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.

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?”.