Tuesday – Brockhampton – Despite being a mere 12 miles away, this is our first visit to this National Trust owned property. The estate comprises of two main houses, the private Brockhampton House, built by Bartholomew Barneby in the 1760s to a design by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, designer of the Iron Bridge at Ironbridge, and Lower Brockhampton House, a 14th century farmhouse. Of course, we are visiting on a day when Lower Brockhampton House is closed! However, our main purpose is to view the extensive woodlands in their autumnal glory – and we are not disappointed. We pass the the church, built in the Georgian Gothic style in 1799, unfortunately not open because, as a lady with her dog tells us, it has been the target of thieves in the past, a sorry state of affairs. Off across the fields where there are numerous species of tree, many turning into the glorious reds, golds, yellows, browns etc. of autumn. The path drops down past two stone circular troughs which look rather like old apple crushers, although there seems little point in positioning them here. But it transpires that these slopes were covered with orchards in the past and these are indeed apple presses. The path enters a wood and passes a tranquil lake where Mallard glide through still waters. Dogwood has been planted at one end and having lost its leaves colours the area red with its rufous stems. Standing under tall beeches is like being in copper-coloured snow and hundreds of leaves flutter down after every gust of wind. A road leads back up through the woods with a little dingle running down beside it; its banks dotted with ferns. The road then rises across an open hillside of sheep. Maddy just wanders past the creatures that look at her in askance, even some advance towards her, but she just ignores them. We have covered only a fraction of the estate, which extends for some 1700 acres, and will repay another visit, especially when the house and gardens are open.
Thursday – Bodenham Lakes – A strong wind blows across the lakes. The sky is dark grey and a fine rain gusts and buffets the trees along the track. The long period of warmth and dryness in the spring followed by the wet summer is said to be the reason for the spectacular autumn arboreal colours. Maddy still has fleas despite the lateness of the season so a quick dip in the lake may stir the little blighters. Getting her into the water is easy, just find a little stick and throw it in – she will follow. In fact the stick is so small that she cannot not find it and swims around searching before I call her back out. Much shaking and rolling on the not so clean ground follows. Off down to the hide where the greyness slowly lifts as the rain passes over. A Pied Wagtail is standing on one of the posts of the pontoon. At least twenty Cormorants are in the trees and a few more are flying around or fishing. Something large and lutrine runs along the edge of the lake below the hide, but it is unlikely that an Otter would behave like this but a Mink would, despite seeming too large. A Grey Heron joins Cormorants that have flown down from the trees to the pontoon.
Friday – Hergest Ridge – Grey clouds lay over the hills to the south but westwards there are patches of blue sky. The ground is wet. It has been a good year for the Grey Squirrel, they are everywhere there is woodland. The Offa’s Dyke path is a broad swathe of emerald green leading over the ridge through a sea of copper Bracken. To the north lie Bradnor and Herrock Hills. At the foot of the west facing scarp slope of the former lies Dunfield House. It is said that Charles Vaughan, Member of Parliament for Radnorshire in 1553, was born and married here. The house was requisitioned during the Second World War and housed American Servicemen. A wide path follows the route of the old racecourse. Three Skylarks sing overhead. The sun is trying to push its rays through the clouds which are getting paler by the minute. A sunken track drops down the side of the ridge passing ancient Hawthorns, leafless but still crimson with berries. A large erratic (a boulder out of the geological context usually deposited by glaciation) lies by the track. At the bottom is a saddle then a path climbs steeply up Hanter Hill. This conical hill is a composed of igneous rock (including dolerite and gabbro) from the Uriconian volcanic group in the Pre-Cambrian era around 566 million years ago. The area was in the short-lived (relatively as it only lasted 60 million years) super-continent, Pannotia.
A Blackbird is muttering in the gorse below. Fungi are widespread across the hillside, especially Dung Roundheads Stropharia semiglobata and even a Field Mushroom. Finally, puffing like a blown tank engine, I attain the peak and sit on the exposed outcrops of rock beside a cairn. Below to the north, two hills are being demolished by quarrying. Off back down the path where Maddy shows her failure to grasp the basic principles of the force of gravity by dropping her ball in front of me and having to retrieve it as it starts to roll down the hill. This is repeated time and again until I tell her to carry it herself. When it does get placed in a suitable position for kicking my wayward boot sends it into a Gorse bush from which extraction is difficult. The sun is having limited success in breaking through. From the bottom of the path I climb back up to the Whetstone, another erratic, without a pause, just to prove to myself I can do it. I am blowing even harder by the time I reach the top of Hergest Ridge again. Ravens are flying along the southern flank, cronking. A few of the Hergest ponies are grazing on the top. Back down the ridge leafless trees reveal themselves as Crab Apples, loaded with yellow fruit. Near the gate to Ridge Road, the yellow rump of a Green Woodpecker flashes as it rises from the path and disappears into the trees from which it calls its yaffle. A dozen or more Pheasants fly up from the road, croaking noisily. The sun appears to have lost its battle with the thickening cloud. By the gate there comes an explosion of calls as several Nuthatches fly out from a great Beech.
Home – Despite being Bonfire Night, it seems quite quiet. Over to the Grange with Maddy who seems reasonably unaffected by fireworks. Suddenly a rocket screams just overhead and she is off across the grass and disappears down Pinsley Road. I chase after her but she is gone. I trot around the streets but there is no sign. Back home I ask Kay to keep a look out whilst I walk round and round. Eventually I have to rest for a few minutes, it has been over two hours. I soon decide I cannot just sit there so head off down the street again. Suddenly I catch a glimpse of her running anxiously up the other side of the road. I cross and grab her. She is saturated and muddy. We have no idea where she went but are relieved to have her back home.
Saturday – Home – It has been a strange week. We have been stuck at home a lot; one day waiting for a delivery and, of course, we were the last drop on the round. On Thursday we went to Birmingham to stock up on spices and other oriental supplies and yesterday we had builders fixing the roof. During the week two huge areas of low pressure passed through bringing heavy rain and gale-force winds. The upside of this was that almost all the leaves have fallen from the trees around the garden, so they can now be cleared. I run the lawnmower over them and the job is done fairly quickly. Clearing up the apples takes longer. Many have bruised and split as they fell and many others have little bites taken out of them by the birds. The edible ones are piled up in trays but we have no idea what to do with them. There are trays already stacked up in the garage. A couple of gallons of juice have been extracted. There is a large pile of Bramleys waiting to be peeling, chopped and frozen and there are still piles more. Returning to the house from the garden I find a Robin in the back room fluttering frantically against the window. It refuses to go back out to the back door so I have to catch it – which turns out to be quite easy. I release it (no idea of gender) outside and it shoots off across the garden and disappears. Only the two new chickens are laying now, but this still means two eggs a day. But difficult decisions need to be made as we are paying for feed for non-productive birds!
Monday – Mortimer Forest – The day begins frostily, leaves crunching underfoot. Somehow I have managed to lose both scrapers from the car so clearing the ice-covered windows is a tiresome task. The frost is being rapidly evaporated by bright sunshine although this does result in the paths getting muddier by the minute. Jays fly silently over the trees but upon disappearing into the mass of branches start squawking. A bell tolls in the distance. Many leaves have fallen now but the Birch saplings still have topknots of yellow. Across the Iron Age enclosure and out along the forestry track. Wood Pigeons fly over beneath a cloudless azure sky. Indeed, the cloud is below, laying in the valleys either side of Titterstone Clee. There is just a hint of mist in the Mary Knoll Valley. The inversion layer can be clearly seen north of Ludlow where bonfire smoke rises into the air then spreads sideways as it hits the seemingly impenetrable layer of warmer air. Tit flocks flit between trees. Up the steep path to High Vinnalls. From here the views across Herefordshire are of a sea of mist with the distant hills rising like black islands. The sun glances off the misty to the south making it glow radiantly. We drop down a track of mud to the path that emerges behind the ponds. The north facing side of Hanway Common valley is still white with frost.
Tuesday – Croft – It was rather mild and damp when I took Maddy out last night, but the temperature has dropped and there is a heavy frost and a lot of ice around. It is unpromising as I leave Leominster, fog and mist making driving unpleasant. However, it is much clearer at Croft and we set off in bright sunshine. Down into the Fish Pool Valley where there is just a hint of mist through the trees. Nuthatches are noisy in the trees. Across the little dam by the Gothic pump house. On the far side water tumbles down an overflow which has a mass of twigs and leaves at the bottom. A Wren is hopping up the stonework beside the water, searching for insects. Up the track through the Beech woods. Brilliant green mosses sparkle in the sunlight. Chaffinches and tits move through the trees. One tree has an extensive outcrop of Oyster Mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus growing on one tree, unfortunately some eight or nine feet up the trunk and out of reach! The track climbs and then falls again. It is fun kicking Maddy’s ball off the edge of the track down the hillside. She hurtles down in a storm of leaves as the ball bounces higher off roots and the soil. However, she always gets the ball long before it reaches the floor of the valley. A pair of Common Buzzards fly rapidly through the trees; it is wonderful to see these large birds winging through the network of branches without touching any.
At the path junction where tracks divide either side of Lady Wood which rises up to Lyngham Vallet, there are birds heading in every direction – a departing flock of finches, including Redpoll I think, Blue and Great Tits flitting to and fro, Nuthatches calling from every direction, Blackbirds and Robins. Towards the top of the track a Common Buzzard is in the woods, sitting on a branch. It suddenly drops to the woodland floor. I head up the hill but as I reach the area the Buzzard rises and is off back into the dense conifer plantation. I had meant this to be a short stroll but as I am nearly at the top of hill I may as well continue on to Croft Ambrey. Blue and Marsh Tits are feeding in Hawthorns just below the eastern gateway into the hill-fort. From the top the views are stunning. Northwards, Wigmore Common and the valleys that lead off north and eastwards are filled with thick mist. To the south, Herefordshire is hidden by a glowing sea of mist, only the hills showing. Across the hill-fort and down past the pillow mounds constructed in the Middle Ages for rabbit warrens. A flock of Redwings departs noisily. Down past the Spanish Chestnuts. Flocks of Wood Pigeons and Rooks are heading this way and that. Down near the castle, Jackdaws are arguing in the trees.
Friday – Bodenham Lakes – A cold and very damp morning. The whole area is fog-bound. Disembodied quacks and squawks emerge from the gloom. Small groups of Coot and Tufted Duck swim away to be swallowed by the mist. Pale grey blobs resolve through the binoculars as a dozen Mallard, at least one Wigeon and a pair of Goosander. Goldfinches flit down from the high hedge by the orchard to search the sodden grass for seeds. A strangulated bark of a Grey Heron echoes from the hidden lake. Robins, Blackbirds and others are chattering or singing in the hedgerows completely invisible beyond the wall of fog. A black horse stands in a meadow looking like a spectre. Four Teal are sifting the muddy shallows below the hide. Two Cormorant glide silently into view through the mist and then gone again. The Teal are spooked, possibly by a Cormorant. A Cormorant on the raft is holding out its wings to dry although it is hard to imagine anything drying in this saturated air. A Moorhen appears on the mud. A Grey Wagtail bobs along the water’s edge. The white rump of a Jay flashes through waterside Birches. Back to the orchard where I give a tree a gentle shake to dislodge a couple of apples but a dozen or more fall. They taste strongly of pineapple. Some of the cider apple trees are surrounded by masses of fallen fruit, all rotting away. I had decided not to make any more cider this year, but I may be back to gather some of this bounty!
Monday – Mortimer Forest – It is cold, grey and damp. In other words a typical November day. The bracken has turned rusty brown but large bowls of buckler ferns remain green with dark purple stems. The distant noise of traffic on the A49 and a train are all that can be heard. A slight breeze eddies up and rustle the leaves but there is not an avian peep anywhere. Near the Iron Age enclosure, a flock of Tits and Goldcrests feed in Silver Birches, but even these normally noisy denizens of the woods seem subdued, emitting infrequent, quiet squeaks. Beyond the enclosure a Jay squawks angrily then it too falls silent. This combination of hidden Jays and small, quiet flocks of Tits is repeated around the path as I head for the pond. A path leads along the hillside at right angle to the direct route to High Vinnalls. Mist drifts through the tree tops and a Raven cronks. The path is churned wet café-crème coloured clay with water-filled ruts. The path rejoins the forestry track which turns onto the Mortimer Trail. A stump is crowned with a growth of Hairy Stereum Stereum hirsutum, a fungus that grows in tiers of woody lobes with a bright yellow underside. Crossbills and a Great Spotted Woodpecker are in the tree tops. The path starts rising then around a corner I realise I have come further around the hill than I had thought and am now on the track back up to the top of High Vinnalls. So it is back down the path and take the other track down past the Deer Park. It is strange that I failed to recognise a route I have walked many times when I approach from a different direction.
Tuesday – Home – We collect our new fruit trees from the nursery. They are a couple of apples – Worcester Pearmain and Hereford Russet; two perry pears – Thorn and a dessert pear – Doyenne; a plum – Yellow Pershore and a gage – Cambridge. They are easy to plant and stake up, so now we have to wait several years for a decent crop!
Friday – Hergest Ridge – The trees around the gate that leads onto the ridge are full of tits, Nuthatches, Robins, Jays. The ground is frozen. Ahead is a pale, ghostly moon in a cobalt sky. Behind a blazing sun and above high cloud. Below on the shaded side of hedges, trees, bushes and even hills the frost tints the ground pale green. It is bitterly cold with a breeze pushing down the mercury further. Puddles and ponds are frozen. Maddy finds a hole by the edge of a pond to drink from but allows her ball to roll out onto the ice. Her legs slither this way and that as she gingerly retrieves her prized possession. I take a path across between the large piles of rocks on the summit. Ponies paw at the grass to get it upright so their teeth can crop it. Maddy gives the ponies a wide berth. Although one of the piles of rocks is clearly a fairly recent accumulation, others are far older and seem to be natural outcrops. It turns out that some of the piles are indeed very old whilst others were created when the land was cleared and steam-ploughed in the early 20th century. The common was again cleared for food production during the Second World War. Down the southern flank of the ridge through patches of Gorse. Rabbits dart away down the hill. Opposite is a steep valley created by Gladestry Brook, a steam that feeds the River Arrow near Kington. Along the side of the hill above Lower Hergest to a deep valley. Below springs have been capped and tapped. Grove Farm is on far side. A path leads along the valley then crosses it and climbs to the farm. The sky has clouded over and it starts snowing.
Sunday – Leominster – It is very cold, several degrees below freezing although we have been spared the heavy snow falling in the north-east and Scotland. A satellite slides across the sky shining brightly and disappears into the pre-dawn dark sapphire eastern horizon. The ground is as hard as iron and white with frost. After breakfast there is a visit to a very depleted Sunday market, hardly any traders are there, maybe saving themselves for the Christmas rush over the next couple of weeks. Cogwell Brook, which runs under the entrance to the market and joins the River Lugg, has sheets of ice across its surface.
Monday – Croft – It is still very cold. Snow is still being promised by the weather forecasters. A small amount has fallen at Croft and frozen. The pool at the bottom of the ride leading down to the Fish Poll Valley is frozen but there is only grease ice on the next one up the valley and the third is hardly frozen at all. Everywhere is very quiet; it is likely that everything is too busy finding food and keeping warm. Up the path between Lyngham Vallets and Bircher Common. A Jay flies over squawking. A Carrion Crow grunts in a tree. Onto the path running along the top of Leinthall Common where all the trees are glistening with hoarfrost. A Pheasant croaks from the thickets below. At the east gate of Croft Ambrey, Nuthatches chase through the trees, calling excitedly. From the top of the Iron Age hill fort the view northwards is a thick wall of mist. Hammering and clanking rings out from the invisible quarry below. The tall conifers are grey-green in their dusting of frost. Fieldfares feed in the great field of Spanish Chestnuts.