Home   What's On   Article

A six-mile nature walk along the Stort Navigation in Hertfordshire with stops at The Shed Coffee House in Sawbridgeworth and The Three Horseshoes in Spellbrook





The Indie's Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...

After several days in, feasting on unhealthy foods - such as Cadbury Fruit & Nut bars at 10am on a Monday morning - it really was time for me to get out for a decent wander. And with a deadline approaching for my next piece, last Tuesday was the ideal time for a walk south from Spellbrook along the towpath of the Stort Navigation.

A 9.30am start in nippy conditions and rather overcast, but I picked up the towpath at Spellbrook Lock in a confident mood. I just had a feeling something special would come along.

Reed bunting (61587484)
Reed bunting (61587484)

As soon as I set off, the distinctive call of a male reed bunting emanated from a willow. A quick search found him for a few photos, the light clearly not great!

The river was as full as it could be and flowing relatively quickly. At the first meander there is a marshy area on the left which, at present, is flooded. This looked like a perfect habitat for snipe, probing the wet ground with their long beak. However, they are magnificently plumaged for the ultimate camouflage and, even checking the area with a pair of binoculars, it was unlikely I would find one unless it moved. They are the masters of staying still, often not flushing until the intruder is just a few footsteps away.

A red kite swooped overhead and was mobbed by several jackdaws. On the river, a pair of little grebes dived for their prey - dragonfly and damselfly nymphs as well as small fish. As soon as they caught a glimpse of me they dived, whereupon they swam underwater, into the bankside vegetation and out of view. No photos, even though I crouched down behind tall stems of dried rosebay willow herb, as after 10 minutes they still had not re-emerged.

Female mallard (61587469)
Female mallard (61587469)

I carried on towards the marina at Gaston Green. From the footbridge I scanned the flooded area from a better height, but just a few mallards dabbling in the shallows.

In the field on the other bank, Highland cattle grazed and magpies and carrion crows marched purposefully in pursuit of invertebrates whilst a drake mallard and hybrid duck fed on the water. This farmyard cross with a mallard duck has been a regular upon this stretch of water for a fair few years now. Very faint markings upon the wings.

I arrived at Tednambury Lock with no sign of the regular grey wagtail, but there were plenty of moorhens, both on the bank and crossing the river.

A high-pitched wisping and several clicks had me searching branches for a party of long-tailed tits. They were in a distant tree, a party of about nine, and were joined by several blue tits and a solitary great tit. Always worth checking these mixed tit flocks on the off chance there is a marsh tit, treecreeper or even a lesser spotted woodpecker with them. Today was not that occasion.

Moorhen (61587482)
Moorhen (61587482)

I stopped for a pleasant chat with an angler who was just setting up his tackle. He said that this stretch, just before the railway bridge, used to be really good for a wide variety of fish species, but that over the last two years he has had very little from the water. I said I'd check as I passed upon my return journey and carried on.

The flock of feral pigeons were in their usual roost on the metal girders of the railway bridge, a carrion crow was feeding on bread and three farmyard geese were waiting by a narrowboat window, somewhat in expectation of a breakfast. None was forthcoming so, somewhat sullenly, they paddled off, hissing discontentedly at me as if it was my fault they hadn't received food.

I arrived at Sawbridgeworth Lock and sat for a while, watching the hedge line opposite. Here, a large flock of house sparrows congregate. As usual, their noisy chattering gave away their position before they were seen. I completed a snack and headed to The Maltings for a coffee at The Shed Coffee House. Here, I did indeed enjoy a coffee along with an excellent sausage sandwich.

House sparrow (61587473)
House sparrow (61587473)

My plan, based on the weather forecast, was to set off back along the towpath at about 12.15pm when it was supposed to be much brighter and I would have the sun directly behind me to aid photography. Once I was replete, I collected up my belongings and walked out into wonderful light. Bright blue sky and no clouds.

I had only just got back onto the towpath when I clocked a common buzzard sitting in a tree. As I focused the camera, he was off, but not before I managed a decent image of take-off. Immediately after, a small party of teal flew by, probably heading to the marshy fields around Gaston Green. A little egret rose from a field and flew directly over me. Three decent photos in great light, which, by the time I was back at the narrowboat community, had disappeared, the sun now nestling behind low clouds.

Little egret (61587477)
Little egret (61587477)

A large ash tree on the far bank attracted my interest. Many holes where boughs had snapped off, so always worth a check for a roosting owl. None to be seen, but I always think the fields between Tednambury and Sawbridgeworth Lock gates look like perfect owl country.

I was soon back with the angler, who had failed to have a single bite and was packing up. He was off to try out another swim on a different stretch of the river. A lone cormorant headed north as another party of long-tailed tits bounced across the river to the far side. Robins and wrens were ubiquitous along this stretch with much clicking from the robins and the Tommy gun staccato alarm call from the wrens.

Teal (61587493)
Teal (61587493)

More mallards on the water and, at Tednambury, a jay lazed its way into a stand of willows for a rather grey photo, such now was the quality of the light.

Another snipe check drew a blank, but another little egret was now wading in the flooded field. And from some nearby alder trees came the call of siskins. Too distant for a photo, but, as mentioned in my last piece, they can be found feeding upon alder cones along the river between Grange Paddocks and Cannons Mill Lane.

River Stort Navigation south of Spellbrook (61587491)
River Stort Navigation south of Spellbrook (61587491)

I stopped for a chat with an old acquaintance who was walking her two dogs. She told me that the regular barn owl has been seen along this stretch recently, usually just at dusk when it is almost impossible to get enough light into the camera for a worthwhile photo. I did, however, make a mental note to take a wander back here sometime in the near future, arriving around an hour before dusk just in case the owl emerges early.

At Spellbrook I carried on north for a little while, but it soon became apparent that, apart from a pair of mute swans on the far side of the weir, there was little about, so I headed back to the car having covered around six miles in total.

Blue tit (61587497)
Blue tit (61587497)

The stretch from Spellbrook to Sawbridgeworth can be a really picturesque wander and there is, inevitably, something interesting to see. Upon returning to Spellbrook there is also the added bonus of refreshments in The Three Horseshoes. Today the path was slippery and muddy, so not good for motorised scooters et cetera, plus the footbridge at the marina is accessed by a few steep steps.

So my feeling of finding something special and unusual was totally unfounded, but always a most enjoyable four-hour wander.

Carrion crow (61587499)
Carrion crow (61587499)

Finally, I wish all readers a very happy and successful 2023. The new year kicks off for me with taking a family on a bird, mammal and whale tour in Sri Lanka, as well as spending time at a learning centre I helped establish five years ago in the south-west of the island, so maybe a tropical Nature Notes special from there in February.

Common buzzard (61587501)
Common buzzard (61587501)
Farmyard greylag geese (61587463)
Farmyard greylag geese (61587463)
Farmyard x mallard hybrid (61587465)
Farmyard x mallard hybrid (61587465)
Highland beastie (61587471)
Highland beastie (61587471)
Jay (61587475)
Jay (61587475)
Very distant long-tailed tit (61587495)
Very distant long-tailed tit (61587495)

Got a story for the Stortford Indie? Email us at newsdesk@bishopsstortfordindependent.co.uk.



This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More