never can see with wild, live fish!
[Sea trout are a migratory variant of the brown trout. They can be found in the rivers of the New Forest – ones that are comparatively lacking in year-round food.]
Brown trout can live up to 20 years, reach 100 cm in length and 20 Kg, but in a river system these are much reduced. Rainbow trout can reach 9 Kg but more normally 2.3 Kg would be big fish.
There must be a wide range of other fish along this stunning section of the River Test, yet I never spot them from the bridge. Swans nest here most years and, earlier in the year, frogs lay their spawn masses amongst the reeds and other bankside vegetation.
Birds enjoy the waterway. Mallard ducks are everywhere, coots and moorhens are regulars and herons maintain a wary eye out for humans as they stalk their fishy food. Today the migratory cuckoo is in good voice and chiffchaffs sing their tune. Less vocal are the wagtails and the spotted flycatchers that both fly up to secure their insect lunches. Of the kingfisher, I see nothing today.
I turn right at the lane, but a diversion to the left is always productive if time permits. There are great views and the common land, just as the river bends, allows more mouse investigations to occur.
My route follows an offshoot of the main river that only flows at high water. It is dry in late summer and autumn. Naturally, river water levels change with both the rainfall on the catchment but also with the amount of water weed in the river. In spring and summer the increased light encourages plant growth and so enhances water resistance – hence water levels rise. But the water keepers usually cut the water weeds to maintain open channels and a gravel bed, so that reduces the water’s height again. Up, down.
Many trees and shrubs grow along this section of the river. The majority are willows (use Woodland Trust’s free app to identify) and in spots such as the Somerset Levels they are coppiced to provide stems for basket making and similar. In cattle-grazed meadows willows are often coppiced at head height (pollarding), leaving the tasty shoots above browsing level. These trees are called pollards. On one occasion I was running a tame polecat over the water meadows in Salisbury when the animal entered and climbed up inside a hollow pollarded crack-willow. Two rabbits must have been living inside, as soon they jumped out for their lives from two metres high. Willows can develop substantial holes in their trunks.
Goat Willow (Salix caprea) is the ‘pussy willow’ producer in March. These lovely harbingers of spring are the bright yellow, pollen-laden male catkins of the plant.
There are several towering poplar trees along the metalled road. I’m told that similar trees were planted locally to be cropped for match production. Those unused when the company (Bryant and May) was taken over have grown into giant specimens.
To the right the trees are deciduous and light reaches the ground vegetation for much of the year. Compared to the evergreen laurel copse, to the left, it has a rich ground flora.
Watery vegetation is often interesting. Along here you will spot a good range of species. Wild watercress is ever present and hosts a myriad of invertebrates amongst its stems and surface roots. In summer its small white flowers are a magnet for small beetles and flies. Stinging nettles crowd the bank and fight with grasses, touch-me-not (balsam), woundwort and willow herb.
The nettle’s Latin name (Urtica dioica) has given its name to nettle rash (Urticaria) – a general condition characterised by irritation and inflammation. The plant is often found in soils rich in animal manure; here the rich bank’s soil provides a suitable spot and its tough and spreading yellow roots allows it to colonise widely.
Nettles have been eaten for centuries: Romans and the Celts used early growths in broths. During the Irish potato famine and World War Two they were again on the menu. Even today chefs will occasionally use them in their dishes.
A cotton substitute was obtained from the plant by the Germans in WW2. 40 Kg was needed to provide sufficient fibres from its stem to make a shirt.
The plant’s sharp, edge of leaf, spines contain irritants including histamine and choline.
Stinging nettles are the exclusive larval food plant for several species of butterflies, such as the peacock butterfly, comma and the small tortoiseshell. It is also eaten by the larvae of some moths including angle shades, buff ermine, dot moth, the flame, the gothic, grey chi, grey pug, lesser broad-bordered yellow underwing, mouse moth, setaceous Hebrew character, and small angle shades.
The deep pool by the sluice gate is as photogenic as any location. Occasionally in winter icicles form around the waterfall and add a new dimension to the scene.
Around the corner is the Upper Mill and the flow of water through the building is clear from the sound. My route is along the footpath, on the left, before crossing the bridge.