Two ancient oaks at Pudleston, Herefordshire. Photograph: Jack Spiers
Often within sight of the Malverns, Black Mountains or Radnor Forest, our 12-day walk along the Herefordshire Trail leads from place to place around the county. Massive oaks used to be pollarded, and, in derelict orchards, clumps of mistletoe colonise old trees. Wayside hedgerows are loaded with haws, rotting blackberries, holly and spindle berries; crab apples strew rough lanes and bullaces keep yellow leaves and wrinkled purple fruit.
Churches, from Dore Abbey to Pudleston, are decorated with flowers, fruit and swags of hops for harvest festivals. Pheasants bred for shoots feed and shelter in scrubby woods and, above Leintwardine, mature birds scuttle and glide between coverts of maize as five red kites wheel overhead.
Mist shrouds Arthur’s Stone (a neolithic tomb), but mostly clement weather enhances landscapes, as when afternoon sun gilds trees and pink earth in Golden Valley. Days later we descend from windswept hills into the tranquillity of sunlit parkland at Brampton Bryan with its huge, stag-headed, chestnuts.
Sheep are ubiquitous, particularly in the west towards Offa’s Dyke. Memorable, beneath a rainbow, is the farmer on a quad bike checking his flock with his four dogs, and then, one early morning, sheep trailing through dewy pastures overlooked by Bache Camp (an iron age hill fort east of Leominster). In arable areas turnips, grown as a break crop, provide keep for sheep in winter.
Plenty of grass allows bullocks to remain out on pastures and we encounter just three herds of the distinctive Herefords – between St Tysilio’s church and Sellack suspension bridge (across the Wye); near Kilpeck Castle, and lastly in the parish of Edwyn Ralph, where young calves lie in the warmth, overseen by cows and older offspring.
Much of the red-earthed arable land is already cultivated, sown with winter cereals, marked with the tramlines of crop spraying for mould and weed control. On the final lap, towards Bishop’s Frome, the roar of machinery announces the ongoing collection of apples for cider. Here too are hop gardens, and a farmer tells us that he is constructing a new kiln and planting an extra 40 acres of hops.