All Fools Day – – Queenswood Arboretum – Fog greets the day and is slow to clear. Up Lime Avenue planted in 1951 to celebrate the Festival of Britain. Primroses and Wood Anemones dot the grass. Through the autumn garden, not spectacular as when the acers take their end of year colours but the delicate leaves just appearing have their own beauty. Red-tinged green leaves open on a Katura. An acer has a cloud of pale yellow-green leaflets. Beyond Cotterell’s Folly (named after Sir Richard Cotterell who was then chairman of the Queenswood Management Committee and Lord Lieutenant of Herefordshire in 1953 when the planting of the arboretum began to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II) is Oak Avenue where 32 varieties of Oak grow having been planted in the 1970s. The sun breaks through. A Treecreeper scurries up a Wellingtonia. Chromium yellow gorse brightens the lookout but nothing can be seen through the curtain of grey. Everywhere is wet. Round the hillside where more Wood Anemones peek out from the dark woods. A few cherries are in blossom but most trees have yet to bud. Blue Tits are very active and the chorus of Blackbirds and Robins is beginning to taper off.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – The world is greening. Hawthorn, Elder and Willow all have nascent leaves. White is also abundant as Blackthorn blossoms. Chiffchaffs call and Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes sing. A bee hums along the hedge. Low pressure and south-easterly winds have brought dust and sand from the Sahara and pollution warnings but this will be short lived as rain is imminent and indeed a few drops are starting to fall. There are the usual noisy Canada Geese, a few Mallard, Tufted Duck and a pair of Mute Swans but the winter ducks, Goldeneye and Wigeon are down to single birds. The Wigeon is a splendid drake with his cream mohican and pristine plumage. Just to prove me wrong, a pair of Goldeneye appear at the west end of the lake, another drake bobs up near the pontoon and five more Wigeon swim into view from behind the long wooded spit. However there do not seem to be any Cormorants present. Sheep are back in the orchard. The trees that were chewed by deer back in the winter do not seem to have suffered as leaves are appearing on several of them.
Friday – Evenjobb – Up the hill out of Evenjobb under a grey, threatening sky. Blackbirds and Robins sing, dogs bark and sheep mutter. The site is musky with the scent of garden flowers. More flowers, wild ones, adorn the banks, Greater Stitchwort, White Dead Nettle, Dandelions, Dog Mercury, Lesser Celandine and Common Fumitory. The leaves of many other species are growing fast, particularly Red Campion and Cow Parsley. Onto Offa’s Dyke as it enters Granner Wood. A Chiffchaff greets us as we climb a hillside. The Walton plain lies below in its ring of hills. Across the plain is the site of a Roman fort along with many earlier features such as the Hindwell cursus and a good number of tumuli and standing stones. The path climbs higher. Carrion Crows and the occasional Raven pass over. Maddy suddenly dashes back past me as a couple of Fallow Deer rush over the path and up into the woods. The track leaves Granner Wood and crosses around the top of Upper and Lower Dunn’s Plantation. Dunn’s Lane runs up from Evenjobb, past Dunn’s Lane Cottage and another cottage, Woodside, almost hidden in the trees at the foot of the hill. Sheep are baaing loudly across the plain. Pheasants croak and corvids bark. Black Mixen is clear to the north-west. The path joins a track which passes a sizeable abandoned quarry. Up some steps to open fields above which Skylarks are singing. The barrows on the Radnor Hills stand out on the skyline. Chaffinches sing along a hedgerow. Through Hilltop Plantation and along the Dyke to Pen Offa, a farm. Through a field of ewes with lambs. The Dyke is a low mound crossing the field. Three Swiss chalet type buildings sit by Warden Road at Dan y Coed.
Down the road where a track leads into Castle Ring Wood. This was a conifer plantation until 2000 when the trees were cleared and trees and shrubs were planted to be coppiced on a 7 year rotation. A Hare dashes across the track into the coppiced Hazels. The track leads Castle Ring hill-fort. It seems that this is more a fortified enclosure than a hill-fort proper. A single bank runs around a flat interior with an entrance in the west and another to the east. The bank and ditch contain many mature Beech trees. Back to the road. To the north-west is the bare hill of Llan Fawr. A large flowering Garlic Mustard stands under the roadside hedge.
The road leads down to Beggar’s Bush. There is a tale (allegedly from the Diaries of Sir Henry Slingsby) that Charles I was granted North Wood and hunted there as Prince of Wales. In August 1645 after the Battle of Naseby he came through the area and stayed at what was then called Bush Farm, which he called Beggars’ Bush as the food provided was so scant. The farm and a house, The Northgate, dated 1863 and another cottage makes up the hamlet. There is supposed to be a tumulus on the side of a field on the Kinnerton road but it seems to have been ploughed out. Down the Evenjobb road past Newcastle Court Lodge which has a towering chimney in the centre of the building. Newcastle Court was a grand Gentleman’s Residence in the early 19th century, a Regency house, home of John Whittaker, who was the Sheriff of Radnorshire in 1809. The next owner recorded was Captain Cecil Alfred Tufton Otway, followed by Major Samuel Nock Thompson who acquired the property in the late 1800s and the family lived there until the mid 1940s. The property become a school after this and was purchased by an Austrian Count in 1952. Down the road to Evenjobb is Evancoyd. The Mynors family who owned the estate built their house, Evancoyd Court around 1840. They also built the school (now closed) and the vicarage (now a private house). A walled garden can be seen from the road behind Trappe House, a former cider house built in 1863. The gardener lived in Trappe House although it belonged to Newcastle Court not Evancoyd Court. Past the vicarage which has a large pond nearby beside which a Canada Goose stretches its wings. A large number of flints and other neolithic implements have been found in this area. Past the church of St Peter’s and back into Evenjobb. Route
Monday – Croft – Clouds kiss the hill tops of the Mortimer Forest. At Croft a wind gusts, whipping the drizzle. Nuthatches call in the car park, Robins, Chaffinches, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes sing in the woods. The Ransom – Wild Garlic – leaves are larger than a week ago. The daffodils across the bottom of the valley are beginning to fade but the carpets of Golden Saxifrage remain vibrant yellow-green. A swell of wind passes through, west to east, like an invisible giant brushing the trees. Up to Croft Ambrey. Bright green mosses cloak the base of an Oak. The surrounding hills are clear to the east and south with louring clouds laying above then. To the west mist rolls across the woods and down the valleys. Through the woods where Field Maples have delicate emerald buds and emerging five-fingered leaves. Candles are beginning to form on Horse Chestnuts but there are barely any signs of leaves on the Spanish variety. Carrion Crows take advantage of the winds to swirl and dance in the air. Into the quarry pond for Maddy to wash off some of the mud. A dozen Jackdaws stalk the case park field searching for food.
Tuesday – Home – Very annoyingly, slugs have devoured my newly planted out lettuce seedlings. It was silly not to put collars around them! A piece of orange peel put down last night caught about half a dozen of the slimy pests. A dozen sweet pepper seedlings have been potted up. The initial sowing of peas, both main crop and mange tout, have germinated poorly so another sowing is made. A tray of Swiss chard and one of Golden Acre cabbage are sown along with a row of beetroot, a heritage variety “Covent Garden”. It is a typical April day of showers, one moment bright sunshine, the next a cloud passes over. There is still only one hen laying – decisions must be made.
Wednesday – Hereford – We drop into Bodenham Lake on our way to Hereford. A few Canada Geese can be heard but there is nothing to be seen on the sailing area and just the aforementioned geese on the meadow area. Here the blue sky and clouds are reflected in the water. We do not go to the hide but head back across the orchards. Ewes with their lambs are in the cider orchard but as usual Maddy is only interested in her ball. The perry trees at the top of the slope are in blossom. A few trees in the dessert apple orchard are also in blossom, the Irish Peach apple being one of them. There is a lot a traffic on the Dinmore lane which makes us think something is happening on the main A49. We head around the other direction through Marden and Sutton-St-Nicholas. The radio tells us there has been a crash on the Hereford side of the hill and the air-ambulance is in attendance. The first Swallow of the year is resting on a wire. We do not stay long in Hereford. The traffic on the Blue School Street is chaotic with ever continuing road works connected to the new shopping centre. This towers over the road and is, frankly pretty uninspiring. It will drag people out of the city centre as many will not bother crossing the busy road, which will lead to a further decline in the High Town shopping area which could become a vicious downwards spiral as that leads to more closures and less people. We return and pay a quick visit to the chicken supplier at Buskwood. Old Gin & Tonic was despatched this morning and we are looking for some replacements. However, at the moment there are only Warrens but some much “prettier” breeds are arriving in a fortnight so we decide to wait. Dinmore Hill is still closed to traffic.
Thursday – Leominster – A few stars are visible through the light pollution. It is a mild evening. The Plough is directly overhead and Jupiter is bright in the western sky. A bright light comes out of the west and passes over – the International Space Station. Its path is crossed by a fainter satellite, probably Cosmos 1745, a Russian rocket body launched from Plesetsk in 1986.
Friday – Clun-Brockton – The River Clun flows gently under Clun bridge which signs for miles around indicate is closed but is not. Feral ducks quack contentedly. The sun is bright. Up into the town. Up Ford Street, past Old Frog Cottage, the old Trinity Hospital, the Memorial Hall and the Youth Hostel and onto the Shropshire Way. Sheep baa, a pheasant croaks and a Chiffchaff sings its two syllable note. The path crosses a couple of fields before rejoining the lane, Grey Bank. A ditch running down the hill beside the lane suddenly dives
To A Skylark
O skylark! I see thee and call thee joy!
Thy wings bear thee up to the breast of the dawn;
I see thee no more, but thy song is still
The tongue of the heavens to me!
Thus are the days when I was a boy;
Sweet while I lived in them, dear now they’re gone:
I feel them no longer, but still, O still
They tell of the heavens to me.
George Meredith into a deep channel whose sides are bedrock shale. A Dunnock flies up out of the ditch. Chiffchaffs, a Linnet and a Song Thrush sing. The fields are mainly winter grain now about six inches high. Skylarks sing on high. The banks are covered in Cleavers with patches of Primroses and Dandelions. A pleasant row of cottages looks across the valley. A farm pond has a pair of Mallard standing in the nettles. The farm is in Guilden Down, a small hamlet. The cow house by the farm house is a listed building dating from the late 18th century. The whole hamlet was owned by the Earl of Powis. A Swallow flies over. Red Dead Nettle is one of the earliest red flowers to emerge. The track continues to climb now through woodland. Bird song continues, both those already mentioned plus Jays, Common Buzzards, Chaffinches, Wrens, Robins, Blackcaps and Great Tits. A Forestry Commission track leads through pine plantations, Sunny Wood and around Bury Ditches, a hill-fort. I take the southern route. Across the valley is Merry Hill. To the south-west is Steppleknoll, another hill with a steep side down into the Gunridge valley. A woodpecker drums in the distance. The track reaches the main car park. A charm of Goldfinches fly up into the trees.
Out into the road which drops down steeply to Lower Down. A motte stands in a sheep field with earthworks crossing the field to the north. The lands belonged to the Saxon lord Edric the Wild but after he rebelled against William I his lands were given to Roger of Montgomery who in turn gave the Barony of Clun, of which this is part, to Robert “Picot” de Sai. Picot’s daughter married the Welsh prince of Powys, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn who inherited the lands. Their children kept the de Sai name and Picot’s great granddaughter Isabella married into the Fitz Alan family, the earls of Arundel and Lord of Oswestry. Henry I established the castle-guard system for the area wherein land owners were required to provide knights to guard royal castles. By the 13th century the area was known as the “Honour of Clun”. It does not seem to be known who actually built the small castle here in Lower Down. A mediaeval village was attached to the castle as evidence by the earthworks. Orange Tip butterfly fits along the roadside bank. Rook chicks call from a rookery. The great bulk of Long Mynd lies ahead. The road drops down again steeply to Brockton, a small village. Past a large agricultural suppliers into the centre. A stream flows through with the road passing through a ford and eastwards to Walcot Pool, part of the Walcot Hall estate and supposedly dug by French prisoners of the Napoleonic war. The Baptist chapel built in 1870 for the local congregation which was founded in 1831, stands opposite the ford in a row of cottages. The Shrewsbury road, A488 passes nearby. A cock House Sparrow alights by the stream to drink.
Back up the hill, through Lower Down and up to Bury Ditches. The path up to the hill-fort is flanked by Hazel coppices. Chiffchaff, Song Thrush and Chaffinch sing. The buzzing of bees can be heard. Then the first Willow Warbler of the year. Finally the uphill grind ends on top of the hill-fort. Bury Ditches is a multi-vallate hill-fort with complex entrances to the north-east and south-east. There are old reports of hut circles but these have not been identified recently. The interior was covered with Forestry Commission softwoods but many were blown down in storms in 1976 causing stratification damage to the site. There has also been a lot of historic quarrying on the site. It is reported the site dates from around 500BCE but there seems to be little up-to-date information. There is a legend that the site contains a pot of fairy gold, attached to which is a thread of gold wire that will lead someone to the spot. The view from the toposcope are magnificent. Long Mynd, the Clee Hills, the Teme valley, Radnor Forest, Llanfair Hill, Clun Forest and Stiperstones. The path runs round the other side of the hill-fort from that I took earlier. It continues through Hoar Wood and rejoins the track down to Clun. Celandines have opened fully and face the sun which is now really warming. Skylarks ascend singing non-stop. Past Guilden Down. The purple head of the drake Mallard sticking up out of the same spot in the nettle patch as when I passed a few hours ago. He may be guarding his duck on their nest, best not to disturb them. All the way down from the farm, daffodils have been planted along the lane side. Different varieties shine in the nettles, Cleavers and docks. Opposite the deep ditch a patch of Lungwort which have purple flowers and spotted leaves. Route.
Monday – Kingsland-Mortimer’s Cross – From the church along to the crossroads is the old centre of Kingsland. The houses are mainly timber-framed. Up Lugg Green Road. Once one is back from the old main road the houses are 20th century with the occasional late Victorian. Approaching the Lugg bridge, rebuilt in 1937, there are some older houses, difficult to date as they seem to be much enlarged cottages. It has clouded over. Chaffinches and a Blackbird sing by the river. A footpath heads west and in typical Herefordshire manner disappears just past Lugg Mill. It transpires it runs through an ornamental gate down an alley by a strange garage type of building to an old, broken stile. Across a field to the old sluice gate of the mill leet which has been entirely filled in now. Over the river is a large barn conversion with a water wheel, but I believe this is decorative as the mill was this side of the river. The path follows the river and drops down into a small plain which would have been the old river course. Numerous badger setts are in the bank. The ground is dotted with water-smoothed pebbles. A Chiffchaff calls and a Green Woodpecker yaffles. Into open fields again. A farmhouse, Sodgley, stands up in a slight rise. Beyond is Tars Wood. The path is again beside the river before crossing a wheat field to Tars Coppice. The path divides, one leg going to Lucton, the other, my path, heading for Mortimer’s Cross. Across a meadow with mature trees in its slope. A small slope goes down into the river where gates block it creating an access to water for stock. The river meanders here in large loops. The path crosses another grain field. The presence again of numerous water-smoothed pebbles indicates the river has wandered across this landscape over the millennia. New Farm SSSI covers an area of water meadow where the river flows through several channels. The path skirts a ploughed field and emerges at Mortimer’s Cross Bridge by the water mill. Just before the bridge a pair of Mallard rise from the water, the first ducks I have seen on the river. Butterburs flower, pink, knobbly brush-heads. The bridge was erected in 1771 and widened in 1938. A public footpath should run across a field to the top of Hereford Lane but it has been completely destroyed by fresh ploughing.
Down Hereford Lane. This is the Roman road from Bravonium (Lientwardine) to Magnis (Kenchester). At Lower Cross Farm, a fine old barn continues as a single building into the farmhouse. Past the farm is a fairly modern house set in some unremarkable fields, however this, according to the map, is the site of the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461 between Edward, Earl of March and Jasper Tudor. This a rather poorly documented battle of the Wars of the Roses, indeed it is not known if it took place on the 2nd – Candlemas or 3rd – St Blaise’s Day, of February 1461. The site is not certain, Blue Mantle Cottage, near the junction I have just passed, is said to commemorate Blue Mantle, Edward’s herald who fell in the battle. A long ridge to the west is believed to be where Edward’s archers hid and unleashed an arrow-storm on the Lancastrians. There is a plaque at the junction of the road into Kingsland and the A4410 where a large number of artefacts have been found but this seems to relate to where the Lancastrian’s were routed. The basic details of the battle was that Edward waited in Wigmore Castle for the Lancastrian army under Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke and the Earl of Wiltshire who were marching from Pembroke towards London to support the King, Henry VI. The famous occurance happened before the battle which was appearance of a parhelion in the sky over Kingsland on the morning of the battle. A parhelion appears when the sun is rising or setting, and it meets either ice crystal clouds or ice fog. The two sun dogs which are seen on either side of the sun are normally reflections through the ice crystals. Edward’s soldiers are said to have been scared by the appearance of three perfect suns in the sky, but their young leader led them in prayer, calling the suns an “omen of divine favour”. Shakespeare refers to the Parhelion in his play Henry VI Part 3, act two scene one, although he does not specifically refer to the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross:
Not separated with the racking clouds,
But sever’d in a pale clear-shining sky.
See, see! they join, embrace and seem to kiss,
As if they vow'd some league inviolable:
Now are they but one lamp, one light, one sun. In this the heaven figures some event.
The Lancastrian forces attacked on three sides but they were out fought at the centre and surrounded and then pushed back against the River Lugg. While the Earls of Pembroke and Wiltshire both escaped, others were not so fortunate. Owen Tudor was captured and subsequently, at Hereford, he was executed along with Sir John Throckmorton and eight other nobles who had fought on the Lancastrian side at Mortimer’s Cross. According to Leland, Tudor was buried in Greyfriars church in the city. After a brief stay in Hereford, Edward went to London where Warwick the Kingmaker declared him King Edward IV. There are a number of lovely cottages alongside the lane. At the junction of the Ledicott lane, pears blossom along the edge of an orchard but most of the apples are devoid of any sign of spring’s renewal. The lane turns east at Brooks Bridge and joins the A4410. A bright red Victorian post box stands on the verge. A lane heads into Kingsland.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – The last few nights have been clear but barely dark with a fat, full moon gleaming. The mornings are frosty. However it has now clouded over and a chill wind blows. Blackthorn bushes are densely covered in blossom, if the insects are out despite the coolness there will be a fine crop of sloes. Blackcaps sing along the orchard hedge. Blue Tits chatter and as usual the barking of Canada Geese is coming from the lake. A Chiffchaff sings in the lakeside trees, a Willow Warbler in the large Willow at the end at the meadow, below which a male Dunnock pursues a female with vigour and much wing shimmering although she seems evasive. Only a couple of Mallard and Coot are with the large number of Canada Geese. A Green Woodpecker yaffles from the island. It seems the last of the wintering Wigeon and Goldeneye have finally departed. Likewise there is an absence of Cormorants. West Field and Dinmore Woods are still grey but there is a hint of green. Across the valley here the trees vary from orange to yellow to lime through emerald to the darkest greens. Back in the copse, the sunshine faces of Dandelions are build beside the peeping purple lips of Ground Ivy. Some apples are joining the blossoming pears in the orchards. A Common Buzzard drifts out from the woods.
Thursday – Kinver – The small town of Kinver is in South Staffordshire, a few miles north of Kidderminster. A settlement of the 8th century CE has been identified as Cynibre meaning “great or royal hill” although there is no knowledge of who any royal personage may have been. In 964 the settlement was called Cynfare, “royal road”, maintaining the ancient royal link. It lies beneath the red sandstone ridge of Kinver Edge. The area consists of two levels of sandstone, the late Permian Bridgnorth Sandstone Formation of 260 million years below the early Triassic Kidderminster Sandstone Formation of 245 million years ago. At the time, the world’s landmass was a single super-continent, Pangaea and Kinver was in the position occupied these days by Sudan and Chad. The sandstone is a rich brick red colour caused by iron oxide. The edge was formed by either ice or melt water carving a large channel now occupied by the River Stour. We climb through woods to the calls of Chiffchaffs and Robin song to the cliff face where there are the most wonderful rock houses. Primitive cave shelters were carved in the soft sandstone for centuries but in the mid-18th century homes were carved out of what was called Holy Austin. The 1861 census recorded 11 families living in the rock houses. One house, the Martindales, has been faithfully recreated as it was in the 1930s and is a reasonably comfortable dwelling with two rooms, a kitchen with a range that was used as a living room and a bedroom. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mr and Mrs Fletcher raised four children in this house. Whilst it seems primitive, it was certainly a lot better and healthier than the lot of many people living in the inner cities at this time. By the mid-20th century the houses had electricity and mains water but no sewage and it was this that led to their abandonment in the early 1960s. We leave the rock houses and head on up through the woods to the top of the hill. This area is an Iron Age hill-fort, defended by the steep hill to most sides but with large ditches and ramparts to the south-east and south-west. It was probably constructed in the 4th century BCE and abandoned in the 1st century CE. A Second World War Home Guard shelter stands at the north-western end of the south-west rampart. The views from the toposcope in the hill-fort are wonderful. We return to the National Trust tea rooms which is in a restored rock house on the second level.
Good Friday – Leominster – The holiday weekend starts with sunshine. A Song Thrush sings lustily in a tree a few feet from the footbridge over the railway. Across the River Lugg which has a much lower water these days compared to the winter. The meadows have been mown. Under the A49. The Butterbur patch here has no flowers and is being overwhelmed by nettles. A few Bluebells have established in the Millennium Woods from where a Chiffchaff calls. The dead stalks of last year’s Stinging Nettles and Teasels are beginning to fall as new growth replaces them. Up Eaton Hill on the old drovers’ track. Flowering Ground Ivy is abundant. White Dead Nettle also is a frequent flower along the edge of the fields. At the top of the hill a lot of ticking comes from angry Wrens and possibly Blackcaps. Certainly a male Blackcap bursts into song a few minutes later as does one of the Wrens and a Dunnock. The field along Eaton Hill that has been sown with maize over recent years has a grain crop growing now. Cream and chocolate striped snails cling to dead stalks. A single patch of Yellow Archangel is coming into flower. Beneath the telephone mast the view between the trees stretches both east and west. To the east the air traffic control ball on Titterstone Clee is half lit by the sun making it look like a mid lunar month moon. More Dunnocks sing, they really are a quite common species around here. Magpies fly to and fro across the field to the north. I am not sure of the history of this field other than King Merewald of Mercia’s hall was supposed to be around here, but the trees, probably several centuries old, look placed as if in a park. Clouds are building and the temperature drops noticeably when the sun is obscured. A rabbit scuttles down the track, missed by Maddy who only had eyes for her ball. Fields ahead are acid yellow with oilseed rape stretching away towards Nordan. Half way down the hill a Garden Warbler is singing in the saplings whilst being surrounded by ticking and chasing Wrens. Back in the town it is hard to believe it is a Bank Holiday. Most the shops are open and the normal Friday market is in full swing. It seems odd that after years of campaigning to obtain decent holidays for workers, everyone treats these holidays as normal working days!
Easter Sunday – Leominster – The sky is grey and threatening, it looks like the bright spring days are temporarily suspended. A Tawny Owl was in a nearby garden last, hooting loudly for a prolonged period of time. Marsh Marigolds are in flower around the “pond” in the Millennium Gardens, their shining yellow faces brightening the dull morning.
Nunney – We arrive in time for the Easter Bonnet Parade and Duck Race. Jemima wins the adult class for the second year running. Peter made a hat but was busy with the duck race so he plonked it on my head, assuming I suppose that I would enter the parade – no chance! The Nunney Brook is running very slowly and the Environment Agency have stated that the mill pond sluice gates must not be opened, so the race is more of a Water Snail rather than duck affair. We get cold and bored so retreat to a warm kitchen and a beer.
Easter Monday – Nunney – Yesterday as we approached the village a Red Kite glided over the road. They are rapidly spreading across the country and with a number of different feeding stations there is now a worry they are getting too familiar with humans and may turn into the sort of pests that some seagulls are now. This morning is clear and bright. Zebedee, the springer spaniel rushes around the Rack Field, which has been sown with a grain crop, and flushes three Red-legged Partridges. Jo and Peter’s sheep are due to drop lambs but nothing this morning. In the way to the petrol station to get the morning newspaper, two more Red-legged Partridge scurry in front of the car. I have to brake sharply as the stupid things refuse to take off or run to the side. Eventually they do so and I can proceed. After breakfast it is pleasant to sit in the garden, listening to bird song and the contented muttering of the bantams. Water Skaters slide across the surface of the pond. Off to a small plant grower in the walled garden of the Longleat estate. They specialise in chillies, squash and tomatoes. Swallows fly over and Cuckoo calls from across the fields. I was not going to bother with chillies this year after my initial sowings failed, but the choice of varieties soon persuades me differently.
Montacute – In the afternoon, we go to Montacute House near Castle Cary. This fine Elizabethan house, now in the care of the National Trust, was built by William Arnold, a local builder, for Sir Edward Phelips. Phelips was a successful London lawyer who entered Parliament and became Speaker of the House. He led the prosecution of Guy Fawkes after his capture during the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The Phelips family owned the house until 1911 when debts forced them to leave. It was tenanted for some years, then bought by Ernest Cook in 1931 who presented it to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and subsequently, the National Trust. It was used a billet for US troops in the Second World War. The house combines both more traditional Gothic features along with continental ideas of the Renaissance. It is built in a lovely golden sandstone from nearby Ham Hill. Started around 1588, it was probably finished when the date was carved over the east doorway in 1601. The rooms contain a fine selection of furniture including some Louis XIV desks, George I card table, a massive oak bed with the arms of James I and a Jacobean cupboard in which Lord Curzon installed a bath around 1923. Friezes around a number of the rooms are fascinating; a good number of goats are featured along with a depiction of an elephant by someone who had never seen the beast in the flesh and one of a husband being hit on the head by his wife with a shoe for trying to have a drink of beer or wine whilst he was supposed to be looking after the baby. In the Library, a poem has been scratched into the window by Edward Phelips (1725-1797). The Library, which would have been main room of the house, where important guests were received and entertained. It has a magnificent Portland stone fireplace that an old drawing shows contained some fine statuary of nude women which were removed by prudish Victorians. On the third floor is the Long Gallery, which at 172 feet in length is the longest surviving such gallery in Britain. A lot of work has been carried out in here and the adjoining rooms so that the temperature and humidity can be carefully controlled and now some important portraits hang, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. The gardens are little changed, that in front of the house has pavilions in the corners and that to the north has a fine Yew hedge and fountain. The park runs off from east with a long tree lined avenue. An Orangery now contains, rather oddly, a fine display of wallflowers. It is a beautiful spring day and not surprisingly the whole place is busy with visitors.
Nunney – On our return we are able to relax in the garden in warm sunshine. In the evening, we take the dogs back up to the Rack Field to check the sheep but no lambs still. Again Zebedee flushes some Red-legged Partridges. Down to the castle where the moat is in a sorry state with lots of dead weed and a rather unpleasant odour.
St George’s Day, – Home – After a brief and very wet walk around the Queenswood Country Park we head up to Wynn’s, the chicken suppliers. Sadly, another hen had to be put down this morning, one of the black-tailed Warrens. I think an egg may have broken inside her and given her an infection, she certainly was not a happy hen! So we get three new hens – a Bristol Blue, known as a Bluebelle; a Speckledy, a dark hen with lots of silver speckles and a Silver Sussex, a very dark hen. We bring them home and temporarily put them in the leaf mould bin. In the evening I check and discover the two older Warrens have gone into the hen house, so I cover the automatic door mechanism which works on a light sensitive switch, and the door closes. I then spray all the hens with a bit of anti-peck mainly to try and get them smelling the same and put the new ones on the perch in the house. It is now raining heavily and quite overcast so I remove the piece of wood blocking the light switch and the door remains closed. I check them out just before Maddy’s ten o’clock walk and discover the rain had stopped and it must have brightened a bit, triggering the door mechanism because the older hens are outside, huddled against the hen house door which has now closed again. Inside, two of the new girls have decided the nest boxes look far more comfortable and the third is just sitting on the floor of the house. So they all are put back on the perch and the Warrens brought back into the house. Peace at least!
Thursday – Home – The Warrens are strutting around the pen but the new girls have not left the perch. I shoo them out and there is a bit of pecking at each other but things seem fairly peaceful.
Bodenham Lake – Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps sing along the track from the car park. On the lake the usual Canada Geese are making a noise. It is a mild but very damp day with mist and fog affecting the area. A singing Garden Warbler with at least one other are in the lakeside copse. A Long-tailed Tit flits through the branches. Along with the Canada Geese, there are four drake Mallard, a pair of Mute Swans and a couple of Tufted Duck. A Green Woodpecker yaffles from the distance. A single Cormorant is in the island willows. A Willow Warbler sings outside the hide. Beyond the nature reserve gate a pair of Stock Doves display with much flapping of wings and a male Bullfinch like John Bull with his gorgeous pink breast, slips silently past. One of the cider apple trees is in full blossom – Court Royal, a cider/dessert variety probably from Devon or Somerset.
Home – The new hens are huddled in the corner of the run, clearly a bit intimidated by the older girls. The noise from next door probably does not help. The two large Leylandii over the wall are being felled, so the noise of chain saws is nearly non-stop. We have mixed feelings about this, one never likes to see a large mature tree destroyed but these two have blocked a lot of light and tend to cover the place with fallen leaves, blocking the gutters. After lunch I get on with one of my least favourite tasks in the garden – sorting the compost. The remnants of one wooden bin is bagged and then the contents of the second wooden bin are transferred. It has rotted down well and will be usable very soon. Then the contents of the three plastic compost bins are transferred into the empty wooden bin. This stuff is partly rotted and pretty horrible! But the job gets done and we now have three empty bins which Kay will fill in double quick time! Then the beans are sown, dwarf and climbing French beans and runner beans. This is a bit earlier than usual but hopefully there will be no frosts by the time they need to be planted out. The potatoes are showing through so I will need to watch the weather and get the tatty old fleeces out if necessary.
Friday – Leominster – A dull morning is suddenly brightened by the call of a Cuckoo from the direction of Easters Meadows. The apple trees in the Millennium Park are coming into blossom, the perry pear is already a mass of white.
Hergest Ridge – A Willow Warbler sings in the woods at the top of Ridgebourne Road. White stars of Stitchwort shine out of the roadside banks. A Robin flies into the Beech hedge. Hergest Ridge is cloud bound. Further up the ridge more bird song can be heard even if the singers are hidden in mist, more Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Blackbirds, Chaffinches and Yellowhammers. Further up still, the sweet notes of the Skylark float down from the grey. Round the old race course to the Whetstone. Here it is almost silent, the occasional squeak from a Meadow Pipit and the distant drone of the quarry. Off down to the saddle beneath Hanter Hill. Ahead I think I see Shirley (Shaun the Sheep viewers will understand) but it turns out to be two sheep together in the mist. From the top of Hanter Hill the view is – zero. A breeze from the east has spring up. The dampness has brought out plenty of black slugs, Arion ater. Back on top of the ridge even more Skylarks have ascended and the sky is flooded with song. Meadow Pipits chase across the scrubby Gorse. The mist has lifted slightly but still little can be seen beyond the immediate vicinity. Further on down, Bradnor Hill emerges from the gloom across the valley.
Monday – Leominster – It is grey but mild and damp. Maddy however is very black and white and damp having just been bathed in an attempt to stop her frequent scratching which may be caused by having little friends in her fur. Up Ryelands Road and onto Cock Croft Lane which is frequently blocked by fallen trees. All had significant amounts of Ivy which would have contributed to their demise. The field beside the lane is sown with clover, part of the organic rotation. Song Thrushes and Blackbirds sing. A Skylark rises in song. Goldfinches sing along the hedgerow. A Chiffchaff calls by the new school building. Candles are in flower on the Horse Chestnut. Near Cockcroft House are large patches of Green Alkenet and Common Comfrey, both in flower. Down to Hereford Road then up past Town End Cottage to the twitten that was the old hop pickers route. This passes between the high fences of back gardens of the houses on the main road and the primary school. It emerges by Marlborough Close, a small line of bungalows behind the trees along the footpath. This becomes Gateway Lane where there is a tiny grocery shop whose existence was unknown to me. In to Alderman’s Meadow, now the bowling club and past the end of Wright’s Court, now bungalows and into Probert Close, where Hope Cottages stand, which are much older properties. A long passage leads back to Ryelands Road. The passage is old as evidenced by parts the walls which are very worn local stone. Ryelands Road joins Westbury Street by the Aldi supermarket which stands on the site of an old Cider Works.
Tuesday – Taff Vale – We park up in Merthyr Tydfil. Kay and Fran are going to Cardiff and I am heading up the valley. From the centre of Merthyr the path crosses over the River Taff. The river runs through old stone walls. The trail is diverted around a building site where a new bridge is being installed, imaginatively called “River Taff Central Link and Bridge”. Various footpaths and roads wind around until the trail is found again at the main roundabout in George Town out to the A470. A new housing estate is being built next to the roundabout and archaeological excavations have uncovered the stables for the horses that pulled the waggons and trams for the Cyfarthfa and Ynysfach iron works. Built around the early 19th century they were in use until the mid-20th century. Off up the A4102 a short way. Off down a path back on the Taff Trail. Here is a vast stone wall built on exposed bedrock with a series of arches. This is all that remains of the Cyfarthfa Iron Works. They were started by Anthony Bacon, a London merchant and passed to the Crayshay family in 1786. They made a great fortune out of these works, Richard Crayshay died in 1810 with assets of over £1.5 million. The works produced cannon, cannon balls and other weapons. They were so highly regarded that Admiral Nelson visited the works in 1802. Robert Crayshay was reluctant to convert to steel manufacturing and the works closed in 1875. His sons took over but the conversion to steel took so long that when they reopened in 1884, they had missed their opportunity. The works struggled on until 1902 when they were sold. They closed again in 1910, had a brief respite during the First World War but were finally closed in 1919 and demolished in 1928. Now all that remains is this fifty foot plus high wall with the blast furnaces and a great arch linking them. Holes in the stone work are being investigated by Sand Martins for nesting sites.
A little further on is the Pont-y-Cafnau (in English, Bridge of Troughs), a 47 foot long iron truss bridge over the River Taff that is the oldest cast iron bridge in the world. The bridge was designed by Watkin George and built in 1793 for the Cyfarthfa Ironworks, to support both a tramway and an aqueduct to carry limestone and water into the works. All around are the relics of the industrial heritage of the area – stone walls guiding the river, culverts coming from who knows where and concrete structures whose use is no longer discernible. Just above the bridge is the confluence of the Taff Fawr and the Taff Fechan rivers. Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers are singing. Anemones, Bluebells, Dog Violets and Dandelions bloom on the sides of the track. The trail reaches the Cefn-coed-y-cymmer viaduct, which formerly carried the Brecon and Merthyr railway over the River Taff. It is the third largest viaduct in Wales and was designed by engineers Alexander Sutherland and Henry Conybeare. Sutherland was a friend of Robert Thompson Crawshay and the viaduct was built on a curve to satisfy conditions laid down by the Crawshay Estate. At the far end of the bridge there is a problem with route. A sign points me down into a cul-de-sac and as I return a kind care worker from a council establishment comes out and gives me directions. Even this becomes unclear but I head down to a bridge, Pont-y-capel where a brewery once stood. A lane winds up to the Cefn-Ffrwd cemetery, a site of over 40 acres on both sides of the River Taff Fawr. The cemetery was set up the Breconshire Board of Health in the 1850s and the first burial took place on the 16th April 1859. Here, Celandines and Wild Arum predominate the road edge with a few early Red Campion.
The trail crosses the A470 at Ffrwd Uchaf and a track heads up towards Penmoellalt. Either side of the track are ewes with their lambs. I take a break. Whilst musing I notice my ancient Karrimor rucksack was made in the UK and this leads me to thinking how much else of the stuff I have with me was British made. I conclude that it is probably only my Herefordshire goat socks and the map! On the opposite of the valley is a great, grey, scree covered hillside, Cefn Cil-Sanws. The Jewish cemetery is a small site on its slopes. It was established by the then Merthyr Hebrew Congregation and consecrated in the 1860s. Danydarren Quarry is abandoned, lying further up the hillside. The hill tops out at 460 metres. The track leads into woods. Penmoellalt has been used since the Neolithic. Here and across the valley are 16 specimens of Ley’s Whitebeam, Sorbus leyana, in the world, the 17th and only other specimen is in the Botanic Garden of Wales. It was discovered and named after the Revd Augustin Ley, a 19th century vicar who spent much of his spare time riding around Wales on horseback indulging his passionate interest in natural history and botany in particular. A short way into the wood is a splendid outdoor classroom for youngsters. Beyond is a charcoal burner. The trail travels along Craig Penmailard through a mixture of conifers and deciduous trees. Broken Hazel nut shells lie along the path and the culprit, Grey Squirrels can be heard barking in the distance. A Raven and Buzzard pass over, both calling. After a while there is a view of Llwyn-on reservoir in the valley. The path emerges onto a Forestry track. A wall running alongside the track is completely covered in moss, not a stone can be seen. Butterflies are plentiful, Small Tortoiseshells and one of the whites that never come near enough to identify. It is quite muggy now. Again, the marked trail bears little resemblance to the map! The track winds around then enters a field of moorland. From here it turns to Pen-twyn-isaf, a farm. A road drops steeply down to Llwyn-on reservoir, finished in 1926 to provide water for the Merthyr and Cardiff area. A small road runs up the western side of the reservoir, the A470 up the eastern side. Streams tumble down from the hills. A bridge crosses Nant Aber-nant which bubbles over the rocks. The road to Cwm Cadlan and on to Penderyn heads up into the woods.
At the end of the reservoir at Coed Pen Pont a stream pours down numerous waterfalls. The stream is made up of three others, Nant Ffynonelynn which joins Garwnant Fach which comes off of Pant y Gadair and they are joined by Garwnant Fawr which comes from further north. I take a brief break at the Garwnant Outdoor Centre and then head back down the steam to the road. Opposite a tiny packhorse bridge crosses the stream and a Dipper shoots out from a waterfall and heads for the main water. On down the road. Two Grey Herons are checking the picnic area on the far bank. Across the dam where the flow mechanism is in a fine stone tower which even has a little side tower topping it. On the main road is Llwyn-on Village. A chapel, Capel Bedyddwyr stands opposite the road junction, according to the sign, “Adeiladwyd 1799, Ailadeiladwyd 1866, Symudwyd O Ynysyfelin 1914” - “Built 1799, rebuilt 1866, moved from Ynysyfelin 1914.” The hamlet of Ynysyfelin, where this Bethel chapel was built, was flooded when the reservoir was constructed and the building moved here. A little way down the road is Grawen campsite where I spend the night. I head down to an empty field where dozens of rabbits disappear at our appearance, although Maddy is disinterested. My new tent is easy to erect and has enough space for Maddy, my stuff and me! Dinner is some Aldi Pot Noodles, which I have to say are pretty disgusting, but hot and I am hungry. Maddy seems pretty confused and curls up on the grass after her dinner and ignores me. A little Field Mouse darts out of some rocks by a rill and across to the hedge. It begins to get cold and dark so I crawl into my sleeping bag. Route
Wednesday – Taff Valley – I am awakened at three o’clock in the morning by a hideous thin screeching. It takes a few minutes to work out it is a nearby Barn Owl, first I have heard for decades. I doze and a Great Tit starts up around five o’clock. Up just before six. Mist covers the hills and the ground is saturated. A cup of so-called Mocha and an oat bar then I pack up. Head back across the dam. Bird song is coming from every direction. Jackdaws fly down the Taff valley. A Cuckoo is in the woods towards Pen-twyn-isaf. Up hill to the farm, a steep start to the day! Across moorland, Willow Warblers and Chaffinches sing on edge of forestry plantation. Into the woods. The day is warming fast. Blackbirds join the Willow Warblers and Chaffinches. A Jay passes silently. A Raven calls in the distance. Cobwebs are bejewelled with dew. Up on Craig Penmailard what I thought were blackberries yesterday I now note are wild raspberries. Leaving the Penmoelallt woods with a Nuthatch and Great Tit saying farewell. The main road in the valley below is noisy now. Down to the main road and across it but instead of heading south through the cemetery, a path runs to the large road bridge then joins the path south along the River Taff Fawr. A small footbridge crosses a dry ford. Either side, the stream, which is currently near non-existent, has been lined with large squared-off boulders. A bridge crosses river on a bend, the 1964 map shows stepping stones here. The path climbs and passes under the A465, the Heads of the Valley road and into Cefn-coed-y-cymmer. The way into the village is through a maze of alleys and small streets of a late 20th century housing development, so it is no wonder I got lost yesterday! I retrace my steps into Merthyr Tydfil but detour to a row of cottages in the 1820s for the workers of the Cyfarthfa Ironworks. In the row is the cottage which was the birthplace in 1841 of Joseph Parry, Wales’ best known composer. His much loved “Myfanwy” is still a favourite of Welsh Male Voice Choirs to this day. Into the town where the powers that be have decided to replace both footpaths along the river at the same time, so I divert into the High Street. This is the shopping centre of the town, or at least, like so many towns these days, was once the shopping centre but is now full of shops selling the cheapest possible stuff. It is telling when even W.H.Smiths has closed down. Route