Monday – Mortimer Forest – It is a bright and sunny morning although there are some dark clouds around which look threatening but do not amount to anything. Off up the forestry track which starts dry and clear but soon is covered by a light dusting of snow overlaying ice. Although it is not really slippery, one’s legs are always under slight tension which gets very tiring. As the paths and tracks rise up the hill, across the Iron Age enclosure and up past Climbing Jack Common, the snow gets slightly deeper, but is still not a problem. A Jay cackles harshly as it flies over the forest. Three Crossbills sit at the top of a tree on the edge of Haye Park Wood. A fourth sits in a nearby tree. They are joined by a small flock and they then all depart off down the valley. There is a chilly wind blowing on High Vinnalls. The sun is obscured by dark clouds and there is a mist over the Shropshire Hills. Down the long track towards Vallets, then down into the Deer Park. Suddenly two Fallow Deer leap down the bank on the side of the trail, across the track and down into the woods. After overcoming her surprise, Maddy runs down towards the spot they crossed and as she approaches a third deer leaps across the track. She just stands and stares before deciding to investigate. She dives off into the woods but fortunately returns when I call her sharply – I can do without her getting lost in this forest. The path continues through the woods, past the ponds, the bottom one is still partially frozen and eventually round to join the path to Black Pool car park.
Thursday – Croft – Rain falls steadily as Maddy and I head down into a soggy and muddy Fish Pool Valley. A path leads up the side of a valley behind the lime-kiln. It is a long and steady climb. Tall spruces rise from the valley bottom below. The deciduous trees are equally tall, reaching up for the sun above the valley skyline. The path reaches the old Keeper’s Lodge, now painted bright pink. Snowdrops cover the steep slope below the path. Back along the track that runs on the opposite side of the house past the great coppiced Oaks. Mist shrouds the woods and the bird life is clearly sheltering as there is hardly a squeak. Old Hawthorns are festooned with little clumps of green-grey lichen. A track leads back down to the Fish Pool Valley. We head up the eastern flank. Maddy is now dripping with mud. Back up past the ruined ice-house. A Great Tit loudly calls his two note song, the first real bird song all morning.
Saturday – Leominster – After several dull but milder mornings, the sky is partially clear and there is a crunch of ice underfoot. It is also getting noticeably lighter now with a dark blue, rather than black cast overhead. The dawn chorus is especially lively when I cross the playing field – Blackbird, Song Thrush, Dunnock, Robin and Great Tit songs ringing out from both the churchyard and the hedges by Pinsley Road. A bright point of light glides across the sky to the south – the International Space Station. Up there are Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineers Maxim Suraev, T.J. Creamer, Oleg Kotov and Soichi Noguchi. Last Thursday a Russian cargo ship docked with supplies and next week the space shuttle Endeavour will rendezvous. It seems a great shame that so few people throughout the world know those names or details of the mission (including me, I just Googled it!) It seems that out great adventure into space, climaxing on July 20th, 1969, when 500 million people worldwide watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon, is now just a footnote in history.
Home – February is a difficult time of year. Especially this year when winter seemed to start early and has been long and harsh and still has some way to go. Flowering Snowdrops and emerging shoots of Daffodils bring the promise of spring, but the temptation to get sowing must be tempered by the knowledge that there will almost certainly be bad weather yet. However, I have got some lettuce, broad beans and leeks sown in trays in the greenhouse and tomatoes and chillies in the bathroom. I will sow a line of peas in a length of guttering in the greenhouse but then I must stop, anything else risks being too early.
Monday – Mortimer Forest – It is a typical February day – cold and grey. I take the track south past Woodcroft and round above the open valley. On the far side, a hillside, brown with dead bracken, leads up to Hanway Common, over which Ravens fly to and fro. A Common Buzzard flies up the valley and is harassed by the Ravens but it takes little notice. Another buzzard joins the fray and the two raptors rise high above the hillside. A flock of Redpoll and Blue Tits are twittering noisily in Silver Birch and Alders. A woodpecker is drumming in the valley. Round by the pond and up a track that runs behind the hill of the Deer Park. There are tiny specks of snow in the air. The track comes to a deer outlook with a large mound of earth strengthened with timbers further up the hill – some sort of target area? The path beyond looks badly overgrown so I turn back. Ravens in the woods have a strange call, a kind of whooshing whooeh, almost electronic sounding. A glimpse of a Fallow Deer running across the track down near the pond is missed by the eagle-eyed dog. The paths and banks consist of a sandy soil but large molehills thrown up are rich black loam.
Wednesday – The Weir – We visited this National Trust garden on the banks of the River Wye last year at this time but failed to return again in the year to see the seasonal changes. However, it is still worth revisiting every early spring to admire the Snowdrops which carpet areas of the hillside. There are a number of varieties, often differing in the size of their flower heads. There do not seem so many delicate heads of Yellow Winter Aconite this year. We pass along the top path, each side of the slope covered with clumps of green leaves of Daffodils which are just a few weeks away from flower. A Nuthatch calls from above but remains hidden from view. Woodpeckers are drumming in the old Oaks on the hillside and on the flat area near the river. The Wye is flowing smoothly. It is still cold although the combination of hillside and river mitigate some of the chill. Spear-shaped leaves of Ransoms are unwinding as the emerge from the earth. Plaster (or maybe plastic) toadstools and ducks are peeping out of spots along the paths – something for the children to find and enjoy. By the path right above the river wall, there are Primroses in flower. Long-tailed Tits move along the bank. Great and Blue Tits, Robins, Blackbirds and corvids are all filling the air with song and noise.
Leominster – An afternoon stroll over the Grange with Maddy, consisting mainly of ball chucking to try and wear her out a bit. It really is cold and flakes of snow drift about in the wind. A Common Buzzard drifts around over the churchyard. The display of Snowdrops here is pretty impressive too!
Thursday – Mortimer Forest – There are decent numbers of Redwings and Fieldfares in the fields on the way to Richards Castle. From Black Pool car park, I head up through the woods towards the Iron Age enclosure. A Marsh Tit is cheeping excitedly in the saplings. It is the first one I have seen for quite some years. Instead of heading on up to the enclosure I take the path northwards which drops down into the Mary Knoll Valley. This path joins the main track on the south side of the stream opposite Sunnydingle Cottage. The track passes over a stream running down from High Vinnalls and then a path heads up into the woods. This path climbs through old deciduous trees before entering a clearing. Maddy is running around sniffing everywhere. I pause for a moment then start to look for the path that heads uphill from here. I notice Maddy is not in sight so I call her – nothing. After some time calling for her and hearing nothing, no barks, no crashing through undergrowth, nothing at all, I find the path up the hill and follow it to the track that runs right around the hillside. Still no sign of her. I check westwards for a while then head back towards the enclosure. From the enclosure I decide to head back to the car to regroup and dump my heavy bag. I am feeling just a wee bit stressed – furious with the dog and worried sick! I reach the car park and now call, or rather croak as my throat is raw from calling her name. A face peeps from around the car with an embarrassed look. It is nearly two miles from the spot where she disappeared – an annoying but not stupid dog!
Wednesday – Hay on Wye – We are meeting Fran and Derek in Hay. The idea is a spot of lunch and then a local walk, but the weather is foul. It is snowing or sleeting, every time it looks like the snow will turn to rain, the flakes get bigger. We retreat to the Three Tuns for lunch and stay some time. This is followed by a wander around the town, window-shopping. When we arrive back at the main car park, the Black Mountains are looking grim. Snow covers the upper flanks and cloud hangs low over the summits. All thoughts of a walk are dismissed, much to Maddy’s disgust!
Thursday – Eaton Hill – Down Etnam Street and over the railway and River Lugg. Across a very wet rough meadow, under the A49 road bridge and down the river side. The river has a green-grey hue and is flowing fairly rapidly. Hawthorns look green with new leaves but it is illusory, just bright lichens on the twigs. The paths are very muddy as we head down beside the paddocks. Maddy insists on slipping under the electric fence despite my warnings and commands not to – I almost wish the fence was switched on to teach her lesson, but it is just as well it is not. Mallard lift off the river and head noisily downstream. Most catkins are still hard little sausages, but some on a Hazel facing south have opened and glow bright yellow in the grey gloom of the morning. Up the old drovers’ path and onto Eaton Hill. Some fallen branches and living saplings have been stripped of bark, either by rabbits or deer evidenced by the white tooth marks in the heartwood. Leominster below is shrouded in mist. Later in the afternoon it begins to snow, but we get a far lighter fall than many places – Malvern is reported as being in traffic chaos.
Sunday – Home – Friends from Barnsley are visiting for the weekend. Overnight there has been another sprinkling of snow. We set about the task of moving the chicken run, which goes surprisingly easily. We put the chickens in a temporary enclosure of wire, remove the fencing and then shift the house to its new position. The fencing is then hammered back around the new run. The hens seem very content with the surface of grass – not surprising as the previous run was a quagmire of mud. It is difficult at this time of year as to when it is best to put in a new layer of straw and chippings. Wet weather soon reduces it to mud again but it is preferable for it to be down for a while so that it composts well. Some more Broad Beans and leeks are sown. There is evidence that the earlier sowings are beginning to germinate but, inevitably the cold makes things very slow. Maddy had a spot just by the the gate into the chicken run where she would lay and stare at them, her nose inches from the wire. Oddly, she stays in exactly the same spot despite the run now being several feet away! At night the sky is fairly clear. There is a large ring encircling the moon, a long way out, light reflecting off of ice crystals. Aircraft vapour trails are also clearly in view.
Monday – Croft – The path down to the Fish Pool Valley is muddy. The track up the valley is a mixture of mud, semi-frozen mud and snow. At the top of the woods, Robins and thrushes are singing but there are just a few chirps down in the valley. Up the path towards the ridge. A Fallow Deer bounds up the slope and off into the trees. Its back is dark as sable. Maddy sets off in pursuit but fortunately returns on a loud bark from me – I can do without her getting lost again! The spring beside the path is completely dry despite the amount of water around the place. The snow is deeper towards the top of Leinthall Common. Up onto Croft Ambrey Iron Age hill-fort. The hills in the distance in all directions are partially obscured by clouds, but one can see that the Shropshire Hills are virtually snow-free whilst the Malverns and western hills are white. There is no snow down below in the Arrow valley. Down to the edge of Yatton Hill and into the woods. A Common Buzzard dances by on the blustery wind. A large flock of finches twitters excitedly over Croft Wood. They alight high on the conifers making only silhouettes against the sky. Many are Redpoll, but I suspect there are some Siskin here too, but without a ’scope it is hard to confirm. Back down at Croft, a tractor drags a chain harrow across the grass.
Tuesday – Marden – A sprawling village between Leominster and Hereford, on the plain of the River Lugg. It lies north of Sutton Walls Iron Age fort. There is much modern housing providing a dormitory village for Hereford. However, there is much history here. The name derives from Maund or Magene meaning a rock enclosure. The district was also known as Maund or Magonsaete, and was a sub-kingdom of Mercia. The name was recorded as Maurdine in the Domesday Book, and Magewurdinin 1177. The church of St Mary the Virgin lies on the banks of the Lugg at the far west of the village. There is some evidence there was a church here in the 4th century. In 1848, a Celtic bell was discovered in a pond near the church. It is typical of those made in the 8th and 9th centuries. In the 8th century, Offa built a palace here, although the exact site remains undiscovered. It was to this palace that King Ethelbert came in 794. Ethelbert had just acceded to the throne of the kingdom of the East Angles and came to meet Offa to marry his daughter Alfthrytha. It appears that her mother, Queen Cynethryth regarded the young Ethelbert as a dangerous rival to Offa and persuaded him to behead Ethelbert. Other souces state that Cynethryth herself organised Ethelbert’s murder and Offa was distraught, although this did not stop him invading and annexing the kingdom of the East Angles. Ethelbert’s body was thrown in a marsh but a column of light revealed it and a spring appeared, which is now in a room in the nave of the church. After three days a vision of Ethelbert appeared to Offa’s chamberlain, Berhtferth and commanded him to retrieve the body and take it to Fernlage (then the name of Hereford) in an ox-cart. During the journey, Ethelbert’s head rolled off the back of the cart as it trundled up the hill at Lyde. A blind man tripped over it and his sight was miraculously restored. He picked up the head and ran after the cart, catching up with it at Shelwick. The cart paused at a site now in Castle Hill in Hereford where another spring appeared. Ethelbert was buried at Hereford cathedral and his name added to the dedication of the church. After his invasion of East Anglia, it appears that Offa suffered great remorse for the murder and built a number of churches and monasteries, endowed many religious establishments and made a pilgrimage to Rome. A considerable cult developed around St Ethelbert and Hereford was considered second only to Canterbury as a centre of pilgrimage. The present church dates from 1220-30. The chancel arch is 13th century with a squint on either side. On the chancel wall is a brass and wooden plaque dedicated to Dame Margaret “the most deere wife of Sir Geo Chutc. Kt”, who died in childbirth in June 1614. Another marble and slate monument is inscribed in Latin to “Sarae Johannis Unett de Sutton-Freene arm: uxoris-Edward Chamberlayne de Monkton in hoc comfitata gen: filiae-. Obit Oct 3 Anno Domini 1732. Aotis suae 44”. By the south door is a Benefactor’s Plaque from the early 18th century. Outside, on the south porch are the heads of St Ethelbert and Pope Adrian. The tower is free standing and erected in 1340. In 1553 there was a set of four bells; there is now a peal of six, dating from 1744 to 1909. There are no graves either side of the church as burials were discontinued by order in 1899 because of flooding. Raised ground to the east was purchased and burials recommenced here. Snowdrops cover the banks of the river.
Thursday – Queenswood Country Park – It is becoming milder although snow still afflicts parts of Scotland. The arboretum is mainly grey and dormant, but some trees are beginning to show signs of spring. A few green leaves, yellow catkins and even some pink Cherry blossom. The Autumn Garden is closed as woodmen are thinning the trees. All round the area their handiwork can be seen, stumps covered in sawdust and piles of sawn branches and trunks. The path down the back of the park is treacherous. The surface is churned wet clay mud and I descend by sliding a foot forward until it grips then sliding the other foot – almost skiing. The cloven hoof prints of deer appear towards the bottom of the slope. A track runs around the hill, beneath the look-out point. A Great Spotted Woodpecker chips, Great and Blue Tits call and a Robin sings. Jays rasp harshly up on top of the hill.