Tuesday – Bodenham Lake – The sun shines through a hazy sky. The mornings feel like autumn now, that slight chill and mists. Canada Geese share the scrape with five Barnacle Geese and a pair of Mute Swans. Although Barnacle Geese are a combination of only white, black and grey, they are beautiful birds, the black and grey ripples down their backs contrasting with the pristine white underparts. A flotilla of Mallard glide across the water, all still dull brown, the drakes yet to regain their colours. A Great Created Grebe sleeps across the far side. Several skeins of Canada Geese take off noisily. Half a dozen Cormorants sit in the trees, bathing in warm sunshine. Hints of yellow are appearing in the willows. Grasses are browning. Another Great Crested Grebe has appeared at the western end. A pair of sheep have got onto the bank in front of the hide and are chomping away at the grass and herbs voraciously. A Kingfisher perches on a willow at the edge of the reed bed. As it moves its head its feathers flash metallic turquoise. Suddenly it dives but is hidden by the tall Purple Loosestrife and strangely does not reappear. A Robin and a pair of Reed Warblers are seeking food in the scrape, the former in the ground, the latter in the willow scrub. Fat little Sloes cover a Blackthorn in the meadow hedge. I gather enough for a bottle of Sloe Gin. The dessert apple crop is still very limited, it will be a poor crop.
Thursday – Dolgellau – We drive up to the north-west of Wales via the Dyfi Valley to Machynlleth then north past the Centre for Alternative Technology at Llwyngwern Quarry and up into the eastern foothills of Cadair Idris. Down the other side to Dolgellau, a market town in Gwynedd lying on the River Wnion, a tributary of the River Mawddach. It was the county town of Merionethshire. Although Bronze Age relics have been found in the area, it is thought that it was too marshy to have been settled until the 12th century when a serf village, possibly founded by Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. A church was established around this time, it is recorded in Norwich Taxatio of 1254 as paying twenty shillings. The major local religious centre was Cymer Abbey which lies a short distance north on the Afon Mawddach. Dolgellau probably means “meadow of groves”. The town is a wonderful warren of narrow streets lined by solid buildings in dark grey stone. It seems unlikely there was any plan to the town, unlike many others in north Wales where the Normans imposed a regular grid pattern. Chapels are around every corner. Many buildings are constructed out of quite large blocks of local stone, Cambrian dolerites. Eldon Square is the town centre dominated by the town/market hall, now a craft centre. Butchers and bakers shops along with a number of clothes shops make up a fine town centre. Just off the centre is the imposing building, built around 1886 of T.H. Roberts, a remarkably well preserved ironmonger’s which still has its original fittings. At the turn of the century over 500 gold miners were employed around Dolgellau – many of their picks and shovels must have been purchased here. Down to the river where Y Pont Fawr, the big bridge was built in 1638, since widened and lengthened.
Tyddyn Du Camp-site, Bontddu – Nice and quiet now the schools are back. Large levees of rock run along the edge of mud flats of the Mawddach estuary. Surprisingly few birds, just gulls and a couple of Mallard. Beyond the river the land rises and rises to the triple peaks of Cadair Idris. Up the valley, far beyond Dolgellau, the Aran mountains, southern peaks of Snowdonia are misty. As evening falls so does the breeze that has been blowing all afternoon, moderating the heat of the sun, but the still air brings out the midges and mosquitoes. As it grows dark a pair of Tawny Owls call but only briefly. Jackdaws are noisy but mercifully fall quiet. A Mallard quacks. In the gloom a large bat jinks over the phragmites reed bed.
Friday – Bontddu – Across to the levee. Several small flocks of Canada Geese are feeding in the marsh grasses and muddy creeks. There are some waders far over on the edge of the main flow, too far away to identify but the look big enough to be godwits. Duck, probably Mallard are feeding upstream a distance. The village, like Dolgellau is mainly late 18th century stone houses. Bontddu was at the heart of a mini-gold rush in the late 1800s. In the woods behind the village lie the remains of the Clogau Gold Mine, one of the largest of a string of goldmines working a gold seam running along the north shore of the estuary and up towards Coed y Brenin. Past the school and car dealership. A stream, the Hirgwim, pours down boulders and passes firstly under the old bridge then a nasty concrete modern road bridge. A terrace of houses stands above the old road. They have coal holes in their front walls. Maddy is clearly in pain as she walks. Our plans of going by bus to the coast are stymied. Back to the camp-site. Our tent is below a large outcrop of rock which is both surrounded and covered in Oak and Birch. Nuthatches, Jays, Blue Tits and Common Buzzards are all calling.
Llanaber – On the coast road between Barmouth and Harlech is the small village of Llanaber. The church of St Mary and St Bodfan is one of the best preserved 13th century churches in this part of the country. It is believed St Bodfaen built a small wattle and daub church here in the 6th century. The 13th century building was promoted by Hywel ap Gruffudd ap Cynan who was a great grandson of Owain Gwynedd and near relative of Llewelyn the Great. There was substantial rebuilding in 1860 but much of the 13th century building remains. The main door is a fine Early English example, deeply recessed in yellow sandstone with six shafts to each side. Inside the piers are Norman in character with foliated capitals from which spring pointed arches. The windows are Early English lancets. On the wall is a brass plaque with the names of ten children who were on a “Summer Holiday Party” who “were drowned suddenly in the dangerous Estuary of Mawddach in the Evening of 1st August 1894” In a corner are the two Llanaber stones. These are early Christian inscribed stones found within a mile of the church, and they appear to belong to the second half of the 5th century. One reads CAELESTI/MONEDO/RIGI and the other AETERN(I)/ET/AETERN(E). The Caelesti stone was placed in the church in the 19th century, after it was previously used as a foot bridge on a local farm. The extensive graveyard overlooks Barmouth Bay, today smooth and blue in the sunlight.
Barmouth – Situated on the north side of the Mawddach estuary, Abermaw became Barmouth in 1768 when the masters of vessels belonging to the port considered it expedient to have an English name on their vessels. The hill of Garn Gorllwyn with its Iron Age fort, Dinas Oleu, the Fortress of Light and the first piece of land to be donated to the National Trust in 1895, means the town is a narrow strip running around the headland with houses perched high on the hillside. Before shipping became a major industry here there was little of Abermaw, indeed the Dolgellau to Harlech road went over the hills behind the headland missing the village completely. In 1810 a harbour wall was built and trade grew. The town became very popular in the early 19th century as a resort, apparently the profusion of Scurvy Grass made it popular with invalids. A number of Georgian houses replaced the older local houses. The railway arrived in 1867 which promoted another boom in building. The pink and grey stone of St John’s Church dominates the hillside above the town centre. It was started in 1882 and nearly finished in 1889 when the tower collapsed, destroying much of the roof and the seaward walls. The architects, Douglas and Fordham, blamed blasting operations on the hillside which were trying to open up the area to get more light into the building. The town is still very much a tourist destination with large amusement parks and extensive car parks. The harbour area is a delight; extensive sands at low tide, a railway bridge, now disused, sweeping across the estuary and mountains rising to the south. Fine houses can be discerned on the far shore. Sadly we are very restricted in what we can do – Maddy can barely walk at all now and the car parks are in in the full sunlight so we cannot leave her in the car. We have a crab sandwich from a café in the old fishing sheds.
Cymer Abbey – A Cistercian abbey founded in 1198-9 under the patronage of Maredudd ap Cynan, grandson of Owain Gwynedd. The first monks came from Abbey Cwmhir in Powys, which was a daughter house of Whitland in Dyfed, itself founded by monks from Clairvaux, the mother house in Burgundy. The abbey was not a large or particularly rich establishment. The monks kept sheep and engaged in mining and metallurgy. They also had a fine stud of horses which they supplied to Llywelyn ap Iorweth. They did have a fine silver gilt chalice and pattern which was hidden in the hills at Dissolution and re-discovered in the 19th century. The walls of the church remain and the footings of the cloister but many buildings are missing and may have been built of timber.
Dolgellau – We find a parking spot in the shade and head into the town. The present church of St Mary, dates from 1716, with a chancel added in 1864. The masonry is of dressed slate with blocks overlapping at the corners. Inside there are unusual timber piers which were brought over the mountains by ox-cart from Dinas Mawddwy. A carved stone effigy, circa 1350, of Meurig ap Ynyr Fychan lies in north aisle. An alabaster font of the mid-17th century stands on a table. There is some fine Victorian glass, much having a pre-Raphaelite style. We wander around the town. It is interesting to note the roof slates laid in diminishing courses and the inset stone slabs to shed the water away from the base of the chimney stacks. Dolgellau enjoys an annual rainfall of around 70 inches.
Saturday – Home – This morning Maddy could not use her back legs at all. We come home and then manage to get a vet’s appointment immediately in Ludlow. We leave her for a while as they take X-rays and then return. The prognosis is not good. She has spondylosis of the spine and some disc damage. The vet gives her a steroid injection and some in tablet form and we carry her out to the car and home.
Tuesday – Home – Last night the Harvest Moon shone brilliantly yellow down on the sleeping world. A Tawny Owl has been calling in the local trees for a few nights now. Great Spotted Woodpeckers have been visiting regularly also. Maddy has improved and is able to get around although her gait is still very poor. At least she can get up the garden to her spot beside her beloved chickens. We take her to the Queenswood Country Park for a brief walk. I make the mistake of dropping her ball in front of her. It bounces away and she attempts to run and grab it, with the inevitable consequences of falling flat on her face. However, she is pleased to have her ball again although it is only for a few moments as we are keen not to overdo it and cause any more problems.
Wednesday – Leominster – I drive round to the old playing field by Grange Court so Maddy can have a short walk down to the orchard in the Millennium Gardens. Mist hangs around the churchyard trees and there is a real chill in the air. Maddy is struggling a bit and is clearly not sorry to get back to the car and then home. This summer has been a struggle with Red Mite in the chicken house. I used some solution from the local farmers’ wholesale store but it has proved useless but I have now got another container of Smite and sprayed the house with that. It has been effective in the past.
Bodenham – The sun is shining in a clear, cloudless sky but the misty haze remains. It is strange walking down the track without kicking a ball for Maddy but there is little point in forcing her to walk when she finds it so difficult. The lake is quiet. A gaggle of Canada Geese fly in which soon disturbs the peace. A single Mallard preens on the scrape. There are a pair of Mute Swans down the west end, a couple of Coot and two Cormorants in the trees and that appears to be all! A Moorhen appears and starts searching the scrape for food. A scan reveals a dozen and a half Mallard in the west end mud. A Robin comes to the willows by the reed bed and drops down to the mud beneath. A Magpie flies across to the island. A Kingfisher appears as if by magic on the same willow branch the Robin perched upon a few minutes ago. The Robin returns and then a Reed Warbler his through the willow. The Kingfisher’s head sinks into its shoulders and it looks annoyed (I know one should not anthropomorphise these situations but...) After a few minutes the Kingfisher departs. A Red Admiral flutters by. A female Sparrowhawk flies across. The two sheep seen last week have appeared in front of the hide again, I am not sure how they get here or where they have been since I arrived. Then they vanish and reappear at the other end of the mound, there must be a wider area of meadow on the edge of the scrape than seems from here. A flock of Goldcrests are in the Alder coppice behind the hide. A Great Tit calls loudly. A Common Buzzard takes off from a fence post in the paddocks between the meadow and the Dinmore road. A few more Sloes are gathered for the gin. A few cider apples are beginning to drop. Through the dessert apple orchard. There are some small pears blushing pink. Those on the ground are mushy but even one picked from the tree has a cotton wool feel and not a particularly good flavour – what a pity. Some russet apples are small but sweet, crisp and juicy with good acidity.
Thursday – Picton Gardens, Colwall – We visit these gardens near Malvern located in the village of Colwall which lies in the shadow of the hills. They hold the national collection of Michaelmas Daisies, an autumn flowering aster originating in New England in the United States. They have never really been of any interest to me, just a quite pleasant flower of no distinction, but I must admit these displays have changed my mind somewhat! The gardens are in Old Court Nurseries and in the early 20th century were owned by Ernest Ballard. The family business of cider vinegar production collapsed with the introduction of malt vinegar so he concentrated on his specialist nursery. The Michaelmas Daisy reached its zenith of popularity in the late 1930s. In the late 1940s Percy Picton arrived to manage the nursery and took over in 1952 when Ernest died. Percy Picton was not particularly interested in the daisy and developed one of the country’s foremost collections of rare plants. Paul and Meriel Picton took over the gardens and nursery in 1974 but it was not until the 1980s that they decided to re-popularise Michaelmas Daisies. They now have the national collection and there are large beds of them displaying the many varieties developed. But the garden also contains many other flowers, shrubs and trees which make a delightful display. The Michaelmas Daisies are particularly popular with bees and hoverflies which are feeding in their hundreds. A couple of Common Green Shield Bugs, one on the petals of a delicate pink pompom dahlia, are present. There are fewer butterflies than one would expect, a couple of Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells. The sun is shining and the gardens are busy.
Tuesday – Home – The morning starts shrouded in fog – it is apparently called a “hopping morning” as it is typical of the days during the hop picking season. Many locals would go be employed in the hop yards or hop-gardens that were all around Leominster until after the mid-19th century when they went into decline because of cheap foreign imports. Although the local production increased in the latter part of the century, it declined again in the early 20th century. In the height of the picking season, many families came from the Black Country to join in the harvesting. A few raspberries are on the canes, their season is almost ended. However, the courgettes keep coming, turn your back and they are expanding into marrows!
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – A grey morning but not cold. Blackberries are still ripening along the hedgerow by the track. Haws are deep crimson now. A drake Mallard on the scrape has an almost complete bottle-green head as his breeding plumage returns. The lake is very quiet, indeed there appears to be be only two Canada Geese present. Over near the gap between the sections of the lake a lot of yellow water weed lies on the surface and a flock of a couple of dozen Coot are feeding. Checking them out reveals four Gadwall and four Wigeon amongst them. A Cormorant is flying around the area and three more are in the trees. A Grey Heron lands in the south-west corner and stalks the back with its head hunched into its shoulders. The Coot are disturbed by a Cormorant appearing in their midst. All the flowers have finished blooming, the Black Knapweeds are brown, the Purple Loosestrife has disappeared, thistles turned to white fluff and the Ragwort is setting seed. A pair of Mute Swans glide from behind the island. There are far fewer Swallows and House Martins around now although good numbers are feeding over farmyards.
Home – Sadly we have come to the decision that the vet is right and Maddy’s quality of life is not good enough for an active dog like her, so this morning she has been put to sleep. The vet came here and we let her go peacefully although not without considerable heartbreak. We do not think we will have another dog now as time is creeping up on us as well.
Thursday – Clearwell Caves – We are heading down the Wye Valley to Chepstow when we see a brown heritage sign indicating “Clearwell Caves”. We have seen this sign many times before but have never bothered to find out what or where these caves are. So a quick decision and we turn up into the hills to the east of the valley. After several miles we enter the pretty little village of Clearwell and a few miles further on find the car-park for the caves and in we go. It turns out this is The Royal Forest of Dean’s Iron Mining Museum and it is an absolute treasure! A bed of limestone was laid down in the Carboniferous, locally known as “Crease Limestone” from the Celtic crys meaning a jacket because the stones forms a jacket around ores, on top of the Old Red Sandstone. Water filtered down into the limestone forming a cave network. Coal deposits were formed on top of the limestone. During the Permian, 280 million years ago the coal deposits were eroded away leaving iron rich rocky minerals on the surface. 225 million years ago, at the start of the Late Triassic, the surface became a hot desert subject to occasional prolonged and torrential storms that dissolved the iron minerals and the floods of acidic water entered the cave systems where the acidity was neutralised, depositing the iron ores. It is believed people started exploiting these ores for ochre in the Neolithic and later for iron production in the Iron Age. The Romans probably traded with the local producers rather than controlling the production themselves although recently surveys have revealed what is thought to be a Roman villa close to the mines which may have housed an overseer or manager, or maybe a Roman merchant. In the mediaeval the mines were worked by families. These mines were part of Old Ham Gale, a gale being the area in which a Free Miner may work. Between 1846 and 1900 the mine produced 62,995 tonnes of ore, between 1909 and 1916 3048 tonnes were extracted. In 1917 the mines were sold to the Coleford Iron Company who passed it to the British Colour and Mining Company who operated it until 1936 mainly producing ochre for the paint industry. In 1968 Ray Wright bought the rights to the Gales and opened the museum. The tour of the mine follows paths down into caverns, called “churns” from which the ore had been removed. Numerous items related to mining are down here. Wooden boxes known as a Billy were filled with ore, about 60-70lb and placed on the back of a young boy, a Billy Boy, using a leather strap and a piece of wood called a “Billy Catcher”, who carried it up to the surface. This involved climbing a chain ladder consisting of two chains held apart originally with wooden rungs, later iron bolts, up the side of a deep pit. Later pneumatic drills were employed although these became known as “Widow Makers” as the dust they created caused many cases of silicosis in the miners’ lungs. It is cold down here. Bats roost in several of the caves. Some have large water sumps which apparently hold good drinking water that has been filtered through the rocks. One of the large caverns hosts a candle-lit fancy dress party each Halloween. Interestingly, the iron ores are non-magnetic so compasses can be used to navigate the caves.
Chepstow – On arrival in the town we decide to visit the castle immediately. The ruined fortress dominates the skyline from behind our lodgings. The lands along the southern Marches were given to William Fitz Osbern, a close friend of William I since their childhood. It is believed he built the Great Tower, the first fortification at Estriguil as the Domesday Book identified Chepstow, although some authorities doubt this as he spent much of his time between the Conquest and his death five years later away from the area on campaigns. Also there are stylistic details that suggest a date in the early 12th century rather than late 11th. However, the rectangular tower was a fine defensive hall on the top of the cliffs above the River Wye. Chepstow was then and until the building of the Severn Bridges an important river crossing into South Wales. There is a decorated lintel and tympanum similar in style to carving on the round chapel in Ludlow Castle. Some of the stone used can be identified as Roman in origin, almost certainly from the great fort at Caerleon to the west. High on walls are remains of two arches of Purbeck limestone, richly carved in the mid-13th century. The walls and niches are popular with the local Feral Pigeons which are engaged in mating rituals all over the castle. After Fitz Osbern died, his son, Roger de Breteuil was in possession of his lands but he and the Earl of Northumberland rebelled against William and were defeated with the loss of their lands. The castle stayed in royal hands until 1115 when Henry I granted the lordship to Richard Fitz Clare, known as Strongbow, who founded Tintern Abbey but did little to Chepstow castle. He died in 1176 leaving his lands to his son who died in 1185 when the lands passed to his daughter Isabel. She was a minor and became the ward of Henry II, then the wife of William Marshal, very much a self-made man. Marshall remodelled the castle in the 1190s adding a formidable gatehouse and middle and inner baileys. His sons further refined the castle. Although there were five sons, the last died in 1245 with no surviving male heirs and the castle passed to Roger Bigod, son of Hugh Bigod who had married Maud, daughter of William Marshal. Roger’s nephew, also Roger inherited in 1270 developed the castle further into a palatial stronghold. The castle returned to the crown on Roger’s death and passed through the hands of the Earl of Norfolk then to the Earl of Worcester, who was a cousin of Henry Tudor. He made more changes to the castle with the living quarters concentrated around the lower bailey. Henry the fifth earl declared for the king in the Civil War and held Chepstow until 1645 when, after the fall of Bristol, the king’s position was hopeless. Sir Thomas Morgan set up a battery of three guns on the hill overlooking the castle and breached the walls after three days of concentrated fire. Cromwell turned the castle into a military barracks. The town of Chepstow was returned to Worcester after the Restoration but the castle remained a royal barracks and arms store until 1685 when parts of the castle were demolished. By the 18th century the castle was effectively an industrial estate. The castle became state property in 1953 and is now maintained by CADW. Near the domestic rooms built by Richard Bigod above the Wye is a small patio, probably built for that purpose which gives wonderful views up and down the Wye as it sweeps by. Marten’s Tower, also built by Bigod, has wonderful views over the town although the lengthy spiral staircase strains the calves!
We leave the castle and head into town. It is very much like any other town these days, although there does appear to be rather more nail boutiques and places selling handbags. Unfortunately we do struggle to find a decent pint of beer! The Port Wall, a defensive wall runs from the castle and across the high street. Once it ran all the way down to the Wye. It was built in the late 13th century, partly for defence but also to collect taxes from the users of the market. We head back down to our lodgings and on down to the museum which has a fine local history section. It details Chepstow’s importance as a port, at the end of the 18th century it handled more goods than Swansea, Cardiff and Newport combined, and of the ship building trade that developed in the 19th century. Later in the 19th century, the Picturesque Movement promoted the Wye Valley as a tourist destination and Chepstow took advantage of this.
Friday – Chepstow – Down Castle Street to the River Wye. The Old Wye Bridge or 1816 Bridge crosses the River Wye here. Although there had been earlier wooden bridges on the site since Norman times, the current road bridge was constructed of cast iron in 1816, to designs initially by John Rennie but greatly modified by the bridge builder, John Rastrick. This side is Wales, the other England. Along the banks a short way is a mosaic and standing stones marking the Coastal Walk. Nearby the band stand looks over a small green. It is raining, finally. The first half of September was exceptionally dry. The river is low and quiet. The white limestone cliffs rise opposite. A Robin sings and gulls call. Past the Boat Inn and into the modern roads bridge and the older rail bridge. An old rusting boat is “parked” beneath. This is the “Severn Princess”, the last of the Aust Ferries which sailed between Aust and Beachley. It was recorded in the 12th century that the de Clares, Lords of Tidenham granted the monks of Tintern quittance of passage on this route. It may be that the Romans before them had used this crossing. It was known as a rough passage, Daniel Defoe called it “an ugly, dangerous, and very inconvenient ferry”. The railways brought about the demise of the ferries and they closed around 1860. However, the motor car brought a revival and a car ferry service started in 1926 and ran until the Severn Bridge opened in September 1966. The last ferry was the “Severn Princess” launched in 1959. Plans are afoot to restore her. A rough road runs past a vast yard of steel components, massive cranes stand over them. Unfortunately there is a locked gate ahead so back down to the river side. Up to Lower Church Street. Lord Nelson’s House stands on the corner. It was a post house and tavern called “The Mermaid”. In 1811 it was renamed “The Lord Nelson”, closing in 1966. Up Lower Church Street. A tiny square of cottages and narrow lanes lead off it. Church Row has 18th century terrace. Past the church and into town. Up through the down to The Mount. A large house built in the mid 19th century, with fine gates, not actually leading anywhere. There had been a house on the site by 1786 called The Mount, Mount House or Mount Pleasant House. Reputedly originally the site of a watch mound related to the nearby Roman Road to Caerleon. Around 1840, the house was bought by Joseph Alexander Dorin for his wife Anna who lived here until her death in 1863. A Cedar stands in splendid isolation. Below the mount is Mount Way with a lodge in the corner. The road consists of modern houses and I suspect the gates once stood here. Down the Dell under the castle to breakfast. We then go up to the Parish Church of St Mary. William Fitz Osbern founded a Benedictine priory here around 1072, an alien priory of the Abbey of Cormeilles in Normandy. Much of the priory was destroyed at Dissolution and the church suffered a catastrophic collapse of its tower in 1701. There have been several major rebuildings since. The main west frontage though has survived all these changes with a splendid Romanesque doorway and three windows above. Inside is a large tomb of Henry, second earl of Worcester, Lord Herbert of Chepstow, Raglan and Gower who died 1549 and second wife Elizabeth. In the south transept is a Jacobean monument to Thomas Shipman, Richard Cleyton and Margaret who was married to both, she died 1627.
Monday – Long Mynd – The mornings are becoming ever more autumnal. The temperature fell to 7ºC overnight. However, it is bright enough now. It seems very strange setting off into the hills without Maddy. Up Motts Road, the track up the side valley from Cardingmill Valley. Purple-brown heathers, green grasses, Gorse and Bracken and yellow Gorse flowers adorn the hillside. Twittering and calling Blackbirds, Meadow Pipits and Chaffinches flit across the Gorse and into the stunted Hawthorns and Rowans. A pair of white ponies cross the moorland in top of Long Mynd. More ponies and foals are near the path on the top of the ridge. To the west Stiperstones is bathed in sunshine. To the north, The Wrekin is an island rising out of the mist. The Port Way starts to drop down through High Park to the Shropshire plain. High Park House is marked “JCW 1868” over the door. The road drops down and down through fields of sheep and hedgerows of hazel and beech. A Common Buzzard soars high over the hill. It is far from quiet, Robins, Dunnocks, Great Tits and a Magpie all call and sing. Clouds of fluffy white seed blows off of the Rosebay Willowherb with every breath of breeze. Into Woolstaston, a small village which is called Ulestanestune, held by Robert fitz Corbet, in Domesday. The name derives from Wulfstan’s Tun or settlement. There is a motte and bailey here but it is hidden behind trees on private land. Excavations in 1965 showed there was a wooden castle here which was abandoned in the 14th century. An Araucaria, a Monkey Puzzle, tree has a number of large brown nut cases on its upper branches. Several fine buildings, including Rectory Farm, a Manor House, a late 14th century farm house on the road junction and a church which is locked. The church, St Michaels and All Saints, dates from the late 12th or early 13th century and was restored in 1864-6 by the Rev E. Donald Carr under the supervision of William Hill of Smethcott. It has a very fine door with large, ornate hinges and a studded patterning. What looks like the village hall, a timber-framed building, is in a sorry state. A lane heads south-east through Colliersley, which consists of just two dwellings to Womerton, a farm and a couple of other buildings. There are archery butts by the junction. The road is now on the edge of the moor again, Caer Caradoc dominates the skyline. A lane runs down beside a hill called Gogbatch, past a dwelling of the same name. It heads eastwards then turns south past Inwood into All Stretton. The name Stretton which applies to several places nearby derives from “Street” referring to the Roman road, Watling Street which passes here. The “All” derives from a personal name, probably “Alfred” although the local tale describes how James I passed first through Little Stretton, then Church Stretton, and finally as he came through All Stretton the king declared “They’re All Strettons around here!” The church, another St Michaels and All Angels was built in 1902. A hill-fort stands above the church. Stretton Hall is perhaps late 18th century, belonged to the Wildings who, by 1838, were letting it as a farmhouse. It was at one time a hotel and is now a nursing home. The road leads back into Church Stretton. A modern building has an old piece of wall outside with a tap and basin and a marble plaque declaring “The Cwm Dale Spring – This is the purest water which has ever come under my notice or of which I have seen any record – Frances Sutton F.C.S F.I.C” It is now owned by Princes and in small letters, “Subsidiary of the Mitsubishi Corporation” – so a company known for tinned salmon owned by a car maker bottling spring water!
Tuesday – Leominster – A brisk breeze blows, knocking down the conkers in the garden. I cut the grass but as soon as the shiny brown conkers and their husks are mown up, more descend. The same with the apples from the Howgate Wonder, dozens of rotting fruit are picked up and fill three sacks, but a few hours later more are scattered across the lawn and path. Grey clouds scurry over. Round to the Millennium Park. Several of the cider apple trees are dropping fruit, time to start production. A flock of Starlings are on the Minster tower filling the air with their whistles and chattering. Along Church Street. Next to No. 20 is a wall with a mediaeval base of stone rubble topped by brick of the 18th or early 19th century. It is believed the wall was connected to the Priory.
Thursday – Witley Court – A few miles west of Worcester is the village of Great Witley and one of the great English country houses, or at least until 1937 when it was devastated by a fire. The manor of Witley belonged to Urso d’Abetot, a cousin of William of Normandy, after the Conquest. By the 13th century it was owned by a prominent Worcestershire family, the Cookseys. A mediaeval manor house stood here. In 1498 the estate passed to Robert Russell who built a substantial new house on the site. This was rebuilt on a larger scale in the early 17th century and featured twin staircase towers that remained a feature of the house. In 1655 , Thomas Russell sold the property to Thomas Foley of Stourbridge. The Foleys made their fortune in Dudley in the iron business. Another Thomas Foley (there were eight of that name associated with the property over the next two centuries) was created Baron Foley of Kidderminster in 1712 and again enlarged the house significantly. The 6th Thomas was known as “Lord Balloon” after a hot air balloon burned in the grounds of his London house. He was debauched and lost most of the family fortune. His son, not surprisingly called Thomas, married the daughter of the 2nd Duke of Leinster which helped restore his financial position. He brought in John Nash who made significant alterations and additions to the house. Humphrey Repton was consulted in regard to the gardens. The last Thomas sold the estate to William Ward in 1837. He commissioned Samuel Whitfield Daukes to remodel the house in the Italianate style. Ward was made Earl of Dudley. His son became a friend of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who was a regular visitor, particularly for the elaborate hunting parties. In 1920 the estate was sold to Sir Herbert Smith, known as “Piggy”, a carpet manufacturer. Whilst he was away from the property on 7th September 1937 a fire started, probably in the bakery which swept through the house. The insurance payout was a quarter of what it would cost to rebuild so Smith sold the property to a Mr Banks who, in 1954 sold it to a Stratford-on-Avon antique dealer who stripped everything of any value. The house was nearly demolished in the 1950s and 60s but was scheduled as an ancient monument in 1970 and is now under the guardianship of English Heritage. We enter the estate from the north and walk down to the lake, known as the Front Pool. A few Mallard are on the water, swimming through extensive water lilies.
Up a wooded slope of Oak, Beech and Sweet Chestnut and on top of the rise is the house. It is an empty shell but it is easy to imagine how sumptuous and opulent it must have been in its heyday. There are still some plaster wall panels of Regency design but little else. To the east is a garden consisting of a parterre, a complex design of box hedging filled with flowers. A large group of gardeners is working on the garden. Beyond is the Flora Fountain, topped once by a statue of Flora, Goddess of Spring and Flowers. The statue was broken some years ago when it was being removed and much of the rest of the fountain has been vandalised. Restoration has started but funds are limited and it will take some years yet. To the south of the house, is the south parterre and the fountain of Perseus and Andromeda. In the 1850s, the Earl of Dudley brought in William Andrews Nesfield to remodel the garden. He put in a vast flight of steps down to a large oval pool containing the fountain. The central sculpture of Perseus on his winged horse Pegasus, rescuing Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by Poseidon who is being threatened by a sea monster. The main jet of the fountain, emerging from the sea monster’s mouth shot 120 feet into the air. The fountain has been restored and is operated five times a day. The main jet is still supposed to be able to reach 100 feet but today it is around 40 feet high we reckon, but it is still a magnificent sight. We turn west to look at the conservatory, once one of the largest in the country. The grooves in the stonework which held the glass are still visible. It now contains low hedges of lavender which a gardener is trimming. Although the house is, even in this state, is impressive, I get the feeling that it would have had the ostentatiousness of some of the modern houses one sees, usually owned by “self-made” people with lots of cash but not a lot of sublety.
Back round the house to the west where the parish church of St Michaels and All Saints stands. A 13th century church stood slightly to the west but by the 18th century was in a ruinous state. The first Lord Foley decided to replace it but died and his widow had a new church constructed and consecrated in 1735. It had a brick exterior to match the house and a plain interior, possibly the work of James Gibbs. Twelve years later, the second Lord Foley obtained fittings from the demolished church of Chandos’s mansion at Edgware and incorporated them into the building. Ceiling panels by Antonio Belluci and ten magnificent enamel painted windows by Joshua Price were installed. The gold embellished ceiling was carried out in paper mâché by Thomas Bromwich of Ludgate Hill, London. To the left of the altar is a pedimented monument to Thomas Foley I who died in 1677, previously in the mediaeval church, to the right is a vast marble monument carved by Michael Rysbrack in 1753, commemorating the first Lord Foley and his family. After a lunch at the tea rooms, we head back past the lake and down into the “wilderness” area. There are many fine trees here and rhododendrons which will mean a revisit in spring. A bench is dedicated to the memory of Clifford T. Ward, a popular singer-songwriter of the 1970s who died in Kidderminster in 2001.
Friday – Evenjobb-Presteign – The morning began bright and sunny but it has now grown darker with threatening grey clouds and a rising wind. Up out of Evenjobb towards Offa’s Dyke. Carrion Crows and Jackdaws call harshly and a Robin sings. Into Granner Wood. Broken Hazel nuts are scattered over the steps up towards Offa’s Dyke. Out of Granner Wood and past the quarry in Upper Dunn’s Plantation. Some blue sky has appeared but the wind remains blustery. Up another set of steps and across a field on the dyke. Whimble stands clear in the distance flanked by the other Radnor Forest hills. A pair of Common Buzzards and a flock of Rooks rise from the field as I pass. A large flock of Chaffinches flies out of a hedgerow. Over the top of the hill and down a sheep pasture to the road to Beggars Bush at Bwlch. Across the road and on along the dyke. A flock of Swallows sweep around a telegraph pole. Over a meadow and past a line of magnificent old Beech trees. Red Admiral butterflies flit under the trees. These great trees are followed by a short row of Crab Apples. Beyond these trees lies the valley created by the Cascob Brook under Llanfair Fawr. The path drops down the hillside. The dyke hosts a mixture of trees, Oak, Willow, Hazel and Rowan. Towards the bottom of the hill, the dyke has a large ditch on the “Welsh” side. I take the road to Discoed.
Despite the Welsh looking name, Discoed is an Anglo-Saxon settlement. The original name was versions of Dytchecot meaning “the cottage by the dyke”. The name Discoed did not appear until the Tudor period. A lane leads up to the church. The presence in the churchyard of an ancient Yew, some say 5000 years old although modern estimates of Yew would indicate this figure is a vast overestimate. However, it is probably well over a thousand years old and would probably have formed the focus of an early church. There is also a well spring by the gate which also would attract a religious following. At Domesday, Discote was described as a waste belonging to Osbern, son of Richard le Scrob of Richards Castle. Next to the church is a castle mound, not mentioned in Domesday but was certainly a small timber affair. The church is recorded in 1291 when the land had passed to the Mortimers. It was always a poor parish and by 1536 had become a chapel of ease to St Andrew’s in Presteign. The church was completely rebuilt in 1869 by Messrs Morgan and Potter of Kington to the design of Henry Curzon for the sum of £431. It was thought that Curzon had the original church completely erased and removed but it now seems much of the shell is the original building although the windows, doorway, porch and spire are Victorian. The rebuild was in the Early English Gothic. A small timber belfry houses a single bell dated 1675. A Regency monument to John Bodenham of the Grove who died in 1809 is on the nave wall. In the chancel are two monuments to the Taylor family, whose last son died in Trincomalee in 1814. To the south of the church is Upper House, a fine timber-framed building owned for many years by the Taylors and has been dated by tree-rings to 1536.
North across fields to the River Lugg which meanders extravagantly. Its water is crystal clear. Chaffinches pink and Robins and Blackbirds call brief snatches of song. Across the river by an old iron bridge, Dolley Old Bridge and into Dolley Green. A small hamlet with both a number of newer properties and a new church. In down the Presteign road. Across the river again via Rock Bridge which has a plaque stating, “Radnor County Council, rebuilt and widened 1936”. The name of those involved are lost under the lichen. There are several Hazel hedges along the road and a decent number of nuts are gathered. Into Presteign. Eddie’s Meadow is named after Charles Edward Taylor who served in the Council for 38 years. His plaque is set on a Lister rotary engine, supplied by WJ Taylor and Sons. The wind has dropped considerably although the sky is covered in cloud again. Up the meadow for lunch. A Robin sings and a Nuthatch calls. Stapleton Castle peeps out of the trees in the distance. Over the Warden, the earthworks of the castle. Out of town along Slough Road. In a typical bit in bureaucratic nonsense, a 20mph zone becomes 30mph for all of 15 yards before another sign indicates no restriction. A strange looking aircraft roars over, I think it is a Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey which has vertical take off and landing capabilities. The lane climbs through 12 foot high banks topped by Oaks, Beeches and Holly. The lane climbs and climbs passing North Wood. Bradnor, Herrick and Hantor Hills and Hergest Ridge come into view. Fine rain falls. Finally the land levels out and passes Sunnybank, the starts dropping. A roadside Hawthorn is buried is under a mass of Honeysuckle. Red Bryony berries, late Blackberries and Elderberries, rose hips and haws all adorn the lane. Past Granner Wood again and down into Evenjobb.
Sunday – Leominster – A thick mist hides the bottom of the street. It covers the river and meadow. The boot market is in full swing, smaller than the summer markets but still a lot of junk for sale! Back home and the job of putting the garden to bed for the winter proceeds along with preparations for a new growing year. Several vegetable beds are weeded and piles of rotting apples removed. The purple-sprouting broccoli is netted to keep off the pigeons. Dozens of conkers and their shells are picked up off the lawn and more come down within minutes. Kay is busy with pots of bulbs and over-wintering plants. I pick some apples, Bramleys and Howgate Wonders for stewing. The Herefordshire Russets are still not falling although another one has a large bruise where it has been attacked by a Blackbird. In the afternoon we relax on the steamer chairs and I drink a bottle of Old Basket, a beer brewed in 1980 for the Basketmakers Arms in Brighton by brewers George Gales of Horndean, sadly now subsumed into Fullers. The peanut feeder is busy with both Blue and Great Tits, no wonder it empties so fast, not that I begrudge them despite the price of peanuts these days!
Monday – Croft-Leinthall Earls – The sky is overcast and it is humid. The fish pools look dull and dirty. A Grey Wagtail flits across the water piping loudly. Blue Tits chatter in the trees. Up the Beech wood. Puffballs grow around a rotting log. There are substantial numbers of Grey Squirrels in the woods, they must have had a good breeding year, although good is a relative term for these non-native creatures that have driven out our Red Squirrel. Plans on a notice board indicate progress is being made towards clearing away the conifer woods and returning the land to open woodland pasture. Nuthatches are noisy and a woodpecker is tapping at the top of a pine tree although remaining hidden. Up the valley between Bircher Common and Lyngham Vallet. The woods are busy. Wrens call alarms as do Blackbirds. Great, Blue, Coal and I think a Marsh Tit are in the Silver Birches and conifers. Chaffinches chase about the tops of the conifers and there are some Siskin somewhere but they are proving elusive. Tapping of woodpeckers congress from every direction. Up to Whiteway Head where a path drops down across Leinthall Common. Ravens croak overhead. The track is a substantial and old, once a thoroughfare but now hardly used as evidenced by the detritus of wood scattered over it. A loud buzzing of bees swarming around Ivy covering an Ash. I do not tarry to find the swarm! Across a pasture where cows look warily with young calves at their feet. Something spooks a large flock of Rooks back in the woods and they rise noisily.
Through a gate in a hedge of House Sparrows. Over a dried up stream full of Fool’s Watercress. The village is Leinthall Earls has a good number of delightful houses and cottages. Hall Farmhouse is a fine late 17th building; the Old School a timber-framed house also 17th century; Brook Cottage is another quaint timber-framed cottage and The Grange is a large rambling house on the edge of the village. A gate and drive lead up to Gatley Park. From just beyond the Grange, a good view of the Folly is obtained. It was built between 1961-64 and extended in 1973-76 by Raymond Erith for Mrs Victor Willis. The Listing states: “A jeu d’esprit by Erith which brought out his best architectural qualities of historical imagination and economy of means. Although the overall effect is Georgian, the inspiration is eclectic, and the geometric construction of the building as an object in space is purely abstract (related to the lunar cycle). Although small, it could be considered one of Erith’s most characteristic and successful works.” Up a lane beside the Old School is the tiny church of St Andrew. The building is 12th century. Two Norman windows are in the chancel, the other windows are rectangular, probably 17th century. The east window was installed around 1800. The reredos is Jacobean as are the panels in the modern pulpit. The roof is wonderful, mainly mediaeval with later tie-beams and queen posts. An 18th century notice of benefactors is hung on the nave wall. Also here is scroll commemorating the award of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal awarded to L/Cpl Jean Leggett of the Ulster Defence Regiment who was killed in action in 1976. Outside there are large buttresses holding the leaning walls. Although the village is peaceful, there is the constant noise from the quarry down the road.
Out of the village and into the Yatton lane, past a timber-framed barn, sadly in disrepair and the early 17th century Manor Farm. A sign points out a footpath with almost immediately disappears into a harrowed field. The field is scattered with potatoes, obviously not worth gathering. There should be a path across the field and up the hillside but there is a fence all around. So over the fence. Up the hill a bit I can see a row of Hazels, normally associated with an old track. Through brambles and over another fence and here is the track. The track is not rising very much and heading back towards Whiteway Head. So off up what may or may not be old paths up the steep slope. I lose the somewhat ephemeral path completely when it is blocked by a fallen tree. So straight up, which gets very difficult when the bracken overlays nettles and brambles; Maddy would not have been impressed! Somewhat battered, stung and scratched, I reach the Mortimer Trail below Croft Ambrey. The path is lined with old Hornbeams. As it reaches Yatton Hill Common a Red Kite sails past. A Speckled Wood butterfly sits on the dried grass in the sunshine. A Jay squawks. The path continues round the hillside and then through to the Spanish Chestnut field. Everywhere is bone-dry, hardly surprising as September has been one of the driest on record.
Tuesday – Leominster – A little rain yesterday was welcome but has done little to refill our water-butts. It is the season of mellow fruitfulness and apples are falling fast. Another sack-load of cider apples is collected and the processing starts. They are washed and then put through the scratter which crushes them into small pieces. The pulp goes into my little press and out comes the juice into demi-johns. The process takes most of the day as each press-load takes time to drip through. Apples are not the only things falling – conkers are coming down fast now. This makes being in the summerhouse pressing the apples a bit of a nerve-wracking business. The conkers hit the roof with a loud bang, not dissimilar to an electrical blow-out. It is a chinese torture as there is no telling when the next one will fall. The then need removing from the lawn and bags of them are collected to go to the recycling centre; our composting cannot handle them. The sun is out and it is a very pleasant autumn morning. Spider webs are plentiful. Unfortunately, some are strung out across passageways and get torn apart as we pass. In the vegetable garden, the purple-sprouting broccoli has survived the devastation of the Cabbage White caterpillars and is growing well. It is netted now to keep the pigeons away. The Chinese greens are developing slowly. Leeks are thickening well. The cucumbers have finished and the courgettes and squashes have slowed right down. In the greenhouse, tomatoes are coming to an end but the sweet peppers and chillies keep producing. The sweet peppers have been very productive and we have something of a glut now. Parsnips are still doing well with masses of green tops. The beans are finished but there are large numbers of pods drying. The sweetcorn on the other hand is a failure, the plants never really got going and only grew a couple of feet high. I pick a couple each of Doyenne de Comice pears and Herefordshire Russet apples for lunch – they are delicious!