Saturday 5th March – Fleets Dam – A cold wind moves the trees. Seagulls standing on the water purifier take to the air as a Sparrowhawk glides over and descends into the trees surrounding the willow carr. A lone Mallard swims at the north end. A Mistle Thrush rasps as it flies around. Three Cormorants fly in and circle the water several times before landing. One is in full courtship plumage with a bright white spot behind its wing and white on its neck. Another has a far less obvious spot, whilst the third has none at all. The full courtship plumage only occurs in adult birds over three years old. A flurry of snow descends.
Saturday 12th March – Barnsley Canal – After what seems like weeks of unremitting grey and dull weather, yesterday saw a considerable drop in air pressure and gales swept across the country. This seemed to blast the greyness away and this morning the sun shine brightly in a cobalt sky. Raised beds alongside the pavement down Smithies Lane contain bright yellow miniature daffodils, bright blue Periwinkles complimenting the sky and the strange all green Spurges. I meet Bill and his old spaniel, Prince. Dill the Dog and Prince share many a treat in the pub on a Saturday night. Some bricks have been laid down across a particularly muddy stretch on the steep slope above the canal. Bill reckons that they may have been dug out from the undergrowth as he remembers a row of houses here fifty years ago. There is nothing to suggest any former habitations now. He further tells me there was a lock-keepers cottage on the flat piece of ground beside the canal at the bottom of Willowbank. Mistle Thrushes feed in the horse paddock.
Bill heads back up Willowbank as he has a match to referee this morning and I head off across the rough pasture beside the Loop. Dill the Dog suddenly decides it is ages since she has leapt into any water, so is in the Loop. It is still quite cold and a wind blows but it does not seem to worry her at all. A pair of Teal and a pair of Mallard fly up from the wet area at the end of the Loop. Dill the Dog rushes through the mud and emerges with her legs looking as if encased in pairs of patent leather thigh boots, black and shiny with mud. Wood Pigeons and a fair number of Magpies fly across the valley. A Snipe suddenly flies up with a grunt and zigzags away down the river. A lone Fieldfare calls from the top of a tree. A Sparrowhawk drifts up the valley. A Grey Wagtail bobs on a branch in the River Dearne. Throughout the area, Great Tits are calling like rusty bicycle wheels. A Skylark and Meadow Pipit fly over the wide open expanse of grassland toward the north of the valley. Coming back along the canal, many areas that are usually dry path have standing water on them.
Wednesday 16th March – Barnsley Main Colliery – The greyness returns, but is much warmer than of late. I park in Tank Row and head up the hillside overlooking the River Dearne. Behind, a large crane clank and grumbles in the yard of C. Soar and Son, transformer dismantler. Young spiky Hawthorns tear at my clothing. Alder catkins hang from saplings, lime green with a hint of red. The surface beneath my feet is colliery waste; all wet and spongy. The path along the edge is fast disappearing through lack of use. Below now is the Pontefract Road, which bridges the River Dearne and heads up to Cundy Cross. The hillside falls steeply to the road, but the old maps show that the Dearne and Dove Canal ran between the road and this hill with the Great Central Railway Barnsley Coal Extension running on the other side as it approached Stairfoot Curve. Coltsfoot is in flower, but its large leaves are yet to appear – a strange reversal of the norm in the flower world where the leaves usually arrive before the flowers. An area beneath the overhead power lines has been recently cleared with felled wood stacked around. A massive stone stanchion is all that remains of the viaduct that carried the Midland Railway Cudworth and Barnsley line. Its fellow stands on the opposite hillside. A drainage ditch runs alongside the path. The area is now choked with ivy and Hart’s Tongue ferns grow in the ditch.
The path degenerates into bramble thicket and I head up onto the site of Barnsley Main. It is the only pithead winding gear and engine house remaining in the area. The buildings are all bricked up with warnings to keep out. There are neat shrubbery beds, a narrow gauge railway track slowly becoming overgrown and a decaying car park. It would seem that at some time someone thought it would make a tourist attraction but the idea was abandoned. The people of Barnsley seem to have rejected their mining heritage, maybe some sort of collective shame following the collapse of the 1984 strike following which, as the National Union of Mineworkers predicted, the whole industry was destroyed. On the other side of the road, the buildings that housed the mining rescue training centre are now a private firm. Behind are some older buildings that would have housed mine offices. Cupola House, shown on the 1904 map, has vanished. Further on, the large glass making factory of Beatson Clark is still in production.
Thursday 17th March – Home – After several days of activity in the ponds, both now contain large globules of frog spawn. There are numerous swirls as frogs dive into the depths whenever I approach. Garlic and the autumn sown Broad Beans are growing well. There is much digging and sowing to be done over the next few weeks.
Saturday 19th March – Barnsley Canal – A bright warm Spring morning. Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits are all active – calling and chasing through the branches of the canal-side bushes and trees. Just beyond the concrete dam, there is a mass of frog spawn and at least fifty frogs milling around in it. Their croaking sounds like contented cats. Guinea Fowl are noisy from the hillside. Another group of frogs are churning the shallow water beneath the foot bridge. Moorhens call from the old dock, hidden despite the reed bed being dead and low to the water. A pair of Coots are investigating the area by the allotment for potential nest sites.
Sunday 20th March – Barnsley Canal – The morning is cool and grey with a slight mistiness on the hills across the valley. Long-tailed Tits dart around a Hawthorn bush like giant dragonflies. A Dabchick is calling from across the valley. There is movement high above the canal – a pair of Jays fly across the valley, as does a Grey Heron. A pair of Greenfinches also fly high as they head for the trees in the centre of the flood plain. Fresh molehills have been thrown up in the spits of land where the River Dearne meanders. A Goldcrest flies across the river into the plantation on the spoil heap of the old North Gawber pit. Sadly, another burnt out car is in the river. I reach to footbridge over the river and rest for a minute. Behind me, my first Chiffchaff of the year starts singing. Rooks and Wood Pigeons rise up from the fields between the river and Swallow Hill Road. A few moments later a female Sparrowhawk drifts across the valley and down the marsh. A little later she is followed by a Kestrel. There is much avian activity throughout the area – Blackbirds are numerous, as are Great and Blue Tits; Dunnocks, Song Thrushes and Chaffinches sing; Wrens whirr across open patches between bushes.
An old Alder near the sewage works has a woodpecker holes drilled neatly into its trunk. The next tree has a hole at the base of the trunk that goes right through; clearly the core of the tree has rotted away. Jackdaws are diving and spinning in the air over the old settling pools. One pool contains sixteen Teal. Another Chiffchaff is singing. Black-headed Gulls are on the current settling pools. Some have yet to get their chocolate heads. The field beyond the end of the pastures is very wet and boggy. There are quite a few pairs of Lapwings and a single pair of Mallard on it. Back up and onto the end of this section of the canal. There is a fair sized flock of Carrion Crows – a murder of crows. I recall that forty years ago or so, flocks of black birds were always Rooks; indeed Carrion Crows seemed uncommon. Changes in farming practices and game keepering seem to have changed that. A flock of Magpies are feeding around some sheep on the slope up to Redbrook. Across another marsh and up through the wood leads out onto the hill above the valley. Six Redwings are on a Hawthorn. A pair of Yellowhammers, the sulphur yellow male bright on the grass, hop ahead of me. Dill the Dog has remained clean throughout but now wades into a pool of mud. On the path beside the school, Dog Mercury is in flower.
Thursday 24th March – Wey Navigation – Mallard, Coot and Canada Geese wait around a landing stage on the Mill Pond, hoping for food. All the old Willows between the pond and the canal have been felled. A Mute Swan glides across towards the other water fowl. For a change, I head north. Under the railway, an underwater obstacle breaks the surface and is the perch for a feral pigeon. It looks odd to see a pigeon apparently standing on the water. A Mute Swan sweeps up onto the bank and wanders across to the tables outside the pub, to the consternation of drinkers. Canal boats are drawn up along the opposite bank. The names are varied and some amusing – Ware 2 Now, Palisander, Thermopylae, Brighton Belle, Eílean Leonhaís and many more. The blue flowers of Borage are already out. Many plants are more advanced than at home – Stinging Nettles, Cow Parsley and Wild Arum leaves are well developed. White Dead Nettles are in flower. A Ring-necked Parakeet is calling from behind some houses. The tow-path changes sides at Black Boys Bridge, apparently named after a garden statue. The canal bends round into Weybridge where it meets the Thames. This approach to Weybridge is by a three span cast iron bridge built in 1865 which replaced a thirteen span wooden bridge of 1806. The iron work was from the foundry of Hennet, Spink and Else. In the brickwork is the imprint of Joseph Hamblett, Oldbury near Birmingham. A document of 675AD relating to Chertsey Abbey is the first reference to a bridge here. A Green Woodpecker and Great Tit are calling. Weybridge has little to recommend it. Returning along the canal, a Cormorant is standing on the bank. It flops off into the water as Dill the Dog approaches. Another is sitting on one of the tree stumps by the mill pond.
Good Friday 25th March – Nunney Brook – Head up the path towards the sheep fields with Peter and Jasper. A new path leads into an old quarry. One of the local quarrying companies has donated £80,000 towards turning the quarry into a resource for the village. It required a considerable amount of drainage to make the area usable. Chiffchaffs are calling from the trees. A yellow Brimstone butterfly flits across the quarry. Yellow Celandines shine on the banks. There are lambs in the field. They seem to be totally unafraid of us and the dogs. Down towards the Nunney Brook and Jasper flushes a Common Pheasant, but is pretty half-hearted about trying to catch it. Long-tailed Tits fly through the tree tops. A Wren is calling its alarm loudly. Bunches of Primroses adorn bramble patches. There are stone walls lining the stream, maybe the remains of a mill. Beside the bridge is the winding gear of a lock. Up the path is a pond with a stone channel leading out of it. Its use is unclear. Frog spawn floats on the shallow water. The path back along the stream is damp and shaded. Ransoms (Wild Garlic), Wood Anemones and Hart’s Tongue Ferns abound. Orange Peel Fungus (Aleuria aurantia) grows on fallen rotting branches. We meet Judith and Charles with her two pugs and we all head back to the village.
Saturday 26th March – Nunney – A glorious Spring morning; blue skies, blazing sunshine and singing birds. Rooks caw from the several rookeries up Horn Street. There is a persistent squeaking of Blue Tits. A Starling whistles, ticks, drum rolls, squawks and chatters in many tongues. A cock Ring-necked Pheasant is flushed as the dogs enter the sheep field. Peter and Jo do not have any sheep this year and it is strange to see the little paddock empty. A Kestrel flies over.
We sit in the garden and have Whitby kippers for breakfast. Rooks caw, Jackdaws chack, House Sparrows chatter, a Wren bursts forth with a fusillade of song and a Starling clatters his beak.
Beacon Hill – A Standing Stone, a Way Marker and tumuli along the ridge. A heat haze lies across the plain to Glastonbury Tor. A Chaffinch is singing; a Nuthatch is calling from a broken spur high up on a Beech tree.
Easter Monday 28th March – Nunney – Mid morning and the garden is full of life. A Starling is digging into a fat ball whilst a Robin looks on in disgust. The Collared Doves call incessantly. A Rook flies over, high above, cawing and is answered by some more up the road. A sudden blast of song from a Wren rents the air. Jackdaws chack and gulls yelp down the street from the castle. House Sparrows chirp. I give Dill the Dog a brush. A few moments later, a Dunnock hops down next to me and grabs a large tangle of hair in its beak. It struggles to get it into a position that allows it to fly and then heads off across the garden and disappears into an evergreen shrub.
Mells – The 26th Annual Daffodil Fair and, as it is an early Easter, there are many daffodils in flower. The bells of St Andrews peel out. Red-coated Town Criers are waiting to formally start the proceedings. Rob, from Nunney, has a stall selling home produced plants – he seems to be doing a good trade. There is a good mix of local craftsfolk, charity stalls and commercial marketers. After wandering for a while we settle down by the beer tent and sample a pint or five of good honest Somerset cider and watch the terrier racing. Well, I do and Kay drives back to Nunney!