Monday 1st June – Hereford – We have to go to Hereford, unfortunately on one of the hottest days of the year so far. The old maps show the site of a Black Friars Monastery between Widemarsh Street and old cemetery of St Peter’s. There is a school there and beside it is a pathway that leads to a small garden – and the remains of the monastery. The Black Friars were the Dominican monks. This monastery was founded in 1276 and consecrated in the presence of Edward III, his son, the Black Prince and three Archbishops. The remains are those of the refectory and the Prior’s house, built around 1322. The monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. Sir Thomas Coningsby of Hampton Court near Dinmore converted the buildings to a residence, which was badly damaged in the Civil War and later became a farm building. By the remains, on Widemarsh Street is Coningsby Hospital. This was built in the 13th century by the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, a militant order that started as a Benedictine nursing Order based in the Holy Land and charged with the defence and care of pilgrims. Adjoining are alms houses built by Coningsby in 1614 which used to house a chaplain and seven retired seamen, soldiers or servants known as “The Coningsby Servitors”. The almshouse door was clearly once a much larger arch and was part of the gatehouse that lead to Coningsby’s mansion. The old friary church was demolished and the stone used to build the almshouses.
Sunday 7th June – Nunney, Somerset – Sitting in Jo and Peter’s garden in the morning after a long party the night before. It has rained heavily overnight. A Song Thrush in the trees in the field behind the garden was singing all yesterday afternoon and into the evening. He is back and his chorus is as strong as ever, leaving one to wonder when he eats. Suddenly a Red-legged Partridge flies over the garden wall and lands next to me on the lawn. Maddy leaps to her feet in astonishment and the partridge immediately flies off over the house leaving a staring dog.
A torque, woven
Round and Round
And round the hill
A vessel for earth energy,
Ley lines thread layers
Through time laid
Thin as water.
A place of healing
Ritual fire to cleanse
Slough off impurities
As an adder sheds its skin.
It’s tempting to believe
Ambrosius Prince of Britain
Sought sanctuary here.
Held the wood’s
Walk carefully here
There’s magic in this place
Birch and hawthorn
Guard its secrets well
Within its grassy banks
Is healing still.
Wednesday 10th June – Croft – Off down the shady track into Fishpool Valley. A Great Spotted Woodpecker is rapping on branches above my head. Below an estate tractor growls along the lower trail. A family of Wrens, ticking madly, hop through the undergrowth. Jays yelp in the trees. Fish splash in one of the large mediaeval fish ponds. I can just see them cruising through the shallow water, but identifying them is not easy – I plumb for small Pike or Rainbow Trout. Blackbirds and Robins are singing, many other species are chipping or chirping. A Spotted Flycatcher dashes between branches, his large shining eye watching for insects on the wing. Up the slope past Lady Wood towards Leinthall Common. There is a noisy squabble and two birds pass overhead. I get only a glimpse but they immediately bring parakeets to mind. I had not heard they were in the area – yet! Chiffchaffs are calling in the woods. Along the Mortimer Trail a short distance and then up the steep slope to the eastern entrance of Croft Ambrey fort. A male Bullfinch sits in a bush down the slope, his breast a gleaming pink even at this distance. Pale yellow whorls of Crosswort adorn the edges of the path along with the little blue crosses of Germander Speedwell. North of the hilltop, the Shropshire Hills are bathed in yellow glowing mist. To the south and west, the Welsh and Herefordshire hills are grey. All around is the emerald green of Bracken. A Minotaur Beetle Typhaeus typhoeus lays on the grassy path. It has shiny black, ridged back with three thoracic horns and spiny legs. It is one of the scarab beetles and buries rabbit dung, of which there is plenty around here, in the soil. A Common Buzzard wheels high overhead, mewing. The Elders on the fort site are stunted, old and twisted specimens with just a few heads of creamy flowers. Poems are still displayed around the site. Back down in the woods, Foxgloves and Red Campions are both deep pink displays against the green grasses and ferns.
Friday 12th June – Long Mynd – This line of hills, called Mynydd Hir in Welsh, lies in Shropshire near to Church Stretton. The hills are Pre-Cambian, 560 million years old and made of layers of mudstones and volcanic ash. At this time, Shropshire lay 60° south of the equator, approximately in the position occupied by the Falkland Islands today. I approach up the Carding Mill Valley. The mill, where wool was carded with metal spikes set into wooden blocks to untangle the mass of fibres of raw wool. It would then go to the spinning mills and finally the weavers. The mill is now a block of flats. The stream runs down a deep valley of bracken. A road leads to the mill, National Trust buildings and various dwellings. A Willow Warbler and Wood Pigeons call up the slopes. Great domed hills surround the valley. Beyond the houses is a car park then the trail leads up a narrower valley. Chaffinches chirp and a Cuckoo calls from high above. He flies along, just under the brow of the hill and alights on a mass of heather, then flies off on his long hawk-like wings. Rabbits nibble the closely cropped grass. As the path rises up Mott’s Road between Calf Ridge and Haddon Hill, Meadow Pipits are increasingly common. The climb has me blowing – I have been on the flat lands too long!
The stream bubbles, sheep baa and a Willow Warbler sings. Occasionally the Cuckoo can be heard distantly. A Kestrel glides over the edge of the hill and the Willow Warbler makes himself scarce. Behind, Church Stretton can be seen in the cleft of the hills. Finally the path levels out onto Jack Mytton Way. The area is flat moorland of heather and Bilberry. To the south-east Titterstone Clee rises high, to the west the rock towers of Stiperstones lay along the horizon. Near Shooting Box, a grouse shooting hut that was removed in 1992, a path is supposed to lead back down, but is hard to find. Grouse are calling from Shooting Box Barrow, a site to visit next time. The paths are sheep tracks and I am on the wrong side of the stream but it is not difficult to drop down and pick up the right one. The path is rocky and winds around the steep valley. A Mountain Ash is in blossom, small heads not dissimilar to Elder but purer white. There is a growl and splash and Maddy emerges covered in peaty water and mud. We continue and I praise her for behaving well around the sheep. She then runs up the hill and off over the top, refusing to come back. A few minutes later a sheep and a pair of lambs scurry down the hillside being shepherded by the errant dog. I am furious and she soon knows it! There is now a scramble down beside Light Spout, a waterfall. The path descends Light Spout Hollow. A Small Copper butterfly is a brilliant jewel in the heathers. Ahead, between the hills, stands the summit and fort of Caer Caradoc.
Monday 15th June – Leominster – Across the River Lugg and onto the meadows. Rain is forecast but the dark clouds are keeping hold of their load. The river is still very low, previously submerged shingle banks have appeared just below the bridge. The meadows have been mown for hay and Maddy can actually see her ball bounce now. Under the road and onto the edge of Millennium Wood. Talking to people, no-one can understand why the wood was planted with Alders, Flowering Cherry and Wayfaring Trees instead of Apples, Pears and culinary Cherries. The Butterbur leaves are now huge forming a dense blanket by the river bank. A damsel fly, a Banded Agrion (Agrion splendens) flits over the leaves. Into the copse where white umbellifers stand over ten feet tall. A single Common Spotted Orchid rises out of the rough grasses, a delicate pink bloom. A butterfly lands near me briefly; I only see the underside which looks like the of one of the fritillaries, but it is off before I can really memorise the markings.
Wednesday 17th June – Leominster – A chemical packaging factory, Skymark, is on fire in Southern Avenue. Thick black clouds of smoke are being driven by a lively breeze. The factory has been burning since 3:30 this morning. At 7:00 a police van drives up the street with a loud hailer telling residents to stay indoors and keep windows closed – at least that is what I think the policeman says as the van is moving somewhat swiftly and it is not the clearest of loud hailers! Pieces of burnt foam are falling all over the area; I take a piece out of the chicken run before they start poking at it. Later in the morning I head down the road to the river. The smell of burnt plastic is strong around the Baptist Church as the wind is blowing the smoke directly through here. Over the river and under the closed A49. A fire-tender is drawing water from the river. The paths have been mown past the Millennium Wood but not alongside the paddocks where their state is disgraceful – nettles, brambles and other plants grow thickly across the route. I thrash my way through with swipes of my stick. A damselfly with all dark wings (Agrion virgo) flies over the shoulder high Cow Parsley. The Highways Agency are doing something to Eaton Bridge and have set up traffic lights which adds to the problems caused by the closure of the A49 from here to Bridge Street. The factory is still giving off some smoke, although its density is much reduced from earlier. Shortly after midday it starts to rain which should, hopefully dampen down the embers.
Monday 22nd June – Leominster – The morning walk is truncated as Maddy is in season and there are dogs on the playing field where we play ball, so we remain on the Grange. A Swallow follows her as she charges after her ball and back – she will be disturbing insects which are gathered up by the bird. The swallow sweeps past at ground level, flicking out the twin tines of its tail exposing the little white spots at its base. There is a noticeable humming sound coming from high in a Beech tree, but I can only discern a couple of bees, the rest must be higher, out of sight. A tapping comes from one of the Copper Beeches, probably a woodpecker but again is hidden by the dense foliage. There is rain in the air.
Home – The day remains dull and it keeps suggesting rain but so far it has not fallen. The hens have each laid today, a fairly frequent occurrence now. Flowers are appearing on the Runner and French beans. A row of spinach was sown between the wigwams supporting the Runners. I thought they would develop steadily giving a crop when the beans were finished but they have formed a thick mass of leaves nearly a foot high now and will need cropping soon. The garlic was pulled yesterday, a disappointing crop because of the severe attack of rust. There is a worry it will have spread to the nascent leeks. Broad beans and mange-tout peas are cropping well, but the second crop of lettuce will bolt before we can eat it. Many of the tomatoes have flowers, although the plants have not grown as large as I would have expected. A couple of aubergines have beautiful large purple flowers with yellow centres. The gooseberries have a very heavy crop. I have already removed the small berries allowing the rest of develop, hopefully. A couple of jars of Gooseberry and Elderflower jam resulted from the thinnings. Strawberries are cropping steadily. Oddly, a Song Thrush nest is lying on the path under the conifer. No idea where it came from.
Wednesday 24th June – Kilpeck – The sun is shining and the hills are hazy. Kilpeck lies a little to the south of the Hereford-Abergavenny road. The name of the village is mysterious. A charter is noted in the “Book of Llandaff” from the mid-9th century: “Fauu gave ecclesia Cilpedec with its ager around it to Bishop Grecielis...” The element Cil comes from the Welsh for a corner or retreat. It has been suggested that pedec refers to a name and means the Cell of St Pedic. However, there is no such saint listed in Baring-Gould and Fisher’s “Lives of the British Saints”, but this could mean St Pedec was an early, now forgotten figure. The heading of the charter refers to “CilPedec in Ercicg” and “Lann degui cilpedec” in the list of churches. This could mean the church of St Pedec was later dedicated to degui, another form of Dewi; or David. To the east of the church is a field of low mounds and platforms under which lies a mediaeval village. It has been stated there is a Roman courtyard here but this has never been proven. To the west of the church is the motte and bailey of a castle built by William Fitz Norman around 1090 as the administrative centre of Archenfield. According to the Domesday Survey Chipeete had “3 ploughs, 2 serfs and 4 oxmen and there are 57 men with 19 ploughs”, which some indication that Kilpeck was a sizeable settlement. The castle was built on the site of an earlier Saxon stronghold. In 1134, Hugh de Kilpeck gave the revenues of the castle to a newly established Benedictine priory near to the church. Hugh was probably responsible for the building of the present church. In the early 13th century, King John visited the castle on several occasions. In 1259, Henry III granted Kilpeck a weekly Friday market and annual fair. By the time of the Civil War, 1641-49, the castle was in the hands of Sir Walter Pye who garrisoned the stronghold on the side of the King. Captured by Cromwell’s men in 1645, it was subsequently demolished by order of Parliament.
However, it is the church of St Michael and St Mary that is the jewel in Kilpeck’s crown. It is a virtually untouched example of the work of the Herefordshire School of Sculpture built around 1135. The outer eaves of the church are adorned with nearly 80 corbels – stone carvings. Some on the south side are missing, apparently knocked off on the orders of a Victorian lady who was offended by them; in which case she certainly did not see or understand the Sheela na gig on the north side. The sculptures show faces, animals (lions, rams, a lovely hare and dog, birds, snakes, fish and more), monsters, the Devil, woven patterns and people kissing, cuddling and playing musical instruments. The west window, high on the wall under a simple two bell tower, is a complex weave of carvings with two Green Man heads. The inside of the church is also untouched apart from Victorian and later repairs. It consists of a nave, chancel and a semi-circular apse. The chancel arch is richly carved with figures representing apostles and is said to have been inspired by the doorway of Santiago di Compostela, a pilgrim church in north-west Spain. The font is pre-Norman and probably came from an earlier Saxon church as did the holy water stoup which represents hands around a pregnant belly. Across the fields is a once busy station and beyond the church of St Devereux, a 13th century church that may have an earlier history given its dedication, although it may also be that the Devereux family was still important in mediaeval times.
Skenfrith – This village lies in the Monnow Valley in Monmouthshire. It lies around Skenfrith Castle, one of the “Three Castles”, together with Grosmont and White Castle. They guarded the important route up the valley from Monmouth to Hereford. They are designated the “Three Castles” as throughout their history they were held by a single lord. The village was called Ynysgynwraidd in Welsh. The name Skenfrith is Anglicised from the Welsh – Ysgynfraith from ynys meaning an island and Gynwreid from the personal name Cynwraidd. The castle walls have a fine reddish brown tint of sandstone and stand next to the River Monnow. It stands on an artificial gravel platform, some 12 feet thick. Ralph of Grosmont spent £43 on a castle in the 1180s. Excavations show this to have been a stone rather than wooden affair with a defensive ditch. This castle was wholly demolished by Hubert de Burgh, a powerful Marcher lord who became the King Henry III’s justiciar (equivalent to the modern day Prime Minister), in 1219 when he built a new castle, the remains of which are still standing. Four towers stood in each corner, three remain, and a circular keep of three floors. A hall stood along the western wall. In 2003, erosion of the river bank to the north of the castle revealed a mediaeval wharf which may have been in use during the building of the castle.
Nearby stands the church of St Bridget. It probably dates from around 1207 – the roll of incumbents of the parish starts in this year. There was probably an older church here; it seems unlikely that Normans would have dedicated a church to a 6th century Irish saint. It has a wide central nave with aisles added some 200 years later. The phases of building are unclear as the windows cover every Gothic style together with two Tudor windows. The tower is a massive square building with a wooden dovecote on top. Its five foot thick walls bear testament to the period of sudden raids from Wales and the tower’s use as a refuge. Inside the door of the church is a Jacobian table that served as an altar after the original altar from 1207 was broken during the Reformation and used as part of the floor. It has been recently restored to its rightful position. Nearby is a Minstrels’ pew that would have been used for the musicians before the days of the organ. It originally was situated above the arch leading to the present vestry. In the north aisle is a glass cabinet containing the Skenfrith Cope, a richly embroidered cope of the 15th century. The patterns were made of coloured silks and silver and gilt threads on canvas and then applied to the velvet background. It is said to be the cloak King John wore when he signed the Magna Carta – a nice story but unlikely. Nearby is the tomb of John Morgan and his wife Ann. John Morgan was steward of the Duchy of Lancaster and the last governor of the “Three Castles”. He died in 1557, Ann in 1564. Also here is the Morgan Pew, carved in the Jacobean style. It is now hot outside and there is a tap in an alcove in the churchyard wall. Getting Maddy to drink from it is not easy, but after a soaking she eventually gets the idea and her thirst is quenched.
Garway – To the north a few miles is Garway. Some distance down the hillside is the church of St Michael. The name probably comes from gwre meaning a camp and wy meaning water. Behind the church is a spring, a holy well. Sadly the spring dried up in 1975 and has never flowed again. But in olden times it would have considerable importance as a source of fresh water and was used by villagers until the 1950s. Many such sites became of religious significance to the Celts and so when Pope Gregory wrote the Epistola ad Mellitium of July 601 instructing missionaries in England to convert pagan sites to Christianity rather than destroying them, sites such as holy wells had churches built next to them and the springs used for baptism. However, the present church is later and of special significance as one of the only six churches in England attributable to the Knights Templar. Henry II gave the lands and church of Garway to the Templars around 1165. King John confirmed all the lands of Llangarewi (Garway) to the Knights of the Temple of Solomon on 16th July 1199. The chancel and round nave were constructed around 1170. South of the chancel is an Early English Arcade of three arches forming the Templars’ chapel. It is dated to about 1210. It has been partially rebuilt by the Tudors, as evidenced by one of the buttress stones having a scratch dial the wrong way up. Between the nave and chancel is a Norman arch with striking zigzag patterns. Beside the arch are steps that once led to the rood-loft. A massive tower stands at an odd angle to the church and was connected to the church by a passage. Interestingly, the lower floor of the tower has always been known as “The Prison”. Beyond the church is a farm and in amongst its buildings is a Columbarium or dovecote. An inscription found there indicates Brother Richard built it, although it is believed to be older and it was rebuilt. The setting in the rolling hills is one of great peace and tranquility.