Sunday, 22 October 2017

Neglected Hazels

I take out my compendium of Guardian Country Diary essays, and find I’ve marked one written 25 years ago by my old friend Bill Condry.  He talks about the changes he’d seen in the 30 years since he wrote his first entry.  Bill is no longer with us, and I wonder what he would make of the countryside today. He talks about the ever increasing blanket of conifers spreading across the uplands of Wales, and the increase in the number wildlife conservationists, but his message is not too downbeat.  In reality, in the half century since Bill’s first entry, our wildlife has suffered dramatically, particularly at the hands of pesticides.  Another friend recently told me of a conversation he’d had with an old friend who’d know the countryside 90 years ago.  He talked of fields of wildflowers, myriads of butterflies, and birds everywhere.  I wonder what world my grandchildren will inherit 50 years from now.  Trying not to be too despondent, I put down the book, lift my spirits, and head out for the cliffs.
Hareslade Farm must be centuries old, made entirely of local limestone, it is reached along a bumpy track leading down to Brandy Cove.  There are no hares, and the farm has long been converted into an upmarket house, nevertheless the atmosphere of the place is unchanged.  The gently sloping narrow valley is mostly oak, ash, beech and hazel, with good numbers of sweet chestnuts.  Some way down the lane, a small collection of what once were ramshackled wooden dwellings, have been improved over the years, and are now the homes of families preferring to lead a simple life close to nature. Neglected hazels, coppiced many years ago, but now reaching high into the canopy, line the path, and underfoot, fallen oak and sweet chestnut leaves are blotched and crisp.  I stop to listen to the blue tits and coal tits, and hear the high pitch call of a goldcrest in the canopy.  It’s a good year for ivy berries; still green, they spread like a thick decorative carpet over much of the hedgerow.  Just a few red campions remain in flower, and there are hawthorn berries in the tangle of vegetation along the track, but the brightest colours come from the saturated reds of blackberry leaves in the undergrowth.  Below the farm, and above the cliffs, a couple of small fields used for ponies are empty.  When the weather turns cold they’ll be visited by winter thrushes, and I can usually rely on finding redwings and song thrushes here.

Breaking out from the bottom of the valley, the beauty of Brandy Cove and the deep blue sea beyond takes my breath away.  How can I live in such a wonderful place?  But there are so many places like this here, and I shall never take Gower for granted. Apart from a single fisherman way out on the water’s edge, the small sandy beach is deserted.  He stands on kelp beds exposed by the low tide close to three shags preening and drying their wings.  It’s one of those rare days when the sea is flat calm, deep blue and glistening in bright sunshine.  An occasional slight breeze causes the surface to ripple, changing for a moment deep blues to emerald green.  It’s magic. 

I head west past wind-shaped oaks and hawthorns along what is now part of the Wales Coastal Path.  A newly placed bench provides the perfect lunch stop and time to sit.  A few walkers and joggers go by; most pass the time of day, but some of them are too much in earnest to bother. Nature watching is usually best if you stay still.  A buzzard floats into view, appearing just a few yards away using what little updraft there is from the cliff face in front of me. He quickly heads out to sea, hotly pursued by a small male sparrowhawk.  They continue to jostle as the buzzard circles ever higher into the sky, and the ballet continues until two tiny dots fade on the horizon way out over the far headland. 

Further along the cliff, evidence of last night’s badgers is besides the path - there’s been a sett deep in the bracken here for as long as I can remember.  The gently warming sun brings out a red admiral butterfly and more walkers; it’s time to head back home.

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