Friday – Garway Hill – I successfully manage to get lost in the hills of South Herefordshire. I park off a junction between St Weonards, Garway and Pontrilas. To the east the land drops away into Garren Brook valley. Somewhere down in the trees is a large flock of chattering Starlings. The sky is overcast and it is cool. Near the junction is a house with a board “The Sun” but I am not sure it is a pub; later the 1888 OS map shows “The Rising Sun”, a beer house and a post office here. I take the south-easterly lane towards Garway. The lane descends and a turning at an old ivy covered leaning sign to White Rocks. Daffodils and Primroses are in flower along the banks of the lane. A barn is being re-roofed as part of being converted into accommodation at Little Garway Farm. A relatively old barn with a plaque, “F H Dale Builder Leominster” has been erected over the brickwork of a far older barn. Keepers Cottage standing on a bend, is as often is the case around here a reasonably substantial house. A cronking Raven flies over high in the sky. Geese can be heard and there they are, white geese behind a farm, Old Garden, far below in the valley. A Green Woodpecker yaffles, again far below. Here, a Common Pheasant is croaking. A Dunnock sings on telephone wires. The lane passes several houses some small cottages which have been greatly enlarged, others barn conversions.
Over a cattle grid and into the hamlet of White Rocks. The hillside is brown with dead bracken. A notice states “Garway Parish Council – Driving of motorcycles or motor vehicles or tipping of rubbish on this comment is forbidden on pain of prosecution”. A wooden notice points to Rock Mount (White Rocks). Up the track by the couple of houses one called the Chantry with the side extension with an ecclesiastical window. A short distance further on is Rock Mount, a white house with a wing. Up a short way onto the common. The area is riven with quarries and some platforms that may have held industrial processes. It is littered with vast boulders green with moss. The stones are of the bedrock, Brownstone, Devonian sandstone, 398-416 million years old. A legend tells of a giant called Jackie Kent and the devil who are planning to build a weir and a fish pond using huge white boulders from far away. Jackie and the devil, carrying their stones in their aprons, jumped from hilltop to hilltop with the heavy load when the apron strings broke at the summit of Garway Hill. The stones bounced and rolled down the hillside and came to rest on the southern slopes, where they remain today. They have given their name to the hamlet of White Rock. Jackie Kent, or Jack ’o Kent, occurs in a number of local tales. Ellen Mary Leather records that some suppose him to be Owain Glyndŵr, who was supposed to have hidden at nearby Kentchurch, or Owain’s bard. Other think he was Sir John Oldcastle, a 15th century Lollard leader, friend of Henry V and the basis of Shakespeare’s Falstaff. More likely, he was Sion Cent, the vicar of Kentchurch in the 15th century. The tales themselves are widespread and often local names are attached to them.
A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers flies by. Back down to the lane which drops down into a valley. The Grange is a large house. Further down the hill is a long white house, Rocks Bottom. Water issues from various pipes, channels and springs down here. A track runs around behind another large house. I chat to a farmer on a quad bike inevitably about the weather. Another cottage is tucked into the hillside. It is thought that White Rocks was a fairly substantial mediaeval hamlet that slowly diminished. The Herefordshire Trail comes down this track and heads up across the common. Behind is the valley of the River Monnow, Afon Mynwy. Above it rises High Meadow. Several Ravens circle above the valley. Patches of Wild Arum are unfurling on the hillside. A Common Buzzard rises from the Bracken and sails out across the valley. Meadow Pipits squeak and Skylarks sing high overhead. There are plenty of rabbit droppings scattered across the common. Westwards is Grosmont surrounded by a delightful patchwork of fields. From high on the common, the strategic position of Grosmont castle is evident.
To the east there is a small earthwork. It is an important relic of the mediaeval use of the common. Evidence has been found of this area being used by humans since the Iron Age and quite extensively during mediaeval times with ridge and furrow ploughing patterns. A flock of Carrion Crows accompanied by four cronking Ravens (although one is clearly saying oink), passes over. The distant hills are becoming increasingly misty. The run of the Black mountains leads down to Skirrid, which stands high and proud above the land. Beyond the Brecon Beacons have virtually disappeared into the murk. Now below is Kentchurch Court and church. The trail comes to a triangulation point at 1202 feet, beside which is an octagonal low brick building, the remains of a radio tracking station. The barrack block and generator block were constructed during World War II. Several pure white ponies are by the building along with a brown. More ponies are down by a large pond, Black Pool, across the far side of the common. A ditch has been cut part way around the summit of the commons. Belle Vue farm and the White House stand on the eastern edge of the common.
The trail leaves the common beside a large communications mast. A path passes through a copse. Fresh young Foxglove leaves are sprouting everywhere. Either side of the path are old coppiced hazel but the trees beyond the path are young. A scattering of yellow crab apples lay under a tree; surprising that they have not been devoured by winter thrushes. Branches of a venerable tree has broken off, one completely leaving a great white scar, others are still partially attached but crashing down into Holly trees and blocking the path. The path joins a track, once cobbled but now mainly mud. This track joins the lane down which I am parked some distance hence. In a field a tractor with a flail is cutting back a large hedge with a violent amount of noise. Past several white painted houses, one is Hawthorn Well. Area of lumps, bumps and grassy near vertical banks must have been a quarry (again confirmed by the old OS map). A house stands in the corner, a good solid house built with a local sandstone. Large cottage stands opposite down the hill.
Cherry Orchards farm sits on the hillside. There are modern houses along the road they may be based around much older properties but there is little to seen of them. The road bends around Suckling Dingle. The Globe is a former public house, just a couple of hundred yards from the former Rising Sun. A telephone box is empty and rotting and opposite there is old garage in even worse condition. The lane is back at the junction and the car. Route
Sunday – Leominster – A grey morning waiting for the promised storm Freya. It is damp with rain in the air. A Dunnock sings loudly from the roof of a care home. Jackdaws chack as they fly to and fro. A Great Tit sings its two-tone song. More Jackdaws sit on the chimney stacks of the White Lion peering down the chimney pots assessing their suitability as nesting sites. The water level in the River Lugg has fallen. A Mallard flies upstream jinking and rising suddenly when it realises there is a bridge in front of it. A Blackbird sits in a willow overhanging the water. Another Great Tit sings monotonously. Pussy willow emerges on Sallows. A sleek four wheel, blue and silver Morgan car is in the compound. A long row of former ambulances sit in the car park all having sold signs in the windows. It starts to rain. Rather inconsiderately Brightwells have put a barrier across the car park requiring a return to the meadow and then a walk down the river side of the compound. The market has recommenced but it is very small, unsurprising considering the weather conditions. There are however a number of familiar faces returning after the two months break.
Into Paradise Walk where the hedgerow has been cut right back greatly widening the path. A dog walker crosses the car park with two dogs, one a young springer spaniel which is pulling this way and that. The owner corrects it but that lasts only a moment. I comment, “Looks like it will do as it wants!” “A new rescue”, he replies.
Monday – Croft – Storm Freya passed with prolonged blasts of wind last night. Across the country has been damage – trees down, some heavy snow but here little happened; in the garden, a couple of chairs were blown over along with some daffodils knocked down. This morning cloud sails across the sky speedily, but here at ground level, the wind is fairly light and the sun is shining.
Into the Fish Pool Valley. Large machinery is moving logs out of the valley and stacking them on the long drive from the village to the castle. Across the valley and up into the Beech wood, away from the roar of diesel engines. Great Tits call. Wrens sing. A Coal Tit flies up into the trees, its beak full. A Chaffinch flock moves through the tree tops. A Nuthatch whoops. A Great Tit is examining holes in a Beech. Clumps of rhododendrons have reappeared. The daffodils in front of the rustic shelter are in flower. The floor of the woods are covered in branches and tree trunks. Recently the National Trust stated the restoration of the Fish Pool Valley was complete. It is clear that there is still a vast amount of work to be done if the valley is ever going to look like the Picturesque Movement landscape again.
From the end of the valley a path leads up the west side woodlands. It runs along the side of the valley that comes down to the modern water pumping shed. Excavations have taken place beside the path revealing the base of what seems to be another old shelter with rough stone steps leading up into it. The climb to the grave of Sir James Croft is tricky, up a steep slope of wet muddy leaf mould under foot. The daffodils here are yet the bloom. Across the rough ground there is an extensive badger sett and from the fresh soil deposited around, it is still in use. It is rather more difficult now to extricate oneself from this area of wood is the old paths now run into new fences.
Along the path that leads to the Keepers Cottage. Ravens chase over the top of Croft Ambrey. It starts to rain. Down past the woodlands barn visitor centre and the magnificent ancient Oaks. The rain stops within a few moments in the sun and emerges. At the top of the Spanish chestnut field, some of the young trees have been very severely pruned, all the branches taken off and just a couple of twigs left. Further down the field the new Spanish chestnut saplings have had the same treatment. Flowering raspberry is coming into blossom in the strip of woodland at the foot of the field. Sheep with lambs are in the field opposite the car park.
Thursday – Bicester – A town in Oxfordshire. My hotel is in the north of the town in a very large, late 20thcentury housing estate. It is raining and there is a strong blustery wind. Out of the estate to the main road and down towards the town centre. Starlings are gathering at the top of a tree chattering and whistling. Some of the housing here is earlier 20thcentury. There is a single short terrace of houses dated 1899. A small suburban train crosses the railway bridge and approaches Bicester North station. It is a long red brick building. The railway first came to Bicester in 1850, when the Bletchley to Oxford line was completed and the London Road station on the LNWR.’s Birmingham line was opened. Bicester North station was opened by the GWR. in 1906. It is now on the Chiltern Railways line. South of the station housing is a mixture of 20thcentury and earlier with short rows of cottages in rough cut yellow limestone, Victorian villas and terraces in brick dated 1911.
A junction stands at the top of North Street which leads into the town centre. Past more houses in the rough cut yellow brick and a pub The Jacob’s Plough in a similar brick. Weyland Hall is a former Wesleyan chapel purchased by the local masonic lodge in 1925. The Wesley Hall of 1863 is now a bedding shop. There are a good number of older properties all in the same rough brick. Bicester Methodist church opened in 1927 and was called “The Grainger Hargreaves Memorial Church” for some years. Town centre, Sheep Street, formerly St John the Baptist’s Street, is pedestrianised. A large house, number 49, is in the Georgian style,built in the local brick. A number of shops are in rendered 18th century buildings. The Post Office was built in 1914 to the designs of Henry Collins but is now a Wetherspoons. A local bakers has closed down. A shop has a Georgian look but clearly has an older building there and indeed there is a plaque “JRM 1689”. The listing states the building was remodelled in the 19th century. A modern precinct is behind this high street. A firm of solicitors occupy the old law courts, built in 1864. The doors and windows are in the “Caernarvon” style. Opposite a large late 18th century house is now a bookies. The White Hart is late 17th century but was largely rebuilt and extended in the last century. The street approaches the Market Square. HSBC bank is in a fine building with a plaque “established 1836 built 1920”. It has a lead cupola at the top.
A good number Georgian buildings around the Market Square along with a timber framed building and a substantial town house of 1698 with plaque “BJM”. The market place continues behind the block of large houses from the 16th and 18th centuries. Again there is a mixture of Georgian and many earlier houses and shops some dating back to 17th century. A couple are timber-framed and others are probably similar but rendered. Causeway leads from the square to the church. There are some old buildings here including one dating from the 17th century with a substantial jetty. A house is dated 1884 and in the Victorian Gothic. Next to it is a modern Catholic church, then a stone building of around 1840. On the south side is the street, the shops are 18th century.
Into Church Street. The Old Courthouse and Police Station are dated 1857, although the courthouse is probably later. Church of St Edburg is closed. The War Memorial, erected shortly after WWI is like a mediaeval preaching cross. There is a church hall, the former tithe barn, to the rear of the building. Hopefully the church will be open tomorrow. Further down Church Street are more Georgian houses and much older buildings. Two are thatched and both at least 17th century although the listing thinks they may be older. Road bends slightly with a long 18th century wall one side of the road, opposite is Littlebury Hotel. Back to Sheep Street. The town centre is pretty similar to most around the country these days a mixture of chain stores and charity shops. There does seem to be a predominance of estate agents and Asian food outlets though. Retreat to the Bell pub, 18th century building extended in the late 18th century, to get out of the rain of course.
Heading back up towards the hotel, some street names – Crumps Butts and Tollgate Seats gives clues to the older place.
Friday – Bicester – A chilly start the morning but the rain has cleared away the skies now blue with a thin covering of cloud. Along to the main road and then northwards. The road is very straight, not surprising as it is formally Roman, Stratton Road from Alchester to Towcester. Evidence indicates both Iron Age and Romano-British settlements here. There was a Saxon village near to the Roman road by a ford over the Bure, the brook that runs through the town. Its name was originally Bernecestre possibly meaning “the fort of the warriors” or “of Beorna”, an Anglo Saxon lord. It is said that over forty different spellings of Bicester have been found in mediaeval documents. The earliest Norman settlement began around the two great manors of Bicester and Wretchwick, held by Robert D’Oilly, builder of Oxford Castle. Early in the 12th century the demesne tenant of Bicester was Gilbert Basset, was succeeded in 1154 by his son Thomas, a sheriff of Oxfordshire who married Alice, daughter of Walter Dunstanville. Thomas died in 1180, and a few years later his eldest son and successor Gilbert founded Bicester Priory and endowed it with part of his demesnes. The estate was in the hands of William de Longespée who obtained in 1239 the grant of a market from the king. By mediaeval times, King’s End Parish and Market End Parish were established townships, and in the 19th century these became the civil Parishes which became the early Urban and Rural District of Bicester. The town developed as an agricultural centre. Much of the town’s prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries came from local horse racing and the Hunt. Coaches began to run from Bicester to London in 1752. The railway arrived in 1850. A detailed history can be found here.
A Red Kite flies over. On both sides of the road a thin strip of trees separates the road from the vast housing estates. The road comes to a large roundabout. I continue north along the Roman Road. On the other side of the roundabout is a very large former RAF camp and north of it Bicester airfield. The airfield commenced flights in 1911. It was a training base during WWII. After the war, it was a maintenance unit until 1956 when it became a base for glider clubs. A number of original building remain and the site is now being developed into a business park dedicated to historic aircraft and motoring. The barracks, which contain a large number of listed buildings, many showing Art Deco influences and that of the Garden City Movement of the 1930s, have been developed into a residential area, known as the Garden Quarter.
Into Skimmingdish Lane. To the north is what looks like a former council estate. Blackthorn is in blossom all along the road. A few of the bushes are pure white but many have a decidedly pink tinge. A pair of Goldfinches gleaming in the sunshine sit on an Elder whose leaves are just beginning to emerge. The lane comes to Fringford Road. The gatehouse of South lodge stands opposite the junction. A large house The Old Vicarage stands on the corner of the junction to Aunt Ems Lane. This ends at the B4100, the Banbury Road. Fields across the road disappearing under new housing estates. A short distance up the road is the church of St Laurence.
The church is locked. The base of the bell tower is 10th century Saxon and has a wonderful little window set deep into the thick walls. There is a fine Norman north door with toothed arch design. The nave and chancel were rebuilt in the late 12th century. The chancel was rebuilt again in the early English style in the 13th century. In 1874 the Gothic Revival architect Henry Woodyer restored the chancel, rebuilt the aisles and added a vestry to the east of the north aisle. The bell tower has a peal of five bells – two cast in 1874 and 1876, a third cast in 1928 and new treble and second bells cast in 1949. There was a treble bell, now inside the church, cast in about 1200 for Hugh and Sibilla Gargate and is believed to be the oldest inscribed bell in England. There are a number of graves of military personnel killed during wartime training flights.
Beyond the church is Caversfield House, designed by C.R. Cockerell and built in 1842–45 on the site of the former manor house. The manor, like Bicester, used to be in Buckinghamshire but was transferred in 1844 to Oxfordshire. Before the Conquest it was the property of Edward, a man of Earl Tosti. In Domesday it was held by William de Warenne. The overlordship of the Earls Warenne lasted until the beginning of the 14th century, when it passed before 1317 to Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. The manor passed through numerous hands in the subsequent centuries. A little can be glimpsed through the trees. Back down the main road. A small stream runs under the road behind Home Farm. The older stone buildings have all been converted to residences. One of the large housing estates reaches the road there is some variety in the construction I cannot say it is a particularly inspiring site. The Banbury Road crosses the east-west road north of the town, the Whitney road, and continues into the town centre to meet the Roman Road. Past Bure Park, a large modern estate trying to look Georgian.
Part way down the road is an extraordinary looking Ash tree. There are at least 11 trunks rising from a long bole. I imagine a tree has fallen and these trunks have sprouted from the dying prostrate one. A pair of pillars stand by the entrance to Bure Park Nature Reserve. Alder has been planted along the path and at sometime an attempt was made to layer it into a hedge but seems to have been abandoned. A Wren ticks and starlings “sing”. Into the nature reserve which is basically scrub and young trees with fences falling to pieces with neglect. The Bure runs through the centre of the reserve. A Red Setter decides to lay down in the stream. The geology is Cornbrash Formation limestone laid down in Jurassic 161-168 million years ago. The stream has cut into the Forest Marble Formation, an older Jurassic limestone interbedded with mudstone 165-168 million years ago.
Out of the park and under the railway heading towards Bucknell Road. Again the whole area is a vast late 20thcentury housing estate. A short row of shops contains a butcher with also selling vegetables and a baker’s but what looks like the estate pub is closed. The houses are now mid 20thcentury. The Bure passes underneath the road. On the far side of the stream is a primary school unsurprisingly called Brookside. Houses grow older and are now interwar properties. At the foot of the road is the old school of 1869 with a small bellcote but no bell. At a crossroads I turned down St Johns Street. Cherwell District council offices, Oxfordshire libraries and a Travelodge all occupy modern buildings. The shopping centre behind the Sheep Street has a concrete modernist car park. Round past the bus station. The Bure continues, here culverted under a series of modern shops before emerging at the foot of the Market Square by Causeway.
Back to the church of St Edburg but it is still locked, despite the notice which says it should be open at this time, which is disappointing. It is thought that a Saxon church stood on its site in around 850CE. A triangular arched entrance set in the north wall of the current nave may have been the original entrance. In the early 12th century, the Normans radically altered and extended the building. Gilbert Basset oversaw the addition of transepts, an extended chancel and, possibly, a central tower so the church probably took on an archetypal cruciform shape. Rounded Romanesque arches that could have supported a central tower still exist in front of the chancel and at the crossing point between the transepts. The south aisle was added in around 1250, with an arcade built through the original nave wall with Early English pointed arches, clustered column supports and deeply undercut capitals. A north aisle was added around 1340 with its more robust octagonal columns along with a north chapel. This chapel, now the vestry, once had an upper chamber, perhaps to lodge the sexton, but which was later used from the late 17th century as a school room for a grammar school founded by the Vicar. The doorway into the school can still be seen on the exterior. In 1390, a clerestory was built on top of the original nave walls to shed more light into the central nave. The west tower was built was erected around 1420. Around the same time, the north porch was added, its tiny upper storey once housing the church records and chests. Nearly all of the medieval stained glass was lost to a lightning storm of 1765.
Through the graveyard and on across extensive playing fields. Across a road into Bicester Village, a shopping centre (or should that be retail outlet?) full of the most expensive shops one can imagine – Stella McCartney, Gucci, Armani, Vivienne Westwood, Victoria Beckham and many posh looking shops with names I have never heard of. The whole place is rather surreal. Hardly anything is priced – if you need to know the price, you can’t afford it....
Back on the Roman Road and the altogether cheaper end of the retail superstores – Burger King, Tesco, McDonald’s. The sun has made no impression at all on the temperature is still finger nippingly cold. A small artificial lake wind its way in front of McDonald’s and under a road leading to the superstore. Stones are sited in the grass verge indicating the highway boundary with a couple of arrows. A verdigris green piece of art stands on a mound. It is called “Turning” and by Charlotte Mayer, unveiled in 2016. Beyond the dual carriageway are new offices and beyond them yet more new housing. A large billboard on the edge of a wide open greenfield site advertises “a new office development 30000 up to 500000 square feet”. A Fire and rescue lorry screams past. Off onto a minor road heading south east. Here is another huge retail park, this one somewhat down market from Bicester Village. Strip of land between this lane and the main road is being cleared one supposes for even more housing or could it possibly yet another retail park although it looks too small for the latter. In the other direction stand eight poultry units. A digger is piling up soil which is being brought here by large lorries from the site up the road. There is a planning application notice which says the land here is being developed for a business park, so neither housing nor retail as I tried guessing an earlier.
The lane narrows. An old barn with blacksmithed girders is rotting away. Opposite is Promised Land Farm, which looks abandoned. A small flock of Fieldfares flies over beyond the gate is a flat featureless field the site of the Roman town of Alchester. The site had a strategic location at a crossroads on the Silchester-Dorchester on Thames-Towcester road and the Cirencester-St Albans road (Akeman Street). It has been shown to be one of the earliest legionary fortresses in Roman Britain after the invasion of 43CE. There is uncertainty about its Roman name, it has been suggested it was Alavna with the Old English, ceaster added to signify a fort. The discovery in 2003 of fragments of the tombstone of Lucius Valerius Geminus, a veteran of the Legio II Augusta is significant in that it shows he retired from the legion while stationed at Alchester and even though he came from north-west Italy he remained here until his death. The site was abandoned by the 5th century CE.
Back to Bicester. Two Red Kites are floating over a Premier Inn on the main road. Clouds are thickening and the wind is rising. Back to the lake which is in apparently Bicester Office Park which is strange as it contains just a McDonald’s and a Tesco’s. A Mallard rises from the reed bed and heads down the water quacking gently then soars away.
Bicester Village station looks like a new station in grey painted metal, but it opened in 1850. The approach is through an artwork, “Notes to Strangers” by Andy Leek. Out of the village and back across the playing fields. Along a ginnel which comes to an unpaved road. A stable and forge are now residences. They are 18th century and possibly in the site of one of the Priory gatehouses. The Priory was Augustinian and never a rich establishment. Little remains of it now. Next to stables is the Old Priory. This is possibly the hospice of the Priory, dating from the late 15th century, modified a century or so later using stones from the Priory which was dissolved in 1536. The house called the Priory Gate has been extensively modified. Priory Terrace is dated 1890. Modern houses have infilled the lane. Across a small bridge, past The Priory and into firstly Priory Lane then Priory Road. The houses here late Victorian and Edwardian on one side and 1930s on the other including a fine art deco flat topped building in white. At the end of the road is St Edburg’s Hall,a fine Victorian Gothic hall of 1882 designed by the architect E. G. Bruton and erected at a cost of £1,200. It is now offices.
Into London Road, another past of the B4100. There are a couple of large late Victorian houses and a number of early 20thcentury homes. An old terrace is called the Hermitage, a late 17th century house now divided into two. Next to it is the former lock-up. Behind the road is Garth Park with a large house in the corner which, since 1946, has been the town council offices. The house was formerly the residence of the Keith-Falconer family. The house was built in the 1870s and by 1876 was owned by a London-based banker of German origin, Baron Adolf Deichmann who used it as a hunting lodge. He renamed the house, the Garth – it had originally been known as the Poplars. There is bandstand and a rather strange flower bed with the symbol of a sword and axes and a 2 and 3. It is a dedication to the 23 Pioneer Regiment. On the road outside the offices is a much converted building of 1896, also part of the council offices. Back again in London Road on the junction are several of buildings, one of which is 13th century. Hometree house is a very large Georgian building now a care home. It was built in first half of the 19th century, supposedly paid for by Thomas Davis, an apothecary. By 1874 the building had passed into the hands of Baron Schroeder, a London merchant banker whose bank, Schroeder’s, still exists. He used the house as a country retreat and hunting box. It housed Bicester County School (later Bicester Grammar School) from September 1924.
It has started to rain. The King’s Arms hotel has buildings attached to it in London Road which are 17th and 18th century. The main hotel which stands in the Market Square is 18th century although possibly earlier. A market is being held in Sheep Street and again, I retreat from the rain into The Bell. Route
Monday – Mortimer Forest – Today, in the ever-changing weather, has brought blue skies and bright sunshine. The furious winds of the last few days have dropped. Into the Mortimer Forest for the first time for a while. Up from Blackpool car park. Great Tits call in the woods. Further up the path, deeper into the wood, the Great Tit’s calls are joined by chattering Blue Tits and whooping Nuthatches. Higher up, it is clear that the wind has not gone away and is blowing noisily through the tall Spruces. Some of the saplings been cut down on the old enclosure but is still very overgrown and unless you knew there were banks and ditches here delineating the enclosure, you would not see them. Out onto Climbing Jack Common. Bluebell leaves are appearing beneath dead Bracken. Snow lingers in sheltered spots. Behind Titterstone Clee has a thin coating of snow.
Up to High Vinnells. I pause by the jumble of logs and pieces of wood that was once the radio relay shack. The wind is blustery and chilling. The distant hills are misty but clear enough to see patches of snow.
Sunday – Leominster – Another storm has passed through. Storm Gareth brought high winds and rain. Today there is still a wind but the sky is blue and the clouds are disappearing into the eastern sky. Goldfinches search for food among the seed balls hanging from the Plane tree opposite the Chequers Inn. A Chiffchaff is singing behind the White Lion pub. A singing Robin sits on a twig above the railway line. The River Lugg is running high and fast. Its water is a dirty grey. There is more bird song, Great Tits, Wrens, more Robins and Blackbirds. Red conical male catkins cover the Black Poplars. Many are scattered across Easters Meadow where they have been blown by the gales.
The sun has brought out the traders and the market is much larger this week, still the same rubbish though. A new fence has been put up along the railway and the pale grey strip stretches off into the countryside. The Kenwater is also flowing high and rapidly. A Dunnock flies across the water up into a tree and lets out a burst of song. The coach disgorges its passengers in Broad Street car park. People pour off into the town although I am not sure where they are going to go at this time of morning.
Wednesday – Home – The weather continues to improve. This afternoon is positively mild. Comma butterflies twist around each other in a wild dance up against the evergreen leaves of the Laurel. A Great Tit is still searching the apple trees for food. The local Nuthatch is beginning his spring call, soon we will be hearing this from dawn to dusk for the rest of the spring. Flowers are about to burst on the crab apple tree and one of the old pears. Blossom is already out on one of the damsons. There is frogspawn in the pond. A dozen Lesser Black-backed Gulls flyover making a cacophony. Towards the end of the afternoon the sky grows dark.
In the greenhouse there are broad beans and lettuce is ready to plant out. The beds have not yet been prepared a job, I must get on with. A bumble bee buzzes past. Primroses are in flower over the garden, they have spread to the grass and underneath the trees making a true spring vista. Hellebores continue to flower. These are strange plants, their heads always hanging down so one never sees the beautiful little flower centres. Under the holly trees there is a large spread of Lungwort. Daffodils are still in flower, scattered all around the garden, cheerful precursors of spring. Rhubarb is shooting up now I need to start picking and cooking it. I will probably give up freezing so much of it as it seldom all gets used through the year. A wind springs up as the clouds move away but there are still more on horizon.
Thursday – Bodenham Lake – Every day it seems to become slightly more spring like. The pussy willow has turned yellow as the pollen fills the fluffy seed heads. New growth appears on Blackberry brambles. Leaves burst on various trees. A Grey Squirrel hustles across the path as I head down towards the lake. A cloud of gnats hovers above the track. Birdsong is almost completely drowned out by the cackling of the Canada Geese further down the lake. The meadow is still soft and muddy after recent rain. Robins, Dunnocks and Song Thrushes are all feeding along the edge of the meadow. A Green Woodpecker flies towards Westfield Wood. A Chiffchaff calls in the coppice.
The main flock of Canada Geese is on the far side to the west of the new hide. There is a couple of Greylag Geese, almost certainly feral, with them. This side the lake is quiet, just a few Mallard in pairs, a couple of Tufted Duck and Coot. A single Cormorant is in the trees. Canada Geese are fighting on the eastern island. Another Cormorant flies into the trees, this one has an all white breast. A pair of Coot mate quickly on the small area of scrape, ignoring the pair of cackling Canada Geese behind them. A Carrion Crow has found a dead frog in the reeds and is feasting upon it. Back in the orchards, buds are appearing on some of the apple trees.
Friday – Camnant – The sky is overcast, pewter grey. A cold wind blows in from the west. A lane leads northwards out of Hundred House. Chaffinches sing in the trees, lambs bleat in the fields. A row of static caravans lines at hillside. This side of the road is lined with modern houses, although an old mill is hidden below. House Sparrows suddenly burst into chattering. A Red Kite circles behind the houses. A rill pours down from the hillside with a caravan park, passing under the road and down into the small valley of the River Edw below. Both sides of the road are rough common land, Hundred House Common. A Chiffchaff calls from the woodlands to the east. Another caravan park lies on the hillside across the valley. A small 1930s style cottage lies abandoned. A 4x4 draws up to a gate and causing a flock of sheep to come galloping across the field but the vehicle carries on across another field leaving the sheep standing by the fence baaing except for one who is coughing rather unpleasantly. One large ewe continues to chomp whilst the others stand watching; maybe she is Shirley!
Primroses flower on the banks. Roadside hedges of Hazel are covered in yellow-brown catkins. The road comes to a junction, one leg heads up the hill, the other turns through more than 90° and enters Frank’s Bridge, Pontffranc. Confusingly, it appears various sources refer to either Franksbridge or Frank’s Bridge. A stream meanders alongside the road. A Mistle Thrush sings from the top of a tree. A house before the bridge is referred to on old maps as “Frank’s House”. The present bridge is Victorian at its earliest. It crosses the river Edw in Cwm Edw. Across the bridge are several houses that may be a lot older than they look having been modified and altered over the years. A long building divided into several cottages was once The Drovers Arms, so named because the village was on a drovers’ road. The road rises. A fair sized graveyard stands on the slopes with new graves towards the top. Opposite is Franksbridge Baptist Chapel. This is a large red brick building with 10 plaques, 5 either side of the door with the names of benefactors. It was first built in 1835 and then rebuilt in 1909 with a tea room being added later. It is clearly still in regular use. Several bright patches of Lungwort, clearly a domesticated variety, brighten the roadside bank. Road climbs out of the hamlet past number of 20th century houses. At the top of the hill is a large Victorian house, the Manse. A woodpecker has found a good sounding post and is drumming loudly. A Nuthatch runs up and down branches. At a road junction there is a small nature reserve, Werndryd, meaning “Alder Field”.
Along a narrow lane is Franksbridge school, first opened on 29th July 1878. It has the school house attached and a modern extension. There is a sizeable estate of 20th century houses nearby. The lane leaves the village and descends steeply down to the river at Bettws Mill. The mill buildings have been extensively modernised into a fine residence. A gravel track is being laid leading to what looks like a very superior glamping lodge. The lane crosses the River Edw by a modern bridge, it was just a ford in Victorian times, then joining the lane I was originally walking from Hundred House. There is rain in the air, not forecast!
A lane heads westwards just before a bridge over a tributary to the Edw. Ink caps are growing on a pile of dung jumped behind a road salt container. The lane passes a large farmhouse, dated 1744 in Rhoscwm. The farm is called Gwern-hwsmon. The house is 17th century, the porch was added in 1744. Most of the farm buildings have been converted into residencies and there are a couple of modern houses built nearby. The lane starts to climb out of the Edw valley. The lane rises passing through rounded hillsides. Rocks stick out of side of the road into the field. They are grey Lapilli-Tuff, igneous rocks of the Gilwern Volcanic Formation from the Ordovician, 464-467 million years ago. Now the lane drops steeply down to a farm, Cwm, which stands beside the tributary stream. A large stone lies beside the stream and although they are standing stones around here I am not sure this is one of them.
Up out of the valley past a modern house. To the north are cone shaped Ordovician volcanic intrusions rising out is the Camnant Mudstone Formation, all of the same period. In the other direction across the field on the edge of a slight ridge is a map-marked standing stone. Further up the hill a large new pond has been dug beside the road. Out on to Camnant Common. Houses are down in the valley of Camnant Brook. Singing Skylarks, gliding Red Kites and calling Carrion Crows are over the common. A fenced off area of woodland contains a rotting wooden railway wagon among moss covered stones. There was once a house here called New Castle. There is a small length of dry stone wall and a wooden barn in good condition behind it, possibly once a house called Gareg-lwyd. A modern bridge carries the lane across Camnant Brook. A farm, Pendre, stands beyond.
The lane joins the Hundred House to Llandrindod Wells road. A brook has carved a deep valley beside the road. The sides of the valley are fields covered in ant hills. The field ends at The Court which is a pile of stones and a rusting corrugated iron shed. Opposite there is supposed to be a public footpath, but there is absolutely no sign of it. I set across a mossy, tussock-filled bog, then up a hill. Over the hill I find the footpath up Castle Bank. Meadow Pipits squeak on the hillside. The wind is ferocious. The path is skirting the hilltop so I leave it to climb up onto Castle Bank hill-fort.
The summit is very uneven and rocky. A low rampart runs along the western side ending to the south is large piles of rocks. The western side is steep and it seems no rampart was necessary. Two small roofless shelters have been constructed using the stones. The views from the summit are extensive, clearly the reason why a hill-fort was constructed here despite the unfavourable terrain. The hill-fort was two separate constructions.
Down from hill-fort and across the hilltop to a track leading down under cliff face. The track drops off the hill into a small woodland. Continues across the field pass an old quarry into Llwynmadoc farm. The white painted farmhouse is large and old, I would guess 17th century but probably older. It was formerly the home of the Vaughan family. A lane leads down towards the main Builth Wells road. By Bryntwppa farm, the lane crosses Camnant Brook. I cross a short piece of ground to pick up another lane which runs up past Perthi Common to Llansantffraed-in-Elwel, Llansantfraid-yn-Elfael. The wind is much lighter down here and it actually feels warm.
A number of modern houses line the road through the hamlet. A fine Georgian house, Church House, on the hillside overlooks a junction. I take the lane that leads back towards Hundred House (missing the church of St Bridget requiring a revisit). A large Victorian house, Cartref, seems only partly occupied. The lane crosses Colwyn Brook. On the hillside is the bright pink house that sits on the site of Colwyn castle. Onto the main road and back the short distance into Hundred House. Route
Sunday – Leominster – It is a glorious spring day. The sky is cloudless, the sun shining down on the rooftops. Yelping gulls circle, heading off in all directions. Likewise Jackdaws seem to be revelling in the bright light, flying here and there, in pairs and in small flocks. There is a collection of rusty, iron wheeled old farm implements in the plant hire yard. The compline bells ring from the Minster an hour earlier than has been the case over winter. A Chiffchaff and Great Tit are calling loudly beside the railway line. A Chaffinch joins them down by the river. The water level in the River Lugg has dropped somewhat but is still flowing fast. Stinging Nettles are growing fast now. Also growing rapidly is the grass on the meadow. A Comma butterfly flashes past.
The market is far, far larger this week and is something a much greater range of stuff, some of it quite interesting, although nothing I need. One stall is selling Oriental and African tourist ware. Several others have wide ranges of copper and brass ornaments, although as the TV antiques’ experts say “who wants to polish copper and brass these days?” It is good to hear various different languages being spoken in the market. The Brexit fiasco has not driven everybody out yet.
A drake Mallard is standing on a clump of weeds at the confluence of Cheaton Brook and the Lugg. Round by the Kenwater, Dunnocks, a Song Thrush and Robins are all singing loudly. The Minster bells start ringing. Ivy berries have finally ripened and are being rapidly stripped.
Home – I spread compost on one of the vegetable beds and plant out the broad beans that have been sprouted in the greenhouse. It looks like the lettuce I planted out under a poly-cloche have been eaten by slugs. The peas I sowed in the bed a couple of weeks back seem to have rotted so another row goes in. The peas in the greenhouse were all eaten by mice, however, they are no more! Another row is sown. I also sow trays of beetroot, chard and more lettuce.
Wednesday – Shrewsbury – We take the train for a day out in the county town of Shropshire. Dana bridge is closed for repairs, so we head up Castle Gates, into Windsor Place and down St Mary’s Water Gate. A new development is on one side of the steep lane and an imposing brick wall on the other. At the foot of the lane is a narrow, mediaeval arched gateway onto the river side. Seven Goosander are on the River Severn by the English Bridge, all females. A drake Mallard is by the bank, head down, tail in the air. Stone dolphins stone adorn the central pillars of the bridge. On the other side, a young Cormorant is flapping its wings in the water. A Grey Wagtail flies across the water. Feral pigeons huddle on thinnest of ledges.
On round the riverside walk. Weeping Willows line the banks. The have beautiful lime-green leaves. Opposite are two boathouses, Shrewsbury School and Pengwern. The latter is the oldest rowing club in Shropshire, holding a regatta in 1854. A statue of Hercules is a lead copy of the famous Farnese Hercules. It dates from the early 18th century and is attributed to Jan van Nost. The statue was moved to the entrance of the quarry in 1851, with his back to the town so he does not offend womenfolk. He assumed his present position in 1881. An avenue of Lime trees was planted by Percy Thrower as parks superintendent. The original Limes were introduced in 1719 but they were felled between 1946 and 1952 as a trees were considered unsafe. The Porthill footbridge was erected in 1922 and presented to the town by the Shropshire Horticultural Society and the residents of Porthill and District. It was built by David Rowell and Company Ltd, engineers of Westminster.
A 4-person rowing boat passes although only two of the young women are actually sculling. Large house overlooks the river close to the Welsh bridge where Margaret Agnes Rope lived and artist. She was known for her intense religious imagery in stained glass in the arts and crafts style. Onto Victoria Quay where we have lunch. We then wander through the town past numerous shops, many good local businesses. An old school is hidden behind shops in Wyle Cop. The building is late 16th century, refaced in the 18th century.
Into the Castle Gardens. Beds of spring flowers make a magnificent display. The castle was built around 1070 by Roger of Montgomery on the site of a wooden Anglo-Saxon fortification. In 1138, during the Anarchy, Stephen successfully besieged the castle which was held by William FitzAlan for the Empress Maud. Llywelyn the Great, briefly held the castle in 1215. Edward I demolished and rebuilt it around 1300. The castle was extensively repaired in 1643 during the Civil War. It was acquired by Sir Francis Newport in 1663. Further repairs were carried out by Thomas Telford on behalf of Sir William Pulteney in 1780. It was bought by the Corporation of Shrewsbury in 1924 and now houses a military museum. We climb Laura’s tower built as a folly by Telford. The view is extensive, especially that of the great railway junction and signal box below. A steam engine pulling a couple of goods wagons pulls out of a side. The engine passes through the station as we await our homewards train. It is LMS Stanier Class 8F 8151 (British Railways No 48151).
Friday – Skirrid Fawr-Ysgyryd Fawr – Visibility is reduced to a few yards as fog covers the land. It has not lifted by the time I reach Abergavenny. The air is damp and cool. Down from the station towards the town centre. Glancing at the front of a garden, I realise that the holy well is there. I must have passed it a dozen times or more without noticing it, although I knew there was one around here somewhere – Holywell Road is a bit of the giveaway. Over the River Gavenney. Through the town passing St Mary’s Priory. On to the Ross Road. Eastgate Terrace is typical redstone construction for this area and dated 1892. Apart from another Victorian terrace, Skirrid Fawr Terrace, houses here are all mid to late 20th century. Remains of what looks like bridge buttresses stand either side of the road, but none is shown on the maps. They were probably something to do with the Priory Mill that stood here. A Chiffchaff calls from woodlands around the river. The road nears the river which is down steep bank where Bluebells are starting to come into flower.
Past Junction cottages which stood quite a long way north of the junction of the LNWR Merthyr, Tredegar and Abergavenny and the GWR Newport, Abergavenny and Hereford lines, the first completely gone, that latter the modern Manchester to South Wales line. But behind the cottages was Abergavenny Junction station. Over the river on the other side what look like pill boxes stand on top earth mounds; these may be something to do with the railway carriage shed that stood beside the railway line. By the 1970s the shed had gone and by a decade later there were coal yards here. The Station House which stood by the road has completely disappeared. On the other side of the road a metal pipe emerges from under the road and crosses the field below on steel pillars some 8 to 10 ft high. This appears to lead to a former sewage works across the river. The Ross Road now passes under the Manchester to South Wales railway line and the Hereford Road. Violets are like little amethyst jewels scattered in the leaf litter between the two bridges. Tall Victorian gates stand at the entrance to Maindiff Court hospital. The Lodge House is beside the road. The walls of the hospital continue. Shortly before the east entrance there is an ornate water trough in the wall. In a horseshoe shaped plaque is the inscription “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast”, (Proverbs 12:10). On the other side of the road llamas feed in a field. Past woodlands where anemones carpet the floor. The road reaches the car park at the foot of the footpath up Skirrid Fawr.
I set off up the path, on the Beacons Way. Into Caer wood where a Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Wren and Blackbirds are all in song. The sun has broken through and at last it is warming and the mist clearing. The climb through the woods is steep. Coal and Blue Tits call. Up a flight of stone steps and out of the woods around up onto the mountain itself. There is a large party on the park carrying the Good Friday Cross to the top of the mountain. However it is not Good Friday but the BBC are filming them and apparently could not film them on the day, so they are doing it today. Views are magnificent albeit still rather misty, particularly to the South with thick clouds obscuring the hills. To the north is the great cone of Sugar Loaf. Up the sandy path towards the summit. Mining bees have already started drilling holes into the path. Sun is warm up here although there is a breeze which keeps me cooler.
The top of the mountain is a long ridge of small outcrops rising to the highest point at the northern end. Beneath this northern summit to the west is a rock face tumbling down into a deep gorge caused by an Ice Age landslip. The upper slopes of the hill are composed of Devonian age sandstones assigned to the Senni Formation. These overlay weaker mudstones of the St Maughans Formation, which has contributed to the instability of the hill’s steep flanks. As usual, there is an alternative explanation for the landslip – it was caused by an earthquake and/or lightning strike at the moment of Christ’s crucifixion. And of course, Jack O’Kent has to get in on the act. He had an argument with the Devil over which was bigger, the Sugar Loaf or the Malvern Hills. Jack’s argument that the Sugar Loaf was bigger proved to be right. In his disgust the Devil collected a huge apron of soil to tip over the Malvern Hills to make them higher. But just as he was crossing the Skirrid the apron strings broke, dumping the soil on the hill and forming the tump at the northern end. Another version is that Jack jumped from Sugar Loaf to Skirrid and the fissure is his heel mark.
At the very top are two stones which form the entrance to St Michael’s Chapel. One has a very worn inscription carved into it. The small Chapel is totally ruined and the triangulation point is now in the centre probably where the altar stood. The chapel is mediaeval although no accurate date seems to have been established. It was used by Roman Catholics when their religion was suppressed. Into the 19th century at least, it is reported that people took soil from the top of Skirrid to sprinkle on graves, stables and animal byres to keep evil spirits at bay. Descending on the northern edge the path crosses the remnants of the ramparts of the Iron Age hill-fort which stood here.
A path winds its way down the steep northern side which is covered in heather. Meadow pipits fly to and fro. The descent is difficult down a very steep winding earth path and by the bottom my knees are throbbing and my ankles aching. The route still part of the Beacons Way now crosses an open field containing some old trees. An almost dry stream runs down the side of the field. The field over from this one holds a number of sooty black lambs. The route enters a field where the lambs are pristine white. Across several more fields and on to a narrow lane. The lane is sunken some five feet below the level of the surrounding fields. Dog Mercury and Stinging Nettles are growing on the banks. A stream has dug a deep channel beside the road; it is clearly old as there is a substantial stone bridge across it leading to Llwyn Ffranc farm. All of the farm driveways have bottle recycling containers in them. It seems the collection is either rather infrequent or the farmers have an impressive capacity for wine. Pink Butterburs are flowering on a piece of waste land beside the road. A little further down the lane there is a fine display of Primroses including one pink variety. A stream is in a gorge some 30 to 40 feet deep. A field is being disc harrowed by two tractors. A Skylark sings overhead.
The rain continues on and on and eventually joins the A465, the Hereford Road. The old road leads off at Triley, down towards Abergavenny. The old forge and wagon house are now residences. Under the railway bridge and on down the road. A large former farmhouse stands opposite another house which maybe Georgian seems to have 1930s features. Next is a large estate of early 21st century houses. Last time I passed St Teilo’s church it was locked, this time there is a hearse outside so a visit would not be appropriate and I still cannot see inside the building. A short distance further on down the road a new housing estate is being constructed. Through Maerdy and on into the town centre. Route
Sunday – Leominster – The clocks go forward into British Summer Time, an anachronism which nobody in authority seems to want to change. However the darker morning is more because of the louring, overcast sky. The high pressure that has brought us a week of sunny weather passes into much more unsettled period. Bird song from Robins and Blackbirds, twittering from House Sparrows and the raucous yelps of over flying gulls greet the morning. On a number of roofs, Jackdaws peer down chimney pots. There is a cool easterly wind with the hint of rain in the air. Flowering cherries are coming into blossom. Chaffinch and Chiffchaff call by the railway. The River Lugg seems about the same level as last week and still flowing quite rapidly. Brightwells’ compound is full with more police and military vehicles.
I had assumed that the threatening weather and the changing clocks would have put people off coming to the market but in fact if anything, it is slightly larger than last week. Somewhere someone is muck spreading and the air is “fragrant”.
Home – Potatoes were sown earlier in the week. This morning the lawn is mown. I had drained the oil out of the lawnmower in the autumn then used flushing oil. I refill it this morning, put in petrol and it starts without a problem. After the lawn, the asparagus bed is weeded. It is a bit of a misnomer as there are only two surviving asparagus plants there. Whilst weeding I somehow put my arm on a dead twig which has a spike on which is driven deep into my wrist – rather painfully! A short section of another bed is cleared, a slow job as the ground is riddled with Couch Grass.