Eight days with Eight Blokes

In September 2015 I joined a bunch of top birders on a trip to Fair Isle. There were eight of them and me.

‘I cannot think of anything worse’ is what my daughter said.

Needless to say, I had a fabulous time and so, I believe, did they!

Below is a selection of photos from the trip.

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Overnight ferry to ShetlandDSCF0505

My flight onto Fair Isle was a day later than the rest of the team. I spent a very comfortable night with  Rebecca Nason at her B&B in down town Lerwick. Rebecca is an extraordinary photographer and naturalist. I loved her house, brimming with fine things including a delightful collection of bird bones and bills!

Sumburgh, Shetland

Sumburgh Head

Fair Isle, Church of Scotland

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View of Sheep Rock from Bu Ness

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Heligoland trap

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Bu Ness, whale tale.

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Hunting for petrified fish having dipped on the Thick Billed Warbler found at Quendale the evening before. This rarity pulled all the local birders and  left an audience of may be 4, plus the 8 of us for the Shetland bird club talk that 2 of our team were due give.

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The bird of the trip was Yellow-browed Warbler. On 21 September 53 birds were seen and 12 were ringed. These birds, weighing just 5g, are likely to have travelled from the Urals, 3-3.5,000 miles away, to winter in Britain.

Fair Isle’s roads are lined with Angelica, a kind of wild celery. Their flowers are host to numerous insects that Yellow-browed warbler’s find utterly irresistible after their long flight. The photo below was taken by Andy Mason.

Yellow-browed Warbler (1 of 26)

 

Alpujarras in February

Another quick jaunt, this time to southern Spain and the Alpujarras, made famous, in part, by the books of Chris Stewart. This corner of Spain is quite different to the open plains of Extremadura where birds, and particularly birds of prey, abound. In the Alpujarras, it is rare to see these wild beasts. They are are shot from the sky and smaller birds are caught in nets. But we did not go to the Alpujarras for birds. This trip was focussed on three mountain walks, a visit to the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, and another to the Picasso Museum in Malaga, all packed into 6 days including the travelling days. Alpujarras SpainFirst evening, a short walk into the almond groves.Alpujarras SpainFirst morning, in Lanjeron, looking for Panaderia Jiménez – the baker.

Alpujarras SpainThe empty main street of Lanjeron

Walk 1: Acequias del Poqueira.

Alpujarras SpainChimneys on the roof tops of Capilerira

Having found the baker and spent a bit too long enjoying breakfast in the rising sun, we were too late in the day to get the full way around this 17km circular walk. Had we driven as far as the disused hydro station, a few km above the village, we might have done it. As it happens, the lower section of the path was particularly beautiful. The highlights of this walk were the distant snowy peaks coming in and out of view, the steep terraces hosting goats and cattle across the valley, the bubbling acequias (aqua-ducts) and a herd of curious Ibex.Alpujarras SpainAlpujarras Spain

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En route down the incredible twisting road back to Lanjeron, we stopped briefly to look back up to the village of Campileria, visible just above the sun-lit wintery branches, mirroring the snow on the mountains above.Alpujarras Spain

Walk 2:  Pueto Palo Loop

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This 13.5km valley walk passed through mixed forrest and then up and around a lovely mountain pasture following a beautifully maintained acequia. It was sufficiently warm for us to picnic on its bank and doze in the sun. The return part of the walk was down a wide forest road, easy walking. With time on our hands at the end of this walk we drove up to Trevelez, the highest village in mainland Spain at 1476m, and the home of Serrano Jamon. We arrived just as the sun was setting. It was very cold up there. We warmed up in a small cafe, muscling in on what appeared to be a family celebration. One of us was treated to the delights of Jamon Serrano, the speciality of the region. That same one, was sorely tempted to purchase a hind leg to bring home. The other, being a sensible type, pointed out that it might not fit in her carry-on bag.Alpujarras Spain

Walk 3: Albunuelas – Cruz Chiquita

Our third and final walk started in the village of Ablunuelas. This is a lovely village hugging the edge of a canyon. We struggled to find the start of the path and eventually an old women with whom we had quite a conversation, which neither side fully understood, insisted on accompanying us to the top of the village and send us on our way.

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Albunueslas

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Alhambra

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Alcazaba, Arms Square

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View of Granda from the Alcazaba Tower

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Sala de Dos Hermanas, exterior

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Looking up into the fine stucco work of the dome of the Sala de Dos Hermanas

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Patio de los leones

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Mirador de Daraxa

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Even if visiting off peak, it is important to purchase tickets in advance. Entrance to the Nazrid Palace is restricted. We arrived by 7am on February 19th having been told we could buy tickets on site. However, on that day we could only buy tickets to the garden and not to the Palace. Fortunately, we were able to buy tickets online. The early start was worth it just to have the place to ourselves. We spent a good 8 hours at the Palace. We had lunch and afternoon tea at the excellent Parador which lies in the heart of the complex.  Under no circumstances venture into the Guadelope Hotel for refreshments, even though it is close the main entrance. The coffee is appalling! We drove back to base via Orgiva and the very nice Teteria Baraka restaurant. By coincidence, this Moroccan restaurant is on the Guardian readers top 10 list for best restaurants in rural Spain!

On our final day we visited the Picasso Museum in Malaga. Based at the foot of the Malaga Alcazaba we took a circuitous root to get there, climbing the very steep path to the top and down again. From the top there are expansive views of the port and the Med and you can imagine of the north coast of Africa just beyond the horizon.

Perfect web site for walks: https://treksierranevada.com/walks/start-point/alpujarras

 

 

 

 

 

A violin maker’s studio

When I was a kid I wanted to become a luthier (a maker of stringed instruments). I loved the idea of working with wood and transforming it into something beautiful, tactile and functional. I put this somewhat romantic idea down when I passed A levels in science and opted for a degree in biochemistry. Many years down the line, 1999 ish, I attended yoga classes in Cambridge. No one ever talked to each other at these classes; we just arrived focussed on the breathing, stretching and  strengthening exercises and then buggered off to the mayhem of home.

Impulse 

One day the teacher announced she was leaving and by way of farewell we took her out for a drink. I found myself sitting opposite Jonathan Woolston, a luthier. A few weeks later I went to visit him at his family home. A table tennis table occupied the greater part of his back room and on it, on its side, was a violin. ‘That one’s for sale’ Jonathan jokingly said as I picked it up. ‘You just sold it!’ I responded, astonishing myself as much as him. That was the biggest impulse purchase I have ever made, but my god was it was a good one. My children were still small; I had no idea whether either would have an interest in music let alone play the violin.  I was a cellist! But now I was also the proud owner of Jonathan’s 5th violin. He had made it 20 years earlier but had left it ‘in the white’ unvarnished, as his mother had liked it that way. He had given the instrument to her and it had hung on her wall for many years and had only recently made its way back to him, to finish, after she  had died.

Lord Wilton

In time I took up the violin myself. By now, my son Fabian, was playing and he quickly progressed to the full sized Woolston instrument which we had to share. In 2010, I found myself between jobs and so for 6 months I played intensively. By the time summer arrived, I decided I needed an instrument of my own. My father suggested that I sell a pair of leather bound horn duet manuscripts that I had inherited from my grandmother, and use the proceeds to purchase another violin.  Mine, like Fabian’s is a model of the Guarneri del Gesu ‘Lord Wilton’ made in Cremona in 1742. The original was owned and played by Yehudi Menhuin from 1978 until he died in 1999 when it was sold for a mere $6million. Fortunately, copies made today have a more affordable price tag.

Returning to its maker

Once in a while, I take my fiddle back to its maker. This tends to happen at the time of year when I put the heating on and again at the other end of the year, when I turn the heating off. It is at these times, with changes in temperature and humidity that the instrument needs the TLC that only Jonathan can supply. This year I went to see him at the beginning of April and I decided to bring a picnic lunch with me. This I purchased at the truly fabulous Alamin shop on Mill Road. I bought samosa’s, rice and a spinach curry, oranges and chocolates for afters. Quite a feast. After lunch, while Jonathan worked, I took some photos of his studio.

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Full circle 

In his penultimate year at school, my son had to undertake an ‘extended’ project. Being a practical and creative lad, he decided he wanted to make a violin. Jonathan recommended that Fabian talk to Chris Beament, who runs the Cambridge Violin Workshop, located a few minutes away from Fabian’s VIth form college. Just over a year later, Fabian completed his first violin, and the price tag? It’s priceless needless to say!  IMG_5825