Wednesday, 4 February 2009

A Cold Day on Croft Ambrey

I had the chance to visit Croft Ambrey (National Trust) in north Herefordshire on February 1st. I spent the day wandering around this wonderful hill and woodland to which I am always returning when I get the chance. Much of the focus of my writing was to reflect my continuing focus on the element 'air' and to see how it related to the landscape through which I was walking. The headings I give are various approximate locations along my walk.

Fishpool Valley
It is nearly mid-morning and very overcast with a high cloud cover. A moderately strong and very cold wind blows giving a high wind chill over the partly frozen ground. There is an occasional snowflake in the air. I expect to find little shelter from the breeze today. The valley is seeing much change as trees are being felled/thinned and the area more carefully managed by the National Trust. It seemed as though many of the trees may have been wind blown and these were now being cleared.

As the wind waves though the trees, I hear the creaking and groaning of branch against branch. I am sitting on a long log, just above one of the pools by the victorian water mill, with my hands getting cold as I write. A wren chatters below me in some rhododendrons and I can hear the gentleness of water tumbling out of the pool and down the distant stream. The water on the pool is gently rippling and grasses and leaves around me are agitated but not really being moved from their place. There are some blue tits nearby too. The trees in the bottom of this valley are relatively still, whereas those on the high edge of the valley move in the unsheltered wind. A gorgeous red fungus catches my attention on the ground in front of me (probably Scarlet Elf Cap) - such a bright red amidst the winter shades around me.

A fish jumps in the pool (I assume that's what it was that made a splash) and ripples expand across the deep grey-turquise depths - a strong colour against the greys of the ashes, oaks and maples. People walk past, talk and chattering echoes around the tall bare trees that listen. How much have these trees heard over the years? Silent witnesses - absorbing, unresponding, but ever present and feeling the sound around them.

On the pool there is now a beautiful reflection of the trees and valley skyline, mirroring the grey valley in the turquoise water. Then a wind arrives and the surface image dissolves into a blur of ripples - gone, for the moment anyway.

Wild Arum leaves are appearing out of the partly frozen earth, several inches tall already. I see quite a few old fallen trees, blown over by the wind perhaps, where the surface soil is too thin and fragile to allow a root system to gain a stronghold. Branches and twigs suffer in the wind too - a sort of natural pruning of the weak or the dead by nature.

Opposite Leaved Saxifrage is just coming into flower on a rotten tree stump and so is Dog's Mercury on the soft muddy bank of the tiny stream.

Lyngham Vallet
A greater spotted woodpecker flies up from the ground near me and flies up into a nearby tree.

I am sitting against a pine tree on the side of the small valley looking towards Bircher Common. I am sheltered from the wind that carries the sound of the high canopies above me. There are the tall thin ashes below me, many of their slender trunks have the orange Trentpholia algae on the north, sun-shadowed side of their greyness. Another bright colour against the winter hues and the green-black of the background conifers. Tall grasses on the woodland floor, a pale creamy brown, sway in the breeze. Fragile stems and feathery heads that held the long forgotten seeds of summer. Their dark green basal leaves forming tussocks, rugged and strong - secure in the earth below.

The wind seems like long breaths, with periods of calm for many minutes before gently gathering strength for a longer period of activity; then calming again. A gentle, slow rise and fall of energy.

I wonder how (or if) conifers are more adapted to better withstand winter winds than deciduous trees, even though they may be covered with pine needles. Perhaps the fine feathery nature of the needles offers less wind resistance than larger flat deciduous leaves. Perhaps the branches are lighter, finer and yet more flexible in windy conditions.

I see and hear two jays and hear a buzzard calling.

I come across a line of oak trees and observe that there are still some dead leaves rustling at the very top of one tree, whereas all the leaves have disappeared from neighbouring trees. Why are these leaves still high up in the canopy? Is there a small area that is more sheltered from the wind, or are there fewer branches in their vacinity to knock them off?

Bircher Common and Dionscourt Hill
The sun is now out and it is just after midday. I am now out on the common land and in a good easterly wind. I find a small pool on the hill top at the edge of a field, beyond is a clear view of Clee Hill in the distance. The pool has ice around the edge furthest from that facing the wind. I look to see how the ice has formed - small ridges where surface ripples have been blown against previously formed ice. Frozen in the shallow ice are patterns created by the wind catching floating duckweed and froth.

My eye catches something sparkling above me and what I assume is a foil party balloon gently passes - a delicate, twirling, silvery object against the blueness in the sunshine. It is just too high above to make it out in detail, but low enough to make me wonder if it will get caught in trees further up the hillside. It floats silently, westwards and is gone.

I pass some sheep and pick a few pieces of sheep's wool off a hawthorn hedge. It is amazing example of ideal insulation. A think coat of very fine hairs that traps air and reducing heat loss from the animal. With even a small piece of wool between my fingers I can feel it keeping in the warmth. The individual wool strands are all wavy and create a beautiful interlocking structure of wool and air space. No wonder it is used for making clothes, but I wonder whether the most effective use of wool is in its rightful place on the back of a sheep - processing and weaving surely reduces much of its effectiveness as an insulator.

A willow tree by a roadside catches my attention. Its trunk has divided and one half leans out at a seemingly impossible angle to hold up its branches. Air creates space around the tree and the branches have to be held upright against the force of gravity. Only with the aid of a significant root system can a tree maintain the balance of its above ground structure. Space is hugely important for a tree and I am often thinking about how plants and trees organise their stems, branches, leaves and flowers spacially. Air is also important for seed dispersal for many plants.

I come across a stream. There is a large pipe carrying the water under a farm track and, when the water exists, it splashes into a small, but deep pool forming a mass of agitated air bubbles perhaps 3-4ft long and 1-2ft deep. I think of the process of aeration/oxygenation where oxygen is dissolved into moving water and which can help support water life downstream.

Croft Ambrey
I am sitting on some dried bracken on the top western side of the hill overlooking Shobdon Hill Wood. It is mid-afternoon and the sun shines in the valley below through a rare gap in the clouds - a strong beam of light cutting through the clouds and light haze. A small pool reflects a silvery light amidst the sunlit fields which are a bright yellow-green. There is only a slight breeze in my sheltered place and patches of beech leaves gently rustle where they still remain near the bottom branches of their trees. The brown bracken around me I am sure gives an almost imperceptible rustle and crackling as it dries out in the wind.

The air is always beautiful up here in this quiet place and has, no-doubt, been appreciated even by the iron-age people who once lived here, The idea of fresh air to them may have seemed odd as their air would always have been fresh - apart from perhaps a hut filled with wood smoke, smelly bodies or dead animals! Hills like this are surrounded by a space full of air which separates their presence from other hills around them.

How the wind can change in a landscape like this. One part can be calm and still, another can be so cold it takes your breath away! And it can come form so many directions depending on the topography.

A crow croaks loudly and glides not far away - a being of blackness with a deep, loud and echoing call.

On the top of Croft Ambrey the wind doesn't seem so cold now. Clouds are moving quickly and the valley is lit up with patches of fast moving sunlight. For about half a minute the whole of the hill around me is bathed in clear sunlight and then it has gone. The light, cloud, wind and natural patterns constantly change in this landscape. They all interact with each other in a graceful play that belongs to the earth around me and not to my time or place.

The sun sets and my journey off the hill must begin.

I give thanks.

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