Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Wonderful Wetlands

The not-so-merry month of May has crept in under the cover of clouds, rain and colder than normal temperatures, but with just the odd nice day to remind us all what it should be like. Not that I've been cowering indoors though.....

I've fitted in three visits to wetland areas to try to find some of the birds that flit through here every spring, on their way to their breeding grounds. And I've been for an eye check-up and had my second Covid-19 jab too. Here's a selection of pictures from a visit to Ouse Fen RSPB bird reserve, earlier this week.

This may look like a beautiful natural area, although it's really nothing of the kind. In fact there is no natural countryside in the whole of England; it's all been affected in some way by the hand of humankind. For the last few decades huge diggers and lorries have been extracting a million tons of sand and gravel every year - and they're still doing it now. They've made a lot of big holes!

But, as they finish with each area, they are returning it to nature. If you just left nature to get on with it you'd soon have an impenetrable tangle of scrub. A lot of money is spent ensuring that there is a mosaic of different habitats; at present there is a huge reedbed being encouraged. There's also a network of footpaths so we can enjoy the reserve, though, because this is still in part a working quarry, not all parts are accessible to the public.

But there's still plenty of scope for a day's wandering - in fact there are still some parts I've never seen!

One thing about this flat countryside is that you can see the weather coming from afar, not that you can always find somewhere to shelter from it. We got lucky and just caught the very edge of a couple of squalls.

Bluntisham church looked wonderful as ever when seen across Berry Fen. Had we gone further we might have seen it reflected by the flooded fields nearer to Earith.

That sea of white specks on the island is not litter but hundreds of Black-Headed Gulls that nest there, amid much cacophony, every spring. There are other birds out there too - I presume they must be deaf.

Since gulls prey on other birds eggs and nestlings it must be a dangerous place to nest too.

And those are not bits of black plastic up in the branches - those are Cormorants on their nests. I'll leave you to work out why the branches beneath are all white.

And we'll finish off with a wider view of the first photo I showed you.

Take care.

Friday, 30 April 2021

A Pilgrimage and A Pilgrim

As explained in my previous post I like to get out on a pilgrimage to see the bluebells growing wild in the Hertfordshire woodlands every year if I can. And from time to time I find new woods to explore and, rather like the latest records added to a collection (for those who remember such things), each new addition seems the best yet.

Wain Wood stands just east of the rather well-heeled village of Preston, though in times past both the village and the wood had rather different reputations. And both wholly unjustified as far as we can tell.

Preston was, until 1900, one of a very few villages in England to have no church. It was considered too small to need one, which is odd because much tinier places elsewhere have churches. Instead it was lumped in with the parish of Hitchin, a good three miles (4.8 Km) distant. Understandably, faced with a six-mile round trip, on foot for most people in those days, many did not attend church on a regular basis. This got the village a reputation for being a godless place.

Then there's Wain Wood, the name of which, according to some sources, means a valley inhabited by heathens. Of course it might be named from the waggon-track that ran through it, "wain" being the old word for such a vehicle.

There used to be a village very near to the wood called Wayley - and that's supposed to mean the grove of the devil-worshippers - but that disappeared from the face of the earth in the 1340s, possibly as a result of the Black Death.

But how can you think of such things when the sun is shining and the bluebells are in full flower?

Contrary to all that I've said so far, the people of Preston went to extraordinary lengths, at considerable risk to themselves, to worship when the opportunity arose. As the Church neglected them they turned to those outside the establishment. The hollow shown in the photograph is known as Bunyan's Dell and the non-conformist John Bunyan is said to have preached there to over a thousand people.

If you've heard of Bunyan before it's probably as the author A Pilgrim's Progress (1678) which he began writing while serving a twelve-year sentence in Bedford jail for "devilishly and perniciously abstaining from coming to church to hear divine service" having held "several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom". 

It's interesting to try to imagine this lonely place in the woods on a winter's evening, with the congregation holding candles or rush torches and sentries in place on Tatmore Hill to watch out for any approaching law officers. 

Just down the track from Bunyan's Dell stands Bunyan's Cottage, rather hidden by outbuildings in my photo. It's not known whether it had any real connection to Bunyan, though parts of it are probably old enough. One wonders whether he strolled through these woods while composing his sermons. Or did he ever have to hide from the authorities, at dead of night, in these woods?

A modern long-distance path, known as Bunyan's Trail, joins together places in this locality that are connected to various events in his life, but for some reason it doesn't pass this way. Well, that's their loss.

Take care.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Repeat Prescription

"To be taken at least once a year in the month of April or early May. Guaranteed to cast things in a more positive light. Warning: highly addictive; may contain Bluebells"

So, here we are once more, in the little village of St Paul's Walden in Hertfordshire, for our annual stroll in the delectable countryside hereabouts, particularly its ancient woodlands. We'll start at the church.

And here's a surprise: a cairn! These structures are common enough in our upland regions, but unheard of down here in the gentle south. Mind you the field here is so stony that there's plenty of raw material for construction. Over there on your left is Hitch Wood, where we'll shortly be making our way. With the eye of faith you might even make out the faintest tinge of the bluebells beneath the trees.

But first here's a nice posy of wild primroses, the "sweet prim-a-roses" that feature so often in the old songs of southern England.

And after crossing a minor road here we are in the wood itself with its carpet of bluebells. A series of winding, scenic paths has been made through the trees to show you the best of the floral display and save people trampling all over the blooms.

These are English bluebells and, as far as I know, only give such wonderful displays in English woods. Their colour does vary, and also shows differently depending on whether the flowers are in sunlight or shadow.

This part of Hertfordshire has many small areas of woodland and nearly all of them have bluebells. I presume that this was once, more than a thousand years ago, one huge wood - what a show that would have been. Hitch Wood is one of the better known ones, being easily accessible with a small parking area, but others are easily its equal. I keep discovering more each year - I'll show you another in the next post.

And with that promise we'll push on with our country stroll, for there are other things to see.

You don't expect to find a series of brick pillars built in the heart of the wood, but here they are. They are relics from wartime when a training camp was set up here, these structures are chimneys from what was once the cookhouse.

Less obvious to most people is this earthen bank which marks the side of an old road. There was once a hedge on top of the bank and those twisted, gnarly trees are what remains of the saplings whose branches were partly cut through and interwoven to produce a living, stock-proof barrier. When farmworkers in this area spoke of the task of "hedging" this is what they meant; a far cry from suburban gardeners trimming their privet hedges with power tools.

Out of the woods for a short while to pass this isolated farmhouse. The official footpath here goes across the field and the farmer has marked the route to take by driving his tractor across to make ruts for you to follow.

At about this time I remembered that I'd packed my acrylic mirror in my rucksack to take some worm's eye views of the bluebells. Plastic mirrors apparently have a funny effect on out of focus backgrounds, but I'm still pleased with the result.

The path then led through fields with hedges full of blossom and trees coming into leaf before we descended into a short section of old sunken lane.

We're on part of the estate of St Paul's Walden Bury, home of the Bowes-Lyon family and, of course, childhood home of the Queen Mother.

And here is their stately pile, or at least one of them; they also reside at Glamis Castle. The present head of the family, the 19th Earl Of Strathmore is a man who only seems to get his name in the papers by getting into trouble with the law. 

Whatever else you may say about him, he has some picturesque tree-stumps on his property. (Actually it's Sir Simon Alexander Bowes-Lyon who lives here - see Rosemary's comment below).

And that brings us neatly back to the church where we began our wanderings. Now I'm off to another wood that I'll show you in my next post.

Take care.

Friday, 23 April 2021

A Circle By The Sea...

...or more precisely an irregular loop of a walk on the North Norfolk coast.

One day I promise I'll fully explore one of the villages of North Norfolk, as they are very different, architecturally and aesthetically, from the villages in my part of the world. But for today you'll have to make do with this shot, taken where we parked the car on Salthouse village green, and the next one, as we began our walk.

Salthouse was once a much more important place than it is today; it had a harbour for sea-going vessels and was a leading producer of salt. "Salthouse" means nothing more cryptic than a building for storing salt. But we're talking here about several centuries ago and since that time the coast has undergone many changes, destroying any archaeological evidence.

As befits this once important place it has a large medieval church which seems to have been built around the year 1500 and not much changed since. As the ports of this part of the coast declined there was never enough money to do much more than repair what was already in existence. One day I shall come back and investigate further.

But now we're making the gentle ascent up on to Salthouse Heath which overlooks the village. This extensive area of sandy soils was dumped here by a retreating ice sheet during the Anglian Glaciation, about 450,000 years ago. The soils here are pretty worthless for most agriculture but give rise to interesting flora and fauna - probably at their best later in the summer.

This rare hill in the otherwise flat topography was put to military use during WWII when a radar station was built here, parts of which remains today.

The Heath, despite its modest elevation, gives good views down on to the church. Like most churches in coastal locations, it stands in a large churchyard, a grim reminder that they frequently had to bury the bodies of those drowned at sea and then washed up on the shoreline. It's hard to imagine such things on such a fine sunny morning.

A little to the west of the church lies the huddle of red roofs of the main part of Salthouse village, with the saltmarsh and the sea behind it.

These are part of the crew who trim the heathland, which is maintained to provide a mosaic of environments for the wildlife.

It was then time to find the path leading downhill, through farmland, down to the marshes and the sea. The yellow-green plant in the foreground is called Alexanders. I meant to take a photo of it, but if you follow the link you can find out all about it.

At the bottom of the slope there's a rather attractive pool, known as Snipes Marsh. Then we quickly cross the road and follow a bank, between the reedbeds of Cley Nature Reserve and Arnold's Marsh, towards the sea,

Peering across Arnold's Marsh you can make out the tower of Salthouse Church once again. Many of the churches along this coast are built in prominent locations, clearly visible from the sea, and this may well have been so that the towers could act as "landmarks", helping sailors to fix their positions and navigate their way through the narrow channels into port.

The beach here is a shifting shingle bank. A line of old iron posts may be part of old sea defences or maybe a relic from the Second World War. it's not the easiest surface to walk on, but it's a little easier on the landward side.

These brackish pools are much to the taste of wading birds such as Avocet, Godwits, Redshank, Knot and Dunlin, though sorting them out while looking towards the sun is no easy task.

The trick when tramping along the shingle is to know when it's time to turn inland again. On such a clear day as this it wasn't too much of a problem.

You just have to watch out for this old wartime pillbox on a slightly raised area called the Great Eye ("eye" being the name for an island in these parts, which I believe comes from the Viking word "√ły"). There was once a very odd-looking house standing here, a folly built by someone called Onesiphorus Randall, (England is a land of eccentrics!).

And then we're soon back at Salthouse, completing a circuit of between five and six miles, depending on how much you roam about on the heath.

Take care.