Hampshire contains some of the most beautiful chalk streams in England. It is right in the middle of a large patch of chalk bedrock that covers a good deal of southern England. This chalk was deposited there in the Cretaceous period, between 66 and 100 million years ago, when the world looked very different and that part of Britain was underwater (chalk is the remains of plankton and tiny shellfish that died and accumulated on the sea bed). As chalk is globally rare – only found in a few countries globally – so are chalk streams. In fact, England contains 160 of only 210 chalk streams world wide. Their rarity is a real shame, because chalk streams are unique habitats, and quite possibly the most beautiful streams in all the world.
They are crystal clear – if there is no influence from sewage plants or fisheries. This is due to the filtering properties of the chalk when the water passes through it and the lack of suspended material (the chalk contains little sand, clay and silt). The chemical quality is also very good, and this combined with the graveled bottom of the river bed makes the streams very good for invertebrates, which in turn make the stream good for fish, which make it a great spot for fish eating mammals and birds. Among the species found in the river Itchen some more notable ones are: Atlantic salmon, brown trout, bullhead and brook lamprey in terms of fish, kingfishers for birds, otters and water voles for mammals, southern damselfly, banded demoiselle, common darter and broad-bodied chaser for invertebrates, and rare plant species such as the beautiful water crowfoot.
Having read an article in Countryfile, we decided to spend a sunny day out in Hampshire, walking along it’s chalk streams. We took one of the recommended routes – we parked on Stockbridge’s High street and walked down a small canal that ran past Lillie’s of Stockbridge. On one side of this canal was a small residential area, and on the other was a field. In this field we saw our first bird species of the day – a blackbird with a beak packed full of worms! (I counted seven worms and something that looks like a slug, but it’s difficult to tell)
We then walked about another mile or two up the Marshcourt river (an area owned by the national trust), where we saw several little grebes, two mute swans, so many coot I lost count, and two moorhens, one sitting on a nest.
The highlight, however, was a pair of red kites that swooped quite low over our heads. Here is a picture of one of them.
After our walk we returned to the cafe for lunch – a very nice lunch too! Seeing as the sun was still out we decided to try and find another place to go, and settled on the section of the River Itchen that flows through Winchester. Here we were rewarded by the sight of a swan building its nest, which you can see below:
Further on we saw a kestrel, and a few wrens. We stopped at The Hospital of St Cross, which we happened to stumble across on the way. As well as being a beautiful old building complete with church, almshouse, old kitchens and a garden with fountains, it also was home to a family of jackdaws that had built their nest behind a statue.
The Hampshire chalk streams are amazing places to visit, and I recommend spending a sunny weekend there in summer, because that’s when the water crowfoot will flower, a really pretty sight. Also, a lot of the wildlife will be out then, such as dragonflies, which won’t be out much earlier or later. If you are a photographer, a polarizing filter is definitely worth bringing to eliminate some of the reflections on the water, allowing you to capture its stunning clarity.