Thursday – Queenswood Country Park – Again, an overcast morning with the promise of rain but whether it will materialise is open to question. Decent numbers of Spotted Orchids rise out of the long grass under the main avenue of trees. Chaffinches dart up from the ground into the lower branches. Down to the lower path where sedges have brown spiky flower balls on their thin stems. Black Horehound blossoms beside the path. A calling Raven glides overhead. A Chiffchaff calls persistently. The areas cleared of most trees a couple of years ago are now full of 4, 5 foot and more saplings. Flowers here include Self-Heal, Birds-Foot Trefoil and large areas of Dog Rose, some pink but many more pure white. There really is a hint of rain in the air. Some new trees have been planted in the arboretum, a Katsura Red Fox is particularly attractive with dark red-green leaves. A patch of meadow is filled with creamy Meadowsweet and an occasional Spotted Orchid. Large stands of Willowherb are about to burst into flower. House Martins swoop over the old house that is now the visitor centre.
Friday – Titterstone Clee – Shortly after dawn it is gloomy on the side of this great landmark of the south Shropshire Hills. It has rained heavily overnight. Clouds drift across the patchwork of fields, coppices, hamlets and farms below. Up here an occasional cloud moves across the ruined industrial landscape that is being repossessed by nature. A Kestrel hovers high over the northern edge of the hill. Bird song comes from the woods far down the slope which are about to vanish into another cloud. The far Shropshire hills gleam in sunshine. Within seconds everything has disappeared in the mist and visibility is less than 100 yards. Ravens croak in the gloom.
Sunday – River Lugg, Leominster – Down to the river. The path to the rough meadow between the railway and the river is densely overgrown. I batter through the brambles with my stick. By the fence Bloody Cranesbills flower a rich crimson-purple. Out on the meadow, large patches of Great Willowherb are coming into flower. Its cousin, Rosebay Willowherb has still a long spike of buds on the verge of bursting open. A small flock of Long-tailed Tits is moving through trees. Over to the other side of river. Ringlet butterflies are everywhere. The vast leaves of Butterbur cover the river bank. A Comma butterfly flits by. Himalayan Balsam is spreading along river edge in the Willowherb patches, unfortunately, the former is very invasive and will drive out the native plants.
Monday – Craven Arms – A back street in Craven Arms has a house with a column of Ivy to the roof. It is populated by noisy House Sparrows. A plastic frog on a garden wall is triggered to croak at passers-by, which is a surprise to Maddy. At the Secret Hills Discovery Centre I am in a panic to get out my binos to check a long tailed raptor gliding overhead. I succeed and am rewarded by the sight of a Red Kite. The meadows around the Centre contain an array of flowers: Mallows, Lady’s Bedstraw, Knapweeds and thistles. Past some cottages and some rather unpleasant modern mansions, over the River Onney and out into a field. Already the supposedly
well way-marked route has become ambiguous and I appear to be off on a detour. Fortunately, I have printed out alternative directions and head off though the hamlet of Halford. The road is lined with new build of dubious design. At the farm the path crosses a field of cattle and thistles whilst rising above the river valley and town. The next field is wheat and then a hay meadow of huge cylindrical bales. Ahead are wooded hills over which a Common Buzzard circles. Out onto a lane and onwards and upwards. Past pretty Ireland Cottage. The lane drops down into a valley. A roadside Oak has a Yellowhammer wheezing from its top branches. The lane rises again and enters Lower Dinchope. A long barn conversion is called
Grove Sprightly after a champion Welsh Pony. Across a field of sheep and up into conifer woods, the north end of Hanging Wood where it meets Callowhill Plantation. A large bracket fungus, Giant Polypore Meripilus giganteus, grows from the base of a tree. It is some two feet across. Fresh soil has been cast out of a badger sett. The path rises through the woods, past four rows of Cherry trees running up the hill. A Blackbird rises up with an angry squawk. A Willow Warbler weeps. The hill is very steep but the path winds to and fro making it far easier. A Common Buzzard calls overhead and circles. We keep moving not wishing to give the buzzard false hopes! Jays squawk. The path widens and sweeps upwards steeply, clearly a much older track. It heads downwards for a while, very unwelcome as it undoes the hard work climbing towards the summit, but soon a path rises again, although so steeply that a long flight of steps is required. Eventually the path resumes and shortly emerges on top of the hill. The Clee Hills loom in the distance.
The path continues on to Flounders’ Folly. It was built in 1838 by Benjamin Flounders, a Yorkshire entrepreneur who was on the management committee of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. He inherited Culmington Estate, to the south-east of here, from his uncle. The tower slowly decayed and was once owned by actress Julie Christie before being taken over by a Trust which has restored it. Sadly the tower is locked up tight. A track runs along the hill giving magnificent views of the Shropshire Hills, Long Mynd, The Wrekin, Caradoc etc., beyond the Hope Valley and the thin, rising line of woods that is Wenlock Edge. Down the track through Frizland Coppice where sedimentary rock, Amestrey Limestone, full of fossilised seashells lies in gently sloping bands. Above the track the hillside has been cleared of conifers, just a few dead trunks stand above the brambles and Willowherbs that have sprung up in the newly rediscovered light. On down the forestry track where grasshoppers are sunning themselves on the pale limestone road and vanish in a blink. Bees visit the flowers for nectar. A fly with orange
shoulders, Mesembrina meridiana, sometimes called the Noon Fly, is on an umbellifer. The track joins a lane that runs along the foot of Callow Hill back to Dinchope. Meadowsweet blossoms adorn the hedgerow and Meadow Brown butterflies flit from flower to flower. Back up the hill but just before Ireland Cottage a path runs beside a field of oats before dropping down through Berrymill Wood. The path enters a recently opened area of woodland where brambles and sedges have taken over, the latter with long feathery heads. St John’s Wort, Black Horehound, Herb Robert, Self Heal and Red Campion edge the path. The path then crosses a couple of fields before re-entering Halford between the old School and the School Master’s House. This lane was once the main coach road to Bishop’s Castle. It is strange that during the whole walk apart from a few people in cars, I saw no-one.
Wednesday – Croft – It is an overcast and humid morning. The water levels in the pools in Fish Pool Valley continue to fall. The pools are covered by a pale yellow-green weed, like a froth on the surface. Bird calls are more alarm and notifications of whereabouts than songs. Up on the hillside a pair of ears bob up and down as a deer disappears through the trees and bracken. Up the valley path between Bircher Common and Lyngham Vallet. The humidity means I am sweating profusely despite the rising wind which sways the trees so they creak and squeal. Ringlet butterflies are everywhere, it has been a good year for them. Out onto the Mortimer Trail above Leinthall Common. Beneath old Oaks and Silver Birches, sedges are splattered with Cuckoo Spit, the protective foam around froghopper larvae. A Great Spotted Woodpecker is chipping in the woods behind the broken Oak bough I am sitting on whilst Maddy and I have some water. A Great Tit explores a rotting stump. Coal Tits search branches and decaying, moss covered trees for insects. With them are a number of fast moving Marsh/Willow Tits. I get only a brief glimpse and the black cap seems dull which would indicate Willow Tit, but I cannot be sure as unfortunately and surprisingly they are silent so give no audible clues. From Croft Ambrey the distant hills are grey and looming, foretelling of rain? Back down the track towards Croft Castle. I manage to kick Maddy’s ball into the undergrowth; she kindly allows me to find it resulting in nettle stings up my arm. It is busy at the castle, lots of children in the big field enjoying the warm summer day.
Thursday – Shobdon – The pond opposite the cricket pitch has a green tinge of algae. China blue Forget-me-nots grow at the water’s edge. Beyond the pitch, a wheat field is beginning to turn yellow. Unfortunately, so is the grass on the cricket outfield. Up the Oak avenue to the Arches. These Norman remains of the old church never fail to inspire wonder. All those centuries have passed, empires risen and fallen, ordinary folk living out their lives and their sons and daughters likewise and these artistic endeavours have been in this village. Their creators names have long been forgotten and now their creations are eroding away but the ghost of their former beauty remains, although it is now difficult to see what they must have looked like when they were freshly hewn, just as the master mason laid down his chisel and mallet, stepped back and nodded his approval at his finished work. A wind is blowing through the trees that surrounds the wheat field. A Chiffchaff sings in the wood. A froghopper crawls up my leg. The woods are covered by flowering Blackberries and Rosebay Willowherb. Along the avenue to the church of St John the Evangelist, a
Strawberry Hill Gothick masterpiece , glorious as it is, it brings back thoughts of those Norman master craftsmen. What would they think of their work, their holy task, being evicted and left to the wind and rain on a hillside, admired but not in a place of worship? Maybe they would simply be amazed their work still existed at all. Scaffolding still covers half the church roof but much of the work now seems to be finished. A Blackbird is singing nearby.
Saturday – Dodworth – Round the path and towards the old Dodworth pit slag heap. Gatekeeper, Ringlet and Meadow Brown butterflies flit among the parched grasses. It is interesting that before this year there are only a couple of references to Ringlets in my Ramblings, yet this year they seem to be the commonest butterfly around! The track is lined with 20 foot high Alders, Hawthorns, Oaks, Maples and Birches. It does not seem that long ago that they were planted. On top of the heap the views are obscured by more trees that have grown considerably since I was last here. It seems odd that the last occasion there would have been a panting Dill the Dog, now it is a panting Maddy. The top of the heap is bone dry and yellow with stunted Bird’s Foot Trefoil. The view into Barnsley now features the Gateway Plaza – still a large hole in the ground and some steel girders last time I saw it. A pick-up van drives around the fields of sheep on the north side of the hill. The sheep in one field are a mixture with some chocolate and white specimens looking more like goats. A single specimen of Common Centuary , pink flowers with a distinct yellow centre, stands in the grasses. Numerous Bloodsuckers, a Soldier Beetle, Rhagonycha fulva, are on umbellifers, some mating. Also mating pairs on Ragwort and Yarrow, female clambering across flower heads with burden of male hanging off her back. Knapweeds only just coming into bloom. Fat Hen is blooming as much as one can call it blooming, an off-white mass of tiny flowers.
Monday – Mortimer Forest – It finally rains. All the leaves are washed to shiny green again. A Chiffchaff calls, Robin sings fitfully and tits chatter. Wood Pigeons coo noisily away deep in the woods.
Forestry operations are sign posted and large stacks of softwood logs are piled up by the track. Beyond the turn onto the main path through Haye Park Wood there is a new open space where the conifers have been cleared. It continues to rain and there only sound to accompany the pitter-patter is a lone Blackbird. The previously bright lime-green Spurges are desiccating into flat brown seed pods. The hard dusty track has absorbed the rain and swollen into a spongy mud. Foxgloves are nearing the end of their season, flowers now limited to the very top of the spikes and below green seed pods swell. Clouds drift down the valley, well below the summit of Titterstone Clee which is shrouded. Thin wisps rise above the Mary Knoll Valley and even more ethereal mists glide across the Iron Age enclosure. There is sunshine on the distant Shropshire hills.
Tuesday – Home – A brood of Song Thrushes have fledged. One stands on the path outside the summer house and takes off as I approach and crashes in the base of an old pear tree against the wall. Another stands on the ridge of the summer house squeaking for its parents. The tail-less fluffy ball launches itself off towards the wall and manages to clear it and disappears into the great Horse Chestnut on the other side. It has been raining, two days in a row, but only the very top of the soil is wet, the slightest digging reveals it is bone dry less than an inch down. However, any rain is welcomed in this drought of a spring and early summer. Strawberries are finished now, as are the white currants, but there are black currents to harvest and blueberries are just ripening. Peas are also finishing and French beans just starting. Some tomatoes have turned red in the greenhouse and there are good numbers of chili peppers but alas they are very mild; the opposite to last year’s lethally hot crop. Hopefully, they will take on some heat as they ripen. The lettuce crop is good and the potatoes are lifted, the crop filling two wine boxes. However, the experiment with a single potato in a sack was a failure, there were a couple of tubers at the bottom but the long stem of the plant held none at all. Some water plants have been introduced to the pond and hopefully it will soon start to look a bit more natural. Kay has continued to do an amazing job on one half of the recently cleared end of the garden. She is digging it out, removing the stones and levelling it ready for new fruit trees in the autumn.
Friday – Croft – Heavy rain clouds hang over the woods. The recent downpours have left little rivulet beds with banks of mud and leaves down the ride to Fish Pool Valley. A Common Buzzard slips silently up into the trees. A Moorhen flaps across on of the ponds and lands in the lily pads. She is immediately mobbed by a couple of squeaking chicks. Another Moorhen stands on a dead branch. A Raven croaks from the trees on the far hillside. A gust of wind shakes water from the trees. The woods are dark.
Tuesday – Leominster – Fronts are now sweeping across the country in procession bringing the much needed rain to our gardens and fields. Meadow Cranesbills are still flowering in the meadow area of the Millennium Park. It is sad that it seems to have been mown too early, before the Spotted Orchids and other early summer flowers had time to seed. Now only the Cranesbill and Bird’s Foot Trefoil are flowering there. Gangs of screaming Swifts shoot overhead. Although they occasionally sweep up the side of the old Priory, they are now visiting the nests hidden under the eaves, so the youngsters have fledged and are now fattening themselves for the journey to Africa in a couple of weeks.
Home – Leeks have been sown in the bed from which the potatoes were dug. Despite my reservations voiced above, the chillies are taking on heat as they ripen. One, still green specimen in a dish the other day had quite a fiery after-burn to it! I need to get some fresh cabbage seed; for some reason every sowing germinates but dies after producing seed leaves. Pak Choi on the other hand is looking better. French beans are cropping well but I am not hopeful about the Runners, they look poorly and I cannot get rid of the blackfly despite spraying with soapy water regularly. There is a lettuce glut – probably one of the worst vegetables to have a glut as preserving is not an option. The great rose bower across the path has collapsed making getting to the bottom of the garden a challenge. It took two cuts on my scalp before I learned to duck low enough to pass beneath. We will need to chop it all down and remove and replace the broken metal frame. The pond is beginning to look more natural, although the garden centre specialist plants both look dead. Luckily the water lilies from the wholefood shop seem to be thriving. Some of the rock plants from the market are doing well, others look decidedly unhappy and one is hanging on despite being kicked out of place by a visiting bird, probably a Blackbird, which also is knocking the stones around.
Thursday – Pembridge – A classic
Black and White village in the Arrow valley. There has been some unfortunate in-filling by modern houses of no aesthetic value at all and being on the main route into central Wales, one is passed frequently by thundering articulated lorries. However, up some steps and into the large, green churchyard and it is as peaceful as one could wish. Beside the steps is a shop dated to 1528-1564 called
The Old Steppes which is the cross-wing of a now demolished substantial hall. The wing was the Rectory prior to 1770. On a small hill at the top of the green is the church of St Mary the Virgin. It was built around 1330 on the site of a Norman church, of which only two infilled arches of the 12th century remain, one each in the north and south walls of the chancel. There is a fine 13th century font. The nave pillars are octagonal leading to the crossing where a Jacobean pulpit, lectern and reading desk are situated. The reading desk contains carving which is older than the rest of the items, possibly taken from a 13th century pulpit. It shows a dog with a huge tongue (a
Talbot) confronting a dragon (a
Wyvern) which has stylised wings and a forked tail. On the north side of the chancel is a tomb with four effigies which Blount in 1675 attributed to the Gours, former Lords of Marston. One pair dates from the early 14th century, the other to later that century. On the walls of the nave and crossing are 17th century mural writings of the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. These were found under whitewash during restoration in 1909. At the west end of the church is some original mediaeval glass including St Christopher carrying the child. Outside, the west door, no longer used, is a massive Oak construction with numerous iron nails and holes allegedly made by shot fired by Cromwellian troops. The bell tower is a superb detached campanile of an irregular octagonal base supporting a truncated pyramidal roof. A second stage, weather boarded bell stage, containing contains a peal of five bells and has another truncated pyramidal roof. The tower is topped off by a shingle spire which contains a small Sanctus bell, which was restored in 1978 after forty years silence. Someone is working inside, as evidenced by irregular tolls of the bell, so we do not enter. However, I read that inside there are four massive timber corner posts that have been dendro-dated to 1207-1214CE.
From a seat in the churchyard, one has views over the Arrow valley whilst gangs of Swifts scream overhead. Down another passage between 15th century cottages and into West Street. It is noticeable how many doors to the older buildings are less than six feet high. There is a house that once was a shop, a sign over the door advertising
Butter, Eggs, Oatmeal. Opposite is the Market Hall constructed of eight Oak pillars holding a stone-tiled roof dating from the first quarter of the 16th century. Pembridge was once a thriving market town. The name comes from the old British Penn meaning a
headland and brycg or simply bridge. Earl Harald held the manor according to the Domesday Book in 1086. It then passed to the de Pennebruge family. A castle stood near the church but nothing remains now. The family built a new castle, Pembridge Castle, in south Herefordshire. After the de Pennbrugges, the manor was owned by the Mortimers who obtained a Royal Charter with market and fair rights in 1240. The town declined after the Industrial Revolution. On the junction of the main road and West Street is the large
New Inn, a somewhat ironic name as the inn dates from the 14th century and is probably the oldest in Herefordshire. Along the main road is West End farm, now converted into dwellings, containing a cruck-truss, which is one of the earliest forms of timber building and dates from 1425.
Monday – Mortimer Forest – A Green Woodpecker is calling. Bees and Hoverflies feed on Knapweed and Brambles. A tit flock is in the trees, conitnuously noisy but only occasionally visible. Further up the track, a Great Tit watches from a low branch in the dense Spruce plantation. Ringlets and Meadow Browns flit over thistle flowers. Up on the long forestry track across the hillside to the Iron Age enclosure there is little bird life – just the odd passing Wood Pigeon and a stridently calling Wren. But there is an abundance of insects. Flies, bees and wasps are all feeding on thistle flowers but it is the butterflies that inevitably draw the eye. There has been a hatching of Gatekeepers as those sunning themselves on leaves are immaculate. Ringlets, on the otherhand are now showing their age and their wings are often shredded at the edges. Beautiful maroon, black, blue and purple Peacocks feed then turn into black, ungainly creatures as they flop through the air. A brilliant copper and black Comma rests on the green immature Blackberries but the pride of place must go to Silver-washed Fritillaries with their swept-back, pointed wings patterned in black and copper. A Burnet Moth is on a bramble – unsure if it is a 5 or 6 spot as the latter sometimes have the two spots near the wing-tip fused into a single large spot, which I suspect is the case here. A clump of china blue Harebells grows on the edge of the enclosure. Down the path and into the woods. Ferns are growing out of fallen trunks and in great whorls giving the place a special verdancy.