diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 13, 2022

TQ1592: Bentley Priory Nature Reserve

As with most of these untrodden 1km×1km grid squares, I had very nearly visited TQ1592 but not quite. I'd looked round the museum at Bentley Priory, the home of Battle of Britain Fighter Command, but on the wrong side of a serious security fence. I'd ridden the 258 and H12 buses whose routes skirt close but don't quite enter. And I'd walked section 15 of the London Loop passes which within 30 metres as it traverses the upper slopes of the local nature reserve. But I'd never stepped down to explore that nature reserve, which it turns out is worthy of a blogpost all of its own because it's brilliant, so today I'm pleased to put that right.

The Bentley Priory Nature Trail

Bentley Priory sits at the highest point of the county of Middlesex. The mansion was designed by Sir John Soane on behalf of the Marquis of Abercorn, and its most famous resident was Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV, who essentially came here to die. The estate was broken up in 1926 with the Air Ministry taking the house and much of the remaining land sold to a syndicate of housebuilders, but 90 acres was purchased for use as a public park and remains under the control of Harrow council. It's no kickabout space, more an extraordinary mix of ancient woodland, pasture, scrub, species-rich grassland, wetland and an actual deer park, and the best way to explore it is to follow the nature trail.

It really is, the Harrow Nature Conservation Forum have done an excellent job of creating a 25-stop circuit with full backup notes. And although paper versions of the leaflet appear to have run out, you can always download a copy here, grab just the text here or do what I did and dive in when you spot a QR code on a post. You only need to do that once, each page then clicks through to the next in a reassuringly retro manner, and I absolutely would not have got as much out of my hour-long walk had I walked around blind.

The trail starts in Old Lodge Meadow, a short walk from Stanmore high street, as suburbia suddenly gives way to Green Belt. At this time of year you might spot cowpats and a small herd of horned cattle, though not in a marauding way, as you start the gentle climb. The trail is extremely good at identifying the trees in the woodland ahead, which is great because you'd never realise you were passing a rare wild service tree otherwise. Likewise you'd be unlikely to notice the boundary ditch between the parishes of Harrow Weald and Great Stanmore, or the minor embankment to your left which it turns out is a raised causeway created so that the Marquis of Abercorn could ride around his park without getting muddy. Downloading the trail has already proved its worth.

Ahead is Heriots Wood which is packed with hornbeam, plus a long fence that segregates a private deer park from the remainder of the reserve. The herd is descended from the marquis's originals and numbers about 20 fallow deer, so I was lucky to spot several of them in the nearest corner taking shade from the heat. They appreciate carrots and apples, apparently, but some visitors are less nutritionally savvy so have had to be warned off feeding them carbs via a message scribbled on cardboard and attached to the fence.

According to the trail notes "the majestic oak tree on the right of the path is a turkey oak (Quercus cerris)", except not any more it isn't because it's toppled over with all its roots exposed. Sometimes nature decays fast. I was more impressed by the resilience of the Bentley Priory Nature Reserve information board at the top of the hill because it's still entirely legible despite having an 081 number at the bottom in case you want further information from the Warden. The trail notes point out you can see 30 miles to Box Hill and Leith Hill from up here, and blimey you just about can, although the best skyline views are from Ron and Vera's bench much further along the upper Loop path.

Instead the trail plunges almost straight back down the slope, this time following a sweep of grassland called The Greensward rather than a metalled path. It get ruinously muddy later in the year, so we're told, but that's totally not an issue during the current summer drought. Also the underlying geology changes as we descend, which means looking out for ragwort and devils-bit scabious on the pebbly acid upland, then switching to bugle and lesser stitchwort on the lower clay soil. Wherever you go there always seems to be another fence segregating one part of the reserve from another, and the lakeside beneath the pine grove is no different. Good luck getting through the 'squeeze stile' if you're rotund of waist.

Summerhouse Lake isn't natural, it was created for the marquis by damming the Stanburn, an otherwise insignificant stream. Around its perimeter the trail alerts you to a silt trap, the remains of two ice houses and a flyway for bats. I never spotted the island it said was here, I suspect because it was too brambled over, so wasn't able to imagine Sir Walter Scott sitting mid-lake in a gazebo while writing his epic poem Marmion. But I was wowed by The Master Oak, supposedly the oldest in Middlesex, which somehow avoided being chopped down to make beams or ships' timbers and whose mighty trunk has a 9 metre circumference.

The end of the trail follows the Stanburn as it weaves round gnarled roots through what's currently parched clay. The channel is crossed at post 22 where the trail makes a special effort to point out the difference between a pendunculate oak and a sessile oak (it's all in the leaves). 'This woodland is lovely in spring' isn't necessarily something you want to read in July, but at least you don't need to bring your wellies. And eventually a boardwalk leads you back to Old Lodge Meadow, where I recommend taking a closer look at Boot Pond because that's where I finally disturbed a heron.

What an excellent circuit that was, and all the better for having being nudged into looking more carefully on the way round.

🟨=1407, 🟩=40, 🟦=6, 🟥=10

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