Saturday – Leominster – Maddy’s walk is late, an unusual failure to wake up on time by me. It is cold, wet and grey, possibly a gloomy foretelling of the coming year for many people. The grass on The Grange is a sodden mess, crushed with large yellow patches. A Common Buzzard glides across the Millennium Park. Rabbits bolt for their burrows in the railway bank. The River Kenwater is flowing fast and high with pale mud-coloured water. A Moorhen skitters out from under the bank and scurries upstream. The bells toll eight o’clock. The Minster is in darkness but organ music permeates the air.
Home – The garden is a sorry state. The snow and ice have gone but their legacy lingers on in the rotting leaves, baskets of brown apple husks hollowed out by thrushes and dead plants. I dig out the chicken run. It is not difficult as the layer of straw, wood chips and dung can be shovelled up in flat pancakes, but it does become backbreaking for an idle old thing like me. The waste is mainly dumped onto the coming season’s potato bed with the residue going on the rhubarb patch, some on the little bed by the greenhouse and the rest into a compost bin. A thick, fresh layer of straw and wood chips is spread over the run. The chickens are silent; too busy to cluck as they scratch the new surface. Blackbirds have been getting into the fruit cage somehow, three yesterday. I need to examine it closely to see if there are any obvious holes. Sadly a Starling has attempted to get through and got trapped in the netting, leaving a pitiful corpse. A Robin has been following my every move and immediately dashes down to the piles of fresh chicken compost to check for worms.
Tuesday – Bodenham Lakes – Despite an unhelpful weather forecast, I am hoping for a clear morning. Last night the stars hung brightly, but by this morning it has clouded over completely. Thus there is no chance of seeing any meteors in the Quadrantid shower. The source of this meteor shower was only discovered in 2003 when Peter Jenniskens of the Nasa Ames Research Centre found the meteoroids came from object “2003 EH”, which is is possibly a piece of comet that broke up about half a millennium ago. Quadrantid meteors take their name from an obsolete constellation, Quadrans Muralis, found in early 19th century star atlases between Draco, Hercules, and Bootes.The next astronomical event was a partial eclipse of the sun at 9:30 this morning. The sun eventually emerged from the clouds at 10:15. So after an astronomically disappointing start to the day, it is off to Bodenham. It has been frosty for the last few mornings so it is no surprise that the lake remains frozen. Pieces of ice have broken up by the edge of a bank showing a thickness of at least 3 inches. The Canada Geese which have been absent on my last two visits are noisily in evidence. A skein of 30 fly over, honking loudly, and disappear over Westfield Wood. A few minutes later another 20 fly over, splitting into two skeins, one travelling east, the other south. On the edge of the open water, a sole remaining goose stands calling loudly and persistently. 35 Mallard, 11 Teal, 2 Wigeon, 2 Goldeneye and 4 Coot make up the rest of the wildfowl here. The log book states an Otter was seen on Sunday. Later, coming back from the garden centre at Wellington, I pulled into the lay-by beside the Christmas Tree Farm as a raptor passed over. It could have been a Common Buzzard but looked more buoyant, and indeed there is a Red Kite circling the valley between Carrowley Coppice and Burghope Court.
Thursday – Home – It has been frosty overnight but it is just grey this morning. The leeks are dug up. They have survived the ice and snow fairly well but quite a few are looking a bit slimy and rotten on the outside. However, the cores are fine and I manage to freeze over 4lb, all trimmed and ready to cook. A Sparrowhawk lands on the big Chestnut tree next door. A Mistle Thrush flaps around rasping excitedly but the accipiter takes no notice. Then several Jackdaws approach and it is off. It is not a morning to spend long out here, my fingers are painfully cold.
Kington – A Red Kite is circling over Bradnor Green, just to the north of the town. A short walk up Hergest Ridge. It is very quiet. A lot of sheep have been put out to graze on the common. Occasionally they bolt not knowing that Maddy is after her ball and has little interest in them. Ravens pass, cronking. The countryside seems subdued, the colours muted. Nearly all the snow has gone, just a lump that was probably a snowman a week ago. However, more is threatened. We wander down the high street in the town. It is good to see most the shops are still occupied and hopefully thriving. I notice that Seville oranges are on sale – I must purchase some and make some marmalade.
Home – Mid-afternoon and the sun makes an all too brief an appearance. I dig up the remaining parsnips. They are enormous, gnarled monsters. There are three left and after preparation I am able to freeze over 4lb.
Saturday – Leominster – It is milder again. The sky clears and then clouds over again in short order. During a brief clear spell a meteor flashes across the stars and a satellite passes. I need to check the time and direction of travel more accurately to be able to positively identify the satellite, it could be Okean-3, a Ukrainian heavy oceanographic research satellite launched in 1999; Adeos, a Japanese rocket used for satellite launches or Cosmos 1833, a Soviet rocket launched in 1987.
Home – By mid-morning the sun has emerged. It seems a rare sight these days. The Gladstone apple is pruned. A pair of step-ladders is required now as the tree this getting much taller. The Conference Pear is also sort of pruned, in fact only a couple of long shoots are clipped off, the rest looks pretty good. Kay is planting some tulip bulbs we purchased cheaply, but is concerned that it is still quite cold. Hopefully, a day’s worth of sunshine will warm things up a tad. Lots of bulbs have pushed through bright green shoots and Hellebores are coming into flower.
Sunday – Leominster – The dawn chorus is stuttering into life. A Blackbird starts singing fitfully around 5 o’clock in the morning. Around The Grange, an hour and a half later, there are Blackbirds and Robins singing, not the full throated blasts of song that will come later into the year, but still welcome snatches of the promise of spring. The sky is clear. The Plough is overhead, pointing to the Pole Star. Venus shines in the south-eastern sky where a faint blue glow announces dawn. A satellite passes over. I think this one is Yaogan 1, a Chinese reconnaissance satellite which was launched on 26th April 2006 and is now thought to have broken up around 4th February 2010. The small number of pieces and low orbital speeds make it likely that an internal explosion destroyed the satellite, not a high-speed collision.
Monday – Mortimer Forest – The colours of the forest are muted, dull greens, dark browns and a washed-out grey sky. But there is one place where colour can still be seen, on the trunks of Silver Birches where near iridescent emerald green mosses shine. The woods are also silent, only the distant hum and growl of human activity. Up across the Iron Age enclosure and along the track between the deep vale leading down to the Mary Knoll Valley and the Sunny Dingle Wood above. A faint mist drifts down the vale. Parts of the track are covered in sheets of ice whilst other places are clear. It makes for careful walking. A Willow Tit calls from the conifers. Further along a few Blue Tits are also chirping. Volleys of gunfire from across the valley break the silence. Up the steep path which still has patches of snow covering it and around to High Vinnalls. A small flock of Blue Tits and Goldcrests squeak. The summit is covered in cloud and it is raining. Back down around the Deer Park where the track turns icy on again. Ravens cronk and Jays squawk.
Tuesday – Bodenham Lakes – A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers are chasing through the trees that line the bottom of the orchard. It is overcast but the sun is trying to break through. There is still a fair amount of ice on the lake but the open area is much larger now. It is also very busy with 50+ Mallard, 5 Goldeneye, 35 teal, 27 Wigeon and a few Coot. The drake Teal and Goldeneye are displaying to the ducks. A pair of Common Buzzards are circling over the area of The Vern, a mid-16th century farm house beyond the river Lugg hidden behind the trees. Blue Tits, Goldfinches and Chaffinches feed in the Aspens. A Great Spotted Woodpecker is drumming on the telegraph pole, another drums from Westfield Wood. Greenfinches, a Dunnock and Redwings feed along the meadow hedgerow.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – The weather is cloudy and threatens rain so I decide to return to the lakes as they are close and convenient. The narrow lane leading from the Gloucester road is flooded in places, although only shallowly. At the lakes, the rain has arrived and is falling steadily. A Great Spotted Woodpecker is in the orchard trees again. A Kestrel flies over and circles the edge of Westfield Wood, high in the iron-grey sky. The meadow is absolutely sodden, every depression or furrow in the turf is full of water. Mud splatters as I walk, coating boots and trouser bottoms. Again the open water is busy – 56 Wigeon, 4 Goldeneye, 7 Teal and numerous Mallard. A Grey Heron stalks the reed bed. The shingle bank has a thin covering of dead undergrowth which is sheltering a pair of cock Common Pheasants and a Moorhen. Four Goosander swoop in and come round to land. A female overshoots and ends up on the ice, looking very surprised and waddles on large orange feet in a most ungainly manner back to the open water. Once in she is in her element and moves with grace again. The rain ceases and the pheasants wander to the end of the shingle bank and fly off. Back in the meadow, a Jay disappears silently. A fair sized flock of Siskin with a few Blue Tits are feeding on the tall Alders by the lake. Mistle Thrushes are searching the orchard for food and the the hubbub of House Sparrows coming from the distant hedge near the houses opposite the entrance to the lakes car park.
Thursday – Gloucester – Despite being only 35 miles, this is our first visit to Gloucester since 1999. We park in a massive retail outlet, which despite us both making purchases, is somewhere to tarry for as little time as possible. The docks are interesting. The great warehouses still stand having been converted into apartments mainly, although one contains a waterways museum. An old railway wagon stands in a car park, a somewhat forlorn reminder that the internal combustion engine was the main downfall of the railways. The rails on which it stands are the route of the first railway project built in Gloucester in 1811, a horse-drawn tramway. The standard gauge railway was built by the Midland Railway in 1848; a line for the Great Western Railway arrived six years later. A church stands nearby, dwarfed by the great warehouses. A tall spire in corten steel, designed by Wolfgang Buttress, stands on the Victoria dock. It is etched with the words of Ivor Gurney’s poem “Requiem”. Leaving the docks for the city centre, one passes through what can only be described as a wasteland. Many buildings, including the Technical College, stand empty and decaying. A painted sign on a wall can just be read, “Talbots Bottlers, Wholesale Beer Bottlers. Ladybellegate Street”. They are long gone. A few “concrete brutalism” blocks stand before on enters the main shopping precinct. Even here amongst the chain stores
There’s an ox lying dead at the end of the lane,
His head on the pathway, his feet in the drain,
The lane is so narrow, his back was so wide,
He got stuck in the road, a house on each side.
He couldn’t go forward, he couldn’t go back,
He was stuck just as fast as a nail in a crack.
The people all shouted, “So tightly he fits
We must kill him and carve him and move him in bits”.
So a butcher dispatched him and then had a sale
Of his ribs and his sirloin, his rump and his tail;
And the farmer told me, “I’ll never again
Drive cattle to market down Oxbode Lane”. there is a feeling of desolation. Down The Oxbode beside Debenham’s Department Store, a 1930s edifice that was once Bon Marche that had started as a small draper’s shop, J R Pope and Sons, in 1889. The Oxbode, originally Mitre Street, was a Victorian slum which got narrower as it approached Northgate Street. It was said that it was so narrow that once a bull became stuck between the buildings and had to be butchered on the spot to remove it. It was the subject of a local rhyme. The Post Office lies down this lane, along with many cheap-end shops. A large square looks tired and dirty with a large Weatherspoons dominating. Passing through streets on the way back to the docks, we pass many what could be fine Georgian townhouses, but they are all in multiple occupation and look run-down. There are no “real” shops, such as butchers, greengrocers etc. just dodgy looking pubs and specialist stores, such as a motorbike shop, “beauty” parlours and takeaways. Gloucester has made a lot of effort regenerating some areas of lost industry but there is only so much that can be turned over to retail and the rest suffers neglect that it is hard to see will ever be transformed.
Friday – Croft – A dull grey morning with just a nip in the air. The pools in Fish Pool Valley are finally free of ice. A Nuthatch scurries along a broken spur on a tall pine. Chirps, squeaks, squawks and chips emanate from Great Tits, Blue Tits, Jays and Great Spotted Woodpeckers and bursts of song from Robins. The fallen trees mentioned last week have been reduced to logs although the main trunk of the cause of the chaos, a tall Beech, still lies down the hillside. The footpath up through Lyngham Vallet is flowing with water. A stream that is usually dry in summer now bubbles and gurgles down in a deep ditch beside the path. A Fallow Deer watches from under the eaves of the conifer plantation on the top of the hill. Along the forestry trail and beyond the turning back down to the castle. Thick plantations of Hemlocks stand either side of the track. Deep in these woods are the ragged stools of huge old Oaks. Young trees sprout up from these dead leviathans. A rising wind rustles in the tree tops. The path eventually turns south and paths head off eastwards. I take one which twists and turns through new plantations and into deciduous woods, eventually meeting an east-west path near Lucton School. Thick growths of rhododendron cover the ground. Robins are singing merrily. I zigzag through the woods, mainly because of unfortunate choices of paths which end up heading the wrong direction. But I still generally head the right way. There are more huge stumps of ancient Oaks. In a field leading towards the castle is a row of venerable Oaks, massive trunks carrying much younger branches through coppicing and pollarding. The pond at the top of the car-park field has a decent depth of water, so I throw a stick in which is chased by a mud bespattered Maddy who emerges relatively clean.
Monday – Whitcliffe – A path heads down into a dark Forestry Commission softwood plantation from opposite the Whitcliffe car park. This is Lower Whitcliffe and it is very quiet in here. The path drops down and then runs along the edge of fields of sheep which lead down to the floodplain of the River Teme. A house stands below by Woodcock Covert. Out across the plain heavy mist rises above the course of the river. The ground under the trees is covered with Bluebell leaves. Small branches of pine litter the ground, victims of the weekend’s strong winds. The path emerges onto a track and out into younger plantations. Here Robins sing and a Jay squawks. The track crosses another which carries on down the hill and across the floodplain towards Hill Halton, a tiny hamlet of a couple of houses and to the west, Lady Halton, a large farm. Between here and the farm stands Gassocks Covert. A hunter passes us carrying two rifle rests and a gun across his back. A little further on Maddy is interested by something behind a tree – an eviscerated deer, almost certainly shot by the hunter who, I assume is going to bring his pick-up, parked on the path junction, down the track to carry his quarry back. The track is very muddy and winds around the steep hillside which is cut by deep dells carved by rills which bubble and gurgle downwards. Silver Birches are growing in ground littered with moss-covered fallen trunks. Occasionally there is a much older Beech which looks like it has been pollarded.
The path then curves around a very deep vale crossed by a viaduct which is carrying water from the Elan Valley in mid-Wales to Birmingham. Hazel trees are covered in catkins, still tightly closed. We are at the foot of Wheelers Vallets. Beside the deep valley crossed by the viaduct stand a couple of low arches in the hillside. I suspect these may be small lime-kilns, making lime for building the viaducts. The track continues through a patch of mist that covers the hillside and enters Deep Wood. It passes another viaduct then approaches a red brick pumping station bearing a plaque on the portico, “Birmingham Water Corporation” and “Elan Supply”. The other side of the building has a similar inscription with the date, 1902. The path drops down a very steep, deep valley. I assume it was cheaper to allow the water pipe to drop down the valley and be pumped up again rather than build a long viaduct.
A rough road runs around to join the narrow road that runs back to Ludlow. Deepwood Farm stands down a lane from the junction. To the west, the spire of St Giles church, Downton on the Rock, peeps above the trees. A cock Pheasant runs along the road, unnoticed by Maddy. Eventually, it flings itself into the air and over the hedge with much croaking, which finally draws the dog’s attention. At Brick House, the stream from the valley crossed by the second viaduct forms a large pond full of Willows forming what is called a Willow Carr in the north. The stream continues across the fields and is here called Raddle Brook. Most the fields contain sheep, but one has a flock of ewes with lambs. The sun is now shining and a Bullfinch glows pink from the top of a sapling. There are outcrops of rock beside the road, layered siltstones of the Whitcliffe Beds of the Ludlow Series laid down in the Silurian era. I pick up a stone which is full of fossilised shells, mainly brachiopods, Camarotoechia nucula. We are still quite high up here as shown when Ludlow comes into view, framed by an arch of branches across the lane, and we seem to be level with the top of the tower of St Laurence church. Eventually steps rise from the road near Woodcock Covert and a path returns to the car park.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – A sharp frost has whitewashed the fields. Puddles have iced over and muddy patches are crunchy underfoot. The lakes have thawed out completely after a few days mild weather. A cockerel crows, a Robin sings and a Blackbird pinks an alarm. A drake Goosander stands on the shingle in front of the hide, preening his breast. Several more are fishing beside the spit. He slips into the water and they all glide away across the lake. Ducks and Canada Geese are spread out all over the lakes, unlike a week ago when they were confined to the small area of open water. Cormorants arrive in twos and threes. A Grey Heron behind the gravel spit has a reasonably sized fish in its bill. Annoyingly it moves just out of sight behind some vegetation to swallow it. Canada Geese are cackling, Mallard quacking and Teal whistling. Catkins are dangling thickly from the hedgerow along the meadow. Back in the orchard, a Common Buzzard sits in an apple tree.
St Agnes’ Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Croft – The frosts continue. Everywhere outside the woods is coated in white rime. The paths along the Fish Pool Valley are almost frozen, although it is easy to put a foot through frozen skin into wet mud. Great Tits are noisy but not quite in full song. Otherwise it is quiet. From Croft Ambrey the distant hills are grey despite the welcome appearance of the sun. Much clanking and rumbling comes up the hillside from the Leinthall quarry. Along the top of Yatton Hill beside Ladyacre Plantation. The dead Bracken on the common land glows copper in the sun. Then back through the woods. Down the Spanish Chestnut field. A large flock of Rooks rises above the fields, cawing noisily.
Saturday – Birmingham – The Barnsley Buglers meet in Birmingham to “celebrate” my birthday, not an event I relish but at least it provides an excuse to meet up with friends and have a good time! Ken, Brigid and I set off along the Birmingham canal, Fazerley Branch. On the far side of the lock below the bridge where we join the tow-path sits a Grey Heron on one leg. It has no intention of moving and glares at Maddy with its head hunched down on its shoulders. Mallard are flying up and down the canal. Maddy presents us with scraps of grass and reed expecting us to somehow throw these for her; eventually she finds a decent sized stick. We are reticent about this as we do not want the stick and consequently the dog to end up in the canal. It has been five years since I last headed down this tow-path. Things have changed (not the least that last time it was Dill the Dog trotting on ahead). The large building with the HP Sauce sign has gone, the factory having closed in 2007. Another tall chimney, which I do not recall from previous visits, seems to have been truncated as the sign painted down it simply “Bros Ltd”. We presume there was a name above this at some stage and speculate, somewhat preposterously, about possible names, as long as imaginable. The tow-path undulates over bridges under which were the entrances to small, narrow-boat length docks for factories. Most of these are bricked up and the docks filled in, but a few remain although the docks are unused and overgrown. One spur is much longer but still abandoned with dormant Buddleia growing out of the walls. The coping stones on these arched bridges are deeply scored where ropes have passed over dragging the barges along. Cuckoo Wharf is a new building. Opposite is the back of industrial units. Set into the wall is a golden metal brick with an inscription which I think is Hebrew. A little further on is the Compressor brick mural described in my 2005 rambling. However, there is a plaque I missed before stating the mural was constructed by “F. Kiss, G, T, and R Fabio and C.Wilkins” in 1996. We reach Cuckoo Bridge taking Cuckoo Lane, an old toll road until 1862, across the canal. In the evening we head up the canal in the opposite direction into the city centre for a few pints and a superb Chinese meal.
Sunday – Birmingham – It is still dark as Maddy and I head a short distance down the canal before taking the steps up to Avenue Road. We then follow the roads through to Aston Cross. The area is mainly industrial with many modern units. Some older buildings have been put to different uses such as one which is now the “New Jerusalem Apostolic Church”. Others, such as the Post Office are simply abandoned and up for sale. A massive edifice stands on one corner of Aston Cross and the presence of police cars in the compound behind it indicates it is probably the police station. On the opposite corner is a huge hotel in the Birmingham terracotta style, now called O’Reilly’s but originally called “The Golden Cross” (although some say it was just called “The Aston Cross”). In the middle of the junction stands a clock tower. The Aston Cross, a mediaeval preaching cross once stood here but was a decayed stump by the 19th century and was removed to Aston Cemetery in 1854 when a clock tower was erected on the site. This clock was notoriously unreliable and the tower unsafe so it was replaced by the present clock in 1891.
The south-east corner of the junction is now occupied by a store but was once the pinfold which held straying animals. This junction would have been a prominent place in the manor of Aston standing on the Lichfield Road, considered to be one of the great highways of mediaeval England, linking Bristol and the north-east of the country since the Roman period. Next to the pub is Aston Library, now closed, which has a founding stone laid by Alderman Edward Ansell – Ansell’s Brewery was a short distance away. The building, opened in 1902, was paid for by Andrew Carnegie and built on land provided by Ansells. Another building has “Bank” over the door, but is clearly no longer used as such. I head back down Lichfield Road and cross Aston Brook Street East. Here was Aston Brook, the boundary between Aston and Birmingham and was only a ford until it was bridged in 1792. The road was then turn-piked around 1807 and the booth here became known as “Catchems Corner”. Like Cuckoo Road, the tolls ceased in 1862. Behind the houses in Aston Brook Street East is a little green.
Down Hubert Street is a very ornately gated compound containing caravans. A notice outside declares “Private Property – Enter at your Own Risk, The Dark Destroyer”. The Lichfield Road, now called Aston Road joins the Aston Expressway at Dartmouth Circus. In the centre of the huge roundabout stands a beam engine designed by James Watt. It is a 1817 blowing engine formerly used at the Netherton ironworks of M W Grazebrook, although there is nothing to tell the passer-by this fact. Later in the morning we all head off to Small Heath to do some shopping at the Asian supermarkets and then have a wonderful buffet at a small Asian restaurant. The waiter expresses surprise we are all enjoying the food as he explains that it is more spicy than normal “Indian” food as this restaurant normally only has an Asian clientèle. I tell him that “normal” Indian food is usually too insipid for us! One dish is dried fish with turnip and green beans, which I love but does not meet universal approval.
Monday – Croft – Down the muddy slope to an even muddier track at the bottom of Fish Pool Valley. In the Leominster Priory churchyard there were some signs of spring – crocuses spearing up through the damp soil, new dark green leaves of wild Arum unfurling, but here there seems to be nothing but dormancy. Across the dam of one of the lakes and along a path. Another tree has fallen, one covered in Ivy. It lays across the path. Up the other side of the valley into the Beech woods. Most the trees here are, I reckon, about a century old, but there are a few pollarded Oaks which are much older. It is worrying to note that there is a black canker on a number of the trees which could be “Sudden Oak Death”, a disease caused by a pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum. It is quiet in the woods. I head up to the path that crosses the hillside beneath Croft Ambrey. Beyond the plantation a herd of Fallow Deer are watching me from the bottom edge of the Iron Age fort. The stand absolutely motionless for a while then one turns and moves off, followed by the others. On the way back towards Leominster a Blackbird-sized raptor flashes across the road – my first Merlin for some time!
Friday – Brown Clee – This double peaked hill lies five miles to the north of Titterstone Clee, where I have visited on several occasions, but this is the first time here. The two peaks are Clee Burf at 510 metres and Abdon Burf, which at 540 metres is the highest point in Shropshire. The names are interesting. Clee probably means “a ball-shaped massif” from the old English cliewen meaning a loom weight, which were often ball-shaped. Burf probably is a derivation of burg, a fort or possibly bruarth, an enclosure. Abdon is from Abba’s Tun or farm. I start out from Yeld Gate which stands on the road between Clee St Margaret and Stoke St Milborough. A track crosses a common of close cropped grass, low Gorse, Bracken and a lot of sheep. It is still quite cold although the sun is trying to penetrate the cloud. The common here is called The Green Shutters and the path then skirts an area called The Sands. The track then comes out onto Clee Liberty Common proper. This common was a gift of the Lord of the Manor, James Thursby-Pelham, who died in 1947, to the people of Clee St Margaret. To the north lays the ramparts of Nordy Bank Fort, an Iron Age hillfort built in the 1st century CE. It is a slight univallate hillfort occupying a strong defensive position on Nordy Bank, the western tip of a spur of high ground running west from the main plateau of Brown Clee Hill. The hillfort is roughly oval in plan, enclosing an area of approximately 3.2ha.
The land across Clee Liberty is a mass of mounds and channels, hardly a flat piece of ground. Much of this has been caused by bell-pit and linear opencast mining, much of it mediaeval. The common runs down to fields that continue down into Corve Dale where the land rises again to Wenlock Edge. The flanks of Nordy Bank Fort look like outcrops of grey stone but are dead Bracken stalks. An odd little avenue of Hawthorn and Holly trees runs alonside the common for a while. A huge pile of bales of hay and straw have been placed on the common and sheep are climbing all over it to chomp the sweet fodder. The path joins the Jack Myton Way and heads upwards. Streams run down into the deep valley formed by Clee Liberty and Woodbank. The valley is copper from dead Bracken. Where a stream gushes out from a pipe under the track (the track is a metalled road giving vehicular access to the NATS Station on top of Clee Burf) the splashes have frozen into long icicles or diamonds of sparkling ice. The track continues up and reaches old industrial buildings and walls used until the 1940s for quarries working the summits. There was once a fort and an Iron Age Settlement on Clee Burf but little remains after the destructive effects of the quarrying.
From Clee Burf a path passes clumps of sedges and piles of rabbit and sheep droppings. There is then a double take as the path has eroded to look just like the paths in Barnsley that run across the old pit sites, paths made of black chippings. Apparently this is coal, and this was the highest coalfield in Britain. The hills are “Old Red Sandstone” from the Devonian Period. The land then sank into a sea and limestones were deposited. The land rose again in the Carboniferous Period when forest of tree ferns were turned into coal. Later volcanic intrusions covered the coal with basalts, here called dhustone. The layer of basalt between the peaks of Brown Clee is thin and has allowed that area to erode faster which is why the once single hill has two peaks. The path joins the Shropshire Way and runs around the hillside, across the top of Monkey Fold and into Sandy Nap. I then head up the hill and cross an area of peat bog. It would be very wet normally but the cold has frozen the whole area and the pools of black ice look more like tar pits than water. A short climb reaches the top of Abdon Burf. A large wireless station stands on top. This station now helps to protect aircraft but it is thought that more aircraft crashed into Brown Clee during the war than any other hill or mountain in Britain. A large pond next to the station called Boyne Water is said to contain parts of a Wellington bomber. On the very peak is a toposcope naming the many hills which can be seen in a magnificent 360° panorama. On the toposcope is a quote from A.E. Housman:
Wenlock Edge is indeed a gentle brown line rising and falling across the hills. The sun is out and Abdon Burf is bright, but the miles of turf are far from warm for it is freezing up here and the wind adds considerably to the chill-factor. I head back down across Sandy Nap and onto a path that crosses Clee Liberty back towards the track and Nordy Bank Fort. There are no bridges over the streams here but stepping stones help. One deep little dell gurgles with water as it rushes down creating icicles that hang off the ferns. Approaching another stream, this one full of bright green water plants, startles two Snipe that fly off, zigzagging across the common. Maddy is being a pain by refusing to stay close, after all this is sheep country and my throat is getting soar from continually commanding her back. Down on The Green Shutters, a shepherd on a quad-bike with his collie on the back is inspecting the sheep to see if any are ready to drop their lambs. Snell, in “The Celtic Borderland” (Pub: Robert Scott, 1928) states there is a local jingle that tests for drunkenness:
He says the dance must be around a lighted candle. However, what exactly “Tetheroy” was, I cannot discern.
Monday – Leominster – It is still dark when I take Maddy out for her early morning constitution. The temperature dropped several degrees below freezing overnight and there is a hard frost. The eastern sky is a rich dark azure as dawn approaches. So low that it is hidden by the houses in Etnam Street, a fingernail moon lies just above the southern horizon. It is quiet but by the time we reach the old priory infirmary a Blackbird and Robin are in song.
Croft – Down the old ride to the Fish Pool Valley. Rhododendron leaves hang in limp rosettes around a tiny bud. The pool below the track junction is partially frozen but water flows freely down the stream between the ponds. Across the pool dam and up through the woods to Bircher Common. It is still cold but the sun is bright and it feels good to have its rays warming my back. Sheep amble out of the path as Maddy approaches although she is far more interested in her ball. A Raven flies silently along the bottom of the valley towards Lyngham Vallet but its passage is marked by the raucous screeches of Jays. From a certain point, looking across the hillside towards Oaker Coppice reveals the low earthworks of an enclosure, probably dating back to the Iron Age. At Whiteway Head a path heads off north-east towards Dionscourt Hill. Across the valley stands the fine house of Gatley Park, built in the 1630s for Sir Sampson Ewer. The estate was bought in 1679 by the Dunne family, the present owners and extended and restored between 1894 and 1907. A track runs down the hill some distance below but I have, annoyingly, forgotten my map and I do not want to head all the way down the steep escarpment only to find there is no exit. (Looking at the map later is no help as the track does not seem to be marked at all!) So I turn back and follow the path along the top of Leinthall Common and then up onto Croft Ambrey Hillfort. The distant hills are hazy in the sunshine but Wigmore lies across the plain in clear view. Back down to the Spanish Chestnut field where a large flock of Chaffinches flit at the top of the trees. A pair landing in one tree sets off a chorus of complaints from Nuthatches.