Marika’s three-choirs walk

I arrived at the Hollybush car park at the southern end of the Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Worcestershire (SO759369) at 9.30 on Saturday morning. I was joining the Ramblers’ Hereford Group walk led by Marika Kovacs.  This would be no ordinary walk because Marika is visually impaired—but she doesn’t let that stop her!

I have explained in previous blogs (here and here) how Marika prepares to lead a walk.  First she goes out with her walking companion, Duncan Smart.  She records on a dictaphone the route instructions and features along the way, including changes in surface.  Then she types it onto a word document and converts it into braille. She tests the route twice more before laminating the braille so that it is waterproof.  It is a labour of love—but then she loves leading walks.

The weather forecast for Saturday was not good, heavy showers and strong winds, which may be why no one else turned up.  That didn’t bother us.  Duncan, Marika and I, assisted by Arthur Lee who met us at various points in his car, did the walk and the weather was not as bad as predicted.

We pretended we had a group with us, and Marika addressed the gathering in the car park.

1 Setting off


Then we set off round the western side of Midsummer Hill, and climbed to the summit through which runs the boundary between Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

4 view from Midsummer Hill

The view south from Midsummer Hill

Marika read her braille and told us where to go.  She led this same walk on the morning of the summer solstice, 21 June, setting off at about 4am with 12 walkers—and they had seen a great sunrise.

We took photos of each other on the top, and I exhorted the fictitious group to squeeze up so that they could all fit in the photo—which made us laugh.


2 Marika & Duncan on Midsummer Hill

Marika and Duncan on Midsummer Hill

On the top is a small shelter; this was traditionally the site from which you could view the summer solstice but now the trees have grown up so you cannot see the sun rise from the hut. You have to move along the hill a bit.

5 NT plaque

Plaque in the shelter

6 trees on Midsummer Hill

Trees now block the view from the shelter








There is a splendid iron-age hill fort on Midsummer Hill and we climbed up and down through the ramparts.

8 way down

We then walked down to Gullet quarry which ceased working in 1977.

After this we strolled over Berrow Downs and Hollybed Commons, which are grazed by sheep and are part of the land managed by the Malvern Hills Conservators.  We came to the mill pond, where we met Arthur and had lunch, accompanied by a host of ducks.

13 ducks at mill pond

In the afternoon Marika led us across fields and round the side of a wood before climbing to the trig on top of Chase End Hill.

15 Chase End Hill

On Chase End Hill

On the way down I noticed that the dustbins outside the houses were labelled Forest of Dean District Council and realised we were in Gloucestershire.  In fact dustbins are a good indication of where you are; earlier we had seen Herefordshire and Malvern Hills District ones, showing how we had wandered across county boundaries.

We reached Whiteleaved Oak which is on the boundary of three counties—the same three counties that participate in the Three Choirs Festival

17 Whiteleaved Oak stocks

Stocks at Whiteleaved Oak

Then we returned to the car park where Arthur awaited us.

Marika’s memory is phenomenal.  She often remembered what to do next before reading her braille, including recalling the features on the way such as a change in surface underfoot. Nothing deters her and we scrambled through overgrowth (with Duncan clearing the way with his shears) and over awkward stiles.  She is good at bird song and calls too, and we heard lots of twittering blue tits, robins and goldcrests on our walk.

16 Marika reading braille

Marika reading her braille instructions

21 braille















Hereford Group members missed a lovely day, but I enjoyed the select company on the walk and it was well worth my long journey to join Marika, Duncan and Arthur in such splendid and varied countryside.


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Flown the nest

Some time between 5.30 and 7.30 pm on Monday 15 August, the young house martins which I had been watching flew the nest.  I was sad not to see them go.

I have been monitoring three nests in Turville, Bucks, for the British Trust for Ornithology’s house martin survey.  This was for me a more productive survey than the one I did last year (where I had a nil return, see blog) because we were asked to monitor nests and could choose which ones to watch.  Last year the aim was to assess the state of the population as a whole.  Now BTO wants to gather information on why house martins are declining and to provide scientific evidence to inform policy decisions that could help to reverse the decline.

I chose two nests where I had seen some house martin activity last year, one on Old Rose Cottage in School Lane, and one on the corner of White Cottage near the village green.

3 White Cottage

White Cottage

I watched the nests regularly for a few minutes and reported what I saw.  First, we had to log details of the building and the location of the nest with information about its height, the surface, the soffit type etc, and show the nest on a map.  Then for each visit we recorded the time, the state of the nest and any activity there or in the vicinity.

Not touched
I am sad to report that for Old Rose Cottage the partially-built nest from last year was not touched.

1 ORC nest

Nest on Old Rose Cottage has remained unchanged

For White Cottage, the martins added to the remains of the nest from last year and on 16 May I saw an adult in it.

2 White Cottage nest

White Cottage nest at start

4 White Cottage occupied

White Cottage nest on 16 May







But after that every time I visited it was empty and being ignored by the martins flitting around, so I doubt that it raised a brood.

Well-developed nest
However, on 16 May I noticed a well-developed nest on the School House, across the road from White Cottage.  So I added this to my list and kept an eye on it.

7 School House

Old School House with nest in top left-hand corner of window

From 16 May to 1 June there were adults in the vicinity of Old School House, then on 19 June they were feeding young.  All went quiet by 30 June so the brood must have fledged. Then on 22 July I saw adults feeding young again.  I visited regularly and saw two little heads poking out of the right-hand side.  On 12 August I hung around for some time with my camera because the adults were diving in and out, and eventually I got this action shot.

6 School House with adult

It is of course possible that the bird flying out is one of the young and not an adult, they move so fast it’s hard to see what is going on.

It was 15 August when I last saw them, as I drove home from work.  The heads were poking out as usual.  I went out for a walk and by the time I came back they had gone for good, not just for a practice run.

So I reckon that the Old School House had two broods and possibly three.  Not bad going.



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Len the living legend

Every blog I have so far written to celebrate a friend’s centenary has been posthumous.  This one is different.  Len Clark, loved and admired by the amenity movement, is 100 today—and very much still alive!  From his home in Farncombe, Surrey, he keeps his finger on the pulse and reads everything which comes his way.

Len and FoBI visited him a few weeks ago with Fiona Reynolds, former director-general of the National Trust and author of The Fight for Beauty (which Len has read).  I arrived first and Len said to me:  ‘We run two seminars here, one on the fight for beauty and the other on the future of the Labour Party’.  We were just settling in to a discussion about the Labour Party when Fiona and her husband Bob Merrill arrived.

Len has been a pillar of strength to, and wise critic of, numerous organisations: the Youth Hostels Association, National Trust, Campaign for National Parks and the Open Spaces Society (OSS) for instance.  So often we have turned to Len for advice and he never fails us.

I first met Len in 1978 when I became a committee member of the OSS and Len was the Commons Liaison Officer, a roving researcher.  He travelled England and Wales on his motorbike, exploring commons and ferreting out the issues which affected them.  This was the time when commons seemed to be in the doldrums after the Commons Registration Act 1965 and the long-awaited second-stage legislation for management and access was clearly not going to happen in a hurry.

Len wrote reports of the commons in each county with evocative descriptions.  His comment on Wiltshire is typically sardonic:  A large county with very little common land, which may explain, charitably, the somewhat surprising response to the basic enquiry made to the county solicitor who said: ‘The objective of the registration of commons is to sort out ownerships etc so that the land may be enclosed and brought into production.’ Little wonder that the county is not in favour of a general right of public access to commons.

And his comment on the Carmarthen commons on and around the Black Mountain which ‘are in three groups of registrations (reminiscent of the opus numbers of the Beethoven string quarters, early, middle and late)’.

Black Mountain

Northern downfall of Black Mountain from Waun Lefrith. Copyright Trevor Littlewood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Len helped to develop the case for comprehensive legislation on common land.  His work was one of the catalysts for the formation of the Common Land Forum in 1983, of which he was the secretary and which two and a half years later published a report—though legislation was still a long time coming.

His motorbike also came in handy when he was on the properties committee of the National Trust:

When the trust’s land agent, Peter Mansfield, began to string together a succession of headlands, farms and abandoned industrial sites [for National Trust acquisition] in the 1980s, he often found his colleagues and the committees sceptical or straightforwardly obstructive.  However, he also found powerful allies in … Len Clark, who would come down on his motorbike whenever there was the prospect of a piece in the jigsaw coming up for sale, and who could be relied on to swing any committee with an irresistible mixture of understatement, modesty and an understanding of the feelings of the ordinary trust members and supporters.1

Len was keen for the National Trust to acquire countryside rather than stately homes, and he was particularly excited by the opportunity to buy the Abergwesyn Commons, 16,000 acres in mid Wales.  A committee member is said to have observed: ‘If Len wants it, we had better let him have it’—which fortunately they did.

Abergwesyn Common

Abergwesyn Common, copyright Roger Whittleston and licensed for resuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Various writers have commented that Len was just what the National Trust needed (unlikely though it may have seemed among the rich and titled), and that ‘his instinct for getting to the heart of a problem and his wise advice, laced with witty comments, continued to be much in demand’ even after his retirement from the various committees.2


Winkworth Arboretum near Len’s home in Surrey. Len has swum in the lake.

Len was born in London but soon began hiking in the Chilterns (inspired by a series of walks in the News of the World).  He left Highbury Grammar School at the age of 16 to work for London County Council moving through various departments.  But his main leisure pursuits were walking, youth hostelling and classical concerts.  He is a socialist, a pacifist and a Quaker.  His early years are described in his book Out of the Wind, recollections of a sheltered life—a modest title for an insightful and fascinating book.

Book cover


South Downs Campaign
The campaign to make the South Downs a national park was revived in the early 1990s and Len was at its heart, having served on the Sussex Downs Conservation Board.  He worked tirelessly with the South Downs Campaign, a consortium of organisations, and eventually they achieved their fabulous goal.  When Hilary Benn announced his intention to confirm the national park at the Weald and Downland Museum in March 2009, Len was there. Hilary was astounded to learn that Len had been present in the public gallery at the second reading of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Bill in 1949—and that it was his first evening out with his future wife Isobel.  As Len has written, ‘a sort of symbolic pledge to our common concerns’.

Polesden Lacey

A party for Len at the National Trust’s Polesden Lacey, with friends from throughout the movement.  November 2008. Isobel is on the left.

Len writes of his first encounter with the South Downs, in about 1939 when he was on a solo trip to Sussex staying in youth hostels.  After a solitary supper he climbed to Chanctonbury Ring and was struck by the breathtaking view.  He has never forgotten the experience.

Chanctonbury Ring

Chanctonbury Ring from the south east, seen against the evening sky. Copyright Stefan Czapski and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

I cannot do justice to Len in this small space.  I urge you to read his blog, for he has embraced the computer age. It is full of aperçus and is a great read.

Len from book cover

This story made me laugh, of his days on the Landscape Advisory Committee of the Department of Transport when they provided him with accommodation in a hotel in Cheltenham:

Not having been familiar with hotels (rather than youth hostels!) I assumed that the card hanging on my doorknob indicating breakfast requirements was to assist the catering staff in preparation.  I duly completed it and had left it on the handle before going down to breakfast.  On return I found a second breakfast awaiting me—room service!

Happy birthday Len.  Thank you for all you have given to so many of us in your long life—and may you enjoy many more birthdays.

F, L and K

Visiting Len with Fiona Reynolds in July

1 The National Trust, the first hundred years, Merlin Waterson (1994)
2 From Acorn to Oak Tree, 1895-1994, Jennifer Jenkins and Patrick James (1994)

Posted in Access, commons, National parks, National Trust, Open Spaces Society, South Downs National Park | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The rally to save Alport Dale

Twenty years ago today, on 17 August 1996, I stood at the top of Alport Dale with a crowd of 300 protesters.  We were calling on Forest Enterprise (FE) to abandon its 30-year plan to harvest the trees and replant.  This, we argued, was one of the quietest and most beautiful valleys in the Peak District National Park.

The valley, which lies to the west of the Ladybower and Derwent Reservoirs and south of Bleaklow, is in the shadow of Alport Castles, the longest landslip in the UK.  It is part of the National Trust’s High Peak estate.

Alport Castles

Alport Castles

It may have seemed a bit strange to be fighting this battle, since the trees here are conifers which do not sit well in the landscape.  But the plan would have involved industrial-scale timber production with 32-tonne lorries charging up and down the only access route, a mile-long, narrow, ancient way, designated as a footpath, along the bottom of the valley.  The steep slopes and unstable land made it unsuitable for such activity, and the footpath would have had to be widened, disturbing walkers and putting them at risk.  All tranquillity and beauty would have been lost.

Alport valley

The Alport valley

I went as chairman of the Ramblers and stayed the night before with my friends Jack and Eva Burling in Sheffield, and their grandson Luke.  Early on the day of the rally I went to the Radio Sheffield studio for a live interview; thereafter I was known by Luke as’the radio lady’.

In the early afternoon we met at Alport Bridge on the A57 and walked up the valley with the other protesters, waving banners.  We gathered at the top, at Alport Castles Farm, for speeches.

Alport Castles Farm

Alport Castles Farm and Alport Farm (we gathered on the left)

The protest had been inspired by Anne Robinson who lived at the farm.  She had organised a petition of 5,000 signatures and 300 letters of objection and invited me to speak. The rally was chaired by Andrew Shepherd of Sheffield and Peak CPRE; the speakers were Tom Levitt, Labour prospective parliamentary candidate for the High Peak, Lord Addison, vice-president of the Council (now Campaign) for National Parks, Helen Jackson, Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, and me.  We had countless other supporters in parliament and Martin Doughty, then leader of Derbyshire County Council, joined us on the day.

Think again
All the speakers urged FE to think again and instead go for small-scale management with natural regeneration of broad-leaved trees and shrubs.  Lord Addison reminded FE that the Environment Act 1995 had placed a new duty on public bodies to have regard to national park purposes when carrying out activities in national parks.  I said that the operation would involve bulldozing roads through this peaceful, wild valley with heavy vehicles and cable-cranes to remove the timber from this steep, inaccessible spot—and all without even a public inquiry.

Alport valley 2

Alport Valley, early morning, 24 April 2015

The protest had the desired effect, FE backed down.  The management of these woodlands remains a challenge for FE, the National Trust and Peak District National Park, but they are proceeding with care on a small-scale basis and gradually the right changes will be made.

Anne Robinson FPD

Anne Robinson, photo: Friends of the Peak District

One of the best things for me about that event 20 years ago was that it was the start of my friendship with Anne Robinson; this was our first acquaintance—and where better to meet than on a campaign platform.  Anne is a tremendous champion of wild country, she is the chairman of the Campaign for National Parks, vice-president and former chairman of the Friends of the Peak District and former vice-chairman of national CPRE.

Her victory in Alport Dale was a great coup from which she has never looked back.

Alport press cuttings



Posted in Access, campaigns, National parks, National Trust, Peak District, Ramblers, walking, wild country | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

In search of ouzels

On 29 May I made my annual early-morning visit to Tavy Cleave on western Dartmoor in search of ring ouzels.  I had seen one there in April (see here). This time I set off from Lane End at 6am, detouring to take in the moor above the leat to hear grasshopper warblers (reported here).

I saw my first ring ouzel near the entrance to the cleave, below Ger Tor.

Ger Tor

Looking down the Tavy to Ger Tor

I walked on up, round the corner, past the two waterfalls to the start of the rocky bit where you scramble rather than walk. I arrived here at 8am and sat on a rock in the sun.  There was a spreading, stunted oak tree growing out of the stone and over the rocks.

Ouzel hillside

Ouzel country

Before very long I saw two ring ouzels and a cuckoo.


ouzel May







On the way down I heard a further ouzel near the waterfalls, on the other side of the river.


I reported my sightings to the Devon Wildlife Trust which is monitoring the breeding of ring ouzels on Dartmoor,  with the RSPB, British Trust for Ornitology (BTO), Dartmoor National Park Authority and others. Sadly, the ring ouzel is in decline. I am on the mailing list and receive regular updates of Dartmoor sightings and nests.

In mid July those on the list were asked if we could make a visit to Tavy Cleave to provide further evidence of nesting success or failure.  As I was back in Devon I went on 17 July, an hour later this time.  The grasshopper warblers were still singing in the gorse.  I reached my turn-around point at 8.30 and soon saw two young ouzels flying across the river. While I waited a family of blackcaps emerged from the oak tree growing out of the rocks.

After about half an hour, when I was about to head back,  I saw an adult ouzel, so I waited a bit longer and then saw it with the two young.  Another adult appeared, apparently with a yellow ring on each leg, although it was hard to see.  The BTO is responsible for the ringing.

Ouzel and young July

Adult with young

Young ouzel July

Young ouzel








On my way down I saw another ouzel on the middle group of rocks forming Tavy Cleave tors.

Tavy Cleave

Once again I reported my sitings.  I later learnt that someone else had been up Tavy Cleave that same day and had been more successful at identifying the rings, in fact there were more rings than I had spotted.

It is believed that there have been three nests in Tavy Cleave (I think on my three visits I may have seen birds from all three). One failed but Ger Tor was known to have been successful. The birds I saw at the top of the cleave in July were probably the Ger Tor family. Birds have also bred  in other parts of Dartmoor.  But the figures remain low.


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Not the quietest place on carnival day

It was fun to open Clun carnival last Saturday, and to participate in this event with a long tradition. 

I stayed with my friends Cliff and Sue Freund who live on the hillside overlooking the town and its enfolding hills, with magnificent views to Stiperstones and Corndon.  Sue’s grandfather, Joshua Harrison, was the vicar of Clun.

View from window

Their family, Matilda, Kevin and daughter Katherine, were visiting from Switzerland and when I arrived they were taking cakes from the oven to enter for carnival classes. Then we gathered flowers for other classes.  Matilda and Katherine spent much of the evening on their arrangements.

1Til finding flowers

Matilda gathering flowers

On carnival day we assembled in Vicarage Road where the floats had already been judged. Kevin and Katherine had helped with one to celebrate 50 years since Yellow Submarine, and it won first prize.

4 float5 float









As the carnival opener I had the treat of riding in Robin Wilson’s 1906 Rover, from Vicarage Road around the town to the town square.  We followed the float bearing the carnival queen and her attendants.  Crowds lined the streets, waving and cheering.  Clun was certainly not ‘the quietest place under the sun’ that day!


Robin and KA

Robin and KA 2







Part-way round we saw Robin’s wife with their dog Annie who was keen to join us, so Annie jumped up and sat on my lap.

We halted in the town square and I made a short speech using a rather dubious public-address system, which meant I had to speak very slowly and not say much!

7 Carnival queen

I said that Clun was a very special place, a walking hub.  Not only is it a Walkers Are Welcome town, but it is in the heart of the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with the Shropshire Way running through it, and it supports a number of walking groups: the Club Ramblers, Amblers and Peramblers.

3 ramblers

The town is in the Parish Paths Partnership; Peter James does wonderful work leading teams of volunteers.  In the last quarter they carried out an amazing 200 hours on the paths.  I urged people to report path problems to Shropshire Council and, above all, to enjoy walking their local paths.

Then I crowned the Carnival Queen, 15-year-old Lizzie Lancett-Edwards.



The carnival organisers kindly presented me with a book, Clun Valley and Borders, 33 favourite walks, with a card signed by every contributor to the book.  One of these is Ronnie Middleton who has lived in Clun all her life.

Sue and Ronnie

Sue Freund (left) and Ronnie Middleton


Walks book










After this we repaired to the Castle Meadows, where the carnival continued with the dramatic backdrop of the Norman Castle on its mound.

Matilda and Katherine won first and third prizes for their flower arrangements.

2 prize-winning flowers

Prize-winning entry for the competition for an arrangement incorporating a candlestick

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Eisteddfod tradition continues

For the last 20 years there has been a walk starting from the Eisteddfod.  The idea came from Ramblers Cymru but the walks have been organised by the government agency the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) and then Natural Resources Wales (NRW). Although I am the only person from England, I have (uniquely) been on every walk.

However, readers will recall from my blog that I detected a lack of enthusiasm from NRW in organising last year’s walk from Meifod.  This year NRW decided it could not continue to do it.  And so the Ramblers (mainly) and Open Spaces Society took it over.

Short notice
We had short notice but nevertheless Rebecca Brough, Ramblers Cymru’s policy and advocacy manager, did a splendid job in organising the route and sending invitations.

1 introduction

Rebecca Brough (left) addresses the group before we set off

And so 15 of us met outside the entrance to the maes (field) of the Eisteddfod which this year was in Abergavenny, a Walkers Are Welcome town on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park.  Among those present were Ruth Hall, a member of NRW, Joe Daggett from the National Trust, Abergavenny Town Councillors Maggie Harris and John Prosser, and the new clerk Mark Bristow; Ruth Coulthard from Brecon Beacons National Park and Steve Rogers, former project officer with the Blanaevon World Heritage Site; Karen Anthony from the Country Landowners’ Association, Matthew Lewis of Monmouthshire County Council, and members of the Walk 4 Life team from the council.  The great thing about these walks is the opportunity to catch up with people and swap information.

Castle Meadows
Rebecca led us along the River Usk, and we learnt from Matthew Lewis about the management of Castle Meadows, on which the maes was situated.  The meadows are at the meeting point of the Rivers Usk and Gavenny. Parts of Llanfoist Bridge over the Usk date from the fifteenth century.

2 Llanfoist Bridge

Llanfoist Bridge

We climbed to the old railway to Brynmaw, which is now a cycle track, and we stopped at the offices of the Canal and River Trust on the wharf at Govilon, where we had coffee and chat.

4 CRT office

Canal and River Trust office

This was the opportunity for a group photo too.

3 Group

Then we set off back along the peaceful Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.

6 Canal 2

We stopped within sight of Skirrid to hear from Joe Daggett, countryside manager for the National Trust in the Brecon Beacons, about the management of this popular site, and of the nearby and equally-popular Sugar Loaf.

7 Skirrid

Skirrid from the canal

Then we headed back to the maes and said our goodbyes.

Later I wandered around the maes with my friend Helen Lloyd Jones. We were delighted to bump into Elinor Gwynn, who earlier in the week had been crowned the Bard of the Eisteddfod for her collection of poems on this year’s subject of Llwybrau (paths).

8 Elinor Gwynn and Helen

Elinor Gwynn (left) and Helen Lloyd Jones

Elinor used to work for CCW and NRW and was responsible for organising some of the Eisteddfod walks.  It was lovely to be able to congratulate her in person.

The day began with an early walk with Helen from her house in Glasbury on the River Wye where we had stayed.  We set off over the common behind her house

Glasbury 2

Glasbury Common

and then along the Wye with a backdrop of the Black Mountains.


It was a most enjoyable day.



Posted in Access, Countryside Council for Wales, Natural Resources Wales, Open Spaces Society, Ramblers, Wales, Walkers Are Welcome Towns, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments