Saturday 29 August 2020

Outside Of A Dog....

"Outside of a dog, a man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read" - Groucho Marx.

A selection of the books I've read in the last few months:

Sometimes it's necessary to step off the normal path and explore something new. Here are three books in which the authors do exactly that.

The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds - Stephen Rutt  -  Britain's seabirds occupy a difficult space. Of course they are not "our" seabirds at all; they merely visit us for a few weeks each year in order to raise their young. They cling (sometimes quite literally) to the cliffs, sea stacks and islands around our coasts, often in some of the least hospitable places. When Stephen Rutt tires of life in London he sets off to seek out these remote locations and get to know the birds that briefly reside there. It's not so much an ornithology book (though I certainly learnt much from it) as a travelogue to the remarkable edges of these islands.

Common Ground - Rob Cowan - Edgelands of a different sort are the destination of Rob Cowan; he explores an odd bit of wasteland on the edge of an urban location. It's become an almost "trendy" idea to regard these unattractive sites as havens for nature in recent years, with several books championing the cause. "Common Ground" makes the most complete and satisfying job of all of them, weaving nature, history, politics and his personal life into a beautiful whole.

Under The Stars: A Journey Into Light - Matt Gaw - Matt Gaw's untrodden ways are into the night-time darkness of these islands. You have to warm to Gaw for his complete honesty, whether he's recounting his irrational fear when spending a night in the forests of Northumberland or trying to interest his children in the stars (the ones in the sky rather than the ones on Twitter). Along the way he makes a powerful argument for preserving darkness from artificial lighting and appreciating its attractions.

Three novels that worked their way into my consciousness in different ways:

If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things - Jon McGregor -  I'd read good things about this novel on various blogs that I follow. If you like a story that progresses from A to C, passing through B on the way, then this may not be for you. The ambitious scope of this novel is to document the many diverse residents of a London street and their reactions to a terrible event that takes place there on a lazy summer afternoon. Some of the characters are perhaps drawn more fully than others, also some of them are more appealing to me and I'd like to hear more about them a little less about others. But that's a minor criticism and I kept eagerly turning pages till I reached the end.

Fludd - Hilary Mantel - I should really have read at least one of Mantel's Booker Prize winners, but I'm always deterred by their sheer size. This little tale is more manageable for a slow and steady reader like me. The story revolves around a small church, hidden away in a moorland valley. It's supposed to be set in the 1950s but at times you'd think we were back in the Middle Ages. Fludd is the rather mysterious curate who appears to help out the crusty and difficult old vicar, though Fludd is clearly more than he first seems. Hilary Mantel says that its style is influenced by her childhood when all sorts of strange things seemed possible. What evolves is something akin to a modern morality tale that is full of sly, wicked humour.

The Island - Ana Maria Matute - When a book turns up on Penguin Modern Classics and I've never heard of it, or its author, I see it as my duty to investigate. On the surface it's a little coming of age story set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, though the unrest is just a shadow that falls across the island on which the action takes place. The writing is superbly evocative, especially the powerful portrait of the elderly aunt who seems to pull the strings of everything that happens on the island, and I've been looking for translations of other books by the same writer, though none seem to be available.

And now three about the evolution of new ideas in different centuries:

The Wonderful Mr Willughby - Tim Birkhead - Francis Willughby was a seventeenth century scholar who collaborated with John Ray on a hugely ambitious project: to see, describe, illustrate and classify the entire nature of the known world! There's always been a debate as to which of the two pioneering naturalists was the more important, but more interesting to me was the sheer difficulty of quite how to set about such a difficult task - exactly what attributes of birds, or insects, or fish, do you consider when trying to classify them. They were also impeded in their quest by their religious beliefs - if you believe in a benevolent creator just how do you account for parasites that kill off their hosts? - and if the creator is all-knowing then how do you explain fossils of organisms that are now extinct? A fascinating read for anyone interested in the natural world and the evolution of ideas.

Darwin's Most Wonderful Plants - Ken Thompson - Charles Darwin was also a scientist who had to wrestle with the religious implications of his work, most obviously in The Origin Of Species. But Darwin was interested in a wide range of other topics, in fact he could not prevent himself from investigating anything which grabbed his attention. Darwin did not have the technology to answer many of the questions that he posed for himself, but was ingenious in his approach to botany by what was little more than the intelligent and obsessive pursuit of gardening.

Where Do Camels Belong? - Ken Thompson - Not the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East; they're relative newcomers there. They evolved first in North America, of all places. Most members of their family can now be found in S America (llamas, alpacas etc). The only Dromedaries living wild nowadays are in Australia. From this bewildering series of  contradictions Dr Ken Thompson goes on to investigate the science of "invasive species". To people like me who've grown up (and grown old) believing that "invasives" are always a "bad thing", this is a refreshing and enlightening volume.

The Rosie Trilogy - Graeme Simsion - Don Tilman, the fictional central character in these three books, is also a scientist. Like many outstanding brains, his is firmly on the Autistic Spectrum, a fact that is obvious to everyone else in the story - except to Don himself, of course. At the age of 39 he decides that he ought to find himself a "life partner" and he sets out on his project. His logical brain suggests to him that the most effective way of doing this is to prepare a questionnaire which he will distribute to potential partners, he will then apply scientific method to the answers to find the most compatible person to be his wife. What could possibly go wrong? While pursuing the ideal partner he falls in love with Rosie, who may be the least compatible person in the world. I must admit that romantic comedies are not my usual reading matter, but I found these brilliant, not only for the comedy (which was hilarious) but also for the serious points which it makes about our attitudes towards people who have Autism as their superpower. 

Take care

Friday 28 August 2020


As some of you may have noticed, this poor ol' blog has been limping along rather forlornly of late. The heavy, darkening greens of late summer are never particularly attractive to my eye and, beneath the dreary skies we've been having, they've done little to tempt me to take many photos or go to new places. Usually August is saved for me by visiting folk festivals, agricultural shows and open gardens, but this year most of my alternatives are closed by King Covid. So I've been looking for my music online.

British folk music occasionally throws up a good songwriter, though most of them are little known outside the parochial world of the folk enthusiasts. The rest of the planet may consider them as "uncool" but some of their songs will have a lifetime beyond the realms of passing fads and fancies. Here is Mr Bill Caddick, sitting in his caravan, with his song "Unicorns".

Unicorns - a song written by Bill Caddick
We were travelling north to sing and play
For friends that we had never met
Been working hard and didn't speak
The sky was grey and threatened wet
And I dreamed that I saw unicorns
Dreamed I saw them wild and white
Their sudden beauty lit the world
Like a star will light a winter's night

Pure as love with manes of milk
They danced and pranced and cried aloud
Bright as rainbows round the stars
Their eyes were soft and sad and proud

And I wept for the wild and dirty world
To which this beauty now was lost
And cursed the hungry mind of man
That feeds the future at such cost
My head was bowed, my eyes were closed
When in my ears their voices rang
And these few words lodged deep inside
And in my very soul they sang

We never went away
You always knew that we were near
Remember how to look for us
You'll see we were always here

I raised my eyes to seek them out
The world was empty all around
The rain came tumbling from the sky
It drowned all dreams upon the ground
And when they asked me why I wept
Like one who for his dead love mourns
The only answer I could give
I dreamed that there were unicorns
We never went away
You always knew that we were near
Remember how to look for us
You'll see we were always here.

Take care.


Saturday 22 August 2020

Two Fens

 "The Fens" refers to a large area of low-lying land in Eastern England. Most of it is around sea level and it used to flood every winter, making it a magnet for migrating and wintering wildfowl. I use the past tense because most of this area of 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) has been drained so it can be used for farmland, but there are still small pockets of land that give some idea of what's been lost.

Lakenheath Fen

Alongside many of the rivers entering the Fens the floodbanks are placed well back away from the riversides, so that these areas can still flood in times of high rainfall. The River Little Ouse is in the foreground of the above photo and in the background is flooded land. These floodplains are known locally as "washes" (not to be confused with The Wash which is a shallow coastal bay just north of here).

The traditional way of farming these seasonally flooded areas (both fens and washes) was to put cattle out on them during the summer months, and that's still done in the remaining areas. Even those places managed as nature reserves have seen the necessity of putting some kind of livestock on the drier areas to maintain the landscape; you might see Highland cattle, semi-wild ponies or even water buffalo keeping the land in shape.

While some birds make use of the river, far more settle on the washlands. Swans, being large and white, are easiest to see, but there are many ducks, as well as waders inhabiting the water's edge. 


Just a little further from the river the RSPB have their Lakenheath Fen site. Don't be fooled by the name; there's no "lake" at Lakenheath, just a very large man-made reed bed. When the bird charity bought the land, in the mid-90s, it was just a rather poor carrot field. Much of the fertile peat, that was there when the land was first drained, had blown away and it was becoming marginal for agriculture. So the opportunity was taken to try to restore the area to something like fenland. The scheme has proved more successful  that anyone dared hope as birds like Bitterns and Cranes have returned along with many other species. 

It's also a great habitat for many insects like the Large White butterfly and the female Southern Hawker dragonfly that I managed to photograph. And if you get an abundance of dragonflies you often attract Hobbies, which are small falcons which feed on dragonflies, catching them on the wing - a spectacular show if you have the good fortune to see it (though the dragonflies don't enjoy it much!).

Chippenham Fen

Lets make our way to the little village of Chippenham, near Newmarket.

This is what the SatNav refers to as the "city centre"! The little building in the foreground contains the village pump where householders in the past would have obtained their water supply. And behind it stands The Tharp Arms, the village pub; no chance of dying of thirst in Chippenham then.

The town of Newmarket is the centre of Britain's horse-racing industry and you may see superb thoroughbred horses in any of the surrounding villages (though the real stars of the racecourse are rather hidden away behind tight security much of the time).

Around the edge of the main Fens there are several small areas of poorly drained land which are also called "fens" and are used in the same way and are ecologically similar. Chippenham Fen is just one such area which also serves as a nature reserve, but one which is only accessible by the footpath which runs through it.

Wildlife was not making itself obvious so I had to content myself with photographing the berries of the Guelder Rose which is also known as dogberry, water elder, cramp bark, snowball tree or European cranberry bush (Viburnum opulus).

Even without seeing lots of birds it was still a lovely area to walk through; very old-fashioned and traditional, almost like strolling through one of John Constable's paintings.

Take care.

Tuesday 18 August 2020

Wetness And Greenness

Some days I wake up and feel I've just got to get outside for a walk. It's a bit cloudy out there and it might rain later, but I'm not going to let that stop me. Lets see if we can find something to photograph along the well-trodden paths around home. 

When I'm on familiar territory I have to take a quick snap to get me going, otherwise I just trudge along and get bored. So here's a little portrait of a pioneering little sprig that is making its way through the bars of its prison. That's what you've got to do: just poke your head outside and see what's there. 

And just a little way along the road there's a show of flowers in the border, looking fine despite three days of heavy rain.

Lets celebrate the overnight rain! It will return the green to the English countryside, though there'll be many farmers worrying over such crops that yet remain unharvested.

The familiar little footbridge, just behind the church, is in danger of being swamped by vegetation. Water is still dripping from the leaves as I cross. 

Here's an adolescent tree trying to fight its way upwards into the light among the ivy-clad grown-ups. I fear that its bold efforts may be brought to an end the next time this path needs clearing, but maybe it'll be spared. 

Down on Shepreth Moor there's a log-pile that seems to have built itself a little nest among the dry grasses. These little piles have been left all over as potential homes for insect life.

In the hedgerow I find a familiar dead tree is slowly sinking earthwards, having been felled by the winds of last winter. 

It almost looks like November, but you can just glimpse the big, square straw bales in the far distance. And actually it's really quite warm this morning - it's not so much misty as steamy!

There seems to be a "tree" theme emerging from my photographs this morning and here's a Scots pine raising its noble head above the more familiar native trees of the little woodland.

A fallen branch inverts the usual pattern of tree-growth and adds a little hint of Autumn to the general greenery.

But mostly there's unstoppable growth sprouting up everywhere, like green fountains. So that's what my walk has revealed on this murky and humid morning. Now I'd better head for home before the next thunderstorm arrives. And this is August 2020.

Take care.

Monday 10 August 2020

Water And Pipes

It's a bit warm for me to be taking a long walk today, over 32 degrees C is too hot for this Englishman, though I have been out and about picking wild blackberries and even found a few greengages. But I did have a trip with Les to Grafham Water reservoir last week which yielded a handful of photos.

Although its main purpose is to supply water to the ever-growing population, it's also used for sailing and fishing. Migrating birds often stop off here too.

There are cycling and walking routes encircling the reservoir and, although it can get a little crowded around the visitor centres, you don't have to walk far to find relative solitude.

This rather tatty, though still splendid, butterfly is (I think) a male Silver-Washed Fritillary. They are not at all common in my home area and it's several years since I saw one.

Although over 75% of the shoreline looks natural or semi-natural, that's not the most likely place to see birds. For reasons which only a bird could explain, many of them congregate along the concrete dam and associated man-made features. Along the dam on the morning we were there were Yellow-Legged Gulls, a Caspian Gull, juvenile Mediterranean Gulls, a couple of young Shelducks and a Yellow Wagtail. Usually there's a wader or two as well.

There are quite a few wind-turbines in small groups. They very much divide opinion, but surely they are preferable to sending people down into coal mines or transporting oil half-way around the world. There are also fields of solar panels in the area to produce more electricity. I suspect that it won't be long before birds learn to nest in the spaces between the panels or even underneath them; Collared Doves have already found that they can nest under rooftop solar panels, much to the annoyance of the householders.

A colourful stand of Rosebay Willowherb growing at the edge of woodland near Grafham Water.

And a Red Admiral butterfly feeding on the flowers of Hemp Agrimony.

We keep saying that one day we'll walk the complete circuit (about 10.5 miles) of the reservoir, but it'll have to cool off a bit before that.

So that's the "Water", now how about the "Pipes" in the title?

Back in April I introduced you to the Northumbrian pipes of Kathryn Tickell, which some of you enjoyed, so I thought you might like to learn a little more. Let Kathryn tell you herself:

A lot of pipers take part in competitions which are often one of the attractions at agricultural shows and the like. They develop special show-pieces to display their full range of skills. Here's a piece called "Bill Charlton's Fancy" which was written by the unforgettably-named Billy Pigg, one of the most influential players of the Northumbrian pipes. He was apparently sheltering from the rain in a shed when he heard the raindrops dripping through the roof. As the rain increased the drops fell more rapidly and he imitated this effect in his tune. Listen: 

And Bill Charlton? He was just someone who heard the tune and said he liked it, so Billy Pigg named the tune after him.

Take care.

Friday 7 August 2020

Summertime Scenes

Down in deepest Hertfordshire, sandwiched between the A119 and A602 roads, near the railway to London, not far from the towns of Hertford, Ware and Stevenage, there's an unexpected wedge of quiet countryside that's worth exploring on foot.

In Waterford (where we were a few months ago, looking at the stained glass in the little church) there's a small nature reserve on a minor area of heathland that's been exploited in the past for its sand and gravel. A few local folk were out and about taking their morning exercise on this overcast morning,
Just beyond the nature reserve, fenced footpaths lead through an area more recently used for sand extraction, but being recolonised by nature. Yellowhammers were flitting about among the bushes.
We were soon in the hamlet of Chapmore End where this redbrick cottage caught my eye. We wandered past The Woodman pub and the duckpond and on through a short stretch of agricultural land.
I'd promised Les that we'd see some Red Kites somewhere on this walk. At this early stage of the walk they were still a novelty as they swooped and twisted over the fields, though later we saw many of these superb birds of prey. It was thirty years ago that I saw my first one - and I had to go to mid-Wales to do that - but such has been their recovery that you can now guarantee encountering them in many parts of the country.
The small village of Tonwell has a perfect little pub named The Robin Hood And Little John - a long way from their usual stomping ground in Sherwood Forest!

There's also this iconic building. It's a water-tower dating from the 1960s and dominates the skyline around this part of Hertfordshire. It's a protected building even though it's no longer in use. Browsing the internet I found that it's been bought by a property developer with plans to convert it to an unusual residence with a roof-terrace up on top. Now it just awaits someone to put up the money for the scheme. It won't be me.
A cluster of farm buildings at the end of a rough track is part of Bengeo Temple Farm. The "Temple" part of the name is a reference to the fact that this land was once owned by the Knights Templar back in the Middle Ages. There are rumours of treasure being buried somewhere around here.
The path led on beside a field of...well, what? It's a brassica of some sort and looks a bit like oil-seed rape though it's not yellow. Whatever it is I've seen a couple of fields of it lately.

(Since writing the above I've done some research and discovered that the crop is Fodder Radish and it is grown on organic farms as it helps control weeds and pests. Later it is cut and ploughed in, improving soil structure. It also provides cover and food for wild birds)
We're now entering the parkland which surrounds Sacombe House and Woodhall Park, two grand country mansions dating from 1803 and 1771 respectively, though we won't see either of them on this walk. Although privately owned, both estates are threaded by numerous footpaths and cycleways enabling everyone to enjoy this historic landscape.

Here's a useful and informative sign telling you that you can walk in either direction - but where to?
It's typical of the landscaped grounds that were laid out in this period and the present owners are doing much to restore the watercourses and wetlands and manage the land for nature. Woodhall Park, the main house, is now used as a school.
A rather nice patch of Harebells were blowing in the wind.

Now you might think that this grand avenue is leading you to the Hall itself, but no, that building is just the stable block, which probably housed the coachmen and grooms as well as the coaches and teams of horses. But where did all the money come from?

As is often the case it's probably best not to dig too deeply; suffice to say that Thomas Rolt, who built Sacombe House, and Thomas Rumbolt, the owner of Woodhall Park, both held high positions in the East India Company.
From here we're now going to follow the River Beane downstream back to Waterford. Believe it or not that's one of the river's channels above, though there is another close by which presumably contains the water. That's Purple Loosestrife flowering on the damp ground.

A little light forestry was taking place, removing some branches from the willow trees.

Although the path is right alongside the river, glimpses of it are few and far between as there's a kind of hedge running between the two.

The path then enters Clusterbolt Wood, though still closely follows the river. In Spring this wood is thick with flowers of Ramsons (Wild Garlic) - you won't need anything other than your nose to identify it!

The tiny village of Stapleford stands close to the river and has a rather attractive church, albeit one that always has its back to the sun. That's unusual; most churches are approached from their sunny south side. Incidentally, after a slightly cloudy start, the day had turned to one of unbroken sunshine - we seem to be getting more than our share of bright "Mediterranean" light in the south of England this year, though separated by damp, gloomy periods.

It's not all grand houses and perfect scenery - near Bullsmill this old wreck rather marred the view.

Then we're back down beside the river with sunlight and shadows dappling the water.

Just near Waterford there's an idyllic stretch of river, lined with green meadows, much favoured by young mums and their children on this beautiful afternoon. Just as we left the meadows I spotted what I thought was a butterfly but on closer observation turned out to be a Tiger Moth (an insect not an aeroplane!). All I could get was a rather fuzzy photo, but clear enough to identify it as a Jersey Tiger. At the time my insect book was published (2005) its range did not extend this far north, perhaps the effect of our recent spell of warm summers.

Then we're back in Waterford Heath nature reserve. Now where's that car park?

Take care.