April, Bristol parks, Chiffchaff, Eastville Park, Frome Valley Walk, hidden rivers, kingfisher, lost rivers, public parks, River Frome
April 1st 2018
Two days ago I had boarded a train at Colwyn Bay in sunshine to arrive in Bristol four hours later in pouring rain. In these Isles we expect April Showers, but to time with my visit here to the South-West rain had been predicted for no less than 11 days straight! For the past two days the weather had done its best to fulfil that prediction, then lo and behold, this morning it gave us a reprieve and blessed the morning of the first day of this new month with welcome sunshine. Quick to take advantage of the opportunity to escape the confines of the house, my son and daughter-in-law bundled their respective visiting mothers and two daughters into the car and drove us all to Eastville Park for some fresh air and exercise before the rain swept back in.
We approached the Park along Broom Hill, parking at the side of the road just before the turning signposted to Snuff Mills. Leaving the car we crossed the road bridge over the River Frome, then after a short way turned right onto the path alongside the river, which is a section of the Frome Valley Walk. (The entire walk is 18 miles long and follows the river from the River Avon in the centre of Bristol to the Cotswold
Hills in South Gloucestershire.)
This initial part of our walk follows the river through Wickham Glen; there is woodland on the far bank and on the path side it passes by Wickham Allotments. Following the recent heavy rain the river was full, and its fast flowing waters muddy brown. The path was wet and stickily muddy in places, but the sun was shining, there was fresh new greenery and birds were singing; the perfect Spring morning. Against the far bank a Mallard Drake dabbled next to a piece of disintegrating black plastic that looked like the remains of planting pots, possibly blown there from the nearby allotments.
An Alder tree stretched branches bearing cones and catkins out over the river.
To continue along the Frome Valley Walkway from here you would follow the signpost in the direction of Frenchay and Snuff Mills. We were heading for Eastville Park though, so turned right to cross the historic Wickham Bridge, a lovely medieval stone bridge which is Bristol’s oldest bridge and reputedly used by Oliver Cromwell, It is now Grade 11 listed.
The river falls dramatically, more than 50 feet, between Frenchay Bridge and Eastville Park which made it perfect for operating water mills. There were once six mills along this stretch of the Frome Valley, most of them working as corn mills. Now all that remains as evidence of their presence are the weirs.
Eastville Park is a large Public Park that extends over some 70 acres of land, and is located just to the east of the M32. The land was originally agricultural land of the Heath House Estate owned by Sir John Greville Smyth of Ashton Court and was purchased from him by the Council for £30,000 in 1889 in order to provide a ‘People’s Park’ – a green space for those living in St Philips and the eastern suburbs of the city, where social and environmental conditions were poor.
Creating the Park was a huge undertaking begun in 1889 and taking around five years till 1894, to complete. Existing hedges were taken out, boundary walls repaired, paths laid out and a hundred seats installed. Wisely, existing mature trees were retained and walkways were lined with further plantings of limes, horse chestnuts and fast-growing London planes. Interestingly, the grass areas were managed by a mixture of sheep grazing and mowing, a common practise at that time that is still used today in some Nature Reserves.
A narrow footbridge crosses over water
then leads past the impressive Colston Weir. There have been recent reports of an Otter being sighted here.
Not a pleasant thought in such a beautiful place, but this drain cover reminds that the Frome Valley Sewer follows closely alongside the river before finally ending at the Bristol Sewage treatment works at Avonmouth.
A pleasanter sight was a clump of White Deadnettle, although it had clearly taking a bit of a battering as its petals were torn and its leaves mud-spattered. Before the flowers appear the plant looks a little like the Common Nettle, but a closer look shows there are no stinging hairs hence the ‘dead nettle’ in the name. The lack of sting is also thought to have brought the plant’s other common name of White Archangel.
We heard a Wren and watched it as it flitted around in vegetation very close to the water. Another Alder tree gave me the opportunity to get a closer look. The tree’s flowers are on catkins which appear between February and April. Alder is monoecious, that is both male and female flowers are found on the same tree. Male catkins are yellow and pendulous, measuring 2–6cm. Female catkins are green and oval-shaped, and grouped in numbers of three to eight on each stalk. Once pollinated by wind, the female catkins gradually become woody and appear as tiny, cone-like fruits in winter. They open up to release seeds, which are dispersed by both wind and water. The small brown cones stay on the tree all year round.
The lake was added as a feature a few years after the Park was opened. It was dug out in 1908 and 1909 from an existing water meadow with labour provided by ‘unemployed applicants’, under the Distress Committee’s Labour Bureau. It was constructed to a Serpentine plan, a design made popular by the famous landscape gardener, Capability Brown. The intrigue of its shape is such that wherever you stand on its edge, you can’t see the lake completely; there is always some part snaking out of view. Nowadays it is considered to be one of the best public park lakes in the country.
The lake is not just attractive for people to look at, it’s presence also draws in a good variety of species of birds. First to attract attention was a flock of noisy Corvids that flew into the trees to left of the lake.
At first I wondered if they might be Rooks as there were a good number of them, but a closer look made them Carrion Crows, maybe juvenile, non-breeding birds.
There’s a densely planted small island in the centre of the widest part of the lake, and as we passed a little brown bird darting in and out from a tree branch reaching over the water caught my attention. Clearly a warbler, it was either a Chiffchaff or a Willow Warbler, most likely the former, but either way my first sighting so far this year.
If I hadn’t zoomed in on the warbler I may have missed a rare treat, despite his jewel-bright colours– a Kingfisher! It was quite a distance away and was sitting perfectly still on the branch of a willow tree, intently studying the water below.
What a beautiful bird!
After a moment or two it changed position, moving towards the end of the branch to scan the water immediately below, his long dagger-like beak pointing down, preparing to dive.
It dived so fast I missed it! I caught the splash as it entered the water, then a split second later it was back up on a branch with a sizeable fish clamped in its beak. It sat for a few seconds more, jiggling the fish a little to secure its grip, but it clearly wasn’t going to eat it there and then: Kingfishers always consume fish head-first. Perhaps it intended to enjoy its meal somewhere less public, or maybe it had a mate that needed feeding; the birds’ first clutch of 6-7 eggs is usually laid late in March or early in April.
Either way it took off carrying its prize in the direction of the river.
KINGFISHER – Alcedo atthis
UK conservation status: Amber – because of their unfavourable conservation status in Europe. They are vulnerable to hard winters and habitat degradation through pollution or unsympathetic management of watercourses.
Widespread throughout central and southern England, but less common further north, Kingfishers are small but spectacular and unmistakable birds mostly found close to slow moving or still water such as lakes, canals and rivers in lowland areas. They fly fast and low over water, hunting fish from riverside perches.
In total contrast, in plain black and white and far more common, my next spot was a Coot.
Then a preening Canada Goose spied through tree branches with bursting buds.
Further down the lakeside someone had scattered some grain on the paving, attracting the attention of some hungry birds. Two more Canada Geese raced in
A Crow rushed past a female Mallard and a Swan
to join a group of his peers that were already tucking in.
What would a Park be without a flock of Pigeons? A male Mallard paddled in to see what they had.
He turned and joined his mate and they clearly decided there was nothing in it for them so set off to dabble elsewhere, passing a juvenile Mute Swan on its way in.
Mute Swans are, perhaps surprisingly, also Amber listed as birds of conservation concern. According to the RSPB “The population in the UK has increased recently, perhaps due to better protection of this species. The problem of lead poisoning on lowland rivers has also largely been solved by a ban on the sale of lead fishing weights.”
A late-coming Moorhen paddles in rapidly creating an impressive wake for such a small bird. Cousins of the Coots, Moorhens are smaller and are a little more colourful with a bright red and yellow beak and long, green legs.
The list of birds recorded within the Park is impressive:
A beautiful Weeping willow tree cascades down gracefully to touch the surface of the water. Often planted inappropriately, it was nice to see one in the ‘right’ place. I think this one may be a Golden weeping willow, which is so named for its bright yellow twigs.
We walked around the curve of the bottom of the lake and up along the other side. At the top once more there were more Chiffchaffs darting out after insects, with one obligingly confirming its identity with its distinctive song; a wonderful sound that for me announces that Spring is here.
A signpost with a touch of humour that I’d missed on the way to the Park informs that Fishponds is quite nice! No doubt enhanced by the proximity of this lovely green space.
Celandines were one of the few wildflowers I saw blooming.
A view of Colston Weir from its other end.
Leaves of Arum and Wild garlic are well-grown.
Crossing back over the footbridge I noticed copper pipes running along its side, attractively encrusted with lichen and turquoise blue verdigris.
Back in the Glen, Wild garlic extends beneath the trees. Already releasing its pungent aroma, it won’t be long before it’s in flower.
Cow parsley and more Arum leaves form a prettily contrasting patch of leaves.
Crossing the bridge to get back to the car we stopped to look upstream over its side. There’s an interesting piece of winding gear here that probably operates a sluice. I’m always attracted by such pieces of machinery, probably because I had an engineer for a Father who loved to explain how things worked!
I also have a Son with an eye for the quirky – he spotted this random scene of a football and a rugby ball trapped against the stonework of the bridge and forced to play together in the foamy water.
It seems more fitting to finish this post as I started it though, with a view of the Frome, looking upriver this time.
Footnote: The River Frome is sometimes also called Bristol’s Lost River – certainly much of its final length from the M32 and through the city centre is Hidden. The link below is an account of a walk following the Frome Valley Walk: