At the turn of the year…

A walk on Wednesday 27th December, 2017

2017 was more or less bookended by snow on The Long Mynd. The January fall was a light covering, short-lived and already receding by the time we descended; December’s looked to be made of sterner stuff…

The mix of blue skies – pale blue, admittedly – and freshly fallen snow meant that the climb away from the still relatively quiet Carding Mill Valley was full of promise of what conditions might be like higher up. Deeper snow, fewer footprints, extensive views; all of these crossed our minds. In the meantime we contented ourselves with regular pauses to take in the immediate surroundings; for all that these are our most frequently visited hills, it is rare to see them like this.

The combination of snow-covered rocks and swollen streams made for some interesting choices when it came to foot placement. On a warm summer’s day this clear running water can look inviting for a foot soak. Today it just looked to be best avoided. As we climbed the depth of the snow covering was progressively increasing and the sky intermittently darkened, threatening further falls which, apart from the odd flurry, never really materialised.

The path we were following leads to a short, steep, rocky ascent alongside Light Spout waterfall. It can be tricky in these conditions, when there is often a combination of ice and running water, but is generally more difficult to descend than it is to climb. We made our way gingerly up and over the top; I followed, so that if Jo slipped she would take me with her, and if I slipped I would put only myself at risk. I remember thinking at the time that it didn’t seem entirely fair but she would have to come and retrieve me because I was the one carrying the food.

By the time we’d started the return leg, the sun was already dipping low over the hills of mid-Wales, casting long shadows across the snow. There was a consistent six to eight inches of fallen snow across most of the higher ground, with drifts and wind-blown cornices of double that and more (See the picture below). Any evidence of a slight thaw was quickly disappearing as the temperature began to drop, and the combination of surface water running over compacted ice and snow made underfoot conditions for the descent increasingly uncertain. Progress was slow and deliberate, with the treads of our boots becoming repeatedly packed with a mixture of snow and ice and needing to be either kicked or stamped clear to restore some traction.

As we descended, in fading light and falling temperatures, we were both a bit perturbed to be passed by a mixed group of adults and children who had seemingly barely started their walk. More so when one of the adults asked us if there was “anything at the top”. They were all wearing what would probably be described as ‘street clothes’ – no waterproofs; casual wear mostly; trainers and leisure shoes. None of them was carrying any kind of pack, so there was nothing to suggest they had spare hats, gloves, a map, or any food and drinks. It was clear from the question that they weren’t familiar with these particular hills.

We did try to persuade the one who appeared to be in charge that, with the light fading quickly and the temperature falling, coming back down would be much more tricky than the climb, as indeed already was the case, but he seemed worryingly blasé.

Now, okay, this is The Shropshire Hills in a moderate covering of snow, with temperatures dipping down to around -1º to -2º plus a bit of windchill; it’s not the highlands with 100mph gusts, snow past your thighs and sub-arctic conditions. But the path back down to Carding Mill Valley is easy to miss in fading light and there are any number of options for making the wrong choice; it could take someone who didn’t know the hills a long time to realise they’d made a navigational error and possibly longer still to correct it. In the end we had to tell them to note the path junctions and the way marker posts (quite a few of which are down at the moment) and remember landmarks as they passed them.

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A farewell to 2017…

A high and a low from the year just ended…

April: And probably the high point of the entire year; Brummie Saffiyah Khan humiliating EDL leader Ian Crossland with nothing more aggressive than a combination of incredulity and disdain. An object lesson in how to deal with bigots…

May: And undoubtedly the low point, had it not been for Grenfell Tower also occurring within the space of a few weeks: a bomber targets a pop concert at Manchester Arena, killing himself and twenty two innocent people, injuring almost sixty. The bomber turns out to be a UK national – born in Manchester to migrant parents – and someone who had been flagged to the security services by his local community and banned from a mosque. The attack is followed by “a 500% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the Greater Manchester area in the month following” (Police figures).

Sometimes life seems to be like that little spinning circle in the middle of the screen when the wi-fi is buffering – you stare, transfixed, because… because what else is there to be done?

Person of the year: Sunderland supporter Bradley Lowery (01.05.2011 – 07.07.2017), with an honourable mention to Jermain Defoe (both pictured)…

 

A Happy 2018 to all who pass this way…

A sense of place

The west midlands confuses people: not the endless proliferation of local dialects; not the eccentricities of the motorway network; perplexing though both of those can be. New York might well be “so good they named it twice” but The West Midlands (capitalised this time) is apparently such a brilliantly imaginative name for a place that to use it only once would have seemed wasteful; so it’s been applied to two completely different entities – one of which resides within the other.

First, there’s The County of West Midlands: neither small nor perfectly formed, this nondescript aggregation of bits taken from Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, all of which – reduced though they may be – still separately exist, managed to be a compromise of sorts in that it was held in almost unanimous contempt by residents of all three of its constituent parts. The reasons for their discontent might have varied – from the erosion of cultural identity to concern over the effects on property prices “If people get the idea we’re a suburb of Dudley” (yes, seriously) – but the thing that united us them was that we they just weren’t happy and that’s all there was too it. It doesn’t take much.

Then there’s the other ‘West Midlands’ which, according to Wiki is “One of the nine official regions of England”, stretching from Herefordshire and The Cotswolds to the edge of The Peaks and all points west, right up to the Welsh border. None of this is new, although it is to me.

Both versions of The West Midlands are officially designated as NUTS, which will surprise almost no-one.

Within about 10-15 minutes at a decent walking pace I can reach the remnant of an old Roman road, which marks the boundary with Staffordshire, just at the point where it is tapering down to nothing in the middle of some nondescript pasture; in rather less time again it is possible to exit Staffordshire and cross seamlessly into Worcestershire. So, I reached the Roman road, left behind the neatly suburban West Midlands (designated NUTS1) and crossed into the unkempt agricultural West Midlands (NUTS2), heading for one of those places where The Woodland Trust is doing some of its sterling work.

This is, for a while, an odd patchwork of an area: the clearly defined residential plots come to an abrupt end and are replaced by a chaotic, bits and pieces landscape of indeterminate ownership – a couple of small copses and a few fields which have remained undisturbed for, to my knowledge, the best part of 35 years. Vegetation comes and goes, proliferates, dies back, and the tracks which meander between the trees and brambles follow the same lines that they have followed for as long as I’ve known them.

At least over time the wildlife changes: the buzzards and ravens which would once have been considered exotic are now relatively commonplace, particularly the buzzards. The grey squirrel and rabbit populations ensure there is certainly no shortage of food; no doubt there are field voles out there as well, but they maintain a lower profile. These days the squirrels have to compete for cached food with the expanding population of jays – a bird with attractive plumage but frequently sounding as if it’s being tortured. Goldcrest are present in good numbers; possibly they always were and I never noticed them or, more likely, thought that anything so small would automatically be a wren.

Today the kind of snowfall we rarely see any more has thrown a pristine blanket over some of the less attractive aspects, like the unused rolls of razor wire and discarded feed sacks. The woods themselves seem to be groaning under the covering of snow and the goldcrests and wrens, as they flit between branches, set up small tremors dislodging many times their own body weight.


     

Modern camera technology

The final photograph in the previous post was of a kingfisher, sitting on some stonework just out of Worcester city centre. I described it in the post as ‘heavily cropped’ and I think it’s a testimony to the quality of modern camera sensors and lenses that an image can be effectively ‘blown up’ and still retain so much resolution.

Here’s what happened (and I must stress that there was no skill involved on my part beyond the use of the cropping tool; no photoshopping or enhancement of any kind – it is all down to the camera equipment).

The kingfisher flew across the river and alighted on the quayside; it was some distance away but was clearly a kingfisher. Not wishing to spook the bird, my son took a few shots in ‘burst’ mode without moving any closer. He was using a Sony Alpha 6000 with a Sony 55-210 zoom lens; from memory he thinks it was shot at maximum zoom but it was all in a bit of a hurry. This is the original shot…

The kingfisher is visible, just left of centre and on the corner of the quayside.

When we’d got the pictures loaded onto the computer at home, I just thought I’d try cropping to remove the railings; I expected the result to be grainy and unusable. This was the first crop…

It was way better than I would have anticipated, but I knew you couldn’t expect to keep cropping without compromising image quality. Nevertheless, I though I’d give it one more trim – this time with really low expectations…

The result was the photograph above, which is the one used in the previous post.

I just thought this was an amazing testimony to the quality of modern camera equipment, even in the hands of an amateur (although Rob, to be fair to him, does have a decent eye for a picture). I contributed nothing beyond the use of the cropping tool.

 

 

 

 

 

Urban diary: Wildlife in Worcester/2

Paradox: drawn though I am to remote places, and the opportunities for solitude and quiet reflection which they provide, I would never actually want to live far from a railway station. I don’t much care for driving these days, mostly find it a chore; there are exceptions of course, but given the choice I’d walk, take the train, or some combination of both. Days like this one are greatly enhanced by leaving the car on the drive.

Worcester is a place we return to fairly regularly: more urban than was once the case, it’s still managed to retain some of its appeal as the development gradually pushes further out along the line of the river on the southern side. Possibly on the northern side too; it’s not a part of the city we visit.

The completion of the Diglis footbridge in 2010 allowed for a circular walk, out past the cathedral and returning alongside the county cricket ground; or the same route reversed, if preferred. Generally it’s the cathedral side of the river which seems to catch more of the sun and provides the better options for a food stop; there is no shortage of benches.

The road bridge carrying the A44 past New Road county cricket ground

A view back towards the city, marred by some 1960s architecture

Riverside walkway – cathedral side of river

Worcester Cathedral

Not being of a religious persuasion, I sometimes find the opulence and ostentation of high churches a little unsettling; and it doesn’t always do to dwell for too long on the history of it all. Smaller, more spartan country churches are a different matter, and their churchyards are often quiet and welcoming places to dwell for a while. That said, there’s no denying the levels of craftsmanship achieved under what must have been severely demanding working conditions in all sorts of ways…

[Left] Interior view – Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Mary the Virgin of Worcester, more commonly known simply as Worcester Cathedral.

 

 

 

 

There are some attractive dwelling houses in the immediate environs of the cathedral and around College Green. Who owns and/or lives in them I have no idea…

Oh yes, of course, wildlife…

It can all get a bit chaotic at times

There’s a swan sanctuary just south of the main road bridge and on the cricket ground (west) side of the river. The swans are monitored and regularly fed, although they have to be quick to keep ahead of the opportunist gulls and pigeons. No wonder peregrines regularly use the cathedral as a nesting site…

 

 

This was a rarity though – a black swan (left). I’d never seen one of these anywhere on the river before, the closest would have been the WWT reserve at Slimbridge. It could possibly be an escapee: smaller than the resident mutes, they can apparently be quite aggressive; it certainly didn’t seem fazed by being heavily outnumbered.

 

 

And finally, a heavily cropped picture of a kingfisher which decided to sit for a while on the stonework, just near to where the canal joins the river…

A return to mid Wales

This is mostly a photo post: it was the second visit of the year to the Rhayader/Elan Valley area and, coincidentally, the walking was mostly defined by the heavy rains which had preceded our few days there. ‘Coincidentally’ because this had been exactly the case back in May; sustained spells of heavy rain – not exactly a rarity in mid Wales – can turn some of the hills into a quagmire, and a misery to walk.

However, there are compensations to be had from arriving in the aftermath of a good deluge…

The overflowing dam at Penygarreg reservoir – viewed from Penbont

As above, but from a little closer. Or possibly zoomed

The rain was just about over by the time we arrived, but there was still plenty of low cloud around and a heavy clinging dampness hanging in the air. This is Wales – come prepared!

The fire in the distance looked more appealing the closer we got. It turned out to be forestry workers on clearing duties, rather than wild campers

By mid afternoon, the combination of clearing skies and steadily lowering sun had lent an altogether different feel to the water and surrounding hillsides…

Better had been promised for the next day, and was duly delivered…

Inevitably, in this part of Wales, there would be red kite…

Looking for feeding opportunities among the boulders

And taking advantage of thermals, conspicuously absent on the previous day

 

Risky post (attacking a national institution)

First things first: GCHQ can stand down; this isn’t about a latter-day gunpowder plot, or a coup to depose the board of trustees of Age Concern England. This is about… well, it’s about Autumnwatch, or what’s left of it. In fact it’s about the whole Seasonwatch franchise and what it’s become.

I caught a few bits of the series just ended; not quite sure why but I did. I’ve never been one of the ‘waste of the licence fee’ brigade; there’s still plenty to like about the Beeb, particularly in the context of what passes for content on most of the hundreds of alternatives which fill the screen when you press the ‘Guide’ button on the remote. But is this really it? Is this what the acclaimed Natural History Unit now considers to be acceptable output?

Right back to its origins, more than 10 years ago now, the programmes have never pretended to be anything other than gently informative, while remaining mostly uncontroversial. But there was at least some quality to be found in the early days, both in terms of the content and the presenters. Okay, it was probably inevitable that Bill Oddie’s eccentricity would eventually alienate as many viewers as it would attract, and personally I was never a big fan of Kate Humble. For me the programme was defined by the contributions of presenters like Gordon Buchanan and Iolo Williams; Gordon has gone on to bigger and better, while Iolo’s contributions are latterly infrequent and all too brief. Maybe his tendency towards ‘frankness’ when dealing with issues like raptor persecution could have something to do with it.

What do we have now? On three evenings last week we saw Gillian Burke – a talented and engaging naturalist – reduced to the role of circus master, arranging for urban foxes to learn tricks with scraps of food attached to string. That’s not a prime time nature broadcast – it’s Blue Peter with foxes! Foxes incidentally, so de-wilded by generations of inculcation that they’re more tame than the average tomcat. If the objective is to engage a younger audience then broadcast that stuff late afternoon, before the early evening news; not at 8:00pm a prime slot on a supposedly flagship channel.

There’s a rich vein of self-satisfied laziness running through the whole franchise now: the presenters are provided with accommodation for a base; supporting personnel with high levels of expertise; contributions from people with local knowledge; a nerve centre with more screens than a city dealing room; more cabling than the East Coast Main Line; and for what results?

Urban foxes; grainy shots of excavated earth where there had been a badger earlier in the day; repetition mostly; species many of us could spot on a decent day’s walk; very few genuine rarities. Go and find a lesser-spotted woodpecker, or a nightingale, you lazy bastards! You have enough resources at your disposal. Or deal with some proper wildlife issues, maybe highlight some of the appalling land management practices going on out there. I could tell you where to start looking!

Anyway, glad that’s off  my chest. And finally, a glimpse of what once was and could be again…

Richard Taylor-Jones