Something the pandemic has shown us is that increasingly people are turning (or re-turning) to nature for inspiration and sustenance at a difficult time. At a different and much broader global scale, nature is taking a more centre stage as countries come together to address the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change – the recent G7 meeting and the Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November, are examples of this.
The pandemic has caused a big drive on gardening, and we have jumped on this bandwagon willingly. Our focus has been to try and make a wildflower meadow. Native wildflower grasslands have been lost across England at an alarming rate over the past three or four decades with only 2% of this important wildlife habitat remaining. These places are important not just for the flowers, but also for the pollinating insects they support, and a wide variety of other flora and fauna. They are mini-ecosystems too, offering us a range of services for ‘free’ – capturing carbon, retaining water, improving the soil, not to mention inspiration for art in all its forms.
Our little meadow is in its early stages – its first year in fact. In November 2019 we began to clear deeply rooted scrub, keeping some for habitat mosaic and heterogeneity. In October 2020, (with the help of Sarah and Seth Lord of Native Gardens) wildflower seed, of East Anglian provenance, was sown, and by June it was looking gorgeous with a beautiful range of annual flowers as a nursery crop for the later mix of perennial herbs and sensitive grasses that we are hoping for next year. We have experienced a sea of colour, starting with poppies (red), moving to corn chamomile (white), then cornflower (blue) and finally corn cockle (pink) and corn marigold (yellow). The meadow is bounded by a (failing) hedge of Holly on one side – not all our efforts work at first – and a beech hedge separating us from our neighbours.
The results, so far, are not just about looking nice. We have monitored the wildlife that is using our space, and we use a light-trap to catch moths overnight and identify them the next day before letting them go unharmed – moth diversity is already increasing.
The video below shows the changes we have witnessed over the year. The musical accompaniment is by The Fitzwilliam String Quartet together with Lesley Schatzberger.
With restrictions easing and in need of a change of scene, we looked at destinations where both our interests could be satisfied – birds for him and hills for me. Of course over the years these interests have melded and while I am far from an accomplished birder and he sometimes prefers to sit (in a northerly gale sea-watching), it is not generally hard for us reach agreement. The Uists became our favoured choice, we found a place to stay and booked the ferry crossing. Neither were trouble free. We travelled North stopping for lunch at Low Newton-by-sea and then overnight with friends in Edinburgh. The next leg of our journey took us to a hill side off the river Dee and from there, because of a change in the CalMac time table (a regular feature of their service) we left a day early for Oban and the spectacular 7 hour sea crossing to Lochboisdale. Our return was similarly stepwise, stopping for a lovely lunch with friends in Doune and then overnight with other friends in Edinburgh. We had not realised quite how much we had missed the proximity of others. Being able to scan someone else’s bookshelf, stand at another’s kitchen counter, sit and chat in a different living room or garden, is transformational!
The view of Beinn Mhòr from our rented house at Staoinebrig, S. Uist. The garden went all the way to the water and included a rusty old beat up car complete with what looked like bullet holes!
An evening stroll from the house, to the accompaniment of at least two Corncrakes! They make a distinctive noise, like drawing a stick over a hard comb, twice in succession. We made way for a ginger haired shepherd, his flock and sheep dogs. The crofts, cars and other debris in the back ground are typical of the island.
Our local beach, at the Bornais end, was teeming with waders: sanderling; turnstones; and dunlin. Along with the rusting cars, old fridges and abandoned farm equipment, there were other equally powerful remnants of the island’s habitants, including the washed up remains of a whale. A fine resting place if ever there was one!
We did a wonderful walk around the island of Berneray, black skies in sharp contrast with the white sand beaches. On the north eastern corner lies a cemetery. Marked only by stones, are the graves of commonwealth soldiers. I have not been able to find out why these burials happened here or who lies beneath. Would families members know, were they told? Unrecognised people in the ground of a foreign land for which, willingly or otherwise, they had given their lives. For these poor souls, while incredibly beautiful, this probably cannot be considered a fine resting place.
From our house we could see Beinn Mhòr, the highest peak on the outer Hebrides. We waited for the best weather to climb her. It was touch and go. There are no foot paths. It would be very easy to get lost in cloud, the mountainside can disappear in seconds. The route to the top follows an arrete which caused an attack of vertigo in one of us!
On the north west side of N. Uist lies the island of Vallay, which is accessible in fair weather at low tide. The island is awash with wild flowers. Its western side has spectacular beaches perfect for a picnic and swim! But the interior is disappointing, filled as it is with cattle and all the paraphernalia that comes with farming – barbed and electric fences, plastic silage bags and unnatural ‘improved’ grassland where Machair should be, a rare and delicate grass growing on shell sand. At least the farming is not as intensive as it could be, but no doubt it impacts on wildlife and habitat. Facing the main land on the south coast lies the ruin of a large house once lived in by textile factory owner Erskine Beveridge. We spent some time trying to see the Corncrakes we could hear rasping close by. On crossing a barbed fence at a broken down style, I got a whopping electric shock that hurled me to the ground. The wire was not marked as live. Walking in the Outer Hebrides is clearly not encouraged, live wires, broken styles, no footpaths. Perhaps this keeps the place free of too many tourists. We saw no other people on this day.
Loch Aineort lies in a spectacular valley at the foot of Beinn Mhòr, just the other side of the ‘main road’ from where we were staying. We had been alerted to it by a birder we met on the beach at Berneray. At the end of the road, the land owner has planted a garden which has matured over the years and, unusually, has an array of welcoming footpaths! We returned to this place a number of times, firstly to spot otters and subsequently to walk and to sit, brew up and enjoy the spectacular scenery.
One wet afternoon we stopped on the road side, threatening clouds meant we did not wander too far from the car. We dropped down on the beach at Stinky Bay on Benbecula, and sat for some time watching waders at very close range, they appeared totally undisturbed by our presence.
On our last day, under a blanket of thick cloud, we drove south and over the bridge to Eriskay. We stopped for lunch at Am Politician, wishing that ours could do better. After an excellent meal of hand caught scallops for one and battered monk fish for the other, we set off walking around the bay. It began to warm and clear. Eriskay has a very different feel to S. Uist. It appears almost touristy, with upmarket accommodation, some remarkable and others a disgrace!
We spotted something that looked a bit like a foot path but of course turned out not to be, and then followed our noses through bog and bush to the high point of the island. Views from the top of the shallow waters between the islands were sublime.
The village shop did not have any Magnums, so clearly Eriskay is not that touristy after-all!
St Bees, in Cumbria to Reeth in Yorkshire over 7 days
Day 0 Oct 10 2020
We journeyed by train to St Bees. From Cambridge to London with an overnight at Highbury Quadrant, then together with my son Fabian, the 07:10 train from Euston via Carlisle. The trains were empty. Everyone masked. On the line south from Carlisle our carriage suddenly filled. A group of men sat in the seats opposite, in front and behind us even though there was lots of space on the train. The nearest asked if he we minded if he ate his toast, pulling down his mask before we had responded. Others were drinking beer. We decided to move carriage causing an uncomfortable exchange. The term ‘social distancing’ has so many connotations. It was clear to them that we were from elsewhere and on holiday, and in that moment, I felt socially distant to those men for more reasons than one. Once settled in our new seats, we enjoyed the views over the Irish sea, as we cruised along the coast passing Flimby, Workington and Whitehaven.
We dropped our bags at The Queen’s Hotel and walked to the beach, picked up pebbles as tradition dictates when commencing this path, then walked up and around St Bees Head visiting the inlet with red sandstone rocks, all the new RSPB cliff-top lookout points, although the nesting Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and other sea birds had long since departed. Then we headed back to the hotel, via Sandwith, over the fields. We had supper in the bar – lasagne with a side order of chips. We were both totally wiped and slept soundly.
Day 1, Oct 11 2020 – destination Ennerdale Bridge, 25km (map below is incomplete as we did not switch on Strava until our breakfast stop) .
We departed early, with a packed breakfast, in order to catch the sun rise. We walked adjacent to the railway, across St Bees school grounds and eventually under the railway to pick up the official trail. We took a detour to walk along a disused railway line, now a cycle path and stopped for breakfast in a sunny spot. Fabian fired up the cooker and made coffee. Runners, cyclists and dog walkers passed by in both directions. Then it was through fields and up onto Dent, with good views back to the coast, and then gently down the other side into a lovely valley with a babbling brook. We wended our way this way and that over little bridges then through a gate, stopping for lunch on a rocky outcrop above the path. Sunday walkers and all-terrain bikers stopped to chat. Then a short walk up onto a road and down into Ennerdale Bridge. We stayed at Thorntrees. We were booked into the Fox and Hounds Inn for the evening meal. We had the special -lamb shank and mash. This sounded good in principle. Certainly, we could not complain about the size of the portions.
Day 2, Oct 12 2020 – destination Seatoller (Borrowdale) 24.33km
The day started dry but it was raining by the time we left. We met Dave Heath, another C2C walker, at breakfast (see his videos on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0Np6p9bX0GZzF-5yVrUk7w). He was walking on his own, carrying all his belongings for the full journey across. We swapped phone numbers, just in case either party needed help. By the time we arrived at Ennerdale lake the rain was lashing down which made the walking tough and the path a rocky stream. Ennerdale is a re-wilded valley but this was hard to appreciate in the conditions. We squelched our way across the valley and onto a forest road, heading for the Youth Hostel where we thought we could shelter and have lunch. It was closed. We back tracked to the ‘field centre’. A bunk house and some barns. Someone gave us access to one of the barns. We fired up our cooker for tea, munched sandwiches and hit the trail again, up the valley and out onto to the moor. We passed another really lovely youth hostel, but this too was closed, having been booked by a private group. Up into the cloud we trudged, more rain pelted down on us. We found ourselves on the wrong side of a stream bush whacking. We realised our error and crossed the stream and found ourselves on a much better path with steps all the way. At the top, we were greeted by the local (Herdwick) sheep, and a vast emptiness, a distant open cast mine to the left. Haystack Rocks were blanketed by cloud. A blast of wind sliced into the gap between my back and pack, chilling my spine. We kept moving, now downwards, eventually to a very steep and slippery path to Honister Hause and the green slate mine, in torrential rain. We stopped here for a few minutes, but my mask eluded me, hidden in one of countless pockets, so I remained dripping wet and cold outside whilst Fabian enjoyed a solitary banana in the relative comfort of the visitor centre foyer. We walked down a path alongside the road to Seatoller and Glaramara House Hotel, with a little hiccough near the end because one of us failed to read the instructions properly.
After a luxurious shower, we joined others, far smarter than we, in the dinning room and enjoyed a good meal. Back in our room, we managed to wash clothes and lay them out to dry. Unfortunately, my phone, which had been in my anorak, had got wet. I tried to dry it on a radiator overnight. In the morning it lit up, but the keyboard had a mind of its own, opening and closing apps, sending random gibberish texts to who knows whom and generally taking the piss. The screen displayed ghostly patches. I switched it off. I could do without. Even if there had been signal, Dave Heath would not have been able to contact us should an emergency have arisen.
Day 3, Oct 12 2020 – destination Patterdale 25.7km
Again, we were unable to get an early breakfast, so we made a late start. The weather was fairly ok. We by passed Rosthwaite and re-joined the path at Stonethwaite Fell. We walked up into the clouds. It was quite misty as we crossed Greenup Edge. On the other side we took a detour which we hoped would buy us time, but almost certainly did not. We took a left turn walking via Middle How along the Wyth Burn. There was a clear path on the map, but it was non-existent on the ground. The centre of the valley is aptly labelled The Bog. There was a cold wind funnelling up the valley and we could not find shelter. So, it was a quick stop for lunch in the lee of a rock, and then off again, hard walking over thick tussock grass, rushes and reeds trying to keep our feet dry. Eventually we came out under the cloud and we got a bit of sun, wonderful autumn colours, a rainbow and views over Thirlmere. Then we navigated our way around the corner scrambling over a dry stone wall, up a cycle path along the Pass of Dunmail Raise, and then onto a well-marked foot path following Raise Beck to the eastern side of Grisedale tarn. As we climbed, the wind got up and there were massive gusts, full frontal. At the tarn, the water was inky black with white horses. The wind scooped up the water and it swirled like a tornado up into the air and up the valley. A small tent was pitched at the water side, right in the stream of airborne water twisters. We marched around the valley, hatches battened, and followed the rocky path down to Patterdale. On our way to Old Water View BnB we passed the pub where we planned to eat that evening only to discover that it was chef’s night off. So we took a cab (£12 for 2 miles) to Glenridding, where we had a pretty decent meal in the Patterdale Hotel.
Day 4, Oct 13 2020 – Patterdale to Shap 28.68km
We had given up trying to convince any of the hostelries to provide an early breakfast, so we went with the flow. It looked to be a fine day, so we were less bothered about a late departure. However, this lack of concern would come back to haunt us. As we were leaving, our host informed us that Margaret from Brookfield in Shap, our next stop, had been trying to contact us. There had been an outbreak of Covid at the pub so her advice was to pick up fish and chips and eat them in her dining room. The C2C grapevine was working like clock work!
We climbed out of Patterdale with the clouds lifting and wonderful low, golden autumn light. We stopped for a coffee break by Angletarn, dodging the bog to get to the rocks jutting out into the water. Then we followed the path up towards High Street and took a detour to High Raise, the highest point on the C2C.
Views were terrific and weather too! We knew we had a long way to go to reach Shap but the people at Patterdale had led us to believe that the path along the north side of Haweswater was good, so we reckoned we could march it out. The path was good, in that it was easy to follow, but it was definitely NOT a marching out sort of a path. At the other end of the lake, it was worse. We still had miles to go and we had a sinking feeling that we would not make it to Shap before dark. We picked up pace, but it was hard going. The path was poorly marked or not marked at all, and deep mud, sculpted by grazing cattle, slowed progress further. It was beautiful by the river but there was little time to enjoy it. Eventually we left the river behind, and climbed up a field. We were harried by some cattle so crossed a fence on a style and continued on rough ground arriving at Rossgill as the sun was dipping. We were concerned that it would be darker still if we followed the official C2C route through the valley, so we crossed the bridge into the village and took a public footpath, tucked away between the houses and then across fields hoping it would be mud free and easy to follow. With the help of google maps, we eventually hit a road and decided to walk the rest of the way on hard ground. It was now pouring with rain and dark. We found the Shap chippy, with just 20 minutes spare before they closed. We still had just over another-very-long-wet mile to Margaret’s at Brookfield. On arrival, we peeled off our wet kit, stuffed our boots with newspaper and stepped into the other world that is her house. We disappeared up the stairs to wash. When we came down, Margaret had laid us a lovely table with hot plates, condiments, napkins, a steaming tea pot, cups and saucers. Magic! She also provided me with a bag full of rice to help rescue my phone. We slept very well that night. She had beautiful bed linen and very comfortable beds.
Day 5 Oct 14 2020 – Shap to Kirkby Steven 33km
After the best breakfast so far, (lovely fresh fruit salad, creamy porridge, toast, coffee) with no single use plastics, we set off in reasonable weather, a little misty, on the long haul to Kirkby Stevens. Should we have taken a day off to rest before this next marathon? We had not considered days off when we booked the holiday, and it never occurred to us to take a cab. We gritted our teeth and set off. The prospect of another mad dash in the dark at the other end of the day did not appeal, so we decided to keep close eye on the time and our pace. Margaret had packed a superb lunch. Fresh salmon sandwiches, cherry tomatoes and lettuce leaves on the side, buttered tea bread and a thick piece of cheese, also fruit cake. We kept the last treat for the final few kilometres of the day, a lovely almond tart. This was surely the day when we would need the extra calories and luckily, we had them.
It was a spectacular walking day. Massive open spaces, limestone walls, much, much drier under foot. We got into Kirkby Stevens just as dark was falling. On a bench in the high street we took off our muddy over trousers and spruced ourselves up before heading to The Mango Tree for a typical Yorkshire Indian. Great choice, fantastic meal and a nice change from pub fare. We then staggered back up the road to Lockholme where we were hosted by the wonderful Chrissie, a runner with many medals. Home bakes and tea rounded off a terrific day.
Day 6, Oct 15 2020 – Kirkby Steven to Keld 19km – via bog knows where
Over another lovely breakfast, with home made marmalade, Chrissie informed us that on a good day, the 9 Standards Rigg could be seen from her dining room window. We peered out imagining the view through the thick, low cloud. The days walk started with a stroll back down the high street. We stopped at the camping shop. My feet were not in good shape. New socks for us both and a blister kit were purchased. We put them on in the shop and took off again, through back streets then out along a stream and eventually up a small road passed a quarry, towards the grim, cloud-cloaked moor. The path became steeper, blacker and boggier. The erosion was stark. It is no surprise that there are now three routes across this stretch of ground, an attempt to preserve the precious peat bog. We passed the Standards in the rain. Off to our left was a line of beaters, driving petrified grouse towards blokes in tweeds with guns. Everywhere on the ground were little piles of grouse poo, a good indicator of the millions of birds that are reared here for the shooting industry. The path became hard to navigate let alone traverse. Large chasms in the surface peat, tens of metres wide and deep, cut down to the thick gluey mud, broken up with streams. Further along was a flag-stone floating pavement, which made the going much easier, however it was not long before we were back at the mercy of the bog. Small posts marked the trail but, in many instances, these had sunk into the ground. Had the cloud been lower still, we would not have spotted them and would have been quite lost. Our lunch was a standing stop, it was too wet to sit down. Eventually we came down to a winding stream. Along this next bit of path, were snare traps, and sign posts about protecting ground nesting birds – the super abundant red grouse. One day this ‘sport’ will come to an end, the balance of the ecosystem will recover, sphagnum moss will rejuvenate, more carbon will be sequestered than released, the water holding capacity will rise, native wild birds and mammals will flourish and the driven grouse shooters will switch their focus to nurturing native wildlife and with any luck, the health and well being of all!
On the road down to Keld, we met a young lad getting off a bus. He was in school uniform and was walking up the rough track in his school shoes with laces flapping. He travelled 1.5 hours in each direction for school, then had to climb the steep path to his moorland home, be it in sunshine, wind, rain, snow and darkness. I told him that he did not know how lucky he was. He gave a rye smile but probably thought I was barking mad! We arrived at Keld shortly after 5pm. A short day in comparison to the previous few, but for me, one of the toughest, bleeding blisters, and water logged boots did not help. We had a very warm welcome at Butt House by Jacqui and Chris. They impressed us with their super high tech boot driers. Supper was served in their front room and shared with two other sets of visitors, one of which was was a pin hole camera enthusiast. We were the last Coast to Coasters of the season.
Day 7, Oct 16 2020 – Keld to Reeth
We decided at the very last minute to take the valley route through Swaledale rather than spend yet another day on the tops in cloud. While our boots were dry and warm, having been dried to a crisp over night, they had shrunk and it took best part of an hour before I was able to walk properly and forget the pain of the soft broken tissue on my heels! Fortunately, the valley was lovely, lush green with beautiful golden autumn colours, sheep fields, dry stone walls, Cowuss’s and yes, loads of styles! Some were very narrow, forcing us to take off our packs to get through. Clearly this route would be prohibitive to anyone a bit broader than I!
We were met at Reeth by my partner, Andy, and celebrated the the completion of half the Coast to Coast walk, with a wonderful meal at The Burgoyne. The following morning after a quick tour of the village and purchasing of beautiful woollen socks at Dragon Ridge Hills, we folded our bodies into the car for the long drive south. We dropped Fabian at Kings Lynne for his onward journey to London (and tier two) and we headed to the north Norfolk coast to catch a momentary glimpse of a Rufus Bush Chat, at Stiffkey. A great end to a great holiday.
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.
Torness, on the road up.
Overnight ferry to Shetland
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!
Fair Isle, Church of Scotland
View of Sheep Rock from Bu Ness
Bu Ness, whale tale.
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.
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.
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. First evening, a short walk into the almond groves.First morning, in Lanjeron, looking for Panaderia Jiménez – the baker.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alcazaba, Arms Square
View of Granda from the Alcazaba Tower
Sala de Dos Hermanas, exterior
Looking up into the fine stucco work of the dome of the Sala de Dos Hermanas
Patio de los leones
Mirador de Daraxa
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.
Early departure at 03:45 for a flight to Madrid from lovely Luton. Temperature on arrival a mere 3 degrees centigrade. Extremadura boasts a wide variety of habitat (Cork and Holm Oak forests (Dehesa), grass land, rivers, reservoirs, scrub, mountains) and low human population with the result that it supports a wealth of wild life. Having some insider ‘birding gen’ certainly is critical for the hard-to-find species, but quite frankly, it is amazing what a non-expert could spot along the quiet roads and byways without too much effort. The land scape was sweeping and colourful with a back drop of the Sierra de Gredos mountains, snow capped and rising to 2,591 at Pico Almanzor.
We dropped bags at Villar de Plasencia, a maze of a village where we got quite disoriented. This became the norm in most of the villages we travelled through. The road map was hopelessly lacking in detail but made for some exciting driving on incredibly narrow and sometimes steep streets, watched by bemused residents. We headed to Puerto de Tietar in Monfrague National Park and with patience were welcomed by a Spanish Imperial Eagle as well as Griffon Vultures, Black Kites and Egyptian Vultures.
The following morning the weather was poor. We explored the Embalse de Arrocampo-Almaraz where there are a number of hides, ideal to escape the worst of the rain. These however proved a mixed blessing – one had a door that would not open, one had a door that once opened, would not close, forcing us to sit in a howling gale. The last had no seating, so it was impossible to see out of the hatches. Fortunately the weather cleared and hiding no longer a necessity. We saw, black shouldered kite, little bittern, swamp hen and purple heron, Spoon Bill, amongst much else.
Purple Heron, Swallows, Sand Martins and Swifts
Cattle Egrets and Black Winged Stilts
We drove to Salto del Gitano and the Monfrague Castillo in the heart of the National Park. The sun now high in the sky, Griffon, Black Vultures and Black Kites cruised, drying their wings after the rain. Also a wonderful sighting of Black Storks, far less prevalent elsewhere than their white counterpart.
We climbed the steps up to the castle and then up the tower. We followed the path down to the river. The walk made me realise that our planned hike up Breche de Roland later in the summer, was going to be more of a challenged than previously reckoned, cancer treatment through the winter having knocked me back.
That evening we supped on fried Dorade at Villar Real de San Carlos.
The following morning we were up for the dawn and out looking for Western Orphean Warbler. Alas it eluded us due to gale force winds and driving rain. Next stop Embalse de Talavan.
Then on to Rio Almonte to seek nesting Alpine Swifts. After a while we realised we were at the wrong river crossing. Eventually we found the correct bridge but no Alpine Swifts. However, we did get a rare sighting of a lovely Golden Eagle.
Old and new roads over the Rio Almonte
The roads were so empty we could reliably stop bang in the middle
That evening we landed at Casa Rual El Recuerdo, just south of Trujillo, home of Martin Kelsey whose knowledge of the bird populations is unsurpassed. The following morning armed with Martin’s clear directions we went in pursuit of Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Rollers all of which we saw.
Trujillo in the morning haze
Roller boxes on electricity pylons
Scrub and grassland
At sun down, we walked 2/3rds up one of the village lanes and perched ourselves on a sun-warmed stone wall. Holding our breath, we listened for a Red-necked Nightjar. The weather was perfect, warm and still. Insects, particularly moths, in abundance. And then we heard it – a car alarm. That’s it! The bird soared right over our heads, circled, and came back over. A world tick for Andy.
Up and out early on our final morning to seek out more Bustards. We got them. A gaggle of males, females all hidden away egg sitting.
There’s a Cattle Egret in there somewhere!
Great Bustard in the scope
Then we took a slow route back to Madrid crossing a great plain between Belen and Deleitosa where we came across a Vulture fest in full swing!
Five Griffons crossing the road
Then on through Valdecanas de Tajo, Bee Eaters and Theckler Larks at close range.
A mad dash to the airport followed. No time to pick up petrol. Walked straight through on onto the plane, last on. Great trip!
(All logged en route on BirdTrack – never leave home without this fabulous app!)
Great White Egret
Great Crested Grebe
Birds of Prey:
Something my sister said last weekend got my goat. We were hosting a combined celebration, our mothers 80th birthday and our father’s memorial. We were talking about our parental legacy. Amongst other things, the list included home made meringues, mayonnaise, marmalade and strawberry jam, long distance walking and, here we go, photography.
I got my first camera in 1972 for my eighth birthday. To my shame, I cannot recall what make it was, but my father picked it up second hand from a shop on Tottenham Court Road. It had a fixed lens and came in a leather case that had a lovely smell. I still have the black and white prints somewhere. I am intrigued to find them and see what caught my 8 year old eye.
That first camera was relatively short lived; it broke. I don’t think I was irresponsible with it. It was an old apparatus and my father was cautious not buy a more expensive piece of kit that I might lose interest in. However, I did not and it was quickly replaced. He next got me a second hand AGFA Silette, which had an orange shooting button. With this camera I moved to colour. It came with me on a family trip to my mothers birthplace in Madagascar, in 1976 (note to self – scan the prints!)
When I was 16 my father took my sister and I to Tecno’s on Tottenham Court Road and bought us both AV1s, semi automatics. He had been invited to attend a scientific conference in Hawaii. He planned to take us with him and walk Kalalau Cliff path. For that we needed cameras (note to self, find these shots). She got a zoom, I got a 50mm and a couple of years later, a 24mm.
The 24mm was a particularly special present. I had been sailing on the fated square riggers, Marques and Inca. We were due to sail through Tower Bridge at the beginning of a circumnavigation of the British Isles and my father had planned to cycle over to see me before we set sail.
Time and tide wait for no man and this unfortunately was the case that day. We were already mid Thames by the time my father arrived and our chance of a farewell or bon voyage was dashed. What I did not know was that he was carrying the gift of a wide angle lens. Having missed the boat, he packaged it up and sent it to me c/o The Harbour Master, Portsmouth. We docked there a few days later and the parcel was duly delivered.
Below is a selection of photos I took on that voyage. I used Kodak slide film and enlarged and printed (using Cibachrome) in the down stairs loo at home which doubled as a dark room.
It took a little while but I got quite used to being aloft. We did not use harnesses. One of my tasks was to paint the button, the very top most part of the mast, without spilling a drop. It was another kind of recklessness that destroyed the dream that these boats engendered. The sad story of the demise of these two extraordinary vessels can be found in Tall Ships Down, The last Voyages of the Pamir, Albatross, Marques, Pride of Baltimore, and Maria Asumpta by Daniel Sargent Parrott.
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.
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.
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.
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!