The A4 between Mcdonalds roundabout and the Pheasant roundabout
The aim was to walk a section of the Pudding Brook between Mcdonalds roundabout and the Pheasant roundabout. The day had been mild and the evening was slightly dull with the occasional glow of sunlight. We turned off the A4 at Sainsburys and parked in a side road used by people working in the offices and stores built between the two roundabouts. The plan was to approach the Pudding Brook from the opposite side so we did not have to dodge the traffic on the narrow verge of the A4.
We walked up past the prefabricated constructions housing Next, TK Maxx, Marks and Spencer and Costa before turning right down a narrow track: the route of the old London Road, sections of which run parallel in parts to the A4 between Chippenham and Bath. Tall bushes on each side of the track screened it from offices – rectangular lighted windows visible through the branches – on one side and the shops and parking area on the other. This section of the old road was barely a track; trampled by the passing of few people. The shrubs had been partially cleared and the long thorny branches and twigs had been left blocking the way. Further along blackthorn and hazel grew inwards on both sides of the track, forming a tunnel, brambles hung straight down or curved across and hogweed sprouted up from the grass. Wild geranium, St John's wort and hedge woundwort were already in flower. Eventually the track met a road: the A350, in the process of being widened. Next to a small area of scrubby grass behind the shops, the ground had been cleared; there were logs, with raw new ends, scattered around, shrubs with torn branches, shredded and showing their yellow inside section. A low fence of plastic, viridian green, had been stretched between wooden pegs in the ground. In the distance, pale grey against the lighter sky, the back flank of one of the stores, scarlet red containers piled up beside.
At the point where the track met the road the stile had been removed, possibly to aid clearance. On the map the track continued on the other side of the road but it was difficult to see where it began. There was a short narrow verge leading to the bridge over the Pudding Brook; we made our way along, past dog daisies facing the setting sun in a haze of grass pollen, breaking off to run along the road before the next spate of cars; some – loud with modified exhaust systems – leaving a blare of music and a waft of perfume in the air behind them. The mesh barrier of the bridge was almost hidden by the foliage of a willow tree, the narrow leaves bunched up against the metal and poking through, a five years old planning application; black type on pale green paper, surprisingly still there, tied to the railings. We levered ourselves under the lowest bar of the bridge onto a bank, fairly clear of undergrowth, which led to the Pudding Brook, shady beneath the trees, flowing speedily. It emerged from under the road bridge which had been reinforced at the other end where the A350 had been widened. Way back the bright light shone through the mesh covering the long thin horizontal slit at the other end, projecting a line of bright green, punctuated by faint broken lines, onto the water. Beneath the bridge the ceiling hung low, smooth concrete like the walls, the water spreading out and merging with flat plateaus of mud on either side. Next to us the brook narrowed and flowed faster. We now had the scrubby area behind the shops on our right and on our left beyond the opposite bank of the brook was a higher flattened area of trees with an undergrowth of ivy, dogs mercury and nettles, a higher hedge screening it from the A4. The brook was joined at this point by what appeared to be run-off water from the A4 and the higher ground beyond, accumulating in a flat basin of silt, contained on one side by a low wall, before entering the brook.
We made our way downstream, walking in the first section to be labelled Pudding Brook on most maps; the banks were about three feet high, topped by substantial ivy roots gripping the small trees. Broken branches and suspended foliage impeded our progress so that we had to climb out into the field and re-enter the brook further along. Looking towards the road we saw the shadows of vehicles passing the screen of trees, the sound baffled. The water here was not too deep and mostly it was easy to walk along – the stream bed covered with small flat stones and in some places larger pieces which looked manufactured but were actually some kind of bedrock. A green woodpecker flew between the trees above. The bank sides had several animal paths running down and the yellow clay sides had holes of varying sizes scooped out. There were small prints of a pad with claws in the mud.
It seemed that no human came here; there was hardly any debris in the brook and nothing had been deposited on the ground on the side, possibly because there was no place on the busy road to stop. As we rounded a curve, the bole of a huge ash tree bulged out over the bank, then another. We were on the parish boundary and these trees looked old enough to have been notched in the 18th century perambulations. The main foliage was ivy, with nettles further back. The clay here produced a cream coloured mud, stirred up as we walked along. We pulled out a rectangular box lying below the surface of the water, partially buried in the mud. It was a hazard warning lamp, a lantern, completely calcified and almost undifferentiated from the pale mud except for the dark crimson disc rising slightly from its side which would have projected the light. Its lid was half open and there was a handle, all of it covered in a hard stony crust. We laid it back and it settled into the mud, almost camouflaged again except for the disc, on the top side now, like a port wine jelly, a dusky circle in the cloudy water.
The brook meandered, the water slapping at the banks as we walked through and growing deeper, until there was no ledge next to the bank even and we were forced to climb out and follow a narrow animal path under dead branches until the water became more shallow. There was a length of old barbed wire, once part of a fence but now lying low across the bank top and at one point hanging out across a void, dangling its posts. On our left the silhouette of the bus shelter on the screen of trees told us that we were near to Sainsburys. There was more litter now and after another twist there was the bridge ahead of us; similar in materials and construction to the one by which we had descended. This bridge was not as wide as the first one, nor as low, but beneath it the brook had the same aspect of lying low and shallow between flat shelves of mud, here piled up with a log jam of twigs and branches. When we came out the other side of the bridge into a narrower section of the brook its pace was slowed to a standstill by hogweed and hemlock water dropwort.
We climbed out near our starting point by the stores, crossed our previous path and proceeded down the road which ran between the office buildings and the brook. Beside this minor road was a long belt of trees which appeared to be newly planted as they were all very ordered, then there was a strip of ground, trees and undergrowth, foliage flattened as if used frequently, then the brook, with a line of trees screening the road. We made our way over the trampled grasses, pale and dry, towards the brook; the tree canopy was less dense here and light came in on all sides. The banks of the brook were about four feet high and we slid down into the water; here the sides were mainly clay, heavily eroded, no thick ivy growth to hang on to here, and the water was dark and deep, moving silently along over the soft mud. As the depth of the mud became unpredictable we climbed back onto the track – animal or human? which led us through the trees until it came to a dead end blocked by a network of shrubs and fallen branches fronted by a swaying clump of nettles. The best option here seemed to be to return to the brook: in fact the end of the path pointed in that direction. We slid back in and made much easier progress over the small flat stones which were becoming a welcome and familiar feature of the Pudding Brook.
I knew that the brook flowed behind a garden and farm machinery shop, a garage and a car wash before it turned off towards Saltersford Bridge; after a few twists and turns the buildings appeared, looming above the banks in the half light; a shed with large blue and white plastic containers stacked against its side and shortly after that the back of a store, anonymous without signage. We walked in silence. This was new territory and there might be security guards on duty. On one of the old maps the piece of land between the brook and the road is called Camp Wood.(1) There were not many trees left and they looked too new to have been there when the map was made but there must have been a camp nearby at some time. The flat blocks of stone underfoot became larger until for a while the whole stream bed was covered with stone, like a pavement below a thin veil of water. There was no rubbish here apart from an outdoor clothes drier lying in the water with its wires folded up around it. Brambles hung down, almost in flower, and we continued past the buildings and under the next bridge, the same design and structure as the other two, and into a clearing where the brook curved. Here a fallen willow tree lay across the brook – new growth on its trunk. Brambles, willowherb and thistles flourished in the light open space. Near the bridge hazel and hawthorn hung over the water; on the opposite bank willow trees grew untidily and robustly, filling the space with their mass.
We carried on towards Saltersford bridge where we climbed out and headed back to the car, on the pavement this time, stopping to look down from the bridge under which we had recently passed. Pale grey and cream coloured moths were moving constantly in and out of the light and shade, changing places with each other, rising and dropping on their own private motivations. Three young men rode past on bicycles, calling out “Afternoon!”, red lights flashing as they disappeared into the dusk.