Friday – Leominster – My ankle is now becoming a major nuisance, Maddy and I have not had a decent walk for over a fortnight now. The weather remains changeable, but often wet. The ground is still quite disgusting, sloppy mud that squelches as one passes over. The only songsters are Robins but Blackbirds are muttering and pinking their alarms. Yesterday I made 15 jars of marmalade. As usual I was unsure about the set, I got it right last year, but this batch looks a bit soft. However, I decide against reboiling, breakfasts will just have to be a bit messier and stickier. Spring is beginning to show in the garden, snowdrops and hellebores are in flower, daffodils leaves are shooting up. Rhubarb has sprouted as has the garlic I sowed in autumn and thought had rotted. The autumn sown broad beans are looking rather grim though. The hens continue to lay although one of the new girls is laying eggs that would be more expected from a bantam! She, whichever one she is of the two, is a well-built hen too. I pick some chinese greens for dinner, they have survived the snows well but will now need using up. It starts to rain again.
Saturday – Leominster – It is Candlemas Day, celebrated as the day that Jesus was presented at the temple. However, it would to be another appropriation of an older Celtic festival, Imbolc, when the winter turns towards spring. Candlemas Day is known as Groundhog Day in the USA from an old German tradition. The rhyme applied in England is:
The American trunk is similar but analysis of the weather following Groundhog Day shows it to be 37% accurate, little more than the 33% random chance. Still, it is indeed “fair and bright” here. Stars twinkle and the half-moon hangs brightly. There is a cold northerly wind. Robins and Rooks greet the pale blue glow above Eaton Hill. A bright satellite passes over in the western sky – Resurs I rocket body from a Russian Zenit 2 rocket launched in 1994 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Clouds start to form. However, they soon disperse to leave a fine, sunny day.
Tuesday – Leominster – It seems an age since the ground was firm and dry, indeed anything but soft, cloying mud. Maddy’s ball is returned smeared with mud. My shoes and boots are soon covered with the stuff. It is snowing, so little chance the condition of the ground will improve any time soon. The day continues with abrupt changes between dark cloud cover and flurries of snow and blue skies and bright sunshine. The young hen seems to have finally worked out that eggs are supposed to be laid in the nest and not in the poo on the bottom of the roost. Much needs doing in the garden but the weather just does not invite gardening. Maddy’s afternoon walk is windy and cold. She barks at a poor, friendly golden Labrador who is doing nothing wrong apart from getting in “her space”. Unfortunately, her space is a rather large area. At least she moves away when I tell her. The snowdrops are now a glorious sight in the churchyard; great drifts of them below the trees.
Thursday – Leominster – A line of pink cloud lays above a pale blue glow over Eaton Hill. Directly above the stars still shine. The pools of water on the path are frozen and grass crunches underfoot. The triangle of lights on the front of the 6:20 train to west Wales shines as the unit passes over the Kenwater and slows as it approaches the station. A Song Thrush has joined the Robins singing. Two bags of seed potatoes have been purchased – Home Guard, a first early and Nadine, a second early – and put in the summer house to chit.
Weobley – It seems a couple of degrees colder here. The track up past the castle mound is very muddy, not frozen enough to prevent our shoes becoming clagged. A Common Buzzard flies serenely across the field. The large Oak which stands in the field near to where the castle fish ponds were located has lost a large limb which lays broken on the ground. The locals allow their dogs to approach Maddy, always a mistake. A female Blackbird watches from the top of the bank above the old moat line. The area of moat around the south and east of the bailey is, unsurprisingly holding a lot of water.
Saturday – Birmingham – Up to Birmingham for the annual Winter Meet of the Barnsley Buglers (don’t ask...) There are hints of snow around the suburbs of the city but in the centre it rains for the rest of the day. My ankle means we cannot walk into the centre along the canal tow-path, a decision greeted with a decided lack of dismay! After an afternoon of lazily sitting in a pub watching the Six-Nations Rugby on the big-screen we head off to the Chung Ying Garden restaurant. We have tried other restaurants over recent years but always seem to end up back here. The restaurant is very busy, queues of people waiting but fortunately we have booked. The meal is under way, enormous portions of delicious food when fireworks explode outside. This is followed by a cacophony of clashing cymbals and drums and two huge Chinese lions enter the restaurant accompanied by Dai Tou Fut also called the “Laughing Buddha”. He is dressed in a yellow robe and waves a red fan. One lion is yellow, a young lion and the other an old, white lion. We had noticed earlier there was a lettuce and a red envelope hanging from the ceiling just beside us. This is the prize the lions are seeking and they pluck it from the ceiling. It is interesting to note that nearly all the performers are white Caucasians!
Sunday – Birmingham – Off to Small Heath for shopping and lunch. It is still raining steadily and we get soaked just parking and heading for the supermarket. This is a predominately Asian area of the city. The pavements are an interesting statement of the state of our country, they are broken, full of potholes and generally in a dreadful condition. The shops are in varying condition, some extremely smart and modern – usually electronic retailers, service or religious shops or restaurants. Others are very run-down, usually food stores running on minimal margins and older establishments without new money. However, despite the weather the whole area still feels vibrant and busy. We stagger back to drop off our shopping and then go to Mishti Desh, a wonderful buffet restaurant. Despite trying moderation we still emerge bloated!
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – A cold, overcast day. It is snowing fitfully. A majority of the mature trees have been felled around the car park. There is no indication as to why this happened, the logs seem to show healthy trunks. However, there are plenty of quite large saplings already in place, so maybe it was a simple thinning. The level of the lake is still high. A pair of drake Tufted Duck drift across the water. The snow becomes a little more persistent. I need to get some shavings and food for the chickens from Wynne’s at Dinmore so our walk is curtailed, although I think Maddy is grateful for anything she gets these day, my ankle is still giving problems. It is beginning to lay lightly up at Buskwood Farm. Chris tells me that she was wondering whether it would be worth opening today but had had two customers as soon as she arrived, both wanting chickens. By late afternoon the snow has thawed.
Thursday – Croft – At last walking is just uncomfortable instead of painful, so it is off to Croft. It is cold, barely above freezing and a breeze makes it feel even colder. Only a few Blue Tits call in the Fish Pool Valley. The thick layer of leaves that fell in the autumn has been absorbed into the leaf litter. A Common Buzzard launches out of a tree a short distance ahead and flaps up out of the valley. It has not rained for several days but the sound of running water is noticeable from the rills that connect the ponds. Dog’s Mercury and Wild Arum are both growing with a bright verdancy. Patches of ice are scattered on the path. Up the path to the north-west side of the valley. Four Blackbirds are chasing up the hillside. I rest a while with Sir James Croft at his graveside on the bluff overlooking the valley. The grave is dotted with snowdrops and daffodil leaves are rising. To the west, much of the Forestry Commission conifers have been cleared leaving the ancient Oaks standing is majestic freedom from the tyrannical cloaking of alien softwoods. It is planned to graze the area so that it returns to the wooded pasture that is shown of the late 19th century maps. Deer hoof prints are pressed into the mud. Several calling Fieldfares pass over and Jays fly through the woods screeching loudly. There are sheep in the Spanish Chestnut field, which is fairly unusual, however, Maddy is far too busy with her ball to worry about them.
Monday – Leominster – Slowly the mornings get lighter. I can more or less see Maddy’s ball now when the “twanger” hurls it down the park. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Greenfinches singing with Blue Tits twittering. The 6:20 freight train growls past quite slowly, must have got held up by some signals at the station.
Mortimer Forest – Barking Ravens greet our return to the forest. It has been seven weeks since I was last here. It is overcast and cold with a chilling breeze. Earlier spots of rain have stopped. Initially the Ravens are the only sound to be heard but now Great Tits are singing their rusty wheel song. The pond is clear. Only an occasional rasp from a Jay or a Carrion Crow on Hanway Common interrupts the murmur of the wind through the conifers. Keep on upwards, puffing more and more as the enforced lay-off shows its effects. A Wren calls its alarm at the top of the path as it turns up to High Vinnalls. It is much colder at High Vinnalls and tiny specks of snow are driven by the strong wind. The surrounding hills are all indistinct and cloud-topped. Back down across Climbing Jack Common, still kicking the ball every few paces, will that dog ever give up? A stump in the middle of the path is covered with grey feathers; it looks like a Wood Pigeon has been plucked here but by what?
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – An area of very high pressure has been sitting over the country for some days now, bringing stable if cold and cloudy weather. The lack of rain means the land is beginning to dry a little. The lake is still high, just the tops of the reeds by the scrape showing whilst all the gravel banks remain submerged. A flock of Wigeon are in front of the hide. A loud noise from the road running below Westfield Wood spooks them and they depart with much whistling to the other side of the lake. The few Canada Geese present still kick up a considerable cacophony. Mute Swans are upended near the bank. A few Teal, Mallard, Coot, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye are dotted around the water. Four Cormorants sit on the pontoon with sever more up in the island trees. Some have the white napes and crowns of adult breeding birds, others the white bellies of juveniles. Now the Wigeon have more or less settled a quick count totals around 150. A large brown back breaks the surface by the reeds, my first confirmed Otter sighting here. Sadly that is the only glimpse I get of this magnificent creature. Several of the cider apple trees have been pruned. The dessert apple orchard is covered in molehills like a bad dose of measles. One of the sheep in the pen by the entrance has a lamb.