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

 

 

 

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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

 

 

Going over old ground…

That’s as good a way as any of summarising our outings of late: old haunts revisited; familiar routes reprised; two or three hours of borrowed time; longer days whenever opportunity presents. Brief escapes snatched from the seemingly remorseless clutches of life as it is now mostly lived. Not that we have much cause for complaint, but we’d probably all prefer to be doing a bit more of what we’d choose, a bit less of what’s required.

Habitually, we don’t take an awful lot of photographs; my tendency is to give priority to binoculars over a camera, but there is the occasional shot, usually intended as nothing more than a record of the day. These are just a few from recent weeks, accompanied by a bit of brief notation.

A grainy shot of a high-flying goshawk, taken in the Forest of Dean on a day when the weather was indeed glorious, although I don’t remember the sky being quite as blue and cloudless as the picture suggests…

The area has a reputation as a relative ‘hot spot’ for what is still a quite rare, although thankfully recovering, raptor (UK breeding population around 400 pairs). Usually I wouldn’t post a location for a sighting of a threatened bird of prey, but this particular site is already widely publicised online.

Wild ponies, Long Mynd: these animals are an ever-present feature of the Long Mynd, roaming across almost the entire expanse of the hills; sometimes in larger gatherings (I think the correct collective is ‘string’), at other times dispersed into smaller groups. Andy Howell – a Shropshire Hills regular – has written many blog entries about the area and regularly encounters the ponies… [Link]

 

Also taken on Long Mynd – one of a pair of falcons seen flying high above Light Spout Hollow and photographed at maximum zoom on a Sony HX300 Bridge Camera. With no detail visible on the camera’s LCD screen, we later cropped the image in Photoshop Elements (hence the grain) and then lightened it just enough for colours and markings to show. It looks like a hobby, which we’ve seen there before but usually skimming low over the ground chasing dragonflies…

Higher still, but much easier to identify – a pair of red kite…

Taken on 19th April, this was a day when we saw more kite than on any previous visit. We’d sometimes wondered whether the ones and twos spotted on previous occasions were the early settlers in a burgeoning population, or itinerants from Radnorshire on a day trip. We’re now hopeful of an eastward shift, as has previously happened with first buzzards then raven, and another step in the revival of an iconic species; they are still something of a rarity east of the Severn.

For anyone prepared to seek out the less populous parts of the hills, this whole area offers some of the best opportunities for spotting a variety of birds of prey; in fact, it’s one of the few places we know of where you could conceivably, in a single day, sight all three of our native falcons, plus a visiting hobby. It would need to be a lucky day, and at the right time of year, but it’s by no means inconceivable.

Wheatear is a variety we often see on the quieter parts of the Shropshire hills. This one was sufficiently obliging to sit still for a couple of shots…

This next one is an odd picture: for some reason – and my guess is user incompetence – the camera has focussed more precisely on the dried reeds than on the intended object, the meadow pipit. This gives the bird a slightly ghostly appearance, almost as if it had been struck down and become more powerful than could possibly have been imagined. I quite like the unintended strangeness of it…

Just taking off from Carding Mill Valley, a rescue helicopter presumably called out to assist with the search for a teenage girl who had been reported missing on the day in the vicinity of the hills. Thankfully, she turned up later in the day – safe and unharmed.

 

 

Wild garlic, trackside, Severn Valley Railway: a nice smell, or a revolting one? It seems to divide opinion…

Also on the Severn Valley Railway: shunting operations at Highley Station. It was taken during the Easter holiday period and good to see that the trains on the day were consistently busy.

Recently I’ve started to take notice of the small oval ‘Shed’ plates attached to the front of steam locos; that’s probably the kind of thing I should be telling to a therapist. The one on the front of the engine nearest to the camera (85D) refers to the old steam shed at Kidderminster, so 1450 hasn’t strayed too far from home. Locomotive 1501 is displaying a former Old Oak Common plate (81A); this was the principal shed serving the Paddington end of the old GWR main line, and 1501 would have kept company with some very illustrious stablemates.

Wyre Forest (14/03/17)

Being a weekday, not a school holiday, and still well away from the busy season, we’d decided to set aside our misanthropic tendencies and make our starting point the visitor centre. It was busier than we’d have anticipated, but only around the centre facilities; 200 yards into the forest and we were on our own. With skies more overcast than had been forecast, the birds seemed to be keeping a low profile and we were able to devote more of our attention to avoiding the still considerable amounts of mud underfoot; it’s a particular speciality of the Wyre Forest is mud.

There was, eventually, a lightening of the cloud cover, which roughly coincided with the thinning out of the trees; we became aware of a steady increase in both the amount of movement and the level of noise; woodland and hedgerow staples mostly on the day, although there is always the hope and possibility of something a little more exotic – a lesser spotted woodpecker perhaps, maybe even a goshawk. Not today, though.

A stone bridge spanning the route of the former railway line provides an excellent vantage point at those times when there is bird activity in the vicinity of the reserve’s premises at Lodge Hill Farm. On this occasion the movement in the trees turned out to be a pair of bullfinches; the pair quickly became three as a second female arrived on the scene, before two further arrivals swelled the numbers to five (two males/three females).

The male’s breast colouring was vivid even by bullfinch standards. Unfortunately, I’d upped the ISO setting on the camera – to allow for shooting at decent shutter speeds inside the woods – and then neglected to turn it back down; hence the over-exposure, particularly of the bright background.

The one sustained spell of warm sun, early in the afternoon, was sufficient to tempt out a female adder to bask among the leaf litter. As is often the case, there was no perfect unobstructed shot and we wanted to maintain a proper distance to avoid causing any disturbance to the adder.

There will hopefully be opportunities over the next few weeks to spot a few more, although nothing is guaranteed with something so elusive and sensitive to movement. Once those few weeks have passed and the undergrowth begins to seriously thicken out, the adders – along with the grass snakes which are also present – will become much more concealed and difficult to pick out.

When the adders decide to lie amongst the remnants of the previous year’s bracken, the similarities between their markings and the patterns of the dead undergrowth can make them very tricky to spot – particularly the females!

There isn’t one in the picture to the left, by the way – it’s just bracken.

Wood ants were already becoming active, developing existing nests and starting new ones. They obviously find conditions very much to their liking and anyone intending to take a break sitting on the ground needs to do a bit of reconnaissance before settling down. We’ve seen adders lying on top of some of the smaller ant nests; apparently they like the warmth generated by the activity in the nest and the ants don’t seem to bother them.

 

 

Just a few pictures…

Not many words to this post, just a handful of shots taken out and about with various hand-held devices…

Storm Doris uprooted a tree – A Scots pine, sadly – in the park, no more than about 80 yards from our front door. Not just any Scots pine either, although any loss is one too many; this was the tree where the female sparrowhawk used to sit – big, even for a female, and queen of all she surveyed. Recent work on the path around the pool may have destabilised the roots somewhat; if so, other pines in the same stand might be similarly at risk…

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This run of attractive and cleverly woven fencing along a stretch of the Droitwich canal, utilising the trunks and branches from an established hedge; hazel, I think, although I’m no expert. I believe the weaving technique has a local name which, like so much these days, escapes me. Whatever it’s called, it looks nicer than chain-link and razor wire…

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Last week in February and rhododendrons already in full bloom – or very close to it – Bunkers Hill Wood, right on the West Midlands/South Staffordshire border…

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Hampton Loade station, Severn Valley Railway, and I’m reminded that, like it or not, I’m looking at a scene that – more years ago than I care to remember – I would have witnessed many times out on the main line: an old, first generation, diesel multiple unit, standing alongside a BR tank engine pulling coaching stock. Dudley Port low level, early sixties, heading for The Hawthorns to watch The Albion; who knows where the time goes?

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And a carrion crow – plumage more blue-black and unblemished than any I can ever recall seeing…

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The shot of the carrion crow was taken on my son’s Sony HX300 bridge camera, which easily outperforms my Nikon P510, although it is a bit bigger and heavier.

 

 

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.

 

 

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…