Saturday 4th March – Wombwell Ings – It is cold. A light frost has frozen rainwater pools beside the road. A bitter wind makes my cheeks ache. A Tree Sparrow is calling beside a nest box in Broomhill Park. Greenfinches wheeze from the tree tops. Up a footpath across the fields to Darfield. Goldcrests are squeaking in Leylandii. A narrow lane leads into Darfield. A house is called Quarry End which would indicate the steep cut bank was once quarried. Most the houses and bungalows are modern apart from one in a grim dark Gothic style erected 1852 – maybe the quarry owner’s abode? Up to the main road and then across the River Dearne and down across a recreation ground. A path leads up to Darfield churchyard on top of the hill. A Grey Squirrel shins up a Beech tree, which, of course, gets Dill the Dog excited! An old grave headstone displays some interesting capitalisation –
Did the man from Louth (as it is now spelled) die suddenly on his way across country and no-one could afford to return him to his native county? Barnsley’s history as a linen making centre is shown by a raised tomb – Henry Haxworth, late Linen Merchant of Barnsley – August 16th 1863 aged 69 years. Flat tombstones lay on raised dais under the church’s east window, once surrounded by railings removed for iron in World War Two. (One notices how virtually all the old railings have been removed. There are just stumps on my own front garden wall. Yet many railings survived in London! And many railings were never used for the war effort but they were not returned to their rightful owners.) The oldest headstone is of Thomas Broadhead of London, buried in 1711. A large grave stone by west entrance has a tale to tell –
Back down to the Ings. A small flock of Redwings and a Mistle Thrush feeds in a paddock. On the Ings are Redshank, Dunlin, a pair of Shelduck, Wigeon, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, seven Goosander, Teal, Lapwings, a motley collection of gulls and a tailless Magpie.
Sunday 5th March – Blackburn Meadows – Another frosty morning. A small but varied group of birds on the ponds – Gadwall, five Goosander, Ruddy Duck, Teal, calling Little Grebes, Tufted Duck, Coots, Mallard and Mute Swans. A pair of Rabbits chase in front of the wicker blind. The path, gloriously named “Deadman’s Hole Lane”, is crunchy underfoot with ice. There are another seven Gadwall on Holmes Farm Flash. Over the way, the great Templeborough Rolling Mills, once preparing steel day in day out, stand cold and silent. Pussy Willow is blossoming in the dense scrub on the sludge pits.
Into Rotherham and another of Yorkshire’s rare Bridge chapels (see Wakefield, 1 August 1999) Far less ornate than the Wakefield example, the Chapel of Our Lady on Rotherham Bridge was built in 1483. It is constructed of pleasing rose sandstone, but is, alas, locked. Shields are carved into three pillars at the end of the bridge – crowned cross keys and three harts, topped by a mitre, six crosses with a diagonal belt, topped by a crown on the second and two shields with three cannons and three harts separated by the serpent staff of Hermes.
Netherwood Park – Near the site of the now closed Darfield Main Colliery, the park rings with the songs and calls of Wrens, Robins, Blackbirds, Great and Blue Tits. Three Robins tussle furiously in a patch of woodland. A row of five Oaks all have huge scars down their trunks from lightening strikes. Nearby trees seem untouched. A brick and concrete bridge over the River Dove is typically Coal Board. Stones from an earlier bridge lay in the river. A Green Woodpecker calls. I refuse to let Dill the Dog onto the river, but eventually she finds a ditch to rush up and down. She emerges black with glutinous mud, so it is into the river after all. I would like to think she planned it but...
Monday 6th March – Westwood Country Park – A stiff breeze does not stop Skylarks from singing high above the meadows. Great Tits call insistently from Alder scrub. Numerous brown catkins hang from the Alders. Rooks float easily on the wind.
Sunday 12th March – Heckmondwike – The Upper Independent Chapel stands on the Dewsbury Road. It has a massive pediment on four great columns. Sadly the church is in a bad state of decay. The windows are covered by boards and the few that are not completely boarded are smashed. A wall of breeze blocks blocks the entrance. The graveyard is overgrown and fenced off, so we are unable to locate the grave of Herbert Knowles. Knowles was an orphan whose poetry as a young man impressed Robert Southey. Southey secured Knowles election to a Cambridge sizarship, but the young man died of tuberculosis before he could take his place. Next to the Congregational Church stands the Independent Day and Sabbath Schools, a brooding dark pile built in 1858, and still in use today.
Friday 17th March – Barnsley Canal – It is cool and cloudy but definitely spring. Brilliant green Elder leaves unfurl whilst Hawthorn buds remain tightly bound. Angry Wrens cross path and churr furiously. Above in the Hawthorn hedge are singing Robins and persistent Great Tits. A Moorhen splashes to deeper reed cover. Bullfinches slip silently away. Male Goosander looks superb on the river. Lapwings are displaying – peewit peewit. A Chiffchaff calls from Willowbank, the first of the year. On a sharp bend at the end of the loop, just before Smithies Lane a Kingfisher flashes by a pair of canoodling Mute Swans. A newborn foal is curled up in a paddock.
Saturday 18th March – Worsbrough Country Park – It is shortly after dawn and the air is full of bird song. Three feral ducks from Wigfield Farm are quacking anxiously at the approach of Dill the Dog, but she ignores them. Highland cattle, long-horned and shaggy red, lay chewing the cud. White blossom of Blackthorn delights the eye along hedgerows. Ramsons leaves – Wild Garlic – are thrusting up in large patches by the stream. This area is called a Willow Carr and is a rare habitat in South Yorkshire. The wet conditions cause willows to flourish – Crack Willow, White Willow and Osier. Trees mature at 30 to 40 years and are then usually downed by gales. New growth shoots up from the trunks, which then rot away leaving new trees. Mosses, grasses and flowering plants such as Stinging Nettle and Dog Rose also take advantage of the decaying wood as a mulch. Pink club-like heads of Butterbur are growing amongst the Ramsons leaves. A small group of Bullfinches moves along the Hawthorn hedge, pink breasts gaudy against the grey twigs. The reservoir is quiet apart from squabbling Canada Geese. Great Crested Grebes dive. Ruddy Duck sleep in a group and a few Black-headed Gull circle overhead. The willow carr continues on the South side of the reservoir. Many willows are being attacked by a bracket fungi. The greening of the earth beside the footpath continues with fresh leaves of Dog Mercury, one of umbrellifers of the carrot family, Bluebells, Valerian and one of the Hawkweeds. Robins and Song Thrushes sing, Wrens scold, Chaffinches pink, a Woodpecker distantly drums and Blue and Long-tailed Tits chatter incessantly through the trees. Back on the old railway, the bird song is Mistle Thrush, Yellowhammer and an occasional Chiffchaff. In a paddock by Wigfield Farm, lambs tease large white geese who look distinctly unimpressed.
Friday 24th March – Barnsley Canal – After a prolonged dry period, the rains returned yesterday. This morning Willowbank looks and smells clean and fresh. Four or five Chiffchaffs call from the tops of bare trees. Bullfinches slip unobtrusively through the still dark brambles. Willows are adorned with yellow fluffy buds. Hawthorns are spotted green with unfurling leaves. I am suddenly surprised as a Swallow wings down the canal – my earliest by a long way. Back on Smithies Lane, House Sparrows are chipping loudly from gutterings and telephone wires.
Sunday 26th March – Pagham Harbour, East Sussex – Truly spring weather of sunshine and showers. There as a heavy downpour of hail last night, causing Dill the Dog to bark ineffectually at the drumming on the window panes. This morning is bright and Robins are singing all around the car park. A Chiffchaff feeds silently in a Hawthorn. On Fiddler’s Pool Black-tailed Godwits probe the mud. An Avocet is swimming in the middle, its decurved beak sifting the water. A scurrying Redshank runs across the mud, pausing here and there to probe for invertebrates. On the pastures behind are a few Curlews and numerous Rabbits. A notice tells us that the rabbits are being trapped to reduce numbers. Maybe a better Fox population is needed!
Church Norton – A Sparrowhawk soars lazily in large circles high above in an aquamarine sky. A Blackcap is singing in a Blackthorn thicket. The Blackthorns along the edge of the harbour are not yet in blossom. They are one of the earliest to come into flower, indeed before the leaves appear. They are insect pollinated and often the cold March weather means that pollination does not occur, or is patchy at best. These late flowering bushes will have a better chance as more insects emerge and this may explain the fine crop we sampled last autumn. Out on the exposed mud, Black-tailed Godwits, Shelduck, Grey Plover, and Oystercatchers all feed. Rich blue Periwinkles are flowering by the church.