Friday – Humber – Off to undertake the first BTO Breeding Bird Survey of the year. It is dawn. The sky glows orange-pink in the east; the sun yet to rise over Eaton Hill. Down to the Worcester road and over the railway. Chiffchaffs call both sides of the bridge. Dunnock song rings out. The deeper toned song of a Blackbird is rather intermittent. Passing Rooks caw. Cherry trees blossom on the slope up to the bridge. Over to the Stoke Prior road. Rabbits scurry away on my approach. Garlic Mustard, White Dead Nettles and the inevitable Dandelions are in flower all along the roadside. Rooks fly over with beaks full of food. A number of fields across the area are chrome yellow as the oilseed rape flowers. Past Wheelbarrow Castle and into the quiet village. A pair of quacking Mallard fly over. A woodpecker drums in a copse on the hillside. Through the village and up the hill past the school. Red Campion plants are infested with blackfly. Across the old Roman Road and down the lane towards Humber Marsh and Steens Bridge. The jangling call of a Corn Bunting rings across the fields. Above, Skylarks sing. Whitethroats shoot upwards and twist around before descending back to the hedgerow, singing the whole time. Another Whitethroat is singing from inside the hedgerow, refusing to show himself. A Yellowhammer sings “A little bit of bread and no cheeeeeese” from the top of a telegraph pole. Back along the road and down the Roman road to the Humber turning and down the narrow lane. Stitchwort flowers beside the road. Chiffchaffs call. Large quantities of Common Fumitory flower in a grass meadow creating a red-pink haze. A Nuthatch is inspecting church tower. Along the field to the wooden footbridge through the hedge by Humber Court Farm. The farm is modern, it is not present on the 1970s OS maps. A couple of Swallows sweep over the field. Across the next field where a herd of heifers charge across towards me. I warn them off and even the nosiest backs off. I return back through village. Now getting busy with vans going who knows where and people heading to the towns and city to work. Across the Roman road to Hill Top Farm. There are usually House Sparrows around the farm buildings but none today. Tiny calves are with their mothers in pens in a modern barn. Older calves are in the field outside. A bright pink chested Chaffinch is singing loudly. Back into Stoke Prior. Yellow Archangel flowers in the grass. Just beyond the Old Hall is a large embankment heading towards the road but suddenly stopping. This is where the Worcester, Bromyard and Leominster railway crossed. It was closed in 1952. Through Stoke Prior. A pair of Red-legged Partridge run across an orchard. The woodpecker is still drumming on the hillside. Back into Leominster and home for a late breakfast.
Sunday – Poynton, Cheshire – We are camping outside this Cheshire town. The Barnsley Buglers are all present and correct with the narrow boat at the canal that runs alongside the camp site. Last night was stormy, high winds rocked the tent all night and it rained heavily. However, this morning is a bit brighter and the rain has stopped although the clouds indicate that may only be temporary. After a typical excessive Buglers’ breakfast we set off to the Anson Engine Museum. This is situated on the site of the Anson Colliery, one of a number of pits that used to be in the area which was first settled by the Anglo-Saxons. Coal was mined from the Late Middle Ages. Under the ownership of the Lords Vernon from 1832 until their closure in 1935, the collieries were the largest in Cheshire. The development of the pits required better transport links; these came with the completion of the Macclesfield Canal through Poynton in 1831 and the arrival of the Manchester and Birmingham Railway in 1845 and the Macclesfield, Bollington and Marple Railway in 1869. The town grew at the end of the 19th century, indeed that 1870 map shows mainly fields where the towns now lies. One famous family were the Pickfords who in the late 18th century developed their family business of waggoners on the London-to-Manchester route based at The Birches Farm. The business thrived and they relocated to London in 1823 and eventually became the most well-known removal firm in the country.
The museum is the result of Les Cawley and Geoff Challinor’s years of collecting and restoring old engines and now houses a collection of over 250 gas and oil engines covering the history of the internal combustion engine from early Crossley gas engines to a Bentley V12 car engine of the 21st century. There are also several steam engines which includes a Stott engine that used to drive a cotton wadding mill in Hazel Grove. This engine is in steam today and we watch the huge machine coaxed into life by two engineers. Numerous other engines are running. One is a large machine whose piston turns a large fly-wheel with only a quiet puff from the exhaust and a gentle tick of the mechanism feeding the fuel.
Outside is a display of traditional crafts with a blacksmith and bodgers working. The bodgers use old lathes driven by foot pedal which pulls a string wrapped around the piece being turned up to a long branch of birch which acts as a spring. One of the bodgers tells us that they made the spindles that form the legs, backs and arms of a chair, a bottomer makes the seats and the person who puts them all together is called a joiner. You can almost see several lights coming on over peoples’ heads as we all think, “I never knew that’s where the name “joiner” came from! Obvious really...” Another explanation he has is that back in the late 19th century, early car engines needed external warmth before they could be started. The person who did this took a name from the French for warm, chaud becoming “chauffeurs”. The car owners thought it was expensive to employ someone just to warm the engine so the chauffeur would also drive the vehicle too.
We return to the boat and set off down the canal to a pub. Unfortunately, on the way it rains heavily and poor Ken is stuck outside driving whilst the rest of us shelter inside. The first brood of ducklings I have seen this year bob like corks. Inevitably, the afternoon ends with a huge selection of curries, enough for twice the number of people present.
Saturday – Ludlow – We need to cheer ourselves up after a disastrous election result which means another five years of “austerity”, declining services and division. The local bus services are already pretty abysmal, so who knows what they will be like in future. Indeed, we could just about get to Ludlow by bus, but not back. So we catch a train to Ludlow for the Spring Beer and Food Festival. The town is busy. Initially, the beer festival, in the castle, is not too crowded, getting a beer is fairly easy although a few ales, all the class winners, have already sold out. We buy tickets for nine half pints and we agree all bar one is excellent; unlucky Kay gets one rather cloudy brew. There is also plenty to feast on, from pies to pakora, chocolate Brazils to a lovely smoked cheese from Newport. Outside the marquee is an extensive motor car display with old Rovers, Morris’s, De Loreans, MGs, Jeeps and many others. At the end of the castle bailey, the Bridgnorth Ukulele Band is playing, which is great fun!
Sunday – Leominster – In the early morning the town is bathed in sunshine but by the time I head off to the market it has clouded over. However, the sound of summer is here – screaming Swifts chasing across the roof tops. The River Lugg is low and slow. The market is not huge but busy. The dealer from Birmingham has an extraordinary teapot, a brown object with numerous swirls and embellishments including a little teapot attached to the lid. A plaque on the side says “Remember Me” – one is hardly likely to forget this example of Victorian excess. In the compound used for the vehicle auctions is a peculiar “caravan” in the shape of a ship. Back home, some weeding needs to be done in the garden. The Cos lettuce is starting to grow now after a slow start. Some Scarlet Chard seedlings are big enough to plant out. The purple-sprouting is pretty much finished, I will get another meal out of it tonight, so they are being pulled one at a time and thrown into the chicken run. More lettuce, some coriander and sweet corn are sown in modules and trays. Broad beans are beginning to need to be tied to stakes as they grow higher and start to flower. A strangled cry comes from overhead. A Carrion Crow is fluttering around in the air, then a large raptor comes into view. It is in silhouette so I am unable to decide whether it is a large Sparrowhawk or a Peregrine Falcon. It glides off to the south, ignoring the attentions of the corvid.
Monday – Mortimer Forest – Grey clouds threaten rain. The woods ring with song, Blackbird, Wren, Robin, Blackcap and Chiffchaff. Through the trees is a mist of blue where Bluebells carpet the clearings. A loud clap comes from the wings of a Wood Pigeon as it launches out of a Larch. The chorus continues as I climb the path through the woods. A pair of Song Thrushes compete, almost drowning out another Blackcap. More Wood Pigeons coo. Beside the path are trefoil-leaved Wood Sorrel, Violets, white Stitchwort, purple Ground Ivy and Bluebells. A Willow Warbler sings by the Iron Age enclosure. A moss covered tree stumps are covered with shards of pine cones, Grey Squirrels I assume. A Bloody-nosed Beetle wanders slowly across the track. Out onto Climbing Jack Common which is carpeted in Bluebells. A Cuckoo calls from ahead. A Meadow Pipit sings from a small Hawthorn. Swallows sweep over the trees. Skylarks are singing distantly. A Mistle Thrush with something in its bill, stands atop a conifer surveying the area before flying off down the hillside. The Cuckoo is on the edge of the open common. A few black St Mark’s Flies drift past, their legs dangling. The saplings on the gentle slope leading to High Vinnalls are nearly all Birch, the conifers have been removed. One or two remain towards the summit, one providing a perch for a singing Whitethroat. Sadly the conifers remain on the western side of the hill, obscuring the view down the Aston Common valley. I rest a while by the fenced-off, jumbled remains of the radio relay. My heel is still uncomfortable. The fields below are a chequer board of green grass and cereal crops and yellow oilseed rape. There is a blustery wind up here. A Willow Warbler sings nearby. Down the forestry track and on through the woods to rejoin the track by the Deer Park. A Yellowhammer sings from across an area of dead bracken. An area that was cleared of conifers in the last couple of years is covered with plastic tubes and posts. Inside are tiny saplings, to small to identify but certainly not conifers! Bright lime green Wood Spurges flourish on the banks by the track. Above is the wreckage of the felled conifers, rapidly being colonised by Bracken, Broom and brambles. Only the bottom most pond has any water in it and that is less than half of the area of the depression. The water is clear, Water Boatmen and Whirligig beetles scurry across the surface. A spotted Smooth Newt rests on the mud. Tadpoles gather on the end of a sunken log. Above the water, blue damselflies flit here and there. Much of the pond is covered by the white flowers of Water Crowfoot. Much of the clouds has cleared and the sunshine is warm. Back in the woods, Speckled Wood butterflies dance on cream-spotted chocolate wings through the sunny spaces between the trees. A female Orange Tip butterfly is visiting Cuckoo Flowers. Returning home, there is a Red Kite floating on the wind above Richards Castle.
Thursday – Winchcombe – Off for a couple of days in the Cotswolds. We stop at this small town for lunch. Unfortunately it is raining continuously and shows little sign of stopping. This is disappointing as Winchcombe is an interesting place. Belas Knap, a nearby long barrow indicates the area was populated during the Neolithic. There is little evidence of occupation until the late Bronze Age when remains have been found. Iron Age hilltop enclosures are on surrounding hills. There are several Roman villas in the area and a farmstead just to the south of the present day town. However it is in the Saxon period Winchcombe really was important. Coenwulf was King of Mercia from December 796 until his death in 821. His family were closely connected to the town which was effectively the capital of Mercia for a period. It was also the chief town of the Saxon county of Winchcombeshire. It is also thought to be the burial site of St Kenelm, who was Coenwulf’s son. King Offa of Mercia is said to have founded a nunnery here in the eighth century. By 811 it was rebuilt and dedicated to St Mary. Later still, in about 972, it was re-founded as a Benedictine abbey. The town prospered in the Middle Ages but went into decline after the Dissolution. The town developed again in both the 19th century and the second half of the 20th century. However, our stay is brief. We have a fine lunch at the White Hart Inn.
Sudeley Castle – A short distance away is this 15th century stately home. A manor house was built here pre-Conquest. King Ethelred The Unready gave the Saxon manor house and estate at Sudeleagh to his daughter Goda, sister of King Edward the Confessor, on her marriage to Walter de Maunt. Their son, Ralf de Mederatinus became Earl of Hereford. Ralf’s son Harold retained he manor after the Conquest although his earldom was removed from him by the Normans. The manor house was fortified during the Anarchy when John de Sudeley sided with Matilda. King Stephen seized the castle and made it a royal garrison. In 1165 Ralph de Sudeley succeeded to Sudeley Castle and gave Toddington to his brother William, who assumed his mother’s name of Tracy and was the ancestor of the present Tracy family. William de Tracy was one of the four knights who murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. In 1367 John 9th Lord de Sudeley was killed in Spain while fighting for the Black Prince. He had been Lord Chamberlain to Edward II. Sudeley was inherited through his sister by the Boteler family.
Ralph Boteler, who was to become Treasurer of the Exchequer, in 1442 built Sudeley Castle on its present site using his spoils from the Hundred Years War with France. The Boteler’s backed the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses and lost the castle to the Yorkist Edward IV who gave it to his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester who became Richard III. Henry Tudor defeated Richard at Bosworth and as Henry IV granted Sudeley Castle to his uncle and staunch supporter, Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford, who held it until his death in 1495 when, as he left no children, it reverted to the Crown.
King Edward VI, granted Sudeley Castle to his uncle, Sir Thomas Seymour, appointing him Lord of Sudeley and later Lord High Admiral of England. Seymour married Henry VIII’s 6th wife and widow, Katherine Parr, continuing a relationship which began before her marriage to the King. In 1548 Seymour and Katherine moved to Sudeley Castle. On 30th August Katherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary, only to die on 5th September of puerperal fever. She was 36 years old. She was buried in the Chapel of St Mary at Sudeley with Lady Jane Grey officiating as Chief Mourner. The following March Seymour was executed after being indicted on 33 counts of “Treason and other Misdemeanours against” King and Crown. They included his courtship of the Princess Elizabeth who on hearing of his execution commented “This day died a man with much wit and very little judgement.” The history of Lady Mary Seymour, the child of this short-lived marriage, remains a mystery but she did not receive her rightful patrimony and never lived at Sudeley Castle. Mary I granted the castle and manor of Sudeley to Sir John Brydges (who as Lieutenant of the Tower had attended Lady Jane Grey on the scaffold) creating him Baron Chandos of Sudeley. His descendants held Sudeley Castle for the next 100 years.
In 1592 Elizabeth I visited Sudeley Castle for the third time staying there with the 3rd Lord Chandos during her summer progress to celebrate the anniversary of the defeat of the Armada. The three day celebrations have been described as one of the longest parties in history.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, George 6th Lord Chandos declared his support for the King but in 1643 in the absence of Lord Chandos, Sudeley Castle was surrendered after a three day siege to Colonel Massey and his Roundhead troops. Two days later Charles’s nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, encamped with 4,000 men near Sudeley, from where he attacked and captured Cirencester, forcing the Roundheads to abandon Sudeley, but not before they had desecrated the Chapel of St Mary, turning the tower into stabling and the chancel into a slaughter-house. In April Sudeley Castle was re-garrisoned by Lord Chandos and in September, after the Royalist defeat at Gloucester, King Charles made it his headquarters. Sudeley Castle was again attacked by the Parliamentarians, under the command of Sir William Waller, and after suffering a severe bombardment, was surrendered by Sir William Morton, governor of the castle. In 1649, after Sudeley Castle had been garrisoned by Parliamentary Troops for nearly five years – the Council of State gave orders that the castle be slighted and Lord Chandos was allowed £1,000 compensation for the destruction of his castle. He never returned and the title and estates passed to the Pitt family of Stratfield Saye.
For two centuries the ruins of Sudeley Castle lay neglected and left to the ravages of the weather, its stones plundered by local builders. The title and estates changed hands many times and what little remained of the castle was occupied by the tenants of the surrounding estate and was also at one time an inn, the Castle Arms. In 1782 Katherine Parr’s tomb was discovered in the ruined Chapel and her coffin opened for the first time. Lord Rivers of Stratfield Saye sold the castle in 1810 to the Marquis of Buckingham, afterwards Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. John and William Dent, wealthy glovemakers from Worcester bought the castle from the Duke in 1837, having already purchased the rest of the estate from Lord Rivers in 1830. They employed Harvey Eginton of Worcester to restore the house which remains in the family, partly as a family home and visitor attraction.
We wander around the house which has numerous displays covering the history of the property. It is very busy with tourists. We only visit the gardens briefly as the rain continues to fall. The chapel, which was restored in the 1850s by George Gilbert Scott, contains the remains of Katherine Parr in a marble tomb by John Birnie Philip. Nearby is a Pheasantry, which contains cages of exotic pheasants, all of which look as enthusiastic about the weather as we do!
Kineton – We are camping at the Cotswold Farm Park, part of Adam Henson’s farm. He has, in the manner of TV Celebrity Chefs, become a Celebrity Farmer! However, his farm is an important centre for rare breeds and does much to publicise responsible farming to the public. The weather remains foul and the tent rocks all night in the strong wind and rain.
Friday – Cotswolds – A braying donkey awakens me. It is a cloudless, sun-filled morning. Everywhere is still wet. A short walk around the farm. Through a paddock of goats; one is trying to eat my coat. A pile of pallets have been filled with tubes and twigs to form a “bug hotel”. Carrion Crows and Rooks are noisy in small Hawthorns. Across another field where Beltie cattle graze. A Skylark is singing. This field is also dotted with Hawthorns. A Chaffinch sings from the top of one. The land is Eyford Member Jurassic limestone, laid down 165 million years ago. This outcrop is surrounded by the Chipping Norton Limestone formation. Down a track past a field called the Ruins Ground. There are a couple of barrows in this field but they have been ploughed out. To the east is a field of oil-seed rape, brilliant yellow in the sunshine. It hides a large Bronze Age round barrow. On the skyline is the tower of Stow-on-Wold church. A Whitethroat sings in the rape. A large quarry lays to the south-east. The Whitethroat returns to a small Sycamore before shooting skywards again and landing in another, singing continuously. A large, old, dry dewpond lays in woods at the foot of the Ruins Field. The woods are Barton Bushes SSSI, 19th century quarry workings now naturalised again. It is noted for Cotswold Pennycress, a very rare member of the cabbage family. A Pied Wagtail gathers dead grass from the adjoining field. The area is mainly Hawthorn with the occasional beech. Cowslips flower in the open spaces. A Willow Warbler sings nearby. Beehives stand by a wall. An open area contains a good number of Early Purple orchids. An Adder’s Tongue, Ophioglossum vulgatum, named after a belief that its similarity to a snake’s tongue meant it could be used as an antidote to snakebite, grows beside the path. Back up the track. A Ring-necked Pheasant scurries off into the rape. Swallows feed low over the Ruins Field.
Bourton-on-the Water – A village on the River Windrush. The high street is divided by the river which is crossed by several bridges and wide greens. The effect is most picturesque, but the shops almost entirely are catering to the tourist trade, who are here in droves (although it would be a bit hypocritical not to note we are part of this hoard). The name Bourton comes from the Saxon word burgh which means a fort or camp and ton which means a village or settlement. A Neolithic encampment lies to the north of the village and this was probably occupied through to the Iron Age. The Roman road, the Fosse Way, passes to the west and a camp was built nearby. The river flowed to the south of its present course which was altered in the 17th century to its present course to provide water for three mills, one now being occupied by a Motor Museum. The buildings are glorious in the honey-coloured Cotswold limestone. Many are from the 17th and 18th centuries and reflect the wealth of the area built, as most places in the Cotswolds, on the wool trade. In a back street is the local pottery from which we purchase a couple of pieces.
Broadway Tower – We head towards the village of Broadway and discover this tower high on Broadway Hill. The hill is on a pre-mediaeval trade route and a beacon hill. George William 6th Earl of Coventry had Broadway Tower built for his wife. It was the brainchild of the great 18th century landscape designer, Capability Brown. His vision was carried out for with the help of renowned architect James Wyatt and completed in 1798. The design of the “Saxon Tower” is an eccentric “castle” of three round towers with a central column. In 1822, the book collector, Thomas Phillipps established the Middle Hill Press in the tower to record his book holdings and to publish his findings in English topography and genealogy. In the 1870s it was rented by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The tower was part of the inspiration for Morris to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, although it was his rage at the sight of G.E. Street destroying the old fabric of Burford church, which Morris passed on his way to the tower, by a Victorian imitation of mediaeval work, which fired his actions. On the way to the towers is a memorial to the crew of a Whitley bomber that crashed there during a training mission in June 1943 and then the entrance to a nuclear bunker, staffed from 1961 as a master post and still fully equipped despite being stood down in 1991. We climb the circular staircase up one of the round towers. There are displays on each floor, one of Second World War memories, one of Morris and his friends and another of the building of the tower. From the roof the views are extensive. The Vale of Evesham heads north-east and beyond are the Malvern and Shropshire Hills and even the vague outline of the Black Mountains. In other directions the views are less spectacular but nonetheless the delightful, bucolic English countryside is a delight.
Broadway – The road descends the long, winding Fish Hill into the town of Broadway. Like Bourton-on-the-Water, Broadway is another delightful village of Cotswold stone but very much a tourist destination. The wide main street, hence the name “Broadway”, was a “ridgeway” and the main Worcester to London road. The area has been settled since the Mesolithic. The village grew as elsewhere in the Cotswolds from the wool trade and then in the 18th century as a major stopping place for the stage coaches to and from London. After the railway came in the mid-19th century, the village declined into a sleepy retreat for artists and writers such as Elgar, J.M. Barrie, John Sargent Singer, William Morris, Mary Anderson and Vaughan Williams. 18th century houses are adorned with wisteria. New build behind the main street has been undertaken in the same stone as the rest of the village.
Saturday – Stanway – This village lies off the steep road down from Lidcombe Hill to Toddington. It is dominated by Stanway House, a Jacobean manor house, owned by the Earl of Wemyss and March. The lane into the village comes to a massive wooden gate set into an elaborate gatehouse. The original house was given to Tewkesbury Abbey by the Mercians Odo and Dodo in 715. Supporting four monks it was the only remote property owned by the Abbey until the 12th century. The Abbey held onto the property for eight hundred years until it passed into the hands of the Tracy family, who are almost unique in England for having owned land since before the Norman Conquest.
Richard Tracy, who led the dissolution of Hailes Abbey, took over the lease for Stanway House from Abbot Segar in 1533. In time he was able to buy the freehold, which he left to his son Paul, who was made a Baronet in 1611. Paul began to rebuild the house, incorporating some of the early Tudor features. On his death it passed to his son, Sir Richard Tracy, who added the gatehouse in 1630. It was Paul’s grandson, Sir Humphrey Tracy, who finally completed the building in 1640. Sir Humphrey was a Royalist supporter and had to pay heavy fines to avoid the property being confiscated after the Civil War. In 1817 when the house passed to Francis Charteris, 8th Earl of Wemyss and 4th Earl of March. Francis’ mother was the great granddaughter of Ferdinando Tracy and the present resident, Lord Neidpath, is a direct descendent of Francis. Thus the house can claim to have been in the same family for over 450 years. The house and gardens are open in the summertime, so a return visit is called for. Next to the gatehouse is St Peter’s Church, which was rebuilt in the 12th century, the tower added in the 13th century and the whole building thoroughly restored in 1896. The names of the First World War dead are carved into the uprights of the chancel windows by Eric Gill. Back at the main road junctions is Stanway War Memorial. A stone column and plinth by Sir Philip Stott carved by Eric Gill is surmounted by bronze of St George and the Dragon is by Alexander Fisher.
Hailes Abbey – To the south-west of Stanway are the ruins of Hailes Abbey. It was founded in 1245 or 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, called “King of the Romans” and the younger brother of King Henry III of England, to thank God after he had survived a shipwreck. Richard had been granted the manor of Hailes by King Henry, and settled it with Cistercian monks from Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire. The great Cistercian abbey was entirely built in 1277 and consecrated in a royal ceremony that included the King and Queen and 15 bishops. Hailes Abbey became a site of pilgrimage after Richard’s son Edmund donated to the Cistercian community a phial of the Holy Blood, purchased in Germany, in 1270. Such a relic of the Crucifixion made Hailes a centre for pilgrimage. From the proceeds, which made the community one of the richest in the country, the monks of Hailes were able to rebuild the abbey on a magnificent scale. Though King Henry VIII’s commissioners declared the famous relic to be nothing but the blood of a duck, regularly renewed, and though the Abbot Stephen Sagar admitted that the Holy Blood was a fake in hope of saving the abbey, Hailes Abbey was one of the last religious institutions to acquiesce following the Dissolution Act of 1536. The Abbot and his monks finally surrendered their abbey to Henry’s commissioners on Christmas Eve 1539. However, Sagar had courted the friendship and patronage of Sir Thomas Cromwell and thus on handing over the abbey he received a pension of £100. It is said that Cromwell stood on a nearby hill as the commissioners took control, however, this was Christmas Eve and it is unlikely that Cromwell would have been away from London on such a day. In 1542, the king sold Hailes Abbey to Richard Andrews, a dealer in former monastic property, and the great abbey church was destroyed shortly thereafter. The west range, barn and other useful buildings were preserved and later used as private housing for noble families.
The sun is shining today and the abbey lies peacefully in this vale. Blackcaps are singing in nearby woods. Water continues to flow through the deep main drain. Virtually nothing remains of the great church and little of any other building although some walls of the cloister remain. The infirmary has completely gone, only soil marks indicate its whereabouts in a nearby field. There is a museum attached to the site which houses stone relics which give some idea of the quality of the buildings.
Across the road is Hailes church. In 1114, William de Tancarville is recorded as giving Hailes Church to the monastery of St Georges-de-Boscherville near Rouen in France. The Tancarvilles were Chamberlains of Normandy and had their castle on the Seine upriver from Le Havre. The church was considerably altered in the 13th century when the walls were painted with murals which can be see, albeit faded, today. They cover subjects such as St Christopher, St Margaret of Antioch, St Catherine of Alexandria and a hunting scene with three greyhounds chasing a hare. The font is 13th century and there is 15th century glass. The sanctuary floor is extensively tiled with tiles removed from the abbey at Dissolution. The church has no dedication and is simply known as Hailes Church.
Friday – Brampton Bryan – A visit to this house with the Historical Society. The house and castle are the private home of Victoria and Edward Harley, who was recently installed as High Sheriff of Herefordshire. Domesday records that Brantunewas held by Ralph and Richard holds it from him. Richard’s grandson was Sir Brian Unspach who took the name Brampton. A castle is likely to have been erected here around 1070 and replaced by a stone castle but the date of this structure is unknown. On 19th May 1294, Sir Brian de Brampton IV died. His eldest daughter, Margaret inherited Brampton and married Sir Robert de Harley around 1309. The Harleys have been in Brampton Bryan ever since.
The most notable events in the castle’s history took place in the Civil War and featured the best known Harley – Brilliana, wife of Sir Robert Harley (most of the Harley heirs were named either Robert or Edward) who was a member of Parliament and thus on the Parliamentarian side of the conflict. He remain in London for a great part of the time and the defence of Brampton Bryan fell to Brilliana. She had slighted Wigmore castle to prevent it being used by Royalist troops. It was not until 1643 that the Royalists made a determined effort to take the castle. There were two sieges. During the first, Viscount Scudamore was sent to negotiate a surrender but Brilliana refused him entry and would only speak when he was hauled up to the top of the walls in a basket. She siege lasted seven weeks until the Royalist troops were withdrawn to go and support their forces at Gloucester.
Throughout the siege, Brilliana smuggled out letters to her husband and her son Edward, known as Ned. She sometimes used a code where spurious extra words were written into the text and a template used to read only the relevant ones. On 9th October 1643 she wrote to Ned telling him “I am now again threatned; there are some souldiers come to Lemster and 3 troopes of horse to Heariford with Sire William de Vavasor, and they say they meane to viset Brompton again but I hope the Lord will delever me…. I have taken a very great coold, which has made me very ill these 2 or 3 days, but I hope the Lord will be merciful to me, in giving me my health, for it is an ill time to be sike in.” Brilliana died, probably of pneumonia, a few days later. A great many of her letters survive and are in a large bound tome. Unfortunately, any replies were lost in the siege.
On 6th January 1644, Prince Rupert was appointed Captain General of all forces in Shropshire and ordered Brampton Bryan to be taken. After a three week siege commanded by Sir Michael Woodhouse, the outer defences were destroyed and the castle surrendered on 17th April. The three youngest Harley children were taken to Ludlow as prisoners. They were freed in February 1645 when Shrewsbury fell to the Roundheads.
Sir Robert Harley opposed the execution of Charles I but was still put in charge of the Royal Mint, but fell out of favour when he refused to put Cromwell’s head on the coinage. His son Edward wrote on Cromwell’s death on 3rd September 1658 (the day on which a legendary great storm ripped across England), “I wish the devil had taken him any other way than through my Park, for not being content with doing me all the mischief he could while alive, he has knocked over some of my finest trees in his progress downwards”.
After the Restoration, Sir Edward Harley returned to Brampton and built a small double-fronted house over part of the castle. This house has been added to and adapted many times over the years. The present owners have removed a large Victorian wing and built a hall between the older wings at the rear of the house. Victoria Harley guided our group around the house. There are portraits everywhere, but only one of Brilliana. In 1711, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was Robert Harley. On 8th March, a French refugee, the ex-abbé La Bourlie (better known by the name of the Marquis de Guiscard), was being examined before the Privy Council on a charge of treason, when he stabbed Harley in the breast with a penknife. Harley recovered and became Lord High Treasurer and Baron Harley, of Wigmore in the County of Hereford, and Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer. The clothes that he was wearing and the penknife are still in the possession of the family and are shown. A lot of the objects in the house actually come from Berrington Hall. A Harley daughter, Anne married the son of Admiral Lord Rodney, a famous naval commander. In the late 19th century, George, 7th Lord Rodney, gambled away the family wealth and sold much of the contents of Berrington, some of which the Harleys bought. One of Admiral Rodney’s suits is preserved at Brampton Bryan and a conservator has recently commented that it was made from the finest silk she had ever seen. In the basement is a map of the Harley estate in London. It is centred on Harley Street and local streets take names from Herefordshire – Wigmore Street and Mortimer Street. Part of the estate passed to the Portland family who renamed Brampton Street, Portland Place much to the annoyance of the Harleys!
We are unable to see the castle ruins today, although there is not a lot remaining.
Saturday – Home – It is a beautiful day, dry and sunny. Possibly just a little too dry as quite a few vegetables are showing a bit of distress. The runner and French beans are planted out after the bed is weeded. A lot of missed potatoes have sprouted here. This year’s crop of spuds are looking good and the first earlies need earthing up. The first sown peas are about to flower. The fruit trees have all finished blossoming and a decent amount of fruit has set, although the greengage looks like it has failed again. Lots of strawberries in the greenhouse are turning scarlet, they will not last the weekend I feel! Above, high cloud drifts across the blue where the pale crescent moon looks down. Something has excited the Jackdaws hidden in the great Horse Chestnut as they are extremely noisy. When I went into the shed this morning a female Blackbird was inside, beak full of shreds from a hanging basket lining. We stood and looked at one another until I retreated to let her escape. Another Blackbird has been on her nest for a couple of weeks now in a large shrub just outside the shed. I do not know if she is Mrs Spotty, Mr Spotty is still in the garden but so are other males. There are eggs in a nest box on the Yew. When I looked at it a Great Tits was getting irate nearby so I imagine the eggs belong to her. A Robin is very friendly, coming down whenever Kay or I are digging and darting in to remove any uncovered invertebrate. The hens sun themselves for a while before retreating into the shade. I washed out the hen-house with Jeyes Fluid yesterday, a disgusting job and made a new perch as I think the old one was housing red mite. The garden looks lovely now as various flowers bloom. Aquilegias are at their best and giving a fine display. The irises are glorious around the pond and are enhanced by a fine display of Centaureas.
Tuesday – Croft – The sky is overcast and a wind is rising. We have had no rain for several days and it is always a surprise how fast everything dries to dust. Bird song is rich and varied; Blackbird, Robin, Chaffinch, Blackcap and Great Tit. Bluebells are almost finished as are the Hedge Mustards that have just a tiny rosette of flowers on a long stalk festooned with horned seed pods. Pink Red Campion and Herb Robert flower on the verges. White froth of Cow Parsley, seemingly beloved by the garden designers of Chelsea this year, stand tall. Wood Anemones, Celandines and Saxifrages have all faded and died leaving only tired leaves. Foxgloves and Willowherbs are still rising, their time to come. The Ash had finally decided to come into leaf. Tall conifers are tipped with bright, fresh green. Down the Fish Pool Valley I strain to hear the delicate song of a Wood Warbler. Chaffinches, a Robin and Blackbird make it difficult but eventually there is the distinctive trill. Oddly it is not repeated. Clumps of purple Bugle grow between the track and pools. Up the path beside the old lime kiln. A woodpecker taps in the distance, a Chiffchaff calls and a Wren sings from the undergrowth. The sun emerges creating bright pools of light where the canopy thins.
Up the hillside towards the Keepers Cottage. A patch of Wild Garlic flowers in bursts of white stars. A dry valley lies down from the path. A Common Buzzard flies low through the trees down the log strewn slope. White flowered Stitchwort rises through patches of Bluebells. A small flock of Long-tailed Tits buzz at one another as they move through the trees. A patch of Yellow Pimpernels have bright yellow flowers against soft, green heart-shaped leaves. The path is almost level with the newly cleared areas, just deciduous trees now including the venerable, great Oaks. Stock fencing has been erected but I cannot yet see any animals. Out onto the top of the Spanish Chestnut field. The views across the Arrow and Lugg valley are sharp. Just the slightest haze darkens the distant Black Mountains. I am rather tired after only a brief walk, it is depressing how quickly my legs have lost condition because of the lack of exercise forced by my swollen heel. That is burning now. The Spanish Chestnuts are in leaf. Only one is entirely dead, several have only a few small branches of leaves but a number have a fine display of greenery. The replacement saplings are in leaf and rising to ten feet tall.
Home – In the early evening, two Lesser Black-backed Gulls are standing on a chimney stack over the road. A Jackdaw watches from a nearby television aerial. Jackdaws have nested in this chimney in the past, Kay watched them fledge last year and now she is worried that the gulls may be after any chicks that are there. I must admit a few less Jackdaws would not go amiss, although I would not want to replace them with nesting gulls! However, there seems to be no sign of anything untoward and the gulls leave after a short time.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – High, broken clouds cannot stop the sun shining brightly. A Bullfinch in a resplendent red and grey jacket with a jaunty black cap flies across to the orchard. Picking out the individual songs from the avian chorus is tricky. There is a Blackcap nearby, a Robin in the woods, distant honking of Canada Geese, a Chiffchaff joins in, a Song Thrush, cooing Wood Pigeons, Blackbirds and a chattering Blue Tit. It is colourful under the bushes with Buttercups, Forget-me-nots, Herb Robert, all against a fresh green backdrop. In Herefordshire, it was considered unlucky to pick Herb Robert and was known locally as “Death-Come-Quickly”. By the boat compound a Willow Warbler sings. A Cuckoo calls from far across the other side of the lake. From here the only wildfowl visible are a couple of drake Tufted Duck. A Common Buzzard circles high over Westfield Wood. The meadow is clothed in yellow Buttercups. Three Carrion Crows are barking harshly in the waterside trees. Several Garden Warblers are singing along this stretch. In front of the hide is a Mallard duck with her brood of eight ducklings. A surprise is a sleeping female Goosander on the scrape. A Great Crested Grebe is nearby but the reeds have grown so I cannot see if the nest that was being built during my last visit is being used. A Carrion Crow flies low near the ducklings producing an angry response from both the Mallard and a Moorhen. A Robin is on the willows in the lake but it seems uneasy and quickly flies back to the copse on the shore. A fair number of Canada Geese are around the lake, making a noise as usual. A single cob Mute Swan is on the scrape clearly irritated by the passing Canada Geese at which he snaps. Three Cormorants sit in the trees on the island. The Goosander departs, heading west. A Reed Warbler sings briefly. Yellow Flag is coming into flower at the west end of the lake. A Common Blue butterfly flits across the yellow carpet of Bird’s Foot Trefoil in front of the hide, stopping only briefly before moving on. A Coot swims out of the reed bed. The Robin returns several times to the reed bed willows, clearly not as concerned about the water as it seemed. A Pied Wagtail struts across the scrape past drake Mallard that are beginning to look tatty, they will go into eclipse soon. Back in the meadow, a Common Blue Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum rests in the warm grass. Nearby a Flesh Fly, Sarcophaga carnaria, lands. Sheep are in the cider apple orchard where a number of trees are still in blossom. A Whitethroat sings by the orchard gate.
Saturday – Leominster – The opening of the Leominster Festival. There is a plant fair and other stalls on the Grange. The town-crier calls out as a procession of the mayor and some councillors accompanied by the new Ale-Taster, Fish-Taster and Bread-Taster, ancient posts recently revived as part of the historical story of the town. A little later, having opened the fair, they proceed to Etnam Street to “taste” the fish at the local chippie.
Earlier in the week, I recorded the presence of a pair Lesser Black-backed Gulls on a nearby chimney. We had in previous years seen Jackdaws nesting here but thought nothing was happening this year. However, today a pair of Jackdaws emerge from the chimney and sit on the roof ridge for a while before returning. They can get into the top of the chimney and almost disappear. One emerges again with something white in its bill. The other Jackdaws arrive and there is much noise and activity as they seem to argue over possession of this chimney. Eventually, all depart but two return, although whether they are the original two it is impossible to tell.
In the late 19th century, the Revd F. T. Havergal, a Minor Canon of Hereford Cathedral and Vicar of Pipe and Lyde, makes mention of a tame Jackdaw at Upton Bishop, that accompanies the children of one of his parishioners to school every day, a distance of nearly a mile. The bird remains near the school-house, and at twelve o’clock may be seen on the window-sill outside the room, strutting up and down, pecking at the window, and uttering a sharp note to remind those within that work should finish. It shows great pleasure when its little friends appear, and hops on in front of them all the way home; returning in the same manner for the afternoon school. Having on one occasion accompanied the children to the Vicarage to fetch some milk, it now constantly extends its daily walk to the house to enjoy the bread and milk placed ready for it.
Sunday – Home – There was rain overnight but not as much as it seemed when listening to the dripping gutters in the dark. Still, it all helps. One of the big wooden compost bins is now empty so the contents of the other one are turned into the empty space. The half composted vegetation is not looking good, lots of stalks and tough leaves have failed to break down, but hopefully this will improve as the weather warms. The contents of the three smaller bins is then forked and shovelled into the freshly emptied bin. There are some large clumps of very dry material, despite leaving the lids off during rain. One bin has hundreds of small off-white tiny sausage-shaped ant eggs in it; another sign of too dry conditions. Now all the small bins are empty, some very dry shredding that has been bagged some time back is tipped in and all the lids are left off to try and dampen everything down. Stinging Nettles have sprung up all over the mound where the newest apple trees are. We have nettles on the other side of the path in a wilderness thicket left for wildlife but we do not want them here. I pull them and put them in a black plastic sack to rot down and hopefully kill any seed in them before they go into the compost bins. Inevitably my sleeve rucks up at the wrong moment and exposes my wrist to the vicious stings. Goldfinches are singing loudly at the top of the Ash tree. Our resident Blackbirds are searching the garden for food. The female that we think is Mrs Spotty is still on her nest by the shed.