A weekend wander

dscn1141It was almost windless today; the column of smoke rising from the farmer’s rubbish fire was proof of that. But it was also, even without windchill, bitingly cold – that seeping, bone cold which seems able to penetrate any number of layers without the temperature ever needing to go below freezing. We kept moving and were glad of any uphill stretches to generate a bit more heat. As is often the case, my thumbs were the last of the extremities to warm through; although even then the cold was replaced by an ache for a while. Perhaps I am becoming soft as the years tick by; if so, I am not alone, judging by the number of insulated jackets, zipped to the very top, the wearer’s nose tucked away inside, like a quilted balaclava.

dscn1132On the far side of a field – maybe a hundred metres or so away – a decent-sized buzzard was resting on a fence-post, feathers fluffed out against the cold. It was just about at the extreme of the zoom range on my camera and even leaning on a gate the shot wasn’t completely steady. The zooms on some of these modern cameras are remarkable in technological terms but there are limitations when it comes to using them towards the limits of their range. Mine is a Nikon bridge camera (a P510) with a supposed 42x maximum zoom: at anything beyond about 30x the light gathering starts to fall away appreciably; add in the effects of camera shake and quick, precise focussing becomes a problem. Wildlife subjects can be gone in the time it takes to frame and focus, but attempting to hurry the process can give mixed outcomes. No doubt things have moved on in the few years since I last bought a camera, but I can understand why those whose primary hobby is photography choose to carry SLR cameras, multiple lenses and tripods. I’d be unable to walk very far carrying that much gear, so there has to be a trade-off.

dscn1143Walking along a stretch of canal towpath in rapidly fading late afternoon light, we came across some cattle drinking from the side of the canal; something I’d never seen before. Although, as canals go, this stretch is relatively ‘pastoral’, I still couldn’t imagine January canal water being the most appealing of refreshments. It must be the case that animals in the wild have to take hydration wherever they can find it, and my judgement is probably still distorted by the altogether different canals remembered from my distant youth (see here).

dsc01140Spotting the Brush Class 60, returning steel coil empties along the Worcester-Stourbridge line and headed for the Round Oak terminal (and there’s a whole other story for a different day) was a bonus. At one time threatened with total withdrawal from operations this charismatic locomotive was one of the last made in numbers (100 were built) by Brush Traction’s Peterborough works, and has thankfully returned from the brink.

 

 

Shropshire snow: all too brief…

The forecast suggested the possibility of snow across the higher ground to the west, but also that the roads would probably be sufficiently clear to allow access to the hills. In the event, the journey was untroubled and, other than a dusting across the flanks of The Clees, by the time we saw the first evidence of white tops we were only couple of miles out from Church Stretton.

In anticipation of rain at some point, we decided to put on waterproof overtrousers from the start: bulky, cumbersome, restrictive; but windproof and very warm. We gambled on the route via Light Spout waterfall being a good bet for quickly getting clear of the crowds gathering in the car park at the foot of the hills, and it turned out to be even quieter than we’d anticipated. Climbing the rocky steps adjacent to the fall was a little tricky, with many of the rocks smeared with a mixture of ice and streaming water. However, it was manageable: descending that way would have been much more of a problem.

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Looking towards The Clees from Long Mynd.

From the top of the waterfall the path follows the route of Light Spout Hollow and eventually intersects with The Shropshire Way, which then follows the spine of the ridge all the way to its high point at Pole Bank. There was a covering of snow for most of the route, with a few light drifts in places, but not sufficient to cover the heather and other ground vegetation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most substantial areas of snow were in the areas around Pole Bank itself. We even saw someone using a pair of cross-country skis, which was probably overkill at the time, and certainly would have been as the day progressed.

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The road adjacent to Pole Bank cottage

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Reasonable, if short-lived, snow covering

Sadly, by the time we were retracing our steps a couple of hours later, the snow was already receding quite rapidly along the path; probably a consequence of residual warmth in the ground, combined with the passage of boots. Looking further to the north and west, we could see what looked like the evidence of heavier falls on the Arenigs and Berwyns…

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Somewhat closer, a storm was gathering over Corndon Hill, although its effects – if there were any, other than a darkened sky – eventually passed to the west of us…

p1070540 The tracks below would, I’m guessing, have been made by a rabbit…

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Gear test -B&Q Plastic Car Boot Liner

I’m generally reluctant to recommend items of equipment and for a number of reasons: our personal requirements and preferences are many and varied; unless I’ve used something over an extended period I’m hesitant to endorse it, and by then it might no longer be available (this can be particularly the case with footwear); a lot of decent outdoor gear isn’t exactly cheap and peoples’ money is usually hard-earned. Professional testers – the likes of Chris Townsend – obviously become more adept at making quick, informed assessments; something which only comes with experience and keeping abreast of developments, so I mostly leave it to them.

However, in this case, it should be non-controversial as the item in question only costs two quid and is unlikely to be overtaken by technological advances.

We love to walk, get out for the day, just generally escape; but there’s no denying we also love just as much to find a quiet spot to sit, eat and drink. Finding the quiet spot isn’t usually too difficult, it’s something at which we’ve become pretty adept; finding somewhere both quiet and dry can be a bit more problematic. For a sizeable chunk of the year vegetation, fallen trees, rocks, even benches, can usually be relied on to be wet; admittedly you can put down a waterproof, but that does invite damage and, anyway, you might want to wear it as an extra layer.
bq-boot-linerI’d been looking around for something light, cheap and disposable to just throw down  – and then my son came home with a plastic boot liner, purchased from B&Q for £2. That’s it pictured left and admittedly it doesn’t exactly sell itself but to me it just oozes understated chic.

Opened out, there is enough room for a couple of people, sandwich boxes, cups, flask, etc., and you can keep things like binoculars and cameras from lying on the wet ground. When used for its intended purpose the sides and ends fold up to form a kind of tray, but these can be folded under when it’s being deployed as a groundsheet. Committed ultralighters could cut them off and probably save… actually, does anybody care?

The item can be viewed on B&Q’s own product page here…

Technical summary:

Weight: not very much

Made of: plastic

Colour: black

Overall impression:  unexciting, admittedly, but useful. Keeps your bum/sarnies/flapjacks/energy bars out of the mud and sheep deposits.

Price: Two quid (£1.80 if you’re in possession of one of B&Q’s Twirly* discount cards and can contain your excitement until Wednesday)

* So called, if the legend is to be believed, because the cards are mostly in the hands of a demographic who turn up before the store is open (even though it opens at 7:00 am on Wednesdays), stare through the glass at the night crew, point to their watches and say “Are we twirly?”.

Caramac remembered…

The Wyre Forest can be a muddy place at any time of year: the actual forest, that is, not Wyre Forest as in “a local government district in Worcestershire, England, covering the towns of Kidderminster, Stourport-on-Severn and Bewdley, and several civil parishes and their villages”. Confusingly, not all of the Wyre Forest is in Wyre Forest; some of it is in Shropshire.

We’ve just come out of an unseasonably dry spell and such rain as we’ve had since new year has been neither exceptional nor particularly sustained; the forest itself is no more than 10 or 11 miles due west of us, but frequently seems to have caught disproportionately more rainfall. There are some of the characteristics present which give rise to the temperate rain forests found in more westerly parts of the UK – steeply sided gullies for instance – but I haven’t found anything online to suggest that the Wyre Forest meets the definition. What is a fact is that the preponderance of heavy clay soils means slow drainage and a lot of water retention at, or near, the surface; paths remain wet and slippery long after they would have dried out elsewhere. At times progress can be, to put it mildly, inelegant.

Standing on the bridge spanning the Dowles Brook adjacent to Knowles Mill, the water – which usually runs sufficiently clear for dippers to gather food – was the colour of something I couldn’t quite place: an indeterminate mix of cream, yellow and brown; strangely familiar. And then I did remember – Caramac! This prompted one of those slightly surreal passages we all seem to experience, now and again, when out walking – mind slightly detached, contemplating random subjects entirely unconnected with either the day or the surroundings. Admittedly, “Can you still get Caramac” is a pretty bizarre question to fire randomly at somebody with nothing in the way of a preamble: “Eh?” was the elicited response; that and a look skilfully blending sympathy with disdain.

And then, for reasons even I find difficult to understand, I became preoccupied with the fact that I couldn’t remember whether I’d actually liked Caramac; and then remembering seemed to matter, to the point where failing memory replaced Caramac as the fixation. As a consequence, there is, ironically, a whole section of the walk I can barely recollect. And this is supposed to be relaxing and therapeutic.

The day began with bands of dense mist lying in the hollows: indeed, by the time the last of it had dissipated, the afternoon gloom was already beginning to gather. There was plenty of bird activity, as there often is, but mostly seen in silhouette. Over the course of the next few weeks we might, if lucky, catch sight of a lesser spotted woodpecker or, if luckier still, a goshawk; both varieties are resident in the forest. Sometime in early spring, the pied flycatchers will hopefully return to the nesting area set aside for them and the basking adders will sun themselves within sight of the paths, before the vegetation regenerates and mostly hides them from sight.

A visit to this web page allows access to a nice collection of photographs…

Wyre Forest Study Group

For anyone visiting, my advice would be to avoid the Callow Hill visitor centre (and the adjacent Go-Ape), certainly during holiday periods and at weekends throughout most of the year. Follow the B4199 from Bewdley, make your start from Earnswood or Button Oak and work your way roughly due south towards Dowles Brook and the path which follows the route of the old railway branch to Cleobury and Tenbury Wells. You’ll meet far fewer people and most likely spot much more wildlife.

Addendum: By way of an interesting coincidence, Chris Townsend has just published, on his blog, a list of some of his favourite outdoor books of 2016. One of those on the list is The Rainforests of Britain and Ireland: A Traveller’s Guide, by Clifton Bain. Chris’s complete list can be found here.

Footnote: the product illustrated below is apparently still available for purchase…