by Juliet Bailey.
Seventeen members and friends met near Hempsted church on 6 February 2022 for a general-interest morning walk. We had fine weather until the very last stop when a driving rain-shower caught us off-guard, though the sun quickly came out again.
We walked down Rectory Lane from the church and out onto the floodplain of the river Severn. There was little flowering along the lane – just some rather dejected White Deadnettle (Lamium album) which had been nipped by recent frosts.
The first field in the plain was low ridge-and-furrow and in spring is a romantic haze of Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis) but being late winter there were no flowers in bloom. Still we could see the leaves of it in the grass, together with Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens) and other plants typical of floodplain meadows including Deschampsia cespitosa, Tussock Grass, known by many Gloucestershire farmers as Bull’s Pate. This is a strong marker of impeded drainage, and here was noticeably in the furrows rather than on top of the ridges. Farmers don’t like it because the cattle won’t touch it. Its leaves have a serrated edge – easy to pull in one direction but cutting like a knife if you run your finger – or tongue – the other way.
There were several people interested in mycology in the party. We admired some Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) on some logs lying on the ground, and later Scarlet Elfcup (Sarcoscypha coccinea).
At the far side of the meadow a band of trees marks the boundary of the 360-acre Hempsted waste tip which is mostly soil-capped and grassed over. The water in the brook here appears to be clean, with banks of Water Starwort (Callitriche sp.), so the tip must be well coffered. However, the walking became more tricky on this stretch, hemmed in by the brook and the edge of the tip. It had rained heavily over night and the path was narrow and muddy and lined with mounds of bramble.
Much of the bramble is Rubus caesius, Dewberry, which can be affected by the gall-wasp Diastrophus rubi. No doubt inspired by the GNS zoom talk from Tommy Root the previous Wednesday several examples of this gall were found, together with swelling on a thistle stem caused by the fly Urophora cardui, and willow catkin galls – mystery causative organism, possibly viral or bacterial.
A flock of about 30 Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) were feeding on alder cones in the trees along the brook. We followed the path to the river’s edge where the vista opened out with views across the Severn and the Minsterworth meadows where Curlew can still be heard here in spring and summer. A Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) was perching in a nearby tree. The star bird of the morning was to come later when a few people in the party, that by that time had become a little strung out, were lucky to see a Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola).
Badgers (Meles meles) were very evident. We did not see one, but saw a massive sett early in the walk and a latrine area right on the riverbank. Badgers are tidy creatures, scraping little pits into which they deposit their droppings, and often as here on the river’s edge, having latrines with half a dozen or more pits marking the boundaries of their home ranges.
Returning back up the hill on the final part of the walk we regrouped at Our Lady’s Well (or St Anne’s Well). This elegant stone well head of the 14th century is a Grade I structure, so the same status as Gloucester Cathedral which could be seen just over a mile away to the north-east. However, the archaeology of the site goes back further still. Roman features, including ditches and burials, with pottery, coins and other material have been found on the hilltop, and indeed it would have been a good lookout point to observe shipping coming up the river towards Gloucester, where the cathedral marks the north-west corner of the Roman fortress and later colonia.
The low earthworks on the hilltop were identified as a ‘Roman camp’ by 19th century antiquarians, and it appears as such on Ordnance Survey maps up until the 1940s. More recent archaeological investigations in advance of modern housing development on the hilltop has shown that the earthworks post-date the Roman activity. They may be pillow mounds for the farming of rabbits, and related to the ownership of the site by Llanthony Secunda Priory.
The site has long been of interest to local natural historians and antiquarians. One has to admire the stamina of our predecessors in the Cotteswold Naturalists’ Field Club who, on 23rd February 1860, held their AGM at the Ram Inn in Gloucester (now the New County Hotel in Southgate Street), then, after breakfast, proceeded to Hempsted to admire the then recently identified “Roman” earthworks, finishing off with a lunch at Hempsted House, and an examination of material in the private museum. It is good to feel oneself one in the long line of history.
Proceedings Cotteswold Naturalists’ Field Club, 3 (1861-1865) 17
Turkeytail (Trametes versicolor) by John Woodbridge
Scarlet Elfcup (Sarcoscypha coccinea) by John Woodbridge
Galled Willow by Mervyn Greening
Diastrophus rubi gall on Dewberry by Mervyn Greening
Urophora cardui gall on Creeping Thistle by Mervyn Greening