Monday – Shobdon – Out of the village westwards past Pearl Lake Caravan Park. The sound of beating swan’s wings comes from behind the woods where the lake is situated. Robins sing in the woodland, Cockshoot Plantation. The countryside opens up into fields of sheep or in one field, sheep, horses and a goat with horns askew. This is the starting point of another Winter Thrush Survey area. Four Redwings alight atop a large Oak near Old Decoy Rough. Belgate Lane heads northwards past Belgate Farm. There is another set of buildings called Belgate Farm some way to the north of this spot. The farm here does not appear on the 1983 OS maps, so is a modern development. Ring-necked Pheasants scurry across the fields. Yet more Robins are singing. On up the lane. A tall wooden fence of closely fitted planks stands across the entrance to an old gravel pit, although there is little sign of any pit, just a tall, tree covered mound. The pit was called “The Old Gravel Pit” in 1886 so is of some age. Redwings and Fieldfares sit at the top of trees. Another tree is host to flocks of Starlings and finches. A large flock of Rooks rises from a distant field. Back down the lane. A Mallard erupts from a pond and off across the fields whilst a Pied Wagtail searches the mud for food. A large flock of Carrion Crows are in the trees outside the farm. A Dunnock sings in the roadside hedgerow and Chaffinches watch from the trees. The sound of frequent gunfire comes from Old Decoy Rough.
Thursday – Knighton-Llangunllo – Up the south side is the valley in which Knighton lies to join the Glyndŵr trail around Garth Hill. Across the valley the hills are grey-brown with blocks of dark green. Jackdaws dance in the blustery wind; a wind that is causing damage and tide surges to the north and east of Britain. The track is being stabilised with a membrane and chippings. Our brave dog balks at passing a small machine that is transporting the chippings. The track is running through woodland. The trees are mainly bare and clumps of sticks indicate Magpie and other corvid nests. Great Tits and Chaffinches chase through the smaller branches and a noisy Nuthatch scurries along a large Oak limb. The track joins a narrow lane which drops down into a valley and then a smaller lane, Cwmgilla Lane which climbs westwards up the hill past a farm at Little Cwm-gilla. The old wooden barn has collapsed at one end. The wind is rising even more and the sky looks grey and angry, which is worrying as it was supposed to be dry and bright today despite the gale. The lane reaches Ebrandy Cottage and turns to Brandy Hall according to the sign, however, Ebrandy is the correct spelling. The hall, which can be seen from a little further up the track, is a mid 19th century farm house but there is an older, post-mediaeval aisled barn in the range of buildings.
The way continues ahead in a grassy track. In places the track has worn down to the bedrock, tilted mudstone. The track eventually stops climbing; it is one of those paths that keep reaching what looks like the top but it merely levels for a few yards then starts climbing again. Across a field where the wind is ferocious, it stops me in my tracks on several occasions. This is hard country, several sheep corpses, picked clean litter the field and a dead fox, already partly eviscerated lies by a fence. Fieldfares cross the hilltop. Across the top of Downes’s Dingle created by a stream sourced by a pond. The Glyndŵr Way continues through the rolling hills and the wind just blows and blows. A small stone building in the middle of a field looks like a toilet! The path crosses another footpath and then starts to drop. Down an old sunken track which gives welcome relief from the wind. A large disused quarry lies up the hill, now used as a rally car training school. Across Cuckoo Meadow into a valley to Cefn-Suran farm. A Common Buzzard flies off across the fields, Fourteen Acres and Cloggie Field. Finally the path drops down past more disused quarries to the River Lugg and the village of Llangunlo.
The Parish Church of St Cynllo stands up the hill. The church dates from the 13th century but had a major rebuilding in 1878, undertaken by John Middleton, a country architect originally from Yorkshire. The tower, which had a foundation stone marked 1687, was rebuilt at the end of the 19th century and has four bells, including one of 1614. A three-light window is behind the altar depicting the crucifixion in the centre, the anointing of Jesus’ feet and “suffer the children” to each side. Most of the inscriptions have been moved to the west wall, including one to the son of James and Ann Meyrick who died at the age of seven weeks in 1730 and another son who at least got to the age of 24 years. Apparently, all the memorials here are not the fine marble they appear to be but painted wood. A Robin sings in the graveyard. Unfortunately the Greyhound Inn is closed at lunchtimes. A mobile Post Office stands at the cross-roads. Off along the road towards the station. Two Red Kites float on the wind high over the village. A few patches of blue have appeared in the sky and high clouds flow pale gold but below grey clouds are still racing southwards. Before the station a road turns back into the hills. It is a long gruelling climb up Fron-goch. Some small apples lie at the edge of the road. They have rolled down the steep bank but I am not sure which tree they came from. However, a single bite soon has the apple thrown away. It is quite acid yet sweet but with a rather nasty back-taste. Back into the howling wind although mercifully it is from behind now. A large flock of Fieldfares and even larger flock of Starlings cross the fields. Past Fountain Head, Upper Dolwickin and Bailey Hill. A pale rainbow appears ahead. The road meets the lane from Knucklas up the hill that brought me to my knees earlier in the year. Along past White Anthony Farm and down to the woods around Garth Hill again. It is now raining and it does not take long for the recently planed path through the woods to turn to slick mud.
Sunday – Leominster – It is a little later than usual as Maddy and I head down to the Millennium Park and the sky is beginning to lighten in the east despite the black clouds that brought overnight rain. The rest of the sky is clear and busy with space objects. Firstly is a rocket body from an Ariane 40 which launched from French Guiana on 7th July 1995 carrying a Spanish communications satellite. Next a rocket body from an Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral on 15th July 1997 carrying a pair of naval signals intelligence satellites. This rocket’s upper stage shut down early placing the satellites in a lower orbit than expected. Finally a tank from a Briz-M upper stage launched from the Balkonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 11th December 2006 carrying the AMOS-5 (Spacecom) and Luch-5A satellite. Down to earth, Tawny Owls are busy calling over the other side of the River Lugg, both a female and several males. After breakfast it is off to the market. The River Lugg is flowing quickly but not too deeply. The market is small, I always expect it to get bigger in the run up to Christmas but it does not. On the way back, seven Magpies disperse from the trees by the river carrying who knows what secret never to be told.
Tuesday – Bodenham Lake – It is mild for the season but the air feels cold and damp. The trees look grey and dormant. Squeaks and squawks come from the hedges. There is a vague mist over the lake. Several Mallard and a Grey Heron fly from the scrape when the hide window is opened. A couple of Teal remain. The heron returns after a few minutes. The lake is quiet. A few Goldeneye are scattered about and some Coot but little else. Suddenly the reeds move in front of the hide and two Otters bound out. They play fight and chase each other to and fro across a small patch of weed covered mud. In and out of the reed bed and sometimes ripples can be seen expanding away on the far side, then they are back again. One head appears in the water briefly and then there are two Otters playing and a third eating a small fish. A Green Woodpecker flies past. The Grey Heron is fishing and gulps down something small. The Otters are back into the reed bed and their progress can be followed by watching the reeds ripple as they pass through. Back in the cider orchard the final apples are falling and the same in the dessert apple orchard where the sheep have hoovered up all the windfalls. A quick shake of one of the few remaining trees with a crop causes a down-pouring of apples. I pick up a bagful and leave the rest to the sheep.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – An old pole or tree trunk rises beside the road opposite the junction of the Bodenham road. It is completely covered in Ivy and in the leaves on top is a Common Buzzard watching the adjoining field. Into the car park where Canada Geese can be heard in the east long before the two skeins appear. It is still grey, cold and damp with the added discomfort of a breeze. A Robin sings a short winter song. Carrion Crows call and tits squeak. A Song Thrush is standing on the edge of a water trough in the meadow splashing water over itself. A Jay and a pair of Bullfinches are in the lakeside trees. Wigeon and Canada Geese are around the scrape. The three Otters are out in the water playing before swimming off in a line. It is easy to see how they could be mistaken for a single, far larger creature. A couple of Teal, Moorhens and Coot are also in the scrape and a pair of Goldeneye are on the far side of the lake. Suddenly the Canada Geese all take off causing consternation to the Moorhens who are in the middle of the maelstrom of wings. Two female Wigeon are fighting whilst the males look on. A few Tufted Duck are at the western end of the lake and there is just a single Cormorant in the trees. A large flock of Wood Pigeons alight in trees on the far side of the water before dropping down into the fields beyond. A small flock of Mallard drop into the western end. A Goosander appears on the far side. Mistle Thrushes call their rasping alarms in the orchard. Yesterday’s fallen apples have all been eaten by the sheep but there are hundreds more under an old tree untouched – very odd!
Friday – Radnor Forest – It is nearly 9 o’clock and the sky is just beginning to lighten. And it is a strange unnatural light, a corpselight. House Sparrows chatter and Starlings burble in New Radnor. Up the road to Mutton Dingle. Dead leaves are everywhere even on the stones in the stream. The hills are covered in mist and there is rain in the air. A Common Buzzard flies down the dingle and a cock crows. A breeze has sprung up. All the sheep have been taken off Cwm Broadwell but there are still plenty on Knowle Hill. It starts to rain. Views from the plantation are minimal, a grey curtain hangs across the fields and a river of mist flows up the valley. Carrion Crows call invisibly from the hillside. It is getting gloomier again. Maddy decides to demonstrate the dispersal technique of Burdock by getting half a dozen burs stuck in her coat. I follow the track round the flank of Bache Hill. This is walking for walking’s sake. It is grey, wet and dull, visibility is reduced to a few tens of yards and what vegetation can be seen is dead or dying. I wistfully recall sitting on the now invisible nearby Bronze Age barrow last summer in warm sunshine, surrounded by purple heather, watching the scenery below. I am surprised to see what looks like a piece of weathered red and white marble beside the track, but rubbing a finger in it and tasting reveals it as a salt lick. Cock Chaffinches with pink breasts seem out of place on a barbed wire fence in the mist. Past Stanlo Tump and into another Forestry Commission plantation. The wind is stronger and sighs through the trees. Mist blows up out of Cwm Mawr like smoke. I had intended to follows the valley round to the small settlement of Cwm Mawr and then across Glastir and up to Black Mixen but the wind and rain in my face have literally dampened my enthusiasm and I cut across the moor and down the Ystal Bach Brook valley. By the time I reach Cwm Broadwell again the wind has cleared the low cloud and mist.
Saturday – Leominster – A cool morning. The sky is partially clear before dawn and several meteorites flash over. They are the Geminid shower caused by the object 3200 Phaethon, which is thought to be a Palladian asteroid in a “rock comet” orbit. The Palladians are asteroids in the intermediate asteroid belt. Robins are already competing in song with several singing males scattered around the churchyard. The Christmas season is well under way with both the Farmers’ Market and a Victorian street market being held in the town. I buy some Tudge’s sausage meat for my Christmas sausage rolls. The street market is busy which is encouraging. We buy a print of Red Kites at a very modest price. A stall is selling onion bhaji scotch eggs which sound delicious (and fattening) but we are going to have lunch in the Grapes so we restrain ourselves. A barrel organ is being operated by a toy monkey which talks to the surprised children. The operator stands across the street with a radio microphone, most amusing to watch. Santa passes in a bubble-car!
Monday – Croft – It is grey and overcast with a breeze rustling the fallen Beech leaves. The paths are wet and slippery. The Environment Agency and a tree surgeon are in the Fish Pool Valley, I hope it is not Ash die-back they are here for. Bird song is a few cheeps and whistles. The steep bank on the far side of the valley is still dotted with fine specimens of fern. I am hot climbing the hill to Leinthall Common, it is very mild for December. A Raven makes a strange yelping call and flies off. Nuthatches chatter. The path down from Croft Ambrey is slippery and I suppose it will stay this way for some months now. Over the years I have grown increasingly disenchanted with grey, damp winter days. It takes all types of weather to make up the seasons and they should all be accommodated but somehow there just seems too many days like today. Again, Maddy goes to wash off in the pond with only a minimum of encouragement. It begins to rain.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – Another grey, damp and cool morning. A wind is building; the weather forecast is promising storms. Canada Geese, Mallard and Moorhens frequent the scrape. There is little else here, no Wigeon surprisingly. A Grey Heron hunches down on the island. The Canada Geese are restless, drifting away from the scrape. A Cormorant appears in the pontoon and a drake Goldeneye bobs up on the far side of the water where there are more Mallard and a few Tufted Duck. A second Cormorant hops up onto the pontoon and spreads its wings to dry them. Half a dozen Teal drift out of the reeds. The water dynamics are strange – the wind sends shimmering ripples across the lake from the west but it stops at what seems to be a channel of water rolling north-south, then it starts again. A few minutes later the whole pattern has changed. It starts to rain but it is a brief shower. A Blackbird is guarding a tree with the few remaining cider apples in the orchard. Mistle Thrushes call from the trees lining the dessert apple orchard. A russet apple tree still has a lot of apples which are stubbornly refusing to fall even with a good shake. I knock a few down with my stick. They nearly all have a hole in them where a bird has pecked, but they are still good eating.
Friday – Leominster – The moon has been exceptionally bright over the past few days and this morning it lit up a frosty world. This has been the first really extensive frost this winter, although purists will argue that winter does not start until the solstice tomorrow. A growling diesel hauls the Port Talbot freight train. A satellite passes over. I suspect it is our old friend the SL-8 rocket body launched in 1967 – it has been flying over us since The Byrds released CTA-102 (a song about a signal from space thought to have been produced by intelligent beings, now known to be a type of quasar.)
Knighton – Snow is sprinkled on the hills. The Offa’s path climbs through Great Ffrydd Wood. It is carpeted with crunching Oak leaves. Below, Knighton sits in sunshine. A Grey Squirrel runs through the trees. There appears to be only sheep on the golf course. The 18th tee has been constructed on the steep hillside out of two walls of railway sleepers, now green with algae. The path climbs the hill, Ffridd (note, spelled differently to the wood) between the golf course and the trees whose trunks and boughs are green with mosses and lichens. A Raven passes over calling. Across fields of sheep. There are plenty of rabbit paw prints in the thin scattering of snow. The western hills are far whiter. A few drops of rain fall despite the bright sun. The path is now running alongside Offa’s Duke which stands about three feet high. However it turns into a far more impressive structure just few yards along with a deep ditch and high rampart. A cold wind is blowing up. Little paw prints mark the passing of a Fox. It has grown dark as clouds pass over, it is hard to tell what the weather is going to do. The path meets a road at Rhos-y-meirch. I decide to cut short my walk and head back towards Knighton. Pied Wagtails sit on wires in a farm yard. Woodhouse Lane is icy as Maddy finds out when she tries to stop and turn to grab her ball. It is far more tiring walking on this than the muddy path. Past Tiled House, a rather fine cottage, probably 17th century according to Coflein (The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales) and on down the lane. Past Upper Woodhouse Farm where the barns are all conversions. An orange fungus is growing on a tree bough. It is likely to be Sulphur Polypore (Laetiprous sulphureus) or Chicken of the Woods, a delicacy on the continent. A bridge or viaduct stands across the field on the edge of Great Ffrydd Wood. It turns out this is an aqueduct, the one carrying the Elan Valley pipeline from the great reservoirs in the mountains to Birmingham. The lane meets the A488 at Jackets Bridge. A stream down from Gwenaffel Dingle runs under the road and joins Wylcwm Brook on the other side. A garage here has a showroom containing two 1920s saloons and an MG sports car. Down Mill Lane. Wylcwm Brook rushes on. The lane rises above the valley carved by the stream. On the steep slope decking has made small platforms with lean-tos making delightful patios, summer retreats but looking a bit bleak now. The motte of Knighton castle is hard to locate, it stands behind a row of cottages that have been built into its side. Down into the town centre in the rain. Through the town and up to the football and cricket pitches. At the end is the cricket pitch is Bryn-y-castell, another motte. It is thought this is the older castle and was replaced by the one in the centre of town by William de Braose around 1190. The latter was destroyed by Llewelyn Ap Gruffud in 1262. A man stops me to warn that some cattle have escaped from the market and are a bit wild.
Sunday – Whitesheet Down – This hill in Wiltshire is part of the Stourhead Estate and now in the stewardship of the National Trust. We drive up onto the of top of the down as the path from the car park we normally use is steep and muddy at the best of times but after a night of rain will be horrendous. It is blowing a gale up here. A few hardy souls are flying radio controlled model gliders. The site has been important for millennia. There is a Neolithic causewayed camp, a dozen Bronze Age barrows, an Iron Age hillfort and a Roman road crossing the down. Across the plain is the great house of Stourhead and a wooded hill topped by Alfred’s Tower. The sun blazes across the hillfort, which is partially trivallate with a number of circular platforms. A cross-dyke crosses the hilltop. A flock of sheep watch our dogs with trepidation but the dogs just ignore them. Great storm clouds are developing in the west and we retreat before the rain starts.
Nunney – Early evening and we wander down to the castle for a session of carols. It seems the whole village is compressed into the relatively small area inside the ruined walls. The Radstock Silver Band lead us in a romp through all the old favourites. A few spots of rain do not dampen the high spirits of those present. During the break the Mummers arrive to act out the story of St George being killed by the Turkish Knight and revived by the quack Doctor. Later, Peter and I take the dogs up to the field. The sky has cleared and there is a glorious display of stars. A Tawny Owl tuitts in nearby trees.
Christmas Eve – – Leominster – It was a wild night following a day of gales and rain. A huge depression is moving across the country, one of a series moving across the Atlantic. The pressure dropped to 966 millibars in the early hours. The rain had stopped and the wind dropped as Maddy and I left the house before dawn but now as we cross the Grange the wind is rising and the rain begins to lash down again. The River Kenwater is near to the top of its banks and flows past swiftly. Early afternoon we stroll down the road and over the railway bridge. We cannot read the message on the electronic board but it is clearly not giving details of the next train. There have been substantial disruptions all over the country. However, a few minutes later the Holyhead train races past. Not surprisingly the River Lugg is high, fast and dirty brown. We cross a deserted Brightwells’ yard and over Cheaton Brook which like the main river is flowing fast and deep but is a rich red colour. Along Mill Street and then we follow the path beside the Kenwater which looks about the same as it did before dawn. The Grange is swampy again as the water fails to drain away quickly enough. The market has decided enough is enough and is packing away. We get home just before the rain returns. A little later the sky darkens and the rain turns to hail.
Saturday – Leominster – The storms continued to affect the country over Christmas, although we fortunately avoided the worst of the weather, but many had their Christmas Day ruined with flooding and power cuts. A couple of days in Surrey then back home. We noticed that the Red Kites along the M4 motorway have paired up. This morning is mainly clear with a few wispy clouds which make the horned moon look slightly out of focus but leave a canopy of stars. Two satellites look like they are going to collide but are, of course, many miles apart. One is a Russian rocket body but the other actually is a satellite, Meteor-Priroda, a Russian meteorological satellite. A Tawny Owl is hooting from the direction of the River Lugg.
Home – The chickens are laying far fewer eggs these days. The newer pair are fairly regular but Stevie’s output is a bit hit and miss and they are becoming more fragile, one was broken in the main body of the hen house this morning. Old Gin-and-tonic has not laid for a long time now. A delightful surprise is that the autumn sown garlic has suddenly appeared; strong, green shoots over most of the patch. The parsnips were disappointing in that only two grew to maturity. I dig them and one is badly divided but the other is a decently large root. Now is the time to start poring over the seed catalogues and thinking about the rotation plans for the various vegetable beds.
Sunday – Leominster – The pressure has risen and the temperature fallen. The land lies pale with frost. The sky is beginning to lighten in the east. A thin moon lies in the southern sky and stars glitter across the firmament. A meteorite flashes, its 4.5 billion year journey ending as it is reduced to burning gas. Robins are singing, a Blackbird pinks its alarm. The Minster bells ring out their tune then toll seven sonorous notes. After breakfast, eggs because Stevie and one of the new girls have already laid, Maddy and I head down to Easters Meadow. There is no market now until March but the walk is still needed. The River Lugg has fallen by several feet since last I saw it. Wood Pigeons are cooing, a Magpie chatters, Robins sing and a Blackbird is, as usual calling an alarm. The fields may be frosty but the ground is yet to freeze so it is still muddy underfoot. The sun is rising in the south-east. Pinsley Mill is in a sorry state with its roof gone and burned rafters like blackened ribs. Another piece of our heritage lost to uncaring developers and incompetent authorities. Along from the congruence of the Lugg and Kenwater, a Moorhen slips into the water and disappears under overhanging brambles. Great Tits chase through the branches of an Ash and another sings his rusty-wheel song over the river. Blackbirds dispute ownership of an apple tree. Now the Minster bells ring out 9 o’clock and then the three verses of the call to prayer. We follow the path beside the Kenwater and over the white iron bridge into The Priory and then into Bridge Street car-park. This area was the monastery’s fish ponds and later the town dump. By the entrance onto Bridge Street is the fire-station and opposite a metal statue of a Ryeland sheep looking at a stylised apple tree. The importance of the Ryeland sheep to Leominster’s development is paramount. Elizabeth I had stockings made from its fine wool and the Woolsack, the seat for the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords was stuffed with Ryeland fleeces. Up Broad Street, into Drapers Lane and across Corn Square. The town is quiet but already coffee shops are beginning to open.
Home – The sun has warmed the air just a little and some tidying up is done in the garden. The grape vines need severe pruning and, as usual some of the wires stretched across the pergola on the patio break as the long vine branches are pulled down. These supports will be repaired later. The old tomato plants are removed from the troughs by the summer house and the spent compost tipped onto what will be the potato beds next year. I think this will not cause a problem as there seemed to be no sign of blight this year. By now, fingers are being nipped by the cold so the numerous other jobs that need doing before the new growing season will have to wait.
Monday – Home – Plans for a Winter Thrush Survey today are dashed by another Atlantic depression bringing rain and gales across the country. It all passes by early afternoon. It is then that a bit of a disaster in the garden is discovered – an ancient Elder tree has completely broken but not fallen. Three major trunks have all been torn away but a huge rambling rose and a honeysuckle are holding the mass of the tree at an angle. We have got to get the broken tree out, preferably causing as little damage to the rose and honeysuckle as possible, but at this time it is not possible to work out how to do this as its support, the Elder, has gone. However, the rose and honeysuckle will recover over time so it matters little.
Tuesday – Leominster – The year comes to a grey and damp end. Night just seems not to want to end this morning. There is only a slight drizzle so I decide the Winter Thrush Survey may be possible. But first there is a problem with Maddy. She has been scratching excessively for a week or so, leaving lumps of hair all over the house, so a bath with insecticidal shampoo seems a good idea. It has been very mild so maybe fleas are still active although I cannot find any on her. So into the bath where she stands looking miserable as she is shampooed. She is wrapped in a towel and taken to the back door to be let out to shake off the excess water – and it is pouring with rain. There is no point in trying to find birds in this weather so I resign myself to another day indoors. By early afternoon the weather has improved so we totter over to the Grange. A Great Tit is drinking from a puddle in the Millennium Gardens. Another is calling nearby. Hazel catkins hang thickly on the small trees. Everywhere off the path is saturated underfoot, often just slick mud. Blue Tits are feeding in the long hedgerow beside the railway. Back on The Grange a Saluki type dog, obviously young come hurtling towards Maddy and circles her at great speed. Maddy gives her a filthy look of disgust but after a few more circles she decides to show her disapproval and chases the friendly hound with a savage bark. The owner is apologising profusely.
So another year ends. Every year I hope the next will be better, but it seldom is. However, can it get any worse? Kay and I may live a contented life but it is still depressing to live under a Government that is daily encouraging xenophobia and antipathy towards those who are disadvantaged (i.e. they cannot manage their affairs to ensure they have a multi-million pound inheritance and a public school education like our leaders...) Our personal finances and public services are being eroded to ensure that the people who brought the economy to its knees can still live lives of luxury. Across the world, religions still indulge in orgies of killing, hardly anything is being done to address the problems of climate change and as here, intolerance seems to grow daily. Oh well I hope you at least, dear reader have a Happy and Prosperous New Year.