A short drive from here there is a big hill and a slightly smaller hill, each has a stand of trees on top, they’re called, rather delightfully, Wittenham Clumps. They’re our go to place for a quick weekend afternoon walk of a distance tolerable to a reluctant eight year old, if the drive to nearish neighbour White Horse Hill seems just a bit too far, or we’re in need of being up high, rather than by the riverside. A couple of Saturdays ago, after a week of grey, cold and wet weather, the sun decided to show its face for a few hours, so we set off for a walk. It also meant I could take some pictures with the Big Camera, which I’m on a mission to understand before the year is out.
Even though Wittenham Clumps aren’t as well known, I imagine, as the hill with the White Horse on it (which I wrote about here) they are just as well worth visiting. The trees atop the hills are the oldest beech tree plantings in England, dating back to the 1740s. Even older than that, there is evidence of Bronze Age settlement and the still very much visible earthworks of an Iron Age fort on the smaller of the two (Castle Hill), which Time Team excavated in 2004.
Wittenham Clumps were painted by the artist Paul Nash throughout his life, he described the area as “a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten” and it is beautiful, though dashing through it to Didcot for a train, or taking the boy all of a rush to a drum lesson this can become lost to us. I was familiar with Nash as a painter of the Great War, and only recently found out about his connections to the local area via one of the excellent art documentaries made by the BBC (British Art at War, no longer on the iPlayer but can be found on YouTube). His paintings of the Clumps are haunting, especially the ones he did later in life; if you’d like to see them, and you can get there, there is Nash exhibition at Tate Britain running until 6th March 2017. More recently The Clumps appeared as a location of a climactic scene in Black Mirror (maybe because Charlie Brooker is from one of the nearby villages).
However, none of this was going on the afternoon we popped down there, but just as excitingly it wasn’t raining. In fact we had to take our coats off we were so warm. We managed to park up by Little Wittenham Church, and go up the hill that way (we call it the back way, but do hills have backs and fronts, faces, like mountains do?). The first bit of the journey was squelchy and tussocky to say the least. I was soon lagging way behind, what with the camera distraction and the need not to sprain my ankle yet again. Eventually we reached a very muddy gateway, so we decided to walk along to the next gateway which was equally muddy, but in such a way that you could sort of swing round the worst of it and arrive fairly dry footed on the other side. It’s always good to take a step and find your boot still there on your foot, I find.
This is where the uphill bit began, it’s not a long hill but it’s pretty steep, especially if you’re a small boy with a slight aversion to walking. There was a little bit of complaining, and a sit down on Dads feet about half way up. We also saw and heard a skylark – often they can only be heard, but I think we caught it on its way up. The sound of a skylark is one I associate with high summer, but I recall we came across a pair in February last year on our walk at Winspit and Worth Matravers. Whatever time of year though a skylark is worth hearing, a glorious noise. Up and up we went, until we got to the bench at the top of Round Hill, by the beech wood. This bench too was surrounded by mud, but we clambered onto it anyway.
An excited and slightly wet dog went by, pursued by its owner, who though slightly out of breath told us he’d definitely earned the right to sit on the sofa for the rest of the afternoon and watch the rugby. We sat for a while and admired the view down to St Peter’s Church and along the bend in the Thames, which was looking very sparkly in the winter sunshine. The view on the other side, if you walk round Castle Hill, is equally fantastic – you can see for miles in clear weather. The view includes Didcot power station of course, but you’re had pressed to find a view round here that doesn’t.
Up to the edge of Castle Hill then, and a quick peek at the Iron Age defences, and we started our way back down, the Orange Club Biscuits and cans of pop calling to us. We went down a slightly different path, where last year’s hawthorn berries were still hanging on as other trees around them are staring to bud. The willows have their catkins already. Back through the muddy gate and across the squelchy field again – this is starting to sound like ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, but if you quote that at an eight year old grown up boy they get a bit cross – we reached the car parked outside the church.
St Peter’s Little Wittenham is a lovely little village church with a huge tower on one end of it, topped with a very shiny weathercock. It’s like someone decided to turn the church into a castle and then thought better of it. However the tower is the oldest part of the building (14th Century) with the rest of the church having been rebuilt in 1863. I do love an old church, so I wandered about it a bit while the menfolk tried to find some way of not covering he inside of the car in mud, we had of course forgotten o bring clean shoes. The graveyard was filled with yellow flowers, I’m not sure what they were, a bit buttercup like, not primroses, and there was a little fat wren hopping about in the bush by the doorway. I tried to photograph the wren but my skills are still very basic, though I did get a blurred one of her which is more than I’d have managed with the phone camera, so I must be learning something.
The Earth Trust, who run Wittenham Clumps, also look after other nature reserves, new woodlands and community meadows in the local area, as well as running courses and events throughout the year.
The Camera course I’m doing is ‘A Year With My Camera‘ which is run by Emma Davies. This is a completely free EXCELLENT course, you learn in tiny steps each week. I’m already finding an improvement to my photographs, and to my understanding of how the camera works. Next time, that wren will be more visible…