Friday 1st May – Leominster – April departs in sunshine and showers. This morning is bright with a great black mound of cloud to the east. A Swallow is high above the river. Most the trees are now in leaf. The Oak seems to have beaten the Ash, so according to the old rhyme we should be expecting only a splash of rain this summer – interestingly, the long-range weather forecast is predicting a warm, dry summer. The Bluebells along the bottom of the churchyard have been subsumed in a thick swathe of Stinging Nettles. A few clumps of Cowslips are still standing but almost in seed. White Dead Nettle displays its creamy white flowers whilst the purple lips of Self-Heal hide in the grass.
Saturday 2nd May – Upton upon Severn – Here at this pretty riverside town for the annual folk festival. After an heroic night of beer on a rather empty stomach, I arise maybe a little jaded to a bright morning. Across the fields a Cuckoo calls from woods. Beyond on the skyline are the familiar humps of the Malvern Hills. Maddy has a session of ball chasing before coming back to the tent and mumbling at people rising. A Chiffchaff is very vocal in nearby trees. We head into the town where Morris dancers are performing everywhere. Then back to the tent to leave Maddy behind – she still cannot behave well enough to take her into pubs. We return to the town for a performance by our friends Zöe and Dave in the Baptist Church hall. Zöe comments it is the first dry (alcohol-free) venue she has performed in, sipping water rather than her usual pint. We watch the next act but the need for a beer is too great so we retreat to a pub. Dave and Zöe play their songs again in the pub. However, a large group come in to do a sing around, or rather a groan around! The song about someone’s pet hamster drives us out.
Sunday 3rd May – Upton upon Severn – A Whitethroat is singing in the hedgerow across the field behind the camp side. Whilst searching, unsuccessfully, for it through the binoculars I am surprised when a Kingfisher flashes by. Chiffchaffs and Blackbirds are also in song. There is a strong north-westerly wind blowing and a Common Buzzard hangs near motionless in the turbulent airs. I take Maddy off down the old disused railway line towards Great Malvern. Garlic Mustard is in flower everywhere. On the way back, Maddy drops her ball down a deep hole in the path and stands there expecting me to do something about it. There is no hope of retrieving the ball so her game comes to an end. On the camp-site a group of people are dancing around a May Pole. At midday there is a parade of Morris teams down the High Street. There are dozens of them all in different costumes – May maids with bowers of flowers, grizzled men in coats of rags, one team all in black and looking quite menacing and a splendid lot in pink – bearded men in pink skirts and dresses! At one point, they pass the cloths they wave around between their legs for the person behind to take and dance along like a snake or elephant’s trunk whilst their musicians appropriately play “Nellie the Elephant”. We manage to get ensconced around a table in a pub yard overlooking the riverside street. Dancers are performing up and down the street, including a belly dance troupe. Young women dancing sinuously to a drum beat whilst balancing a large sabre on their heads is both sensuous and rather frightening. Morris dancers then perform in the yard next to us. One group from Lichfield are dressed as wizards, druids, green-men and other strange outfits. They do not have the professionalism of some teams but are obviously enjoying themselves. When they finish they are replaced by a women’s team from the Isle of Wight, who have a tall spectral accordion player in a black overcoat, headscarf covered by a black top-hat and dark glasses. We eventually stagger back to the camp-site for one of Dave’s curries (or several of Dave’s curries!)
Wednesday 6th May – Leominster – A grey, blustery morning but hope of summer scythes overhead – a pair of Swifts. A little later in the morning there are a number of them sweeping low over the roofs of shops in Broad Street.
Madley – A small village to the west of Hereford. I stop briefly and wander around the edge of the churchyard. The village, historically known as Matle or Lann Ebrdil is known as the birthplace of St Dyfrig or Dubricius, the chief saint of Ergyng (a Welsh Kingdom of the 5th and 7th centuries CE, mainly consisting of what is now Western Herefordshire, later called Archenfield by the English). The Book of Llandaff relates that Dyfrig was the illegitimate son of Ebrdil, who was herself the daughter of King Peibio of Ergyng. This is considered unlikely, the real connection being that the church in Madley was originally dedicated to St Ebrdil, hence the name Lann Ebrdil. I am unable to view the church, it is closed and Maddy is pulling annoyingly because she wants to run off with her ball! Back on the main road, the old forge looks empty and forlorn. Swallows are now common over the villages and fields and more Swifts are flying high.
Friday 8th May – Leominster – Off down to the river meadows with Maddy. The River Lugg is as low as I have seen it. A Chiffchaff is the only song to be heard over the noisy rustling and groaning trees as the wind lashes them. Red Campion rises pink above a wall of Stinging Nettles along the edge of the river bank. Yellow Meadow Buttercups grow this side of the nettles. A bee is visiting one – it has a broad light band across its abdomen, but I cannot identify it. Back across the path that crosses the meadow and downstream. An apple tree is heavy with pink blossom. Maddy runs under the kissing gate and onto the path under the A49. She lays there, drops her ball and watches it roll across the path and off the side of the retaining wall above the river. She then stands and looks down at the river, some six feet below. She then looks at me as if she expects me to do something! Her ball bobs off downstream. Beyond the bridge there is a large patch of Butterbur with their huge leaves spreading but no flowers yet.
Tuesday 12th May – Credenhill – In glorious sunshine Maddy and I set off up the track towards Credenhill Iron Age Fort. The woods are rustling in the strong wind. Maddy insists on putting her ball down to have a sniff and then watching it roll down into nettles or brambles. She then stands there waiting for me to retrieve it. I tire of getting stung and pocket the ball, to her disgust although she soon seems to forget about it and finds a stick. It is cool in the shade of pristine leaves of many tints of green overhead. White flowers of Hedge Bedstraw and the lime-green of Wood Spurge adorn the track’s edge. A set of steps leads up to another track then a path leads to the south-east entrance. A large area of the body of the camp has now been cleared of trees, although a substantial section remains heavily wooded. The rampart path leads eastwards with a steep slope dropping away to the outside. Yellow Broom is in flower, which it is for most months of the year. The Bluebells are just going over but many other early summer flowers are now emerging. Creamy Yellow Archangel grows along the edge of the cleared area. The outside slopes are covered with white Ransom flowers. Herb Bennet with yellow flowers, pink Herb Robert, Bugle with blue labiate blooms, violet Tufted Vetch and a single Early Purple Orchid grow beside the path. The rampart drops steeply down steps at the east gate and then rises again and runs westward along the northern edge. It re-enters the woods and rises and falls up and down steep steps, the depths being the results of quarrying. It is difficult to appreciate the lay of the land in such dense woodland. The area is known as Credenhill Park Wood and may have been owned by Sir Richard Talbot in 1306. Rabbits were probably kept there. As usual in such windy conditions, there is little bird song. Occasionally Robins sing out, a Chaffinch makes a brave attempt before subsiding into silence and on the way back down a Chiffchaff pours forth.
Thursday 21st May – Leominster – The weather has been very changeable for several weeks now. It has rained most days, albeit sometimes only a few showers. The dampness has often been accompanied by gusty wind. However, the trees have welcomed the water and formed great canopies of green. Down on the Millennium Meadow the grasses have grown high and the area is yellow with Meadow Buttercups. Wayfaring Trees have disks of tight white flowers with a halo of larger white blossoms. They line the railway.
Home – The garden changes slowly. Bluebells are coming to the end, Primulas have already gone over. A beautiful red Rhododendron flowers deep in a large bed. Grannies Bonnets, Aquilegia are everywhere. The potatoes have grown high and have filled the new bed – it takes a lot of effort sieving soil from the mound at the bottom of the garden for earthing up. Beans, Broad, French and Runner are doing well. Lettuces are coming on fine. In the greenhouse Aubergines, Green and Chili Peppers are both doing reasonably well, as are the tomatoes but the cool weather has slowed them all down. Courgettes are a disappointment; all have died or are looking very sick, a new batch is sown. Likewise, cucumbers have not thrived and hopefully another sowing will remedy this.
Pembridge – The sun shines as I head towards the River Arrow from this splendid Black-and-White village (although Pevsner insists Pembridge is a town). Maddy cannot make up her mind whether she wants her ball or just sniff everything. This results in her losing the ball with irritating regularity. She is useless at finding it and the long grass does not make it any easier. I quickly become bored with this game and pocket said ball. The river meanders through the broad valley. Here there is a loop that nearly comes back to meet itself – it may not be too many years before the water breaks through the neck of this little round isthmus and an oxbow lake is formed. A drake Mallard bobs on the fast flowing stream. The erosion of the banks has undercut the roots of a large tree which has come down across the river. On an open stretch Sand Martins sweep low and chase each other. Maddy is in the river, slurping down the clear, cool water. In the long grasses a damsel fly rests, a female Agrion virgo with a brilliant green body and dark brown wings. Back along the edge of the field where Red Campion and Ground Ivy bloom, pink and blue respectively. Overhead a Common Buzzard mews. A muddy path leads towards the three-arch bridge. A small park has been constructed on the far bank. The Common Buzzard stands on a path but flies off as I approach.
There’s a beech that jumped over the earthwork
And re-grew itself on the outer bank.
There’s an ash that split and pushed down a larch,
They sprang together as their branches grounded.
The ramparts have melted but still hold their place
But the hundred huts have quite disappeared
And only the sheep remain here on the face
Of this place where an Iron Age village was founded.
But it’s not too late from the eastern gatehouse
To descend to where the Yew Tree waits
And murmurs its message of human fate
And it’s not belied on its western side
To gaze on the mountains far and wide
Where the lookouts spied as the warriors ride
And the Romans came, and the Iron Age died.
Sunday 24th May – Croft – Despite it being a British Bank Holiday, the sky is a cloudless blue and the sun blazes down as a group of us (Annie, Dave and Ruby and Ken and Brigid are down from Yorkshire) head up the fields towards Croft Ambrey hill fort. We look for faces in the broken limbs and gnarled trunks of the Spanish Chestnuts. The wooden protectors now contain saplings, presumably of Spanish Chestnut to replace the ancient and dying ones. The wood fringes are light and airy but the ranks of conifers make the forest itself dark and silent. Bird song comes only from the open areas. A Peacock, several Speckled Wood and Small White butterflies flit along the path. Just before the ramparts of the fort a Tree Pipit is launching himself into the air and singing loudly. A Great Spotted Woodpecker grunts nearby. From the top of the fort the views are magnificent. To the south-west are the Eppynt Hills in Powys, heading south the Brecon Beacons with the Black Mountains forming a great whale-back before them. To the south-east are the Cotswolds, just a shadow on the horizon. Closer the humps of the Malvern Hills look serene but one can guarantee they will be busy with visitors today. To the north the Shropshire Hills are in sunshine and the white dome of the air-traffic control system shines like a beacon on Clee. A Willow Warbler is singing down the slope, the first I have heard this year. As families and groups of friends sit on the edge of the fort, others wander the ramparts, it is hard to imagine the bustle of a camp, really a small village up here two thousand years ago in the Iron Age. Throughout the estate are plaques holding poems of the countryside and nature. We head down out of the fort via the east gate and into the woods, descending Lyngham Vallet into Fishpool Valley. Ferns stand in upwards pointing conical vases. Near the old limestone quarry the scent of Wild Garlic, Ransoms is strong. They are in bloom and the white, typically allium type flowers contrast with the dark green leaves in a carpet down to the little stream that feeds the fish pools. We find a couple of beetles, a brilliant crimson Cardinal Pyrochroa coccinea and a longhorn, Rhagium mordax.
Tuesday 26th May – Eaton Hill – Along the riverside meadows to the plantation beyond the road underpass. Wayfaring trees have been planted along with Alders. The former are blossoming with their strange white flowers. A flock of Long-tailed Tits moves noisily through the branches. Hog weed rises high with white dishes of flowers. A damselfly, Banded Agrion (Agrion splendens) rests on a blade of grass. The Latin name, splendens, is apt. Its body is an iridescent blue, the wings clear with a brown patch and a thin line of sparkling bronze. The path beside the paddock is lined, on the river side, by beds of Stinging Nettles and no matter how carefully one passes the vicious things will give a few stings. A horse in the paddock comes to see us which does not impress Maddy. We climb the old trail to Eaton Hill. The spire of the Minster shines golden across the valley. Maize has been planted again in the field on the top. Fortunately, the plants are not right to the edge of the field which allows passage as the proper route of the footpath is under a thick growth of Stinging Nettles. I am looking for Elderflowers but the bushes up here are small, behind the nettle bed and their flowers are some weeks off. A Chiffchaff calls down the hillside. Common Buzzards glide over in the quite powerful winds. Clouds scurry across the sky but it remains dry. There is a contrast of fields at the foot of the hill; one is ploughed into ridges, the soil red and weedless, another is bright lemon yellow of rape and a third is a waving sea of green barley. Back into town and over the Kenwater. Brown Trout lay in channels between the long drifts of emerald green weed, suddenly twisting in the water to snatch a fly drifting down on the current.
Thursday 28th May – Croft – Off down the Fishpool Valley. At the top of the slope stands a tall, erect Oak tree. There are no side branches for many feet, so one can imagine the superb beams a woodsman could obtain from such a tree. There are just a few Rhododendrons in the woods. It is hoped the estate managers keep this beautiful but very invasive shrub under control. Bird song is sporadic – a snatch of Song Thrush, a teaser of Robin, muttering Blue Tits and a few cycles of Great Tit. Five drake Mallard, probably non-breeders, float on one of the pools. Over the dam and by the outflow, which seems a complicated set of walls and gullies and up into the woods. The woods are a mixture of deciduous trees and conifers. A Chiffchaff calls and a Great Spotted Woodpecker also occasionally makes its presence heard. The path emerges on the edge of Bircher Common. Above the stile into the common there is a large Oak with a jagged hole where a branch has broken off. Bees have a nest in the hole and are humming around the tree. Down the common on an old cobbled track, almost to Croft Lodge and then back into the woods. Back down into the valley and up the far side. Up the hillside is a circular construction of just a few courses of brick. This was the icehouse, an igloo shaped cellar where winter ice was stored for summer refreshments.