Easter – Nunney – The bitterly cold east wind blows across the Rack field. A Common Buzzard flies up from the small paddock where Pete and Jo’s sheep are kept. They are very rotund with pregnancy, due to drop imminently. I wonder if the Buzzard knows this and that is why it hanging around? A Ring-necked Pheasant flies off noisily. Back into the village and up High Street. The houses are built of pale yellow limestone. The fine Georgian Townhouse on the market square has, like several others, has been rendered. Up High Street past the large old Rectory, now a residential home. Well House stands opposite a cottage in a row behind which was a brewery. Still near the village centre is Cherry Tree Farm. Side Hill Farm was a small cottage built in 1731 but greatly extended in far grander style in 1741. The road now passes through the extensive 20th century housing, the first being built on the site of a sawmill. The street becomes Catch Road and we pass the village school built in 1896. Next door is the old Police House. On up the road. Celandines have flowered but look bedraggled but Primroses are a far more hopeful herald of spring, if it ever arrives! Tiny flecks is snow appear briefly. The Theobald Arms at the top of the hill is in a sorry, abandoned state.
Tuesday – Croft – A Jay flies up from the roadside into an Oak at the top of the Fish Pool Valley, then slips into the thick Ivy covering the trunk. Several small groups of Redwings also fly into these trees from the verge. The sun is bright but it is only a couple of degrees above freezing. There is a substantial flock of Redwings in the trees by the car park, twittering loudly. Snow still lies in the shade of the trees. Blue Tits chatter and Robins sing up the valley to the songs of Chaffinches and Song Thrushes but not surprisingly given the weather, no warblers. A few daffodils are coming into flower near the rustic shelter. The area around the old limekiln has been cleared. A Common Buzzard flies off through the trees. The path up out of the valley is coated in cracked, thin and soft ice. Water bubbles down the rill. Above the forestry track the path, where sheltered from the sun by conifers, is snow covered, ice where trampled by boots. Up onto Croft Ambrey. A Peregrine Falcon flies up the Leinthall valley. The Shropshire and nearby hills are patchy with snow but the tops of the Radnor Forest, the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons are pure shining white. Good numbers of Chaffinches, Redwings and Starlings are feeding at the edge of the Spanish Chestnut field.
Wednesday – Bodenham – Again the sun shines fiercely in a blue sky but the east wind chills all to the bone. Wigeon, Goldeneye and Tufted Duck are on the lake as well as the usual large gaggle of noisy Canada Geese. A thin layer of greasy ice covers part of the water. The cockerel is calling from the hillside. There is no sign of any life on the twigs and branches of the apples trees.
Leominster – I have finally bought the glass needed repair a cold frame we were given. I manage it with only one cut! In go the pots of broad beans and trays of lettuce and leek seeds. Despite the cold, the greenhouse is getting very hot in the sun. We head off to Hereford to do a bit of soft furnishings shopping. Just south of Leominster, a Red Kite bounces on the wind high over the road.
Friday – Ledbury and Eastnor – From the station, The Homend, leads south lined by fine Victorian villas. Closer towards the town centre, old yards and alleys lead off the road between the houses. Plaques indicate their old names, Ward’s Row, Dew’s Yard, Bill’s Yard, Smoke Alley and many others. Up into suburbia and then up a ginnel into Dog Hill Wood. Paths run around and up through the woods. Robins sing and a woodpecker drums. The clouds thicken and the wind increases. Down the eastern side of the wood and past a couple of paddocks. A horse comes to say hello, and Maddy attempts to bark with her ball in her mouth. Past a pond that is rather green with algae despite the freezing conditions of late. The path emerges at the entrance to Upper Hall Estate. Nuthatches call from overhead branches. I pass a few moments with a passer-by. She curses the
lazy wind that has forgotten to close the gate and go. She thinks summer may be on a Wednesday this year but says she has been told it would be a Thursday – hopefully both and in the same week! Down the Worcester road and then up a path of wide steps down which flows a stream. On up the path through a small grove of Yews in Coltham Wood. Two woodpeckers drum only short distance apart with very different timbres. Up more, steeper steps and then follow a sunken track-way. The track emerges into a field alongside the wood. Long-tailed Tits flit through a multi-trunked Oak. The track crests the hill at Dead Woman’s Thorn. Legend says that a woman hung herself from a Hawthorn tree here, but documents show the older name was Deddyman’s Thorn. Beyond is Eastnor Hill and on the northern horizon stand the Malvern Hills still piebald with snow. A Common Buzzard mews.
Across to another field. The track descends from the woods to Eastnor. The village is part of the Eastnor Estate, known these days for the early 19th century Norman revival castle. A manor house called Castle Ditch was here before the castle. This house was in the ownership of the Clintons in 16th century. A few years later the Cocks family moved to Eastnor and bought the manor. They married into the Somers family. A fine, large rectory stands beside the church. The church of St John the Baptist was mediaeval in origin but apart from the tower was completely rebuilt in 1852 by George Gilbert Scott. A very ornate font stands just inside the door. Opposite the entrance on the north wall is a marble was memorial with a polychrome picture of St George. The pulpit is in carved marble. To the south is a family vault of the Cocks, dominated by a large tomb of Charles Somers Cocks, 3rd Earl Somers who died in 1883. Other tombs lay recessed into the walls. On the floor are stones dating back to 1636. By the entrance to the crypt is an ancient font which was found under the floor during reconstruction in 1852. The base is 14th century but the bowl is earlier, probably the oldest in the county. It is large so that babies could be fully immersed. A clasp and lock was once fitted. All fonts from the middle of the 13th century up until the Reformation were locked by order of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1236, as a safeguard against sorcery, and possibly also to prevent
hedge priests from secretly baptising babies at a fee lower than that of the Parish Priest. The staples for locking the font were removed during the Reformation. More large wall tombs of the Cocks stand in base of the bell tower. Back outside, the constant calls of pheasants ring around the village. A track runs past the estate offices, Eastnor Farmhouse, a late 17th century building, and a pottery, which says open but the door is blocked. The track rises between Bircham’s Wood and Squirrel Hill Wood. A turning drops down to a pond from which a Grey Heron flaps away. Through a field of Ring-necked Pheasants and a quietly departing Jay and back into woodland. This is the wrong way! A quick retreat and off up the track to the right path. Across a field through a farmyard, The Holts and down another field to conifer and hazel woodland, Coneygree Wood. Pheasants and buzzards continue to call. Through woods following unmapped paths. A path runs along the edge of Ledbury Park, an old deer park. At one point the old park wall stands, or rather, is falling down. A flock of Siskin is heard but not seen. Primroses and Dog Violets are making an appearance and in one spot what look like wild daffodils. A Marsh Tit squeaks by the woodland edge along with the now inevitable drumming woodpecker. A gnarly old sunken footpath brings me back down to the original path and the main road.
Sunday – Leominster – And still the cold continues with a heavy frost again. Three Canada Geese, hardly a gaggle, fly up the railway, honking of course. My first singing Chiffchaff of the year is calling from near the railway. The Starling roost had moved to a tree behind the Grange Café, but seems to have gone now. Wood Pigeons seem even noisier than usual this morning. River is higher than expected given there has been several days without rain, maybe snow is still melting. A Common Buzzard sits in tree beyond the bridge. Great Tits chase through the Alders by the river. The market is larger than in recent weeks. Still mainly junk though. Robins and Blackbirds sing. In Etnam Street, a pair of Jackdaws are gathering twigs from the gutter and fly off with beakfulls.
Monday – Croft Ambrey – The thermometer claims 4°C but a north wind makes it feel colder. Rooks caw, Jackdaws chack; Robins, Song Thrushes and Great Tits are all declaring their territories. The woodland in the Fish Pool Valley is littered with broken branches, victims of the recent snow. Coltsfoot, Primroses and Saxifrage are coming into flower. Wild Garlic has finally sprouted. Up on a cold, grey Croft Ambrey, scarlet hips are still on briars. Snow lingers on the north facing slopes of the ramparts and Leinthall Common. It is hazy across the hills.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – Another overcast morning but it is slowly getting milder. A Red Kite is gliding over Ford Bridge on the A49 – probably the bird we see every time we travel this way these days! A Green Woodpecker is yaffling loudly in the dessert apple orchard. The lake holds a few Wigeon, a good number of Tufted Duck, Mallard, half a dozen Goldeneye, a few of pairs of Teal, 8 Cormorants on the pontoon and a further 20 in the trees, none in breeding plumage, a single Great Crested Grebe and the inevitably noisy Canada Geese. Yet again, there is no sign of any summer visitors – no hirundines over the lake nor warblers in the copses. A Ring-necked Pheasant, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes are all feeding in the orchards, along with ewes and their lambs, which are quite large now.
Friday – Leominster – It is raining but a vibrant dawn chorus rings out. A Swallow flies overhead at the bottom of Etnam Street, flickering from side to side as it seeks insects in the damp air.
Mortimer Forest – Blackbirds, a Song Thrush, Great Tits, Wood Pigeons, a Carrion Crow, Dunnocks and a Chiffchaff all contribute to a constant melody. Only a few hours of rain have given the surface of the paths a coating of slick mud. Nothing seems to move in the dark, wet woods and if not for the bird song one would think the area abandoned. Along the forestry track that winds round to Peelies Pond through Sunnydingle Wood. The higher one rises the thicker the mist. Drops of rainwater sparkle like diamonds on the branches of a Goat Willow. A Partridge flies up from the track-side and off into the mist. The path up from Peelers Pond has been relaid towards the top. It makes progress a lot less muddy but despite signs requesting horses be kept off it there are hoof prints grinding into the surface. The sky brightens as High Vinnalls is reached. Robins still sing. The paths down through the woods are muddy and slippery. Down to the pool where Maddy is in for a swim. Ravens cronk over Hanway Common.
Sunday – Leominster – Can this really be April? A fearsome wind blows pewter clouds across the sky. Rain threatens. But it is noticeably warmer. The market is, unsurprisingly, quiet. The River Lugg is low. Back home the potatoes finally get planted. Home Guard and Nadine, a first and second early respectively. Broad beans which had sprouted in the greenhouse were planted out yesterday and peas and beetroot sown.
Monday – Croft – Sunshine and a warm wind. Primroses and Celandines. Bird song and mud. Now this is more like April. A Jay flies across the valley, squawking. They look somewhat ungainly despite their strong direct flight; more an old cargo aircraft than a sleek jet. Song Thrushes are in full voice all up the valley. The Wild Garlic leaves have doubled in size in a week. Jews Ear fungus grows through the bright emerald moss on branches of Elder. Chiffchaffs call towards the head of Fish Pool Valley. It clouds over but by the time I reach the hill-fort blue sky and warming sunshine reappear. Down from the hill through the woods. A hovering Chiffchaff seeks insects on branches of Hawthorn then pauses to sing. One forgets how tiny they are for such a powerful voice. Chaffinches and Wrens sing. Siskins twitter excited high in the conifers. Down the Spanish Chestnut field. A Green Woodpecker yaffles in the wood above Croft Park Farm. A stupid cock Ring-necked Pheasant explodes out of the undergrowth beside the path crowing loudly and making me jump! A Swallow soars high over the farm.
Tuesday – Aberystwyth – Across Wales to the western coast and the town of Aberystwyth. The number of Red Kites seen throughout mid-Wales is quite stunning. It is hard to imagine only ten years ago one had to spend some time searching out this species. Now they are bobbing and gliding on the wind, one after another along the road. We arrive in Aberystwyth. The name means
Mouth of the River Ystwyth and the town is on the confluence of the Rivers Ystwyth and Rheidol. Evidence has been found of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were present and a hill-fort stands on Dinas Maelor to the south of the town. A castle was built here in 1109 by Gilbert Fitz Richard and the town developed from that time. It was known as Ville de Lampadarn (the ancient name of the place being Llanbadarn Gaerog or the fortified Llanbadarn) but from Elizabethan times was always referred to as Aberystwyth. Our first excursion is up the cliff railway, the longest funicular in Britain. It was designed by George Croydon Marks in 1896 and used a water-balance system until 1921 when it was electrified. From the top the wind is gusting violently. Cormorants and gulls pass at sea. Ravens and Jackdaws patrol the cliff top. Aberystwyth lays in the bay below. We descend again and walk along the promenade, a mixture of hotels, university premises and halls of residence, student flats and the occasional private house. The university was founded in 1872, Wales first.
On a prominence to the south of the promenade stands the castle and War Memorial. The castle was built by Edward I a mile north of the old one. Building started in 1277 but was incomplete when the Welsh burned it in 1282. It was recaptured and building continued until 1289. The castle withstood a lengthy siege by Madog Ap Llywelyn in 1294. Owain Glyndŵr took the castle in 1404 but the English regained it in 1408. The castle was already crumbling in the early 14th century and it was finished off by Parliamentarians who slighted it in 1649. The grey ruins that remain still give the essence of the sheer power of the fortress that stood here once. A small flower bed has a display of Hyacinths, which seem a popular flower around the town. Beyond the castle is the harbour. Past the modern lifeboat house. Waves are crashing up the lighthouse and over the end of the road. Back up side streets of terraces, student houses all with curtains drawn in the early afternoon. A bridge built in 1888 crosses over the river. A real corner shop still sells basic groceries, fresh vegetables, milk and eggs etc. Past a building called the Old Bank House which in 1760 was the first bank in Aberystwyth and possibly in Wales. Nearby is Westminster House, a fine early 19th century town house belonging to the Pugh family who were involved in lead mining in Cwmystwyth. In the town centre is a clock tower built for the millennium which has a plaque which surrounded a water fountain on the original clock tower and was donated by the Revd John Williams (1826 – 1898), an ardent teetotaller. More flower beds of Hyacinths strongly scent the air. Our hotel, The Glendower, is on the promenade. It is three houses knocked into one hotel. One of the houses was the property of another John Williams who was President of the University College of Wales and founded the National Library of Wales. In the evening, rocks appear off shore as the tide retreats. Sea hits still submerged reefs far off shore and sends up spray.
Wednesday – Aberystwyth – A grey start to the morning. The wind had dropped somewhat and the sea is rolling in far less boisterously. Large boulders have been placed beneath the seawall making it difficult, more for Maddy than me to get onto the beach. The surface of the beach is small, gritty stones. Back to the promenade and up the cliffs by a winding path beside the railway. The air is scented with the coconut essence of Gorse. The path winds up the hill, crossing and re-crossing the railway by foot bridges. The wind strength builds as I climb higher. It is from the east again. Another path crosses the railway and heads downhill through Hawthorn, Blackthorn and a surprising bright yellow explosion of Forsythia and the pink and powerfully scented baubles of Flowering Blackcurrant. The path joins the original route and on down. Along Queen’s Road, Morfa Mawr, which parallels the promenade behind the hotels and the large stone built edifice of the Magistrates Court. The catholic church of Our Lady of Angels and St Winefride looks Victorian as does the presbytery beside it although the porch looks older and the whole looks a little dilapidated. It appears that local parishioners have been fighting the diocese for some time now over the closure and demolition of the church. Past a pleasant terrace where camellia, flowering blackcurrant, rosemary and quince blossom. A Victorian villa, Ediston House houses the Registry Office. Next is the old lifeboat station that operated between 1876 and 1964. The County Council Offices are a grand affair, built 1857, partially destroyed by fire in 1957 and rebuilt in 1961. Another row of terraces, this time three storey buildings with delightful porches over the front doors. We are now in the town centre and it is time to return to the hotel for breakfast.
Strata Florida – The remains of a Cistercian abbey near Tregaron in the Teifi valley. The name comes from Ystrad Fflur which means
Valley of the Flowers although the nearby river is called the Fflur. It is believed the original abbey was established in 1164 a short distance away by monks from Whitland Abbey. The present remains were that of the abbey established in 1164 under the patronage of Rhys ap Gruffudd, Prince of Deheabarth. The abbey had fifteen granges or farms scattered right across the area with large numbers of sheep and cattle and consequently became very rich and powerful. A copy of the Brut y Tywysogyon, Chronicle of the Princes, was compiled here and many of the princes of the Deheubarth dynasty are buried here. The Black Death and the revolt of Owain Glyndŵr both had a detrimental effect on the fortunes of the abbey, indeed it was plundered by the English under Prince Henry, who would become Henry V, in 1401 and served as a base for the Earl of Worcester in campaigns against the Welsh. It was dissolved in 1539. Now the great arch of the west front is the most dominant feature although the plan of the church can be still discerned. There were three chapels in each of the north and south transepts and the altars and some tile pavements remain in the south one. There is a large plan of the abbey near the west front in the cloister, but it is closed as an apple tree with a rotten core is threatening to fall. Nearby is the church of St Mary, built in 1815 to replace an older church. The graveyard is extensive with rows of modern, shiny black gravestones near the gate and older graves further back. Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-1380), generally regarded as the greatest Welsh poet of all time is buried here under a Yew. Also interred here is the left leg of Henry Hughes Cooper. It was removed by a surgeon in 1756 and rather than being burned, Cooper buried it. He then emigrated to the New World and the rest of him is buried there. However, with the weather is deteriorating so we do not find the grave. Around the back of the abbey and graveyard are seven graves of the Deheubarth Princes. In all, eleven princes from Cadell who died in 1175 to Owain who died a century later are buried in the abbey along with Matilda de Braose, daughter of Maud de Braose of Hay, who was married to