Sunday – High Offley – The sun is shining but the wind is still gusting strongly. Maddy has her morning constitutional around the lanes. Comfrey is growing thickly on a verge near Leawood Farm. Cows are in a meadow and come trotting across to investigate Maddy who is off down the lane at a brisk trot with an occasional worried glance back at the black and white bovines. Goldfinches sit on the wires, as does a singing Greenfinch. Along the canal where a Garden Warbler sings loudly from a dense green thicket. We have an indolent day sitting around chatting, off to the pub for a few, then back to the tents and more chatting, drinking and taking turns at hurling tennis balls across the field for Maddy. Back in the pub for a few more pints in the evening then off to the boat to see if we can make any more impression on the pots and pots of curries. Maddy decides all the coming and going from the kitchen to the table is too much and sneaks off to the canal path. I call her back and Annie heads off to retrieve her. Meanwhile Brigid turns to look out of the window and yelps as she comes face to face with a wet canine nose looming out of the dark through the window. Maddy merely looks and wonders why everyone is in hysterical laughter.
Wednesday – Home – Recent frosts have caused damage. We cannot see any fruit on the apricot despite the decent number of flowers earlier in the spring. The potatoes have been hit, several plants are looking very sorry for themselves with brown and blackened leaves. The ongoing drought has added to our problems. One of the fruit trees is looking very unhappy. So are the onions which have hardly grown at all since the winter. My poor results with purple sprouting broccoli continues, the last two remaining plants have grown slowly over recent weeks but over the weekend something, almost certainly a Wood Pigeon, has broken off the top and a number of leaves. The peas are looking pretty good however and the broad beans, whilst quite short, have still got a plethora of flowers and bees are visiting. Most of the greenhouse stock is thriving. Chilli peppers are looking good and will be put into the bed soon. Courgettes and French beans have sprouted. Cucumbers are progressing, although not to the extent that the bathroom pair are doing. Tomatoes in the bathroom are coming into flower. Talking of flowers, the garden is slowly turning into summer. The daffodils are over and the Bluebells are nearly finished, but aquilegias are blooming everywhere. The area around the pond is covered with purple irises and other flowers in various shades of blue. The pond is less pleasant, green algae is growing fast. It is clouding over as I haul cans of water up to the vegetable beds, but rain may be a least a day off. The first Swift of the year glides overhead, dipping each wing in turn.
Friday – Mortimer Forest – The anticipated rain has failed to materialise and another sunny day is in prospect. Bird song fills the woods, layers of song fade into the distance. A Raven calls nearby. The ponds are nearly dried up, a pool of muddy water remains. Up through the Deer Park. Numerous tiny, brass-coloured butterflies or moths, possibly Clouded Buff moths, flit by, never landing or giving a decent view. Blackcaps sing everywhere. Bluebells hang their heads in the rising bracken. Little purple jewels of Violets sparkle in the grass. It is clouding over. Coltsfoot flowers have turned to fluffy heads, many though are just white buttons where the tiny seed parachutes have blown away. The leaves have now emerged. Willow Warblers sing in previously cleared areas of woodland. The calls of sheep and lambs carries from the fields far across the forest. A long brown caterpillar with black stripes crosses the track. Bluebells form large dense blocks of lapis lazuli blue on Climbing Jack Common. Skylarks serenade from on high. A Cuckoo calls from Monstay. The hills and valleys beyond High Vinnalls are misty. Tree Pipits and Willow Warblers take advantage of the young conifer saplings to provide vantage points for song and display. Down across the sea of Bluebells. A Whitethroat dashes from the path to the scrappy hedgerow. Back down in the woods where Speckled Wood butterflies duel above the track. A dung beetle, possibly Aphodius rufipes, lumbers through the grass.
Monday – Croft – Finally the rain arrives. Several days of showers and longer downpours have soaked the earth. The air smells fresh and clean. After a bright start to the morning heavy dark clouds are building rapidly. Bird song suddenly seems to take on a more urgent sound. At first there was only a Green Woodpecker laughing and a Blackbird singing, now Robins, Wood Pigeons, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs are singing continuously. Everywhere is intensely verdant. The Wild Garlic has flowered, the green woodland floor dotted white. Cattle low in the distance. In the valley everything strives to reach the sky; competition for light is fierce. Hawthorns which are stubby, compact trees in many places, here are tall and thin with white blossom cascading like a vine. Flowers vie with grasses and sedges on the edge of the path, yellow Archangel, purple Bugle and pink Herb Robert. I start up the path towards the top of the valley. A Fallow doe and I watch one another. She slips off over the valley top barking loudly. The wind is rising. The sun has returned by the time I reach the edge of the hills, above Leinthall Common. A Cuckoo utters a single refrain from close by. Shortly after it, or hopefully another, calls from a way to the west, probably on Yatton Common. Willow Warbler song dominates now. Speckled Wood butterflies whirl about each other in mating displays in sunlit groves. From the top of Croft Ambrey, great grey clouds tower in the south and rain can be seen obscuring the hills to the west.
Wednesday – Betws-y-coed – We are at a camp-site at Rynys Farm just to the south of Betws-y-coed in North Wales. Willow Warblers serenade as we erect the tent, which has, for some reason, got very tangled. However, we manage it fairly quickly. A tatty looking Raven with missing wing feathers flies over. There are a few breaks in the clouds and it is reasonably warm but as the afternoon draws to a close, the clouds thicken and darken and a chill wind rises. A Chaffinch looks inside the tent awning then perches on a pile of stones behind us. It hops down and looks around the feet of my chair. Eventually, Maddy realises he is there and jumps up causing the little chap to depart. There is a very pleasant view across the hills, Moel Pen-y-bryn, Pen-y-bedw, Rhiw Lwyd and many more. The valleys are cloaked in trees, the southern reaches of the Gwydyr Forest that continues up and beyond Llanwrst. A rill trickles down beside us and provides a cider cooler. A Robin hops along the fence posts by a wall just beyond the stream. Goldfinches hop into the sparse trees. A cock Pheasant struts across the camp site. Mid-evening and belts of rain are moving through but this does nothing to dampen the avian songsters. Blackcap, several Blackbirds, a Song Thrush, Willow Warbler and Robin are all competing with the rain drumming on the tent. I am also fairly sure there is a Sedge Warbler nearby although the song is very intermittent and being buried beneath the other songs.
Thursday – Garmon – A footpath rises up the hill from beside the camp-site farmhouse. It passes through a rocky woodland of Sessile Oak and Hazel that has been coppiced in the past. A vast rock outcrop rises in the middle of the wood. Below it is a short length of what looks like a man-made wall, although what it was used for seems lost in time. I had hoped the rain had passed but frequent showers hit me. Over a field and into a farm, Penrhyddion Canol, through a beautiful farm gate clearly made by a local blacksmith. A magnificent cockerel in the colours of his ancestors, a Jungle Fowl struts in front of us, although the strut becomes rather more a rapid retreat as Maddy gets closer. The path continues down a lane for a short distance then climbs a hill and into a field of sedge and grass. From here Carnedd Moel Siabod can be seen, its summit hidden by cloud. Through some more trees to another field where great mounds of grass- covered rock resemble long barrows. This leads to another field where lies the magnificent Garmon Burial Chamber. An entrance drops down under a massive slab of rock creating a chamber nearly six feet high. This entrance is believed to have been dug in the 19th century when the tomb was used as a stable. The original entrance was to the south. A corridor leads away to another circular, but roofless chamber. Both are about six feet in diameter. Another short passage leads off the corridor, this probably being the original entrance. There is a sign by the chamber indicating it was constructed between 2500-1900BCE, however, other sources indicate it dates from 3500BCE. It is considered to be a distant member of the Cotswold-Severn group of chambered tombs. The site was excavated in 1853 and 1924 when the site was restored. Fragments of one Neolithic and two Beaker pots were discovered. A Celtic iron firedog, dating to the Iron Age, was discovered near the site in 1852. Fortunately, the chamber is surrounded by a fence as a herd of cattle have come to investigate Maddy. We retreat across the field nimbly and head back to the tent through short, sharp showers.
Bodnant – Bodnant Gardens lie on a hillside overlooking a valley between Betws-y-coed and Llandudno. The hill on the far side in turn overlooks the River Conwy. Talking about gardens like this can soon become a list of superlatives, because these are possibly the best gardens we have ever visited. Stars of the show are Rhododendrons. Some people regard them as them as excessively blowsy and that may be true but seeing a hillside of polychromatic shades of red, pink, yellow and white, with all combinations thereof, is simply stunning. The garden featured in a television series last year detailing the massive project to rescue them from years of decline. This persuaded us that we must get here this year to see the results and we have timed it perfectly. This first feast for the eye is a very long pergola covered in laburnum. The hot spring weather has meant the flowers are a week early and are at their peak now. The whole is a tunnel of yellow with blossoms hanging down thickly. Paths lead us through numerous rhododendrons and magnificent old Sequoias to the family mausoleum. Then down into a little ravine to the River Hiraethlyn at the base of the valley. A small lake feeds the river, no bigger than a stream really, via a tall waterfall under a bridge. Colours surround the water. The valley contains an old mill outside of which is a single bloom of Meconopsis, which looks like a blue poppy. A path climbs the hillside past a large outcrop of rock, sedimentary layers that have been tilted over the aeons. Past a pin mill to a long rectangular water feature. Stone semicircular terraces stand beyond a pair of sphinxes. Lilac Wisteria adorns the pergola framework surrounding the terraces. At the top is another pool being fed by a fountain. Above this is the house which was built in 1792 but remodelled by Henry Davis Pochin, a successful industrial chemist, from 1874 until his death in 1895. The house was inherited by his daughter whose husband became the first Baron Aberconwy in 1911. The gardens were handed to the National Trust in 1949. Great Cedars stand near wide lawns surrounded by more intensely coloured rhododendrons.
Conwy – We stop briefly in Conwy. The massive castle towers over the town. Much of the town walls are still standing and we walk along a short section before entering the town centre. We purchase a couple of lamb oggies for lunch and walk down to the old docks to eat them. They are disgusting – damp cardboard masquerading as puff pastry with mint flavoured pap filling it. There are stalls on the dock, one selling beer from a Llangollen brewery (and very nice it is too when I partake of a couple of pints in the evening). We do not stay any longer, but the town certainly looks like it requires a full day of exploration.
Snowdonia – We then drive west to Bangor and turn south to the Llanberis Pass. At Pen-y-Gwyrd we head towards Nantgwynant. From this road the Snowdon Horseshoe can be seen. Crib Goch and Y Lliwedd stand high and dark but Yr Wyddfa, the summit is lost in cloud. Down to Nantgwynant, the first time I have been back here for over twenty years. I used to assist with the Duke of Edinburgh Award trips from the Brighton school where I worked. The cottage we used as a base looks abandoned. The old school next door was being converted then and it looks like work has hardly advanced at all. In the village, which is a single row of houses, the old Post office is now a rather smart looking café. Back up to Capel Curig where the outdoor centre of Plas-y-Brenin is much larger than I remember it. The old Post Office and café are a lot posher too. A quick trip up to Ogwen Cottage which brings back memories of climbing Tryfan and the Glyders and, across the road Pen-yr-Ole-Wen which rises to the Carneddau.
Betws-y-coed – A Cuckoo is calling from the woods to the west. I take Maddy for a short stroll up the footpath beside the camp-site in the evening. Some sheep have got through the fence and one is plucking leaves off a Hazel sapling but all beat a hasty retreat when Maddy trots into view. I go up onto the massive outcrop of rock. Oaks cling to the thin soil. A Tawny Owl glides silently out of one of them and across to disappear inside the canopy of another.
Friday – Betws-y-coed – I awaken to a wall of sound. Chaffinches and Willow Warblers lead with Blackbirds, Blackcaps and Song Thrushes accompanying. There is a long reeling call which can only be Grasshopper Warbler but strangely it is not heard again. A Tawny Owl hoots in the distance. I get up and head up the hill. It is very cool and very little blue sky shows through the clouds. For a short time Moel Siabod is bathed in sunlight then it turns grey and foreboding. Clouds clip the top of the mountain. Y Llewyn is clear as is Tryfan and Pen yr Ole Wen. Past Penrhyddion Canol to the next farm, Penrhyddion Ucha. The lane winds, rises and dips. Breakfast calls.
Monday – Bodenham Lakes – Grey clouds hang over the lakes. It is humid. The yellow spring flowers are now finished, now purple, blue and pink summer blooms dominate – Red Campion, Bugle, vetches, Forget-me-nots and Dog Roses. The lake is quiet. Although this is relative as Canada Geese are yelping in the woods on the island and in the meadows beyond the waters. Three Cormorants sit on the pontoon. Numerous Blackcaps, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes sing. Pied Wagtails are searching the shingle banks for insects. Back in the grove of saplings, Blue and Great Tits are busy searching the new leaves for caterpillars. A soldier beetle, Cantharis rustica, scuttles down the path. It has a orange thorax with a black spot, orange abdomen with black wing cases. In the orchard Goldfinches flit around the top of apple trees.
Wednesday – Croft – Another grey day although a belt of sunshine is edging across the green and yellow fields of the Arrow valley. A Mistle Thrush flies up from the pasture to one of the wooden sapling protection boxes. A Jackdaw alights atop one of the old dying Spanish Chestnuts. Whilst many of these trees are pale brown skeletons, many have at least one branch still vibrant with green foliage. Some have glorious full crowns of leaves. The hills – the Malverns, Black Mountains, Burton Hill are dark yet sharp outlines. A few Chiffchaffs still call in the woods and below the Iron Age hillfort there are Willow Warblers in song, but many of the spring songsters have more important tasks now they have mated. The May blossom is beginning to turn brown. A mist fills the Leinthall valley and soon after a fine rain falls. The pure white petals of Stitchwort shine against the deep azure Bluebells. Another patch has the strange yellow-green flowers of Wood Spurge in the Bluebells. A little further Yellow Archangel grows in the grasses. Yellow Archangel has been moved from one genus to the next: Linnaeus placed it as a member of genus Hemp-nettle (Galeopsis), and later it was considered to belong to genus Dead-nettle (Lamium). Now it is classified in a genus of its own (Lamiastrum). It was previously known as the Yellow Dead-nettle, the White Dead-nettle being called “Archangel” probably because it first comes into flower about the day dedicated to the Archangel Michael, May 8th, in the Julian calendar - eleven days earlier than our May 8th. I am walking this route in reverse to my normal direction and am surprised to see a deer outlook platform against a Silver Birch that I have passed many times from the opposite direction but not noticed before. I head down the valley between Bircher Common and Lyngham Vallet. A Wood Warbler is calling his “spinning coin” song. This is the first time I have heard one in over ten years!
Tuesday – Ryelands – Up a track from Botolph’s Green towards Cock Croft. Botolph’s Green is now a housing estate but until the late 20th century a house called St Botolph’s stood here. It is believed a wayside cross stood here dedicated to St Bololph, who was believed to be a Norwegian who became Abbot of St Peter’s Lindisfarne and in 654 established a monastery at Icanhoh, believed to be Boston in Lincolnshire. Some histories state he was martyred by Saxons. In the 1554 Charter of Queen Mary to Leominster, the area is referred to as Bottolsgreene Field. Rogue Broad Beans are growing on the edge of a wheat field. The track meets another track coming from Ryelands. It edged by poppies, oilseed Rape, Teasels, Herb Robert, Dock and very large silver thistle-like plant that I think must be a garden escape. Sun shining between fast moving clouds. A reader has commented I have not mentioned weather over past week. It has, indeed been notable. The heavy downpours of last week gave way to several days of greyness then the winds rose as the sort of depression usually reserved for autumn crossed the north of these islands. It is still breezy but we have not had to endure the gales that have lashed the north of Ireland and Scotland. Further along the track are seven foot high Hogweeds growing out of a tangled mass of Cleavers. Jackdaws with beakfuls of food glide into old Horse Chestnuts whose broken off limbs have left plenty of holes for nests. At the end of the large field that leads to Ryelands is a line of trees, both Large-leaved and Small-leaved Limes, Field Maples, Sycamores and one with dangling racemes of winged fruits which look like Père David’s Maple. There are also flowering Elders here which I collect for cordial, although it is not easy has they are behind dense banks of Stinging Nettles.
Tuesday – Bodenham Lakes – The days of heavy grey clouds have given way to sunshine, a cool wind and fluffy white clouds. Also fluffy and white but much, much smaller are drifting willow seeds. The scent of Dog Roses is strong. A Song Thrush and Blackcap are singing but a Chiffchaff is silently seeking insects. Screaming Swifts sweep past. A Mute Swan with five cygnets and a Mallard with just the single duckling swim away from the gravel spits. Eleven Canada Geese are at the southern end of the lakes and another is honking in the distance. Seven Cormorants are preening on the pontoon. A Cuckoo calls. Suddenly I notice a pair of little birds bobbing on the water, picking at the surface. I am sure they are phalaropes but they are too far away to get a decent view. As I return home a Red Kite drifts over Hampton Court.
Worcester – Brigid, Ken and Dave have brought the canal boat down from The Anchor in High Offley to Worcester. Dave has to set off back to Yorkshire but Brigid and Ken are staying another day so we go over to see them. They have moored in a small marina set in a modern industrial estate. Some of the buildings are old, probably traditional canal warehouses. We are sitting in the room at the bow end when a Moorhen looks through window – rather a surprise! Maddy soon gets the idea about stepping on and off the quay. I take her around the dock and along a tow-path to the gate on the main Worcester and Wolverhampton canal. The main tow-path crosses the entrance to the dock by a bridge. On the far side is a small concrete area at the base of the bridge where a pair of Mute Swans and their cygnets are spending the night. The pen and cygnets are asleep but the cob is staring across the narrow dock entrance at Maddy.