Snow Day, December 2017

I guess the relative infrequency of decent snow in Oxfordshire makes the days when it does turn up a bit special.    A proper layer of snow has near-magical transformational properties.  The sound is different, the light is different, the scenery is different, even the people are different.

There's lots of physics about in the transformation of the sound and the light - the light bounces around more and the sound bounces around less.  The scenery is cleaned up - both the pretty bits and the unsightly bits are hidden by a layer of fresh crisp snow - and it is all (at least briefly) special.  And the people - just walking up the street there are more smiles and hellos than usual - maybe it's just that everyone needs to slow up a bit but maybe the snow lets a little bit of optimism shine through.

Whatever the reasons for the transformation - the snow provides a splendid reason to be out and about with a camera.

Freezing Saddles, London Road, Headington, Oxford

Bury Knowle Park, Headington, Oxford

Under Construction, Bury Knowle Park, Headington, Oxford

Shotover Lanes, Oxford

There are more pictures from the Headington Snow Day in a Flickr Album.

National Tree Week 2017

My daily photographs over the last seven days have all been (as far as I could manage it) tree themed - they've ranged from Weisdale on Shetland to central London via Coventry and Oxford - about 700 miles as the puffin flies.

Day 1 - Weisdale - see there are trees on Shetland

Day 2 - But not many at the south end of Shetland - but the waves patterns do look a bit like a Christmas tree

Day 3 - Autumn colours at the University of Warwick campus

Day 4 - University of Warwick Christmas Tree

Day 5 - Early sunlight on the Warwick campus

Day 6 - Bury Knowle Park, Headington Oxford

Day 7 - Decorated trees on Oxford Street in central London

Braving the elements, Shetland, November 2017

Over the last few months I’ve been very lucky with the Shetland weather - I’ve managed to fit in trips between the storms.  This time, although the storms weren’t enough to earn names from the Met Office, there has certainly been enough wind to disrupt the Northlink schedules and to force passing ships to search for shelter.

On dry land getting out and about with a camera has involved a little bit of planning and a little bit of luck.  

The planning at this time of year is about remembering just how few daylight hours there are (typically sunrise just after 8:15 followed swiftly by sunset, just after 15:00) and the luck, this weekend at least, involved not getting caught in too many hail showers.  I don’t have any particular dislike of hail but when combined with 40 mph winds it does have a tendency to sting.  The 40 mph winds also make it feel rather colder than the thermometer suggests - wind chill makes a balmy 6 or 7C feel more like 0 or 1C - which certainly warrants layering up along with wearing both hat and gloves.

As is my usual pattern on these shorter forays north, I’ve spent time at my regular spots - around Sumburgh Head (which is even better when the cafe is open!), around Scat Ness and on West Voe and Quendale beaches.  I’ve been trying to put together a collection of Scat Ness images so I was  trying to find one or two new angles to go with the regular favourite locations - not sure I’ve yet got all the pictures I want but it’s good to have more to add to the set. 

The other extra I added in this time was a trip north to Weisdale to see the trees - this is (apparently) National Tree Week, so it seemed like a good idea to take a few pictures to counter the ‘there are no trees on Shetland’ message.  There are trees, but they are often in quite small clumps and are sometimes significantly smaller than their Scottish-mainland relatives.

Scat Ness



Black and White Challenge

I was challenged to take/post seven black and white images - with no words, no pets and no people.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7

Wind & Waves, Shetland October 2017

I was promised wind and waves.  

Blustery, showery westerlies getting quite wild, before swinging round to become northerlies - with clearer skies and rapidly falling temperatures.   The plus side was that might mean some decent waves and perhaps even sunshine to light them up.  

And so it was.

There are occasional times on Shetland when the weather just doesn’t encourage you out of the house, but more often than not the answer is just to layer-up and head out - safe in the knowledge that even if the walk down the beach is a bit like being sand-blasted you know that the walk back will be good (and probably pretty quick).

When the weather is moving through rapidly you’ve always got the possibility that you get ‘milky’ seas with spectacular waves - and there are a number of vantage points on Scat Ness that let you get into just the right place to have the cliffs and waves lit up by the low autumn sun. And if you look back northwards along Scat Ness you might get a glimpse of a rainbow warning you that the next shower is just about to arrive. 

Scat Ness Waves meet the Sky

Rain Shower Approaching

Quendale Beach is my local beach and seems to have changed every time I walk it.  Several of the south-end Shetland beaches seem to be prone to transformation.  I’ve seen this regularly over the years as vast quantities of sand get shifted up and down the beach by each big storm.  On short timescales the most obvious changes on Quendale are to the two streams that flow across Quendale links behind the beach - sometimes they flow straight down the beach into the waves, at other times that meander extravagantly up and down the beach en-route to the sea. 

I’ve reading recently about the little settlement of Broo that used to sit on Quendale links behind the beach - this was apparently a thriving community for many years up until the middle of the 17th Century when the beach changed shape and started dumping sand over the fields around the settlement.  Apparently for a few years the community attempted to clear the sand away so that they could go on farming, but eventually they had to concede to the sand and wind and move away from the links.   Once you’ve heard this story it’s hard not to reflect on it when you’re watching the sand blow around the beach. 

Quendale Beach

Sand Trails behind the pebbles

Back in August I was able to round off a Shetland weekend standing on the cliffs at Sumburgh Head watching a pair of orca power their way south towards Fair Isle.  

This time I had the bonus of spotting a white-tailed sea eagle fly past as I sat watching the planes and helicopters fly in and out of the little airport at Sumburgh.

Sumburgh Airport

White-tailed Sea Eagle

There is also a Flickr album with some more pictures from the weekend.

National Map Reading Week

It's always good to find a theme for my daily photographs - I realised that despite not having any serious travel/outdoors plans for National Map Reading Week (16th - 22nd October), I could at least strive for a cartographic theme for the week.








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.