Saturday, 20 October 2018

Slow Reveal

I awoke this morning to thick fog clamped down upon the land. But early on patches of watery sunlight started to break up the greyness. Down by the River Ouse in Little Paxton though the fog lingered on deep into the morning.

It's pleasant enough walking here even with reduced visibility. There's a lot of birds out there somewhere and maybe we'll see some later, but at present we'll have to make do with the honks of the geese filtering through the gloom.

If this looks like a natural landscape then think again: the ground here has been browsed, plundered, dug over, built upon and burrowed into by the busiest little animal ever to walk the earth - that endlessly destructive and infinitely creative creature, the human being. Search England all over and you won't find any areas that are untouched by human presence or past endeavour.

The ponds and lakes here all result from the excavation of gravel and sand to be used for building. But now it's returned to nature, a state of affairs for which many human agencies like to take credit but which could not have been attained without the co-operation and resilience of Nature herself.

There's nothing exceptional in this; in England we even have a National Park that has been formed by mankind's digging and delving - the Norfolk Broads are entirely the result of peat-digging during the medieval period. Well, medieval peat-digging and six-hundred years of natural re-colonisation.

Maybe this is the way we should be thinking these days. It's all very laudable to set aside wilderness areas, but that shouldn't give us licence to then destroy everything else with impunity. Maybe we should be declaring the whole nation as a national park and take care of it all. Why not? As I mentioned earlier we are not only the most destructive species ever, we are also the most creative. We are responsible for symphonies, great art, temples, cathedrals, worldwide charities, digital technology......

Surely it should be possible to live alongside nature without destroying it. All the arguments seem to have been made, now it remains to be seen whether we do anything about it.

There was a time when I used to travel all over Europe and even into North Africa in search of beautiful photographs. It wasn't difficult to find them, but in the process I was leaving a dirty great carbon footprint, though no one spoke in those terms back then. Nowadays I'm content to wander around in the fog peering at spiders' webs - now, they must be there all the time but, until the fog highlights them, they go unnoticed.

So for now we'll wander on in the foggy, foggy dew, noticing the little details and doing my best not to tread on too many while taking my photos. 

But slowly it seems to be brightening up with occasional sunbeams breaking through. This area is also slowly becoming a better place to be a bird-watcher - and of course a bird! These old gravel pits in the Ouse valley are but a part of the jigsaw. 

The Great Fen Project based around Holme Fen is attempting to return 9,000 acres (3,700 hectares) back to its natural state.  The National Trust has plans to create an reserve of 13,000 acres (5,300 hectares) to the NE of Cambridge by 2099. The RSPB has created a reedbed of 740 acres at Lakenheath which has already attracted breeding Bitterns and Cranes. Then there's the Ouse Washes and Grafham Water reservoir, both of which attract birdlife even if not specifically designed for that purpose. There are also several farms in the area which are working on more eco-friendly ways to farm.

In the interest of fairness and balance I should also say that contractors are making an incredible mess while widening the A14 road, there are big building projects at Eddington and Northstowe, and Cambridge is growing rapidly itself. So not everything is rosy by a long way.

So what birds are here today now that the mists have cleared? 
Grey Heron, Little Egret, Great White Egret, Cormorant, Great Crested Grebe, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Wigeon, Gadwall, Black-Headed Gull, Green Sandpiper, Moorhen, Great Tit, Chaffinch, Wren, Dunnock, Blackbird, Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Pheasant, Chaffinch, Long-Tailed Tit, Jay, Magpie, Rook, Greylag Goose, Canada Goose.

Take care.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

A Garden In October

Of all the monthly visits I planned to make to the University Botanic Garden in Cambridge it was the Autumn season that I most eagerly anticipated. It's true that most of the flowers are past their best, but that's more than made up for by the glory of the trees. Even if the golds, reds and browns haven't yet painted the woods and hedgerows of the countryside with their outrageous palette, you can always guarantee that the species selected in the garden will be riotously colourful. As always the American Sweetgum beside the lake was star of the show - you'll know when we get to it even if  I don't say another word.

Take care.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Old Ways Of Working

A few more photographs from the Working Steam Weekend at Stotfold Mill last Saturday:

A threshing machine in operation, separating the grain from the chaff and straw. The earliest of these machines were powered by a horse-gin - a horse was harnessed to a wheel and walked in circles to turn the thresher. Later steam-power was employed, making the process even more efficient. It was these early forms of mechanisation that were smashed by the farm workers during what were known as the Swing Riots - not because the men were inordinately fond of threshing by hand but because their livelihoods were threatened by the new innovations.


Steam was also used to power saw-mills. Lining up this apparatus correctly seemed to take a long time, but once in action sawed through huge logs with ease.

This magnificently rusty contraption is what's known as a "portable engine" of the kind used to power all kinds of equipment. It would however require a team of horses to move it any distance.

The machine above was being used for splitting firewood. It looked highly dangerous but as far as I could see the operator had a full compliment of fingers!

The owners of the various machines camp on site for the weekend in all manner of carts and caravans.

Apple pressing taking place prior to making cider.

This huge steamroller was formerly used on the roads of Cambridge. I think I might have seen this one in operation when I was a child; steamrollers were certainly used into the 1960s by many local authorities, their huge weight being an obvious advantage for road building. It seems to have a very little buddy alongside!

There were many tractors in all sorts of condition, some awaiting their turn to go ploughing.

Tractors in a wide variety of colours too.

The watermill was also open and making flour. A mill has stood here in one form or another for over a thousand years, but in 1992 there was a huge fire which destroyed most of the mill. However local volunteers decided that it could, and should, be rebuilt. It was reopened in 2006. Though it lacks some of the antique atmosphere of older mills it shows what these buildings must have been like in their heyday. 

Take care.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

A History Of Ploughing Backwards

"I like nothing better than hard work - I could watch it for hours!"

Saturday afternoon found me at Stotfold Mill's "Working Steam Weekend", where there were demonstrations of various types of ploughing - lovely to watch but hard graft for those involved. The kind of hard labour that must have hurried many of my ancestors to early graves. But nevertheless a very pleasant way to pass an afternoon. Just watching, naturally.

When I say "ploughing backwards" I don't mean "ploughing backwards", of course. It's the history that was backwards because it was the more modern methods I saw first.

Later on I stood in the sunshine for a while observing the forerunner to the tractor, ploughing by steam. If you'd run about the fields with one of these monsters you'd do more harm than good - and you'd probably get stuck. They had to use a different system.

Underneath the steam engine is a large winding-drum which pulls the plough across the field by means of a thick steel cable.

Six furrows at a time! The early days of farm mechanisation. If you look carefully you'll spy not only the cable pulling the plough, but also a chain hanging down at the front - they'll need that in a minute.

Oh, how we enjoyed watching them struggle to manually tip the whole plough, ready to make its return journey across the field.

Back they go, being pulled by another steam engine on the opposite side of the field. Of course there's an even more picturesque way to till the land....

A two horse-power outfit.

At the end of each hard-pulled furrow they paused for affectionate pats from admirers young and old. They also seem to have an instinctive understanding of how to pose for the camera!

Then off they go again, while we loiter around unproductively, take a few snaps and eat ice-creams. As I say, "I could watch it for hours!"

Take care.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Into The Sun

Wednesday was unseasonably sunny in this part of the world as summer had what may be its final fling. As we drove through Newmarket we saw the racehorses returning from their early morning gallop. Horse racing dominates this small town to the extent that, when a statue of the Queen is commissioned, it's no surprise to see that it also includes a racehorse and a foal.

But my brother and I are on our way to Moulton to do a circular walk through the villages of Moulton,  Dalham and Gazeley. I've done the walk before, but today I see a sign that tells me that my route coincides with the Three Churches Walk and there's a map outside Moulton church which echoes our intended journey.

The sun at this time of year is quite low in the sky and we were heading straight towards it for the first leg of the journey.

Sunbeams filter down through the leafy branches.

Dalham is a small but perfectly formed little village with many picturesque cottages.

It also has this puzzling structure by the roadside. It's actually an eighteenth century malt kiln, an important part of the brewing process. Most villages would have had one of these in the past but this is one of only a few survivors.

An avenue of trees leads up towards Dalham Hall.

The Hall was built for the Bishop of Ely in the early eighteenth century. Nowadays it's owned by Sheik Mohammed, Prime Minister of the UAE and leading race horse owner.

This is the view the Sheik can enjoy from the property, not as extensive as that from his Burj Khalifa in Dubai but pleasant enough to my eye.

The path from Dalham to Gazeley passes along woodland edges with views out across the newly ploughed arable fields.

This seventeenth century barn in Gazeley has also been taken over by horse racing and is converted to stables. 

The footpath here is confined between fences. Walking near Newmarket you get used to the security around the racing stables which is quite understandable considering the value of some of these horses.

Just a trace of autumn gold along the roadside leading back to Moulton.

And in Moulton you'll find this rather grand packhorse bridge, built back in the days when horses were used to carry goods from town to town - rather different beasts from those that today carry small men at high speed towards the winning post. The village also has a prize-winning village-shop-cum-post-office-cum-coffee-shop where we enjoyed a well-earned mug of tea.

Take care.