Friday 1st March – Dearne Valley Park – Having finally purchased a copy of the 1906 Ordnance Survey map of the area, it is slightly clearer how the land used to look in the valley. As mentioned previously (14th February 2002), the remains of the canal ends just beyond at Junction Lock. From the map, it swung in a loop, sharply south-west by the side of Oakwell Brewery. The old brewery buildings are still there, although in a bad state. The canal then swung even more sharply round, under the Pontefract Road at Beevor Hall Bridge and then behind the glass works (now a modern plant dealing in cullet – recycled glass), along behind Ash Row in Hoyle Mill and then north-east for a short way. Ash Row is odd because the back gardens of the houses back onto the Pontefract Road, whilst the fronts of the dwellings would once have faced the canal. The canal then swings eastwards alongside the Pontefract Road and then south and off the map. All trace of the canal has disappeared as the area is now covered by a steep slope of colliery waste from Barnsley Main up on the hill above Hoyle Mill.
Down the valley on the other side of the road ran the lines of the Barnsley Coal Railway Extension of the Grand Central Railway company. This crossed the River Dearne in what is now the park and only pillars remain as noted previously (2nd February 2002). The railway crossed the road just before the road crossed over the Dearne. The wall lining the road has clearly been rebuilt where the railway would have gone – still sandstone blocks but the quality of workmanship and wear is not as the original wall. Again, all trace of the railway has disappeared. Just before the point where the railway would have crossed the road, there is the base of a massive pillar. This carried the Cudworth and Barnsley line of the Midland Railway Company high across all of these features on a massive steel girder viaduct – something of a rarity in those days when most viaducts were still stone or brick built. Over the river and back down the other side of the valley, two drainage ditches run off of Cliffe Wood into the Dearne. A pair of stone gateposts stand forlornly in bracken, guarding nothing. A large Carrion Crow stands on the horizontal branch of a fallen sapling. The Dearne bends here, the outside of the bend has been occupies by a large Goat Willow which is building up soil around its base to form new land. The inside is a sandy high bank, collapsing slowly into the river. And so the route of the river slowly changes. Water bubbles over a weir. A pair of Mallard swim in the turbulent stream. Long-tailed, Great and Blue Tits are all busily searching for food in a large willow. On an area of mown grass, a Mistle Thrush probes. Over the river, Wood Pigeons and Black-headed Gulls do the same.
Sunday 3rd March – Darton – A short walk beside the River Dearne. Blue Tits are numerous and noisy. Goldfinches sing from the top of trees. In one tree, a small group of Redwings sit silently, facing north.
Monday 4th March – Edderthorpe – Just outside Shafton Two Gates on the Grimethorpe road, a pair of Red-legged Partridge stand atop a straw and dung heap. The area beyond this is being flattened. The collieries and coal preparation plants have been demolished, the railway torn up and virtually nothing of the massive presence of King Coal remains. The numbers of wildfowl have reduced on the flash, but there are still decent numbers. Wigeon feed in the grassy marsh, although they seem flighty. Several pairs of Shoveler swim across the water. Good numbers of Mallard are about with some movement overhead. At the far end, a few Pochard and rather more Tufted Duck dive. A Cormorant sits on a post sticking out of the water. Lapwings and Golden Plovers are in far smaller numbers than the winter highs. There are also small numbers of Gadwall and Teal present.
Thursday 7th March – Peel Centre – It is bleak up on the hill above the Dearne valley and canal. The area is depressing. Rubbish from the “retail estate”, i.e. three stores, has blown all over the area and rustles in the wind in the willow scrub. There was a glass works here originally, but nothing remains of this heritage.
Friday 8th March – Barnsley Canal – Bird song greets the visitor to Willowbank – Chaffinch, Song Thrush, Robin and Dunnock. The strong, repetitive phrases of the Song Thrush accompany me all the way down to the canal. At this time of year the trees, bushes and undergrowth are at their most bare, exposing the structure of the land beneath. The hillside has two large drifts of colliery spoil running down the, along with several large mounds of spoil. A large brick and concrete cap sits atop a mine shaft. Some large lumps of slag have been softened by erosion and moss. A Canada Goose is calling by the loop, which does not please the Mute Swans. Mistle Thrushes fly up the hill towards Redbrook. The pair of Mute Swans on the canal is still accompanied by their single cygnet. The lack of leaf also exposes Hawthorns and Roses at their most savage – long spikes on the former and large, vicious thorns on the latter. The rill running from the flash at the foot of the hill below Tinker’s Pond is running fast, despite the flash being almost dry.
Monday 11th March – Wombwell Ings – A bright day, sunshine and much reduced wind. It is hard to remember a time when there was so many gales, one after another. A Blue Tit is investigating a nest box attached to a telegraph pole. Over the river bank, gnats can be seen twinkling in the sunlight. Over on the Ings, there is still a large flock of Wigeon feeding on the grass. A few Lapwing stand in the water. Several pairs of Shoveler cruise whilst Teal stand on the island. A couple of male Goosander wing in. Hawthorn bushes have leaf buds on the point of opening, whilst Blackthorn flowers, which precede the leaves are also close to bloom. Up on the by-pass, the Blackthorn is already in flower. A male Yellowhammer is calling from a bush, not its full song, just a repeated cheep. There can be few birds more beautiful than a male Yellowhammer gleaming chrome yellow in the morning sun. Sky Larks chase over the meadow and sing high above a field of sprouting grain. A pair of Black-headed Gulls fly over, their new summer black caps contrasting against their snowy white under-plumage.
Tuesday 12th March – Barnsley Canal – Willowbank is full of song – Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Dunnocks, Robins, Wrens, Great Tits and Chaffinches. Just past the old shaft at least four Bullfinches are in the Hawthorns. There are more Song Thrushes by the footbridge, along with another beautiful male Bullfinch. It is very pleasing to see and hear so many Song Thrushes considering how the species’ population has crashed over recent years. Further along the canal a male Reed Bunting with his jaunty black face is feeding on the bank. A Great Tit feeds on Bulrush heads.
Home – The greenhouse is pretty much finished. It was not a particularly successful bit of do-it-yourself on my part – especially the quantity of replacement glass I needed because of breakages. Tomatoes have been planted out – heritage varieties, Mobil, Peremoga, Jersey Sunrise and Yellow Ball. Riesentruabe tomatoes have been potted on. I hope the paraffin heater will keep the greenhouse warm enough during the frosty nights that have returned.
Thursday 14th March – Barnsley Canal – An uncomfortable easterly wind blows across the valley. Few birds on Willowbank are bothering to sing, instead preferring to keep their heads down. Magpies, though, continue to chatter raucously. It is equally quiet along the canal. There are two major outflows from the canal towards its northern end. Some years ago one was a small break in the tow-path bank, now it is a six foot deep gorge through which water flows. Several railway sleepers form a footbridge. The water here must contain iron as the outflow and surrounding marsh is heavily stained orange. Further along a pump stands in the rough meadow below the tow-path. Here water bubbles out and the pump and ground have a white scaling. This is odd, because there is no limestone or chalk here – the usual cause of white residues. A flock of fifty or so Starlings heads north, breaking and rejoining in flight. The cygnet appears to have left its parents who are examining an area of reed bed beside the western edge of the slope below Tinkers Pond. It would not seem the safest of places to nest. Back near Willowbank and the weird cry of a Little Grebe comes from further up the canal.
Saturday 16th March – Blackburn Meadows – A cool and very damp morning. The previous day it had been almost continuously raining. Water pours over the lock gates. Nine Goosanders are on the first pool, five females. They are not happy with the arrival of a Cormorant which slowly circled lower and lower before alighting on the water. A pair of Mute Swans feed in the corner. A single male Ruddy Duck swims across the pool. Blackthorn blossom is everywhere, a delicate white tracery on dark, thin branches. Elder and Hawthorn leaves are bursting out – emerald and fresh. Two pairs of Tufted Duck and a single Gadwall are on the second pool.
Monday 18th March – Barnsley Canal – A Greenfinch wheezes his song as we head down the hillside. Down by the mine shaft I listen carefully for summer visitors, but the song is the usual selection of Blue and Great Tits, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Robin, Wren and Chaffinch. Past the mound of spoil and towards the canal, when suddenly, chiff chaff chiff chaff rings out. The first Chiffchaff of spring. Bullfinches are in pairs along the canal; they slip so silently away as I approach. A Green Woodpecker calls from across the valley. Beyond the footbridge there is another crossing of the canal. A path runs down from Greenfoot and across towards the spoil heap of North Gawber pit and Blacker Hill. Crossing this bridge, which is more an earth mound with railings, I notice a strange large stone under a Hawthorn. The stone is raised off the ground by two rods of iron which are bolted to uprights on one side and then emerge from the stone and curve down and into the ground on the other side. I then realise just beyond is a curve of stones in the ground. I must have seen these stones many times but only now realise they are there to give grip when lock gates are being swung open or closed. So clearly there had been a lock in the canal here, but nothing else of it remains.
Home – A second harbinger of Spring is here – frog spawn in the pond. The limited brightness of the morning departs as rain clouds move in and the day settles into steady rain. By late afternoon, as the light fades, the pond is alive with frogs. We count at least ten, but there are probably more. In the darkness of night, the frogs are all across the pond. There is even some, admittedly not very impressive, croaking.
Wednesday 20th March – Wombwell Ings – Grey clouds hang ominously in the sky. Two Canada Geese fly in from the Old Moor direction, honking loudly. They join a flock feeding on the rough pasture. A large branch has broken off an Ash on the edge of the park. It has crashed through a smaller tree beside the Ash, ripping off branches and twigs, before crushing into a hedge. The Blackthorn is late to blossom here, hardly any flowers are out. Interestingly, this is a very reliable site for Sloes, so it may be that by coming into blossom later, it stands a better chance of pollination by emerging insects. There are still a decent number of Wigeon by the Ings, some are getting very frisky. A Sky Lark sings high above the fields, as a pair of Goosander wings in, again from Old Moor direction. A dozen male Shoveler are on the Ings. A pair of Shelduck are upended in the water, feeding on the bottom. A pair of Greylags is with the Canada Geese, almost certainly they are semi-feral.
Thursday 21st March – Willowbank – Two Chiffchaffs are now calling on Willowbank. A fair number of Greenfinches are also singing across the area. Down on the canal, two pairs of Mallard fly up from the reed beds before the footbridge. Bright green shoots of Bulrush are rising above the water and the pale brown dead leaves of last year’s plants.
Home – Several more bundles of frog spawn have appeared in the pond. A number of frogs are now in the second pond. A female with a male riding piggy-back is crawling across the path. I pop them back into the pond. A Blue Tit face appears at the hole in one of the nest boxes.
Friday 22nd March – Barnsley Canal – Sometimes it seems little changes down the canal. The path is still a mass of mud, of course and the same birds seems to be singing as have been for weeks. However, things are moving on. A pair of Mute Swans on the loop are mating with many grunts and squeaks. Much further along, a crossing place is too deep to wade across. In the shallows are numerous masses of frog spawn looking like some gelatinous sponge. A Common Pheasant croaks from across the valley bottom. Leaves are about to emerge on the Silver Birches. Common Frogs can be heard croaking from the water, like a door creaking open. Two Chiffchaffs are calling from trees below Croft Farm. Back along the canal two Willow Tits call as the move along the Hawthorn hedge.
Sunday 24th March – Scout Dike Reservoir – There are only a few birds on the expanse of water in the valley. Half a dozen Tufted Duck and a couple of Mallard represent the ducks. More interestingly are noisy grebes. Two pairs of pinking. Bells can be heard tolling away over the fields in Penistone. Suddenly a pair of Sand Martin sweeps low over the lake – my first of the year. A jaunty male Pied Wagtail struts across the damp steps of the overflow channel.
Monday 25th March – Barnsley Canal, Old Mill – As soon as I head along the canal, I can hear Chiffchaffs. They are in trees either side of the water. Down and across the Dearne at the footbridge and there are Blue Tits, Great Tits and Robins singing everywhere. I drop down from the far side of the footbridge onto the old Great Central Railway, Barnsley Coal Railway Extension, or at least the bed upon which it ran. This leads up behind another large retail store, on the site of Old Mill Gas Works. The river along this railway used to wind further east and back but was straightened to accommodate the tracks. By now I have counted seven singing Chiffchaffs. All along the path sides, fresh leaves of woodland plants are emerging, Foxglove, Lesser Celandine (with flowers developing), Mugworts, Cow Parsley and more.
Wednesday 27th March – Willowbank – The bird song is intense, from the Greenfinch in a tall sapling beside Smithies Lane to the Chaffinch down by the footbridge, it is constant song. A pair of male Bullfinches are feeding on the buds of a Hawthorn.
Home – Flowers are appearing now with delightful regularity. I seldom know what they are, apart from the obvious – tulips and daffodils. I spend some time weeding the rows of garlic. In the greenhouse, beetroot and broad beans are sprouting. In the evening I search the sky for Comet 2002 C1 (Ikeya-Zhang) but I am not sure I have found it! Late in the evening, the cold upper layers of air have created a beautiful series of rings around the moon. Close the moon there is a broad band of pale light, then a thin band of yellow into orange. Next there is a broad band of green which again turns to a thin band of orange. Without the light pollution we suffer from these days, the sight must be magnificent.
Thursday 28th March – Brighton, East Sussex – Traffic is horrendous on the motorways south. In truth, it is the northbound travellers who are suffering the most. A one hundred car pile up on the M40 in Oxfordshire has caused chaos. During one slow stretch through Hertfordshire, a Brimstone butterfly dances along the roadside hedgerow. A quick stop on the Ditchling Road in Brighton to visit the Hollingbury Camp, a medium sized circular Iron Age fort. It was always called the Roman Camp in my youth, but was not used by the Romans. Lots of noisy Linnets flash across the gloriously yellow flowering Gorse. Chaffinches pink. A Peacock butterfly suns itself on a patch of chalky soil. The view across Brighton is magnificent from here, despite a heavy haze obscuring the sea. The value of this site to Iron Age man is clear; the forts at the Race Course, Caburn (probably twenty miles to the north east), Devils Dyke and beyond are all clearly in view. All the surrounding land is in clear view from the sea right up towards the Downs. On the bare areas where the gorse has been cut back, Lesser Celandine is in flower and stalks of Rosebay Willowherb are reaching skyward, Clumps of Dog Violets make a pretty display on the outer slope of the defensive ditch.
Saturday 30th March – Nunney, Somerset – It is a bright morning with a touch of frost. Peter, Jo and Jemima have a new dog – Jasper. He is a Wolfhound/German Shepherd cross. Although only 18 weeks old, he is bigger than Dill the Dog and if the size of his feet are any indication, he will be much, much bigger still. They could spend all day play fighting. Dill the Dog bares her teeth and growls continuously, but still allows Jasper to grab her throat and pull gently. Chaffinches are singing in tall Ashes in the field behind the cottage garden. A cock Pheasant struts across the turf, brilliant red-bronze with a bright white ring around his neck. The female is a pale affair creeping up the field’s edge. Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons are also feeding in the field. A large charm of Goldfinches flies up into the ash and twitter noisily. More Jackdaws chack overhead.
Wells – We head over to Wells for the morning. The “Book Barn” is an expensive visit as I manage to find £40 of books I “needed” to purchase. Next door is the “Wells Trading Post”, an extraordinary emporium of antiques through useful stuff to junk. The old tools are fascinating and I buy a brass blowlamp. But the real expense when Kay shows me a cast iron Victorian bird bath, with two little cast iron birds on a “bridge” across it – it is at once quite hideous and yet irresistible. So £75 later it is ours. The market in the city centre is wonderful, lots of organic foods and a good mixture of everything else.
Easter Sunday, 31st March – Nunney, Somerset – Rain has returned in time for the produce sale and Duck Race. We take the dogs up the road past the “big house”. Peter has three pregnant ewes in a field here. The long wall of the house running up the road is fossil filled limestone – lots of plant material, mainly bromeliads apparently. A few broken shells are also visible. Above the wall on the bank behind, Lesser Periwinkles are in flower, a delicate blue. Chiffchaffs and Great Tits are calling. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flies overhead. Just before noon we set off for the Duck Race. We purchase a duck each and wait by the bridge. A woman is explaining how the Duck Race works to her male companion. There is a pause of apparent incomprehension then “Oh, plastic ducks...” As little is happening, we go down to the finish line where the produce sale is taking place. Kay buys a selection of plants for the garden. We head back up through the village and sit on a wall just beside where the Nunney Brook tumbles over a small stone barrier. Then the Duck Race is off – i.e. the man tips all the bright yellow plastic ducks into the water. They come down stream reasonably quickly and tumble over the stones beside us. Quite a few get stuck here, but the majority continue on to the finish line. The man and his helpers have a wooden barrier across the stream and hand nets to scoop out the winner. The numbers are called out rapidly as the first group hit the barrier. There is then a while whilst the numbers are looked up and the winners announced. Not surprisingly, ours are not there.