New Year’s Day – Leominster – It is cold and a sharp frost glitters in the brilliant full moonlight. From Millennium Park, it shines through the tall, black trees with the silhouette of the Minster tower behind. It is a “Blue Moon” – rising on the 31st December, it was the second full moon in the calendar month, an event that happens every 2½ years. It appears there is an alternative definition, the Farmers’ Almanac defined “blue moon” as an extra full moon that occurred in a season; one season was normally three full moons. If a season had four full moons, then the third full moon was named a “blue moon”. Tawny Owls are hooting from the direction of the River Lugg. Rabbits must be out as Maddy is hurtling to and fro, but they are invisible to me. On mornings like this it is noticeable how much light pollution there is, street lamps, “security” lights around office buildings and many more around the auction yard, lights left on in the closed offices yet the beauty of the moon glancing off the stained glass of the Minster is only slightly diminished.
Monday – Home – It remains bitterly cold. Ice has formed on the inside of the lounge windows. The ground is rock hard and many areas in the local streets are dangerous sheets of ice. The chickens house door is frozen shut and takes a hard thump to release it. Last evening as night fell, a flock of Starlings alighted in the Horse Chestnut tree by the summer house. They twitter noisily. The same twittering is coming from the Leylandii behind the museum this morning but the Starlings are hidden by the evergreen foliage.
Tuesday – Leominster – It is milder this morning although the heavy frost and icy substrate has not thawed at all. There is broken cloud cover and the moon, whilst no longer full of course, is still very bright when it peeks out. Something is squawking indignantly down near the railway, but it is far too dark to see what. A couple of hours later it is snowing heavily and continues to do so for over an hour. Several inches cover the town. Cars creep gingerly up the road through ridges of slush. At least walking is easier than on icy pavements. In the afternoon I head over to the Grange with Maddy. She rushes around with her ball, kicking it is a rather pointless exercise as it just buries itself and she cannot find it. A flock of Greenfinches perches at the top of a tree on the edge of the churchyard. The next tree has several Wood Pigeons hunched on its branches. Back home the chickens are clearly unimpressed with the snow and remain under the chicken house – the snow in the run is untouched by avian foot.
Thursday – Leominster – The old Max-Min thermometer in the greenhouse is showing 14°F, a chilly -10°C. Stars are still shining in a dark sky, although there is a line of paler blue over Eaton Hill. I have given up with Maddy’s ball for the time being; she loses time after time as it buries itself in the snow. The afternoon is bright but apart from south-facing roofs, little thawing occurs. Over to the Grange. I take the football and Maddy is soon covered in snow as she chases around, barking insanely. Back home the chickens are still together under the chicken house and show no desire to go out onto the snow covered run.
Saturday – Leominster – The “big freeze” continues. The country is covered on snow, indeed a satellite photograph clearly shows this to be the case. The temperature has risen, slightly. It was -9°C overnight rising to -1°C by mid-afternoon. There are a few flurries of snow around lunchtime, but most of the day is bright with sunshine, but that does little to raise the temperature. The chickens remain in their little patch of clear ground under the chicken house. The cold weather has not affected their laying however; yesterday each laid an egg and there were another two today. Redwings, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes are all in the garden. There are meal-worms on a little feeder by the back door but the birds are reluctant to take them, which seems surprising. I am not taking the car out as the roads are still not fully clear and it seems an unnecessary risk, so the afternoon visit to the Grange with Maddy has become a regular affair. She ends up covered in snow after chasing and sliding with the football, then laying in the snow with it between her paws. When called she heads and pats it across the snow back to me, which causes passers-by much amusement.
Monday – Home – There has been overnight snow, maybe an inch, but a thaw is under way. The weather forecasts are predicting more snow and temperatures only a little above freezing, so any thaw will slow. The Greenfinch flock is at the top of the tree in the garden. I scan them to see if there are any other finches amongst them but they all seem to be Greenfinches. The ice in the garden is wet and treacherous.
Wednesday – Leominster – The snow returns. Last night tiny specks of icy snow were being buffeted by the wind but still laying down a covering on the icy ground. This morning that covering is over an inch deep and fine snow continues to fall. Walking can be uncomfortable, suddenly stepping on a ridge of ice hidden under the new white carpet. The chickens are very reluctant to leave the hen house, peering out, briefly emerging then returning to the dark warmth. Tree limbs are all topped with fresh snow. A Song Thrush slips behind plant pots and jardinières, searching for hidden insect morsels. A Blackbird, shining black with a vivid orange beak is picking through the seeds and the last of the meal worms. In the afternoon, Blue Tits are squeaking and Greenfinches droning in the Minster churchyard whilst a decent number of House Sparrows chatter in the hedge by Pinsley Road. The snowfall is dying away but it will get colder, so more ice.
Thursday – Dinmore – Two visits to the Queenswood Country Park today. This morning I went with Maddy and this afternoon Kay came with us. It is surprising the difference a few hours can make in this weather. It is milder – relatively – certainly above freezing. This morning the tree branches were delineated with snow, indeed the very definition of a winter wonderland. There is a pale mist lending an ethereal atmosphere. Chaffinches call, a Nuthatch moves from tree to tree and a small flock of Great Tits is very excited about something. Some poor chap has lost his Springer Spaniel – it vanished yesterday – and he calls hopefully through the woods. This afternoon the thaw has been considerable. Many trees are now grey skeletons against the thickening mist. Walking under them is like being in rain as cold drips splash off my head. As last year, a fine Snowman has been constructed on the open ground on the hilltop. He has a strange horizontal hole through his chest! A lace-work pattern of snow remains on the branches of a Caucasian Fir (Abies nordmanniana) but it is decaying fast. Deer hoof prints in the snow are widespread.
Saturday – Leominster – Heavy overnight rain and a rise in temperature has brought a swift thaw. By afternoon there is little evidence of the blanket of snow of a few days ago, just the most heavily impacted ice and the remains of large mounds rolled up by kids are all that is left. Not surprisingly, the River Kenwater has risen considerably and flows past rapidly. A Magpie sits at the top of a dead Alder and chatters whilst shaking the rain drops off its back. House Sparrows chirrup in a nearby stand of red-stalked Dogwood. The grass is looking bruised and flattened.
Home – Things look grim in the garden. Although under cover, lettuces have rotted; cabbage looks sickly as do the peas; the purple-sprouting still has not recovered from the pigeon attack and some leeks will have to be harvested soon before they rot. The chickens, meanwhile look as though the snow had never happened and all have laid today.
Tuesday – Leominster – In the damp darkness of pre-dawn Spring seems far off, but the birds around the Minster are more optimistic and are singing in a welcome chorus. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Robins can be heard with the occasional soft coo of a Wood Pigeon. It is much milder but the forecasters say more snow may be expected.
Croft – A thick layer of ice covers the track by Park House. Chunks have broken off and a small stream runs out from underneath the edge. It resembles a miniature glacier. Up the field with the Spanish Chestnut trees, which are as far as one can see, beyond is a wall of fog. By the gate to the adjoining field the ground is deeply rutted by tractor tracks and the whole area is churned by cattle hoof prints. On into the woods which are silent apart from the occasional drip of condensed mist dropping from branches. Where the forest tracks cross is a large area of wet and treacherously slippery ice. A flock of Siskin pass over twittering noisily. On Croft Ambrey it is colder with a south-easterly wind blowing. Dead Bracken and grass has been laid low by snow. Nothing can be seen of the hills to the north. I wonder if Iron Age folk stood here in similar conditions wondering what lurked out there in the mists, maybe other Britons looking to sneak in to grab cattle or supplies, maybe Roman invaders or maybe less human threats, banshees, spriggans, boggarts or fairies. Back down to the woods. A Crossbill is calling but I cannot locate it, then the call moves away. Back on the field I manage to step in a water-filled hoof print and send a jet of cold water up my trouser leg and down into my boot.
Wednesday – Leominster – Through the night I can hear water trickling away and assume it is raining, but this morning it is snowing heavily. This has not stopped the dawn chorus which rings out across the Grange. By midday it has turned to light sleet and the inch or so of snow is beginning to thaw. In the early afternoon, a large flock of feral pigeons hurries over the town. Jackdaws squabble on the roofs over School Lane. The Grange is mantled in wet snow. This does not stop Maddy playing with her rapidly battered and shabby football, sliding across the surface and looking pleased with herself. The Kenwater is flowing fast with dirty brown water. In the churchyard, daffodil and crocus shoots rise from the leaf litter, whilst snowdrop flower heads are a white spike. Back opposite the house, a gaudy sign has been erected on the shop – “Mr Chicken Express” – utterly inappropriate for the ambience of the street!
Thursday – Mortimer Forest – Visibility deteriorates as I approach the Black Pool car park. A mist reduces the horizon to about one hundred yards. However, the snow seems to have melted away and Maddy and I stride off up the forestry track. I am soon disabused of the notion of a thaw, clear of the larger trees the track is still coated in several inches of snow. Some of the tall conifers have lost branches; they lay on the track with fresh wounds where they have torn away from the trunk. It is very quiet, just the dripping of melting snow and condensing mist. Vehicles have passed this way leaving a clear pair of tracks which makes walking easier. Maddy launches into the snow that is laying on Bracken, then sinks through it. On the track across towards the Iron Age enclosure there are deer prints, following the road then turning off down through the trees. High pitch squeaking heralds the passing of a small flock of Goldcrests.
Saturday – Ludlow – Peter, Maddy and I head down from Whitcliffe Common to the River Teme. Water pours down a small rill in the Silurian limestone cliffs that drop down from the common. The Teme is in spate and water rushes over the weirs. The riverside walk was destroyed on 14th May 1886 by a great flood, but the walk was rebuilt immediately by public subscription. As we near Dinham Bridge I catch sight of a large silver fish leaping in the water. Peter says that salmon have returned to the Teme, so we watch for a while to see if any try to leap the weir upstream, but none appears. An island below the weir is flooded and Mallard rest on the water in the lee of the trees. Other Mallard fly up to rest on the walls above the town-side bank.
We cross Dinham Bridge and head up Dinham. A blue plaque informs that this was the site of Dinham Gate, a mediaeval postern gate with a chamber over the entrance. The gate led out of the town walls towards Wigmore and on into Wales. From here we continued up into the town, past the gun captured at Sevastapol which stands outside the castle gates and on into the market. We wander through the town which is crowded with people. This is mid-winter I comment, imagine how this place is when full of tourists in the summer! The butchers in Market Street has unplucked pheasants for 99p each, tempting but I already have a number in the freezer. Down Mill Lane where the town gate has been painted battleship grey. Peter and I are split on this, he would prefer natural stone, I reckon it has been rendered for many a year and painting it is a better option. From Ludford Bridge the Teme is flowing strongly. We wonder why there is no attempt to harness some of this energy – maybe small turbines down the side of the south bank wall? Back up to Whitcliffe Common where a Common Buzzard stands near the cars, flying off at Maddy’s approach to take up a position on top of a telegraph pole.
Monday – Croft – Off down the Fish Pool Valley, the path covered with wet leaves. A Common Buzzard flaps silently across the valley and up into the woods towards Bircher Common. A few minutes later a Grey Heron flies down the valley. The pools are bright blue again after turning dark in the heavy rains before Christmas. A Nuthatch is calling in the woods opposite. A deep throbbing noise approaches and a Chinook helicopter flies over just a few feet above the trees; the noise physically hits me as it passes in a most unpleasant manner, however silence is soon restored. The door to the pump house is open behind the metal bars. Within is a large rusting water wheel which drove a pump which is standing on large wooden beams. Up the track under Lady Wood and Lyngham Vallet to near the top where the stream that feeds the valley starts. The map indicates a spring but the stream just emerges from a patch of mud under a straggly Hawthorn. I follow the forestry trail which has patches of frozen snow and ice. It is not apparent to me what it is about the lay of the land that results in these patches remaining whilst most of the track is clear of ice. A pair of Crossbills sit at the top of a conifer, the male’s breast bright pink. A path leads off south-westerly from the track into an area shown on the 1904 map as a “Pheasantry”. Here there are a few of the old coppiced Oaks that once covered these hills, providing wood for fires and charcoal. They are magnificent trees which huge girths, indicating their age of several hundreds of years, great boughs vibrant green with moss and, in one case, a mass of thin shoots rising from a massive trunk. Just beyond them is a pink-painted cottage, now called Croft Ambrey Cottage but was known in Victorian times as the Keeper’s Lodge. Back down near Park House is a field containing cows and their calves, the former black and white and the latter pale red, grey and white.
Wednesday – Goodrich Castle – The River Wye flows south from Ross-on-Wye for a few miles then bends south-east, then south-west and then south-east again. A rocky outcrop rises above the gentle loop formed by the river and on it stands Goodrich Castle. There has been an important river crossing here for maybe over two millennia, and there also may have been a hillfort on the site. The first castle was built shortly after the Conquest by Godric Mapperson, probably an English noble although little is known about him other than he gave his name to the castle. On his death shortly before 1100, the castle passed to William fitz Baderson, probably Godric’s son-in-law and then on to William’s son Baderson. In the turmoil of the period of Stephen and Matilda, the castle was given, by Stephen, to Gilbert fitz de Gilbert Clare who was made Earl of Pembroke. His son, Richard “Strongbow” de Clare succeeded him in 1148 but having supported Stephen was out of favour when Matilda’s son, Henry II took the throne. It was in this period that the keep that still stands today was erected. Richard fought in Ireland, against Henry’s wishes and in Normandy, for Henry and died in Dublin in 1176. As his children were underage, the castle reverted to the Crown. Richard’s daughter Isabella married a knight of the royal household, William Marshall. He received the castles at Chepstow and Usk from King Richard I. Ten years later, King John awarded him the earldom of Pembroke and, in 1204, Goodrich Castle. William reinforced the defences of the castle in the following years. He remained loyal to King John, and on the King’s death in 1216, supervised the coronation of the nine year-old Henry III. During the banquet celebrating the coronation, William had to return to Goodrich to repel a Welsh attack on his castle. His son, also called William inherited the castle in 1219 and his fourth son, Walter lived in Goodrich. The second son, Richard led the opposition to powerful foreigners who dominated King Henry’s court and the king ordered Goodrich besieged. Richard withdrew to Ireland and the third son, Gilbert was reconciled with the king and inherited the earldom. He died in 1241 and Walter finally inherited the title to Goodrich where he had been living for twenty two years.
By 1245, all the Marshall brother were dead and there were no surviving male heirs so the castle, after briefly passing to the son of one of Marshall’s daughters, passed to his sister Joan de Munchensi. Henry III arranged Joan’s marriage to William de Valence, is half-brother. The remains seen today at Goodrich are largely the buildings erected by de Valence and date from between 1270 and 1290. He was unpopular with many of the nobility and supported Henry against Simon de Montfort. He died in 1296 and his widow Joan lived at Goodrich until her death in 1307, although she spent much time travelling between her estates. Records of household expenses have survived in manuscripts held in the National Archives and provide a detailed account of daily life. Her son Aymer inherited the castle and, having no heir, the castle then passed to his niece, Elizabeth Comyn in 1324. The power in the land at this time was the father and son both named Hugh le Despenser, favourites of Edward II. They kidnapped Elizabeth and forced her to relinquish control of Goodrich to the younger Despenser. Soon after, Elizabeth married Richard, second Lord Talbot who seized the castle back. He endowed a small Augustinian priory at Flanesford, just by the important river crossing down the hill from Goodrich. The main priory buildings are now apartments. Various Talbot’s held the castle but were mainly absent from the area, including the George, now also sixth earl of Shrewsbury and husband of Bess of Hardwick. The castle returned to the hands of the Crown in 1619. Throughout the centuries, despite being in the dangerous Welsh Marches, Goodrich had never suffered any damaging attack. All this changed in the Civil War. The castle was garrisoned by the Royalists under Sir Henry Lingen and was assaulted by Colonel John Birch and his Parliamentarians. They used mortars to fire 200lb shells into the castle. Roaring Meg, the last surviving Civil War mortar now stands in the inner courtyard.
The castle was ruined and passed through various hands before coming into the guardianship of HM Office of Works in 1920. Approaching the castle, one notes that the old keep is a distinctly different colour from the rest of the castle, a greenish stone compared to the red of the rest. The D-shaped barbican is similar to that of the Tower of London, probably because Edward I sent royal workmen, who were likely to have built the barbican at the Tower to Goodrich to help with construction whilst his uncle, William de Valence was serving him overseas. The castle is approached from the barbican via a bridge over a deep moat. Great slabs of bedrock are visible beneath the castle walls. The towers at each corner have huge pyramid-shaped spur buttresses. The castle is entered through the gatehouse, a formidable defensive construction. A drawbridge stood outside the first of two wooden gates and portcullis. Guardrooms stood either side of the entrance with “murder holes”, for dropping projectiles on those storming the gates, overhead. Beyond the gatehouse is the inner courtyard. A chapel stands by the gatehouse. At the east end is the Millennium window designed by Nicola Hopwood and installed in May 2000. At the west end is a window commemorating the Radar Research Squadron who lost 11 men on board a Halifax aircraft that crashed a mile south of the castle in June 1942. It is wonderful that so much of the castle is intact and careful restoration allows considerable access, such as a walk along the east wall, the dungeons and stairs leading to the roof of the keep. The latter are posted as “steep and dangerous” and they certainly are a challenge. However, the vertigo-inducing views from the roof are a magnificent vista of the Wye valley.
Ross-on-Wye – We visit this delightful market town, birthplace of the British tourist industry after the rector, Dr John Egerton, started taking friends on boat trips down the Valley in 1745. Despite being marginally smaller than Leominster, the range of shops is far greater. One general stores, like so many, now Asian owned, proudly declares it was established in 1872. The front of the building is adorned with metal advertising signs from decades ago. We take lunch in a pleasant teashop and spend a minor fortune in the Cook Shop on a set of saucepans for the new cooker.
Friday – Croft – I had intended heading up from Croft Farm and west through the woods, but young cattle are being rounded up near the gate and it seems unwise to enter with a daft dog. So instead I head down into Fish Pool Valley, across by the Gothic Pump House and up the far side, passing several old quarries. Dense emerald patches of mosses have pushed through the layer of dead leaves. Blue and Long-tailed Tits are active in the trees. I take the old path up through Lady Wood. It is showing much evidence of the recent wet weather in the form of a badly eroded channel in the stones and thick mud elsewhere. It starts to rain. Climbing the hill to the gate on the crest of the hill is not much fun as I slip and slide on the mud. Up on Croft Ambrey the sun emerges, albeit briefly. Common Buzzards are mewing nearby and eventually a pair glides over. A Sparrowhawk flies up from the bracken into a Hawthorn before slipping up and over the fort ramparts and away. By the time we are back in the cow field, Maddy is dripping with mud. I suggest she goes in the flooded quarry to wash off but she is not keen. Then a brainwave, I throw a stick into the water and she follows immediately.
Saturday – Leominster – A light dusting of snow fell overnight leaving a crisp, crunchy covering on the ground. A huge luminous full moon is setting in the west, just above the horizon. Above it, Mars is gleaming orange, currently at its brightest. A Song Thrush sings clearly across the Priory grounds, its repetitive song like a schoolboy learning Latin declensions by rote. A blue glow lightens in the east as dawn arrives.