Saturday 1st April – Pugneys Country Park – It is a time of dispersal and pairing. On the sandpit lake there are still over fifty Wigeon in loose flocks. There now only four Great Crested Grebe, presumably two pairs and the others that have been present throughout the winter have been seen off. A pair of Shelduck is on the far side. A few Tufted Ducks and Coot are all that remains of the winter flocks. Black-headed Gulls have mainly regained their black hoods, although a few are still pale headed. On the pond it is all pairs – Teal, Mute Swans, Redshank, Lapwings and Mallard. Good numbers of Moorhen stalk the still tan coloured reeds. A constant chatter of Magpies comes from surrounding fields.
Sunday 2nd April – Caldervale – The air is dripping with fog. A ticking Wren, singing Robin, calling Chiffchaff and drumming Woodpecker greet the grey dawn. The overgrown colliery is a mess with rubbish dumped by mindless people. A track seems to be an old railway line and passes under a towering viaduct, also an abandoned railway. Great and Blue Tit songs join the chorus. Elder and Hawthorns are greening rapidly as their leaves unfurl. In nearby fields, lambs look wet and gaunt.
Bretton Woods – The path is lined by the trunks of harvested trees. One shows its rings fairly well and I roughly count to over 130. Thus that tree, now just a fungi-attacked log, was a sapling as the British Empire reached its peak, maybe as the American Civil War drew to conclusion. A Curlew keens in the distance. Crows drop out of conifers and fly through the maze of trunks like black spirits. Wood Pigeons are far noisier as their wings whoosh and crack.
Saturday 8th April – Stainborough – On the road between Hood Green and Crane Moor is a valley carved by a small stream. At the bottom of a field by the stream stands a carved standing stone on a concrete and brick plinth. Up the hill a tumulus is hidden under small trees and broken wooden arch is rotting away at its base. There is no indication what was here and the origin of either of these features.
Pilley Woods – A young wood has been set aside as a nature reserve. The information board states Great Spotted Woodpeckers can be seen here, but the smooth trunks do not seem inviting to that species. The green leaves of Dog Mercury and Wild Garlic carpet the floor of the wood. A track leads through a neatly kept farm yard. A Ring-necked Pheasant, its back shining silver in the morning air, moves through the fields. A more mature plantation of Spruce and deciduous trees is home to Windflowers, the White Anemone. Chewed up Spruce cones mark the presence of Grey Squirrels. Chaffinches – blue mantled and pink breasted, are pinking away merrily. In the well coppiced field hedgerows and woodland edges there are numerous Robins, calling Chiffchaffs, Great and Long-tailed Tits.
Sunday 9th April – Broomhill – Sand Martins and Swallows swoop low over the water. A pair of small dark geese move down a ditch at the far side of the flash. They will not come out to display their legs but their bills indicate Pink-footed rather than hoped for Bean Geese. Large flocks of Golden Plover rise from Wombwell Ings. The dull weather turns to rain.
Monday 10th April – Scunthorpe – A set of dykes border the A18. The Stainforth and Keadby Canal runs parallel to them. Here spring flowers are emerging – Red and White Dead Nettles, Ground Ivy, Chickweed and Stinging Nettles. Military jet tears the sky angrily before mumbling into the distance. A Wren calls from bank side bushes. Mallard, Moorhens and Canada Geese slowly stir the water.
Saturday 15th April – Barnsley Canal – A slight twist to the ever present problem of fly-tipping – someone has dumped 50 plus boxes and trays of eggs in the canal car park. The mind boggles! It is cold and frosty, but not raining – yet. Recent rainy days seem not to have made hunting any more difficult. I have seen two Kestrels drop onto kills and a Weasel in Scunthorpe running across the road with an unidentified victim that was as large as the Weasel itself. Chiffchaffs are calling from Willowbank and in the scrub between the canal and the Dearne. My first Willow Warbler of the year is singing. A Green Woodpecker yaffles in the distance. Greenfinches are pecking at Hawthorn buds. Bullfinches’ white rumps flash as they fly into cover on the other side of the canal. Sadly, no Mute Swans are nesting on the canal this year. A Willow Warbler bursts into song beside me along the Hawthorn hedge. Blue Tits are feeding on the fluffy heads of Bulrushes, sending showers of down raining onto the canal water. A Reed Bunting flies past, bright chestnut body and black head.
Sunday 16th April – Longdendale – A deep gorge carved by a stream, grandly called the River Etherow, feeding Woodhead Reservoir lies below Woodhead Pass. The Moors are grey with from a thin coating of snow. Below is the confluence the River Etherow with a babbling stream that flows down from the moorland. This stream is made up of three streams – Near, Middle and Far Black Clough. A sudden flash of white on what looks like a Blackbird flying up the valley signals a Ring Ouzel – an early migrant. Icicles hang from wet gritstone on the valley sides. Great indentations in the hillside indicate old quarries where the millstone grit has been hewn. A pair of Kestrels fly along the edge of the rise above me. The water rushing by is clear but stained deep brown by the peat on the moors above. Sheep see Dill the Dog and are off, although she ignores them. One tries to join another but fails to notice the fence. Its horn locks into the mesh but it frees itself before I have to assist. Middle Beck Clough heads upwards through a gnarled wood of Ash and Birch. Chaffinches fit through the trees. A steep and rocky path leads up onto open moorland that is disfigured by nasty green shooting butts. A pair of Red Grouse explode from the heather. Mistle Thrushes fly over, Meadows Pipits pipe as they descend into the heather tussocks and Curlews keen across the valley. The Kestrels are mating discretely, if rather noisily in a clump of heather. A rather precipitous route leads back down to the valley bottom. It is made easier by the fact the sodden peat is frozen hard. Heading downstream now. A Pied Wagtail watches from the roof of a small water control building. A pair of Grey Wagtails fly by. The Woodhead Tunnels emerge although the line is long closed. A narrow gauge railway emerges from one tunnel. The third tunnel was built less than fifty years ago. A Wren sings defiantly from the top of the stone entrance. The platforms of the station still stand awaiting trains that will never arrive. The tunnels carry electricity cabling under the moors, but now great pylons march in ugly procession down the valley. There is consternation at the top of one pylon as a third Kestrel has invaded the airspace.
Thursday 20th April – Barnsley Canal – A pair of Mute Swans are on the canal and a nest mound is developing near Smithies Lane. It would seem a site liable to much disturbance, but it will be interesting to see what develops. There is water and mud everywhere after heavy rains. Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs are in fine song.
Good Friday 21st April – Ditchling Common – Dew Ponds are an old feature of the South Downs. The porous chalk will hold no water, so a depression is dug and lined with non-porous clay. One pond on the Ditchling Road only has a few inches of water, which would suggest the lining is cracked and the water is seeping away. The pond at Ditchling Beacon is much deeper. Although called dew (or mist) ponds, they are mainly filled by rain. At the Beacon, Sky Larks sing. The Weald below is misty and to the East, Firle Beacon and Mount Caburn are dark humps against a shining yellow sky. Yellowhammers sing A little bit of bread and no cheese from Hawthorns. The males shine a brilliant sulphur in the morning light. A path down the scarp above an old quarry is dotted with black slugs and yellow and brown striped snails. Back on the ridge a few clumps of Cowslips brighten the grass with their creamy yellow flowers.
Windover Hill – A white track cut into the green Down curves gently upwards. Cowslips and Spotted Orchids bloom gloriously on the chalky bank. Sky Larks sing overhead and Linnets twitter as they fly by. The south-westerly wind is blowing furiously on top of the Down. Gorse is ablaze with yellow flowers. Dry valleys sweep down towards the River Cuckmere. A group of Barrows guard the summit as they have done for several millennia. Blackthorn and Hawthorn scrub covers the side of valleys. Blackcap song intermittently emerges from the dense white blossom. A Whitethroat sings scratchingly on Lullington Heath. Speedwell blossoms with a bright blue eye winking from banks on the descent from the Down. The hedge is a mixture of Blackthorn, Ivy (with berries) and Sycamore. The four loose purple-red petals of Honesty adorn a shady bank. Down in the village of Lullington a Brimstone butterfly passes. At the pub, a Rook jumps along a telephone wire, eyeing the left-overs on diners’ plates. River Cuckmere is high. Pale mauve Cuckoo Flowers bloom along the dyke.
Easter Sunday 23rd April. – Nunney – The Easter Bonnet competition takes place in the Market Place. Peter has made Jemima a huge daffodil out of card and crêpe paper. She wins second place. Then the Duck Race. Several hundred plastic ducks are tipped into Nunney Brook. Under the bridge they bob and then we rush down to the hard opposite the church. The brook is much higher and faster than last year so the flotilla only takes a few minutes to reach us. Real ducks, Mallard and white domesticated, are none too impressed to see the mass of bright yellow objects heading towards them. The winner reaches a rope across the water, but it is not one of our numbers. A group of young people rush around the brook collecting the ducks. This does not disturb a Grey Wagtail which continues to twist and dive in the air after insects.
In the evening we watch the Bathampton Morris Men dance. The Morris is an ancient custom with its roots in pre-Christian England. The dancers are dressed in white with red sashes, straw hats festooned with flowers and bands of bells on their knees. Dancers wave white handkerchiefs or use sticks that they strike together. The dances are accompanied by accordion, traditional tunes. They were first written down at the beginning of last century, notably by Cecil Sharp who was responsible for saving hundreds of traditional songs.
Easter Monday 24th April – Tedbury – A Raven is standing on low roadside hedgerow. He has a twig in his massive bill. An Early Purple Orchid is unfolding in the damp woods, The wood is full of Dog’s Mercury, Wood Anemones, Primroses, Wild Garlic, Hart’s Tongue Ferns, Ground Ivy and a large strange Spurge. Blackbirds, Chiffchaff, Robins, Wrens, Blackcaps, Great and Blue Tits are serenading the morning sunshine. In open pathways clumps of Bluebells and Cuckoo Pints abound. A large Bee is feeding in the middle of the yellow face of a dandelion.
Mells – Off to the village “Daffodil Fair”, although daffodils are pretty much finished by now. The Church is built of oolitic limestone of an unsure date, probably started in the late 14th century. The church is a typical Somerset design. In the north aisle is a bronze statue of a mounted knight – a memorial to Edward Horner along with a plaque to Raymond Asquith (son of Prime Minister Lord Asquith) who both lost their lives in the First World War. There is also the grave of Sir John Horner – famously remembered as Little Jack Horner –
Sat in the corner
Eating his Christmas pie.
He stuck in his thumb
And pulled out a plum
And said, “What a good boy am I!”
The plum he pulled out were the deeds to Mells, being sold off by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries. The church bells ring out. The Manor House is now only one wing of the original built by Jack Horner. It was, unusually, an H shape. It has a walled garden. Apple trees, some clearly of a great age, are against one wall. A large Yew hedge separates the garden from the house. The village is full of members of the Sealed Knot Society, a Civil War re-creation group. There are also a good number of Town criers. I wonder what is the collective noun for Town Criers?
Wednesday 26th April – Falmer – One of a number of villages between Brighton and Lewes that grew around ponds or “meres”, Falmer meant “reedy” pond. It is now split by the dual carriageway of the A27. A road leads up to the South Downs. A Chiffchaff and noisy Rooks at their rookery greet me. To the north great shallow rolling valleys interlace. White Dead Nettle blooms on the banks. The Hawthorn blossom, also called May Blossom is just emerging. Fat dark rain clouds sit on the Downs. A Whitethroat chatters from a bush. A Carrion Crow and Sparrowhawk tussle high overhead. A cock Pheasant tries to run away into a hedgerow but finds a mesh fence barring his way, so he crouches low to the ground until the “danger”, i.e. Dill the Dog who has not even seen him, passes. Further on, by the edge of woodland, wild Strawberries flower white and yellow amongst Violets. Then the rains come again.
Hollingbury – Although the rain has stopped, grey clouds linger threateningly. The Iron Age fort and environs is ablaze with yellow Gorse. The thin, short downland grass is spotted purple with Ground Ivy. A sooty black Rabbit disappears into the undergrowth with its normal coloured kin. Blackbirds are singing the evening chorus. The wheat fields above the Lewes Road have been abandoned to scrubby grass. A Hawthorn has grown in the crater left by a German bomb, probably aimed at Allen West Engineering works on the Lewes Road, which made shell casings in the Second World War.
Thursday 27th April – Newtimber – A tiny hamlet under the Downs, alas too near the busy, snarling A23. Great Oaks stand at the edge of fields, combinations of ancient dead limbs ravaged by insects and fungi and vigorous new grown, clean and direct. One has a long pale lightning flash burn. A sign of the times, the church is locked. A Nuthatch calls loudly in the graveyard. Newtimber Hill is a delightful wood of Oaks, Beeches and Horse Chestnut. Great Tits call loudly. Gaps left by fallen trees are rapidly filled with a mass of saplings, mainly Ash and Sycamore. Higher up the trees are all young, the grandees having suffered destruction in the Great Storm of 1987. A patch of Early Purple Orchids blooms in the Bluebell and Dog’s Mercury foliage. I reach the top by a tortuous route, paths peter out and the footing is poor on the sodden soil. An open space is covered in whorls of spiky leaves of thistles. The descent is easier by steps and a zig-zag path. However, it is blocked at the foot of the hill by the trunk and boughs of a massive fallen Beech, which I clamber over and under. Newtimber was famous for Nightingales, but the only song comes from Robins and Wrens.
Friday 28th April – Canterbury – A city filled with English Language Students, i.e. young continental teenagers who communicate by shouting. The cathedral is something of a disappointment. It lacks any real atmosphere, maybe due to the large numbers of people, cameras flashing and a hubbub of talking. There is a moment of strangeness at the tomb of Henry IV and Joan of Navarre. The idea that this king’s and queen’s remains have been here for nearly six hundred years (he died in 1413, she in 1437) sends shivers down my spine. An earlier tomb is that of Edward Plantagenet, the Black Prince who died in 1376. His surcoat, helmet, gauntlets and other accoutrements are preserved nearby.
Saturday 29th April – Canterbury – Dane John Gardens are the European Peace Gardens with sculptures by sculptors from major European cities. Dane John is a corruption of the Norman-French donjon – a motte. The motte is still there, rising above the city walls. This was the site of a simple wooden motte and bailey castle, one of the first built by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The now ruined stone castle was built by the Roman Worthgate around 1087. Henry I completed it in 1120. The construction is of blocks of stones (tufa, a local limestone), clay-ironstone from the High Weald, reused Roman bricks and tiles and flints set into mortar (opus signinum). From the latter part of the 12th century, the castle was mainly used as the prison for Kent. Only the outer walls and a corner tower remain. A Small Tortoiseshell butterfly suns itself on and inner wall. A little down the road, a huge 12ft+ diameter iron flywheel and a sort of iron and wood piston stand in an alley. Stones in a nearby graveyard of the church of St Mildred with St Mary de Castro are of a rather softer material than usual as most are completely illegible or maybe there has been particularly bad pollution here in the past. A Song Thrush sings over the dead.
Sunday 30th April – Shoreham Harbour – A calm sea laps on the pebbles. A pair of Turnstones chase into the foaming edge of the waves. A Curlew flies past offshore. Ringed Plovers are flushed off the sea-side plants, Sea Beet, Sea Holly and Seakale growing on a raised section of beach and fly piping to the water’s edge. Small boats offshore are checking lobster pots. A pair of Oystercatchers land, their vermilion bills shining. Four noisy Common Terns fly past. They then fall silent whilst concentrating on the sea below. A small group of Sanderling come onshore.