Sunday – Leominster – A near cloudless blue sky. The sun rises in the far south-east. It is Groundhog Day in the USA and Candlemas. It is believed that fine weather on Candlemas means winter will return. Good strong shadows bode ill, although as I have noted before the accuracy seems to be little more than random chance would be. The River Lugg is high. Song Thrush, Great Tit and Magpie are all in good voice. A Kestrel rises from the car lot. It is 9 o’clock and the compline bells ring from the Minster.
Monday – Croft – Grey skies, a cold wind and mud, welcome to February. A Great Tit sings and Robin makes a half-hearted attempt at song. Mosses clearly revel in the damp weather, tree trunks and stumps are rich emerald green. Water weeds also seem to be flourishing in the ponds. Buckler Ferns also doing well, possibly because of the lack of frosts or snow. Water is still pouring between ponds. Scarlet Elf Cup fungus (Sarcoscypha coccinea) grows on a fallen branch. It is getting darker. Water continues to pour down the path up the end of the valley. A spring lies in the middle of the forestry track, water bubbling out in large quantities. The few birds make no more than a squeak. An old tree has fallen by the gate to Croft Ambrey. From the hill-fort the surrounding hills are grey.
Thursday – Leominster – The wet and windy winter continues. Another extremely deep depression hit us overnight. Here the pressure dropped to 964mbar, 2mbar less than the last extreme low recorded here on Christmas Eve. The Somerset Levels remain a vast lake. Ministers and royalty visit and say how terrible and something must be done but the fact remains things are going to get wetter as the climate changes and the Levels always were a vast area of lakes and bogs. In Devon, the railway line that runs above the beach in Dawlish has been left floating in mid-air. Brunel’s line is one of the iconic pieces of railway history, many a picture and photograph have depicted the Cornish Riviera Express rushing through, often pulled by a gleaming GWR King Class locomotive billowing steam, carrying holiday makers into Cornwall. Round the coats towards Plymouth, Beach Cottage where we stayed back in October 2009 has been battered. The sea wall has been destroyed and waves are hitting the patio windows. There are reports that the West Pier in Brighton is literally on its last legs. I have seen this wonderful old Victorian pier deteriorate from a fully functioning pier in my youth to a small area of girders now. It seems even these will be destroyed by the elements soon. Here it just keeps raining. The Grange and playing field are swampy. Few birds even bother to try a song, in the few brighter moments a Great Tit and a Dunnock both start declaring their territory but the returning storms soon quieten them. The chicken run is muddy slush but there seems little point in digging it out and putting in fresh straw and chippings down as they will quickly be churned into mud again. The newspaper gets replaced in the hen-house every other day to try and keep the floor reasonably clean. So much needs doing in the garden but the weather is so discouraging. A Song Thrush sits atop a tree several gardens down, singing sweetly. A dull and grey morning turns to a wet afternoon as the next Atlantic depression moves in. A Common Buzzard drops down from a tree onto the graveyard by the Millennium Park. It is picking at something in the grass, probably a worm; a raptor will take what it can get at this time of year. A large sapling has fallen by the railway fence. Snowdrops make a glorious display around the graveyard. A Song Thrush and Robin are in full voice.
Sunday – Birmingham – In central Birmingham for the now annual Barnsley Buglers meet. Yesterday was pints in Weatherspoons and then a Chinese meal which was wonderful until we went to bed and my heart went into arrhythmia, the first time for over 15 months – very depressing. Poor Maddy has been left in the multi-storey car park, but I am not sure she minds. In the morning we head down to Gas Street Basin, the terminus of The Worcester & Birmingham Canal. The Wolverhampton and Birmingham canal also arrived here in 1773 and had an extensive basin at Paradise Wharf. This was beyond what is now just a walled up arch in Bridge Street. John Cadbury built his cocoa manufacturing factory in Bridge Street in 1847 before moving to Bourneville in 1879. It became part of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, which owned and operated the canals in Birmingham and prevented up until 1815 the boats from Worcester entering Birmingham by building a bar (barrier). Here are what are probably some of the oldest buildings left in this area, including an office of the Wolverhampton and Birmingham canal. The canal path, a café and boutique lined pavement, leads down to the Mailbox, built in 1970 as the main Post Office sorting office for Birmingham it was closed and sold in the late 1990s and is now a retail centre and offices. Nearby is an associated building, the Cube with an extraordinary façade, the building being clad in glazed and gold colour anodised aluminium panels of mainly “+” shapes. Down the canal a short way past the Birmingham University buildings and apartments. I travel as far as an old wall, probably Victorian behind which is the main railway line to the south-west. Maddy watches the Canada Geese and they watch her with the occasional barking – from the geese! Back in the hotel we make arrangements to leave and head for Hereford A&E when my heart drops back into sinus rhythm. After a short time it seems to be stable so we have breakfast and wait for the rest of the team. Later we all head out to the canal. Maddy is delighted to have her full pack with her again, it has been some time! She ensures that everybody has a chance to kick her ball, whether they want to or not. We go up to the Mailbox. Outside is one of a series of statues called “The Lovely People” by Arron Bird (a former graffiti artist known as “Temper”). It is a man with a huge red heart instead of a head. Behind the Mailbox is Commercial Street where the Victorian origins of some buildings can still be discerned in the window adornments or the decorations of eaves. Commercial Street meets Bulcher Street where stands the Singers Hill Synagogue dating from 1856. It is generally of Italinate design with a large Norman wheel window. The Masonic Hall was bought from the Jewish community in 1856. It had been the Severn Street Synagogue but was surplus to requirements when the Singers Hill Synagogue opened. We head back to the hotel and car park past the statues of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch now covered in gold and shining despite the dull weather. Some of our party return to the north but the Bottomleys and Farrars never miss the chance to head to Small Heath for Asian shopping and a curry (always a poor word for the superb food at Mishti Desh).
Monday – Leominster – Even Maddy is now trying to pick her way around the mud instead of slopping through it. There is a brief moment of sunshine but the rain clouds are building again in the west. The Kenwater is higher than I have ever seen it; another foot and it will flood the gardens opposite. The Snowdrops in the Minster graveyard are the only ray of light in the dreadful winter. Great Tits hop through the old Hawthorns.
Tuesday – Queenswood Country Park – The deluge gets worse. Overnight rain has added to the problems and large sections of the Thames in Berkshire and Surrey has flooded with over one thousand homes evacuated. Water in a few inches below our brother-in-law’s shop door in Windsor. Several large puddles greet us as we head for Hereford, some bright red with soil, but the journey is not too bad. Kay is going to Brighton and catches a coach from Hereford bus station for London. She reports later than apart from some problems between Ross-on-Wye and Gloucester, the journey is uneventful. I return to Dinmore Hill and set off round the country park. It is very soggy and not surprisingly there is little to see. All the trees are dormant and no flowers have stuck their heads above soil yet. From the look-out the countryside below shines like mercury – acres and acres are under water. However, this seems to happen most years to a greater or lesser extent and the locals plan for it. Certainly, no royalty or Government ministers touring around here tut-tutting about how awful it all is. Maddy enjoys herself getting as wet and muddy as possible. I only get one shoe-full of water. By the afternoon the sun is shining but there is still a strong wind and more rain is forecast.
Thursday – Mortimer Forest – Yesterday’s gales have past. One hundred plus mile an hour winds have caused damage across the country. The Thames Valley and Somerset Levels remain under water. This morning much of the sky is clear and the sun makes a welcome appearance. Rain can be seen falling to the east as grey clouds pass over the Clee Hills. The car park is covered in small fallen conifer branches. A Robin and Great Tit take advantage of the bright morning to proclaim their territories. Just before the first cross path a tree has fallen across the trail. Beyond there is a sprinkling of snow. My recent cold has clearly weakened me as I am blowing hard by the time I reach the main track. There is less mud than expected as the heavy rains have washed much of it away leaving the cream coloured bed rock exposed. There are less trees down than I expected. One has fallen across the track down from Haye Park House. It has already been cut up to give access.
Home – The sun is still shining so a bit more gardening seems in order. Firstly the Gladstone apple is pruned. This is not a successful tree. One expects to lose a few apples to the birds but this tree is very early and I would say the birds decimate the fruit except decimate technically means one in ten – we should be so lucky! It is more like ninety-nine per cent is bird damaged. And those that can be salvaged are not really that great anyway! The cuttings are chopped up. Most will go to the Council recycling; they can deal with wood better than our small bins. The rest will make good pea sticks. Seed potatoes are laid into egg trays in the summer house to chit. This year the first earlies are Duke of York, an old faithful; the second earlies are Nadine which has cropped well for me in the past and a few Blue Danube, purple-blue maincrop variety previously known as “Adam Blue”, the latest introduction from Sárvári, without the Sárpo prefix. Sárvári are Hungarian potato breeders who send selected varieties to the Sárvári Institute, based in Bangor in North Wales, for further development. They are well known for their blight resistant varieties. The next job is to sow some broad beans. I decide to start them in pots and head for the greenhouse to discover glass all over the path. Several panes had broken in the autumn when large Bramley apples fell on them. This seems to have created something of a wind tunnel effect and three panes at the end were blown out by yesterday’s gale. Weirdly, one pane has been blown across the path and rests, intact against the base of some raspberry canes. After clearing up the glass, I turn to the broad beans but decide that the pepper plants that are supposed to be over-wintering are almost certainly dead. So I remove them and head for the compost bins where I discover a large old six foot tree stump that was attached to a trellis has blown down, taking the trellis and very large rose and climber with it – somewhat a déjà vu situation! I manage to remove the trunk and lift the rose, climber and broken trellis up against the compost bins so the path is clear. It will be best to wait for Kay’s return from Brighton before deciding what to do next. So finally I get to sow the broad beans. Three varieties go in – Jack Gedes, a heritage variety obtained from the Heritage Seed Bank this year, Crimson-flowered, a heritage variety from seed I have saved and Masterpiece, a popular heirloom greenpod variety I have not tried before.
Saturday – Home – Another storm blew through last night. The depression pushed the mercury down to 961mbars, the lowest we have recorded here. Damage was sustained across the country with the usual power failures – Joan and David lost electricity in Surrey. There appears to have been no further damage in the garden although the fallen rose and climber blew off the compost bins where I had lifted them and back across the path. It will just have to wait for some brighter weather to be pruned right back. We do not need the compost bins particularly at the moment as I have dug a bean trench and all chicken and kitchen waste can go in there.
Sunday – Leominster – The deep depression has moved away and the sky is clear. There is a crispness to the air. A large near-full moon hangs on the western horizon. A Song Thrush sings in the churchyard. Venus shines brightly in the southern sky. Even as we walk round the Millennium Park, banks of cloud are forming in the west, obscuring the moon. Dawn is beginning to lighten the eastern sky. The minster bell rings the quarter hour. A Robin sings beside the Kenwater. After breakfast, Maddy and I head off down to Easters Meadows. The River Lugg is still very high. Frost sparkles in the meadows. A Great Tit sings his rusty wheel song. Song Thrushes and Robins accompany him. The sun has risen brightly and paints the fields in gold. The meadow is saturated. Lattices of ice have formed. A sad gap lies across the river where Pinsley Mill has been demolished. A thin film of ice across Brightwells’ car park makes for slippery walking. A pair of Dippers fly up the Kenwater beside Mill Street car park.
Home – As it is not raining for a change, Kay and I do some work in the garden. The collapsed rose gets cut up and the rose on the bower is pruned. Roses are beautiful flowers but one just wonders at moments like this, with all the skill in breeding different varieties, why did they just start by breeding out the thorns. Thick gloves and coats still seem to make no difference and the barbs rip and tear at exposed skin. The trimmings get fed into the shredder, always a tiresome task. But by lunchtime the job is done. I treat myself to a home-brewed cider!
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – The Atlantic storms have subsided. The threat of rain still remains but now bright sunshine lights up the area. The lane from Saffron Cross to Bodenham Bridge is clear of water at last because the ditches have been cleared. Mud and debris still lie in the road. The paths are very wet and the meadow muddy. A Song Thrush, Robins and Blackbirds sing and a woodpecker drums. Wildfowl are scattered across the lake. There are over one hundred Wigeon, a few Goldeneye, Tufted Duck and Teal. The Wigeon whistle and Canada Geese cackle. Two Little Grebe are diving near the hide. The pontoon has disappeared. A gaggle of Canada Geese arrive with the usual excited noise. Carrion Crows and Wood Pigeons pass over. The high level of water in the River Lugg persists and it will not take much rain for the slowly falling flood waters in the fields to spread again.
Thursday – Leominster – A morning of wind and sun. Billowing white clouds move across an azure sky. Chaffinches and Greenfinches sing in the bushes next to Cock Croft Lane, now mainly just a path over Ryelands. Ivy covered trees have blown down across the path. Skylarks drop with cocked wings, singing as they glide over the grass. Several achase across the hill. To both south and west are flooded fields. Down to the Hereford Road and south past Broadward Hall and Lodge to Broadward Bridge. The map calls the bridge “Broadwood”, which is strange as there is even a stone plaque on the bridge declaring it to be “Broadward Bridge, In existence 1535 Widened 11 feet 1924” The bridge crosses a still swollen River Arrow. Eight Mute Swans feed on the flooded fields beyond. A pair of noisy Canada Geese pass over. Back up past the Hall and Lodge. A Curlew warbles its onomatopoeic call to the west. It starts to rain. A number of mediaeval strip fields have been recorded in the vicinity of these buildings along with several post-mediaeval houses. Broadward Hall is a Georgian house whilst Broadward Lodge is mainly modern but retains some parts of a 16th century farmhouse.
Home – Every afternoon I place a board over the chicken house nesting boxes to stop them roosting there overnight. Unfortunately, a roosting hen will foul the nest and subsequently the eggs. Once it is dark and they have gone to their perch I return and remove the board. Tonight I am rewarded with a pass over by the International Space Station. It is like a giant, brilliant star racing towards the south-east.
Friday – Cusop – Dawn rises early and bright but as I head to Hay-on-Wye the clouds have gathered and after a rainbow comes the rain. But entering Wales brings sunshine, so bright in fact driving into Hay is difficult with the glare off the road blinding me. A sprinkling of snow pales the Black Mountains. From Oxford Street car park Offa’s Dyke path runs south through small fields. Carrion Crows caw, Robins and Chaffinches sing. Dulas Brook is in a deep ravine between the path and Cusop and can be heard but not seen. It forms the border between England and Wales. A chill wind nips at fingers. A footbridge crosses a brook which rushes down from near Wern Wood in the hills towards the Black Mountains to join Dulas Brook. A path drops down to Lower House and into Cusop. Over the brook. Opposite is a house which was the old Cusop Corn Mill to the south and the motte of Cusop castle to the north. A path climbs the hill beside the motte to St Mary’s Church. The siting of the church and the number of ancient Yew trees suggests this is an ancient monument, possibly pre-Christian. The church is Norman but was rebuilt in 1850. The original dedication was to St Cewydd, the Welsh Rain Saint. The name Cusop is derived from Cewydd, who was the son of Caw of Prydyn whose family sought refuge in Wales, after having been expelled from their territory in North Britain. The chancel arch is clearly Norman. The font is possibly 14th century and is carved with saltire crosses. The Ten Commandments are displayed on two boards either side of the southern door. The roof is 14th century but the bellcote was erected in 1961. In the graveyard is a particularly fine 20th century gravestone – a rough slab of limestone with two circular holes, one surrounded by the sun, the other by a cross. Across the top is inscribed “I Am The Gate”. Nearby is the old school, now a residence. Back down to the road through Cusop and on up into Cusop Dingle. Dulas Brook tumbles down small waterfalls and one fair sized one where a mist forms above the foaming defile. The bedrock is Old Red Sandstone with Upper Silurian and Lower Devonian limestones above. Towards the upper reaches is the Townsend Tuff Bed, which is a volcanic air fall ash band. On along the road, past another roaring waterfall and up to Brickyard Cottage where the road peters out. I turn back down the dingle. A Great Tit calls and a Common Buzzard sails overhead. Paper Mill cottage was one of several paper mills in the area which ran for a short time during the 19th century. Past the path to the church and yet another waterfall. Opposite, beside the road is an old wall with rough ground and a hillside covered in Hart’s Tongue Ferns and Snowdrops. Euphorbia, Lesser Periwinkle and a Skimmia japonica are in flower. Above this hillside is The Mantles, formerly called Mayflower, the home of Herbert Rowse Armstrong who was hanged in 1922 for the murder of his wife Katherine by arsenic poisoning. He is the only solicitor in Britain to have ever been hanged. The houses become larger as the lane approaches the main road before post-war council housing and late 20th century in-fill takes over. The lane joins Oxford Road and crosses the Dulas Brook as it heads down to the Wye under Black Lion Bridge. As I leave Hay-on-Wye and cross the Wye, two Red Kites fly west. Just before Witney-on-Wye, another two are heading in the same direction. Route
Monday – Croft – Yet another grey but mild day. This weather will suit garden pests no end and bodes ill for the new growing season. Nuthatches, Wood Pigeons, Robins and Blackbirds sing and call around the car park. A large amount of arborecultural work is being undertaken in the Fish Pool Valley and felled trunks litter the slopes. A chain saw snarls from further up the valley. A Wren flits around the overflow channel between two of the pools. A Common Buzzard flies through the trees. Up through the Beech wood where a younger Beech wraps its arms around an old redwood. Up at the end of the valley a fallen Ash has blocked the track. Birds at least think spring is coming – Song Thrushes sing, Chaffinches pink, Blue Tits chatter and Nuthatches whoop. Up the Bircher valley towards Whiteway Head. Catkins hang like hundreds of yellow icicles. A Great Spotted Woodpecker drums and then flies across to Lyngham Vallet to the top of a tall conifer from where he surveys the woodland. Unsurprisingly the Mortimer Trail along the top of Leinthall Common is a quagmire. More felling is being carried out in the woods nearby. Trees are being brought down quickly, it sounds like one every couple of minutes. Up onto Croft Ambrey. A Treecreeper scurries up the trunk of a Hawthorn. Wigmore lies below in sunshine. Beyond, the hills of south Shropshire rise clear and grey. To the west, the Radnor Forest is mottled with the sun but round to the south the Black Mountains are just a dark shadow on the horizon.
Friday – Newport – A city in South Wales, Casnewydd-ar-Wysg in Welsh, “New Castle on the Usk”. I am staying to the north of the city. Under the M4 motorway and into Newport on the Malpas Road. Into a suburb called Crindau. A row of shops has what one is supposed to need these days, hairdressers, tattooist, convenience stores, takeaways and funeral directors. However, there is also a suit hire shop with a fine display of kilts! The weather is miserable, light drizzle and really quite cold. Into the traffic zone, flyovers and roundabouts and loud, fast vehicles. Over footbridges, through tunnels and I am by the railway bridge over the River Usk. An intercity train passes a local one. Beyond the railway is the castle looking forlorn behind a large fence with locked gates. It is believed William Rufus built a motte in the area around 1075 possibly about half a mile south-west of here. Another castle probably on this site was built around 1126, when the name novo burgus or “new port” is first recorded. William of Gloucester had a castle here in 1171. This castle was destroyed by Iowerth the following year. Henry II paid for the repairs to he fortress and Henry III restored the castle in 1249. It was destroyed by Roger Mortimer in 1322. The castle of these ruins was built by Hugh de Audley, Earl of Gloucester in the 14th century and was sacked by Glyndŵr in 1402. Colonel Henry Herbert held the garrison in the Civil War but it was taken by Cromwell in 1648. The castle was in ruins by 1743. Across the Newport Bridge, usually called Town Bridge. The five-span arch bridge, was built in 1927 to replace a stone bridge built in 1800. A fine art deco cinema stands opposite a massive slab of Newport Cenotaph. The cinema was built for the Odeon chain by Harry Weedon and Arthur J. Price in 1937. I turn down Corporation Road, a street of probably Edwardian houses and then across George Street Bridge, the first cable-stayed bridge to be built in Britain, opened in 1964. Below old wharfs rot away in the muddy banks of the river. Gulls fly up and down the water. Off the bridge and down to the riverside path. It runs around an old dock, Jack’s Pill. A Dunnock sings in the scrub. Modern buildings abound – student accommodation and executive homes and apartments. A pair of Oystercatchers run across the mud. The riverside path passes Blaina Wharf and rounds Spittles Point. Ahead is the Transporter Bridge, one of only eight left in the world. The bridge is two towers of 242 feet high standing on either side of the river. A horizontal beam runs between them at 177 feet high and 645 feet long. Below hangs a gondola on cables which carries passengers across the river. The bridge was designed by Ferdinand Arnodin and built in 1906. Sadly, the bridge does not operate during the winter. The main road now has no pedestrian access so I head into the western end of Pillgewnlly. Along beside a large derelict industrial site, the former Corus Steel Works, on the eastern part of the Level of Mendalgief, a large area than once had railway sidings but is now being redeveloped for housing. The rain has still not ceased. West along past Belle Vue park, designed by Thomas Mawson and opened in 1894 and over the railway. Up the Gaer. Blackthorn is in blossom. House Sparrows chatter excitedly. Into The Gaer, a large pub for a pint. Over the top of the hill is St Woolos Cemetery, a vast expanse of headstones laying across a valley with numerous fresh graves. A track heads off into mud, the Sirhowy Valley Walk. Bird song is drowned out by the roar of the M4. Across a hillside is dead bracken and dormant Birches and Oak. The sun shines weakly. On top of the hill is Gaer hill-fort, sometimes called Tredegar Fort and locally known as “The Gollars”. The fort has a number of defensive ramparts and ditches along with other features. However, some of these features are the result of the site firstly being part of Tredegar House Deer Park, then forming part of a now defunct golf course and earlier, 20th century military use. From here I can see, at last, the sea or at least the great Severn estuary with England beyond. It is easy to see why the Silures built a stronghold here, the views across the coastal plain are magnificent. Back down through the Gaer estate and along the Cardiff road. Past the Royal Gwent Hospital. Clytha Crescent is a lovely terrace of buildings from the 1870s. The road travels into the city centre. It is rather depressing that a fine centre has lost most of its major shops to retail parks and only fast food and cheap shops remain. The Chartist Sculpture was created by Christopher Kelly and erected in 1991 to commemorate the Chartist uprising of 1839. Twenty people died when soldiers clashed with demonstrators demanding political reform. The sculptures form three groups, each representing a different aspect of the political and social change the Chartists hoped to bring about. The first group is “Union,” showing an idealized view of Newport; the second, “Prudence”, shows the struggle for change, and the third, “Energy”, symbolises both labour and victory. Another statue is “Stand and Stare”, a large bronze figure growing from a tree. It commemorates Newport’s “Supertramp” poet, W.H.Davies, whose poem “Leisure” contains the famous lines: “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”.