First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A harsh scolding call sounded from dense foliage as we followed a path through the watery jungle of Thatcham reedbeds. The crisscross striping of reed stems, of leaves and the shadows of leaves, made it impossible to spot the little sedge warbler in its subtle camouflage of brown and grey.
They have been digging gravel out of the Kennet valley for a long time now, and what’s left is a string of ‘lakes’ (flooded gravel pits) and extensive reedbeds where reed buntings and warblers nest each year. The feathery reed heads swung in today’s stiff west wind, and there was a constant dreamy susurration from millions of willow leaves.
We crossed a bridge over untroubled water, a clear stream above a gravel bed, then the turbid olive channel of the Kennet & Avon Canal at Bull’s Lock. Beyond the canal a crunchy lane ran south past a meadow of contented cattle, chin deep in grass, and came to Bury Bank Lane on the boundary of Greenham Common.
Greenham Common used to be a USAF airbase, and Cruise missiles with nuclear warheads were housed here from 1983 onwards. The Peace Women’s movement established camps around the perimeter in protest, scaled the fences, danced on the missile silos and otherwise kept their cause in the headlines until long after the nuclear weapons were shipped out in 1991.
Walking the gravelly paths and climbing the former control tower for a high-level view across the common today, the contrast between then and now is astonishing. The great runways for the bombers lie beneath heathland full of flowers – lady’s bedstraw, centaury, viper’s bugloss in vivid shades of yellow, pink and blue. The empty missile silos under their grassy domes resemble the tombs of long-gone warriors. And the massive leaky fuel tanks have been transformed into green-skinned lakelets.
We turned off the common into a tree-hung green lane which ran north to cross the dimpling River Kennet. Back on the Kennet & Avon Canal, we strolled homeward among sickly-smelling meadowsweet and tall spikes of purple loosestrife, signifiers of high summer.
How hard is it? 6 miles; easy; gravel tracks and lanes.
Start: Nature Discovery Centre, Lower Way, Thatcham RG19 3FU (OS ref: SU 506670)
Getting there: Rail to Thatcham, then ½ mile walk along canal.
Bus stop on Lower Way
Road: signposted off A4 in Thatcham.
Walk (OS Explorer 158): Follow path on right of lake. At foot of lake, right (506667, ‘Reedbed Trail;/RT). In 250m, where track bends left, keep ahead on path (503667, RT), following RT signs. In ½ mile at canal, right across long bridge (500666) past Bull’s Lock; in 150m, left across canal. Left on road; under railway (499666); follow ‘footpath’ fingerposts. In 400m through gate by Lower Farm Cottages (500663), on for ½ mile to cross Bury Bank Road (502654 – take care!). Up path opposite to gate onto Greenham Common. Right; in 300m, pass large grey shed, then gate (501651); fork right on path to Control Tower (500650). From tower take main path south, through gate; left along wide gravel track for ¾ mile. 100m past banded waymark post, fork left (511647). Through trees, past lakes. At waymark post with double band, left (518650, gate) across road. Gravel track opposite; at T-junction, left (521654) to cross River Kennet (521655), then canal (522661). Left on towpath to Widmead Lock (509662). 50m beyond, right (banded post, gate, RT). In ⅓ mile cross railway (506666); ahead to car park.
Lunch: Cafés at Discovery Centre and Control Tower
Accommodation: Regency Park Hotel, Bowling Green Road, Thatcham RG18 3RP (01635-871555, regencyparkhotel.com)