At the turn of the year…

A walk on Wednesday 27th December, 2017

2017 was more or less bookended by snow on The Long Mynd. The January fall was a light covering, short-lived and already receding by the time we descended; December’s looked to be made of sterner stuff…

The mix of blue skies – pale blue, admittedly – and freshly fallen snow meant that the climb away from the still relatively quiet Carding Mill Valley was full of promise of what conditions might be like higher up. Deeper snow, fewer footprints, extensive views; all of these crossed our minds. In the meantime we contented ourselves with regular pauses to take in the immediate surroundings; for all that these are our most frequently visited hills, it is rare to see them like this.

The combination of snow-covered rocks and swollen streams made for some interesting choices when it came to foot placement. On a warm summer’s day this clear running water can look inviting for a foot soak. Today it just looked to be best avoided. As we climbed the depth of the snow covering was progressively increasing and the sky intermittently darkened, threatening further falls which, apart from the odd flurry, never really materialised.

The path we were following leads to a short, steep, rocky ascent alongside Light Spout waterfall. It can be tricky in these conditions, when there is often a combination of ice and running water, but is generally more difficult to descend than it is to climb. We made our way gingerly up and over the top; I followed, so that if Jo slipped she would take me with her, and if I slipped I would put only myself at risk. I remember thinking at the time that it didn’t seem entirely fair but she would have to come and retrieve me because I was the one carrying the food.

By the time we’d started the return leg, the sun was already dipping low over the hills of mid-Wales, casting long shadows across the snow. There was a consistent six to eight inches of fallen snow across most of the higher ground, with drifts and wind-blown cornices of double that and more (See the picture below). Any evidence of a slight thaw was quickly disappearing as the temperature began to drop, and the combination of surface water running over compacted ice and snow made underfoot conditions for the descent increasingly uncertain. Progress was slow and deliberate, with the treads of our boots becoming repeatedly packed with a mixture of snow and ice and needing to be either kicked or stamped clear to restore some traction.

As we descended, in fading light and falling temperatures, we were both a bit perturbed to be passed by a mixed group of adults and children who had seemingly barely started their walk. More so when one of the adults asked us if there was “anything at the top”. They were all wearing what would probably be described as ‘street clothes’ – no waterproofs; casual wear mostly; trainers and leisure shoes. None of them was carrying any kind of pack, so there was nothing to suggest they had spare hats, gloves, a map, or any food and drinks. It was clear from the question that they weren’t familiar with these particular hills.

We did try to persuade the one who appeared to be in charge that, with the light fading quickly and the temperature falling, coming back down would be much more tricky than the climb, as indeed already was the case, but he seemed worryingly blasé.

Now, okay, this is The Shropshire Hills in a moderate covering of snow, with temperatures dipping down to around -1º to -2º plus a bit of windchill; it’s not the highlands with 100mph gusts, snow past your thighs and sub-arctic conditions. But the path back down to Carding Mill Valley is easy to miss in fading light and there are any number of options for making the wrong choice; it could take someone who didn’t know the hills a long time to realise they’d made a navigational error and possibly longer still to correct it. In the end we had to tell them to note the path junctions and the way marker posts (quite a few of which are down at the moment) and remember landmarks as they passed them.


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.


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 (; Bottom – Godcrest (RSPB images)




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…


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.


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.



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.



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.


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.
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.