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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.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Wildlife watching is often frustrating - honest!

You watch the telly. Sir David Attenborough is inches from a stunning wildlife spectacle, or conversing with a gorilla in a shrubbery. Wildlife watching is so easy isn't it? Well, actually no, after close to 50 years watching wildlife I have had many more frustrations than successes. But of course the successes are, well real successes. Those programmes like Blue Planet take 3 to 4 years to make and many hours of sitting twiddling thumbs waiting for two minutes of  action. And in my world of watching wildlife its the same. Take my jackdaws.
 
 
I call them my jackdaws but of course they are free flying corvids. Each morning at the moment , around 7.30am they fly low, below roof height, and true past the back of my house as about one hundred birds leave the night time roost and head off to the fields for breakfast. Normally I'm getting ready for work, and see them just feet from the kitchen window, jak-jacking as they pass. Thus this morning being Saturday a pint of tea in one hand, camera in the other, I found myself in a drizzly garden. Poised to take a photograph of the black missiles passing over. Thirty photographs later, this is the best!!!!
 
Today not only did they fly across in dribs and drabs of a few birds rather than the massed fly past, they also flew in front of the house or higher up and towards the sea. (Wouldn't you if I was out and about). As I only really have seconds to get ready before they are in view, I had the camera set up and ready. However because they didn't come in the planned flight path I made the cardinal mistake of hand holding the camera, on a dull drizzly day, before sunrise. The result as you can see was spectacular.
 
So there you go. Watching wildlife is a hit and miss process. Some days you win, some days like today you lose. But that's not the point, as the saying goes, the "destination is about the journey". I remember in the 1980's training up people in otter surveying and a long conversation with a lovely chap who had come on a training day I was running only to at the end complain we'd not seen an otter all day, so what's the point of this? Despite seeing an otter slide, otter spraints and being surrounded by fabulous wildlife along the River Coquet, he just didn't get it. He didn't get that seeing signs are just as important as the animal itself. It takes all sorts, I often wonder if he still looks for otters.
 
So the moral of the story is as I explained to a very new to the job National Trust warden, "come to a spot where you think there is wildlife, sit down, and watch, every day and eventually the wildlife will come to you, and how you want it". Or take an expert that has done much of the leg work beforehand of course.
 
Such as seen recently on TV my friend and superb naturalist John Walters and his long tailed tits night roost which took three years to find, but that's for another day.... maybe a posting about the potter wasps John took me to see. Magic.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Composting Sunday

January in the sun kissed South West has been, weather wise, as depressing as a depressed thing under the weight of the World. Dull days, damp days, hardly a day of sunshine. Of course it IS January and the winter is in full force, but constant grey skies make me a grey person.  But this morning despite the light drizzle accompanying the grey skies, I hot footed it out into the garden as a well overdue job was on the cards. Compost spreading.  


We love compost. It is like alchemy. Every day we hurl stuff from the kitchen into the green bin and for 6 months no matter how full the bin seems each day, 24 hours later there is a good six inches of space, with hundreds of brandling worms wriggling in the light, alongside woodlice, millipedes, centipedes and all manner of beasties. Eventually though even this legion of devourers can not cope and it's time to spread all their fabulous produce. Unlike some gardeners who work on a 6-8 week cycle, turning compost regularly to afford a quick product, we work on a 6 month slow compost route. We do put garden waste in the plastic composter but most of this goes into the wooden one next door, again on a 6 month cycle. 


First job then to strip off the top layer of material still waiting to the broken down, that'll make a lovely base layer when it goes back in. Then the black gold as many call it comes out. Three wheelbarrow loads from the wooden bin and nearly three from the plastic composter. We don't grow vegetables, purely an ornamental garden and wildlife friendly - it's never had chemicals. The ornamental perennials, biennials and annuals are mostly grown for pollinators with the odd exception for a bit of riotous colour. But that's in May or June when the first summer flush is dazzling the neighbourhood.


But in late January it is the spring bulbs that will dazzle the neighbourhood. Ours at least. These Iris reticulata were planted in September and I remember us packing the bulbs into the pots thinking, spring is around the corner. Of course it was months away, and these only flowered yesterday, but that riot of blue did really brighten up the grey day...by the time the photo was taken it was drizzling even harder.


Snowdrops of course are now coming into their own. Although they have sporadically been out down here in Somerset since the first week in January, the massed Galanthus show is just coming into its peak. Yesterday while heading into work at Tyntesfield the massed snowdrops by the quarry wall seemed incongruous, beacons of light in the mist, like miniature headlights in the gloom. I love snowdrops and have a few in pots which I look after all year like these Galanthus woronowii, known commonly as the giant snowdrop; not so much for the size of the flowers, but the leaves, more bluebell leaf in shape and rich green colour than the spear like sage green leaves of our 'native'  snowdrop. Look closely and the colouring inside the flower is just sublime.... Every One A Winner on these grey January days.



Friday, 19 January 2018

January moss


Picking up a little bit on my posting yesterday, with the sun still shining, these moss fruiting bodies growing on a brick wall at work caught my eye this morning.  I'm no moss expert (which is a shocking thing to admit to as they are fascinating) but I think this may be a Brachythecium moss, possibly Ordinary Moss Brachythecium rutabulum.


Whatever the moss, it is beautiful and looking at the wall top which is covered, there are at least a dozen different mosses, oh to have a handy plant specialist next to me to identify them. And as mentioned yesterday, every day in January something new comes along to interest me in the natural world.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

January blues fading away each day



It was Monty Don talking last night on Radio 2 which has inspired this short return to the blogging typos-phere. Speaking on the Simon Mayo show Monty discussed amongst other things January, and that while it is a bleak month in many ways, day by day, little by little, things are changing in the garden, and of course the wider countryside.

Monty on Simon Mayo  (about 1 hour and 9 minutes in)


I've just returned from a lunchtime walk - while the northern half of the country is blanketed in snow, here in Clifton, Bristol it is sunny and a balmy 6 degrees. Three weeks ago I lay in my sick bed. Aussie Flu wracking my body into oblivion. Dark by 4pm, I felt the woes of midwinter terribly. This lunchtime however my walk rewarded me with a couple of occasions of wonderful scent from winter shrubs. Where these shubs were I could not say, but their sweet scent filled a small patch of air. Robins sang lustily, at the Cathedral the early daffodils I've mentioned many times on this blog are at their very best (our pot daffodils were out in December). 

In a garden not far from work is a huge magnolia, under planted with spring bulbs, bulbs that are often out a week or so earlier then elsewhere. Snowdrops a plenty, a couple of crocus, and joy of joys a splattering of winter aconite.  Celendines are out in the garden back at at home and the many corvid pairs around the village are in the trees, twigs in beak. And it is still light at 4.30 in the evening.

January can be a bleak month in many ways, however I'm with Monty. Day by day, little by little, things are changing in the garden, and of course the wider countryside.