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.

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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.


     

Shropshire snow: all too brief…

The forecast suggested the possibility of snow across the higher ground to the west, but also that the roads would probably be sufficiently clear to allow access to the hills. In the event, the journey was untroubled and, other than a dusting across the flanks of The Clees, by the time we saw the first evidence of white tops we were only couple of miles out from Church Stretton.

In anticipation of rain at some point, we decided to put on waterproof overtrousers from the start: bulky, cumbersome, restrictive; but windproof and very warm. We gambled on the route via Light Spout waterfall being a good bet for quickly getting clear of the crowds gathering in the car park at the foot of the hills, and it turned out to be even quieter than we’d anticipated. Climbing the rocky steps adjacent to the fall was a little tricky, with many of the rocks smeared with a mixture of ice and streaming water. However, it was manageable: descending that way would have been much more of a problem.

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Looking towards The Clees from Long Mynd.

From the top of the waterfall the path follows the route of Light Spout Hollow and eventually intersects with The Shropshire Way, which then follows the spine of the ridge all the way to its high point at Pole Bank. There was a covering of snow for most of the route, with a few light drifts in places, but not sufficient to cover the heather and other ground vegetation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most substantial areas of snow were in the areas around Pole Bank itself. We even saw someone using a pair of cross-country skis, which was probably overkill at the time, and certainly would have been as the day progressed.

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The road adjacent to Pole Bank cottage

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Reasonable, if short-lived, snow covering

Sadly, by the time we were retracing our steps a couple of hours later, the snow was already receding quite rapidly along the path; probably a consequence of residual warmth in the ground, combined with the passage of boots. Looking further to the north and west, we could see what looked like the evidence of heavier falls on the Arenigs and Berwyns…

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Somewhat closer, a storm was gathering over Corndon Hill, although its effects – if there were any, other than a darkened sky – eventually passed to the west of us…

p1070540 The tracks below would, I’m guessing, have been made by a rabbit…

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The squeezed middle (05/04/2013)

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Drifted snow and loose, sandy soil is a recipe for an unholy mess. It will get worse before it gets better!

Mostly our weather locally seems to be westerly in character; the prevailing wind blows generally from the south west, very few days are totally free of cloud and whatever mid/south Wales has been getting… well we get what’s left over. The latter part of this winter has bucked that trend and the south and west midlands seem to have become a far-flung outlier of the north-east; colder, drier, and with a biting wind carrying hints of Scandinavia and the Baltic. 

 

We’d come to the local hills to check on the bluebells. It’s a few weeks yet before they’ll reach their best  (whatever that might mean) but by now there should be clues as to what we can expect. After the bonanza years of 2010 and 2011, last year was a disappointing, muted showing; slow to emerge, tentative and stunted, the display unconvincing and all too brief. 

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Worcestershire Beacon and North Hill – some 25 miles distant and three hundred odd feet higher – are hazy but clearly holding snow on their northerly aspects. I know from experience that the summit ridge of the Malverns can be a bitingly cold place in an easterly.

In this most delayed of springs, the signs are not so encouraging; perhaps unsurprising when clusters of snowdrops still retain their fading flowers into April and the garden Forsythia is a solid month behind schedule. The hills still hold snow – plenty of it – well below the thousand foot mark, with only the southerly aspects becoming substantially clear. The new camera has so far spent most of its time tripod-mounted and pointing at the tree outside the kitchen window. This winter we appear to have both long-tailed tits and siskins as residents, rather than occasional passers-by. I did however stumble across a kingfisher while out walking and managed to get a couple of shots, despite its reluctance to sit and pose…

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Not pin-sharp, but focussing time was strictly limited.

Snow, as promised… (18/01/13)

p1060874It’s sometimes said that there are only two types of forecast – wrong and lucky!

We were promised (threatened?) proper snowfall; told to be ready for twelve to fifteen centimetres. This happens a lot and often the reality turns out to be somewhat less impressive than the prediction – a couple of centimetres, gone within a day or so. Not this time, though; this time the forecasters’ pledges were honoured in full. If anything, full plus a bit more.

The first decision was straightforward: the car stayed on the drive. The sledgers and snowboarders – of all ages, it has to be said – were out in force; particularly fond apparently of the slopes of the local golf club. If somebody didn’t emerge from the clubhouse brandishing either an injunction or a blunderbuss, I’d be very surprised.

Ducks, swans and geese got fed and were noisily grateful. At least those who muscled their way to the front of the queue got fed; we had nowhere near enough to go around. We were lucky enough to spot a handful of fiedfares, a couple of yellowhammers, some sort of bunting (‘some sort’ is as specific as we can be, where buntings are concerned), and get the best and longest view we’ve ever had of a bullfinch; a bullfinch which, to begin with, I expertly identified as an ‘odd looking robin’.

p1060883The safety markings on the railway bridge (opposite) made for a nice splash of colour, when viewed across the frozen pond. The bridge is occasionally vulnerable to large trucks, which probably shouldn’t be on that lane and certainly shouldn’t be attempting to get under that bridge. Rail chaos invariably ensues for at least the rest of that day.

The trains were running today, though, including a slow freight which came lumbering out of the driving snowstorm, taking something from somewhere to somewhere else.

I’m no better with railway wagon identification than I am with buntings.

From the vaults: A winter visitor (18/12/2010)

It’s stopped now but that was as sustained a spell of snowfall as I can remember for a good few years. It might have varied in intensity and size of flake but for hour after hour it never once looked like coming to an end. If radio and television updates are any guide it sounds as though the general synopsis at 21:00 hours is chaotic and likely to remain so.

I can sympathise with those affected, in some cases badly so, by the disruption and delays but it’s hard to deny the aesthetic appeal of a good coating of white powder. A black dustbin in the garden presently looks like a huge glass of Guinness, and even the pile of bricks denoting yet another part-completed construction project has been softened and camouflaged.
A series of stills of the back garden could have been taken in black and white and would have looked scarcely any different: until, quite unexpectedly, a young fox appeared, balanced nonchalantly on top of the fence…

We’ve seen them around the garden on a number of occasions; usually older specimens looking tatty and furtive. This was a youngster with a lush, thick winter coat, possibly enjoying its first snow. It seemed pretty comfortable in its environment and happy enough with the vantage point. We’re a bit ambivalent about feeding garden mammals as, living close by a park with a large pool, it would be easy to attract rats. As it happens, this particular suburban specimen looked in pretty good condition and quite well nourished. Fortunately our near neighbours no longer keep chickens.

Our visitor then led me a dance; cavorting around the garden as I moved from window to window (and floor to floor) trying to get a shot that wasn’t either out of focus or blurred by motion. This (above) was as good as it got before foxy decided he’d had enough of our company and departed for gardens new.

               Going nowhere anytime soon

From the vaults: Let’s be careful out there … (06/01/2010)

Let’s be careful out there …

Snow, like many things, is best sampled fresh. A familiar landscape sporting a new winter coat is familiar no longer: old lines are blurred, new ones picked out in the clearest of relief; depths of field are shifted, perspectives altered. We plant our feet where we might at other times step around and tread tentatively where we would, on a different day, move with confidence.

School and workplace closures had brought out the crowds – sledgers mostly – but they were concentrated on a few polished slopes and it was easy enough to give them the slip, finding the places where, our own footprints aside, only animal tracks had disturbed the surface of the snow.
By mid-afternoon the wind had strengthened and swung around to a north-easterly, whipping up eddies of spindrift and giving the pristine fields a scoured look; as if a few dozen hectares of tundra had somehow been scooped up, carried south, and deposited in the unlikely setting of north Worcestershire.