Saturday – High Offley, Staffordshire – We are camping beside the Anchor Inn on the Shropshire Union Canal. The pub is a gem, a simple beer house. At lunchtime we sit outside in the sun with pints of Wadworth’s 6X pulled by handpump then topped up by jug. No food, no music just beer! A Chiffchaff is calling continuously along with various other songsters – Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Song Thrush and Robin. Occasionally a Cuckoo calls from the distance. After a few pints and a cup of soup we wander down the tow-path to Norbury Junction. The canal passes mainly through woods. One patch has a small encampment with three boats tied up and, strangely, an awning over an old white Rolls Royce motorcar. The corner stones of every bridge are protected by a cast iron column with strange grooves set into it. Maddy is hassling everyone with sticks, demanding they are thrown for her. Inevitably on a couple of occasions the stick bounces into the canal and she is in after it. Norbury Junction is a busy place. The Junction pub has a band playing in the yard. Boats selling “canal boat stuff” and oddly, cheese are tied up. An arm of the canal is the now derelict Newport Branch, that used to connect the Trench and Shrewsbury Canals to the main Shropshire Union Canal system. A large shed now covers the canal with a dry dock. Opposite is a chandlers, part of British Waterways Norbury Yard, selling diesel for what our boating friends think is a very good price! Muscovy Ducks strut about the grassy verge. On the way back we spot a morel growing in the grass verge of the tow-path. Blackthorn is in blossom and with the good number of bees flying, it should be a good year for sloes. By the time we get back to the Anchor it is raining. This soon turns into a full-blown storm and we sit in the awning deafened by the thundering rain. Eventually we retreat to the pub where there is a roaring fire – a splendid way to end the day.
Sunday – High Offley – It was a windy and cold night, but it is bright and sunny this morning, if a little noisy with the dawn chorus and a cockerel. Added to the normal songs is the bubbling call of Curlews which drift down across the fields. I take Maddy along the canal, northwards this time. There are dozens of boats tied up along this stretch. Mallard wing their way in much to Maddy’s interest. A pair of Shelduck are grazing around a flash pool in a cow pasture. In the early dawn I had heard a piping call overhead reminiscent of an Oystercatcher. This identification is confirmed later in the morning when another flies over piping – slightly odd because we are a very long way from the sea. We return up the canal in the afternoon. The Shelduck are still feeding around the muddy pool. We get as far as The Wharf pub which is on a road way below the canal. The Shebdon Wharf itself has an old crane on the dock.
Bank Holiday Monday – High Offley – Along the canal to he first bridge and then up a winding lane to the village. It stands high on the ridge with the church of St Mary dominating the skyline. It is Norman in origin with much of the present fabric dating from the 12th century. The tower has four bells of which one is 15th century. Another, from 1601, has on it the prayer for Queen Elizabeth I:
The place name, High Offley, derives from the personal Anglo-Saxon name of Offa and “lea” meaning a wood and thus means “Offa’s wood”. In the Domesday Book of 1086 the manor of Offelie was part of the lands of Robert de Stafford and his tenant was Urfe. The old school is a private residence and on the junction is the Manor House, probably an 18th century building in need of a lick of paint. It was held for many generations by the Skrymsher family. All the outbuildings are converted into apartments. There are several farms in the village and a few other houses, one a fine half-timbered buildings. Remains of a Roman road have been found just north of the church and a lot of Roman finds in the fields leading to conjecture that this is the site of a Roman station, once thought by Dr Robert Plant in 1686 to be Mediolanum, but this is now associated with Whitchurch. A lane leads back down hill, past a stud farm to the Anchor at Old Leas. Curlews are again drifting across the fields with the haunting calls.
Tuesday – Risbury – From Humber church a path leads across the fields to Risbury with its Iron Age hillfort. Nearing the edge of Risbury, in a wide open field, stands Gob’s Castle which appears to be an old shepherd’s cottage, now in a state of disrepair. There is a wide corridor on one side leading to a lean-to back room. Two more rooms lay beside this, on with a fireplace and what looks like a warming oven. On the outside, this warming oven is a circular stone built extension about six feet high. It looks much older than the brick built cottage. There are marks over the front door that show where a porch was once attached. A pump stands nearby with a manhole cover. The path continues on down the field until its crosses Humber Brook. Maddy makes a considerable fuss about going over stiles – indeed she simply will not do it, so I have to lift her over. On the other side the path runs along the bottom edge of the ramparts of Risbury Fort. Sadly, there is no access to the hill, it is heavily wooded on its flanks and an orchard has been planted on the fort interior. Romano-British pottery has been found at the site, which indicates it was occupied after the early years of Roman occupation. The site covers some 28 acres and is an unusual lowland site. On the way back I hear a Green Woodpecker calling from a line of trees but it remains hidden.
Wednesday – Home – An annoying ankle injury keeps me rather immobile. The first Swift of the year wings overhead. The rain over the weekend has given a boost to the garden. The first Broad Bean flowers have emerged, the potatoes continue to grow well – one has flower buds, the peas have shot up and lettuces flourish. Apple blossom covers the trees. It looks like the Howgate Wonder will produce this year after the previous season’s miserable effort. Of course, less welcome plants are enjoying the weather – Dandelions are everywhere and weeds outgrow the vegetable seedlings. The grass needs cutting but it will have to wait.
Sunday – Leominster – This morning feels like Spring after a cold and wet period. The sun is bright and it is warming a damp landscape. A Sedge Warbler is singing from near the railway. A little later, returning from the Sunday market, a swirling, screaming flock of Swifts is over the river.
Home – Tree contractors have been removing the old trees from the bottom of the garden. It is a bit of a shock when they finish as the area looks so different. We have plans for a pond and some new fruit trees. The contractors warn us that the apple tree covered in Mistletoe is dead. When the tree dies, so does the Mistletoe as is apparent.
Thursday – Croft – A brief morning walk as I have to be back in Leominster by mid-morning. Bluebells are now at their peak with an azure on emerald drift through the woods. Patches of blue are speckled with tiny stars of white Stitchwort. Tree leaves have that pristine appearance that so quickly fades in summer. Birds are singing, in particular a Song Thrush is clear and fluid. A Blackcap’s contribution is equally clear but more complex. A Nuthatch runs up the great branches of a Beech. On the hillside is an ancient great Oak with a large chasm in its trunk. Light shines down the chamber within the tree from holes left by fallen branches. Despite the devastation of the trunk, the crown is bright green with new growth. A bank of Wild Garlic fills the air with pungency. Fiddles-heads of unfurling ferns adorn the edge of the path.
Monday – Bodenham Lakes – I have known about this nature reserve for some time, indeed we looked at a house opposite its entrance during our house search, but this is my first visit. The site is much larger than I had thought, in fact it is largest area of open water in Herefordshire. The area was hay meadows at the time of the Domesday Book, 1086. The fields were Court Meadow, Vernford Meadow and Water Galls. They were part of the lands of Devereax Court, the family being ancestors of the Marquis of Bath. The house became part of Hampton Court. Part of the land belonged to the church of St Mary and became Lady Close Farm around 1814. Gravel extraction started on a small scale but became a major site in the 1920s. After extraction ceased, the pits flooded and came into the ownership of Leominster Council, and then Herefordshire County Council. A path leads across a meadow where small blue butterflies and whites flit but refuse to settle. Blackcaps are singing in the yound woods. A bird hide overlooks some gravel banks where a flock of Canada Geese are their usual noisy selves. Most are preening, some splashing wildly. A pair of Tufted Duck sleep on the island. A few Mallard, Coot and a single Mute Swan are out on the water. There are no hirundines present despite the clouds of gnats and midges everywhere. A Cormorant dries its wings on a raft. Heavy clouds are passing overhead but no rain falls. Back along the meadow, a Chiffchaff has joined the Blackcap in song. An orchard covers several meadows with a fine collection of apple and pear trees. A board identifies each tree, 11 Perry, 19 Cider Apple, 13 old Standard Apples and 28 new Apple varieties.
Thursday – Croft – Peter and I head off down the Fish Pool Valley on yet another hot morning. Despite the lack of rain the valley is verdant. The water level in the pools is low and fish can be seen gliding into the shade. Yellow Rattle has come into to flower, as has the Ransoms. By the time we have climbed to Croft Ambrey we are perspiring freely. The Ash has finally come into leaf, some time after the Oak. The views are disappointing as a mist covers the hills. Back down the hill the ancient Spanish Chestnuts are in leaf.
Friday – Kingsland – A village a few miles to the west of Leominster. It is a slightly strange place with a lot of modern houses hidden away in private cul-de-sacs. An old pub, The Angel and the Post Office sit opposite the Millennium Green, the old village green with a few additions! Areas of grass have been left unmown and are full of Red Clover, yellow Buttercups and purple Vetches. Beyond is the church. To the west of the church is a field which leads past the motte of a castle. The castle was built by the de Braose family around 1130. Before this there had been a palace built by King Merewald, founder of Leominster Priory in 660CE and it is believed he was buried here. King John stayed at the castle between the 2nd and 3rd August 1216 when he was in dispute with the de Braoses. It is possible he destroyed the castle before moving on as his successor, Henry III gave the “bails of Kingeslen” to William Marshall on 25th April 1230. The term “bails” indicates there was nothing but a mound there at that time. The remains of a stone keep were still visible in the 17th century.
The church of St Michael and All Angels was built between 1290 and 1310 by the Mortimers on the site of an earlier building. The square tower was heightened in the 15th century and there is a prominent clock which was installed in 1877 as a memorial to Thomas Roberts and bears the initials of John Gethin and Benjamin Sanders, the churchwardens. Off the north porch is a small chapel called the Volka Chapel. It is a unique feature and may have served as a chantry so masses could be said either for an early benefactor of the church or the dead of the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. Within the Volka Chapel, by the church wall is an open stone coffin where it is said that the bones of a woman and child were found when it was opened in 1826. Inside the church there is a painted chancel roof dating from the 1866-1868 restoration of the church by G.F. Bodley. The east window is 14th century glass and there is another similarly aged window on the north wall of the chancel. There are other 14th century fragments as well as 19th and 20th century windows. A goodly number of tablets adorn the walls including one of John and Emily Gethin, their two children, their friend, Jemima Peace and “Faithful Nurse” Eliza Preston who all were lost in the steamer “Drummond Castle” off Ushant on June 16th 1896. On the wall is a display of the old bell clappers from 1790. Outside is the remains of an old cross. On the north side is an old wooden porch, now closed off and converted into a kitchen and W.C.