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Thursday, 20 September 2018

Kilvert's Bredwardine, A Cleric's Trail

I have the woodburner on. I'm on holiday.

There is something deliciously satisfying about being indoors on a very wet autumnal day. It is just before noon and glimpsed through the window the rain is falling as only rain can in this part of Herefordshire. Sweeping over the Black Mountains in pulsating drifts from the west, often these bands of rain-bearing clouds run out of puff on reaching Herefordshire,their exhaustion  sparing the the Golden Valley, such is the rain shadow effect of those brooding Welsh uplands. Not today. Hard after Storm Ali swept the northern extremities of these Isles of Britain, this sweeping dragon's tail of heavy rain thrashes in Ali's wake, providing opportunity for a self-imposed curfew. It is dark outside, and within too. The Old School House where we're staying in Bredwardine is bathed with an internal twilight - a mood enhanced by a robin which, since dawn, has been serenading the rainfall with its mellifluous song. 

Yet, a mere 24 hours earlier we (Julie and I) followed in the trail of the Reverend Francis Kilvert. I have to confess that until recently whilst I had heard of Kilvert and his famous diary, my knowledge of him ended there. Staying in the hamlet of Bredwardine where he was incumbent of the living for only eighteen months, it is hard to escape the presence of this Wiltshire born man. The cottage has his three volume diary to read. Pamphlets and books add to the visitors' understanding of this long distance walking, scribbling vicar who died prematurely aged only 38 in 1879. Kilvert began his diary in 1870 whilst a journeyman curate in the village of Clyro in Wales. Remaining in Clyro for seven years the Oxford educated Kilvert arrived in Bredwardine in 1877 only to succumb to peritonitis, five weeks after his marriage.  Kilvert's life reminded me of another chronicler of the rural ordinary, the Wiltshire born Richard Jefferies, who like Kilvert suffered from poor health in his latter years and died in 1887 also aged 38. Did their paths ever cross I wonder? That's for another day.

In the cottage was the book - Exploring Kilvert's Country, an interesting summary of the places and well described walks, affording an opportunity to learn more of this man. As the cottage was the schoolmaste'rs home in Victorian times, I am sure Kilvert would have visited here during his time. Thus given I'm in Kilvert's village, a 4 mile circular walk seemed perfect to glean a deeper understanding of the landscape Kilvert described as "...the lovely valley gleaming bright in the clear shining rain.......and the river blazed below the grey bridge with a sparkle of a million diamonds....."   Wellies on, stick to the fore, book in hand...to the jewel of Herefordshire then...



First steps down the drive from the cottage and onto the road, bear left into the village  - at the crossroads turn right and walk down towards the church...




On returning from his Honeymoon Kilvert and his wife were, (having unhitched the horses) pulled by the inhabitants of Bredwardine and Brobury to the vicarage and a celebratory feast. The vicarage is further down the hill, but this beech tree-lined walk up to the church is one Kilvert knew very well.


Entering St Andrew's churchyard the first thing to grab the visitor's attention is this memorial seat by a yew tree. Erected a few years ago by the Kilvert Society, it now has two 'legs'  where previously it had been set atop a low stone wall. On a few websites this is referred to as Kilvert's 'Tomb' which is quite wrong; this may explain why the wall was removed and the legs were added. Bear right to enter the church, or left at this junction and meander up through the graves where a white cross dominates the northern end of the area. Here lieth Francis Kilvert, at a plot he himself picked out to be buried at. The two graves either side were close friends of Kilvert, the Misses Julia and Catherine Newton. So close are these graves that when Kilvert's widow died in 1911, despite visiting his grave every year after his death, she had to be buried some distance from her husband in the new cemetery on the south side of the church. 


Today his grave is cared for and being of white marble, stands out in this very peaceful churchyard. 


St Andrew's itself  is Norman in origin and fascinating. It is the only church I've been in which is bent. Originally built just after the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century, sometime around 1300 it was extended but the chancel is strangely askew to the rest of the building. No one seems to know why. I like this diversion from the perpendicular.  700 years ago I can imagine stonemasons building away, before the foreman arrived and said "lads, lads lads, that's not straight" Did they all sit down and discuss what to do over a few beers? Before deciding, it was too much effort to knock it all down again, 'no one will notice', just keep turning left!


The church also has a good second hand bookstall, this being Hay-On-Wye country and I bought myself a slim volume on woodworking techniques with a router for a whole £1. I digress.

Back to the walk. Leaving St Andrew's the bridleway follows the southern perimeter of the churchyard and then descends slowly to follow the river Wye. Sadly though, while the river is ever present on the left, with the trees still in full leaf, it is almost impossible to see, though later in the walk it looms into view like a borderland serpent carving through the valley.


The well kept bridleway traversed by Mrs Wessex Reiver


Into the woods, which on a very windy day made for an exciting walk as small branches crashed down around us.


Medieval fishponds glimpsed through some of the many ancient oaks hereabouts.


Accompanied by locals ...


... before heading into wonderful rolling farmland with Merbach Hill in the distance. That was pounded up the day before, and as a climb of over 1000 feet to the summit, it really was a pounding walk.


This bit of the walk was easy to navigate. Later on it became more tricky to find where the footpath went to and from. The landscape will not have changed much since Kilvert strode out over the fields, glimpsing the river as it meanders and curves its way through this red sandstone area.


Kilvert though may have been surprised to walk through fields of maize and a pheasant-rearing facility. but then again, he may not  - this has long been a proper rural landscape, red in tooth and claw..


Eventually reaching the half way mark, we turned southwest again to walk along a B road for a while, passing Moccas Park, an ancient park landscape which this photograph does not do justice to. I want to head out there one evening before leaving the cottage as I have an notion that the rooks and jackdaws which seem to pre-roost in Bredwardine, roost over in Moccas park. This would make sense as they are site specific for centuries.



After Moccas Park the walk took us up through the fields behind Bredwardine. Autumn fungi were everywhere on these un-ravaged sheep pastures. However despite following the very well described walk from the book which was published in 2003, for the last couple of miles the footpath network left a lot to be desired. And discussed, sometimes heatedly. We'd also left our water bottle in the church which didn't help quench the mood. Walking is meant to be relaxing, right?  Many footpath signs were either missing or illegible, forcing us to backtrack more than once after finding ourselves in a no-mans-land oF indecision at a fence line or in a house driveway, which was a shame as the walk is absolutely lovely, and doing it again it would be easier as we would know where to aim for. I'm still not certain though walking through someone's garden at the end of the walk to get to Bredwardine was correct, so we climbed over a gate.


Across the sheep fields


Bredwardine church mid view


Dorstone Lane..... not for the faint hearted if driving a car... narrow, 1:4 hill with no passing places used by locals as a rat run and scene last years of some hair raising drives. 


Half an hour from home the rains came, like the sheep in the fields, we took cover. Until the sun came out, and having lost the footpath again, just walked around the edge of a field.



Back in the village at last, where nature is taking over from window cleaners. I like that.


The End.

I was happy there, but following in the footsteps of Kilvert in 2018 was not an altogether pleasurable experience. The views and the connection to his landscape were breathtaking. Being lost even when following a guide and a map was less welcome. This happened to us last year in the other valley, where a footpath just stopped. Which is the lesson for the modern walker, following in the footfall of the past. The vast majority of the footpaths showing on maps were really just local routes from house A to farm B. They don't really have a modern day purpose other than to bewilder this man of the North, where pathways are well marked and often wide. Of course should I reside here in Herefordshire I'd get to know the local patch and stride out like a giraffe on a mission. But I have to say, for the casual wanderer it can be exhausting having to think on one's feet. 

Klvert presumably thought on his feet while walking, mentally composing sermons, taking in the views, or bucolically viewing the diamonds glistening on the Wye. Following in his footsteps made me think, though a privileged life in many ways, a Victorian country vicar's role was a hard one. Through necessity walking in all weathers to offer comfort to parishioners, the inclement weather of winter must have sucked all the energy out of the resident man of God, guiding his servant on earth through the pestilence and toil. I'd have liked to have met him.

Time for another log on the woodburner then.... bliss, the rain's stopped I see out the window...

Friday, 2 March 2018

We missed Snowmageddon, until it turned Red

It has been bitterly cold down her on the Bristol Channel area of Somerset, but apart from a light dusting that didn't stay around for long, we'd missed much of the Beast from the East. Until March 1st that is, when we joined much of the rest of the UK in Snowmageddon. 
 
I knew snow was forecast on Thursday, so abandoning the car, I boarded the 07:30 train into Bristol to go to work. Yes it was snowing, but nothing much. Around 9am, soon after the bacon butty and coffee to warm up, I had a text from Mrs Wessex_Reiver saying, the amber warning has been upgraded to Red, a danger to life and limb,  and over exactly where we live.  Not due until 3pm, but downloading stuff onto a pen drive by 11am I was heading home. In the 3 hours the temperature had really dropped but worst still the wind was gusting 40mph and my walk back to the station was absolutely bitter.
 
 
For the first hour I was home it felt like a damp squib. Ostensibly working on the laptop, my eyes kept observing the lack of anything happening outdoors. No snow, the wind was lively, but that was it. At 1pm I thought I'll have some soup and while stirring the victuals, a flake hurled itself across the window. Not the great saucer sized flakes we get normally here, but the size of a speck of dust. By the time I'd consumed the aforementioned broth, it was a whiteout - strange powdery snow blowing up, down, left, right in the strengthening wind. And it kept coming, and coming, and coming. 


 
We get a lot of storm force winds here but I've never experienced a night like it, near gale force winds propelling dry crispy snow across the landscape. In some areas the snow was literally blown away, in others it lay feet deep, often just feet from each other. So the volume of snow was low, though it made for an exciting night. The above picture was taken about 4am when the snow had finally stopped.

 
At 7am the sun came up - oh yes, it was snow all right. Not in the league of friends up in Northumberland who have had monstrous snows, with 12 drifts making roads impassable.  But for here, a microclimate area where snow is a rare thing, it lay 6-8 inches deep, deeper where drifting off the fields had occurred. A home day then.

 
Having a very important Data Protection spreadsheet to do, I of course ventured immediately outside to take some images. It is fully seeing snow on pots and fences, where only 24 hours earlier there was nothing.  And I can't remember ever seeing icicles down south. Used to get huge ones when I lived near the coast in Tyneside, but down here an inch is a goodly length. 

 
The soft powdery snow was wonderful to see in its drifting patterns, if it had been a free day I'd have bobbled out into the fields to see what shapes lay there. But with work beckoning, just a mooch around the house then, with a scientifically accurate depth measurement for the record - half way up my rigger boots... I'll suggest this important scale to Carol Kirkwood I think.

 
 
 
So there you go March the 1st we had snow, March 2nd it's still here. I really do feel for all the people trapped in cars and trains, but to be honest, this is how winters were until the early 1980's. I remember endless snowstorms and trudging to school in blizzards (the schools didn't shut then because we all lived nearby including the teachers). We lived opposite the golf course and spend days sledging there each year. But for the last three decades we've not really had winters. People have moved out into the country, moved away from home, or just decided to commute for fun, so this proper snow is a nightmare. I remember the late great Willie Poole saying of people who were moving to Glanton in Northumberland and commuting to Newcastle 35 miles away "just wait until we get a proper winter again, they'll never get in" Well poor old Northumberland has had a week of battering and no let up yet - stay indoors, stay safe.

 
It's not all doom and gloom though, this reed bunting was a real treat - only the second record for the garden. Redwing and fieldfares loafing about and this very territorial blackbird chasing anything that comes near away.  Tomorrow, it'll be 6 degrees and it'll all be gone. Nice while it lasted though.
 

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Hodson's House Herefordshire


Saturday night in the middle of February. Saturday night in the middle of nowhere. Outside, following an altogether pleasant day bedecked with more sunshine than had been foretold,  the wind has picked up, blowing pressure wave tunes through the poplars encircling the woodman's cottage in the dark, inky night. Tomorrow we are to be treated by plunging temperatures and later if we are lucky, a light snow shower or two. I'm in Herefordshire.


There are times when no matter how hard one looks, the right place never seems to materialise. Many a rural landscape have I have nodded an acquaintance too; both for work and for play. For years however the Welsh Marches (and for that matter Wales) were like a dark grey cloud on the sunny side of Wessex Reiver's visitors map. Colleagues, friends and many a TV programme would say, this beautiful remote corner of England (or Wales, as it is hard to tell sometimes) is a must to walkers, lovers of the outdoors, and middle aged fat blokes in a funny hat. But still I resisted. Then in 2011 I made a radio programme in Snowdonia (filmy ferns if you are interested - look it up). The presenter lived in Much Wenlock. There was nothing for it, over the Severn Bridge and hope I will be able to return to civilisation.

Well, like many epiphany moments, what we think of as places not worth a second look, are in fact much better than the hotspot tourist attractions loved by the Metropole second homers down the M4, right at Bristol and keep going  till the Atlantic surf spray obscures the windscreen.  Not that there is anything wrong with that but whole tracts of the country are wonderful and never, or infrequently visited. A couple of years ago I got lost in Nottinghamshire, ending up at Southwell, famed only for its race course. An enforced couple of hours revealed a fantastic town, home of the Bramley apple, an ancient historic minster amongst others. Yet, suggest a weeks holiday in Nottinghamshire and there will be sniggering in the back, I guarantee it. 

Not that Dorstone is off the beaten tourist track. Lying at the head of Herefordshire's Golden Valley, this area sandwiched between the Brecon Beacons and Hereford has long been a tourist destination. Yet this gem of a place was unknown to me until a friend put an advert for a woodman's cottage on Facebook last autumn. Where?  I had to look it up - still couldn't find it, but the self catering abode looked wonderful, I booked the week on the spot and arrived for the very first time last September. I'm now on my second visit, with the significant other, who loves it.


Hodsons's House  (above, grey building just left of the tree) nestles at the foot of Dorstone Hill seen in the background and well, fields. Hard by is the village of Dorstone, population about 400, and the Pandy Inn. And that's it. Yet within a gnats flight path there are fabulous walks, wonderful wildlife, ancient monuments, views that take your breath away, all without the need to get into a car. Last September we stumbled into the Den of Iniquity known as the Dorstone Front Room. Here in the former village post office residents take it in turn to offer tea, cake, printing, stamps, crafts, books, and a good chat. We only popped in for a cup of tea and left an hour later like long lost relatives embraced into the bosom of the valley. So that's why were back for a long weekend.


Snow had fallen on Friday morning, we could see it on the hills over the Bristol Channel and more planned over the weekend, which made for a slightly anxious packing. However the sun shone and more like a late spring day than late winter, we arrived just after noon. Kettle on, feet up, a bullfinch. Literally minutes after arriving this female bullfinch enthralled us for half an hour, debudding the fruit trees in the garden (not sure the owner would have approved). But that was the beginning of a wildlife odyssey in the garden. Nothing spectacular you understand, just lovely.



The images above were taken from indoors, from the large glass doors on the gable end of this house.



Hodson was a carpenter and woodsman. For many years this was his workshop and he designed a lot of it himself. As you can imagine there's a fair wedge of wood inside. The current owners came here a few years ago and modernised it with an open plan downstairs and astonishing mezzanine upper bedroom. We love the house, but it is the location that is the King's pyjamas. 

A log on the woodburner and a mug of tea in the hand, what better than to while away a whole day watching wildlife out the window. Last year they even made 150+ bottles of apple juice from their own trees, a much loved arrival gift indeed. Went down a treat with the homemade carrot cake also provisioned.


So what of the wildlife? We've heard enough of the house.  Well, apart from the bullfinch already mentioned, blackbirds a plenty...


.... dunnock, raven, great, blue and long tail tit, green woodpecker, fieldfare...

... tawny owl calling, a most glorious dusk chorus of tik tik-ing blackbirds and song thrush, chaffinches, sparrows, starlings, woodpigeons, and I'm sure I've forgotten many more, all seen from the window, as well as the cheeky grey squirrel.


But man can not live indoors for ever. Alongside the property is Spoon Lane, or as the Ordnance Survey calls it, "un-registered byway". Why Spoon Lane, I don't know but it is wet. Contour-lining along the base of the hill, various springs seems to weep and seep into this ancient trackway, providing, in winter at least, a small stream to walk along. Which we did, to the far end where there is an even ancienter (if that's a word) orchard on its last legs. Fabulous wildlife habitat.


The image below was taken in September 2017 - it is a wonderful walk, botanically rich.

Back in February 2018, the snowdrops are coming out and the skeletal hedges revealed a number of nests including this song thrush nest.

 Sadly we needed refreshment after the walk, where better then than to beetle across the fields and down a pint of Hereford's finest in the Pandy Inn. 


In the time it has taken to write this the wind has really pepped up, I can hear the roof slates chattering and occasionally the lights flicker. We're in for a wild night on a Saturday night in the middle of February. On a Saturday night in the middle of nowhere. Night all.