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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The mountain at the end of the street…

I read somewhere – and for the life of me I can’t remember where – about the visual and sensory impact of mountains where they are visible from the streets of a town or city. I recall the article mentioning some of the obvious examples – Seattle, Kathmandu – but also referring to the views of The Peaks from Manchester and Sheffield. I’d credit the author if I could remember who it was; it might have been Robert Macfarlane.

This shot was taken looking south-west along the high street of Kingussie: the looming presence dominating the skyline is Creag Dubh – a two and a half thousand footer which is actually beyond Newtonmore but almost looks within touching distance…

 

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.

Winter birds (so far)…

As of today, we haven’t had much in the way of genuine winter weather here in the English midlands – a few frosts, only a couple of which endured throughout the day; some early morning mist and fog; a couple of biting winds, and that’s been about it. From memory, that makes this year’s pre new year period similar to that of 2015.

I couldn’t count myself as a birdwatcher in the proper meaning of the word, although, as it happens, I’m not sure of the exact meaning. Time for a digression: those in the know tell me that there are clear distinctions between birdwatchers, twitchers and birders. I’ve had it all explained to me, more than once, and it’s still not stuck – although I’m pretty sure that birders are at the apex of the pyramid. If I’ve got that right, then I’m most definitely not a birder, in any sense of the word.

I’m generally of the view that whatever I see when out walking is most likely to be something I’ve inadvertently disturbed by my presence. It took me a while to work out that birds disappearing into hedgerows, or moving behind the branch of a tree, wasn’t ‘unlucky’ – it was simply them being smart in the face of a perceived threat; that and the fact that they’d undoubtedly seen me long before I ever spotted them. That’s just for context – my observations and recording of sightings are inexpert, inconsistent and would probably exasperate a proper birder.

Anyway, back to the point. Two winter varieties I always look for are redwings and fieldfares; both members of the thrush family – so big enough to be easily spotted, and likely to be gathered in flocks. Last winter, I saw just a single group of fieldfares and not even a solitary redwing: the fieldfares were in a place where I wouldn’t normally be walking (I was planning a route for a local charity, from a starting point they’d already chosen); other than that winter would have passed without a single sighting of either variety.

Already this winter I’ve stumbled across several large gatherings of both fieldfares and redwings; all of them adjacent to regular ‘beaten tracks’, although they do keep their distance and it seems that when one moves they all do.

The other thing I’ve noticed is – and I hope I’m not tempting fate here – how well the very smallest birds seem to be doing: I don’t recall ever seeing so many goldcrests and, on a run earlier today, there was a section of path, bounded by hedgerows on either side, where wrens seemed to be criss-crossing in front of me every twenty yards or so. It’s possible that this year’s numbers are a consequence of last year’s benign winter; if a sustained cold snap does arrive, they will be hit hard. Hopefully nature finds a way to make it all work out…

Addendum: And kingfishers – more than for many a year; mostly along stretches of rural canal, but elsewhere as well.

Pictures:     Top – Redwing (RSPB images); Centre – Fieldfare (BBC.co.uk); Bottom – Godcrest (RSPB images)

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goldcrest

Autumn’s first real bite

Summer ends, inevitably. At some point the season becomes undeniably autumn.

The thing with summers, though – our summers –  is that, rather than storming out and slamming the door behind them, they have a tendency to slip quietly away. A whole September can pass, and then some of October, with the feeling that the end of summer still lingers, declining slowly, encroaching into autumn’s allotted time, delaying the changes which must inevitably come if nature’s work is to be accomplished – wind down; shutdown; restart…

And then, one day, it is unequivocally, unmistakably autumn. And here’s the odd bit – it already was, had been for a while but, just as summer exits quietly, autumn arrives without commotion; a seamless, understated handover.

This year, I hadn’t really noticed autumn until it was almost time to adjust the clocks. The combination of an extended dry spell and negligible winds had left the trees still holding a lot of leaf, even if the colours were changing. Losing that hour of daylight at the end of the day removed any lingering ambiguity.

Today, the message was reinforced by a wind more typical of midwinter – a biting, hostile, north-easterly. This was the day when an extra layer was added and never shed, even on the sustained uphill pulls; the day when we began the walk already wearing gloves – no need to “wait and see”. Today, I fished my Montane Prism out of the rucksack when we stopped for lunch, hunkered out of the wind in a sculpted hollow just about the size of a small sofa. When we set off again, the temptation was there to leave the jacket on but that would inevitably have involved stopping to discard it very soon afterwards.

 

Fifty shades and more…

I don’t know how many subtle variations of grey are scientifically achievable, but fifty is barely a start where nature is concerned – the greyscale palette available to the natural world seems to be just about limitless. Yesterday (Sunday 4th January) we had the rather eerie experience of a walk almost completely rendered in monochrome and seemingly viewed from behind a veil; I even conducted a little experiment to prove the point…

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The two pictures above and below are from the same image: the only difference is that the upper one has had the black and white ‘effect’ applied in a simple photo editor (iPhoto); in all other respects they are identical. There is some colour visible in the lower shot, but you need to be looking hard to spot it.

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The sun, albeit briefly, suggested that it might break through the clouds and mist, which had merged into a single seamless shroud. In the end it turned out to be just a suggestion, nothing more, and a short-lived one at that.

The land to the west of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal serves partly as catchment for the run-off from the slightly higher ground beyond. Eventually the water drains into the Smestow Brook, a tributary of The Stour, which in its turn joins The Severn at Stourport. Strange to think that the water which makes it as far as Stourport will, a few days later, pass beneath the suspension bridge and out into the Bristol Channel – meeting salmon and trout making an altogether longer journey in the opposite direction.

Drainage and soak away can be a slow process following periods of sustained rain, and pools will lie outwith the natural watercourses for sometimes weeks on end. Below are two slightly different shots of an area where water would not usually be found, but expanses of temporary swamp are not particularly unusual, frequently persist and often get colonised by herons, wildfowl, kingfishers even, before they eventually dissipate.

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Yesterday, with the temperature barely getting above zero, the ground bone-hard from a deep overnight frost, and the slack water frozen to a slurry, there seemed to be little prospect of this scene changing anytime soon; that said, today is already noticeably milder.

With the sun having apparently given up without ever making an impression, the mist, particularly where it hung above the surface of the water, began to thicken again – the near distance becoming increasingly indistinct and anything beyond fading completely from sight.

The familiar looking shape in the middle of a tangle of twigs did turn out to be a kingfisher. Unfortunately a closer shot was never an option as the boat (below) was already approaching its perch and it was gone within a few seconds.

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A heavily frosted spider’s web remained attached to one of the few patches of greenery we saw during the entire walk. A passing insect, had there been any, could have strolled across it without jeopardy.

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This shot of the boats in the distance was taken just before the mist began to close in again. The mixture of smoke from the log-burners on the boats and mist rising from the surface of the water was considerably more atmospheric when seen in the flesh.
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Throughout this walk I was wearing an item of clothing I’d never anticipated walking in – a Montane Prism jacket. It’s a lightweight insulated jacket – pertex shell with 40g primaloft fill – and was only ever envisaged as a throw-over for rest and food stops on colder days. As it was so cold, and because we would be following a canal towpath with only a couple of shortish gradients, I decided to risk it as an alternative to softshell/windproof layering.
The trial was worthwhile: I was comfortably warm from the outset but without ever overheating. Any spells of sustained climbing, or even the sun breaking through the clouds, and I would have expected to quickly become too warm. On the other hand, a few hundred miles further north and a couple of thousand feet higher and it might be a viable option on a cold, dry day.
The Prism seems to come in a limited range of colours; mine is a single shade of grey.

 

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.