Tuesday – Bodenham Lake – A bright dawn with high cirrus clouds has turned grey. The sun manages the occasional breakthrough. Skeins of noisy Canada Geese fly in, whiffling to lose height. A small group of House Martins passes through, dashing this way and that after insects but always heading southwards. A Common Buzzard flies along the edge of Westfield Wood, mewing, before landing on a dead branch and continuing to call. A woman passes with a plastic container of blackberries. I suggest jelly but she reckons she will make jam. The Canada Geese flock spreads across the lake and has taken over the pontoons. Cormorants, about half a dozen, have retreated into the trees on the island. Mute Swans and a Great Crested Grebe are in the southern part of the lake and Mallard, seemingly absent last week, are scattered over the water. A few Tufted Duck dive and a Grey Heron is motionless on the far bank. Trees have a tired look, no longer vibrant greens but dull with a few yellow leaves appearing. A Barnacle Goose flies onto the scrape and barks at the surrounding Canada Geese. There is still little of the scrape exposed. It is a pity there is no water management here to regulate the level.
Home – The wet summer has meant that many flowers have grown to exceptional heights. Golden Rod towers beside the path and is attracting dozens, indeed maybe hundreds of bees. The whole area hums loudly and it is a little unnerving to pass them to go to the end of the garden. Runner and French beans are still productive. I am letting the French beans ripen now for drying. Courgettes are good and the squash plant has a decent number of fruits all growing larger every day. It is now quite dark by ten o’clock at night although tonight a brilliant moon, waning now, lights up high cloud. A satellite passes over, Cosmos 1937 rocket body I think, launched in 1988. A meteorite flashes past it briefly.
Thursday – Mortimer Forest – Another sunny day follows a cold dawn. As we returned from Hereford last night, the headlights of tractors could be seen in the fields taking advantage of this dry period. A Barn Owl flashed white across the road near Canon Pyon. It was very clear last night as a satellite (Cosmos 1733 rocket body) and meteorite cross the sky. There is too much light pollution to see the Milky Way clearly but from a dark corner of The Grange it can just be discerned. Surprisingly, a Chiffchaff was calling in the garden this morning. The sun on the Mortimer Forest is hazy. A beetle lays motionless on the path. A Crossbill calls from the conifer plantation. Yet another Chiffchaff is calling near the Iron Age enclosure. Robins are ticking all around. Bracken is turning brown. Long-tailed Tits are gathering into noisy flocks. A Willow Warbler scurries through a Birch tree on Climbing Jack Common. A Chiffchaff calls. House Martins and Swallows glide over the tree tops twisting this way and that. A Whitethroat feeds in the Hawthorn hedge. A Willow Tit calls nearby. A Raven soars over, croaking. Harebells and Yarrow are still in flower. A new wind turbine spins at Vallets. Down from High Vinnalls bees take advantage of flowering thistles and the few remaining umbellifers that have yet to turn to seed. Some umbellifer heads have several dozen insects on them, including Honey Bees, Drone Flies (I search for an identification for ages assuming they were a bee; they are named thus because of their similarity to drone Honey Bees) and true flies. There is a breeze up here. The surrounding hills are still hazy as thin, high cloud weakens the sun’s rays. Fresh green cones hang from Spruces. Down at the path junction is the only butterfly seen so far, a Speckled Wood. Down through the conifer woods where Blue Tits search the old Larch cones for insects whilst continually squeaking to one another. On down the woods. Lower down the path is still damp. Corn Mint grows profusely. The pond still contains water, hardly surprising this year! The surface of the water is liberally sprinkled with white flowers with yellow centres – Water Crowfoot. Along the path above the vale that lies under Hanway Common. Hawker dragonflies flit around the trees but remain far to high to identify.
Friday – Hergest Ridge – Just after sunrise as I toil up the ridge track. The sun is still dimmed by mist but soon rises into brilliance. Cloud drifts across from Wales. The top of the Radnor Forest is cloaked and I wonder how often it is actually clear – I cannot remember the last time I could see the tops! A breeze keeps it cool. The only sound for a while is the traffic far below on the A44. Occasionally a Meadow Pipit squeaks, a Raven croaks or a sheep baas. A twittering flock flies over, Linnets or maybe Redpoll? A party of five sandpipers, Common Sandpipers I think, rise and fly off piping and are joined by a sixth. A pair of Kestrels fly away, one from the Whetstone and one from a signpost.
Monday – Croft – A damp grey morning. It really feels like autumn is here. Recent days have been sunny but started in thick mist. Down into the Fish Pool Valley. Leaves are beginning to turn, some showing the ravages of insect and fungal damage. Wood Pigeons coo and a lone Robin sings. It starts to rain. Two of the dams creating the pools have been damaged by the heavy rains this year and are closed off whilst remedial work is undertaken. Tits squeak; a Nuthatch calls excitedly as it searches a tall trunk. A Marsh Tit drops down from the trees into a thicket of overgrown nettles and Hogweed. Tiny examples of Hedge Woundwort are one of the few flowers still blooming. Head on upwards to Croft Ambrey. Jays squabble on the ramparts of the hill-fort. From the top the surrounding hills are clear but dark and brooding. The sun makes a brief appearance. The Ash bough seat moves up and down irregularly as the wind blusters through the branches. Cloud drifts across High Vinnalls and rain is moving over the hills to the west.
Wednesday – Oswestry – Another border town, this one towards the north of the Marches. Oswestry is said to be a corruption of Oswald’s Tree, referring to King Oswald of Northumbria, a Christian king who fought the pagan king of Mercia, Penga, and lost his life. We first visit the large and well preserved Iron Age hill-fort called the Old Fort. This very impressive hill-fort was occupied, probably by the Cornovii from the 6th century BCE until the Roman conquest. The fort was also known as Caer Ogyrfan after King Arthur’s father in law, is said to be the birthplace of Queen Ganhumara, or Guinevere. It is also believed to have been the site for the final battle of the Powys king Cynddylan, the last descendant of King Arthur to rule in Shropshire. Probably even more fanciful is the legend that Merlin was born there, although given the legend that Merlin lived his life backwards, whether this means he appeared here as an old man or left as a mewling babe, who knows! There are vast ramparts built over many years and despite its clear strategic importance, there is no evidence the Romans ever besieged and occupied the fort. We wander across from playing fields where Maddy is happy to be chasing her ball. Beside the road at the far side is a clump of Viper’s Bugloss, a flower I have not seen for some years. Well made paths lead up onto the fort, which is clearly popular with dog walkers who come thick and fast! Although the hill upon which the fort is built is not particularly high, it does command a fine view of the surrounding countryside. We then head into town.
The town centre is extensive, for a population of maybe 17,000 souls. The earliest reference to the town was recorded 1272 to the settlement of Blancminster derive from the white stone church. The Welsh refer to a Creos Oswallt in 1254, and a reference to St Oswald, the Northumbrian King who was killed at the nearby Battle of Maeserfelth fighting Penga, the King of the Mercians, in 641 AD. His body was dismembered and hung off a tree as a warning, hence Oswald’s Tree. It is generally accepted that Oswestry was once a strong Welsh settlement and a castle was built by Rainald, after being given the land by Roger de Montgomerie, to subdue Welsh resistance. The Memorial Garden is bedecked with a fine display of flower beds. A 25 Pounder field gun stands at the end. A plaque to the memory of the poet Wilfred Owen, who died in action in the Great War, is on a wall. Nearby is the church of St Oswald but there is a service in progress so we do not interrupt. A bronze statue of a Shepherd and his sheep is in a square. The weekly market is in full flow, the first charter for a market being granted in 1190. Nearby is a small piece of wall marked as the remaining piece of one of the town gates. The town walls were destroyed in the Civil War but the gates remained as toll-gates until being finally dismantled in the 1780s. The town is busy and bustling but there are too many charity and stuff shops rather than grocers etc., although there are a decent number of butchers. At the junction of Cross Street and Bailey Street stands Llwyds Mansion, a fine timber framed building, believed to have been built for John Llwyd of Llanforda. On the side of the building is the Llwyd family crest of the double-headed eagle and also the date 1604. In Cross Street is an impressive building, now Santander Bank, originally one house. In 1822, this was occupied by William Cathrall, author of A History of Oswestry. A butchers has a painted front to his building, Pleased to meet you – Meat to please you. Signs like this were common once but mostly gone now. Back past a pair of houses with a long stone fascia stating Oswestry Industrial Co-operative Ltd. At Albert Place there is a row of buildings with cream full bricks alternating with red half bricks making a very pleasing effect. A plaque declares this to be the site of the Cheapside Market in 1879.
Chirk Bank – We pause at Monk’s Bridge over the Llangollen canal. Mallard, the drakes regaining their breeding plumage, are peaceful enough until bread is cast from a canal boat resulting in a flurry of splashing and squabbling.
Llangollen – We arrive at our hotel in this town straddling the River Dee. Our hotel, The Hand, is reputed to be haunted, some say by a pregnant woman. It is one of larger hotels from the Victorian times. General John Yorke (1814-1890) of the Yorke family of Erddig, spent much of his days in The Hand. He was owner of Plas Newydd, more of which later. After booking in we head into the town. Bradley, in Highways and Byways of North Wales, pub 1898, quotes Georgian travellers as regarding Llangollen as a poor town. He regarded this as being unreasonable, a view shared, I would think, by many today. It is very much a tourist destination. One may concede the pubs are not much to write home about, indeed our hotel is the only place we find selling Welsh brewed ale – it is a bit incongruous drinking Yorkshire Black Sheep and Cornish Doom Bar! A lovely five span bridge crosses the River Dee built in 1345 by John Trevor, Bishop of St Asalph. It is said this is the oldest stone bridge in Wales, although one supposes this means the oldest multi-span bridge as there are many old pack-horse bridges that are older. Many of the buildings are Georgian and later. Near our hotel is the Old Post Office that dates from coaching days as a plaque states. Jackdaws swirl above the woods towards the castle of Dinas Brân.
Thursday – Dinas Brân – Through the quiet town at dawn and over the rushing River Dee. A path takes me up to the canal. Offa’s Dyke Path, this section called Sun Bank according to a way-sign, runs up from the school, past Geufron Farm and on steeply upwards. Sheep baa, Carrion Crows caw and a Chaffinch pinks. Soil is thin and the underlying rocks are exposed here and there. The rocks are from the Clwydian Limestone Group of the Visean period of the Carboniferous, some 330 million years old. Houses of various ages are dotted across the hillside. Into a small wood where Blue Tits chatter and a Nuthatch whoops. At Tirionfa the path divides. Offa’s Dyke Path winds round the base of a conical hill towards a long, high escarpment cliffs of Trevor Rocks, although guides say the bluff are the Eglwyseg Rocks, the Rocks of Eagles which the OS maps place as further to the north-west.
My path is up the hill to Dinas Brân. As I gaze up at the castle ruins, a murder of Carrion Crows flies over, appropriate as Dinas Brân means the hill of crows. Dinbren Hall lies westwards, a fine Georgian house with stables and what looks from here some sort of chapel (but is probably a cottage) on the edge of woodland. The views from the summit are breathtaking. To the west the Berwyn Mountains, Trevor Rocks to the north, the river running east towards Cheshire and England and to the south, Llangollen nestles in the valley with hills and dark woods rising beyond. The sun shines over the Cheshire Plain, its rays lightening the grey stones of the redoubt. Built on the site of an Iron Age hill-fort, the southern ramparts of which still remain. The castle whose ruins remain, according to the most reliable sources was built by Gruffydd Maelor II, son of Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor I, in the late 1266. The elder Madog founded nearby Vallé Crucis Abbey, where both men were buried. The castle was either destroyed in 1277 by the Powys princes to stop Edward I using it or was actually burnt to the ground by Edward’s forces. Meadow Pipits twitter and chase about the hillside. The descent is rapid but hard on my knees. Rowen berries shine vermilion. A cock crows. Ravens pass, barking harshly.
Llangollen Valley Railway – The mainline to Barmouth closed in 1965, freight in 1967, but in 1975 a group of enthusiasts had relaid 60 feet of line. Now there is 7½ miles of railway running along beside the River Dee westwards towards Corwen. The train stops at Carrog for now but the line has been relaid through to Corwen and it is hoped trains will run there soon. Today we are pulled by 6430, a push-pull fitted 0-6-0 pannier tank of GWR origin, built at Swindon in 1937 and withdrawn in 1964 after spending much time on the Tavistock Branch line. Past old goods yards where wagons, carriages and locomotives stand; future restoration projects. At Berwyn station a large hotel stands by the far bank of the river. A road bridge crosses the river then runs under the railway. Through the Berwyn tunnel, over 600 yards long. The journey continues through fields of sheep under the Berwyn mountains, hardly Snowdonia but good looking hills – Vivod and Llantysilio Mountains. Through Deeside Halt, Glyndyfrdwy stations to Carrog, the present terminus. At Carrog, once known as as Llansanffraid-Glyn Dyfrdwy, we wander down to the village which lies beside the river, linked by Carrog Bridge, built in 1660.
Llangollen – The church of St Collen stands next to The Hand Hotel. The original wooden church was attributed to St Collen built in the late 6th century. The current church was built in the 13th century with a wooden tower being replaced in 1749. There is a stunning 15th century carved oak ceiling, carved under the guidance of the Abbot of Vallé Crucis Abbey. A 12th century door was thought to come from the abbey. The reredos was carved in 1876 in Caen stone by Earp of Lambeth. In the graveyard is a monument to the Ladies of Llangollen, see below. A plaque to them is in the church. In the bell tower are two stained glass windows, one the oldest in the church made by David Evans in 1833 and the other a modern piece installed in 1985 depicting St Collen. Collen came from Southampton and was educated at Orleans. He represented the Pope in a fight against a pagan leader Bras and defeated him. He became Abbot of Glastonbury but became weary of the debauchery of man and retreated to become a hermit on Glastonbury Tor. He then moved to Llangollen where he heard of a giantess who lived in a nearby mountain pass, Bwlch Rhiwfelen, who was terrorising the locals. Collen fought her and managed to chop off her right arm, but she picked it up and started beating him with it. So he sliced off her left arm as well. She called out for Arthur the Giant of the Eglwyseg Rocks to help her, but Collen slew her before he could hear her cries. The saint then washed his sword in St Collen’s Well on the mountainside.
Friday – Llangollen – A blustery wind blows under a grey sky. The air is cool and damp. Heading westwards along the Llangollen Canal. The canal was built as a feeder for the Ellesmere Canal which was supposed to link the rivers Mersey and Severn but was never completed as intended. Past the RAF Association bowling green and canal boat mooring wharf. A white, modernist construction is Royal Internation Pavilion, built to house the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod. The canal now runs beside the road. The long strands of weed in the water indicate the canal here is not open to normal canal boats, their propellers would soon be fouled. The road passes over and the railway joins. Now the River Dee approaches across a field. A board indicates where a tramway, built in 1852, descended 7½ miles down from the Horseshoe Pass bringing slate to a mill and the canal. The canal passes the Chainbridge Hotel on the opposite side from Berwyn Station. Here the canal is narrow and has a disused feeling. The river rushes noisily past. The canal ends at a pumping station by Horseshoe Falls. The falls are a large man-made semi-circle forming a leet to feed the canal. Not the most spectacular but an interesting spot nonetheless. Here we head back. Back at the hotel, a Grey Squirrel finds a footbridge over the canal a useful crossing point.
Plas Newyd – Plas Newydd is essentially a simple two-storey stone cottage, originally of three bays. It is situated on high ground on the south side of Llangollen, above the narrow valley of the river Cufflymen to the east. The main front is on the south-west. In 1780 Lady Eleanor Butler and Honorable Sarah Ponsonby, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, rented the cottage and renamed it Plas Newydd. Over the next fifty years (Sarah was the last to die, in 1831) they gradually transformed it, turning the extension on the east end, built in 1778, into a library, adding Gothic windows, and window canopies and an elaborate porch of elaborately carved oak. Towards the end of the 18th century the ladies began collecting carved oak, and the whole house, inside and out, became encrusted with it. Stained glass, also collected, was added to the windows. The two women were of Irish aristocratic stock but became friends and fled unwanted potentially forced marriages and came to Wales. They lived together for over 50 years. Although they shunned society, it came to them in the form of the Duke of Wellington, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Sir Walter Scott and Queen Charlotte. In 1876 General John Yorke bought Plas Newydd, and greatly enlarged it. He added the pseudo timber-framing on the front. His extensions were demolished in 1963. The house was owned and meticulously maintained by Mr G.H. Robertson from Liverpool between 1890 and 1910. In 1932 Plas Newydd passed to the Llangollen Town Council, and in 1974 to Glyndŵr District Council.
Chirk Castle – The castle, known as Castell y Waun in Welsh was built by Roger Mortimer de Chirk, third son of Roger of Wigmore and Maud de Braose, between 1295 and 1310. It stands at the entrance to the Ceiriog Valley with views for miles into England. It was one of a chain of castles built for Edward I by the Marcher Lords. The castle was bought by Thomas Myddleton in 1595. It was steadily converted from a fortress to palatial family home over the centuries, the last Myddleton leaving in 2004. In the Adam Tower and Dungeon – built around 1300 is a display of reproduction weapons and armour. Chain mail jerkin almost too heavy for me to lift, never mind wear. A spiral stairway down some 27 feet to the windowless dungeon. Up the tower there are pleasant rooms with a clock mechanism on display in the corridor. The servants quarters have a splendid collection of copper and pewter jugs and pots. We then visit the gardens whilst waiting for the main apartments to open. The garden were developed in the late 19th century by Richard Myddleton Biddulph. The Rose gardens are in bloom. There is extensive topiary including a mouse or squirrel, we cannot decide. A large summer house overlooks and avenue with a view out towards The Wrekin, southwards Stiperstones, northwards towards Cheshire. A substantial ha-ha ends the avenue. Below a field of black sheep and white cattle. A dog cemetery has names fading away as their owners have now. There are still a few Swallows and House Martins. A damaged lead statue of Hercules from 1720 stands in a woodland clearing after being rescued in 1983 from outlying woodland. He is showing his backside to the castle! We return to the main building and tour the 18th century main rooms with their numerous portraits. In the Long Gallery there are some wonderful cabinets and chests with beautiful inlay and carvings.
Monday – Croft – Shafts of sunshine penetrate the woods. The canopy gleams brightly in the light. Robins sing, tits squeak and Nuthatches burble. Water is pouring out of one of the ponds into a gully and apparently disappearing. A large piece of old concrete fills the gully and it would seem the water must run under it but there is no sign of it on the other side. The gully deepens into a channel which runs down to the next pond but that too is dry. I suppose there must be a pipe dug running deeply under the bank but I have no idea where it goes. It is very quiet up towards Croft Ambrey just the occasional squeak, Wood Pigeon coo and muttered tick. A slight breeze shakes water off leaves. Enchanter’s Nightshade and Angelica are the few plants still in flower. However, there appears to be new growth on the whirls of Wood Spurge. On Croft Ambrey the hills and fields lay below in autumn sunshine with still a slight mist in the distances.
Tuesday – Leominster – It is quite dark now in the morning when Maddy and I cross the Grange. Bats flit around my head as we enter the recreation ground. High clouds are grey with a faint orange tint as the dawning sun catches them before it rises above Eaton Hill. A Chiffchaff calls with a poor imitation of its summer song. The Millennium Park needs mowing as it is slowly being subsumed by rampant Dock. The mowing regime here is poor, it is done early in the year just as the spring flowers are sprouting, then again in summer before the orchids, Yellow Rattle and other meadow flowers have had a chance to distribute their seeds and then not again until who knows when! Maddy and I return in the early afternoon. The sun is warm but there is a cooling breeze, indeed rather too cooling in the shade. The dessert apples are a poor lot. Many have scab and most are smaller than usual. Their saving grace is they are still better flavoured than any in the shops. The cider apples are also a mixed bunch, a couple of trees have a decent amount whilst others are nearly barren. The culinary apples seem to have fared worse, hardly any Bramleys or Herefordshire Beeflings. A few Swallows sweep across the Grange as we return.
Home – The squash plant in the old orchard is enormous with tendrils spreading everywhere. Gardening wisdom tells me to remove most of the developing fruits some the remainder will grow larger more quickly. But large pumpkins are not really what we want so we may as well have a lot of smaller ones. The nearby courgette plant is still producing monsters, they really need picking more frequently. The other courgette plants are producing as well but not as quickly as the monster down the bottom of the garden. The greenhouse tomatoes are more or less finished but there are plenty of green fruits on the outdoor plants. The French and runner beans are now too coarse to be eaten and we will let them dry on the stems for winter beans. Next year’s red onions are planted. Sweet corn will need harvesting soon as will the golden beetroot. Purple-sprouting kale has grown well in between the French beans and now have been staked. I must cover them soon with netting to prevent the Wood Pigeons ruining them as they done in the past. Oriental greens are doing well despite nearly being overwhelmed by nettles that grew in the compost with which they were mulched. A tray of spring cabbage has not done so well; I think direct sowing is they way forward in future. Small Tortoiseshell butterflies feast on Michaelmas Daisy flowers.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – A stiff breeze rustles sunbathed trees. No bird song but snatches of calls, a muttered Green Woodpecker yaffle, a brief chip from a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, squeaks from Blue Tits then a loud yelp from a Jay. Canada Geese are noisy by the scrape. Some charge across the water before plunge diving to wash their feathers. The water is clouded with silt where the bathing geese have stirred it up. Six Barnacle Geese are on the shingle bank. A Grey Heron moves around causing the geese and ducks momentary panic. A few juvenile Cormorants occupy the pontoon. A Great Crested Grebe dives in the solitude of the southern end of the lake. Half a dozen Mute Swans join the party before three depart in another flurry of wing flapping. A few Tufted Duck are scattered across the lake. Another couple of Mute Swans, females or juveniles sail into view but then there are heavy wing beats as a cob flaps in to remind them of his dominance. A second cob arrives and the two swim towards each other with their wings arched and necks curled back. They face one another and mutually turn their heads one way then another. Suddenly their wings are folded flat and they swim apart – apparently no dominance issues to be resolved. Teasels have dried to a golden brown. A few Ragwort are still in flower.
Thursday – Bishop’s Castle – A town that seems to be of two halves. We head up from the lower part of the town which was made up of burgage plots now lying between three roads. The central road, Church Street turns into High Street as it climbs towards the site of the castle. The road divides around the Town Hall, dating from around 1600, into a narrow tarmac street and an even older cobbled lane. Antique shops and restaurants dominate this end of town, the daily shops down the hill. The castle is reduced to a couple of walls and part of the town ditch. The bishop who gave the town its name was Robert Losinga, Bishop of Hereford, who built the castle around 1087. However, the land had been in the hands of the bishops of Hereford since Saxon times when Egwin Shakehead was cured of palsy at St Ethelbert’s sanctuary in Hereford Cathdral. In gratitude he gave extensive lands to the bishop. A stone castle was built in 1167 and following an attack in 1263 by John Fizt Alan, Duke of Arundel and Lord of Clun, the castle was extensively rebuilt. By the Civil War the castle was in a poor state and was demolished in the early 18th century. The nearby Castle Hotel was built in 1719 by John Brydges, Duke of Chandros. At this time, the town was a rotten borough returning two Members of Parliament despite its small size. He sold the building to John Walcot who, in turn sold it to Robert Clive, Lord Clive of India. A large tableau containing his coat of arms stands nearby. Many ironworks, such as gates or road bollards have been fitted with brightly coloured woollen sleeves!