Monday, 28 March 2011

A Misty Afternoon on St Catherine`s Hill in Christchurch

On Saturday, mist crept in from the coast and up along the valley of the River Avon. We walked for an hour or so around St Catherine`s Hill, just north of Christchurch and west of the river valley. This was a favourite dog walk when the boys were young. There are roots to clamber over, pine cones to collect, slopes to slide down and the old sand quarry to explore.

St Catherine`s Hill was once submerged beneath the sea, and consists of layers of sand and gravel. The acidic soil once grew acres of heather but in the mid twentieth century, the hill was planted with Scots Pine and Corsican Pine, as well as the silver birches that grow so well on heathland. There is currently a programme of tree felling, to use the timber from mature conifers and to clear the land so that sandy heathland habitat can return, encouraging rare species such as Dartford Warblers, Sand Lizards and Smooth Snakes. Heathland is a rare and important habitat, but people living nearby are not happy to see well loved woodland disappear.

The view from the southern trig point, across the Avon Valley and down across flat land towards the sea. On a clear day, the hills of the Isle of Wight show clearly from this spot.
All along the hill slopes, the stumps of familiar trees left a stark landscape behind.

A faint haze of spring green topped the trees down in the valley, beside the small holdings. A ribbon of river twisted its way through grass watermeadows, between the belts of trees.

Across the heathland of Town Common, the faint shape of the Priory Church tower rises through mist over Christchurch.

We took a narrow path at the edge of the hill, where tree roots jutted over the edge and a steep slope ran down beside us, into the valley.

On the hill top, stands of pines dropped small brown cones in bramble clearings.

Piles of pine trunks, from forestry clearance, waited in the valley bottom amongst the heather.

Old Corsican Pines make fine natural sculptures........

Bare, felled slopes where heather will one day grow......

....and pines with shiny, knotted roots beside the path.

Sand was once quarried at the top of the hill and a small lake remains. Sands of strange yellows and reds are exposed among the trees.

In areas of cleared heathland , heather and gorse have grown undisturbed for several years. Unlike New Forest heath, which is grazed by ponies and cattle, this heather is able to grow uninterrupted, interspersed with dwarf gorse and lichen. These are the places where Sand Lizards can sometimes be seen on hot summer days, basking in the sun.

We crunched our way back across the pine wood floor, finding cones from Corsican Pines that had been feasted upon by squirrels.....

...and an ironwork trace of long-ago human industry, when the sand was extracted and men trudged up the hill to days of hard manual labour in the quarry.

This hill is a special, peaceful place amidst the traffic and bustle of the built-up coast. The cool mist of Saturday kept other walkers away so we met few people as we climbed down the steep homeward path through quiet, pine scented woods, towards the edge of town.


Goosey said...

Good memories, we used to walk up there when we visited some friends who live at the foot of St Catherines Hill.

WOL said...

Lovely pictures. That one picture of the small holder looked like they were living in a Quonset hut and building a house with cinderblocks over to the left of the picture.

Morning's Minion said...

The photos and descriptions of your walks draw me in, make me wish I could experience these places in person. I need a better grasp of UK geography--at one point I had printed off several maps so that I could see the relationship between the various places mentioned by my blogging friends.
Not sure where those disappeared in the move.
I wonder if "gorse" is anything like the sagebrush of the American interior west?