Ramblings

October 1998


Thursday 1st October – Barnsley Canal – The rain is torrential. Is it the tail of one of the four named hurricanes which have been in the Atlantic Ocean? By the entrance to the tow path a frog hops away towards the canal. Despite the downpour, Magpies are still squabbling and screeching. By the bridge another frog is on the path. Dill the Dog sniffs it suspiciously and is unimpressed when it suddenly hops away. The small rill that brings water drained off the hillside down to the canal is a torrent and has burst out to form a large pond at the bottom of the field. A Grey Heron and a pair of Mallard seek food forced out of the ground by the flood. There is a drain from the canal on the opposite side from the rill. It is not clear where it is on the canal side, just a general drift of water towards the side. On the other side of the tow path there is a rush of water. There is a well marked on the map and it easily found under a Hawthorn as gallons of water per second pour into a hole in the ground. Suddenly the rain stops. At the bottom of Willowbank stand the white heads of Shaggy Inkcaps, also called Lawyer’s Wigs. A couple have already autodigested into black slime.

Saturday 3rd October – Edderthorpe – The recent rains and tractors have turned the track to Edderthorpe into a quagmire. The new road from Grimethorpe to the M1 link road is nearing completion. A Green Woodpecker flies over from the waste tip to a dead tree, calling loudly. Waders are limited to Dunlin, Snipe, Redshank and a lone Greenshank. Duck numbers seem down too. There are still good numbers of Little Grebe and over a dozen Grey Herons.

Sunday 4th October – Flamborough Head – A powerful north-easterly is whipping the North Sea. First check is the stubble field where a Rustic Bunting has been reported on the pagers. Lots of finches, buntings and Sky Larks are flitting around but identification is difficult. I then wander down to the northern cliff path. Small birds are zipping around the brambles and nettles, but again are being seen for fractions of a second. A man walking his dog shows me the fresh corpse of a poor little Goldcrest that made it to landfall but could not feed in time. More Goldcrests feed rapidly on a piece of waste ground between the road and a golf tee, ignoring the golfers totally. A Redwing is feeding with a Blackbird on the golf course. Checking the bushes beside the road reveals a Yellowhammer and a Whitethroat. Up the road near the old Lighthouse, a tall, thin white brick building, is a small area of grass and some wind blasted trees. Robins are flicking around and a couple of Chaffinches and a splendid Brambling rise from the scrubby grass into the low branches. The Brambling has most of its summer plumage intact.

South Landing – Several Swallows are feeding overhead. The ravine is very quiet, which is surprising as the strong winds and rain are still sweeping the more exposed areas. As the rain pours down I wander around the perimeter of the woods rise from another ravine at right-angles to the main one. Here Goldcrests and Willow Warblers are feeding frantically. A Treecreeper’s white underparts gleam from a trunk far below. On the beach a rocky patch in the sand, covered with seaweed has attracted Oystercatchers, Redshank, Dunlin, Turnstones and Curlew Sandpipers. Up in a patch of gorse at the edge of the cliff a rufous flash signals a Redstart, which then flies up the ravine. I head back to the Head and check the sea but only a few Northern Gannets and Cormorants are passing. The rain returns even heavier and that’s enough – home.

Wednesday 7th October – Barnsley Canal – A fat, near full moon shines in the dawn sky. Equally fat are the deep crimson Haws on the Hawthorns. They look abundant now but will soon be depleted when the winter thrushes arrive. There is plenty to hear, Blackbirds and Magpies both scolding, Bullfinches meeping, Robins singing and Moorhens warning. Yellows and browns are beginning to become more prevalent, although not yet dominating green. The Mute Swan family are bathing and preening. White feathers are now appearing in the muddy brown plumage of the cygnets.

Old Haigh – Two Common Pheasants walk towards a patch of newly sown grass on the field below the Birthwaite Hall. One is melanistic, dark blue bronze.

Sunday 11th October – Edderthorpe – A twitch! And a dip. A Red-necked Phalarope has been present all week, but I had thought it gone on Friday. It transpired it was present yesterday, but left last night. There are still good numbers of duck on the flash including a pair of Pintails. Waders include Dunlin, Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Greenshank, Snipe and Little Stint. A pair of winter plumaged Great Crested Grebe cruise, whilst Grey Herons are squabbling in their prehistoric croaks and snarls.

Silkstone Fall – Just inside the woods Sweet Chestnuts have covered the ground with emerald coloured balls of spikes. As usual, the chestnuts inside are small, divided specimens, useless for eating. There are few specimens of fungi in the woods, just a few of the Russula group. Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests are in the conifers, their high pitched calls loud against the wind.

Monday 12th October – Barnsley Canal – A strong wind has been blowing from the north-west all night. The canal is glowing gold in the rising sun. A Hawthorn hedge leads off at right angles from the tow-path across the meadow. High in the hedge sits a Short-eared Owl, its yellow eyes watching every movement and seeking the source of any noise. A Jay flies down the edge of the canal. The adult Mute Swans and one of the cygnets appear to have flown, leaving a two rather lonely looking pair of young. Two Carrion Crows fly downwind at a considerable speed.

Tuesday 13th October – Barnsley Canal – The Redwings have arrived. They are very flighty though. Instead of their usual behaviour of sitting at the top of bushes and trees and watching the area, they shoot from the interior of one Hawthorn to another, sometimes rising as a ragged flock and heading off high before dropping into another bush. Occasionally an individual watches me, its cream eye-stripe gleaming in the undergrowth. There are also large numbers of mainly juvenile Blackbirds in the area. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flies across the canal near the bridge. The two cygnets are on the nursery mound, alone. The dead Hawthorn mentioned some time ago as having a surprising number of species around it is still popular – Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Dunnock, Reed Bunting and Redwing are all present.

Wednesday 14th October – Barnsley Canal – Two Swallows zigzag overhead moving southwards. Willow Tits are buzzing in the bushes, Robins singing and Blackbirds chucking. The browning Duckweed looks like it has blossomed with tiny white flowers, but closer examination reveals these to be rain drops sitting on the mass of weed. The two remaining Mute cygnets are feeding and preening. Redwings fly up and down the valley in small flocks or even singly. There is activity around the bridge. A Great Spotted Woodpecker disappears into some Hawthorn trees. Whilst looking for it I catch sight of a Treecreeper climbing the trunk. Then across the canal a Green Woodpecker makes a noisy entrance and disappears into the Hawthorn hedge along the tow-path. Near the entrance to the tow-path, the sun lights up hundreds of dancing midges and flies.

Wakefield – A small number of Fieldfare alight on a tree to the east of the M1 near Wakefield.

M621, Leeds – A large flock of Lapwings has returned to the roof of an industrial unit beside the motorway. The black roof must absorb heat which attracts the Lapwings.

Elland – The River Calder is in spate and boils brown as it passes the mills and off towards Brighouse. Most the flowering plants are at the end of their cycle. The tops of the Great Willowherb are bare curls, the white, fluffy seed long gone. Dock stands tall, red-brown and brittle. A Bindweed is still growing and curls up the Willowherb and dead grass stems.

Saturday 17th October –Sturminster Newton, Dorset – Despite the heavy rain yesterday the River Stour is slowly flowing. Cows bellow across the morning fields. A Bullfinch meeps gently from the hedgerow.

On the way to Nunney in Somerset, the hedgerows are adorned with necklaces of the red berries of White Bryony. Roads are lined with rows of golden leaved Beeches. The hills are ridged with Iron Age fortifications.

Tedbury and Great Elm – Through woods and then suddenly there is a quarry. The floor is a fossilised sea bed, ancient ripples remain. Peter’s father tells me that when he first saw it 35 years ago the whole area was covered in fossilised oyster shells, but they have all been removed now. From the quarry a path drops down to the bubbling river. The woods are damp, trees covered in mosses and Ivy with Wood Mushrooms and Hart’s Tongue Ferns in the deep leaf litter. Deep in the greenery is a large house. From the extensive gardens, steps lead down to the river. The river is narrow and turbulent, so it unclear what use could be made of these steps – a boat would hardly be a safe prospect. Further upstream there is more of the fossilised sea bed, tilted near vertical. At the edge of the village of Greater Elm an oddly quaint wooden shed, looking like a sort of wattle stands out over river. The path leads along side the river as the village rises above it. An old Lime kiln is on the opposite bank, with a tree growing out the top of it. On through the woods until it suddenly becomes gardens with neatly mown grass, then back into woods. Then a tall limestone wall is on one side of the path, with a high bank of limestone on the other side. Eventually as path leads into the area between the wall and the river and there are the extensive remains of Fussells’ Iron Works. They were abandoned before the First World War but a warren of offices, passages and other constructions lay in the dense undergrowth and trees. In one large ruin, there is some huge piping and in a deeper section the remains of a water wheel. By the river are broken wooden sluice gates, the river rushing and boiling through the constriction. Deep brick-lined channels appear beneath ones feet . Further on there are the huge blast furnaces. Everywhere there are trees, brambles and thick undergrowth. Eventually, we drag ourselves away and return to the car. On the way home the south western sky blazes with the setting sun, casting a golden hue to the numerous hill forts.

Sunday 18th October – Sturminster Newton – The first frost of autumn whitens the grass on the meadow down to the Stour. Jackdaws spin and twist in the air, enjoying the rising sun.

Dorchester – Just to the south of the County Town of Dorset, rises the enormous hill fort of Maiden Castle. It is the largest earthworks in the British Isles, with a Neolithic Camp, at 3000BCE at the eastern end and the whole of the wide hill top ringed with huge dykes and ditches from three different occupations by Iron Age folk. The Romans built a temple on the flat plain at the top. The fields below contain a number of round barrows and a very large flock of Black-headed Gulls, which take off and flash and wheel around like waders. Meadow Pipits pipe noisily on the earthworks.

Monday 19th October – Weymouth – Lodmoor RSPB Reserve is in bright sunshine. Waves of Canada Geese fly in, honking loudly. A few Dunlin and Snipe probe the mud. Male Teal are back in breeding plumage and thinking of next year’s breeding season, circling and whistling. A young Stonechat sits in a bush. Flocks of Goldfinches and the occasional Greenfinch twitter. Out on the marsh stands a large concrete block and on the block stands a Peregrine Falcon. It spots a Kestrel in the grass and flies over to chase it off. Barn Swallows feed over the pools. A headless corpse of a Water Rail lies on the path – victim of a Mink?

Radipole Lake – Cetti’s Warblers are exploding into small snatches of song, but they are elusive. Shovelers feed by the river. Dozens of Cormorants sit on wooden rails, surrounded by Black-headed Gulls. Black-tailed Godwits sleep on the mud whilst Redshanks feed around them. A number of Red Admiral and Peacock butterflies flit up the path.

Portland Bill – We check the old quarry at Cheyne Weare for migrants but only find a few Greenfinches. There is little around the Bill itself, although we find some Horse Mushrooms and Blewits. At sea, a large number of Gannets are circling over a mile out.

Tuesday 20th October – East Sussex – First stop, Wilmington, where a Long Man is carved into the chalk on the side of the Downs. Its age and origin are lost and subject to much speculation. One writer considers him to be a representation of a Hod Man. The Long Man holds a long pole in each hand and one of the few people who traditionally used two poles were those marking out ancient ways, or Hod Men. This does rather assume a third pole is in place somewhere! But it is unlikely the truth will ever be known. What is surer is the presence of Neolithic burial mounds and flint mines on Windover Hill above the Long Man. A splendid male Stonechat sits atop a Dog Rose briar, his red breast complimenting the red hips. A large flock of Great Black-backed Gulls flies across the Weald, their wings winking in the morning sun. The path joins one of these ancient ways, a chalk track carved deep into the side of the Down. It is joined by another curving up from Alfriston. The village sits below in the valley of the River Cuck, which has divided the Downs. Here a more recent hill carving – a horse – can be seen. At the top one is a little light-headed, both puffed from the steep climb and in wonderment that over 3000 years ago, men and women toiled here, throwing up tumuli to bury and honour their dead and work deep in pits dug with antler picks, searching for the valuable flints from which they could create the tools that allowed them to progress in their humanity. From the top the views are awe inspiring; north, across the Weald to the North Downs, Surrey and London, west, the rolling Downs, the peak of Firle Beacon, south, wooden valleys and sheep cropped hills to Seaford and the English Channel and east, the Down still rises. Yellowhammers chase and chirrup around the wind stunted Gorse and Hawthorns. Back down towards Wilmington village, a large Rat runs down the path.

Beachy Head - Blazing sunshine and an azure sea - has summer come at last? Down a grassy path through berryless and leafless Hawthorns. A Dunnock, Chaffinch and several Robins call. Out on the grassland a pair of Jays chase around. A strange looking vessel, the Volvox Iberia, is laying some sort of boom in Eastbourne Bay. (I later learn she is a trailing suction hopper dredger) There are more Jays and numerous Magpies on the seawards valley down from the head. Twittering Goldfinches fly around the bushes. At the bottom of the valley there is a song I simply cannot place and am somewhat embarrassed when a ringer emerges from the bushes and tells me it is a tape to lure in passing Redpoll and Siskin! Swallows are feeding high over the Head.

Thursday 22nd October – Bramber – Poor Bramber Castle has not been treated well by the centuries. Little remains, one tall wall – the sole remains of the gate house – and a few smaller ones, all built of flint nodules in a pebbly concretion. It stands guard over the valley of the River Ouse – the West Sussex one. From the remains of a tower, a couple of feet high, the view is of fields and streams which at the time the castle was erected were part of an arm of the sea, washing all the way up to Steyning. A Cormorant flies overhead and a disturbed Mistle Thrush rasps crossly. The motte stands high in the centre of the site, covered in Beeches, Ash and a Yew. It may have had a wooden tower on top when constructed in the 11th Century by William de Braose, friend of the Conqueror and the Sussex founder of the Duke of Norfolk’s family (see Arundel below). Down from the castle hill, past the little church of St Nicholas, past the knapped flint built old school house and into the village. The old Toll House is now a pub. There are maybe too many modern houses of rather insensitive design but the village retains much of its character. A set of low cottages adorned with ivy, turning red, line the road. St Mary’s House is a splendid Elizabethan timber framed house from around 1470 is still lived in as a home. There is a story that William Wilberforce, the abolitionist, and local Member of Parliament, passed through Bramber one day and stopped his carriage to ask the name of the place. On being told, he said, Bramber? Why, that’s the place I’m Member for.

Steyning – Another village greatly enhanced by a by-pass. The Grammar School has been in use since 1614. The streets are a wonderful mixture of styles, flint, brick, timber framed, roofs tiled and thatched. The National School was built in 1840 and still rings to children learning their numbers. The importance of Steyning has been lost, for few know that Edward the Confessor gave much of the land here to the Abbey at Fécamp in Normandy. King Harold II took away these lands and it was this act that featured strongly in William of Normandy’s decision to invade in 1066.

Cissbury – Heading west and then to the Downs north of Worthing. Cissbury Ring is, inevitably, another Iron Age fort. Although it is stated that there were extensive Roman fortifications here. They apparently grew grapes for viniculture on the slopes below the ring. There is also evidence of a major flint working site. The sheep pastures below are dotted with black-faced Sussex sheep. Findon stables lay over the valley, home to many a famous race horse. On the Down side there is a large clump of Yellow-staining Mushrooms, one of the very few of the Agaricus group (which contains the commercial mushroom) that is poisonous.

Arundel – Once the heart of the Downs of West Sussex, Arundel is dominated by its castle. It is one of the few castles that remains wholly intact, the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk and is occasionally a Royal residence. The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady and St Philip Howard also dominates the skyline from the south. Gargoyles guard every corner and Saints and Apostles stand in the niches over the west door. Inside, the walls are rather austere, featuring the Stations of the Cross. It is not an old building, commissioned in 1868 and opened in 1873. The architect was Joseph Hansom, inventor of the Hansom Cab. The dedication to St Philip Howard occurred as recently as 1970, following his canonisation. He was born in 1557 at a time it was none too healthy to be a Catholic He only lived 39 years, often imprisoned. Over the road, the Parish Church of St Nicholas is far older. One stained glass window, a simple design featuring a Barn Swallow, is dated 1541. Faded wall paintings adorn several walls. Behind the altar is the Fitzalan Screen which separates the Fitzalan Chapel from the rest of the Church. The Dukes of Norfolk are buried here, despite in being used as stables by Cromwell’s troops.

Saturday 24th October – Stanmer – A short morning walk through rapidly deteriorating climatic conditions. The bridleway starts at the lodge just off the Ditchling road, close to Old Boat Corner. There used to be part of an old Brighton Hog – a fishing boat, there, used as shepherds’ hut. It disappeared decades ago and now only the name remains. The track heads down into a shallow valley. Many of the trees are eleven years old, those that grabbed their chance when the Great Storm of 1987 levelled the old Stanmer woods. On the other side the trees seem motionless despite the rising wind. Likewise, cows are grazing motionless and it feels like moving through a model landscape. The village is mainly a couple of working farms. Calves feed on silage, Carrion Crows and Magpies glean the farm yards. There is no sign of the mere or lake that gave the village its name – Stan (stony) Mer (mere, lake or marsh). On the way back up the hill the rain gets heavier and the wind blasts a storm of leaves off the trees. A covey of Red-legged Partridges move slowly and quietly across a ploughed field.

Monday 26th October – Barnsley Canal – The heavy rains of the past week have turned the loop into a marshy lagoon. Mallard and Teal take advantage of the newly flooded soil to feed. The coolness has hastened the Bulrushes’ transition from green to tan brown. The two Mute cygnets are still present and the parents have returned. The other youngster has, presumably, joined a wintering herd somewhere. There are small flocks of Redwings and Greenfinches, mainly around the bridge. A Grey Wagtail sits on the electricity wires before dropping into the marsh below.

Wednesday 28th October – Barnsley Canal – A sharp northerly wind whips down the valley. The Dearne has burst its banks and flooded the meadows and fields. A single Fieldfare slips into the Hawthorns near the dock. Redwings are everywhere, as are Wood Pigeons and Magpies. The two Mute cygnets and their parents stand on the nursery mound, preening. The cygnets are becoming whiter each week. A flock of Blue Tits, Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests move noisily along the Hawthorn hedgerow.

Elland – The River Calder rushes down the channel past the mills and walls. The islets in the middle are submerged with a few straggly branches above the boiling surface, bending to the torrent.

Thursday 29th October – Barnsley Canal – The bitter north wind continues. Large areas of the valley bottom are now flooded. Kestrels flash through the air using the wind but need considerable wing action to hover. Large flocks of Wood Pigeons and Rooks descend on the stubble fields. The Mute Swan family are still present, hardly surprising as an experienced adult would find difficulty rising from the canal in the cross-wind. A pair of Little Grebe dive at my approach. The sun appears and burns a ghost image on my retina. However, the grey, luminous rain clouds extinguish the sun before the image fades.

Heath – The village of Heath and its wide common lay between Wakefield and the Doncaster road. Old trackways cross the cropped grass. A Grey Heron flies low over the common attended by a sizeable flock of Rooks. Stands of blackening Shaggy Inkcaps – Lawyer’s Wigs – are scattered about. A Yellowhammer fights the gale to move between Hawthorns.

Friday 30th October – Barnsley Canal – Six Fieldfare pass high over the valley. The wind has slackened but the sky remains angry with rain. The floods have not subsided. There are noticeably different behaviours between Blackbirds and their cousins the Redwings on my approach. The former move noisily deeper into the bushes, muttering. If flushed they leave with loud calls of alarm. Redwings are still then explode from the bush and are off, in silence. There are several Grey Herons scattered around the pools of flood water. A beautifully marked Dunnock searches a Hawthorn for breakfast.

Saturday 31th October – Wombwell Ings – A large flock of Lapwings stand noisily in the shallow water at the edge of the Ings. In the middle, three Whooper Swans, probably recently arrived from Iceland, are feeding with four Mute Swans. Another symbol of winter, a Goosander, is diving. Suddenly the air is full with four slowly descending flocks of Golden Plover, which circle in and join the Lapwings, momentarily greatly increasing the noise level. Yet more of winter’s denizens are present – Wigeon and a single Goldeneye. Shoveler and Teal numbers are rising.

Edderthorpe – Two more Whooper Swans and another huge flock of flighty Golden Plover are on the flash. At times the sky above is a swirling mass of Goldies, which form up into great Vs are head off across the Dearne valley. There are more Goldeneye here as well, all females or juveniles. A single Common Gull yawns in the middle of a flock of Black-headed Gulls. The track-side Hawthorns are lively with Dunnocks, Robins, substantial numbers of Blackbirds, Reed Buntings, Chaffinches, Great, Blue and Willow Tits, Magpies and a Jay.