Saturday – Gateshead – Down from Queen Victoria Street on a small terraced row. The road is horribly slippery, it has rained and frozen. Across an area of grass where ponies have trampled circles and on down woods of trees less than twenty years old. At the bottom of the hill is the Tyne. Old docks line the river here. Upstream towards a large white factory. A green navigation light flashes slowly from a tower in mid-stream. Mallard quack and noisy gulls pass over constantly. The path leaves the river just before the factory and head uphill past stables made of mismatched panels and planks surrounded by corrugated fences. On uphill past carriers distribution centres, scrap yards, manufacturers etc. Up Stoneygate Lane and over the railway. A coal train drawn by a somewhat psychedelically painted locomotive trundles through. A Metro train passes in the opposite direction.
Tynemouth – We take the Metro to South Shields. The shopping centre is busy, last pay-day before Christmas for many. A large open market spreads around old Town Hall built by the Dean and Chapter of Durham around 1767 as a place for holding their Manorial Courts and providing offices for their officials. On down to Tyne. A large ferry of the DFDS line is on far side. We wait for the ferry. The Pride of the Tyne draws in and docks by simply using impellers to keep the boat in to the dock. The gang plank lowers and we board. It is bitterly cold with a sharp wind off North Sea. Either side of the river is a mixture of converted old dock buildings and new apartment blocks. The banks of the river are quiet, a very different scene from the old days when the docks would be bustling with many ships of all types coming and going. Ferries operated here from at least the 14th century but this is the last remaining service. Beyond the north dock stands a magnificent building, Collingwood Mansions. Part of it was a sailors’ home. Another part of the building was a pub, The Northumberland Arms, known as The Jungle because of the stuffed animals on the walls. It had a fearsome reputation as a place were sailors would frequent looking for entertainment. It was closed in 1989. We head east to the Wooden Dolly. In 1814 the female figurehead of a collier was placed outside the entrance to the Custom House Quay and sailors used to cut a piece off to bring good luck on voyages. The dolly was soon beyond repair and was replaced and the same happened again. The present dolly is the sixth. Next door is The Prince of Wales pub where we partake of a pint.
On to North Shields Fish Quay. Eiders and gulls bob in the water. A Scottish trawler chugs into port. A tall white building stands on the hillside – The High Light. A row of fishmongers and a splendid general stores with numerous amusing asides written on the windows leads round to the walk out to Tynemouth. High on the hill above the mouth of the river stand the Sir James Knott Memorial Flats. Building started in the 1930s and by 1938 they were nearing completion. It is believed they were the first flats built with special features to help tenants withstand air raids, with the threat of war looming. Two of the special features were the use of fire resistant materials throughout, unusual for those days, and the huge cellars designed as air raid shelters. In the event they were never bombed but some say they provided Nazi bombers with a fine landmark to direct them to the Tyne docks. Now they have a mid-twentieth century Soviet look about them. Oystercatchers, Redshank and Purple Sandpipers scurry about the rocks below the promenade. Gulls cover a rocky island, Black Middens. In 1864, the Middens claimed 5 ships in 3 days with many deaths, although the wrecks were only a few yards from the shore. A fishing boat enter the river followed by a huge flock of gulls. The Collingwood statue stands on the headland overlooking the twin arms of the mouth of the River Tyne. The statue was sculpted by John Graham Lough in 1845. Cuthbert Collingwood was born in Newcastle in 1748 and went to sea, rising through the ranks to become Nelson’s second-in-command. He took command of the British fleet at Trafalgar after Nelson’s death.
We head on into Tynemouth. Large tankers lay at anchor off shore. Past the castle and priory on Pen Bal Crag and into the wide main street. Into the Turk’s Head pub, also known as The Stuffed Dog owing to the presence of said stuffed dog, Wondering Willie. (There seems to be a difference between various sources of this story as to the spelling of Wondering, some use an a.) The story goes that in 1873 Willie and his master, a Cheviots’ shepherd, were driving sheep through North Shields when the flock scattered. Willie and the shepherd got separated and Willie lost his master. He went back to the quay and remained their waiting for his master’s return. He would not let anyone near him and survived on scraps. Eventually, near death, someone took him on the ferry to throw him overboard, apparently to put him out of his misery! Willie swam ashore and rode back and forth on the ferry looking for the shepherd, who apparently returned a year later but missed the dog by a few minutes. Willie died in 1880 and the brewers that owned the Turk’s Head had him stuffed and placed in the pub where he is today. There is a large food fair in the main street and an even larger antiques, bric-a-brac and general stuff market in the old railway station concourse.
Sunday – Gateshead – Back down the hillside to the River Tyne. It is drier today and only the puddles are frozen. Off downstream towards Bill Quay. On the opposite bank is a large cable manufacturers and a cable-laying ship. The cranes are all painted bright yellow and the ship orange and yellow. Up into the streets of terraced houses of Bill Quay. The village provided housing for workers at numerous industries including ship building on the Tyne, the last being Harrison’s which closed only a few years back. The Co-op had a large string on factories down the Shields Road. However, now new apartments make the place a dormitory for city workers. Goldfinches, Blue Tits and House Sparrows fly onto the terrace roofs. The Wesleyan School and Lecture Hall is still a Methodist church. The King George V Gardens have the royal arms on the gateposts. The shops on the corner of the main road are now specialist, not the old butchers and grocers. The Shields Road leads back to Pelaw and breakfast.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – Mid afternoon and clouds whip over from the north. A Green Woodpecker yaffles in the tall willows along the track. Rose hips and Old Man’s Beard still form a magnificent display in the hedgerows. A flock of Siskin feed at the top of an Alder. A few Coot bob around on the lake, which has fallen back to a more normal level. Canada Geese are yelping in the distance. Blackbirds and Redwings are finishing off the few remaining apples in the orchards. A Fieldfare chatters and flies off displaying its steel grey head and rump with russet wings. Off then to the chicken farm on Dinmore Hill to pick up another couple of hens. Although slightly more expensive, I get a pair of black-tailed Warrens, dark brown with gold-flecked manes – beautiful birds.
Friday – Hergest Ridge – A cold, clear morning with a strong wind. The sun and moon are in the sky. Beneath is ice. A smattering of snow remains on the grass. However, the Black Mountains and Radnor Forest are white, although the snow-cover is thin and patchy. A Fieldfare calls. Carrion Crows glide effortlessly downwind. By the time I reach the relative shelter of the Araucarias I have had enough of the vicious gale blowing across the ridge. Herefordshire is misty, the distant hills grey. A trio of Golden Plovers arrow across the hill using the force of the wind.
Monday – Leominster – The sky is clear and dark with a thin crescent moon shining on a grey disc. Last night the Milky Way was visible, only just as the light pollution obscures so much. This morning a tiny point of light is just above the southern horizon, I think this is Mercury.
Mortimer Forest – It is now a bright and sunny morning. Up through the trees to Climbing Jack Common. Very little noise, an occasional Jay squawks, Blue Tit squeaks and, in the distance, a Common Buzzard mews. The wind strengthens as High Vinnalls approaches. To the south the hills and river plains are hazy but to the north the Shropshire hills roll on. Down to the Deer Park. Willow Tits call nasally near the ponds which, unsurprisingly are full of of water.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – Winter sets in with ice and fog. The temperature is down to -3°C. Puffed up Chaffinches frequent the car park. Wraiths of mist drift across the lake where ghostly white Mute Swans feed on the far side. A small Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) bush is beside the lake. Its white berries are seldom eaten by birds, although apparently Common Pheasants will eat them in hard winters. Its leaves are eaten by the larvae of Death’s-Head Hawk-moths. The shrub was introduced from North America in 1817. Potholes in the track have been filled and a number of trees felled in the bird hide coppice, shredded and the chippings strewn on the path. Visibility from the hide is poor. A lone Cormorant stands on the pontoon. A Moorhen emerges from the reeds, which have emerged from the recent flooding unscathed but the plants and grasses at the foot of the bank are a black mess. Canada Geese arrive in a crescendo of yelping and leave shortly after with a similar cacophony. A pair of Tufted Duck fly across the water and another Cormorant splashes down. A couple of Fieldfares call from the cider apple orchard. No Redwings are to be seen; they will have moved on as not a single haw is left on the Hawthorns. A Robin watches from an apple bough.
Friday – Leominster – It comes as no great surprise that the night of the peak activity of the Geminid meteorite shower the sky is completely overcast. It has rained a little overnight but the ground remained sub-zero so there are some treacherous patches of ice. I find one, the steps leading down onto the Grange. I am straight onto my back and slide down the ice. Maddy’s ball has come out of the twanger I use to hurl it for her. I ask her to find it but she seems disinterested. After a futile search I head off across the grass. The vexatious hound then deposits the ball in front of me for throwing – clearly having had it the whole time! The path through the Millennium Park is covered in ice patches so keeping to the grass is the safest option. By breakfast time my neck and upper back are beginning to tighten. At eight o’clock it is still very gloomy outside but the chickens will need checking. It is much milder and raining. One of the new hens persists in laying its eggs whilst on the perch at night. The egg often has a crack on the base and this morning is completely broken. Later on I discover that both the new hens and the middle one have laid in the nest, their eggs are uniformly small and dark brown, so it must be old Gin and Tonic that has laid the broken egg. This is not unusual as she tends to lay very thin shelled eggs these days.
Tuesday – Bodenham Lake – A cool morning with a blazing sun low in the south-eastern sky. Maddy’s early morning walk was under a sparkling display of stars and satellites. What little cloud there was then has now cleared away. A small flock of Wigeon whistle as they circle one another on the lake. Blackbirds, Great Tits, Robins and a Bullfinch flit about on the edge of the meadow. A Jay slips away silently. A strikingly black and white drake Goldeneye splashes down extravagantly on the far side of the water. A few Mallard swim about in an apparently random manner although one drake follows another closely imitating every movement it makes. Three Cormorant fly off leaving one alone on the pontoon. Although the water level is lower than a few weeks back, it is still high enough foe the edge of the island to be submerged. The tall Alders rise out of the water on the edge and behind them Canada Geese stand in the normally dry area making only occasional yelps. The relative peace is broken when a small skein of Canada Geese descends to land on the water. Carrion Crows and Common Pheasants call from West Field Woods. A Great Spotted Woodpecker chips briefly.
Friday – Leominster – The rain finally stopped last night during the Carols By Candlelight at the Minster. The ground is utterly saturated; any step onto the grass results in an upwelling of muddy water. Down to the iron footbridge at the bottom of The Priory. The Kenwater rushes past at a furious pace and is as high as I have seen it. The sky still contains some clouds but bright stars are shining in large areas. Lights on a passenger aeroplane flash as it heads west towards the Atlantic. It is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. It is also, apparently, the end of the latest cycle of a Mayan calendar and according to some, the end of time, the world and all things. Nevermind, because we are still here. By breakfast the rising sun has painted the grey clouds pink.
Croft – The Richard’s Castle road is flooded at Eyecote. A Common Buzzard passes over with a flap, flap and glide flight. Down the Fish Pool Valley where water rushes noisily down channels between the full pools. Apart from the white noise of rushing water, barely a sound is heard. At the end of the valley, water rushes down from both paths and from the hillsides. From the valley between Lyngham Vallet and Bircher Common come the cheeps and squeaks of tits and a Raven barks up on the hillside. It is a mild 9°C though cooling as the path rises. A tiny Goldcrest energetically searches a moss covered Silver Birch. Pieces of lichen lay on the ground, washed off by the incessant rain. Nuthatches and Robins move from tree to tree at Whiteway Head. Progress along the top of Leinthall Common is slow as the thick, clinging clay mud tries to suck the boots off my feet and pull my stick from my hand. I now sit on the Ash bough atop Croft Ambrey, utterly exhausted. The slipping and sliding of my feet has stressed my muscles which together with the requirement to kick the ball every few yards has reduced my legs to jelly. There is some flooding below, more extensive beyond Wigmore. A Common Buzzard mews. Far below a chain saw buzzes. There is even some patches of sunshine on the Shropshire and Radnor Hills. Back down towards Croft Farm. Maddy seems to know now that a quick swim in the pond to wash off the mud is required and is in without me having to throw an enticing stick.
Sunday – Leominster – It has stopped raining after continuous wetness yesterday. Robins are singing pure and clear in the darkness. Clouds are still obscuring the sky although a few stars show through. After breakfast its off to the market. Over a very high and fast flowing River Lugg. The meadows are very wet, standing water which I have not seen before. Fortunately, it does not come over my shoes. The market is a bit of a miserable affair. I always think the last market before Christmas should be a chance for traders to provide people with last minute purchases but it does not seem to work that way. Yesterday the Farmers’ Market was about half its normal size and today the Boot Sale is almost empty. The Lugg is rushing under the Ridgemoor Bridge at a fair lick. A few sprigs of Snowberry reach out above the swirling brown water. Trees rise out the river. In town, the Greengrocer and a couple of butchers shops have opened but again, many traders do not bother to take advantage of an extra day’s trade. I pick up the turkey and get some extra fruit. Mid-afternoon and a Robin continues to sing in next-door’s garden. A flight of excitedly twittering Goldfinches flies over and lands in the Ash tree.
Thursday – Home – The days of excess eating and drinking have passed, the visitors returned home and for a brief period it has stopped raining. A raucous chacking comes from the back of the house. A pair of Jackdaws are fighting, being watched by a good number of others. One is upside-down, hanging from the guttering whilst the other pecks at it. They fly off at my approach, the dangling one taking a few moments to gets itself orientated and upright.
Leominster – Unsurprisingly, the River Lugg is very high and flowing swiftly. There have been new flood warnings to the north of the town, to the south the fields have been flooded for some time now. The river does not not really look much higher than it was a week ago. The river-side path dips down as it approaches Brightwells and disappears under water. At the other end of the site, Cheaton Brook is flowing fast and rich chestnut brown – so much of our red Herefordshire soil being carried off. The Kenwater is also flowing rapidly under the iron bridge.
Friday – Bearwood – Undertaking a Winter Thrush Survey for the B.T.O.. My Ordnance Survey square starts just south of the hamlet of Bearwood to the south-west of Pembridge. The sky is grey but it has stopped raining. However, the narrow lanes are still flowing with water. Driving here, I passed numerous flooded fields including one near the A44 junction, a potato field already ploughed and harrowed with a vast pond in its centre. A pair of Mute Swans glide serenely across the water. Many little lanes have had potholes and ruts carved into their surface by the constant downpours. Rooks are calling noisily from trees along the edges of the fields. A Common Buzzard lifts from the branches and glides off. A Common Pheasant runs across the mud. At Longwood, Tippet’s Brook rushes past. It enters a copse where it meanders like one of the great rivers of Sussex. The road is flooded in several places. A few Fieldfare fly over and some Redwing fly off from a house at Longwood where apples have been put out for the birds. Numerous Chaffinches and Blue Tits fly into the trees. A hedge bustles with the sound of House Sparrows. Back up to Bearwood which has a tiny Wesleyan Methodist chapel built in 1864. I drive around to Luntley Court past the timber-framed dovecot and along a narrow lane to Tibhall. A flock of about 20 Redwings flies over but none of the winter thrushes seem to settle in the area. Back to Leominster. Passing Monkland I can see the extensive flooding to the south of the village. I imagine much of Ivington will be cut off and Monty Don’s garden will again be under water!
Sunday – Nunney, Somerset – Up to the field with Maddy and Zebedee, the Springer Spaniel. It is just beginning to get light. Yesterday was wet again. The drive from Leominster was along roads which often had streams of red coloured water flowing across or down them. It rained most of the way. Common Buzzards are mewing in the distance. Zebedee keeps standing stock still and staring across the field. I think there are some Rooks in the spring wheat but it is hard to see. Peter and Jo’s sheep call from the paddock. Apparently, the local badgers had disappeared, either they had moved off or been killed, but it looks like there are some in residence again. Rooks are noisy in the trees on the far side of Nunney Brook, which is rushing along. A pair of Canada Geese pass over, calling as usual.
Monday – Leominster – The year ends in a fashion that seems to sum up most of the year – grey and wet. The rain starts shortly after dawn and continues all morning. In the early afternoon there is a break so its off down the park. The grass remains sodden, every step oozes water. Along the path, much of which is a large puddle, and over the railway. The river is actually 20cm lower than last week but the meadow is just as wet. Maddy takes an acrobatic tumble trying to catch her ball and send up a sheet of water – she is soaked! By the time we reach home she seems to have got even muddier. As usual, Stevie the escape artist hen, wanders down the path when I go out to them. She now just heads round to the gate and waits for me to open it. Again I check the fence and cannot see where she has got through. Hopefully a new run will be delivered this week which will keep her in and make cleaning much easier as I will be able stand upright. It starts to rain again.
It has been a strange year. Internationally, very little brings encouragement for the future – the Middle East remains in conflict, as does Afghanistan, parts of Africa and even here, there is an attempted bombing in the north of Ireland. Financial misery for the poor continues as both here, in Europe and in the USA more is done to protect the wealth of the few than the poverty of many. Will the New Year bring hope? Sadly I doubt it.