September 2014

Tuesday – Bodenham Lake – The sun shines through a hazy sky. The mornings feel like autumn now, that slight chill and mists. Canada Geese share the scrape with five Barnacle Geese and a pair of Mute Swans. Although Barnacle Geese are a combination of only white, black and grey, they are beautiful birds, the black and grey ripples down their backs contrasting with the pristine white underparts. A flotilla of Mallard glide across the water, all still dull brown, the drakes yet to regain their colours. A Great Created Grebe sleeps across the far side. Several skeins of Canada Geese take off noisily. Half a dozen Cormorants sit in the trees, bathing in warm sunshine. Hints of yellow are appearing in the willows. Grasses are browning. Another Great Crested Grebe has appeared at the western end. A pair of sheep have got onto the bank in front of the hide and are chomping away at the grass and herbs voraciously. A Kingfisher perches on a willow at the edge of the reed bed. As it moves its head its feathers flash metallic turquoise. Suddenly it dives but is hidden by the tall Purple Loosestrife and strangely does not reappear. A Robin and a pair of Reed Warblers are seeking food in the scrape, the former in the ground, the latter in the willow scrub. Fat little Sloes cover a Blackthorn in the meadow hedge. I gather enough for a bottle of Sloe Gin. The dessert apple crop is still very limited, it will be a poor crop.

Thursday – Dolgellau – We drive up to the north-west of Wales via the Dyfi Valley to Machynlleth then north past the Centre for Alternative Technology at Llwyngwern Quarry and up into the eastern foothills of Cadair Idris. Down the other side to Dolgellau, a market town in Gwynedd lying on the River Wnion, a tributary of the River Mawddach. It was the county town of Merionethshire. Although Bronze Age relics have been found in the area, it is thought that it was too Hallmarshy to have been settled until the 12th century when a serf village, possibly founded by Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. A church was established around this time, it is recorded in Norwich Taxatio of 1254 as paying twenty shillings. The major local religious centre was Cymer Abbey which lies a short distance north on the Afon Mawddach. Dolgellau probably means meadow of groves. The town is a wonderful warren of narrow streets lined by solid buildings in dark grey stone. It seems unlikely there was any plan to the town, unlike many others in north Wales where the Normans imposed a regular grid pattern. Chapels are around every corner. Many buildings are constructed out of quite large blocks of local stone, Cambrian dolerites. Eldon Square is the town centre dominated by the town/market hall, now a craft centre. Butchers and bakers shops along with a number of clothes shops make up a fine town centre. Just off the centre is the imposing building, built around 1886 of T.H. Roberts, a remarkably well preserved ironmonger’s which still has its original fittings. At the turn of the century over 500 gold miners were employed around Dolgellau – many of their picks and shovels must have been purchased here. Down to the river where Y Pont Fawr, the big bridge was built in 1638, since widened and lengthened.

Tyddyn Du Camp-site, Bontddu – Nice and quiet now the schools are back. Large levees of rock run along the edge of mud flats of the Mawddach estuary. Surprisingly few birds, just gulls and a couple of Mallard. Beyond the river the land rises and rises to the triple peaks of Cadair Idris. Up the valley, far beyond Dolgellau, the Aran mountains, southern peaks of Snowdonia are misty. As evening falls so does the breeze that has been blowing all afternoon, moderating the heat of the sun, but the still air brings out the midges and mosquitoes. As it grows dark a pair of Tawny Owls call but only briefly. Jackdaws are noisy but mercifully fall quiet. A Mallard quacks. In the gloom a large bat jinks over the phragmites reed bed.


Friday – Bontddu – Across to the levee. Several small flocks of Canada Geese are feeding in the marsh grasses and muddy creeks. There are some waders far over on the edge of the main flow, too far away to identify but the look big enough to be godwits. Duck, probably Mallard are feeding upstream a distance. The village, like Dolgellau is mainly late 18th century stone houses. Bontddu was at the heart of a mini-gold rush in the late 1800s. In the woods behind the village lie the remains of the Clogau Gold Mine, one of the largest of a string of goldmines working a gold seam running along the north shore of the estuary and up towards Coed y Brenin. Past the school and car dealership. A stream, the Hirgwim, pours down boulders and passes firstly under the old bridge then a nasty concrete modern road bridge. A terrace of houses stands above the old road. They have coal holes in their front walls. Maddy is clearly in pain as she walks. Our plans of going by bus to the coast are stymied. Back to the camp-site. Our tent is below a large outcrop of rock which is both surrounded and covered in Oak and Birch. Nuthatches, Jays, Blue Tits and Common Buzzards are all calling.

Llanaber – On the coast road between Barmouth and Harlech is the small village of Llanaber. The church of St Mary and St Bodfan is one of the best preserved 13th century churches in this part of the country. It is believed St Bodfaen built a small wattle and daub church here in the 6th century. The 13th century building was promoted by Hywel ap Gruffudd ap Cynan who was a great grandson of Owain Gwynedd and near relative of Llewelyn the Great. There was substantial rebuilding in Church1860 but much of the 13th century building remains. The main door is a fine Early English example, deeply recessed in yellow sandstone with six shafts to each side. Inside the piers are Norman in character with foliated capitals from which spring pointed arches. The windows are Early English lancets. On the wall is a brass plaque with the names of ten children who were on a Summer Holiday Party who were drowned suddenly in the dangerous Estuary of Mawddach in the Evening of 1st August 1894 In a corner are the two Llanaber stones. These are early Christian inscribed stones found within a mile of the church, and they appear to belong to the second half of the 5th century. One reads CAELESTI/MONEDO/RIGI and the other AETERN(I)/ET/AETERN(E). The Caelesti stone was placed in the church in the 19th century, after it was previously used as a foot bridge on a local farm. The extensive graveyard overlooks Barmouth Bay, today smooth and blue in the sunlight.

Barmouth – Situated on the north side of the Mawddach estuary, Abermaw became Barmouth in 1768 when the masters of vessels belonging to the port considered it expedient to have an English name on their vessels. The hill of Garn Gorllwyn with its Iron Age fort, Dinas Oleu, the Fortress of Light and the first piece of land to be donated to the National Trust in 1895, means the town is a narrow strip running around the headland with houses perched high on the hillside. Before shipping became a major industry here there was little of Abermaw, indeed the Dolgellau to Harlech road went over the hills behind the headland missing the village completely. In 1810 a harbour wall was built and trade grew. The town became very popular in the early 19th century as a resort, apparently the profusion of Scurvy Grass made it popular with invalids. A number of Georgian houses replaced the older local houses. The railway arrived in 1867 which promoted another boom in building. The pink and grey stone of St John’s Church dominates the hillside above the town centre. It was started in 1882 and nearly finished in 1889 when the tower collapsed, destroying much of the roof and the seaward walls. The architects, Douglas and Fordham, blamed blasting operations on the hillside which were trying to open up the area to get more light into the building. The town is still very much a tourist destination with large amusement parks and extensive car parks. The harbour area is a delight; extensive sands at low tide, a railway bridge, now disused, sweeping across the estuary and mountains rising to the south. Fine houses can be discerned on the far shore. Sadly we are very restricted in what we can do – Maddy can barely walk at all now and the car parks are in in the full sunlight so we cannot leave her in the car. We have a crab sandwich from a café in the old fishing sheds.

Cymer Abbey – A Cistercian abbey founded in 1198-9 under the patronage of Maredudd ap Cynan, grandson of Owain Gwynedd. The first monks came from Abbey Cwmhir in Powys, which was a daughter house of Whitland in Dyfed, itself founded by monks from Clairvaux, the mother house in Burgundy. The abbey was not a large or particularly rich establishment. The monks kept sheep and engaged in mining and metallurgy. They also had a fine stud of horses which they supplied to Llywelyn ap Iorweth. They did have a fine silver gilt chalice and pattern which was hidden in the hills at Dissolution and re-discovered in the 19th century. The walls of the church remain and the footings of the cloister but many buildings are missing and may have been built of timber.

Dolgellau – We find a parking spot in the shade and head into the town. The present church of St Mary, dates from 1716, with a chancel added in 1864. The masonry is of dressed slate with blocks overlapping at the corners. Inside there are unusual timber piers which were brought over the mountains by ox-cart from Dinas Mawddwy. A carved stone effigy, circa 1350, of Meurig ap Ynyr Fychan lies in north aisle. An alabaster font of the mid-17th century stands on a table. There is some fine Victorian glass, much having a pre-Raphaelite style. We wander around the town. It is interesting to note the roof slates laid in diminishing courses and the inset stone slabs to shed the water away from the base of the chimney stacks. Dolgellau enjoys an annual rainfall of around 70 inches.

Saturday – Home – This morning Maddy could not use her back legs at all. We come home and then manage to get a vet’s appointment immediately in Ludlow. We leave her for a while as they take X-rays and then return. The prognosis is not good. She has spondylosis of the spine and some disc damage. The vet gives her a steroid injection and some in tablet form and we carry her out to the car and home.

Tuesday – Home – Last night the Harvest Moon shone brilliantly yellow down on the sleeping world. A Tawny Owl has been calling in the local trees for a few nights now. Great Spotted Woodpeckers have been visiting regularly also. Maddy has improved and is able to get around although her gait is still very poor. At least she can get up the garden to her spot beside her beloved chickens. We take her to the Queenswood Country Park for a brief walk. I make the mistake of dropping her ball in front of her. It bounces away and she attempts to run and grab it, with the inevitable consequences of falling flat on her face. However, she is pleased to have her ball again although it is only for a few moments as we are keen not to overdo it and cause any more problems.

Wednesday – Leominster – I drive round to the old playing field by Grange Court so Maddy can have a short walk down to the orchard in the Millennium Gardens. Mist hangs around the churchyard trees and there is a real chill in the air. Maddy is struggling a bit and is clearly not sorry to get back to the car and then home. This summer has been a struggle with Red Mite in the chicken house. I used some solution from the local farmers’ wholesale store but it has proved useless but I have now got another container of Smite and sprayed the house with that. It has been effective in the past.

Bodenham – The sun is shining in a clear, cloudless sky but the misty haze remains. It is strange walking down the track without kicking a ball for Maddy but there is little point in forcing her to walk when she finds it so difficult. The lake is quiet. A gaggle of Canada Geese fly in which soon disturbs the peace. A single Mallard preens on the scrape. There are a pair of Mute Swans down the west end, a couple of Coot and two Cormorants in the trees and that appears to be all! A Moorhen appears and starts searching the scrape for food. A scan reveals a dozen and a half Mallard in the west end mud. A Robin comes to the willows by the reed bed and drops down to the mud beneath. A Magpie flies across to the island. A Kingfisher appears as if by magic on the same willow branch the Robin perched upon a few minutes ago. The Robin returns and then a Reed Warbler his through the willow. The Kingfisher’s head sinks into its shoulders and it looks annoyed (I know one should not anthropomorphise these situations but...) After a few minutes the Kingfisher departs. A Red Admiral flutters by. A female Sparrowhawk flies across. The two sheep seen last week have appeared in front of the hide again, I am not sure how they get here or where they have been since I arrived. Then they vanish and reappear at the other end of the mound, there must be a wider area of meadow on the edge of the scrape than seems from here. A flock of Goldcrests are in the Alder coppice behind the hide. A Great Tit calls loudly. A Common Buzzard takes off from a fence post in the paddocks between the meadow and the Dinmore road. A few more Sloes are gathered for the gin. A few cider apples are beginning to drop. Through the dessert apple orchard. There are some small pears blushing pink. Those on the ground are mushy but even one picked from the tree has a cotton wool feel and not a particularly good flavour – what a pity. Some russet apples are small but sweet, crisp and juicy with good acidity.

Thursday – Picton Gardens, Colwall – We visit these gardens near Malvern located in the village of Colwall which lies in the shadow of the hills. They hold the national collection of Michaelmas Daisies, an autumn flowering aster originating in New England in the United States. They have never really been of any interest to me, just a quite pleasant flower of no distinction, but I must admit these displays have changed my mind somewhat! The gardens are in Old Court Nurseries Bugand in the early 20th century were owned by Ernest Ballard. The family business of cider vinegar production collapsed with the introduction of malt vinegar so he concentrated on his specialist nursery. The Michaelmas Daisy reached its zenith of popularity in the late 1930s. In the late 1940s Percy Picton arrived to manage the nursery and took over in 1952 when Ernest died. Percy Picton was not particularly interested in the daisy and developed one of the country’s foremost collections of rare plants. Paul and Meriel Picton took over the gardens and nursery in 1974 but it was not until the 1980s that they decided to re-popularise Michaelmas Daisies. They now have the national collection and there are large beds of them displaying the many varieties developed. But the garden also contains many other flowers, shrubs and trees which make a delightful display. The Michaelmas Daisies are particularly popular with bees and hoverflies which are feeding in their hundreds. A couple of Common Green Shield Bugs, one on the petals of a delicate pink pompom dahlia, are present. There are fewer butterflies than one would expect, a couple of Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells. The sun is shining and the gardens are busy.

Tuesday – Home – The morning starts shrouded in fog – it is apparently called a hopping morning as it is typical of the days during the hop picking season. Many locals would go be employed in the hop yards or hop-gardens that were all around Leominster until after the mid-19th century when they went into decline because of cheap foreign imports. Although the local production increased in the latter part of the century, it declined again in the early 20th century. In the height of the picking season, many families came from the Black Country to join in the harvesting. A few raspberries are on the canes, their season is almost ended. However, the courgettes keep coming, turn your back and they are expanding into marrows!

Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – A grey morning but not cold. Blackberries are still ripening along the hedgerow by the track. Haws are deep crimson now. A drake Mallard on the scrape has an almost complete bottle-green head as his breeding plumage returns. The lake is very quiet, indeed there appears to be be only two Canada Geese present. Over near the gap between the sections of the lake a lot of yellow water weed lies on the surface and a flock of a couple of dozen MaddyCoot are feeding. Checking them out reveals four Gadwall and four Wigeon amongst them. A Cormorant is flying around the area and three more are in the trees. A Grey Heron lands in the south-west corner and stalks the back with its head hunched into its shoulders. The Coot are disturbed by a Cormorant appearing in their midst. All the flowers have finished blooming, the Black Knapweeds are brown, the Purple Loosestrife has disappeared, thistles turned to white fluff and the Ragwort is setting seed. A pair of Mute Swans glide from behind the island. There are far fewer Swallows and House Martins around now although good numbers are feeding over farmyards.

Home – Sadly we have come to the decision that the vet is right and Maddy’s quality of life is not good enough for an active dog like her, so this morning she has been put to sleep. The vet came here and we let her go peacefully although not without considerable heartbreak. We do not think we will have another dog now as time is creeping up on us as well.

Thursday – Clearwell Caves – We are heading down the Wye Valley to Chepstow when we see a brown heritage sign indicating Clearwell Caves. We have seen this sign many times before but have never bothered to find out what or where these caves are. So a quick decision and we turn up into the hills to the east of the valley. After several miles we enter the pretty little village of Clearwell and a few miles further on find the car-park for the caves and in Clearwell Caveswe go. It turns out this is The Royal Forest of Dean’s Iron Mining Museum and it is an absolute treasure! A bed of limestone was laid down in the Carboniferous, locally known as Crease Limestone from the Celtic crys meaning a jacket because the stones forms a jacket around ores, on top of the Old Red Sandstone. Water filtered down into the limestone forming a cave network. Coal deposits were formed on top of the limestone. During the Permian, 280 million years ago the coal deposits were eroded away leaving iron rich rocky minerals on the surface. 225 million years ago, at the start of the Late Triassic, the surface became a hot desert subject to occasional prolonged and torrential storms that dissolved the iron minerals and the floods of acidic water entered the cave systems where the acidity was neutralised, depositing the iron ores. It is believed people started exploiting these ores for ochre in the Neolithic and later for iron production in the Iron Age. The Romans probably traded with the local producers rather than controlling the production themselves although recently surveys have revealed what is thought to be a Roman villa close to the mines which may have housed an overseer or manager, or maybe a Roman merchant. In the mediaeval the mines were worked by families. These mines were part of Old Ham Gale, a gale being the area in which a Free Miner may work. Between 1846 and 1900 the mine produced 62,995 tonnes of ore, between 1909 and 1916 3048 tonnes were extracted. In 1917 the mines were sold to the Coleford Iron Company who passed it to the British Colour and Mining Company who operated it until 1936 mainly producing ochre for the paint industry. In 1968 Ray Wright bought the rights to the Gales and opened the museum. The tour of the mine follows paths down into caverns, called churns from which the ore had been removed. Numerous items related to mining are down here. Wooden boxes known as a Billy were filled with ore, about 60-70lb and placed on the back of a young boy, a Billy Boy, using a leather strap and a piece of wood called a Billy Catcher, who carried it up to the surface. This involved climbing a chain ladder consisting of two chains held apart originally with wooden rungs, later iron bolts, up the side of a deep pit. Later pneumatic drills were employed although these became known as Widow Makers as the dust they created caused many cases of silicosis in the miners’ lungs. It is cold down here. Bats roost in several of the caves. Some have large water sumps which apparently hold good drinking water that has been filtered through the rocks. One of the large caverns hosts a candle-lit fancy dress party each Halloween. Interestingly, the iron ores are non-magnetic so compasses can be used to navigate the caves.

Chepstow – On arrival in the town we decide to visit the castle immediately. The ruined fortress dominates the skyline from behind our lodgings. The lands along the southern Marches were given to William Fitz Osbern, a close friend of William I since their childhood. It is believed he built the Great Tower, the first fortification at Estriguil as the Domesday Book identified Chepstow, although some authorities doubt this as he spent much of his time between the Conquest and his death five years later away from the area on campaigns. Also there are stylistic details that suggest a date in the early 12th century rather than late 11th. However, the rectangular tower was a fine defensive hall on the top of the cliffs above the River Wye. Chepstow was then and until the building of the Severn Bridges an important river crossing into South Wales. There is a decorated lintel and tympanum similar in style to carving on the round chapel in Ludlow Castle. Some of the stone used can be identified as Roman in origin, almost certainly from the great fort at Caerleon to the west. High on walls are remains of two arches of Purbeck limestone, richly carved in the mid-13th century. The walls and niches are popular with the local Feral Pigeons which are engaged in mating rituals all over the castle. After Fitz Osbern died, his son, Roger de Breteuil was in possession of his lands but he and the Earl of Northumberland rebelled against William and were defeated with the loss of their lands. The castle stayed in royal hands until 1115 when Henry I granted the lordship to Richard Fitz Clare, known as Strongbow, who founded Tintern Abbey but did little to Chepstow Towercastle. He died in 1176 leaving his lands to his son who died in 1185 when the lands passed to his daughter Isabel. She was a minor and became the ward of Henry II, then the wife of William Marshal, very much a self-made man. Marshall remodelled the castle in the 1