Wednesday – Eaton Hill – Yesterday we awoke to a blanket of snow a couple of inches thick. Today there has been some thawing but much is frozen and everywhere is icy. Redwings gather at the tops of trees on the Grange. More are down the rough meadows across the River Lugg. Along the Lugg towards Eaton Bridge. Blackbirds are in the Hawthorns but flighty. A Common Buzzard sits on a low branch examining the undergrowth below. It moves downstream several times at Maddy’s approach then decides she is too much of a disturbance and heads across the woods. On Eaton Hill the long hedge beside the sunken lane is being cut and thinned by a chainsaw wielding man. The big field is snow-covered with maize stalks rising like a giant bristle. Rabbit tracks are abundant. Down the track to Brightwells. The Cogwell Brook is still frozen on top. A pair of Mute Swans, an adult and a juvenile, land on the water at the confluence.
Saturday – Leominster – The temperature has finally risen above freezing. A couple of nights’ ago it had fallen below -10°C. The snow has turned to rain. At least ten Blackbirds flew up from the piles of apples laying in the garden. The Grange is still covered with snow, but now wet, soft snow unlike the crisp blanket of a few days ago. This does not stop Maddy sliding through it as she chases and traps her football. It is very misty. House Sparrows chatter in the hedge by the recreation ground. Along the Millennium Park a fresh molehill has been thrust through the snow. In the churchyard, Chaffinches and tits are feeding energetically, desperate to ensure they have enough calories to see them through the night. Back by Grange House a Nuthatch is calling from one of the tall trees but remains hidden from my view. A flock of more than seventy feral pigeons is flying over the High Street, to and fro before settling on a roof.
Monday – Mortimer Forest – A steady drive up through Luston, Orleton and Richards Castle as the area is fogbound. The hedgerows and trees are white with hoarfrost. Up from the Black Pool car park and after a short distance the sun shines brightly. Where the trees are in the sun the frost has disappeared, however the ground is still frozen and tiny ice crystals cover all. The walk up to Climbing Jack Common is quiet, only my crunching boots to be heard. It is said that the 17th century owner of Haye Park, James Walter, leased a plot to a local man in 1601. On the plot was “Climber’s Oak”. This was rendered as “Climber’s Ake” in the lease, an example of how phonetic spelling of the local accent was often used at the time. Over time, the name became “Climbing Jack”. An occasional Carrion Crow glides overhead. By the time I reach High Vinnalls I am hot and sweating under the intense sun. All around the lower ground is covered in a sea of mist. Hills are islands. A fleet of ships in the distance with funnels pouring out white smoke are, of course, the cooling towers of a power station, probably that at Ironbridge. Another power station is on the eastern horizon, maybe at Stourbridge. The view makes me wonder if this is what it will look like when the great polar icecaps melt and the world floods. All signs of man have disappeared apart from the village of Clee which is bathed in sunshine on the side of Titterstone Clee. It is a reversal of the normal situation wherein Clee is hidden in low cloud whilst the lowlands have the sun.
Tuesday – Bodenham Lakes – Everything is white with frost. It is bitterly cold despite the clear blue sky and blazing sun. A dog is running through the orchard which is on the other side of a large hedgerow. Winter thrushes that have been feeding on fallen apples fly up into the tall bushes and trees. Both Redwings and Fieldfares are calling alarms as they realise Maddy and I am below them and they head off in all directions. Large areas of lakes are frozen and deserted. There is an area of open water in front of the hide. Mallard, Wigeon, Coot, Goldeneye, Mute Swans, Pochard and Teal are all swimming around the crowded oasis. Coot with feet like a circus clown walk across the ice. A dog spooks a Common Pheasant which flies across to the island. A bush has heart-shaped leaves that have a fringe of rime looking like earrings.
Thursday – Bodenham Lakes – Less cold but ground and lakes still frozen. The hoarfrost which draped everything just a couple of days ago has vanished. Winter thrushes are still numerous. The only open water is the patch in front of the hide and it is crowded with Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Coot and Mute Swans. A Water Rail runs out of the reed bed in front of the hide and swims across the patch of open water. It is harassed by Coots as it swims. On reaching the ice near the island it runs for the trees and disappears within. A Dabchick is lurking near the reeds. Many of the Mallard are cleaning their plumage vigorously, but one pair have other things on their mind. The drake is bobbing his head in front of the duck before mounting her and holding her under water with his bill. It is all over in a trice, then he swims around her with his neck outstretched just above the water. She shakes and swims off as if nothing has occurred. A large flock of Canada Geese are grazing the field beyond the lake. A Grey Heron preens on the edge of the spit. A line of Coot head for the bank to graze on the grass that has emerged from the snow and ice in the bright sun. Back at the orchard a large flock of Redwings, Fieldfares, Blackbirds and a couple of Chaffinches fly up from feasting on fallen apples.
Friday – Croft Ambrey – It is milder, that is to say, just above freezing. The ground is no less treacherous as the ice is now wet and slick. A Jay flies across the long avenue to Croft Castle. Two Common Buzzards rise from the car park and cross low in front of me. Down to Fish Pool Valley where a couple of ponds are ice free and the others iced over, the extent of which seems to depend on the number of trees surrounding the pool. Coal Tits bounce through the trees. A Blackbird alarms up in the woods. Up the valley between Lyngham Vallets and Bircher Common. It is very quiet here, just the occasional squeak of a Blue Tit. Flashes of bouncing white rumps through the trees marks the passing of a couple of Fallow Deer. A Great Spotted Woodpecker chips, a Nuthatch yips. Along the top of Leinthall Common. Machinery clanks and growls in the quarry. Pheasants and Carrion Crows croak in the fields below. A small group of Bullfinches flies along the path, white rumps flashing, meeping quietly. The hills are mainly clear of snow but a thin layer covers the valley fields. A strong breeze has arisen. Sheep have clearly sheltered under a pair of Ash trees on the edge of the hill fort, underfoot is a thick layer of droppings. The trees do not look like they would have provided much protection from the snow but any port in a storm! Back down to the castle. A young dog, apparently from the farm, wants to play with Maddy, she is not interested and makes it very clear, although this does little to puncture the pup’s enthusiasm.
Saturday – Leominster – Christmas is coming, so are the fairs. A Victorian fair occupies Broad Street with more stalls mingling with the Farmers’ Market in Corn Square. Everyone dresses in “Victorian” dress. The Town Crier is from Bromyard as sadly the Leominster crier died recently. The stalls have the usual array of “stuff” ranging from the expensive hand made or carved to cheap trinkets. A local Morris is dancing in Broad Street. They wear jackets made of curtain material, top hats adorned with pheasants’ feathers and have blackened faces. In truth the dancing is a break between drinking in the Grapes. However, their turn in the street leaves the pub with enough room for us to squeeze in and grab a pint. Maddy behaves impeccably, a great difference to her first visit when she barked at everyone and attacked Phil, the landlord!
Monday – Bringewood – Into Hazel Copse in the Mortimer Forest. This hill is Bringewood, one of the great Saxon hunting forests of the area. It is overcast and quite dark. There is a threat of rain or even snow. A large flock of tits and Goldcrests is noisily moving to and fro across the track between the tall conifers. Rooks can be heard calling below on Monstay Rough. I reverse my normal route and climb up the bank and follow the path up through the trees. The density of evergreens maintains a micro-climate in here and fungi are still growing although the rest of the area had been frozen for days on end before the weekend thaw. Up near the top of the hill, by the fields of Gorsty, another tree has fallen and now three lay against each other forming a triangle of trunks. From the triangulation point the valleys below are grey with mist although it is thinner than it has been of late. White columns of cloud rise up the Shropshire Hills. A pale gold glow lies along the southern horizon. Back down a muddy track and onto the forestry road. Crossbills are calling in the trees but remain hidden. On the way back home a small flock of less than a dozen Lapwings flap overhead. They seem quite uncommon around here, this being the first I have seen this winter.
Home – Weirdly the old hens have come back into lay. Everyone knows that hens lay during the long days of summer and stop when the short winter days arrive – except no-one seems to have told my old girls who have laid hardly an egg between them all summer but are now becoming regular. The new hens are still producing an egg each most days. I take them out some scraps. A Grey Heron flies over. A pair of Greenfinches have got themselves trapped in the fruit cage. I open the door fully so they can escape. We are still digging enormous parsnips out of the frozen ground – one is plenty for a meal. The leeks are still doing well but the cabbages and early purple sprouting broccoli are both looking sorry for themselves. As for the autumn sown garlic and broad beans there is not a trace!
Tuesday – Leominster – The weather has turned milder, although the forecasters say it is only a short interlude and Arctic conditions will be returning. Last night was the peak of the Geminids, a meteor shower caused by the earth passing through pieces of an object called “3200 Phaeton”, which may be an asteroid or the rocky core of a burned out comet. If the former, it it is the the only known meteor shower not of cometary origin. Astronomers say that there should be upwards of 140 per hour at peak, which is just before dawn. During my evening walk with Maddy I observed just two shooting stars, although both were bright, slow moving events. Jupiter and a semi-circle of the Moon shone brightly in the western sky. This morning I managed three, although, in fairness, the sky was half obscured by cloud.
Thursday – Home – It is milder still, but the threat of a bad winter remains. A surprising sighting just after breakfast – a Grey Heron standing on top of a large conifer in next door’s garden. It soon takes flight and disappears to the west.
Bodenham Lakes – A Cormorant is making wide circles over the area. A cockerel is crowing from the village. A large number of winter thrushes are still in the orchard. Much of the lake is still frozen. Along the old meadow where sheep are grazing. One has become entangled in brambles growing by the fence and cannot get free. Maddy behaves impeccably, sitting and waiting as instructed despite her intense interest in the trapped ewe. I pull off many of the bramble runners that have become entwined in her wool. Eventually enough have been removed and I send Maddy behind the sheep, at which point it bolts and tears itself free from the remaining strands of bramble. It trots up the meadow, shakes and goes to join the flock. There are nine Goosander on the lake in front of the hide. The open water is more extensive here compared to the last visit. The male Goosander are diving under the ice; a white streak can be seen returning to open water. There is a constant tinkling, chiming sound as wavelets are driven by the breeze against the broken ice on the edge of the ice-sheet. Half a dozen Goldeneye are also diving here and a good number of Mallard are near the island. A pair of drake Mallard are fighting furiously and the object of their desires moves away from the ruckus without them noticing. Suddenly the Goosander are up and away to the south. A small flock of Canada Geese wings in, whiffling side-slipping from side to side to lose height rapidly, and lands on the ice. As I head back along the meadow, large flocks of Fieldfares are heading south – possibly moving ahead of bad weather. A Common Buzzard rises from the orchard and flaps slowly around the area.
Friday – Kimbolton – Across the Grange, past the Priory and down to the White Bridge. Snow is gusting, just tiny flakes but a lot of them. Over the bridge. Robins, Blackbirds and a Dunnock flit through the riverside bushes. Along Mill Street, over the railway, over the River Lugg and down a track beside the petrol station. A bridge crosses Ridgemoor Brook, which in Victorian days was called rather more prosaically “Main Ditch”, and then heads off alongside a large field. The occasional Redwing rises from the hedge although there appears to be little sustenance here for them. Around another field. There is a network of large drainage ditches here. Bridges cross them and the path continues. Fieldfares and Redwings are calling. The track passes a barn and turns towards the A49. It joins the road opposite a farm, Endale, which has a fine barn with a perforated brickwork wall. Down the road past Little Bury where a barn facing the road has a bricked up window that has large stone pillars. Into Stockton to Stockton Cross Inn. Up a lane and across fields of ponies and fine Herefordshire Red bulls. Maddy has to be lifted over stiles which she endures with bad grace. Overhead pass large flocks of winter thrushes and Rooks. After some toing and froing I find a bridge across Cogwell Brook and head up the hill. There are three horses in the field who gallop over to investigate. Unfortunately, Maddy decides to run off and is pursued by the horses. Eventually she obeys my commands to return and I put her on the lead, at which point the horses lose interest and wander off. It is difficult to know the right thing with Maddy and livestock. She is very good with sheep, does not like cows and it seems that many people who are injured with cattle is because they have a dog close to them. I reckon if a cow or bull is going to attack, I would rather the dog was loose to run off and take the beast away from me! It would appear that it is best to keep her on the lead where horses are concerned.
A gate at the top of the field leads to Kimbolton church of St James the Great. The church has an early 12th century chancel and a late 13th century nave. To the west end stands a three stage tower with a fine broach spire that has been hit by lightning in 1735 and again in 1875. The church was extensively rebuilt in 1872. I cannot find a light switch inside, so the church has the feel of olden days with just a light from a candle on the altar. Outside it is snowing again. Across a field of sheep and down past the school, where from the noise, I imagine the children are getting giddy with the snow. A lane leads down to Yolk Brook which I follow to Brook Farm. The footpath passes close to the farmhouse which is being refurbished. Underfoot is treacherous as there are large frozen puddles hidden by snow. Over the road I continue to follow what is now Cogwell Brook. A Sparrowhawk over the field on the far side of the stream. A large tree-covered mound marks the site of the old deserted mediaeval village mentioned in the Domesday Book, stating that at Stocktune, which is King’s Land formerly belonging to Queen Edith, there is a house built on the site of a Dark Age settlement. The house, Stockton Bury is at the top of the field and is now a tourist attraction we have yet to visit. The path then follows Cogwell Brook back past Hay Lane to the roundabout where I started.
Monday – Leominster – There has been a slight thaw over the weekend but much of the snow, which is minimal compared to many places, has frozen to ice. The temperature fell to at least -10°C at night and may well have been much lower – -19°C was recorded in the West Midlands. I take Maddy up to Ryelands. She is chasing around as normal despite being sick overnight and off food. The path from the road is almost blocked by a mass of Ivy which has fallen, possibly the whole tree has, it is impossible to tell, leaving only a low passage – too low for me, but there is an alternative path. From the ridge, Leominster is almost hidden in mist. To the west everything is white. Where the snow had melted, hoarfrost has replaced it. The sky is grey and threatens more snow which comes in the mid-afternoon. Maddy is still unwell and is bringing up blood-stained mucous, so it is off to the vet with her.
Thursday – Leominster – Several more inches of snow has fallen and frozen. The streets are quite treacherous as there was the slight thaw mentioned on Monday, but now there is a lot of ice under the recent snow. Before dawn, a fat, near full moon hangs in the sky. A Tawny Owl tuits in the priory churchyard. Maddy seems to have recovered from her stomach upset. The vet found she had a bit of a temperature so she had an injection and a period of fasting before going back onto solids. This seems to have worked. The town was busy this morning as people do their late Christmas shopping. It is a long holiday with Christmas falling over the weekend meaning that provisions for the Monday and Tuesday must be laid in. In the afternoon Maddy and I head over the Grange. Half a dozen Redwings are in one of the Birch saplings around the edge of the green. Maddy chases her ball and is soon covered in snow. I should be building up some impressive leg muscles as I am kicking the ball every few yards – it is no use using the ball-thrower, the ball just buries itself and Maddy has no hope of finding it. Down to the Millennium Park. There have been decent numbers of Redwings and Fieldfares here in recent days but today there are only a couple of the former and some Blackbirds. The other night several of the hens failed to go to bed on time and got locked out by the automatic door. They were lined up on the house ladder, pathetically tapping on the door with their beaks. Now I feel obliged to go and check in the evening to make sure they are all in bed.
Boxing Day, Monday – Home – The weather turned milder yesterday evening and a thaw has set in. This morning it is raining on and off and the wet snow and icy is dangerous stuff to walk. Hence the North Herefordshire Hunt are on foot for their Boxing Day meet. The hounds rush around the square checking everything and anything on the ground in the hope it may be edible. The whipper-in is trying to keep them in one pack down in the corner, but without much success. Family departs shortly after we return from Corn Square and we start to get the house back to normal.
Wednesday – Mortimer Forest – The milder air has resulted in thick fog covering the area. Winter thrush flocks fly over the road and disappear across the fields. The entrance drive to the Black Pool car park is still icy and the car slides and wheels spin but we get there. Maddy’s feet are slipping on the sheets of ice before we leave the car park. Muted twitters come from the woods. The path up to the Iron Age enclosure is spongy as the wet earth has frozen and lifted – when it fully thaws it will be a mud-bath. A constant sound of dripping can be heard. By the time we reach Climbing Jack Common my legs are aching with the tension of walking on ice. However, here the thaw has been far more widespread and large areas are clear, although there are pockets of ankle deep snow here and there. At High Vinnalls there is no reward of fine views for the steady climb, just a wall of grey. I am wet with perspiration from the exertion of the walk and take my hat off for a while. But my hair is soon soaking wet and getting chilled, so back on goes the hat. Down the long Forestry track. Deer hoof prints are everywhere. Down through the woods, where there is little snow or ice under the trees, but plenty of mud churned up by horses. Great and Willow Tits, Jays and Crossbills are all calling intermittently. The pond contains ice covered with a thin layer of melt-water. The track down here is icy again. Maddy chases her ball and slides past it, legs thrashing to try and gain some grip. Under the pines, the snow is speckled with tiny bits looking like miniature birds feet, the coverings of seeds from pine cones. Throughout this period of snow, the one constantly busy creature, both back in Leominster and by the track here, has been the mole. Fresh mounds of earth are frequent.
Thursday – Bodenham Lakes – Much of the snow has thawed but slick ice remains on the track. Jays’ harsh calls come from the trees, a Fieldfare flies over with a similar but staccato voice. A Great Spotted Woodpecker is drumming on a telegraph pole. Most of the lake is frozen, the open water has, oddly, moved a short way to the east. Mallard, Tufted Duck, a pair of Teal and a single female Goldeneye are on the water. A mixed flock of Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Redpoll and tits feed in the Alders behind the hide. No Cormorants, Mute Swans or Canada Geese are to be seen, or in the case of the last, heard anywhere. Six Goosander arrow overhead but keeping going south. A mist hangs over the ice. Blue Tits hang in Silver Birches. A Robin sings. A Common Buzzard flies over. A Carrion Crow calls insistently from Westfield Wood. Sheep munch hay and potatoes in the orchard. A Common Buzzard swoops down and flies off with something from the base of one of the large, old apple trees whilst a Mistle Thrush looks on. A heavy mist lies across Howe Wood and Dinmore Hill.
Friday – Bodenham Lakes – The year ends wet and grey. The eerie, translucent ice on the lake has hardly thawed at all. There are a few small holes in it, in one case with two lines of much smaller holes leading away from the larger one. I would guess that a Mute Swan was here as the lake froze then ran flapping across the ice to take off leaving heavy footprints in it. Other footprints are on the lake, possibly a Fox. The small area of open water is crowded – 11 Goldeneye, 14 Teal, over 80 Mallard, a few Coot, several feral duck and a flamboyant Mandarin Duck. Towards the bottom of the lake, several Common Pheasants are out on the ice; I am not sure what they are hoping to find there. The large finch flocks of yesterday seem to have moved on leaving just a few Chaffinches and the usual tumbling Blue Tits. A Pied Wagtail sits on a wire. There is a bunch of Mistletoe on an old Hawthorn on the edge of the orchard. This is a fairly unusual host for the parasitic plant. The apples have all gone from the orchards now, so too are the winter thrush flocks. A Mistle Thrush delicately plucks the last remaining haws off a bush by the car park.