16 April 2015

Cheshire walks: Around Arley

During my six months in Cheshire wending my way around magnificent Arley estate has been one of my favourite pastimes. From my home near Pickmere it’s about 15 kilometres there and back, depending on which paths I tread, and every time I venture there I’m rewarded with a treasury of sights and sounds.

The path ways are numerous – one forms part of the North Cheshire Way, another is a bridle way, others are simply footpaths along which people have walked for generations. I try to avoid the roads as most are unpleasantly busy (Cann Lane, in particular, is one to avoid) but the smaller lanes are less trafficked and prettily lined with trees.

Rather than describe the various walking options, I’ll let my camera do the talking. The green dots on the map show most of the lanes and footpaths I’ve explored, and the red-dotted path indicates the North Cheshire Way – you can find out more about that on the Long Distance Walkers website. The numbered blue dots pinpoint where my photos have been taken. You can click on the map and images to see them full screen.

As my photos have been taken during winter and early spring, I’m sure the views will be much greener and leafier as spring progresses into summer. I hope my images convince you to don your walking shoes and explore this small part of the beautiful Cheshire countryside. You will not be disappointed!

And don’t forget to visit the grandiose Arley Hall and its superb gardens while you’re in this neck of the woods. You can get a glimpse of my earlier visit to the gardens here.

(1) Arley Road is the main entrance road for most people driving to the Hall so a little busy for walking but with lovely trees.

(2) Much of the long straight section of the North Cheshire Way that leads to Arley is now a concreted farm track
but signs of  its antiquity can be seen in the gnarly old hedgerows and the pretty wildflowers growing by the ditches.

(3) A third approach route is via Arley Mossend Lane. The road sweeps round to the left past attractive Willow Lodge, with its elegant topiary hedges, and to the right is a bridle way (see below) that connects to Budworth Road.

(4) Though it gets a bit muddy after rain, this bridle way can also be used by walkers and provides access to a footpath leading through the grassy fields to Arley Green.

(5) Arley Mossend Lane is edged partly by woodland and partly by open fields, providing expansive rural views - perfect for photographs of impressive cloud formations. Friendly horses are frequently to be found in the fields - bring apples or carrots!
(6) This tiny brick shed sits just outside the boundary of Arley's award-winning gardens - the greenery beyond provides a hint of the horticultural treasures to be discovered within.
(7) Back Lane runs along the northern side of Arley Hall's grounds. Lined with stately old trees, it provides tantalising glimpses of the Hall and its woodland garden.
(8) Photos above and below. At Arley Green the brook widens out to form a small mere, which is home to a variety of water birds - you can just see some swan in the bottom right of the above photo. You can also catch a glimpse of the beautiful old buildings to be found here, including a stunning black-and-white gem. On a calm day, the mere provides stunning relfections.

(9) Photos above and below. Sack Lane is a private road and public footpath, connecting Back Lane with Cann Lane. It is bordered on the northern side by luxuriant old woodland, which is currently (April) awash with wildflowers (the white flowers shown above are wood anemone). On the southern side the fields are also presently dotted with white - the somewhat larger white of ewes and their very cute lambs. The trees on the field boundaries produce nice silhouettes in the winter months.

(10) Another view of Sack Lane, taken in early winter, just because I love these trees!

(11) A cottage and a gatehouse sit half-way along Sack Lane, marking the boundary into Arley. Walkers can also take the lane to the right here and do a circuit back to Back Lane, as shown on the map. There was once a mill on the brook here but few signs now remains of its presence.

(12) This is probably my favourite route to and from Arley, along the footpath that runs across the fields. I'm guessing there was once a hedgerow connecting these old oak trees but that has been removed for easier farming access. A note of caution: one of these fields is edged with an electric fence that must be stepped across, and the fields sometimes contain cows that can be a little overzealous in their curiosity, which some people might find intimidating.

10 April 2015

British birds: goose, swan and duck

Cheshire is one of the most water-filled English counties so it’s no surprise I’ve encountered a lot of water birds during my walks in the local countryside. These geese, swan and ducks are among the more common species.

Rather than populate this post with a lot of facts and figures that can easily be obtained elsewhere, I’ve just added a few interesting snippets of information I’ve discovered about each species.

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
Let’s start with an immigrant, originally introduced to English parkland around 1665, specifically for King Charles II to add to his wildfowl collection in St James’s Park in London. They have since gone forth and multiplied to the extent that they are frequently considered a nuisance. As well as being aggressive pursuers of the bread so many people dispense freely in parks (watch out for nips!), they also have the digestive capacity to process three times as much grass as the average sheep and the more alarming ability to poo every four minutes!

That's a Greylag mixing with his Canada Geese friends above right

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)
According to the British Trust for Ornitholgy (BTO) website, the Greylag Goose is ‘traditionally eaten at Michaelmas’ and ‘Mrs Beeton recommends cooking with a glass of port or wine to which has been added a teaspoon of mustard, some salt and a few grains of cayenne pepper’. If, like me, you’d prefer not to eat these beautifully patterned creatures, you might want to worship them instead. More than 5000 years ago, the goose was associated with Gula, the fertility deity of the citizens of the Tigris-Euphrates city-states. In ancient Egypt, geese were a symbol of the sun god Ra, and in ancient Greece and Rome geese were sacred to Aphrodite.

Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegypticus)
It might look like a goose and be called a goose but the Egyptian Goose is not really a goose at all. It’s more closely related to the Shelduck and occasionally shares that duck’s habit of nesting in a burrow or hole in the ground, though it has also been known to build a nest as high as 80 feet above the ground in a tree. The bird was introduced to Britain in 1678 as an ornamental wildfowl species, another for the king’s collection of birds in St James’s Park in London, but has since established itself in the wild, though it does still have a penchant for the grounds of large halls and estates, with their perfect habitat combination of old woodland and extensive areas of water. My photo was taken at Tatton Park Estate near Knutsford.

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)
In England, the ancient practice of swan-upping still takes place each July on the river Thames. Swan used to be owned exclusively by the Crown (and a few select favourites of the King or Queen) so swan were caught every year and marked, on the upper bill, with a system of nicks and cuts to indicate ownership. Fortunately, these days, the birds are rather more humanely banded instead by the Queen’s Swan Marker and the swan uppers of the descendants of two centuries-old medieval guilds, the Worshipful Company of Dyers and the Worshipful Company of Vintners.  

Cygnets and juvenile Mute Swan

Female Tufted Duck at left and male at right
Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula)
The BTO website reports that the population of the cute little Tufted Duck expanded rapidly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to the colonisation of British waterways by the small freshwater bivalve, the Zebra Mussel, the perfect food for a duck that loves to dive. They are fascinating to watch when hunting for food and I particularly love their floppy little top-kot.

Female Mallard

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Though male and female Mallard are so different they were originally thought to be two different species, today they are what almost everyone imagines when they hear or read the word ‘duck’, and they are the bird people most loved to feed with old scraps of bread. Please don’t! As Britain’s Canal and River Trust has recently been warning, with an estimated 6 million loaves of bread being thrown into canals and waterways every year, bread is a serious problem for the ducks’ environment, and it’s not very healthy for the ducks either. Click on this link to read about the more natural alternatives. 

Wild mallards are thought to be the original source for at least 20 officially recognised breeds of domestic ducks, like the Aylesbury and the Chocolate Magpie, and countless other ‘Manky Mallards’, a colourful expression commonly used by to describe the motley menagerie of wild and domestic mallards.

Aylesbury Ducks, living the wild life at Pickmere Lake

Chocolate Magpie Ducks, also reverted to the wild side

Manky Mallards

Many of the fact-lets for this blog post came from that most excellent publication, Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, London, 2005, as well as from the website of the British Trust for Ornithology.   

06 April 2015

A visual celebration of Spring

I've always loved the Springtime but living through an English winter, with its short days, frequent cloud and colder temperatures, has made me appreciate Spring even more. This has been my Springtime so far ...

First, the crocuses started to bloom

Catkins on the Hazel trees

Snowdrops everywhere

More crocuses, and the bees started to appear

A bit of hanky panky at Budworth Mere

The hanky panky that resulted in this lovely sight must've been about 5 months ago

So cute, and growing fast

In gardens and along the roadsides, the daffodils started to bloom

Daffodils lining the lime walk at Great Budworth

More blossom, more bees

Bumblebee on daffodil - quintessential Spring!

The seven-spot ladybirds have emerged from their hibernation

Flowers about to burst open on an Ash tree

First butterfly in the garden, a Small Tortoiseshell