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.


     

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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

 

08/08/17: Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm, and…

… and a navigational cock-up.

The plan was to walk a circuit taking in the three summits of Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm and Craiggowrie, then make our way back to Loch Morlich and Glenmore, by paths passing close to the Badaguish Outdoor Centre. What could possibly go wrong?

We’d climbed Meall a’ Bhuachaille a number of times before – out past An Lochan Uaine and pick up the track just behind Ryvoan bothy. That bit passed uneventfully…

Ryvoan bothy

As did the next – the climb up to the summit cairn/shelter on top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille; a place where it is traditional for us to partake of food and drink. My kind of place…

Summit shelter – Meall a’ Bhuachaille

That was the high point already taken care of and, with good visibility ahead, what could – at the risk of repeating myself – possibly go wrong? The plan was to drop down from the top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille and continue across to Creagan Gorm and then the third summit (Craiggowrie) before picking up the path down towards Badaguish and Loch Morlich. However, in the planning process, a member of the party – and I won’t say who (okay, it was me!) – had failed to notice that although Craiggowrie is the third named summit on the route, there is an unnamed top between it and Creagan Gorm. In my defence – and, as defences go, this is about as thin as they get – the intermediate top is one of those anomalies where the ridge leading to the summit is named (Creag a’ Chaillich), rather than the top itself; I didn’t notice this on the map I’d printed out.

Just for confirmation – and because I like to plan my cock-ups properly – I’d read a couple of trip reports on Walkhighlands.co.uk and was sure that the descent route would be on the left, immediately after the cairns (plural). And so, arriving at the cairns on what I thought to be the summit we were heading for; and, by the way, why would an unnamed top have four cairns? Yes four! Isn’t life difficult enough? I began to look for the downward path, in the relaxed manner of someone about to enter a very large doghouse.

We looked, didn’t find; pushed on a little; looked again, still didn’t find; saw a group below us who had decided to just yomp through the heather and bilberry and wondered if the path we were looking for had become overgrown (it’s called clutching at excuses) and eventually decided to retrace our steps because we seemed to be heading for Boat of Garten by the pretty route. This meant we had to negotiate, for the second time, some very boggy ground and reascend the unnamed top – replete with its four bloody cairns! – then Creagan Gorm again, before picking up a path which at least we knew was there, having used it before and crossed it earlier in the day.

Later, looking at the printed Routebuddy sheet while we had a coffee and bite to eat, it was clear where we had gone wrong: allowing me to be the one with the map was the critical flaw in the plan. I probably chose the wrong time to suggest that days like this are character building.

Oops…

Heading off Meall a’ Bhuachaille and towards Creagan Gorm

Summit cairn – Creagan Gorm

There was no shortage of cairns – Lochs Garten and Mallachie beyond

A boulder which we passed (twice)…

Badaguish (below) – exactly where it was supposed to be

A rainbow which our original plan might well have missed

The route reacquired

Almost time for coffee and recriminations… 

 

A belated in memoriam…

Just returned from a couple of weeks based in Kingussie: tired from the M6; body back in the English midlands, head still somewhere meandering one of the endless trails; intending to make a start on a series of posts about selected days and escapades. But, before any of that, an oversight needed to be rectified…

We travelled north on Friday August 4th and there was something about the date that nagged at me; a couple of days later I would remember what it was. A year ago to the day, the blogging community sadly lost one of its finest: he went by the online name of Oldmortality and his blog – witty, erudite, original, thought-provoking, never dull – can be found among the links to the right, under the name One Small Step; OM’s final post was dated 27th July, 2016 and among the comments is one from his daughter confirming that he had passed away. If you’re not already familiar with the blog then I’d urge you to read through the backlog of posts while they still remain available; I still do, and I know I’m not alone. They are unique reflections on a life well lived.

This was where I was when I remembered why August 4th was significant…

It’s the Cairngorm Club footbridge across the Am Beanaidh, which flows north from Loch Einich, and the reason it’s significant is because it’s the spot where Oldmortality once met up with fellow blogger Mike Knipe (whose also excellent blog can be found here: northern pies); their rendezvous is also remembered in the comments attaching to OM’s final blog entry.

Memory jogged, I took a contemplative moment and resolved to do the same every time I’m fortunate enough to pass this way in the future.

Oldmortality loved his music and would often sign off with a link to a tune of his choice. I’m not sure this would have been on his playlist, but it somehow seemed appropriate…

Yet another Long Mynd walk…

Followed by yet another Long Mynd blog post.

We return to The Mynd pretty frequently and I don’t think we’d ever tire of it: proper hill country; an easy drive (under an hour); like a piece of Wales accessed in half the time. And there’s enough variation in the complex system of tops and hollows to be sure that familiarity never equates to boredom.

Climbing away from Carding Mill Valley

Although it’s not obligatory to make Carding Mill Valley the starting off point, a lot of walkers do, simply for convenience. It doesn’t take long to leave the crowds behind on those days when it gets a little busier; on a midweek day in winter there’ll be no need even to consider evasive action.

For a while Townbrook Hollow runs roughly parallel to Cardingmill Valley, although eventually their paths do diverge. It (Townbrook) is easily accessed at its lower end by skirting Burway Hill after crossing the minor road (Bur Way) which eventually leads to Pole Bank. The path gradually climbs clear of the valley floor and emerges onto a broad saddle which serves as the junction for a number of paths, offering a variety of possibilities for where to go next. In the context of these hills you’re already relatively high by this point, so from here there is an option to just enjoy some easy exploration.

The preposterously large cairn on top of Yearlet

There is another alternative: it involves sacrificing all of the height you’ve just gained, plus a bit more, and dropping down into the next valley – Ashes Hollow. There is a steep chute pretty much straight ahead as you emerge onto the saddle; it’s immediately to the west of a cairn-topped hill (Yearlet). A better option is to walk either around or over Yearlet and use the equally steep but more navigable gully on the eastern side of the hill; this adds a bit of distance and then a bit more again as it joins Ashes Hollow further down.

The descent is grassy, steep in places, and can be tricky when the surface is slick from rainfall; it’s one I find easier in trail shoes than in boots.

Ashes Hollow

Ashes Hollow is the longest and arguably trickiest of the routes up onto the high ground, but only to the extent that a little more care is needed now and then, and there are probably more places where it would be possible to turn an ankle if distracted. I would also say it’s the best in terms of interest and variety.

In time the path climbs out of the valley and meets the road which we crossed earlier in the walk – just at the point where its name changes from The Bur Way to The Port Way. The road passes just below the high point of The Long Mynd (Pole Bank) and continues on towards The Midland Gliding Club.

Toposcope – Pole Bank

The path back down to Carding Mill Valley can be accessed at its junction with The Shropshire Way, which leads down from the Pole Bank trig point and toposcope, but a more interesting option is to look for an earlier fork leading down to Lightspout Hollow and a rocky descent alongside the waterfall. That said, the Carding Mill path does offer some nice views across Church Stretton and some of the hills surrounding the town – Caer Caradoc; The Lawley; Hope Bowdler. The Wrekin stands isolated and a little further off.

Ashes Hollow: there is a path down there, somewhere…

Whinchat – a close relative of the more numerous stonechat

Some vertebrae and a skull. What with the kite, buzzards and ravens, there was never going to be much in the way of leftovers

A drifting buzzard quartering a hillside

Waterside foxgloves

If numbers are a barometer, 2017 seems to have been a good year for foals

 

 

 

Mid Wales

This has been a while in the writing; not that it’s been agonised over or “erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again”, like that mythical version of America, eulogised in James Earl Jones’ famous Field of Dreams soliloquy. Nothing like that, I’ve just been battling with… well, with inertia to be frank.

This all took place over a few days – four to be precise – between Monday May 29th and Thursday June 1st. On an impulse, we decided to have a few days in mid Wales; having left it late the first hurdle to overcome was finding accommodation and sometimes, as on this occasion, the internet can genuinely justify its existence. We found a promising apartment in Rhayader which, in the event, proved to be considerably better than ‘promising’ and to where we will undoubtedly return, both in print and in person.

First though, a word about Rhayader: on occasion I have had to confess to instances of oversight, injustice, omission: Machynlleth was one such – a place we’d invariably hurried through on the way to or from elsewhere and only came to appreciate after a long day spent at an event in the town. Meall a’ Bhuachaille was another: a fine hill we’d neglected for no better reason than it being overshadowed by loftier neighbours; all it took was one diversion up and over the summit to establish that size really isn’t everything. Rhayader was, like Machynnleth, a portal; somewhere to be passed through on the final approach to Elan Valley, Claerwen and the wild, remote hills beyond – Drygarn Fawr; Drygarn Fach; Gorllwyn.

The River Wye from Bridge Street, Rhayader

Well, Rhayader is actually a very agreeable base: we hadn’t actually appreciated that it’s situated on the river Wye, although the Wye that passes beneath the town bridge here is a rather quieter river than further downstream at Hay or Symonds Yat. There was a time when I’d make an early start, drive from home to either Claerwen or Llanerch y Cawr, walk a round of the hills and then drive home; not far shy of four hours spent in the car for a day’s walking, and sometimes a day’s soaking. I’d regularly do a similar day in The Berwyns (my favourite Welsh hills), but somewhere along the line I lost either the energy or the desire for days where the walking is bookended by a long drive before and after. I don’t see either (the energy or the desire, that is) as likely to return, so finding a convenient and hospitable place for an overnight or two will be a prerequisite in future.

Pied flycatcher (female)

The hill walking around Elan/Claerwen can mostly be categorised as arduous, often trackless, invariably boggy. On this occasion, with much rain having fallen in the preceding few weeks, we gave the trickier terrain a miss and stuck to the better made paths around the string of reservoirs, including some sections of the Elan Valley Trail itself. As it happened, mileage covered wasn’t the primary objective, although we averaged around 9 or 10 miles daily; at least as important was the opportunity to see some of the resident wildlife – birds mostly – at what is a generally busy time of year. It probably goes without saying that there were red kite in abundance (Gigrin Farm being just on the edge of Rhayader), but there were also pairs of nesting peregrine and any number of smaller varieties – including redstart, redpoll, stonechat, and an abundance of pied flycatchers doing exactly what their name suggests they might.

An almost full Pen-y-garreg reservoir

The skies generally became more blue as the days progressed, although I was a bit previous with zipping the bottoms off my convertible trousers and triggered a downpour in retribution. Reattaching the dry bottoms to the wet upper part of the trousers was an exasperating exercise, so I gave it up. I could pretend that I’d persevered and mastered the knack, but I didn’t; I just thought “sod it” and stuffed the bottoms back in the rucksack. It was better than throwing them in the reservoir and looking petulant!

Pied flycatcher (male) with food supplies

Immediately east of the visitor centre, and accessed by means of the steel bridge which allows vehicles and foot traffic to cross the Afon Elan, there is a small managed reserve  – Cnwch Wood – with a nicely maintained network of paths and a high density of small woodland bird varieties. It would probably be difficult not to spot flycatchers here during the nesting season.

 

The dam restraining Caban-coch – the most easterly of the sequence of reservoirs

Walking beneath the crags immediately north of Caban-coch reservoir (the one beyond the dam which rises above the visitor centre) our attention was caught by the distinctive call of a peregrine and, within seconds, a pair passed directly overhead, barely higher than the treetops, separated and went their different ways. The female was a big specimen and it was noticeable that even the kite and ravens seemed to make themselves scarce for a time.

Pen-y garreg reservoir, framed by mixed woodland

Craig-goch reservoir

Road bridge crossing the point where the Garreg-ddu and Caban-coch reservoirs meet: the level is controlled by a submerged dam. The road eventually leads to Claerwen.

The inflow of Garreg-ddu at Penbont

Garreg-ddu showing the high water mark on the pump house

The Afon Elan, just west of the visitor centre

The Wye near Rhayader

 

 

Wyre Forest (14/03/17)

Being a weekday, not a school holiday, and still well away from the busy season, we’d decided to set aside our misanthropic tendencies and make our starting point the visitor centre. It was busier than we’d have anticipated, but only around the centre facilities; 200 yards into the forest and we were on our own. With skies more overcast than had been forecast, the birds seemed to be keeping a low profile and we were able to devote more of our attention to avoiding the still considerable amounts of mud underfoot; it’s a particular speciality of the Wyre Forest is mud.

There was, eventually, a lightening of the cloud cover, which roughly coincided with the thinning out of the trees; we became aware of a steady increase in both the amount of movement and the level of noise; woodland and hedgerow staples mostly on the day, although there is always the hope and possibility of something a little more exotic – a lesser spotted woodpecker perhaps, maybe even a goshawk. Not today, though.

A stone bridge spanning the route of the former railway line provides an excellent vantage point at those times when there is bird activity in the vicinity of the reserve’s premises at Lodge Hill Farm. On this occasion the movement in the trees turned out to be a pair of bullfinches; the pair quickly became three as a second female arrived on the scene, before two further arrivals swelled the numbers to five (two males/three females).

The male’s breast colouring was vivid even by bullfinch standards. Unfortunately, I’d upped the ISO setting on the camera – to allow for shooting at decent shutter speeds inside the woods – and then neglected to turn it back down; hence the over-exposure, particularly of the bright background.

The one sustained spell of warm sun, early in the afternoon, was sufficient to tempt out a female adder to bask among the leaf litter. As is often the case, there was no perfect unobstructed shot and we wanted to maintain a proper distance to avoid causing any disturbance to the adder.

There will hopefully be opportunities over the next few weeks to spot a few more, although nothing is guaranteed with something so elusive and sensitive to movement. Once those few weeks have passed and the undergrowth begins to seriously thicken out, the adders – along with the grass snakes which are also present – will become much more concealed and difficult to pick out.

When the adders decide to lie amongst the remnants of the previous year’s bracken, the similarities between their markings and the patterns of the dead undergrowth can make them very tricky to spot – particularly the females!

There isn’t one in the picture to the left, by the way – it’s just bracken.

Wood ants were already becoming active, developing existing nests and starting new ones. They obviously find conditions very much to their liking and anyone intending to take a break sitting on the ground needs to do a bit of reconnaissance before settling down. We’ve seen adders lying on top of some of the smaller ant nests; apparently they like the warmth generated by the activity in the nest and the ants don’t seem to bother them.