We returned from our traditional Easter break in the Welsh Borders yesterday. Easter being so much later this year, and the school holidays having finished the week before, we noticed some major differences, not least the abundance of birds and the scarcity of people. From the comfortable vantage point of an upstairs window I was able to observe, in addition to the usual residents like red kites and buzzards, migrant species including redstarts, pied flycatchers, tree pipits, chiffchaffs and/or willow warblers*, house martins, and swallows, all busily nesting, displaying, singing, and feeding. Naturally, we'd forgotten to bring a single pair of binoculars (I think we have six, at last count).
On a particularly rainy walk on a hill known as Castle Bank we heard three cuckoos, out somewhere in the mist. Castle Bank is one of our special places, where we customarily start the steep climb with a furious row about something or other -- this time it was parking the car -- but end up at the top out of breath but with harmony restored. I have no idea why or how, that's just the way it is.
Often at the very top it is too windy to stand**, but the views are wonderful: this year it was almost windless and the view was obscured by low cloud and rain. The rain does do nice things to the colours, though, and as my waterproof's hood has a large, wired peak I was able to snatch a few pastel-hued pictures up there.
On the single unambiguously sunny day we visited Stokesay Castle near Ludlow. Allegedly I have been here before, but have no memory of it at all, and it's the kind of place you remember. Not least for the questionable, not to say alarming, state of the 13th century roof-timbers in the Great Hall. One word, English Heritage: Ronseal. It doth what it sayeth on the firkin.
There are actually swallows nesting in most of the upper rooms, flitting in and out of the unglazed windows, oblivious to any floor-bound visitors. It's hard to decide whether English Heritage is taking a "light touch" approach to conservation, or is asleep at the wheel. The castle does have some of the best carved timberwork I've ever seen, and it would be criminal to let it deteriorate through neglect. The massive carved fireplace in the panelled "solar" room is a thing of wonder, but too dimly lit to photograph without a tripod. I felt some affinity with this gnarly, bearded old dude, propping up the gatehouse's upper floor with the sort of resigned patience you acquire after 370 years doing the same job.
** I have toyed with the idea of requiring my ashes to be scattered here, on some hopefully far-off day. If you have ever had to dispose of "remains" you will know that this is not a practical joke, but a final act of goodwill.