By Adrian Lawson.
Sadly, there are few good places on Katesgrove hill to enjoy the westward view. The steep west-facing scarp of Katesgrove hill is the edge of a river valley, and at the bottom flows the river Kennet. The river carved the valley into Reading before it became a canal, and used to run riot over a vast area of low lying land between Southcote and Whitley. The valley south and west of Katesgrove is a couple of miles wide, suddenly narrowing as it passes through two hills, Katesgrove and Coley. From the top of Katesgrove hill the view over the valley should be cherished, especially when the valley is full of floodwater and the sun sets beyond.
There used to be a myriad of channels across the valley, frequently changing with each flood and so unpredictable as to be untameable. The Holy Brook, which forms the northern edge of the meadows, was dug by monks from the Abbey to partly solve this, to make navigation possible, and to provide water for mills in town. The canal came much later and forever curtailed the whim of the river to change its course. The well-trodden canal towpath is now where most people who visit the area can be found.
The fields between the brook and the canal flood from time to time, most noticeably at Rose Kiln Lane, where the winter floods can reach right up to the road, and the view west is of a huge lake.
For anyone who sloshes about the fields in winter, the wet season is much more subtle and interesting. The fields can be marshy and walking around them requires knowledge gained from reaching the limits that boots and wellies can keep out. Some of the watercourses predating the canal are still there and are now deep marshy swamps; very difficult to cross.
There is still grazing here; most years there are up to 30 cows turned out, and they help to keep the fields grassy. Willow would soon take over if it weren’t for them. Trees have grown quickly and abundantly where the cows don’t go.
The acres of wet grassland are home to many birds that spend the winter here. Redwings are quite common; sometimes early in the autumn they fly over in huge flocks as they pour out of northern Europe and head south for the winter. Many stop and feed on berries in the numerous hedgerow bushes, and when they are done, as the fields become soggy, they feed on worms and grubs driven out of the soil by the rising water.
Snipe also live here, sometimes in higher numbers than just about anywhere else in Berkshire. They are very rarely seen, although sometimes the cows help. I have often been able to count snipe as the cows put them to flight. The birds take off to avoid being trodden on; they tower up into the sky and drop back down again away from the danger.
Even if you don’t get close to the meadows, and have that rare thing, a view over them, there are still some spectacles.
The wheeling flocks of lapwing are a notable feature in winter. On a sunny day, the birds flash in the light as they show their darker backs or their paler underparts. The flocks, sometimes a few hundred birds, often fly in synchronicity. As they turn together the whole flock changes from black to white and back.
Teal also sometimes fly in flocks, but neither so high nor so frequently nor so spectacularly as the lapwing.
Vast numbers of jackdaws congregate at dusk before choosing the trees in which they are going to roost. I have counted in excess of 3000 birds some evenings. Ten minutes can pass whilst they all fly over, choosing which way to head.
In winter, it is muddy and a walk is a real trudge. Few people spend any time there. Under the gaze of Katesgrove hill, a bit beyond the car dealers and the storage units, is a semi-wilderness. I am often the only person there. Over Christmas, I watched the roads into town fill with shoppers. They crawled into town and then back out again in their cars. I was alone but for the company of my dogs and the wildlife.
- Dawn chorus at Coley Meadows
- Marina, pub and hotel proposed near Waterloo Meadows
- Reading’s Lost Railway
- Friends of Fobney Island wetland nature reserve