Keeping it Wild - Oxford Version

I didn’t really have a plan for this week….

I was planning to turn out for a BBOWT work party at the Chilswell Valley on Monday morning, but when that was cancelled I decided that I might as well head round to Chilswell Valley for an early morning walk in the sunshine - and it would at least provide some pictures to add to my picture of the day collection.  I also took the opportunity to make some short videos while I was there - not with the intention of doing anything with the videos, but just so I could rip the audio track to give a richer sense of what it was like around the valley on a sunny Monday morning in May.


Monday - Looking to the city - from the Chilswell Valley
Monday - On the Chilswell Valley boardwalk
Monday - Into the Valley


Having enjoyed Happy Valley (the traditional local name for Chilswell Valley) I thought I should revisit another of my local nature reserves, Lye Valley, for my morning walk on Tuesday.  This time I took a rather better microphone to plug in to the camera (I bought the microphone about a year ago, with the - as yet uncompleted - plan to record wave sounds around Shetland). 


Tuesday - Lye Valley boardwalk 
Tuesday - Deep in the Lye Valley



In addition to being local reserves both Chilswell and Lye Valley are also part of the Wild Oxford project (being run by BBOWT), so since the weather still looked promising I decided that my Wednesday walk needed to be another Wild Oxford site - this time Rivermead Nature Park to the south of the city.


Wednesday - Rivermead Nature Park 
Wednesday - Pond life at Rivermead




And having visited three of the four Wild Oxford sites over the first three days of the week, I really didn’t have any option but to visit the fourth site, Raleigh Park, on Thursday.  The morning weather really wasn’t encouraging, but by lunchtime the rain had passed through and I got my pictures (and an audio recording) from Raleigh Park to add to the set. 


Thursday - Spires from the top of Raleigh Park
Thursday - Yellow Flag Irises at Raleigh Park
Thursday - Lost in Raleigh Park




I do like it when the week looks like there was a master plan - but I probably shouldn't have started getting quite so wild about Oxford this close to 30 Days Wild - but I guess all four of these places can expect a return visit next month.



Local Patch - Shetland - (II) Quendale Beach

This is the second of three posts about my local patches at the south end of Shetland.  Part One was all about Scat Ness. This time it's about Quendale Beach.


When we first bought the Shetland house, I posted a picture showing ‘our beach’.  A few folks took me literally and assumed that buying a house with its own beach would be the sort of thing I might do.

Our property buying did stop with a house and garden near the beach but it’s proximity has left me calling it ‘our’ beach over the years - and it definitely qualifies as one of our local patches.

Quendale Beach has two major plus points as a local patch.  Firstly it’s only a few minutes walk from the front door and secondly there are lots of walk variations we can do from the beach - so no matter what the weather is doing there is a walk to be had, which means we’ve seen it in pretty much every weather

If the weather is really rubbish (or time is short) we might walk just to the east end of the beach, or sometimes along the beach to the west end and back (about a mile each way) - although if the wind is blowing directly from the east or the west, it can seem much longer one way than the other.  

If there’s more time (or better weather) you can walk on towards Garths Ness (site of the Braer disaster 20 years ago, and of an old LORAN station) or up to Quendale Mill and on (and up) to Windy Stacks and to Fitful Head.

Quendale Bay faces due south and catches lots of the big storms each year - this means that there is regularly stuff washing up on the beaches (including big logs, whale carcasses and the inevitably plastics and ‘ghost gear’.  


The shape of the headlands on each side of the bay also means that the winds and waves regularly reshape the sand on the bay so the two streams (Eel Burn, and the Burn of Quendale) that drain across the beach into the bay are forever struggling to find new routes into the sea.  Every winter brings changes to the beach - sometimes minor, other times more dramatic - as in the 17th Century when the sand overwhelmed an entire village just behind the current dunes.  All that’s left visible now (I’m told) is a single gravestone which was outside the Quendale Kirk.

January 2007 - the occasionally seen Quendale wreck
August 2010 - Our Beach
October 2010 - Gold at both ends?
November 2010 - Snowy Footprints
October 2011 - Autumn Storms
January 2012 - Flotsam or Jetsam?
June 2013 - Pilot Whale Stranding
March 2014 - Low tide from the west end of the beach 
July 2014 - Beach Bruck
December 2014 - Gold at Quendale Mill
February 2015 - Snow on the Beach
April 2015 - Ghost Gear
August 2015 - Cloud Writing
February 2016 - Winter High Tide
November 2017 - Shetland Lace Pattern
April 2018 - Spring on the Beach
April 2018 - Washed Ashore 
April 2018 - Evening Light at the West end of Quendale Beach


Ullswater, May 2018

Given that I think almost nothing about jumping in the car and driving 500 miles to the Cairngorms or to Aberdeen for the Shetland ferry, it really is a bit off to claim that it’s a long way to the Lake District.  But that is just how it feels sometimes, and I’ve said in the past (when I’ve tried to explain why I don’t get to the Lakes very often) once I’ve driven three hundred miles to get to the Lakes and might as well do the whole thing and pitch up in the Scottish mountains.

So, I was pleased when the news got out that the John Muir Trust was taking out a three year lease on Glenridding Common (and Helvellyn) and that their annual Gathering was going to be at the Glenridding Village Hall at the south end of Ullswater, which meant I had the excuse to spend couple of days exploring Ullswater.  I really can’t remember if I’ve been to Ullswater before - but if I have it was a long time ago.

My initial reaction on arriving was the logistical similarity to some of the Alpine Lakes I’ve visited - for example the Achensee.  In both cases the lake is a long thin ribbon, with a circular walk around the lake of about 20 miles - and if you get tired there are regular steamer services to get you back to where you started.   Around Ullswater the path is referred to as the Ullswater Way - and over the course of the weekend I walked three chunks of the Way, as well as attended various talks and presentations at the John Muir Trust Gathering. 

My first stop was at Pooley Bridge at the northern end of Ullswater (about 6 or 7 miles from Junction 40 on the M6) - and despite being a grey overcast day with a slightly dodgy weather forecast I did manage a dry walk.

Overcast at the Pooley Bridge, Pier

My recollections of being around the Lake District in years gone by is of weather at two extremes - either bright, sunny and clear, or torrential rain.   My suspicions for the weekend was that it could go in either direction, and heavy overnight rain suggested that we might have been heading for the latter.

However, Saturday morning was beautifully clear and still - and it took a long time to drive the few miles down to Glenridding for my meetings (I felt the need to stop in pretty much every lay-by for another set of pictures) — and I did rather feel that it was a day to be out taking pictures rather than sitting inside. 

Still Ullswater - before the boats start running
Still Ullswater

The Gathering sessions were useful - and added a bit more detail around the Trusts current and planned activities for the next few years - it’s good to see words like “repair” and “rewild” being used together - particularly in the context of the challenges being taken on in the Lake District.  Glenridding Common is going to be a very different challenge for the Trust alongside the more remote sites they manage in the far north of Scotland.  

One of the features that always gets me in the Lake District is the sheer volume of people that can turn up on any given day.   There are huge amounts of car parking space at Glenridding, but by 9:00 AM on a sunny Saturday morning it was pretty hard work hunting for a space.  The rep from the Lake District National Park said, in their welcome chat, that 10M people live within an hours drive of the National Park - but on a sunny weekend in May, it feels as if they might all be there.

Having spent the morning inside, the next item of business was heading to Glenridding pier to catch one of the Ullswater Steamers up to Aira Force.  I spent a couple of hours around the various waterfalls before following a chunk of the Ullswater Way back along the lakeside to Glenridding. Within a few minutes of getting back the skies had clouded over an rain had starting falling - just a 30 minute reminder of how all that water gets into the Lakes.

Ullswater Steamer at Glenridding Pier
Aira Force

Sunday started almost as clear as Saturday so I made time to walk another chunk of lakeside before heading off to join the crowds on the M6 heading south. 

Ullswater Marina 
South end of Ullswater



Shetland Spring, April 2018

Any time of year can be splendid on Shetland.  But, if you were going to twist my arm, I think I’d probably be tempted to enthuse about April.

During March there might be hints of spring - the days are getting longer, the cliffs start to re-fill with nesting birds and the weather might have lost some of it’s earlier bite. 

Once you get into April, however, everything gets that little bit better.  

The days really do obviously get longer - the sun comes up way before most folks get their breakfast - and there is lots of light to see the wildlife until late in the evening.  The cliffs start to get seriously busy as the early-returning guillemots, razorbills and fulmar get joined by the undoubted star of the cliff-tops, the puffins.  Offshore you’ll regularly see gannets flying past, and if you get really lucky you might get to see one of the several pods of orca that frequent the coasts of Shetland.


Is this Spring? 
Ruffled
Evening Light
Chattering Fulmar
Passing Orca - Sumburgh Head

This spring I managed to arrive back on Shetland in early April just as the puffins started to reappear - at first just in small numbers but later in the month in decent numbers (i.e. it stopped being easy to count how many you had seen).  The puffins aren’t the only sign that spring has arrived - the great skuas (locally, bonxies) start to patrol the cliffs, ready to bring chaos as they hunt down their prey and on the flatter headlands the terns also return.  On Shetland we get both common and arctic terns, but conveniently the local name for both is tirrick - which neatly side-steps the challenge of trying to tell them apart.


Shetland Ponies on the Run
Watching Seal
Walking from Jarlshof to Sumburgh Head
Quendale Bay - evening light

Over recent years orca sightings have become much more common - during the summer months the seas are usually a bit flatter and there are many more people out and about, so not only are there more whales about there are also more chances that the whales will get spotted and reported.

The other sign of spring around Shetland are the new lambs - they’re quite a few weeks later than down south but are always a delight to see around the fields.

Early Lamb
Serious Ears

However, spring being spring means that you can’t always rely on the weather - sometimes the fog will roll in and you just need to remember what the views looked like.


On a clear day 
On a less clear day @Sumburgh Head

Biryani, April 2018

I know you shouldn’t interfere with young lambs you come across in the fields at this time of year - but just occasionally it is the right thing to do.

This particular lamb had become detached from his mum - not only that, he had succeeded in falling into a cattle grid.  This grid was between two fields which were connected by open gates and adult sheep were wandering between the fields, and ignoring the cattle grid.  Not so the hero of our story.  He was clearly intrigued by the grid and was still small enough to fall between the bars and also small enough not to be able to clamber out again.

By the point when we wandered up the path to the grid the lamb was curled up in a corner of the grid-base not paying much attention to what was going on, and there was no sign of a concerned mother anywhere about.

We did the only thing we could. We lifted him out of the grid and set him down nearby, fully expecting him to scamper off in the direction of his mum who would surely be looking for him.

No.  The lamb wasn’t interested in scampering off so I gently carried him toward the one ewe who appeared to be somewhat interested.  I put him down and walked back to where I’d left my camera bag to continue my walk.  The lamb decided that the sensible thing to do was to follow me.

So, I tried again.  A bit closer to the ewe, set down the lamb then ran back to my camera bag beside the grid.  That lamb is quicker on his feet than I’d guessed.  While we were figuring out what to try next (it’s embarrassing being outrun by a tiny lamb) the lamb came right back up to us and to the cattle grid. And promptly fell in again.

Next attempt. Again carrying the lamb (astonishingly warm, with a really strong heartbeat) even further from the grid, then setting him down and nudging him towards the largely indifferent ewe. He seemed to get the idea and headed towards her, and at last I was able to return to collect my stuff and continue the walk.

As we walked on up the hill, not daring to look back, we started to talk about what had happened.  The reality dawned.  I’d held this lamb and felt his heart beating.  There was no way I could eat lamb again.

So, to ensure that I can’t relapse, we’re now referring to the lamb as Biryani.  Next time I’m in an Indian restaurant I’ll see his name, and then order from the veg section of the menu.


Lamb Biryani and Camera Bag

Local Patch - Shetland - (I) Scat Ness

While it’s relatively easy to pick a local patch when I’m in Oxford (see my recent Narnia post), I really struggle to define a local patch on Shetland.  There’s a temptation to just say the ‘south mainland’ but this really doesn’t do justice to the range of different places in the south mainland.

So, in the first of three blogposts - Scat Ness.

We didn’t discover Scat Ness when we first visited Shetland, it wasn’t until we bought our Shetland house that we found it and started to explore.  Scat Ness is one of three headlands reaching south from mainland Shetland into the Roost and towards Fair Isle.  Today there is a little modern settlement (Scatness) at the north end of the headland but as you walk south through between the houses you get a sense that these houses aren’t the first signs of people living around the Ness.  

As the houses thin out you will find a collection of planticrubs (the drystone wall enclosures traditionally used on Shetland to give vegetables at least a fighting chance of growing) and the remains of an old fishing station (maybe from the 16th C) and further out you’ll find a number of much older buildings (the Ness of Burgi fort) that probably date from about 2000 years ago.

These buildings give a sense of a busy active place in history - however these days, as you leave the buildings behind you get out in a place dominated by the birds and the waves.  

In mid-summer any walk out on Scat Ness will be accompanied by the local tirrick (Shetland name for tern) population, and if you venture too close to where the tirricks think their nest or young might be they will let you know all about it - and they have no qualms about drawing blood.  

At other times during the year the little cliffs around Scat Ness will be covered with maalies (fulmar) and sometimes there will be tysties, tammie nories and scarfs too (black guillemots, puffins and shags) - and you might even see a draatsie (otter).  Further out in water around Scat Ness you’ll also see seals and if you get really lucky a passing orca (also looking for the seals).

Over the course of the year, Scat Ness will get battered by (more than) its fair share of storms and as you’ll guess from the pictures below that's when I most often head there.  Very often on the day after a storm the Shetland skies will clear but there will still be lots of the energy in the waves rolling in (usually) onto the west side of Scat Ness.  There are a number of places where I love to sit just watching and (occasionally!) photographing the waves breaking against and, sometimes, over the cliffs.

Whenever I'm sitting watching the waves, I'm struck by the sense that the landscape I'm watching is at the same time both always changing and (at least on the timescale I've known it) unchanging.

There is a temptation to think that one of the fort dwellers from 2000 years ago or the fishers from 500 years ago were dropped back onto Scat Ness they would still recognise some elements of it - even if the helicopters and planes coming in or out of the nearby airport might rather shock them.


October 2010
November 2011
March 2012
April 2013
December 2014
August 2015
November 2016
October 2017
April 2018