Friday – Humber – The first round of the annual BTO Breeding Birds Survey. Dawn was quite bright but now it has clouded over. Across the fields from Steens Bridge. The grass is long and full of rain from last night, so my feet are soaked in a trice. Wood Pigeons and Carrion Crows are moving around in decent numbers. There seem to be more Ring-necked Pheasants than previous years. Into Humber village where the Jackdaws are in a copse beside the field rather than on the church as is usual. There also seem to be less of them but until I do the totals I cannot be sure. There certainly are less Blue and Great Tits, which is odd as I would have expected the mild winter to have favoured them. A local woman chats about the birds she has seen before cycling off to go swimming. Chiffchaffs are in the usual places on the other side of the river, down by the Humber Brook. Out along the roads where there are several Yellowhammers and Whitethroats, I usually only record a couple of each. However, there is no sign of any Corn Buntings this year, which is sad.
Sunday – High Offley – The now annual Barnsley Bugler meet on the May Day Bank Holiday at The Anchor beside the Shropshire Union Canal. A grey morning. The sun is trying to break through on the eastern horizon, silhouetting High Offley church. Dawn chorus was deafening, individual songs could barely be discerned. Now, several hours later, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Wren, Robin, Skylark can all be heard, as can the inevitable Canada Geese. These days where there is water there are Canada Geese. Moored boats go on forever down the canal. Mallard swim, rest on the bank and graze in the fields. A Mute Swan investigates Maddy, clearly not happy to see her. Tufted Vetch has tiny purple flowers on the edge of the canal. A Whitethroat sings from a wire then drops down to a fence below the level of the tow-path. There are some white mushrooms in the grass beside the tow-path but I have no access to any field guide so I leave them. Later checking convinces me they were St George’s Mushrooms, a very delicious species! At the bridge the road leads into the hamlet of Shebdon. A house has a plaque dating it to 1870, with 1851 in small numbers and the logo HH. There is a mixture of old and newer properties as one would expect. Across the fields are a scattering of farmhouses and farm labourers houses. Skylarks sing in numbers above a grain crop. Swallow mate on a television aerial. Into Oldershaws Lane. There are some fine houses down the road, many in local red brick, one dated 1828. Goldfinches flash down the hedgerow. A Robin sings in a small Oak. Whitethroats are regularly spaced down the hedgerow. Turn into the lane that leads back to Old Lea and The Anchor. Red Campion, White Dead Nettle, Buttercups, Cow Parsley are all in flower. Large amounts of Comfrey are growing in the verge.
High Offley – Tyrley Locks – Off on the boat in a north-westerly direction. Brigid is rubbing down the top rails of the boat in preparation for painting and Dave P. joins her. I just get a beer and watch the view I’m afraid! The lambs in the fields are getting bigger now. A fine looking cock Ring-necked Pheasant runs along the tow-path as we pass. A lot of groups of ducklings scurry after the boast as we pass, always watched carefully by the Mallard duck. Sometimes they get split either side of the canal by our passing and those separated from their mother rush across the wake to get back to the main group. Past the old Cadburys’ wharf, now owned by Premier Foods; Birds Custard is now made here. The floor of the woods has an azure mist of Bluebells. Into the Woodseaves Cutting. There is evidence of still more landslips and areas of trees have been cleared. Hart’s Tongue and Buckler ferns are common on the slopes above the canal. At Tyrley Locks the boat is tied up and we walk about half a mile to The Four Alls. There are a few pubs with this name around the country and is derived from
The King rules for all; The Priest prays for all; The Soldier fights for all; The Ordinary Man pays for all. After a few pints we set off back to the boat and back to The Anchor. As usual all the way back there are Grey Herons which wait for the boat to approach, fly ahead and settle again only to be repeated several times before flying higher and back behind the boat to land. One wonders why they do not do this first time. Whitethroats are in the tow-path hedgerows. A Pied Wagtail and a Swallow share a length of telephone wire. Three Greylag Geese stand in a field. A canal boat on a trailer stands across the far side of a field, an odd place for it.
Monday – High Offley – The sun is bright but there is a sharp wind which chills. Down the canal southwards. Blackbirds and Robins sing, there is a Chiffchaff every hundred yards or less. Off the tow-path at Grub Street. Greenfinches wheeze in the trees. At the next road junction, Long-tailed Tits rasp and Chaffinches pink. A cockerel crows across the fields. At Leawood several rookeries are attended by noisy Rooks. This year it is clear the Oak has come into leaf long before the Ash. Swallows are nesting in the gents’ lavatory as usual and get rather agitated when the loo is used. One stands on the cistern and stares at me until I leave and it can fly out.
Tuesday – Home – Overnight rain has dampened everywhere. Despite this, the grass needs cutting so I set-to. The hens seem to have calmed down a bit but the Silver Sussex can fly up onto the chicken-house roof and over the fence, so one of her wings is clipped. After cutting the grass and strimming some edges, a few things need sowing – purple sprouting broccoli, sweetcorn, leeks and some more courgettes and pumpkins. Then the canes go in for climbing beans that have sprouted in the greenhouse. There is screaming overhead and the first Swift of the summer scythes through the blue sky. Spotty the Blackbird with white spots on his head is singing loudly from our Ash tree. The dessert pear at the bottom of the garden has a large number of embryonic pears as does the perry pear; the plum has some fruit and the apples are all in blossom. However, the greengage does not seem to have a single fruit, I was hoping this year it would start to produce.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – Sunshine and showers greet us at Bodenham. Canada Geese cackle. A Garden Warbler sings loudly beside the hide. A Coot searches the shallows. A few Mallard are scattered about. A pristine Ring-necked Pheasant shakes off the rain on the bank. Out comes the sun again. Scanning the water brings a surprise, seven Shelduck at the western end. A lone drake Tufted Duck is nearby. A young Cormorant pops up beside the reed bed. House Martins twist and turn high above. Outside the hide is a mass of chromium yellow Broom. Back in the meadow the hedgerow seems snow-covered with the masses of Hawthorn blossom. Robins, Blackcaps, Willow Warblers and a Song Thrush serenade. Many of the apple trees are now in blossom. Just heading down the road from the lakes when a Chinook helicopter passes over at tree top level sending Wood Pigeons flying in every direction.
Friday – Bucknell-Hopton Castle – From the church the road passes over the brook. In the far side a line of Weeping Willows hang like curtains. It is a day is wind, sun and showers. Up Dog Kennel Lane and then a bridleway up the hill. A massive Oak stands at the corner of a field. A rainbow arcs across the western woods. Rain starts again, time for over-trousers, but of course it stops when I get them on. The path comes to a crossroads and I turn left past Willow Cottage. A Blackcap sings in an Ash and is joined briefly by a Tree Sparrow. Then a Garden Warbler starts up at the base of the Ash. Across another track crossroads, this would indicate this was a far more important route one upon a time, and on up Bucknell Hill. The verge is dominated by Red Campion and Stitchwort with a scattering of Dog Violets and Germander Speedwell peeking through the grass. Past another couple of isolated cottages and into Mynd Scrub. On up the hill where sadly the broadleaf woods give way to depressingly gloomy ranks of Forestry Commission conifers. The track passes by the top of Bucknell Hill which stands at 345 metres. Occasional firebreaks give glimpses down the valley of the River Redlake. A Wren sings ahead. The path drops down through mixed woodland to Hopton Woods. Although the woods are predominantly conifers they are edged with half century old Beeches. A path runs around the wood to Mereoak Farm. The path skirts the farm and runs along between fields and a conifer plantation of trees probably less than twenty years old. An owl box is on a pole, I am not having a look inside, that is how Eric Hosking, the bird photographer, lost an eye. It is raining persistently now. Skylarks sing over the fields of grain. A detour through the woods comes to a knoll marked in the map as a viewpoint. However most of the view is obscured by conifers. The area was open hillside at the turn of the 20th century, but covered in conifers post-First World War. This is the top of Hopton Tittershill at 397 metres. Little red fruits have already formed on the Bilberries. Back along the track to where a path is supposed to descend the hill but there is no sign of it. A Common Buzzard flies silently through the trees. As the path descends the hill around the edge of Hopton Park, the trees have been cleared giving fine views of Hopton Castle and the surrounding countryside. A Raven cronks overhead.
The path drops down to a field. Across the field the footpath send to go through another field but this one is occupied by cows and calves. It is not wise to take a dog through so I try to find an alternative. A meadow with long, very wet grass runs along the hedgerow parallel to the village. I am surprised to find a fine pair of Fallow Deer antlers lying in the grass. How they got here I have no idea! There is no way through the hedge so in the end it is back to the forestry track and continue around to a bridleway and down into the village. Across a stream to the church of St Edward. The stonework does not look old and I would guess this is a Victorian rebuild in an old site and indeed it was designed by Hereford based architect Thomas Nicholson and rebuilt in 1870 at a cost of £1,000 and a Miss Rodney of Park Cottage paid for the entire refurbishment. The church was originally called St Mary’s, changing to St Edward’s in 1927. The original church is believed to have been built around 980 but was destroyed by fire.The interior is fairly ordinary although there is a fine harmonium beside the sanctuary. Outside is a large monument commemorating William Smith (died 1840) and his wife, Ann (died 1824). Hopton Castle is mainly very fine timber-framed houses with a few modern dwellings. The finest is the Old Rectory, the men of God knew how to live!
Pre-Conquest, a Saxon named Eadric owned the manor of Opetoune as well as Clun and Hopesay. By 1086, the Domesday Book recorded the area, owned then by Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, as
waste so the settlement may have been dispersed or destroyed in local fighting. The incumbent at the time, holding the manor from the Earl, was Picot de Say. Hopton castle is an interesting building. By 1165 the owner was Walter de Opton, in time the written form becoming
de Hopton. In the 13th century, the family was politically significant, Sir Walter de Hopton being Sheriff of the large, adjacent counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire. Acting as judge and, for a time, as an auditor in Ireland for Edward I, he resigned after being himself heavily fined for corruption. He was also accused of stealing cattle from the road between Hopton and Jay. It is not known exactly when the castle was built. It has features from 11th through to the 14th centuries. It may not have been built until the latter date incorporating earlier features to give the impression that the family were old landed gentry. It is believed there was a Norman timber castle here before this time. At the time of the Civil War the castle was owned by Robert Wallop, a staunch Parliamentarian. In February 1644, the castle was commanded by Samuel, later Colonel, More, son of a local landowner. Major Phillips (possibly from Brampton) came to advise on strengthening defences. A week later, the Royalists, under Sir Michael Woodhouse, attacked. There was a three week seige involving 200 Royalists against 30 Parliamentarians who surrendered eventually.
Off down the road to Bedstone. To the east is a small hillock screened by conifers. This is Warfield Bank and has an earthwork on the summit although not visible or accessible from here. The roadside hedge is a mixture of Holly, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Elder and Beech. A Whitethroat sings from its top. Suddenly a flock of more than thirty Swifts appear overhead screaming. They disappear just as quickly. I leave the road and take a track back up into Hopton Woods. The views behind are magnificent. Bluebells flower thickly along the eaves of the wood. Small Tortoiseshells and Peacock butterflies enjoy the hot sunshine. A Chiffchaff calls in the wood, a Wren sings and a Blue Tit churrs. At an old shelter it is clear the path I need is actually in the wood so through a gate and up a blue and white wonderland of Bluebells and Stitchwort. There is also a few plants that are yet to flower but have a display of purplish leaves. I cannot identify it but suspect a bellflower or similar. A number of conifers have been uprooted and already Red Campion and bramble have colonised the pit left behind. On through the wonderfully named Gripesnest. I can find no reference to the origin of the name, but Grype is an old name for the Griffon Vulture, although a nesting vulture here... A long haul up a muddy path criss-crossed with fallen trees brings me back to the corner of Hopton Woods. There are exposed rock formations up the path, Silurian micaceous siltstones of the Bailey Hill Formation. A road leads down Darky Dale. An unusual pine stands near the road. At about twenty feet up it divides into three separate trunks one of a which bifurcates again. A little beyond the woodland are open fields where there is Castle Ditches, a Romano-British settlement or enclosure. A ditch can be seen although it is very worn down. On down the road. Orange Tips flit along the hedges. Common Buzzards mew as they circle above a copse. At Pool Cottages I realise that a footpath cuts over the hill avoiding a long dog-leg. The hill is pretty steep and I have to lift Maddy over three stiles but it saves a fair distance. The path rejoins the road at Mynde Farm where an old merle border collie barks furiously at Maddy who ignores it completely. I am getting very tired, my knee is very painful but the views of the Marches countryside, the calls of the birds and the bleating of lambs pays for all. We wander along the road. Suddenly a rabbit bolts between us from the hedge into the woodland. Maddy looks round, she knows something happened but is unsure what exactly and looks stares questioningly at the woodland. Mynd is a hamlet of a few cottages and large 20th century house with white standing stones in front of the main entrance. Down the road and again down the bridleway to Dog Kennel Lane. I intended to have a look around Bucknell but I have run out of time. Route, ignore the triangle south of Hopton Castle – GPS collywobbles!
Monday – Croft – Sunlight filters through the sylan green but threatening rain clouds loom. There is a fresh and lively breeze. Down the ride to the Fish Pool Valley and up through the Beech woods. Bird song is mainly chirruping Blue Tits, a Blackbird, brief snatches of Chaffinch and Great Tit and then an even briefer burst of that which I am listening for, Wood Warbler. Spurges grow along the bank. It is getting darker and the wind stronger. A small bird emits a single note before breaking into the familiar spinning coin song of a Wood Warbler. It is searching for food in a Beech sapling. The different species of flower is increasing rapidly now, Herb Robert, Yellow Archangel, Bugle, Stitchwort, Bluebell, Lesser Celandine, Ransoms, Hedge Mustard, several of the dandelion family, late Primroses, Cuckoo Pints, Bitter Vetchling, Common Vetch, Dog Violets, Forget-me-nots, Welsh Poppy, Yellow Pimpernel and a few I have probably missed. There are gouges up through Lyngham Vallet where machinery has entered the woodland to thin it. Just before Leinthall Common a Blackcap sings in scrub under the conifers, a song of strength and clarity as ever I have heard from this little species of warbler. Out in the common the Bluebells are a sea of azure with just a couple of ivory white blooms. Willow Warblers sing from the steep slopes of the common. The views from Croft Ambrey are extensive. The great Ash on the hill-fort is still not in leaf. Whitethroats sing from trees around the ramparts. The trees by the gamekeepers cottage are busy with Chaffinches, Robins, Blue Tits and Great Spotted Woodpecker. The Spanish Chestnuts are finally coming into leaf. A charm of Goldfinches twitters up into a sapling. Although the Spanish Chestnuts are all gnarly and decayed only two are without any leaf. Sadly one of these is one of the magnificent millennium trees. Swallows and House Martins sweep around the farm yard by the castle.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – A chorus of Blackcaps, Robins and Wrens ring out from the Willow copse as it bathes in warm sunshine. A carpet of Dove’s Foot Cranesbill, Geranium molle, covers the ground next to the track with delicate little pink flowers. The lambs in the orchard are noisy. Less so are the Canada Geese for a change, just a few yelps. A Cuckoo calls from the south. The lake is relatively quiet, just the Canada Geese on the island seem to be upset now and are making a continuous racket. A pair of Greylag Geese, probably feral, have apparently annoyed a cob Mute Swan which heads towards them rapidly with wings arched. They wisely beat a retreat and are joined by three more, so maybe not feral after all. The Cuckoo is either very mobile or there is more than one, but at no time are two heard simultaneously. A few Mallard feed at the western end and a pair of Tufted Duck glide out from behind the island. There is a large patch of grey in the green of Dinmore Hill which I guess is an area of Ashes which are yet to come into leaf. Back in the meadow I have my usual trouble to distinguishing individual songs from the chorus, but I think there are at least two Garden Warblers along the snowy blossomed Hawthorn hedge. The meadow is a glorious carpet of yellow buttercups on fresh green grass. Into the orchard where Maddy disturbs the resting sheep despite doing nothing. A Mistle Thrush rasps and Green Woodpecker yaffles under the eaves of West Field Wood. A Coal Tit feeds on apple trees, darting its head around the pink blossom picking off insects. From here I head up to the chicken farm to buy some feed. The hens are certainly eating enough despite not laying a single egg for around a week now!
Home – Things are gathering pace in the garden. The second sowing of lettuces have been planted out and this time fitted with plastic collars made from old bottles to defeat the slugs that devoured the first sowing. Also planted out are ruby chard, again protected with collars. In the greenhouse, tomatoes have their first fruits and strawberries are ripening. Green peppers have been transplanted into troughs and the chillies I purchased in Somerset have been potted on. The cucumber, courgette and pumpkin seedlings have been brought down from the bathroom window sill but the problem remains of identity. Their labels all faded to blankness and at the moment they all look the same. Hopefully by the time they need planting out I will be able to work out what is what. The potatoes are growing well and have been earthed up. Broad beans are covered in flowers and bees are frequent visitors. The French and Runner beans have been put into the bed but they also are suffering from blank labels although a number had the seed packets attached. Kay’s flower beds are glorious, although she is having a difficult time planting her next seedlings without damaging the current display. After my complaint this morning about the lack of eggs, Stevie has obliged with her first for some weeks. Hopefully this is the resumption of normal service again.
Stockton Ride – Another BTO survey, this time my third annual Woodcock survey. Up to the field at Stockton Ride. A Chiffchaff calls in the strip of woods that runs along beside the old Roman road. Into the field. Some chicks are making a din in a tree by the gate. There is a hole created by a broken branch some way up and they may be in there. The fields are sown with autumn cereal this year. Bird song starts to diminish as the sun disappears. A huge pink moon appears in the horizon. As the light begins to fade, Blackbirds change from sing to alarm pinking. A rabbit lops out is the woods and then back in again. A Grey Heron flies over, seems late to be heading for its roost. It is shortly followed by another, both heading south-east. Now Robins and Song Thrushes are the only singers. Maddy is patient although very keen to keep playing chase ball. As we leave the full moon has turned golden and risen into the darkening sky. My Woodcock count is, yet again, a zero.
Friday – Addlestone-Weybridge, Su