Saturday 1st April – Grange Gate – All Fools’ Day and the weather is the joker. To the north, fluffy white clouds glide swiftly across a steely, rain-laden sky. In the other directions there is an increasing amount of blue sky as ones eyes turn to the south. Several Chiffchaffs are calling, along with Blackbirds, Great Tits and Wrens. A pair of Bullfinch flash by and disappear into the trees.
Worsbrough Mill – Now April has arrived, the mill shop open on more days than just Sunday. This makes it easier to get fresh supplies of flour for bread making. Water is pouring over the dam wall and the River Dove is as full as I have ever seen it.
Sunday 2nd April – Home – Dill the Dog seems slightly distressed in the night, but does not move to go out so I leave her for the morning. She gets up and promptly falls over. This continues during the early part of the morning. Her back legs look like they have gone badly. We suspect a minor stroke. So it is a quick walk on the way to the Leeds Farmers’ Market. On our return home, a search on the Net throws up “Peripheral Vestibular Syndrome”, a common complaint in older dogs and having the exact symptoms Dill the Dog is displaying. It is a disorder of the inner ear and is untreatable but usually simply goes away. We will wait and see.
Wednesday 5th April – Willowbank – There has been a sharp frost overnight and the ground is hard. Dill the Dog has improved considerably and just has the odd stagger and wobble now. Blackbirds are singing clearly along with Robins, Dunnocks and Great Tits. A single Chiffchaff calls occasionally. There is a burst of Blackcap song from the great Hawthorn thicket. It only repeats a couple of times.
Thursday 6th April – Barnsley Canal, Old Mill – Spring is turning yellow. Celandines are about to flower. Sadly, they will soon be overcome by the Japanese Knotweed that infests this area. Gorse is also in flower, brilliant yellow against the dark green spikes of leaves. Swathes of willow are covered with pussy willow blossom, now yellow with pollen. It is late afternoon but Great Tits are still singing. A drake Mallard stands, asleep, on a stone sticking out of the canal.
Saturday 8th April – Locke Park – This is the first time I have walked around Locke Park properly. It is only a relatively short distance from home and somewhere I always meant to visit, but simply have not. Locke Park, which opened in 1862, was presented to the town by Phoebe Locke (daughter of the poet John McCreery), in memory of her husband Joseph Locke. It is a magnificent example of a municipal park. There are wide open spaces of grass, trees, flower beds, a band stand, tea room, bowling greens and playground – everything a “People’s Park” should have. Towards the top of the park is the Tower, erected in memory of Phoebe by her sister Sarah McCreery, in 1877. Sadly, it is gated and locked but it is clear that there would be a wonderfully panoramic view from the top over the surrounding town and out into the countryside. Sarah also donated a further twenty acres of land to extend the top part of the park. Near the road is a statue of Joseph Locke by Marochetti. He was born in Attercliffe, Sheffield on 9th August 1805 but moved to Barnsley when he was five years old and lived in a house on Coal Pit Hill, behind Shambles Street. He left school at the age of 13 and was apprenticed to George Stephenson in 1823. He became a life-long friend of Robert Stephenson. Along with Brunel, Locke and Stephenson were the great railway engineers that built the network, the remains of which still exist today. Locke also built the Paris-Rouen rail link. Locke became the Liberal Member of Parliament for Honiton in 1847 and elected President of the Institute of Civil Engineers. He died suddenly on 18th September 1860, aged 55 whilst on holiday. Near the statue is a path with a couple of white painted cast iron arches leading past a defunct water fountain to a small grotto with an odd gazebo of the same material. Above and behind the grotto are four Ionic columns. Near the playground is a cast iron model steam engine. There is also a most unfortunate toilet and changing room block, brutal concrete, heavily disfigured with graffiti and in dire need of removal.
Home – The sunshine means I can finally get the potatoes in. I dig another three trenches to join the two dug earlier in the week. In go Colleen (1st early), Orla (1st early), Catriona (2nd early), Lady Christl (early), Kerr’s Pink (main) and Sarpo Mira (main). The varieties have been chosen for blight resistance, although I am concerned that Kerr’s Pink may be a problem. Sarpo Mira is one of the Hungarian developed very high blight resistant varieties. This year nematodes are going to be used to try and control the Keel Slugs that have caused so much damage in recent years.
Wednesday 12th April – Willowbank – The huge golden disc of the sun rises above the ridge carrying the Rotherham Road into a clear sky. Great Tits repeat their squeaky call incessantly. A Chiffchaff flies across the side of the hill into the thicket of Hawthorns that runs down the slope. It alights at the top of one of the bushes and calls. A Blackcap obligingly emerges from a mass of Ivy and hops up a bare tree in search of food, pausing now and again to trill its liquid song. Wood Pigeons flap noisily out of their roosts. A Dunnock sings his pretty little tune. Greenfinches are in competition, wheezing loudly.
Good Friday 14th April – Leominster – I pick up Kay from her mother’s in Surrey and head west. After a pretty horrible journey along the M4 and M5, enduring hold-ups caused by accidents, we arrive in the market town of Leominster, Herefordshire. The town lays north of the city of Hereford on the River Lugg, which splits into the Kenwater and Lugg around the town. It was named after Earl Leofric*, husband of the famous Lady Godiva who rode naked through Coventry. In 1055 the town was captured by Aelfgar, outlawed son of Leofric. Harold retook it. William de Braose burnt it. Owen Glendower occupied the town in 1402. Queen Mary gave it its first charter for aiding Lady Jane Grey. In the Stuart period it was reputedly the best wool market in the land. After booking into our hotel we wander around the town centre. The shops hit all the right buttons for us, butchers selling local rare breed meats, vegetable, wholefood shops, old fashioned hardware stores and a market – useful shops and stalls, not just fast food, charity shops and tanning studios which have replaced all the traditional shops in Barnsley. We then locate a fine pub, The Chequers, run excellently by a young couple, with a decent range of beers and cider.
* I learn much later that the origin of the name “Leominster” has nothing to do with Leofric. It actually means a minster, or community of clergy, in the district of Lene or Leon, probably in turn from an Old Welsh root lei meaning “to flow”
Saturday 15th April – Leominster – I take Dill the Dog off early around the town and park. Through the empty market place and down a narrow street which leads to The Grange, a park space. It is, unfortunately, littered with empty beer cans and fast food wrappings. In The Grange stands Grange Court, built in 1633 by the King’s carpenter John Abel of Sarnesfield. It was formerly sited at The Buttercross, on the junction of High Street and Broad Street and served as the town hall with an open-air market beneath. It was moved to its current site in 1856 after being sold for £95. The lower floor was enclosed, and today houses local authority offices. Pink flowering Cherries are in bloom. Blackbirds and Greenfinches are singing, Wood Pigeons cooing and Blue Tits chattering. By the park stands the church, Leominster Priory. The legend is that in 660CE the original church was founded after a monk, Ealfred, a Northumbrian missionary, dreamt that a lion was feeding from his hand. On the same night, King Merewald, the Lion of Mercia, dreamt that a strange monk would bring him important news. The next day they met, the King was converted to Christianity and the church was built by Merewald and Ealfred was installed as the first abbot. Nothing remains of the Saxon church. Leofric established a nunnery on the site in the 11th Century. Edward the Confessor dissolved the abbey following the scandal arising from seduction of the Abbess, Edgiva, by Earl Swein. Swein was the eldest son of Earl Godwine and the brother-in-law of King Edward the Confessor. The Anglo-Saxon Abingdon Chronicle, says that “he ordered the abbess of Leominster to be brought to him and kept her as long as it suited him, and then he let her go home”. A new church was built by the Normans but was subject to frequent raids by the Welsh. Following the death of Prince William, only son of Henry I in 1123, lost at sea in the White Ship, the King bestowed the Priory on the Abbey of Reading. Following a dispute between the townspeople and the monks, a parish church was built alongside the nave of the monastery. The Norman church is now just a subsidiary aisle. The strains of organ music indicates there is a service being held in the church so I do not enter to look around. The old Priory Infirmary is the only building to survive the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and in 1759 became the workhouse. It is now the Youth Hostel. The sparsely used graveyard outside the church has some fine Silver Birches, Yews, Beeches and Pines. I head through the small streets surrounding the church. In one garden there is an angry confrontation between a Magpie and four or five Blackbirds.
Hereford – We pay a quick visit to the city of Hereford. The drive into the city centre is easy, parking is easy and although the centre is busy, it is not uncomfortably crowded like many other city centres on a Saturday morning. The cathedral is also busy. An army of parishioners are removing the Good Friday flower and palm leaf arrangements and setting up the Easter Sunday flowers. The story of the cathedral begins in 679 when the See of Hereford was established, but the building followed the murder of King Ethelbert in 792 by command of King Offa of Mercia. So outraged were the populous that Offa had to remove the King’s body to Hereford and build an expensive shrine over it. In 825 a stone church was built which was rebuilt in 1030 by Bishop Athelstan. This church was destroyed by the raiding Welsh in 1056. A new church was built in 1079 at the consecration of Bishop Robert de Lorraine. The cathedral was completed by Reynelm in 1100 and forms the basis of today’s building. In 1786 the west end and tower collapsed and James Wyatt was employed to rebuild it. His rather plain west front was replaced by the present one in 1908 with a window to commemorate Queen Victoria. There are many fine tombs within, Bishop Aquablanca, 1286; Bishop Cantelupe, possibly the last Englishman to be canonised before the Reformation; a fine brass of Richard de la Barre, canon of Hereford and John Stanbury, Bishop from 1453 to 1474 and confessor to Henry VI. A particularly interesting tomb is that of a man and woman with a shrouded child by her side. She was Anne Denton who died in childbirth aged 18 in 1566. Her husband Alexander actually remarried and is buried elsewhere.
Easter Monday 17th April – Mells – It is the Daffodil Fair again. It is strangely comforting to see the same stalls, same stationary engines, same terrier racing and particularly the same beer tent. It provides continuity in an ever changing environment. Swallows and House Martins sweep over the field. It is somewhat amusing to hear a middle class couple discussing how they have managed to wheedle their way past the gate and park free – clearly they needed to save the £3 entrance fee to pay for the skiing holiday they are describing! But it is satisfying to sit by the beer tent (we took our own chairs this year) and watch all walks of life pass; bikers covered in tattoos, families, young people parading like peacocks and older folk like us just watching.
Saturday 22nd April – High Hoyland – I had intended to head down through the woods opposite the church, but Dill the Dog decides to head the other direction. So I follow her down a narrow path beside the graveyard and out into the fields. An old harvester moulders away in the corner. There are odd wooden structures that I eventually work out are jumps for equestrian eventing. For some reason there are several long rows of cabbages, all bolted, at the bottom of the field. A covey of Grey Partridge flies off. The path heads towards the village. A spaniel is rushing too and fro through the hedgerow, trying to flush more partridge for its owner’s gun. A Mistle Thrush stands upright on the field watching us.
St George’s Day, Sunday 23rd April – Barnsley Canal – The feast day of England’s Patron Saint, St George (yes, I know he was probably Turkish and hardly anybody celebrates St George’s Day as such...) Although it is drizzling slightly as I head down Willowbank, there is a real feel that Spring has arrived. It is mild and there are Willow Warblers everywhere; two are engaged in a game of tag around the Silver Birches along the canal side. Greenfinches, Great Tits and Chiffchaffs are also singing in good numbers. Leaves are unfurling on the Hawthorns, Elders and Silver Birches. Green shoots of reeds rise from the dark canal water. A Blackcap is singing near the foot bridge and a Robin serenades from the other side. The rough pasture is muddy and water-logged. Bill told me recently that the stream through the middle of the valley (the River Dearne laying on the eastern edge) and the marshy areas are all recently formed. After North Gawber pit closed, pumping stopped and the water table rose considerably. In a quintessential English moment on St George’s Day there is the first Cuckoo of Spring on the pit stack. In the marsh comes a call that sounds like a Grasshopper Warbler, however after listening for a while I conclude it is an actual grasshopper rather than the bird. A male Reed Bunting flies across the reeds and perches in a small Goat Willow, its black head bright against the still pale brown reed bed. Large Bumble Bees fly around the masses of yellow pollen coated Pussy Willow. A Yellowhammer gleams in the Hawthorn scrub. On the edge of the wood on the Redbrook hill, a group of Great and Long-tailed Tits are excited by the presence of a Sparrowhawk.
Saturday 29th April – Winster, Derbyshire – We head for The Miner’s Standard in Winster for a camping weekend. On the road over to Strines, a motorist flashes his lights ahead of us. He is stationary so I slow down and then notice the female Mallard and her crocodile of ducklings crossing the road. It is not clear where she is taking them as she seems to be heading for open moorland. On the hill above Winster, we set up camp. Clouds drift across the sky but it is warm when the sun emerges. Swallows sweep low over the fields after insects. Some fly higher and call their short little songs. It is cool and the pub is welcoming and warm. More about the village here.
Sunday 30th April – Bakewell – We head up through Birchover and Stanton in the Peak to Stanton Moor. It is a short walk onto the moor to the Cork Stone, a huge block of gritstone with rungs and foot holes to enable people to clamber to the top. We head round to the other side of the moor to visit the Nine Ladies stones but parking is impossible and my dodgy ankle makes walking any distance painful. So we head into Bakewell. The Domesday book entry refers to the town “Badequella”, meaning Bath-well. The town was built on the River Wye at a spot where it was fordable. In 924 Edward the Elder ordered a fortified borough to be built here. There has been a market here since 1300 and it still has a large livestock market each week. The town is also the home of the Bakewell Tart, a pastry tart of jam covered with an almond paste sponge. Swallows, House and Sand Martins dash over the wide grass areas of the river plain. A foot bridge crosses the river. Upstream there are numerous Mallard and Canada Geese all looking for handouts from the tourists. A Coot has built its nest midstream, which would seem rather precarious and a small rise in river level would flood it. The town is something of a “gorilla’s armpit”, very crowded with maybe too many tourist shops. A Swift wheels high in the sky, first of the year.