Thursday 1st February – Barnsley Canal, Old Mill – A patch of the car park is blackened where a car has been burned out and removed. Likewise one of the benches has been burned. The end of the canal is covered in rubbish and several dozen tyres have been dumped there. Along the tow-path there is a substantial amount of litter, discarded fast food containers, pop bottles and even a banner from one of the stores on the retail park above. It is depressing to see how people treat their environment. A Robin is singing strongly. A Moorhen jerks its way across the water and four Mallard, two pair, emerge from the dead reed bed.
Friday 2nd February – Wentworth Estate, Rotherham – The Estate covers a large area to the north-east of Rotherham. I visit Keppel’s Field first, which is on the southern edge of the estate. Here stand Keppel’s Tower, a 41.5 metre high column built by John Carr (1723-1807) for Charles, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham (1730-1782). It is a monument to Admiral Keppel (1725-1786), who was a friend of Charles and had been court-marshalled, in 1779, on unproven charges of misconduct and neglect of duty. After his aquittal, he became a hero and later First Lord of the Admiralty. The column, of Tuscan design, was built between 1773 and 1781. It has a square base and cap. The column is actually 15 metres shorter than planned. It has an entasis (curve) so that it looks straight to the eye (it is an optical illusion as straight sided columns look curved). However, the entasis was calculated for the original, taller design, so the sides appear to bulge out. The column now has a lattice of iron straps like a corset around a bulging waistline. Pigeons flock to its top to look out over the countryside. The view over the valley shows Hoober Stand on the horizon and the extensive Wentworth Woodhouse, the largest private residence in the country and, regrettably one of the only great stately homes not open to the public.
I drive to the outer road around the Kimberworth housing estates and walk up a short distance of the Trans-Pennine Trail. This is the old Town Road, the new one goes the other side of the modern pub. There are two semi-detached cottages here, clearly late Victorian, whilst all other housing is post-war. A path turns north across Upper Common, a wide field of arable crops. A Blackbird stands on the remains of a wall, its tail jerking up and down as it loudly proclaims its alarm. A Kestrel flies up and drifts over the field. Sky Larks are rising in full song to greet the bright blue sky and shining sun. The path turns and drops down the steep valley to Scholes Copse (which used to run all the way up to the base of Keppel’s Tower.) I venture a short way up the side of the copse to where an ancient settlement is marked on the map, but there is no immediate evidence of any remains. The site is an Iron Age fort called Caesar’s Camp and ditches and banks are supposed to be visible, but I leave that for another time. Back down the path and out towards the north on the Rotherham Roundwalk. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Robins are all singing gustily. A Green Woodpecker calls. The path crosses and then follows a small stream draining the woods. The path crosses back over the stream at a small stone bridge that has a stone culvert either side of it. Jays are screaming in the woods. Up past a huge old Beech tree with years of initials carved into the bark, so much more acceptable than spray paint graffiti! The path then seems to disappear, so I follow round the edge of a large arable field. Checking the map it is clear the footpath crosses the field, Middle Common, but the farmer has ploughed and sown straight across it. I pick up the route again and head across another field, Cinder Hills leading to Low Common and again straight over the crop that has been planted on a public footpath. A small leg of Rockingham Wood protrudes into the field delineated by a low stone wall. A Fieldfare calls and then flies off.
The path then comes to a series of lakes along the valley bottom. A bridge crosses Dog Kennel Pond. A few Mallard are below a large tree that has been blown over into the lake. Up on the hill is Peacock Lodge and Crabtree Sheds, a fine looking house. I take a south-easterly path here. The Rockingham Mausoleum, built in 1788 by William, 1st Earl Fitzwilliam as a memorial to his uncle, Charles, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, stands on the hill northwards. The road, it is now a metalled road rather than a track, crosses Roman Ridge, a dyke and ditch that runs from Pitsmoor in Sheffield to Mexborough. Archaeologists think that it was built either in the 1st Century CE by the Brigantines as a defence against the Romans or in the 5th Century to defend the Kingdom of Elmet against the Angles. Either way, it was not Roman. Just as the road turns south towards Morley Bridge, a tree can be seen towards the lakes with a number of Grey Herons standing on it. Suddenly there is an outcry of Crows as a Common Buzzard flies over being harassed by the corvine tormentors. A pleasant cottage stands by Morley Bridge. The road then rises to emerge at Town End Farm. Pigs are squealing in a barn and a large snout sticks through a gap in the gate but Dill the Dog, who is now flagging, ignores it. I take the road back towards Kimberworth Park. The farm runs along side the road. A large cat lies comfortably against straw bales in a barn. Past Wilcox’s Plantation, the cemetery and an open field called Handkerchief Piece. On the south side of the road are endless blocks of three storey high council flats, although I note from boards that these are now sold off. By the tip of another woodland that reaches up to the road is the remains of an old road bridge. Below the bridge is a sharp drop filled with rubbish and a dirty stream emerges. A Blackbird is washing itself in the rather stagnant-looking water. A wall bounds Rockingham Wood and the road drops down to where I have parked. I think about having another look for Caesar’s Camp, but Dill the Dog is worn out so it is homewards.
Saturday 3rd February – Barnsley Canal – Through the gate in Smithies Lane onto Willowbank and greeted by a loudly singing Song Thrush. A Bullfinch flies over, his pink breast bright in the morning sunshine. There has been a heavy frost and the land has a washed out whiteness about it. Coots and a Little Grebe are calling on the Loop. Along where the old Willow lies across the canal a Moorhen and Water Rail scurry across the mud. This is the first Water Rail I have seen down here for some years. I am not sure why there is so much mud here, or more exactly, why the water level is so low. A little further up the canal the level seems quite normal. Dill the Dog is sulking for some reason and eventually has to be put on her lead as she refuses to keep up with me.
Monday 5th February – Worsbrough – The moon rose last night in oranges and browns – the burnt colours, Sienna and Umbra. Through the night the cloud thickened so there was no frost this morning. However, the clouds have dissipated somewhat and the woods are bathed in bright sunlight. A lot of felling has been carried out recently. One huge Beech lies down in a gully with its stump high above on an edge. Others have been brought down by the January gales. Another Beech has been severed some twenty feet up its trunk – a large jagged tooth of tree still standing with the rest laying across the woodland floor. Rooks are cawing from the tops of the woods. A relatively large flock of Blackbirds, maybe a dozen individuals or more, dash noisily across an open space into a Holly thicket. Wood Pigeons fly off with a loud clap of their wings.
Tuesday 6th February – Fleets Dam – The river is a far different beast to that of a few weeks since. The water level has dropped and the flow is now confined to the central step in the weir. Last night was clear again and consequently there has been a sharp frost. The willow carr is frozen over and over half the lake is covered in ice. A small flock of Black-headed Gulls stand on the frozen surface. Annoyingly, I have another episode of gout – so often a condition that induces mirth, but to the afflicted induces excruciating pain and difficulty walking far.
Thursday 8th February – Fleets Dam – Another frosty morning. It is snowing slightly, just little specks rather than real flakes. There is a dusting on the path and on the ice which now covers a majority of the lake. The group of Black-headed Gulls is at the north end beside the remaining open water. It has been snowing heavily in the south of the country. Here, it does not get any heavier and is thawing faster than it is laying. A Robin sings loudly from the top of a tall Alder.
Monday 12th February – Willowbank – After being kept near housebound by gout, over the weekend I go down with a stomach bug. This morning’s walk down Willowbank is rapidly foreshortened when I realise how weak I am still. It seems quite spring-like here, birds singing and the grass is bright green. A Bullfinch flies overhead – they seem to be out in the open far more than one normally expects of this skulking species. A Song Thrush pours forth its liquid repetitions from high up a sapling.
Fleets Dam – The fleeting appearance of snow at the end of last week and a damp weekend has raised the water level in the River Dearne again. It pours over the weir and bubbles down under the road bridge. Again, I do not get very far as I quickly become tired. This is becoming annoying!
Wednesday 14th February – Willowbank – The canal has flooded at the bottom of the slope down Willowbank. Hawthorns stand in the water, but one has surrendered to the inevitable rotting effect of having its roots submerged and has toppled over. Long-tailed, Great and Blue Tits are all active through the bushes. A Robin and Dunnock are both in song. A Green Woodpecker yaffles in the distance.
Thursday 15th February – Silkstone Fall – Entering the western side of the woods and the first trees are Sweet Chestnuts. Their bark is deeply scored and the trunks full of nodules. Branches have broken off and those remaining are twisted. Next are the first of the Silver Birches. Their bark is mainly white with dark scars, often vaguely green with a thin moss covering. Many stand at odd angles as they start to topple; others have already fallen, the Birch is not being a long-lived species and the stumps have been infested with fungi. Tendrils of Black Bryony with emerging leaves climb through saplings. Now there are lofty pines with green crowns high above. The undergrowth of mainly bramble thins out and Oaks predominate. These are even more battered and broken than the Chestnuts. One has snapped off some ten feet above the ground and the upper section remains connected to the standing trunk by a mass of tortured and twisted fibres. Blue and Great Tits are everywhere. A Chaffinch is in song.
Saturday 17th February – Barnsley Canal – It is grey and dull but yesterday’s near continuous rain has ceased. At the top of Willowbank a Robin flies down into a small Hawthorn bush. A few seconds later another Robin flies out and the first bird climbs to the top and starts to sing triumphantly. Further down the hill, Jays are screeching loudly. Predictably, the canal tow-path is a quagmire. There is a fair amount of water flowing through a crack in the small wall damming the canal under the footbridge. The lower section of canal has a higher water level than usual and up above the bridge, the level has returned to normal. There is still exposed mud near the great Willow but this is because so much soil has been washed down the hill into the drainage ditch feeding the canal. This used to be a narrow ditch but is now much larger and water is gushing down it. Below the canal, water is pouring down a well which is usually hidden from view by brambles but is now a dark hole in the ground. Further across the rough pasture are numerous molehills. A flock of Redwings is moving along the valley. There are Great and Blue Tits everywhere – the result of another mild winter. A Pied Wagtail flicks its tail and is off. Up the hill towards Greenfoot are large patches of orange, the sporophytes on mosses in the grass. Raindrops on a dormant, brown patch of bramble sparkle like fairy lights.
Monday 19th February – Barnsley Canal, Old Mill – Although it is past eight o’clock in the morning, the bird song is like a dawn chorus. Then again, it is quite dark with a heavy cloud cover overhead. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Robins and Great Tits are all singing their territorial songs. A Wren mouses its way up a small bush, eyes darting this way and that whilst searching out insects. There are several Mallard on the canal and more flying around the valley. Beyond the old lock three Blackbirds are squabbling. Blue and Great Tits are numerous. A pair of Bullfinches move through the bushes and a Jay glides into a bush and slips out of sight. A Greenfinch wheezes out his song from the top of a Silver Birch. Down in the valley a pair of Mute Swans are by the island that is often the site of a nest.
Tuesday 20th February – Wombwell Ings – As I pass I notice there is extensive flooding at Broomhill Flash. Up the old road and onto the field surrounding Wombwell Ings. The River Dearne is flowing rapidly around the bend here. A small flock of Canada Geese are grazing the grass. Bird song is still loud and continuous in the park. A few Mallard are wandering down the water channels that lead to the main ings. There is a decent scattering of wild fowl on the water – Teal, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Goosander, Shelduck, Shoveler and a pair of Mute Swan with last year’s young still patched with juvenile brown. Lapwings stand on the edge of the water, as does a Grey Heron with its head hunched down between its shoulders. A pair of Greylags fly over. A small flock of Wigeon are on the grass beyond the ings.
Greasborough – I always feel this village, now part of Rotherham, has an unfortunate name. It is a sprawl of mainly 1930s and post-war council (or ex-council probably) housing. A few small terraces of houses built at the turn of the 20th century and some much more modern dwellings lead up to the church of St Mary’s. Pigeons and Jackdaws call from the roof – there is a large, untidy nest in the belfry. Some of the small leaded panes of glass in the windows are broken. One of the faces of the clock has ceased to work. A broken sundial stands by the gates (not original gates as there are iron guides in the ground for wheels that once supported another set of gates). The lamps on the entrance posts are ruined pieces of metal work. The whole feels neglected and, of course, the church is locked. Up Church Street is a 19th century terrace leading to a square occupied by the war memorial. This is a stone cenotaph with an arched window pierced through it containing a cast iron urn with a stylised iron flame. Farms are just behind this street and beyond are the lakes of the Rockingham Estate as described above on the 2nd of February.
Scholes Coppice – I revisit this woodland. There has been a wood here probably since the 13th century when it was part of Kimberworth Deer Park. In 1650 the wood was leased to Lionel Copley, an Iron Master, who mined for ironstone and coppiced the woods to make charcal for smelting. In 1714, the woods were bought by the Watson-Wentworths of Wentworth Woodhouse who cut paths through the woods as part of the estate park. The woods were last coppiced in 1726. Half of the woodland was lost to open cast mining in the 1940s – now the area covered by Keppel’s Field. In the centre of the wood is Caesar’s Camp, also once known as Castle Holmes. This was an Iron Age encampment probably built sometime between 750 BCE and 42CE. It consisted of an earthen rampart with a deep ditch on the outside. No entrance has been found, possibly because one of the paths cut in the early 18th century went through parts of the earthworks destroying their original shape. Another theory is that there was a timber bridge across the rampart into the camp. The area of the camp covers about ¾ of an acre. Oddly, it is overlooked on three sides by surrounding hillsides – normally camps are built with all round visibility of the countryside (and, of course, there would not have been a wood here when the camp was occupied). Excavations in 1991/2 revealed there was probably a wooden palisade on the ramparts. Roman pottery and iron slag were found in the ditch. The camp has now been protected from too much disturbance by large tree trunks all round its perimeter. The woods are full of stumps and pieces of trunk. One has a scattering of sweet chestnut shell, the remains of a squirrel’s meal. Bird song is now diminishing, although a few Robins are still singing as loudly as ever. A snapped off Beech tree has crashed through another, tearing off a main limb. Pale scars in the sunlight contrast the dull brown trunks, boughs and leaf litter. A Great Spotted Woodpecker taps at a branch.
Friday 23rd February – Malvern Hills – We stay overnight at The Marlbank Inn near Little Malvern. In the morning the clouds are sitting on the Malvern Hills. A track leads across a field. The land undulates with bumps and slopes and then down towards a wood lining a stream. Song Thrushes are in song as is a Skylark lost on high. A Green Woodpecker laughs in the woods. House Sparrows chatter incessantly in the hedgerow.
Great Malvern – We stop briefly in the main town of the group of six places named after the Malvern Hills. The town lies up the slopes of the hills, with high ridges looking down on it. It has also spread out across the flood plain of the River Severn and its tributaries. Off the town centre are large Victorian houses, some extremely large. These are evidence of the wealth created in the 19th century by the spa waters which made Malvern famous. The name was probably derived from the Celtic name Moel Bryn meaning bare hill. Many writers, artists and musicians have been been inspired by the area. Edward Elgar lived here, C.S. Lewis was inspired by the area to write “The Chronicles of Narnia”, John Masefield, Lord Byron and Jenny Lind are all connected with the place.
Monday 26th February – Fleets Dam – The lake is quiet in human terms but loud with bird song. A Moorhen bobs its head to and fro as it seems to row itself across the expanse of water. Blue and Great Tits are calling continuously. Long-tailed Tits squeak as they dash from bush to bush. A few Black-headed Gulls either sit motionless on the water or fly lazily around the perimeter of the lake. Suddenly a pale small bird flits through a tree, bouncing from branch to branch seeking insects. My earliest ever Chiffchaff.
Wednesday 28th February – Fleets Dam – A bright morning. The lake seems busy – a male Goosander is washing and stretching, Mallard swim around in pairs, Moorhens seem to be forever crossing the lake and a male Tufted Duck is present, an unusual sight.