Thursday – Leominster – A sharp frost has settled on the roofs giving them a pale sheen. The ground is still soft though. It is much lighter in the mornings now. Freight trains roar past a few minutes apart, one in either direction. The first is heading south with a mixture of box wagons and low-loaders. The second has all the same wagons attached. I understand most of the freight is products going to and from the steelworks at Port Talbot. The display of snowdrops under the trees edging the churchyard remains vibrant. Soon daffodils will replace them. The Minster bell tolls for 6:30.
Bromyard – We pay a swift visit to this town some 8 miles to the east of Leominster. As we leave home we drive into thick mist that lays down the Lugg valley. By the time we reach Steens Bridge it has cleared and it is a sunny day. Into the high street in Bromyard past old Almshouses, converted into apartments in 1962. The high street seems to be doing better than many in these straitened times. A pub has closed and is up for rent. A bakers and a country produce store have both closed, but another bakers seems to be busy and the butchers and greengrocers are full of fare. An excellent little hardware shop sells potatoes and onion sets by the pound (OK kilo actually). I do not need any potatoes but a good number of my autumn sown onion sets have failed to survive the winter so a small bag will be useful to fill in the spaces, rather than paying out for a pre-filled bag of far too many. The Dr Who museum – a weird thing to find in a small Herefordshire market town – is closed. We call into the weekly country market where we get a small gift for a friend’s birthday.
Home – It is now quite warm in the garden. I sow the onion sets and weed the patch. The lawnmower is then tested out. There are a few tufts of grass that need a trim. It actually starts relatively easily and chugs off but is rather smoky and smelly. I have thought about replacing it, servicing costs more than it cost new! However, it is probably greener to try and keep it going for a few more years. The new bird seed has proved very popular with a constant stream of Blackbirds, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Robins, House Sparrows, Blue and Great Tits, a Dunnock and less welcome, Collared Doves and Wood Pigeons.
Friday – Mortimer Forest – After a damp, cold and misty start, the day is slowly brightening. Blue Tits chatter, Chaffinches sing and woodpeckers drum. A Blackbird calls its alarm nearby. Jays are screeching alarmingly deep in the forest. It seems that this thick woodland would not be understood as a “forest” by the Saxons or Normans. Then a forest was a hunting reserve and dense woodland was no good for men and horses. Gilbert White states that the Wolmer Forest near Selbourne had no trees at all, it was heathland. Certainly, here there were plenty of trees but the woodland would have been far more open. Up over the Iron Age enclosure and down through Sunny Dingle wood. Robins and Great Tits sing. A Common Buzzard surveys a large patch of new growth hillside from atop one of the conifer poles left after the last felling. The hazy sun is strong enough to cast a shadow and has warmed things enough to make me remove a layer of clothing. Up the horse-hoof churned path to High Vinnalls. Yellow Siskin with jaunty black toupees sing and search for food at the top of an Alder. A Wren sings on the open ground. A Greenfinch wheezes some way off. It is mid-morning and the sun has failed to burn off the mist. Bringewood and the far side of Mary Knoll valley are hazy, beyond is lost in grey. A breeze blows here on the top of High Vinnalls. Down from High Vinnalls and round to the Deer Park. Large scale logging operations are under way in the vale that rises from below Hanway Common and rises to the west of Haye Park House to Climbing Jack Common. Freshly stripped trunks are piled along the track. I head off down the path through the Deer Park. The drone of machinery is accompanied every few minutes by a rending crack as another tree comes down on the hillside. The water level in the pond is still very low.
Sunday – Leominster – Rain has fallen steadily overnight. Maddy and I take our usual morning walk around the Grange and Millennium Park. Daffodils have opened in the graveyard. Despite the grey, overcast sky, it is quite light. After breakfast we head down to the first boot sale of the year. The rain is heavier now. Maddy still wants to play with her ball but is disappointed as I have not brought it. The market is restricted to a large shed which has a sign stating that dogs are not allowed inside. I tell her to sit outside whilst I check out the few stalls within. Of course, as I venture further inside she wanders in to see where I have gone. A security person reckons she just wants to get out of the rain.
Ludlow – The slopes of Titterstone Clee are white with snow. The summit is hidden in cloud. The market in Ludlow is supposed to be an antique market but apart from a few stalls selling silver, books and a few decent bits of glassware much of the merchandise is little better than the boot sale. The rain eventually stops and it grows colder.
Monday – Craven Arms – A cool north-westerly breeze blows across the meadows beside the River Onny. A Song Thrush sings and a passing Carrion Crow emits a strangled croak. The bright sun is dimmed now and again by passing clouds. Woods on Nortoncamp Hill are dark, concealing the hillfort. Across the busy A49 and up the lane past the old Stokesay School, now a private dwelling, the church of St John the Baptist and round the back of Stokesay Castle. A large pond, once a mill pond, lies between the lane and the railway line. An abandoned piece of farm machinery provides a perch for a Pied Wagtail whilst a tree gives shelter to a pair of Canada Geese. A freight train rumbles past and I cross the line, past Stokesay Crossing Cottage and across fields of sheep and lambs. The sheep have black and white faces whilst their lambs have legs splashed with black and white. A pair of Common Buzzards circle overhead.
Into Stoke Wood, a mixture of evergreens, Ash and Silver Birch, none of any great age. Tits squeak. Areas have been cleared, the part known as Holly Park and here a few Hazels are festooned with lime green catkins. Dense thickets of Silver Birch saplings form a silver-purple mist of new branches. Ravens cronk and Common Buzzards mew. A Sparrowhawk flies over rapidly twisting its body this way and that. The track through the wood reaches a cottage at Clapping Wicket. The waymarked path starts to cross open fields with lots of stiles. I am not sure where it is heading as I brought the wrong map with me and there is the problem of Maddy and her refusal to jump stiles. So its back the way we came. Returning across the sheep fields gives a wonderful view. The castle and pond lie down the bottom of the hill then the land rises to Flounder’s Folly. Around to the north are the Shropshire Hills, the great whale back of the Long Mynd and the conical Caer Caradoc.
Into the graveyard under the castle walls. The monuments tell such tales. The Williams of Craven Arms – Gwenllean was only 50 when she died and was interred at Peterchurch; Henry died 14 years later in March 1917 was buried here; one son, Arthur was killed in action in France a few months later, another son, Pryse died in hospital in France the following year. Henry (the junior) died in 1942 (I think, the 4 is indistinct) in Canada and Thomas in 1959 in New South Wales. One supposes Henry and Thomas, having survived the Great War, had nothing to keep them here so departed for new lives in the Dominions. Another stone relates that Audrey Owen lived from 1901 to 1980 but lost her twin daughters, just two days old, in 1940. On the wall of the church is a stone in memory of Alice and Henry Baunch who had “livd together in matrimony 60 years and 2 months” when Alice died in January 1662. What they had lived through – the death of Elizabeth I, the crowning of the first of the Stuarts, the Gunpowder Plot, Civil War, the execution of a king, the Commonwealth and the Restoration. Back on the Onny Meadows, Blackthorn is flowering.
Tuesday – Queenswood Country Park – A beautiful sunny morning after a quite severe overnight frost. Blackbirds chase and quarrel, Blue Tits chatter, Great Tits repeat their endlless two note song and Robins sing expansively. A few trees have swollen buds but most are still dormant. The view from the lookout is slightly hazy. The sun shines blindingly off a huge expanse of plastic, which rather spoils the view. Nuthatches call to one another whilst stabbing at the bark on branches. Above them in the tree tops, Long-tailed Tits dash hither and thither in search for morsals. Round on the east side, Cherry Kursar, Prunus kursar, is in radiant blossom and another, Cherry Accolade, is not far behind. “Kursar”, a Japanese Flowering Cherry, was bred by a famous cherry breeder, Captain Collingwood Ingram, who gave it the name because he thought to be a hybrid between Prunus nipponica var. kurilensis and P. sargentii. Hence “kur-sar”. But Ingram discovered that it had P. campanulata origins, not P. sargentii, however the name stayed. A mature Ash has been felled. I cannot see any rot or other reason for its demise, but I suppose there must have been a good reason. The rings indicate it was some 60 years old. A nearby specimen of similar size has a notice which states it is a coppice regrowth from 1928.
Wednesday –Bodenham Lake –A night of rain means a damp start to the day. It is milder than of late. A thin cloud of midges dances over the track. The usual sounds greet – tits, Robins, a drumming woodpecker, croaking Pheasant, all backed by cackling Canada Geese and a droning tractor. A Green Woodpecker flies with its undulating motion along the Alders between the meadow and lake. The swarms of midges or are they gnats, are in thick columns here. It starts to rain heavily as I reach the hide. Four Teal dabble in the shallows of the scrape. A Moorhen struts on oversized green legs and feet. A few Tufted Duck and Mallard are scattered around the water in pairs. A lone Cormorant fishes. The regular trio of Mute Swans are on the far side.
Thursday – Tenbury Wells – We pay a brief visit to this Worcestershire town close to the borders of Shropshire and Herefordshire. The bridge over the River Teme is closed to traffic as it is strengthened. The cynical think this is so it can carry lots of Tesco lorries for a new store that is threatened beside the river. Most shops have anti-Tesco posters in their windows. We window shop for a while then pay visit to the church of St Mary’s. The church has been restored frequently over the centuries because of flooding. The tower is Norman and may have stood separately from the main body at one time. The nave has three 14th century window jambs and arches, all that survived a flood of 1770. Inside there is a fine alabaster tomb of Thomas and Mary Acton. Thomas died in 1546 and Mary in 1564. Two sons who died in infancy are commemorated by skulls on the tomb. Their daughter, Joyce, married Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote at the age of 12! Sir Thomas is reputed to have prosecuted William Shakespeare for deer stealing. By the high altar is an Easter Sepulchre. It dates from the 14th century and was used to hold bread and wine from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. The practice went out of use at the Reformation. Within the Easter Sepulchre is laid a small figure of a cross-legged knight. The knight holds a heart in his hands and may be Hugh de Say who died in the wars in Wales in the late 12th century. Holding his heart may mean that only his heart was returned home for burial, although this was not a common practice at that time. A 9th century preaching cross is in a display cabinet with several pieces of masonry nearby. Back on the High Street we buy a nice piece of Hake from a fishmongers – a rare type of shop these days.
Friday –Radnor Forest –Into Wales and into the rain. I was hoping the hills would be clearer than last month, but if anything the cloud is lower. Sheep baa continuously in the fields below and on the opposite hillside. A Common Buzzard glides out of the trees and off across the valley. Chaffinches sing and Blue Tits chatter despite the blustery wind and rain. Into Warren Woods where Ravens grunt from the tree tops. Right opposite the waterfall path, over Black Brook and up into the woods. The path turns back on itself and continues upwards. The rain ceases. Uprooted firs lay scattered over the way. A mark on a tree looks very like a woodpecker from a distance but its lack of movement rules that out, but on approaching it turns out to be a wooden, painted cut-out of a Great Spotted Woodpecker! A little further on a wooden cut-out badger is at the base of a tree. However, I am not where I want to be, the problem of following signs and not the map! A scramble through dense brambles gets me to a track running up beside the woods and below Fron Hill. A Song Thrush and Great Tit sing in the woods. The track emerges onto pasture high above Black Brook. Sheep watch us warily. A large thrush, Mistle Thrush or Fieldfare balances on a wind-blown Hawthorn. Several Chaffinches feed on the ground. Further on a large flock of 50 or more Chaffinches feed on the grassland.
Visibility is falling fast and the wind is getting stronger. The suggestion of a Fieldfare earlier seems correct as several are calling, then a flock of about 50 and probably over 100 Redwings rises and flies off across the hills. Through a gate and onto moorland of dead Bracken and sedges. Molehills are full of stones, it must be a hard life for a mole up here. An old, disused track climbs across the hillside. Ravens appear and disappear in the mist, croaking a variety of calls. A Meadow Pipit squeaks. High on the side of Davy Morgan’s Dingle. The path dives down into a dingle and then hauls up and around a hill. Across the end of Davy Morgan’s Dingle and onto open moorland below Great Rhos, which means Great Moor and rises up to 660 metres although none of it can be seen today. A few patches of mud and a bicycle wheel track is the only clue that a track runs back from here into Warren Wood. Into the Forestry Commission plantations. Cloud drifts through the conifers like steam. Dropping down the hill and Robins and Great Tits are singing. The noise of the wind is pervasive. Chewed pine cones litter the track side. The track swings round above the spring that is a pond beneath Nyth-grug and past Lluestau’r Haul, across to the fields above Warren House. Rows of enormous molehills follow the line of the path. Back in Warren Wood the trees are full of chattering Siskins. Heading home and a Red Kite is flying over New Radnor.
Monday – Croft – It is grey and overcast. Bird song rings out. Glistening Ink Cap fungi, Coprinus micaceus grow in clumps under a bench on the ride down to Fish Pool Valley. Down in the valley, Scarlet Elf Cups, Sarcoscypha coccinea shine in a dank ditch. Dog Mercury is covering the banks and a little further on, tiny Ransoms leaves have burst out of the soil. A few clumps of yellow Primroses are a delight as is the drift of daffodils by the rustic shelter. Arrow shaped Wild Arum leaves abound but no hooded sheaths of flowers yet. Golden Saxifrage is everywhere, little yellow jewels set in green. A Great Tit sings four sets of double notes, then pauses. Another replies with three sets and the performance is repeated over and over. Mist hangs in the trees as the path climbs past Lyngham Vallet. A woodpecker drums. Along the forestry track where I find two amorphous masses of frog spawn in a water-filled tyre rut. It is recommended that one does not transfer spawn from one place to another as it can spread disease, however we have probably only one frog is our garden (and that was introduced by me as I found it over the road) and little chance of another getting in soon because of the surrounding high walls, so I think it is a risk worth taking, especially as this rut will evaporate quickly if the dry weather continues. Croft Ambrey is cloud-bound. Down to the Spanish Chestnut field where a Song Thrush sings sweetly. Into the castle field. Black and white cows have tan to grey coloured calves, just a few days old.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – Another damp, grey morning with a bit of a chill too. White violets are flowering beside the track. Canada Geese cackle and the cockerel on the hillside crows. Robins sing and Blue Tits chatter. Two female Goldeneye are diving on the lake – slightly surprising as most winter ducks have left. A few Teal swim along the edge of the island. One of the Canada Geese has no white on its breast, a grey-brown neck, extensive white on its cheeks and a white stripe above its bill. It also seems slightly larger than others nearby. Many of the geese head off south. Now there are four female Goldeneye clustered around a male. Two other drakes are in other parts of the lake. Some apple trees in the orchard have buds about to open, others barely any sign of rebirth at all.
Thursday – Raglan – The village of Raglan sits beside the A40 between Monmouth and Abergavenny. The name probably derives from the Welsh, rhag meaning “fore” and glan “bank”, hence “rampart”. To the north of the modern road stands Raglan Castle, a fine 15th century building, ruined but in magnificent condition. The site was probably occupied earlier. After the Conquest, the land was in the possession of Willian Fitz Osbern who built a number of castles in the Marches. Given the strategic value of the site at Raglan, it is very likely a wooden motte and bailey was erected here, very possibly on the site of the 15th century keep. By 1172 the lands had been granted to Walter Bloet by the Lord of Chepstow, Earl Richard de Clare, called “Strongbow”. Again, there is some written evidence that a manor house was built here. In the late 14th century, the male line of the Bloets died out and Sir John Bloet’s daughter Elizabeth married Sir James Berkeley who was confirmed as Lord of Raglan in 1399. Sir James died in 1406 and Elizabeth married William ap Thomas. They are believed to have lived in the Bloet manor house until her death in 1420. In 1426 William ap Thomas was knighted by Henry VI and was known as y machog glas o Went, the Blue Knight of Gwent. He then married Gwladus, daughter of Davy Gam and widow of Sir Roger Vaughan of Bredwardine.
In 1432 he bought the manor of Raglan, which had remained in the Berkeley family for 1000 marks and started the castle. Sir William died in 1445 and his son, also William but took the surname Herbert, inherited. Herbert threw his lot in with Edward, Earl of March, the Yorkist who beat Jasper Tudor at Mortimer’s Cross and became King Edward IV. Herbert was made Baron Herbert of Raglan and in 1468, Earl of Pembroke. In ten years, William Herbert had risen from being a Welsh country squire into a powerful member of the English peerage, the first to do so. He set about making Raglan castle one of the finest residences in the country. However, in 1469, Earl William and his brother were captured by the Lancastrians under Warwick the Kingmaker after being defeated at the battle of Edgecote Moor and summarily executed in Northampton. His son was only 14 years old at the time and William’s death ended the great influence of the Herberts. Indeed, his son was required to surrender the title of Earl of Pembroke in exchange for the Earl of Huntingdon so the king could bestow the title on his son, the Prince of Wales. The castle came into the hands of the Somerset’s, the Earls of Worcester through the marriage of Elizabeth Herbert to Charles Somerset. It was under William Somerset, Third Earl of Worcester that the castle had its final major building phase. Raglan was at its peak now, but like all things the end came when Henry, the Fifth Earl of Worcester, declared for Charles I. After a siege, terms were negotiated and the castle surrendered. The Parliamentarians slighted the castle and it fell into disuse. Today, the great towers, although ruined, still stand majestically. The whole is built in a fine, pale grey, almost yellowish sandstone from Redbrook on the River Wye, some 3 miles away. The Tudors also used Old Red Sandstone. The Great Gatehouse would have presented a formidable challenge to any attacker. To the left, the main tower, probably the first erected by William ap Thomas, stands high above a deep water-filled moat. It is approached over a bridge, which was once was a draw-bridge. A long spiral stairway takes one to the top. The view of the surrounding battlements is stunning, the view beyond is, today, of misty hidden hills. Although the roofs of buildings have gone, it is easier to see the magnificence of the halls and apartments than in many castles. Fine courtyards within, one had a fountain in the mid-16th century lead to domestic buildings – the kitchens, buttery and pantry. Coats of arms, badly eroded look down from the high walls.
We leave the castle and head into the village. It is a splendid little place with everything one could need – butchers, chemists, Post Office, general store, pubs, a chippy and a rather posh clothing shop – £85 for a pair of trousers? We sample a pork pie and then head off to the church. St Cadoc’s is a 14th century building with additions dating from the 15th century. It suffered much damage during the Civil War and was partly restored by 1698. In the 1860’s further restoration and enlargement took place and much of the current interior dates from this time. Both the nave and chancel have a barrel roof and stained glass dating from the Victorian restoration. The Beaufort Chapel houses a Sweetland organ which was fully restored in the 1980’s. In the corner of the Beaufort Chapel are the badly damaged tombs of members of the Somerset family. Two effigies are believed to be the Fourth Earl of Worcester and his wife. Outside is the base of an early 15th century preaching cross with a modern shaft and cross.
Friday – Hereford – Down to the old Wye Bridge. The bell of Hereford Cathedral tolls nine. A gatehouse stood here until 1782. A gable end declares “Langford” and possibly “Maker of”, then it is lost, but apparently they were “Gold Medal Award” with a date of 1897. (I later discover the Langford family from Wellington owned the Pomona Cider works at Holmer, the Stocks House farm at Wellington and Tupsley Court. Head of the family was EW Langford who was mayor of Hereford. I also learn from Ann Roberts that the missing words are “Sparkling Cider”.) Under the riverside walk are old broken and boarded-up windows probably attached to the cellars of The Saracens Head pub. Off eastwards along the River Wye. Along between Bishop’s Fields and the river. A wooden statue of a Bulldog commemorates the incident when the bulldog, Dan belonging to Dr George Robertson Sinclair was being walked by the owner and Sir Edward Elgar. The dog fell in the river and was recalled by Elgar in No. 11 of his Enigma Variations. Over the Victoria Bridge, a splendid little suspension footbridge over to Castle Green. Now along the north bank. Lesser Black-backed Gulls stand in the shallows and a female Goosander glides by. The path shortly passes Bartonsham Farm, a major milk supplier to the county. It seems odd to find such a rural industry so close to a city centre. A large refrigeration pump roars as we pass. Maddy, of course is only interested in her ball! Now have to leave the river as the path ceases after the next bend. Up. A pasture and pass a large, spreading Oak from which comes the drumming of a woodpecker. A Civil War defensive earthwork runs down from the road to the farm. Past the somewhat malodorous sewage works to meet the river again as it travels a large meander. A house has a summerhouse on a platform some 8 feet high. The road heads back towards the city centre until it can pass under the railway, then heads out on Eign Road.
Over Eign Brook, just wet mud, then a detour up behind the Salmon Inn. Round the block, in the middle is Scots Hole but there is no access as housing surrounds it. Scots Hole is a depression in the hillside where Colonel Birch, the Parliamentarian commander in December 1645 hid some of his troops as he took Hereford. Nearby is Mouse Castle which Alfred Watkins considered to be a marker for an ancient trackway. A house on the hill back down has a large wooden carving in the garden of a tree trunk with owls. Back down to the Gloucester road where an old mile marker declares this to be Hampton Bishop parish. Plas Gwyn, home to Sir Edward Elgar from 1904 to 1911 stands tall and white. The houses on this road are large Victorian villas and mansions; home to the well-to-do burghers of late Victorian Hereford. Hampton Grange is a huge mock Tudor edifice built in 1898. It is now a nursing home. A red pillar box has the crest of VR, it has stood there taking letters for well over 100 years. This area is Hampton Park, and Old Eign Hill. The housing becomes much more modern with the occasional older dwelling such as several cottages on Gorsty (probably meaning a place of gorse) Lane.
A path leads back to the river through Leyman’s Fields. A large barge, the Wye Invader, is moored, although sadly it is out of the water. A flood defence called The Stank runs parallel with the river some 100 yards back. Stank appears to be an old name for a dam. The field beyond is called Franchise Stone, according to the map, but it seems that Franchise Stone is a tiny hamlet on the site of an old stone that marks the border of the city. A Mute Swan sleeps on an island in the river. A female Goosander floats nearby. A little further on a pair of Goosander fly upriver, the first male of the day. A Curlew burbles over the fields. The path leaves the river and runs along the top of the Stank to Hampton Bishop. Past the pub – I am too early! On round a great sweep of the river. A large herd of 35 Mute Swans are on the river many paddling hard against the current to remain on station to graze. Gentle grunts are occasionally emitted. I can see Holme Lacy Bridge in the distance but my legs are telling me the extra miles are too far and I turn back. I had hoped to get to the bridge and return along the other side of the river. However, there is an issue on the far side as the path stops near Holme Lacy and it looks like the route is via the busy and narrow road. Cattle have come down to the river to drink from the opposite bank. They splash along the edge of the river, browsing as they do so.
The pub, quaintly named The Bunch of Carrots is now open. Clearly where the older county set lunch, but Maddy and I are happy enough with crisps and peanuts in the garden. Curlews are calling again nearby. Off back along The Stank. A pair of Common Buzzards circle overhead. Long-tailed Tits, just two, the winter flocks have disbanded, forage a hedgerow. A fine black and silver cockerel marshals his Warren hens. A Skylark sings a burst of song as it drops into a field of brassicas. A Violet Ground Beetle crosses the path. Back along the river. Dinedor Hill and Rotherwas Park Wood rise in the distance. Tiny Rotherwas chapel is over the fields on the far side. A flock of finches chases about a stubble field, the stalks of harvested grain about to disappear in new grass. Into Hampton Park, a housing estate with a substantial design deficit. Is it really so much more expensive to build houses with just a little architectural interest? In the centre at Hampton Dene is Hampton Manor, a group of Georgian buildings. Just up the road is the church of St Paul’s, Tupsley – locked. As the road heads towards the city centre, the houses get older and easier on the eye. They are nothing special, just early 20th century but have a solidity and balance missing in much late 20th century properties. Back into the city. The College of Technology is a campus of modern design. Not sure all of it works, but at least it is interesting. Down towards the station past houses where the seriously rich Georgians lived. Every part of me seems to be aching now and there is a long wait for the train.
Saturday – Leominster – A beautiful spring morning with sunshine warming the land. Up Ryelands Road. I have been expecting what I regard as one of the true heralds of spring for several days now and there it is, in Silver Birches on the edge of the housing estate – a Chiffchaff. Despite the volume of song from Robins, Dunnocks, Wood Pigeons and Blue Tits, the onomatopoeic song of the Chiffchaff rings loud and clear. A series of clicks, burbles, whistles and grunts comes from a Starling on a roof. Heading back down Bargates when a lorry passes with what I am sure is the fighter plane that was outside Sheppards store in Upper Hill. It was on eBay for a while at an enormous price but did not seem to be sold, but one presumes it has now.
Home – A morning for getting things done in the garden. In go the potatoes. The Maris Bard are rather disappointing, a lot of rotting tubers but Red Duke of York and Kestrel are better. The over-wintered broad beans have been mixed in their growth so some more were sown in pots I the greenhouse. A dozen or so seedlings are planted out in the spaces left by the failed ones. The spinach has not done well as I failed to thin the plants out. They all come out and the strongest are replanted. A couple of rows of lettuce seedlings are planted out in the greenhouse where radish has sprouted well and the gutter of peas is also looking good. Indoors, the frog spawn in the tank are hatching. No sign of any in the pond, but when I pull a small plank out of the water, it is to allow creatures to get out of the water, there are a lot of Waterlice on it. They look like flattened Woodlice with a couple of spines sticking out their rears.
Monday – Bircher Common – A sharp overnight frost is burned off by warm sunshine coming from a clear blue sky. A Chiffchaff sings in one of the trees dotted over the common. Bright yellow Gorse brightens the dull green and brown. A Wren sings from inside these Gorse thickets. A Yellowhammer emits a short buzz of a note rather than its usual fluid song. A Linnet sings sweetly from a still-bare Hawthorn. Into the sunken tracks through Oaker Coppice. Carrion Crows bark, Great Tits repeat their call, Blue Tits chirp and a Blackbird mutters. A Nuthatch investigates a piece of tree trunk where a branch has broken off. He pauses now and again to cry his whooping call. Out above the open expanse of common, Skylarks sing. Above Common Buzzards circle on the zephyrs and mew.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – The Vernal Equinox means spring is here. It is overcast but not cold. There is a decent number of Tufted Duck on the lake, possibly upwards of two dozen. A pair of Goldeneye are in the far bay. A Kingfisher flashes across. There must be several Kingfishers in the vicinity but they seem to be rarely seen, or at least not logged. The hedges are slowly turning from grey-brown to multi-coloured; green Hawthorn and rose briar leaves, creamy yellow Pussy Willow on the Goat Willow or Sallow, bright yellow Gorse, ever flowering and white Blackthorn or Sloe. The songs of the usual choristers – Blackbirds, Song Thrush, Wrens, Great and Blue Tits, Dunnocks and Robins are now joined by Chiffchaffs. Of course, all is nearly drowned out by the continuous racket of Canada Geese. Four Cormorants are present, all non-breeding birds. Pandemonium breaks out on the island as Canada Geese, backs arched, necks stretched chase each other, bellowing non-stop. Back along the meadow where three Jays burst out of the hawthorns rasping furiously. They fly up into the Poplar and then off into Westfield Wood. A pair of Reed Buntings fly up from the edge of the cider orchard. Like the Kingfisher, Reed Buntings should be recorded far more often than they are. A flash of rosy pink reveals a pair of Bullfinches.
Thursday – Dinmore Hill – The woods still are grey and dormant Few magnolias are even in bud whilst those at home have opening flowers. Primroses however are at their peak with carpets of them brightening the grass. Wood anemones are also in flower. Bird calls ring out; Robins, Blue and Great Tits, Rooks, Chiffchaffs and thrushes. There is another wooden sculpture near the look-out, one I have not noticed before, this one of an owl. A Willow-leafed Magnolia has delicate white blossoms just at the point of opening. Maddy manages to skid whilst catching her ball and broadsides a tree, her ball ejected from her mouth by the force of the collision. Of course, it has no effect on her, she recaptures her ball and trots onwards. At the water tap near the entrance she tests all the containers then seems to decide she does not really want a drink anyway.
Friday – Malvern Hills – Out of Colwall station to discover the awful fact I have forgotten Maddy’s ball and there is not one to be had in the local shops. So onwards towards the Malvern Hills. It is warm with a blazing sun which will hopefully burn off the mist. Pheasants croak across the fields. A Great Tit calls and a Blackbirds sings. Up past a bank of daffodils and past a coppice of noisy Jackdaws. A White-tailed Bumble Bee buzzes along the roots of ancient Oaks. A ewe watches warily as she lies on the short grass with a lamb at her feet. The path rises to Chase Road at Gardiners Quarry which takes its name from Charles Gardiner who is believed to have worked the quarry until it was closed in the 1920s. Chiffchaffs call. I have long discarded my fleece and coat yet I am still hot and sweaty. A path continues upwards until the summit of Pinnacle Hill. To the east, Worcestershire and the River Severn floodplain is hidden behind the mist. South now, towards British Camp. The path drops down onto a saddle then steeply up Black Hill. Three Common Buzzards rise over Little Malvern or Berrington’s Quarry on the eastern slope. Opened in the 1880s the quarry was bought by Pyx Granite Company Limited who operated it from 1908 until 1929 when the Malvern Conservators bought it so that it could be closed down. The path descends to the Malvern Hills Hotel and the border of Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Across the Ledbury road and start upwards again. Eventually the path reaches the summit of Herefordshire Beacon, standing at 1115 feet and the magnificent Iron Age hillfort, British Camp. Below is an extraordinary set of ramparts and ditches. The beacon rises to a motte on which a wooden castle in the form of a ringwork and bailey was built, possibly by Earl Harold Godwinson in the 1050s. The hillfort was probably constructed around the 4th century BCE although despite its fame and size, the camp has never been excavated.
To the south a long pair of ramparts with a ditch between runs around Millennium Hill. The Shire Ditch, which runs the length of the hills, heads off from Millennium Hill over Broad Down to Hangmans Hill. Over Hangmans Hill and on towards The Pink Cottage. This old cottage lies beneath saddle between Hangmans Hill and Swinyard Hill. A woodpecker drums in the woods on the western slopes. The pink granite is exposed on the path. A hang-glider launches off from Swinyard Hill and the pilot using the currents rising from the slopes. From Swinyard Hill the paths head off for the Obelisk or round to the hillfort on Midsummer Hill. However, my legs tell me this is far enough and I turn back. Below Hangmans Hill past Clutter’s Cave (or Giant’s Cave or Waum’s Cave, after the spring which once lay beneath it). It was hewn out of the grey Silurian lavas and was probably a shepherd’s shelter or maybe a hermit cave. It was named after an 18th century occupant. A path leads around the hillside beneath Herefordshire Beacon. Below is a tranquil reservoir with a white keeper’s house and further on down the slope is the Priory at Little Malvern, a late Norman church extensively rebuilt in the 14th century. Back down to the road and hotel, then up into the hills at Wynds Point. The sun has awakened insect-kind. Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, flies, a Bloody-nosed Beetle, ladybirds and bees are all out and searching for food, which is rather limited. Few flowers, hardly any trees are even in leaf, only Pussy Willow’s creamy pollen-laden flowers available. By early afternoon the hills have got busier. School groups pass noisily. Cyclists and walkers have proliferated. Bird song continues although at a reduced level – a few Blue Tits churr, a Wren bursts into song then is silent, a Blackbird is pure and clear and both a Great Tit and a Chiffchaff persistent. Down the fields towards Colwall. Maddy has a stick again and still drops it in front of me despite my hopeless attempts to kick it further than a foot. A couple of pints in The Crown where the landlord comes out to give Maddy a bowl of water – helps to wash the crisps down! Back at the station, House Sparrows are creating a fine racket. A Dunnock burst into song. The railway line is single track. It is difficult to tell now but it looks like there was another track and another platform once. (Subsequent “googling” reveals this to be the case as shown here.)
Wednesday – Croft – The sun shines down from a clear blue sky as it has done for several days. This has led to unseasonably warm afternoons, records broken in Scotland, but cold nights threatening the new blossom. A Green Woodpecker’s yaffle greets us. A Great Spotted Woodpecker utters a sharp tchack. Bird song rings through the Fish Pool Valley. A Common Buzzard rises from. The ground and slips silently off through the trees. The banks beside the track are a medley of Wild Arum, Dog Mercury and Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage. Suddenly, there is a loud crack and a branch breaks off and crashes down on the other side of the valley. Maddy is quite upset by the noise. The branch was probably from a tree suffering from lack of water. The hot weather may be pleasant but after a second dry winter, it is heavy and continuous rain that is really required. Some farmers are delaying planting and South and East Yorkshire have joined much of the south-east of the country as being officially declared a drought zone. Wild Garlic leaves are just a few inches long, or less. Primroses, Celandines, Wood Anemones and Dog Violets are all in flower. Nuthatches and Chiffchaffs call. A large bee inspects the branches of a Hornbeam. Up onto Croft Ambrey. A herd of Fallow Deer rustles through the dead, dry bracken below on Leinthall Common. The distant hills are hazy. Ash trees are covered in little clusters of flowers. Chiffchaffs are everywhere. A Grass Spider, Tibellus oblongus, scurries across the track.
Friday – Hergest Ridge – An abrupt change in the weather. Overcast skies, a cold breeze and hills topped with misty clouds. This has not stopped the Skylarks who sing melodiously from the heavens. Down here on earth, Meadow Pipits squeak and sheep baa. A raptor makes a brief appearance over the edge of the ridge. Its long wings suggest Red Kite but it is gone in a blink. A little later there is a cry from somewhere that says Common Buzzard but that too is brief. Across the old racecourse and on up to the Araucarias. Despite the exultation of larks, the all enveloping mist dampens my enthusiasm and I turn back down the ridge. A rusty-pink breasted cock Chaffinch sings from a Gorse bush. None of the Gorse is in flower up here which is unusual. A bright yellow Yellowhammer sings just five identical notes of its song from a Hawthorn on the edge of a field. Down here there is just a single large Gorse covered in golden blossom.