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

 

 

A walk with not much to look at…

“It’s foggy up here”. Perceptive, that’s me.

Admittedly, it had been perfectly clear when we left home – about 4 miles away as the crow flies and about 600 feet lower – but the change in conditions really didn’t need to be pointed out. “Nothing gets past you, does it?” I thought the sarcasm was uncalled for.

dsc_0003I actually don’t mind the occasional walk in foggy conditions, and admittedly it’s easier to be philosophical when the journey from home has only taken about 10 minutes and you’ve seen the views from these particular hills literally dozens of times before. Perhaps not quite so easy if you’ve driven a long distance to explore somewhere previously unvisited. And I suppose we half expected it to clear as the morning progressed and a little bit of sun and wind worked their magic.

So off we set on a familiar circuit, able to see very little beyond a couple of dozen yards in any direction, listening out for signs of the birds who seem to be gearing up for what should be – migrations aside – their most active period of the year.

dsc_0009Occasionally the shadowy but recognisable shape of a blackbird could be seen rummaging away in the leaf litter; and a few robins, confident and optimistic, shadowed our progress along the track. Meanwhile, the only variation in the visibility seemed to be in those places where it became noticeably worse.

There are two, three or four tops in the Clent Hills cluster, depending on your interpretation. Three of them are over 1,000 feet in height, although only one – Walton Hill – is designated as a Marilyn. Calcot Hill is sometimes dismissed as just another undulation on the ridge of Walton Hill; Wychbury is often disregarded, simply as a consequence of being separated from the others by the busy A456; Clent Hill is the most visited, the one with the café and other facilities, and the second highest. The whole area does seem somewhat susceptible to hill fogs and this was neither the first, nor the worst we have encountered. As we left and began to drop down the steep lane leading away from the car park, we were very quickly back into clear conditions.

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.

 

 

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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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…

 

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.

 

The enduring pull of Shropshire

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We return frequently to the Shropshire hills, and more to the Long Mynd than any other: 35 miles by road, a journey generally hassle-free, giving the feeling of proper hill country made accessible. The height might be unspectacular, but the complexity of the terrain and the propensity for ground-hugging mists, particularly in autumn, makes for some interesting outings. You can lose yourself in more ways than one.

45530185107941__405x720-argb_88881818675229The valleys (hollows), which cut into the hills, provide a variety of ways to reach the plateau; and indeed a variety of options for returning by a different route. “Plateau” shouldn’t be taken as meaning table-top flat; there’s plenty of undulation – some of it subtle, some less so. Many of the hollows carry a stream (although ‘brook’ seems to be favoured locally), often fed by springs, some of which are marked on the OS 1:25000 maps. Reduced to little more than a trickle at times, they can be difficult to cross at others – it is proper hill country!

For a time – an all too brief time each summer – there is the possibility of spotting a hobby, most likely in pursuit of a dragonfly; a still better chance of catching a fleeting glimpse of a merlin on the move. The merlins seem to have moved on, as indeed do the peregrines, although the latter were apparently sighted hunting over the hollows until a couple of weeks ago. The kestrel and buzzards seem to be ‘stayers’ though; and it’s no longer a surprise to spot a nonchalant, drifting kite. Not that raptors exactly have things all their own way: ravens go about their business without apparently feeling the need for a by your leave; ravens can probably take care of themselves.

Spotted for the first time last weekend, a respectably sized flock of golden plover – wheeling and diving over the moorland, dropping down into the heather, taking to the air again en-masse, endlessly repeating. They could be new arrivals – the UK population swells anything up to tenfold over the winter.

Winter will mean more layers: down jackets stuffed into the pack for rest stops; hats, gloves, thicker socks. All of those out-of-the-wind crannies will come in handy; just as long as we can remember where they are.

Pictures above: [Top]: Mist and watery sunshine – Long Mynd; [Above left]: Walkers descending into Light Spout Hollow, Long Mynd

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Light spout waterfall, reduced to a trickle following an extended spell of dry weather

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Detail from Routebuddy OSGB 217 – The Long Mynd & Wenlock Edge (1:25000) – showing a number of springs feeding the brook in Ashes Hollow