The days when we’d write about walks and walking? We were so much younger then; wild like the wind (that’s Cat Stevens, by the way, if it sounds familiar). What happened to us? What became of the people, we used to be? I’m now beginning to think it might be possible to construct an entire post from plagiarised song lyrics. Seriously, though; I’d almost lost sight of why I started this blog…
Outings of late seem to have been shoehorned into the gaps between extended passages of what is apparently known as life. Sustaining yourself via the misguided belief that things are going to get easier after next week seems to be part of the human condition. It’s a bloody good job those seismic shifts in times bygone folded up a few hills for us.
The whole of Sunday being already divided into a series of bite-sized time slots, it was Saturday or nothing for a quick blast around the local hills; not ideal – these days I am much more of a leisurely saunter than a quick blast disposition.
The forecast was for early mist and rain to clear quickly. For a while this looked to be erring on the side of optimism but eventually the last of the cobwebs were dispersed and there was a rare clarity to the air; more akin to a crisp winter’s day than an autumn one after a damp start, with views to the ‘next’ layer of hills – the ones you don’t always get to see. Under the tree canopy things were different – a general dampness and a smell of fungus; earthy but not unpleasant.
By autumn standards it’s been relatively windless for a good few days now and there are many millions of leaves just waiting for that last nudge to send them tumbling to the woodland floor. Then it will all look different again.
We are keeping our eyes open for signs of diseased ash trees: they are relatively few in number on the local hills but are one of the more prolific varieties to be found along canal towpaths and riversides. Leaves either on the turn or already fallen makes spotting early signs all the more difficult.
Birmingham, like other cities around the UK, indeed around the globe, was log-jammed yesterday with brand-loyal fanatics insistent on being among the very first. Apple had launched the latest incarnation of its staggeringly successful iPhone dynasty and pre-orders were ready for collection; collection in some cases by people who had ‘camped’ since lunchtime on the previous day.
I know virtually nothing about mobile phones and the iPhone 5 is probably technologically brilliant and intuitively clever in all sorts of ways; although apparently the maps don’t work particularly well. What baffled me was that so many people – many of them well into their adult years – would not be able to contain their impatience for even a day. And Birmingham was, by all accounts, a study in orderly calm compared with some places – Manchester for example, where scuffles broke out among those in the queue.
Pricing for the iPhone 5 starts from just £529!
Earlier today we found a spot a few feet below the ridge of the Malverns – just far enough below to be out of the wind (an easterly carrying the first warning bite of autumn), sat and ate cheese and pickle sandwiches, flapjacks and fruit, drank cups of freshly brewed tea. We watched the birds in the foreground, the undulating countryside of Herefordshire and Worcestershire in the middle distance, the hills of mid Wales and Shropshire on the horizon.
The bill for the whole day – including the cost of fuel and the car park – would have struggled to reach fifteen quid.
For anyone considering walking the Malverns, my suggestion would generally be to avoid summer, particularly summer weekends. Lovely hills they may be, with that long undulating ridge and contrasting views east and west, but you’ll never have them to yourself. Mid-week in winter is probably as close as they ever come to what could be considered quiet. Probably the best way to walk them is by starting at either Ledbury or Malvern Link railway station, walking the full length of the ridge and returning to the starting point by rail.
Never one to take my own advice I was up there a few days ago; not a weekend, but the second monday of the ‘industrial shut-down fortnight’ (if that still has any meaning) and slap bang in middle of the school holidays. It was a day for slipping away down some of those byways; the lesser known tracks, little trodden paths, half-hidden among the undergrowth of high summer.
A warm westerly – probably my favourite of all winds – was blowing, gathering strength as the day progressed but not on this occasion, as is so often the case, a precursor to rain. In many ways the wind defines the character of these hills on any given day: a winter north-easterly can carry a bite which might come as a surprise to some, at these relatively modest altitudes; a legacy of its uninterrupted journey from the Ural mountains across the
flatlands of Europe.
Another surprise is that at their highest point the hills don’t quite make 1,400 feet. Viewed from the east or, to put it another way, from the direction of the M5, their lift above the surrounding landscape would suggest somewhat greater height. This is possibly the aspect from which they are most frequently observed and there is an exaggerated effect from the way they rise quickly from the low-lying expanses of the Severn/Avon flood plain.
This slightly peculiar geography is also the source of the contrasting views east and west. To the east lie the relatively featureless south and south-east midlands, dissolving into East Anglia beyond. The views west are to the Brecon Beacons, the central Wales plateau and – scanning around a little further north – the hills of south Shropshire.
The hills fall under the stewardship of the Malvern Hills Conservators and receipts from car-parking charges go towards their work. One of their continuing projects is the use of spells of controlled grazing in an attempt to protect and sustain habitat. The beneficial effects of this work show a marked distinction to some of the Shropshire hills, where indiscriminate over-grazing has consigned many hectares of moorland to alternating periods of mud and dust, accompanied by the inevitable erosion issues.
The birds have either moved or are on the move; whether they’ve relocated to a more sheltered spot just around the corner or upped sticks for a winter in Senegal, they’re no longer to be found where they were last time we looked. Places which were hotbeds of activity just a few weeks ago are eerily quiet. It’s as if there was a close season on certain parts of the heath and among particular types of vegetation. It was the same a year ago.
Elsewhere, in the woods in particular, familiar haunts are being reoccupied; and by the same species, possibly the very same individuals, we would see there as last winter approached. The mixed flock of long-tailed, blue and great tits moving through and around the same tight cluster of trees, when there are thousands of others to choose from; suggesting that there is something to their liking in the vicinity of those particular branches at this time in the natural cycle. The long-tailed tits in particular seem to be in a state of constant movement, probably less random and more structured than it appears to the human eye; like animated and colourful shuttlecocks. The single goldcrest which was their habitual companion twelve months past is yet to reappear; in so far as it’s possible to be certain where something as small and mobile as a goldcrest is concerned.
The ravens, last seen and heard around Easter time, are back and making their presence felt; they appear to have a regular beat, a favoured side of the hills, and to have returned to it. No blackcaps or bullfinches as yet, but it would be a strange winter without them.
So we get to enjoy someone else’s birds for a while, and ours provide variety and entertainment – hopefully in exchange for hospitality – elsewhere. It’s a good arrangement.
I’m standing just beyond the outermost margins of the West Midlands conurbation, looking east towards the city of Birmingham and its southern and western outliers. The elevated landmarks – clock towers, high-rise office blocks, The Rotunda, the Telecom tower where peregrines now roost – are clearly defined. Down at ground level the lines and features are less distinct; the harsh edges blurred by a blue/grey haze. Scanning with binoculars, a passenger aircraft, headed for Birmingham International, crosses my line of sight, passing low over the southern suburbs of the city on its final approach.
Up here, separated only by relatively modest elevation and distance, there is a feeling of isolation, of standing at the rim of a different land. In the foreground gregarious groups of small birds – chaffinch, goldfinch, chiffchaff, hedge sparrow – break cover and disappear again in bewildering cascades of movement and chatter. Robin and wren, by contrast, elect to work the hedgerows alone. Two kestrels, both female, both large, hover within striking distance, primed for a moment of carelessness; neither of the two raptors seemingly disconcerted by the presence of the other.
I move a few yards, perhaps the length of a bus, look back and the city is gone; hidden by one of the many folds in the landscape. Half as far again and the whole of the conurbation – right up to its extremity no more than a mile away – has disappeared below the near horizon. The view now is to the hills of North Worcestershire and Shropshire – The Malverns, The Clee Hills, Abberley and Woodbury. On a clearer day the Brecon Beacons and other more distant hills would be visible.
I begin my return journey, which will take me across the neighbouring hill where I shall call in at the visitor centre, eat more than is advisable and cite the long walk home as spurious justification. My exact route of return is, as always, unplanned; at some point the tree line will dissolve into grazing pasture which, in turn, will lead to the uneasy, disputed suburban/rural frontier; a battleground of encroachment, vested interests and planning applications.