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Saturday, 24 November 2018

Current Chat - The Robin


I opened the casement this morn at starlight,
And, the moment I got out of bed,
The daisies were quaking about in their white
And the cowslip was nodding its head.
The grass was all shivers, the stars were all bright,
And Robin that should come at e'en--
I thought that I saw him, a ghost by moonlight,
Like a stalking horse stand on the green.

So wrote the 'peasant' poet John Clare at the beginning of his poem I Dreamt of Robin.  Today nearly 200 years later, I too woke to the ghost of the robin, or at least a shadowy silhouette. I woke at 6am and already the mellifluous tones of robin redbreast were crowding the still air. I lay in bed, listening to that staccato call, repeated ad infinitum under a still dark sky. A perfect alarm call in anyone's book.

But of course the robin had absolutely no interest in me, my alarm call or the joy I had lying there listening. Simply he was there sending out a warning note to every other robin in the neighbourhood, 'get off my patch!'  In the book by the renowned ornithologist and wildlife journalist Dominic Couzens, Songs of Love and War: The Dark Heart of Bird Behaviour (pub. 2017) on page 21 is a sentence.

The dawn chorus has begun with a lone voice and a whisper, but the first voice is like the first drop of rain in a shower.”

Often it is the robin which turns on the tap of the shower, especially in urban areas where the glow of streetlights disturbs natural biorhythms and can cause the robin we love to sing throughout the night. 

Elsewhere in this book an entire chapter is devoted to the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), which in 2015 became once more the clear favourite in a public poll to be awarded the title of Britain's National Bird, above other species in the frame, blackbird, the swift and the barn owl. So far, this has not been officially adopted, (I like the dipper being Norway's National bird) but it is not the first time that the robin had been put forward as our National bird. Way back during the second world war, one of our best ornithologists David Lack accidentally or not, enthroned the idea in his book The Life of the Robin (pub. 1943 but still in print). 

Back when David Lack was eulogising over the robin, the species itself was classified as being a member of the thrush family. Indeed until recently in most references to our maybe one day National Bird, has it solidly hanging out with the thrush brigade. However the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) have a long term project to reorder, re classify, and in someone like me create confusion, all bird taxonomic data. As a result, the robin is now firmly in the Old World Flycatcher group of birds. Which makes sense as these chats, flycatchers and robins are insectivorous birds of similar appearance. And in the subfamily Erithacinae which robins now reside, we have chats, robin-chats, and even palm thrushes. Confused, I know I am.  But since January 1st this year, our own British Ornithologists' Union (BOU) has adopted the IOC's taxonomic classification and so sorry Mr Red Breast, you're a flycatcher now. 

Not that I think this morning's songster is remotely interested in the IOC or the BOU. It was just singing. I got up and whilst still dark in an attempt to locate this musical marvel. Luckily I had the streetlights in the lane to guide me.  It is well know that street lights and floodlights can trigger singing in the middle of the night. Here in Somerset our lights are switched off at midnight, only to re-flood the countryside at 6am. Thus if a roosting robin is disturbed by the glare, more often than not they will  burst into song,  even in complete darkness. But with luck more than technique I found him, just beyond the garden boundary in the middle of a elder. Time then for a photo, or two.


Robins are one of nature's success stories at the moment. As the landscape changes along with the climate, generalists like the robin will probably become more abundant as they adapt quickly to change. They can feed on a variety of food from seeds to insects and fruit, and are woodland edge and scrub occupiers. Evolutionary speaking they were one of the species which followed wild boar and other ground breaking animals through the woodlands, searching, in the wake of the 'plough', for tasty treats in the turned earth. It's why robins like gardens, a woodland edge in miniature, lots of disturbance and things to rifle through on the hunt for a worm. Yet despite being highly adaptable on average they only live for 2 or 3 years. Hard winters will knock the population back and there is a natural high mortality rate of the fledglings. Those high levels of mortality are counterbalanced by high productivity. That coupled with recent milder winters have seen the UK robin population rise by around 40% Which may, or of course may not, explain that the oldest known wild robin reached 11 years and 5 months of age. That's a lot of singing, and my robin is still singing as I write this at 9am.

Sometimes though the facts cloud the message. My robin today is singing to proclaim its right to this bit of the planet. That's all. My listening to it is a physical process, which triggers a human emotion; one of joy at being woken by those mellifluous staccato notes, from a shadowy silhouette in an elder tree. It was worth getting up for.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Jackdaws, 12 o'clock (well actually 17.35hrs)

Believe it or not, this image below was taken at 5.45pm. It could be black and white but I assure you it's colour. As I write this at 17.50, lights on and it is absolutely lashing down.



I was meant to be on the Malvern Hills today. Myself , Mr W (who presents Radio 4 wildlife programmes) and Mr C (possibly the best, but now ex BBC natural history librarian) had a long standing plan to head off to the Malverns and bag a ring ouzel or two. Migration is in full swing, I heard my first redwing on Thursday night. Mr W had been to the Golden Valley area of the Malverns during the week and saw 8 ring ouzel.  

They say we can control everything other than death, repeats of Dad's Army and the weather. Yesterday a few hundred miles to the south ex hurricane Leslie was barrelling up the Atlantic towards Blighty. By Thursday this now tropical depression was intensifying, to the point where in Eire they renamed it Storm Callum. The media went wild, there was a hooley a-coming. Yesterday (the planned day of Armagheddon) in Somerset at least it was wild, but not as bad as everyone feared. Wales and the North West bore the brunt of it. Today the forecast was for strong winds and rain, thus we abandoned the Malvern birding day.  I awoke early and it was a fantastic day. Certainly it was windy, but the rain had gone, and by the afternoon it was sunny. 

I sat in the garden for a while. Small pirouetting flocks of starling, gulls, pied wagtails, linnets and sparrows shot across the garden, energised by the tail wind from the tropics. Making a day at home seem worth while, just watching intently what was going on. Ominously, dark, quite menacing storm clouds began to gather to the south just before 5pm. Above me blue skies and white cloud, 10 miles to the south it grew foreboding.  The wind intensified (though it had been giving it some energy all day) and I watched. 


It is fascinating watching a weather system heading towards you. Suddenly everything changed. The sky was filled with gulls heading inland. Normally at this time they are heading out to their roosts on  Flat and Steep Holm islands in the Bristol Channel. Not today. The sparrows departed the feeders and one by one headed into the roof space of the house. And then I heard the familiar jak-a-jak-jack of the jackdaws, but nearly an hour earlier than normal. At the moment they are heading to roost about 6.15pm to 6.30pm depending on how light dusk is. But at 5.25pm I heard the first wave. How they pass the house each day is always the same. 

The first and often the biggest wave is a ragtag flock of about 50 to 100 birds, and can include rooks, in the image above. They are very noisy, chaotically formed as a flock with no obvious pairs visible. These are probably the family parties coming in with less experienced birds, maybe this years young with parents, unattached adults, older birds. This organic melee of individual birds flies as a single uncoordinated mass high up across the sky. Then, about 10 minutes later, pairs of jackdaws fly in but instead of a flock, a minute long stream of 20, 30, 40 paired up birds flying very low, very fast and in a direct straight line. Often these birds are silent, and in the morning when the process is reversed can be so low they are below roof height. Like black darts past the bedroom window. 

My guess, and I'd love to know for sure, is these are the dominant breeding pairs. The first wave are the scouts and pathfinders, checking the landscape to allow the second wave unhindered predator free airspace. But after this second wave it isn't over, there is a third. About about 5 minutes after the dominant pairs scud through, a second wave of paired jackdaws fly in. Obviously paired birds flying together, but higher up, in a more relaxed movement. Ostensibly each pair seemingly unconnected with those pairs around them, but they call repeatedly as they fly by in a single well spaced out group,  forming something of a coalition flock, as in the image below.


I may have missed out on a day birding on the Malvern Hills, but I absolutely love watching the jackdaws across the house each morning and evening. Their pre-roost is on Worlbury Hill about two miles away, and very noisy it is too. But the main night roost I've never found. I have my suspicions it is either by Kingston Seymour about 5 miles north of me, where I have observed jackdaws coming into a small wood at dusk. Or more likely, they fly up the coast to the extensive woods between Portishead and Clevedon, where there is a known mixed corvid roost.  I'm no Mark Cocker, but on reading his Crow Country, it warmed me to read he had the same trouble working out exactly where they went to, despite obvious clues. The trick is as with all things involving wildlife observation, planning, planning, and a lot of luck.

I didn't plan for storm Callum's arrival!!

Friday, 28 September 2018

On Sociable Birds

To mis-quote Jane Austin "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single crow in possession of a good feeding area, must be in want of a flock."  

I've been watching birds feeding this week. 

As the rooks fly off, the carrion crow remains

A superior position of not working this week means time and leisure to observe wildlife without the spectre of timescales looming over the horizon. My horizon most mornings has been the field beyond the house. This year maize has been grown in these 60 acres to feed cattle on the farm nearby. That farm is a haven for birds due to it's semi derelict buildings and overwintering cattle by the River Banwell. This week however I have been observing the antics of a mixed corvid flock taking advantage of spilt corn following the harvest of this wind pollinated fodder crop.

Before this, last week on holiday in Bredwardine in Herefordshire, I spent a lot of time watching a pair of buzzards feeding on the hillside at the back of the holiday cottage. When I say a lot of time, over 3 hours. 

Buzzards feeding in Herefordshire

It was Julie my wife who first spotted a single buzzard as it lazily flew off its fence perch to grab something in the field. Soon this paler bird was joined by a bigger and much darker bird.  Buzzards like most raptors do exhibit sexual dimorphism, or strictly speaking reverse sexual size dimorphism, whereby the female is larger than the male. However this is not that marked in buzzards and so in field situations I can only guess the darker bird was the female of a pair. What was more interesting was their feeding behaviour. 

Male and female pair? Maybe!


Buzzards feed on an eclectic list of prey items from lagomorphs to birds, amphibians, rodents and carrion with insects and earthworms making up just a small but important percentage of their diet. An interesting study from 1993 revealed rabbits make up the bulk of a buzzard diet. Yet these two birds were feeding on worms and beetles. For all birds, diet composition changes with the passing seasons and weather. I remember years ago passing a field near Yeovil in Somerset containing 20-30 buzzards, all feeding on earthworms and invertebrates. I never saw them there again.

As with my Yeovil encounter, in Herefordshire the day before had been very wet indeed,  presumably pushing the worms up to the surface. As the pair sat motionless on posts, every ten minutes or so one would float down to the ground pick up a worm, or insect too small to identify, eat it, and return to the post. This cycle of patient observation, followed by brief feeding repeated itself all afternoon until dusk. There can not be much nutrition in a worm, compared to say a vole, so their patience may have been out of necessity, rather than choice. That I don't know, for I stopped watching them after over three hours, but popping out as the last rays of sunshine filtered across the field, they were still there patiently watching and waiting. That buzzard pair, other than being together, were not co-operating in any specific feeding behaviour. Corvids however do. 

Bredwardine pre roost
The cottage boasted a summerhouse in the garden which afforded superb views up the Knoll which allowed me to sit in comfort observing the buzzards. A more noticeable event on first arriving at the cottage was the noisy mixed flock of jackdaw and rook. Each evening they did the same thing to form pre-roost groups, illustrating the sociability of these black birds. In Mark Cocker's Crow Country he talks about the [roost] "... one a shared stillness, the other a chaos of flight and noise. They pitch each individual bird towards the collective heart"  It is a good description. Each evening at 5.30pm I'd hear the jackdaws first. Jak jak jak as they flew in over the cottage, three would land on the chimney, no more, no less. Soon the flying jacks would be joined by the craa craaa craa of the rooks as they formed a sizeable mixed species aerial display overhead. I never found out exactly where they went to roost each night, but their pre-roost antics, two species as one, were as regular as clockwork. Both species will roost together, during the day, rooks and jackdaws forage together for a very simple reason. Rooks have pickaxe bills ideally suited to digging deep into soil. Jackdaws having much smaller, slender bills, follow in the rooks wake and pick up the pieces. Some studies suggest rooks leave a proportion of their finds for the jackdaws and in return as jackdaws are more observant, the rooks gain additional security when out in exposed fields digging away.


Back home, this corvid sociability has taken itself to a new high in my knowledge, something I've not observed before. In the picture below, three species of corvid are on the wires overlooking the now harvested maize field, rook and jackdaw, but also carrion crow. Older books will tell you that a carrion crow is not a social bird. But over recent years my own observations are that while they are isolated and solitary in the breeding season, come autumn I see all three species in fields. Carrion crows are superb at security as they are ever watchful of threat and almost impossible to get close to. They will feed with rooks in the winter and out the back of the house I witnessed a repeated bit of behaviour I'd not witnessed.


Rook and jackdaw on wires, with single carrion crow fourth from left

Much like the buzzards, this mixed corvid flock which numbered about 50 or more sat for a while on the wires. At a given moment, four or 5 birds, normally rooks would fly down to the field, frustratingly out of sight due to the hedge. In most cases a 10 second gap would occur. Jackdaws then followed with the remaining rooks in a maelstrom of activity, leaving (usually but not always) a carrion crow or two on the wires. The latter always seemed to be the last to fly down, either out of timidity joining this multitudinous flock of noise. Or as I like to think, the crows are the flock sentries keeping an eye out for predators, until when the whole flock is settled on the field, they too can flop down and join them to feed. In reverse or if disturbed, the rooks would fly up first, jackdaws next and bringing up the rear, the carrion crows.

I've witnessed this many times over the week. Always in the morning and by eleven o'clock all three species have flown off elsewhere to feed. All in all it has been a fascinating week observing common species but taking time to really watch what is happening.  I still have a number of question in my head as to what is going on, time then to head off and observe this all over again.

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.