Thursday – Mortimer Forest – All the thistles growing alongside the track have gone to seed. However, Angelica is still flowering, quite profusely, a tall purple stemmed umbellifer. It seems that logging in this sector has possibly finished, the log stacks gone leaving the ground covered in lumps of bark and machinery moving out of the forest – great tractors with clanking chain-bound wheels. A pair of wheel tracks gouged into the ground lead to a blasted landscape where the conifers have been felled. A Wren bursts into a brief song. Blue Tits cheep. Bright sunlight falls on shining Blackberries. Squawking cries come from behind a screen of conifers, a young raptor or maybe a Jay, my bird call abilities are simply not good enough! Further along two much more clear Jays start calling and the mystery caller joins in. Although not quite the same, hearing all together convinces me it is three Jays. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flies to the top spike of a Larch and calls loudly. It almost seems that the beginning on September has operated a switch that says “Autumn”. Where there were numerous butterflies just a week ago there are now almost none; indeed a tatty Meadow Brown is the sole representative. A Ladybird crawls along a frond of Bracken. Heading back to Leominster the fields are stubble, all the grain crops have been harvested and one field has already been ploughed. Several small flocks of young gulls, mainly Lesser Black-backs, fly over.
Friday – Bodenham Lakes – The usual large number of Canada Geese are noisily moving around the waters in several flocks whilst more preen on the island. A dozen Mute Swans, five Cormorants, over twenty Mallard with probably more around hidden parts, twenty plus Coot, a couple of Moorhens and a Greenshank make up the rest of the inhabitants as viewed from the hide. A Green Woodpecker rises from the meadow and flies off into the orchard. A Carrion Crow is gulping down Elderberries. Into the orchards where bright red apples catch my eye. I pluck one and take a bite. It is truly delicious, sweet without being cloying, crisp and extraordinarily juicy. I check the notice board which gives a diagram naming the varieties. This apple is called “The Queen”, first recorded in 1858 in Billericay!
Thursday – Clun – A small town in south Shropshire standing on the River Clun. The name comes from the same root at Colne in Lancashire, and in Essex, River Colne in Hertfordshire, another in Huntingdonshire and Calne in Wiltshire. It is an old British river name, possibly from the Latin, calare, “to call” and Welsh, ceiliog, “cock” and means “roaring river”. In Clun, the river is anything but roaring, a pretty stream running under a lovely 14th century five-arched packhorse bridge with passing recesses, about which it is said, “Those who go over the Clun Bridge come back sharper than they went”. This expression seems to refer to the fact that the east side was the old Saxon settlement, whilst the Norman castle is to the west, although the direction of travel is not indicated. A great Weeping Willow hangs over the river beyond the bridge. We cross a modern footbridge to reach the meadow below the castle. Great mounds rise above where a motte and bailey castle was erected in 1090 by Robert “Picot” de Say. Some say there was a Saxon stronghold here, the lands being held by Eadric the Wild before the Conquest, then they became the property of Robert de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury who, in turn granted 27 manors to Picot. The castle was burnt by the Welsh in 1196. It then became the property of the Fitzalans, Earls of Arundel. They attempted to make Clun a major centre to unite the English and Welsh but gave up in 1270 and concentrated on their great castle at Arundel. There is a massive keep rising from the moat, but it is being maintained and is covered in scaffolding. Below is a bowling green. A large parish grew under the Normans, which was recorded in the couplet:
The place was larger than Oswestry at one time in the Middle Ages, but declined so that the couplet ran in Victorian times as:
A.E. Housman used this is “The Shropshire Lad”:
Back down to the meadow where there is a patch of rich blue Devil’s Bit Scabious being visited by a number of bees. The town retains its Norman grid pattern layout, thanks to the burgage plots which, although falling into disuse maintained the shape of the place. Up the hill past some very nice houses to the church of St George. There is a fine square tower at one end with a Saxon base. The Normans rebuilt the church but it was extensively rebuilt in 1877 by G.E. Street. The Norman columns in the nave have been restored. The ceiling in the north aisle was removed revealing a 14th century rood with wooden carved angels. The south aisle was rebuilt on older, narrower foundations. The chancel was completely rebuilt by Street. The pulpit is a carved Jacobean affair. A Swallow is feeding nestlings in the porch. Outside is the grave of John Osborne, the playwright, most famous for “Look Back In Anger” who died in 1994 and that of his fifth wife, Helen Dawson. Back up the other side of the river and up the hill stands the Town Hall, built in 1780 by the 2nd Lord Clive from stones from the demolished Borough Court which stood on the above mentioned bowling green. The Town Hall is now the museum, unfortunately closed today. However, the butchers is open and we partake of a particularly fine pork pie.
Friday – Stockton Ride – A track runs off an old junction by Stockton Cross Inn and heads up towards Stockton Ride. This area is called The Ryde. A Robin sings from a tree behind a cottage on the Pateshall road. The track shows its age by the high banks and old hedges either side. Seven species occupy a short length – Ash, Oak, Willow, Blackthorn, Elder, Field Maple and Hawthorn. By the Hooper hypothesis, which states that each different species in a thirty yard length of hedge is equivalent to a century in age, this hedge is some 700 years old. This may well be the case as Stockton Ride is on the route of the Roman road from Leintwardine to Ariconium, a site near Ross. Kimbolton church lies across the meadows. Distant bells from other direction announces the hour, possibly it is Leominster. Past a cottage called The Ryde, which is rendered and extended which disguises its age which is hinted at by the stone base of the chimney stack. Woodlea is another cottage which adaptations confuse the age. The path lies to the east of a thin strip of wood along the top of the ridge. On the eastern side of this path is firstly a large cider apple orchard being grazed by sheep then open fields. The wet weather of late has come at the right time for fungi. A large Parasol Mushroom stands in a clearing where the trees have been removed from the path of overhead wires. Many other species are growing on the edge of the wood. The path should pass Ride Cottage according to the OS map, but there is no sign of any building here now. Past Hawthorn, a farm, and shortly after the wood ends. The next field has the remains of an old cast iron fence of spearhead uprights. It looks a fine piece of old blacksmithing whose price would be prohibitive today. A farmer is trimming a hedge with his tractor and cutters. Cog Hall lies over the fields. A pair of Hobbys dance overhead. They disappear over the trees. Then one is dogfighting with an unimpressed Carrion Crow. The ridge starts to descend to Hundred House. Across the valley are the hills above Croft and along to to High Vinnalls which has drifting grey clouds tickling its summit. An ancient Oak stands at the end of Long Wood; it is marked on the OS map! Here I head back. One of the Hobbys twists and turns across the fields; it looks like a juvenile. A little further on a Common Buzzard rises from the stubble. It seems heavy and ponderous compared to the falcons. Rooks rise and fall over the stubble fields.
Sunday – Leominster – The river is high as recent heavy rain drains from the Welsh mountains and Herefordshire fields. The Sunday market is busy, but the sheer volume of junk is extraordinary – who buys this rubbish in the first place. The rough meadow is saturated with dew. A family of Mute Swans swim up river. There are an impressive seven cygnets. They half swim, half waddle through a turbulent patch. It is oddly quite an effort for them all. The sun is bright and still quite low in the sky. The evening perambulation with Maddy is now in darkness. It seemed such a short time ago that the evenings were light and people were still sitting on the Grange at this time of evening. Now it is deserted. There is no moon so once positioned between trees that block the unnecessary lights the stars gleam brightly. Indeed, so brightly that I can see the Milky Way, albeit very faintly. It is the first time in many years I have been able to get a glimpse of our galaxy laying across the sky. Low to the east is Jupiter, easily the brightest object in the sky at the moment. Through binoculars, several moons can be seen, the four largest, Io, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede.
Tuesday – Bodenham Lakes – A grey, damp yet mild morning. Maddy disapproves of the attentions of a friendly Basset Hound called Bert. High above the woods a Raven harasses a Sparrowhawk which, although much the smaller bird, turns and attacks its tormentor. The Raven makes another couple of passes at the hawk before flying off. Swallows feed over the tracks and paths. Across the meadow, stepping over a fat, pale brown, orange-fringed slug lying in the damp grass. A scan across the lake from the bird hide reveals 2 Teal, 40 Canada Geese, 4 Cormorant, 3 Tufted Duck, 12 Mute Swans and a number of Coot, Moorhens and Mallard. The wind is rising. The reed beds sway and wave like an emerald green sea. Outside the hide is a plantation of young Birches under which are numerous fungi, whose growth has been encouraged by the wet weather. As usual I am unable to identify them, they never look anything like the pictures in books. The high winds of last night has caused casualties in the orchard, the trunks of two heavily laden young apples trees have snapped. Although a number of trees have few or no apples, most are bounteous. It is hard to think of a better fruit than a freshly plucked apple chomped in an English orchard.
Thursday – Wigmore Abbey – A trip with the Leominster Historical Society to Wigmore Abbey, just north of the village of Wigmore. An Augustinian prior and two canons from the St Victor in Paris founded an abbey at Shobdon around 1130, but then moved around, to Eye, then Wigmore village, Byton and back to Shobdon. They eventually settled at the Wigmore Abbey site in 1179. There was now an abbot, prior and seventeen canons. The abbey was endowed by Hugh de Mortimer. Much was destroyed by raiding Welsh in the reign of King John, but the site was reconstructed by Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, around 1379. It is said that eleven Mortimers lie buried on the site. Mortimers Buried Here
The abbey was surrendered during the Dissolution in 1538 when there were a prior, sub-prior and eight canons with annual revenues of £302 12s 4d. The site rapidly fell into disrepair. Now there is only a tall finger of the south end of the transept, a length of the south nave wall and a very small part of the north nave wall. An earth mound extends into the field below the site to the east which contains the remains of the chancel. The most extensive part remaining is the abbot’s lodgings, a much altered and extended hall now the home of John Challis, the actor who guides us around the building.
The house is approached through the remains of the old gatehouse. An inner gatehouse is attached to the abbot’s lodgings. A tower stood between them but was demolished probably in Victorian times and an extension built at right angles to the older buildings. Through the gate house which is impressively timbered. A delightful model of the gatehouse is on the wall acting as a birdhouse although Mr Challis assures us that no bird has taken up residence, preferring the old and rather tatty bird box on the opposite wall. The south side of the building is wonderfully confused by additions over several centuries. Mr Challis points out where there is serious subsidence issues, the corner of the lodgings banded by great old iron straps to keep it from falling away. He says there are myths of tunnels from a sub-basement, one leading to the castle over two miles away and another to a nearby nunnery. There are though real, large drains underneath which have collapsed causing the subsidence problems. Steps lead up into the house, entrances have been blocked, windows inserted or altered in height and it seems possible that the roof raised. There are chevrons in the walls showing where stone from the abbey has been used in reconstruction. Bees are buzzing around the roof. Mr Challis tells us that during a particularly hot period melted honey ran down the inside walls. There is an extension to the east end of the building with impressive chimneys. The bases of the chimneys are 17th century brick but the stacks are later. The site of the prater is now divided into plots of wild flower meadow. Beyond is a field which used to flood up until the mid-20th century but was then drained. Various lumps and bumps indicate the presence of abbey outbuildings hidden under the meadow. An excavation in 2001 discovered ruined mediaeval floors just 18 inches below the surface. Beyond that is a line of Poplars marking the route of the Roman Watling Street. The remaining piece of transept wall has an arch added to it, which would have been there originally but has been restored by English Heritage to stabilise the ruins. A Comma butterfly suns itself on a piece on ancient wall. In the cloister there are four Medlar trees. We enter the house up the steps and look around some lovely, but dark rooms. A large room at the west end is again a splendid mishmash of styles. The wall that separates the room from the rest of the house is of a later date as it cuts across an old doorway. A large, possibly Victorian hearth and chimney breast cuts into another old exit or window. There is some original carving on the wall under a window. We take tea down in the basement, where massive beams hold up the ceiling.
Saturday – Hay-on-Wye and the Vale of Ewyas – Chris and Penny are visiting so we go to Hay. Rather predictably, Chris and I descend on the bookshops and Penny and Kay do the clothes shops. I end up spending the massive total of £18 on four books. After lunch we drive up to Hay Bluff, over the Gospel Pass and down into the Vale of Ewyas. Being a weekend, the narrow lane is busier than usual so there are a number of occasions I have to squeeze the car into a tiny passing space to let someone else through. Penny is convinced this is a footpath rather than a road! We get to the little hamlet of Capel-y-ffin, which means “chapel of the boundary”, the boundary being that between Breconshire and Monmouthshire. The chapel is the little St Mary’s Church. It is ringed by ancient Yews and was built in 1762 to replace an earlier one. It is a chapel of ease to Llanigon. A porch was added in 1817. On top is a lop-sided belfry with two bells, one mediaeval, but recast in the 19th century. Inside, a gallery runs around two walls. The pulpit dates from 1780 and there are five settles, one with 1783 carved into its back. The font is mediaeval. The east window looks up towards the Black Mountains along which runs Offa’s Dyke and the English-Welsh border. The window is beautifully etched with the words “Lift Up Thine Eyes Unto The Hills”. Further down the valley we come to Llanthony Priory, which Kay and I have visited before. Despite the number of people around, the car park is full, the place still is quiet and peaceful.
Monday – Croft – Misty, cool morning say autumn, but the trees down the Fish Pool Valley are still in full green leaf. However, the fungi on fallen trunks and in the leaf-mulch soil are a signal of the season. A lot of tree thinning has been done recently and there are piles of logs beside the path. I put one in my rucksack to use to grow some edible fungi I have in spore inoculated dowel form. The weight of the trunk makes the climb up the forestry track a bit more of a puffing affair. Along to the Keeper’s Cottage past the great pollarded Oaks. Back down the steep and rather muddy slope back to Fish Pool Valley. A great tangle of roots rises into the air from a huge Ash that has crashed to ground. Apart from a few snatches of song from a Robin, an annoyed Wren ticking and the squeaks of Tits, it is quiet.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – A noisy skein of Canada Geese are heard approaching from the east long before they are visible. They fly overhead, tilting their whole bodies to spill out air from beneath their wings to reduce lift and lose height more rapidly. The noise level rises as they fly around the lakes selecting a landing spot. Mallard, Tufted Duck, Wigeon and Coots all head in the direction of the alighting geese. A bank of Brambles is festooned with dew-encrusted spiders webs. Wood Pigeons coo from the woods. Under the Silver Birch saplings a group of the rather unfortunately named “Conical Slimy Cap”, Hygrocybe conica grow a bright orange and brown against the green grass. Green Woodpeckers are calling, one from the lakeside, another from the trees around Bodenham Manor.
Thursday – Leominster – The mornings are getting darker as autumn proceeds. I have again managed to inflame the tendons in my right arm throwing Maddy’s ball with the “twanger”, a plastic woomera. So Maddy just gets her ball kicked across the grass, a wholly unsatisfactory situation as far as she is concerned and after a few chases she marches off with it to the Millennium Park where is spat contemptuously onto the path. The apples are falling in the little orchard, it will soon be time to collect some more from the cider varieties. A few bats are still active, flitting past my face.
Dinmore – Through the damp woods of the country park. Few of the trees are really autumnal but a few Acers are beginning to take on their autumn glory. One has winged fruit similar to Sycamores but are a rich maroon colour.
Friday – Bringewood – Along the track through Hazel Coppice on a dark grey, damp and windy morning. A Raven croaks from the top of a pine, flapping to retain position as the tree sways in the lively airs. Ahead the conifer woods lining the track are just slightly misty. Rain is threatened. Blue Tits squeak. Coal Tits feed on pine cones. Beside the track are exposed layers of Silurian sedimentary rocks, classified as the Gorstian Stage of the Ludlow Formations. Here the siltstones are part of the Upper Elton Beds. Climbing the hill towards the summit and the triangulation point, one passes onto later beds, the Lower and Upper Bringewood Beds made of silty limestones. These beds are identified by the presence various fossil brachiopods, corals and bryozoa. I look at various pieces that have broken off, but only find fragments of shell, although one looks very much like the modern razorfish shell. Ghost-like columns of mist wander across the woods. From the top of the hill the view is of a damp but still beautiful landscape, rolling fields to the Shropshire Hills to the north and the dark woods of the Mortimer Forest to the south. Dropping back down the hillside through dark woods, the path passes outcrops of fungi including large, wormy Fly Agarics.
Sunday – Leominster – A sharp frost coats the Grange in a pale sheen. It is worrying that it has got so cold so soon in the autumn. I was hoping for a few more weeks of production from my runner beans and courgettes, but this cold snap may terminate this. It seems that the last of the hirundines have departed. One hopes the late broods seen recently, such as that at Clun church, have fledged and joined the exodus to southern climes. The remains of the rose that destroyed the arch in the garden still refuses to dry enough to burn. I was keen to get rid of it before winter so new fruit trees can go in, but either there will have to be a delay or another tactic to dispose of the mass of thorny branches will have to be found. Six trays of apples are put into store but this makes little impression on the quantity of fruit hanging from the two trees. Unfortunately, it looks like most of the Howgate Wonder have the tell-tale black holes of Codling Moth which means they will probably not store well.
Monday – Leominster – One should always embrace all seasons and all weathers – they all are key to making England the unique land that it is. However, I must confess that the dull greyness and intermittent drizzle of today is hard to love. Large boards are being erected by Grange House proclaiming the various bodies and concerns that are developing and restoring John Abel’s fine market hall. It is not clear whether a main contractor has been appointed but at least there seems to be progress. What is clear is that I was premature in stating yesterday that all the hirundines have left; there are at least half a dozen Swallows swooping overhead. It seems that one is feeding another, maybe a parent is still feeding a late brood chick that has not long fledged. Carrion Crows stalk the grass at the end of the Grange looking for food. Down in the Millennium Park I pluck an apple from a Stoke Edith Pippin tree. It is a small, green apple but very sweet and juicy. A large team of workers is clearing the little park by the Kenwater that has been left to run to seed all summer. Back on the Grange I sit on a bench to try and photograph the Swallows. I toss the ball down the bank for Maddy who hurtles after it. There is then a display of legs in the air and a writhing dog. Somehow she has fallen over going down the bank. She returns looking totally nonplussed with a large muddy patch on her shoulder and a wet head.
Tuesday – Mortimer Forest – A small flock of Long-tailed Tits squeaks through the conifers. It is grey and damp, but not raining. Puffballs grow alongside the path to the Iron Age enclosure. Tits chatter briefly in the woods. The mist thickens across the enclosure. A JCB clatters and rumbles as it shifts hardcore from a pile and takes a scoopful off down the track. Marsh Tits buzz in the dense green conifers. Across Climbing Jack Common where the mist is thick enough to be fine rain. Small brown birds, probably Meadow Pipits, flitting across the dying bracken are mere silhouettes. The lookout on High Vinnalls appears when I am just a few tens of yards from it. Fat black and chocolate brown slugs lay on the saturated grass. There is utter silence up here. It is now very wet in the mist and I am soon soaked.
Thursday – Bridgnorth – The River Severn travels out of Wales in a south-easterly direction through Ironbridge and at Coalport turns south and flows past the town of Bridgnorth as the river heads for Worcester. The river cut a deep gorge through the area and a tributary cut another gorge from the west. This left a high bluff of red Permian sandstone, the “fossilised” sand dunes of a great desert that flowed across the area 260 million years ago. The town has developed both on the ridge – High Town – and down on the river plain – Low Town. The name of the town came from the bridge across the Severn. The original bridge was at Quatford, some way south of the town. It was here, at Cwatbridge, that the Danes built a camp in 895. Æthelfleda, daughter of King Alfred, built a mound here, or possibly on the ridge, as part of her campaign against the Danes in 912. After the Conquest, the lands became the property of Roger de Montgomery (who may or may not have fought at Hastings, some sources say he led the eastern flank, others say he remained in Normandy looking after Duke William’s concerns there). Roger built a church dedicated to Mary Magdalene at Quatford, but his son, Robert de Belesme moved it to a more defensible position on the ridge. This was the founding of the actual town of Bridgnorth. We park at the antiseptic environs of a Sainsbury’s superstore but soon are across the road and into the historic shopping area. The vast majority of the buildings will be post-1646 as the town was burnt down when a gunpowder store blew up at St Leonard’s Church after Royalists set fire to the area to try and hinder the progress of the Parliamentarians. However, there are many fine old buildings here.
Out of Whitburn Street and into the High Street where there are several notable landmarks – the Northgate, the last remaining of five gates in town walls built in the 13th century; a town hall constructed in 1652 from a redundant tithe barn donated by a Lady Bertie from the town of Much Wenlock and an Italianate market hall built in 1855 with a splendid campanile, but which was very unpopular with the traders! The Shakespeare pub has the old road direction signs on the wall with the black and white hatched top edge. Nearby is Cartway, the old cart route down to the River Severn and Low Town. Half way down is a small green from which there are excellent views of the river below. Across the river is a green slope known as Pan Pudding Hill where there are old platforms built on the field. These were the bases for huge siege engines used to attack the castle in 1102. Behind the hill rises with houses clinging to the steep slopes and outcrops of red sandstone. The road turns and drops steeply past old houses and a 17th century pub, one of the last of numerous pubs on this lane catering for the sailors and navvies and which had a reputation as a pretty fearsome place. The pub is called “The Black Boy Inn” which apparently is a reference to Charles I who is said to have a “dusky complexion”. The King visited the town in 1642 and remarked that the view from the castle terrace was the “finest in all my domain”!
At the bottom of Cartway stands Bishop Percy’s House, built in 1580 and one of the few buildings to survive the 1646 fire. It is named after Rev Dr Percy, Bishop of Dromore who was born here in 1729. Just beyond is the river bridge rebuilt in 1823 to a design by Thomas Telford. Boxes of flowers have been set along the edge which enhances its beauty. Ducks dabble beneath, Black-headed Gulls search up and down river and a collection of swans and ducks are asleep on a shingle bank on the far side. A building on the edge of the bridge has a painted gable end advertising “SE&A Ridley Ltd, Seedsmen, Estb 1616, the oldest firm of seedsmen in Great Britain”.We had planned to return to High Town by what was until recently the only inland Cliff Railway still working in Britain. It was opened in 1892, is 201ft long and has a vertical rise of 111ft. When constructed it operated on a water balance system where water was pumped into the top carriage and out of the lower one, the increase in weight of the top carriage being enough to raise the lower one. The system was converted in 1933-4 to electrically driven colliery-type winding gear. Of course, with our luck today is the day the powers that be have decided to close it for maintenance. It was supposed to have reopened but we are informed it will be another hour, so we trudge off up one of the sets of steps that climb the cliff. These are Stoneway Steps and have shallow, iron bound risers designed for donkeys that carried panniers of goods to High Town. Halfway up is the Theatre on the Steps. Beyond, fine old iron stretchers stabilise the sandstone walls.
From High Town we walk around Castle Terrace which, as King Charles noted, does indeed have a wonderful vista spread out before it. From the Castle Gardens there is a views of the old Bridgnorth Railway Station, now a privately owned concern known as the Severn Valley Railway. A maroon liveried LMS engine is standing in the station. A statue on the war memorial shows a soldier boldly pointing out across the deep valley below. The castle is a limited affair. Founded in 1101 by Robert de Belesme, but was lost to Henry II in 1102. Hugh de Mortimer took the castle during the Anarchy but he was evicted in 1155. The main keep tower was constructed after this. The siege engines on Pan Pudding Hill were used in the assault in 1155 and again during the Baron’s revolt in 1321. The castle was besieged again in 1646 for 26 days by Parliamentarian forces, who blew up the keep. Its remains now tilt at 17°, three times the lean of Pisa.
Beside the castle grounds stands the church of St Mary, built in 1792 by Thomas Telford. It is a very light and airy building, painted white inside with large clear glass windows. The chancel is a semi-circular construction with stained glass. A large portrait of Telford hangs in the porch. From the porch a road leads back to the main town. The road has a number of superb houses, including the Governor’s House of 1633 and a number of houses built with alternating black and red bricks. Back on the High Street, a lane travels up to St Leonard’s Close where St Leonard’s Church stands, now decommissioned. The crescent around the church contains some impressive houses, including the old Grammar School, the Rectory and a cottage with a plaque to Richard Baxter, who lived there 1640-1641 and was a curate of St Leonard’s and a Puritan Preacher. There has been a church here since the 13th century, but this building dates from 1860 and is classic Victorian, if rather overblown. On the green outside the church is the stump of an ancient cross. In Church Street, which leads back to High Street, there are Alms Houses originally dating from Henry VI. They were partly destroyed by German bombs in 1940 but rebuilt in 1950. A cottage next to the buildings was also bombed, rebuilt, then burned down and finally the plot has been laid to rest as a garden of remembrance.