Come take a walk with me?
Marley and I have a new favourite walk. It’s quite a long one so we don’t do this every day but we’ve walked it a couple of times a week since New Year – I’d walked and ridden parts of this before many times as part of it are country lanes around my home and sections are bridle path I rode when Cobweb was in her younger days before she retired. I’m wary of walking footpaths across my neighbours’ land however though. Even when there are public rights of way I’m very aware of the frustrations this can cause farmers and landowners. On the one hand it’s great that everyone can access beautiful countryside and get exercise and enjoyment out of our gorgeous land. And we should definitely encourage people to get out more and what better way of keeping healthy as well as learning to appreciate our natural resources.
But many of my friends are farmers and although the majority of walkers and ramblers respect others and the countryside, there are always a few who spoil it for everyone. Some of my friends have had to deal with the consequences of walkers not shutting a gate, or shutting one that’s meant to be open.
In one case this caused weeks of extra work and expense and resulting in the deaths of sheep when a walker carelessly left several gates open on a footpath and my friend’s rams that were many fields away from his ewe lambs that were too young to be mated wandered over and did what sheep do and the resulting mayhem 5 months later completely messed up their lambing season, already a stressful and exhausting time for sheep farmers, extending it by several weeks and costing money in unwanted vets bills for caesarians on some ewes and loss of animals for the ewes and lambs that didn’t survive. Other friends have a footpath running close to their house and it’s not unusual for walkers to take a short cut through their yard where their working sheepdogs run free and their children play. Most people are apologetic when they realise they are trespassing, but some are rude and belligerent when politely asked to return to the footpath – which doesn’t help matters.
There is also the matter that farmers have to take care which animals they put in fields where there are rights of way to ensure that members of the public are not put in danger. So whilst it’s up to you to keep your dog under control and not stray from the path or annoy livestock, the farmer also has to ensure that aggressive animals are not kept in fields where they might attack people using those paths. If walkers chose to take short cuts, not only are they trespassing but they’re also potentially putting themselves at risk by entering fields where animals who are protecting their young or guarding their females might take exception to the presence of strangers or dogs.
Having said that, it’s really important that we learn to appreciate both sides and so that farmers can work the land they rely on to grow food for us all and that those who want to can still experience the wonder and beauty of the countryside. Unlike some other countries, we’re not free to roam wherever we want – and given the small size of our country and the way it is farmed that’s probably for the best for everyone’s sake. However there are many fantastic walks to be had on existing rights of way and I’m pleased that around here people are trying to encourage landowners to maintain them so we can all safely use them.
So given my respect towards my neighbours which means I tend to stick to roads, I’d never yet walked the middle section of this route, it’s a public bridle path but it runs right through the middle of the farmyard of some of my neighbours. However some of my friends and I walked it with our dogs on New Years Day to walk off some of our festivities from the night before (fortified with leftover sausage rolls, pork pies and blackberry gin!) and it’s just so uplifting and gorgeous I just can’t help going back again and again…
We live almost on the crest (bryn) of a hill which borders England and Wales. To the front of us is a sweeping valley which means our view stretches away out over the entire breadth of Wales to the mountains of Snowdonia and the gap across to the Cheshire plain and Northern England. The vista is vast and almost scary at times it’s so huge.You can see miles of weather sweeping up country; often a prelude of a few minutes warning before it hits us. The valley behind us is by contrast quite small – carved by ice thousands of years ago it’s just a short hop to the crest of the Kerry Ridgeway behind which splits England to the East and Wales to the West in this part of the borders. Sometimes I’m envious of my friends who live on this side – their valley is short and cosy, they get more sun. But then again all I have to do is walk up our lane and I can share that too so perhaps we have the best of both worlds being “the folks who live on the hill”.
So after days of rain we snatched a few dry hours and headed off in this direction. The lane winds down steep hills (exciting when there’s black ice or fallen wet leaves around!!) lined with overhanding trees and twists and turns for a mile down into the valley itself. We turn into a No Through lane surrounded by wooded hills and pasture land grazed by sheep. There is something very special about this to a spinner – these are no ordinary sheep, they are Kerry Hills belonging to my neighbours.
And the pastures that they graze on are the land the breed was developed from at the foot of the Kerry Ridgeway itself.
Kerry Hill sheep are primarily a meat breed. They’re striking looking animals with their black markings. Until a decade ago they were on the RBST list of breeds at risk but they’re more popular now, especially with smallholders and in other parts of the world so they’re no longer considered a rare breed. My neighbours actually farm them commercially on their beautiful and immaculately kept land and in an environment where continental breeds of sheep have now dominated the landscape as a way of merely breaking even for farmers, it’s especially gratifying to see the sheep in the land for which they were bred. I had the same feeling seeing Herdwicks grazing the glorious steep fells in the Lake District. I’d never really “got” the widespread attraction of Herdwicks but when seen grazing in their home environment instead of a show pen it suddenly becomes apparent that they are the perfect animal in the perfect place. And it’s the same with these jolly little Kerry Hills.
They just look “right” with the Kerry Ridgeway behind them!
Nowhere looks wonderful in midwinter unless it’s snowy and frosty. Our own land is tired and grey and muddy; we and our animals are longing for spring now and the grass to grow and the ground to dry out. These softer more gentle pastures however are managed meticulously and even in January look beautiful in the winter sun. I had serious grass envy!!!
There are some rather cute donkeys with their big horsey chum in the smallholding next door too. A couple of days ago they were right next to the road and came over to the gate for a cuddle and to touch noses with Marley who got on his hind legs to bump the very tall horse on his muzzle. The donkeys looked hopeful but I only had dog biscuits in my pocket …
After this we Marley has to go on his lead, we’re about to go through the farmyard with its beautiful old brick buildings and cows bedded down on straw for the winter (it’s too wet in Wales for cows to live outside, they poach the clay ground and wreck the grazing). Obviously I wouldn’t take pictures of someone’s home, but really I do wish I could show you. It’s so beautifully tended it’s such a brilliant advert for how good farmers can be. Sometimes I see the brothers who farm here and wave at them; one is married to the sister of my next-door neighbour. I think he’s a bit surprised to see me walking through their farm every few days now but at least Marley has been on his best behaviour whilst on their land!
Once out of the yard we head through a gate (that opens and shuts beautifully! This is unusual…) into some rough land where they have hayracks and troughs down for the sheep. This tells me they’re either pregnant ewes being fed before lambing or fat lambs being fed overwinter before being sold in spring. Either way, I’m still on private ground where livestock are so Marley stays on his lead here too although he has quite strong feelings about this! Especially if he spots a sheep peeking out from behind a gorse bush or tree …
He pulls at the lead here; he wants to go explore but it’s out of the question. It’s a shame because the other day I was watching a pair of Red Kites soaring above us and it’s very hard to get a photograph of that with one hand when you’ve got an impatient labrador jiggling around on a lead on the other.
This was the best I could manage. I’m still quite pleased about it though, I’ve never managed to get any photo of Red Kites before. When we first moved here in the mid-90’s they weren’t around. I saw my first one here about 8 years ago and for several years it was still a matter of great excitement to spot one over the house but they soar so quickly on their huge wingspan that by the time you’ve run for a camera they’re far away. Once terribly rare, they’re one of Wales success stories and well known at the Red Kite feeding station. They’re now established here too in small numbers and I see them more often but it’s still something that makes me stop and smile. I was just lucky to snap this before the kite disappeared behind the hill and Marley dragged me off in the opposite direction in pursuit of Nice Sniffs.
There’s this little stream winding though the woods and with all the rain it’s swelled and rushing with waterfalls. The air in here is fresh and bracing with the water spray’s negative ions and the damp sweet breath of the trees. I love this kind of place; it makes you feel 100% more alive. Marley seems to like snuffling a few extra deep breaths too!
We twist up off the tracks now and up a steep muddy path between gorse bushes and shrubs. They’re already starting to come out although in the cold I can’t smell that wonderful warm scent of gorse – somewhere between coconut and bananas I think!
I start to warm up on this hill climb; struggling with an over-eager Marley invariably means by the time we’ve reached these gorse bushes I’m stripping off layers and trying to wrap them around my waist without letting go of the lead!
And then we leave this farm via a more rickety gate tied shut in time-honoured fashion with baler twine. Much more common and super-irritating to riders on horseback!!
I still tend to keep Marley on the lead here because he’s a bit unpredictable about his exploring and my training isn’t as effective as it might be (hence the pocket of dog biscuits!). But when he seems to be in a cooperative mood he gets to run free for a bit.
You can’t see here but beneath those impatiently tapping labrador paws is running water; it’s been so wet this winter than even this forest path is like a thin stream. The first couple of times I walked this in my walking boots. Now I just wear wellies; the inconvenience of walking in them is offset by keeping my feet dry! It’s also a section that runs through a shoot. I think I’m safe on this path when I hear guns but then again sometimes I wonder …
It’s not as pretty in this section of forest, it’s wilder and less tamed, sometimes even spooky, but I still love being in the trees.
And there’s also native broadleaved woodland on the other side; it is managed by someone as evidenced by the tree guards.
Finally we come out of the conifer section and to a clearing where they do clay pigeon shooting, the ground is littered with broken bright orange “pigeons” which seems a pity. Several forest tracks meet here – this is where I used to ride through on my pony years ago but on a different track going round the back of the hill. The piles of logs stacked here smell sweet in the summer sun, now they’re mossy and damp.
We take the highest track out of the clearing; to me this seems like the last stretch although we’re more than half an hour away from home still.
This week the snow was falling through the trees in this bit and it felt like Narnia …
The last section of woodland is planted with birch trees. I adore birches, especially Silver Birches – they’re one of the plants that remind me of my Granny who had some in their garden when I was a child. She was a really keen gardener and she loved her Silver Birches and would wash the trunks from time to time to keep them gleaming and white unlike these which are green and orange from growing in a damp woodland.
The fallen birches sprout all sort of interesting fungi.
Marley wouldn’t let me take any more photos of them though!! Woof! We’re nearly at the last gate and back into sheep country!
Which means he’s back on the lead again as we top out of the woods and look back over the Ridgeway and the valley we’ve just climbed out of.
The last bit also means we have to walk through someone’s yard although these farm buildings have been converted into beautiful holiday cottages. If I didn’t already live here I’d probably go on holiday in one of them! I did once house-and-dog sit in one of them though for my boss when his family rented one when he was building a new home.
And then it’s back down the drive to join the road again in our own wide valley looking North West to where in the far distance beyond these near hills you can see parts of Snowdonia when it’s a clear day (but not today!).
It’s still 20 minutes trundling along the road to home but we walk it so often Marley and I do it without noticing, dreaming of hot cups of tea and a warm fire to snooze by…
It’s a long walk and a long blog post but I hope you enjoyed it. Not everyone is able to get out for a bracing country walk so perhaps this might make up for it a little.