A touch of spring?

I’ve been out on my bike again this weekend and the weather has been stunningly nice. Yesterday morning, with a frost on the ground and a bit of a breeze, was quite chilling to be out and about in, pedalling around the Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire borderlands. I went in search of hills and found plenty – a bit different from the usual flat(ish) Cheshire Plain.  The last few miles were a bit of a struggle to be fair but well worth it as I found some new routes and some more to be explored over the next few months.

This afternoon, I was out again, despite my legs still feeling tight from yesterday.  It was an even nicer day with a bright sun and almost no wind at all. Spring didn’t seem far away as I headed out, with great tits and song thrushes singing as I peddled off.  Heading down one country lane, there was a mass of circling gulls, being lifted on what must have been one of the first thermals of the year – the dark, bare earth being heated by the weak sun and giving a lightly rising airflow.

On I peddled, and unlike yesterday my feet and hands were keeping warm, the sun warming my black shoes and gloves.  However, as soon as clouds appeared my feelings of spring soon disappeared as the chill started to claw back into my clothes – the brightness no longer taking the edge off the 5 degrees C air temperature.

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The Malverns – A very English autumn

Last weekend I had an autumn breather staying in a cottage beneath the Malvern Hills. Standing so clear above the flat Severn Valley to their east, the hills catch the eye even at some distance. Passing the hills when driving down the M5 numerous times in the past, for a while they had been on my UK bucket-list of places to stay.

I took the scenic route from my south Cheshire home – out to Shrewsbury and then winding my way down the A49 and on to Church Stretton, Ludlow, Leominster and Ledbury. I left the main roads and approached the cottage through the small village of Colwall Green and then down a narrow single-track, high-hedged lane. At the end of what used to an old farmyard stood the Threshing Barn, converted into a rustic retreat. The outside was a pure old world agricultural building but in stepping through the front door I entered somewhere special. I first passed a small farmhouse kitchen and then into a cloister-like corridor; this then led to a room not unlike a medieval banqueting hall with large dining table and sitting area all beneath the beams leading up to the full height of the barn – a quite spectacular room for a weekend retreat.

My plan was to get up early on the Saturday morning and to walk up to the Malvern Hills, only a kilometre away and then wander along their length to see where else the day took me. I was so glad that I had set my alarm when I stepped out of the door. The sun had already risen but was hanging low in the sky, shining through the trees and sparkling off the dew heavy grass. A mistiness was hanging in the air as I set off up the narrow lane, passing more timber-framed houses and barns. The bright light of the morning picked out the changing colours of the leaves as the greens were turning into reds, ambers and yellows. Up into the fields, gradually increasing the incline, my boots soon became wet from the grass and I nearly slipped over walking across a damp footbridge into the woods. The sun now shone into the pines, showing beams in the wooded mist and picking out cobwebs hanging between branches and twigs. I strode out onto the top road for a moment, having made good progress up the hill, and then stepped onto the last track to climb to the first summit of the day. Breaking the crest, the views opened up all around, a 360 degree vista over the flat valley to the west and rolling hills to the east, the Malverns reaching out both to the north and south.

I made my way north to Pinnacle Hill, Jubilee Hill, Perseverance Hill, Summer Hill, Worcestershire Beacon, Sugarloaf Hill and finally North Hill – all clear peaks in the Malvern chain. The weather improved all day with clear blue skies with a few small white clouds by mid-afternoon – all very summer-like and not the middle of autumn. I thought about retracing my steps after lunch but decided to form a circuit by heading down off the hills and into the lower rolling lands to the west. There I found sheltered pastures and quiet woodlands with small hamlets and villages hidden in the folds. I eventually came back to where I started but couldn’t resist a final hill of the day and went up Herefordshire Beacon with its old defensive earthworks clear to see. As I got to the top, the weather could be seen closing in from the south, large dark clouds starting to obscure the light and threaten rain. Dropping down into the valley, I made it back to the Barn just in time as the rain came on.

The overall sense I had throughout the day was just how English, typically English, the area is – the autumn colours in the woodlands and the changing of landscapes from flat valleys to steep hills and to rolling countryside; the villages of timber-framed houses with well kept gardens, the cricket pitches and narrow lanes; the red telephone boxes and post boxes and the country pubs. In a country that is changing fast in so many ways, the Malverns and the surrounding lands seem to have a sense of a constant, an unchanging way. Despite the M5 and M55 being so near, and large towns being only short distances down those roads, the pace of life seems slower, the traffic less and the time stood still – all except the seasons, with the colours of one of the brightest being on show.

As the sun set on my last evening there I headed back up to the top of the hills…