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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Caramac remembered…

The Wyre Forest can be a muddy place at any time of year: the actual forest, that is, not Wyre Forest as in “a local government district in Worcestershire, England, covering the towns of Kidderminster, Stourport-on-Severn and Bewdley, and several civil parishes and their villages”. Confusingly, not all of the Wyre Forest is in Wyre Forest; some of it is in Shropshire.

We’ve just come out of an unseasonably dry spell and such rain as we’ve had since new year has been neither exceptional nor particularly sustained; the forest itself is no more than 10 or 11 miles due west of us, but frequently seems to have caught disproportionately more rainfall. There are some of the characteristics present which give rise to the temperate rain forests found in more westerly parts of the UK – steeply sided gullies for instance – but I haven’t found anything online to suggest that the Wyre Forest meets the definition. What is a fact is that the preponderance of heavy clay soils means slow drainage and a lot of water retention at, or near, the surface; paths remain wet and slippery long after they would have dried out elsewhere. At times progress can be, to put it mildly, inelegant.

Standing on the bridge spanning the Dowles Brook adjacent to Knowles Mill, the water – which usually runs sufficiently clear for dippers to gather food – was the colour of something I couldn’t quite place: an indeterminate mix of cream, yellow and brown; strangely familiar. And then I did remember – Caramac! This prompted one of those slightly surreal passages we all seem to experience, now and again, when out walking – mind slightly detached, contemplating random subjects entirely unconnected with either the day or the surroundings. Admittedly, “Can you still get Caramac” is a pretty bizarre question to fire randomly at somebody with nothing in the way of a preamble: “Eh?” was the elicited response; that and a look skilfully blending sympathy with disdain.

And then, for reasons even I find difficult to understand, I became preoccupied with the fact that I couldn’t remember whether I’d actually liked Caramac; and then remembering seemed to matter, to the point where failing memory replaced Caramac as the fixation. As a consequence, there is, ironically, a whole section of the walk I can barely recollect. And this is supposed to be relaxing and therapeutic.

The day began with bands of dense mist lying in the hollows: indeed, by the time the last of it had dissipated, the afternoon gloom was already beginning to gather. There was plenty of bird activity, as there often is, but mostly seen in silhouette. Over the course of the next few weeks we might, if lucky, catch sight of a lesser spotted woodpecker or, if luckier still, a goshawk; both varieties are resident in the forest. Sometime in early spring, the pied flycatchers will hopefully return to the nesting area set aside for them and the basking adders will sun themselves within sight of the paths, before the vegetation regenerates and mostly hides them from sight.

A visit to this web page allows access to a nice collection of photographs…

Wyre Forest Study Group

For anyone visiting, my advice would be to avoid the Callow Hill visitor centre (and the adjacent Go-Ape), certainly during holiday periods and at weekends throughout most of the year. Follow the B4199 from Bewdley, make your start from Earnswood or Button Oak and work your way roughly due south towards Dowles Brook and the path which follows the route of the old railway branch to Cleobury and Tenbury Wells. You’ll meet far fewer people and most likely spot much more wildlife.

Addendum: By way of an interesting coincidence, Chris Townsend has just published, on his blog, a list of some of his favourite outdoor books of 2016. One of those on the list is The Rainforests of Britain and Ireland: A Traveller’s Guide, by Clifton Bain. Chris’s complete list can be found here.

Footnote: the product illustrated below is apparently still available for purchase…

 

Worlds apart

There’s a spot on the Long Mynd, a place where we often hunker down for a lunch stop: it’s generally sheltered, undisturbed, and – once we’ve been settled for a while – a good position to scan the sky for birds of prey; peregrines in particular. On those days when visibility is good, you can also see the flats in Dudley; something which will probably appeal only to a limited demographic and not likely to be featuring in any Shropshire Tourist Board literature…

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Hills with a genuinely Welsh feel; which can only ever be a good thing…

Sitting among Welsh hills, looking at the – albeit distant – epicentre of the black country can be slightly disorientating. And yes, it’s true that the Long Mynd is in England: the high point – Pole Bank summit – is a good 9 or 10 kilometres on the English side of Offa’s Dyke; but the hills are properly Welsh. At least they have a properly Welsh feel to them; not least because, the more you get to know your way around, the easier it becomes to find the places where you’re not likely to have much company; that and the accompaniment provided by the sound of the free-flowing streams which track the floors of the hollows (as many of the valleys are known around these parts). Of course, in the times before arbitrary boundaries were drawn, or built, none of these semantics would have mattered; although Dudley did have a castle, long before the flats showed up.

Long Mynd - 26.0.813_0020This isn’t quite a case of “I can see my house from up here” – for a start, Wenlock Edge would be in the way; but looking back at those flats (one block now, where once there were many) and the transmission masts and assorted ironmongery atop the Rowley Hills, it all feels a bit disconnected. And the disconnect is a measure of just how many transitions there are in the landscape as you head out from the periphery of the west midlands conurbation and across the cultural and physical divide of the river Severn – the UK’s longest, and arguably its most turbulent. You can still see where you’ve come from, and to where you’ll be returning; but, for the time being, it’s a world away…

Peregrines aside, encounters with another falcon – merlin – if not exactly commonplace, are by no means unknown. Frustratingly, they mostly seem to follow a well established pattern – recognition (following initial uncertainty); excitement; a too slow raising of the binoculars; and finally, fleeting sight of the rapidly receding falcon. The whole process generally takes maybe 3 to 5 seconds!

One day, I’ll be ready.

 

 

Close to home

This is all a bit embarrassing: it’s a sorry tale of indifference, bordering on neglect.

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Broad Bodied Chaser Dragonfly

There’s a forest within about 20 minutes drive of my front door. I knew it was there, had skirted the fringes of it on any number of occasions, but never believed it was really a forest; not a proper one. From a position of pretty much total ignorance, I’d dismissed it as “more of a decent-sized wood”. Well, turns out I was wrong: it’s a proper forest all right – one of the largest remaining tracts of ancient woodland in Britain – extending to more than 26 square kilometres. I could have easily researched all of this, but – already convinced that I knew of plenty of better places to spend a day – didn’t take the trouble.

We were really only persuaded to pay a visit to the area, back in early spring, on the recommendation of an acquaintance, suggesting it as a place where we might possibly get to see – among other things – lesser spotted woodpeckers. With their small size, increasing scarcity, and penchant for living out most of the year among the dense foliage of the uppermost branches, these birds are becoming increasingly difficult to find, even more so to actually see.

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Pied Flycatchers – one arriving, one departing. Photograph taken at distance and on high ASA setting to compensate for semi-darkness in wood – hence the dubious quality!

As are adders, with their heightened sensitivity to vibration and inclination to slide away into the dense undergrowth long before you would ever know they were there. So we considered ourselves pretty fortunate to have clear sight of three of them within the space of a couple of visits; not to mention by far the largest grass snake either of us had ever seen. And then a tawny owl – out, and seemingly hunting, in broad daylight; possibly the consequences of a hungry brood and a disappointing return during the hours of darkness (it had been extremely wet throughout most of the night).

Although, if there had to be a vote for industry and persistence, it would probably go to the pied flycatchers: male and female, double-teaming to deliver a never-ending supply of small insects; coordinating their arrivals and departures so that the nest box was never unattended for more than a few seconds.

And the woodpecker tip turned out to be sound: we have a tendency to stick to the quieter paths and happened to be in just the right place when a small bird (no bigger than a chaffinch) broke cover and headed for the top of a dead – and therefore defoliated – tree; just far enough away to remain unfazed by our presence and close enough to be definitely identifiable through the binoculars. Sometimes a bit of luck can be the deciding factor!

If there’s a moral to any of this, it’s probably not to overlook what’s virtually on our own doorsteps. Particularly as less driving means more time to wander and explore.

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Flycatcher pausing briefly before returning with food

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Feeding: the beak of a flycatcher chick is just visible

 

A stroll in upper Glen Feshie

I’ve heard it said, in fact I think I’ve even seen it written, that Glen Feshie is the finest of all of Scotland’s glens; how you would ever make such an evaluation is beyond me. Even if you’d seen all of them and in all conditions (which I haven’t, on either count; nowhere near), to select a single one as the outright best would be… well, I’m struggling; it would be too much to process. All of that said, I can see why so many have nothing but good things to say about Glen Feshie.

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When that heather comes into bloom…

We started our walk from a small parking area, just before the cattle-grid on the approach to Auchlean. There is actually a more substantial car park a couple of hundred yards further down the road, but we’d left it tucked safely away and causing no obstruction, in the company of a couple of other cars. After no more than a kilometre of tarmac walking, the road ends at a croft and a distinct path continues, left of the property boundary.

The river Feshie is, at this point, a couple of hundred metres or so to the west (right) but it and the path steadily converge. After about one and a half kilometres there is an opportunity to switch to the west bank, by means of a footbridge. This side of the river seemed to be more popular with cyclists but we’d already decided to follow the path on the eastern side, partly because – with future visits in mind – we wanted to look for the trails heading off towards the hills above Loch Eanaich – Carn Ban Mor and Sgor Gaioth. And what a great name for a hill – Sgor Gaioth; it sounds like somewhere Sauron could have located himself, had Escape to the country not been able to fix him up with Mordor.

From a walking perspective, the weather was very agreeable; from a sitting down to lunch perspective, a little less so. There was a nice mix of high cloud and clear blue skies, with the clouds being kept moving by a lively wind. Views and visibility benefitted; the downside was the wind carrying a bit of bite. Choosing the correct lunch spot would be critical: not good news – choosing the correct lunch spot is something we can prevaricate over at the best of times! The optimal flat boulder – out of the wind; in the sun; with views of the hills, the loch, the birds, the river – these decisions are not to be rushed.

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Crossing one of the smaller burns

Thankfully, it sometimes just comes down to dumb luck. We stumbled on a spot, sheltered by pines, but with a view through to the river: flat, mossy, comfortable; and with enough space to rest the tea cups. And once we’d settled and stopped fidgeting, the birds returned.

Lunch was so enjoyable that we discussed the likelihood of finding this same spot again when we returned to Glen Feshie in future; seriously, that conversation actually took place! In all honesty, the idea of returning to the glen with a plan to sit in exactly the same spot did seem just a bit… well, weird.  Anyway, chances are it will all look completely different next time and we’ll search in vain.

It was an out and back walk, no more than about 12 kilometres in total: river on the right on the way out, river on the left on the way back, was about as much navigation as was needed. The paths which leave the glen and cut directly into the hills of Badenoch, look like they will require a bit more attention to detail.

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Mid-stream: for some reason, this almost perfectly formed red granite boulder seemed worth recording