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  • Julie Muller

COOMBE HILL CANAL - Age Old Stopover For Weary Wanderers

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

(Nearest post code - GL19 4BL)

Visited by Zak and Shep

It was a dismal day in December and Julie decided that today we should visit somewhere completely new – somewhere we had never been to before. And so, we found ourselves on our way to explore the Coombe Hill Canal and Meadows in Gloucestershire.

To get to the Nature Reserve we had to drive down a long narrow lane leading off the busy A38 between Tewkesbury and Gloucester. When we got to the car park, at the end of the lane, we could still hear the roar of the traffic rumbling past.

There weren’t many cars in the car park but we did notice a large pick-up truck with the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s logo emblazoned on its paintwork.

Zak, a Border Collie, looks over the Coombe Hill Canal SSSI towards the flooded meadow
Zak looking over the Coombe Hill Canal SSSI towards the flooded flood meadow

We had a look at the information board and we found that there were two potential walks - a dragonfly trail and a curlew trail. Julie wanted to see as much of the SSSI as possible so we decided to try to follow the longer Curlew trail which we hoped would take us around the whole of the Coombe Hill Nature Reserve.

We set off along the side of the canal and the ground beneath our feet was thick with wet, brown mud. Julie struggled to hold onto our leads because it was so slippery.

The water in the canal was quite still, with trees and shrubs overhanging it. There were clumps of reed mace and reeds within it and, in places, these clumps spanned the whole width of the canal. As we walked, a solitary moorhen glided in and out of the reeds and a group of five mallard ducks noisily paddled and splashed their way down the canal.

We reached a point in the walk where we could access the meadows but today our walk around the meadows was not meant to be.

Two sheep dogs look towards the flooded meadow by the Coombe Hill Canal SSSI in Gloucestershire
Zak and Shep look out towards the flooded meadow by the banks of the Coombe Hill Canal SSSI in Gloucestershire

Our route was completely covered by water to a depth to which Julie’s wellies, even if she was wearing them, could never cope and, much as Shep and I love water, we much prefer to feel firm ground beneath our paws. What a relief when Julie turned back.

As we reached the gate we were startled by a cacophony of wild geese which were wheeling around over the water in the distance. Of course, we had to investigate.

We resolutely set off in search of the birds. Poor Julie was pulled from pillar to post as she frantically tried to hold on to both of us as we trudged through the mud. Whilst Shep preferred scents on one side of the path, I found the other side more interesting and Julie was just caught in the middle.

On both sides of us the water glistened in the afternoon sunshine as we squelched our way through the mud in search of a bird hide from which we could safely view our feathered friends.

To get to the bird hide we had to cross a sinuous boardwalk between stands of alder and willow all contentedly immersing their feet in the water.

There were two people inside the hide already watching the birds. I barked a greeting but Julie quickly silenced me so as not to disturb the birds.

Julie opened the slats and we were amazed to see so many birds wading and swimming in water-filled fields, stretching out before us in all directions.

The sky was alive to the music of their calls – lapwings, shovelers and pintails joined song whilst the geese and swans contributed percussion to the mix as, once again, spooked by a helicopter, they rose into the air ‘en masse’ saturating the afternoon sky.

The canal, which is only a short distance from the River Severn, once allowed the movement of coal from South Wales to Cheltenham. Now its proximity affords the estuarine migrants an additional stopping off point.

With so many birds, it is no wonder that we dogs need to stay on our leads. Some of these birds have travelled such long distances that they really need time to refuel and gain energy.

We returned to the muddy path and we slipped and slid our way back to a bridge that crossed the canal.

As we trudged our way along the canal path the warm sweet smell of bonfire filtered into or noses.

We had noticed a band of people busily working as we had set out on our walk and, seeing the truck in the car park, I realised that they must be volunteers for the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. They were very busy – cutting, sawing and clearing vegetation and looking after this special place.

Coombe Hill Canal is a very special place for all kinds of reasons. Apart from the birds, it is home to an amazing assemblage of invertebrates - especially beetles. You can find click beetles, ground beetles and long horn beetles all living here and they all rely on the wetland vegetation at the side of the canal path for food and shelter.

There are also at least seventeen species of dragonflies and damselflies that live here too.

The weather seemed much too cold to see dragonflies, and the ground much too sodden and muddy to see any beetles today - We will definitely need to come back in the summer.

By the time we reached the bonfires, the people had gone but a few discarded items of clothing and equipment suggested that the work party was not quite finished. The bonfires glowed hot and white as the fire burnt through the cut vegetation. Shep was mesmerised by the curling tongues of smoke but neither of us went too close.

Meanwhile, in the canal, two upended male mallards exposed their bottoms to the air balancing themselves with their orange paddle feet.

A rapid chirruping sound alerted us to a tiny wren flitting out of the reeds into tree cover on the other side of the canal.

The trees were silhouetted against a pale coral sky, many of them seasonally weighed down by huge globes of mistletoe.

It is strange to think how busy this stretch of water would have been two hundred years ago – but now, abandoned by industry and commerce, it has come into its own as an idyllic haven for a vast assemblage of different wildlife.

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