Hunt for the black poplar

I had never knowingly seen a black poplar (Populus nigra) and I wanted to put that right.

On my way home from the Big Welsh Walk I stopped at Hanbury Hall, the National Trust property in Worcestershire.  The Worcestershire Ramblers were organising a Welcome to Walking weekend of walks from the hall and I was keen to see how it was going.

1 Hanbury Hall

Hanbury Hall

I joined this event last July (see here) and went on one of the walks through the park.  Afterwards I discovered to my chagrin that I had walked past rare black poplars without noticing!  So I decided to retrace my steps this year and find them.

25 Hanbury Hall black poplar

Black poplars at Hanbury Hall

Arthur Lee and Marika Kovacs, who had also been on the Big Welsh Walk, joined me at Hanbury.  After a cup of tea with Worcestershire Ramblers’ chair, Clare Stallard, who had once again organised the event, the three of us set off across the park.

We soon found the black poplars, by a pool at a crossroads of footpaths.  I would probably not have known they were black poplars without the National Trust information.

26 black poplar trunk

Black poplar trunk

27 black poplar flower

Black poplar in flower







Black poplars were common in the middle ages but are rare today, due to modern agricultural and woodland management.

We then walked back past a wood where Clare Stallard had told us that she had seen a lesser-spotted woodpecker.  That was ten years ago and although we peered in we did not see one.

28 lesser spotted woodpecker wood

The wood where a lesser-spotted woodpecker has been seen

We came to the dodgy couple of stiles and bridge which I encountered last year and reported to Worcestershire County Council.  They have been somewhat improved but there are complications because they are on the boundary between two landowners.  I know the council intends to sort this.  The intrepid, visually-impaired, Marika managed to scramble over.

29 footbridge

Marika negotiates an awkward stile

Then we headed back across the buttercup parkland to catch the café before it closed.

30 Buttercup parkland

Hanbury parkland


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The sounds of Coed Rheidol

I grabbed the opportunity.  On the day after the Big Welsh Walk, 3 June, I was up early to repeat my early-morning wander of last year.  I wanted to take my visually-impaired friend, Marika Kovacs, to the magical Coed Rheidol national nature reserve to listen to birds.  Last year, on 7 May, I saw wood warblers there.

23 Coed Rheidol

Coed Rheidol national nature reserve

We set off from Tynrhyd retreat, near Devil’s Bridge, and followed the bridleway through Tyn-y-Castell Farm (grid reference SN 726773) and then around the side of the valley.

24 Tyn-y-Castell

Tyn-y-Castell, the bridleway goes round to the right of the hill

We crossed a ploughed field and descended into the wood.   The ground was rough so we did not go all the way down to the railway.  In fact it was not necessary.  Marika could stand in the woodland and hear the outpouring from the birds, including whirring wood warblers.  No birdsong or call escapes her ears.

22 Marika in Coed Rheidol

It was a special moment.




Posted in Birds, Wales, walking, Woods and forests | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Big Welsh Walk: another triumph

Ramblers Cymru’s second Big Welsh Walk (Taith Gerdded Fawr Cymru) on 2 June was even better than the last year.  Once again it was based on Tynrhyd retreat, near Devil’s Bridge Walkers Are Welcome town in Ceredigion.  This year there was a greater choice of walks: 6, 10, 16 or 20 miles, and for the 6 and 10 miles you had the option of a led walk. 

16 banner

I arrived the day before and, with a group of members of the Ramblers’ Welsh Council Executive Committee, did a recce of the six-mile walk which was to be led by George Allingham from Pembrokeshire.  As we walked, the mist came down so that towards the end we could see very little.

1 6-mile recce

Walking in the mist


However, we could see that Ceredigion Ramblers had done great work opening up and waymarking a path above Tynrhyd—a couple of weeks ago it had been impassible.

2 waymark

New waymarks

That is one of the prime benefits of the Big Welsh Walk, it encourages the council to put money into getting the paths in order, with the help of Ramblers’ volunteers.  It shows that it pays to have good paths because then walkers will visit, spend money and return.

On the morning of 2 June there was a bit of scrum for signing in, and completing the In Case of Emergency (ICE) cards and media consent forms, but Ramblers’ volunteers were cheerful, efficient and welcoming.  The Ordnance Survey had provided complimentary maps of the routes for participants.

3 checking in

Signing in

This year we were issued with wristbands with a number.  At each checkpoint the wristband was scanned to record that we had passed through that point.  Once again the brilliant Brecon Mountain Rescue team was on hand, giving up their Saturday to ensure that everyone returned safely.

19 wristband

At 8.30am I set off on the 16-mile route with my visually-impaired friend, Marika Kovacs; the newly-elected president of Ramblers’ Cymru, Will Renwick, and photographer Greg Fisher.  At first we followed the Cambrian Way.4 Cambrian way


As is the way with this walk, people coalesce into groups then drift apart, and by the first checkpoint we had been joined by Alberto and Astrid from the Midlands.

5 first checkpoint

Angela Charlton (left) clocks in Alberto

We came to the Arch, erected by Thomas Johnes who owned the nearby Hafod Estate.  It was put up in 1810 to celebrate George III’s golden jubilee,

6 Arch

Marika and Will walk through the Hafod Arch

Here Will and Greg stopped to make a video.  We hoped they would catch us up, but they had other things to do and we did not see them again.

We continued along a track next to forestry which took us to the top of a rise; here I saw a tree pipit on top of a tree.  You can listen to him here.

At the top we joined some walkers from Worcestershire Ramblers and together we  dropped down into the forestry.

7 forest

In the forest, following Nant Ffrin-fawr

We joined the trail I had followed on my 15-mile walk last year; this took us over rough ground to the top of the Cwmystwyth valley.  Because Marika and I walked rather more slowly than the others I told them not to wait for us, which meant we had to negotiate the rough county unaided—not easy for a visually-impaired person!  Trickier still was the steep drop into the Cwmystwyth valley.

8 Cwmystwyth

Cwmystwyth valley

Marika found this method of descent rather easier on the steep sections.

9 Marika

We made it and reported to the checkpoint at the foot of the hill.  We then walked down to the river, Afon Ystwyth.  As we reached the river the sun began to come out, and I recalled that it did the same at this point in my walk last year (this section being the same).  And, just as last year, it then shone unceasingly for the rest of the day.

10A river

Afon Ystwyth

We followed the river for about four miles to Pont-rhyd-y-groes and another checkpoint.  Although Marika had been amazing, we were running late, so I did the next section on my own while Arthur Lee took Marika in the car.  In my hurry I missed my way and did not follow the correct path.  However, I returned the next day to ensure that the path really was there—it was, but it could do with better waymarking, for instance where it passes through the garden of Maen-Arthur farm.  I shall report this to the council.

20 Maen-Arthur

Footpath at Maen-Arthur farm, not waymarked

The path goes to the north of the iron-age hillfort of Castell Grogynion to Pengrogwynion, and thence to Brynafon.

21 Castell Grogwynion

Castell Grogwynion in the centre

By the time I reached the checkpoint at Brynafon there was quite a crowd gathered for the last section.  Marika rejoined us.  We walked over fields and through woods.  The loveliest stretch of all was through Coed Cwmnewydion-uchaf with singing wood warblers.

12 Coed Cwmnewydion-uchaf

Coed Cwmnewydion-uchaf: Marika and Gywn Lewis

After about two hours, we were on the hillside above Tynrhyd—it was much clearer than when we were on this path in the mist the day before.

14 Tyn Rhyd in sight

South of Tynrhyd, the white buildings

There was a welcoming party outside Tynrhyd (at 7.30pm, we were the last to return).

15 welcoming party

Welcoming party

We were given our medals and had well-earned tea and cake.  I had been out for 11 hours, and it had been a wonderful day.18 medal

The next morning Kate Marshall from Ramblers Cymru interviewed Marika and me about the walk.  You can watch Marika’s video here.

17 Marika interview

Kate interviews Marika, watched by Kate’s dog Mavis

I hope the local businesses benefited from the 170 walkers who descended on Ceredigion.  The council and our volunteers did a great job improving the paths—though there are still missing signposts and waymarks.  And Ramblers Cymru staff worked tirelessly to organise a really super event.  Well done all!

Posted in Access, Public paths, Ramblers, Wales, Walkers Are Welcome Towns, walking | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A seventieth birthday gift?

I was walking up Tavy Cleave in the Dartmoor National Park, listening to ring ouzels and whinchat, when the Sunday Telegraph was plopping through the population’s letterboxes early on 27 May.  I don’t normally pay attention to the Sunday Telegraph, but this one had a surprising front page.

Sunday Telegraph 27 May 18

Sunday Telegraph 27 May 2018

It announced the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) review of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), heralded in the government’s 25-year environment plan.  It also confirmed that the review would be led by writer and journalist Julian Glover.  In the past such statements were made in parliament first.  Not any more.  The vigilant Campaign for National Parks was ready with a quick response at 6.30am—while I was standing in the rain, binoculars poised, in Tavy Cleave.

Tavy Cleave

Tavy Cleave

The Sunday Telegraph and the statement on the government website are extremely positive.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has today committed to conserve and enhance England’s most cherished landscapes …

 … an independent panel will look at how these iconic landscapes meet our needs in the 21st century—including whether there is scope for the current network of 34 AONBs and 10 national parks to expand

The review will also explore how access to these beloved landscapes can be improved.  I take that to mean responsible freedom-to-roam within these places, and better access to and within them by public transport.  I hope I am right.  Certainly, in his own article in the Sunday Telegraph Michael Gove goes out of his way to celebrate public access.  He says Inspired by the great Liberal Sir Arthur Hobhouse, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was introduced as a ‘recreational gift to Britain’s returning Second World War servicemen and women’ to recognise, conserve and enhance access to landscapes ‘of national importance and quality’.  Yes!

Weakening or undermining their existing protections or geographic scope will not be part of the review, which will instead focus on how designated areas can boost wildlife, support the recovery of natural habitats and connect more people with nature.

Michael Gove wants to guarantee our most precious landscapes are in an even healthier condition for the next generation and says that the goal of the review is not to diminish their protection in any way, but to strengthen it in the face of present-day challenges.

Julian Glover says that our protected landscapes are England’s finest gems.

Case for extension
The terms of reference are here and, excitingly, include ‘the case for extension or creation of new designated areas’.  There are plenty which deserves such consideration: the Chilterns and Cotswolds which suffer from immense development pressures and suburbanisation, Dorset and East Devon with its magnificent Jurassic Coast, the Forest of Dean and the South Pennines, gritty, industrial and worthy of recognition—to name a few.

Rishworth Moor, Calderdale

Rishworth Moor, Calderdale, in the South Pennines, a common with rights to walk and ride

If government is serious about extending these areas it will need to amend the process of designation which is slow, painstaking and complex—and it will need to give Natural England (NE), the designating agency, the resources to do the job.  I was a board member of the Countryside Agency, NE’s predecessor, when it designated the New Forest and the South Downs as national parks and both took a great deal of time and money.

New Forest

The New Forest

The review will also need to bite on other government departments.

Highways England is proposing to route the A27 Arundel bypass through the South Downs National Park, destroying six hectares of ancient woodland.  Ten national charities have written to the Secretaries of State for Transport and the Environment in protest.  A horrific new dual carriageway is also proposed in the Peak District National Park; the Friends of the Peak District are leading the campaign against it.

The Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government is proposing to amend the National Planning Policy Framework so as to remove from the paragraph on designated landscapes the phrase ‘which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty’.  Without this, the national parks and AONBs will be at far greater risk of development.

Our most precious landscapes cannot be in an even healthier condition for the next generation unless government as a whole follows Michael Gove’s lead.

The world has changed since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 created national parks and AONBs.  This review must secure the best protection and far greater resources for our designated areas, enable new ones to be created in a more streamlined way, and improve and increase public access to and within these special places.  Agricultural funding after Brexit can help to procure more and better access.  But for our designated landscapes to have the treatment they deserve, government must invest in them.

What better 70th birthday gift to the national parks and AONBs?

Posted in Access, AONB, Defra, National parks, Natural England, parliament, wild country | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pedestrians’ priority in Hastings

Hastings Old Town in East Sussex has won the Ramblers’ prize of Britain’s Best Walking Neighbourhood 2018.  I was invited to present the award to the town’s leaders on 16 May.

3 award

We gathered at Butlers’ Gap in George Street, an open space created by the borough council in 1995.  It is the site of the former Butlers’ emporium and now is decorated with tromp l’oeil and sculptures.  This is a feature of this walker-friendly town.

2 Butlers Gap

Butlers’ Gap

The award recognises and celebrates towns and cities that put pedestrians first.  The Ramblers shortlisted ten towns across Britain and then the public voted.  Over 12,000 votes were cast and Hastings Old Town captured 21 per cent of the votes.

The Ramblers hope that the award will encourage local authorities to think and plan for walkers, whether residents or visitors.  We want councillors to sign up to our charter for walkable towns and cities.  For instance, that means adopting a planning condition in the local plan for all new developments to contribute to local green space; having a green space standard, and developing a local walking and cycling infrastructure plan.

1 Old town

Hastings Old Town, pedestrian walkway

Hastings Old Town deserves the award.  Hastings Borough Council is already doing many of these things.  It gives priority to pedestrians, has introduced traffic restrictions, has paved and widened footways and has preserved its twittens, the Victorian passageways that form interesting routes between thoroughfares.

10 Wood's Passage

Wood’s Passage twitten

Ramblers’ member Anthony Slack nominated the Old Town for the award and led a campaign to win votes, posting local signs and canvassing.  Towards the end he had the brainwave of approaching the college and getting the students to cast their votes for the town.  Outgoing mayor, Judy Rogers, had led the council in making improvements for walkers.

4 Anthony Slack

Judy Rogers and Anthony Slack

After the ceremony, Anthony took us on a walk around the Old Town.  He is a retired planner and extremely knowledgeable about the town.

He took us along twittens, such as Wood’s Passage—though there seems to be some dispute about the apostrophe.

8 Wood's Passage

9 Woods Passage







12 archway

The end of Wood’s Passage


We looked down on the beach and the fishing huts.

7 Seafront
The fishing huts

The picturesque old town has set a high standard for next year’s Best Walking Neighbourhood award.

16 Anthony with the award

Anthony Slack with the award


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Gregynog’s wood warblers

My work for the Ramblers takes me to some wonderful places, and Ramblers Cymru never disappoints.  Last year the Ramblers’ Welsh Council was held in the exquisite surroundings of Stackpole in Pembrokeshire.  This year, at the end of April, we went to Gregynog, north of Newtown in Powys.


Gregynog is a fascinating building set in lovely grounds, now part of the University of Wales.  According to Pevsner, the earliest-known reference to the house is in the second half of the twelfth century.  From the fifteenth century it was the seat of the Blayney family.

The Blayney arms dated 1636 in the Blayney room at Gregynog

In 1795 the house passed to the Hanbury Tracy family (Lord Sudeley), and then to Lord Joicey.  It was remodelled in about 1837 and the panelling from the Blayney Room survives.

After the first world war Gregynog was bought by the Davies sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret, and they made it into an artistic centre for Wales.  They established the Gregynog Press which produced 42 books in limited editions between 1923 and 1940.


Printing press

They acquired a collection of paintings, especially French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and they built a music room for festivals and concerts.  The arts were very important to them, to the extent that they advertised: ‘Gardener wanted, tenor preferred.’

The grounds are lovely too, and pioneering: the earliest known use of concrete in the UK is demonstrated in the two bridges, one dating from 1880, and the fountain.


Formal flower-bed and concrete fountain at Gregynog. © Copyright Penny Mayes and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

The hall had many well-known visitors through the ages, and there are photos to prove it.

Photo of 3 dignitaries

Noted visitors to Gregynog: Lascelles Abercrombie (poet), Bernard Shaw and Thomas (Tom) Jones (influential civil servant)

Naturally, before going there, I had tried to find out what birds I might see, and was pleased to note mention of wood warblers on the nature reserve page of the website.  So on the Saturday morning before Welsh Council began I was up early and out in the woods, where I was delighted to hear and see a wood warbler.  I posted a recording here.

The following morning I went to the same spot with Chris Hodgson, chair of Welsh Council, and Marika Kovacs, my walking friend from Hereford, and the warbler was singing again.

Chris and Marika

Chris and Marika where the wood warbler sang

On Saturday afternoon we all went on a walk led by Geoff Beilby, a Ramblers’ volunteer from Newtown.

Start of walk

Gathering for the walk

We followed the woodland path I had taken that morning and again, despite all our chatter, the wood warbler was singing.   We walked on to the bird hide which I had not had time to visit earlier.

Bird hide at Gregynog

In the Gregynog bird-hide.

It is an idyllic spot, at the top of a slope, so you look into the canopy.


View from the hide

On the Sunday morning (after our early walk to the wood) we went on another walk led by Geoff, stopping frequently so that Marika could tell us what birds we were hearing. On the way we passed the hand sculpture by Francis Hewlett.


Marika with the hand sculpture by Francis Hewlett

I’m pleased to say that once again we heard willow warblers.

Gregynog Trust
It is worrying that the University of Wales is divesting itself of Gregynog.  A trust has been formed to take on the property so that the education, music and arts can continue.  It is an enormous project—we were told that the electricity bills alone come to £3,500 a month.  A property of this nature needs a vast amount of maintenance.

Best of luck to them, it is a fabulous, unique place and deserves to thrive.

Hall and hedges

Gregynog with its amazing hedges

Posted in Art, Birds, Music, Ramblers, Wales, walking | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Stokenchurch bird-survey

This year I took on an additional site for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), near Stokenchurch in the Bucks Chilterns (SU7496).  I had said I was willing to adopt one near to home, and this is only four miles away.

I have written many times of my survey at Prestwood (SU8799), near Great Missenden (most recently here).  The process is the same for each one-kilometre square, you identify two parallel routes across and divide each into five equal lengths.  You walk the two transects twice each year, between early April and mid May, and mid May to late June, starting between 6 and 7am and recording all birds seen or heard, as well as the habitats.  It’s sounds daunting but you get used to it.

7A start

Start of section 7 of my Stokenchurch walk, in Hailey Wood

Because I was inheriting a square which had been done before I also inherited the route walked by my predecessor.  This includes a field edge where there is no public path (sections 3 and 4, shown on plan below).  I worked out who was likely to be the farmer and checked with him; he was happy for me to walk the route provided he had not put the cows out there.  The alternative was along the A40 and Christmas Common lane, so the field-edge option was preferable.

BBS plan

Aerial view of my route.

I set off early on 20 April during that unseasonably hot period.  I left my car by the new care-home at Mill Road, Stokenchurch, crossed the M40 sliproads at junction 5—something I would not want to do other than very early in the morning—and the footbridge, and then followed the A40 north-west to the start of my square.

Slip road crossing at start

The northern slip road off the M40 at junction 5

M40 crossing at start

Footbridge across the M40 at junction 5, at 6.15am







I walked along the A40 to the start of my transect, with the noise of the motorway on my left, despite the early hour.  Next time I shall do this on a Sunday rather than a Friday, when it should be quieter.

1 from start

Looking north-west along the A40 from the start of my bird survey

The first part of the walk along the A40 is not particularly pleasant.  Even so there were two singing song thrushes, chaffinches, a goldfinch, two yellowhammers, a robin and a blackbird.

2A Kiln Farm

The A40 opposite Kiln Farm

2C allotments N of A40

Nicer view to the north of the A40, of allotments







After about a quarter of a mile I took a track south-west which leads to the Stokenchurch BT tower, and then turned off to follow a long field-edge, past the tower.  There was not much bird life on this arable land: chaffinch, great tit, blackbird, robin and song thrush, mainly in the hedge.

3B tower

Stokenchurch BT tower and the third section of my walk

I came out at Christmas Common lane, turned left and walked past the turn to the Aston Rowant national nature reserve.

5B looking SW, ends at trees on L

Looking south-west along the Christmas Common road. My first transect ends just beyond the trees, on the Oxfordshire boundary

That was the end of the first transect.  To reach the next stretch I continued across the motorway again, and turned left, down into Hailey Wood.  The beech leaves were just coming out.

6A start

The start of my second transect

I walked through young woodlands which gave way to more mature ones. I heard a blackcap.  In fact, not surprisingly given the wooded habitat, the species count was greater here than on the first transect.

7C looking E

More mature woodland

My route went down into the wooded valley


The valley bottom at Hailey Wood, section 7

and then up, leaving the woodland for a pleasant meadow.  There were chiffchaff, robin, blackbird, wren, great tit, blackcap, chaffinches and magpie on this stretch.

9A start

At the start of the ninth section, looking south down the Wormsley valley

I climbed on up the hill; the final leg, 10, was across a field back to the Stokenchurch industrial estate where I parked my car.

10A start looking W

Start of the final stretch looking back the way I had come

While the bird count wasn’t terrific, it was a lovely, varied walk and, despite being so close to home, not one that I knew.

And in case you wondered, this is not just a one-year stint: a BBS tetrad is for life (or as long as you want to do it), not just a year.


Posted in Birds, British Trust for Ornithology, Bucks, Chilterns, walking | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment