December 1998

Saturday 5th December – Edderthorpe – It is cold enough to freeze the surface of the mud and puddles on the track. Not cold enough to stop me getting muddy feet though. The flash contains decent numbers of wildfowl – Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Pochard and a few Tufted Duck. It is interesting to note the good numbers of Mallard – this ubiquitous duck is widespread but there are seldom large wintering flocks around here. A large flock of Teal are circling and piping in the distance. It is surprising there are so few diving ducks. A Redshank flies across piping.

Sunday 6th December – New Swillington Ings – A clear night has brought a frosty, bright morning. Astley Lake is frozen. Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Black-Headed Gulls and Lapwings stand on ice. At the north end there is a small patch of open water that is seething with Coot, Teal Mallard, Tufted Duck, Pochard and Shoveler. On the River Aire there are Mallard, Teal, Goosander, Goldeneye and Little Grebe. There is considerable duck movement overhead as various flocks seek open water. Swans look like they may be frozen in, but they are unconcerned and just sleep with their heads on their backs. The Trans-Pennine Trail follows the Aire and Calder Navigation. This is a very different canal to those further to the west – this one was designed for sea-going vehicles and is far wider. At Woodlesford Locks the river comes close to the navigation and bends sharply. The outer bank is eroded into a high, precipitous earth scar. On the other is newly deposited mud already overgrown with scrub. A large flock of Wigeon flies off the Leventhorpe Water Meadows onto the river. Ten Curlew are on the rough pasturage. There is also a couple of Shelduck on the water. Redshank whistle from the bank whilst more fly over. The Wigeon are flighty and rise and head off down stream leaving Mallard and Teal on the river bend. A cock Pheasant struts and croaks in a distant field. A charm of Goldfinches is flushed from thistles into young Willows. Back down the river the desiccated heads of Giant Hogweed stand high.

Monday 7th December – Rochdale Canal – Todmorden is a Pennine Market town up the Calder Valley. The Town Hall has a Greek façade with life-size Muses in the pediment. The canal twists its route through Todmorden. A very high expanse of black brick retaining wall separates it from the trans-Pennine railway line some 60 feet above. The morning is cold and damp, the tow-path icy. There is a motley collection of Mallard and hybrids including what looks like a White-fronted-x-Egyptian Goose. Small tunnels of brick and stone delivers water drained off the surrounding hillsides. The canal climbs precipitously, in relative terms, into the Pennines with huge locks laying one after the other. The canal is mainly frozen with a thin layer of water on the surface. The railway crosses on a bridge with large crenellated towers at each end. There are even mock arrow slits and a blank shield on the towers. Under the cast iron of the bridge the cooing of pigeons hidden in the dark recesses, echoes strangely. New lock gates are being installed and at one point the canal is nearly dry, just a couple of channels flowing. At the town of Walsden, the river is now little larger than a stream. There is an artificial waterfall and a Dipper stands on a piece of jammed wood, its body twitching. A Grey Heron croaks as it flies down the ever rising canal. I pass a group of still occupied prefabs, a sight I have not seen for years. It looks bizarre to see Mallard apparently walking on water as they splash through the water on top of the frozen canal. The cook in the canal-side pub is chopping onions which I can smell from the tow-path. The canal is now high in the Pennines. The hillsides are rough pasture dotted with wind-blown Hawthorns. A Grey Heron hunches on top of one. Scrubby Oaks line water courses down from the tops. Yet again, Dill the Dog has managed to get herself the wrong side of a wall and is in a panic! I manage to instruct her to go back about 75 metres to the gap. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flies across the valley into the Oaks. A steel girder construction carries overflow water from the canal, over the much lower level railway and into the river. A Jay crosses the valley. A row of cottages has a sign on the wall: “Todmorden Angling Society – Pleasure Fishing from pegs 429-432 is banned”. Weird people. The River Calder is now a ditch that can be stepped over. The hills rise steeply, coated in brown, dead Bracken, with frequent outcrops of weathered grit stone. Houses here are infrequent and sometimes rather odd. A four-storey block stands beside older cottages which are mainly hidden behind a massive crenellated wall. A white painted pub stands beside the road – Bird i’ th’ Hand. The marsh on this side of the road would appear to be the source of the River Calder. At Warland Upper Lock the canal crosses into Lancashire. Rills of dancing water drop down the steep hillsides, draining off the moorland tops. The canal is no longer rising and skirts the village of Littleborough. A Common Snipe is flushes from the coarse grasses on the far side. Next comes Chelburn Bridge and another massive, deep lock, but this time taking the canal down. Ahead is a series of locks before the canal bends out of view and drops down into Rochdale and on into Manchester. But that section is for another day, and I start back. Near to Todmorden, Dill the Dog nearly loses her nose when she disobeys me and goes to sniff a none too pleased Muscovey Duck.

Sunday 13th December – Pugney’s Country Park – The massive form of a Great Black-backed Gull rises from the quarry area, dwarfing the accompanying Black-headed Gulls. Sky traffic is heavy. A small flock of Golden Plover twist and turn as the make a wide circle of the area. A much larger flock of Northern Lapwings floats over, in contrast to the driving determination of a Mute Swan. The Fishing Lake holds a fair number of Wigeon, along with Tufted Duck, Teal, Mallard and Coot. The main lake is more of the same with the addition of Pochard, Goldeneye and Great Crested Grebe. The Nature Lake adds Ruddy Duck and a group of Cormorant drying their wings on the island. A chirruping Pied Wagtail flies up from the path as Dill the Dog, the walking mud-bath, approaches. A Green Woodpecker laughs loudly at my failure to locate it in the tree-tops.

Friday 18th December – Claycliffe, Barnsley – It is three o’ clock in the afternoon, very grey and raining. The road through the industrial estate has a bank of dead grass and brown Teasel heads. But the scene is brightened by a flock of Goldfinches feeding on thistles and the Teasels. On the other side of the road there is a large compound full of old, rusting mining equipment, jacks, borers, diggers and stuff I have no idea the use of. Here there is also a little brightness – a flowering Gorse bush.

Sunday 20th December – Blackburn Meadows – A bright, cold morning with a slight layer of ice on the puddles. The wildfowl flock is building up on the pool – several pairs of Gadwall, Tufted Duck, Coot and Mallard. A large number of Black-headed Gulls are in attendance. On the second pool there are few duck, but a family of Mute Swans, three cygnets, feed. A Kestrel flies high above the Willow covered slurry pools seeking an area to hunt. He stops in the air and surveys a patch but seems dissatisfied at its potential for a meal and moves on. The river and canal are quiet, just an occasional alarm call from a Robin, Wren or Willow Tit. A new, high fence has blocked access to the old British Gas site – a pity, a good place for Redpoll.

Wednesday 23rd December – Barnsley Canal – The morning walks with Dill the Dog are far from inspiring these days. It is dark and muddy, with more to hear than to see. Birds are the occasional black silhouette passing by, whilst Blackbirds are calling alarms, a Grey Heron grunts in the darkness over the river, Teal whistle on the river and a Robin tries a half-hearted song. A dark ball shoots across the canal as a Wren seeks another bush. Rustlings and plops along the canal indicate Moorhens and Water Voles heading for cover. The lone cygnet is still on the canal, its parents and sibling on the loop.

Christmas Day – Friday 25th December – The day length incrementally advances now. I replace the three shells that were apples and have been devoured by the local Blackbirds. A Robin greets the dawning with a much stronger song than of late.

Anglers Country Park – Gulls call and fly over as do Cormorants in more direct flight. On the Country Park lake, a majority of the Common Pochard are asleep whilst Tufted Duck and Coot dive for food. A couple of quite sizeable rafts of Ruddy Duck bob about. Mallard and Gadwall feed around the edges. A large flock of Wigeon are on the grassy sides to the lake. Several Greenfinch alight on a rose briar which seems to annoy a Fieldfare that sits on a fence bobbing its tail vigorously. A large flock of Canada Geese feed with Stock Doves in a field. I search the former flock for the reported minima race bird, but no joy. Back on the Country Park lake the sleeping Pochard do not flinch in the slightest as groups of noisy Canada Geese splash down beside them. A Great Crested Grebe and a female Goldeneye dive. There are far greater numbers of wildfowl, especially Great Crested Grebe, on Wintersett Reservoir. Sleek male Goosander and resplendent male Goldeneye slide through the water.

Boxing Day Saturday 24th December – Barnsley Canal – 24th day of the month and twenty four Great Cormorant fly south over the Dearne Valley. A Grey Heron sweeps up from the canal edge and circles low to land at the bottom of Willowbank. A Song Thrush, its throat rich yellow-brown and spotted watches from under a path-side Hawthorn. A skein of fifteen geese fly over but are mere silhouettes, making identification unsafe. The young Mute Swan is alone on the nursery nest, preening. Here the canal is a red carpet of Duck Weed. Most the Winter Thrushes have moved on, now only the occasional Fieldfare calls an alarm. On the valley floor fresh molehills rise, covering a wide area. Still small flocks pass over travelling from roosts to feeding grounds. This time it is gulls, mainly Great Black-backs and noisy Rooks. One of the young cows in the pasture has a chestnut brown thatch on top of its head, looking like a rather unfortunate wig. Five Little Grebe dive on the loop. One emits their eerie call.

Sunday 27th December – Sussex – Heavy overnight rain continues into the grey morning but the wind has dropped. The sea off Roedean is calm but thick looking. We walk out onto the West Arm of Newhaven harbour. The sea here is brown with silt. Fulmar Petrels skim the cliffs under the old fortifications. The fort has been constantly upgraded from Napoleonic times to the Second World War. Boarded up gun emplacements are dug into the old chalk cliffs. A few gulls, Herring, Great Black-backed and Black-headed patrol the sand at the sea’s edge, squabbling over any finds. The arm is crumbling and the area around the lighthouse, from which I used to catch Whiting in my teens, is now closed off. A cross-channel ferry motors out heading for Dieppe. The rain continues as we drive into the County Town of Lewes. The town has an unchanging quality – Harvey’s Brewery by the bridge over the Ouse, the same bookshops, antique shops and more day to day providers that have been there for years.

Monday 28th December – Shoreham – The Parish Church of St Nicholas has a fine, squat, solid looking Norman Tower. On top stands a golden weathercock. On the muddy banks of the Adur are large numbers of Lapwing and Dunlin with the odd Grey Plover and Redshank. The old wooden road bridge has been long closed to traffic. It bows twice in the middle to allow vehicles to pass. Pillboxes, still waiting for the invasion that never came, ring the aerodrome. The wind cuts and chills.

Wednesday 30th December – Nunney, Somerset – Walking up the lane, Peter says “Listen”. A strange laughing call! I think, somewhat desperately through the possibilities – geese? But what sort? Then Peter reveals there is an aviary nearby that contains Kookaburras. Not a tick, I feel. Nunney Castle is a rarity in England – a French style building. It has four circular towers with a very small rectangular area between them. The towers once had conical roofs. The moat is still full of water and a wooden bridge leads to the ruin. The castle was built in 1373 by Sir John de la Mare, who spent much time away fighting alongside the Black Prince in south-west France. It was abandoned after a short siege in the Civil War. The upper level floors are all gone now. Guano indicates where Jackdaws have been nesting. Defacing monuments is not new, there is graffiti from the 1860s carved into the stonework.

In the afternoon we bury Peter’s father. Sadly, his preferred choice of plot at Nunney church was not available, the churchyard is now closed. So a plot has been found at Great Elm. The little church stands by a farm. Its walls inside are whitewashed and the pews are boxed (all have small gates to them.) A simple service with an address by John de Courcy, Lord Kingsale, Premier Baron of Ireland. The burial plot overlooks a valley of small, irregular fields, delineated by ancient hedgerows and copses. It is a timeless view reflecting the permanence of the deceased.

Thursday 31st December – Sturminster Newton – The path from Colber Bridge to Hinton St Mary delights Dill the Dog. It is muddy and frequently underwater. As usual Buster has muddy feet and Dill the Dog has a mudpack. Redwings, Blackbirds and Dunnocks fly up from the plantation by the Stour into the trees. Further along, Blue and Great Tits call and flit to and fro. Wood smoke scents the air. On the valley side, Greenfinches slip through the scrub of Hawthorn, Elder and Bramble. A pair of Mute Swans glide swiftly on the river current. A Kestrel circles the water margins and a flock of chattering Fieldfare cross the valley. The last evening of the year is a luminous night. The full moon is hidden but its light glows through the passing clouds.