The Lure of Completeness

Some of us have an urge to collect things. There’s nothing wrong with that, however the danger is that it (almost) inevitably turns into a urge (or a compulsion) to collect complete sets of things.

Mountains for instance.  There are lots of lists of mountains - from Eight-Thousanders (peaks over 8000m, I’ll never tick anything off on that list) via Munros, Wainwrights to Marilyns and Donalds (have done some on all of these lists). Wherever there is a finite list to be ticked off, people will strive to tick them off.

The same goes for stations on the London Underground or countries - there are people at the moment making plans to get to Dagenham East or Kiribati.  I’m equally sure that there is someone just about to ‘get’ the final lifeboat station on the UK coast.

And while I might have vague ideas about completing any of these lists I too have my collection weakness.  I have probably been to or through every railway station in Scotland but my real enduring weakness is maps. 

I can’t go anywhere - or even plan to go anywhere - without seeking out a proper old-fashioned paper map.  This digital stuff is fine for finding the nearest Starbucks (other coffee shops are available), but to get a sense of a place, folding out a big sheet of paper is the thing to do.  And woe betide you if I catch you refolding a map wrong - you have been warned.

In Great Britain we are extra-ordinarily fortunate to have wonderful maps of the entire country - I sort of assumed that every country had maps of this quality.  I may have reservations about the early history of the Ordnance Survey (the British Army needed a decent map of the Scottish Highlands to help in subjugating the dissenting Jacobites), but it’s difficult to criticise the maps they produce these days.

Over the years I’ve gathered up quite a big collection of Ordnance Survey maps at all scales - but particularly 1:50,000 Landranger and 1:25000 Explorer maps.  There are 204 Landranger maps and 403 Explorer maps.  

And therein lies the problem - these sorts of numbers are perfect collection targets.  A set of half-a-dozen anythings doesn’t really present a meaningful challenge - a set of thousands of anythings probably feels like too big a target.

One day I might get round to the full Explorer series, but in the short term the Landranger series is a more approachable target, particularly the Landranger maps of Scotland (there are only 85 of these).  And as a way of justifying filling in the gaps in my collection, I’m planning walks and photographs in each of the sheets I’ve not visited recently.

I’ll get the Scottish Landranger project finished in the foreseeable future - the question then is what next? - the England, Wales (and Manx) Landrangers or completing Scotland (again) at Explorer scale?

Doesn’t everyone have a box of OS maps at the end of their desk?

Dumfries and Galloway, October 2017

The October instalment of my Landranger Project was in Dumfries and Galloway, a bit of Scotland I think I ought to know, but really don’t.
I must have been driven (as a youngster) across Dumfries and Galloway dozens of times travelling to or from Stranraer en route to Northern Ireland, but I’ve only got one recollection of staying in the area.  That one stay ensured that Talnotry in the Galloway Forest has, in my family at least, always been associated with vast swarms of midges.

Sheet 76: Girvan
The southern part of the Clyde Coast is dominated by Ailsa Craig – renowned for its bird life (particularly gannets) and for the Blue Hone granite that is the traditional stuff of curling stones.

Sheet 76: Ailsa Craig

Sheet 77: Dalmellington and New Galloway
The Galloway Forest covers most of this sheet, I choose to avoid Talnotry this time, and head to one of the quieter areas at the west end of the Forest Park.  Some of the visitor centres are very activity-based but the area around around Glen Trool is much more peaceful.

Sheet 77: Loch Trool

Sheet 82: Stranraer & Glenluce
Stranraer used to be the main route to/from Northern Ireland – and the last time I visited I had travelled to Stranraer on an overnight train from the south of England and had been able to walk from the railway platform just a few yards across the pier and straight onto a SeaLink ferry to Larne. Not these days – there are only occasional local trains to the station (which is still at the end of the pier) but there aren’t any boats at all – all the boats head for Cairnryan a few miles up Loch Ryan.
As you head south from Stranraer down the Rhins, the place starts to feel more and more like an island – and at the southern tip you get to a very traditional looking Stevenson-built lighthouse.

Sheet 82: Mull of Galloway Lighthouse

Sheet 83: Newton Stewart & Kirkcudbright
The Solway Coast is one that has changed many times over the centuries - once upon a time the Isle of Whithorn really was an island, but now it is a village near the southern tip of one of the many Solway headlands.  It has also long been a place of pilgrimage with documentation reaching back over 2000 years - one of the local landmarks is St Ninian’s Chapel which was at one time a stopping off point for pilgrims on their way to the priory at nearby Whithorn.

Sheet 83: St Ninian's Chapel, Isle of Whithorn

Sheet 84: Dumfries & Castle Douglas

I think everyone needs an island retreat.  This includes the Black Douglases (somewhat disreputable characters that may or may not appear somewhere on my family tree) who built their island retreat on a small, but readily defended, island in the middle of the River Dee.

Sheet 84: Threave Castle, Castle Douglas

Beaches and Headlands: Shetland September 2017

It’s always good to get another quick fix of Shetland beaches and headlands - even when the weather isn’t perfect.

I’ve spent the last few days doing the things I did on each of the two previous trips north.  I got to spend time on Scat Ness and at Sumburgh Head (including a fab Tea & Tunes session in the cafĂ© at the lighthouse).  I walked the length of Quendale Beach and across the St Ninian tombolo.

The Castle, en route to Sumburgh Head
Calm Seas at Scat Ness
Quendale Beach
St Ninian's tombolo
This time the prevailing weather was coming from the North - this meant that the south end of Shetland was much more sheltered than usual - but the little bit of wind that was around was a wee bit fresher than on the last couple of visits.

The other thing that struck me this weekend was that the sound track to the weekend was different.  Earlier in year the regular sounds are the oystercatchers, redshanks and terns, and on the cliffs the regular chatter of the fulmars and guillemots.  The prevailing sound I can still hear from the weekend is the honk of the skeins of migrating geese passing overhead.  Each evening there were big groups of geese dropping into the fields around the house at twilight - and getting away again long before I get to the point of pulling back the curtains in the morning.

A bonus of the clear northerly winds is that it often means that the air is very clear - so Fair Isle, 25 miles away across the Roost, looks as if it is a lot closer.

Fair Isle, with Lady's Holm in the foreground
As the nights get longer and darker, one of the things I always hope to see at this time of year is the aurora borealis - locally the Mirrie Dancers.  And we did indeed get a brief (but not very clear) sight of the Dancers one evening.  However I’ve now added another optical natural phenomenon to my Shetland wish list. Mareel.  

If you google “mareel" you’ll almost certainly get told about the splendid arts centre that opened in Lerwick a couple of years ago. There is another meaning.  

If you google “mareel luminescence” you get into the fascinating world of Noctiluca Scintillans or Sea Sparkle, and you’ll find that there is a special Shetland word for this sort of bioluminscence.  I really am going to have to start exploring the Shetland beaches at night this winter.

Scottish Borders, September 2017

One of my slow-burning projects involves taking a picture to represent each of the 85 Ordnance Survey Landranger maps that are needed to cover Scotland.

This weekend I decided to risk a somewhat dodgy weather forecast and head just north of the England-Scotland border to pick off a few sheets from that part of the world.

Sheet 73: Peebles, Galashiels & Selkirk

Selkirk is a picturesque little border town that spreads up the hills mostly on the east side of Ettrick Water.  My picture is of the original church that gave the town its name - the ‘church in the forest’, and I have it on good authority that William Wallace was proclaimed guardian of Scotland here in 1298.

Sheet 73 Kirk of the Forest, Selkirk NT 470 285 DSC_8128

Sheet 74: Kelso & Coldstream

Just a few miles east of Selkirk (and just on Sheet 74) is Jedburgh. As you come into Jedburgh from the south the skyline is dominated by the remains of Jedburgh Abbey, built in the 12th Century and mostly abandoned in the 16th.

Sheet 74 Jeburgh Abbey NT 655 205 DSC_8161

Sheet 79: Hawick & Eskdale Area

This is one of the three Landranger sheets where I’ve spent most time over the years.  My maternal grand-parents lived in Hawick and I spent many childhood holidays there (the other frequented sheets are 36: Grantown & Aviemore) and 4: Shetland - South Mainland).

On this visit I decided to spend time in a valley on the eastern edge of the sheet - Carrifran.  On my old Landranger sheet (dated 1994) the valley is shown as a steep, rugged and completely barren. On 1st January 2000 the valley was acquired by the Borders Forest Trust and became Carrifran Wildwood.  Over the last 17 years local volunteers have been restoring the valley to how it might have been 6000 years ago - before it was cleared and munched into submission by sheep and goats.  The results are inspiring, and if you look at the most recent Landranger sheet you’ll see the valley is now filled with mixed woodland.

Sheet 79 Carrifran Wildwood NT 159 115 DSC_0147

Sheet 80: Cheviot Hills & Kielder Water

One of the historic routes between Scotland and England was over the Carter Bar - a pass through the Cheviot Hills.  This was also the site, in 1575, of the last major battle between Scotland and England - the rather inappropriately named “Raid of the Redeswire” (it wasn’t a raid and didn’t happen in Redeswire).  The skirmish was won by the Scots.

Sheet 80 Looking North from Carter Bar NT 698 068 DSC_0318

As you might have spotted from the pictures I was rather misled by the weather forecasters.  The woolly hat and over-trousers remain packed away, and the sun-hat I didn’t pack would have come in very useful.  

In The Gardens, August 2017

The co-incidence of horticulturally-inclined guests and a strangely glorious sunny Bank Holiday weekend prompted a series of garden visits in and around Oxfordshire.

We spent time in the Harcourt Arboretum and at the Oxford Botanic Gardens and a bit further afield visited the National Trust gardens at Hidcote and the amazing Kiftsgate Court Gardens just next door.  If I wasn't enthusing about rewilding somewhere I could happily take over Kiftsgate (particularly the steep bit looking down to the swimming pool!)

Colours just starting to change at the Harcourt Arboretum

Hidcote Gardens

Hidcote Gardens

Swimming Pool at Kiftsgate


Oxford Botanic Garden

And then we weren't out and about, we were mostly in the garden. :-)

Feels like Autumn, Shetland August 2017

Down in the far south (and I mean England) there is this slightly daft idea that August is a Summer month.  The schools are shut, and it feels the main hazard in most workplaces is of being rolled over by passing tumbleweed. And the weather is usually rubbish.  August might still be sort of warm, but it’s wet with it.

Up in the North (and I mean Scotland) the school summer holidays are earlier (i.e. in the summer) and once you get to mid-August to kids are back at school and life is returning to what passes for normal.

This weekend on Shetland felt like the start of Autumn.

The weather switched from sun to rain and back. The wind changed direction and strength dramatically over three or four days. To add this sense of early Autumn, this is the Quiet Time on the bird cliffs.  A few weeks ago the cliffs were buzzing with puffins and guillemots, they’ve all gone now, and even the chattering fulmar don’t feel the need to raise their voices so much.  It’s also still a wee bit too early for the autumn migrants to start flooding the island.

Low cloud over Fitful Head

Scat Ness

West side of St Ninian's Isle

Clear to the Horizon, Fair Isle with Lady's Holm in the foreground

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse in the evening sunshine

One Summer tradition that seems to still be in full force around Shetland is the visiting orcas.  This summer has been a bumper one for orca around the Shetland coastline (and probably a pretty rubbish one if you are one of the resident seals).  There have been a couple of pods working the coast line quite regularly. This weekend we had a passing visit from Knott and Hulk.  These big male orca are regularly seen around Iceland, but this summer have been spotted around the Pentland Firth and Fair Isle.  I’ve been lucky enough to see orca in quite a few places, but I was starting to feel a bit narked that I’d not see them from Sumburgh Head before!  It’s hard not to say Wow, when you see how fast these animals can move through the water.

Knott and Hulk approaching

Knott passes Sumburgh at full speed

And if you want to see a few more picture from the weekend - they're on Flickr

Mid-Wales August 2017

A trip to Wales is starting to look like an annual fixture in my diary.  After managing to ‘avoid’ visiting for several years, the promise of a good discussion about rewilding lured me to North Wales last autumn, and now the promise of an even better workshop on rewilding drew me back again last week, this time to mid-Wales.
The main event was at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth - there’s a separate blog post about the excellent workshop I was doing there.  
The Centre for Alternative Technology is well worth a visit if you are in the area - it’s an inspiring glimpse of many ways of living more greenly - and there’s a splendid water-powered cliff railway if the walk up from the car park to the centre looks too daunting.
CAT Water-powered railway
Centre for Alternative Technology 

CAT isn’t the only attraction in the area. The Dovey Estuary is beautiful, and has the RSPB Ynys Hir reserve on it’s southern side.  
Dovey Estuary 
Ynys Hir

A bit further south gets you to Aberystwyth - a mix of holiday resort and university town looking out onto Cardigan Bay.  And it’s got it’s own cliff railway too - the landscape in this part of the country seems to lend itself to cliff railways. 
Aberystwyth marina
Aberystwyth Pier
Aberystwyth cliff railway 
Looking onto Cardigan Bay

On the north side of the Dovey is the rather sleepier (at first glance at least) town of Aberdovey.  Is this where one retreats to when the bright lights of Abersytwyth become too much?

Aberdovey Beach

And the weather.  It’s fashionable to make jokes about the Welsh weather, and indeed the idea of a water-power cliff railway would be of limited use in a drought zone. It did indeed rain (and rain very heavily) for some of my time in mid-Wales, but the sun also shone.  In fact the sun managed to shine brightly pretty much any time that my timetable required me to be outside, so all in all, I really can’t complain about the Welsh weather

Whatever next? Maybe south Wales next year!

Rewilding 101

I was delighted to be able to spend a long weekend on a three-day introduction to rewilding course at the Centre for Alternative Technology recently.  This course (and I certainly hadn’t seen anything similar elsewhere) gave a really thorough and engaging introduction to many strands of rewilding.   It was good to finally get to visiting CAT, I'd been a shareholder at one point in the very distant past, but had never managed to get round to visiting.

CAT Water-powered cliff railway

The course helped the 15 attendees (from a huge range of backgrounds, some with lots of really good relevant background knowledge!) to get their heads around topics as diverse as our changing relationship with nature, historical attitudes to nature and wildlife, the many ecological, geographical and political drivers relevant to rewilding, strategies for rewilding, land management and financial issues and also the development of a geographical understanding of rewilding. All this was illustrated with an excellent range of case studies both on screen and in the countryside around the Centre in Machynlleth.

Field Trip 1 - south of the Dovey Estuary


Dovey Estuary


One of the things that really struck me was the vast range of different approaches to rewilding that can and have been tried.  I was already aware of two of the extreme approaches – from the top down (the approach of Paul Lister at Alladale  and big carnivore introduction) to the bottom up (Alan Watson Featherstone and Trees for Life and restoration of the Caledonian Forest).  I was also already aware of the sterling work being done by the John Muir Trust in returning a range of properties to a more natural (and sustainable) condition, and of Rewilding Britain starting to establish large scale pilot projects in England, Scotland and Wales.
I hadn’t previously taken on board the range of active and passive strategies for rewilding (based on how much one wants, or is able, to intervene in a landscape), or indeed of the more scientific strategies for figuring out what ‘should’ be in a particular landscape (as has been done at Carrifran in the south of Scotland).  I also hadn’t given much thought to the importance of ecological networks – allowing different areas of recovered or recovering land to interact with each other. I certainly hadn’t really understood a lot of the funding streams that drive what currently happens in the British countryside (although Brexit has the potential to divert or dam a lot of those streams).

Field Trip 2 - The Old Quarry at CAT - abandoned 60 years ago

Guess the age?  Trees above the CAT Quarry

Passive rewilding underway above CAT

I had already been trying to get my head around the practical aspects of rewilding with a view to looking for a suitable area of land somewhere in the country – but I certainly hadn’t got to the stage of contemplating using drones to replant inaccessible areas. 
If you want to watch some videos about rewilding you could start with these 

Thank you to Kara Moses for co-ordinating the whole event, and to Mick Green, Steve Carver and Dave Gurnett for sharing their expertise and enthusiasm.

My next task is to figure out if I can find somewhere to put my new found knowledge to work. 

Puffin Watching, July 2017

I might have told a few folks that my main reason for being on Shetland last weekend was to cut the grass.

That wasn’t entirely true.  I really went to spend a few days hanging around on the cliffs and head-lands while the puffins were still around.  July is often peak puffin season – the breeding adults are all still hanging about on the cliff tops (and bringing food into the nests) and the non-breeders seem to be around too, presumably wanting to make sure that they don’t miss out on the big departure day. 

On a warm, still sunny afternoon (yes, those do occasionally happen on Shetland) there can be hundreds of puffins around on cliffs at Sumburgh Head.

It’s not just the puffins, at this time of year there are lots of other breeding birds around too, from fulmar and kittiwake high on the cliff faces to razorbills and guillemots a bit lower down.  There are rafts of shags and eider in the voes competing for water space with the guillemots.  And along the drystone walls you might also see wrens (feels like they’ve had a good year this year). 

Elsewhere, down at Grutness and on Scat Ness, there are colonies of terns.  In past years I’m sure the terns were happy to ignore passers-by until they got close to the colonies.  This year I think the terns have been transformed into bronxie-trained avian vigilantes – as soon as you get anywhere within sight, the terns will swoop down with the clear intention of drawing blood.

Oh, and in case you were still wondering, I did get round to cutting the grass. Twice. Probably to frustration of the local rabbit population.