Country diary: a mountain blackbird briefly elevates our almost-mountain

Walbury Hill, Berkshire: Migrating ring ouzels are not alone in appreciating these steep slopes goosebumped with anthills

The climb over the upturned mixing-bowl of Walbury Hill in the North Wessex Downs is short but steep – this is reputedly the highest chalk hill in the world.

The view falls away to the Kennet Valley below. Shadows pool in the deep, glacial combes and in the hand-and-antler-dug ramparts of the grassy, iron-age hill fort that tops the hill; a crown sitting low on a forehead.

This eastern slope is goosebumped with yellow meadow anthills: mini Walbury Hills, tightly embroidered with the leaves and rosettes of tump-hugging, fragrant, dry-grassland plants yet to flower: squinancywort (Asperula cynanchica), wild thyme, basil and marjoram. I scan ahead for wheatears, disturb a green woodpecker that had its long, sticky tongue deep in one of the anthills.

Then I glimpse a single ring ouzel perched in a hawthorn. The white mezzaluna of its collar mirrors the chalk scar landslip at the hawthorn’s roots. I get a flash of pewter-edged scaly breast feathers and it is gone. A member of the thrush family, Turdus torquatus, the ring ouzel, resembles a blackbird, though it is a flightier bird of the uplands, breeding in rocky crags. A mountain blackbird of wilder, higher places.

I scramble over the pointless stile, as tradition decrees (the fence long gone), and step on to the exposed spine of the chalk track that bisects the hill’s summit.

Walbury Hill was for a long time famed as the south’s only mountain (in low-lying counties, a hill is considered a mountain if it is more than 1,000ft above sea level; though you must double that to find a proper mountain anywhere else). But, in the retriangulation of Britain in the 1930s, at 974ft (297m) it was ignominiously downgraded to a hill. An almost-mountain. A Surrey newspaper of the time reported this gleefully, although Walbury Hill was still 9ft (2.74m) higher than Surrey’s own Leith Hill.

But twice a year, for ring ouzels on migration from Morocco or Tunisia and back, our little range of almost-mountains provides something recognisable. Something that will do for a night or two on their route up the country to the mountains proper. The perfect service station, and a mountain blackbird to reappoint a mountain.


Nicola Chester

The GuardianTramp

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