Wandering in White Wood

I make a point of visiting White Wood above the double Dart valley on Dartmoor at least once a year in the spring.  Ever since the late Ian Mercer told me that wood warblers breed here I go to listen for them.  This year I was about two weeks earlier than usual, with the advantage that the leaves were not out so birds were easier to see.

It was a lovely sunny day and my friend Hil Marshall and I wandered down the track from Venford reservoir, watching and listening.

6 Sharp tor

Sharp Tor from the track to the wood

There were countless willow warblers, and then we saw a redstart and a tree pipit, which confirmed itself with its flight song.

1 tree pipit tree

Tree pipit country

We entered the wood with its ancient oaks, small at first, then larger as you get deeper in.  The track entices you on.

1a track

The wooded slopes of the Dart valley showed through the trees; we felt as though we were in the canopy.

2 Dart valley through trees

The Dart valley through the trees

About halfway along the track we heard wood warblers whirring, and then we had a fleeting glimpse of one.  The song is breathtaking.  We kept hearing little bursts of it as we made our way through the wood.

3 wood warbler trees

Where the wood warblers were

Further on the slopes were covered in mossy rocks.  Hil saw a pied flycatcher but I missed it.

4 mossy rocks

Mossy rocks

I went back the next day, determined to see a pied flycatcher—and I did, near the western entrance to the wood where I have seen them before.

7 pied flycatcher trees

Flycatcher spot

It is a most splendid place.

5 the pipeline route

The track through the woods




Posted in Birds, Dartmoor, Woods and forests | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

I didn’t write a word all day

It’s not often that a whole day passes and I don’t write one word.  Such a day occurred ten years ago, on 2 May 2007 when I enjoyed an epic walk across the Pennines.  Although I normally write my diary every day, on this occasion I did not do so until I was on the train home on 4 May. 

My friend Jo Bird who lives in Stainton, near Barnard Castle in County Durham, had been suggesting this walk for some time.  She knew that I was anxious to see the black grouse lekking (flamboyant mating), which meant it must be in April or May. And so our plans were laid.  We would set out early on the morning of 2 May, enjoy the lek, have breakfast (pre-arranged by Jo) at Langdon Beck youth hostel, leave her car there and walk the 13 miles over the watershed to Dufton in Cumbria.  We would stay at the youth hostel and return the next day.

We were up at 4.45am and left Jo’s house at 5.30.  We drove up Teesdale in mist and mirk.  We planned to drive past Langdon Beck and take the old Alston Road to Herdwick Farm, where Jo’s friend lived and where the lekking was known to be good.  As we passed Langdon Beck the sun began to come out, and the grouse were practically lekking on the road, their white tails up.

1 black grouse from car

Black grouse seen from the car

Jo turned off the road but unfortunately our track became steep and rough and then we encountered a locked barrier.  It was evident we had taken the wrong turning.  It was very difficult for Jo to turn the car around and it began to belch steam, polluting the keen morning air. It looked as though our wonderful plan was foiled and we would have ring for the rescue people and abandon our walk.  Fortunately  there was no signal so Jo had one last try and managed to get the car back on the road.  But we had to be careful as it was in a rather sick state.

We drove back down the valley and turned left for St John’s Chapel, where Jo had seen a lek in the past.  We managed to hear the activity but we were back in the mist, so we saw nothing until the mist lifted slightly to reveal 14 male black grouse in the distance vying with each other.

Langdon Beck
We returned to Langdon Beck where we had a warm welcome and a fine breakfast from Heather and Alan, the temporary wardens.

We set off at 10am in bright sunlight to the calls of lapwing, snipe and redshank in the meadows.   There were dippers and a sandpiper when we crossed Langdon Beck at Saur Hill Bridge.

2 Langdon Beck

Langdon Beck

Here we joined the Pennine Way and followed it to the River Tees, across a meadow of pansies and down a bank with gentians and bird’s eye primrose.

5 gentian


4 bird's eye primrose

Bird’s eye primrose








It was already hot.  I had followed Jo’s advice of bringing many layers of clothes and my rucksack was soon bulging with unwanted garments.

We followed the north bank of the Tees.  At Falcon Clints I heard, then saw, a ring ouzel.

6 Falcon Clints

Falcon Clints

Just above the junction of the Maize Beck is the impressive Cauldron Snout waterfall.

7 Cauldron Snout

Cauldron Snout

We climbed up beside it and followed the Pennine Way parallel to and above the Maize Beck.  The landscape felt different now: wild, remote and featureless.  We passed through Birkdale Farm, said to be the most isolated in England, and crossed close to the Warcop range which is used for military training (and is currently the subject of controversy as the Ministry of Defence wants to deregister the common land).

8 Birkdale farm looking east

The view east to Birkdale Farm

The path converged with the river and here we stopped for lunch and saw sandpiper, grey wagtails and dipper.

9 Maize Beck

Maize Beck

We left our lunch spot at 3pm and continued on the south side of the beck to the top of High Cup Nick.  This is breathtaking, as the steep-sided valley of Whinstone rock suddenly falls away to the tiny silver sliver of High Cup Gill in the bottom.

10 High Cup Nick

High Cup Nick

We followed the Pennine Way along the north side of the valley and joined the drove road down to Dufton, with the Lake District fells ahead and the Howgills to the left, bathed in evening sunlight.

11 down to Dufton

On the way down to Dufton

We checked in at the hostel and sat outside watching tree sparrows until it was time to go to the Stag Inn for dinner.  We dined in the garden, looking up at the conical Dufton Pike.

12a Dufton Pike from pub

Dufton Pike from the Stag Inn garden

The next morning I was glad to be woken at 5am by noisy birds.  I looked out of the window at the village green with the fells beyond and had to get out there.

12 Dufton


I took the Pennine Way around the west side of Dufton Pike and then a footpath along Great Rundale Beck.  Once I reached the access land I cut up through wortleberries to the top.  There was a frost (and I was in shorts).  I reached the summit at 6.20am with the sun coming up behind the fell.  As I looked west over the Eden valley I saw the shadow of the pike above the mist.

13 from Dufton Pike

The shadow of Dufton Pike

I returned to the hostel for breakfast and saw red squirrels, my first swift of the year, and house martins nesting in the hostel’s eaves.

14 way back

The way back to the hostel

Jo and I set off at 9.50am in immense heat.  It was nice to feel no pressure. We sat on the limestone slope on the way up and enjoyed the view over the Eden valley to the Lake District.

15 limestone

The view west from Dod Hill

We stopped again by High Cup Nick.  This time we took the path to the north of the beck through former limestone pavements.  Before the bridge over the Maize Beck was built, walkers had to ford the beck.  Sometimes this was impossible, so the northern route was provided as the alternative Pennine Way.

16 limestone pavement

The remains of a limestone pavement

We had our lunch at the same spot as the day before.  When we reached Cauldron Snout we went to the east side of Cow Green reservoir.  I remember the controversy when the reservoir was built as it was when I was getting interested in campaigning for wild country.  Then we joined the lane down to Langdon Beck, with the white houses of the Raby estate spattered over the landscape.

17 web N Pennine farms

The lane to Langdon Beck

On the last stretch, as we crossed the fields, we saw two baby lapwings while overhead the snipe kept drumming.  Jo reminds me that we rescued a lamb that had separated from its mother and gone though a gate.

18 Langdon Beck

Langdon Beck in the evening

When I went to bed that night my head was full of the lovely landscapes and calls of birds.  It was a wonderful experience.  Thank you Jo!

Posted in Birds, National trail, walking, wild country | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Labour should celebrate access achievement, but go for more

The papers are full of the twentieth anniversary of Tony Blair’s first election as Prime Minister on that bright, optimistic Thursday.  But I haven’t seen one yet that mentions that his government gave us legal freedom to roam on common land and mapped open country in England and Wales—which, despite its limitations, was one of the most radical actions of the Labour government in 13 years.

The Ramblers had lobbied Labour politicians for access legislation since before the 1992 election (which Labour was widely expected to win).  In October 1995 Tony Blair pledged ‘A Labour government will give people a right to roam’.  On the Saturday after polling day we wrote to every Labour MP to remind him or her of the pledge.

Downing Street
And on the Sunday (4 May) I set off for Downing Street to deliver my letter to Tony Blair.  I was allowed into Downing Street after I had rung Charing Cross police station for permission.  I delivered the letter with a bank of photographers snapping. This photo was the one in the Morning Star.

Downing St

On Tuesday 6 May I joined Labour MPs Paddy Tipping (Sherwood, Nottinghamshire) and Helen Jackson (Sheffield Hillsborough) with Ramblers’ vice-president Mike Harding and a host of walkers at Bar Dyke on the eastern side of the Peak District National Park.  This was another reminder of its promise: as we looked longingly over Broomhead Moor, forbidden land which has since been opened to walkers.


Broomhead Moor, previously-forbidden moorland.

The following day the 418-strong Parliamentary Labour Party had its first meeting. Bill Michie, MP for Sheffield Heeley, pressed Blair on access legislation; his MPs were watching him.

Final stage
This was the final stage in the campaign for what became the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.  It took another three years because Tony Blair would have preferred a system based on the ‘goodwill’ of landowners.  Fortunately his environment ministers, especially Michael Meacher, were keen.

Labour should never forget that it gave us the nearest thing to the right to roam in England and Wales—but that there is still much for it to do.

Posted in Access, campaigns, National parks, Open country, parliament, Peak District, Politics, Ramblers, walking | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Serenaded by warblers

It’s warbler time at Otmoor, and it’s hard to stay away.  As soon as I stepped out of the car in the car-park on 29 April I was serenaded by a scratchy whitethroat.

I walked along the ‘Roman Road’, a green track in a green shade, and there were more whitethroat, blackcap, willow warblers and chiffchaff.  In the field on the other side of the thick hedge I could hear grasshopper warblers.


The Roman Road

As I headed towards the reedbeds the hedges were alive with sedge warblers and the reeds, rightly, with reed warblers.  Unusually, I even saw a reed warbler in a tree.


The reed warbler was in one of the trees on the right of the ditch

And every so often there would be a burst from a Cetti’s warbler.

The only warblers I might have seen or heard and failed to do so were garden warbler and lesser whitethroat (although I thought I heard the latter).  But that was compensated by sightings of cuckoos, male marsh harrier, drumming snipe, peregrine and much else.


The peregrine was perched on a post in the middle distance

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Win, win, win

This week the Open Spaces Society had three wins.

First the society helped to save two footpaths across Harrow School grounds.  In 2003 the school built tennis courts and all-weather courts across footpath 57, with the connivance of Harrow Council.  The other path, 58, runs in a direct route across sports pitches.

20 Obstructions on FP57 looking to A - Copy

Footpath 57 obstructed by tennis courts

Eventually, despite our efforts to make the school reopen the path, the council made diversion orders, moving footpath 57 around the obstructions and footpath 58 in a zigzag around the sports pitches.  Both were indirect routes.  The Open Spaces Society, Ramblers and local people objected and there was a six-day public inquiry in January and February at which the school was represented by a QC and junior and the council by a barrister.

Loss of views
The inspector, Alison Lea, ruled that the routes should not be diverted, largely because of the loss of views of Harrow-on-the-Hill.  She was particularly impressed by Gareth Thomas, MP for Harrow West, who spoke of the ‘spectacular’ views he enjoyed on his runs along the paths.

FP58 direct route

The view from footpath 58

Second, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs accepted the Open Spaces Society’s argument that environmental impact assessment (EIA) must be applied to common land, in addition to the need to get consent for works on common land under section 38 of the Commons Act 2006.  This means, for instance, that if someone wants to erect more than two kilometres of fencing on common land in a national park, he or she must have the proposal screened by Natural England to see if it needs a full EIA. Before this, Defra claimed that consent for works on common land was sufficient.  This is important extra protection for commons and Hugh Craddock, the OSS case officer, gets the credit for this.

And third, the society helped to stop seven wind turbines near Llandegley Rocks in Powys. The proposal would have involved four turbines on land which was protected by an inclosure award, as well as the exchange of common land and the destruction of a much-loved beauty spot.


Llandegley Rocks, beauty spot saved from turbines

Posted in Access, campaigns, commons, Obstructed path, Open Spaces Society, Public paths, Ramblers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The inspiration of our national parks

Theresa May is said to have taken the decision to call the election while walking near Dolgellau, in the Snowdonia National Park, in early April.

OK it was a bad decision, but this goes to show that national parks provide the inspirational environment to help us make big decisions.  Their space and tranquillity enable us to relax and see things in a wider perspective.  Theresa May should be grateful to those politicians in 1949 who gave us national parks in England and Wales.



May should recognise the value of the national parks and the vital need to fund them so that they remain inspirational landscapes.  The government promised in 2015 to protect national park funding in England up to 2020, but for five years before the parks had suffered significant cuts, so government had made a low base from which to start.  (Welsh national parks are now under the wing of the Welsh Assembly.)  It is time to raise that base.

There must be a pledge in May’s manifesto to give proper funding and recognition to our national parks, those top landscapes which inspire us.


Posted in Access, National parks, Politics, Wales | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Backward Bradford

I had been invited to do a live interview for the Open Spaces Society on BCB Radio* which covers Bradford.  I realised we would be talking about commons, greens and paths, so I checked out Bradford Council’s website.

There are some terrific commons in Bradford’s territory and many of them are ‘urban’ commons, ie in a former metropolitan district.  This means that there is a right to walk and ride there.  Examples are Ilkley Moor, Baildon Moor, Black Moor, Brow Moor, Haworth Moor and parts of Keighley Moor.

Baildon Moor, E of Baildon

Baildon Moor

Considering that Bradford has had such a long association with commons I was dismayed to find that the council’s website page about common land is more than 10 years out of date.  It still refers to the need to obtain consent for works on common land under section 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925. That was superseded by section 38 of the Commons Act 2006 on 1 October 2007.

It also says that section 68 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 permits the grant of statutory easements for vehicular access over land where it is currently an offence to drive a vehicle.  That was repealed by the Commons Act 2006 on 1 October 2006, following a House of Lords judgment which nullified the provision.

Ilkley Moor

Ilkley Moor

I have told the council of its errors and suggested that, if it joins the Open Spaces Society, the society will help it to get its website right.

*You can listen to the interview here at 49 mins, 30 secs.

Posted in common land, commons, Open Spaces Society | Tagged , | 1 Comment