June 2014

Strawberry Jam

Sunday – Leominster – On Friday I bought six boxes of strawberries weighing about six pounds for £6 from the market. Yesterday strawberry jam was made, or rather strawberry syrup! This morning it is reboiled to try and get a better set. Off to the Sunday market. The Colas Rail sleeper tamping machine, last seen four years ago, is in the station, creeping forward and giving the sleepers a shake. Behind, two rail workers have a gauge and are checking the rail width. It is a bright sunny morning so the market is heaving with people but as usual I find nothing worth buying. Back home, various patches of the vegetable beds need weeding and a few plants that have not taken are replaced with spares. Then the lawns are mown which means the chicken run has a nice covering of mown grass. It seems all the hens, apart from the oldest one, are in and out of the nest but we end up with only two eggs.

Yellow Pimpernel

Monday – Croft – A grey, overcast morning but this does not deter the Song Thrushes, Wrens, Robins and Blackbirds all in good voice in the woods. Up through the Beech wood. A clump of Yellow Pimpernels, a little yellow star in green foliage, grows out on the bare soil. They are reckoned to be an uncommon flower in this country. Along the track beneath Highwood Bank. It starts to rain, gently yet persistently. Up the track that runs beside Lady Wood. Ahead an almost black Fallow Deer is feeding beside the track. It raises its head, swivels its large ears in my direction and is off. A black Dor Beetle, with touches of iridescent blue, clambers across the stony track. I decide it too wet to go on up to the hill-fort, so I head along the track towards the Keepers Cottage. An electric fence has been erected along the recently clear area, presumably to contain livestock to keep the area open as traditional woodland pasture.

Wednesday – Bodenham Lakes – The spring flowers have gone to be replaced by summer blooms. Dog Roses are prolific as are Bramble flowers. Bird song consists of Blackcap and Chiffchaff. Further down the track a Garden Warbler joins in and around into the meadow a Song Thrush sings loud and clear from the lakeside Alders and a Blackbird from the woods. The meadow is adorned with yellow Field Buttercups and Red Clover. Eight Mute Swans are on the water, one pen with four cygnets. A Reed Warbler is singing jug jug in the reed bed. A Pheasant croaks down in the reserve. Rain falls steadily. Four Cormorants are in the island trees. Drake Mallard plumage is getting duller as they start to go into eclipse. I suddenly realise there is not a single Canada Goose present. The rain gets heavier clattering in the hide roof. After a lengthy pause the Reed Warbler resumes his song. Locating him is not easy, often a twitching reed gives a clue but a slight breeze has sprung up and a lot of reeds are twitching! However, suddenly he flies up into a small willow in the middle of the reed bed and starts searching food before dropping back down again. A pair of drake Mallard preen by the scrape, discarding breast feathers that float away in the breeze. A Cuckoo rises from the island trees with a bubbling call and flies off towards the woods. A pair of Mute Swans lift off the water with loud slaps of their wingtips on the surface and the rhythmic whoosh of beat wings as they flap hard to power themselves higher.

Madresfield Court – This magnificent house lies to the east of Malvern and is the ancestral home of the Lygon family who became Earls Beauchamp in 1815 until the line died out in 1979. The house has always been in the family although passed through the female line on several occasions and thus never bought or sold. We have a guided tour of the house with the Leominster Historical Society. The house is on the site of a great hall built around 1120 and it is known that a William de Bracy lived at the Court in 1260. In 1593 Madresfield Court was rebuilt, replacing a 15th century medieval building. It was again remodelled in the 19th century to resemble a moated Elizabethan house, with the result that it contains 136 rooms. The Lygons were a provincial family until the start of the 19th century. The miserly William Jenners, Birmingham ironmaster and richest commoner in England, died in 1798 aged 97. His property was divided into Madresfield Courtthree and the Lygon portion came to the equivalent in today’s terms of £100 million. With this fortune they were able to purchase the Beauchamp title in the late 19th century and rebuilt Madresfield Court as a mock Tudor moated house. In the early 20th century rooms, the chapel in particular was decorated in the Arts and Crafts style by the Birmingham Group artists including Henry Payne, William Bidlake and Charles March Gere. The chapel is an extraordinary space with frescoed walls depicting the family and wild flowers. A gold thread altarpiece was stitched by the daughters of the rector of Madresfield, who were talented seamstresses and went to Belgium to learn the techniques of gold thread stitching called or nué.

The story of the family grows somewhat salacious at this time. William, the seventh Earl Beauchamp, was Governor of New South Wales in his youth, later a Liberal serving in Asquith’s government, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and a stickler for ceremony and precedence, he married the sister of the richest man in Europe, the Duke of Westminster, and fathered seven children by her. However, Lord Beauchamp had another side. He had socialist leanings, he loved doing embroidery, he was a patron of the Arts and Crafts movement led by the homosexual CR Ashbee who created the library now containing over 8000 books, and did himself enjoy an elaborate, sometimes indiscreet gay life. In his Governor days the Australian Star had observed that Lord Beauchamp deserves great credit for his taste in footmen. When the Duke of Westminster discovered this, he ordered his sister out of the marriage and hounded Beauchamp first out of office, then out of the country. Lady Beauchamp, ill and in thrall to her bullying brother, never recovered. The seven children stood by their father and took it in turns to visit him in his places of exile, principally Sydney which had bars, hotels, and drag shows for homosexual men several years before there was firm evidence for such things in the United States. William, having been assured he would not be prosecuted for homosexuality returned to Madrefield in 1937. He was still furious that his wife, Lettice, had in his view ruined the family and threw her bust into the moat. It was retrieved some years later and is displayed in the entrance hall, far from William’s bust. Evelyn Waugh was a frequent visitor and friend of the family, in particular, from his undergraduate days, Hugh Lygon who was the inspiration for Waugh’s character Sebastian Flyte, was also homosexual and an alcoholic in Brideshead Revisited. In a stupor he fell, fractured his skull on a kerbstone and died a few months after his mother’s death in 1936. Lord Beauchamp died of cancer two years later in the Waldorf Astoria hotel, New York. As well as spending the bequest on rebuilding the house, the family also spent a large sum of purchasing furniture from all around the world. A large and rather ugly Italian sideboard contrasts with a number of cabinets made by Boulle, a French cabinet maker who perfected a way of making an inlay from brass and tortoiseshell. A large room was made from several rooms on two floors apparently to house a huge fireplace that was the wedding gift of the Duke of Westminster. This room has a staircase with spindles of turned rock crystal, apparently usually only found in Russia. We had hoped to view the gardens but the rain is unceasing.

Thursday – Home – A Goldfinch hops onto the wall outside my study. S/he then flits across to a hanging basket and begins to remove strands of the grass material that makes the liner. Next down to the boards of the patio where bits of Maddy hair are gathered up. This is repeated several times. The French beans are taking a bit of a battering from pests, slugs I assume. But many are growing fairly quickly now. The runner beans are faring better still. I still have no idea which cucurbits are which. Luckily I have several spare plants in the cold frame as a number in the beds have failed or been eaten. A few garlic remain growing well but most of the crop have fallen over and been cropped – rather small bulbs. In the greenhouse, tomatoes keep heading for the roof and there are several decent bunches ripening slowly. The green peppers are doing well and need staking. The spring onions are thinned, they probably needed this several weeks back. More lettuces are sown, the Bath cos in the garden are doing well. Ruby chard is slow but still growing. Small broad beans are appearing now. Flowers are appearing on the potatoes, some white and some purple. Down the side of the garden towards the back are several umbellifers, not sure exactly what they are! But one is truly huge with great, green flower heads; we thought it may be fennel but the scent is wrong. I suspect it is an enormous angelica. We still have no idea which of the hens are laying. Someone’s eggs are a decent size and brown whilst another of the girls is laying something very reminiscent of a pigeon egg, both in colour and size! I give Maddy a brush. It is always a fraught affair as she makes things as difficult as possible. In particular her hind quarters are covered in very thick hair and, like today, have several nasty matted clumps that need cutting out. I put some of the hair in the hanging basket in case the Goldfinch, or any other nest builder, wants it.

Friday – Humber – The second part of the BTO Breeding Bird Survey. The paths out of Steens Bridge have virtually disappeared in long grass and nettles. Everything is heavy with dew and it is fortunate I put on my over-trousers or I would be soaked. When we get to the first stile I notice Maddy has not got her ball. I tell her to find it and she wanders off but it is clear she has no idea where she dropped it. So that is the end of that ball, it actually lasted quite a while! Meadow CranesbillsThe bird count is pretty poor, lots of Carrion Crows and Wood Pigeons but not a lot else. I am surprised at the lack of tits or finches in the village of Humber. Indeed, apart from a lot of noisy and very flighty Jackdaws there is little else there. A few Whitethroats and Yellowhammers show in the hedgerows along the lanes.

Leominster – Off down to the Millennium Park. Meadow Cranesbills have come into flower, their china blue petals a delight! The hedges have grown thick and leafy so passing trains can only be heard now. Down The Priory and over the old iron bridge. The Kenwater is flowing fast and muddy. Round to the A44 and across to take the path around Dales. Meadowsweet is flowering along the River Lugg which runs through a straightened channel. Large stones edge the channel and House Sparrows drop onto them to drink from the river. Stinging Nettles are in flower – it is amusing to note the trendy chefs’ columns in the newspaper are giving recipes using nettles despite them now being little used for culinary purposes. With all the talk about seasonality, it is silly how often recipes are printed at the wrong time. Elderflowers are certainly in season and I must soon gather some for champagne.


Monday – Croft – Distant thunder grumbles. A Cuckoo calls from Bircher Common. A Chiffchaff, Chaffinch, Blackbird and Robin all sing. The rain goes from a few drops to a more persistent drizzle. The thunder approaches, the rain intensifies, and this is all before I leave the car park. Along the Fish Pool Valley. Wild Garlic is now yellowing but still pungent with that animal scent. Water flows down the footpath up the end of the valley making the exposed bedrock very slick and slippery. Little pink flowers of Herb Robert and the last of the white Stitchwort are being overwhelmed by rapidly rising Stinging Nettles, Bracken, Red Campion and Cleavers. The recent humid weather is ideal for plant growth here. By the time I reach the top of Croft Ambrey the rain has stopped and patches of blue sky have emerged. However to the north-east over the Clee Hills and beyond the sky is still black and angry. Mist rises in columns above the Mortimer Forest. A vast rain cloud passes over but we are spared. The Malvern Hills have disappeared in mist, cloud and probably rain. Suddenly bright sunshine bathes the hill-fort. Minutes later it is all change again, the sky darkens and thunder growls in the south-east. From the top of the Spanish Chestnut field rain can be seen falling in Hereford and the Arrow valley. Wisps of white clouds morph rapidly as they drift northwards against an overcast grey sky.

Wednesday – Leominster – After breakfast I have the fun job of scrubbing out the chicken house. It is getting progressively dirtier so a bucket of Jeyes Fluid solution does the job. Of course, I get plenty of it on myself! So after a shower Maddy and I head off down to the river. It is still flowing fairly fast and moderately deep. The meadows have been mown but it looks like the hay will not be gathered, rather a waste. Under the A49 bridge beside the River Lugg and into the Millennium Wood. A rifle range lay to the north in the 19th and 20th century but has now disappeared under the by-pass. In the hedge are rich pink-edged Dog Roses with yellow filaments holding orange anthers. Tiny pink Cut-leaved Cranesbills are almost hidden by grasses. It is warm which has brought out the insects. A damselfly lands in a thicket of Cleavers (Goosegrass or Stickyweed); I think it is a female Blue-tailed Damselfly, Ischnura elegans, but they can be so variable. A fat chocolate brown slug Damselflyappears to be eating a crushed snail. Snails of the Helicidae family, the banded snails having pale yellow shells with brown bands are common. A few Seven-spot Ladybirds are on Stinging Nettles; there seems to be a shortage of them this year. Near a small footbridge, large Butterbur leaves cover the ground. Beyond the path runs between a thick growth of Stinging Nettles and Brambles by the river and a pasture where a pony comes trotting across to see Maddy, who hurries on with a worried look. Six or seven foot high Cow Parsley attracts bees and flies. A lot of the bees are White-tailed Bumble Bees, but there is another I am unable to identify which has a broad white band in the middle of its abdomen. The flies are mainly either Green Bottles or a very similar species with a turquoise iridescence. A lacewing flits in, Chrysoperla carnea, known as the Common Green Lacewing. It has large delicate wings, clear with a hint of greenish-blue. Another bee is causing identification issues, I suspect one of the Colletes family. A Small Tortoiseshell butterfly lands on some nettles. It looks recently hatched as it is very bright and perfect. Large patches of Himalayan Balsam are growing fast. Here, just before Eaton Bridge, there was a large loop in the river until the late 1960s when it was straightened. Up the Worcester Road, not easy as the hedges are becoming very overgrown and with the never ending cuts in the budgets they are likely to stay that way. Up Eaton Hill via the old drovers’ steps. The path up to the field is also getting very overgrown with Brambles aiming themselves across but in vain as I knock them down with my stick. It seems rabbits have been helping themselves to a fair sized patch of the wheat crop on Eaton Hill, it has been nibbled down to a few inches high. Elder is in flower so I gather some for champagne. Off down the track where Foxgloves flower in various shades of pink through to pure white but all with throats spotted in dark pink. Round to Mill Street. The Holyhead train passes at some speed.

Pauper's Grave

Thursday – Lampeter – We stop at this university town in west Wales on our way to a couple of days break. Lampeter or Llanbedr Pont Steffan, the Church of St Peter by Stephen’s Bridge, first was recorded as a Norman castle at a strategic crossing of the River Teifi, erected in 1095 by a Norman knight, Stephen. The bridge which held his name was constructed around the same time. The castle was destroyed by Owain Gwynedd in 1187. A settlement had developed here as Archbishop Baldwin, accompanied by the historian Giraldus, preached the crusade in the town the following year. The University developed from St David’s College founded in 1822 by George IV at the suggestion of the Bishop of St David’s (Dr Burgess). Its purpose was to help Welsh students who could not afford to travel to England for their further education. Lampeter is the smallest university town in the United Kingdom with a population of around 3000, one third of which are students. The town centre is small but contains a decent range of establishments. A David Jones Bank, the Bank of the Black Ox, was established here in 1853 by Jones’ son, as this was an important drovers’ town. It stands at the end of the high street, although no longer a bank. Round the corner and up a hill is the Grammar School, one of four in the diocese licensed by Bishop Burgess. It, like many building in the town, is constructed of grey slate blocks. Opposite is the church of St Peter. It is believed that a small monastery was established here in the 6th century and this site was a burial ground which became the parish church in the 12th century. This building, however, was erected in 1867. There is an extensive graveyard including an area of identical, small headstones carrying a set of initials and a number – the graves of paupers from the workhouse. We wander back around to the university site where the motte of the castle stands. The castle would have been wooden, no stone castle was ever constructed here. The surrounding buildings date from every period from the mid-Victorian to modern lecture theatres.

Sweet Ayron’s vale, unknown in song,
Demands the warbling lyre:
Shall silver Ayron glide along,
And not a bard inspire?
What bard that Ayron sees can fail
To sing the charms of Ayron vale.

There golden treasures swell the plains,
And herds and flocks are there;
And there the god of plenty reigns
Triumphant all the year;
The nymphs are gay, the swains are hale:
Such blessings dwell in Ayron’s vale.

While every toast through Albion vies,
In dubious competition;
And female charms contend the prize
Of beauty’s high ambition;
Sweet Ayron’s beauties must prevail,
For angels dwell in Ayron’s vale.

Were I possessed of regal state,
Presiding o’er a nation,
With crowding senates at my feet
In humble adoration,
I’d envy, if envying might avail,
The happy swains of Ayron’s vale.

Unknown circa 18th century

Friday – Ystrad Aeron – We are camping in this village in the west Welsh valley of the Afon Aeron; River Aeron. A dawn mist chills the air. Up to the main road. Swallows chatter excitedly from a bungalow roof whilst many more sweep around a grey slate barn. I follow the A82 towards Aberaeron. A stream bubbles down a step after passing under the road. Carrion Crows and Wood Pigeons call. Chaffinches sing. Turn into a lane by Brynog Lodge. The lane is straight and runs between a continuous Rhododendron hedge. There is a brief break in the hedge where Beech and Oak take over before the rhododendrons resume. The lane, which is clearly a driveway, crosses the River Aeron over a fine stone bridge, Pont Brynog, marked CCC, 1935, although the OS map refers to it as Pont Fawr. A Dipper stands in river gravel before whirring away down stream. Across the field is the rather odd sight of tall industrial chimneys pouring out steam, Green Grove creamery. The lane passes between fields before entering an avenue of Sycamores leading to Brynog Mansion Farm. A three-legged Pen-y-Gaerspaniel barks excitedly. The Mansion is a large, rambling affair. A slate house has considerable additions. It was owned by David Lloyd who was the principal accused in the Lisburne paternity dispute in the late 18th century. The estate passed to Edward Vaughan of Green Grove, son of Dorothea, Viscountess Lisburne and he may have been David Lloyd’s son. Back down to the bridge to the cask of Nuthatches. Maddy’s ball hits some roadside grasses which emit a clouds of white pollen. Beside the bridge is a footpath which follows the river. A field of heifers chase along the fence after Maddy who is in an utter panic. The path crosses a field of long grass and soon my legs are saturated and covered in grass seed. The mist now forms a ring around Pen-y-Gaer, a hill topped with an Iron Age fort to the south. Even younger calves are in the far bank. Mallard and a Grey Heron fly off, the latter evacuating its bowels rather spectacularly. Out of the long grass and into a riverside path. Red Kites are moving down the valley and Nuthatches are vocal. Across the field is a herd of Welsh Black cattle. They are interested in Maddy and start trotting but not actually towards us. A Grey Wagtail flies upstream. The path joins a track. A tractor stands with a trailer of logs. Nearby is a circular saw bench driven by a shaft which would attach to the tractor. The track reaches Tal-sarn where a bridge of three arches and looking of considerable age crosses the water. It is listed as mid to late 18th century. The road is fairly busy, people going to work in Lampeter I guess. Down past Llanllyr, where a large house is on the site of a Carmelite nunnery of the White Sisters, a cell to Strata Florida Abbey. The road divides at Hendrelas and I take the westward branch. The tiny hamlet of Ty’ n-y-Gwndwn consists of a house and another attached to a chapel. Opposite is a graveyard, still in use. The lane crosses the small river, Afon Tŷ-cam at Pont Tyn-y-Lôn before it joins the A482 at Felinfach. This village is continuous with Ystrad Aeron. The Vale of Aeron pub stands on the junction in the village of Ystrad Aeron and was one of the drinking holes of Dylan Thomas.

Aberaeron – A delightful Regency seaside town on Cardigan Bay. Tourism is obviously a major i