Crepuscular Caprimulgus

On 30 June I took part in the annual survey of nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) for Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT) at the Barossa nature reserve near Camberley on the Surrey/Bracknell Forest boundary. It was a bit later in the year than usual, and we also started a bit later, at 8.30pm instead of the traditional 8pm.

It had been a wet day, but the evening was bright, though cool and slightly breezy. I got there early for an explore along the top of the Saddleback Ridge, with good views over the reserve.

Looking north from Saddleback Hill

We met at the usual spot at the end of King’s Ride, and Adam Bolton from SWT explained where we were going and how to record what we heard. We split into groups, and I went with Patrick, Paul, and Jane (with whom I had walked in previous years) to Deer Rock Hill.

As we walked there we noticed how overgrown the site is becoming, with young conifers engulfing other vegetation. The heather struggles to survive, which means that the habitat is less good for Dartford warblers and woodlark.

Jane does voluntary work here for SWT and had noticed the changes. However, there is a clear strip under the pylons and this provides a good habitat for woodlark.

We reached our survey area, where there is now a thick wall of vegetation alongside the tracks, and patches of heather showing through.

We walked to the centre of our area, and Jane and I stayed there while Patrick and Paul returned to the track along which we had come. By splitting up we increased our chances of hearing and seeing nightjars.

Our group heads for the centre of the site to start our count.

At 9.30 we heard the first churring and marked the spot and the time on the map. Shortly after we saw two nightjars flying low over the vegetation, darting and dodging. We could see white spots on the wings of one bird, indicating that it was a male, but we were unsure about the other. Then we heard them calling quite agitatedly further off. Patrick and Paul heard them too and suggested that it was two males on the boundaries of their ranges having an argument.

We wandered around our patch for 45 minutes and in that time reckoned that we heard four males churring; we also heard wing claps. We saw birds in flight a number of times, silently flickering past. We couldn’t be sure it was the same ones each time, and we didn’t count them for the survey.

Barossa nature reserve

At 10.15 Paul and Patrick joined us and we walked back together, still seeing nightjars in flight, and we saw and heard woodcock too. Alongside the track to King’s Ride we saw five glow-worms.

It was another wonderful evening, and so rewarding. We await the total count, but if our patch was typical it will be a good result.

Two days later, in the Guardian‘s Country Diary, Lev Parikian gave a graphic description of nightjars on Thursley Common national nature reserve in Surrey. You can read it here.

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Tony Hams remembered

My friend Tony Hams would have been 76 today.  He died on 28 February, tragically young, from motor neurone disease.  There have been some lovely tributes to him, in the Guardian, and on the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and the Peak District National Park websites, to mention a few. 

One of the greatest pleasures of my time on the Countryside Agency board (1999-2006) was to be the lead member for the Peak District National Park (most of the board members were linked to a national park, of which there were eight in England at that time).  This meant I visited the Peak frequently and had a chance to meet authority members and staff.  Tony was an authority member from 1998 to 2008, and was chair from 2002 to 2007, so we met often and worked closely.  Also, he was the nominated member for the Campaign for National Parks, and attended the annual national park authority conferences.  Then, in 2001, he was appointed to the Countryside Agency board, and continued there until its demise in 2006.

Tony near Tideswell

Tony had a distinguished career.  After a geography degree at London University and a masters in town planning at Nottingham, he became a planner for Cornwall County Council, Monmouthshire County Council, and Derbyshire County Council (team leader, countryside policy) and moved to Litton in the Peak District. He then became environmental policy adviser for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and local government adviser on sustainable development, and joined the UK delegation to the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. 

From 1993-98 he was head of the sustainable development unit at the Local Government Management Board.  There he promoted the Agenda 21 concept which came from the Rio summit, pressing local authorities to adopt their own Agenda 21s to secure a more sustainable future.  Thanks in part to his tireless pursuit of this, 90 per cent of the UK councils produced an Agenda 21.

In 1998 he returned north, to the home in Tideswell which he had bought with his wife Angela in 1986. Their son George, of whom Tony was immensely proud, was born in 1992.

Also in 1998 Tony was appointed as a secretary of state member of the Peak District National Park authority.  In his ‘retirement’ he became chair of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, the Green Alliance, and the Association of National Park Authorities; a member of the Wildlife Trusts’ national council for England; a board member of Natural England (the successor to the Countryside Agency), the National Forest Company, and the East Midlands Heritage Lottery Fund; and a member of the National Trust’s Midlands Regional Advisory Board.  And that’s not everything. His family would joke that he had more chairs than IKEA.

Tony was a brilliant, diplomatic, and respected leader.  He felt strongly for the causes in which he was involved and he would think deeply about how to get results, in his quiet and influential manner.  When I took my role with the Peak Park, Martin Doughty was chair and Tony was vice-chair, and then they swapped over.  They were an inspired partnership, complementing each other: Martin more extrovert, Tony less so, and both of them politically astute and extremely effective.

Tony was a private person.  He never boasted about his considerable achievements.  He was a great companion with a twinkly sense of humour. His sartorial elegance (not illustrated here!) was notable, down to his handmade shoes.  We had such fun on our many Countryside Agency and national park visits; in private conversation he would speak frankly about people and we would plot campaigns.

Countryside Agency visit at Oakenshaw, near Bradford, June 2002. The chair Ewen Cameron is at the front in green, Tony is to his left in black, and Martin Doughty is to the left of Tony, in the beany hat

He was immensely proud when freedom to roam under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 was introduced in the Peak Park on 19 September 2004—one of the first places where this was achieved.  He helped to develop the Moors for the Future partnership—ground-breaking work on moorland restoration in the light of climate crisis.  He persuaded government ministers to visit Longstone Edge, to witness first-hand the damaging effect of quarrying in the national parks.  He brought strong national credentials to the park alongside an understanding of local people’s concerns.

Tony with one of his many, beloved, red setters

Tony believed fervently in protecting the unique landscapes of our national parks and promoting the public’s understanding and enjoyment of them.  He could see that the parks should be models of sustainability and was constantly promoting their cause, with government and with partner organisations. 

He had a genuine care and concern for others, and would always ask how you were, or how a particular project was going, because he was truly interested. He was a lynchpin of the Tideswell community. Its fine church, ‘the Cathedral of the Peak’, was full to bursting at his funeral on 21 March (sadly, I could not be there).

Tideswell church, © Michael Garlick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Tony will long be remembered for his quiet integrity, his wisdom, and his strong leadership, and as a delightful and much-loved friend.  He certainly made a difference, in the Peak Park and far beyond.

Tony Hams, 27 June 1946 – 28 February 2022

With thanks to Derek Taylor, who wrote the obituary in the Guardian, and Patrick Jones, who gave the eulogy at the funeral, for providing valuable information; and to Angela for the photos of Tony. Top picture: White Peak near Hartington.

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Red-letter day

Fifty years ago today, 26 June 1972, I received my first letter from Sylvia Sayer, the Dartmoor campaigner who became my mentor.

When I took the envelope from my school pigeon-hole, I would not have recognised the unique handwriting which was to become so gloriously familiar to me in the ensuing years (and which struck chill into the hearts of her opponents). It was a red-letter day, and earned a euphoric entry in my diary: ‘Letter from Lady Sayer, really super, so so thrilled.’

The envelope, the writing on which I recognised for ever after. Post codes were still being rolled out nationwide.

The letter was written the day before, on Sunday 25 June—posts were very efficient in those days with Sunday collections even from Ponsworthy in the middle of Dartmoor. (I now know it would have been posted there by her husband Guy, who went to the post office every Sunday to collect the weekly box of supplies from Charlie and Carol Dry.)

Ponsworthy post office, © John Walton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The letter was not my very first missive from Syl. The previous August she had sent me an early copy of her booklet Wild Country: National Asset or Barren Waste? with photos and drawings carefully stuck in, but no letter.

I wrote to thank her shortly afterwards, then saw her for the first time (but we did not get to speak) at the reservoir meeting on 26 August 1971, recorded here. We met properly when Dee Ivey and I visited Cator on 20 April 1972. I wrote on 23 April to thank her, and again on 19 June, to which she replied.

One of Syl’s drawings in Wild Country, of ‘a group of worthy citizens in Homburg hats and raincoats with pointed town shoes’ who came to assess the suitability of the Swincombe ‘great natural amphitheatre’ for a reservoir.

Every letter from me, in schoolgirlish, thick fountain-pen, spoke of my love of Dartmoor and Hillbridge Farm (where I stayed on my Dartmoor visits), my intention to be a conservationist, and my eagerness to help with the Dartmoor cause. In my 19 June letter I said I was in my study at boarding-school listening to Sibelius’s fifth symphony which ‘always reminds me of Dartmoor because somehow it expresses the spirit of the moor, the peace, the wind, the changeless of it’, and I expressed my frustration at being ‘shut up here at school’.

So Syl’s letter was a wonderful breath of fresh Dartmoor air, it flowed from her pen and made me feel we’d been friends for ever. I have read it so often I can memorise it.

She wasn’t familiar with Sibelius, but she had endured the same longing for Dartmoor from school:

When at school I too used to pine for the Moor—which, I need hardly tell you, 50 years ago was beautiful and unspoiled beyond belief; … I had one of those coloured maps in an atlas which showed Dartmoor as brown high land in a green Devon, and I used to look at it often & measure the distance between it and my dreary school at Blackheath (St Helen’s gone now I think), and say to myself ‘only 3 weeks more’ or whatever it was. So I know how you feel.’

And she goes on to name four leaders of national amenity bodies who were to visit her on 4 July, all of whom I later worked with, and one of whom became my partner 13 years later.

Old Middle Cator, home of Guy and Sylvia Sayer since 1928

It is a bit alarming that I am now nearly the age that Syl was when she wrote that letter. Despite our 50-year age gap she was so like a contemporary with her youthful outlook and merry giggles.

This was the start of a wonderful relationship with Syl, Guy, and the fabulous (long-suffering of me) family. And it reinforced my wish to become a campaigner, which I did. I have been so fortunate!

Sayer family and friends on the Cator apple-tree, August 1977
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Rape of a festival footpath

On Saturday 18 June visually-impaired Marika Kovacs led a walk for the first day of the Herefordshire Walking Festival. It was the route we tested in May so that Marika could update her braille instructions.

On our recce we found oil-seed rape obstructing Little Marcle footpath 4 and were forced to walk round the edge. The rape had been there on Marika’s earlier visit on 1 April, and, according to the Herefordshire Ramblers’ database, it was reported in March. With three months’ notice, and the knowledge that this is one of Herefordshire’s popular promoted paths (even if it didn’t know about the festival walk), the council should have got the path cleared.

Sadly, it was not to be, and on the festival day Marika once again faced an impenetrable field of oil-seed rape across the footpath (running SW from grid reference SO672374).

Marika addresses the group from the edge of the rape field. The path runs across the field behind her.

I had provided her with some words, which she had transcribed into braille, to read out:

You will see the crop of oil-seed rape ahead.  This has been planted across the public footpath, which should continue in a straight line.  The person responsible, the landowner or occupier, is committing a criminal offence of obstruction of the public highway. 

Footpaths are highways in law, just like any road.  You would not expect to find the A49 blocked, nor should we expect to find a public footpath blocked—and especially not a path which is promoted as the Herefordshire Trail. 

Some weeks ago, the Ramblers reported this obstruction to Herefordshire Council.  The council is the highway authority, and has a legal duty to ensure that the path is kept clear to a width of at least one metre across the field, but it has failed to take the necessary action.  The council should prosecute the owner or occupier for obstructing the public highway. 

The Ramblers will pursue this, we shall not allow the person responsible to get away with this.  Meanwhile, as it is physically impossible to walk the route we must follow a longer route around the edge of the field.  We have the right to do this because our way is blocked.

Unfortunately it was wet so her braille was not easy to read, but she had memorised the words in any case. (Her college no longer has the laminator which has saved her on previous occasions.)

And so they walked round the edge again, but at least Marika could tell the walkers some path law and the importance of reporting problems. The festival is supposed to welcome people to Herefordshire but this does not give any welcome at all.

Sadly neither of the two stiles I reported after our recce had been mended either: two further illegal obstructions.

There was some good news. The path blocked by barley, which we noted on our 12 May recce, had been cleared by an employee from Newbridge Farm, at the request of Sally Smart, the footpath officer for the Pixley group of parishes. This was extremely kind of him, as this path is not Newbridge Farm’s responsibility, but that of the rape-blocker.

We shall keep up the pressure on the council, and may have to consider threatening prosecution ourselves to get these paths sorted.

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Dadima’s walk

The Chilterns is a geological palimpsest. We learnt this from Anjana Khatwa and Clare Warren on one of the Dadima’s walks, organised by Geeta Ludhra, in the Chilterns last month. Dadima is Hindu for grandmother, and Geeta encourages people from diverse backgrounds to come and enjoy the countryside and nature, and to learn a little about them.

Geeta explains the origin of her walks on the Museum of English Rural Life website here. She writes:

My family and I set up Dadima’s walking group in 2018, as a simple way of encouraging local communities and interested people to connect with nature for physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. The group started off in Slough and Windsor with mainly South Asian communities on a Sunday morning. It quickly became a safe space to talk and share stories, learn from each other, and offer encouragement (and accountability) for regular outdoor movement.

In 2020, we moved to the Chilterns and decided to restart the walking group, this time with greater apprehension. I didn’t see myself represented or reflected in the Chilterns countryside, so I created the space that I wanted to see when I first moved here.

The group proved popular and is now flourishing.

On the side of Beacon Hill, approaching Cuckoo Pen

Geeta, Anjana, and Clare have been working on an Open University project, Reading the Natural Landscape, to enable people from marginalised communities to appreciate the landscape and all it offers. Geeta is a lecturer in education at Brunel University. Anjana is Wessex Museums’ engagement lead, an earth scientist and researcher, who previously led an education programme for the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Clare is professor of geomorphic geology with the Open University.

Anjana had come fresh from the unveiling of Mary Anning’s statue the previous day in Lyme Regis. Mary Anning (1799-1847) was an acclaimed fossil hunter, and the campaign for her statue was inspired by nine-year-old Evie Swire, who with her mother invented the Mary Anning Rocks campaign and raised £150,000 through crowd funding for the sculpture. It was not quick: Evie is now 15, but it was well worth the effort, to celebrate the achievements of this amazing woman who, being a woman, was not acknowledged in her lifetime. The sculpture of Mary and her dog Tray is the most beautiful, lively creation by Denise Dutton.

The Mary Anning Statue. Photo © Marika Reinholds and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

We gathered near the bus stop at junction 6 on the M40, the Lewknor turn. The theme of the walk was geology and landscape, and Anjana and Clare were our guest leaders. We walked up Hill Road and stopped at the crossing of the Ridgeway for introductory talks from Geeta, Anjana, and Clare. Geeta invited me to introduce myself.

Further up the hill we turned off the path to cross access land, south over the Aston Rowant nature reserve.

Crossing access land

We stood near the top with a view over the Vale of Oxford. Here Clare and Anjana explained the origin of the Chiltern chalk, formed from tiny algae, starting about 145 million years ago in shallow, subtropical seas, when this part of the earth’s surface was where north Africa is today. There is an excellent exposition of the Chilterns geology here.

Clare and Anjana near the top of the Chilterns

Anjana urged us to ‘look at a rock as you would look at a bird or flower, and consider that the rock is part of nature itself, it forms the soil which supports plants and insects’.

I explained a bit about access land, and the battle for access to the Shirburn and Pyrton Hills.

We walked further up the hill along the side of a dry valley, ‘a fingerprint of the ice age’ as one of our guides put it. The ice did not cover the Chilterns but it was tundra, and the dry valleys were formed by water flowing over the chalk during the cold periods. It was here that Anjana referred to the palimpsest, the layers of geological features extending over millennia, all in one landscape.

Dry valley

We continued to the top of the escarpment

Up to the top

and took a bridleway on which there was a stile—clearly an illegal obstruction which I have reported.

Illegal stile on Lewknor bridleway 29

Returning to the road we crossed the motorway bridge then turned left, back into Aston Rowant nature reserve. We followed the side of Beacon Hill, high above the M40 cutting, with views over the vale and the long fields created during the inclosure movement. At the top there is a wooden sculpture of a red kite.

Then we dropped down the hill,

Heading down to Lewknor

under the M40, and back to the Ridgeway junction. Here we had a group photo.

We descended to Lewknor village to find a spring which bubbles up on the spring line at the base of the chalk. We ended in the pub.

Along the way I had fascinating conversations with Geeta, Anjana, and Clare, as I am keen to learn how the Ramblers and Open Spaces Society can work with people of colour to achieve our aims. They gave me some valuable insights. It is evident from the feedback from Geeta, and from some of those on the walk, that our organisations can be off-putting, and we must turn that around. Geeta is a secretary of state appointee on the Chiltern Conservation Board and I know she is making a difference in broadening its thinking and actions.

I greatly enjoyed the walk and the company, and shall be joining another of the Dadima’s walks before long.

A week before I had found a fossil in a flint in the wood above Turville and I showed it to Anjana. She was puzzled and put a photo on twitter. She received many helpful suggestions. I think the conclusion was that it was the hinge of a large bivalve. It was a lucky find, but goes to show the value of Anjana’s advice to look at the rock as one would look at a bird or flower.

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Hooray for the Dartmoor Way

At the end of April, as a vice-president of the Ramblers, I spoke at the launch of the Dartmoor Way. This is a 108-mile walking route around Dartmoor, complemented by a 95-mile cycle route. The walking route can be completed in ten stages, and there is a High Moor Link, which can be walked in two sections: Buckfast to Hexworthy, and Hexworthy to Tavistock.

The launch took place in Ivybridge. It was 46 years since Ivybridge hosted the opening of a long-distance path—the Two Moors Way in 1976, by the late Ted Pinney, then a Devon County Councillor who did much to promote that route.

The two people who were the inspiration behind the Dartmoor Way, George Coles and Michael Owen, gave a presentation of its history.

The River Dart from the High Moor Link near New Bridge. Photo: Michael Owen

The route was devised in 1999 by a number of Dartmoor towns who wanted a walking and cycling route around the northern part of Dartmoor, to attract tourists. The cycling route was waymarked in 2001 but the walking trail was not, although it was put on Ordnance Survey maps, and later removed.

Bluebells on the path by the Plym, between Cadover and Shaugh Bridges. Photo: Michael Owen

In 2008 George Coles of Devon Area Ramblers complained to the Dartmoor National Park Authority about the state of the path, which was on the OS map but hopelessly overgrown. The park was unable to help and so George formed a steering group to raise funds and get it going again. He teamed up with Michael Owen (who ran the excellent outdoor shop in Ashburton, sadly no more), and they set about devising walking and cycling routes right round Dartmoor. Sustrans oversaw the cycling route with funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and it was relaunched in 2013.

Above the Teign valley, with Castle Drogo on the horizon

George and Michael carried out a feasibility study for the walking route which showed that the costs would be considerable. Unfortunately, there was little public money available. George had professional fund-raising experience and he approached Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust and other bodies. He then won some lottery support, and received a generous donation from the Totnes Ramblers’ Franklin Legacy fund, and other Ramblers’ groups, as well as the Dartmoor National Park Authority. They found volunteers to help with path clearance and waymarking.

Members of the Ramblers’ Moorland Group waymarking the path. Photo: Michael Owen

Covid intervened and the project was delayed, but at last they were able to launch it, on 29 April 2022.

This is a huge achievement. The route is different because it goes around the moor and not across it, but with a taste of the moor all the way, and wonderful views. Parts of it can be enjoyed by those with limited mobility. It takes in the towns and villages of Okehampton, Lydford, Tavistock, Ivybridge, Ashburton, Bovey Tracey, Moretonhampstead, and Chagford, thereby supporting the local economy. Perhaps some of those towns will consider becoming Walkers are Welcome towns.

West Street, Ashburton: © Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

This route chimes with our times; it may well encourage those who discovered the outdoors during the pandemic to explore walking and cycling right around Dartmoor. It demonstrates what can be achieved when people work together for a common aim. George, Mike, and the many volunteers overcame big challenges.

I am sure that the Dartmoor Way walking route will be a joy for all, whether they tackle it as a whole, or dip into sections.

I made a short video about the way last year, which can be seen here.

Dartmoor Way near Chagford. Photo: Michael Owen

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My kind of bunting

Early on 2 June I drove through villages adorned with jubilee bunting, but I was in search of another bunting, less colourful but more rewarding.

My destination was Lodge Hill near Bledlow Ridge where, thanks to the Chilterns farm cluster project, I knew I had a chance of seeing corn buntings. I have visited this spot for the last three years, though usually a bit earlier in the year, and have seen them every time.

I set off on a bridleway across fields of skylarks.

The path follows an enclosed route

The bridleway below Lodge Hill

before coming out again in open fields. The special spot is down the side of one of the fields, close to pylons.

Looking south-east

As I approached I could hear a number of corn buntings singing, and then I saw one.

The corn bunting tree

It was at the top of the tree rather than on the wire, and it sat there singing for some time, enabling me to take many photos.

Then I retraced my steps to Lodge Hill, past dense vegetation where whitethroats sing scratchily.

Whitethroat spot

I walked up to the top, to the tune of blackcaps, among other birds.

From the top I could look down on the bunting site.

Looking down on the bunting site, in the middle distance

On top the sward was a tight-knit mass of tormentil. A goldfinch was singing.

I dropped down through the wood, hearing more blackcaps, and came back over the field, still lively with skylarks.

I reckon I had the best of the bunting today.

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The Vanguardians

I joined members of the Vanguards Rambling Club and others on 28 May to support the launch of the Vanguard Way Association. The Vanguards, who invented and created the route 41 years ago and have been monitoring it and maintaining it ever since, feel that it’s time to pass the job to a properly-constituted organisation.

The launch meeting was preceded by a walk. We met at the Coombe Lane stop on the tramlink. I was early and so Alan Smith, the walk leader, and I investigated the Addington Hills on the north side of the tramline. The hills are owned by Croydon Council, and are on a plateau of Blackheath pebbles with heather and pine trees. The noticeboard even mentioned Dartford warblers which got me excited (I saw none). The drop down to the valley was quite steep and the whole place was astonishingly rural.

By the time we re-emerged on the platform the walkers had gathered. Colin Saunders, a long-serving member of the Vanguards, came to see us off but didn’t walk with us.

Alan led us along the London Loop, past the entrance to Heathfield Farm with views to the North Downs.

View of the North Downs

Then we walked through Bramley Bank, a London Wildlife Trust nature reserve, and across an expansive open space to Littleheath Woods.

Towards Littleheath Woods

Here we joined the Vanguard Way, and we paused while I told the story of the wood’s acquisition in 1932 to save it from development. I had found references to this in the Journals of the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society), of 1928, 1929, and 1932. In 1932, my predecessor Lawrence Chubb wrote: ‘The woods have an area of 52 acres and adjoin a new town that is springing up with amazing rapidity’. The purchase price was £5,700 which was borne in equal shares by Croydon County Borough Council, the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council, and the Croydon Branch of the Commons Society. The society helped the branch to raise the money.

We took the Vanguard Way, following in reverse the walk on the fortieth anniversary last year.

At Coombe Wood we stopped at the excellent Coach House café and gardens. I walked up to the top of the hill, which is on the same ridge as the Addington Hills, and sat among pine trees, watching coal tits and listening to goldcrests. It was peaceful.

At the top of Coombe Wood

In the gardens there is a magnificent rockery, made of Pulhamite rock, a type of cement invented by James Pulham because it was cheaper than imported rock.

The Pulhamite rockery

After a pleasant break we crossed the extensive Lloyd Park (named after the newspaper magnate Frank Lloyd of the Coombe Park estate, whose daughter carried out his wishes and gave the land to the Croydon Corporation).

Lloyd Park

We arrived at St Matthew’s church in Chichester Road for the meeting, where we were joined by about 20 others. The church has some striking stained glass by John Hayward.

The meeting

Colin Saunders spoke of the history of the Vanguard Way. He pointed out that, although 1932 was famous for the Kinder mass trespass, something equally important happened that year: the first ramblers’ excursion by train from London.

In 1965, after a group of walkers returning late from Devon was forced to sit in the guard’s van (there being nowhere else on the crowded train that they could sit together) the Vanguards Rambling Club was formed (see my blog here for the story). The group continued to walk together and decided, on Alan Smith’s initiative, to mark its 15th anniversary, by creating the Vanguard Way. This started as 55 miles from East Croydon station to the excellent Fullers’ Arms inn (now the Berwick Inn) at Berwick in East Sussex. However Berwick did not feel like the most sensible termination point so they extended it to Seaford, and then to Newhaven, for the Dieppe ferry, making 66 miles in all.

The long-surviving banner

That’s a lot of path to oversee, waymark and help to maintain, and the club felt it needed ‘a more formal and more normal organisation’.

The Vanguards have walked the route regularly, and every five or ten years there has been an anniversary ceremony. Alan Mattingly, as secretary of the Ramblers, opened the path, near Gill’s Lap in Ashdown Forest (roughly half way along the route) on 3 May 1981. However he has not been available to take part in the celebrations, so for the 35th and 40th anniversaries I had the honour of cutting the red ribbon which, sadly, needs replacing. Drambuie is always quaffed on such occasions, reminiscent of the party in the guard’s van in 1965 when that tipple was enjoyed.

The way has entered the modern era with an app, created by John Jefkins. It can be downloaded free from Google Play Store or Apple Store. Search ‘Vanguard Way’, and find the words ‘VGW Guide’ on an upward pointing yellow arrow. 

Once you have downloaded the app, this jolly picture appears

The meeting was a success, people volunteered to serve on the committee, and Colin agreed to chair it for a year to get the association going. It looks like the Vanguard Way will continue to be in excellent hands.

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Recce for the festival

I joined my friend visually-impaired Marika Kovacs to recce a walk she is leading for the Herefordshire Walking Festival next month.

It was the first leg of the Herefordshire Trail, from Ledbury to Much Marcle. Marika had walked it once, dictated the route instructions and transcribed them into braille. Now she had to check the braille was accurate, amend it where necessary, and then carry out a final recce.

Herefordshire Trail waymark. The logo (which is to be replaced with a red apple) was designed by a schoolchild and depicts the county with apples marking the eight principal market towns.

We were joined by Arthur Lee, who drove round to meet us at road junctions and provided valuable support, and Norman and Annie Stanier who live at Putley, midway along the walk.

We set off from Ledbury market place, with Annie on the morning shift and Norman joining us for the afternoon.

Setting off, Marika holding her braille

Ledbury town centre is very attractive, with the black-and-white market hall, the Barrett Browning Memorial Institute, and a host of other historic buildings.

Arthur had divided the route instructions into short, numbered sections. Marika read out each one, checking for accuracy, before we walked the section.

We followed the old canal, now a wide, grass strip, where volunteers were tending the wildflower beds. They are frustrated that the council insists on mowing the grass, ignoring ‘No Mow May’, and we expressed frustration that the council was doing that rather than fulfilling its legal duty to keep the public paths clear: we met plenty of paths that day which needed mowing.

Volunteers tending the wild flowers.

The route (not waymarked) took us on narrow alleyways past industrial units. We were pleased to cross the bypass and reach open fields.

The path took us up through Haygrove’s orchards which were, sadly, being converted to vineyards. We met Arthur on Falcon Lane, with a view to the Marcle Ridge, where we would be walking later. We heard then saw a whitethroat.

Marcle Ridge is visible over the hedge

The next stretch took us across a wheatfield which had not been marked out to the width of a metre as required,

Path not marked out as required

and then over fields covered in buttercups and dandelions.

Herefordshire meadow

However, it was the following stretch, after Baregain Lane, which proved a real challenge. The path was completely obstructed by oil-seed rape.

Path illegally obstructed with oil-seed rape

Arthur had told the council about this after the first recce, and warned that the festival walk was going through in June. I shall provide Marika with some information for her to relay to her walkers. Either it will be (1) an explanation that the path is illegally obstructed, despite informing the council in good time, so they must walk round the edge, or (2) that the path has been cleared thanks to the Ramblers.

Having walked round the edge we were then confronted with a further obstruction by barley, although a kind neighbour had mown a path round the edge (not on the definitive route).

Further illegal obstruction

We crossed the A4172 road at Newbridge Farm, and headed to Aylton, passing Court Farm with an impressive tithe barn.

Tithe barn

We reached Putley parish hall, our lunch stop, and sat on the bench outside. Norman arrived to swap with Annie. He was born and brought up here and had many stories to tell us as we walked. I urged him to write them down.

We continued, past Putley Mill where Norman’s great grandfather was the last miller.

Putley Mill

At Putley church. Norman pointed out the apple tree, called the Ten Commandments because the fruit has ten red spots around the core.

We came to a dangerous ‘stile’, which valiant Marika crossed with difficulty. It is an obstruction.

An obstruction rather than a stile

After Hallend farm we walked on the road up a steep hill. At the top is The Wonder, the site of a landslip in 1575 which swept away Kinnaston Chapel (the bell from which now hangs in Homme House). Here, on the edge of the Woolhope Dome, there is limestone on clay which is thought to have been the reason for the slide. The land below, where the moraines gathered, is known as Tumpy Ground.

We followed a broad track up the remainder of the hill, and the view unfolded eastwards. We could see Ledbury nestling on the slope of the Malverns.

We came to Hooper’s Oak, on the watershed of the Severn and Wye, with a view west to Hay Bluff and Sugar Loaf. Here we heard a cuckoo.

Shortly after we were on the long Marcle Ridge, with an extensive view east over the Malverns, Cotswolds, May Hill and the Forest of Dean, and a skylark singing. The path took us along the ridge, past the mast, and then down to a road.

Here we left the Herefordshire Trail to walk to Much Marcle, across fields with poor stiles.

Towards the end we came to a large field with no path at all through the wheat.

Path illegally obstructed with wheat

Below was The Row, former working people’s cottages, now gentrified.

The Row, gentrified

At last we crossed the busy A449 road and came to Much Marcle church.

Much Marcle church

In the churchyard is an impressive yew tree, hollow and ancient, with seats.

In the yew tree

It was a splendid 11-mile walk, but the problems need to be sorted before the festival. Herefordshire Council’s reporting website is poor, but I reported everything I found. Unfortunately it does not let you add photographs.

We had plenty of additions and amendments for Marika’s braille, so her next recce should be accurate and, let’s hope, problem free.

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Ouzel hunt

I have two Dartmoor springtime missions. One is to visit White Wood below Bench Tor. The other is an early-morning walk up Tavy Cleave, in search of ring ouzels. And so, on 2 May, I set off at 6am for the cleave.

I walked from the car park at Lane End straight up to the leat. There was a light mist.

The way to the cleave

Cuckoos were calling. A willow warbler sang from the top of a gorse bush.

Willow warbler

I rounded the corner into Tavy Cleave, following the leat.

Into Tavy Cleave

The upper slope is rocky, but after a while the rocks give out and there is an open, green stretch with scattered rocks and gorse bushes. Here I heard the song of the whinchat, and eventually saw it on a gorse bush. I have seen them here before.

Further up the valley I saw a dipper, wheatears, and a young stonechat.

Young stonechat

I passed the waterfall where Sylvia Sayer’s father proposed to her mother in 1891. It was later painted by the artist A B Collier and presented to her parents as a wedding present in 1895. (See the full story here.)

I climbed to the point where the way becomes very rocky, listening intently for the call or song of the ouzel, but there was none. This is a worry because they traditionally breed here.

On the return I was rewarded with the sighting of a cuckoo near Ger Tor Farm (there were two or three calling),


and the reeling of grasshopper warblers in the gorse and grass.

Gropper spot

So no ouzels but a pleasant walk with some super sightings.

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