Ramblings

August 1999


Sunday 1st August – Edderthorpe – The flash is receding in the dryness of summer. Large areas of mud are drying out. A young Shelduck stands, looking lost, in the centre of one expanse. A few Little Ringed Plovers chase across from pool to pool. A Lapwing harasses a feeding Ruff. The only other wader is a single Dunlin.

Anglers Country Park – Here too the water in the Pol has retreated. The slight drizzle will do little to reverse that. On the lake, a few Coot suddenly take flight. A lone Great Crested Grebe dives. A family of Mute Swans sleep on the grass. A pair of Arctic Terns dive and feed noisily.

Wakefield – The old road bridge across the Calder is quiet, the traffic now crosses a few metres away on a modern concrete structure. The stone bridge was built soon after 1342. On the bridge is the Chantry Chapel of St Mary, built between 1342 and 1356. It is a small, richly carved building of pale sandstone, darkened by the years of smoke. Saints, Paulinus, Oswald, James and Botolph stand in niches in little towers. A frieze tells the story of Mary. New stone-carved heads flank the windows looking out over the river. On the north side the original carvings remain, almost eroded away. Below Mallard preen as they awake. A Grey Wagtail flies away calling loudly. A path leads over a stone footbridge, although there is mown grass underneath and no sign of any watercourse. The path continues up the Calder. A pair of Kingfishers are chasing around a Willow, calling loudly. They seem to be upset with a family of Blackbirds although this is some way from the river. Here, at Fall Ings Lock, the Calder and Hebble Navigation enters the Aire and Calder Navigation. The Calder and Hebble was built westwards from here. The Wakefield Navigation Yard opened in 1704 but weirs placed across the River Calder by mill owners to drive their waterwheels prevented any progress. After nearly 20 years of wrangling, an Act of Parliament was passed and the section of river from Wakefield to Sowerby Bridge became navigable in 1770. New canals followed, Huddersfield in 1776, Rochdale and Manchester in 1804, Ashton-under-Lyne in 1811 and Halifax in 1828. Wakefield became a busy inland port. The last regular commercial freight, coal, ceased in 1981. Boat building along the river and at Fall Ings Cut had been carried out for many years. From 1825 to 1856 William Craven had a boatyard between Bridge Street and Doncaster Road. In 1855 he launched the Ann Turgoose, a twin masted schooner and the largest boat to have been built in Wakefield. Carrying Bradford-made cannonballs for the army in the Crimea, she headed out to Goole. The water level at Fall Ings Cut had to be dropped by two feet to get her under Doncaster road, and she was towed, rudderless otherwise she was too big for the locks, to Goole.

Tuesday 3rd August – Barnsley Canal – Overnight rains have freshened the environs of the canal. It has also brought out the froglets again onto the path. A Willow Warbler sings but without the vibrancy and gusto of his Spring song. There is an explosion of birds around the canal bridge – Bullfinches, Chaffinches Goldfinches, Chiffchaff, Robin, Blue and Long-tailed Tits. There are also numerous flies. I have not been able to locate the Mute Swan family in the last few days. There seem few places on the canal that could conceal such a large bird. Maybe, they have walked down the hillside to the loop and then onto the river. The humidity is intense, the rain has done little to reduce the temperature.

Thursday 5th August – Flamborough – After days of sunshine and heat Jo and I arrive at a fog bound Flamborough Head. A cold, damp wind comes from the North. The fog horn lets rip two deafening blasts every few minutes. Below the cliffs Kittiwakes and Fulmars circle and ride the wind. Further out to sea Gannets and Guillemots head north. A Puffin sits at the entrance of a burrow on what was a peninsula, a great mound of soil-topped chalk now broken away from the mainland. Below a natural arch is steadily being eroded away. Another passage fills with surging sea. A Herring Gull throws back its head and yelps to the wind. A youngster joins in begging for food, but none is forthcoming. A Kestrel lands on the slope below us. Dill the Dog has been rolling in wet grass almost continuously and is now gloriously wet and smelly!

Bempton – The towering condominium for sea birds is now emptying. Many Kittiwakes remain and several dozen Gannets cling to the sheer cliff, but only a few Guillemot and no Razorbills are here now.

Filey – We head out to the Brigg, a large peninsula sticking out into the North Sea. In the lea of the Brigg, Gannets are plunging into the sea after fish. Grey Seals swim, one lying on its back before gently diving backwards into the depths. On the cliff top Sand Martins flash by. Skylarks sing little snatches of song as they fly about the rough grass. We descend the steps to slippery rocks below. Dill the Dog, who is now thoroughly soaked, makes a great fuss about the waves and takes a lot of persuading to join us. Great tilted slabs of rock continue out from the end of the Brigg. In a pool in the rock a Purple Sandpiper is bathing and allows us superb views. Common Gulls fly off and good numbers of Common and Sandwich Terns fly about or rest. A raft of Eiders is just off the end of the rocks. Large numbers of Turnstones still with their chestnut summer plumage feed. There are also a few Knot, again with remnants of their red summer breasts. Back on the cliff top we find a female Whinchat.

Forge Valley – Heading back into the North York Moors we decide to head off up Forge Valley. It is a beautiful wooded valley, carved by a really quite small stream. We try to check out white butterflies across the stream but they move away too fast for us to focus on them. We find a bird feeding station by the road, the tables of which have just been filled. The numbers of birds is wonderful, just in front of the car – Coal, Blue, Great and Marsh Tit, a Great Spotted Woodpecker which takes away nuts, rams them into a crack in a tree branch and pecks away at it, a pair of Nuthatches, a Jay which comes in, eats two or three nuts and then takes another away, Chaffinches and juvenile Robins with speckled heads. A Grey Squirrel also sits on a table feeding, which drives Dill the Dog into a frenzy of twitching and panting.

Langdale – A strange conical hill dominated the valley as we head up Langdale into the Dalby Forest. We have a look at a little stream. Whilst I am still at the car, Jo decides to walk out onto the shingle banks in the stream. That is good enough for Dill the Dog who is immediately in the water – as if she was not already wet enough.

Saturday 7th August – Fairburn Ings RSPB Reserve – Jo left her handbag in the car on Thursday, so delivering it back gives a good excuse for another day’s birding. Again, it is cool and showery. We head for the West End flashes where various goodies have been seen. Almost the first bird is a splendid male Bullfinch. On the flashes are Snipe, Little Ringed Plover, Pied Wagtails, Mallard, Shoveler, Dunlin, Teal, Kingfisher, Gadwall, Ruddy Duck, Tufted Duck, Mute Swan, Coot, Moorhen, Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Pheasant and Cormorant. However, my targets, three juvenile Marsh Sandpipers have not been seen since the day before. We then head across to flashes besides Higson’s Chemical Works. Here there are Common, Arctic and our target a juvenile White-winged Black Tern. The latter is found by Jo hawking the back of a flash before landing on a dead tree stump in the water. On the way back Dill the Dog is looking intently an area of grass and from it comes the most awful shrieking. I order her away and we find a baby Hare. We then check the roadside flashes and eventually find an eclipsed Garganey. There are also Pochard with young here, which was unexpected. At the visitors centre a Blackcap chinks like two pebbles hit together as it searches an Elder. There are few flowers around, but we find Meadow Cranesbill and Common Mallow. Wild Arum have fruited with stalks of orange berries. The Blackberry crops will be plentiful this year as the brambles are loaded with ripening fruit.

Sunday 8th August – Wombwell Ings – Over four hundred Mallard are feeding on the harvested field between the Ings and Broomhill. Distant honking gets louder and skeins of Canada Geese fly in from the Wath direction. Eventually, over two hundred and seventy geese land in the field and start feeding with the Mallard. Five Greylags are with the Canada Geese. Greenshank and Green Sandpiper feed on the Ings. A pair of Mute Swans with four cygnets feed on the mud, their breasts filthy with the slimy ooze. A Mallard has a late brood of tiny ducklings. Two Snipe blend in with the mud. Teal are bathing. A Water Vole swims across the transfer ditch. Spiky balls are developing on the Branched Bur-rush. House Martins and Swallows drift over.

Broomhill Flash – By the time I have arrived at the flash many of the Mallard from the field have flown over onto the water. There are noisy Common Terns with a juvenile demanding food. Three Common Sandpipers search the mud.

Wednesday 11th August – Blacktoft Sands – A peaceful evening after the excitement of the eclipse of the sun this morning. A Snipe and a couple of Greenshank search the mud of the first pool. Reed Warblers chink from the beds, emerging briefly to flit between stands of reeds. Goldfinches twitter as they pass the hide and a Grey Heron grunts sharply. A young Moorhen rushes up and down the mud flapping its wings furiously but fails to become airborne. The next pool is far more heavily populated with Ruff, Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Lapwings, Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper. A beautifully marked Marsh Harrier sits on a bush at the back of the lagoon and watches. A Sparrowhawk flashes by. A Sedge Warbler grates monotonously. Bearded Tit appears briefly. An arrow of Golden Plover flies overhead. The final lagoon is mainly duck – Mallard, Teal and a few Gadwall. Noisy Redshank pipe and a Marsh Harrier drifts across the reed bed.

Sunday 15th August – South Downs – A walk starting from the Youth Hostel at Eastbourne takes us up onto the Downs by Eastbourne Golf Course. Wild Raspberry canes and Honeysuckle grow in the woods beside the rising path. A Speckled Wood butterfly rests on a White Bryony leaf, sunning itself. A path then descends to East Dean. A pair of young Stonechats sit on a wire fence. Young Starlings perch on sheep’s backs. A few House Martins chase around the village’s outlaying houses. The path leads through a field of sheep of varying breeds. After lunch at the busy pub, The Tiger, on the village green, we head up the hill to Friston, now little more than a church and a pond. The church has a tapsell gate, pivoted in the middle so that coffins can be easily passed through. Yellow, white and pink water lilies adorn the little pond. Small fry flash through the shadows. The path now drops down through Jevington Woods and then back up to the gallops on Jevington Hill. The grasses are alive with butterflies – Meadow Browns, an unidentified Fritillary, Common Blues and tiny butterfly, probably a Copper. Rooks harry a Kestrel across the valley. Then on down into Jevington and tea. From the village, the path leads back up onto the Down. A marker stone shows the way – it looks old but is a recent addition, being a block of stone from a recently demolished bank from Eastbourne with directions carved into the faces. From the top of the Down the views are magnificent, the great curve of the Sussex coast line and the Weald in the other direction.

Monday 16th August – Henfield – A mixed wood runs alongside the football pitches on the edge of the village. The wood contains new growth as well as old Oaks and, sadly, dead Elms, killed by the Dutch disease. On the whitened branches of one of these Elms, high above the younger trees below, sit a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers. A Nuthatch lands on an adjacent prong and starts searching for insects.

Wednesday 18th August – Falmer – The bridleway leads to the Downs. A female Blackcap – a brown cap – watches from an Elder laden with fruit rapidly ripening into purple. A fenced off field of goats contains a fine, but unobtainable crop of Field Mushrooms. The wind howls through the woods as heavy rain clouds slide across the sky dropping their aqueous loads in showers. The woodland floor is brightened by gleaming orange Wild Arum berries. Across the valley, Rooks stand in the parallel stripes of wheat straw. A Kestrel flies purposefully across the valley and then starts soaring whilst it checks the land below.

Thursday 19th August – Pagham – The sun shines but towering cumulus clouds threaten rain. There is a threat of Adders in the long grass, so Dill the Dog is kept under closer control than usual. On Fiddle Ferry pond, Black-tailed Godwits sift the mud. Ringed Plovers, Dunlin, Teal and young Shelduck also feed. Lots of rabbits run about at the back of the pond.

Friday 20th August – Somerset –Nunney – Recent rains have swollen the brook. Water rushes out from the mill pond, roaring down into the brook. A Dipper whirrs away up stream. A leucistic Blue Tit (pale yellow all over, with just the faintest shadow of markings on the head) visits the fat ball in the garden.

Weymouth – A train journey takes us from Frome to Weymouth. The diesel engine and carriages are veterans, if not antiques! Young Jemima is enthralled as we plunge into blackness in tunnels – no lighting! At Radipole Lake, a young Little Grebe squeaks loudly at its parent, demanding food. A pair of Carrion Crows sit atop an Elder, watching silently. Despite their huge, vicious looking bills, they delicately pick off ripe Elderberries. Below a Cetti’s Warbler explodes into a brief song. A Chiffchaff and Blue Tits search bushes for insects. House and Sand Martins swoop over the pools. Several Common Darters with bright red bodies rest on the path. A Reed Warbler slips away silently into the reeds. A Painted Lady suns itself on a bramble and a Red Admiral feeds on Buddleia. Blue/black striped dragonflies are most numerous. A pair joined in mating flies past. A Willow Warbler bounces through the trees, its head cocked and jerking side to side, seeking food. Flowers include Purple Loosestrife, Great Willowherb, White and Purple Bellflowers, Hedgerow Cranesbill, Common Fleabane and Mints. A copse of trees quivers as a flock of Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Blackcaps and Willow Warblers move through. A herd of cows has wandered across the marsh and disturbed all the wildfowl. Teal, Gadwall and Mallard slowly return. A Mink dashes across the path – not good news for ground breeding birds. The train back is a modern diesel two-carriage unit – nowhere near as exciting as the trip down! Several Common Buzzards are seen in passing fields. From the station at Bruton a roofless four gabled, two storied tower stands on a hill. It is a columbarium (a dovecote) and is all that remains of an Abbey near this hill.

Sunday 22nd August – White Sheet – The views from this hill are magnificent. To the west Alfred’s Tower rises from a long line of old woods. Long Knoll and Little Knoll are hummocks close to the Down. More Downs lay to the east, Mere Down, Charnage Down, Keysley Down and off towards Wiltshire. To the South, the valley and plains of the River Stour and its tributaries. White Sheet is rippled with Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age fortifications. Barrows sit on the summit awaiting yet another millennium. On some of the south-westerly banks, we find several pounds of Red-stalked Boletus, a fungus claimed by some sources to be inedible, but made a fine breakfast. Field and Devilsbit Scabious, Carline Thistle and Meadow Vetchling flower in the rough grasses.

Tedbury – We head into the cool of the woods; mainly young growth, Birches, Beeches, Oak, Ash and Alder. Wide heads of Wood Spurge grow above the blanket of Dog Mercury. In damper parts Hart’s Tongue ferns grow in profusion. An iridescent Greenbottle fly rests on a leaf. A Beefsteak Fungus grows from the base of a dead trunk. The rest of the tree is living, just this trunk has died. The fungus has a slimy red top, pink coloured flesh and pale tubes below. A rusted tipper wagon body lies in the ferns. Just over from the path the wood ends in a sheer drop to the railway below. Above the fossilised seabed we find boletus fungi in the Birch scrub. A Green Woodpecker calls. We pick a basket of early Blackberries on the way back to go with some windfall apples in a crumble.

Monday 23rd August – Bath – We head for Gloucester via Bath. The beautiful city of Bath is choked with us tourists. A wander around the cathedral fails to have much of a spiritual feeling because of the crowds and flashes of cameras. However, one cannot fail to be awed-struck by the great window. The New Testament is displayed in dozens of stained glass panels. Likewise, the Circus and Royal Crescent equally are inspiring. Warm brown stone in harmonious sweeps of Georgian apartments.

Gloucester – The centre of the city of Gloucester is a charmless grid of modern concrete. The occasional older building remains to hint at the past. Even what is claimed as the oldest pub in Gloucester, The Fountain, in a courtyard behind the chainstores, looks like a 1930s council house. However, the delicate tower tops of the cathedral peep over the concrete and hold promise.

Tuesday 24th August – Ross-on-Wye – Incessant rain makes even this delightful town seem gloomy. The church has six piscinae (stone sinks in which to wash the vessels used for the sacrament). As there is one piscinae per altar, this means an extraordinary number of altars for a church of this size. Next to the main altar is a plaque commemorating John Kyrle – The Man of Ross. His charity brought him fame and friends among the good and famous, including the Pope. Coleridge wrote a poem in his honour. When he died the stems of two of his favourite tree, the Elm, grew up inside the north aisle. These were removed a few years ago because of the damage their roots were causing. On the south side the tombs of the Rudhall family include a life-size statue of Royalist General Rudhall depicted as a Roman.

Monmouth – A busy market town with a delightful bridge over the River Wye called the Monnow Gate. Monnow Street leads up to Agincourt Square, for Henry V was a townsman. Half way up Monnow Street the local Archaeological Society is excavating in a lot due for demolition. There is a mediaeval well and cess pit, Roman road, and much evidence of continuous occupation throughout the last two millennia.

Symonds Yat Rock – And the rain keeps falling. A Peregrine is in the nest site high on a cliff. A female Blackcap feeds in ivy. The view from the rock is astounding. Hundreds of feet below the Wye loops through the hills. Clouds drifting across woods opposite. A raptor flies by at speed. Kay reckons she saw some red on it, possibly a Hobby?

Wednesday 25th August – Gloucester – With a guidebook, the city reveals itself. Many historic buildings are hidden behind 20th century facades. The docks have been restored well, albeit with a touristy commercialism. The Cathedral has many great stories, the Tomb of Henry II and that of Robert, Duke of Normandy and smaller tales, such as the piece of masonry called The Prentice Bracket carved in the form of a mason’s square and may commemorate an apprentice killed by falling from the vault. Beside the main building is the Great Cloister, a square passage around a garden with the most enchanting fan-vaulting, resembling trees arching over and meeting. A lavatorium is in the north-west corner where the monks washed.

Yet again we headed for the Forest of Dean, and again then heavens opened and it rained continuously. That evening we were having a meal in a restaurant only a few hundred metres from the hotel. Thunder and lightning started so we finished off quickly. Dill the Dog was in the car in the hotel car park and is terrified of thunderstorms. We had gone only a few metres when there was the most amazing downpour. Side streets turned into streams and we were absolutely soaked to the skin by the time we rescued a shaking dog – who also got revoltingly wet in the few steps from the car park to the hotel.

Thursday 26th August – Cotswolds – Crickley Hill – The Cotswolds lay to the south of Gloucester and rise sharply. The view from the top is stunning – across miles to the Black Mountains and the Malverns. Gloucester Cathedral rises in the middle distance. The view covers a range of millions of years, Pre-Cambrian Metamorphic rocks of The Malverns to the Jurassic Limestone of Crickley Hill. The limestone is made up of pea-like nodules, called pea-grit. It is crumbly and useless as a building stone. An Iron Age village topped the hill and a defensive wall of stone and wooden beams surrounded it. Viper’s Bugloss grows on the thin soil.

Barrow Wake Hill – The opposite side of the pass through the Cotswolds that carries the A417. This road was only the third road in the country to be turnpiked, by Act of Parliament in 1698. In the early 18th century, the coach journey from Gloucester to London could take up to three days in the winter months. Again the view is magnificent, but rain is approaching from the west. Several circular hills are on the plain below, Chosen Hill, Robinswood Hill and Cooper’s Hill, which rises into the Cotswold heights.

Cirencester – A busy market town with Roman origins (Corinium). It retains the buildings and the charm that too many towns have lost. The church is a first class example of the Parish Church. It holds much interest. At the eastern end of the north aisle is painted the Stuart coat of arms. When the Hanoverians deposed James II, all copies of his coat of arms were ordered to be destroyed. For some reason, here the Hanoverian arms were painted onto canvas and nailed over the old arms and only discovered many years later. A silver gilt cup is displayed. It is called the Boleyn Cup as it has her personal crest on the top. Made by an unknown silversmith in 1535 for Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII and the mother of the future Queen Elizabeth I. Anne Boleyn was executed a year after the cup was made. High in the roof of the Lady Chapel, a cat and mouse are carved into the wooden vaulting. Beside the pulpit is an hour glass, used to time sermons – the pious gentry were not keen on long-winded oratory from the preacher.

Friday 27th August – East Sussex Downs – Kingston – A path climbs relentlessly up from the village into the Downs. Steep valleys are cut into the hillsides as we walk up one of the intervening spurs. Rooks caw both from the fields far below and from the ridge of the Down above. A pair of Blackcaps call like knocking pebbles from an Elder loaded with ripe purple-black berries. The Ouse valley stretches out below with Lewes to one side and the river cutting south. Across from this point the prominent humps of Mount Caburn and Firle Beacon, both only moderate hills, face one another. We summit the Down and join the South Downs Way. There are a few Fairy Ring Champignons, which we gather. To the south, valleys roll gently away, interlinking with each other, towards the sea. We rest amid a line of hummocks, round barrows. The chalk path down the hill is littered with large flints. It is these flints that were one of the attractions to this area for Palaeolithic man. A path leads round the side of the Down. The steep sides are full of Devil’s Bit and Field Scabious, visited by Meadow Browns, Common Blues, Silver-studded Blue and Small White Butterflies. A few Stemless Thistles flower.

Brighton – Outside Kay’s house a puddle has formed in the gutter where the channel has been disturbed by a roadside tree’s roots. A dozen Starlings or more are bathing and flying around excitedly.

Saturday 28th August – South Downs – A road leads up from the village of Firle to the Downs above. From the summit, the hillside drops steeply northwards to The Weald and gently rolls southwards to the sea. I head south towards Black Cap Farm. The backs of sheep glisten with dew. A Whinchat sits on a fence, sallying out after insects. To the east are three barrows called Lord’s Burghs. At the farm, Swallows chatter excitedly from telephone wires. I retrace my steps awhile then cross the down to Beddingham Hill, surmounted by two tall television transmitters. Rooks caw noisily on a ploughed field of flinty soil. A flock of Starling whirls around. The white, flashing rump of a Wheatear precedes me up the track. From Beddingham Hill The Weald can be seen again. The Ashdown Forest rises to the north but all the land in between is hidden under an intense layer of mist. Two hot-air balloons float along above the mist. Mount Caburn looks like a minor hummock from here, its top rippled with Iron Age earthworks and a great, abandoned quarry scarring its slope. A little further west is a small scrubland of Hawthorn, Bramble and Gorse. There are numerous birds here, Whinchats, Yellowhammers, Wheatears, Blackcaps and Whitethroats. A flock of Linnets rises from the long grass. A big female Sparrowhawk flies strongly across the summit and off over the fields. Back on the open Downland and Meadow Pipits squeak as the fly around, resting briefly on the fencing beside the track. The lake at Piddinghoe (pronounced, Pid’no) lays below to the south-west. The rippling spurs and coombs of the Downland above Kingston we walked yesterday lays westward. Itford Hill is reached. Three Wheatears stand on the triangulation pillar. This was the site of an Iron Age village. I pick a fine crop of Horse Mushrooms. Below is an unsightly quarry, a huge flat, white scar at the base of the Down. From here, I retrace my steps eastwards towards Firle Beacon. I see my first Skylark of the walk – worrying considering these Downs are synonymous with the sight and sound of this bird.

Sunday 29th August – The South Downs – I return to Firle. The Weald below is a sea of mist obscuring all features. Up here the sun beams down warmly. It takes some searching to find a small rise and depression in the ground that is a barrow called Males Burgh. A single Golden Plover flies high overhead calling plaintively. Dill the Dog rouses an annoyed cock Pheasant. In the gorse and Hawthorn scrub there are Spotted Flycatcher, Corn Bunting, Blackcap, Whitethroat, Blue Tit, Dunnock, Yellowhammer and Whinchat. Suddenly everything goes quiet and there is not a bird to be seen. It is several minutes before the reason becomes apparent – a small raptor flashes out of a Hawthorn, in which it has insinuated itself, and disappears down the hill. I backtrack and then head east towards Firle Beacon itself. A sunken old trackway leads up from Firle Plantation into a plethora of barrows. Along the down top I gather Horse Mushrooms, some growing on the sides of barrows. The barrows are often misshapen from the ravages of Victorian archaeologists, who were more interested in finds rather than conserving the integrity of the site. Unfortunately, there is also evidence of more recent vandalism by treasure hunters. Near to the Beacon is a much rarer long barrow. Below is a round crenulated tower – a folly I should guess, but now it looks like a rather splendid habitation. Firle Beacon is the local high-spot at 217 metres. Beside the earthworks on the Beacon, there is a single flower of a species I had given up hope of finding - the now very rare Round-headed Rampion. Much commoner are the dandelion-like heads of Smooth Hawksbeard which speckle the Down with yellow. Little Grasshoppers spring across the short, sheep nibbled sward. Yellow Wagtails peep as they sit on the fence, jumping down to take insects disturbed by the grazing sheep. A Water Boatman in an animal-watering trough eats an insect.