Thursday – Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton – A house and gardens on the western edge of the city of Wolverhampton. From the outside, the house looks like a large old house, maybe Jacobean or even Tudor in period, but was actually built in 1887. The Domesday Book records land held at Wisteuuic in the King’s manor of Tettenhall Regis. A small estate developed, owned by a family who took their name from the place, now called Wightwick. The family became prosperous and produced a succession of prominent churchmen and scholars including Rev Richard Wightwick, founder of Pembroke College, Oxford in 1624. The old manor house was built in the early 17th century based on the mediaeval house. The property was sold to the Hinkes family in 1815. Theodore Mander of the varnish, paint and inks company, Mander Brothers, bought the estate, including 100 acres, in 1887. Theodore Mander had married a Canadian, Flora St Clair Paint in 1879. They built their new house next to the old manor house. Mander was a Liberal who became mayor of Wolverhampton. He was influenced by John Ruskin and took a keen interest in modern arts, so when decorating the house, the Mander used the catalogue of William Morris and Company. Thus the house is a glorious show piece of Morris’ wall fabric, arts and crafts design and pre-Raphaelite art. Much of the art was purchased by Theodore and Flora’s son Geoffrey’s second wife Rosalie who bought Pre-Raphaelite pieces, which were unpopular until relatively recently, for a song.
Theodore died in 1900 at the early age of 47 following an operation (which took place on the kitchen table) for a liver abscess. Flora died just 5 years later, also at the age of 47. The house was designed by Edward Ould in the “Old English” style of half-timbering, tile-hanging, stone and brick and was extended in 1893. Ould was building Port Sunlight for Lord Leverhulme at the time. It was built with electric lights and central heating, very advanced for that time. The house was the first to be accepted under the National Trust’s Country House Scheme wherein the previous owners continue to have use of the building. It is said that the Trust were not keen on acquiring the house as Victorian architecture was held in low regard at that time. Renovations have now taken place starting at the end of the 1980s which enabled more of the house to be opened to visitors. The sheer extent of the items on display at Wightwick Manor cannot be taken in on a single visit – indeed we did not look at the gardens at all. They were designed by T.H. Mawson but the plans were never fully implemented. Currently the Trust gardeners are restoring Mawson’s design whilst trying to maintain the changes made by Geoffrey Mander. The original Manor house has been restored and is now used as a shop and restaurant. Currently there is a small but exquisite display of William Morris and Company wares curated by Sandersons. Arthur Sanderson and Company were commissioned to wallpapers for William Morris in 1930 and bought the pattern books and printing blocks from the receiver when Morris went into liquidation in 1940. Sanderson continue to produce Morris’s designs by traditional block printing methods.
Friday – The Malvern Hills – It is cool but dry as I start up the track that leads from a car park below North Hill Quarry. The crags of the quarry tower above. The track rises steadily through mainly young trees which have been thinned recently. One shrub is bursting into leaf. The woods block all views but the noise of a busy town can be heard rising from far below. A gap appears in the woods and Great Malvern is laid out towards Worcestershire across the Severn and Avon Vales to the Cotswolds. However, the views are all hazy with mist. Rocks beside the path are dotted with the circular leaves of Pennywort. A path turns back on the main track and rises more quickly. It zigzags up the side of North Hill eventually joining “Lady Howard de Walden Drive” Lady Howard de Walden was an eccentric woman who lived in an impressive house in West Malvern, now St James and the Abbey School, and paid for a carriageway to be built between West Malvern and St Ann’s Well in the 1890s. I drop down from the track northwards and climb up the gentle slope to End Hill, the northernmost tip of the hills. Far below is Old Hollow, a lane that runs through the village of West Malvern. The path crosses a low dyke as one approaches End Hill, I can find no reference to it anywhere. Backtrack and up Table Hill, down to the path and up North Hill. Must climb to each summit – I do not know why, just have to do it! The long slope back down from this summit allows a decent kick of the ball which sends Maddy hurtling some 70 yards down the grass slope.
Crows are calling off the edge of the hills and a single Meadow Pipit flies over, calling. There is another dyke at the base of North Hill. There are more people here on the hills than I would see all day in the North Herefordshire/South Shropshire Hills. The next summit is Sugarloaf Hill and then the highest climb is up to Worcestershire Beacon. As the top is approached all the grass and gorse is painted white with ice. A toposcope stands on a marble base erected for Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897. The inscription also declares this is the highest point of the Malvern Hills at 1395 feet. The north wind is bitterly cold up here. Down Worcestershire Beacon and onto Summer Hill. Another dyke runs along by the path. It is called Shire Ditch and runs along much of the top of the ridge of the hills. Also called “The Red Earl’s Dyke”, it was constructed in 1287 by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester in a boundary dispute with Thomas de Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford. Recent examination of the dyke has suggested it may be a far older prehistoric trackway between British Camp and Worcester Beacon. From here I take the track past a herd of shaggy cows and fat sheep and head down the Green Valley. This leads to St Ann’s Well. The well was supposed to have been discovered in 1086 by Aldwyn of Malvern and named in the mid 18th century after a chapel in Malvern Priory. Another story says that it is named after the hill above, Tan Hill named supposedly after Tanfana, the Belgic God of Fire. A building was constructed in 1813 to house the spring which now bubbles out into a rather grotesque Sicilian marble spout and basin which was installed in 1892, gift of Lady Foley. The water was formally bottled by the now defunct company of Burrows until the 1950s. Further down the hill, tree roots are exposed as they pierce through the rocky soil. Back into the town and along the road back towards North Hill quarry. A mile stone with a cast iron face stands on the inner edge of the pavement telling me it is only 8 miles to Worcester Cross. Up the hill a set of stocks sits on a green protected by a sturdy iron fence. The sun is now shining brightly.
Sunday – Leominster – The first daffodil has opened its sunshine coloured trumpet in the garden, a herald of spring. It is a difficult time of year in the garden. Bright sunshine and emerging leaves make the sap flow and says “let’s get going”. Then a hard frost overnight reminds us that winter may be officially over but it can still reach out and nip before it is finally driven off. This means the apricot needs a fleece wrapping overnight to protect the fresh young buds and shoots. Hellebores are in flower as are some Winter Aconites. The snowdrops are nearly finished but the crocuses are still providing a bright display. Finally, some broad beans are emerging in the pots in the greenhouse. The autumn sown bed produced not a single shoot. The garlic planted a couple of weeks ago to fill in the gaps in the autumn sown cloves has already caught up with the earlier sowing. Peas in a guttering in the greenhouse are about sprout. The sowings of peppers in the bathroom has not been so successful, it seems that none of the saved seed was viable, but there is still time to get some fresh seed. The Sunday morning market has reopened on Easters Meadows, or Brightwell’s car park as it is now known! I stagger back with a rucksack full of fruit and beetroot. Another gallon of cider is bottled – it is a lovely batch! Kay is very impressed with it, which is worrying, having to share my cider! Whatever next! Unfortunately, it seems the chickens are not encouraged by the spring weather – we are down to one egg a day. Drastic action seems to be edging closer.
Monday – Mortimer Forest – A cloudless blue sky and bright sun but the chill of a sharp overnight frost has yet to lift. Jays and Common Buzzards call from the woods. Tits squeak high in Larches. A Raven flies through the trees looking huge. Green shoots and leaves are emerging by the track; identification is not always easy but I think there is Dog Mercury, Ground Elder and White Dead Nettle. Maddy is in the pool. She seems to have taken to the idea of going for a swim. Yellow Flag leaves are just emerging from the water margins, some can be seen still several inches below the surface. A murder of Crows sit at the top of the hill, each on top of its own tree. They call to one another as if debating their next move. The surrounding woods ring with the calls of Great Tits. Up a steep track through the Deer Park. It is deeply gouged by tyre tracks and churned by horses but cuts out quite a large bend in the path. It is busy by the track that leads up to High Vinnalls. Redpolls, a beautiful red-breasted male Crossbill, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blue Tits and singing Chaffinches all within a few yards. Up towards the summit a Skylark sings then is mobbed by several others. A Carrion Crow bobs on a tree top. A large branch has been ripped off a Spruce. I can only assume it was recent winds although it seems odd that a relatively young tree should have suffered such damage. The views are limited, the hills are obscured by mist. Down Climbing Jack Common where Skylarks continue to rise filling the air with sweet song. Mary Knoll Valley looks peaceful, nothing seems to stir.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – Grey clouds glide across the sky. It rained overnight. Canada Geese can be heard long before being seen. A flock is in front of the hide but soon take off noisily. They disappear but do not go far, there is little diminution of the noise level. A couple of Cormorants sit on the pontoon, another is in the trees. A pair of Tufted Duck drift off to the island leaving just a pair of Mallard on the shingle bank. Opening the hide window awakens them and they swim off. The only other waterfowl in sight are a few Coot, so it seems the wintering ducks have all departed. Once there is some cover between the listener and the lake many other songs can be heard rather than the overwhelming cacophony of the Canada Geese – Dunnocks, Greenfinch, Blue Tit, Goldfinch, Chaffinches, Song Thrush, Great Tit and a drumming Woodpecker. Hawthorns have swelling buds and a few have burst into bright green leafs. A military helicopter roars low overhead resulting in an explosion of Wood Pigeons from Westfield Wood.
Friday – Croft – In the early morning the sun rose into a blue sky but now clouds are forming and the sun is intermittent. A Mistle Thrush, Blackbirds, Great and Blue Tits, Nuthatches and a drumming Woodpecker all fill the air with their greetings, declaring “I am here”. Ransoms are emerging in their thousands by the track. Several Nuthatches, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Great Tit are all creeping their way up tree trunks like mice. As the path approaches the edge of Leinthall Common the cloud thickens and it gets darker. The bird song dies away leaving near silence punctuated with brief chirps, cheeps and caws. A small pond is surrounded by dead trees, all emerald with thick coatings of moss. On the edge of the hill, trees that fell and uprooted at least three years ago have branches full of leaf buds about to burst. A breeze across Croft Ambrey creates a chill and it starts to rain.
Monday – Ryelands – Blue skies and a brilliant sun follow a clear and frosty dawn. There is still a fallen tree across the path along the ridge. Another dead tree in the paddock is not going to remain upright much longer, the base is rotted right through. Beside the paddock is an old quarry now blended into the landscape. Jackdaws chack in branches above. A woodpecker drums. Blue Tits chatter. A Song Thrush’s liquid and repeating notes come from across the hillside. A Green Woodpecker yaffles. Out of the hedge-lined path onto the open ridge. Eastwards the field has been ploughed. Westwards the slope is grass. Skylarks sing overhead. The line of scarp slopes with their headlands, Burton Hill, Merbach Hill then Hay Bluff proceeds westward. Down past Cock Croft House and across Passa Lane. A notice tells that there are paths, public and permissive, to allow walkers to reach Ivington and back to Leominster without travelling on the roads. The fields down near the River Arrow are being managed as flood meadows to attract breeding birds such as Curlew, although I am yet to see or hear one here. A foot path leads back to the Hereford Road at Broadward Hall. Broadward Hall Farm is a registered organic farm supplying a local box scheme. Back toward the town and along the empty roads into the Enterprise Park Industrial Estate. Many plots have yet to be sold and many of the units that have been built are empty. This seems unlikely to change in the present financial climate.
Home – Spring advances with possibly the most iconic symbol, a butterfly. Yesterday a Brimstone flew through, today a Small Tortoiseshell suns itself on a primula. The broad beans that were sown in pots in the greenhouse are now large enough to be planted out. Some lettuces have been transplanted into the outdoor bed, under a cloche. A couple of rows of parsnip seed are sown under the same cloche.
Tuesday – Cleobury Mortimer – We have passed through this Shropshire town several times and not stopped, so today we decide to visit. The name is possibly Old English, clifu meaning a cliff. However, the derivation may well be the same as Clee, the nearby hills, which as discussed before may come from “a ball-shaped massif” from the Old English cliewen meaning a loom weight, which were often ball-shaped. The Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names is undecided. A plaque in the town suggests that clai comes from clay, although this is unlikely to be the derivation of the Clee name as the hills are anything but clay! The Mortimer part of the name is much clearer. The manor belonged to Queen Edith pre-Conquest but was given to Roger de Mortimer by William. It was fortified with a castle built by Ralph Mortimer which was destroyed by Henry II in 1155. The manor passed to the Blounts and then to the Lacon-Childe family. We enter the High Street beside The Talbot, a 16th century coaching inn. The High Street has a pleasant mixture of buildings and a decent selection of shops, but is a very busy road badly affected by heavy lorries. A little way along the street is the Market Hall housing the now closed Tourist Information Office. A plaque on the wall commemorates “The Volunteers of the Cleobury Mortimer Company” who served in the Boar War, 1900-02. Next door is the church of St Mary. It dates from 1160 and is a typical late Norman church that was ruined by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1874-5 when the three-decker pulpit, box pews, west gallery (containing the organ) and the wall plaster were all destroyed. There is supposed to be a stone coffin by the north aisle, but I can find no trace. There are some mediaeval tiles around the Victorian font. The church’s crowning glory is a twisted spire caused by dry-rot and warping in the oak timbers. A plaque in the porch relates that William Langland (1332-1400), writer of “The Dreams of Piers Ploughman”, was supposed to have been born in Cleobury Mortimer. Behind the church, gravestones have been used as steps and a footbridge to the north door. Nearly opposite the church is the old well, a pool fed by a spring which rather unfortunately comes from the graveyard. A pumphouse was built in 1900 to filter the water. The source was found to have excessive nitrates in 1979 and water was then taken from the Elan Valley pipeline and subsequently from the River Severn at Trimpley. Up the road a particularly fine town house has been used as a nursing home but now looks abandoned. Outside the Talbot stands the base of a “Weeping Cross” erected to commemorate the passing of the body of Price Arthur, brother of Henry VII, in 1502. Nearby is a pink marble water fountain.
Neen Sollars – This splendidly named village lays a few miles south of Cleobury Mortimer. The name comes from “Neen” the former name of the River Rea which flows by the village. Formally, the village was known as Neen Baldwin from the Baldwin Le Poer who received from Osbern Fitz Hugh. Around 1200, two of Baldwin’s daughters, Elena and Eustacia Baldwin both married into the De Solers family and the village became Neen Sollars. The third daughter of Baldwin, Petronella married a de Freyne. In Saxon times the manor was in the hundred of Condetret and was held by Siward the Saxon, who held large estates in Shropshire, some of them under the Bishop of Worcester. The Domesday records “The same Osbern holds Nene, and Siward holds it of him. The same Siward held it, and was a free man. The manor was never hidaged, nor ever paid geld. There is arable land for five ox-teams. In demesne is one team, and ten serfs,and a mill paying a bushel of corn. In King Edward’s time the manor was worth 40s. per annum. Now it is worth 18s.” The fact the manor had not paid Danegeld indicates it was probably church land. There was a Herald’s Visitation in 1623 which gave the pedigree of Coningsby of Neen Sollars. The Old Smithy stands on the junction of the Cleobury Mortimer road and the Tenbury road. It was formally a Toll House but it appears locals managed to avoid the junction and hence, the tolls and it closed. Tall tapered chimneys rise above a roof coloured bright green by lichen. Opposite a meadow with a few apple trees rises up the hill. Two fat sheep graze within. The road to Neens Hill passes Neen Court, a Victorian house built in black brick with yellow decoration. On down the hill there is the embankment of the railway. Trees are being felled on the side of the embankment. The railway was built on the bed of a canal which was built in 1790 as part of the grand project to join Stourport with Leominster and Kington. It closed in 1858, the railway opened in 1864 and closed a century later. The station buildings are now a private residence. Just beyond is the river, which joins the Teme at Newnham Bridge. Back up the road is the church of All Saints. It is from the 14th century and likely stands on a Saxon church of which nothing remains. The first rector was Thomas de Linggeyn in 1278. There is a lovely painted chancel, both walls and roof. There is a very old bell in the belfrey, dating from around 1350. A second is dated 1560 and a third 1649. In the south transept is a magnificent monument to Humphrey Coningsby. Sir William Coningsby had been knighted on the field of Crecy in 1346. Sir William had married Beatrice, daughter of Ingelram de Frene of Neen Sollar. Several generations later, Humphrey was known as a great traveller. The monument has an extraordinary inscription:
Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – Rooks, Crows and Magpies are all seen carrying nesting material on the way to Bodenham. By the car park a Robin sings and a Great Spotted Woodpecker drums. A pair of Wigeon are on the main area of lake along with Coot, Mute Swans, a pair of Tufted Duck and the ever-present Canada Geese. The latter are mainly in pairs but still keep up a cacophonous noise. Maddy goes into the water and starts collecting sticks and, weirdly a feather which she deposits on the bank. I need to be careful as at the moment there is little problem with her swimming here, but in the summer there is usually a build-up of blue-green algae, poisonous to dogs, and I do not want her swimming then! Pussy Willows are yellow with blossom. There are a pair of Canada Geese on the shingle bank in front of the hide and the noise level rises as another pair approach. However the new pair take the hint and move off, but then the original pair make even more noise and take off across the water and away. A drake Gadwall is with some Wigeon in the distance. A pair of Cormorants are on the pontoon and another in the trees, this one showing the white patch below the wings indicating a breeding bird. With the Canada Geese gone from the shingle, a Pied Wagtail starts strutting around seeking food. Back along the hedgerow by the paddock, several Dunnock are singing. Blackthorn is coming into flower, white buds about to burst. A large Bumble Bee burrows into the leaf mould under the hedge.
Friday – Bringewood Chase – Burrington - Off along the track at Hazel Coppice. Robins, Chaffinches, tits and Carrion Crows fill the air with springtime calls. The Silurian siltstones of the Lower Bringewood Beds are exposed by the track. It looks like the stone has suffered the ravages of winter frosts becoming broken and friable. Trees are coming into leaf and several escaped Ornamental Blackcurrants are in flower. Not all trees are showing signs of a new season, some Silver Birches remain skeletons and an Oak sapling remains covered with the brown, crinkled leaves of yesteryear. Above Monstay farm a hollow way runs down the hill. It continues up through Bringewood and according to the 1890 map, swung round and headed up the hillside towards the present day triangulation point above Wheelers Vallet. I take the track down to Burrington. This is an old road – the current Forestry track ran from Gorsty “by the entrance to Hazel Coppice” to Bringewood Cottage “now demolished” and on to Hunstay Cottage, which I think has also gone. The road I take runs down to Burrington Common. A pair of Mistle Thrushes rasp as they fly over. The windmill stands motionless on the hillside near Leinthall Starks. It is motionless for a reason even better than no wind – it is a mock mill, a mill built as a residential building never intended to operate as a windmill. A good numbers of the fences are woven Hazel with stems from ancient stools that have been coppiced. The track drops steadily between fields. Numerous Common Pheasants run across the fields. Past New House where all the barns and outhouses are undergoing renovation. Further down are more exposed banks of limestone, rather more nodular than higher up, as these are Wenlock Limestone beds. Primroses are blossoming on a sheltered bank. A large raft of frog-spawn floats on a pond. After a short length of road which levels out it begins to drop again. White and palest purple Violets grow on a rocky bank. The road bends and Burrington lies below. Large patches of traditionally coloured Violets now adorn the banks. A large Bumble Bee visits one. Henbit Dead-Nettle is also in flower. The village seems small, a farm, a few large houses and a few cottages near the church. However, at one time it had enough of a population to support a school, now a private residence and a church. The farm house is a long building, of several different styles, now split into cottages. Nearby a Victorian post box is in a wall. The church of St George is largely Victorian. It was in poor repair and the landlord, Sir Andrew Broughton Knight of Downton Castle and parishioners brought in George Frederick Bodley “1827-1907”, a renown architect who had built the nearby vicarage in 1862, to restore the building in 1874. A local gentleman tells me that in the event they fell out. The involvement of Bodley is also doubted by Pevsner who notes that Pountney Smith rebuilt the chancel in 1855 and the nave looks to be by the same hand. Outside are a row of iron headstones, once inside the church, now laid at the east end.
Details of the headstone
1. to Robert Steward, died 1619
2. to Joyce Walker, died 1658 with scalloped rim
3. to Maria Hare, died 1674, with moulded rim
4. to Jane and Barbara Knight, died 1701 and 1705, with moulded rim
5. to Ralph Knight, died 1754, with broad ornate border
6. to Jane Hare, died 1678, with moulded rim
7. to Richard Knight, died 1745, with broad ornate border; similar to 5
8. to William Walker, died 1676, with moulded rim
All slabs, apart from 2, have coats-of-arms reliefs
They were made at Downton forge, a major ironworking centre in the district, by the “owner” of headstone number 7, Richard Knight. Apparently, the forge was very unpopular with the locals because of the noise the water-driven trip-hammers made. The gentleman tells me that in dry weather, the remains of charcoal pits can be seen on nearby hills. Unfortunately, the churchwarden is interviewing architects in the church and has left her dogs in the porch. Leaving Maddy with them is not an option so I do not get to see the interior. Of course, having dropped down so far from Bringewood, I now have to climb back up again. The road passes a couple of old quarries, one quite large one just up from the village. Last year’s Carline Thistle sits by the road looking like it had flowered only a short time ago. Nearing Bringewood a Common Buzzard flies out across the valley. Wood Pigeons coo in the wood around a pond below. It is cloudy but there are enough breaks to allow the sun to shine. It is warm enough for Maddy to seek shade when we pause but not too warm to play ball.
Saturday – Home – The blacksmith arrived today with our new pergola. The old rose arch collapsed last year under the weight of the huge rambling rose that had completely covered it. It was a standard garden centre model made of thin tubular metal. The new one is green painted steel and looks like it will withstand pretty much anything. Of course, in these days of rampant inflation (relative to interest rates that is, we are not yet back to the old days of 15%!) the price is 20% more than the quote but we still think it is good value. We need another rose now for the other side. Parsnips have been sown; they are very slow to germinate so I am not expecting anything to happen soon. A row of lettuce has been planted out between the two rows of parsnip seed but something has already munched the ones by the entrance of the cloche. Broad beans and peas have germinated well in the greenhouse and been transplanted into the bed. Trenches have been dug for potatoes, but I will wait at least another week before planting. There is a large pile of soil near the compost bins that came from the hole made for the pond. One of the bins was emptied this week so some of the fresh compost went onto the pile of soil. It will make a good spot for a couple of squash plants. The moon is huge just above the horizon when I take Maddy out for her evening walk. It is a “Super Perigee Moon”, which means it is at the closest to the earth of its elliptical orbit. It happens every 21 years – rarer than a Blue Moon!
Sunday – Leominster – It is trying to rain. There is a terrific noise coming from the direction of the Millennium Park. It turns out to be a Colas rail tamping machine on the railway. A large yellow engine with a mechanism halfway down its body that first lifts the track to align it then tools are sent into the ballast either side of the lifted sleeper and the ballast tamped down under the sleeper to provide a secure bed. The unit moves just a few inches from sleeper to sleeper, creeping down the track. Driving one of them cannot be the most exciting job going, although these days it seems that any job is worth having! A new path is being laid along Pinsley Meads beside the old Priory hospital. It is nice not to have to slide across the slick mud that is created every winter. I head off to the market. Sadly a black cat has not been lucky and lies dead beside the road. At the market I go to my usual vegetable stall. He has a couple of cabbages for a quid. He asks me what variety I want, I respond it does not matter, they are for the chickens. So he gives me four smaller ones for the pound, and then picks up half a box of Romaine lettuce and asks “Any good?”. Certainly are and the chickens will have a week of greens now. The other day Kay told me about a plaque in the ground in Corn Square and today I have a good look at it. As she said, it covers an 18th century stone-lined well that used to provide water for the square. Odd we never noticed it before, she comments. Later in the morning, as the sun shines and warms the air, one of the Heralds of Spring, the Chiffchaff, sings in the garden.
Monday – Weobley – Cloud covers the sky. The sun is hidden but the luminous edges of clouds indicates its position. Across the field beyond the castle mounds. A rookery in Chestnut Covert, a small wood to the east of the field, is noisy. A Chiffchaff calls from the opposite direction. Overhead a Wood Pigeon claps its wings with a crack. The path continues across Garnstone park. An ancient pollarded Oak stands in the field. In the distance at the edge of Chestnut Covert, probably part of the garden of the old East Lodge, is a fruit tree, cherry maybe, covered in blossom. A woodpecker drums up ahead. A melanistic pheasant crosses the field. The path turns westwards. To the south is a fine house in the woods but it is abandoned and turning into a ruin. The path passes another large house with a walled garden and turns south-east across a field of sprouting grain. The next field is grass but has the look of somewhere landscaped. The ruined house is at the bottom of an avenue of Oaks which lead back up to a sown field. On the other side are three Wellingtonias aligned with the avenue. Back down the slope, to the east of the house, is a lake. Beyond is a wood called Sallybed. The layout of any road by the Wellingtonias is unclear. However, a later look at the 1890 map shows a road running east-west with a off-set crossroads at the site of the Wellingtonias. The field above was a deer park. The house appears to be all that is left of Garnstone Castle, designed by John Nash for Samuel Peploe in 1807 and demolished in 1958. The previous house here was the seat of the Birch family, whose members included Colonel John Birch of the Parliamentary Army in the Civil War. He took Hereford from the Cavaliers in 1545.
A track runs up into the wood, called Winsland. A Raven calls from the top of one of the Wellingtonias sounding like someone striking a steel pipe. The track enters a conifer plantation. The air is full of the high pitched squeaking of Goldcrests. Pheasants croak from the undergrowth. A spur off the track climbs steeply to the top of the ridge, Burton Hill. There are numerous patches of mud lower down on the path and most patches contain hoof prints from deer. A track runs along the top of the hill to a triangulation point. Ahead a very pale backed pheasant runs through the trees. The path descends the hill steeply past several old quarries. Good numbers of Chiffchaffs are calling. At the bottom of the hill is a covered reservoir, around which is a pretty display of daffodils. The 1950s map shows the area below the reservoir was a rifle range. A sunken track leads down to a small lane past a lovely but abandoned cottage on Shoals Bank. Just beyond is another cottage with extensions various styles added over the years with a stone apple crusher outside. I take the road back to Weobley. There are a number of delightful houses along the route. Many are the typical local black-and-white half-timbered houses, including an impressive large farm house at Fenhampton. At Fernhill is a lovely brick built house with black brick decoration. Across the field towards the hills is Fields End farm and yet another empty and boarded up house! A track heads back to the fields south of the castle and past a small coppice called The Folly.
Tuesday – Upper Wye Valley – We head down to the bridge across the River Wye at Bridge Sollars and then on down to Madley. I visited this village before and gave some background, but on that occasion I was unable to visit the magnificent church of The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary however today it is open. Some reckon this to be the finest church building in Herefordshire and it is very fine indeed. The first church here would have been a wooden meeting house probably first built in the 6th century. The first stone church was Norman and built sometime between 1050 to 1100 CE. A small window and arch above the main door is from this first stone building. Two pillars inside have joints running down them which was probably the chancel arch of the old church which was cross-shaped. Around 1200CE the church was rebuilt using the original one and much extending it. Madley became a pilgrim destination; it is believed there was a statue of the Virgin here which had special powers. The money brought by pilgrims allowed the expansion of the building. The chancel was rebuilt in about 1320 with a polygonal apse, rare in England, mainly known from Lichfield and Wells Cathedrals. Shortly after, the Norman windows were replaced with much larger ones in the Decorated fashion. The tower was also built at this time. High on the chancel arch there are the faint remains of wall paintings. The Norman font is huge, made from limestone (breccia or cornstone) from the Golden Valley. To the south of the nave is the Chilston Chapel, built around 1330. The name Chilston comes from “Child Stone” which was situated a short distance to the west of Madley and is supposed mark the actual birth place of St Dubricius. At the west end of the chapel is an Elizabethan tomb-chest made by John Gildon. The effigies are of Richard Willison and his wife and quite badly damaged. The sides of the chest are beautifully carved with their coat of arms at the foot and portraits of the couple on the side. At the east end is the Lulham Pew, a private enclosed pew from the 17th century. In the chancel, the choir has misericords with simple carvings under them. A number are defaced with graffiti, some dated 1812 and 1797. There are several windows containing a jumble of 13th and 14th century glass, saved after being smashed by Parliamentarians in the Civil War. By the door is a framed display commemorating the filming of “Songs of Praise” in the church in October 1964. Outside is the preaching cross which although badly eroded still has its Crucifixus. There is a turret on the tower once known as “Jacob’s Chair”. An ornate headstone in the graveyard, in memory of James Phillips, who died at the age of 54 in 1846 has the admonishment on it - “Remember Death”!
Tyberton – The next village we visit is Tyberton. There was a mediaeval church here. The manor belonged to the Brydges family who lived at Tyberton Court, which stood in a park with a lake either side of the road. The house was demolished in 1952. By the early 18th century the church of St Mary was ruinous, so William Brydges had a new church built in 1719 from red brick. The house had been built by John Wood the Elder, but in 1719 he was only 15 years old so the architect of the church is unknown. The church stands opposite a large farm. Dogs are being walked across the field opposite and as Maddy decides to voice her objections to being left in the car, a terrier runs to fence to respond. We quickly retreat from the considerable row. The church is quite plain outside, the windows were ruined in 1879 when, for some unfathomable reason changed to lancets . The door is the original late Norman structure but inside the church is a wonderfully Georgian. The apse, which is the design of Wood, has a half dome in dark blue with white lines and an oak reredos carved in high relief showing Emblems of the Passion, Agnus Dei, St Peter’s cock crowing, the triangle of the Trinity encircled by the Serpent of Eternity and other religious symbols that were very unusual for the times of George I. His arms hang above the chancel arch. There is a lovely lectern; a kneeling angel holding the top for the bible. The font was designed by Steven Reeves of Gloucester, carved in oolitic limestone but painted to resemble grey marble. In the nave are box-pews with seats of red cloth. Coats of arms are carved over the windows and chancel arch. There are six hatchments, coats of arms on canvas, held by the church but they are in the vestry and not on display.
Moccas – A small village still further up the Upper Wye Valley. The name is derived from the Welsh Mochros meaning moch, swine and rhos, a moor or marsh. A long drive running through parkland arrives at Moccas Court. At Domesday, the manor was owned by St Guthlac’s Priory and by Ansfrid from “Nigel the physician”, who was the King’s Doctor. Hugh de Fresne received licence to fortify a manor here in 1294. There is a small motte and bailey on the estate but no stone castle has been traced, so it was likely just a wooden fort. The de Fresne family lived at Bredwardine so the castle fell into disrepair and passed to the Vaughans. Walter Vaughan built a property here in 1550. In 1650 Edward Cornewall, younger son of the Berrington branch of an ancient family of Plantaganet descent, married Frances, widow of Henry Vaughan. There is a story that Edward was caught poaching deer in Moccas park but Frances was so taken with him that she pardoned and married him. Velters Cornewall, who died in 1768, was MP for Hereford for 46 years, was famous for successfully opposing a tax on cider and perry! In 1771 Sir George Amyand, a successful London banker of Huguenot descent, married the sole heiress, Catherine Cornewall. Together they commissioned Gloucestershire-based architect Anthony Keck to build a house here which he did using plans drawn up by Adams. In 1778, Capability Brown landscaped the park, which was further enhanced in 1798 by Humphrey Repton. Throughout, the little church of St Michael and All Angels has stood, a simple Norman church only marginally affected by George Gilbert-Scott Jr. The church is on a small hillock, possibly it was an island in the pig marsh, as its name suggests. There was an early church here. The Llandraff Charters mentions an abbot, Comereg, of “Mochros” in charters dating from around 620CE. In 625, Athrwys, King of Gwent, grants seven churches to Bishop Comeregius, suggesting Moccas had a bishop. However, Moccas’ importance seemed to dwindle and by the Conquest it was just a small church. The dedication to St Michael has early origins as the cult of St Michael, which began on the continent as far back as 490, was popular around the Welsh border with 67 places in Wales called “Llanfihangel” (Church of St Michael) and 84 ancient dedication to St Michael the Archangel in this area. The current church dates from around the late 11th century or early 12th. There are two Norman doorways, the south having a later porch built over it. Both have pillars with carved capitals. Until fairly recent times there were carved typana over the doors but these have now been effaced. Inside are two Norman arches, one between the nave and chancel and the other, the chancel and apse. There is a tomb chest of a 14th century knight in the middle of the chancel, unfortunately rather over-cleaned. It is thought the knight belonged to the de Fresne family, who were responsible for the stained glass. A Green Man is carved on the ceiling panels over the apse.
Wednesday – Queenswood Country Park – A lovely spring day and we need some supplies for the hens so we call in at the country park first. Leaves are emerging everywhere. Some trees are in flower, indeed some cherries are in full blossom. It is very hazy over the countryside below Dinmore Hill. A vast area looks like a great lake but is sadly just miles of polytunnels. They may provide jobs, although they are seasonal, but I cannot accept the need for fruit to be available out of season justifies the ugliness of these farms.
Thursday – Croft – The sun shines in a blue, cloudless sky with enough of a breeze to keep it cool. After the problems of the harsh early winter, we now are facing the driest March in recent years. To be worried about water levels in the butts in early spring seems ludicrous. Birds are in full song these mornings although it is not a full chorus at Croft this late in the morning. Celandines and Anemones are in flower providing nectar to bees and flies. The wooded hillside which just a week ago was still leaf-litter brown has been painted bright green by Dog Mercury and Ransoms. Further along tiny yellow splashes appear in the green as Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage, tiny yellow flowers on green leaves, grow in profusion. The view from Croft Ambrey is limited as the hills are hidden in a hazy mist. Wigmore sits under its castle, quiet and still. The quarry over the valley is much noisier. I sit on an Ash bough that has bent over to the ground. A Common Buzzard circles slowly above, quartering the ground. Maddy seems off-colour and sluggish, although she still chases her ball avidly. I think she may have an upset stomach, so she will be fed carefully for the next couple of days and if she does not improve it will be another expensive vet visit.
Friday – Downton-On-The-Rock – Set out from Burrington and head up the Leintwardine road. The sun is burning off the mist that shrouds the hills. Several Yellowhammers were on the roadside hedgerows on the way here from Pipe Ashton. Lower House is a lovely pale yellow half-timbered building with an ancient stone chimney extended in brick and a large slab bridging the brook that runs down the side of the road. Chiffchaffs are calling from the trees. The stream widens temporarily with a small island in the middle on which is a duck house but no ducks, just a fallen plastic heron. Burrington Bridge crosses the River Teme into which the stream flows. The river is flowing quietly over a clean gravel bed towards Ludlow. The lane is narrow and between hedges on high banks that are green with the leaves of Dog Mercury, Wild Arum, Stinging Nettle, Dock and Dandelion. Hawthorn and Ash are the main constituents of the hedge and there are patches of Ivy covered in purple-black berries. I take the turning to Downton. Maddy seems better today and is happily trotting along the lanes with her ball. We have been passed by just one car so far. A Raven flies over, a massive black bill and wedged tail. An ancient Oak towers out of the hedgerow. The road rises slightly as it passes between Tatteridge and Hunstay hills. High on the former hill are some small metal buildings. They are inspection entrances to the Elan Valley pipeline. The road drops again and passes an old quarry. A Yew is clinging precariously to the lip of the rock face. The rises again to Downton-on-the-Rock. I continue on through the village and pass The Pools, a large red-brick farmhouse. There is possibly the narrowest door I have ever seen in the wall of the farm, just three planks in width, around 12 inches. A little further up the road is the long drive to Downton Castle.
A short way down the drive is the church of St Giles, built in 1861-62 by Samuel Pountney Smith and paid for by Andrew Rouse Broughton Knight of Downton Castle. The church is in the Early English style, made of local sandstone with dressings of Grinshill and Bath stones and a tiled roof. A wooden porch covers the main door. Inside there is an impressive timber vault over the nave and chancel. A stone pulpit and reading desk is a two-decker arrangement typical of Pountney Smith. In the chancel is an elaborate stone reredos. All-in-all a pleasant church (considering it is Victorian!) Outside the graveyard looks down to the Teme although this is deep in Downton Gorge and not visible. One grave records the passing of William Pugh who died at the young age of only 52 in 1901. His wife Sarah passed away aged 77 in 1943. It seems strange how they made their life together (despite the obvious age difference) yet she lived on through the upheavals of the first half of the 20th century, seeing extraordinary changes, all alone. Enough pondering and I head back to Downton. Here is a large farm and several cottages. Behind Glebe Cottage is the old 12th century church. This church, also dedicated to St Giles, had fallen into disrepair by the mid-19th century, hence the decision to build a new one rather than repair this one. The nave is roofless and only one major window remains, in the Early Gothic style. A gravestone is built into the corner of the chancel dated 1673. It is hard to decipher but it seems to be dedicated to Dorothy, the late wife of Sam Hopkins. A gravestone of 1869 leans against the back of the church – it must have been the last burial here. A chest tomb is a fenced grave can be just read, another Pugh, this one dying in 1854, but also at the early age of 51! Most other headstones are all far too eroded to read, although one seems to be dated 1763. To the west is a tump with an Oak growing out of it. On it stood a 12th century stone tower and there is evidence (apparently) of a bailey around it.
Back along the road I am surprised to see an unusual pheasant cross the road. It has a white and black head and an extraordinarily long tail. A later check shows it to be a Reeve’s Pheasant, Syrmaticus reevesii, a native of China which is endangered in its natural habitat. More odd bird calls come from the garden opposite, where there is an aviary of budgerigars and love-birds. A native species, the Nuthatch is calling loudly from trees in the background. Down to the quarry site again and then over a fence and down to the River Teme. A notice informs that this is the National Nature Reserve of Downton Gorge – and there is no public access! I walk down the path to the base of the towering cliffs of white limestone. The river passes under the large Downton Bridge, which carries the Elan Valley pipeline. The geology of the gorge is complex. It is currently thought that in pre-Devensian eras, the Teme drained southwards through the Aymestrey gap. A major stream ran south-west down Nunfield Gutter to the east of present day Burrington. Another stream drained the area around Downton and ran north-east on the present course of the Teme. In the Devensian the Aymestrey gap became blocked with glaciation and Wigmore Lake was formed. The streams in the Downton Gorge were steadily eroding the ridge and flowing south west into the lake. Eventually, the erosion broke through to the last stream still flowing north-east and afforded a breach that the lake could empty through. The whole drainage of the Downton area then flowed out on its present course. At least, I think that is how it is suggested the various phases occurred! This happened in relatively recent times, the Devensian era ending around 10,000 years ago. I take the road back towards Burrington Bridge. There are a number of old banks where the river has eroded then moved over the centuries. Above, more than a dozen Sand Martins are preening on electric wires.
Saturday – Home – There was ice on the car window this morning, a warning that it may be spring but winter’s long fingers can still reach out and nip. Yet we press on in the garden. I weed the garlic and onions. Then plant out the potatoes. As usual, what must have seemed obvious labelling of the trays being chitted in the summerhouse just a few weeks ago makes no sense at all now. So I have to guess which potatoes are which – not that it really matters, but I would have preferred to be sure the first and second earlies are separate. A dozen modules are sown with cucumber and put in the bathroom. The tomatoes are growing rapidly on the window ledge there. Chillies and sweet peppers are slower but progressing well. The only remaining chilli plant from last year is sprouting. I will nip out the top soon to try and get it to bush out. In the greenhouse beetroot are sprouting in modules, although not yet as many have germinated as I would have hoped. Red and summer cabbages have germinated well. Lettuces in the greenhouse bed are progressing fast and should have a crop in six weeks or so. The new fruit trees all have swelling buds on their stems. I have finally attached wires to the posts which will form the frame for the espalier perry pears. Yesterday a Great Tit had got itself horribly tangled in the fruit cage netting. It looked near dead with shock when I eventually untangled it and sadly it did not recover. Tonight the clocks go forward as British Summertime returns.
There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!
When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.
But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.
I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.
The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.
To be a Prodigal’s Favourite - then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner - behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!
Monday – Mortimer Forest – The sun is burning off the mist after another cold night. The dawn chorus has subsided but song and sound continues. A Green Woodpecker yaffles, a Chiffchaff chiffs and chaffs, Jays scream horsely and tits squeak. The calls change as I head round to the track above cottage. A Common Buzzard mews high above and the Jays and woodpecker are left behind. But the songs of Song Thrushes and Chiffchaff continue, different birds as I move from one territory to another. A pair of Mallard are on the second of the ponds beside the Deer Park. Coltsfoot are coming into flower. They will have blossomed long before their large leaves, used as a tobacco substitute and for making cough sweets, appear. A pair of Yellowhammers fly up from the edge of the track. A Great Tit bobs through an Elder that is coming into leaf. And still more Chiffchaffs call, one either side of the track. Wood Sorrel is growing in the grass beside a path that cuts up the hillside between the bends in the track. On round the far side of High Vinnalls. The two valleys of Brush Wood and Aston Copse are misty. Strangely, the Chiffchaff song has stopped. Here a Great Tit calls and there is the occasional burst of Chaffinch. A female Sparrowhawk glides around the hillside then rises high above Monstay Rough. The path to Peeler pond is ankle-twisting dry clay, churned by horses. Wood Pigeons coo incessantly. Off down the Mary Knoll Valley. Goldcrests come down to drink at a small pool. Some trees in the woods are wrapped with what appears to be huge barcodes – symbolic of woods for sale? It transpires this is a good guess. The barcodes are an artwork by Philippa Lawrence. Lesser Celandines are flowering on the damper ground near a pond. The heart-shaped leaves have a dark central vein and twelve petalled yellow flowers are emerging. Maddy has already been in the Deer Park pond, the little pool near Peeler pond and is now in the pond near Sunnydingle Cottage. Just beyond the cottage the ground is covered by Dog Mercury and Ramsons. I gather some of the latter for dinner tonight.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – It is cool, grey and slightly breezy. The now inevitable Chiffchaff is calling from the trees. School pupils and their teacher are launching an inflatable boat. Round to the hide. There are still reports of otters in the log – or are they mink? Six Barnacle Geese, in three pairs, are on the shingle banks in front of the hide. They are calling at one another with a strange high-pitched yelping. Of course, the overwhelming sound is coming from the Canada Geese. Two Cormorants are in the island trees. It starts to rain. A Coot flies nearly half the length of the lake to harass another. Back to the orchard. Some of the trees have leaves emerging, others are still the grey-brown skeletons of winter. I heard my first Blackcap of the year in the Millennium Park yesterday, another is singing in the hedgerow here. The school pupils now have three dinghies have their masts raised and sails are being rigged prior to launching. I take the path towards the church. A long spit of land runs out into the lake. Around the fenced off end of the spit are several clumps of Glistening Ink Caps fungi Coprinus micaceus. On round to the church and then over the river. The bridge is a modern steel footbridge standing on large stanchions of an older bridge. The Herefordshire Council Monument Details document states: “Several parish footways meet at this place, probably to cross the Lugg to the church. The earliest mention of a bridge was in 1722, at which time it was called Byfield Bridge, after the nearby field. It probably replaced a ford crossing, and was originally built of wood in rustic style and sufficently high enough not to cause navigational problems on the river. The wooden bridge was replaced by a metal one before World War I and another in 1972. Both these metal structures had a turnstile at one end”. There are indeed a number of footpaths indicated by a sign-post on the far side. I head straight off across the field to Ashgrove Wood, which rises up a hill, probably an historic bank of the meandering River Lugg. Round the edge of the field to one of the other footpaths which heads south, crossing several deep ditches which empty into the river. By the time I reach field beyond which stands the Vern I am saturated. The Vern is a mid-16th century house. The manor is recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, referred to as Ferne and in the possession of William Fitznorman de la Mare, son of Norman de la Mare. The clan de la Mare is one of the oldest in Normandy and is descended from Ragnvald Eysteinsson, earl of Møre and Romsdal. Fitz Norman was an extensive landowner whose holdings included Kilpeck and was born in the Forest of Dean in 1048. I can see a fine walled garden across the field but decide to leave closer inspection to a drier day. Back across the fields. The green grass is dotted with clumps of Lesser Celandines.