Friday – Tintern Abbey – On my way to Somerset – just Maddy and me as Kay is still in Surrey. Decide to break the journey at this wonderful abbey beside the River Wye. I have described the history briefly before. Having parked up, I am greeted rather unpleasantly by a military helicopter flying past a few metres above the river. The noise is disturbing to say the least! Off to the abbey which has free entry today as it is St David’s Day. Must admit I did not know that.... The ruins are peaceful despite the noise of builders who are renovating the visitors centre. The great church, although badly damaged by stone looting and weathering over the centuries, still has a powerful aura. Every Cistercian house would have had a statue of the Virgin Mary in a prominent place. There are some remains to the original from the abbey in the museum, but here in the church is a beautiful sculpture by Philip Chatfield carved in 2007. An amusing building was the “Warming Room”, the only place apart from the kitchen and infirmary where a fire was allowed. The room would be used to warms limbs chilled by long hours of prayer in the cold church.
Saturday – Wells – Off for Jemima’s birthday lunch at Rugatino, an excellent and exceedingly good value Italian restaurant next to the ancient gateway into the cathedral green. On the way we pass a street that was named “Grope Lane” in mediaeval times, usually a street of “ill repute”. The name was changed to “Grove Lane” in 1821 and to “Union Street” in 1834. Afterwards we wandered around Wells’ market. There are numerous different food stalls as well as a full range of typical market dealers. It is very busy. The high street has its share of empty or charity shops but it seems the majority are collapsed national chains and the current building of another supermarket does not seem to worry anyone.
Nunney – Jo and I take the dogs out. The Rack field has been sprayed with an evil smelling manure, so we head off past the quarry and up to a field used for training event horses. Unusually Zebedee, the Springer Spaniel decides he would like to play with Maddy’s ball too and there is an almighty clash of heads. It is some minutes later when I go to try and clean off what looks like a streak of mud on Maddy’s muzzle that I realise she has a deep gash there. Fortunately it is not bleeding so we just smear some antiseptic cream on it later. We cross the Nunney Brook. The recent drier weather means walking is mud-free. Down past the brook hard where the Market Cross stands. The cross was originally in the churchyard but broken up and disposed of 1869. A Mr J.H. Shore of Whatley found the pieces in a builders yard and purchased them for £2. An architect, Mr J Foster, re-erected the cross in Mr Shore’s garden. In 1959, a fair celebrated the 700th anniversary of the village being granted a Royal Charter and the cross was moved to its present site. Jo tells me there are plans afoot to move it to the little market square by the bridge over the stream.
Monday – Croft – It is still cold and grey, although the area of high pressure that has sat over the country for some time now is weakening and the mercury is falling. Bird song rings out – Robin, Blue Tit, Wren, Blackbird and Nuthatch. Logging has taken place down in the Fish Pool Valley, sawn Ash trunks lie piled between the ponds. A Common Buzzard slips away. A pair of Mallard feed on pool by pumping house. Up the valley there are calling Great Tits and drumming woodpeckers. There is a considerable difference in tone and timbre depending on the condition of the branch the woodpecker uses as its sounding board. Up the forestry track, then on climbing to Croft Ambrey. A light breeze blows across the hill fort. The view is obscured by mist. Rumblings rise from the quarry to the north and clanking and machinery growling from the tree clearance I recorded last week, to the south. It is taking some time to regain the modicum of fitness I had before turning my ankle and I am puffing like an old shunter and perspiring freely by the time I reach the Ash branch seat. However, the reward is a brief sight of sunshine. Grasses are beginning to grow and greenness is replacing the dun brown of winter. Buds are swelling on the branches but they are some way off bursting into leaf. I am annoyed when two women on horseback ride across the hill fort. This is an ancient monument and does not need horses churning it up the way they do everywhere else! There are still sheep on the Spanish Chestnut field. Maddy and the sheep look at each other but there is no problem. On the field above the car park, the cows have calved and tiny bundles of grey lay in the grass. I meet a park ranger at the car park and ask about the horses on Croft Ambrey. Like me, he is very annoyed and says he will pursue prosecutions if he can identify the women.
Sunday – Leominster – After several days of wet weather the morning is dry but still grey and much colder. A wind cuts through to the bones. The dawn chorus has been strong and varied even when raining but this morning it is more muted. It did not take much rain to turn the grass on the Grange into a quagmire again. A Sparrowhawk glides over from the direction of the River Lugg and lands in a tree in the churchyard. A few rabbits are on the grass in the Millennium Park and, as usual ignore Maddy, who does likewise. Snowdrops are still blooming extensively along the edge of the graveyard and the first few daffodils have emerged. Passing by the front of the Minster and the sound of cooing pigeons comes from every direction, quite drowning out the Robins and Blackbirds. Down to the Sunday market. The Lugg is flowing swiftly and the water is pretty clear. The market is small, few traders braving the elements. Things are slow in the garden. Buds swell on the Flowering Blackcurrant, crocuses, hellebores, a few primulas and snowdrops are in flower and daffodil buds are about the burst. Rhubarb is growing steadily. The trays of vegetable seeds planted in the greenhouse are doing nothing, hardly surprising as the temperature is only a couple of degrees above freezing. There is a frog in the pond but no spawn; we do not know if it is the only one in the garden or whether there is a mate around.
Monday – Leominster – The morning is cold and grey. Redwings and Fieldfares fly over in chattering, loose flocks, all heading north. Snow flurries swirl.
Croft – Patches of blue sky have appeared now. Sub-zero temperatures remain despite the appearance of the sun. The wind remains blustery. The tops of tall Ashes are clattering together. Feet need to be placed carefully on the frozen track which is in hard ridges and furrows. Squeaks come from the trees but no songs. Now clouds threaten. Dog Mercury and Wild Arum both hang limp in the icy conditions. A Song Thrush searches through pile of sapling cuttings. A Blackbird chunters from nearby tree, a Wren mutters, a Blue Tit chirrups and the wind keeps blowing noisily. The path up out of Fish Pool Valley has been eroded by last year’s heavy rains down to pale yellow sandstone. Further up is is cut by a deep channel by the rushing water. Up onto Croft Ambrey. The Ash branch “seat” rocks up and down as the tree creaks in the powerful gusts of wind. There is surprisingly no snow on the hills but flurries in sheets of grey are moving across the land.
Friday – Craven Arms – The rain and clouds return but it is slightly milder. Through the Onney water meadows to Stokesay Castle. A Common Buzzard flaps steadily over. Maddy finds a dead rat under a hedge but fortunately leaves it be. Blue Tits chatter in the hedge. Robins, Chaffinches and Dunnocks sing nearby. A pair of Mute Swans feed on the large pond by Stokecastle farm. Lambs hunker down in the lee of the railway embankment, the wind is chilly. At least seven Common Buzzards are circling over the fields of sheep and lambs. Yet more rise from the hedgerow as we approach. Ravens fly along the edge of Stoke Wood. The path leads into the wood and up to a track which is sticky, yellow clay. Numerous Foxglove leaves have sprouted. Jews Ear fungus adorns an Elder. Past Clapping Wicket and towards the steep woods. There is supposed to be a footpath heading south then west but it has vanished. So I climb View Woods. This is far from easy as the slope is steep and slippery. A herd of Fallow Deer are feeding towards the summit. They disappear quickly as Maddy and I approach. Annoyingly the whole wood is surrounded by barbed wire fences. Wild Garlic and Bluebells are sprouting. I could cross the fence and try and pick up a path but the weather is deteriorating fast. A blustery wind springs up. So I follow the edge of the wood and pick up another path that heads back down to Clapper Wicket. From the cottage a path crosses several fields of mud which looks decidedly uninviting, so it is back down to the farm buildings and back to the castle. A quad-bike pulling a trailer of hay beeps its horn at some sheep who rush after it enthusiastically. It is raining steadily now as we head back to the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre in Craven Arms.
Monday – Croft – It is cold and grey; spring still seems elusive. A chorus of bird song- Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Wren, Nuthatch, Wood Pigeon and Carrion Crow, although the last three stretch the definition of “song”. A tapping woodpecker is high in the trees. Lots of leaves are emerging along the banks – Wild Garlic, little tuiles of green and fresh carpets of Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage. Water is flowing down path that rises up out of valley. Further up the mud becomes worse, marks can be seen where previous walkers have slipped and slid. Elder and Honeysuckle leaves are sprouting. The mud continues all the way up to eastern entrance of the hill-fort. Below, on the Mortimer Way track along the hillside of Leinthall Common is a small herd of Fallow Deer. Two individuals are clearly of the local dark form – indeed their backs are almost sable black. They soon realise Maddy and I are above them and take off along the path and disappear. Along the edge, Ravens are calling. Patchy snow lies on surrounding hills, as it does on north facing slopes here. Across the summit and through west gate, although the hollow way here is considered to be mediaeval at its earliest and has no relationship to the Iron Age hill-fort. A pair of Yellowhammers search through dead bracken. Past pillow mounds, mediaeval constructions where the warreners kept rabbits for food, the natural banks being too stony for burrowing, and into the woods. Willow and Blue Tits are calling. Down through the conifer plantations where Chaffinches sing. Into Spanish Chestnut field from where the sheep seem to have been removed. Linnets are in the hedgerow. Maddy is, unsurprisingly, filthy with mud, so I toss her ball into the quarry pond and she is in after it. She is sent in a couple of times and eventually emerges relatively clean.
Tuesday – Hereford – A quick visit to All Saints church which sits at the junction of High Street and Broad Street with its north side on Bewell Street. It had a magnificent 225 foot high tower, a graceful spike with a twist towards the top that can be seen for miles around the city. Much of the nave is now a café and the north chapel houses jewellery stalls. Whilst it is good to see what was probably a near redundant church, and one needing £1.7 million of major repairs to make it safe, being used by the community, it is sad to see many of the monuments hidden beneath drapes and the second largest chained library in England (the largest being in the nearby cathedral) now gone. However, much of interest remains. Building was started in 1220 and spire was completed by 1370. Although planned to be a very grand affair, it was completed much more simply by the brethren of the hospital order of St Anthony of Vienne in France, who had been gifted the church by Henry III. A window in the south chapel depicts St Anthony with his pigs and the church of St Antoine de Viennois as it is today. The majority of the stained glass in the building is early 20th Century and designed by Margaret Aldrich Rope, of Fulham and later Putney. The eye is drawn immediately to the hanging rood was provided in 1921 as a memorial to those from the parish who lost their lives in the First World War. It was designed by William Clarke of Nicholson and Clarke, the Hereford Architects. In the choir are some wonderful canopied 14th century stalls with misericords, probably from the church of the Dominican friary, the Blackfriars, that once stood in Widemarsh Street. The font is 16th century and David Garrick, the actor was baptised here in 1717. The pulpit is from 1621 and is a fine piece of Jacobean carving that cost £7. High above the altar is a 15th century wall painting depicting the Annunciation. Passing the service area of the rather hideous Maylord Centre, built on and erasing all traces of the mediaeval Jewish quarter of the city, I notice a quaint timber-framed building in the car park. I cannot find any information on it. The lower part is brick filled, with an open corner being used a cycle rack. Steps at the back lead to a first floor door whilst there is a ground floor door at the front.
Wednesday – Leominster – Starlings have been roosting, a murmuration of Starlings, in an evergreen tree near the Scout hut in Pinsley Road. They lift off as we pass with a considerable whirring of wings. They emerge in groups of between 50 and 100 birds at a time and the groups keep appearing. I think there are probably over a thousand individuals in this roost and they are gone, all in different directions in less than a minute.
Bodenham Lake – The first day of spring and it still feels like late January. Last year a drought had set in across much of the country; it was still grey and cool here in Herefordshire. Daffodils which are just now beginning to bloom were nearly finished. It was warm and summer visitors were beginning to appear. Today it is cold and cloudy again. A woodpecker drums. There are good numbers of Tufted Duck and a few Pochard in the sailing area. A Little Grebe calls its haunting cry. Round in front of the hide, six male Goldeneye circle a couple of females. The Canada Geese are noisy and on reaching a crescendo are joined by a braying donkey. The water level is falling slowly. Four Little Grebes appear off the reed bed to the east of the scrape. Two juvenile Cormorants sit on the pontoon and a couple of adults are in the trees on the island. Three more female Goldeneye appear by the edge of the island. A few Mallard are scattered around the water. A drake Teal emerges from the reeds. The meadow has standing water in many areas. A Common Buzzard circles Westfield Wood. Apart from the activities of the waterfowl and the songs of our resident birds, there are signs of spring. Elder and Hawthorn buds are opening to green freshness. Tiny leaves unfurl on the brambles.
Saturday – Leominster – It is snowing as Maddy and I head for the Grange. Yesterday it had snowed lightly overnight but had turned to rain by dawn. Across the country there have been heavy snowfalls and floods in Cornwall. The snow is wet but still laying. For several days the Starling roost has been burbling with chattering birds but this morning it is silent. Instead a good number of House Sparrows are in the hedge and moving off noisily into the gardens. A Song Thrush sings pure and clear in the churchyard. Another sign that spring is still arriving, albeit slowly, is frog spawn in our little pond. As mentioned earlier this month, a frog has been seen but no indication as whether there is a pair or not. Hopefully, the spawn has been fertilised and tadpoles will be seen in the not too distant future. The snow continues steadily through the morning, but has stopped by midday. A thaw begins. Mid afternoon, pools of water lay on the Grange mixed with slush. Back through Corn Square where a little bird catches my eye. It is my first summer visitor, a Chiffchaff which hops through the Leominster in Bloom tubs searching for insects and grubs.
Monday – Leominster – After a bitter start to the day, it gradually warms, especially when the sun emerges. A thaw sets in, little streams across dry pavements from the down-pipes as snow melts on roofs. The footbridge over the railway is still icy but the paths are quickly turning to soft mud. The River Kenwater burbles as it crosses a shingle bank just before in joins the Lugg. Rabbit tails of grey Goat Willow and lambs-tails of Hazel catkins adorn branches by the water. Lots of cars and vans are having to turn around as Mill Street is closed between the Ridgemoor Bridge and the A49 junction. It makes one wonder what part of “Road Closed Ahead” they had failed to comprehend. After waiting at the level crossing for a northbound train, we turn along the footpath beside the Kenwater. A female Blackbird alights on the path then realises Maddy is a couple of feet away and rises in panic.
Wednesday – Mortimer Forest – The hills are white and as soon as we leave the Black Pool car park we are on frozen snow. Broken branches litter the track. It is snowing slightly. The ice underfoot is treacherous. Great Tits call but little else. The sun emerges briefly. Snow blows off the conifer branches and a fine dust caresses my face like frozen silk. Sometimes the track is clear but in the main Forestry Commission vehicles have compressed the snow into slick ice. Up the path from the pool, cutting off the corner. Saplings are bent over with their load of snow. Blue Tits cheep. The falling snow has stopped. A line of snow runs down the east facing sides of tree trunks. The tramp up to High Vinalls is hard going. A Wren buzzes at us from a broken Bracken stem rising above the snow. The surrounding hills are hidden by a curtain of grey mist. The wind blows across the top driving fine snow. The old relay station is covered in ice where melting snow has refrozen. A group of walkers pass and fantasize that Maddy has a flask of brandy round her neck. “I wish,” I reply. In crossing Climbing Jack Common there are suddenly drifts a foot deep or more. It is a bit disconcerting to suddenly be sinking. Of course, these drifts are very minor compared with some areas of the country, such as the Isle of Man and the west of Scotland where sheep farmers are facing appalling conditions, whole lambing flocks buried under snow and communities without electricity for days on end. A Rabbit suddenly appears much to Maddy’s surprise. It disappears into a snow covered Bramble thicket. The sky starts to brighten then turns grey again. A continuous pitter-patter of thawing snow drips from the branches.
Easter – Nunney – The annual Easter Bonnet competition and Duck Race is under way. Jemima wins the adult section – for a second year running! However, the best entry of the day in my opinion is a chicken with an Easter bonnet – splendid! The brisk east wind is blowing up the Nunney Brook, so the ducks are launched from the other side of the road. Although the flow in the brook does not look much the ducks move down at quite a reasonable pace. Of course, our ducks are not among the winners.