Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It's Been A Fantastic Summer for Butterflies and Moths

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Silver Washed Fritillary - Photograph by Heather Newman
My previous blog was entitled 'It's Been A Good Year For The Orchids', well if it's been a good year for the orchids it has been an outstanding year for the phylum Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).
It would appear that a combination of a wet, mild winter with very few frosts and a warm dry spring and summer has been perfect for wild flowers and, therefore, perfect for butterflies. It's a very long time since I have seen a summer with such an abundance of wild flowers and insect life and, as I am constantly reminded by my family, I've seen quite a few (summers).

Burnett Moth on Ragwort - Photograph Ian Newman
Scarlet Tiger Moth - Photo Ian Newman
Magpie Moth - Photograph Ian Newman
The Cornish coast has been a riot of wild flowers and insect life this year. Moths are widely regarded by 'non-entomologists' to be the dowdy poor relations of the butterflies, but the 'daytime moths' seen on the coast path have been an absolute joy.
Small Blue Butterfly - photo Ian Newman
Our daughter, Heather, has been involved in reintroduction programmes for some rare species of butterfly as part of her work on Holnicote Estate on Exmoor. Check out her Facebook page; 'Heather's Holnicote Diary'.

If this has stimulated your interest in butterflies and you would like to be involved in their conservation check out the Big Butterfly Count which ends on August 10.

Friday, July 4, 2014

It's Been A Good Year For The.......Orchids

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Pyramidal Orchid



 Well, the wet, windy winter wasn't to most peoples' taste but the wild orchids obviously loved it. This spring and summer have been by far the most prolific 'orchid season' that I have seen. One of the reasons that we moved to the Wylye Valley was the abundance of flora in the surrounding calcareous grassland, but this year has been exceptional.

Bee Orchid
On our local hills we have found Fragrant Orchids, Spotted Orchids, Pyramidal Orchids, Bee Orchids, Butterfly Orchids, Twayblades, Marsh Orchids. A veritable feast of wild flowers.

Lesser Butterfly Orchid
Further afield the Cotswolds, Cornwall and Exmoor have all had exceptional orchid seasons.

Narrow Leafed Marsh Orchid
What a treat it has been, and they're still out there - but not for much longer! Get out into the countryside while the opportunity is still there.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Old Father Thames Keeps Rolling Along.............

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Clifton Hampden bridge and church

Hambleden Mill, Hambleden Lock

Walkers on Wittenham Meadows
Just returned from an interesting two weeks exploring the river Thames. There are few rivers that show so much contrast between source and estuary.

The Thames rises among the Cotswold Hills near Cirencester and then wends its tranquil way through Cotswold meadows and woodland to reach the great academic city of Oxford, where it briefly becomes the Isis (the Roman name of the river was Thamisis and Oxford likes to be a little 'different'). Below Oxford the Thames begins to widen and increase in power. There are wonderful stretches of towpath to walk notably the stretch from Culham to Dorchester-on-Thames visiting picturesque Clifton Hampden and the famous Barley Mow pub on the way. Dorchester Abbey is a very significant (as well as beautiful) building in the development of Christianity in Anglo Saxon
England.

The stretch of Thames between Henley and the pretty village of Hurley is well worth an afternoon walk (especially if you detour into Hurley Lock for a cream tea!) and passes historic Medmenham Abbey, former home of the notorious 'Hellfire Club'.

The White Tower, Tower of London

Hampton Court Palace

The Shard and 'More London'
The 'metropolitan' Thames is different altogether. Busy and bustling as recreation rubs shoulders with commerce. The stretches of Thames between Hampton Court, Richmond and Kew have a green and rural quality which belies their location in one of the worlds great metropolitan cities. The 'Pool of London' between Putney and Tower Bridge has a bewildering array of iconic historic buildings such as the Palace of Westminster, Somerset House, The Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral 'cheek by jowl' with the Shard, the Gherkin, the Walky-Talky and the Cheesegrater.

This combination just should not work and anywhere else in the world it wouldn't, but in London it just does! 


Monday, April 28, 2014

'O to be in England, now that April's there'

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Raglan Castle, tower and moat





Sugar Loaf and Skyrrydd Fawr from the top of the tower at Raglan

 Daughter Rebecca has all but completed her degree at Trinity St Davids university in West Wales, which will bring to an end our regular shuttles back and forth across the Severn bridge and through the Brecon Beacons National Park.  On our most recent journey, on a beautiful day and given that the degree in question is in Medieval Studies, we stopped to visit Raglan Castle near Abergavenny in the 'Welsh Marches'. Raglan Castle was the last castle to be built in Wales (other than follies) and was the most impressive castle not in Royal ownership, it is now in the care of Cadw (the Welsh heritage protection agency). The view from the top of the tower takes in two of the black mountain summits near Abergavenny.

'May Blossom', Cotswolds.
The blog title is a quote from Robert Browning's poem 'Home Thoughts From Abroad'. We have to agree with the sentiment. The hedgerows have certainly burst into life. The hawthorn and blackthorn, collectively known as 'the May, are putting on a spectacular display of blossom this year. This week our other daughter, Heather, has been checking some route descriptions in the lovely area of the Cotswolds to the north of Bath. Newly hatched chicks in the hedgerows and trees, birds of prey in the air (no coincidence there), blossom in the hedges and on the crab apple trees and new lambs gamboling in the fields - a perfect time for walking.

The rolling Cotswold landscape near Bath

Closer to home, the bluebells are well and truly out in Great Ridge Woods!



Monday, April 7, 2014

From The 'Norman Conquest' to 'Allez Yorkshire' - a week of great contrasts

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Camellia, Battle Abbey

Undercroft, Battle Abbey
Last Wednesday saw Ian visit Battle Abbey, near Hastings in East Sussex. The purpose of the visit was twofold: to look at the '1066 Country Walk' long distance path and for daughter Rebecca to get some pictures of the 1066 battlefield to help her with her final university dissertation on the politics of Saxon England with particular reference to the Godwin family.

English Heritage are making a good job of looking after the site, the weather was bright and sunny and the battlefield itself was covered in meadow flowers. The camellias around the abbey walls were stunning.

A visit to Battle Abbey and an examination of the circumstances which led to the Saxons' defeat does emphasise how coincidences can change the course of history.

The Saxons under the newly crowned Harold Godwinson had been awaiting a Norman invasion on the south coast and were thoroughly prepared for it. What they had not factored in to their thinking was that there might be an invasion by the Vikings in Yorkshire led by their warlike king Harald Haradra and Harold Godwinson's brother Tostig. The Saxon army had to run over 200 miles on rough tracks, they covered the distance in a week at 30 miles a day, fought and won a savage and bloody battle and then heard that the Normans had landed in Sussex. The professional core of the Saxon army ran back to the south with the King and new, inexperienced men were conscripted to help fight the invaders. This inexperience turned out to be the decisive factor in a battle which shaped the destiny of England. It's difficult not to feel a great admiration for Harold and his royal guard, the Housecarles, to have run the length of the land twice and to have fought  two titanic battles against such formidable foes is remarkable. The moment that Harold fell spelt the end for the Housecarles, when their 'gold lord' fell they would defend his body until their own death.

So by ironic coincidence, Ian's travels took him from Battle on Tuesday to North Yorkshire on Wednesday, but not on foot!

Swaledale Family Group
Perfect 'squeeze stile' in a perfect drystone wall
The purpose of the visit to Yorkshire was to put together some new route descriptions in Wensleydale and Swaledale  and to check out some existing ones. The other purpose of the visit was to keep in contact with some of our accommodation providers in the area. Walk leader, Roy Gatley, made the trip too. Ian and Roy stayed at Ebor House, an excellent bed and breakfast in Hawes, and dropped in for coffee and a catch-up with Chris Taplin and Peter Westwood at the excellent Stone House Hotel at Sedbusk.

Yorkshire is hosting the first stage of this year's Tour de France, not another invasion (thankfully), and Yorkshire's tourism chiefs seem beside themselves with excitement. Dales folk, however, are not prone to public displays of excitement but seem to be looking forward to the inevitable increase in visitor numbers ('appen there'll be a lot of cyclists about then!).
The lounge bar at Stone House

'Mousie Thompson' mouse on the bar at Stone House.

Monday, March 31, 2014

From The Very Heart of England to the Welsh Borders - walking in the ancient kingdom of Mercia

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Beautiful cottage in Broad Campden
Way back in the dark ages, after the Romans had departed but before Alfred the Great unified the Saxon kingdoms of England and defeated the Danes, England was divided into a number of kingdoms. The best known of these was undoubtedly Wessex, but the people of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Cheshire, Herefordshire and Shropshire might disagree. These counties all stand in the ancient Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The best-known king of Mercia (certainly to walkers) was Offa who built a fortified earthwork for the full 180 miles of frontier between his kingdom and Wales. almost one and half millenia later much of the earthwork is still visible and a long distance path runs along its original course.

With a number of walks to look out in the general area, last week saw Ian walking in Gloucestershire and Shropshire. The first walk was in Gloucestershire and took in Chipping Campden and Broad Campden. Chipping Campden is a small market town with the most intact Flemish medieval high street in England, Broad Campden, in our opinion, contains the most attractive cottages in the Cotswolds (see picture).

Clun Castle

The next walk to look at was over in Shropshire, in West Mercia. This walk was a far more rugged proposition, the country around Offa's Dyke is high and wild with big far-reaching views. The towns are solid, attractive and, for the most part, have or have had a castle. The castle ruin in the picture is in the little town of Clun. The walk in question started in Clun and ended in the attractive hillside town of Bishop's Castle. After a brief valley walk and a climb upon to the Cefns ridge there was not a soul to be seen all day, with only sheep and birds of prey for company. This border area has a turbulent past, during the Roman conquest in the first century the local Celtic chieftain, Caradog, fought a guerilla war against the Romans, gaining their respect and eventually being made a Roman citizen. Most will know him better as Caractacus. The Saxons of Mercia (under King Offa) had their skirmishes  with the Welsh and after the Norman conquest a local Saxon thane, known as Wild Edric,  gave the new rulers a hard time!

During medieval times this area was known as the Marches of Wales and the barons were known as the Marcher Barons. They still owed a loyalty to the English King but had rights that no other Norman barons possessed; they were able to bestow market charters, establish hunting forests and create boroughs.  There were also a number of Royal taxes from which they were exempt. The Marcher laws were repealed in 1536, so had been in place for over four centuries. This area either side of the border between England and Wales possesses the highest concentration of Motte and Bailey castle ruins in Britain.

Ragleth Hill from From Colebatch
Shropshire remains one of England's best-kept secrets, most British people probably couldn't point to it on a map. The walking is superb, anyone who loves wild, lonely country steeped in history - Shropshire is the place for you.



Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Joy of being in Ancient Places

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Oak - covered tumulus by the Ridgeway path near Avebury

                                                     Do I belong to some ancient race
                                                     I like to walk in ancient places
                                                     These are things that I can understand 

                                                                                           The Levellers
                                                     
This week has been spent walking routes, tweaking route descriptions and checking the condition of any paths that we feel may have been under threat. This week we have been concentrating on area close to home - the ancient landscape of Wiltshire.

The highlight of the week was walking a ten mile stretch of the Ridgeway National Trail. The Great Ridgeway originated as a trading route as far back as the neolithic period, and has been in constant use ever since.This stretch of the path took us from Barbury Hill, a bank and ditch fort constructed and used during the iron age and the Romano British, to Avebury by way of the Hackpen White Horse, Overton Round Barrows, West Kennett Long Barrow and Silbury Hill.

Mysterious and iconic, Silbury Hill
The whole area around Avebury has been designated as a World Heritage Site, and rightly so. Avebury itself is an attractive village with a stunning double stone circle (henge) which runs through it, so (unlike nearby Stonehenge) nobody can fence it off or prevent access to it. Moving freely around these stones is a privilege which is open to all.

Part of Avebury stone circle.
What is the reason for the mystique and mystery surrounding the chalk downlands of Southern England? The fact that they were the first areas settled by humans following the 'hunter gatherer' period must have a lot to do with it. They were suitable because chalk soil was well drained and the soils were fairly thin, lacking in clay which made them easy to work with primitive tools.

Above the mist on Cotley Hill
The hills above our home village are topped with earthworks and landscape features dating back to the bronze and iron ages. Toward the end of last week we had some gloomy valley fog, but if you persist and climb the hill sometimes you are rewarded as you break through into the light.

Next week's walks will be in the Cotswolds and Shropshire, so we shall look forward to those.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Chalk Downland, Bucolic Views, Wild Coast and Ancient Welsh Manuscripts! A varied week.

Horningsham Church across the fields
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 A fine dry weekend provided the ideal opportunity to swap the wellies for walking boots and get out for a decent walk on the downs. The walk I chose was from the pretty village of Kingston Deverill in Wiltshire over Cold Kitchen and Brimsdown Hills to reach the attractive estate village of Horningsham and  the magnificent viewpoint of 'Heaven's Gate'. Heaven's Gate gives a stunning view down onto Longleat House and its grounds. My daughter Heather kept me company as well as Phoebe our springer spaniel.  The first spell of fine weather brought out numerous walkers, all relieved that the wind and rains have abated and everyone we met was in very high spirits.

Llandovery Castle

Wednesday saw me heading over the Severn bridge to visit our other daughter, Rebecca in West Wales. I took the scenic route through the Brecon Beacons National Park and stopped to have a look at Llandovery. Llandovery is the gateway to 'Kite Country'. The red kite was saved from extinction by a reintroduction programme in the wild area of mid Wales north of Llandovery and these beautiful birds of prey are now incredibly common. There is a very atmospheric castle ruin at Llandovery, a motte and bailey construction built around 1116.

The Harbourmaster Hotel, Aberaeron

Aberaeron Inner Harbour
The reasons for the trip to Wales were threefold. Firstly visit our daughter, secondly find a suitable base to organise some of our walking holidays on the magnificent coast of Ceredigion and thirdly visit the exhibition of the four 'iconic ancient books of Wales' at the National Library in Aberystwyth.

I had hoped that the coastal village of Aberaeron would make a suitable base for one of our tours and it certainly did not disappoint. It goes straight into my 'special places' file. A quick stop for coffee and cake at the Harbourmaster hotel in Aberaeron and then on to Aberystwyth to see the ancient books. For those with an interest in dark age history the books were; The Book of Taliesyn, The Red Book of Hergest, The Black Book of Carmarthen and the Book of Aneirin. These books predate the first printing press by centuries and were hand written by monks. Very few people were able to read these books (not even the aristocracy) so back in the days when they were written they would have been given an almost mystical status. I always enjoy being in this part of West Wales, you hear very little English spoken which serves to underline the fact that you really are experiencing another culture.

A four hundred mile round trip is a big day out, but I felt quite uplifted by all the visible history in West Wales. I  must confess that I did allow myself to feel just a little smug after the rugby result on Sunday, though.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Spring Is In The Air

Mum and twins

A roebuck peaking out coyly from behind the trees

The does, not coy at all!
Thank goodness the winds have stopped howling, the torrential rain has abated. The river levels are dropping and floods subsiding. The paths are drying out, there are wild flowers in the woods and everything seems so much more vibrant. The sun rising at 7am and setting at 6pm cheers things up too.

The wildlife has broken cover (some less timid than others) and the sheep on the downs seem more content. A few lambs skipping around certainly adds to the air of optimism.

My heart certainly goes out to those householders on the Somerset Levels and in the Thames Valley who are now faced with the 'clean up' after the flooding. Let's hope it doesn't happen next year in the same way, and if the rain does return the situation is handled a whole lot better.

At the moment lessons are being learned from this winter's near catastrophic flooding. The rainfall was the highest since records began, but it is becoming obvious that more preventative maintenance on the waterways and investment in water management would certainly have reduced the impact but not prevented flooding altogether. We had better learn very quickly that we should not build on flood plains. Our village and the others in the Wylye valley are fortunate that our historic water meadows are still intact and 'doing their job'.

We'll have to leave the water management issues to the experts (or perhaps the problem is that we don't leave it to the real experts), I'm off up the hill for a walk.

Monday, February 17, 2014

One Day of Fine Weather

Waterfall at Watersmeet

The view from Winston's Path, Countisbury
Anyone with access to news media will know how devastatingly bad the weather has been in England and Wales for the last couple of months - since before Christmas in fact. So the sunny weather which arrived yesterday was particularly welcome.

We took the opportunity to check some of the paths we use on our 'self-guided' walks on Exmoor, to make sure that they hadn't been washed away or blocked by fallen trees. We walked around Countisbury and Watersmeet . The rivers were in spate, the waterfalls were magnificent and the ranger teams had been out and removed the windblown trees and branches. I suspect that very few people realise the extent to which the accessibility of our wild places is dependent on the hard work of these teams, many of whom are volunteers. I, for one, am very grateful.

After our sunny respite yesterday, the rain has returned. Fingers crossed that it is a temporary return.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

February: Candlemass and Borrowed Days

Snowdrops, Holnicote

A double rainbow - worth getting wet for!
February: Candlemass and Borrowed Days

February was one of the two months added when the Roman calendar was extended from ten to twelve months. The name February is only a century old. In Shakespeare's time it was known as Feverell. February is always associated with snowdrops. The religious festival of Candlemass falls on February 2nd and the snowdrop was widely known as the 'Candlemass Bell'. The snowdrops in the picture are growing in the woods at Holnicote on Exmoor (a perfect place, incidentally, for a spring walk).

The twelfth to the fourteenth of February are known as 'borrowed days' (borrowed from January) and tradition has it that if the 'borrowed days' are stormy then we will have a good summer. It is also said that if January ends and February begins fine and frosty, there is more winter ahead than behind!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Water, Water Everywhere

Sennen Cove, courtesy 'Dreams of Cornwall'

The Tranquil River Wylye, not so tranquil at the moment
The United Kingdom is being battered by a series of weather systems coming in off the Atlantic Ocean and bringing high winds and lots of rain. This weekend these storms coincided with very high tides and coastal communities have experienced extreme weather conditions.

Further inland rivers have burst their banks and communities are threatened with flooding.

The tides are now heading towards their lower cycle (neap tides), so hopefully the water will find somewhere to go and in a few weeks this weather will be a distant memory!

In the meantime we'll look forward to spring, when this water will have made the landscape lush and green.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Well, no snow in south west England yet, so I thought that a view of snow cloaked Devon cliffs on a crisp winter day would help herald the arrival of December, the end of autumn and the beginning of winter.

We have uploaded the details of our 2014 programme onto the website and expect the 2014 brochure to be with us next Monday. We have also embarked on a complete redesign of our website,  hoping to launch in January, so we're in for a busy Advent!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Heather in The Far, Far, North

The Good Shepherd at North Haven, Fairisle
 Our daughter Heather is currently on the island of Fairisle, one of the very least accessible parts of the British Isles. The trip to Fairisle required a train journey to Aberdeen, an overnight ship journey from Aberdeen to Lerwick on Shetland. A bus from Lerwick to Grutness pier, and finally a two and a half hour crossing on a modified trawler, the Good Shepherd (pictured above).
Puffin
Heather is there as a National Trust for Scotland volunteer helping the crofting community. Her tasks so far have included drystone walling and sheep mustering and shearing. She certainly seems to be enjoying life among the crofters. The outstanding wildlife more than makes up for the hard work, puffins are a favourite.

The reality of the journey on the Good Shepherd is seldom the idyllic scene in the first picture. More often like the picture below....


Let's hope that with the help of the National Trust for Scotland, Fairisle will remain a viable community and not go the way of other (now uninhabited) islands such as St Kilda .