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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Modern camera technology

The final photograph in the previous post was of a kingfisher, sitting on some stonework just out of Worcester city centre. I described it in the post as ‘heavily cropped’ and I think it’s a testimony to the quality of modern camera sensors and lenses that an image can be effectively ‘blown up’ and still retain so much resolution.

Here’s what happened (and I must stress that there was no skill involved on my part beyond the use of the cropping tool; no photoshopping or enhancement of any kind – it is all down to the camera equipment).

The kingfisher flew across the river and alighted on the quayside; it was some distance away but was clearly a kingfisher. Not wishing to spook the bird, my son took a few shots in ‘burst’ mode without moving any closer. He was using a Sony Alpha 6000 with a Sony 55-210 zoom lens; from memory he thinks it was shot at maximum zoom but it was all in a bit of a hurry. This is the original shot…

The kingfisher is visible, just left of centre and on the corner of the quayside.

When we’d got the pictures loaded onto the computer at home, I just thought I’d try cropping to remove the railings; I expected the result to be grainy and unusable. This was the first crop…

It was way better than I would have anticipated, but I knew you couldn’t expect to keep cropping without compromising image quality. Nevertheless, I though I’d give it one more trim – this time with really low expectations…

The result was the photograph above, which is the one used in the previous post.

I just thought this was an amazing testimony to the quality of modern camera equipment, even in the hands of an amateur (although Rob, to be fair to him, does have a decent eye for a picture). I contributed nothing beyond the use of the cropping tool.

 

 

 

 

 

Urban diary: Wildlife in Worcester/2

Paradox: drawn though I am to remote places, and the opportunities for solitude and quiet reflection which they provide, I would never actually want to live far from a railway station. I don’t much care for driving these days, mostly find it a chore; there are exceptions of course, but given the choice I’d walk, take the train, or some combination of both. Days like this one are greatly enhanced by leaving the car on the drive.

Worcester is a place we return to fairly regularly: more urban than was once the case, it’s still managed to retain some of its appeal as the development gradually pushes further out along the line of the river on the southern side. Possibly on the northern side too; it’s not a part of the city we visit.

The completion of the Diglis footbridge in 2010 allowed for a circular walk, out past the cathedral and returning alongside the county cricket ground; or the same route reversed, if preferred. Generally it’s the cathedral side of the river which seems to catch more of the sun and provides the better options for a food stop; there is no shortage of benches.

The road bridge carrying the A44 past New Road county cricket ground

A view back towards the city, marred by some 1960s architecture

Riverside walkway – cathedral side of river

Worcester Cathedral

Not being of a religious persuasion, I sometimes find the opulence and ostentation of high churches a little unsettling; and it doesn’t always do to dwell for too long on the history of it all. Smaller, more spartan country churches are a different matter, and their churchyards are often quiet and welcoming places to dwell for a while. That said, there’s no denying the levels of craftsmanship achieved under what must have been severely demanding working conditions in all sorts of ways…

[Left] Interior view – Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Mary the Virgin of Worcester, more commonly known simply as Worcester Cathedral.

 

 

 

 

There are some attractive dwelling houses in the immediate environs of the cathedral and around College Green. Who owns and/or lives in them I have no idea…

Oh yes, of course, wildlife…

It can all get a bit chaotic at times

There’s a swan sanctuary just south of the main road bridge and on the cricket ground (west) side of the river. The swans are monitored and regularly fed, although they have to be quick to keep ahead of the opportunist gulls and pigeons. No wonder peregrines regularly use the cathedral as a nesting site…

 

 

This was a rarity though – a black swan (left). I’d never seen one of these anywhere on the river before, the closest would have been the WWT reserve at Slimbridge. It could possibly be an escapee: smaller than the resident mutes, they can apparently be quite aggressive; it certainly didn’t seem fazed by being heavily outnumbered.

 

 

And finally, a heavily cropped picture of a kingfisher which decided to sit for a while on the stonework, just near to where the canal joins the river…

A return to mid Wales

This is mostly a photo post: it was the second visit of the year to the Rhayader/Elan Valley area and, coincidentally, the walking was mostly defined by the heavy rains which had preceded our few days there. ‘Coincidentally’ because this had been exactly the case back in May; sustained spells of heavy rain – not exactly a rarity in mid Wales – can turn some of the hills into a quagmire, and a misery to walk.

However, there are compensations to be had from arriving in the aftermath of a good deluge…

The overflowing dam at Penygarreg reservoir – viewed from Penbont

As above, but from a little closer. Or possibly zoomed

The rain was just about over by the time we arrived, but there was still plenty of low cloud around and a heavy clinging dampness hanging in the air. This is Wales – come prepared!

The fire in the distance looked more appealing the closer we got. It turned out to be forestry workers on clearing duties, rather than wild campers

By mid afternoon, the combination of clearing skies and steadily lowering sun had lent an altogether different feel to the water and surrounding hillsides…

Better had been promised for the next day, and was duly delivered…

Inevitably, in this part of Wales, there would be red kite…

Looking for feeding opportunities among the boulders

And taking advantage of thermals, conspicuously absent on the previous day

 

Risky post (attacking a national institution)

First things first: GCHQ can stand down; this isn’t about a latter-day gunpowder plot, or a coup to depose the board of trustees of Age Concern England. This is about… well, it’s about Autumnwatch, or what’s left of it. In fact it’s about the whole Seasonwatch franchise and what it’s become.

I caught a few bits of the series just ended; not quite sure why but I did. I’ve never been one of the ‘waste of the licence fee’ brigade; there’s still plenty to like about the Beeb, particularly in the context of what passes for content on most of the hundreds of alternatives which fill the screen when you press the ‘Guide’ button on the remote. But is this really it? Is this what the acclaimed Natural History Unit now considers to be acceptable output?

Right back to its origins, more than 10 years ago now, the programmes have never pretended to be anything other than gently informative, while remaining mostly uncontroversial. But there was at least some quality to be found in the early days, both in terms of the content and the presenters. Okay, it was probably inevitable that Bill Oddie’s eccentricity would eventually alienate as many viewers as it would attract, and personally I was never a big fan of Kate Humble. For me the programme was defined by the contributions of presenters like Gordon Buchanan and Iolo Williams; Gordon has gone on to bigger and better, while Iolo’s contributions are latterly infrequent and all too brief. Maybe his tendency towards ‘frankness’ when dealing with issues like raptor persecution could have something to do with it.

What do we have now? On three evenings last week we saw Gillian Burke – a talented and engaging naturalist – reduced to the role of circus master, arranging for urban foxes to learn tricks with scraps of food attached to string. That’s not a prime time nature broadcast – it’s Blue Peter with foxes! Foxes incidentally, so de-wilded by generations of inculcation that they’re more tame than the average tomcat. If the objective is to engage a younger audience then broadcast that stuff late afternoon, before the early evening news; not at 8:00pm a prime slot on a supposedly flagship channel.

There’s a rich vein of self-satisfied laziness running through the whole franchise now: the presenters are provided with accommodation for a base; supporting personnel with high levels of expertise; contributions from people with local knowledge; a nerve centre with more screens than a city dealing room; more cabling than the East Coast Main Line; and for what results?

Urban foxes; grainy shots of excavated earth where there had been a badger earlier in the day; repetition mostly; species many of us could spot on a decent day’s walk; very few genuine rarities. Go and find a lesser-spotted woodpecker, or a nightingale, you lazy bastards! You have enough resources at your disposal. Or deal with some proper wildlife issues, maybe highlight some of the appalling land management practices going on out there. I could tell you where to start looking!

Anyway, glad that’s off  my chest. And finally, a glimpse of what once was and could be again…

Richard Taylor-Jones

 

 

Yet another Long Mynd walk…

Followed by yet another Long Mynd blog post.

We return to The Mynd pretty frequently and I don’t think we’d ever tire of it: proper hill country; an easy drive (under an hour); like a piece of Wales accessed in half the time. And there’s enough variation in the complex system of tops and hollows to be sure that familiarity never equates to boredom.

Climbing away from Carding Mill Valley

Although it’s not obligatory to make Carding Mill Valley the starting off point, a lot of walkers do, simply for convenience. It doesn’t take long to leave the crowds behind on those days when it gets a little busier; on a midweek day in winter there’ll be no need even to consider evasive action.

For a while Townbrook Hollow runs roughly parallel to Cardingmill Valley, although eventually their paths do diverge. It (Townbrook) is easily accessed at its lower end by skirting Burway Hill after crossing the minor road (Bur Way) which eventually leads to Pole Bank. The path gradually climbs clear of the valley floor and emerges onto a broad saddle which serves as the junction for a number of paths, offering a variety of possibilities for where to go next. In the context of these hills you’re already relatively high by this point, so from here there is an option to just enjoy some easy exploration.

The preposterously large cairn on top of Yearlet

There is another alternative: it involves sacrificing all of the height you’ve just gained, plus a bit more, and dropping down into the next valley – Ashes Hollow. There is a steep chute pretty much straight ahead as you emerge onto the saddle; it’s immediately to the west of a cairn-topped hill (Yearlet). A better option is to walk either around or over Yearlet and use the equally steep but more navigable gully on the eastern side of the hill; this adds a bit of distance and then a bit more again as it joins Ashes Hollow further down.

The descent is grassy, steep in places, and can be tricky when the surface is slick from rainfall; it’s one I find easier in trail shoes than in boots.

Ashes Hollow

Ashes Hollow is the longest and arguably trickiest of the routes up onto the high ground, but only to the extent that a little more care is needed now and then, and there are probably more places where it would be possible to turn an ankle if distracted. I would also say it’s the best in terms of interest and variety.

In time the path climbs out of the valley and meets the road which we crossed earlier in the walk – just at the point where its name changes from The Bur Way to The Port Way. The road passes just below the high point of The Long Mynd (Pole Bank) and continues on towards The Midland Gliding Club.

Toposcope – Pole Bank

The path back down to Carding Mill Valley can be accessed at its junction with The Shropshire Way, which leads down from the Pole Bank trig point and toposcope, but a more interesting option is to look for an earlier fork leading down to Lightspout Hollow and a rocky descent alongside the waterfall. That said, the Carding Mill path does offer some nice views across Church Stretton and some of the hills surrounding the town – Caer Caradoc; The Lawley; Hope Bowdler. The Wrekin stands isolated and a little further off.

Ashes Hollow: there is a path down there, somewhere…

Whinchat – a close relative of the more numerous stonechat

Some vertebrae and a skull. What with the kite, buzzards and ravens, there was never going to be much in the way of leftovers

A drifting buzzard quartering a hillside

Waterside foxgloves

If numbers are a barometer, 2017 seems to have been a good year for foals

 

 

 

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