I've been holding off for as long as I could but this weekend I finally gave in and the tinsel, fairy lights and baubles came out - Christmas is officially 'almost here' in our house.
The last week has been somewhat challenging in terms of getting out and walking. The snow and then the icy conditions that followed did mean however that I rediscovered some of the simple joys of 'just round the corner' walks.
The Bath Grounds was beautiful in the snow as one would expect and the park at Westfields (just at the back of our house) was looking really pretty too with a fair number of snowmen keeping watch as we ambled through all wrapped up and with Snowtrax fitted (they're just the best thing for walking in icy conditions).
Anyway now that the big day is almost upon us I've been giving some thought to Christmas walks.
With most people having time off work over the festive season, plus that thing of having had far too much to eat, not to mention being shut up in the house with family members for possibly a fraction too long - it's that time when virtually everyone feels the need to get outside for a bit and stretch their legs. Of course this often includes those family members for whom a regular walks means once a year! So where to go? Here's my local guide for planning that Christmas walk:
Moira Furnace - Beautiful building plus the canal and the Lime Kilns, should impress family from out of the area. Loads of hard paths and plenty of benches so good for the not so young who need firm surfaces and somewhere to stop and enjoy the view.
Hicks Lodge - Perfect for youngsters who got a new bike for Christmas and want to pedal along. Good firm paths (though fairly hilly in places). Brilliant cafe to enjoy a coffee or hot chocolate afterwards.
Calke Abbey - Beautiful setting, choice of parking either within the park, at Ticknall Village Hall, or Calke Village. Expect it to be very busy especially on Boxing Day and New Years Day. The promise of a tunnel to explore is likely to grab the interest of even the most reluctant walker.
Dimminsdale Nature Reserve - If you are fed up with short days, long nights and winter in general then head to Dimminsdale. Climb the hill and keep your eyes open. I can guarantee that the first snowdrops will already be peeping out to fill your heart with joy at the promise that Spring is just around the corner.
If you need a bit of help planning your walk you'll find a selection of routes that include all of the above plus more in Walks for all in the Heart of the Forest. You can buy it at Ashby or Swadlincote Tourist Information Centres, at Hicks Lodge, or online. If you order online anytime up to 23rd and live in or around the Ashby area I'll pop it through your letterbox in time for Christmas.
Seasons greetings and Happy Walking in 2018.
Before the snow hit there were a few beautiful clear, cold, sunny days last week and we took advantage of one of these to explore Croxall Lakes - a spot in the National Forest that I'd never visited before.
Croxall Lakes is a small nature reserve situated very close to the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas. The rivers Trent, Mease and Tame all meet at this point and the site has 2 large lakes, wetlands and grassland. You will also find one of the National Forest Noon Columns there and it was this that we had gone to see - we discovered a lot more than we'd expected though!
Pulling in at the tiny car park we were greeted by the sight of brilliant sunshine lighting up the calm blue waters of a large lake. There is a fair size island in the middle of the lake and an expanse of open grassland at the car park end. A group of Canada geese were visible in the distance along with swans, ducks and other water birds. On the shoreline to our left was a large white bird that I'd never seen before - Mark immediately said 'Hey, have you seen the egret?'. Wow, I was impressed (both by his knowledge and the bird itself) - and even more so when a second one flew over and landed close by. They looked very much like herons (and had the same shoreline pose) but with beautiful pure white plumage - very elegant! It's not often that I don't have at least an inkling of what a bird might be so I had the feeling that these may be a bit special. We didn't really know just how lucky we'd been until we got home and did a little research.
Taking the path down to the noon column we saw a Fieldfare in the hedgerow near the railway embankment - our first sighting this winter. Down near the noon column is a really good bird hide and happily it was open so we could go in to see the birds out on the lake which included a great crested grebe - how I wished we'd thought to take the binoculars. We explored a little further, venturing under the railway arch to the eastern side of the site, before retracing our steps back to the car park.
It's only a short drive up the road from Croxall Lakes to Fradley Junction where we enjoyed lunch at the cafe by the waters of the Trent and Mersey Canal - a brilliant little outing!
So what about our egrets? Our first assumption was that they would be Little Egrets but having also seen a grey heron at the waters edge Mark commented that the egrets were surprisingly big - around the same size as the grey heron. On getting home we researched further and found that our 2 were most likely to have been Great White Egrets - this was further backed up by finding a bird watching site online that included reports of sightings of a Great White Egret at Croxall Lakes just the day before. A bit of research online tells us that sightings of Great White Egrets in the UK are more likely now than 25 years ago but they do still seem to be pretty special - I certainly feel very privileged!
A big thumbs up for Staffordshire Wildlife Trust who manage Croxall Lakes - it is a wonderful place that I'd highly recommend visiting. If you are taking your dog then you need to be aware that dogs are excluded from some parts of the site to protect the wildlife but this didn't stop us having a great time - you can still enjoy a walk up to the noon column, beside the shores of the lake and also access the bird hide even with your hound. It's not a huge site but great for a short stroll and some bird watching and you can easily combine it with a visit to the National Memorial Arboretum next door or, like we did, go on to Fradley Junction.
Well it's the 1st December so we just turned a page on the calendar but what does it really mean?
For us the calendar at home is a handy space to record appointments and reminders but our real calendar - the one that keeps us in touch with what is happening - is outside in our own little bit of the National Forest. This week we've seen ice across the pond and today it was hard frozen. We watched the 2 moorhens slipping and sliding across the ice on their huge feet as they made their way over to hoover up any bits dropped from the bird feeders. Above them usual visitors of blue tits, great tits and coal tits are now joined by gangs of long tailed tits and the occasional greater spotted woodpecker who will creep shyly up the willow before hanging off the bottom of the fat ball feeder. This is how we really know that winter is here.
Above is a picture of our pond. Just a couple of weeks ago this same view was noticeably greener - now the ash and willow are all bare and the golden brown leaves on the oaks are just hanging on. Its only really the hazel that still sport green leaves in our wood at the moment.
When you visit a spot regularly you get to know the trees, birds and plants well - you start to notice the changes in them as the years progress and these changes start to have meaning for you. Now it is the last leaves I am noticing but I know that soon it will be the first snowdrops coming up, the first frogspawn in the pond, the first sticky buds on the willow. These are my calendar, the events that I look forward to and which, for me, mark the passing of time.
Recently I came across an initiative run by the Woodland Trust called Natures Calendar. They are recording various species of plants, animals, birds, insects and fungi and the changes in them each year. Anyone can sign up to get involved - if you listen out for the first cuckoo, have a special spot where you go in search of bluebells each Spring or look forward to a particular patch of blackberries ripening then why not get involved?
We will be recording the changing of one of our young oaks through the seasons and over the years to add to their database. The project aims to help predict how wildlife will be affected as our climate changes but I think one great bonus to anyone taking part will be the reminder to take a moment out and just watch how the changing of the seasons is going on in a time frame all of its own no matter how busy our own calendars may be.
I just can't resist a footpath sign. The lure of that little arrow just says 'explore me' and sooner or later I just have to find out where it goes. Happily the National Forest is just full of paths. Public footpaths, permissive paths, tracks, trails and long distance paths - we've got the lot!