allotments bird watching birds community gardening conservation meadows outdoor sculpture photography Shropshire trees wildlife

A walk in the grounds of “The Secret Hills”

The Secret Hills visitors centre is situated in the small market town of Craven Arms a half hour drive from home. A Monday morning visit to the dentist took us to Church Stretton half way to Craven Arms, so to celebrate us both being given a clean bill of health we decided we deserved a coffee at the Secret Hills.

The visitor centre itself is an interestingly shaped building with a curving roof topped with greenery. It was one of the earliest green roofs. The inside features a library and coffee shop with occasional displays of art and crafts as well as exhibitions to celebrate all that make the South Shropshire Hills so special.

As well as a visitor centre the Secret Hills has wonderful, varied outside spaces which afford the local community and visitors the chance to explore meadows and  copse and walk alongside a small river and a pool. but there are also surprises wherever one goes.

The Undergardener and I began our visit in our usual way by visiting the coffee shop to enjoy a cappuccino and latte respectively. But join us as we slowly amble around the acres outside.

We ambled slowly through a young sloping woodland of coppiced Hazels, whose leaf buds were bursting the tangiest green. The trail took us across a rough area of Teasles and tough grasses and led us to the River Onny, which in this section is a calm, slow moving stream.

Near a bridge carrying the road over the Onny, clumps of Daffodils were in the spotlight of the sun’s rays, affording them a see-through look.

We enjoyed the peaceful, slowly moving waters of the Onny with rashes of seedling Himalayan Balsam and the occasional glossy petaled Celandine growing within the dappled shade of the waterside trees.

After half an hour of gentle rambling, we left the Onny and wandered across a meadow where the sticky buds of  recently planted Horse Chestnut trees were coming into leaf in one corner and as we were about to leave the field, in the opposite corner we came upon a community clay oven, looking like a giant pot. It’s domed clay top was carved with spiral patterns, like the shells of a Ramshorn Snail.

The huge sticky buds of the Chestnut Tree look and feel as if they are coated in treacle, and as they open the green of the fresh leaves is bright as a Golden Delicious Apple.

A bridge across a dried-up stream invited us into a wood of spindly trees.

We crossed the wooden bridge into the patch of woodland, and beyond it we were in for a surprise for we spotted two pieces of sculpture in the trees. so it really is true what the old children’s song said “If you go down to the woods today you are in for a big surprise”.

We looked at the details, the teazels and spirals of branches, and looked up inside the chimney shapes.

After exploring the sculpture and listening to the Great Tits, Chiffchaffs and Goldfinches calling in the tree tops, we made our way back to a bench on the riverside for a rest. A Dipper flew rapidly only inches above the water and passed just below our feet. These are beautiful birds like fat Blackbirds with white bibs. They feed around the rocks in shallow fast-moving streams where they watch from rocks constantly dipping up and down, but this one moved so fast and we didn’t see it stop to feed. On the opposite bank of the river tall trees grew thickly on a steep slope. Here we watched Nuthatches, Treecreepers and Great Spotted Woodpeckers feeding frantically and flying from tree to tree. But the real treat was the view of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, a very small black and white woodpecker which is now so scarce in the UK.

After resting our legs we aimed for the bridge that crosses the Onny where it becomes shallower and more rapid. Here the Onny took on the guise of a upland stream. From the bridge we spotted more Dippers and a Grey Wagtail, before moving on across the corner of a field where a stile showed us the way into the small Nature Reserve. We watched a pair of Red Kite soaring over the tops of the tallest trees. We made our way through the wood on narrow muddy tracks until we found the river once again. Following its banks we returned to the visitor centre dropping in on the community allotments on our way. Here tiny plots of land are available to local residents where they grow vegetables.

The Secret Hills is an amazing community resource for the market town of Craven Arms and a special day out for visitors.

bird watching birds conservation Shropshire trees wildlife Wildlife Trusts

A Canalside Ramble, There and Back. Part One: There.

Bright sunshine, the purest blue sky and warm, summer temperatures in March! What could be better than a walk near water? So we decided to visit a Shropshire Wildlife Trust reserve with its track taking us along the towpath of one of Shropshire’s many stretches of canal. An easy flat walk on soft grass – so kind to the legs and feet after busy days on the allotment.

We have been members of our county’s Wildlife Trust for about 40 years now and visited their reserves regularly when our children were with us but now they have left home and we have both retired we are enjoying visiting them anew. The walk we chose today was the Prees Branch Canal Reserve, described as a “2 mile long pond”. A Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the rare underwater plants, it is also home to one of Britain’s rarest mammals, the Water Vole. Thus it was with great anticipation that Jude, also known as Mrs Greenbenchrambler, also known as “The Undergardener”, and I climbed the stile into the reserve. The first sound to reach our ears was the loud call of a chicken who had just laid its daily egg.

The Prees Branch Canal was started in the early 1800’s and was intended to be a branch of the Llangollen Canal, but finances ran out so it was never completed. The trail we chose to follow runs alongside the 2 miles that were built and runs to its junction with the Shropshire Union Canal.

Just a few steps into woodland alongside a short dried up section of canal and birdsong filled the air. The most persistent songster was the diminutive warbler, the Chiffchaff. Throughout our day’s walk of almost four miles there was a calling Chiffchaff every 30 metres or so, and these early arrivals sing with such gusto to announce themselves to any females in calling distance. It’s call, the simple repetitive “Chiffchaff” call that gives it its name, was interrupted by the much more tuneful song of its near relative, the Willow Warbler. We saw so many flying from tree to tree or searching out insects in undergrowth.

The habitat in this tree-lined section looked absolutely perfect for the Water Vole but the closest we got to one was hearing the characteristic “plop” as one entered the water from the dried reeds followed by the every increasing circles of ripples. In this area, beneath the bare stems of trees in their dappled shade yellow flowers abounded – Celandine, Dandelion, Marsh Marigold and Pussy Willow. Later a snout popped up through the surface film of the water, and Jude stopped me suddenly and pointed. as it moved towards it we realised that the snout was attached to a frog and not a Water Vole. But we enjoyed admiring the frog’s swimming skills – perfect breast stroke clearly seen in the sparkling clean water.

Leaving the tree-lined section, we entered a much more open stretch where the water was crystal clear. Beneath the surface the green of new Yellow Waterlilies glowed.

Two male Mallards, their green iridescent heads glowing against the sky reflecting blue, paraded up the canal ahead of us. A single Mute Swan bustled from the dried reeds, a blue ring on its leg showing in the clear water. Clean white feathers, orange beak and blue leg ring.

We crossed this open stretch and after passing through an Alder coppice, we reached a busy marina and navigable waters. Narrow boats in all colours, all sizes and from all destinations clustered around moorings. From here on these boats chugged passed us regularly stirring up the silty bed of the canal. They sported a miscellany of names all saying something about their owners, their humour and their interests. Tadpole, Otter, Mouse, Earwig and Maple Leaf, Grace, Ondine, Montgomery, Jubilee Bridge and my favourite Django. That boat owner must be a fellow jazz fan.

Just beyond the marina we found a stile conveniently placed to lean upon, eat bananas and drink coffee and of course rest weary legs.

We passed under bridges which gave us a moment of shade from the sun which was gaining strength by the hour. Each bridge has a name, Waterloo Bridge, Boodles Bridge, Dobson’s Bridge, Starks Bridge, Allimans Bridge or a number. These hump-backed bridges carried narrow country lanes over the canal or tracks that took cattle or sheep from field to field. Under Boodles we were mesmerised by the sight of a Great Diving Beetle swimming powerfully to the water’s surface to collect its bubble of air. This is Britain’s largest beetle and swims with strong legs. It is large and powerful enough to catch and eat small fish called Sticklebacks.

Starks and Allimans were most unusual bridges – Lift Bridges. The trackways were carried over the canals by these low wooden bridges which boatman raise by manually turning a handle. As we approached Starks we watched a barge passing under, a skillful manoeuvre.

We stood on Allimans lift bridge and looked along the canal trying to decide whether we had enough energy in reserve to walk the last straight quarter-mile stretch to the T-junction where our Prees Branch Canal met with the Shropshire Union. It looked too tempting!

So we moved on slowly and here the canal cut straight through marshy land with scrapes and pools. From the towpath we spotted wading birds such as Lapwing and Curlew, and water birds such as Moorhens, Canada Geese and Wigeon Ducks. Squealing and wheeling above them were the ubiquitous Black-headed Gull.

Reaching the T-junction felt great and after crossing Roving Bridge next to Roving Farm, we found a seat! Just reward indeed! There were two benches placed in memory of people who had loved the canal in their lifetimes. We made ourselves comfortable with a coffee and a couple of apples on the bench dedicated to Edith. Thanks Edith we enjoyed your seat. Here we stayed a while enjoying the sounds of birdsong and watching the occasional barge passing along the Shropshire Union. Most cruised slowly and quietly in front of us and their occupants waved or called greetings. But one approached us noisily. We heard the engine and the “sailors” a long way off. The engine was so noisy that the sailors just had to shout to hear each other giving commands and advice. They needed advice as three men in orange fluorescent safety jackets stood on board a tiny tug barge pushing a barge along in front and pulling two behind. The barge snake zigzagged from bankside to bankside and progressed slowly, but provided amusing entertainment.

Quiet returned as they disappeared into the distance and we could appreciate the “yaffling” calls of Green Woodpeckers and the chattering of pairs of Wagtails, both Pied and Grey. Goldfinches and Greenfinches passed over head in pairs and a lone Buzzard wheeled high above.

(Part Two to follow)