Going over old ground…

That’s as good a way as any of summarising our outings of late: old haunts revisited; familiar routes reprised; two or three hours of borrowed time; longer days whenever opportunity presents. Brief escapes snatched from the seemingly remorseless clutches of life as it is now mostly lived. Not that we have much cause for complaint, but we’d probably all prefer to be doing a bit more of what we’d choose, a bit less of what’s required.

Habitually, we don’t take an awful lot of photographs; my tendency is to give priority to binoculars over a camera, but there is the occasional shot, usually intended as nothing more than a record of the day. These are just a few from recent weeks, accompanied by a bit of brief notation.

A grainy shot of a high-flying goshawk, taken in the Forest of Dean on a day when the weather was indeed glorious, although I don’t remember the sky being quite as blue and cloudless as the picture suggests…

The area has a reputation as a relative ‘hot spot’ for what is still a quite rare, although thankfully recovering, raptor (UK breeding population around 400 pairs). Usually I wouldn’t post a location for a sighting of a threatened bird of prey, but this particular site is already widely publicised online.

Wild ponies, Long Mynd: these animals are an ever-present feature of the Long Mynd, roaming across almost the entire expanse of the hills; sometimes in larger gatherings (I think the correct collective is ‘string’), at other times dispersed into smaller groups. Andy Howell – a Shropshire Hills regular – has written many blog entries about the area and regularly encounters the ponies… [Link]

 

Also taken on Long Mynd – one of a pair of falcons seen flying high above Light Spout Hollow and photographed at maximum zoom on a Sony HX300 Bridge Camera. With no detail visible on the camera’s LCD screen, we later cropped the image in Photoshop Elements (hence the grain) and then lightened it just enough for colours and markings to show. It looks like a hobby, which we’ve seen there before but usually skimming low over the ground chasing dragonflies…

Higher still, but much easier to identify – a pair of red kite…

Taken on 19th April, this was a day when we saw more kite than on any previous visit. We’d sometimes wondered whether the ones and twos spotted on previous occasions were the early settlers in a burgeoning population, or itinerants from Radnorshire on a day trip. We’re now hopeful of an eastward shift, as has previously happened with first buzzards then raven, and another step in the revival of an iconic species; they are still something of a rarity east of the Severn.

For anyone prepared to seek out the less populous parts of the hills, this whole area offers some of the best opportunities for spotting a variety of birds of prey; in fact, it’s one of the few places we know of where you could conceivably, in a single day, sight all three of our native falcons, plus a visiting hobby. It would need to be a lucky day, and at the right time of year, but it’s by no means inconceivable.

Wheatear is a variety we often see on the quieter parts of the Shropshire hills. This one was sufficiently obliging to sit still for a couple of shots…

This next one is an odd picture: for some reason – and my guess is user incompetence – the camera has focussed more precisely on the dried reeds than on the intended object, the meadow pipit. This gives the bird a slightly ghostly appearance, almost as if it had been struck down and become more powerful than could possibly have been imagined. I quite like the unintended strangeness of it…

Just taking off from Carding Mill Valley, a rescue helicopter presumably called out to assist with the search for a teenage girl who had been reported missing on the day in the vicinity of the hills. Thankfully, she turned up later in the day – safe and unharmed.

 

 

Wild garlic, trackside, Severn Valley Railway: a nice smell, or a revolting one? It seems to divide opinion…

Also on the Severn Valley Railway: shunting operations at Highley Station. It was taken during the Easter holiday period and good to see that the trains on the day were consistently busy.

Recently I’ve started to take notice of the small oval ‘Shed’ plates attached to the front of steam locos; that’s probably the kind of thing I should be telling to a therapist. The one on the front of the engine nearest to the camera (85D) refers to the old steam shed at Kidderminster, so 1450 hasn’t strayed too far from home. Locomotive 1501 is displaying a former Old Oak Common plate (81A); this was the principal shed serving the Paddington end of the old GWR main line, and 1501 would have kept company with some very illustrious stablemates.

A stroll and a spring steam gala (19/03/17)

I can remember the dying days of steam on our railway network, and I’m glad that preservation has safeguarded some remnants of those times for the benefit and enjoyment of generations present and future. That said, I don’t quite share the almost evangelical zeal exhibited by some; and here’s the real heresy – I actually prefer the old diesels!

But sometimes, we just happen to be in the vicinity of the Severn Valley when there’s a gala day and there’s no denying the old steamers can be very photogenic. Here’s former BR Standard Class 92214 working its way through The Wyre Forest near to the old mining villages of Highley and Alveley.  Built at Swindon works during 1959, it had a short operational life – being withdrawn from service in 1965. At various times it has carried the names: Oliver Cromwell; Leicester City; Central Star; Cock o’ The North, and possibly some others besides…

Here it is again, later in the day, waiting and then just departing the station at Bewdley; by this time the header code and other adornments had been removed…

A member of the station staff is about to hand the single line running token to the driver…

Also pictured at Bewdley, an old Great Western saddle tank – a shunting engine built primarily for dockside workings and use in colliery sidings. Here it’s just running around a short train at the northern end of the station…

  The same engine photographed side-on at Highley station yard…

A couple of shots taken at Hampton Loade station: the top one is of a GWR 1400 class tank engine, just about to depart on a shuttle service to Bridgnorth. These engines, including this particular one, have a certain celebrity status: Oliver the Western Engine appears in the children’s books written by the Rev W Awdry, and also in the Thomas the Tank Engine television series. As if that wasn’t fame enough, this very engine (1450) appeared in the film The Titfield Thunderbolt, albeit carrying a different number, and also in an episode of The Goodies

The locomotive pictured below – with another just visible through the gap – is currently resident on the SVR and was at one time certified for main line running. 34027 Taw Valley is a former Southern Region, West Country class express locomotive, which at one time worked some of the named expresses around the south and south-west of England – trains such as The Atlantic Coast Express which ran all the way to the Southern Region’s most westerly terminus (Bude).

By the time this picture was taken, I’d begun to fixate on the small ‘shed plates’ on the front of the locos, which identify their former home depots. Taw Valley carries shed plate 73B (Bricklayer’s arms): the depot, long gone, was formerly situated near to the intersection of a number of main roads, including – among others – Tower Bridge Road and Old Kent Road. It is now the site of residential and light industrial development.

Another shot taken in the Wyre Forest section of the line: Battle of Britain class 34081 – sometimes named 92 Squadron, but not on the day. This locomotive now spends its days touring the various heritage railways as a guest locomotive; in its heyday it would, like Taw Valley above, have operated across the old BR Southern region – anywhere between Kent and North Devon…

But there are drawbacks where steamers are concerned; one of them being the need for backwards running after visiting a terminus with no turntable. This is 34081 again, bum-end first this time and producing some very environmentally dubious emissions…

And that’s where diesels have a big advantage for the lineside snappers – they’re the same at both ends. Well, apart from the shunters…

Oh, and the Class 20s, obviously…

And, stretching a point, the Class 14s, where the cab isn’t quite symmetrically positioned, like this one waiting at Kidderminster on a previous visit…

The nuthatch below was a picture of studied indifference as the trains passed a few feet from where he was sat chatting to his mate…

And that was pretty much the day; we moved between the stations on foot, covered a few miles in the process (probably about 7 or 8 in total) and took advantage of the benches and shelter for food stops and to avoid the occasional outbreaks of drizzly rain.

Wyre Forest (14/03/17)

Being a weekday, not a school holiday, and still well away from the busy season, we’d decided to set aside our misanthropic tendencies and make our starting point the visitor centre. It was busier than we’d have anticipated, but only around the centre facilities; 200 yards into the forest and we were on our own. With skies more overcast than had been forecast, the birds seemed to be keeping a low profile and we were able to devote more of our attention to avoiding the still considerable amounts of mud underfoot; it’s a particular speciality of the Wyre Forest is mud.

There was, eventually, a lightening of the cloud cover, which roughly coincided with the thinning out of the trees; we became aware of a steady increase in both the amount of movement and the level of noise; woodland and hedgerow staples mostly on the day, although there is always the hope and possibility of something a little more exotic – a lesser spotted woodpecker perhaps, maybe even a goshawk. Not today, though.

A stone bridge spanning the route of the former railway line provides an excellent vantage point at those times when there is bird activity in the vicinity of the reserve’s premises at Lodge Hill Farm. On this occasion the movement in the trees turned out to be a pair of bullfinches; the pair quickly became three as a second female arrived on the scene, before two further arrivals swelled the numbers to five (two males/three females).

The male’s breast colouring was vivid even by bullfinch standards. Unfortunately, I’d upped the ISO setting on the camera – to allow for shooting at decent shutter speeds inside the woods – and then neglected to turn it back down; hence the over-exposure, particularly of the bright background.

The one sustained spell of warm sun, early in the afternoon, was sufficient to tempt out a female adder to bask among the leaf litter. As is often the case, there was no perfect unobstructed shot and we wanted to maintain a proper distance to avoid causing any disturbance to the adder.

There will hopefully be opportunities over the next few weeks to spot a few more, although nothing is guaranteed with something so elusive and sensitive to movement. Once those few weeks have passed and the undergrowth begins to seriously thicken out, the adders – along with the grass snakes which are also present – will become much more concealed and difficult to pick out.

When the adders decide to lie amongst the remnants of the previous year’s bracken, the similarities between their markings and the patterns of the dead undergrowth can make them very tricky to spot – particularly the females!

There isn’t one in the picture to the left, by the way – it’s just bracken.

Wood ants were already becoming active, developing existing nests and starting new ones. They obviously find conditions very much to their liking and anyone intending to take a break sitting on the ground needs to do a bit of reconnaissance before settling down. We’ve seen adders lying on top of some of the smaller ant nests; apparently they like the warmth generated by the activity in the nest and the ants don’t seem to bother them.

 

 

Just a few pictures…

Not many words to this post, just a handful of shots taken out and about with various hand-held devices…

Storm Doris uprooted a tree – A Scots pine, sadly – in the park, no more than about 80 yards from our front door. Not just any Scots pine either, although any loss is one too many; this was the tree where the female sparrowhawk used to sit – big, even for a female, and queen of all she surveyed. Recent work on the path around the pool may have destabilised the roots somewhat; if so, other pines in the same stand might be similarly at risk…

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This run of attractive and cleverly woven fencing along a stretch of the Droitwich canal, utilising the trunks and branches from an established hedge; hazel, I think, although I’m no expert. I believe the weaving technique has a local name which, like so much these days, escapes me. Whatever it’s called, it looks nicer than chain-link and razor wire…

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Last week in February and rhododendrons already in full bloom – or very close to it – Bunkers Hill Wood, right on the West Midlands/South Staffordshire border…

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Hampton Loade station, Severn Valley Railway, and I’m reminded that, like it or not, I’m looking at a scene that – more years ago than I care to remember – I would have witnessed many times out on the main line: an old, first generation, diesel multiple unit, standing alongside a BR tank engine pulling coaching stock. Dudley Port low level, early sixties, heading for The Hawthorns to watch The Albion; who knows where the time goes?

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And a carrion crow – plumage more blue-black and unblemished than any I can ever recall seeing…

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The shot of the carrion crow was taken on my son’s Sony HX300 bridge camera, which easily outperforms my Nikon P510, although it is a bit bigger and heavier.

 

 

Footwear

I’ve left it late, as I invariably do, but I’m in the early stages of breaking in a new pair of boots, which will take a while. I don’t much like boots, only wear them when really necessary – snow (which is sadly rare) and deep mud or boggy ground (somewhat less rare); but the sole on my old Hi-Tec Ascents is separating from the upper in a way that no amount of wax or dubbin is going to fix. I’ll hopefully see out the winter with them and, in the meantime,  gradually ease in the new pair with shorter walks on mostly level ground. Coincidentally, I’m not the only one breaking in new boots… see Alan Sloman’s blog.

I’m much more interested in the experimental pair of ‘trail’ shoes I’m trying out, and encouraged by first impressions. Having had mixed experiences with both Inov8 and Brasher (one good, one not so good in each case) I decided to go down the route of looking around for a pair of cross-country running shoes in a wide fitting and came across the New Balance 610 Version 4 at what seemed like an astonishingly good price. The price led me to suspect that a model change was imminent, which turned out to be true; the restyled but apparently similar under the skin V5 is now on sale, retailing at between £70 and £80.

Width fitting is an issue with me, particularly for my seemingly ever-spreading left foot and the discomfort it suffers from a too tight toe-box. Specifying ‘wide fit’ in an online search reduces the available options considerably; the 610s are a 4e width fitting and comfortable from first time on. Specifying cross-country was simply in the hope of finding something with improved grip – primarily for mud and wet rock, rather than snow and ice – although the lug pattern on the NB’s isn’t what I would describe as overly aggressive.

dscn1165First impressions are so far so good: the shoes have felt comfortable from the outset, grip is certainly good on muddy trails; as for durability only time will tell. The 4e width is a real blessing for me as I don’t have to go a half or even a full size bigger just to get a bit more room in the toe-box. The only real drawback is that the shoes have a Gore-tex liner, which I would happily have done without, but it doesn’t appear to add too much to the weight. Mostly I prefer unlined shoes because I find membranes can make my feet a bit too warm at times. On the plus side, they do mostly fall within my preferred colour range of very dark grey to black.

 

A walk with not much to look at…

“It’s foggy up here”. Perceptive, that’s me.

Admittedly, it had been perfectly clear when we left home – about 4 miles away as the crow flies and about 600 feet lower – but the change in conditions really didn’t need to be pointed out. “Nothing gets past you, does it?” I thought the sarcasm was uncalled for.

dsc_0003I actually don’t mind the occasional walk in foggy conditions, and admittedly it’s easier to be philosophical when the journey from home has only taken about 10 minutes and you’ve seen the views from these particular hills literally dozens of times before. Perhaps not quite so easy if you’ve driven a long distance to explore somewhere previously unvisited. And I suppose we half expected it to clear as the morning progressed and a little bit of sun and wind worked their magic.

So off we set on a familiar circuit, able to see very little beyond a couple of dozen yards in any direction, listening out for signs of the birds who seem to be gearing up for what should be – migrations aside – their most active period of the year.

dsc_0009Occasionally the shadowy but recognisable shape of a blackbird could be seen rummaging away in the leaf litter; and a few robins, confident and optimistic, shadowed our progress along the track. Meanwhile, the only variation in the visibility seemed to be in those places where it became noticeably worse.

There are two, three or four tops in the Clent Hills cluster, depending on your interpretation. Three of them are over 1,000 feet in height, although only one – Walton Hill – is designated as a Marilyn. Calcot Hill is sometimes dismissed as just another undulation on the ridge of Walton Hill; Wychbury is often disregarded, simply as a consequence of being separated from the others by the busy A456; Clent Hill is the most visited, the one with the café and other facilities, and the second highest. The whole area does seem somewhat susceptible to hill fogs and this was neither the first, nor the worst we have encountered. As we left and began to drop down the steep lane leading away from the car park, we were very quickly back into clear conditions.

One picture, twice…

Following a muddy path under trees showing just the first signs of new growth, we came across this confluence of minor river and tributary. Tributary, in this part of the forest, can be a euphemism for just about any gully running with water – sometimes their intended use is as a path rather than a watercourse. In this case, the stream joining from the left is always just that – a stream.

None of which actually matters that much; what had really caught our attention was the rather odd light as the path dropped down towards the level of the water. The sun, hitherto hidden by a steep bank, came into view as we rounded a corner, casting a late afternoon, watery yellow glow. The effect was amplified by flickering reflections from the surface of the water, itself running the yellowy brown it often takes from the heavy clay soils of the area. A single, still frame does inadequate justice to the properties of the light, obviously captures none of the movement, and yet somehow (we’ve been here before) turns out okay. Inaccurate, maybe, but okay…

dscn1154The same picture, photoshopped into monochrome, makes the day look considerably colder, more gloomy, and even less like the scene as I recall it. Then again, what is more subjective than memory?…

dscn1154_edited-1Not always the case, but the pictures – particularly the top one – benefit from being ‘clicked’ and expanded.