Tuesday – High Glanau Manor – A Historical Society visit to this Arts and Crafts style house, south-west of Monmouth. The house was built in 1922-23 by the architect Eric Francis, of Chepstow, for Henry Avray Tipping on land he bought from the Duke of Beaufort. Avray Tipping was a renowned architectural writer, the editor of Country Life magazine, and a garden designer among whose friends were Gertrude Jekyll and Harold Peto. The house is built of sandstone, Brownstone, a variety of Old Red Sandstone from the Devonian, in the vernacular style with sweeping slate roofs, mullioned windows and copious panelling inside. The gardens were designed at the same time as the house ensuring that each room had a specific view. When the present owners came to the property the main avenue of the garden down to a pergola contained a large, modern swimming pool. This was removed and the lawn reinstated with long herbaceous borders. Pictures were obtained from Country Life of the gardens as they were before the Second World War and the borders now emulate those from that period. The two main borders are a mirror image of each other and contain a delightful mixture of plants, especially the tall delphiniums, peonies, irises, poppies, dahlias and alliums. The pergola has been restored and a slate plaque dedicated to Avray Tipping is on the wall. Beyond the pergola is a large Edwardian greenhouse with beaver-tailed glass panes designed to improve the flow of water down them. It contains a fine grapevine as well as tomatoes and many other hothouse plants. There are several large rocks exposed on the slope which runs down to an extensive wooded area. The rocks are quartz conglomerates of the late Devonian Era. We walk round to an octagonal pond where newts lay on the submerged weed and waterboatmen scull across the water. Up terraces to the house and take tea on the top terrace.
Wednesday – Home – Cropping is underway in the garden. Broad beans are heavy with pods and nearly two pounds of podded beans are frozen. Peas are not filling out so well, some rain is required. Potatoes are being dug on an “as needed” basis at the moment but the bed will soon be needed for leeks, so the earlies will have to be lifted this weekend. The first ripe tomato is plucked, a huge orange skinned Burpee’s Jubilee, an American variety which was a prizewinner in 1943, and is still a very fine specimen! Perpetual spinach, more peas and spring onions are sown and some lettuces are planted out.
Thursday – Evesham – A market town with its roots in Saxon times. The name comes from Eof, the name of a swineherd in the service of St Egwin, third bishop of Worcester and ham which usually means a dwelling or farm but in Worcestershire often means the land either side of river subject to flooding. Egwin founded an abbey here around the beginning of the 8th century. It grew to be one of the largest in the country, but was dissolved by Henry VIII and the building demolished for building stone around 1540 and now only a bell tower and some ruined walls. Evesham’s other importance in history is as the site of the Battle of Evesham, the defining battle in the Second War of the Barons in August 1265 when Prince Edward, later Edward I, destroyed the barons’ force under Simon de Montfort. De Montfort and his son were killed but although the battle was not enough to end the rebellion it marked the turning point in Henry III’s fortunes. The town centre is similar to so many other medium sized country towns. There is a decent range of shops but many of the major chains are missing or closing down. It is telling that a closed down video hire shop is being turned into a bookies. The High Street has buildings dating from the 17th century through to modern. Down to the Abbey Park. Long avenues of limes line either side of the water. The park is busy especially as there is a school outing. Two catamaran rowing boats are racing, 25 or so children per boat. I salute the teachers who have got fifty children into life jackets, checked them and got them on board!
Up the hill is a water lily pond fed by a spring that fed the monks’ fish ponds. On up past the war memorial are the remains of the Benedictine abbey, a couple of walls and the bell tower. Parts of main buildings are marked out in the grass. A stone monument marks the spot where Simon de Montfort was buried. Under the arch of the 16th century abbey bell tower built by Abbot Lichfield. Beyond are two churches close together – St Laurence and All Saints. It is said that the churches were built, one for the town, St Laurence and the other, All Saints for pilgrims. However, more recent thought is that the original village lay to the south and west of the abbey, but as the number of pilgrims grew, the town developed to the north and east creating a separate parish. St Laurence was rebuilt in 1470 but by 1659 it had no vicar and was administered by the clergy of All Saints. By 1718 it was unusable but in 1737 repairs were undertaken but badly and the roof collapsed in 1800. The church was abandoned. In the early 19th century, Edward Rudge commissioned the architect Harvey Eginton, who carried out a major rebuilding in 1836-37. By the mid-20th century the congregation had declined again and in 1978 the church was decommissioned and taken over by the Churches Conservation Trust. Like many other decommissioned churches there is a haunting atmosphere inside. The Nicholson organ no longer works. Much of the interior and glass is Victorian or 20th century although the communion table is Jacobean. All Saints has a completely different feeling as it is still operational. The church is also much richer and opulent. It has extensive glass, a superb one from 1862 by Frederick Preedy, who restored the church and several others by Alexander Gibbs from the same period. A glass panelled coffin bier stands near the west wall. A statue of a horned Moses believed to be 13th century is in a case. We go back into the town centre through the abbey gatehouse. Past Walker Hall, a fine timbered house into the square which is dominated by the former library, built in 1908-9 by G Hunt. Nearby is the Booth Hall, a large black-and-white building which despite the name (booth or market hall) was an inn. It dates from the late 15th century. The Town Hall is 16th century with 19th century redevelopments. It has a weather station consisting of a wind direction indicator, thermometer and barometer presented by the Revd George Head in 1887. To the south of the High Street is the Almonry, a 14th or 15th century house, now a museum.
Barton – Our camp site lays behind the Cottage of Content inn. Swallows sweep across the grass. A Kestrel drifts over the trees with Swallows in close attendance. A Green Woodpecker yaffles loudly then shoots across the site like a yellow and green bolt. House Sparrows chatter in the hedges and a Goldfinch sings twitteringly from overhead wires. The Green Woodpecker returns and alights on a telegraph pole where it can be seen to be a juvenile. It calls frequently and loudly. Swallows gather on the wires.
Friday – Bidford-on-Avon – As usual, it was a noisy dawn, Wood Pigeons and the young Green Woodpecker especially. A Blackcap is in full song just behind the tent at 5:30. A path from the corner of the site leads to a track around a newly sown field, the water sprayer was in full flow last evening. This track joins the Avon Way by the river. There are a lot of little mounds of soil with a hole in the centre on the path. They are made by Mining Bees. The way crosses several fields to reach the bridge at Bidford-on-Avon. This large village grew around a ford across the River Avon (Byda’s Ford) which lay on the Roman Ryknild Street. A narrow eight arched bridge replaced the ford. It was first built in the early 15th century but demolished by Charles I in 1644 to cover his retreat from Worcester. It was rebuilt in 1650. A Saxon burial ground has been found near the village. The main road now bypasses the village centre, so the High Street is quiet. This end is a mixture of possibly Georgian and a lot of 20th century buildings with a few shops. A small square is reached where the buildings are older and far grander. Lloyd’s Bank is a large 16th century house in pale yellow and grey limestone. Beside it are small homes that once formed stables. The Old Rectory is partly hidden behind extensive hedges but is a fine affair, grey limestone with faux timber framing above some large bay windows facing the River Avon. Opposite is a quite magnificent house, The Falcon, an old inn from the mid-16th century. The church of St Laurence is locked. Again of the local grey and yellow limestones, parts dating from 1250. White doves frequent the tower. Down Church Street where the old Fire Station and Forge stand on the junction with Icknield Street. A lane called The Grange is lined with small old cottages before turning into 20th century housing. Another Green Woodpecker is noisy here. Back to the High Street which ends in Tower Close some fine cottages and some uninspiring 20th century homes. The modern road passes here and continues into later housing. Back to the centre of the town past the old police station.
Monday – Wye Valley Way – Rhayader-Llangurig – Red Kites sail across the outskirts of the town. A lane heads north-east out of Rhayader, past Marston Pottery and Cefnaes Hall. The sky has clouded over and it is very humid. Jet aircraft snarl around the hills. Swallows sweep low. The land climbs through fields and patches of woodland, mainly Oak with some Silver Birch, Holly and Rowan. The lane drips briefly before climbing again past Middle Nantserth. Tiny, sweet Wild Strawberries grow in the roadside bank. The lane keeps climbing. Up and up, finally topping out at Llidart Carnau, an ancient track junction, where the Wye Way leaves the lane and passes through fields of noisy Rooks. Past cows which watch Maddy carefully and then a mediaeval house platform. The path then turns into wilder terrain and descends a steep hill into a valley. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flies off. Chaffinches and Chiffchaffs call below. Into Gilfach Farm Nature Reserve. There is evidence that this valley has been occupied since the Bronze Age. There is a visitors’ centre and a lovely old traditional Welsh longhouse, rebuilt in the 15th century. Several corn grinders stand by a wall. The route passes down the valley following the Afon Marteg. The water rushes down waterfalls and bubbles over Silurian shales. Salmon still come up this river to spawn. A Grey Wagtail bobs on a rock in the middle of the stream. Butterflies, Meadow Browns and Ringlets flit through the meadows. The valley contains the closed railway line from Llanidloes to Rhayader built by the Mid-Wales Railway Company in the middle of the 19th century. It closed a century later. A tunnel some 1000 yards long passes through a headland of Yr Wylorn and is now home to five species of bat. It starts to rain slightly. The route used to follow the old railway line but apparently the bridge over the river is now unsafe and so the route is now the “Monks Trod”, an ancient road that once connected the Cistercian monasteries of Strata Florida in Ceredigion with Abbey Cwm Hir. At the car park there is a modern stone circle.
The way meets the A470 and crosses it. A path drops down to a narrow footbridge over the River Wye. Up and along the hillside through rough pasture. The soil is thin and huge boulders litter the hillside. The path passes through Oak and Birch woods before meeting up with a tarmac road which runs parallel to the main road with the river in between. Jays squawk in the trees. The light rain seems to have passed over. Red Kites call and occasionally glide over. On up the valley. House Martins sweep across the hillside. A large Raven soars out from rocks, Lloftyddglesion, high on the top of the valley before settling in the highest point to survey the land below. Through a farm, Safn-y-coed. A pair of domestic Greylag geese have goslings. Chickens wander around, a Cochin scurries up the road. A pair of piping Common Sandpipers cross the river. Most of the windmills on the hill to the east are motionless. Past a modern house built above the river. Vast stones have been used to stabilise the vertical bank. Several banks of solar panels are in a field with a hen house on which sits a Peacock. The road joins another at Dernol. A farmer is turning the hay. Overhead three Red Kites tussle and occasionally dive and grab a clawfuls of hay. The lane reaches a junction and I head up a valley. Capel Isaf Calvinist Methodist Chapel was first built in 1826 and then rebuilt in 1884, now a residence. Beside stands the graveyard, completely overgrown. Houses up the valley, Nant-y-Dernol are scattered by mainly conversions into well-to-do residences. A Whitethroat hovers above a wire before dropping down into the hedge below. At Tan-Yr-Allt a Treecreeper mouses its way up a tree. Blackbird and Song Thrushes fly through the trees. A path heads off up into the hills. A group of young people have just descended and a girl announces to me how much she hated the climb from the other side! A lad informs me the route is well way-marked. I had put my waterproofs in as it started to rain, it stopped almost immediately. I remove them and am annoyed by dozens of flies. Spots of rain return...
The path climbs up from the valley, up Blaen-y-Cwm and its associated stream. It is hard going! Finally the summit is reached and the path crosses a moorland of thistles and sedge to the west of Esgair Y Craig. It becomes a sphagnum bog and I am grateful it has been dry. The route is indeed well signed which saves getting out the compass as the way is far from obvious. Finally there is a steep descent to a stream, Nant y Clochfaen and footbridge. Over the ford and then realise there is another hill. The path, which does not actually exist, runs along a hedgerow into which a calling Redstart disappears. Up another field of sheep and thistles. Across a hay meadow then a track heads down towards Llanguric, I can see the church spire. Past a superb house dated 1915 and a row of cottages with plaques of heads on the eaves and in one case a clock marked Clochfaen. There are numerous theories on the meaning of Clochfaen. It can mean “Bell stone” and indicate a ringing rock. Or maybe it means a bell quern. There has certainly been a house here for many centuries. The present, a black and white house in the Arts and Crafts style, was built in 1915 by W. Benson for Harry Lloyd Verney, Deputy Master of the Household to King Edward VII, and from 1911, Groom-in-Waiting to King George V. In 1917, Prince Albert, later King George VI, came to Clochfaen for three weeks while recuperating from a duodenal ulcer, shortly after serving in the Battle of Jutland during World War I. The Lloyd Verneys fell on hard times soon after completion of the house, which was eventually bought by Frank Stirk, a Wolverhampton solicitor, in 1927. On down and over the Wye and into the village.
It is now raining hard. My first port of call is the Bluebell pub. Maddy is soaking wet so we sit in the marquee outside. Behind the pub is a row of houses faced in slate. They are the former school and stand next to where the railway passed through the town. This line has a strange history. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1862, giving the jointly-owned Llanidloes and Newtown Railway (L&NR) (which was managed by the Cambrian Railways since 1860) the rights to extend southwards from Llanidloes with 1½ miles of double track to Penpontbren Junction where the Manchester and Milford Railway Llangurig branch would diverge through the Cambrian Mountains to Strata Florida and the MWR line would continue to Builth Road (serving Builth Wells). The M&MR and MWR would both pay 5% per annum on construction costs and maintenance. The branch line was officially opened in 1872 when a short section of the branch was built to the west of what would be Llangurig station. A single M&WR goods train was then hired by the L&NR to run along its entire length. This legally entitled the L&NR to invoice the M&MR for its share of the cost of building the joint junction station at Llanidloes, which it promptly did. However, by 1875 the M&WR was in receivership because it had been unable to raise the capital required to complete the railway from north-west England to west Wales. No line beyond Llangurig through Mid Wales to Strata Florida was ever started and the line was lifted in 1882. Off to the camp site. First problem, no kettle solved when the owner kindly gives me one. Not sure this was so wonderful as the noodles are pretty disgusting! Next problem is insoluble, clouds of midges that form around me in about 20 seconds of standing still. I eat the noodles moving around then retreat to the tent, zipping up tight. My walking app says I have covered some 9 miles which surprises me, I thought it was further. Later, I discover it had stopped recording at the foot of Blaen-y-Cwm, so at least 5 miles was missed!
Tuesday – Wye Valley Way – Llangurig-Rhayader – A Red Kite sits on a bush on skyline. Mist drifts over a conifer plantation on Esgair Ychion. To the west. The way is through wet sedges and grass with stiles I have to lift Maddy over and now a hill. Clouds on Pynlimon, the highest hill the range that is the source of the Rivers Rheidol (which flows west towards Aberystwyth), Wye and Severn. Across fields of sheep and thistles on Esgair Llwyn-gwyn. A track begins to drop down the eastern side. Purple Self Heal is common in the grass as is yellow Meadow Vetchling. Goldfinches, Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails fly around the rough ground by the track. A Red Kite glides low across the fields. The track passes through a farm at Llwyn-gwyn and down to the River Wye which is broad and shallow. Across water meadows outside Llangurig. Swifts and Sand Martins feed. The road heads south, National Cycle Route 8. Of course, it is not flat but undulates a bit putting pressure on my leg muscles. The lane reaches Dernol where my path went into the hills yesterday. A large house has a plaque declaring it to be “Dernol Council School 1907”. The road continues south following the river. Small patches of woodland are homes to calling Nuthatch. At Tyr-maw sheep have been brought into a small field for shearing. The noise of baaing sheep is constant. In a lean-to, two men are shearing. The field behind the shed is full of lambs, probably separated for market. It tries to rain but it is half-hearted. A number of Ravens are flying around Lloftyddglesion, calling and diving down onto rocks below where they squabble with each other. By the time I reach the Marteg confluence the sun is shining warmly. The Wye Way heads down to the river before crossing the main road. I stay on the cycle route and pass Nannerth-fawr holiday homes. The lane and river enter a deep valley between Gamallt and Penrhiw-wen, high hills covered in bracken, heather, rocky outcrops and great slips of scree. On and down into Rhayader past a mile stone stating “Aberystwyth 29 miles – Rhayader ½” and on to the town centre. The last haul up the high street is hard going, my legs are very sore; today has been over 13 miles! Route
Friday – Shropshire Way, Clun – Another hot sunny day although a light breeze helps. Through the town to Clun castle then down into a field of nettles. Past a row of cottages and off along the Shropshire Way. Meadowsweet and Great Willowherb are in flower but many umbellifers are going to seed. The River Unk bubbles behind a wall of hazels. Across a small bridge and along fields. A group of backpacking young people pass by. To the west hills of variegated green fields rise with farms at the foot. Maddy is having trouble trouble with the numerous small thistles and keeps hopping to avoid them. Rooks and Carrion Crows caw. Cows and sheep graze in bucolic contentment. A moment’s inattention and I lose way. Crossing a field and returning takes me close to a herd of cows. Maddy is terrified as I drag her past on the lead. One cow decides to investigate which makes matters worse, but a sharp rap on its nose with my stick sends it off. I find the sharp little turn through a hedge and back onto the trail. Across a field is Bicton Ditches, locally known as “The Trenches” a post-mediaeval site of two ramparts and ditches to the south of a narrow plateau. It is possible they are seigeworks used by Parliamentarians in the Civil War although they are out of range of Clun castle, which, in any case, was according to Leland in a ruinous state in 1539. The path crosses the Newcastle road and starts up a hill through broad beans then golden barley. Yellowhammers are singing, “a little bit of bread and no cheese”. It is getting hot!
The way is straight as it climbs Cefns, Welsh for “ridge”. This is possibly an old drovers’ route, avoiding the marshy valleys below. Through sheep pastures. Here is a field of green wheat. As soon as I stop flies come buzzing around. More singing Yellowhammers and Chaffinches are in the bushes and trees. Maddy is being awkward about scuttling under the fences but when her ball is thrown to the other side she seems to manage well enough! Onto a track where the scent of camomile is strong. Across more fields to Three Gates. The path rounds Hergan. Golly Coppice lays in a deep valley to the north. Offa’s Dyke crosses the top of the valley. To the west of the dyke, a farmer is turning the hay. Here the way meets the Offa’s Dyke path. There is now a change of plan. I had planned to follow the Offa’s Dyke Path south for a way but time has gone more quickly than I had anticipated and I decide to take the road route back to Clun. Down the road to Three Gates. Tar is melting into little shining black jewels on the surface of the road. The road starts to drop towards Bicton. A tractor is sweeping up rows of hay, excreting bales. A rather unsightly industrial farm lays in the valley, vast black sheds with silver feeders towering above them. A sign post in Three Gates claimed Bicton was 3¾ miles and after walking a good mile, the next post says Bicton, 3½ miles. The wonders of country miles! The road passes Llanhedric farm and then an activity camp where the River Unk passes under the road. Into Bicton and then down to the main road and back to Clun. A Common Buzzard decides to alight on telephone wires above the road. It cannot keep its balance and has to stretch its wings to maintain its position. It does not take long for it to realise that its unsteady position is untenable to it flies up to the nearby telegraph pole. Having settled it realises I am watching it so is off across the field where it circles lazily. In Clun, Maddy stops outside a pub (and I show great restraint by not going in) and drinks nearly all a large bowl of water to the amusement of the drinkers. Route
Saturday – Home – Early morning swifts scream in packs as they soar high in the air. The playing field has finally been mown, leaving it more like a hay field. Walnuts have appeared on the tree in the Millennium Garden. At home everything is dry, unless it rains tonight, some serious watering will have to be done. The sun burns fiercely in a clear blue sky. The first courgettes have appeared on a couple of plants, Rugofa friulana, a warty yellow fruit with a firm texture. Gladstone apples are just edible but already under attack from the birds. As I walk up the path from the back door, a baby Song Thrush, barely able to fly bunny hops away. I think there may be a nest at the base of the wall but I do not want to disturb anything. The plastic compost bins are full so I have the unenviable task of transferring compost. The oldest wooden bin is emptied into bags, not too many as we have been digging into this bin for a while now. The dryness of the compost is demonstrated by the presence of an ants’ nest. The second bin is turned into the now empty one and the three plastic bins are piled into the newly emptied wooden bin. The tops are left off the wooden bins in the hope that rain will come and moisten the rotting plant stuff. The chickens are laying well now, four eggs most days. We still are unsure which eggs belong to which bird and indeed, we have no idea whether Stevie, the old Warren is laying at all.
Monday – Leominster – Last night the moon was a “super” or perigee moon as it is at one of its closest approaches to our planet. It was partially obscured by black clouds but shone a brilliant yellow in the south-east. This morning it is pale but still large in the western sky. I gather a good number of small walnuts from the Millennium Gardens for pickling. They are pierced with a needle and put into brine for the first stage of the process. The hoped-for rain failed to materialise and the garden is very dry.
Bircher Common – After the bright start, the sky has clouded over and a breeze cools. A Common Buzzard flies over carrying something the size of a small rabbit in its claws. Yellowhammers call, one is sitting on a Gorse bush, yellow head and chestnut rump. A pair of Linnets rise from a Hawthorn sapling. Up the common past Oaker and Bircher Coppices. Fungi are beginning to appear, a puffball lies in the grass. On up to the ridge on Dionscourt Hill. A path runs along the ridge, young Silver Birches to the west. To the east the fields are green and yellow stretching off into the distance. The Malvern Hills are grey on the skyline. Along the ridge to the Forestry Commission plantations and Yeld’s Hill. The final hurrah of Foxgloves and tall, spiky Spear Thistles just coming into flower dominate under the edge of the woods and inside where the light can penetrate. Bird song is almost absent, just fragments and twitterings. Small White, Meadow Brown and Ringlet butterflies flit around the edges of the track, the latter sometimes in mating pairs. Ragwort is coming into flower, their leaves yet to be visited by Cinnabar moths whose caterpillars live on them. The plantation ends at a field of bales of hay. Ahead is The Goggin and beyond Vallets and the Mortimer Forest. Across the field is a line of Sweet Chestnut trees. They follow a line that marks the boundary between Lienthall Starkes and Richards Castle Parishes. Back along the track. Something moves near a stone. I stand and watch and eventually a female Spotted Wolf Spider, Pardosa amentata, with a white egg sac under her, emerges. A track runs round towards Whiteway Head. There is an overgrown path that leads out onto Bircher Common which I decide to push through – a mistake as I get stung several times by quite vicious Stinging Nettles. Across the common and round Oaker Coppice again. Another toadstool lays in the grass, one of the Tricholomas I think.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – The sky is overcast. More wildfowl are present as the breeding season draws to a close. Four Greylag and a Barnacle Goose are among the Canada Geese around the scrape. Across the lake there are around 200 Canada Geese. The Reed Warbler is still singing in the bed beside the scrape but with less intensity and vigour. A Cormorant glides in, there are six more in the trees. Several Tufted Duck are diving for food. At the western end of the water a Great Crested Grebe and a pair of Mute Swans sit on the water motionless. Mallard and Coot are scattered around the lake. A Moorhen appears on the scrape pecking here and there. Behind the hide the large bramble patches are loaded with blackberries. Agrimony, a spike of yellow flowers, is widespread but coming to the end of its season. The dessert apples are still not ripe, although they have not been really edible until August in the last couple of years, so my idea that some should be ready by now seems to be a false memory on my part! Kay points out we have seen only a single butterfly and no bees in the meadow despite the abundance of clover and other flowers – somewhat worrying.
Home – The broad bean patch has been cleared and now needs weeding. The soil is dusty clods, completely dry. Kay is clearing the straw from under the strawberry plants. It was a wasted effort this year as Blackbirds got in and ate the crop. I have spent a long time inspecting the netting of the fruit cage to try and find any holes and have only found the smallest ones, they must really squeeze through. Very annoying. The black currants have been picked and frozen. Blueberries are ripening fast now, one lot has already gone into the freezer and raspberries are starting. I sow a number of modules of Chinese vegetables – Mizuna, Shingiku (an edible chrysanthemum), Kailaan and Pak Choi. The rest of the second early potatoes need digging and the leeks planting out, but that can wait until tomorrow. Enough Dwarf French beans are picked for a decent portion each for dinner.
Thursday – Home – It is hot again. I pick enough blueberries for the breakfast smoothie. The second early potatoes, Nadine, are dug. They weigh-in at twenty eight pounds, a fair but not a great crop. The dry weather has not helped, the mains, Blue Danube, are going to need some serious amounts of rain in the next few days or a lot of watering must be done. Storms have been forecast but no sign so far. Leeks are planted out in now vacant bed. Normally a dibber is pushed into the soil to make a hole and the small leek dropped in. This is impossible in the dust dry earth, so I simply dig my hand into the soil and hold back what I can as the leek is pushed in. They are then watered in. Swifts are still screaming high overhead. A Great Spotted Woodpecker has visited the peanut feeder over the past few days. A lot of very juvenile Blue Tits also are fattening themselves on the nuts. Indeed, there are juvenile birds everywhere. The Blackbirds are full grown and confident now but others are still finding flying an experiment, crashing through the bushes with a frantic whirr of wings. Being small and grey-brown, identification is a problem but I think they are mainly Dunnocks, House Sparrows and Robins.
Friday – Hergest Ridge – The sky is grey and overcast. A thunderstorm last night washed the land and air, refreshing it but it remains very humid. Chiffchaffs and Nuthatches call at the top of Ridgebourne road. Up the ridge where Meadow Pipits fly about chirping and a Yellowhammer calls from the hedges. The hills in all directions are misty. A Carrion Crow sits on the back of the seat by the track surveying the hillside. A Linnet sings from the top of fronds of bracken. Skylarks burst out of the bracken singing but there is no sustained song from on high as they quickly drop down again. Song Thrushes search the rides before flying off across the hill, singing incoherently. There is a slight breeze when I reach the Araucaria grove. As soon as I stop flies gather annoyingly. Swallows dash this way and that across the top of the ridge. Down a path to the saddle of Hantner Hill then on down an old track to the east of the hill. A Small Heath butterfly sits on bracken. The track drops to a row of Oaks and Hazels, the latter having large crops of cobnuts. The track becomes more defined as it continues down the hill. On past a row of ancient caravans and a cottage, Middle Hanter. A small flock of Jacobs Sheep baa excitedly as we pass. The track turns towards Lower Hanter, an old black-and-white timber-framed house that does not have a straight line anywhere, then Hanter Lane runs down to the crossing at Burlingjobb.
The crossing is now where the lanes meet the B4594 but was previously the Leominster and Kington Railway running to New Radnor (the plan was to run a mainline to Aberystwyth, but this never happened). It closed for passengers in 1955 and freight in 1964. The lane through the hamlet crosses a bridge over Cynon Brook then the road divides. Bridge House is a solid building built of the local grey stone which probably came from a quarry just above the house, now closed. Up Old Radnor Hill. The other side of the hill is the massive Gore quarry but this side is peaceful. A clouds of bluebottles fly up off a rabbit corpse in the road. A pretty little wooden gate leads to a path lined with beehives. The road continues. Across the fields is the even larger Dolyhir quarry. Down the hill again. Nettle-leaved Bellflowers lurk in the depths of the hedges. Yellow and black striped caterpillars of the Cinnabar moth infest Ragwort. A roadside bank under Yatt Wood has drifts of aromatic Marjoram with purple-pink flowers. Into Dolyhir, a small village dominated by the quarry. The quarries have been in use for a long time but it is only recently that they have been recognised as one of the most important mineral sites for mineralogists in Britain. Research by The National Museum Wales has reported that “The quarry is situated directly on the Church Stretton Fault, where Precambrian basement rocks are overlain unconformably by Silurian limestone. Various igneous intrusions occur locally, alteration of which has released many rare elements that have subsequently recrystallized within fractures in the Silurian and Precambrian rocks. Later, supergene (near surface) weathering of mineral veins within the limestone has produced a suite of rare secondary minerals”. Lorries are constantly coming and going. Over Dolyhir Bridge and down the Painscastle road to Gladestry. Large patches of Great Willowherb flower beside the road. To the east first Hanter Hill then Hergest Ridge loom high, to the west, Common Wood, Weythel Common and then fields of sheep. The Rose and Crown in Gladestry is open, this week the lure is irresistible. After a cooling pint it is back up the track to the ridge. Ash tree has a large growth of saddle fungus, Dryad’s Saddle Polyporus squamosus. A Common Buzzard glides in large circles overhead. As I toil up the hill a siren sounds from the direction of the quarries and wonder if blasting is about to take place, but no satisfying crump is heard. A beetle is on sheep droppings; its smooth elytra would indicate it is a Bloody-nosed Beetle, a leaf-beetle that feeds on Bedstraw, not dung. The water level in the ponds is low. Insects chase around the mud in the bottom. Ponies are on top of the hill. Two Southern Hawker dragonflies, Aeshna Cyanea with black and yellow stripes, blue towards tail, dart here and there in the lane. Route
Saturday – Home – A thunderstorm splits the night sky. It is 3:00am and lightning flashes through cracks in the curtain. There is a sudden and violent downpour, water banging onto the plastic roof of the museum. A peek out of the front window shows a broad stream of water pouring down the street. The storm passes slowly. It is still near dark when I arise late, at 6:30. It is still raining hard. It does not diminish Maddy’s desire to chase her ball. The rain continues into the morning, there is a brief pause then another prolonged downpour. After lunch I take Maddy for a brief walk around the Grange and Millennium Park. It starts to rain again shortly after we set out. Thunder is rumbling in the east. Swifts still feed high above Grange Court. Later as twilight sets in, large groups of Swifts are high in the sky screaming as they chase against the grey clouds.
Monday – Croft – The day is already hot, although it is cooler in the woods. Maddy knocks her ball down the slope and when she emerges back onto the path she is covered in grass seed. I pick off the seeds around her ears but leave the rest. Nuthatches are calling and a few, unrecognisable fragments of song come from the greenery. Enchanter’s Nightshade is widespread. Up to the hill-fort. More Nuthatches are calling. Flies, hoverflies but only a single bee are visiting the bramble flowers. The sky is clouding over. Off down the fields towards the castle. A Jay flies into an Oak and another Nuthatch calls. When I was young Jays were hard to find, the nearest ones to Brighton that could be regularly seen were in the woods at Southborough in Kent and I do not recall ever seeing a Nuthatch.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – Another hot morning. Speckled Wood butterflies flit along the side of the track. Out on the meadow, dozens of Common Blue Damselflies, blue needles, dart and hover over the grasses. Unusually, a Cormorant is with Mute Sean, Canada Geese, a single Barnacle Goose and Mallard on scrape. Several Coot are nearby. Canada Geese, Tufted Duck and Mallard are scattered across water. A pen Mute Swan glides into view with four cygnets. The Cob leaves the scrape to join them. A Great Crested Grebe and two more Mute Swans are at the western end. Back on the meadow a Common Blue butterfly visits the clover. An Irish Peach apple is close to ripe but rather small.
Friday – Swindon – Having by-passed the town of Swindon many times, it is time for a visit. Kay has gone to Surrey so it is just Maddy and me. I had underestimated the size of the town and seem to spend ages travelling around dual-carriageways through woodlands interspersed with new housing estates. Eventually I find my hotel and check in, just so I know where I am. Then I head to the Great Western Railway Heritage area. The car parks here are all surface, without shade and it is very hot, so into town to find a multi-storey so Maddy can be relatively cool whilst I visit a museum. The Steam museum is housed in the heart of what was once one of the largest railway engineering complexes in the world. Swindon Railway Works opened in January 1843 as a repair and maintenance facility for the new Great Western Railway. By 1900 the works had expanded to employ over 12,000 people. At its peak in the 1930s, the works covered over 300 acres and was capable of producing three locomotives a week. However, by 1960, the age of steam was over and Swindon built the last ever steam locomotive for British Railways, Evening Star. In 1963 a large part of the old carriage and wagon works on the eastern side of the Gloucester branch line was closed and sold for redevelopment. The works were closed entirely by 1986. The entrance area was was the 1846 machine and fitting shop known as “The Scraggery”, after the process of renovating nuts and bolts which was called “scragging”. The main body of the museum was a machine and turning shop created when the Great Western Railway roofed over a courtyard between the original Brunel Engine House of 1843 and the 1846 machine and fitting shop. Completed in two stages between 1865 and 1872 the R Shop has a ridge and furrow roof supported by cast iron columns. There are excellent displays of the various tasks undertaken in the workshops and several engines and carriages. The pride of place must go to a 4-6-0 Castle Class locomotive “Caerphilly Castle”. In the waiting room of a reconstructed station is a stone tablet that declares that “Real noon at Church Stretton is 11 minutes 12 seconds after Greenwich”. Whilst this may seem obvious as Church Stretton is a long way west of Greenwich, it is one of those facts that seems to come as a surprise! Outside, old workshops are now offices, a classic example of the way working life has changed. Back towards the town centre through New Swindon, streets of terraces of GWR workers homes. Bristol Street tunnel was the old main entrance which all the workers used to pass under the railway into the GWR works. The Mechanic’s Institute is a ruin, although restoration is promised. Back to the hotel to park up and head into town. The town is ringed with retail and business parks. Large roads are busy but there is a good separation between them and wide pedestrian and cycle paths through green spaces. It is now very hot. Through a park where Maddy, whilst chasing her ball when it is kicked, makes straight back to any bit of shade she can find. Up to the old town along roads lined with early twentieth century terraces. However, even here there are surprises such as the row of flat roofed houses with a decorative iron railing around the edge. Another row oddly has tiny front yards which lead straight into the busy road. Getting closer to the old town the houses are Victorian, a kind of watered down Gothic.
Swindon was a Saxon town on the hill now occupied by the Old Town. It was recorded in Domesday as Suindune meaning either “pig’s” or the personal name “Sweyns” hill. In 1810 the Wilts and Berks Canal followed by the North Wilts Canal in 1819 brought trade to the town and it started to expand but it was the building of the railway works in 1841/2 and the village for the workers – New Swindon – that really developed the area and by 1900 the new and old towns had merged. In the old town the shops are mainly late Victorian and it seems every other one is a café or bar. The old corn exchange is another ruin and again refurbishment is promised. Down Cricklade Road is the 18th century red brick Square House, overlooking the market place and 42 Cricklade Street, “the finest house in Swindon” according to John Betjeman, once a home of the Villet family, patrons of the Church and owners of the Eastcott Estate, south of the hill, on which the New Town would be built. Down the hill is a much older row of cottages terminating with an old hostel, built in 1877 using a bequest from “the late Mr Anderson”. Christ Church was built in 1851 when the original church in old town, the Holy Rood was closed and demolished. A very long road is mainly early 20th century with some surprising Victorian piles. The road leads to the Magic Roundabout, an extraordinary roundabout that is five roundabouts in one. It is full of cars and looks like chaos but apparently works well. Back towards the centre. Beside the bus station is a superb example of concrete brutalism car park with a spiral drive up and square levels with wire guards. The town centre is very busy. Most the shops are occupied, albeit with national chains. It gets a bit tatty at the edge as it heads back to the GWR area. The Community Centre was the Medical Fund Hospital, set up by the GWR for their workers who paid a small weekly contribution for free medical treatment. A small corner pub, The Glue Pot, has a good range of ales. It gets its name from the railway coach builders who would bring their glue pots with them when they took their breaks and would place their pots on the central stove to keep them hot; unfortunately, health and safety has put paid to the stove. Past Bristol Street tunnel again and to the GWR school being converted into an engineering training institute. The church is of course locked. Into GWR Swindon Park, being well used. Out from the centre on Rodbourne Road which passes under the railway and continues with a large wall of typical Victorian industrial design on one side and a block of Victorian offices, now a retail outlet on the other. Down a side street, The Palladium is now a printers. Another street has the large, red brick church of St Augustine, built in 1908 and locked. I seem to have strayed eastwards and have a long walk along Great Western Way, a busy dual carriageway without without a footpath back to my hotel. It is very close and then a wind starts to blow. Angry clouds are in the sky. Plans to head back towards the centre are shelved. By 5 o’clock it is raining torrentially. Luckily there is a short break as Maddy’s dinner is in the car!
Saturday – Hungerford – A quick, early morning visit to this pretty Berkshire market town. It is a Saxon name meaning “Hanging Wood Ford” although it is not mentioned in Domesday. A Roman road which runs along part of what became the Great West Road from London to Bath, the A4 runs across the top of the town. In the 14th century, John of Gaunt was the lord of the manor. The town developed, especially when coaches stopped on their way along the Great West Road. The arrival of the Kennet and Avon canal in 1810 further increased the town’s prosperity, then in 1847 a railway line was built by the Berks and Hants Railway Company between Newbury and Hungerford. In 1862, the line was extended westwards to join Brunel’s London to Bristol line. A bridge was built across the high street and four houses demolished. One can imagine the furore that would occur these days if a major construction like that were to be proposed across a pretty high street! The line was changed to standard gauge in 1874 and in 1881 the Great Western Railway purchased the line and converted it to dual track which was completed in 1896. The present bridge was erected in 1966 but still has the GWR logo dated 1862. The high street is lined with delightful Georgian houses, a good number of which are older timber-framed buildings with new Georgian frontages. Back down at the canal, Hungerford Wharf, once a busy dock which fell in to disuse with the coming of the railway. The Bear Hotel stands on the junction of the A4. Here on 7th December 1688, William of Orange, who was proceeding from Torbay to London, met with James II’s Commissioners, the Lords Halifax, Godolphin and Nottingham, and was offered the crown of England. To the east of the town is Hungerford Common. The road drops down to the canal at Dunmill Lock where there is a pill-box, a second World War defensive position. Many of these have disappeared over the years; they were common across the south of England in my youth.
Tuesday – Leominster – A Fox is abroad in the Millennium Gardens. It crosses the path near the pond and looks over towards Maddy and I before heading for the railway embankment. It pauses there for a moment but we are getting too close and it disappears into the large hedge at the foot of the embankment.
Bodenham Lake – The day is getting hotter. The track is dusty and many of the leaves are now becoming tired and dull. There is still colour about; yellow Dark Mullein, Purple Loosestrife rising in spikes beside the water and the mist of purple around the spiky heads of Teasels. I pick a few apples from the dessert orchard, a couple turn out to be very sour still but little Irish Peaches are fine.
Wednesday – Shropshire Union Canal, Llangollen Branch: Chirk-Trevor – Dave and Joy pick us up in their canal boat behind the Poachers Pocket pub near Chirk Bank and we set off up the canal. Gardens come down to the water, often with places to sit and watch the passing boats among beds of flowers. When we leave the gardens behind, the flowers continue, now wild. Large stands of Hemp Agrimony with reddish pink clusters of flowers which are popular with Peacock butterflies, large clumps of Comfrey, purple spikes of Purple Loosestrife and straggling Monkey Flower, a yellow lipped blossom from the Americas which becoming widespread. Over the River Ceriog via Chirk Aqueduct, designed by Thomas Telford and completed in 1801, beside a wonderful railway viaduct, designed by Henry Robertson and opened in 1840. There are niches on the pedimented abutments of the viaduct that look like they ought to hold statues, between are ten arches. The canal almost immediately enters the 421 metre long Chirk Tunnel, designed by William Jessop and Thomas Telford and opened in 1802. Passing through tunnels and over viaducts can be a lengthy affair as they are only one boat width wide, so if a boat is coming through from the opposite direction, one has to park up and wait. During our journeys in both directions we were only held up once – lucky as this canal is very busy. We chug on past Chirk Marina and into Whitehouse Tunnel, 174 metres long and again built by Jessop and Telford. The canal which has been heading north turns sharply north-west under Irish Bridge. After a while we enter Froncysyllte past old limekilns. The village was built for quarry, limekiln, brick and tile-workers during the 19th century. We have (or more accurately, Dave has) to raise a small bridge for us to pass through. Up on the hill, the Aqueduct Inn has been painted bright yellow. Around the bend is the aqueduct itself, crossing the River Dee.
We have known about Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, “The Stream in the Sky”, for many years and have always wanted to cross it. It is a World Heritage site, built by Telford for £47,000 and opened in 1805. It is the highest and longest aqueduct in Britain being 307m long, 3.4m wide and 1.60m deep. It consists of a cast iron trough supported 38m above the river on iron arched ribs carried on nineteen hollow masonry piers. Each span is 16m wide. The bolted cast-iron joints were caulked at the joints with Welsh flannel dipped in boiling sugar, and then sealed with lead. As we cross a female Mallard is following us, paddling for all she is worth to stay ahead of the following boat. Beyond the aqueduct is Trevor Basin. The canal turns west to Llangollen but we do not follow as it gets very narrow and busy. We find a mooring with surprising ease and head off to the Telford Inn. This building was probably erected in the late 18th century as a house for Matthew Davidson, the supervisor of the construction of the aqueduct and the adjoining lengths of canal. Rooms were set aside for Telford whenever he visited the works. Above the doorway is the title Scotch Hall. This is said to be Telford’s choice of name, but Davidson was also a Scot. It is said that the ghost of a black and white collie-type dog haunts the function room, but Maddy just sits outside attracting attention from patrons young and old. We catch a bus to Llangollen. What a difference there is in the bus service between there and home. It is every quarter of an hour, ours is hourly, they allow dogs, ours, a rural service bans them and the driver could not have been more helpful in working out the cheapest option for us! We wander Llangollen for a while, it is heaving with tourists. My previous experience is that it is hard, if not impossible to get a decent pint in the town and nothing seems to have changed; we get a very mediocre pint of Timothy Taylor’s, a Yorkshire brewery... Back on the bus to Trevor for dinner on the boat. We then take a walk over the aqueduct, the River Dee, playing fields and meadows far below.
Thursday – Trevor – Over the footbridge into the yard of the basin. Railway tracks of a narrow gauge line are all that is left of the extensive rail yard beside the basin in the Victorian era. Opposite our mooring is a tongue of land with moorings the far side. Once there were three rail lines on this tongue with many more on the far side where a café has been built. Off down down The Slip, a steep hill that winds down to the River Dee. Looking downriver, the aqueduct is silhouetted against a grey, cloudy sky. A boat passes over. Upstream the water tumbles over the rocky bed. A Jay sits in a tree next to the water. The road winds back up out of the valley to Froncysyllte. The road passes the entrance to Argoed Hall, a substantial two-storey stone house in Elizabethan and Queen Anne style, believed to have been started in 1864 but extensively altered later by the German-born industrialist Robert F. Graesser associated with the Wrexham Lager Brewery and the neighbouring chemical complex at Acrefair. Most of the house is hidden behind trees. A pause at the lift bridge at Froncysyllte. A plaque commemorates the limestone workers and there is a little wagon next to it. Back across the aqueduct. From the tow-path one can see the old banks of the river high in the fields down from Froncysyllte. It may have been some thousands of years since the river was right up there. I am surprised that I have no vertigo on the aqueduct, something I have suffered from since a child. Far below a Grey Heron stands poised and motionless on the edge of the river. There is something especially pleasing about looking down onto tree tops. After breakfast we motor off back to Chirk. The canal is very busy but the journey is pleasant.