Monday 2nd February – Leominster – For several days weather forecasters have been predicting heavy snow across the country and it has arrived. The east of the land is more affected but it snowed overnight giving a thin covering and it has continued to fall this morning. Yesterday the chickens escaped and unfortunately Maddy did what comes naturally and badly mauled Spotty. I cleaned her up with TCP and eventually put her back in the chicken house but she looks pretty sorry for herself and may not survive. I take the miscreant dog off to the river meadows. By the time we get there it is snowing quite hard. I am turning into a snowman as the flakes stick to my fleece. Maddy wants to play ball but she will lose it almost immediately in these conditions. Not surprisingly, nothing much is moving, the corvids will be up on Eaton Hill in the trees and the thrushes in quiet, sheltered spots. A flock of finches flies across the railway and House Sparrows chatter in the garden of a house by the Kenwater path. Maddy decides to play snowploughs and is licking the snow off the ground as she walks along. This results in a mound of snow balanced on her nose! It is Candlemas Day. An ancient festival, the Celtic Imbolc appropriated, like most others, by the Christian religion. It marks the halfway point between the winter and spring equinoxes. An old German saying goes:
Badgers should be walking far and wide today!
Tuesday 3rd February – Leominster – The snow continued through yesterday afternoon but there was very little overnight. Late yesterday evening, young people were building a large snowman on the Grange. Oddly, it has been knocked over this morning. The snow is quite a decent blanketing, not a lot compared with other parts of the country. There are the usual outcries about one bit of snow and the country grinds to a halt... Whilst this is true, it must be remembered that many parts of the country seldom see much snow year after year, so maintaining a fleet of vehicles on the off-chance there will be a heavy fall is hardly cost-effective. However, it is hard to understand why so many schools and other establishments remained closed for a second day when there was little extra snow. Maddy gets quite giddy with all the snow around. I take her out for a second walk mid-morning. It is a tortuous affair as I want her to stop pulling on her lead and her failure to comprehend this simple instruction results in it taking nearly half an hour to get to the Grange, a two minute walk. She is improving – slightly! The thaw sets in around noon. There are far more birds around the garden than during the Birdwatch on Sunday – typical! Goldfinches are squabbling in the Horse Chestnut. Small flocks of Fieldfares fly over. Jackdaws chack from the roof tops. A fat Wood Pigeon waddles around the garden. Spotty seems to be improving. I took her out of the chicken house this morning and she took some water from the drinker. This afternoon she joined in the dance the girls do when I approach and vigorously set about the dish of food I had taken out.
Friday 6th February – Leominster – The snow has continued over the past few days. Yesterday there was a reasonable thaw but several inches fell overnight. The Grange and churchyard are beautiful. The deciduous trees are delicately outlined in white, the evergreens have large patches of snow on them. Redwings and Blackbirds are feeding in between the graves and out on the Grange beside Mr Grainger, the giant man made of plants who has a white hat at the moment. Back home the garden is under a sheet of white. Whorls and loops and lines that come to a sudden stop mark where the Blackbirds have been. The chickens seems to take the snow in their stride. Spotty is looking well, but I do not think she is laying. A female Blackbird visits the feeder outside the back door; she has lost her tail. In the afternoon Maddy and I go to the Queenswood Country on Dinmore. The snow is deeper here and will take longer to thaw. A splendid snowman with a bowler hat has been built in the open space at the top of the hill.
Tuesday 10th February – Leominster – British weather has always been a mysterious thing. It is unpredictable, which is probably why it is said that British people always are talking about it. And, to a degree, this is true because we are constantly surprised by the weather. We also have poor meteorological memories – the snowy winters and sunny summers are more a product of misremembered youth than reality, although that is not to say there were not some impressively snowy winters and long, hot summers. Recent years have seemed to be somehow bland – long periods of grey interspersed with rain, rain and more rain. So the recent snow has everyone talking, often without any thought. By the weekend it seemed that the thaw had nearly completed here and winter may be leaving, but the weather forecasters were spinning tales of gloom and doom as a large storm headed northwards from the continent. Peter, Jo and Jemima had come up for the weekend. It rained most of the time, which was a bit of a nuisance when there are two energetic dogs in the house. Zebedee, a Springer Spaniel and Maddy hardly stopped all weekend, and to be fair, Maddy was the real pain! But she is a young dog, so it must be expected. In the event, the storm seems to have missed us as dawn rose with an almost clear sky and no sign of snow. The moon is a huge pale red disk low over the town-centre houses. The dawn chorus is now loud and persistent – Robins, Blackbirds, Song and Mistle Thrushes and various members of the Tit family. A woodpecker is drumming somewhere near the Minster but I fail to locate it. The line of trees along the bottom of the churchyard are standing in numerous pools of Snowdrops. Much of the ground is sodden and squelches underfoot, but along beside the old Priory the path has not yet fully thawed and there is much slick ice and mud. Later in the morning, Maddy goes to the vets. She behaves extremely well. The vet considers her to be in very good condition. Afterwards we head up the hill from the Hereford Road. It is muddy. From the ridge we can see many of the tops around the area are still snow-covered. Clee is stands out prominently in its cloak of white.
Wednesday 11th February – Dinmore Hill – The snow has mostly disappeared from the town but there is still some laying on Dinmore Hill. The paths through the Queenswood Country Park have been compacted into ice. Maddy’s claws skitter and clatter as she slides and slithers after her ball. We drop down beyond the look-out and walk the track through dense woods with a few clearings where felling has occurred. A path leads back up again; it is muddy and very slippery. It is a considerable effort to reach the top. I have not been the only traveller here, deer hoof prints are impressed in the mud.
Sunday 15th February – Home – It has been dry for a couple of days so it seems a good opportunity to get out into the garden. The main job is digging over the new vegetable patch in readiness for the potatoes that are chitting in the summerhouse. The soil is dreadful stuff – thick and heavy clay threaded through with dandelion roots. I remove the larger ones and line each trench with a couple of forkfuls of manure from the chicken run. I disturb a couple of ant nests, digging up hundreds of tiny white eggs and orange adults. The wooden frame that formed the raised bed where the greenhouse will be positioned is moved over and the bed is finished. Hopefully the huge clumps of clay will break down a bit before I have to attack them with the fork and rake to try and get a workable tilth. Some lettuces have been wintering under a cloche, so I remove it and weed them. There are about a dozen, although a clump have all grown in one spot and need splitting. The radishes are dug out and fed to the chickens and a cloche placed over that bed in readiness for sowing early carrots. The broad beans have not wintered as well as usual, so a number more, Green Windsor, are planted in the gaps. I had purchased six asparagus crowns, Gijnlim F1, and although it is early, they are sprouting in the bags, so in they go into the new bed. The red onions and garlic are looking good. The first crocuses are coming into flower, joining the numerous snowdrops and hellebores. In the summerhouse, cabbage seedlings, Jersey Wakefield, are doing well but my old Bunyards lettuce seeds brought from Barnsley are yet to germinate. I sow another tray of lettuce – Green Oakleaf.
Wednesday 18th February – North Devon – We have a family gathering at Saunton Sands in North Devon. The journey to Saunton Sands is a pleasant drive around the north Somerset and Devon coasts. We pause briefly at Watchett. The West Somerset railway passes through; a British Railways diesel multiple unit comes through. We walk up to the look-out and the harbour sits below us. There has been a harbour here for at least 1000 years. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles records Watchet being plundered by Danes led by Ohtor and Rhoald in 987 and 997. We move on up the famous steep hill of Porlock, across Exmoor, where ponies graze close to the road, down into Lynton and Lynmouth and along the valley where the stream rushes over rocks far below.
Saunton Sands – We are staying in a classic art-deco, white-painted hotel standing above the beach looking down the long strand. Maddy takes immediately to the sands. She chases her ball and lays there with it in between her paws. The waves creep up the vast expanse of sand, not moving quickly but inexorably. She is glancing at their approach out the corner of her eye but seems to believe the water would not have the audacity to approach her. Indeed, the first time the water actually hits her before she leaps up, misses her ball and moves away. She then has to go in to retrieve the ball. On subsequent occasions she still appears to be unable to accept the water will reach her until the last moment when she now rises to her feet before getting wet. Dunlin are running across the sand near the water.
Thursday 19th February – Saunton-Croyde Bay – A group of us head up the hill beyond Saunton Sands. A path rises steeply through stunted and scrubby Hawthorns and Gorse. A small patch of Primroses shine bravely by the path. A stream gurgles down the hill on the other side. The map states there are mediaeval cultivation terraces, but the hillside is covered in Gorse. The old maps indicate there was a camp here, but there is nothing on the modern OS map. The path reaches the top of the hill in an open field. A ruined house, Down House Cottage, stands to the east. There is a magnificent view to the south – the long golden strand of Saunton Sands. Behind the beach is Braunton Burrows, a large area of dunes covered with rough grasses. The path crosses the the top of Saunton Down. Sheep and their lambs are feeding on the remains of a green leaf crop. The path then drops steeply down Down Lane, a muddy path. It emerges into the village of Croyde. We wander around the village. The centre of the village has a general store, post office and numerous surfer shops. The road continues past houses and holiday villages. Beside the road, the verges are carpeted with Ground Elder and old thick stemmed Mallows. Eventually a path turns off leading to the busy beach. At each end of the beach sedimentary rocks that have tilted through 90° and erosion has left lines of rocky teeth leading to the incoming waves. Gun emplacements have been built into the cliffs during the war. The path rises to the road. Behind us white sea foam gushes over the rocks. The Coastal Path is picked up again and runs parallel to the road back to Saunton.
Friday 20th February – Saunton Sands – Maddy’s early morning walk is along a beach hidden in a dense sea mist. A flock of Dunlin chase around the high water mark. Down by the water’s edge, gulls stand around in a group like teenagers on a street corner.
Baggy Point – Later in the morning we head to Baggy Point on the far side of Croyde Bay. I remember walking here some 45 years ago or more. I saw my first ever Peregrine Falcon here. There was also some strange object outside a cottage but I cannot recall what it was. The path passes houses and cottages looking out over the bay. A Dunnock is singing. Then we pass my strange object, which turns out to be a whale bone from a whale beached here in 1915. The path continues towards the point. A pond has been constructed by the Hyde family and restored by the National Trust. Below the path a number of Shag are standing on an outcrop of rock rising from the sea. At the point are great cliffs of slabs of rock – layers of deposited sediments, Upper Devonian – some 380 million years ago, tilted upright. Jackdaws call and chase over the cliff edges. Young gulls fly across the waves. Back up the hill is a wreck post, a tall white post with steps, which was used in coastguard training exercises to simulate the mast of a ship. Stone walls made of flat pieces of the local stone stacked vertically form field boundaries. Baggy Point was has been occupied since the Mesolithic with considerable evidence of that period. Stonechats stand on the highest point of the walls or gorse bushes. The weather seems extraordinary for mid-February – hot sunshine only a week after blizzards. We head around the point, past Long Rock and Whiting Hole towards Woolacombe. A long beach faces south from the village. We decide there is no way over the hill back to Croyde, so we retrace our steps and cross the hill from the look-out and drop back down to the path again.