Friday – Radnor Hills – Off up Mutton Dingle with a slight feeling of trepidation. It is raining, the clouds are low on the hills and everywhere is saturated. Water gushes out of the culvert at the bottom of the path and bubbles off down the roadside channel. On up towards the Forestry Plantation. Some of the path is stony which makes for easy passage, but the muddy sections are really muddy and the grassy sections soon soak my boots. Only the pitter-patter of rain on my hood breaks the silence. It seems a real slog up the hills today. Carrion Crows call from the valleys below. I meet another walker, a real rarity up here and ironic that it is in such bad weather. Up through the moorland between Bache and Winyard Hills, it seems never-ending! Black Mixen is completely obscured by cloud. I had planned to continue on round the eastern side but decide the rain would make any views meaningless, so off down the valley above Ystol Bach Brook, which can be occasionally glimpsed through the mist. It is raining even heavier now but Maddy seems to ignore it completely and just keeps chasing her ball. Back to New Radnor. I am pleased that my new over-trousers have kept my trousers fairly dry and it was only at the end of the walk that my T-shirt started getting damp.
Saturday – Leominster – A dark, windy and wet morning. There are a pair of Tawny Owls around Grange Court – the female’s tuitt is immediately followed by the male’s woo. Despite the strong winds over the past few days the remaining apples on the cider apple trees have yet to fall.
Hereford – Off to the Food Festival. From the train there is a better view of the flooding south of Leominster. A lot of Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls, a few Mallard and Mute Swans, including a fair number of cygnets. Further on, beyond Dinmore, there are large flocks of winter thrushes flying about. The large herd of Mute Swans are on the winter wheat fields as they are every year. The Farmers’ Market is in High Town, a far bigger affair than we get in Leominster. I get some weird black liver chews for Maddy, she seems to like them, although most things go down without touching the edge so I doubt she has any idea what they taste like! The festival is being held in the area around the cathedral. Two large marquees and a number of small tents. Fortunately, everything is being roped down to huge concrete blocks, just as well as the wind is still strong. A couple of cider producers only seem to be selling bottles. We then ask at one who has pint glasses hidden beneath the counter – all very odd – but I get my pint. I manage a few more including one where the vendor tells me he is not supposed to sell open bottles but whips the top off anyway. We get our usual scotch eggs, mine is black pudding and chilli – excellent! Back to the train. On the way home, the buffet cart passes us with the attendant muttering, “Albatross, sea bird, squirrel on a stick.” Quite hilarious!
Monday – Hamnish Clifford – The sun shines down on a wet world. Over the old A44 road bridge. Hawthorns are still heavy with scarlet berries. Across the A49 which is busy at this time of morning. Ash trees are losing their leaves quickly leaving large, brown clumps of keys. Blackbirds flit through the bushes. Gulls pass over high in the blue sky. Blue Tits squeak in the bushes. Carrion Crows and Wood Pigeons fly out of the trees. Over Eaton bridge. The River Lugg is higher than it has been for a while. A few lonely Ragwort are the only flowers to be seen, although Ivy is flowering and being visited by a few bees. The leaves sparkle with drops of rainwater. A pair of Lapwings fly over, an unusual sight around here. Up Eaton Hill and over towards Cheaton Brook. Redwings, Fieldfares and Blackbirds are in the Hawthorn bushes. Down the fields. A large Fox is trotting up a field edge. Jackdaws are noisy in nearby trees. Over Cheaton Brook which like the Lugg is flowing fast but unlike the Lugg in a northerly direction before turning westwards at Stockton and joining the bigger river at Easters Meadow. Up Widgeon Hill and along the road towards Stretford. At Rowley Lodge a lane heads towards Hamnish Clifford. A field is being harrowed attracting Lesser Black-backed Gulls, both the fuscus and graellsii sub-species, Stock Doves, Rooks and Carrion Crows. All rise up on the appearance of Common Buzzard, which is harassed by a single crow. The hedgerow at the end is the field is populated by a Chaffinch, Dunnock, Robin, Greenfinch and a Magpie. Nearby a Wren chatters angrily.
Hamnish village hall is a splendid black painted corrugated iron building. Nearby is the church of St Dubricius and All Saints which is locked, however the key is hanging on a nail on the notice board. It is a relatively new “daughter” church built in 1909-1910 by W.J. Weatherley. It has a three-sided apse with a painted, gold-leafed altarpiece. Next to the church is Polly’s Cross, a 17th century timber-framed cottage formerly called Patty’s Cottage. Hamnish has always been a small place. There were six households recorded in Domesday. The land had previously belonged to Ernsi, son of Aldgyth with Queen Edith being the overlord. After the Conquest it was given to Walter (presumably Walter of Gloucester, Sheriff and Constable of Gloucester Castle) and tenanted by Drogo, son of Poyntz. The 12th century cartulary of Reading Abbey mentions a deer park here. A row of Oaks stand in a field marking the old field boundary. At the end of the field on the other side of the lane is a ruined cottage. Past a lovely long barn of black wood then a smaller barn with a fine wooden frame. Hamnish Court is a large white house mainly hidden by trees. The road turns north towards Grantsfield. A Mistle Thrush explodes out of the hedgerow. Orchards are a mixture of barren trees and those loaded with shiny red apples. Past a house with the wonderful name of Slaughter Castle, which appears to be in an area of mediaeval field systems possibly based on an old manor. On past a house with a long building backing onto the lane, low and curving with a roof covered in sedum. The road passes the earthworks at Stockton Bury, part of a deserted mediaeval village. On down to the A49. Along the hedgerow are Damson trees, spaced about ten yards apart, and rotting fruit is scattered over the pavement. It is a shame that it is clearly not worth anyone’s effort to pick the crop. The apple crop in orchard is very mixed, some trees heavy with apples, others with very few fruit. A military aircraft passes low overhead.
Thursday – Tewkesbury – An historic town on the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon. The name derives from Theoc, a Saxon who founded a hermitage here in the 7th century. The town is surrounded by water meadows which are regularly flooded. Normally this does not affect the town but the floods of 2007 made national news when the town was entirely cut off. We wander down Church Street. There is a delightful mixture of buildings, mainly from the 15th to 18th centuries. The town was an important stop on the coach routes but missed out on the development of the rail network and consequently little development occurred during the 19th century. This now is a boon for the town as so much of the earlier development would have been replaced. The Victoria Pleasure Gardens were built by public subscription to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Part of the old abbey wall runs along the edge of the park, the other side being the Mill Avon. The mill is Abbey Mill also known as “Abel Fletcher’s Mill”. It was originally built in 1190 but was completely rebuilt in 1793. The flour mill ceased operations in 1920 when it was replaced by a more modern mill further upstream and is now apartments.
The Abbey Malthouse stands nearby. The Baptist Chapel stands in an alley and is one of the oldest in England, believed to have been built in 1623, some dozen years after the first one was established in Spitalfields, London. The abbey is a magnificent building with a great crossing tower that Pevsner considered, “probably the largest and finest Romanesque tower in England”. The hermitage became a priory in the 10th century, subordinate to Cranbourne Abbey in Dorset, a Benedictine establishment. After the Conquest, William I gave the manor to Robert Fitzhamon, his cousin, who founded the present abbey with Giraldus, Abbot of Cranbourne in 1092. The church was started in 1102 using Caen stone which was floated up the River Severn. Robert Fitzhamon died in 1107 of wounds inflicted at Falaise in 1105. His son-in-law, Robert Fitzroy, Earl of Gloucester and son of Henry I, funded the continuing building works. The Abbey’s greatest single later patron was Lady Eleanor le Despenser, last of the De Clare heirs of FitzRoy. In the Middle Ages, Tewkesbury became one of the richest abbeys of England. On May 4th 1471 the Battle of Tewkesbury took place. The Yorkist forces under Edward IV decisively beat the Lancastrian army under Edward, Prince of Wales. Many Lancastrians sought sanctuary in the abbey but the Yorkists forced their way in and the resultant killings kept the abbey closed for a month before it could be reconsecrated. At Dissolution, the abbey was surrendered to the commissioners but the townspeople bought it for £453, thus saving the building. The abbey has a magnificent roof with numerous golden bosses. Monuments include a number of the Despenser, de Clare and Beauchamp families, George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard III and his wife, Isabelle, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker. The Chapel of Lord Edward Despenser, who died in 1375, has fine 14th century wall paintings and the earliest known fan-vaulting. The Milton Organ is a 17th century instrument originally made for Magdalen College, Oxford by Robert Dallam. We leave the abbey and head up to the High Street. The architecture remains fascinating but the shops reflect our age – chain stores, cheap shops and numerous charity shops. An estate agents office is in a building called “The Ancient Grudge”; built in 1471 the name reflects the enmity between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Numerous passageways lead off the High Street, often with timber-framed walls leading into yards.
Friday – Caer Caradoc – The River Teme at Knighton is flowing fast and grey. The shallows and gravel banks are covered by a bubbling, white-peaked torrent. It is raining again. Over the railway line and up Panpunton Hill. The hillside is russet-brown with bracken. A Jay flies silently into Kinsley Wood. Over the top of the hill and across a field pimpled with mole hills. A path passes through a narrow gap in the conifer plantation and off across muddy fields above Offa’s Dyke. Ravens pass singly or in pairs, calling. The bridleway crosses wet and muddy fields. A bleating lamb chases after Maddy who looks rather horrified. Past Upper Lurkenhope Farm, a rather desolate affair with
And oh! I’m filled with yearnings
To tramp it down the slope
That takes you past Five Turnings
And leads to Lurking Hope;
Or, best of all, go roaming
Beside the tiny beck
To where it falls a-foaming
A country must be jolly
“On that I’ll bet my shirt”
Where brooks are labelled Folly
And mounts are christened Flirt.
E.V. Knox in Punch, pre-war broken windows boarded up with wood and plastic and broken gates tied up with bailer twine making passage difficult. On through more mud. The rain is not going to give up but it does ease up a bit. Through Five Turnings and along a narrow road. Past a car breakers yard and on through the hills. The rain reasserts itself. Past Garn Hill in one side and Black Garn Farm on the other and on past Wax Hall (which was called Llyncwyr Cottage before 1900, cwyr being Welsh for wax, although llyncwyr seems to mean “devourer or swallower”!) Across fields where Pheasants explode out of the hedgerows and flocks of finches fly to and fro and over some rough pasture to Caer Caradoc, an Iron Age hill-fort. This is supposed to be the site of Caractacus’ last battle according to Tacitus. There appears to be little known about the site, it is undated and little excavated. The ramparts are massive. In the southern side the hill drops steeply away into River Redlake valley. There are entrances at the east and western ends. The little village of Chapel Lawn lies far below in a valley to the north of the fort. In the centre of the village is St Mary’s Church, designed by Edward Haycock in the lancet style and erected in 1844. From here I have to retrace my route. Linnets fly along the hedgerows and a Common Buzzard perches in it motionless. The rain returns after a brief respite. Back to Five Turnings and down the A488 to track up to Upper Lurkenhope Farm again. This time two lambs follow us. As we pass a gate and climb back up Panpunton Hill a bellowing and ranting can be heard from the farm behind. I catch the word “dog” but I fail to see what Maddy could have done. A moment later a collie follows us through the gate and runs up to Maddy who, as usual, is her typically friendly self and attacks the poor animal. It tries another approach with the same result, so retreats off back to the still ranting voice. Mists hang over woods. Down the horribly slippery Panpunton Hill and across the railway. I risk sending Maddy into the river and manage to get the mud off her.
Saturday – Leominster – The first frost of the season, just a light dusting in sheltered spots around the Millennium Gardens and ice on the lids of our compost bins. Out into the garden to check the chickens and change their water. A woodpecker is in the Ash tree; it is still rather gloomy but I think it is a Green Woodpecker. It flies off before I get a decent view. There is a large flock of House Sparrows around the garden these days. They empty the seed feeder in a thrice. The chickens are still providing a couple of eggs a day but old Gin-and-Tonic does not lay now, so a decision will need to be made soon! There are still a large number of Bramley apples to collect but most of the Howgate Wonders have fallen now. The Conference pear crop is finished but it was the best we have had by far. It looks like I have missed the chance to plant autumn garlic and broad beans, but both can be sown in the spring.
Tuesday – Elan Valley – Our friend Lynn is visiting and she has never been to Wales, so we are off sight-seeing. We stop first at Water-Break-Its Neck, the waterfall that flows off the Radnor Hills near New Radnor. The deep cleft in the rocks through which the stream flows is noticeably colder than out in Warren Wood. We move on westwards to Rhayader, a pleasant town in mid-Wales we have visited on a number of occasions. From here we head up into the mountains across Penrhiw-wen and on towards the bridge at Pont ar Elan. A farmer is heading off across the moor with his shotgun; I wonder if he is after Snipe as it looks pretty marshy where he is going. As we turn the sharp bend to the top of the hill which drops steeply to the bridge a Red Kite floats past only some ten yards away giving wonderful views of its grey, red and cream plumage. From the bridge we drive around the Craig Goch reservoir and pause at the great dam wall. Water plunges in a white flow like a lace wedding dress train. It flows down through autumn woods of green, gold and yellow into Penygarreg reservoir where a little tree cloaked island stands alone. On down Carreg-ddu reservoir to the final great dam on the Caban-goch reservoir. The area is surprisingly busy with tourists although it is a bright, sunny autumn day so maybe this should be expected. We return to Rhayader for lunch and then head back home. Just outside Rhayader, Red Kites and Common Buzzards are gathering around the feeding station, several dozens drifting low over the fields. In the evening, Maddy pauses on her evening walk near Grange Court and stares at the base of the wall. A hedgehog has buried its head in the ivy in the hope that we cannot see it. It will need to find somewhere safe soon to hibernate as the night is clear and a heavy frost is promised.
Saturday – Hove Beach – Three parallel lines of brilliant orange vapour trails cross the eastern sky and out to sea. The water is calm, lapping the pebbles gently. Past the bowling greens and along the promenade westwards. Gulls scream. Gaily painted beach huts, apparently costing thousands these days, stand between the greens, tennis courts and other facilities and the promenade. Across the road stand tall hotels and blocks of flats, a mixture of Victorian Gothic and 20th century modernism. Men sleeping rough occupy the shelters, it is getting cold at night so it must be hard for them. A few lights at sea indicate ships. What was once a simple boating lake is now traversed by zip wires from triangular towers and strange pontoons float in the water. Maddy drops her ball into the lagoon and then stands staring at it. Of course, I have to fish it out. The promenade ends at the start of Shoreham harbour. Blocks of white 1930s houses are being modernised. The first one looks most impressive, belonging apparently to celebrities. A fork lift truck moves boxes at the fish merchants. A piscean aroma permeates the air. At sea there are a number of small boats of anglers heading for one of the rocky outcrops half a mile off shore. The port’s importance is demonstrated by the amount of materials in the dock-side terminals – acres of steel, vast stacks of timber from Sweden, mountains of aggregates and already loaded lorries are leaving the dock. Herring Gulls climb these piles searching for who knows what? A huge machine is sorting and separating the aggregates which then travel up belts to trickle down onto the piles. A massive new building houses another steel stockist. Next is the power station. The odoriferous sewage outfall is marked by tall red posts topped by Cormorants drying their wings. I cannot remember if there is a way across the harbour so I turn back. By the time I am back to the promenade the public have emerged; cyclists, runners, dog walkers and general strollers. The sun has risen and the sky is blue.
Sunday – Brighton – Down the hill to Preston Manor, a delightful house built in 1738. The name Preston derives from the Anglo-Saxon for “priest’s holding” suggesting that there was a settlement here in Saxon times. The Domesday Book recorded that the property was one of eight manors belonging to the Bishopric of Chichester. In 1510 the Bishop granted a lease of the Manor of Preston to Edward Elrington. A 1559 Act of Parliament enabled Queen Elizabeth I to enforce an exchange of property with the bishops and Preston Manor was acquired by the Crown in 1561. The Elrington family continued to lease and farm what were now Crown lands. The manor passed down various branches of the family until it was sold to the Stanfords in 1794. It was transferred to Brighton Corporation in 1933. Beside the manor house is St Peter’s Church, built in the 13th century, the third to be on this site. The church is finished in knapped flints and has a tower at the west end with a shallow pyramidal cap (of the type known as a Sussex Cap). From the church a path leads into Preston Park, long a favourite leisure park for this area of the town. The football pitches are occupied by hundreds of gulls. The park was acquired by the Corporation in 1883. The park remains green throughout the summer because of a non-drinkable underground water source, known as the Wellesbourne, which runs below Preston Park, London Road and The Level. The source dates back many centuries and is often referred to as Brighton’s lost river. Once there flower beds along the London Road side of the park which were planted out each year each to a design produced by a different town’s horticultural departments and a prize was given for the best design. I recall seeing a silver cup in an office of the Leisure and Amenities Department in Barnsley and it was engraved as the winner of the competition one year.
Along Preston Road past a shop which declares it deals in “Roadkill Couture”! A dress in the window has a collar of Wood Pigeon wings. There is a stuffed Peacock and a skeleton of maybe a llama along with many other bizarre objects d’art. Steps in New England Road rise up to an old railway bridge. A cut-out in steel of the locomotive “Jenny Lind” has been erected on the bridge. Beyond is a large block of flats built on the old railway arches and pillars. Pillars opposite are decorated with huge fireman’s tools – shovels and forks. The path emerges in Stroudley Place, another reference to the great days of steam; William Stroudley was a railway engineer working mainly for the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway in the mid-19th century. From here to the station is confusing for me as it is all new blocks of apartments and offices. Boston Street, New York Street and London Street with their garages and metal dealers in railway arches and tiny working class terraces are all gone as is the large area which was latterly a car park on the site of the great locomotive works. The Lord Nelson pub in Trafalgar Street is covered in scaffolding but looks like it is still trading. So is the Prince Albert by the underpass above which stands the concourse of Brighton Station. The station has changed considerably over the years, the great wooden indicator board has gone to a museum and there are franchises everywhere. The wonderful curving glass roof, installed in 1882 remains and the original Italianate station building designed by David Mocatta in 1839 is still there but obscured by later additions. I can just remember seeing a row of steam engines and the electric commuter trains lined up in the 1950s and in the sixties I used to run from school to get to Howard Place, which is high above the station to the west, to see the Exeter train pull in, still pulled by a Bulleid’s West Country or Battle of Britain class engine.
From the station I head down Gloucester Road. A quick peek along Trafalgar Lane where I am surprised to see a depot of Travis Perkins on the site where my father worked from the 1950s. He worked for John Eade Butt and Co, who were taken over by Travis and Arnold which merged with Sandell Perkins in 1988. There are still a few signs of old Brighton around, a shop has a lovely tiled wall stating “Engine rs Builders Merchants Iron Founder”. It is a bit sad that the missing “E” has been filled in with brown tiles. Down in Trafalgar Street is a green tiles entrance to “Grand Parade Garage Estab.d 1918”, now apartments occupy the space within. Very few of the shops around here are familiar, they change faster than hairstyles. Down to the London Road. St Peter’s Church looks forlorn with its entrances under the tower surrounded by barriers, it is in an unsafe condition and there is no money to repair it. London Road is pretty depressing with lots of boarded up shops. Rough sleepers occupy some entrance ways. The Open Market has been demolished. Apartments are being built with the market being placed underneath, hardly a satisfactory arrangement! The old Co-op building has been demolished except for its façade. The building, designed by Bethell and Swannell, was opened on 12th September 1931 with four storeys and a 180-foot frontage relieved only by two giant, fluted Doric columns above the entrance. Back up to Five-Ways. On the way there is the Railway Tavern now called “The Signalman” and the Springfield, even more inexplicably renamed “Open House”. Florence Road Methodist church looks like it has closed, the board outside now advertises a Farmers’ Market. Five-ways is even more trendy now, numerous coffee shops and better class food establishments, but still the same plethora of estate agents!
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – Last night was bright and frosty, this morning the rain pours down. It may be weather for ducks but there are few on the lake – just a couple of Wigeon, some Tufted Ducks, Coots and the usual group of Mallard at the western end. A couple of Cormorants are on the pontoon with several more in the trees. A bitter wind blows. The rain finally stops and the sun makes a watery appearance. Sheep are in the cider orchard where piles of apples remain uncollected. Fieldfares chatter in the dessert apple orchard and a Kestrel flies off. By the evening, the bitter wind has turned into a roaring gale.
Friday – Leominster – It is colder this morning and the grass crunches underfoot. The moon shines through a sky of dark curds of cloud. The International Space Station flies over. On board are Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins, all flight engineers. It is followed by a rocket body, the Atlas 2AS Centaur launched by the USA in 2003.
Hergest Ridge – The grey clouds with clear patches of dawn remain. A Great Spotted Woodpecker and several Nuthatches call from the tree at the beginning of the Hergest Ridge track. Blue and Great Tits flit to and fro. A flock of hen pheasants whirr up out of the bracken and over the hedge. A gaudy cock flies the other way before departing again noisily. The eastern hills are dark under clouds that glow with sunlit edges. The Radnor hills are misty. Skylarks fly across the hill singing snatches of song. The sun makes occasional and welcome appearances but a bitter wind has blown up. Past the Monkey Puzzle trees and on into Radnorshire and Wales. A Red Kite drifts along the edge of the ridge, the sun catching its feathers in glorious red, cream and black. Water weeds in the pools lay on the surface tinged white with frost. Great bales of bracken lie on the western slope of the ridge. It is very peaceful here, hardly a sound disturbs except for a passing aircraft. Down the path towards Gladestry. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes fly through the Hawthorns. A charm of Goldfinches fly up from some sorry looking thistle heads which clearly still contain seeds despite their condition. A Robin ticks and Carrion Crows call from the fields below. At the bottom of Broken Bank we join the road which runs below the ridge back to Kington. Gladestry Brook babbles in the valley below. Past Offa’s Orchard, a green burial ground. I start clearing Maddy’s tail of bracken and gorse. She starts complaining and I explain it is not my fault her tail is such a mess when a whinny makes me jump and I look up to see a horse staring down at me which is, of course the source of her distress. A white flash marks the passage of a Bullfinch and a Chaffinch pinks from an Oak tree.
A track leads to Mill Cottage and geese gabble in Llanyfelin Farm. On past Upper House, New House and School Farm at Upper Hergest and on to Lower Hergest and the unfinished Castle Twts. A lane leads down to the main road where Hergest Court stands in the hillside opposite. The manor house, now farmhouse and sub-divided into two tenements, is reputed to have been built around 1430 for Thomas Vaughan, on the site of an earlier house but largely remodelled during the 17th and 18th and further altered during the 20th centuries. The Welsh bard Lewis Glyn Cothi described the court as having eight strong buildings. These were demolished during the 18th century. Thomas Vaughan is the famous “Black Vaughan” whose monument lies in Kington church. It is also believed that the “Red Book of Hergest”, called in Welsh, Llyfr Coch Hergest was from here. The book is a large vellum manuscript written shortly after 1372 and contains Welsh prose and poetry, notably the Mabinogion, tales of pre-Christian Celtic mythology. It is believed that one of the copyists was Hywel Fychan fab Hywel Goch of Buellt who worked for Hopcyn ap Tomas ab Einion. In the 15th century Hopcyn ap Rhys was complicit in the rebellion again Edward IV and his possessions were forfeited and the book passed into the possession of the Vaughans, then of Tretower. It passed through a number of hands before coming into the possession of Jesus College Oxford in the mid-18th century and is now in the Bodleian Library. It is said that Tolkein borrowed the name for his “Red Book of Westmarch”, the legendary source of the tales of Middle Earth. Down the road down to Hergest Bridge, over the River Arrow. Here a lane leads to Bredward. The sun shines brightly now and it is quite warm for mid-November. An Environment Agency worker is taking a water sample from the river. Bredward is a scatter of houses and a large farm. The Herefordshire Trail heads east. Over the field a flock of Rooks caw as they fly out from a line of trees. Beyond, Hergest Croft Gardens stand on the hillside in autumnal glory. Being that, Bradnor Hill rises with Offa’s Dyke on top. The path crosses a field of unharvested barley. The sun has gone behind a large cloud and the temperature has dropped noticeably. The trail passes through the garden of Hergest Mill and then turns into Tatty Moor. Past the large mill pond and onto the playing field of Lady Hawkin’s School. A footpath runs up Stoney Lane which emerges by Kington church. From here it is up Ridgebourne Road which is long and seemingly steep to my tired legs, back to the gate to the Hergest Ridge path.
Monday – Mortimer Forest – The woods are quiet. Just the distant drone of human activity disturbs the silence. The floor of the plantations are orange with Larch needles. The sky is cloudy with some small patches of blue. It is cool. There is an anticyclone over the country with the pressure up to 1034 millibars (although we are supposed to refer to these as “hectopascals” these days). Still the only birds calling are Carrion Crows. The woods across the Mary Knoll Valley are a subtle blend of dark greens, browns and yellows. Up the track to High Vinnalls. The surrounding hills are dark and misty. Down the track to the Deer Park. Two Fallow Deer bound off down the road. Ravens cronk overhead.
Tuesday – Bearwood – The temperature has not risen above freezing. Great Tits fly down the roadside hedgerow. Pheasants are noisy over the hedge as are Rooks in the fields. The sky is overcast. This is the first round of the BTO Winter Thrush Survey. I could hear Fieldfares in the hamlet of Bearwood. But that is outside the designated area. Around a bend in the road at Longwood and into a large patch of water and ice. A large Gunera by the roadside has succumbed to the cold and lies limp and decaying. A Ring-necked Pheasant flies up over the hedge missing my head by inches. He flaps furiously, squawking and gabbling the whole time. In down to Luntley Court and its lovely dovecote.
Over Tippet’s Brook. Again I can hear Fieldfares but they are outside the area. Along the road to Tibhall farm. A flock of finches dross into a field of root crops. A Common Buzzard flies off. The finch flock consists as far as I can see of just Chaffinches. It is very mobile making it difficult to estimate the number of individuals but it must be more than fifty. A few Blue Tits join the flock in a row of Oak trees. Wood Pigeons pass over in fair numbers. Back towards Bearwood. At the house at Longwood, a cock pheasant stands on the roof and at last a Redwing, albeit just the one, in the same apple trees where I saw them last year. Up the road a Mistle Thrush sits watching from a tree and a Sparrowhawk flaps overhead. The temperature has risen to a balmy 4°C.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – It is less cold today but the wind has risen and the sky remains overcast. Jackdaws chack around the car park. Redwings and Fieldfares call from the orchards. A male Goosander floats motionless on the lake. The Wigeon flock has grown to around one hundred birds. A Grey Heron flies off from the bank to the scrape but is watching the hide closely and as soon as the window is opened it is off spooking half a dozen Teal. A glorious drake Goldeneye glides into view its black and white plumage pristine. A couple of Moorhens bob around the reeds. Mallard are scattered over the lake. Just a single Cormorant sits in the trees with a motionless Common Buzzard a few feet below it. A Sparrowhawk flashes across in front of the hide, circles the nearby paddock and flashes back again into the saplings at the water’s edge. A few more Goldeneyes both drake and duck appear along with some Tufted Duck. Court feed among the Wigeon. Dinmore and Westfield woods are various shades of copper with a large patch where the leaves have all fallen. Two adult and four fully grown cygnets glide into view on the far side of the water. A Robin sings and Wigeon whistle. Back along the meadow a Great Spotted Woodpecker chips atop a willow. Urgent calling from Westfield Wood indicates that a dog has been lost. Sheep are in the cider apple orchard. A couple of trees still have quite a heavy crop on them. The same applies to the dessert apples, although most trees are bare now. Fieldfares fly off as we cross the orchard.
Friday – Black Mountains – It has been relatively mild over the last few days but a chilling wind blows as Maddy and I set off from the Gospel Pass up to Hay Bluff. Wales lies below in misty sunshine but here the clouds are grey and resting on Lord Hereford’s Knob. A pair of Red Kites glide effortlessly overhead. Ravens and Carrion Crows dance in the wind. The local ponies are down in the valley. Up on the top of Hay Bluff the cloud is dropping rapidly and the moorland is shrouded in mist. Up to the triangulation point which has been repainted and sports a red Welsh dragon on each side. A path heads southwards following the England-Wales border. A Red Grouse mutters across the heather. This sort of hill walking has a Zen quality. Surrounded by grey, no views, just the mottled green and brown of heathers and grasses, leaves one alone with one’s thoughts. Except, of course the requirement to kick an orange ball frequently! The path is often laid with large slabs of rock to protect the fragile peat bog. Now the path climbs over a peak at 703 metres, apparently without a name. Thin slabs of rock have been laid in edge to form steps up the hill. The path now treks across the moorland. Occasionally brief glimpses of Black Hill emerge through the mist. Suddenly a small brown and white finch flies up from the heather, a Snow Bunting, a considerable surprise! The path enters a much rougher area, the heather forms islands in a sea of broken bedrock. Cairns show the route through.
The wind is even stronger here battering us as we continue southwards. It is now raining and rather grim, so the sight of the marker stone indicating the path down to Capel-y-ffin is a relief. Out of the mist, out of the rain and most importantly out of the wind. The Vale of Ewyas lies green below. The path winds down the hillside, steeply and wet. Towards the bottom is worse as it is muddy and slippery. A series of stiles where Maddy just stands and looks pathetic as she cannot crawl underneath and refuses to jump over. Past The Vision Farm and across a couple of fields to a footbridge over the Afon Honddu. The river bubbles over rocks and gullies. The cloud and rain has followed us down from the hills. Up the road to Capel-y-ffin where I rest a short time in the porch of the chapel of St Mary. This hamlet was the last Welsh-speaking place in this area. I have been here before. The delightful little church dates from 1762. I did not notice the font cover last time, it is a wooden disc with a mouse carved on top. It is reminiscent of the work of Robert “Mouseman” Thompson, but I can find no reference to him in regard to this church. Farm dogs on chains bark madly at Maddy who coyly ignores them. A tractor comes down the lane taking up the entire width of the roadway necessitating us to climb the bank, me hanging onto a sapling. The lane has risen above the river and looks down as it meanders. A Dipper flashes upstream. Sheep graze below unaware of the canine eyes watching them. Past a field of black sheep with a white flag on their foreheads and white tails. I later discover these are an endangered breed, Balwen Welsh Mountain sheep originating in the Tywi Valley in South-west Wales. Up the Gospel into a powerful headwind; it is utterly exhausting. The slopes are bare littered with boulders. At the pass is an army personnel transporter with a sign: “Caution Soldiers Marching”. There is also a large white lorry with a generator, a solar panel and a receiver dish; no idea what it is? Down the other side of the pass beneath Hay Bluff. The wind is buffeting again but the clouds have lifted somewhat. Ravens pass over tumbling and twisting in the wind, absolute masters and mistresses of the sky.