Easter Monday 1st April – Nunney, Somerset – Peter and I take the dogs out across the fields to Nunney Brook, down stream from the village. Chiffchaffs are calling all around. A ruined lime kiln is in the trees, almost hidden by ivy. The woodland floor is covered in green and flowers: Lesser Celandine, Forget-me-nots, Dog Mercury and the delicate White Anemone – the Windflower. Bluebells will be out shortly. Ransom leaves are covering the damp areas, filling the air with the scent of garlic. A Blackcap sings from flowering Blackthorn. Back near the village a couple of Dame’s Violets, a purple crucifer, bloom on top of a limestone wall. A fat Wood Pigeon is in a cottage garden on top of a well shredded sprout plant. At least six House Martins fly over the village. A Great Spotted Woodpecker can be heard drumming up the road.
Mells – The annual Daffodil Flower. In the big field beside the church there is terrier racing. The little dogs are frantic with excitement, bouncing around and yapping furiously on their leads fixed to the ground spaced carefully. Dill the Dog and Jasper seem only mildly interested. Two long rows of stationary engines are a joy. Most built in the early years of the last century they pop and phut and turn various pieces of apparatus from grain grinders to knife grinders and most commonly, water pumps. Over into the church yard (history) and down the street to the main street. It is crowded! Stalls are selling everything – I buy an electric toothbrush, Kay buys a couple of weird pottery faces to hang on the garden wall. Down by the Manor House, there is a Nuthatch calling constantly. It suddenly appears and flies over the street with a beak of something. Back outside the pub, Morris Dancers are performing.
Kilmerstone Road Quarry – Henry, Peter, I and the dogs leave the others and head off to this quarry. The site is no longer a commercial site and is indeed now a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Importance). This is because the stone comes from the Triassic period of 208 million years ago when it was in the shallows of a tropical sea. The soft sandstone is full of fossils and we find ammonites, belemnites, clams and many other kinds of shells. One bivalve is very common across the area and called “the Devil’s Toenail”. On the way back to Nunney, Common Buzzards soar above the trees.
Wednesday 3rd April – Newmillerdam – A village on the Barnsley-Wakefield road. The road passes over a dam which creates a large lake in a wooded valley. This was park of the Chevet Estate owned by the Pilkington family. Up one side of the lake is a boat house built some time before 1826. It was used to entertain visitors and is now a visitors’ centre. Mallard, Canada Geese, Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe and Coot frequent the water. Marsh Marigolds flower in the shallows. A Coot is on a nest not three feet from the path. A Common Tern fishes.
Thursday 4th April – Old Mill to Dearne Valley Park – As soon as I set off along the tow-path of the canal I hear a Blackcap singing in the Willow scrub rising steeply above the other side of the water. It is located after a few minutes, a delicate grey bird with an almost shiny black cap. A Chiffchaff sings nearby (I locate seven in total in the valley and probably missed a couple). A Jay is calling below near the river. Over the bridge that sits on the stanchions of the old Aire and Calder Navigation (Barnsley Branch) Canal. The path rises back up to the old level of the canal. The Jay flies overhead. There is a broad sward of grass that marks the route of the canal. It sweeps eastward along the side of the valley through Cliffe Wood. The original tow-path becomes clear. There is suddenly a blast of fragrance which comes from the leaves of Walnuts (Juglans regia – not the Black Walnut J. nigra). The tow-path suddenly rises as does the far side on the canal edge and it is clear a lock was situated here. Just beyond here is the huge base of the beginning of the viaduct that carried the Midland Railway, Cudworth and Barnsley line over the valley. Several Bullfinches meep gently in the trees. Now the lay of the land is confused. In-filling must have happened as there is a substantial climb up to the road. The canal swung hard round to the north here and crossed under the road at Cliffe Bridge beside The Hope Inn. I cannot make out whether the canal route has been filled in or there were some locks to raise it up towards the ridge. I turn back and drop down the side of the valley to the Dearne Valley Park below. Along through the woods to the lakes. A Wren hops through trees with a beakful of moss. Over the Dearne by a footbridge standing on the base of a bridge that brought the GCR Barnsley Coal Railway Extension over the river. The path rises up the valley side to run under an old stone wall that that held the Barnsley Canal (or to be precise, the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation (Dearne and Dove Canal)). This path leads back to the junction of the canals I left earlier.
Friday 5th April – Barnsley Canal – A second sunny day, can Spring really have sprung? Two Song Thrushes are trying to outdo one another in the strange song stakes. Their songs are far more varied than usual with mutterings and outburst normally associated with warblers such as Blackcap and Garden Warbler. The Mute Swans on the Loop have nested in the reeds on one of the ponds. Greenfinches and Chaffinches are particularly vocal this morning. Lapwings soar and dive over the fields peewitting mournfully.
Monday 8th April – Wombwell Ings – A cool morning, barely above freezing. The trees around Broomhill Park are showing the ravages of the winter storms – most have lost branches, some their central crowns. Magpies and Wood Pigeons feed in a ploughed field. The next field is sprouted winter wheat. Lapwings swoop over the field. Four Redshank are on the brow, apparently two pairs as one of each pair is following the other with its back hunched and rapid steps. A pair of Grey Partridge feed. Sky Larks sing overhead. A small flock of Canada Geese are feeding on the rough meadow. The Ings and its environs hold four Shelduck, a few Wigeon, a pair of Greylags, another four Redshank, a Gadwall, Mallard, Teal and no fewer than twenty six Shoveler, twenty of which are drakes. Beside the far pond is a Little Ringed Plover, a Common Snipe and a Mistle Thrush.
Broomhill Flash – The flash has six Mute Swans and the same sort of mixture of wildfowl as are present of Wombwell Ings. However, it also has Tufted Duck, a lot of very noisy Black-headed Gulls and a solitary Common Gull. There is an absence of Grey Herons, although one is flying over the road when I depart.
Home – The Great Spotted Woodpecker is regularly visiting the garden. Dunnocks fly repeatedly from one side of the garden into the thicket area by the side of the house. Potatoes (Accent) have sprouted. I have planted out all the Broad Beans which are progressing well. Some of the Autumn sown have flower buds. The daffodils and tulips are still a glorious wash of colour. A Starling has discovered the use of the bird bath and splashes vigorously, much to the consternation of a Blackbird who just wants a drink.
Haw Wood – Cold Hiendley reservoir is nearly empty of birds, just a few Great Crested Grebes in their own patches. Into the woods to the call of a Chiffchaff. Robins are also in song. The delicate white flowers of Wood Anemone are in patches through the Oak woods below the tow-path. The canal is the old Aire and Calder Navigation (Barnsley Branch), i.e. the one that joins the Barnsley Canal at Old Mill. Cold Hiendley reservoir was built to maintain the water supply to this canal. Little remains of the canal infrastructure; a stone post with a pulley on top is about it. A bridge crosses the canal with 1828 scratched into the stonework. Dog Mercury is in profusion in the woods. Peacock butterflies visit the Pussy Willow, which is coming to the end of its blossoming. A V-shaped wake moves through the water. Through the binos I can see a small black water beetle moving rapidly across the surface of the canal. After several attempts, it catches a small brown insect that failed to lift off from the water.
Tuesday 9th April – Barnsley Canal – The recent dryness means the tow-path has dried to rock hard clay. This makes walking here a pleasant experience for a change. A Willow Warbler is singing on the hill above the old canal basin, my first of the year. Chiffchaffs are numerous all along the canal. A Moorhen takes off from the canal. Although they appear to be ungainly fliers, it negotiates a barrier of willow shoots that rise from a fallen branch with ease. On the return leg, a Blackcap is now singing by the basin. At the foot of Willowbank the Willow Warbler is moving through Elders and Hawthorns seeking insects. A man passes with the base of a pram loaded with three baskets of racing pigeons.
Home – Tadpoles are hatching in the pond. The surface quivers with the tiny wriggling black bodies.
Wednesday 10th April – Barnsley Canal – Two Wrens, barely 20 paces apart are singing furiously to establish their dominance of the area. A Kestrel sits on the air high above Willowbank. A Grey Heron stands in a dead tree in the Loop. The northern end of the canal is much more open than the Willowbank end. The Hawthorn hedge is thinner and straggled. Either rough meadow or marsh covers the area below the tow-path and on the other side of canal there is an area of marsh and Willow. Here Linnets and Yellowhammers sing, not the warblers present further down.
Home – In the early evening, Kay calls me urgently. She has just seen something that looks like a Fox in the garden. We scan the garden from the kitchen window and sure enough, there is movement in the Daffodils and a white-tipped brush can be discerned. However, where the Fox then goes is something of a mystery as it appears to vanish into thin air.
Saturday 13th April – Edderthorpe – It is chilly in the wind, but the sky is reasonably bright. There is still a fair scattering of duck on the flash – Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler and Tufted Duck. A few Snipe probe the mud. Redshank are all over the site. A flock of about thirty Dunlin are flighty. A couple of Little Ringed Plovers are standing motionless on the spits of mud. An Oystercatcher feeds on the far bank.
Sunday 14th April – Westfield Country Park – A cloudy start to the morning clears to a sunny walk through the woods of the Country Park. Dog Violets and Stitchwort flower on the banks by the track. The whole countryside is greening rapidly as trees come into leaf. Wild Arum leaves are common in the woods. Peacock butterflies rest on the warming clay. A Small White flutters by. Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Wrens and Song and Mistle Thrushes are in song. From the top of a small hill, the countryside is reminiscent of the South Downs of my youth.
Tuesday 16th April – Barnsley Canal – A Blackbird egg shell lies beside the tow-path – new life has sprung. There are several pairs of Reed Buntings along the canal. I am surprised that they appeared to be missing all winter; the resident stock is supposed to be augmented with North European and Irish migrants, but it would appear the local stock moves off as well. Old orange-brown bark is peeling off in a translucent layer from the trunks of Silver Birches revealing pale grey-brown, almost white, bark underneath. On one tree, branches emerge from the canal waters, whilst the main trunks are right on the edge of the bank. Fresh green leaflets and catkins adorn these branches. Leaves of summer flowers abound – Tansy, Bramble, Goosegrass, Umbellifers, Sow Thistles and both Greater and Ribwort Plantains. Song Thrush and warbler song fills the air.
Wednesday 17th April – Home – Hopefully the last night for a while that I have had to put out the fleeces to protect the emerging potato shoots against frost. The wet fleeces were bitterly cold when I removed them this morning. There is definitely a Robin nest tucked right under the inside eave of the potting shed. My investigation produced one angry ticking Robin. I retreated rapidly. Apple and Cherry blossom is now out – a beautiful sight!
Barnsley Canal – Two Kestrels rise from near the river and circle upwards and upwards. The delicate dark lines across the under wings show well in the morning sunshine. The sound of two pebbles being rapped together indicates a female Blackcap in the trees above the canal, but all I locate is a Long-tailed Tit feeding voraciously. A little further on, by the dock, a male Blackcap is singing from the top of a dead tree. Wrens are both numerous and very vocal. Just after the footbridge an area had been cleared some time back. Large clumps of Comfrey have sprouted all over the place. On the loops, three Coots have their wings cocked and heads down in aggression – the interloper rapidly departs.
Home – And rubbish still keeps coming out of the new flower bed. A Victorian cast-iron fireplace, unfortunately broken, along with more of the old boiler stove is dug out this morning.
Thursday 18th April – Barnsley Canal – A Grey Heron appears to have made the bend on the canal below Willowbank a regular spot. As usual, it flies off at the approach of Dill the Dog. Lapwings are on mud beside the Loop. An Orange Tip butterfly flits up the canal; it lands sporadically, but refuses to stay put long enough to get a photograph. A cock Pheasant struts around the edge of the Loop. My first Swallow of the year darts low across the rough grass and up the hill. A Dabchick dives.
Friday 19th April – Old Mill – Another warm day is in prospect. Huge numbers of tiny flying insects fill the air above the edge of the canal. Two Mallard are sleeping on the opposite bank. A Wood Pigeon is actually standing in the canal to wash. Below the old aqueduct, a flower looking like Garlic Mustard blooms, but with pink instead of white flowers. A pair of Bullfinches disappear up the hill.
Saturday 20th April – Worsbrough Village – Down the road that leads towards the landscaped hill that was Barrow Pit. Patches of bright yellow Celandines are scattered under the trees. Red Dead Nettle is in bloom on the roadside. Forget-me-nots and Coltsfoot bloom on banks. High over the still barren grassland of the hills Sky Larks sing. Horse Chestnut candles are still green spikes, soon to burst into colour. Now what is the plural of Coltsfoot?
Monday 22nd April – Hemsworth Bypass – A bridleway follows the old railway route across country around Hemsworth. A reasonably new bypass also follows this route. Alongside the path, Stitchwort and White Deadnettle are noticeably in flower. Many other plants are thrusting up leaves rapidly now. Willow Tit, Willow Warbler and Blackbirds sing. There is a drill hole through a large rock face through which the path passes. This would have been a blasting hole to open up the embankment for the railway.
Ackworth Water Tower – A regular stop when I pass this way to find an increasingly rare bird – Corn Bunting. Its “jangling keys” call is quickly heard, but it takes a couple of minutes to locate the bird – on the ground, which is unusual for a singing male. Sky Larks are also singing and Starlings, Yellowhammer and a Mistle Thrush are in the tower compound.
Pontefract – My first time to this town, only fourteen miles from Barnsley. This was the home town of John Poulson, the destroyer of so many northern towns. He was an architect who used corruption to get many new town centre schemes accepted by councils in the 1960s and 70s. He ruined most of the town centres in the area with his “brutal modernism” – particularly Barnsley! Pontefract has not suffered as much as many. The town’s name is reputed to come from the Latin, Ad Pontem Fractam – at the broken bridge – maybe a reference to the destruction wrought following the Romans’ departure from our shores. To the north of the town centre is Pontefract Castle. An earth and timber motte and bailey castle was built here in 1080, shortly after the Norman Conquest, by Ilbert de Lacy. This was an important site as it guarded the River Aire, a vital route into the Yorkshire heartlands. The castle was rebuilt in stone in the 12th and 13th centuries. It passed to the House of Lancaster in 1311. Earl Thomas of Lancaster was tried and executed here for treason against Edward II. Richard II is also said to have died here, although this is disputed. The lands were later returned to the family. When Henry Bolinbroke took the throne as Henry IV in 1399, the castle became crown property. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here briefly. The castle was a major administrative centre in the Honour of Pontefract, as the area was known. Its history was grim, leading Shakespeare to call Pontefract, “Bloody Pomfret”. During the Civil War, there were three sieges of the castle which was a Royalist stronghold. It was finally surrendered in 1649 and demolished by order of Parliament. So now there is little of the great fortress left. The bailey is a wide stretch of lawn. Under the lawn is the Magazine, store rooms which eventually were used for the storage of liquorice root, for Pontefract is famous for its Pontefract Cakes, liquorice sweets. Little remains of the Gascoigne Tower, where reputedly Richard II met his death. A 12th century “Sally Port”, runs through the thick curtain wall. Low walls show where other towers stood, as did the 11th century chapel of St Clement and an Elizabethan Chapel. On top of the motte there is a jar of flowers and a photocopied sheet eulogising John Morris and the Civil War siege that ran from June 1648 to March 1649. Pontefract became a military town again in 1870 when large barracks were built here. In 1872, the first ever election in England using a secret ballot was held in the town. The Market hall façade remains in fine condition. In the centre a huge relief of a bull’s head with a ring through its nose. From the ring hangs a chain which helps support a wrought iron decoration over the entrance. Either side of the main entrance façade are two other reliefs, one a hog and maybe a Snipe, and the other a duck, pheasant and hare. A surprise awaits down a small alley, the Counting House, a splendid long half-timbered building with sandstone blocks forming the lower half. It is now an inn (and probably has been for some time).
Wednesday 24th April – Dodworth – The sun has baked the clay soil dry and dusty – hardly expected in April. A Whitethroat sings from a Willow sapling. Up the spoil heap and the countryside lays all about. A haze obscures the distance, but Barnsley rolls over the hills before me. A Sky Lark sings high above.
Thursday 25th April – Barnsley Canal – The hoped-for rain has not arrived. The forecasters are promising it for tonight. A Crab Apple tree is coming into blossom, the flower buds intense pink. Two House Martins fly over Willowbank and swoop down across the canal – the first of the year. Finches and Warblers are very vocal and I am trying to listen for a Whitethroat. I think I hear one but as more species sing – Great Tits, Wrens and a Blackbird – discerning the individual song is difficult. A large yellow dragonfly larva crawls along the underside of a reed lying on top of the water. A Swallow flies overhead. Although I have not positively identified the Whitethroat song, I can see one in the Hawthorns further up Willowbank.
Saturday 27th April – Pugney’s Country Park, Sand Pit – A Shelduck brings a shock of brightness to the pond by the parking spot. Otherwise the pond is quiet. Swallows and Sand Martins are numerous, many of the latter heading over the gravel extraction yard towards the gravel pit itself. There is no easy access to this pit, so I can only surmise they are nesting there. A Linnet comes down to the main lake for a drink. The water is low and the sandy spit is now a large area of mud. A Little Ringed Plover darts across this mud. A few Lapwings and three Black-headed Gulls are all that is left of the large winter flocks. The Great Crested Grebes seem to have disappeared altogether – not really surprising as there is nowhere here for them to nest.
Monday 29th April – Home – Squally showers have been the order of the day. Several days of intermittent rain has meant the garden has finally had a decent amount of water. The wind led to a blizzard of Cherry blossom and the grass is nearly white with the fallen petals. Plants are growing fast now. I have started to earth up some of the potatoes. Broad Beans are flowering. A bundle of Apple tree prunings is brought out from the cellars and a crisscross lattice is made for the Eat All mange tout peas. Apple blossom is at different stages on the trees, and all of it later than the Pear trees which now have hundreds of tiny pears forming. Unfortunately, the pruning which should have been undertaken in the winter was far less than it should have been, so there will probably still be problems with the pears. Bluebells fill the shaded area under the great Flowering Cherry. Tulips and Daffodils are coming to an end, but Kay has trays and trays of new plants to replace them. It is just a case of avoiding the last frosts.
Tuesday 30th April – Barnsley Canal – The wind has dropped which means the showers are now more prolonged. The tow-path is now a mass of puddles and the recently baked clay is softening fast. If this weather continues we will shortly be back to our familiar quagmire. It is very green here; bright young leaves and grasses dominate. As May approaches, the May blossom (Hawthorn) is about to burst into flower. The weather keeps the birdlife down, but a decent number of Willow Warblers continue to sing and a Swallow swoops across the water