A canal for all seasons . . .

20100515010One of my favorite walks is along the towpath of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Managed by the Canal & River Trust (formerly British Waterways) the canal is just a couple of miles to the east of where I live in north Worcestershire.

Construction of the canal began in 1792, and was finally completed in 1815. Connecting central Birmingham (to the north) and Worcester (to the south, on the River Severn to which the canal connects), there is a drop in elevation of 130 m (428 feet). Fifty-eight locks were needed to navigate the topography, including the 30-lock flight at Tardebigge (also close to my home), one of the longest flights of locks in Europe, as well as five tunnels (including the Wasthill Tunnel under the Lickey Hills, at almost 2.5 km), and three reservoirs to ensure a constant supply of water to the canal. Near Tardebigge is the old engine house – now converted to luxury apartments – that pumped water from the Tardebigge Reservoir and kept the water level of the canal topped up below Tardebigge Top Lock. North of this lock towards central Birmingham, there are no locks.

With the building of the railways in the 19th century, many of the canals were abandoned for commercial traffic and fell into disrepair. Not until the middle of the 20th century did travel on the canals become a major leisure industry. Canals were rehabilitated and opened up for navigation once again all around the country.

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The canal towpath is a haven for wildlife, and during the different seasons there is always a great variety of birds to observe, on the water and in the vegetation that hugs the canal on the opposite side from the towpath.

So why is it called a ‘towpath’? Before the days of steam traction or today’s diesel engines, canal boats were hauled along by men or, quite commonly, large working horses. In the video below, a narrowboat on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is being pulled along as in days of yore. The video also excellently illustrates just how a canal lock works, the effort required to raise or lower the water level, and open and close the lock gates.

As I stroll alongside the Worcester and Birmingham Canal I never cease to wonder at what was involved to construct the canals at the end of the 18th century and early 19th. With access to little or no machinery, the canals were hand dug by huge squads of workers – the ‘navvies’ (derived from ‘navigator’ or ‘navigational engineer’ – who later went on to build the railways). Can you imagine what effort was required, what the working and living conditions must have been like for the men (and presumably their families, because we do know that wives and children followed the navvies when constructing the railways)? Not only had the canal bed or ‘cut’ to be dug, but the bed had to be lined in many places with clay to make them waterproof and reduce or prevent leakage. Then there were the elegantly constructed and brick lined canal locks and bridges. The lock gates themselves, most often made from oak, had to be man-handled into place, weighing many tons.

Now while one can wonder at all this when the canal is open for business as it were, when it’s drained and closed for maintenance – as was the case recently at Tardebigge Top Lock – you really can appreciate the scale of the whole endeavor, and what it takes today to repair the canal even with access to all sorts of machinery.

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National Trust and English Heritage

Since 2011, Steph and I have been enthusiastic members of the National Trust (NT)

In 2015, we also became members of English Heritage (EH)

We visit as many of their properties as we can each year, always a good reason for an outing.

For obvious reasons, we have visited more properties closer to home (north Worcestershire) in the Midlands than elsewhere. And, as we tick off these local ‘low hanging fruits’, so to speak, we have to travel further afield to experience somewhere new.

In 2015, we toured Scotland, and with our reciprocal membership in the National Trust for Scotland, we visited four sites.

In 2017, we spent just over a week in Northern Ireland, touring National Trust sites all around the Province.

Last year, we spent a week in Cornwall, taking in properties in Somerset and Devon on the journey south, and on the return.

And, as I write this (late April 2019), we are getting set for a week in East Sussex and Kent, and have already planned a long list of places we want to visit.


Here are the NT and EH places we have visited and, for most, I have written a story on this blog. Each property is shown on a region map as either a NT or EH logo.

Click on a logo to open links to a blog post, the NT or EH web sites, and a photo album of my own photos, although I haven’t yet completed uploading all the photo albums, and I still have to blog about a few places.

In any case, here is an alphabetical list (with links), by region, of the properties we have visited:








Walking with my mobile: [3] Water and steel

Milestone, near the Queen’s Head pub, a couple of miles south of Tardebigge.

It’s 1807, and fields around Tardebigge, a small settlement east of Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire, are swarming with hundreds if not thousands of workmen, known as navvies (from the name by which canals were also known at the end of the 18th century: ‘navigations’) facing their next challenge in the construction of the 29 mile Worcester and Birmingham Canal that would finally open in 1815 after reaching Worcester on the River Severn. That’s what I imagine it must have been like.

Tardebigge is almost equidistant between Birmingham and Worcester. It had already taken 15 years just to dig this first level section of the canal, on the same level as Birmingham (at 453 feet above sea level).

While engineers had avoided building any locks as far as Tardebigge, they had to construct four tunnels, the longest (at 2726 yards) taking the canal under the Lickey Hills (the Wast Hills Tunnel). North of Tardebigge they also constructed the Bittell Reservoirs, to feed the canal.

The Tardebigge Tunnel entrance.

South from Tardebigge the engineers and surveyors had to drop the canal almost 430 feet over the next 15 miles to Worcester, constructing 56 narrow (7 foot) locks, and two larger ones at Worcester where the canal meets the River Severn.

The Tardebigge Flight south of the Tardebigge Reservoir.

Tardebigge Bottom Lock near Stoke Pound.

Immediately below Tardebigge there is a flight of 30 locks, the longest in the country, in the space of under three miles. And another reservoir, and a pumping house (now converted to luxury apartment).

Following the Tardebigge flight is one of my favorite walks. On 11 April, I made a walk of just over six miles, covering much of the same route I described in an earlier post. On this latest walk, I went beyond the Tardebigge Reservoir, leaving the towpath where London Road crosses the canal, and less than half a mile from the last lock of the flight, Tardebigge Top Lock (the deepest of all the 56 narrow locks).

Take a look at the route of this walk. There is an image (or more than one) linked to each of the red via points.

Overlooking the canal at Tardebigge is the late 18th century church of St Bartholomew. From there one can see  the spire of 12th century St John’s Church in the center of Bromsgrove itself. In the image below, the spire can be seen just to the right of the chimney on the right. Click to enlarge the image.

Looking east to Tardebigge church and the canal, from Dusthouse Lane.

What I find myself thinking about, as I walk the towpath, is just what it took to dig the canal, and construct the locks. How did they achieve all this without recourse to machinery? Each of the locks is brick-lined, and some are edged with large and beautifully dressed sandstone blocks. Were the bricks made on site, or transported to each lock? Where did the sandstone come from? And the lock gates (double on the lower side, single on the upper), made from huge oak beams, weighing (when assembled) over a tonne? You can’t help wondering how they managed to position all these into place. On many sections there are no nearby roads linking with the canal. How many navvies were injured, or killed even, during the whole construction.


For 25 years, the Worcester and Birmingham Canal had no competition. However, in June 1840 the railway came to Bromsgrove with the opening of its station on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, linking Birmingham with the Bristol and Gloucester Railway at Gloucester. Constructed just east of Bromsgrove town center, the line climbs the famous Lickey Incline, a gradient of 1 in 37.7 over a distance of two miles, that begins immediately north of Bromsgrove station.

My walk route also parallels the rail line south to Stoke Pound, crosses underneath there, and again at Finstall on the north side. Approaching the line one cannot but be impressed by the engineering needed to raise level embankments over undulations in the landscape, yet climb the gradient of the Incline to its summit north at Barnt Green.

How many more thousands of navvies swarmed once again into Bromsgrove and surrounding areas while the line was being constructed?

Today the line through Bromsgrove carries commuter services on the recently-electrified Cross City extension (of West Midlands Railways) from Birmingham (and connecting with Lichfield in Staffordshire), or on diesel units south to Hereford via Worcester and Malvern. CrossCountry services hurtle through Bromsgrove (as seen above) on their way south to Penzance at the tip of Cornwall, via Bristol, or north to Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland, via Birmingham, York, Newcastle, and Edinburgh.

So much industrial history to absorb, and so much to think about while enjoying the tranquility and beauty of this north Worcestershire landscape. I never ceased to be awed by what was achieved.

Walking with my mobile: [2] Exploring my hometown

When Steph and I moved back to the UK in 1981 from Peru, we had to find somewhere to live that was not too far from Birmingham. I’d been appointed to a Lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology, so needed a base from which to conveniently commute. We’d already decided that we didn’t want to live in Birmingham, so began to look in the area covered by an arc from the west, south and southeast of the city.

Bromsgrove, some 13 or so miles south of Birmingham, was the first town we visited. It’s a straightforward drive south from the university, and was an obvious first choice. In any case, we’d already seen some property flyers for a couple of properties there that had caught our attention.

And in less than a week we had settled on the house that we bought. And we have ‘lived’ there since July of that year. I say ‘lived’ because a decade later I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. For almost 19 years, our house remained empty (although fully furnished) until we moved back on my retirement in April 2010.

I then realized just how little of Bromsgrove I actually knew, or had explored during the 1980s. I also needed some activity to keep me fit. In the Philippines I’d been reasonably active in the decade leading up to my retirement, enjoying scuba diving, badminton twice a week, and swimming at the weekends. So I took to walking on a daily basis (mostly). And I try to walk a minimum of two miles or 45 minutes each outing, often quite a bit more, and began to explore Bromsgrove.

Our home lies to the east of Bromsgrove town center, near the junction of New Road and the Bromsgrove Eastern By-Pass (A38). My Bromsgrove walks cover an area within a 1½ to 2 mile radius from home, west almost to the M5 motorway, and east to the Worcester and Birmingham canal.

Here is a small sample of five walks that I have made in the past ten days. I have plotted each of the routes in Google maps, with red via points indicating that a photo (maybe two or three) is attached. Just click on a red point to open the image. I have added grey via points to fill in some of the ‘gaps’ in the routes.


23 March (2.47 miles | 52 minutes)
This is one of my frequent railway walks, taking in the bridge over the mainline to Worcester and the West Country. I had actually planned a much longer walk on this day, but when I arrived at the bridge, I discovered that further progress was blocked as the public footpath had been closed (indicated with a blue via point). The bridge used to be a great location for trainspotting, but since electrification of the line, safety barriers have been constructed on all three bridges over the railway restricting the view from each.

Looking north towards the new station at Bromsgrove, that was ‘electrified’ in 2017.

From the bridge, this walk eventually ends up at the roundabout in Aston Fields. On this occasion, I followed the footpath alongside the railway to join Finstall Road a little way north. Then it was back home from there.


24 March (5.16 miles | 1 hour 51 minutes)
This is one of my longer walks, as far as the Worcester and Birmingham Canal (constructed in 1815), north along part the Tardebigge flight of 30 locks (the longest in the UK over 2 miles), as far as the Tardebigge Reservoir, then west back across the fields to home.

A narrowboat passes through the lock below Tardebigge Reservoir (that supplies water to the canal). From here, this walk takes me west towards home.


25 March (4.67 miles | 1 hour 40 minutes)
This is a route that I’ve walked on just a few occasions, taking me to the northwest of the town center. But it’s interesting to see that side of the town, where urban and rural meet, and farmers are ploughing their fields and keeping sheep, right up against the M5 motorway. Then I head south back towards Sanders Park on the south side of the town center, and from there back along the by-pass to home.

This the public bridleway connecting Perryfields Road with Crabmill Lane. The fields either side were sown with barley in 2018. The spire of St John’s Church can be seen on the horizon, left of center.


27 March (2.42 miles | 51 minutes)
This walk follows a route along New Road into Bromsgrove town center, then through the High Street, on to the Stourbridge Road, before heading southeast once again and back home.

The statue of Bromsgrove poet AE Housman in the center of the High Street.

All Saints’ Church on the Birmingham Road.


1 April (4.2 miles | 1 hour 30 minutes)
I’d set out on this walk intending just to take a few photos for another blog post I’m preparing. But since it was such a fine day, I decided to venture further afield, mainly south from home.

Looking north along Rock Hill towards Bromsgrove town center. The spire of St John’s Church can be seen on the center horizon. This spire dominates the Bromsgrove landscape for miles around.


 

A stroll in the park

14 February 2019. Valentine’s Day. Bright and sunny, hardly a cloud in the sky. Just a gentle breeze. What a better day for a nice long walk in the Worcestershire countryside.

So Steph and I headed off to Hanbury Hall, just over 6 miles from home, the closest National Trust property¹ where we often enjoy the garden and parkland. This short video shows the last couple of miles of the trip, through Stoke Prior, past Hanbury Woods before turning right on to School Rd just outside Hanbury.


We completed the circular walk that we had part enjoyed last August, taking in the extra mile or so that we had omitted then.

This is the route we took, clockwise from the car park, and ending at the shop and plant sales.

In all, this walk was just over 3.6 miles and took us almost 1½ hours. From the car park, we headed round the south side of the hall and through the parterre, northwest across the fields (sown with soybeans, we think) before joining the Worcester and Birmingham Canal towpath at the Hanbury Park lock, then following the towpath north to the next lock at Astwood Lane.

Here we turned east along Astwood Lane, heading towards Hanbury Church of St Mary the Virgin, before once again turning south on to National Trust land and back into the park and along an old oak avenue.

Along the way we enjoyed the stark magnificence of Hanbury’s parterre and its box hedges and cones, banks of snowdrops and emerging and soon-to-flower daffodils.

Along the canal there was hardly a breath if wind, so the reflections in the water were particularly strong.

We came across two badger carcasses, roadkill perhaps or maybe victims of TB? Near the church a fox came out of the undergrowth and trotted along the lane ahead of us. We think it had been inspecting one of the dead badgers, an easy meal in the middle of winter.

In a field attached to Webb House Farm we saw a flock of perhaps a hundred fieldfares (the largest of the thrushes that visits these shores in winter); and rabbits skipping along in the warm sunshine. Everywhere there were flocks of heavily pregnant ewes.

Male fieldfare

A full album of photos from our walk can be viewed here.

It was certainly a beautiful day to be outside. And remarkably, it was almost a year to the day that we visited The Firs (the birthplace of composer Sir Edward Elgar) near Worcester, and had enjoyed equally fine and warm weather.


¹ Actually, Rosedene is closer by two miles, but is open only on a few weekends each year.

 

 

 

Three score and ten . . .

18 November 1948. Today is my 70th birthday. Septuagenarian. The Biblical three score and ten (Psalm 90:10)!

Steph and I have come away for the weekend to celebrate my birthday with The Beatles in Liverpool.

We are staying for a couple of nights at Jurys Inn close to the Albert Dock. Later this morning we’ve booked to visit the National Trust-owned Beatles’ Childhood Homes (of John Lennon and Paul McCartney). And after lunch, we will tour The Beatles Story where I’m hoping to see, displayed there, something special from my childhood.

How the years have flown by. Just a month ago, Steph and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary. And I find it hard to believe that I started university over 50 years ago.

That got me thinking. I’ve written quite a lot in this blog about the years after I graduated, my time working overseas, about travel, and what Steph and I have been up to since retiring in 2010.

However, I written much less about my early years growing up in Cheshire and Staffordshire. This is then an appropriate moment to fill some gaps.

A son of Cheshire
I was born in Knowlton House nursing home in Congleton, Cheshire (map), third son and fourth and youngest child of Frederick Harry Jackson (aged 40), a photo process engraver, and Lilian May Jackson, also aged 40, housewife.

Mum and Dad, around 1959/60 after we had moved to Leek

My eldest brother Martin has been able to trace our family’s ancestry (mainly on my father’s side) back to someone named Bull, who was my 13th great-grandfather, born around 1480 on the Staffordshire/ Derbyshire border, just one of my 32,000 plus direct ancestors then. I must be related to royalty in one way or another (as are most of us), although looking at the occupations noted for many of them in various official documents (birth and marriage certificates, census data), we came a long way down the pecking order. Definitely below the salt! We’re Irish on my mother’s side of the family.

A punk before it was fashionable!

I am also a child of the National Health Service (NHS) that was founded in July 1948. In fact, I’m (approximately) the 190,063rd baby born under the NHS!

Knowlton House on Parson Street in Congleton – it’s no longer a nursing home.

I wonder who assisted at my birth? It could well have been our family Dr Galbraith, or Nurses Frost and Botting.

Dr Galbraith (R) was our family doctor, who (with his partner Dr Ritchie) often attended births at Knowlton House, and is seen here with resident midwife Nurse Rose Hannah Frost, who assisted at more than 3000 births. There is a very good chance either Nurse Frost or Nurse May Botting (who ran the nursing home) assisted at my birth. In this photo from 1936, Dr Galbraith and Nurse Frost are holding the Nixon triplets. Photo courtesy of Alan Nixon, who was apparently named after Dr Galbraith.

My dad registered my birth¹ on 22 November (Entry No. 442). There are few ‘Michaels’ in the family; Thomas is my paternal grandfather’s name.

My eldest brother Martin was born in September 1939, just a couple of days before war was declared on Germany. My sister Margaret was born in January 1941. Martin and Margaret spent much of WWII with my paternal grandparents in rural Derbyshire. My elder brother Edgar (‘Ed’) is, like me, one of the baby boomer generation, born in July 1946.

The difference of around 55 years – 1951/52 and 2006

I’ve often wondered what sacrifices Mum and Dad had to make to give us all such a good start in life.

Growing up in Congleton, we lived at 13 Moody Street, close to the town center’s High Street.

There’s not much to tell about my first couple of years, other than what I can surmise from a few photographs taken around that time when I was still in my pram or just beginning to walk. Two things I do remember clearly, though. The hens my father used to keep, and even the large henhouse he constructed at the bottom of the garden. And our female cat, Mitten, and all her kittens. That must have been the start of becoming an ailurophile (cat lover).

My best friend was Alan Brennan, a year younger, who lived a little further up Moody Street at No. 23 (and with whom I reconnected through this blog, after a gap of around 60 years!).

With Alan and his parents (and friends) at Timbersbrook, in 1955. I clearly remember Mr Brennan’s Vauxhall car – a Wyvern I believe.

We didn’t go to the same primary school. Like my brothers and sister before me, I was enrolled (in September 1952 or April 1953, maybe as late as September 1953) at the small Church of England school on Leek Road in Mossley, south of the town. By then, Martin had moved on to grammar school in Macclesfield; Margaret had also transferred to secondary school in Congleton.

Each morning, Ed and I would catch the bus in the High Street together for the short, 1½ mile ride to Mossley. And even as young as five, I would sometimes walk home alone from school during the summer months, along Leek Road and Canal Road/Street. How times change!

I remember the headteacher, Mr Morris, as a kind person. My class teachers were Mrs Bickerton (on the left) and Mrs Johnson (on the right). Courtesy of Liz Campion.

There was a real community of children around Moody Street, Howie Lane/Hill, and Priesty Fields. In summer, we’d all wander up to play on the swing bridge over the Macclesfield Canal (beyond the cemetery – where we would also play in a WWII air raid shelter). The bridge has long been replaced, but from comments on a Congleton Facebook group I belong to, it seems that over the generations, many children enjoyed the swing bridge as much as we did.

In winter, we had fun in the snow at Priesty Fields just round the corner from Moody St. And, as you can see below, we enjoyed dressing up. Happy days!

In the upper image, taken on Coronation Day in 1953, I’m fifth from the right (carrying the stick). Alan Brennan is the little by to the left of the ‘clown’, and in front of the ‘pirate’, my elder brother Ed. The lower image was taken on May Day, probably 1953 or 54. I’m on the left, carrying the sword, uncertain whether to be a knight or a cowboy.

c. 1955. L-R: Veronica George, Carol Brennan, Jessica George, my elder brother Ed, me, Margaret Moulton, and Alan Brennan. Taken in the garden of No 13 Moody St. The George sisters lived at No. 21 Moody St.

I often joined my father when he went out on photographic assignments for the Congleton Chronicle (where he was Chief Photographer), often to Biddulph Grange when it was an orthopedic hospital, also to Astbury, and out into the beautiful Cheshire countryside.

I remember one outing in particular, to Little Moreton Hall in May 1954. This is my father’s photo of Manley Morris Men dancing there, an image that stuck in my mind for many years. So much so that when I went to university in the later 1960s, I helped form a morris dancing side, the Red Stags, that’s still going strong (albeit in a slightly different form) 50 years later.

The Manley Morris Men at Little Moreton Hall on 8 May 1954.

For family holidays I remember those in North Wales, at a caravan park or, on one occasion, a camping coach, a converted railway carriage alongside the mainline to Holyhead next to the beach at Abergele.

During these early years, until July 1954, rationing was still in place that had come into effect at the start of the Second World War. I often wonder how my parents managed to raise four children during these difficult years. One thing I do recall, however, is how we shared things, particularly confectionery. No individual treats. My father would buy a Mars bar (I’m sure they were bigger then) and cut it into six pieces. Funny how these things stick in one’s memory.


The move to Leek
April 1956. A big change in my life. My family upped sticks and moved 12 miles southeast to the market town of Leek in north Staffordshire, where my father took over a retail photography business. As I was only 7½ when we moved, I’ve come to regard Leek as my home town. My parents lived there for the rest of their lives. My father passed away in 1980, and after my mother had a stroke in 1990, only then did she move away from Leek to spend her last couple of years in a care home near my sister in South Wales.

We lived at No. 65, St Edward Street, and within a couple of days of arriving there, I’d made friends with three boys who lived close by: Philip Porter (next door), Geoff Sharratt – whose father was publican at The Quiet Woman pub a few doors away, and David Phillips who lived over the road. Geoff’s younger sister Susan sometimes joined in our games, as did Philip’s sister Jill. We were the ‘St Edward Street Gang’.

Here we are in the late 1950s (probably 1958), in the yard of The Quiet Woman pub. L-R: Sue, Geoff, me, Philip, and Dave. And again in 2018.

Geoff was my best friend, and we spent a lot of time playing together. There were several upstairs rooms at The Quiet Woman, one of which was the Lodge of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB, the Buffs, a fraternal organization somewhat similar to the Freemasons). During inclement weather, we often took refuge in the Lodge, playing among the benches and high chairs.

Playing with my Hornby ‘O’ gauge clockwork train at ‘Congleton’ station – it would be a collectors’ item today. Taken around 1958.

I was also a cub scout, as was Ed.

Around 1960, the lease on No. 65 came due, so my father decided to to find a better location for his business. First, he moved across St Edward’s St to No. 56 (while we lived in a flat at the top of the Market Place). In 1962/63 my father acquired No. 19 Market Place as premises for his photographic business, with living accommodation above. This was just what he had been looking for, centrally located in the town, lots of footfall. But the whole property had to be refurbished; there was only one water tap – in the cellar. He did much of the refurbishment himself. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at his DIY talents, something I sadly have not inherited to the same degree. My parents remained at No. 19 until they retired in 1976.

Sandwiched between Jackson the Optician (no relation) on the left, and Victoria Wine on the right, No 19 Market Place was my parents home for 14 years.

Around the same time, Geoff’s parents left The Quiet Woman and moved elsewhere in the town. I was also traveling every day to school to Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent (a round trip of about 28 miles), while Geoff continued his education in Leek. As a consequence, we drifted apart, but through my blog we reconnected in 2012.

Mr Smith

My mother’s family were Irish Catholics, and although we had not been brought up in the faith while in Congleton, both Ed and myself were enrolled in St. Mary’s RC primary school on Cruso Street, a short walk away from home. We were taught by Sisters of Loreto nuns. Headmistress Mother Elizabeth or my class teacher, Mother Bernadine, were never averse to wrapping us across the knuckles with the sharp edge of a ruler. In my final year at St Mary’s (1959-60), we were taught by Mr Smith. But my recollections don’t tally so much with many others who also attended St Mary’s. And I have been horrified at some accounts of how unhappy they were at the school in the 1950s and 60s.

In the late 50s and early 60s, just Ed and I would join our parents for holidays in Wales, most often camping or in our own caravan.

Some of my happiest memories though come from our visits to my grandparents² (my father’s parents) in Hollington, a small Derbyshire village between Ashbourne and Derby. My grandfather was almost 76 when I was born; Grandma was 68.

Family picnic at Hollington, c. 1952, with cousins. Grandma in the center, my mum is on the left. I’m center front ‘guarding’ the bottle.

With Grandad and Grandma Jackson, and our cousin Diana, c. 1959 at Ebenezer Cottage.

Grandma and Grandad celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1954, the occasion of a large gathering of family and friends in Hollington.


Enduring high school
I passed my 11 Plus exam to attend a Roman Catholic grammar school, St Joseph’s College, at Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent. Founded by Irish Christian Brothers in 1932, the school took boys only (but is now co-educational). I had to be on the bus by 07:50 each morning if I was to get to school by 09:00. This was my daily routine for the next seven years.

On reflection, I can’t say that I found the school experience satisfying or that the quality of the education I received was worth writing home about. Yes, there were some good teachers who I looked up to, but much of the teaching was pretty mediocre. I’ve written elsewhere about the gratuitous use of corporal punishment at the school.

Perhaps one of the school’s claims to fame was the priest who attended to our ‘spiritual needs’. He was Father John Tolkien, son JRR Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. My first impressions of Fr Tolkien were not favorable. He came across as cold and authoritarian. When I got to know him later on, however, I found he was a warm person with a good sense of humor. I was saddened to learn that his last years were blighted by accusations of abuse, later dropped.


On to university . . . and faraway places
I was lucky to secure a place in October 1967 at the University of Southampton to study botany and geography, beginning three of the happiest years of my life. I’ve already blogged about various aspects of my time at Southampton, and you can read them here. Little did I think that I would have a career in botany, and that would lead me to fulfill one of my ambitions: to visit Peru.

Even though I graduated in 1970 with only an average BSc degree, that didn’t hold me back. I had ambitions.

I was fortunate to be accepted into graduate school at the University of Birmingham, where I completed MSc and PhD degrees in plant genetic resources, and returned there in 1981 for a decade as Lecturer in Plant Biology.

After my PhD graduation at The University of Birmingham on 12 December 1975 with my PhD supervisor, Prof. Jack Hawkes (L) and Prof. Trevor Williams (R) who supervised my MSc dissertation.

My international career in plant genetic resources conservation and agriculture took me to Peru and Costa Rica from 1973-1981, to work on potatoes for the International Potato Center (CIP). And then in July 1991, I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for the next 19 years as head of the genebank then as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

I had good opportunities to publish my research over the years, in terms of journal articles, books and book chapters, and presentations at scientific conferences.

I retired in April 2010, at the age of 61. But I haven’t rested on my laurels. Scientifically I have:

In the 2012 I was honored to be made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or OBE, for services to international food science (in the New Year’s Honours).

I set up this blog in February 2012, and have written more than 460 stories for a total of around 470,000 words since then, and posted thousands of images, most of which I have taken myself.


Family
Steph and I were married on 13 October 1973 in Lima, Peru. We’d met at Birmingham during 1971-72, and after I’d moved to Lima in January 1973, she joined me there in July and also worked at CIP.

At La Granja Azul restaurant near Lima (on the left) after our wedding in 1973. And on the right, exactly 45 years later during one of our walks at Croome Court in Worcestershire.

Hannah, our elder daughter was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. Philippa was born in Bromsgrove in May 1982, a year after we had moved back to the UK (in March 1981). When we moved to the Philippines in 1991, they both attended the International School Manila, and then went on to university in the USA (Macalester College in Minnesota) and Durham in the UK, respectively. In 2006 and 2010, they completed their PhD degrees in psychology, respectively at the University of Minnesota and Northumbria University.

PhD graduands! On the left, Hannah is with her classmates in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Emily and Mike, on 12 May 2006. Philippa (on the right) is with one of her PhD supervisors, Prof. David Kennedy of the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre in the Dept. of Psychology at Northumbria University on 7 December 2010.

In those same years Hannah married Michael, and Phil married Andi. We now have four wonderful grandchildren: Callum (8), Elvis (7), Zoë (6), and Felix (5). The family came together for the first time in a New Forest holiday in July 2016.

On holiday in the New Forest in July 2016. L-R (sitting): Callum, Hannah, Zoë, me, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael and Andi

The 2018-19 school year started for Callum and Zoë in August, and for Elvis and Felix in September. It was also Felix’s first day at school.

In September, Steph and I spent a week in Cornwall exploring many National Trust and English Heritage properties around the county.

Foldes and Fenner family photos in July and September


So, as I look back on the past 70 years, I can’t say I have much to complain about. Steph and I have a beautiful family. An interesting career took me to more than 65 countries (and Steph to some of those). We’ve lived and worked in three countries and made some wonderful friends.

Je ne regrette rien

At 70, though, what does life have in store?

I think Fleetwood Mac (one of my favorite bands) sum it up quite nicely. If it was fine for Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for me.

Retirement is sweet. Who could ask for more?


¹ I no longer have my original birth certificate. That now sits in an archive somewhere in the Miraflores Municipality building in Lima, Peru. When Steph and I married there in October 1973 we had to present our original birth certificates, not realizing these would be filed away in perpetuity and never returned to us.

² I did not really know my mother’s parents, who died before my sixth birthday. They lived in Epsom, Surrey.

Navigating the Stourport Ring

I’m fascinated by canals. You have to admire the visionaries who financed and built the canals, and the armies of men who constructed them.

Most canals in England and Wales were dug by gangs of navvies in the 18th and early 19th centuries. However, within just a generation or two the canals were already in decline as an expanding railway network made transportation of goods cheaper and faster. The writing was on the wall for the canals once George Stephenson had demonstrated the power of steam locomotion.

The economic justification for and value of the canals waned, and they fell into disuse, and no longer navigable. However, in recent decades there has been a resurgence in the use of inland waterways. Today some 2000 miles of navigable waterways (canals and rivers) are managed by the Canal & River Trust, used mainly for pleasure traffic. Narrowboat holidays on the canals are very popular.

I have written several stories about the pleasure Steph and I take from walking along the towpath of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, that runs north-south between Gas Street Basin in the center of Birmingham and the River Severn at Worcester. The canal is less than two miles east of our home in Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire. Our walks normally cover small sections of the towpath between Tardebigge Top Lock (No. 58) and Astwood Bottom Lock (No. 17), a distance of about 5½ miles.

We not only enjoy the surrounding countryside, tranquil for the most part (unless a mainline express is speeding by about half a mile to the west), but also watching the canal narrowboats navigating their way up and down the Tardebigge Flight, the longest flight (of 30 locks) in the country, some with a greater degree of proficiency than others. Some days it can be like Piccadilly Circus¹ with boats queuing up to pass through the locks.

Taking to the water
We have taken only one canal holiday, in the summer of 1983, when Steph, Hannah (just five years old), Philippa (15 months) and me took to the water for a week, to navigate the Stourport Ring.

The Ring, for our purposes, comprised four waterways:

If I remember correctly, the various links connecting the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal with the BCN via the Stourbridge Canal and the Dudley Canals were not navigable in 1983.

Setting out, and setting some rules
It was early July, and we took Hannah out of school for the week with readily-granted permission from Mr Richards, the headmaster at Finstall First School. That would be almost impossible nowadays. We had chosen a small, 4-berth narrowboat for our holiday, Blue Heron, from a hire-boat center operating out of Alvechurch, about 15 minutes from home. So, packing clothes for a week, and several boxes of groceries (including the inevitable wine boxes that were very popular in the 80s), we headed to Alvechurch to board our boat.

Blue Heron, with Steph at the helm, and Philippa in the bow.

After a familiarization tour of the boat, one of the marina staff joined us for the first three miles to the first lock on our trip, Tardebigge Top Lock. Not only would that be the first lock we’d encounter over the next week, but it was one of the deepest. So, the marina staff not only wanted to guide us safely through this lock but also to show us the rudiments of safe canal navigation.


Looking at the various photos I have included in this post, you might be forgiven for questioning our apparent lack of awareness of on-board safety. Only Hannah is wearing a life jacket, something that would not be allowed more than three decades later. At five years old, we had to set Hannah some strict limits how to move around the boat. At 15 months, Philippa was already walking, and would crawl and stagger around the cabin whenever we moored for a meal break or at night. With either Steph or me steering the boat, one of us had to operate the locks, raising/ lowering the paddles to empty or fill each lock, and open the lock gates. So it was important we knew where the girls were at all times.

To keep Philippa safe, we put her in a high chair in the bow of the boat, and with her mob cap for protection, and a good coating of sun cream, she was (mostly) quite happy watching the world go by at a leisurely 4 mph (the maximum speed permitted on the canals), waving to passers-by, or falling asleep when the fancy took her. Hannah would often sit beside whoever was steering at the stern of the boat, or ‘help’ with the locks.

Our journey continues
Having successfully passed through Tardebigge Top Lock, we headed down a few more on our own, before mooring for the night just below the Engine House, then a nightclub/restaurant (but now converted into luxury apartments), near Lock 55 or 54, in the early evening. With two small children on board, we had to get them fed and not too late bedded down for the night.

The view from Tardebigge Top Lock (No. 58).

Looking south on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal near Lock 54. The Malvern Hills can be seen in the far distance.

We spent all the next day completing the Tardebigge flight, but I’m not sure if we reached Worcester that same day, or took another day. Probably the latter. However, we spent one night at Worcester’s Diglis Basin before facing the River Severn.

It had become clear on the final stretch into Worcester that Hannah was not her usual perky self. And by bedtime, she had a temperature. The next morning she really looked very unwell, so she and I headed off into the center of Worcester in search of medical help. Although only 15 miles or so from home, it felt like 100 miles. I didn’t have our doctor’s telephone number with me. In any case, there were no mobile phones in 1983.

Nevertheless, we finally got to see a doctor (after completing a slew of NHS forms because we were being treated as ‘visitors’, not our own doctor), who diagnosed tonsillitis, and prescribed a course of antibiotics. It was remarkable how quickly those had an effect, because by late afternoon Hannah was feeling very much better, and almost back to her normal self by bedtime.

Diglis Basin in Worcester.

Our departure from Worcester was delayed until after lunch. We steeled ourselves for the section of our trip on the River Severn. We had good weather (and for the whole week), and no particular difficulties on the river itself. But we did have to pass through the Diglis Lock connecting Diglis Basin with the River Severn. This lock is wide and deep, and a challenge for two canal novices like Steph and myself. I don’t remember that this lock was assisted.

Once on the Severn we turned north, having a grandstand view from the center of the river of Worcester Cathedral on the east bank, and the city center.

There was just one other lock on the Severn itself, at Holt, to bypass a weir. That lock had lock keepers, and was electrically operated. Once we reached Stourport-on-Severn, it was time to leave the river and join the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, for the next stage of our trip.

Entering the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal at Stourport-on-Severn.

This canal passes through the center of Kidderminster, a town famous world-wide for its carpet-making industry, then on through some lovely and peaceful red sandstone landscapes near Kinver in South Staffordshire.

We must have taken a couple of days to travel this section as far as Aldersley Junction, where we had to turn east and join the Birmingham Canals Navigation. However, as we needed water and some other supplies, we travelled a couple of miles further north, joining the Shropshire Union Canal at Autherley Junction for a very short distance before turning around to moor up for the night by Aldersley Junction. At Autherley Junction, there is a stop lock, with just a small height difference, a matter of inches, between the two canals to prevent drainage of one canal into the other.

The next section on the BCN was our penultimate day, taking us from Aldersley Junction, through the Black Country, Birmingham city center, and south again on to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, mooring up north of Alvechurch in order to arrive back on time at the marina the next day.

From Aldersley Junction there is a flight of 21 locks that raise the canal 132 feet. We made an early start, with the idea of stopping about half way for breakfast. However, we discovered at about one third of the climb that a previous boat had left the lock paddles open and several pounds between the locks had drained completely. The photo below was taken on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal a couple of years ago when several refurbishment projects were underway. But it shows the sort of scene that greeted us that morning on the BCN. It must have taken an hour or more to restore water levels to the pounds before we could get on the move once again.

Travelling between Wolverhampton and Birmingham in 1983 was like passing through a desolate lunar landscape, with scenes of dereliction all around. This is part of the so-called Black Country of Dudley and Tipton, formerly an important industrial area. Today this whole area has been reclaimed for housing. Even the derelict warehouses along the canals in the center of Birmingham have either been refurbished as ‘desirable residences’ or demolished and replaced by new housing and offices.

Near Gas Street Basin in 1983.

Signposts on the canal, Wolverhampton to the left, Worcester to the right.

However in 1983, there was little shade along the banks of the BCN in the Black Country of Dudley and Tipton. It was a very hot day, and the sun was beating down. Because we had to travel more miles than usual, I had my lunch and tea breaks on the move, so to speak. Just as we crossed Gas Street Basin, the weather broke and there was a tremendous thunderstorm. With that, we decided to moor until the storm had passed, before continuing south, past the University of Birmingham Edgbaston campus, and through the one and a half mile long Wast Hills Tunnel (under the Lickey Hills) north of Alvechurch, one of the longest in the country. We moored close to where the A441 crosses the canal at Hopwood, and enjoyed an evening meal at the Hopwood House pub.

The University of Birmingham campus from the canal near Selly Oak.

Just passed through one of the tunnels north of Alvechurch.

With only a short distance to Alvechurch, we spent a couple of hours cleaning the boat on the final morning, getting everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, and arriving back at the marina by the noon deadline.

From there, it was just a case of hopping into our car, and within 15 minutes we were back home. A very enjoyable holiday and, as you can tell as you read this post, one that left me with long-lasting memories.

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¹ The phrase it’s like Piccadilly Circus is commonly used in the UK to refer to a place or situation which is extremely busy with people.

Elgar’s county – a land of hope and glory?

WORCESTERSHIRE

The county’s flag and coat of arms

Where Worcestershire Sauce was first concocted. But Worcestershire is also the birthplace (just outside Worcester) in 1857 of Sir Edward Elgar, one of the nation’s most renowned composers.

While reading this post, why not listen to celebrated contralto Clara Butt sing, in this 1911 recording, one of Elgar’s most famous compositions, Land of Hope and Glory (written in 1902, with words by AC Benson). 

Bounded on the north by the West Midlands and Staffordshire, to the northwest by Shropshire, Herefordshire to the west, Gloucestershire to the south, and Shakespeare’s county, Warwickshire to the east, Worcestershire is a mainly rural county in the English Midlands. It has an area of 672 square miles, and is 38th out of 48 counties in size. Click on the map below to explore further. The estimated population (in 2016) was a little under 600,000. Ethnically it’s mostly white British (>91%).

Setting up home
Worcestershire is my home, but I’m not a native. I was born and raised in Cheshire and Staffordshire, some 70 miles to the north. My wife hails from Essex, east of London. We chose Worcestershire—Bromsgrove in the northeast of the county to be specific (shown by the blue star on the map above)—more by chance than design. Let me explain.

In March 1981, Steph, Hannah (almost three), and I returned to the UK after living more than eight years in Peru and Costa Rica. I’d just been appointed to a lectureship at The University of Birmingham, in the Department of Plant Biology, School of Biological Sciences. Until we found somewhere to live permanently, Steph and Hannah stayed with her parents in Southend-on-Sea, while I settled into lecturing life at Birmingham. And launch ourselves into the housing market.

Before we left Peru, we had asked Steph’s parents to contact on our behalf as many estate agents (realtors) as they could identify from locations in a wide arc from the west of Birmingham, south into Worcestershire, and southeast towards the Solihull area. We already had decided that we didn’t want to live in Birmingham itself.

Arriving back in the UK we encountered a very large pile of house specs waiting for us at Steph’s parents, and began to work our way through these, rejecting immediately any that did not meet our expected needs. We quickly whittled around 500 down to a handful of fewer than fifty or so.

It must have been the Wednesday of my first week at the university in April, a slack period with no lectures or practical classes scheduled. So I decided to take the afternoon off and go house viewing. But in which direction to strike out?

Bromsgrove is just 13 miles south of the university, connected by the A38, a route that crosses the city right by the university in Edgbaston. We had selected a couple of properties in Bromsgrove that seemed promising, and the drive there was likely to be the easiest of any of the other locations on our list. So I made appointments that same afternoon to view these two properties. And the first house I saw was the one we actually ended up buying. It just ticked all the boxes. Later that evening I phoned Steph to tell her what I’d been up to, and that she should schedule to come up to Birmingham on the train as soon as possible to take a look for herself. Within a week we’d made an offer for the house, and started to sort out a mortgage—at 16¾% interest in the first year or so!

Our younger daughter, Philippa, was born in Bromsgrove in 1982. New house, new baby!

In July 1991, I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and we stayed there until April 2010, almost 19 years. All the while we kept our home in Bromsgrove, fully furnished, but unoccupied, and available for us to return to whenever we came home on annual leave, and to take up residence once again on retirement.

Worcestershire is a lovely county, dotted with picturesque villages, rolling hills in the north and west, magnificent river valleys slicing through the landscape, and fertile agricultural land to the southeast. We’ve never regretted making the choice to move here. Being located in the middle of England, it’s not too far from anywhere. Our younger daughter lives in Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast, a smidgen under 250 miles away. And during their lifetime, visiting Steph’s parents in Essex, just 160 miles away, was an (mostly) easy trip. Over the past seven years of retirement, we are enjoying getting out and about to explore not only our ‘home’ county, but also places within a 80-100 mile radius for day trips.

Administration, political life, and towns
Worcestershire has few urban areas. The City of Worcester lies in the center of the county, just 16 miles south of Bromsgrove. It’s the seat of the county council, and also of the Diocese of Worcester and its magnificent cathedral.

There are six local government authorities: 1. Worcester; 2. Malvern Hills; 3. Wyre Forest; 4. Bromsgrove; 5. Redditch; and 6. Wychavon.

There are seven parliamentary constituencies, all held by Conservative politicians. That says a lot about the county. The Member of Parliament for the Bromsgrove constituency is Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, a member of the Cabinet, and once considered as a high flyer and Tory Party leadership contender. His star has waned somewhat.

Bromsgrove is famous for its 17th century nail-making industry, and the iron gates of Buckingham Palace¹ made by the Bromsgove Guild of Applied Arts. Carpet-making Kidderminster is nine miles to the west of Bromsgrove.

Redditch, nine miles to the east, was home from the 18th century to a needle-making industry, and Droitwich Spa, founded on extensive salt and brine deposits, lies about six miles south. In the far south of the county, market town Evesham serves the agricultural community in the fertile Vale of Evesham.

Landscape
Geographically, Worcestershire has some important features. England’s longest river, the Severn, enters the county northwest of Kidderminster (south of Bridgnorth), and flows for some 45 miles south before reaching the Severn Estuary in Gloucestershire and beyond. The River Avon (Shakespeare’s Avon) meanders east to west across the southern part of the county, round Evesham and to the north of Bredon Hill, before joining the Severn at Tewksbury in Gloucestershire.

In the north of the county, to the north and west of Bromsgrove, the Lickey Hills (between Bromsgrove and Birmingham) and Clent Hills rise to 978 and 1037 feet, respectively. On a clear day, the view from the top of Clent can be spectacular, as far as the Black Mountains of South Wales.

The view south towards the Malvern Hills (on the right), the Severn Estuary, and the Cotswolds (on the left).

Looking further west towards Abberley Hill, beyond Great Witley.

Straddling the county border between Worcestershire and Herefordshire, the Malvern Hills are an easily recognisable north-south spine, rising to over 1300 feet, and offering an unsurpassed panorama over the Severn Valley to the east, and the Cotswolds further southeast.

The Malverns (R) looking south to Bredon Hill (center) and the Cotswolds, and the Vale of Evesham, from just south of Great Witley.

This is a view, to the west, of the northern section of the Malverns and the Severn Valley from the Panorama Tower (designed by James Wyatt in 1801) at Croome.

In the south of the county, Bredon Hill (at 981 feet) is a Jurassic limestone outlier of the Cotswolds, affording views north and east over the Vale of Evesham, and south to the steep north-facing escarpment of the Cotswolds proper.

This is the view from Broadway Hill, looking north over the Vale of Evesham, with Bredon Hill on the left.

Horticulturally, the Vale of Evesham is one of the most important areas in the country, famous for its extensive orchards of apples, pears, and plums, vegetables (especially asparagus), and hop gardens, among others. Worcestershire is also ‘home’ to The Archers, an every day story of country folk, based on villages close to Bromsgrove.

In the northwest of the county, and spreading into Shropshire, the Wyre Forest is an important semi-natural woodland, and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It covers an area of about 10 square miles.

Transport
Summer visitors to Worcestershire must be very high indeed, but perhaps for just an hour at most as they cross the county. That’s because the M5 motorway is a 32 mile corridor ferrying holidaymakers south to the West Country or north to Lancashire, the Lake District, and Scotland.

Worcestershire has two other motorways. A section of the M42 (the southern orbital around Birmingham) passes north of Bromsgrove, and joins the M5 there. The M50, in the southwest of the county, branches off the M5 and takes traffic west into Herefordshire and south to South Wales.

Worcestershire has two particular transport claims to fame. Running north-south, just over a mile east of Bromsgrove town center, the main-line railway (connecting Birmingham with Bristol and the southwest) traverses the Lickey Incline (currently being electrified as far as Bromsgrove), the steepest sustained main-line incline in Great Britain, for a little over two miles, at 2.65%.

The Incline was first surveyed, but then abandoned, by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1832 as a route for the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway.

Just a little further east, the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, completed in 1815, connects the River Severn at Worcester with Canal Basin in the heart of Birmingham, a distance of 29 miles. The 30 lock Tardebigge Flight, close to Bromsgrove, is the longest flight of locks in the UK. I have written about both the Lickey Incline and the canal here.

Tardebigge Top Lock

Part of the Tardebigge Flight

The view from Tardebigge church (above Tardebigge Top Lock) over Bromsgrove to the Malverns (in the southwest on the left) and to Clee Hill (due west, in Shropshire) in the distance.

Another canal, the 46 mile long Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal (completed in 1771) branches from the River Severn at Stourport on Severn, crosses the northwest part of the county through Kidderminster, eventually joining the Trent and Mersey Canal at Great Haywood in Staffordshire. This was a vital link for 18th century industry.

Famous sons and daughters of Worcestershire
Earlier I mentioned Sir Edward Elgar. He is perhaps the most famous son of Worcestershire. He was appointed the first professor of Music at The University of Birmingham in 1905. The Elgar Concert Hall at the university, opened in 2012, is named after him. It is one of the venues in The Bramall that sits alongside the university’s Great Hall, an extension of the Aston Webb building, completing the red-brick semi-circle vision of Sir Joseph Chamberlain, which has been at the heart of the University since 1909.

In addition to his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Elgar is also renowned for his Enigma Variations, composed in 1898/99 (0f which the evocative Nimrod must be the most loved). But I think his tour de force must be his Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 played in this video by Jacqueline du Pré, one of the 20th century’s most talented musicians.

AE Housman

Classical scholar and poet Alfred Edward Housman was born in Fockbury, just outside Bromsgrove in 1859. His most famous cycle of poems is A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896. His statue stands proudly over the High Street in Bromsgrove.

Conservative politician and Prime Minister at the time of the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, Stanley Baldwin was born in Bewdley in 1857. Roland Hill, credited with the concept of a modern postal service, and the postage stamp, was born in Kidderminster in 1795. William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, and motor magnate and philanthropist, was born in Worcester in 1877.

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was born in Kidderminster in 1948, actor Charles Dance  (born 1946) hails from Redditch, and Sting’s wife Trudie Styler was born in Bromsgrove in 1956.

Heritage
Historically, Worcestershire has much to offer. Two major—and pivotal—battles were fought in the county. In August 1265, the forces of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester were defeated at the Battle of Evesham by the army of King Henry III led by his son Edward, later Edward I. Almost 400 years later, in the final battle of the English Civil Wars, the forces of King Charles II (who wasn’t restored to the crown until 1660) were defeated at Worcester in 1651 by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian New Model Army.

Today, the Monarch’s Way is a long distance footpath (>600 miles) that traces the route of Charles II’s escape after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester. Earlier this year we visited Boscobel House in Shropshire (the furthest north Charles fled) where he hid in an oak tree.

The Monarch’s Way crosses the Worcester & Birmingham Canal in places, and passes through Pepper Wood, just west of Bromsgrove.

Standing proudly above the River Severn in the center of Worcester, the cathedral is the final resting place of King John (of Magna Carta fame).

The tomb of King John in Worcester Cathedral.

The cathedral was built between 1084 and 1504, combining different architectural styles from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic. There are many other abbeys and religious buildings throughout the county, most destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.

There are two outstanding medieval threshing barns standing in the south of the county, near Bredon, and at Littleton near Evesham, as well as good examples of dovecotes at Hawford and Wichenford (both owned by the National Trust).

The medieval barn at Bredon.

The roof of Littleton barn.

Hawford dovecote on the left, and Wichenford on the right.

One of the oldest public schools (i.e. private school) in the country, Bromsgrove School, was founded as a chantry school in 1476, and re-founded in 1553. It takes pupils from all over the world, but despite occupying a large chunk of real estate in the town, seems to have very little connection with the community (even though it’s quite often featured in the local weekly newspapers).

The National Trust also owns two large estates in Worcestershire at Hanbury Hall (just seven miles southwest of Bromsgrove), and Croome Court, southeast of Worcester. Both are impressive 18th century houses. Greyfriars is a medieval merchant’s house and walled garden in the center of Worcester.

Hanbury Hall, built in 1701.

Croome Court, home of the 6th Earl of Coventry, and the first park designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Looking south along Friar Street in Worcester. Greyfriars is the double gabled building on the left.

At Great Whitley, some 16 miles west of Bromsgrove, stand the ruins of Witley Court, owned by English Heritage, destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 1937. It has become a favorite place for us to visit, since the early 1980s when we moved to the county.

We have yet to visit the only other English Heritage property in Worcestershire, Leigh Court Barn.

The heritage, standard gauge Severn Valley Railway, formed in 1965, runs 16 miles from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, beside the River Severn, with intermediate stops at several picturesque stations. It’s a delightful way to spend the day, with the opportunity for a good walk around Bridgnorth before returning to Kidderminster.

Worcestershire has such a lot to offer, and to some extent we have just scratched the surface. We look forward to many more years of getting to know this corner of England we call home.

Land of hope and glory? Much of Worcestershire is glorious. Hope? Well, while this Conservative government remains in power, and facing Brexit, there’s little optimism for hope, especially with all Worcestershire MPs being members of the Conservative Party.

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¹ In February 2012, I attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace and received an OBE from HRH The Prince of Wales. In this post-investiture photo in front of the gates at Buckingham Palace, I’m wearing the OBE medal, which is made by Worcestershire Medal Service based in Bromsgrove.

With Steph on 29 February 2012 outside Buckingham Palace after the OBE investiture.

Industrial heritage is all around . . .

The legacy of the Industrial Revolution is all around here in north Worcestershire, and I am reminded of it almost every day.

Bromsgrove lies on the Birmingham-Bristol (and all stations to the southwest) main railway line, at the bottom of the Lickey Incline (the longest and steepest sustained gradient of 2.65% for two miles on the rail network). It’s just under a mile east of where I live.

Because of the steepness of the gradient it’s not uncommon today to see two diesel engines pulling and pushing a long freight train. In the days of steam, a specially-designed locomotive (the Fowler 0-10-0 Big Bertha) was stationed at Bromsgrove to help through trains up the Incline.

As I write, 175 years after a station was opened, Bromsgrove is having a new station. In fact, construction has been ongoing for almost two years now. After failing to meet a November 2015 schedule to open, the new station is expected to open by May this year. Maybe.

20151231 013

When I took the train occasionally into the University of Birmingham in the 1980s, there was only one platform, on the up line. The current station is just round the bend on the photo above. Trains arriving from Birmingham had to cross from the down line on to the up line, drop off or pick up passengers, then re-cross to the down line south of the station. Not really advisable. You can see the switch just behind this train heading south yesterday. Then a new platform was added on the down line. The main problem is that the platforms are short, and can only accept three-coach London Midland trains that stop at Bromsgrove., So with the growing commuter traffic into Birmingham, something needed to be done.

And that’s how the new station came about. It will have four island platforms, and trains stopping at Bromsgrove can be diverted off the main lines. Doing so will allow more trains to run per hour. Also, the line will be electrified as far as Bromsgrove, connecting the town into the wider West Midlands electrified commuter routes as far north as Lichfield. Freight trains heading up the Lickey Incline can wait in the branch on the left of the photo until they can have a clear—and slow—run at it. Sometimes in the summer, when we have the bedroom window open, and the wind is in the right direction, it sounds as though some of these freighters are headed right towards us. The rails on the extreme right have yet to be laid, and that can’t happen until the new station is open and the existing platforms decommissioned because the switch of the main line has to begin about where the current down line platform ends. That’s scheduled for October 2016, and the lines will be closed for 10 days while some major track engineering takes place, signalling is installed, and presumably the electrification completed.

The bridge where I took this photo is on one of my regular walks, so I have been watching progress over the past 21 months. I wish I’d taken photos more often. But what has been interesting to observe is the impressive kit that the engineers used to lift old track, lay new ones (that branch on the left replaced several different sidings), excavate culverts that had collapsed, and the like. Part of the delay in completing the project in 2015 was the need to decontaminate the site that had been an oil terminal for a major engineering works formerly alongside the railway, and reroute signalling and an underground stream that did not figure on any of the plans available to the engineers. There was a further delay, and a need to apply again for planning permission when it was discovered that the bridge connecting platforms would have to be raised just 14 inches to conform to EU regulations concerning the distance between a bridge and overhead electrification wires.

The Ribblehead Viaduct

Access to sophisticated equipment today really puts in context how the railways were first constructed, almost 200 years ago. And although much of the work would have been carried out by gangs of navvies, I guess by mid-Victorian times engineers would have had steam-powered machines available. Nevertheless, the construction of embankments, tunnels, and viaducts is surely an impressive feat of human enterprise. It was hard, dirty, and dangerous work in isolated locations where temporary communities sprang up—and men, women, and children died and were buried. This account of the Settle-Carlisle line and the construction of the Ribblehead Viaduct gives a sense of the isolation and hardship of building this railway.

These communities are being celebrated, if that’s the right word, in a new drama that started to air on the commercial ITV channel from 7 January.

Before the trains . . .
The rail network in the UK today is a shadow of its former glory, having been deliberately dismantled, maybe I should say restructured, in the 1960s by Dr Beeching.

But, to my mind, there’s an even more impressive example of civil engineering that began half a century before the railways were built.

I’m referring, of course, to the canals, and their construction began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. And what’s particularly impressive, is that they were dug mostly by hand, by gangs of navvies.

Just a little over a mile to the east of the Lickey Incline is the Worcester and Birmingham, that has just celebrated its 200th birthday. Begun in 1791, it was finally completed in December 1815. I find it fascinating that construction of this canal wonder took place while Europe was in turmoil through the Napoleonic Wars and the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.

At 29 miles long, the canal connects Worcester with Birmingham, climbing 130m (428 feet) over the same topographical feature that would tackled on the Lickey Inlcine half a century later. There are 58 locks; the Tardebigge Flight of 30 locks is the longest in the UK, raising the canal some 200 feet in just five miles between Stoke Bottom Lock to Tardebigge Top Lock. You can explore a detailed map on the website of the Canal & River Trust.

This is a time-lapse video of that journey up the Tardebigge Flight.

In addition to all the locks there are five tunnels, with a combined length of 2.4 miles.

The channels were dug by hand, and then lined with mud to make them ‘waterproof’ so the water did not leak away. A series of three reservoirs provide a constant supply of water, and at Tardebigge there is a disused pump house, once powered by steam to raise water to different levels in the Tardebigge Flight.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, sections of the towpath along the canal from south of Stoke Prior and Tardebigge are some of my favorite walks in all seasons. Here is a selection of photographs that I have taken over the years. In some of them you can see the details of canal and lock construction because on a number of occasions sections of the canal had to be drained for maintenance. I always feel inspired and full of admiration for those hard-working labourers who set their backs to dig the Worcester and Birmingham Canal over 200 years ago.

Clickety click!

66Clickety click? You play bingo, don’t you? It’s the 66 ball.

And yesterday was my 66th birthday. Another milestone. It has been a busy year, what with the 4th International Rice Congress in Bangkok three weeks ago (and the months of planning that went into that event).

But yesterday, I could indulge myself for a while. Our weather has been appalling recently – windy and wet, and getting colder. But yesterday dawned bright and sunny, so I took myself out for a 5 mile walk along the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. There were a couple of boats coming down the Tardebigge Flight (that’s 30 locks), and I got chatting with one of the boat owners. Seems they were traveling in tandem – two sisters and their husbands – since June! All over the country, and were now heading for winter quarters at Droitwich, just a few miles down the canal, for the next four months. They are live-aboard boat owners.

Then a little further up the towpath I stopped to chat with a surveyor from the Canal & River Trust who was checking out the brick and stonework in some of the locks. I discovered that this canal will celebrate its bicentenary next year. And thinking about that is really quite remarkable. Here was this canal being dug – by hand – over a period of 20 or more years, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars!

Anyway, it was a wonderful walk along the towpath, as usual.

And then in the evening, Steph cooked my favorite meal: steak and kidney pie, with a puff pastry crust (accompanied by potatoes, carrots and sprouts). Delicious! And, of course, the ‘mandatory’ bottle of wine, in this case a Rosemount Diamond Collection 2013 Shiraz – the perfect accompaniment to this delicious meal.

What a perfect – and peaceful – day.

Just a late summer morning walk . . .

After a couple of weeks of mostly excellent weather while the London 2012 Olympics were taking place, it has been quite iffy since then, and we’ve even had some torrential downpours from slow-moving storms. We’re back to the Jet Stream hovering just south of the country allowing North Atlantic weather systems to blow in and give us quite unseasonable weather.

But today has been different. Although it’s been breezy at times, we’ve had a bright sunny morning, and quite warm, thanks to a weak ridge of high pressure shown in the map above.

Not having had chance to get out and about for my (almost) daily walk recently, I relished the opportunity today of walking along the local Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Whatever the weather, it’s a great walk – from just a mile or so, to upwards of a dozen or more, to and from where we often park the car. In both directions (north and south) one eventually comes to tunnels, and the towpath then winds it way up and over to join the canal on the other end of the tunnels.

Today, Steph and I just made a short walk of about three miles, from Whitford Bridge (just near the Queen’s Head pub), to one of the local access roads, Upper Gambolds Lane.

Just after we started our walk we saw four buzzards flying over head (photo courtesy of Barry Boswell), seeking the thermals and wheeling ever upwards until we could hardly make them out. But even though they were hard to see we could hear them mewling to each other. (Just a few days ago I’d seen four other buzzards quite close to the centre of Bromsgrove, calling to each other, and displaying the tumbling flight which is one of their characteristics.)

At first we were rather surprised that there were so few other folks out walking, and the canal traffic itself was also quiet even though it’s a Bank Holiday weekend here in the UK. However, we finally came across about five narrowboats that were following each other up the Tardebigge flight of 30 locks, one after the other.

On a walk like today it gives me chance to hone some of my digital photographic skills. I’m finally getting to grips with my Nikon DSLR. Here are just a few of the photos I took this morning.

Even though the flowers are dying off there’s the glory of developing fruits and seed heads. There was definitely a whiff of autumn in the air today. The nights are drawing in quite rapidly, and it won’t be too long, I guess, before we get the early morning mists developing over the waters of the canal. And eventually those first frosty mornings, with a weak sun forcing its rays through the mist. It’s definitely a canal for all seasons.

My favorite weather is bird-chirping weather (Loire Hartwould) – all year round

Bird watching is a hobby of mine – although I’m not as active by any means as I was years ago growing up in the Staffordshire Moorlands, or when I was working in Costa Rica in the 1970s. I’ve never been a ‘twitcher’ however.

Costa Rica is a bird watcher’s paradise. In Turrialba where I used to live, it was not uncommon to see 40 or more different species just in our garden – humming birds, parrots, and toucans, and a range of migrants between North and South America. One Christmas Day (1979 I think it was) I took part in a bird count for the Audubon Society, and a group of us counted all the species we could (and approximate numbers per species) over a six  hour period in the Turrialba valley. We managed over 100 species between us, and my birding partner and I saw over 60! When I moved to the Philippines in 1991 I was hoping for a repeat of Costa Rica – the Philippines has a reported rich avian fauna. How disappointed I was over 19 years. Although we lived on the slopes of dormant volcano Mt Makiling, about 65 km south of Manila, which still had some virgin rainforest, in a gated community with many mature native trees (planted in the early 1960s) we actually saw very few different species in our garden, maybe fewer than ten over the entire time we were there. Indeed, one of my friends and former colleagues who grew up in Zimbabwe and is a much keener bird watcher than me told me that bird watching in the Philippines was ‘hard work’.

I now live on the east side of Bromsgrove, a small(ish) town in the northeast of Worcestershire, in the English Midlands. It only takes a few minutes, and I can be walking down country lanes, enjoying the tranquility of local farmland as well as the beauty of the towpath along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal that’s just over two miles from home. And it has been intersting to note and watch the various birds that visit our garden and surrounding houses on a regular basis, and the occasional surprise. So here is a brief account of what we see on a regular basis, and those additional visitors. I’m going to update this post as necessary when we see new species, or I want to comment on those species already recorded.

With permission I am including beautiful photographs taken by Northamptonshire amateur photographer Barry Boswell, and published on his website of British and European Bird Photographs. Just click on a thumbnail to view a larger image.

I’ve also made links for each species to the web site of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) where you can find more information and even audio of each species’ song, and also BBC Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day.

Residents (which we see often in the garden)

Blackbird
One of the commonest birds in the UK, and very frequent in our garden. It’s not unusual for us to see three or four pairs in the garden at the same time, with males vying for females, and fighting among themselves. Also, there’s nothing quite like the song of the blackbird to raise your spirits. During August 2012 we’ve seen up to eight or nine individuals in the garden at the same time – mostly juveniles. We wonder if they are from the same nest. Certainly they are very active.


House Sparrow

A noisy little bird, now not as common as it once was. We have a small colony of perhaps half a dozen pairs that regularly come into the garden, but I’m not sure where they nest. Often thought as a rather drab bird, but just look at the plumage on an enlarged image.

Robin
The iconic British bird – a feisty creature. We seem to have a very healthy population of robins in the vicinity, and I often hear them singing ‘against’ one another. Although they are regular visitors to the garden, we often go several weeks without seeing any, and then they are back again.

Dunnock
Also known as the hedge sparrow, I think the dunnock is an underrated species. On a closer look, it has a nice plumage, with grey around the head and neck turning to brown on its back and wings. It’s very active in the undergrowth. We have a couple that regularly feed in the garden.

Great Tit
The largest of the four species of tit that regularly feed in the garden. In recent weeks (April-May 2012) we’ve seen two or three each day.

Blue tit
One of the ‘cheeky’ birds, blue tits are not as common or frequent visitors now than they were in the past. But small flocks – families – pass through from time-to-time.

Coal tit
There are a couple of individuals that regularly visit the seed feeder, and were especially frequent visitors during the coldest months of winter.

Long-tailed tit
The delightful little bird has made something of a comeback around here, and we see small flocks of six to ten individuals much more frequently than we did just a few years ago. The plumage is that delicate cinnamon pink, contrasting so well with the black and white. Barry Boswell’s photo is beautiful.

Wood pigeon
In some ways, the wood pigeon is one of the most regular visitors to the garden, and hardly a day goes by without up to six individuals spending some time feeding or looking for suitable nesting materials, such as thin twigs. Although they are more common in open country, the woodpigeon seems to be one of those species that has made the successful transition to suburban life. They regularly nest and raise young in the gardens roundabout, although they are often attacked by magpies. Although we consider them a ‘pest’ in the garden, they are quite a handsome species. At the end of August 2012, a couple of wood pigeons are making a half-hearted attempt at nesting in our Himalayan birch tree.

Magpie
The local vandals – but seem to be a highly intelligent species. There’s no mistaking the iridescent black and white plumage and long tail. Magpies have increased in number over the past decade, and we regularly see a couple of pairs or more seeking out ‘opportunities’. I do wonder if the increase in the magpie population (and some other larger birds such as woodpigeons and jackdaws) has negatively impacted on the populations of smaller birds.

Jackdaw
This is quite a stunning member of the crow family, with its grey nape. We have noticed an increase in numbers just over the past few months. Not sure where they are nesting. It was nice to see them a week ago in quarry conditions on the coast near Craster in Northumberland. They certainly looked in their element there.

Carrion crow
This is another species that we now see on a regular basis.

Occasional visitors (these drop by from time-to-time, or with the seasons such as winter visitors)

Redwing
This is a winter visitor that suddenly appears out of nowhere, stays with us for the coldest months, and disappears as quickly as it came. We usually see it in flocks of a dozen or so individuals. Sitting at the top of a tree in sunlight, its russet red flanks are very noticeable. A handsome thrush.

Fieldfare
Normally a species of open countryside around here, we had a couple of individuals visit us on one day this past winter. Just like the redwing it has very typical plumage – also a handsome species.

Song thrush
There was a time, more than a decade ago, when song thrushes were very common in the garden. Now we hardly ever see any. In fact, even in the vicinity, I can’t remember when I last saw a song thrush. The population must be in quite a decline around here.

Blackcap
The appearance of a male blackcap several times over the past winter months was indeed a great surprise. At first I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but the black head feathers were so typical of this species. On one occasion I was able to get a good (and long) look at one individual, sitting on an open branch not far from the living room window – and I had my binoculars to hand. There was no mistaking its identity – and a most welcome addition to the list of species seen in our garden.

Great spotted woodpecker
We’ve seen this woodpecker on just two occasions over the past few months, visiting and pecking away at our Himalayan birch. On the first occasion it was my wife who was lucky enough to spy it land at the top of the tree. On the second occasion I had a great view, since I was already upstairs somewhat looking into the tree from above. The woodpecker stayed there for about five minutes, so there was enough time to retrieve my binoculars. A pleasant surprise.

Grey Heron
Our neighborhood has a ‘resident’ heron, that we see circling overhead – at quite a low level – rather frequently. It even comes in to land on a neighboring roof – quite a silhouette against the sky. We’re sure it’s scouting for fish in all the gardens. On one occasion I was watching the breakfast news early one morning when it landed in the garden and began to strut towards the fishpond. I remained still for a few moments, but as I reached for my binoculars it must have seen my movement, and with great beats of its wings, it was up and away. My wife is quite concerned it will re-visit our garden for its dinner one day when we are not around.


Update 17 October 2013: it’s four days since we encountered a heron in the garden after returning from our weekly supermarket shop. It seems likely that it breakfasted on our goldfish because we’ve not seen any swimming around since.

Collared dove

About a decade collared doves were quite numerous nearby, and we’d regularly see a couple of pairs or so in the garden. Then they went away – maybe displaced by the much larger wood pigeon. Anyway, I’m pleased to say that they have returned, and only today, I have seen an individual in the garden about half a dozen times. A beautiful delicate bird, and I wish we saw them more often than the rather dominant wood pigeon.

Starling
Although starlings are seen in huge flocks in some parts of the UK, we have noticed a decline in those coming into the garden or even in the vicinity. Once upon a time we’d have a flock of 20-30 individuals descend and carry out some lawn aeration for me in the late afternoon. So it’s quite a special occasion these days when one drops by.

Goldfinch
It’s a real delight to see goldfinches in the garden. It must be one of the most brightly plumaged species on the British list. After seeing so many spectacular species in the Tropics it’s wonderful to see this brightly colored species. And although not a very common visitor, it does appear a little more regularly when certain foods are more available (such as thistle-like plants gone to seed); but it’s quite common in the vicinity and I do see goldfinches quite often when I’m out walking.

Greenfinch
This species was once quite common in our garden, but has seriously declined in recent years. I believe that it has been affected by a disease nationwide.

Bullfinch
I’m sure bullfinches must be much more common to the south of Bromsgrove, in the Worcestershire fruit-growing areas. We get the occasional individual through, but I’ve not seen them commonly in the vicinity either. It has very striking plumage.

Chaffinch
Once among the most common species in the UK, we now see chaffinches only occasionally in the garden, although in the vicinity they do appear to be more common.

Wren
The second smallest bird – and rather secretive. We get individuals from time-to-time. A delightful species to see, and what a wonderful song.

Pied wagtail
This species has such a striking plumage, and its wagtail gait is so typical.

Sparrowhawk
A sudden swoop across the garden often leaves me wondering if the ‘resident’ sparrowhawk has flown by. Sometimes it does come into the garden, and it’s most impressive to see it attack and capture prey on the ground. Wonderful to have such a species on our garden list.

In the vicinity

Buzzard

We often see  buzzards flying overhead, often at quite a low level, looking for thermals as they circle and rise with the warming air. It seems we have quite a healthy population of buzzards in this neck of the woods. Hardly a walk goes by without me seeing buzzards, and recently I saw four individuals wheeling and tumbling high in the sky, and really quite close to the center of Bromsgrove.

Swallow
A ubiquitous and common summer visitor, although never landing on our property. But we do see them flying overhead, or gathering in groups along the overhead wires as they prepare for their autumn migration south.

Swift
In the height of summer I sometimes think we see more swifts than swallows.

Mallard
When a new housing development was put up a few years ago on farmland just to the north of where we live, the developers did leave a pond, which is now home to a small population of mallards (and moorhens). Recently a group of mallards has been flying over and landing on neighboring roofs (I’ve not seen them on ours yet). It’s quite strange to see ducks walking up and down a roof where we would normally see woodpigeons, jackdaws or gulls.

Blackheaded gull
There’s quite a large population of these gulls around the town, although they do congregate in several areas. Recently they have moved on to our community, and making a nuisance of themselves. I also wonder if their presence is having an effect on other species.

Waxwing
Until the 2010-2011 winter I had never seen a waxwing. One day in February I was out on my daily walk, about 1½ miles from home, when I saw a couple birds in a shrub about 15 feet in front of me. I knew at once they were waxwings – they’re very hard to confuse with any other species. And then I realised there were about 50 or more individuals in a tree. A great pity I didn’t have my binoculars with me, but I did stop and watch them for about ten minutes, and even without binoculars I had a great view.

 

So this is the current list of species from my Bromsgrove garden and near vicinity. I intend using this post as the basis for continuing recording additional species, and commenting on any special observations.