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.

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Pictures taken with a smartphone

I might be about to buy a new compact camera: I have a venerable but ageing Panasonic Lumix – an item seemingly so bombproof it will probably outlive me. But, like many things of a certain age, its performance is limited and – powered, as it is, by AA batteries – prone to running out of steam just when you might need it. It strikes me that, apart from the battery-powered bit, I could just as easily be describing bits of my anatomy here.

Because of a preference for binoculars slung around my neck, as opposed to a camera, I’m often caught napping when an opportunity – particularly for a wildlife shot – presents itself. The Panasonic dates back to long before the days of superzoom compacts, and the bridge camera, which I also sometimes carry, is invariably in the rucksack. Birds and other animals will rarely sit patiently while you take off a pack, retrieve a camera, zoom, focus, generally faff… Although, strangely, it seems they will often hang around until you’re nearly ready before making off.

So, a pocket-sized camera seems like the answer. My son has a fairly recent Panasonic compact, with a 30X zoom, and gets some very good results; although he has to keep it very steady when shooting at anything over 20X.

In the interim, I’ve been trying to take the occasional shot with a camera phone, just by way of experimentation and in the knowledge that the camera on the phone I have is generally described as “disappointing” by reviewers. Some of the results are below and I was surprised at how atmospheric some of them seemed to have turned out. However – atmospheric or otherwise – the one thing they all have in common is that the colours and lighting bear little resemblance to what they were actually like on the day.

The pictures below, mostly give the impression of gathering gloom and fading light: in fact they were all taken at just gone 1 pm on a fairly bright winter’s day, with broken cloud and sunshine. Even the lightest of them – the bottom one – significantly understates how light it was in reality. The camera might not lie, but it can be pretty economical with the truth…   dsc_0043  dsc_0041  dsc_0038  dsc_0036

All pictures were taken from the eastern side of Kinver Edge, Staffordshire, looking          roughly due east. The higher ground in the distance is the Clent Hills, Worcestershire.

The phone is (according to the box) a Sony Xperia M4 Aqua and the camera sensor is 13 megapixels – more pixels than the one on my too-heavy-to-take-on-a-walk Sony DSLR, although that doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger sensor, apparently. It’s produced some quite nice pictures – just not quite the ones I thought I was taking.

This will take a little getting used to…

This is to be the first post as a WordPress user. The final one as a Blogger blogger can be found here, along with some of those which preceded it; how long they will survive is anybody’s guess. The earlier posts from the old Blogger site are gradually being imported over here, under the heading “From the vaults”. Not all of them will make the journey – the time for a clearout was overdue.

Should anyone click on the above link, the most useful thing they will find is the section on the right-hand side headed “Always worth a visit”. It is a list of the blogs which I most frequently follow, and there gems among them; clicking on any of them will lead to others, which in turn will… well, you get the idea. There’s some wonderful stuff out there, freely available and accessible through any number of gateways. When I find out how to do it, I will bring them across to this site; it will be like hanging favourite pictures in a new house.

The opening entries on the old blog – back in November 2009 – were a couple of posts about the hills on my own doorstep; the second of them beginning with: “The Clent hills will be familiar to anyone who has ever driven the first two or three junctions of the M5; just about where the urban sprawl of the West Midlands finally surrenders its grip…” To quote Jarvis Cocker: “I don’t know why but I had to start it somewhere, so it started there…” This one might as well start in the same place…

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Quiet day – Clent Hills

In the five and a bit years since those first tentative excursions into the strange, twilight world of the outdoor blogger I’ve probably tramped that local patch more than any other, although there’s the odd stretch of canal would run it close. And if there are times when I don’t much fancy it (and there are), those thoughts quickly dissipate once the outing is under way. A pair of tops, close enough to present a bactrian profile from certain aspects; one of them (Walton Hill) a designated Marilyn; ravens, raptors and ring ouzels; roe deer and muntjac; a café serving proper outdoor scran; escape chutes plunging away from the crowds on those days, relatively few in number, when crowds there are; bluebells.

All of this despite the ever-busy M5 passing less than 2 miles to the east and the boundary of the (mostly) post-industrial black country being closer still to the north. And, with nothing higher for 20 miles in any direction, the views can be exceptional; on the best of days it’s possible to pick out the Berwyns, some 60 miles away. Which reminds me of another place that’s overdue for a revisit…

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Bluebells – Clent Hills

The return to earth (20/06/2015)

The return to earth

There’s no avoiding the fact that leaving the highlands involves ‘coming down’ in more than one sense. From a seemingly unending choice of mountains topping three and a half thousand feet, we return to a locality where the highest accessible summits reach around half that height.

Abdon Burf (Brown Clee), at 540 metres (1,770 feet), is the highest point in Worcestershire and Shropshire; Long Mynd – despite feeling much more like proper hill country – tops out at the summit of Pole Bank (516 metres/1693 feet).

It’s hard not to suffer withdrawal symptoms, and not just for the landscape either: highland place names evoke a particular nostalgia, all of their own. Simply planning a route in The Cairngorms can be enough to prompt anticipation and excitement: tracing a line on the map across allt; gleann; creag; stob. The principal waterways – Dee, Spey, Feshie – mostly seem to be identified by the anglicised ‘river’ but elsewhere the landscape is doing its bit to preserve the mystery and romance of gaelic. Could there be a better and more appropriate way of conserving a language than through the naming and identification of iconic landmarks?

The Welsh have a word – ‘Hiraeth’ – which has no direct equivalent in English, but one definition is “… a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia and wistfulness”. And there we have it, in a nutshell – an Englishman, back home and stricken with hiraeth for the wild places of Scotland (and their names). It’s almost a subliminal argument in favour of the union.

So, what to do? The realities of daily life demand attention and recreation has to take its place in the queue; not always at the front, unfortunately. Meanwhile, the post holiday void has to be filled, as best it can, by the frequently shorter and invariably less dramatic outings taken closer to home. As coping strategies go, this seems better than any of the alternatives…

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The Worcester and Birmingham canal, near Droitwich

Canal walks are one of our staples, and what they lack in terms of hills is usually compensated for by the generally less hurried pace of life and movement around inland waterways. That and the often surprising diversity of wildlife colonising the margins; particularly where the canals border on areas of arable farmland.

Canals in the Droitwich area have benefited from substantial restoration efforts in recent years. These are too extensive and complex to cover in a blog post but there are a number of online sites detailing the work which has been carried out. Suffice it to say that the restoration projects have reactivated previously derelict and overgrown sections of waterway and towpath, created a variety of new wildlife habitats and some excellent walking opportunities. The restored canals are now in the care of The Canal and River Trust: their site can be viewed here; there is also, among others, a wiki page giving some of the back story.

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Reed Warbler

One particular component of the  habitat enhancement has been the creation of extensive reed beds; these attract a variety of bird species but seem particularly appealing to probably the highest concentration of reed warblers we’ve ever encountered anywhere. Perhaps the day will eventually arrive when I can reliably distinguish them from a whitethroat at first sight; I’m not there yet.

Reed warblers are one of the varieties vulnerable to being used as a host by parasitic cuckoos and we heard distinctive cuckoo calls coming from a copse quite close to the towpath. In fact we’ve heard a number of cuckoos calling in the vicinity of local canals this spring/summer, where we can often go several years without hearing a single one in the locality. I suppose it could be that this is connected to the apparently thriving warbler population.

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Serendipity: while trying to pinpoint the precise location of the cuckoo, Rob chanced upon this green woodpecker sitting uncharacteristically motionless on top of a tree stump…

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Cultivated land, hedgerows, some woodland. A nice mix of habitat for warblers and other varieties.

 

 

Be ready for the weather (whatever it happens to be)…

For the weekend, and the few days leading up to it, the weather forecasts had been so vague as to be just about meaningless. A frontal system moving across from the west might/might not reach us; colder air from the north could extend this far south, but on the other hand…

Maybe both would make it all the way and meet above our heads in some post-biblical apocalypse. Alternatively it might just be grey skies and some drizzle – that’s always a sound bet in the midlands, in January.

Canal & Kinver.18.01.15_01 18 15_0002So, in the absence of any guidance from the meteorologists, we layered up for just about every eventuality and set off with no particular plan, other than that we’d start with the canal and feed any ducks we happened to meet. There were loads of them, and they cleaned us out of food in no time; to those who missed out, we can only apologise.

Setting off along the towpath, the weather was pretty benign, although with that extra couple of degrees more bite that you often seem to get near water. We were going to be out for no more than about three hours, so this would do just fine – it might even be possible to shed a layer as we warmed up.

Canal & Kinver.18.01.15_01 18 15_0014A spur of the moment decision led to us leaving the canalside walk and heading off towards the most accessible piece of higher ground – Kinver Edge.

‘High’ is a relative term, and even by the humble standards of our local hills the height of the ridge is modest (the trig point is at 538 feet), although there are a couple of steepish, if relatively short, pulls to be negotiated on the way to the crest of the ridge.

If we were going to discard a layer, this would have been the time; but it would inevitably mean stopping again to put it all back on, so we put up with briefly being a bit too warm. As it turned out, it wouldn’t be lasting for very long.

Kinver Edge is the southernmost point of the Staffordshire Way, and the place where it meets the merged Worcestershire Way and North Worcestershire path. It was also, for us, just about the point of no return in terms of this particular walk and therefore – inevitably – the place where the weather suddenly changed for the worse.

Canal & Kinver.18.01.15_01 18 15_0017What little was left of the day’s sun was quickly consumed by grey cloud and the wind, from which we had previously been sheltered, carried the first warning shots of a sleet storm. The temperature dropped several degrees.

This all seemed to happen in the time it took to cover a few paces and a quick glance in the direction from which the storm was gathering suggested it was only going to get worse. It did, with a vengeance: sky almost black; daylight virtually extinguished; rain and sleet horizontal in a biting wind, even penetrating the cover of the woods. And then it was gone…

Just as if a switch had been thrown, the weak sun was visible again, the rain and sleet eased, and the wind subsided – no wonder the forecasters hedge their bets. Any thoughts of being too warm were gone for good though.

Eventually we rejoined the canal towpath and finished the walk in near darkness; our eyes adjusting to the gathering gloom as the dusk thickened.

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Surprisingly, two weeks into January, a number of gorse bushes were already coming into flower

A little latitude…

Having said in a recent blog post that “I tend not to write that often about walks around our local patch”, this is now the second such post in the space of a few days.

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As well as being used for recreation, the hills are also a place of work. Today it was cutting, clearing and burning to promote regeneration

The climate of the UK is sometimes described as temperate; an odd word to choose when you consider how volatile it can be, even within the space of a single day. It didn’t feel particularly temperate this afternoon; decidedly nippy in fact. Then again, we’re into December and we were walking today at approximately 52.5º north: it’s an interesting thing this latitude lark; interesting and, up to a point, relevant.

 The ground, after 14 or 15 hours of darkness takes a long time to warm; if indeed it warms perceptibly at all. The effect of 9 or 10 hours of feeble sun is then quickly lost when dusk returns. Short northern days: the price we pay for the almost endless daylight of high summer.
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Timber cut during woodland management gets used for building and repairs around the hills.

Taking a line of latitude from your own locality and extending it east or west throws up some interesting revelations. Take 52.5º north, just as an illustration…

Extend the 52.5º line in an easterly direction and you’ll find it passes no more than 70 miles south of Hamburg (a notoriously parky place at this time of year), about 100 miles south of the Baltic coast, right through Poznan, and north of Warsaw; indeed north of about half of Poland – a country famed for its bitterly cold winters.

Swing round 180º and stretch the line out west: Canada’s southern border mostly follows the line of the 49th parallel, so every one of the North American states, apart from Alaska, lies well to the south. The 52.5º line passes through Newfoundland and Labrador, The Hudson Bay, then the gulf of Alaska before reaching the Bering Sea.

That’s where we are in the world, and even allowing for the fact that there’s more to it than just latitude – continental land masses; oceanic drifts and currents; prevailing winds – there’s no escaping the fact that, come winter, this far north it’s sometimes going to get cold, dark and a bit hostile. Easy to see on a globe; it can sometimes get a bit lost on a flat wall map projection.

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The spacing of the trees on this part of the hills makes it possible to walk between them, rather than having to skirt around the edges

We took the path from National Trust visitor centre car park, and immediately negotiated the first difficulty – resisting the temptation to abandon the walk and substitute a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. Having crossed the top of the nearest (Clent) hill, we dropped down, via a slightly circuitous route, into St Kenelm’s pass, which runs between the two main hills, and made our way up and across Walton Hill; fingers belatedly becoming warm on the steepish ascent through the woods.

 

Clent & Walton - 06.12.14_12 06 14_0015And that was pretty much it: with the light already fading, we returned to the visitor centre to complete a short, uncomplicated circuit, having paused only for photographs. At the high point we’d just about reached the 1000 foot mark; these hills don’t go much above that – 1037 feet is the absolute top, although there’s nothing higher for over 20 miles in any direction.

In  the two pictures below, The Cotswolds are just an indistinct smudge on the far horizon. The photographs don’t really do justice to the complexity of the layers stretching away into the distance. The two masts just visible in each shot are those at the BBC transmitting station at Wychbold, near Droitwich.
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Coming around slightly to the west and the hazy outline of the Malverns is the most prominent feature of the skyline and about 25 miles distant. Again, the layers are sold short by the camera and the photographer; but for all the advances in technology, there’s still no lens compares with the human eye.
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Two trees, taken less than a minute apart: one backlit by the dipping sun, the other irradiated by the last low rays as it slipped towards the horizon.
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Postscript: Monday, 9:00 am, out running: the sun is still low enough for my (slowly) moving shadow to stretch halfway across a decent sized field. And there is a dusting of snow on the eastern flanks of The Clees.

Mooching The Mynd (20/09/2014)

Steve Gilbert (Fell Finder) is the real oracle on the Shropshire hills; a local lad who’s moved north but still feels the pull of his home patch every now and again. It was Steve who really opened my eyes to just what a huge tract of walkable land there is if you take in The Stiperstones, Clun Forest, Pontesbury, The Caradoc Hills and The Lawley; plus, of course, the hills of The Long Mynd. And that’s by no means the complete list.

We’re still a long way short of covering all of it but we have made a concerted effort over the last couple of years to get a better feel for the place. This has been partly by means of a few longer outings, where the priority has been mostly covering ground, but also by days where we’ve just ambled around the valleys and tops, getting our bearings and trying to make sense of where we are standing right now in relation to where we were last time and the times before.

It’s a surprisingly complex area: straight lines are few and far between; climb out of a valley and chances are you’ll emerge not quite where you anticipated; head for a point on the skyline  and be prepared for it to take a bit longer to get there than you might have expected; the vegetation obscures paths in summer and gradually reveals them again from autumn. And, as any local – Steve included – will tell you, mist and fog are not exactly rare occurrences. I couldn’t think of a better place for anyone to learn and practice navigation skills.

Carding Mill Valley draws people in the most numbers, particularly the summer weekend and bank holiday crowds, but even on the busiest days it doesn’t take too long to access quieter spots; and there are plenty of them. Our most recent ‘mooch’ actually started from Carding Mill valley, albeit on a quiet, midweek morning; the apparently erratic and unstructured nature of the route is plotted on the map below and is totally in keeping with the approach we’ve been taking…

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If it looks like madness, I can well understand. All I can say is that it feels better in the walking than it looks in print.


Standing on the topmost of the National Trust car parks and looking west across the burn (which I think is called ‘Ash brook’ lower down but appears to be unnamed here), there is an obvious ridge which takes a clearly defined line towards a rocky outcrop (Cow Ridge). There are a few straightforward scrambling opportunities along the route, most of which can be avoided by minor detours. For most of the ascent the rocky bluff looks like the top; it isn’t, but by the time you get there the hard part is done.

Crossing the gently rising ground, heading W/SW will bring you fairly quickly to a tarmac road which climbs out of Church Stretton. Turn right as the road is joined and then look for an opportunity to step off the tarmac and onto a path which runs parallel to it; not that the road is particularly busy. Eventually the road splits and one fork peels away to the left, but the path keeps straight ahead and then slightly right, always climbing gently towards a level horizon. At the crest of the ridge, the Shropshire Way is joined and – if visibility permits – there should be 360º views.

long-mynd-26-0-813_0020The high point of the Long Mynd is Pole Bank and this is reached by turning left and continuing to climb steadily. Fairly soon, a trig point will come into view.

Just beyond the Pole Bank top there is a small copse, which can be a useful lunch spot on a wet day; there is not much in the way of shelter once you’re out on the high ground.

The copse is fenced, but the trees overhang the fence far enough to afford cover. There are beehives inside the enclosure and a non-stop procession of honey bees to and from the heather, when it is in flower. However many there are (and there must be hundreds of thousands), they will fly all around you without once bothering you. The accumulated noise they make is astonishing.

Lunch consumed, we retraced our steps along the Shropshire Way and, ignoring the path down into Carding Mill Valley (which we were saving for later), crossed the moorland on a springy, green track, which meets a fence just as the ground begins to fall away. Turning left and following the line of the fence, eventually brought us back to the Shropshire way, near to the site of a pair of bronze age barrows marked on the OS map as ‘Robin Hood’s butts’. In all honesty, they are pretty unprepossessing and without prior knowledge, and closer inspection, you would see them as just a couple of natural undulations in the terrain.

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Female wheatear, Long Mynd

Rejoining the Shropshire Way, we walked until we met the junction with the path down to Carding Mill Valley and Church Stretton. This path is usually saved for the final walk back down, as it gives some of the best views and is often busy with birds, taking advantage of the relatively small number of trees, which mostly cluster on the lower slopes around the bed of the stream. A stream which can frequently be heard long before it is seen. We have seen stonechats, chiffchaffs and wheatears, among others; a pair of kestrels – understandably enough – seem to have this part of the hills as a regular beat.

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Grey wagtail (pictured near to Light Spout waterfall)

Speaking of raptors, we have – on different days and at different times of the year – spotted buzzard, kestrel, sparrowhawk, red kite and the occasional peregrine. There are, by reliable accounts, both merlin and hen harrier in the vicinity, but we’ve never been fortunate enough to come across either; the terrain and habitat would certainly support both. Ravens, in decent numbers, are pretty much guaranteed year round.

The Long Mynd, and the neighbouring hills, have a distinctly different character to most others which are easily accessible from the west midlands (we can reach them in under an hour). Much closer, in texture, to some of the Welsh ranges and we often comment that they have a feel of The Berwyns.

Perhaps it’s the climbing in the company of water that does it. Whatever the reason, it’s pretty high praise.

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