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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Along the locks

Posted on March 17 2011 at 9:27:35 0 comments

Locks and bridge at Tardebigge

Mary Green takes a trip along the towpaths of Tardebigge.

As we expected after the cold early winter, and the cold start to March, many spring plants and their flowers came late this year. Most native plants and trees like a cold winter, but it does hold them back. Daffodils didn’t appear for St David’s Day again, and there is no cherry-plum blossom by mid-March.

April is always a lovely month as the flowers and leaves appear, whatever the weather! Remember to look out for the sparse white flowers of cherry-plum now, the dense white blossom of blackthorn soon, and oak and ash leaves at the end. Last year oak and ash came out almost together, but usually the oak is well ahead.

During the last year, I have been exploring some walks from Tardebigge. There is easy parking by the church there. The main focus of the walks is inevitably the dramatic flight of locks on the canal, the longest in the UK, but there is also an excellent opportunity to see wildlife. If you get this in time, you can join the Alvechurch Village Society walk on Sunday April 3 – it starts at Tardebigge church at 2.30pm.

As you will know from previous articles, I am very keen that the canal should remain a corridor for wildlife. I went to a talk by the regional manager from British Waterways, about their future. BW will cease to exist under current government plans, and their operations will be transferred to a charity.

They use the National Trust as a model for what the new waterways trust may be like. You can find details on the BW website, and respond if you like. They are full of enthusiasm about the new regime, as it will enable them to raise extra funds and use volunteers more.

I am a bit sceptical about whether government funding will continue at a sufficient level to maintain their infrastructure, and what their fund-raising capacity will be, but the general idea is positive. Mind you, given the U-turn on woodland, by the time you read this the government may have changed their minds about this too!

The National Trust themselves have recently realised they haven’t engaged large parts of the population. There was a fascinating talk at the Alvechurch Village Society about a project to engage young people from the Three Estates in Kings Norton (a regeneration area with multiple deprivation – just up the canal!) in conservation work on local National Trust estates.

It was very successful, but made them realise how few people knew about the Trust, other than middle class ladies of a certain age like me! I hope a new Waterways Trust will involve local people more. All the recent debate about the dead arm causeway was against a background of local residents simply not knowing what was going on. 

Tardebigge tunnel has just been emptied and checked, and there is some other local maintenance planned, but the current funding level (much reduced this year) means that only half of the very high priority work needed on the canal will go ahead next year. They say wildlife remains a high priority, but as they plan to continue to contract out all their work on the towpath vegetation, it may be difficult for them to protect habitats as well as they would like.

It was ten years ago at the end of February that Foot and Mouth disease broke out. I missed being able to walk along the towpath and other footpaths, which were all closed off, and still remember my celebratory walk along the canal when the ban was lifted in the summer. Wildlife had got on very well because the vegetation hadn’t been cut during the spring – it should be left alone during the growing and nesting season.

Back to Tardebigge. I am using the OS Explorer Worcester & Droitwich Spa map, starting at GR SO 996692, the church car park. The church has beautiful cherry trees, so catch the blossom in April! I start in the far right-hand corner of the car park, where there is a little gate leading into a field.
This field sweeps down to the canal, and has an old footpath on a raised bank. The field is delightful, with lots of untrimmed hawthorn making it beautiful in early spring when it is one of the few trees with leaves out, and especially lovely in May when the blossom is out. I’ve seen rabbits and buzzards, and once a sparrowhawk, in these fields.

When you reach the canal, turn left along the towpath. This is Tardebigge New Wharf, a busy boating area in summer, and there are some lovely residential boats along the opposite bank with little gardens and even chickens! The locks are dramatic and interesting, and you pass some properties on the towpath side which are very remote from roads, reached by tracks.

One of these, Tyler’s Lock, the old engine house, used to be a lot of things including a nightclub, and after being empty is now being restored and turned into flats.

Even in January I found some flowers here. Growing by the towpath was winter heliotrope, a pretty pinkish-white head of flowers, and one that I haven’t previously seen round here. It smells like vanilla, and in a mild winter can come out as early as Christmas.

It’s related to butterbur, a larger flower-head, also early-flowering, which grows by the Arrow in several places. Butterbur has huge leaves that come later, and were once used to wrap butter.

There were also hazel catkins, pussy-willows, snowdrops and gorse in flower in January. Shortly afterwards, wherever there are trees on the towpath, you find dog’s mercury.

There are always water fowl here: mallards, moorhens and swans. One female swan got seriously stuck in the ice here last December and had real difficulty getting free.

In spring the towpath banks have lots of coltsfoot and celandine, then lady’s smock, dandelions, forget-me-nots, cow parsley and garlic mustard. You may also find ground ivy, red campion and stitchwort. There are blossoms of the whole plum spectrum from blackthorn through cherry-plum, damson and wild bullace to wilding garden plums. There are patches of bluebells later, and apple blossom, then woundwort and meadowsweet.

In late summer I noticed a big patch of tansy, one of the less common of the daisy family, an old medicinal herb. The canal is hard-edged, unlike the Alvechurch stretch, and had different little plants along the bricks and stone: mosses, groundsel and chickweeds.

Dragonflies, butterflies and other insects are plentiful when the flowers are out. In April look out for orange-tips and brimstone butterflies, and for peacocks and red admirals waking up form hibernation. If you see some medium-sized black insects with trailing undercarriages about in April, they are St Mark’s flies – quite harmless despite their ominous look.

In the autumn this is a lovely place to forage for fruit. The towpath has good blackberries, there are wild and wilding apples, plums, damsons, sloes and cherry-plum, hips and haws, elderberries – a real bounty.

Tardebigge used to be famous for its orchards, supplying fruit to Birmingham and making cider. Most of these were rooted out in the 1970s and 1980s, though there is still one cider-maker at Tutnall.

After a mile you reach Tardebigge reservoir. This is a very pretty peaceful spot, with yellow flag irises, even more water-birds, including coot and grebe, and a lot of fish – and anglers. If you want a short round-trip walk you can turn left after the reservoir and follow the footpath to Patchett’s Farm.

From here, turn sharp left and take the bridleway that leads up to London Lane, a minor road, Cross this road and take the one opposite, High House Lane, which passes High House Farm. Shortly after this look out for stiles in the hedges, where the Monarch’s Way crosses. Take this to the left and a path leads you back past the school to the church. This little path has spectacular crab apples – blossom in spring, fruit in autumn.

The area round Patchett’s is interesting in summer, as the land is arable. This means that on the edges there are patches of cornfield weeds – scarlet pimpernel, camomile, speedwell and heartsease. Even in late February some startling blue speedwell was showing! It is open and high enough here to have great views across Bromsgrove and beyond to the Malverns and Abberley and Woodbury hills, and down to the reservoir. Also on this wide stretch of arable land, you may well see and hear lapwings in winter and skylarks in the spring.

One thing you notice round here is that there are many lines of poplar trees (one by Patchett’s Farm), visible from a long way. These were often planted as borders or landmarks, and are still useful ways of recognising where you are.

I hear some big poplars in Alvechurch are to be cut down, between the canal and Birmingham Road. They have been a nice landmark, but I gather they are too close to the houses for such a big tree, and shade gardens too much. They are great in open country, though, and are one of the host trees for mistletoe.

The hedged parts of the bridleway are full of blossom in spring and summer, and fruit in autumn. There are some particularly luscious hawthorn berries. I saw honeysuckle, and wild roses which had the strange growth known as Robin’s pincushion, created by a tiny wasp or “gall”.

The lane passes through a nice spinney of trees with a pond – an old clay pit. Tardebigge used to be a major brick-making area, so there are many relics of these pits.

If you want to walk further than this short round trip, don’t turn off after the reservoir but continue along the canal to the next bridge or the one after that. The first is a footbridge where a path goes off to the left, straight to Patchett’s Farm. It crosses fields, streams and little woods with lots of celandines and bluebells. It can be muddy depending on how the fields are being cropped.

The second, a road bridge, has a left turn along the road (Upper Gambold’s Lane): walk along till you reach the lane to Patchett’s Farm on the left. Once at Patchett’s, follow the bridleway as above. This is a good route for muddy weather or people who don’t like stiles!

For a longer walk, use the middle option, the footbridge path. When you get to Patchett’s, go straight on and follow footpath signs SE across the fields towards Sheltwood Farm. This is a lovely footpath, mostly following a hedge on the left. It crosses another footpath then passes two lovely copses, the first with bluebells, the second with more old clay pits.

At Sheltwood, turn left and cross a muddy patch to the sharp corner of London Lane. All the scenery and views here are beautiful: quiet, mostly pastoral, very middle-England. There are some fine old oaks and other stand-alone trees along the way.

Cross the road, and take the foot-path past another nice little wood on the left. There is a farm with exotic chickens and geese. Follow the footpath to a point at GR 996684 where there is a junction of footpaths. Turn left on to the Monarch’s way, and follow this across the fields to the stiles at High House Lane. Cross this and continue down the little path to the church, as above.

Many of these footpaths are well marked on gates and stiles, but can be hard to follow across fields with crops, so you will need to use the map. There are also some difficult gates, so be prepared to climb.

There are other circular walks you can do here on the opposite side of the canal. Walk down the same field from the car park, turn right, cross the canal by the road bridge and walk along this road (B4184) to pass the cottages and houses on your left. You will then see a field path to the left. Follow this (rather muddily) until you reach a corner of Dusthouse Lane.

Walk along this till you meet Grimley Lane which takes you to the canal at the end of the reservoir. It feels odd, because you go uphill to meet the canal! It is a hilly area of quiet roads, scattered houses and small fields, with little patches of trees and lots of sheep.

The Monarch’s Way follows Dusthouse Lane in the middle stretch. There are some lovely houses to pass, including Stonehouse Farm, a very old and beautiful building. If you want to extend this part of the walk, you can walk on following the Monarch’s Way west to Aston Fields. This means, of course, you could also do the walk the other way round from Bromsgrove Station. There are also a couple of footpaths from Dusthouse Lane to the road near Finstall, making all this accessible from that village too.

Both sides of the canal have lovely views of the elegant spire of Tardebigge church. This was designed to look like a surgeon’s needle, and reminds you that this was also once part of the Redditch/Bordesley needle-making area. The minor roads are all quiet enough to walk along without dodging traffic all the time. 

Tardebigge is a fascinating village. While you’re there, why not call in at nearby Hewell Grange prison shop, on Holyoakes Lane, where you can buy veggies so fresh the dew is still on them, eggs still warm from the hens, and well-hung rare breed meat.

My poem is this month comes from a recent holiday in Thailand, where we visited the Burma railway, scene of the Bridge on the River Kwai. Many Asian civilians were forced into the railway camps, as well as British and Australian POWs, and many died.

Burma railway, Thailand

From the top the jungle is beautiful
Wave on wave of mountains into the mist
Bamboo sculptural in front, ethereal
Background to a Japanese print, all soft
Greys and greens, and the call of orioles.

Here in the cutting the rocks are a gash
Explosive holes still scarring stone
Marks of chisel and hammer blows
Red and yellow flowers on the shrines
And beetles scurrying about their lives.

We ride the train, a delight above the river
Engineering marvel, skimming rocks and trees.
Everywhere the memories of hurt
Slavery and brutality and sickness
Stoicism and love and courage.

Once dead, the brutalised prisoners
Were given honour and salutes and safe graves
A code we cannot read written on the wind.
All this blown apart by Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The code melting away in the fierce heat

In the museum, bits of metal and leather
Lost letters and hidden diaries
Cartoons and pencilled skeletons
Next door the disciplined ranks of graves
Tended and clean under the sun and flowers

This country has a long civilisation
Polite and gentle, gaudy and golden
Buddha everywhere in all shapes
It holds this old sore with love and shame
Reminding us we share the world’s fate.


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