Tuesday – Bodenham Lakes – It has rained overnight. It is still cold, but the temperature is certainly above freezing now. A Great Spotted Woodpecker drums in the tall, spindly trees next to the track. Ice still floats on the lakes. A pair of Mute Swans float motionless in a corner. Another bay holds a number of wildfowl – Mallard and Wigeon – mostly standing on wet ice. More Mallard and Wigeon, along with Teal, Canada Geese, Tufted Duck, Coot, Goldeneye and a pair of Gadwall are in front of the hide. There are just two drake Goldeneye present but this does not stop them displaying by stretching their necks and throwing their heads back. Canada Geese chase each other, necks outstretched and bills wide open exposing their pink gapes. The ducks move off for a while then the Coot and Tufted Duck return all in a line.
Friday – Carding Mill Valley – It is cloudy with a slight breeze as Maddy and I head up a path along the side of Carding Mill Valley at Church Stretton. The path meets the narrow Burway Road beside a fine half-timbered house that is probably late Victorian in date. The road rises steeply and then a footpath parallels it beneath Burway Hill. There is a slight saddle between Burway Hill and the next summit, Devil’s Mouth, so across the tufts of heather and coarse grass. The wind is increasing in strength. By the time I reach the lip of the saddle, overlooking Townbrook Valley, I can barely stand upright. The wind is a roaring tempest and walking becomes tricky. I drop down to the road but the wind is still strong and I see little point continuing. Just a short distance back down the road the wind drops again to a steady breeze. Across the valley Bodbury Hill and Stanyeld look quiet, but the wind will be just as bad up there. Over the town of Church Stretton stands a line of hump-backed hills – Hope Bowdler Hill, Caer Caradoc, The Lawley, then across miles of fields to Telford and The Wrekin. I have a quick walk around the town and it is clear that it will repay an extended visit.
Monday – Mortimer Forest – The gales continue. Overhead the trees sway making a noise not dissimilar to the tide on shingle but missing the sparkling top notes. The sky seems to be getting darker and spits rain. Further afield the wind roars like a passing train. Branches litter the woodlands, their ends still bright from their recent demise. Yellow catkins dance in the gusts. A Wood Pigeon arrows overhead and is gone in an instance borne downwind with its wings almost closed. Otherwise all avian life is maintaining a low profile sheltering silently. Past the ponds and on up and around the Deer Park. Rain showers and brief brightening sun both come and go. A pair of Ravens fly over, one twisting and spinning in a dive over the valley of the Deer Park. The buffeting wind rocks me as I stand on the summit of High Vinnalls. Heavy grey clouds hang over Titterstone Clee. The Malverns to the east and the Black Mountains to the west are almost lost in mist but Caer Caradoc and The Wrekin are dark shadows on the horizon. Toward Radnor is bathed in sunlight! Above the clouds scurry eastwards but there is an occasional patch of blue sky. Down by Climbing Jack Common, over the Iron Age enclosure and down into the Oak woods. Here there is shelter from the wind, or at least some shelter. A Great Tit is calling but his song is not yet right. A Nuthatch pipes up. Blue Tits chatter.
Tuesday – Bodenham Lakes – A grey and windy morning, a considerable contrast to yesterday’s sunshine. The bulk of wildfowl are in the boating area – Wigeon, Mallard, Pochard, Coot, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye. A few Mallard and a first-year Mute Swan are feeding in front of the hide. Robins and Blackbirds are singing ever more lustily each day. Cormorants preen in the trees on the island opposite the hide. A magnificent cock Ring-necked Pheasant struts along the bank. He has the grey back of Phasianus colchicus torquatus, the group of pheasants from China. He is wary and my attempts to open the hide window to take a photograph spooks him and he flies off with whirring wings across the water. Shortly a second emerges from the saplings. This one has no grey back and a slightly less pronounced white neck-ring. The pheasants in Europe are nearly all complex hybrids of the Chinese, Mongolian (P. c. mongolicus) and Caucasian (P. c. colchicus). There is also some Green Pheasants (P. versicolor) in the mix. A croaking Raven passes over with another in close attendance. I know not whether this is a courting couple or a pair of rivals. They head up to Westfield Wood where a third rises into the turbulent air and all three glide off. High above the woods a Common Buzzard bounces on the air currents then hangs apparently motionless before sweeping downwind. Three Redwings hunch into the breeze at the top of a tree. Canada Geese are returning from their morning grazing with the usual loud cackling and honking. The recent gales have uprooted one of the old apple trees in the orchard. The map of the trees is a little confusing as it does not seem to match the layout on the ground, but I am fairly certain the fallen tree was one which is marked as unknown variety.
Friday –Long Mynd –A stream runs beside the back lane of Little Stretton. Snowdrops sparkle in the bright sunshine. Opposite is a fine house, clearly once a more modest half-timbered building but much extended over the years. The road crosses the stream at a ford and passes a camp site and another much extended cottage. The path crosses a much smaller stream bubbling down from the hills and starts to rise. Sheep baa from every direction. Robins sing and corvids caw, croak and chack. The path rises sharply up the side of a deep valley, Small Batch, carved by the little stream, seemingly too small to have created this deep Ash lined dell yet much can be done by even the most insignificant rill over millennia. Long-tailed Tits are searching an old, gnarly Hawthorn for food. Clusters of rusty brown keys hang on the Ash trees. Great Tits and Chaffinches join the Robin in song. Caer Caradoc wears a crown of cloud. To the north of Small Batch rises Nills, to the south, Callow. Rabbits sit motionless under Hawthorns on an old raised field boundary. It is clouding over. A Kestrel flies from hill to hill. Mist tumbles over the top of the saddle ahead, but the path turns west to go around the summit of Grindle. To the south lays another deep dale, Grindle Hollow. Callow Hollow, another deep cut into the hillside created by a small stream joins from the west. Now in the clouds and visibility is greatly reduced. A Raven is cronking from above. A pony wanders across the tussocky expanse of heather moor, Barrister’s Plain. The path drops slightly across another saddle where it is bisected by Cross Dyke, a 500 foot long dyke across the moor, probably from the late Bronze Age. The path eventually joins the Shropshire Way along Long Mynd. The sun is trying to force its way through the mist. A Red Grouse calls. The path reaches a road and passes Pole Cottage which is now gone leaving just a small corrugated iron barn. Just beyond the Portway, a Bronze Age trackway, leads off towards Pole Hill. The sun now shines from a blue sky, but clouds roll through the valleys below. However, it soon clouds over again. The road reaches Boiling Well, a spring I fail to find. Half a dozen pure white ponies stand around a tumulus, a Bronze Age round barrow. A path is waymarked for Little Stretton. The output of Boiling Well is soon apparent as a stream tumbles out of a patch of bog and follows the path down into the valley. The path is muddy and occasionally drops down little rock outcrops. Streams trickle down to join the main flow. Mist cloaks the valley and a wind chills the air. This is a delightful valley – the stream bubbles merrily, ancient stunted trees stand skeletal, pale with lichens, the bones of the land lie exposed in rocky outcrops on the steep slopes high above, Long Synalds to the north-east and Narnell’s Rock to the south-west. These slopes are mottled greens of heathers, Ling and mosses. I have passed only 4 people, 2 runners and a couple of birders. One runner I pass by Pole Cottage and then again on the path here in the valley. He had already taken the path I took up from Little Stretton back down to the village and was on his way back up again. He reckons he will have covered 16 miles by the end of his route. I am awed! On down the valley, now called Ashes Hollow. There are a few more trees down here. One, a Hawthorn, has fallen, its roots full of rocks. It still has a lot of scarlet Haws left on its branches. The path and stream go into a narrow gorge and the going is a little more challenging, mainly because I do not trust my knees and ankles on rocky scrambles these days. Maddy agrees to go into the stream to clean off some mud. A large block of stone bridges the stream as the path changes from side to side to bypass near vertical sections. The path emerges by a cottage, Ashes and passes through a gentler landscape of a wider grassy valley with sheep. The stream bed is littered with stones from upstream. The stream emerges as the one beside which I started this walk. From here it will head south to join Marsh Brook, then Quinny Brook which empties into the River Onney, which in turn joins the River Teme, which joins the Severn and so out into the Bristol Channel and the great seas.
Monday – Croft – A cool but bright morning. In the car park both Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatch call from a tall pine. Down the ride to the Fish Pool Valley. Down in the valley the pale limestone of the pump house gleams brilliant white in the sunshine. Green shoots of Dog Mercury and Wild Arum push through the sodden leaf litter. Great Tit and Song Thrush sing. Up through the Beech woods and across the main path to another which lies across the hilltop. There are ditches, dykes and ramparts here but their age I know not and they are not indicated on any early map. A few trees have age, but most are 20th century and a modern soft wood plantation lies between the top of the valley and Bircher Common beyond. Ravens croak far above. A Blue Tit cheeps. A tree has bifurcated quite near to the ground but the two trunks have melded together low down before separating, but they are still joined in places leaving oval holes between them. Unfortunately, the path ends at a fence all around the woodland. From the 1886 map it seems this was a major ride that would have previously gone out to a network of paths across Bircher Common, but the fence was already in place by that date. Thus, I have to descend Highwood Bank down to the track below Lady Wood. A Common Buzzard calls whilst circling very high in the rapidly greying sky. The peace is fractured by a helicopter roaring over just above the trees. Is there a reason why their exhausts cannot be quietened like a car engine? Quiet returns and a Chaffinch starts singing. A Jay squawks. Blue Tits call, peep peep churrrrrr. Along the forestry track across the hill leading to Croft Ambrey. At the turning to the Keeper’s Cottage, bright sun raises steam off the waterlogged Bracken. Down the Spanish Beech field where Maddy suddenly becomes quiet and puts her head down as she notices the herd of beef cattle. A large curly-haired white bull stands by the gate and Maddy is past as quickly as she can. There is a brief light shower of rain. The distant hills are hazy and cloud rolls around the Black Mountains.
Friday – Leominster – As dawn creeps in earlier each day it is easier to see Maddy’s ball as we kick and chase across the playing field. The dawn chorus is now a decent number of competing songs – Song Thrushes predominate with Blackbirds and Robins close behind. Many commentated that the snowdrops last year were the best for many years but I think this year is at least the equal if not superior. I wonder if the harsh periods of weather has encouraged them. Whatever the reason they flower thickly across the bottom of the churchyard and in large clumps up between the few remaining gravestones. It is sad that the majority of headstones have been removed from the churchyard. Old pictures show the entire area was thickly populated with tombs and headstones, now few remain. It is cloudy and cool this morning, indeed, there is a decided nip that chills my fingers.
Monday – Croft – A grey sky and white mist hang over the woods. Condensation on branches gathers into droplets which fall like rain. The woods are bleak, old moss covered logs lay scattered across the hillside. Some large disc-like mounds of the roots of fallen trees lay up the slope. A few ferns remain green in the rusty brown of leaf litter. Robins, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds sing. Arrowhead leaves of Wild Arum continue to thrust upwards, some already black-spotted. Tiny leaves of Herb Robert are appearing. Dog Mercury is several inches high. Rain falls briefly. The paths are quagmires, not helped by large troughs dug up by horses hooves. Croft Ambrey is hidden in mist. A Song Thrush sings and a tractor drones from the valley, otherwise the only sound is the constant drip of water from the branches. The slight breeze and mist make it quite chilly. The farmer is delivering a large bale of hay to his cattle on the Spanish Chestnut field. Calves bounce around in excitement whilst an older cow bellows. Maddy keeps her head down and trots past quietly at a wide berth. Unfortunately, the pond by the old quarry is almost empty; I was hoping to get Maddy in to wash off some of the mud that is dripping from her belly. The castle has opened at the weekend for the first time this season and is open all week. Guides and other staff are arriving and smoke pours out of the tea room chimney. A new season begins.
Leominster – A wet and chilly evening. On the north side of the Grange stands a Beech and on the north side of this tree is a long dark patch where water has flowed down from the crown. Climbing this damp patch are several large, pale slugs. They are moving very slowly. The bells of the Minster toll ten o’clock.
Thursday – Home – It seems an age since the sun shone down and warmed the garden. Snowdrops dominate the flower beds, although there are displays of crocus and hellebore and flower buds have appeared on the daffodils. A strip is cleared on one of the raised beds and cloches placed over in preparation for parsnip seeds. Another tray of tomatoes is sown and placed in the bathroom. The garlic is looking good – the recently sown cloves, used to fill in gaps in the autumn sown ones, are sprouting. The onions have survived well. The rows of cabbage are still looking rather scrawny but hopefully they will start to develop now. I do not think the same can be said for the couple of surviving purple-sprouting plants that still look pretty miserable. Trenches have been dug for runner beans and chicken and kitchen waste thrown in. We picked up a Chinese carpet cheaply at the local auction to replace the one in the summer house that suffered rather when the cider spilled when it froze (or more to the point, when it defrosted)
Leominster – A slight breeze caresses the branches of a Yew bush in front of the Minster and a cloud of white pollen billows out. The display of Snowdrops along the bottom of the churchyard is still magnificent.
Friday – Mortimer Forest – A large flock of Fieldfares are restlessly flying about, landing on tree tops and off again near the village of Orleton. Yesterday’s sun is replaced by yet more grey cloud. A breeze sets the tree tops swaying. A Song Thrush sings his repeating phrases and Great Tits call their even more repetitive “rusty bicycle wheel” song. The songs become more varied as the path drops down into the Mary Knoll Valley – Blue Tit, Chaffinch and Nuthatches join in. A quick look at the pond in the valley. A Common Buzzard flies into an Alder near the water’s edge. Suddenly Maddy decides to go for a swim! It is a delicate affair, she gently steps into the water and quietly swims a circle then climbs out. After a vigorous shake she repeats the performance. A lot of the north side of the valley has been cleared and is populated by hundreds of plastic sheaths protecting newly planted saplings. It is a muddy climb up to High Vinnalls. Cloud sits on Titterstone and Brown Clee. The other ranges of hills are all indistinct in mist which thickens as I watch. Skylarks are singing overhead. A pair of Common Buzzards dance around each other high over the Deer Park. Ravens fly over, one occasionally diving and rising again, seemingly just for the joy of it. Some pieces of tree trunk lay beside the track, left from the recent logging operations. It is noticeable that the centre of the growth rings is offset, showing that the bark develops more thickly on one side of the tree to the other, depending on the direction of the prevailing weather.
Leominster – By evening rain is falling heavily, but it remains mild. This brings out the frogs. One hops across the path around the Grange and another sits, puffed up, in Grange Walk.
Monday – Croft – Another grey day and quite cold too. Not surprisingly the tracks up the Fish Pool Valley are muddy, not that this discourages Maddy who happily chases her ball and then lies down. A pair of Teal fly up through the trees and out of the valley. In a ditch beside the path, little bright red cups gleam – Scarlet Elf Cups (Sarcoscypha coccinea). They look like Japanese biscuit porcelain with enamelled red interiors. Logging has continued with piles of sawn branches piles beside the track. Up the path to the Mortimer trail and then up onto Croft Ambrey. Stunted and twisted Hawthorns are crowned with lime green Mistletoe. A Common Buzzard sits in a tree on the edge of of the woods. Another flies across the southern edge of the fort and yet another is floating over Leinthall Earls, the hamlet in the valley far below. An old stump with the remains of the trunk still attached looks like it has been limewashed by a covering of lichen. A flock of sheep trot off across the fort at our approach although Maddy pays them not the slightest attention, she has her ball! Much activity is taking place in the trees at the western end of the ramparts – Nuthatches calling and chasing through the trees, numerous tits moving in a very loose flock, Chaffinches singing and a constant background twittering of a large flock of finches, Redpoll and Siskin. There are more flocks by the edge of Yatton Hill and in Ladycroft Plantation. Down the Spanish Chestnut field where we are watched by curly-haired calves. A Green Woodpecker yaffles across the field.