Tuesday 1st September – Leominster – Mid morning and over a dozen Swallows are sweeping across the Grange just inches above the ground. Summer is passing. Everything is beginning to look tired, leaves dull and drying, soon to be yellow and brown. Apples on the small trees in the Millennium Meadow are fat and shiny. Juicy purple Elderberries shine from the hedges. Rosebay Willowherb lets loose its feathery white seed bearers.
Home – Fruit is ripening fast. Plums and Damsons are hanging heavy from their branches, dull with the pale covering a yeasts. The raspberry canes have grown to over six feet tall and are pressing the top of the fruit cage upwards. The thornless blackberries are beginning to ripen to a shiny black. Bramley apples have swollen with the recent rains and pull the branches low. They have cropped well, which is a relief as the Howgate Wonders have failed entirely. The last two figs are gently plucked from the tree – they have been prolific. Cabbage White butterflies have managed to lay and hatch eggs on the cabbages and purple-sprouting despite my vigilance and some leaves are now green lacework. Courgettes keep coming one after another. The runner and French beans are now beginning to slow. There is a good crop of sweet and chilli peppers in the greenhouse.
Wednesday 2nd September – Home – A dull day with rain threatening. Cropping fruit continues. Several pounds of plums come off the branches overhanging our garden wall. On the other side there is an overhanging damson which provides another four pounds of fruit without much effort. The plums are bottled in a medium syrup and the damsons are being turned into chutney – a “Delia” recipe. It better be good because there is a large quantity soon to be bottled. I had cut rings of plastic out of 2 litre bottles to act as slug deterrents around some lettuce seedlings. Somehow one has got into the chicken run and Ginger is wearing around her neck. Fortunately, she does not make much effort to run away when I grab her to remove it. Jill is still broody but finally the other hens are using the second nest. A Robin sings from the shrubbery and a Chiffchaff is calling nearby.
Saturday 5th September – Home – It is getting more autumnal by the day. The mornings and evenings are decidedly cooler. Maddy has been spayed and has a large sewn up wound down her stomach. She is being very good about it; it is obviously irritating her and she wants to lick it but stops whenever she is told to do so. At night she has to wear a buster collar or a bucket as we always call them. She looks disgusted when it is put on but we cannot afford to let her interfere with her stitches. I have been making Damson Cordial. The first batch is a bit too sweet, so less sugar on the next. There is still another tree of damsons to be picked yet and then I had better start on the apples. The beans are finally coming to an end – the remaining French beans can be left to dry now and the runners will be cropped and made into piccalilli. It is onto hands and knees in the damp grass to weed the raised beds – a never-ending task. The Chiffchaff is still calling from the fruit trees.
Thursday 10th September – Ledbury – It is the week of the Heritage Open Days when many normally closed old buildings are opened to the public. We head to Ledbury, a delightful town to the east of Hereford, a few miles from the Worcestershire border. The town centre is a mixture of mediaeval timber-framed “black and white” and Georgian buildings. The first we visit is the imposing Market House dating from the 17th century. The building is a timber-framed hall standing on 16 wooden stilts. It was started in 1617 after John Phillips, a clothier, raised £40 by public subscription. It is thought to have been designed by John Abel although it lacks his characteristic ornate finish. This may well be because the building took years to finish, the money ran out in 1655 and money from bequests for clothing for the poor was used to complete it in 1668. To compensate the bequests it was stipulated that money from rents would be used to buy 12 sets of clothes each year. The Market House was used a corn store for only a few years because the introduction of turnpikes meant tolls were levied on corn being brought into the town. So traders would only bring a small sample of their corn instead of paying for storage and the road tolls. The attic would have been a storage area once, but the floor has been removed exposing the beautiful oak beams. A declaration of the ascension to the throne of Edward VII in 1901 and a letter acknowledging the Council’s loyal wishes to the new king are displayed on the wall. Opposite is the impressive site of St Katherine’s Hospital Almshouses, built in 1822 by Sir Robert Smirke.
By the Market House is a cobbled lane, Church Lane leading, obviously, towards the church. A fascinating little museum resides, Butchers Row House Museum containing many items, mainly of Victorian life. The house originally stood in middle of the High Street but was demolished around 1830 and re-erected in 1979. Just up the road is the Heritage Centre, another fine timber-framed building that has been a guildhall, school and tenement block. A huge smoking chimney stands at one end. Beside the hearth is a glass cover to a hole which shows an old, dried up water course many feet below. Upstairs the massive roof timbers can be seen.
At the end of Church Lane are gates through which stands the Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels. Liedeberge, a fortification on the River Leadon, was chosen as a site for a minster church by the Bishop of Hereford in the 8th century. The building is sited to the south of churchyard, which is unusual and being the lowest lying area may indicate that a stream ran through here, which in turn may well mean the church was built on top of a pagan site. The stone church, then known as St Peter’s, was probably constructed in the early 12th century. Changes and additions continued until the 15th century when the church was in the form now seen. The tower is a separate building, the lower three sections being constructed around 1230 but the spire not until 1733. There is a lot of good glass in the windows, mainly Victorian, much by Charles E. Kempe, but there are also some later gems. The Heaton memorial window is by John Clark and was installed in 1991. It contains references to the lives of Arthur and Biddy Heaton – a cricket bat and ball, a Mother’s Union badge, a family pet etc. The westmost window is a design by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Another is a representation of the Good Shepherd, designed by Edward Burne-Jones and made in the William Morris workshop in 1913. Standing in the nave and looking towards the sanctuary there is a red light in the roof. This is a small red glazed window, installed at the time of the Reformation when it was forbidden to hang red sanctuary lamps. It is believed to be unique! There are several fine memorials as well as numerous slabs in the floor. A pure white marble baby being watched over by angels commemorates the infant John Hamilton who died in 1851. In the sanctuary is the Skynner tomb, a monument to Edward Skynner, who died in 1631, three years after his wife Elizabeth. Between them is a baby girl that legend states was killed by the last wolf in the district. In the south aisle there is also a marble and gold plaque to Captain Samuel Skynner, “who by no mean proficient in Maritime affairs; having been conversant therein for near forty years” and who died in 1725 at the age of 73 years.
Friday 11th September – Hereford – The Heritage Open Days continue. Hereford station, like most public transport buildings, has a tired, unloved look about it. The flowers in the hanging baskets cannot make up for the overall dullness. Some of the seats have “GWR” in the ironwork leg ends, over 60 years old. The main building is brick with stone gothic features. In what seems another relic of the old times, a platform worker blows a whistle and waves a paddle, rather than a flag, for a train to depart, despite the guard standing about ten feet away and the train only being three carriages long.
My first visit is to the Shire Hall, where the courts sit. Despite signs indicating that it is open for the Heritage day, there is no-one around and no indication what there is to see. One corridor which appears to lead to the courts and anything of interest is roped off. Stairs lead to a concert hall, although there is no information available. The walls carry large portraits of royalty and local worthies. A semi-circular stage has tiers rising to the back. Marble pillars support of flat dome ceiling. Beside the stage is a raised box for the master of ceremonies.
It is then on to the Town Hall where much more effort has been made. Men in usher’s uniforms guide the visitor to the Mayor’s parlour where a former mayor shows the mayoral chains, photographs and other memorabilia. Two swords hang on the wall – the Sword of State, which is over 300 years old and is borne before the mayor on civic occasions and the Mourning Sword which is only used on the death of a sitting mayor (which has not happened since the turn of the 20th century) and on the death of the monarch, again not for nearly 60 years. The Mourning Sword is 15th century and was used at the Battle of Mortimers Cross in 1461 (although the councillor expressed her doubts regarding its age). It is noticeable that much of the silver and memorabilia has been presented by local regiments, which contrasts with Barnsley’s collection which has strong connections to local industry, especially mining. Banners on the walls of this room and the council chamber are from the military; in Barnsley they are NUM banners. A statue of Lord Nelson is in the council chamber. He was made a Freeman of the City in 1802. The carpet is pale blue with the Lion of England carrying a sword, the symbol of Richard I – apparently only allowed to be used because the Lionheart presented a charter to the city in 1189. Above the main staircase is a beautiful stained glass dome in the Art Nouveau style, the Town Hall being built in 1904. The pillars by the stairs are made from Phyllite (a foliated metamorphic rock) from central Norway and are now worth more than the original cost of the entire building.
A quick visit to the museum (but not the art gallery which is cleverly closed for an exhibition change right in the middle of the Heritage Open Days!) Then on to Coningsby Hospital. I had visited the site previously but today the museum is open. The hospital was furnished by Sir Thomas Coningsby in 1614 as a refuge for old soldiers and servants. It was originally the chapel and hall of the Knight Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem and came into the Coningsby family after the Dissolution. During restoration work in the last century, a skeleton was found underneath the hall. His identity is unknown but it is thought he was probably a member of the Order of Black Friars and lived in the 14th century. It is interesting to note that the pensioners in the hospital wore a red uniform and it is believed by some (particularly Herefordians) that Nell Gwynn, who was born in Hereford in 1650, knew the hospital and persuaded Charles II to found a similar one, with a similar uniform, in Chelsea – the Royal Chelsea Hospital.
Saturday 12th September – Kington Show – Last year the show was cancelled as the site was waterlogged. This year it is a fine, sunny day. A large field is divided into “rings” for showing horses, dogs, cattle and sheep. Around these rings are stalls and displays ranging from huge, shiny new tractors to antique furniture, the police to candy floss and everything in between. Large marquees house the product competitions, craft fair and sheep events – shearing in one and a display in the other. Wisely we have left Maddy at home, it does not bear thought about her behaviour when there are hundreds of animals to bark at all over the place. Dogs are being powdered and brushed into fluffy bundles or sleek shiny aristocrats. Owners sit around discussing who has bred what and so on. Loud speakers summon various classes of horse and rider to the correct ring. Some tiny ponies, colts, Welsh Cobs, buggies, carts, drays and the Ronald Searle characters on horseback. Over at the livestock, sheep are primped and groomed, cows sprayed and brushed. Three young beef cows are led around the ring whilst the judge looks on. When they stand still the handler uses a hooked stick to move their hooves into the correct position. One is being sprayed and brushed by an assistant. I have no idea what the judge is looking for but he eventually orders them into First, Second and Third. Oddly, all three owners look stoic about the result, a swift handshake and then lead their beasts away. In the sheep rings there are far more animals in each class and a bevy of adjudicators. In a small marquee are the fowl, geese and ducks. One wonders if the number of First Prizes are in fact a prize for the only one entered. There are some lovely hens for sale but I resist! The product competition also seems light on entries, some classes only have one or two exhibits. There are three enormous marrows in the heaviest marrow competition and a couple of astoundingly large cabbages. Some of the flower classes have superb collections of blooms, like the cattle I am not sure how the judges came to their conclusions. Unfortunately, one cannot taste to jams, jellies, pickles and chutneys so it is only possible to admire the clarity and richness of colour. The shearing competition is amusing with contestants pulling a sheep from behind a door, shearing it and shoving it back through another door. Young women in sponsors T-shirts stand in front of the stage gathering the fleeces. Behind, judges watch and commentators babble on in fine fashion. The show was established in 1881 and some of the old boys wandering around in their best checked shirts, ties and tweed jackets look like they have attended nearly everyone since.
Tuesday 15th September – Hay Bluff – Clouds obscure the summits of the Black Mountains. Pen-y-Beacon stone circle is sited by the car park. It consists of a single, flat, triangular shaped stone maybe 3½ feet high and some other stones hidden in the grass. It is not exactly a prepossessing monument, although the setting does lend it an otherworldly air. Off up the long slope to Hay Bluff – too many stops to regain my wind and too many cries of “HEEL!” to a recalcitrant, tugging dog. Ravens are calling and occasionally come out of the clouds to dance on the strong north wind. Meadow Pipits flash across the low patches of heather and bracken. Looking back down the road below, there are lines of sheep moving head to tail through the blocks of bracken. The lines join and then split apart again to some unknown pattern. It is grey on top of the hill, visibility limited to a couple of dozen yards.The path is a solid firmament in the maze of little black gullies of peat between heather tussocks. Dark pools lie a few feet away. The triangulation point looms out of the mist and then disappears again as we head south-east. Occasionally the path is paved with large slabs to protect the fragile peat. A larger pool of black water reflects the silence – no birds call, no other human presence, even Maddy seems quiet although she is busy with her ball. There is supposed to be a path to the eastern edge but it never appears, so I retreat to the summit and head across from there. The hillside drops precipitously away down to moorland cut by streams. Round the northern end of the bluff and then take a path down. As we reach the valley floor, the clouds lift and Ravens can be seen diving and twisting in the air currents just off the hill-top.
Wednesday 16th September – Bircher Common-Croft Ambrey – Down the old ride from the avenue to Croft Castle to Fishpool Valley. The trees rustle in the gusty wind, but otherwise there is only the odd squeak from a Blue Tit to break the silence. Over a dam of one of the fish pools. On the far side stands a piece of sculpture made of water jet cut marine ply and wood. Called Trappenkamp, it was commissioned by Tate Modern in 2008. Up the paths that lead out onto Bircher Common. Swallows are sweeping across the grass. A little way up the hill is a small enclosure formed by low grass covered banks. It is considered to be part of an Iron Age or Romano-British farm. The land to the west falls away into a deep wooded valley created by one of the streams that feed Fishpool Valley. Beyond, Lady Wood and Lyngham Vallet rise, dark and dense with conifers. There is a path leading up the common although it is just shorter grass than the rest. Sheep graze but are ignored by Maddy who has her ball to occupy her. Behind Herefordshire lays under a grey sky with shafts of sunlight slicing the gloom. The path reaches a junction at Whiteway Head, with gates to the north-east, north-west and west. We take the north-westerly route. This leads to a track that is clearly going down across Leinthall Common – not where we want to be going. Cutting up across the hillside leads into a dense mass of bracken and brambles which soon becomes impassable. So back to the gate and take another path which leads round the edge of the escarpment. Shortly before the slope up to Croft Ambrey eastern gate is a fallen tree which has opened up the area. It is busy with Long-tailed, Blue and Great Tits, Wrens and Goldcrests. The area between Leinthall Common, which is a very steep drop down to the valley floor, and the dark conifer woods is a splendid area of English woodland of Oak, Ash (which seem to have no keys this year), Yews, Willows, Hawthorn and Elder. Along the edge of Croft Ambrey Iron Age fort. A pair of Common Buzzards mew as they glide high over the valley below. Back down through the woods and past the ancient Spanish Chestnuts, whose spiky green capsules contain nuts far too small for roasting.
Thursday 17th September – Much Wenlock – A small town in Shropshire nestling under Wenlock Edge, an outcrop of Silurian limestones. There is evidence of both Roman and Celtic occupation. A priory was founded here under the abbess Liobsynde, around 680 by King Merewalh of Mercia, son of Penda. At that time the place was called Wimnicas, which may have derived from a name for Wenlock Edge, Vimina, a Gaulish river name. Wenlock came later from the Welsh, gwyn-loc or “white monastery”. Merewahl installed his daughter Milburge, who had been educated at Chelles near Paris, as abbess following Liobsynde, in 687. Milburge was credited with numerous miracles including bringing a dead boy back to life and making geese that were eating the monastery’s crops disappear. She lived into her sixties, old for the time and died around the mid 720s and was later recognised as a saint. It is believed the priory was ravaged by Danes around 874 and the names of two nuns from Wenlock appear as witnesses to a charter at Shrewsbury in 901. However, little is known about the priory until around 1040 when Leofric, Earl of Mercia, built a minster on the site. After the Conquest, the area was granted to Roger de Montgomery. At his request, a number of monks from La Charité sur Loire, a daughter-house of Cluny, came to Wenlock around 1080 and the former abbey became a Cluniac priory dedicated to St Milburge and St Michael. Around 1101 two boys were playing in the church when a pit opened up to reveal the “beautiful and luminous bones” of St Milburge. These were placed in a shrine and stories of miraculous cures spread. A woman with a wasting fever drank some water used to wash the bones and vomited a great worm and was cured. Wenlock became a popular place of pilgrimage and the town began to build around it. It became strong enough to found a daughter-house, St Helen’s Priory on the Isle of Wight. By 1521, according to a report by Dr John Allen, the priory had fallen into disrepute because of the monks’ immorality, lack of worship and easy living. Wenlock was dissolved by Henry VIII on 24th January 1540. The site was slowly demolished to provide building stones for local houses and farms. Today some towering walls remain, including St Michael’s Chapel and the Library with its tiled floor. The infirmary range is now a private dwelling. The lavabo stands in the cloister where many bushes stand made into quaint animal shapes by topiary. The walls of the Chapter House remain displaying elaborate false arcading which would have been painted brightly once. The town has a fine High Street with a good selection of shops including a very popular butchers with a long queue. They have a vast range of pies, which we have to sample! Like so many places, the High Street could do without the traffic! Round from the bottom of the High Street is the Guildhall, a lovely timber-framed building with a market area underneath. Built in 1540, it was the mediaeval prison with a courthouse over. One of the great oak pillars was used as a whipping post.
Friday 18th September – Mortimer Forest – Maddy and I head up the forest tracks. Few birds are seen but there are calls of Blue and Coal Tits, song of Robins and the familiar spring call of Chiffchaff, two indeed calling surprisingly strongly for autumn. Jays squawk from a distance. A Great Spotted Woodpecker is calling from a Poplar. The path rises gently through Haye Park Wood and past the Iron Age enclosure. It then continues past younger conifers, skirting the northern edge of Climbing Jack Common. The ground opens out into bracken covered common land. A Willow Tit calls from the forest edge. Delicate blue Harebells rise from the rough grass, whilst yellow petalled Tormentil creeps across the ground. The slope finally reaches the summit at High Vinnalls where a rickety old deer stalkers’ tower crowns the hill. High Vinnalls is a “Marilyn”, a hill with a relative height of 150 metres. The name comes from the name of Scottish mountains over 3000 feet – Munroes – hence the homophonous “Marilyn” Munroe! The view is glorious despite the mistiness of the distant hills. Ludlow lies to the north-east. To the north the woods fall away steeply to a green valley. Monstay Farm stands on the opposite slope. The valley continues down through Nunfield Gutter to the hamlet of Burrington. It then joins the valley of the River Nene which flows down from the north. To the west lies Wigmore Moor before the land rises again beyond the village and castle of Wigmore. A small flock of Swallows flies over, drifting southwards back towards Africa where they will winter in environments so utterly different to here.
Monday 21st September – Home – I am awakened at one o’clock in the morning by the incessant wooing of at least one, but possibly two Tawny Owls. They are close, probably in the great Horse Chestnut that stands over our garden. In the morning a few Swallows pass over. I have brought back a few apples “scrumped” from the trees in the Millennium Gardens – no point in letting them rot. Some of the trees still have their name tags – Herefordshire Beefing, Annie Elizabeth, Bramley – all culinary varieties. I then crop the Bramleys that overhang our wall and gather 13 trays worth to store in the garage. It has not rained for weeks and the earth is bone dry. Bath water was syphoned off on Sunday and used on the Purple sprouting and leeks. One of the butts is empty and they other is being used sparingly, although both the peppers and courgettes need to be watered regularly and are paying dividends by cropping heavily. Reading in the summerhouse is a rather nervy affair as every now again there is a loud bang as another conker falls onto the roof and splits open spilling a brilliant shining brown nut onto the lawn.
Friday 25th September – Croft – Down Fishpool Valley and along the path past the pools. The water level is low, the little there is glows blue from the salts washed out of the decaying leaves. A large log lying beside the path has a dense growth of Honey Fungus on it. Near the lime kiln stand towering Douglas Firs; long, straight, red trunks with an umbrella of evergreen branches far above. I take a track eastwards between Lady Wood and Highwood Bank. This soon turns northwards again, running up a valley between Lyngham Vallet and Bircher Common. The former hill is still covered mainly by Forestry Commission evergreens, but the slope up towards Bircher Common is open woodland of Oaks, Ash, Birch, Rowan, the occasional Sweet Chestnut and Beech, the leaves of the last turning brilliant yellow. Between the open woods and here is a stream that is mainly hidden in the dense grasses and trees. A view looks through these trees towards an old iron farm gate deep in the dell. There is a tapping from an old Oak but the culprit is hidden by the dense foliage. Eventually it, being a Great Spotted Woodpecker, flies out and lands on a Spruce and starts up the trunk, inspecting each crevice and crack for insects. A number of Coal Tits also flit between the Oak and evergreens. A Wren is ticking and a Robin sings a fractured song of autumn. Two Wood Mushrooms, Agaricus augustus, rise from the grassy centre of the track. Jays’ harsh calls grate across the valley. The only flowers still in bloom are some late Foxgloves. The path turns to and fro up the hill and then crosses back through the top of Lyngham Vallet. A drying pool beside the track has left an area of mud which is covered in deer hoof prints. Another late flowering plant here is one of the Hawksbeards, probably Beaked or possibly Rough Hawksbeard. Older books refer to these flowers as “Hawk’s Beard” – an altogether more imaginative name! The path crosses the Croft Ambrey path which I take down towards Croft castle. The Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons are dark smudges on a misty horizon. Swallows are gathering on the top, dead tines of a Spanish Chestnut. A Chiffchaff calls, surely not a mating or territorial call this late in the season. The fruit on the chestnuts is small and will not provide any decent nuts for roasting.
Tuesday 29th September – Mortimer Forest – Bringewood is part of the north-western section of the forest. A wide Forestry Commission track leads along the hillside from Gorsty. Down towards the road is Hazel Coppice. Beside the track is a bank exposing the layers of Silurian Limestone of the Ludlow series. Over the valley are the wooded heights of High Vinnalls and Juniper Hill. On past the fields and house of Monstay Farm and then deeper into Bringewood. The wood is mainly conifer with a few Beech and Silver Birches. The last are often infected with Birch Polypore, a bracket fungus that used to be used to sharpen razors. Corvids can be heard – Raven, Carrion Crow, Jay and Magpie – Tits squeak and cheep. Wood Pigeons pass over silently. A Great Spotted Woodpecker chips then flies pass with a flash of its red vent. The track drops gently and is then out into a hillside of fresh undergrowth where the conifers have been logged and removed. Maddy has been rolling on the dusty pale path and is now covered in dust herself. She hurtles off down the track after a small group of Common Pheasants who fly off squawking indignantly. Another track heads back eastwards along the other side of the hill. It passes Deep Wood and then rises and curves along Wheelers Vallet. Much of the hillside here has been logged. A deep valley drops down to Brick House, just the other side of a road bridge carrying a minor road which goes to various farms. The views from here are extensive across to the Shropshire Hills. Alongside the track is a stand of tall green spikes of Weld, rising over 5 foot tall. The map indicates the track carries on along the hillside back to Whitcliffe and on to Ludlow. I do not want to go all that way so I cut up the hillside. This seems like it may have been a mistake as the going is rough with long ridges and deep holes piled with rotting branches often hidden under brambles and bracken. However, Maddy and I push on through and reach the triangulation point at the summit of the hill, standing at 363 metres. From here the views are simply stunning. The hills roll away forever. Wenlock Edge lays across from the valley of the River Onny. On Callow Hill stands Flounders’ Folly, built in 1838 by Benjamin Flounders, a prominent Quaker. A path runs along the top of the hill before working its way back down to the track above Hazel Coppice.