Saturday – Newport – A cold and frosty morning. Up the Malpas Road and west towards Bettws. A short way down the hill is the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. Constructed in the 1790s, the canal played a major role in the development of the “Head of the Valleys”. A clause in the Monmouthshire Canal Act exempted from duty coal shipped through Newport, an exemption which did not apply to Cardiff. This was central to the development of Newport as a major port. Like all other canals, the railway brought about its decline at the end of the 19th century. Malpas Brook lies below in the foot of the valley. A large, steel sluice gate moderates the river as part of a flood defence system completed in 2005. Moorhens and Mallard are disturbed from their bank-side roosts as we pass. A Song Thrush and Robin are in song. A Wren squeaks and pair of Mute Swans sleep, or apparently so but the cob’s beady eye is watching us. A fine cast iron GWR sign warns of weightier limits on a bridge. A small cantilever bridge seems a clever idea but also seems rather hard to operate, certainly more strength than I have. The locks here are very deep. I walk for about two miles when my knee flares up again. It is doing this intermittently and makes walking painful, so reluctantly I turn back. Passing under a bridge, the roof is covered in little stalactites. A lock-keepers cottage looks abandoned. New growth is happening, especially Cow Parsley and Wild Arum.
Friday – Home – Various tasks at home and my painful knee have curtailed my walks with Maddy this week. Work has been done in the garden. The Bramley apple that hangs over the wall from next door has been pruned back to stop apples falling onto the greenhouse and breaking the glass as happened this year. All the vegetable beds have been dug and prepared for the new season. A pot of carrots is sown and put in the cold frame, broad beans are sprouting in pots in the greenhouse and a tray of lettuces is sown. Two rows of peas go in under small poly-tunnel cloches. In the bathroom, tomatoes are growing well, sweet peppers have sprouted but nothing from the tray of chilli seeds. The chicken run has finally dried out enough to be dug out and new straw and chippings spread. The wet weather seems to have brought a lot of gravel close to the surface making digging much harder. The garden is clay on old river gravel. The diggings go on the courgette and squash patch. One job that pleases Kay is replacing the rotary clothes drier. The old one tilted at an alarming angle where the socket had worked loose in the soil. This should not happen to the new one as I have set it in concrete! The snowdrops are nearly finished now to be replaced by daffodils, crocii and primulas. The flowering blackcurrant is about to flower, its scent already present. Hellebores are still a fine display. The dawn chorus around The Grange is loud and full-blooded now, mainly Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Robins. Every morning for the past week a pair of Canada Geese pass over at around 6:00am, heading north-west. Yesterday there was an almighty fight between Blackbirds deep in a thick laurel bush by our garden shed.. I do not know how many were involved, the noise was tremendous and several more Blackbirds were in the surrounding trees, watching the action. A male Dunnock is paying close attention to a female at the bottom of the garden. The weather forecasters are promising a week of fine weather to come. One certainly hopes so!
Saturday – Leominster – The sun starts to rise into a cloudless, blue sky. The River Lugg has fallen substantially and a recent trip south of the town showed the fields have emerged from the flood waters for the first time this year. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flies over, its chip chip call repeated so fast as to be a machine gun fire of sound. The market is much busier than last week with many more sellers – still mainly junk but a few stalls selling more interesting stuff have appeared. Back home I have a tiresome morning trying to clear the extensive brambles from the bottom of the garden. Many have roots that disappear down too deep into the soil to remove entirely, so they will be back but at least I have slowed them down. We plant a Photinia Red Robin shrub to replace the fallen Elders. Several Brimstone butterflies flit by. Dunnocks are still chasing each other and displaying by rapidly flapping half-opened wings.
Monday – Croft – Arrival at Croft is greeted by a drumming woodpecker and Chaffinch singing its short repetitive song. Forestry operations are still underway. A pair of drake Mallard are in the pump house pool. Great Tits, a Wren, Song Thrush and Robin are in song. Up the Beech wood remembering how nice it is to walk on dry ground again! A mobile crane is moving logs by the main valley path. Along the track past High wood Bank Quarry. A Blackcap flies up into the trees, a newly arrived summer visitor or an over wintering male? A Nuthatch calls along with several Blue Tits. Up the track at the end of the valley. A good number of either Willow or Marsh Tits chase through the trees, I suspect the former as I have heard them here before, but a blast of song proves me wrong. Up onto Croft Ambrey. The hills are slightly misty but all in sunshine. Machinery clatters and rumbles in the quarry across the Lienthall valley. Carrion Crows call as they sail over the fields below. It seems every cock bird in Mercia is in song. A flock of chattering finches feed at the top of Yatton Common. A herd of Fallow Deer run up from the pillow mounds onto the southern ramparts of the hill-fort. Fat sticky buds are forming on the Spanish Chestnuts.
Wednesday – The Goggin – Another survey for the British Trust for Ornithology and probably as unfruitful as the others I undertake. This one is a survey of breeding Peregrine Falcons. Given that I have only seen one in the area over the past few years, I am not optimistic. I park on a high ridge above Stockin Farm, which lays below in a valley cut by a stream through the ridge of Silurian limestone of the Ludlow, Lower Bringewood Beds, from Aymestrey through Croft Ambrey to High Vinnals and across to Bringewood. To the east the high ground is cut by another valley, The Goggin. The farm was called Cullis Stocking on the old maps well into the 20th century. Pheasants are calling in the valley. A woodpecker drums. A large flock of finches twitter, a Great Tit calls, a Song Thrush sings. The whole area is very misty and quite cold. The road leads to High Cullis. It is interesting to note that late Victorian maps show the hill as open moorland. It is now heavily wooded. Woodland management is being undertaken with felling, thinning the roadside woods and new saplings have been planted, Ash I think. The road joins the Goggin to Leinthall Earls lane and rises then falls again. More Peasants express their displeasure at our presence. This lane joins the lane from Elton and I turn down past The Goggin. The mists are even thicker here, not helpful! Past Willow Cottage and Messuage Cottage. A hollowed stump stands like a statue beside the road. Daffodils are starting to flower. A ruin lies up the hill, a substantial wall but little indication of its former use. Past Brightall Common and cottage. I am stopped by a vicar who is trying to find an address on Orleton Common to attend to a bereavement. Hopefully I send him the right way. A lane climbs climbs up to the Stockin Farm road. More felling has taken place here. Route
Friday – Leominster – Dawn is again shrouded in thick mist. Bird song is clear and loud from every direction. Blackbirds fly down to walls very close to me, seeming to check out what I am doing in their territory. A Common Buzzard sits hunched in the hedgerow by the railway and is not moving despite Maddy’s proximity. The West Wales to Manchester train rumbles past, accelerating as it leaves the station heading north. Rooks are noisy at the rookery by The Forbury in Church Street. By early afternoon the mist has burned away and the sun is warm. The grass on the Grange is growing now, time to sow some more seeds! Lesser Celandines flower in the Millennium Orchard, yellow stars gleaming in the green sward. Snowdrops have finished but daffodils flower on the edge of the churchyard. A couple play with a basketball which attracts Maddy’s attention. She sits right in front of the chap holding the ball and wags her tail and only reluctantly comes away when I call her and throw her rather less impressive tennis ball. Plenty of toddlers and parents take advantage of the sunny weather to play in the playground.
Sunday – Leominster – Dawn is clear and mild, warming rapidly as the sky rises into an azure sky. It is surprising to see a small flock of Redwings in Millennium Park. The market is very busy and so international; one is just as likely to hear Polish, Bulgarian or Romanian as well as English and Welsh accents. I buy a couple of trays of blowsy primulas for the garden. On the way home a Chiffchaff, the first of the year, calls from the trees by the bridge over the river. In the garden the Magnolia that stands behind the garden wall is just about to burst into flower. A Dunnock is moving around the garden pausing in seemingly every bush to let rip a blast of song. In go nine rows of potatoes and as I rake in some fish, blood and bone fertiliser I can hear frogs quietly croaking in the pond. We creep up and see at least seven and a large blob of spawn. A tall Willow stands several gardens down the street, its pale cream pussy-willow blossom against the blue sky. I pull some forced rhubarb, delicate deep pink stems for a treat tonight. There are still some heads on the Purple-sprouting Broccoli which will be plucked for dinner tonight. By early afternoon a breeze has sprung up but this does not deter the songsters. Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Wren and Dunnock are all declaring their territories. Butterflies – Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell and a White pass through. I had drastically pruned the apricot in the fruit cage. It has quite bad canker and this is a last chance for it. There is some rich rose-pink blossom on one branch but little else. We will see how it does but I think it may be doomed. Buds have appeared on the other fruit trees. Today really feels like spring has arrived!
Tuesday – Croft – The weather is changing. The sunshine of the weekend has gone to be replaced by overcast grey. The mercury falls slowly but steadily. Creamy Primroses adorn the driveway up to the castle. The forestry work in the Fish Pool Valley continues. The west side has been extensively cleared, especially towards the top of the slope where it approaches the castle fields. Piles of logs lie all over the place. Rain is in the air. A pair of Mallard are on one of the pools, another pair wing over. A Raven croaks. Wild garlic beginning to show. Numerous stalks of Dog Mercury and carpets of Opposite-leaved Golden-Saxifrage, little jewels of yellow-lime on emerald leaves, cover the ground by the track. A large flock of finches is very flighty as it dashes across the tree tops, pausing only briefly before moving on. I see the flock several times but have difficulty picking out any identifying markings from the silhouettes in the distance. Chaffinches and Redpolls are a certainty but whether other species are represented I am unable to tell. Up on Croft Ambrey the wind is rising and grey clouds scurry across the sky. Time to move swiftly. Down the Spanish Chestnut field and through the big gate, the smaller apparently recommended route still means crossing a deep quagmire created by tractors. Just the other side of the gate, by the old quarry pond, is a black and white cow, watching us warily. I am past it before I realise she has afterbirth hanging behind her and a tiny grey calf is at her feet. By the time the car park is reached it is raining heavily.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – Bright green leaflets gleam on a Hawthorn by the orchard gate. We wander around to the hide. The meadow has dried out a good deal making it much safer underfoot. The wildfowl numbers are much reduced, a few Wigeon, maybe half a dozen Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Mallard and thirteen Mute Swans. Of course, there are a fair number of Canada Geese. An argument breaks out on the island, mostly hidden by the trees but very audible! A lone Little Grebe moves slowly across the open expanse of water. A Cormorant sits in the trees and another glides in. Something like a log is moving steadily across the western end of the lake – an Otter. Just before it disappears behind a prominence of reeds, a Mallard gets rather excited about it and flaps around the animal which seems to utterly ignore the duck. Back along towards the orchards. Pussy Willow is bright creamy yellow when open and grey when closed.
Friday – Leominster – Dawn starts cold but clear. The Grange is dusted with frost. Chiffchaffs and a Blackcap are in song in the Millennium Park as the early morning freight train thunders by. I notice that despite all the noise the other day, the rookery at the Forbury is not only unoccupied but nestless, they must have come down in the winter storms.
Bodenham – Later in the morning it is clouding over at Bodenham. Round the east end of the lake through the old, demolished gravel works. Chiffchaffs call. Wild Arum are everywhere. Lesser Celandines are flowering in beds of Stinging Nettles that are just a few inches high at the moment. Along a meadow between the lake and the River Lugg. The path ends at the nature reserve opposite the south side of the island. There seems to be only noisy Canada Geese present. A sharp wind blows but the sun emerges to brighten all. Round the edge of some rough meadow beside the river. A Snipe explodes out of the grasses and zig-zags off towards the lake. Back beside the lake, a large bumble bee explores the short grass. Cormorants fly in singly. Back through the graveyard of St Michael’s church. Grass is being strimmed in the village, another sign of spring! I had not noticed before that a large, squat, circular stone stump near the preaching cross and war memorial is actually the top of a well or spring. Two stones have been laid in the grass beside a sunken trough into which water flows. The stones are carved with a frog and a fish. I drive along the road between Bodenham and Dinmore. A Peregrine is circling high above Hill House but has disappeared by the time I stop and get my binoculars out.
Wellington – A village with a long history to the south of Dinmore Hill. A large gravel quarry lays to the east of the village. During digging, Neolithic, both early and late pits and burials, an important Beaker burial, Bronze Age deposits, a late Iron Age settlement, a Roman villa and a Saxon watermill have all been uncovered. Under the Normans, the land became the property of Hugh d’anse, also called Hugh Donkey. On his death the manor passed to Robert de Chandos and his lands formed the later Honour of Snodhill, named after the place in the Golden Valley. After the death of Sir Thomas de Chandos in 1375, his lands were divided and by 1514, Wellington manor was owned by Charles, Earl of Worcester, the King’s Chamberlain. During the Commonwealth, the lands were the property of the Perrott family. In 1752, Somerset Davis acquired the manor. I limit my visit to the church of St Margaret of Antioch. Margaret was an apocryphal virgin and martyr of the 3rd century. The story is told that Margaret tended her sheep when she was wooed by Olybrious, Governor of Antioch. On rejection he denounced her as a Christian. She was imprisoned where the devil came to her in the form of a dragon. She held a cross to the belly of the dragon which irritated it so much that it fled. This apparently accounts for Margaret to be associated with pregnancy, childbirth and labour. It is also said that Field Poppies sprang from the spilled blood of the dragon. Margaret’s accusers tried to boil her alive but her prayers kept her safe but she was finally martyred by beheading. The church dates from the 12th century and the chancel arch dates from that period. The tower is Norman and the chancel 13th century with a fine piscina. The north arcade, aisle and transept were all added in the 14th century. In the 15th century the walls of the nave were raised and an unusual flat, semi-circular roof with foliate beams, foiled wind-braces, moulded tie beams and carved bosses, added. The north aisle also has a fine timber roof with two tiers of quatrefoiled wind-braces. The font is 14th century as is the preaching cross in the churchyard. A woman cleaning the church tells me proudly that the cross, whose head was destroyed by Parliamentarian soldiers, is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument. (She and her friend are even more proud of the new central heating!) There is only the smallest window of coloured glass. I am told that the local story is that the rest of the glass was removed before Cromwell’s soldiers could destroy it but the location of the hiding place was lost. However, she suspects that rather more prosaically it was just smashed as in so many other churches. She also informs me that bats roost in the ceiling rather than the roof and their droppings cause quite a lot of damage. There are a number of wall monuments which have been blackened and the writing carved through.
Tuesday – Bircher – Across Bircher Common. Chiffchaffs, Linnets, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Song Thrushes, Wren, Great Tit and Dunnock all combine in an avian chorus. Blackbirds and Magpies feed in the grassy spaces between the thickets of Gorse. Carrion Crows, Pheasants and Wood Pigeons call further afield. Up to a gap between Oaker Coppice and Bircher Coppice. Neither coppice retains their original use or form, both now being full of Larches and other conifers. A Common Buzzard flies off from a perch in an old Hawthorn. Across another area of Bracken and Gorse between Lodge Farm and Gorsty Lodge Plantation. A mobile flock of Redpoll fly to and fro. Up a track towards the crest of Dinscourt Hill. An ancient Beech has broken some ten feet up its vast trunk. There is no sign of the fallen part but now a large number of young trunks rise from the old one. I would guess they are around fifteen years old. The track is sunken and the banks are covered in young Bluebell and black-spotted Wild Arm leaves with a few flowering Lesser Celandines and Primroses. Coppiced Hazels line the banks. Beyond young lambs lie in the fields, some probably only a few hours old. Along the ridge of the hill, past the triangulation point standing at 291 metres above sea level. Below lies Orleton and beyond the hills are obscured by mist. Cloud is building. The northern slope has been cleared leaving moss covered humps and is now covered by ten plus year old Silver Birches. As the track enters Yeld Hill sadly the birches give way to ranks of conifers. The track joins the main forestry track that runs north-easterly towards Stockin Farm and High Cullis and south-easterly down Sheepwalk. Deer rumble off through the trees exciting Maddy. Here I turn back. At the top of the track by Gorsty Lodge Plantation another churned up track leads along the hill. Edward Linley Sambourne, a late Victorian cartoonist and illustrator noted for his work in Punch magazine, notes in his diary for 5th November 1902:
One notes that there was no mention of Guy Fawkes night – oh, blessed days! Also Gatley Park lies to the north of here on the other side of the valley above Leinthall Earls, not really anywhere near Kingsland! On Friday 7th November, Linley Sambourne writes:
The track joins another heading for Whiteways Head. A deep water-filled rut is full of frogs spawn. Ravens and Common Buzzards pass over. A footpath gate leads out, though a fallen tree, onto Bircher Common. Across the common and around Oaker Coppice. There are numerous post-mediaeval pack-horse tracks around the area, sometimes making ridges and furrows like prehistoric defences. Back down the common, disturbing the Common Buzzard again. A pair of Yellowhammers watch from a Hawthorn. Past the pond which is attended by a number of pollarded Ash trees with hollowed out lower trunks. A patch of Marsh Marigolds is in flower, glorious brilliant yellow flowers lighting up the pond.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – A cloudy and hazy morning although the sun makes brief appearances. A large number of Canada Geese are spread around the lake. Several pair of Goldeneye are still present, drakes displaying to the ducks with a flick of their heads over their backs. A single Mute Swan is upended at the western end of the water. A couple of Cormorants, Mallard, Moorhens, Tufted Duck and Coot are present. A Chiffchaff sings outside the hide. Three hirundines are high overhead, too high to identify but probably Sand Martins as they are the first to arrive. A few of the apple trees in the orchards have buds but most are still dormant. A Green Woodpecker yaffles. Blue Tits chatter.
Friday – Long Mynd – Mist covers the tops of Long Mynd and it is quite chilly. A Weeping Willow shines pale yellow-green in a garden in the Carding Mill Valley. A ewe stands by the roadside, a lamb either side, tails wagging as they suckle. The stream bubbles loudly down the valley. Up the Jack Mytton trail. Carrion Crows fly across the hillside, Blackbirds feed in the closely cropped grass and Meadow Pipits chase one another over the heather and gorse. Up to the top of Long Mynd and along the Shropshire Way towards Pole Bank. Visibility is very limited and there is a bitter wind. The only sounds are Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and the breeze. Past the tumulus at Shooting Box and on along the track. A peleton of mountain bikers pass then quiet descends again. Across a track where a post stating Medlicott (the hamlet down to the west of the hill) has a sign saying “unclassified country road”. The track to Pole Bank has been newly laid with gravel chippings which actually make walking more strenuous. At Pole Bank the toposcope is rather redundant today as none of indicated hills can be seen. This is the highest point of these hills standing at 517 metres above sea-level. A few hundred yards in a bright yellow caterpillar-tracked digger is lasting the new surface. The track joins a lane. A dumper truck passes with another load of chippings. A few trees surround a tin shack, Pole Cottage. Nearby a Hawthorn has fallen some years ago but the tree still survives with the branches on the top side still reaching for the sky. Some way along the road a footpath is shown in the map to pass along the side of Minton Hill above Callow Hollow. There is little evidence is it in the ground. A Snipe explodes out of the sedges. Skylarks sing above. Callow Hollow drops away to the north, opposite a steep hillside rises, Hanging Brink. It soon becomes clear there is no path here and we have to cross an area of lime-green mossy tussocks, a lot of dead bracken then a sedge bog to find the track. At least the sun has broken through. The path meanders across the moorland, passing a patch of burnt heather, heading in the general direction of Minton Hill. Round Minton Hill where Sleekstone Bank drops down into Callow Hollow. Opposite the hills rise – Callow, Nills, Grindle and Round Hill.
The path rounds Packetstone Hill and heads down to the hamlet of Minton. This is an old settlement whose name means “the settlement on the hill”. It was a Royal Manor, held by King Edward the Confessor before the Conquest. The fine sturdy stone-built house of Manor Farm stands by a rough green covered in daffodils. My knee takes considerable objection to coming down hills and I am now in some pain! A Red Kite drifts over the houses. Pied Wagtails sit on the wires. Off northwards along Minton Lane. Primroses gleam from a shady bank. A road sign says “Ford” but the stream runs through a fair sized culvert under the road, rendering a small wooden footbridge redundant. Adjoining fields are full of sheep, many with lambs. A newborn set of triplets lie at a ewe’s feet. Further down at Old Hall Farm I see the shepherd and mention the triplets. He says that nearly all the ewes in that field have either doubles or trebles. I ask if he has to take one of the triplets away and he says yes, but he has not got round to it yet. The road enters Little Stretton but I turn off and up a steep path and along the edge of the valley that heads for Ashes Hollow, although my path runs along the bottom of Ashlet, via The Owlets. A tree grows out of a large outcrop of rock, its roots grasping the stone, finding any possible crack. Across a field of sheep and into The Owlets, a wood. Down to the road through Crossbank and immediately up a track called Cunnery Road through Hope Wood. Wild Garlic is shooting through filling the air with its musty scent. The track turns into a tarmacked road with some very large late Victorian and early 20th century houses. Most prominent are Tiger Hall, an Edwardian edifice, much extended and the Long Mynd Hotel, opened in 1901 as a “hydropathic” hotel leading to the town being called Little Switzerland. Both there premises were taken over by St Dunstan’s during the Second World War for blinded servicemen. To the north of Cunnery Road is the Old Rectory. In 1749 Professor John Mainwaring, a theologian and Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, became Rector of the parish of Church Stretton. He was a friend of Lancelot “Capability” Brown who it is thought advised on the layout of the grounds. The road curves downwards into the town. Past the church and then up The Burway, the road that winds up to Long Mynd. A short way up a path descends into the Carding Mill Valley. Route
Monday – Croft – The mornings are darker now that British Summer Time has started but this seems to make the dawn chorus even more intense. Later in the morning the sky has clouded over. Down the slope to the Fish Pool Valley. Robins, Wrens, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes sing. Clearing and thinning the woods has continued and the trees look positively sparse now on the western bank. I pick a few Wild Garlic leaves, the air pungent around them. Wood Anemones grow in the Ransom patch, delicate little white petals against the green carpet. Up through the woods towards Sir James Croft’s grave. Trees have been uprooted in this side valley by the winter gales. A couple of dozen are down joining the older fallen which are rotting away. The grave is surrounded by daffodils. Out into the area that is being restored to woodland pasture. The ancient Oaks stand, sentinels of the years. A Nuthatch flies up into a tree by the Gamekeeper’s Cottage. Chiffchaffs call. The wings of a Wood Pigeon clap as it undulates across the open ground. Down the Spanish Chestnut field. These 300 year old trees seem nowhere near leaf whilst a Horse Chestnut has delicate pale green leaves. Down the castle field where Jackdaws chack as they seek insects around several resting cows and their calves. One Jackdaw tries to land on a cow’s back but a quick shake of the head sees it off.