Almost winter

The sound of the wind sighing through these beeches is winter on a plate!

I’m not sure I go with the relatively recent introduction of what’s called ‘meteorological winter’ which begins on December 1st for no better reason, it seems to me, than an excessive love of orderliness. Yes of course it tidies the year up into four seasons of exactly three months, but the boundaries, the markers don’t coincide with any particular events in the real world. On the other hand, the astronomical seasons are marked by genuine turning points – the two solstices and two equinoxes mark actual observable events rather than concepts. I can hardly imagine anyone getting excited at the accumulation of time required to trigger a new season; whereas I get really excited about the winter solstice because it holds out the hope of lengthening days at what always seems to be (really is, often) the darkest part of the year. The same goes for the equinox, especially at the spring one, when the promise of summer is offered. The late summer is always tinged with sadness as the hours of darkness gain the ascendency once more, but there’s a glorious processional quality about the way the astronomical year reflects our mood. These moments are marked in the natural world by migrating birds like cuckoos which arrive soon after the spring solstice, before the other summer migrants, the swallows and swifts, arrive before the equinox. It all seems to add up.

All of which is a very long way of wondering aloud whether our walk yesterday could be considered a winter walk. The idea of ‘doing’ the Mendip Way – a fifty mile wander between the Bristol Channel and Frome has grown on us and without planning it at all, we’ve been grabbing any excuse to walk bits of it whenever the weather looks reasonable. High Mendip is not a place you want to be walking in freezing winds and driving rain.

Yesterday we walked a random section between Winscombe and Crook Peak – the whole section including the return walk was around 5 miles but it felt longer because there was a climb of just under 600 feet, and the walking conditions were pretty poor with the sodden ground churned to lethally slippery mud by weekend walkers. The start of the walk was diverted because there’s a massive programme of tree felling going on in the whole area, attempting to control ash dieback disease which is rife here, and so we joined the path a mile or so late, beyond Kings Wood. The weather forecast promised better than we actually experienced, but we avoided the sharp showers that we could follow as they drove across the Somerset levels from the South West.

If you look carefully you can just see the silver band of the Bristol Channel below the sky, looking westwards.

Crook Peak is the high promontory that stands guard over the M5 and would be a familiar sight to anyone who regularly drives that way. Its smaller twin, Brent Knoll, is on the other side of the motorway and I suppose the two peaks represent the last hurrah of the Mendip Hills. But the position overlooking the levels gives the most fantastic views across to Glastonbury and beyond and in the opposite direction apparently Pen y Fan in the Black Mountains can be seen 40 miles away on a clear day; so it’s well worth the effort of going to the top. Looking back you can see the Mendip way extending back across Rowberrow Warren, Burrington Combe and towards Priddy. On Thursday we’ve cherry picked a lovely walk from Priddy down Ebbor Gorge and we’ll leave the joining of the dots for later. There’s something nice about exploring the lay of the land in a series of shorter walks and then doing the whole thing in three or four sections when the days are longer.

We are so fortunate to live just 20 miles away from this marvellous walking country. When the Mendip Way is done we’ll start the Limestone Link which runs almost past our front door down to Shipham which is almost in the shadow of the Peak. I’ve written before about the intermittent lead mining industry around Velvet Bottom, and Mendip being a carboniferous limestone area, the washings from the mines all joined the watercourses as they ran underground through the rock and emerged in springs and resurgences lower down. Although the lead mines were last worked over a century ago, the villagers of Shipham were warned, quite recently, not to eat vegetables from their own gardens because they were so heavily contaminated with cadmium. The source of the contamination is now a treasured nature reserve and I suspect that most of its visitors would never even suspect what a wretched and desolate industrial area it must have been in its heyday.

So here are some photographs from yesterday’s walk. The larger photo just shows Glastonbury Tor on top of the hill in the far distance. During the recent flooding, almost all of the low lying land surrounding it was underwater. Looking down from the top we could see that there is massive dredging work going on in the Lox Yeo river to try to improve drainage. In some areas it’s been suggested that tree planting would slow down the drainage and increase water retention, but up here on the ridge the soil is often very thin, and the drainage is straight down into the rock, or more particularly its extensive cave systems, which just shows that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the problem of flooding, perhaps with the exception of arresting climate change and lessening the extreme weather events that cause the floods.

Gruffy – 2000 years of history in a footpath.

If Rodway Common was the place that fired me up as a child, this is the landscape that captured my imagination as a teenager – and I’m sorry if my attachment to these rather gloomy, post industrial places offends, but there’s a big chunk of my imagination invested out here.

I came to Charterhouse, Priddy and Burrington Combe not to explore what was on the surface but what was underneath it. I was lucky enough to get a job at the university as what was known as a “Junior Photographic Technician” – it was the kind of work an intern might get these days but there, aged seventeen, they sent me on a course to train as a technical photographer, handed me a very beautiful Leica and a darkroom, and pretty well let me get on with it; calling on me to photocopy; photograph prospective students; and capture whatever else needed recording by the lecturers and post-grads. There was a fabulously well equipped workshop run by a group of oddball technicians whose job it was to turn research proposals into bits of aluminium and electronic apparatus; and Steve was an enthusiastic caver (potholer if you’re from the north, or speleologist in America, I think), who soon took us out with him and his friends .

One of the blocked swallets in Longwood Valley

So this part of the world was the place we came to to learn about caving, using what would now be thought of as completely archaic equipment. The only way of getting a wetsuit was to make your own – which I eventually did, but my gluing of the joints was a bit wayward and it was massively tight in some places and flapped about in others making it both restrictive and inefficient at the same time. The experienced cavers often used electric miners lamps with lead acid rechargeable batteries, but we mostly kicked off with carbide lamps which were smelly, unreliable and occasionally explosive, boiler suits and black helmets that often got soft in wet caves. Ignoring the flora altogether we would crawl and slither down passages that could be very wet or very muddy; soak up the (tall?) stories of exploration and daring by the older cavers and push ourselves to the absolute limit. Perfect fun for teenage boys in fact. If there was a hole in the ground, we wanted to go down it and looking back, we took some hideous risks. My greatest friend Eddy and me had spent holidays playing in the abandoned flues and tunnels in the brickworks so extending our range to natural holes in the ground wasn’t such a great step.

So by the time Madame and me got together I knew this part of the world underground much better than above. It was here that I first heard the term gruffy ground – a miners word for the way in which the landscape is pitted with trial pits and worked out rakes. What I hadn’t thought through at the time, is that these beloved and isolated places were the relics of nearly 2000 years of the industrial extraction of lead. You can see where I’m going here – this landscape had my name written all over it.

Yesterday we waited for the rain to subside and decided to drive up to Charterhouse – less than twenty miles away in the heart of the Mendip Hills. These days it’s a popular place for walkers and there were maybe twenty cars parked above Velvet Bottom, and so we parked next to the Field Studies Centre and walked down to the entrance to the nature reserve. If you were new to this place, you might wonder where the footpath surface came from. It’s shining black and glassy, like obsidian, and it’s slag from lead smelting which began with the invasion of the Romans in the first century, but most of which was produced during the industrial revolution when this must have been a stinking and polluted industrial wasteland. So the first thing about this landscape is that – quiet and beautiful as it might be today – the pollution levels are still so high that it has its own unique flora of heavy metal tolerant plants. Lead, nickel and cadmium levels are so high that tree growth in many areas is inhibited, and gardeners in Shipham just down the road, have been warned not to grow vegetables in their gardens.

Yesterday, though, under a cloudy but clearing sky, the overwhelming first impression was of a very Mendip silence. With Bristol Airport almost out of action (marvellous) the only sounds were wild sounds; of the wind, grasses and trees and of the birds. Up on the ridge in the photograph, a noisy bunch of rooks were enjoying themselves in the air. The second impression was the smell of the sea, of the Bristol Channel, sweeping in from the southwest bearing the scent of salt water and seaweed – the closest we’ll get to the sea this year, I fear.

The plan had been for me to do some grasses while Madame looked for butterflies (she had more luck than me). If you ever ran away with the thought that I knew something about plants, now’s the time to warn you that I really don’t. Within a dozen steps I realized that my carefully researched exploration of meadow grasses didn’t fit. This is the craziest flora. Later, after we got home with me licking my wounds, I discovered that the mixed up flora is the glory of this place. Due to the nature of the underlying soils, there are acid loving plants growing very near to calcifiles and marshy ground specialists. There were old friends but more total strangers, and plants that I knew from elsewhere suddenly popping up as if they belonged there. .More from the British Geological Survey here. It’s the botanical equivalent of the favela – absolutely gripping.

So we wandered slowly down Velvet Bottom (who could resist a place with a name like that?), and found the gated entrances to a cave system discovered long after I gave up, and which turned out to be the fourth deepest cave in the country. It was here we came with the boys once, and watched a couple of adders basking in the sunny heat at the bottom of one of the depressions. The valley deepens and becomes rockier as you descend, and then just before you reach Black Rock nature reserve and then Cheddar Gorge, there’s a footpath that takes you back up the Longwood Valley – another environment altogether, but still bearing the remains of industry beneath the vegetation because water was taken from here to feed the washes in Velvet Bottom. Nowadays it’s yet another nature reserve containing more locked potholes; one of them in particular prone to sudden flooding. Longwood Swallet has a reputation for taking lives.

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Until this point there wasn’t much butterfly action; some whites and meadow browns; a skipper which I took a rather bad phone camera photo of; a small blue – too far away to identify properly. Then. suddenly a silver washed fritillary flying high and gliding down to feed on a bramble, then – joined by a second – doing a bit of an aerial display, seemingly unconcerned by our presence and this time I did manage to get a slightly better photo. Acid specialists, calcifiles, marsh specialists and now a broadleaf woodland dweller. If ever there was a ‘phone a friend’ place this is it! We did a field trip with a couple of county recorders leading, near here a couple of years ago and it was pretty inspiring. I must try and persuade them to lead another one on our yesterday walk.

We walked less than five miles altogether and yet what a combination of environments – I could hardly sleep for excitement last night. Mercifully it’s raining again so the allotment won’t need watering today. I need to go back to the textbooks. Oh, and isn’t it good to see that even this landscape could recover from human exploitation.