One day last summer I walked from Amberley station to Pulborough station through the Arun river valley. Almost all of the route was along the Wey-South path; which closely follows the long disused route of the Wey and Arun canal navigations that once linked Godalming in Surrey with the south coast. It was a fab day back then and I saw lots of wildlife, including some splendid dragonflies (I wrote about it in a post – here), and I really enjoyed the walk as it was a good length, went through some lovely country and was also convenient because of the railway. On that hot summers day I thought to myself that it would be interesting to repeat the walk in winter, and on Wednesday I did just that.
Fortunately, especially for January, it was a sunny day – although there was a biting westerly which kept me moving – and reminded me that it’s not spring just yet. Much of the best and most interesting wildlife that I saw on the walk I saw in the first section around the village of Amberley and the ‘wildbrooks’, which stretch over the east side of the floodplain. In fact, one of the first birds I encountered on the walk were Red Kites; a pair were swooping up and down over a field, trying to make some headway against the wind. The downs and farmland around Amberley are actually one of the very best areas in the whole county for seeing this fabulous bird of prey.
As I approached the village I noticed that a field of grass to my left, on the north slope of the downs, was host to a large flock of a few hundred Rooks and Jackdaws probing the soil for food. A lovely sight as the black coats of the Rooks flashed purple in the sunshine and the sooty Jackdaws hopped energetically between the feet of their more sedate cousins.
Out on the flat expanse of the wildbrooks the path was, as expected, horribly claggy with mud and almost impassable with huge puddles. I flushed two small waders from a flooded ditch by the side of the path, if they had not done so I am sure I would have walked right past them. They dashed back and forth through the crisp air, exclaiming with loud piping calls their irritation at being disturbed. Before they vanished I made out their dark plumage, white bellies and white tail which was marked with small dark bars and recognised them as Green Sandpipers.
Out on the flooded fields countless Lapwings, gulls and Starlings were either bathing in the pools or poking their bills into the waterlogged soil for worms. A pair of Stonechats fluttered up from the sedges and perched neatly atop the stems of a tall rush. A Kestrel, or Windhover, magically remained stationary in the sky above me, despite the strong wind which his flicking wings fought tirelessly against. Farther on, near the edge of the brooks, I met four more Kites – two perched in an Oak, one on the ground and one in the sky. They all rose into the air as I drew closer, on huge wings that effortlessly scooped the air and with forked tails swinging side to side like rudders.
Moving on, I crossed Greatham bridge and decided to make a short detour around Waltham Brooks, a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve that borders the Arun. It was fairly quiet on the bird front, but in one corner there is a water treatment works and the bushes surrounding it were teaming with Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests rummaging through the twigs for the insects that are attracted to the works.
The next section of the footpath runs right alongside the old canal, which is barely recognisable as such, what with it being silted up and turned into a linear wood by all the willows that have sprouted up in the middle of it. The path then leaves the canal and heads over a road and then over the railway line, I decided to stop and eat my lunch by the bridge as it at least had a view. Sitting there, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself next to a 7-spot Ladybird which was sunning itself on a fence. Ladybirds spend the winter hibernating in clusters under bark, in log piles and deep in thick foliage, this one must have been awoken by the relatively mild temperatures (which haven’t dipped below zero for weeks).
The path then took me past a huge water pumping station and as I walked by I noticed yet another sign of spring peeking out of the soil under a hedge. It was the fresh shield-shaped leaves of Lords-and-Ladies, breaching the surface in tight rolls then unfurling wide – these often get munched by slugs and if a frost comes they may not survive, but the plant will simply put up more leaves.
The route I was supposed to take went across an open field bordering the river and over a bridge, only as I approached I realised there was an issue. The field was completely flooded. It was deep and the riverbank had been breached, there was no way around to get to the bridge. Several hundred Lapwings and four Swans were loving it though, so I wasn’t too annoyed. Unfortunately, the only other route to Pulborough station meant cutting off a fair chunk of the walk I had done in summer, and quite a nice part too. As consolation I did come across a group of four stunning Bullfinch eating buds in a hedgerow. These are one of my favourite birds, although, if we’re being honest, they’re probably everyone’s favourite bird.
Having been thoroughly warmed up by the walk, I then had to sit for twenty minutes on the freezing platform waiting for the next train home. It was a shame I hadn’t been able to do exactly the same route as last time (which, for a compulsive completionist like myself, is another kind of torture) but I had seen some fab bits of wildlife and I went away thinking that it would be a lovely idea to do the walk again in late spring.