Monday 1st December – Leominster – A severe overnight frost has covered the ground and trees in white. Grass crunches underfoot as we cross the Grange. Maddy chases the ball across the playing field, leaving green paw prints and larger patches in the frost where she has tumbled and slid. We are later than usual so there are more people and their dogs around. This means the rabbits that Maddy chases each morning have already disappeared.
Hereford – We have to go to the city so take some time to do a bit of shopping. The centre is busy, long queues in most shops. As Kay attends to some business, Maddy and I wander down from Maylord Orchard car-park towards the bus station. This is a complex area in terms of history. The General Hospital stands partly on the site of the Hereford Union Workhouse. Indeed, the street is called Union Walk. The bus station covers part of the site where the prison stood. Across Commercial Road is a disused cemetery. Before 1791 all burials took place within the cathedral precincts but in that year the parishes were forced to open new burial grounds. This cemetery belonged to St Peter’s Church. The old grave stones stand against the walls. Some substantial tombs remain behind mouldering iron railings. To the north of the graveyard was a mill pond for a saw mill. By the Canal Road entrance to the graveyard a drinking fountain is set into the wall with inscription – “The Bequest of Miss E.M.Wall 1924”. Not surprisingly, the fountain does not function now. Across the road, the houses stand on the edge of the site of the Black Friars Monastery – a site which will need further exploration at a later date. Down Canal Street which emerges back onto Commercial Road. The shops here are in buildings reflecting a diverse history and range of ages. The road was the main road into Hereford when the town was part of the Kingdom of Mercia. Heading north-east, it ran in the direction of the old Mercian royal and ecclesiastical centres of Tamworth and Lichfield. There are a number of pubs including the Hop Pole which has been a public house since at least 1755 when two houses “outside Bysters Gate” were described as the Fox and Duck alehouse. The pub was known as the Hop Pole Inn by 1785. Next door is The Litten Tree. This was Hereford’s first steel-framed building and was built at the beginning of the 20th century as a furniture warehouse for Greenland’s, a well-known local firm. It later became “The Bombay”, Hereford’s first Indian restaurant. Maddy is very unimpressed with all of this and seems desperate to get back to the car.
Tuesday 2nd December – Eaton Hill – A strange day! It was cold this morning with a fair frost. By ten o’clock it was raining, but it stopped shortly after. This afternoon it was cloudy but dry so it was off down the road and over the railway, river and along past the car auctions to the track that leads up Eaton Hill. Over the wooded slope the corvid family is represented by Rooks, Carrion Crows, Jackdaws and Ravens. There are several of the last, huge black hunched creatures in the tallest trees but they become graceful gliders as they launch off across the fields. Their deep, guttural calls contrast against the higher pitched cries of the crows and sharp chacks of the Jackdaws. From the top of the hill I can see snow on the western hills and north on Clee Hill. I do not know if it was my e-mail to the Council about the state of paths along here, but last week there was a letter in the local “freebie” from the Council saying that Eaton Hill footpaths had been cleared. And when I arrived at the maize field so they were! It would be churlish to say that now the path that had been covered in nettles and brambles was now slick mud and almost as difficult to walk upon. Down the side to Eaton Bridge, where Redwings and Blackbirds lifted out of the hedges. Several Mistle Thrushes crossed the fields. Back along the river, where Maddy and I got muddier and muddier. Over the river, where a pause revealed Blue Tits and Blackbirds dashing across the water from one patch of undergrowth to another.
Thursday 4th December – Sutton Walls – From the village of Marsden, between Dinmore Hill and Hereford, a path leads due south. It passes through fields of aluminium arches – the frames for polytunnels. Underneath are rows and rows of strawberry plants. Considering the recent wet weather it is hardly surprising it is very muddy underfoot. The path then passes an orchard. The apple trees have old and twisted trunks but have been pruned regularly so there are healthy branches rising from the boles. The path has been rising slightly and now enters a wood. Ahead are the huge, twenty foot high ramparts of Sutton Walls Iron Age fort. The interior has been badly mistreated – quarried for gravel and then used as a toxic dump! The original site did not have any defences, but banks were thrown up around 100BCE and were then strengthened around 25CE. Excavations have revealed that around 48CE, twenty four people were killed in the fort, probably by Romans and thrown into the ditch. The skeletons show the wounds and some were decapitated. However, the fort remained in use until around the 3rd century. The fort is not on a major hill top as most are in the district, but it still affords extensive views down towards Hereford. The banks are now tree covered and full of squirrels, which sends Maddy into a frenzy. She rushes around the base of trees looking upwards and yelping in frustration. On the way back, a large flock of winter thrushes flies off from trees along the strawberry fields. Mistle Thrushes are also around in small numbers, rasping as they fly across the rapidly darkening sky.
Monday 8th December – Home – The last two mornings have dawned cold and frosty. Yesterday was bright but remained cold all day with spots that received no sunshine remaining white with frost. This morning it is cloudy and far less cold. It is also very dark. I cannot fathom how Maddy manages to see her ball as it flies over her charging body onto the grass somewhere ahead of her, but she does. Robins are singing. Blackbirds are very active around the Grange. Several birds will be chasing each other whilst others look on. In the gloom I cannot distinguish between males, females or juveniles. Maddy has developed a neat trick down on the meadow – she disappears into the graveyard to the west and re-emerges from the railway to the east! I cannot work out where she is crossing the path, I certainly do not see her doing it!
Dinmore – In the afternoon we head over Dinmore Hill to the Christmas Tree Farm. Hundreds of trees are growing up the hillside and they have a wide range of different species waiting for customers. We are traditionalists and still prefer the old-fashioned type of tree even though they drops needles more and faster than the more modern species. We get a fairly small tree but it still requires part of the back seat to be lowered to fit it into the boot of the car. Maddy looks on in horror as this green, prickly thing is thrust in beside her. However, it is only a short drive up the hill to the country-park and where she takes off like a thing possessed after squirrels. At one point she is chasing after one which she fails to realise it is behind a deer-mesh fence. She bounces off the fence in a spectacular manner. The leaves have nearly all fallen, although one Acer retains some deep red foliage.
Friday 12th December – Home – A light rain falls on a frozen ground at dawn making the paths slippery. The hens emerge slowly these mornings, it is still dark and they probably cannot see any good reason for leaving their house. Indeed, I am in agreement with them but Maddy thinks differently! Later in the morning a pair of Grey Squirrels invades the chimney stack so beloved of our local Jackdaws. The birds are outraged but clearly realise there is little they can do about the interlopers. They shuffle along a television aerial before abandoning the stack in disgust. In the late morning Maddy and I head down the road and over the railway. Both Kay and I have had a bout of what is probably flu, and I am still feeling pretty weak. So we just head out across the rough pasture on the town side of the bypass. The path is on a slightly raised track across the pasture. The 1890 map shows a stream running from close to the station, across this field to join the River Lugg at Eaton Bridge. It also states the area is “liable to floods”. The stream seems to have gone but the “liable to floods” probably explains why the raised track. Either side of the track are dense thickets of Rosebay Willowherb and bramble. The dead willowherb stalks stand high with curled tendrils now empty of their white, fluffy seeds. Small Hawthorns are becoming established.
Saturday 13th December – Leominster – Today sees the Victorian Fair in Broad Street and the Farmers’ Market in Corn Square. So inevitably it is raining heavily. Fortunately, it stops before ten o’clock so things can proceed. A Barn Owl stares at the passing trade from a perch on the Owl Rescue stall. The farm shop stall from Tillington is doing a good trade in holly and ivy decorations. Round in Broad Street the Town Crier announces and calls for silence for The Mayor. The Mayor with his attendants in red and black declares the “fair open!” There are a decent number of stalls all selling the sort of stuff one would expect from a Christmas Fair. Kay is at home nursing the flu still. I return and then go out later around midday. A children’s orchestra is setting up with a pony-tailed leader with a headband and a coat made of beer mats checking tunings on the little ones’ violins. They eventually set off into a carol – a sterling effort at least! Phil and Julie are having a “mini beer festival” at The Grapes, so it would be rude not to call in. The corner of the pub had racking with barrels three high, so there is a wonderful selection to start working my way through – not to mention a fine perry and cider. I take a break early afternoon to check on my poor invalid – who is more annoyed at missing the beer festival than anything else – and then head back for session two. By the end of session three later in the evening I know I have had a decent day on the ale!
Sunday 14th December – Dinmore – The moon is at its perigee – the closest its orbit comes to the earth. This is on an approximately fifteen year cycle. So naturally the sky has been full of cloud for the last few nights giving no views. But this morning the creamy disc is visible as grey and black clouds scuttle past. Maddy surprises me by catching a rabbit in the gloom by the graveyard. However, a quick look at the poor creature shows that it was not really such a feat, the rabbit has myxomatosis as evidenced by its crusted eyes. I despatch it quickly. Later in the morning, Maddy and I head up to Dinmore and over the road into the woods. The track leads vaguely eastwards but the frost that covered the car window and made the grass crisp has not had any effect on the quagmire I am wading through. Maddy’s belly and tail are almost instantly spiked with dripping mud. Through the trees stands a tower, looking like some mediaeval battlement. It is a sighting tower built when Dinmore tunnel was constructed in 1850. The railway was opened in 1853 and a Grand Banquet was held in the Royal Hotel on 5th December. A ballad was written:
In 1924, the celebrated photographer, Alfred Watkins F.R.P.S, wrote in the Hereford Times:
However, over eighty years later, the structure still stands. Indeed, it looks as if the wooden structure on top where the surveyor would stand with his theodolite is still more or less intact. Maddy attempts to run back along the track with a piece of branch that is wider than the path itself. Confusion ensues. Soon the mud becomes too wearisome and we return. Back home, Maddy makes it clear than spraying her clean with a garden hose is a non-starter – the combination of squirting hose in one hand and a whirling dervish in the other is beyond me.
Monday 15th December – Hope-Under-Dinmore – A path leads up the hill from Block Cottages, a set of six Alms Houses built by J.H. Arkwright of Hampton Court. The track has a stone base so is less muddy than most paths around here. It climbs through thickets of Hawthorn and other small trees and then opens out. Down the in valley to the south is The Bury Farm. A valley leads off westwards between Plock Wood to the north and a line of woods to the south – Old Nash Coppice, Sling Coppice, Rough Mill, Dingle Coppice, Friar’s Grove and finally Orling Coppice. Beyond these woods Dinmore Hill rises. Another valley heads further north towards Woodmanton. Trees on the hillside beside the track contain small rookeries but there are far more Rooks in the area evidenced by the continuous cawing all around. The sun is weak and the view watery in a thin misty haze. The path reaches a barn, Hovels Barn. Ahead, the path continues over Winsley Hill, but I turn back. Maddy is being somewhat headstrong and taking off after pheasants – not a clever idea in farmland such as this as she may find herself on the end of a farmer’s 12-bore shot. We have strong words when she returns. Down the hill, Hampton Court stands in its formal gardens. Across the hill to the north is a modern conversion of the old vicarage, now called The Old Rectory, but just called “Vicarage” on the 1890 map.
Friday 19th December – Dinmore – A lane heads in the direction of Dinmore Hill from Hope-Under-Dinmore. It starts at a cottage called “The Pound”, passes several other delightful timber-framed houses and then a sturdy farmhouse built in the local purplish-red sandstone. It has tall diamond-shaped chimneys. A path leads off the the edge of Church Coppice and then straight up Dinmore Hill. It is very wet underfoot. Maddy drags large sticks up the hill expecting me to throw them. She is disappointed! Robins are singing throughout the woods and in the distance Jays call harshly. The path emerges at a lay-by on the A49 and then re-enters the wood at the Country Park. We wander up various paths, taking a detour to “The Orchard and Reading Seat”. Here is a bower of wood surrounded by apple trees. The apples have just dropped to the ground and been left there, much to the delight of thrushes, including a Fieldfare. My actual route now is a bit obscure but I reach the western edge of Queens Wood where steps lead down towards a track. Maddy and I have our first row of the day as she persists in disappearing off through the woods for extended periods. I can more or less work out her position by the eruption of gabbling pheasants in different places. A short path leads to a low rock face of a quarry. An information board explains the stone was laid down by the erosion of mountains in what is now Wales in the Devonian period, 400 millions years ago. Streams and rivers carried the eroded sand and deposited it here. The rock face shows sloping beds (cross-bedding) where the river bank was built out sideways over the years. Below is a pebble bed caused by fast deposition by a flash flood and below that layer is fossilised soil which has been eroded away, undercutting the beds above. The track at the bottom of the hill heads northwards. Across the field is Burghope Court, a yellow timber-framed house added to in the 18th century. Up the valley is a large pond which seems modern. The path heads up through Burghope Wood. A stream tumbles down the hill beside the path. There are pheasants everywhere, exploding out of the woods as an errant dog rampages after them. At one point it appears she has found a pond as she is saturated. It is difficult going – very muddy and a tree has fallen across the path. It is also very humid and walking uphill for a long period leaves me very damp. The path joins a forestry track. A large shelter lies to one side and piles of logs bound by steel hoops line the track. The path continues up the hill and emerges at Kipperknowle. It is here I have a serious failure of direction. A road leads down in the general direction of Hope-Under-Dinmore, but it is blocked by a locked gate. So I follow way markers in the opposite direction. I have no map with me – my excuse is that I did not intend going this far! So I follow the signs for some way, past Little Kipperknowle Cottage, before they suddenly stop. It is not at all clear where the path now goes; there are open gates and fields but no obvious path. Anyway, I am certain this will not lead me down the valley and back towards Hope-Under-Dinmore so I head alongside Friar’s Grove. There are numerous deer tracks in the soft ground and once I glimpse something large crashing off through the undergrowth in the woods. The edges of many fields have rows of maize left for deer and pheasant food. It looks like a path enters the wood so I follow it. Paths run in every direction through the woods. Feeders are set up throughout the wood. Eventually, there is a track at the bottom of the hill. However, this just leads back up to Little Kipperknowle Cottage. So back to the farm and follow a road which may head over the hill to the A49, but it does not. The road ends at a huge modern barn and equestrian centre at Upper Dinmore. So back down the road where I meet a farmer who tells me to keep going down this road to the chicken farm. This I do. There are still hundreds of pheasants and Red-legged Partridges dashing off in all directions. The road brings me back to the locked gate, except this time I manage to notice there is a pedestrian gate next to the large gate. This is open and leads to Upper Buskwood Farm where a path drops down the hill back into Hope-under-Dinmore. Both Maddy and I are in a disgraceful state of muddiness.
Monday 22nd December – Leominster – Down the road and over the river. Maddy is full of energy so it needs burning off by ball chasing. We had gone up to Queenswood Country Park yesterday with Peter and Jasper, his WolfhoundxAlsatian. Unfortunately, Jasper injured himself and we have a very truncated walk. (We learn today that he has torn his cruciate ligament again and it seems the prognosis is poor.) So this morning Maddy is chasing across the field after her ball in the mild, damp air. A Green Woodpecker flies down the field and alights at the top of a tree. Tits are chasing around the branches of a stand of Alders. Up by the confluence of the Kenwater and Lugg, a lone Goldcrest squeaks through the branches. It is odd to see one alone. Back home, Kay is sweeping leaves on the patio when she calls out to me. A large Hornet is resting on an overturned flowerpot.
Boxing Day, Friday 26th December – Leominster – The North Herefordshire Hunt meets in Corn Square. Couple of young women on their horses wait in the square and a crowd of people stand around. Suddenly, a pack of hounds comes loping in from School Street and charge around greeting everyone. They are immediately followed by the hunt, bright red hunting pinks and starched ruffs. I am more ambivalent about hunts now, as opposed to my vehemently anti-bloodsport views in the past. Foxes are becoming more and more common and are a nuisance (and the loss of one of my chickens to a fox is incidental; it happens!) But I am not sure that other ways of controlling them are any better than hunting them with hounds. It is a cold morning and I imagine the stirrup cups of wine are welcomed. We head back home and shortly after the hunt comes galloping down the street. I have got Maddy from the house but she just barks at the hunt and anyone else around.
Sunday 28th December – Clee – It is a bright morning so we think a quick visit to Clee would give us some great views of the countryside. However, when we reach Clee Common it is obvious that the atmospheric conditions will not favour us. The Herefordshire hills are obscure in mist and the sun shines hazily but brightly in our eyes. So its off to Titterstone Clee. The wind is blasting the car park high on the edge of the hill. All the ruts are full of ice. We head off up the steep old track towards the summit. The ground is covered by a thin layer of snow. Kay decides she does not fancy the climb to the top so waits on a relatively sheltered old track. Tom and I push on to the top. It is bitterly cold with an easterly wind biting our cheeks. Maddy is enthralled by the snow and rolls incessantly. We get to the triangulation point beside the Bronze Age enclosure and decide the limited views do not warrant tarrying. So we head back down and join a frozen Kay and retreat to the relative warmth of the car.
Monday 29th December – Home – Everyone has departed after the Christmas celebrations and the house is ours again. It was a great Christmas and we think everyone enjoyed themselves. There are still lots of leftovers which are slowly being reduced by Maddy, the chickens and ourselves. Sadly, we have received the expected message that Pete and Jo’s dog, Jasper has been put to sleep. It was the kindest thing as his damaged hips would never recover, but he will leave a huge hole in our lives – literally!
Tuesday 30th December – Mortimer Forest – This woodland lies between Richards Castle and Ludlow on a series of limestone ridges. It is a remnant of the ancient Saxon hunting forests of Mocktree, Deerfold and Bringewood. The woodlands also provided firewood for Ludlow castle in mediaeval times. From Black Pool car park a trail leads up through Haye Park Wood, a Forestry Commission conifer plantation. Sadly, conifer woods have a limited amount of wildlife in them. There are warning tics from Robins and Wrens and a single Coal Tit searching a fir sapling but little else. The woods are full of hollow ways (ancient cart tracks), small quarries, charcoal burning platforms and, at the top of the hill, there is an enclosure of the Romano-British period. Maddy gets a telling off from a woman whose Greyhound she is hassling. She then gets a telling off from me, but she is so giddy that I doubt any of it sinks in.
Wednesday 31st December – Home – The last morning of 2008 is dark and foggy. The street lights create an unnatural and unpleasant orange glow. The Grange and meadow are grey with freezing fog. Maddy loses her ball on first throw, so I decide not to bother, much to her annoyance. As she chases rabbits or phantoms I ponder a strange year. For us it has been positive, we have achieved our objective of moving here. But so many other things have made it a year to forget – the financial disaster; the lack of real progress in addressing the looming environmental disaster; wars, famine, disease still inflict their terror on so many. But we must look to 2009 with hope for change.