Winter is the only period of the year that straddles the old and New Year as far as the calendar is concerned. As we saw out the old year the River Yeo was placid almost tired and decidedly sleepy. With unseasonably mild weather and no extremes of rainfall it has been in limbo for a few months. The River never hibernates as water continues to seep out of the Mendip Hills and whenever it rains we get a surge in the flow as water runs off the roads and hard paved areas. Even if there was a winter drought Bristol Water are required to discharge water from Blagdon Reservoir to ensure there is a minimum flow. Although there has been plenty of rain over the winter months its been matched by dry days which means the River has time to catch up before the next deluge.
What a difference a year makes, last year at the same time January was experiencing some of the heaviest rainfall ever recorded. Although the amounts were exceptional the River Yeo was able to cope mainly due to the fact that the storms were spread over a longer period rather than short periods of heavy rain. It’s always interesting to look back and see what happened in the past. In 1963 the whole country was gripped in arctic conditions with snow and sub zero temperatures. It was so cold that the River froze and the ice was thick enough to walk on. Although we have had snow and freezing temperatures since, its never been cold enough to freeze the River so you could walk across in safety. Many will say ‘thank goodness’.
Winter is a good time to walk the River banks even if the gateways are muddy, most of the paths are reasonably good. The new houses being built on the former Elliott’s site are nearing completion and some people have already moved in. Although the factory site was not very attractive it did have some historic significance, being the site of an old water mill. So as to ensure the new houses are as far as possible above any future flood level, they have been raised up and tend to dominate the River. When the landscaping is finished and becomes established no doubt the houses will fit in and add to the variety of views we can enjoy.
Although the trees have all lost their leaves and the autumn colours have long since been forgotten, the shapes and delicate lace of the branches are well worth stopping to admire. As you stand back and look at the skeleton of the trees they are just as attractive even without their clothes on. On Boxing Day morning the Village walkers all stopped on the Millennium Bridge to admire the old and knurled Oak Tree that guards the entrance to the Millie Green and has probably been watching over the River for the last 400 years. But the trees planted on the Green in 2000 are equally impressive with some superb shapes and patterns. Make a note on your next walk to look at the trees, they are not dead but resting and waiting for spring to arrive.
St Andrews Church is celebrating being consecrated 800 years ago in 1215. The same year as the Magna Carta was agreed by King John. What a fantastic record and historic moment in time. But, by comparison it is only a youngster compared to the River Yeo. Both will have seen and experienced many events and are still providing pleasure and enjoyment to the Village. Long may they both continue and flourish. Congresbury is the start or the finish of the two rivers walk. For long distant walkers there is a path that starts from the Millennium Green and follows the River Yeo until it joins the River Chew in Chew Magna and ends at Keynsham. A distance of 25 miles with wonderful views of the Mendips and both Blagdon and Chew Valley reservoirs. Although the route only passes a mile through Congresbury it is possible to see one of the Village boundary stones on the River bank just beyond Iwood Bridge. If you venture to the east end of the village near to Iwood Bridge you will see the edge of the new Solar Farm. It is set back from the River but can hardly be regarded as adding to the beauty of the landscape and countryside.
The Boxing Day walk did a circular tour of the north of the Village and ended up crossing the River at Moor Bridge. The walkers then made their way along the top of the flood bank which forms part of the Strawberry Line footpath before ending in the Old School Rooms for Sherry and Mince Pies. The River below the A370 road bridge is less interesting and attractive than the Millennium Green side having had more extensive flood banks constructed to reduce the risk of the Village flooding as it did in 1968.
During the winter the River still has its resident Mallard Ducks and a few Swans who tend to fluctuate between the River and the Rhynes. From the banks you can often see small flocks of Lapwings. Their numbers are much less than a few years ago but they are a welcome sight with the tufted heads and pee wit calls when disturbed and fly off. More frequent visitors in the fields are the little Egrets, they tend to be solitary birds and are much smaller than the local Grey Herons. Small flocks of starlings can be seen in the fields during the winter and in the evenings make spectacular formations as they do their aerobics. But best of all during the winter you can see the Kingfishers as they fly at high speed in a blue flash along the river and occasionally perch near the Weir. Keith Fox told me that he had seen a Kingfisher four times in a month above the Weir flying towards the two stone bridges. Even more exciting he reported seeing an Otter on 11th February 2014 at 7.00am on the same stretch of water.
The majority of the farm animals are kept inside during the winter months but there are flocks of sheep in the fields. As they have their lambs in early January and February they look rather large but it is reminder once they lamb that spring is around the corner. Just before Christmas on Captain and Sally Halls farm their flock of Geese grazing the fields was a festive sight and their hissing and alarm calls echoed across the fields on a clear still morning.
Winter ends the circle of the year as we all look forward to the days lengthening, the weather warming up and spring and all it brings arriving to start the circle all over again. 2014 might not have had the dramatic and spectacular occurrences the River has experienced in the past, but it has been looking after Congresbury every hour of every day. As you walk along its banks or cross over one of its bridges never fail to remember the River Yeo is one of our best friends and with climate change and more extremes of weather long may it continue to keep us dry. I hope you have enjoyed our brief journal of the four seasons on the River Yeo in 2014 and you will be encouraged to enjoy walking along its banks during the 2015.