Thursday – The Weir – We visited these delightful gardens a few weeks back to admire the banks of Snowdrops. These have now completely vanished and been replaced by a variety of spring flowers, dominated by Daffodils. Primroses are dotted all over – mainly the familiar custard yellow variety, but also some delicate mauve ones. A Blackcap is singing in the trees, along with Robins and Great Tits. Bright blue Periwinkles and Grape Hyacinths contrast with the yellow Primroses and Daffodils whilst shy Violets, including a few white flowered varieties peep out of the grass. The wide River Wye seems high as it rushes past. A Treecreeper flits from one trunk to the base of the next. The rain returns.
Easter Sunday – Nunney, Somerset – Down to Pete and Jo’s for a couple of days. We arrive in time for the Easter Bonnet competition. Jemima has entered but does not win, neither does Zebedee, their Springer Spaniel, who has the best hat, in my opinion, but does not show it well as he is obviously disgusted to have this “thing” on his head. Next comes the Duck Race. The recent rains means the brook is flowing fast so we have to move smartly once the bag of plastic ducks are dropping into the water. Within a short time the first one has reached the finish line, after scaring off the local Mallard en route.
Easter Monday – Nunney – Up to see Peter and Jo’s sheep. One is very pregnant and should be ready to drop, although she does not seem to be about to do so. Another ewe already has a lamb but it was a problematic birth with a twin lamb that was still-born. As this is the second year that this ewe has had a bad birthing, he feels there is little point in keeping her and she will go in the autumn. The lamb has taken a liking to the feed bucket and appears to sleep inside it. A Chiffchaff is calling from the other side of Nunney Brook.
Mells – We have been going to the annual Daffodil Fair for some years now. Many of the stalls are very familiar, but it is not often that the Daffodils are in such profusion as they have often gone over by Easter. There are many dogs, mainly poseur breeds, and there appears to be no logic as to which ones Maddy barks at and which ones she ignores. At the end of the village there is the strong scent of garlic where people have trampled Ransom leaves on the roadside bank. I pop into the church but for some reason they are playing the most awful muzak which ruins any atmosphere the milling crowds leave. We watch a falconry display with a Saker swooping at great speed just over the audience’s heads. Maddy, of course, has to bark at it! There seems to be even more standing engines this year – so many wonderful old masterpieces chugging away with all their paint and brass shining with loving care. This year there is also an extraordinary collection of oil cans.
Nunney – As it begins to get dark we head up the road to the sheep field up Primrose Hill. Dozens of Rooks sit by the rookery at the entrance to Rockfield House. There are only a few nests on this side of the brook, but many more in the wood over on the far slope. Peter claps his hands and the whole flock rise up in a wild cacophony. They fly across to the woods and fields opposite. Many are diving and whirling through the air above the pasture on Side Hill beyond the trees. We continue on up the road past a wall which retains the gardens. The china blue flowers of Periwinkle lie against a background of dark green spiky leaves of Wild Madder. Into the field where Zebedee puts up a couple of Common Pheasants which clatter across the fields. Zeb then sets off to see if there are any more – galloping and springing into the air. Maddy is content with the ball. A Peregrine Falcon skims the trees lining the road, heading for the quarry beyond the field. Many of these trees are tagged with registration codes. We check the sheep. Peter is still insisting the ewe is about to have her lambs but she looks unconvinced and is just looking for more food. We wander through the Hall’s gardens and back to the road. A Pipistrelle bat flits around the garden, the first of the year.
Wednesday – Croft – It is really beginning to look like Spring down the Fish Pool Valley. Fat green buds festoon tree branches, some have already burst into pristine leaves. A Jay is shrieking somewhere high in the tree tops. A Chiffchaff calls from across the valley. Clumps of Primroses shine from the greening soil. A Blackbird rises from the ground and alights on a horizontal branch where it cleans its beak with sideways wipes on moss. Daffoldils below the grotto, a host as Wordsworth called them, fill the valley bottom with sunshine. Another spread of yellow shines further up the valley. A few Wood Anemones are coming into flower – delicate while petals against the dark green palmately lobed leaves. Chaffinches are chasing through the woods. A hillside is dark green, covered with nascent Ransom leaves. A path runs up through Lyngham Vallet. The abundance of sedge shows that the thin layer soil is laying on a bed of impervious limestone making the ground marshy despite the slope. The knocking of a woodpecker comes from a pair of Oaks and after a minute a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers fly off into the dense conifer plantation. All up the valley, Chiffchaffs are declaring their territories. Foxgloves are just clumps of fresh green leaves, it will be some weeks before the flower spikes emerge. From the Spanish Chestnut field, the distant hills seem close, indicating the threat of rain.
Friday – Eaton Hill – Down the road, over the railway and river and across to Easters Wood. The River Lugg is flowing fast and fairly deep. Great Tits are calling from all directions and a lone Blackcap bursts into song from the large plantation of saplings planted for the Millennium. Blackthorn is coming into blossom and new leaves unfurl on both Elder and Hawthorn. Pussy Willow is bright yellow with pollen. Stinging Nettles are returning to the riverbank. A footbridge crosses a dried up ditch. In the ditch are the knobbly pink heads of Butterbur flowers. Up the old drovers’ path to Eaton Hill past yellow Celandines and purple Ground Ivy peeping out from the grass. The large field on top has yet to be ploughed leaving rows of maize stalks standing. Through Comfordt Wood and down the track towards Easters Market. Another Blackcap is singing in the saplings on the hillside. Suddenly my first Willow Warbler of the year starts singing its silvery descending notes.
Tuesday – Abergavenny – Kay has been away visiting so Maddy and I go down to this town on the Welsh side of the border to meet her. It is market day and the town is crowded. The sun is hot although there is a cooling wind. I cross town to the bus station to orientate myself. The River Gavenney flows past a park, Swan Meadows, beside the bus station. The river joins the River Usk a little south of here. The town’s name means “mouth of the River Gavenny”. The park contains a stone circle which was originally set up as the Gorsedd Circle (Gorsedd meaning a gathering of bards) for the National Eisteddfod of 1913. They were originally erected in July 1912 in Grove Monmouth Road and moved here in 2001. Nearby are two standing stones erected in 2009 with plaques by Ned Heywood and stone carvings by Jane Turner. The stones were part of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of “Big Ben”, the Great Bell in the Parliamentary Clock Tower which is named after the 19th century politician Sir Benjamin Hall, later Lord Llanover. The river runs clear as gin over a stony bed. It is a pretty little stream but it is thought that once it was a much larger water, but a massive terminal moraine at at Llanfihangel Crucorney diverted the main part of the river down into the Wye catchment. Cuckoo Flowers blossom on the edge of the bank. Butterburs are pushing through the grass and Wild Ransom leaves grow thickly. A weir once sent water down a leat, now closed off and filled, that would have fed a mill, maybe the one in Mill Street although another stream runs down there. From the other end of the park I head up hill a short way then along Holywell Road. One assumes this road was named after a local well, but there is no indication where it may be or have been. The area has a mixture of mid-20th century houses and some fine, solid Victorian villas and terraces. Back over the river and down Mill Street. Past Tan House, a residential home whose name is a reminder of the local tanning industry now gone. There is a large industrial estate here now, the old mill has gone. A path climbs the side of the substantial hill on which stands the castle. A path runs around the castle walls, giving a view across the flood plain of the Usk. Two magnificent Weeping Willows shine with yellow foliage like silk curtains below the path. A cycle track drops down and back to Mill Street. Half a water wheel stands on the site of Rees Corn Mill in memory of the workers of the area. On our way home, a couple of miles out from Abergavenny, a Red Kite drifts over the road – a splendid sight this far to the south-east of Wales.
Thursday – Croft – The recent dry weather has resulted in equally dry paths and tracks, which is a pleasure after mud-skipping for so long. Primroses and Wood Anemones dot the sides of the long drive to the castle. Down in the Fish Pool Valley, bird sound fills the air – woodpeckers drumming, Rooks cawing, Robins, Great Tits and Chiffchaffs singing. The flowers of spurges are very odd, lacking as they do both petals and sepals. Over the valley and up the side of Highwood Bank. The leaf litter is still very deep here. A few Wood Spurges (Euphorbia amygdaloides) are growing on the banks next to the track. The flowers are rather unusual as they lack both petals and sepals. Each cup-like structure contains one or more male flowers and a female flower. On up the track between Bircher Common and Lyngham Vallet. A fallen log is green with moss and dotted with tiny white Wood Anemones. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flies by and a Treecreeper flits from trunk to trunk. A Marsh Tit calls whilst moving around the upper branches of a Silver Birch. Willow Warblers sing on the open woodland of the common edge. From the forestry track I cut across to the Mortimer Trail running along the top edge of Leinthall Common which falls away precipitously to the north. A Blackcap sings in the trees on the woodland edge.
Friday – Humber – I am undertaking a British Trust for Ornithology Breeding Bird survey – the first for a couple of years. My area – a quadrant – is a kilometre square lying between Steens Bridge in the north-east corner to Blackwardine in the west and centred on the hamlet of Humber. The idea is that the observer walks two parallel paths across the quadrant recording all the birds seen or heard. Unfortunately, the layout of fields, fences, the Humber Brook etc. make it impossible to get two parallel lines, so I do the best I can. I start at the edge of a field near Steens Bridge and head across alongside the brook. The bird life is rather limited – a Common Pheasant croaking off to the north and numerous Wood Pigeons. At Humber Court Farm I am on a stile checking a noisy Wren when the farmer comes to find out what I am up to. We chat for a while. He tells me he feeds the birds on barley and how much he detests the numerous Crows. The path continues through Humber, past the church where there are a fair few Jackdaws and on up the lane to the calls of Chiffchaff, Great Tits and a Greenfinch. The Woodland Burial site is on the left, a field for “Green Funerals” with saplings scattered across a pleasant meadow, but no birds. On the other side of the road are ploughed fields and the farmer’s hated Carrion Crows in profusion. I head up the road past Blackwardine Roman site, now a featureless field, and the old railway. The track would have been a perfect line back, but it is closed off and used for sheep. I head back towards Steens Bridge, finding probably the best sighting of the day, a couple of Corn Buntings. I then drive down into Humber and check out a path heading to the south-east corner of the quadrant but find few birds.
Saturday – Leominster – It was cold last night so we put fleeces over the peach and apricot trees and the potato patch. I also lit the paraffin stove in the greenhouse but it must have given off excessive fumes as many of the plants have been damaged. This is extremely annoying! I seem to be having a run of bad luck with seedlings at the moment. The weather is superb, although overhead is a hidden menace – a huge cloud of particles from the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull. All aircraft across much of northern Europe have been grounded now for a couple of days and it looks like continuing. I take Maddy across to the Grange for a run around. It is good to see so many people using the place for recreation. Down by the River Kenwater, there is a flurry of birds followed by a Sparrowhawk flying downstream carrying something small in its claws. Maddy is chasing the ball then immediately retreating to any shade she can find and panting furiously.
Tuesday – Mortimer Forest – It seems ridiculous that so short a time after a wet winter when every walk meant mud-skipping, it is now dry as a bone. In the garden the water-butts are nearly empty. Out here on the forest tracks, Maddy’s swerves, scrambles and slides as she chases her ball sends up clouds of dust. A Willow Warbler is seeking insects in a birch sapling beside the track. Only a couple of feet away, it ignores me completely. Another is singing deeper in the woods. As we head round the track other species join the chorus – Great Tits, a Wren and Chiffchaffs. The ponds are crystal clear, showing all the various weeds growing in the bottom mud. Wood Spurges with their green flowers, little Dog Violets and small clumps of Wild Strawberries are flowering on the barren, rocky banks created where the track has been cut through the hillside. Some Coltsfoots (not Coltsfeet as the word derives from the Old English Coltsfote)have already gone to seed on the edge of the path. Primroses are particularly abundant this year, gorgeous clumps of creamy yellow often brightening dull patches of bramble or dead grasses. A Willow Tit is calling nearby – it seems both Marsh and Willow Tits are present around here, often it is one or the other. Just before the Mortimer Trail is a long slope down from the ridge, covered in tall pines. A Common Buzzard glides down the hill, easily passing the tree trunks and branches. A rutted track heads south through the woods and out onto open fields, just below Vallets and up the hill from Hanway Common. A small herd of Fallow Deer, eleven individuals, all female or juveniles, is feeding in an enclosure down the hill. A cock Common Pheasant is strutting around near them. After a while they realise we are there are move away, jumping the fence with ease. Yellowhammers and Meadow Pipits are in the field and hedgerows. A Skylark is overhead. The views are stunning with the distant hills hazy. A track continues south-west and drops down in sandstone steps past quarries to the road at Fircroft Cottage. The road goes down through hillsides of yellow Gorse and paler Primroses. At The Goggin (which appears to be the name of the little valley and a copse on the hillside) a footpath heads up the hillside, although there is no actual path on the ground, just springy turf. At the top a track passes through little hidden valleys. A large clump of Wood Anemones sits atop the bank, whilst nearby they form a much less dense carpet. We are continually passing from one Chiffchaff territory into the next. A little stream runs down the valley. Maddy manages to lose her ball through the fencing around the stream and it is a tricky job getting down there to retrieve it. At the bottom of the hill clear water flows across the track from nearby springs and Boney Well, where, according to Littlebury’s Directory and Gazetteer of Herefordshire, 1876-7, “during the months of March and October, a quantity of small bones are found, supposed to be the bones of frogs.” The track passes a small building looking like a privy, but actually contains some water pumping equipment. Then on into Richards Castle.
Richards Castle – A small village on the Leominster-Ludlow road. At some time in the last hundred years it lost its apostrophe and Richard’s became Richards. On the hillside stands the church of St Bartholomew and the castle. A path crosses a small paddock with several sheep. Through a gate and into the churchyard. Beyond the churchyard is the imposing motte and bailey of the castle. Wooden steps lead down and across a deep defensive ditch and then up onto the bailey. The overgrown motte stands high above. There are just a couple of bits of wall remaining. The castle was one of only three or four pre-Conquest Norman castles in Britain. It was built by Richard Fitz Scrob on land given to him by Edward the Confessor. In 1050, Sweyn Godwine’s outlawry was revoked and the Earldom of Hereford was returned to him. He demanded the surrender of Richard’s castle. The Confessor refused and Godwine was banished again. In 1052 he returned unopposed. The Witan (the Saxon parliament) decreed that all Normans should be banished with the exception of certain individuals “whom the King liked and were true to him and his people”. Richard de Scrob was one of these named. The castle was actually called Avretone and now part of the parish has its name derived from this – Overton. The present day village of Richards Castle was called Boitanc. In 1060 the castle is in the possession of Richard’s son Osbern Fitz Richard, Sheriff of Herefordshire. After the Conquest, William I gave the Earldom of Hereford to William Fizt Osbern (not the son of Osbern Fitz Richard as the name may suggest). However, Richard retained ownership of the castle. Through descendants and marriages the castle passed to Robert de Mortimer and then on to the Talbots until 1376, after which the castle ceased to be a residence. Leland stated it was going to ruin when he visited in 1540. In 1532 the estates were assigned to John Bradshaw and in 1588 to Rowland Bradshaw upon his marriage to Mary, daughter of Arthur Salwey of Stanford, Worcestershire. In 1648, William Bradshaw gave the deed of mortgage to Major Richard Salwey, a Parliamentarian, whose family held the lands for the next 422 years. The church of St Bartholomew is no longer used but is a delightful building with its ecclesiastical heritage intact. It would have been founded by Richard de Scrob to provide a place of worship for the castle. Two Norman windows remain in the nave but the rest of the church is 14th century. Faint traces of wall painting can be seen on the south wall. All the pews are boxed. Plaques of familial crests hang on the walls. Most of the glass is 19th century apart from a fine 15th century western window. The north transept was known as the Chapel of St John, consecrated in 1351 by Bishop John de Trilleck as a Chantry Chapel for the Knights Templar of St John whose Commandary was at Dinmore. The old canopied pew of the Salwey’s stands here, along with two harmoniums. In the south aisle there are two huge wooden screws across the ceiling to prevent the nave arcade from falling into the aisle. In the outside southern wall, by the priest’s door, is a bricked up door and window. Behind them is a chamber called “St Anthony’s Bower”, a hermit’s cell, although there is no record of any hermit being here. A detached bell tower was built in the late 13th century. There are three bells, one “Santa Maria” is probably early 16th century, the middle is from 1862 and the third recast in 1913 from a bell of 1747. I take the road northwards. Orange-tip butterflies flit down the verge, zigzagging over Dandelions and Buttercups but to alighting on any of them. A path across the fields leads down into part of the scattered hamlet of Batchcott. From here another path passes a paddock of sheep and their lambs and on into the Mortimer Forest and back to Black Pool.
Sunday – Leominster – Finally it rains – hardly enough to do more than dampen the soil, but welcome nonetheless. Yesterday we had to use water from the tap, something we managed to avoid all last year, as the butts are empty. The chickens are laying poorly, one or two eggs per day. A shell-less one was laid late yesterday afternoon, despite making plenty of oyster shell available. The garden is growing fast. Potatoes are all up and coming on. Lettuces in the greenhouse have recovered from their poisoning by paraffin and are ready to pull. The tomato plants have not fared so well, but some more are on their way. We have finally had some meals from the purple-sprouting broccoli – it has taken a year and gives an indication of how much more we could have cropped if the pigeons had not done so much damage at the start of the year. Off down the market at Brightwells. Stall after stall of junk! The fruit and vegetable stall is loaded with stuff very close to going off, but very cheap. I get another load of mangoes – last week’s made very good chutney, but a jar only lasted a couple of days so some more would be a good idea.
Friday – Dinmore Hill – The country park is entering its most beautiful phase. Leaves unfurl and flowers blossom. Tiny palmated leaves of the Acers range from pale green through yellow to dark red with many variations on the theme – pale green leaves with scarlet edges, green with yellow, pure emerald leaves with curling red fronds at their bases or bright crimson stalks. Magnolias are blossoming. It is a shame that the pureness of these huge petals lasts such a short time before they are marred by brown patches, but to catch one in pristine condition, jewelled with rain drops is bliss. Cherry trees are white extravagances, some spreading others standing tall. Down near the A49, there is a carpet of Bluebells forming an azure mist under tall beeches.