Archive for the ‘Wild life’ Category

The Ice and the Guardian Country Diary at Barns Ness

May 16, 2018

I’ve just finished reading The Ice (Guardian review) by Laline Paull. The book comes with high praise on its cover – “An important and powerful novel … strikingly prescient” according to The Independent. The novel is set in the (not too distant?) future as the Arctic ice has melted and opened up new shipping lanes, and it focuses on the friendship between relatively poor boy made rich Sean Cawson and the more wealthy radical environmentalist Tom Harding. After Tom’s death in an Arctic cave, his body disappears but is resurrected – still frozen – by a glacier calving. Much of the book is set during the inquest into Tom’s death and this is intersected with flashbacks to the scene where Tom died. Throughout the book, the reader is given more and more insight into what happened, so there is a tension as more details are released. Who is telling the whole truth? In the background, a luxury lodge has been developed in the Arctic circle and again, Paull gives details about possible uses – legal and illegal/immoral – of this lodge. For four fifths of the book, I thought that this was a well written novel which highlighted key aspects of climate change and its effects on our planet. Unlike the Guardian reviewer, I thought that the final part was overly dramatic, with the author desperate to have a multi-faceted conclusion. The descriptions of the Arctic environment provide an interesting and at times beautiful background to the story. A range of key issues relating to climate change are highlighted in the book but the author does not preach. The book also raises issues relating to capitalism, international trade and possible arms trading. I would not praise this book as highly as several reviewers have, so you will have to judge for yourself. I would urge people to buy it and read it, as it is well plotted, with some good characterisation.

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The Ice by Laline Paull (Click on all photos to enlarge)

I featured the Guardian’s Country Diary recently on this blog here but I am returning to it now as the subject of the diary on 5th May was Barns Ness, which is about 2 miles from my house. The lighthouse (photo below) is the outstanding man-made structure at Barns Ness but the coastal environment is what firstly interests the writer.

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Barns Ness Lighthouse

As with all the Diary entries, this one is very well written e.g. “The pools themselves seem empty on first approach, but after a minute’s silent watch they come to life: periwinkles inching almost imperceptibly along, shore crabs sidling from under rocks with a suspicious air, and – best of all – tiny hermit crabs in their pilfered shells, peeking shyly out, antennae waving”. There’s poetry in here, with crabs having “a suspicious air” and the hermit crabs’ “pilfered shells”. This entry is by Cal Flyn and you can see all her Diary contributions here. Not far from the lighthouse is the Whitesands beach (good photo) and on clear sunny days, the beach almost looks white, so pale is the sand. The author comments on the limestone pavements (my photo below) which lie at the east end of the beach. These are a rich source of fossils and when you walk across their pockmarked surfaces, it is like looking down on a huge archipelago from a plane.

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Limestone pavement at Whitesands Beach

Flyn notes that she stayed at the cottages next to the lighthouse and ironically, the haar – known to us as a sea mist but originally (see link) an easterly wind – came in while they were exploring. It was only when the lighthouse loomed out of the mist that they knew they were home. Flyn comments “Who knew we’d need a lighthouse to navigate the land?”. The cottages can be seen in my photo below. If you are ever in the area, Barns Ness is a great place for walking, with an ever changing shoreline. At this time of year, you can hear the skylarks singing joyously above you, although they may be hard to spot.

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Barns Ness cottages and lighthouse

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Rocks at St Abbs and Wildlife Photography exhibition

April 4, 2018

Another trip to St Abbs Head (good photos) on one of the few sunny days we’ve had recently. It was still very cold on the day we went and the wind from the southwest was distinctly chilly. We left the car near the information centre, café and gallery and walked up to the top of the cliffs. There is a circular walk (good photos) of 4 miles (6.25k) which we’ve done many times over the years. You can start the walk on the east or west side and you choose the direction according to the wind. As we were only doing a short walk, we went on the path at the east side and you pass the farm buildings and the horse field, with its practice arena, before you come to the edge of the cliffs.

As you walk up the path, you are quickly above quite vertiginous cliffs but you get a superb view of the rock formations below you, as in the photo below. You can find out much more about these formations here. This source notes that the rocks have been “locally weathered to a characteristic yellow colour” which you can see below. On the rocks on the right hand side, you can see the newly arrived kittiwake nests.

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Cliffs and rock formations at St Abbs Head (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the next photo, taken from the path just above the harbour, you are looking across the harbour to the clifftop walk and the steep cliffs. You can see extensive white patches on the Cliffside, but there is no bird life there at the moment. Soon this will be packed with guillemots, hundreds of which pack the narrow ledges to make their nests. When these charming birds arrive, there will be a cacophony of noise as they jostle for position on the rocks and appear to have endless disputes with their neighbours. You can listen to an example of the guillemots’ disputatious calls here. The boats on the harbour side will be in the water during the late spring and summer months, taking people out on trips around the coast and taking divers out to explore the clear waters near St Abbs Head. Over the wall from the boats, you can see the tide marks on the rocks, with the lighter shades on view indicating that the photo was taken when the tide was fairly well out.

I took some wee videos while on the walk and I’ve added a narration and uploaded the combined videos to Youtube. I’m still at the early stages of video and I have to buy a tripod, as bits of the video are still too shaky.adding narration is a step forward. You can see the video – click on full screen for best effect – here. The post has been delayed as I worked out how upload effectively.

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Looking over to the clifftop walk from St Abbs Head harbour

I recently went to a fabulous exhibition of wildlife photography in the National Museum of Scotland. You do have to buy a ticket for this exhibition, which is on loan from the Natural History Museum in London, but it is well worth it. If you go to the exhibition website and scroll down to Inside the Exhibition, you will see that you enter a darkened room with the photographs lit up on the walls. This is slightly disconcerting at first but you soon appreciate the effect it has in making the photographs stand out more. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is a global competition, with over 50,000 exhibits in 2018, so what you are seeing is some of the best wildlife photography around. You need to go slowly around the exhibition as you are confronted with a succession of absolutely stunning photos, each quite different, but the precision and the clarity of the works on display is breathtaking. I contacted the Museum – by email and phone – to get permission to show the 2 examples below, with no reply. I am assuming that as I am advertising the exhibition and only showing 2 examples – both available on the exhibition website – that I am not contravening the spirit of copyright law here.

The first photo I selected is an intimate portrayal of a bear family by Marco Urso (includes many examples of his work) from Italy. You really can see the anticipation of the title in the young bears’ eyes and the delicate colours of the salmon enhance the photograph. The quality of the photo so high that you can see the drips of water coming off the bears’ skins and off the salmon.

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Anticipation by Marco Urso

The second photo was a winner in its category and shows an arctic fox which has stolen a snow goose egg on Wrangel Island (more superb photos) in Russia. The photographer Sergey Gorshkov spent many days trying to capture this exquisite portrait of the fox with its loot in its mouth. The eyes of the fox are captivating and you find yourself staring into its eyes, seeing the determination of the animal to deliver food to its family. The detail of the fox’s fur is amazingly clear and the white fur almost melting into the white snow gives an impression of how cold it might be. If you get a chance to see this exhibition anywhere in the world, do not pass it up. The exhibition also highlights the dangers faced by the environment across the world and the animals who live there. Some of the photos e.g. of hunted rhinos, are quite upsetting. Overall, the memory of this exhibition is of looking in wonder at the photos and appreciating the technical quality and artistry of the photographers.

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Arctic treasure by Sergey Gorshkov

SWLA exhibition in Aberlady and Sasha Dugdale’s “Joy”.

March 1, 2018

The latest exhibition at Waterston House, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, is a stunner. The quality bar has been raised for this exhibition as it is organised by the Society of Wildlife Artists and contains an outstanding selection of paintings by the cream of British wildlife artists. I chose to contact two of the artists which I have not featured here on the blog and they both responded immediately, sending me samples of their work at the exhibition. Firstly, Brin Edwards is a painter, illustrator and teacher who is based in Suffolk. In the first painting below, your eye firstly goes to the brilliant range of colours – of the different parts of the ducks, of the water and of the vegetation. Then you see the various patterns on the ducks’ feathers and in the water. This is a group of individual wigeon, which have the delightful scientific name of Anas Penelope. Each bird has its own slightly different colour and feather pattern but, as you can see by the open beaks and staring eyes, they are definitely interacting. This painting really does stand out in the exhibition and shows the artist’s superb technique in capturing the colour and the movement of the ducks.

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Wigeon Interactions by Brin Edwards (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the second painting by Brin Edwards below, we see the artist taking a different approach. When you first see this painting, it is the blossom and branches that catch your eye, as they are depicted in a bright but slightly hazy manner. Then you see the bird, with its sharp features and looking happy to be camouflaged by the foliage behind it. The Pied Flycatcher, which has the less romantic  scientific name Ficedula hypleuca, and comes to the UK in the summer, is shown here in what is an almost abstract setting, as if the viewer is looking through gauze. It is a startling effect and makes you look closer. The two selected paintings from the exhibition show what a high quality artist Brin Edwards undoubtedly is.

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Spring Pied Flycatcher by Brin Edwards

The second artist I chose was Richard Johnson, originally from the north east of England and now based in Cambridge. He is a bird painter and book illustrator. The first Johnson painting below shows that he is a more naturalistic painter of birds than Brin Edwards, so has a different approach. You cannot compare the two artists’ style i.e. one is not better than the other. What you can say is that Richard Johnson’s paintings show the same high level artistry as that of his fellow SWLA member. This watercolour is of a male cuckoo, with the amusing sounding scientific name of cuculus canorus. It is an intriguing painting, as there appears to be some motion on the bird’s part. Has it just landed or is it about to take off? Johnson has a great ability to show the detail of the cuckoo’s feathers, with their contrasting patterns and I liked the way that the tail feathers were shown as sharp-pointed to the right and fan-like to the left. You also have to admire the colours, shapes and patterns in the branches and tree trunk next to the bird. There’s a mesmerising entanglement here and it is to the artist’s credit that he draws our eye to the detail of the woodland setting.

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Richard Johnson Male Cuckoo

The second painting is of a broad-billed sandpiper aka Limicola falcinellus. At first, this looks a simple painting but this view is to underestimate Richard Johnson’s ability to draw our eye to the lines – dotted and straight – in the painting. Everything is sharp about this sandpiper – the beak, what looks like a shaved line on its forehead which some modern footballers have, the flowing marks on its breast and the neatly constructed feathers. The back of the bird reminded me of a shell e.g. on a tortoise or armadillo. The thin but sturdy looking legs again suggest movement and there is concentration in that keen eye. Richard Johnson’s birds show his amazing skills and will always delight the viewer.

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Richard Johnson Broad-billed Sandpiper

This really is a must-see exhibition, so please spread the word and if you are anywhere near East Lothian, make your way to Waterston House and be amazed and delighted.

Sasha Dugdale’s book of poems Joy is the latest PBS Choice. The title poem Joy features Catherine, the widow of the poem William Blake. She is distressed by his death and feels isolated. Her memories are more positive and she remembers “The walls are wordless. There is a clock ticking./ I have woken up from a dream of abundant colour and joy/ I see his face and he is a shepherd and a piper and a god”. This long poem is presented as if Catherine is sitting on a stage, giving a monologue. She is angry at her husband for dying – “What right did you have? …. And here I am. Your helpmate… your Kate … Bonded to nothing./ How I ache, how I ache”. The poem is a powerful reflection on her marriage and how she feels abandoned by those who once feted her husband. Despite the book’s title, many of the poems involve people looking on the dark side of life. In Canoe, the people who set out on the canoe are never seen again and there houses are vandalised. Dugdale has some striking images  e.g. “.. there was nothing to see except white fog/ and the white sun which reflected itself in every droplet”. In Kittiwake, the poet begins “Your jizz, little gull is the traveller’s / jizz, the wanderer, who sees the black, flecked ocean/ barren like the steppe”. In this context, jizz is a birding term for the characteristic of a bird. This is an intriguing books of poetry and highly recommended by the PBS and by me.

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Joy by Sasha Dugdale, PBS Choice

The kittiwake poem neatly gives me an excuse to repost a couple of photos of kittiwakes nesting on the walls of Dunbar Castle (good photos).

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Kittiwakes at Dunbar Castle

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Kittiwake family at Dunbar Castle

Scottish Birds cover and last post for 2017

December 25, 2017

Through the post recently came the latest copy of Scottish Birds which I receive as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC). I was struck by the front and back covers which I think are possibly the most attractive of the year. The journal contains articles on in-depth research on birds in Scotland – their numbers, their habitat and trends in population. There are also shorter articles on rare sightings of visiting birds. I have to admit that I don’t read the research articles in full, but I particularly enjoy the photographs of birds which accompany the articles. I don’t count myself as a birder as I don’t do any serious bird watching. Please don’t use the term twitcher for bird watchers as this is regarded as pejorative, a bit like referring to serious runners as joggers or The Inuit as Eskimos. I’ve been given permission to scan and use the covers by the good people who run SOC. The front cover below shows a water pipit which was photographed at Skateraw, which is along the coast from Dunbar and on one of my mountain bike cycling routes in the winter. The article on this bird stated that is has a “prominent pale supercilium”  – unfamiliar terminology to me. Looking it up, supercilium (good illustrations) is “also commonly referred to as “eyebrow” — is a stripe which starts above the bird’s loral area (area between beak and eyes), continuing above the eye, and finishing somewhere towards the rear of the bird’s head”. Loral area is more new terminology. The scanned photo is not as clear as the journal cover photo, but you can see that this is a strikingly attractive bird, with its sharp beak which has a lightning streak of yellow, its pale plumage neatly folded to keep out the rain, its blacksmith crafted legs and feet, and black snooker ball eye.

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Scottish Birds front cover (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The back cover has this photo of a Spotted Crake, captured at Doonfoot, near Ayr. This bird has the wonderful scientific name of Porzana, Porzana and there is a short video of the bird at this location here. While the spotted crake does not (I think) have the elegance of the water pipit, as it has a patchwork-looking foliage, it does have a fascinating beak, with what looks like a small boat on the upper part. As with the pipit, the spotted crake’s eye is prominent and alert to food in the water. Of course, the bird’s reflection and the reflection of the reeds by the water add much to this well composed photo.

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Scottish Birds back cover

This is the last post of 2017 as your blogger is taking a rest over the New Year, to return reinvigorated in early 2018. So where did 2017 go? Or 2007 or 1997 or ….? In a flash is the answer. Looking back on my extensive range of photos for 2017 and earlier blog posts, I recall the colours and reflections in a rockpool at Seacliff Beach on New year’s Day.

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Vibrant colours and reflections at Seacliff Beach

In May, it was the smooth lines of the tattie dreels that drew my attention. Soon after, the first sign of green shaws appeared and before we knew it, September was well under way and the tattie machine was lifting the crop. This field is now a vibrant green, with the spring wheat coming through.

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Smooth tattie dreels near Dunbar

Smooth tattie dreels near Dunbar

In September, the Tour of Britain came our way again and I was up Redstone Rig with my cycling pals – and many other cyclists – to see the peloton approach the big hill, with the rolling country side of East Lothian in the background.

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Peloton at the top of Redstone Rig

Then I blinked and it was December and Seafield Pond was frozen over on a very bright, sunny and freezing cold day.

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Seafield Pond frozen over

 

If my letter to Santa has been received and the white bearded reindeer driver is in a good mood, I may return with a brand new DLSR camera, with a video function. I’m off to leave out carrots for the reindeer and a large dram of Bunnahabhain for the man. I wish you all the very best for the festive season and a Guid New Year when it comes.

Re-reading Thomas Hardy and walk to Seafield Pond and West Barns Bridge

December 17, 2017

Recently, I’d come to the end of the new books I’d bought and, looking along my bookshelves, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy short stories (cover below). I bought this book in the mid 1970s and opening the book and starting to read the first story The Three Strangers, I was immediately taken back to Hardy’s eloquent and flowing style. The story begins “Among the few features of agricultural England which retain an appearance little modified by the centuries, may be reckoned the long, grassy and furzy downs, coombes or ewe-leases, as they are called, according to their kind, that fill a large area of certain counties in the south and south west”. What struck me was the length of the sentence – typical of nineteenth century writers like Hardy – and the local words used by the writer. “Furzy downs” are stretches of rural land covered in what we might call gorse and a “coomb” is a deep valley. More explanations here. In his excellent introduction to the short stories, the novelist John Wain wrote that Hardy once said that a short story “must be unusual and the people interesting”. Wain also notes that Hardy’s short stories are unlike more modern versions, which tend have a single theme around which a tale is told. In Hardy’s stories, such as “The Withered Arm” or “The Distracted Preacher” the reader is presented with different characters, some of whom have their own intriguing tales to tell. It is the context of the stories – rural Dorset in the early to mid-nineteenth century – that distinguishes them from even contemporary short fiction. The isolated cottage in “The Three Strangers” or the village in “The Grave by the Handpost” where ” a lane crosses the lone straight highway dividing this from the next parish” and where “the whispers of this spot may claim to be preserved”. There are also echoes of Hardy’s novels in the stories such as the character William Dewy of Mellstock and the town of Casterbridge. Hardy is a superb story teller and in each story, the reader is given an early indication of what might be to follow. In “The Withered Arm”, the setting is “an eighty cow dairy” in the early evening and, with most of the cattle milked “there was opportunity for a little conversation. “He do bring home his bride tomorrow, I hear. They’ve come as far as Anglebury today”. Hardy continues “The voice seemed to come from the belly of the cow called Cherry, but the speaker was a milking-woman, whose face was buried in the flank of that motionless beast”. The reader knows the setting and is intrigued by the conversation. I have enjoyed reading these stories again after many years and I encourage you to try them.

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Short stories by Thomas Hardy (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There’s a good 2 mile (3.2k) walk from our house to Seafield Pond (good photo)  and West Barns bridge. The most picturesque route is firstly to  Dunbar Harbour (historical photos), then along Winterfield Promenade and on round part of the picturesque Winterfield Golf Club. I was headed for Seafield Pond first, to try to get some more photos of the pond and its birds. A previous attempt can be seen here. When I got to the pond, it was frozen over and not a bird to be seen, just some bits of wood from the nearby trees stuck to the ice. There was however, a nice reflection (see below) from the adjacent caravan/mobile home park, where you can now hire a “Deluxe running water wigwam with WC” – what next?

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Seafield Pond at Belhaven, near Dunbar

The birds were all on the beach over the wall but firstly I walked along to West Barns bridge, which spans the Biel Burn (small river). It was a very sunny day and the previous night’s sharp frost can be seen on the entrance to the bridge here.

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West Barns bridge and the Biel Burn

Because of the position of the sun in the early afternoon, there was a superb reflection in the water below the bridge, with the brilliant blue water becoming paler and paler as the sun caught it fully on the bend of the river. This part of the Biel Burn is where the fresh water meets the incoming tide.

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West Barns bridge

I know a few people – of a certain age – who spent quite a bit of their youth on the Biel Burn guddling for trout, and they each have their own secret method. This is a form of fishing in which the potential fish catcher does not use a rod or a net, but his/her fingers to catch the trout. I’m assured by two former poachers that it is an art and not a science, and that an expert guddler is born with a gift. There’s a PhD in there somewhere for a dedicated scholar e.g.  “Guddling: A phenomenological analysis”. Guddling was – and probably still is – carried out in shaded areas, such as at the tree line end of this photo.

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Guddling spot near the trees on the Biel Burn

It was on my way back along what is known as the Dump Road as there used to be a council tip nearby, I tried to capture some of the birds on the beach and on the water on Belhaven Bay. I was using my zoom lens and it’s difficult to get very clear photos without a camera stand. The two best were firstly, a redshank on the move, with some nice reflections of the rocks and the vegetation.

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Redshank amongst the rocks and grass at Belhaven Bay

I’m more pleased with the second photo, which is of a curlew flying off across the water. While the beak is not all that clear, I do like the light on one wing and the shadow on the other, plus the reflection in the water. I used my Sports setting for this one.

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Curlew flying over Belhaven Bay with the tide in

So a very rewarding walk on a cold but bright day and on the way back I reflected how lucky I am to live in such an entrancing environment.

All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

In most cases, when I buy a book in a bookshop – I try to do this mainly, although I do order online as well – and read the blurb and the recommendations from reviewers, I enjoy the book, and mostly agree with the positive reviews on the cover of the book. I have just finished David Szalay’s novel All that Man Is but I found myself not agreeing with most of the review quotes. In the book, there are 9 stories of men of different ages and nationalities telling the reader their woes – often related to romance or the lack of it. There are some quite humorous scenes and there is no doubt that Szalay writes very well for the most part. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that 9 stories do not a novel make, despite the fact that there is a common theme of men in some sort of trouble and doing a lot of soul searching. I imagine that many female readers – as well as male readers – might find that some of the men in the stories are pathetic and need a good shake, although some female reviewers praised the novel. There are some very good passages in the stories and in the last one, the man reflects on how, to him, the present often seems to be impossible to define, that indeed impermanence is the only permanent factor in  our lives. Szalay writes “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window”. On the other hand, this guy thinks he is old  and not long for this world as he is 73. My cycling pal  John is 74 and he floats up hills on his bike. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and you can read a very positive review of the book here,  so don’t let me put you off trying it. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it – post a comment.

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In mid-October, we went down to by train to Thames Ditton for my sister-in-law Hilary’s significant birthday celebrations. We had a charming walk along the Thames, going through part of the impressive Hampton Court. On the Thames, we passed numerous house boats which were reflected in the river, and enhanced by the  backdrop of autumnal trees, as shown here.

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House boats on the River Thames

On Hilary’s birthday, we all went to Cliveden House (pronounced Cliv-den) with its magnificent grounds and luxury hotel. The property was built by the famous American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who passed it on to his son Waldorf. The grounds are extensive and on a sunny day, you can enjoy a peaceful, rural walk past the modern sculptures, seen here in the context of the grounds and then, closer up, looking back to Cliveden House.

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Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House

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Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

Cliveden House is historically best known for the infamous Profumo Affair, the repercussions of which brought down the Conservative government in the early 1960s. When you walk down to the river, you pass the cottage where the affair took place. It was a lovely autumn day when we visited and we saw some startlingly beautiful trees by the river, such as the one below. You can also walk by the pond which has a pagoda, a range of trees and on this day, a very calm heron, seen below. Cliveden House and its gardens are well worth a visit if you are in the area.

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Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens

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Heron at the pond near Cliveden House

 

Robert MacFarlane’s “Lost Words” and the Thyssen-Bornemisra Museum

October 21, 2017

In a recent Guardian Review article, Robert Macfarlane – the well known writer on the British landscape – argues that children need to be reacquainted with the natural world. In the article, Macfarlane cites a Cambridge University study that showed how children aged 4 to 11 were much more likely to identify Pokémon characters (80% accuracy) than common plants and animals in the UK (50% accuracy). One of the conclusions of the report stated “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”. Other studies cited show that adults’ knowledge of wildlife is not much better but 9 out of 10 adults wanted children to have much more knowledge of plants and animals. Macfarlane’s reaction to the reports was that he wanted to write a book for children which might increase their appreciation of the living world, as opposed to the digital world of Pokémon. The reasons for children’s lack of experience and knowledge of nature is well known – more children live in cities and more children spend more time online than out of doors.

The result is what looks like a beautiful book, written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

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New book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Click to enlarge all photos)

The article concluded with “The bird which became the guiding, gilding spirit of The Lost Words is the goldfinch. Goldfinches flit across its cover and gleam from its pages”. Macfarlane notes that the collective word for goldfinch is a charm which can also mean the singing of a group of children. Below is a close up of a goldfinch, taken by Harry Scott. This book would make a wonderful present for anyone – adult or child – and if you can combine this with a trip to the countryside or the seaside for the children, Dr Macfarlane would be most pleased. I have just come back from the beach near our house where my nearly 6 year old twin grand daughters saw oystercatchers, plovers and redshanks on the shore, feeding on what was coming in on the tide. So, I’m doing my bit.

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Goldfinch by Harry Scott

One of the highlights of our trip to Madrid was the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which can be found opposite the more famous Prado Museum. The Thyssen-Bornemisza has much more modern painting and is less focused on religious painting. It is a very extensive art gallery, with numerous rooms and would take more than one visit to do it justice. I have always been impressed by the American  painter Edward Hopper and there are four of his works here. The first of my selection is Hotel Room (below) and what strikes you is the rather lonely looking woman, sitting on the bed, in her underwear, reading a book. Then there are the colours – the green chair, the black hat, and the white bed which contrasts with the woman’s undergarment. The museum has a short video on this painting which is well worth viewing.

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Hotel Room by Edward Hopper

The 2nd Hopper painting is The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet  which is intriguingly named after someone who took Hopper and his wife sailing i.e. there is no yacht with this name. Although the sandbank looks rather fanciful, this is a painting with delicate shades of blue, white and cream, with the movement of the boat emphasised by the undulating waves. I see a spirit of freedom and enjoyment in this painting, on the part of the humans. The seagulls look away, unimpressed and the small, bubbly clouds on the horizon are dominated by a clearer sky above, suggesting a warm summer’s day.

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The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet by Edward Hopper

I’ve seen Hopper’s lighthouse paintings before, but Martin Johnson Heade is a new artist for me. His painting Orchid and a Hummingbird Near a Mountain Waterfall was one of the highlights of our visit. It is a stunningly original painting, with its combination of dark and light and the colours of the orchid are reflected in the hummingbird. There is so much to see in this work – shapes, patterns, the real and what I see as the surreal combined – that you can find yourself standing in front of the painting for quite a while. The detail on the plant and the bird are superb.

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Orchid and Hummingbird near a Waterfall by Martin Johnson Heade

So an exhilarating visit to this museum in Madrid which is not to be missed if you are in the city. No blog next week as I’m off to Pisa and Florence with my pal to take in the sights and a football (aka soccer) game.

Meeting Richard Ford and summer flowers

September 1, 2017

As a follow up to last week’s blog on the Edinburgh International book Festival, I struck lucky on the last day of the festival. I looked up to see who was on and, to my surprise and delight, Richard Ford was in conversation with Kirsty Wark. There was a Sold Out sign next to the listing but there was advice to check for returns on the day. I did so – by phone and email – and got a ticket for the afternoon session, which started at 3.15. By 2.30, people were queuing up, eager to get good seats. I am not queuer, so I waited in the bookshop tent – reading part of Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents, of which more below. My luck continued as I was one of the last people in the tented theatre but, when I asked a young man if there were seats up the back, he removed a Reserved sign from a seat 4 rows from the front and gave me that one. Ms Wark talked to Richard Ford about contemporary USA and they covered a range of aspects, including of course Donald Trump. Ford is a wonderful writer but also a highly articulate and amusing speaker and he had some caustic comments on the current president, as well as on the weaker side of the USA press and on race relations.

The writer was then asked about his latest book, which is his recollections of his mother and father. It is entitled Between Them – Remembering My Parents and you can hear the author reading the beginning of the book here. Richard Ford told the audience that writing this memoir – about his mother 30 years ago and his father recently – was an attempt to portray his experience of his own childhood, but also of his parents’ lives. It’s a small book and has some very poignant moments in it. Ford is a high quality writer and his descriptions of his father coming home on a Friday from working away encapsulate a boy’s wonder and admiration superbly. I mentioned my favourite quote from Ford’s books in the last blog post and I included it in a question I asked at the session. My question was “In one of your novels, Frank Bascombe [protagonist of 4 Ford novels] refers to ‘the normal, applauseless life of us all’. Do you think that this applies to your parents’ lives?”. Richard Ford agreed that it did and added that this did not mean that they did not have mostly happy, full and successful lives. I met the author briefly as we all left the tent and I told him that it was my favourite quote from his work. “It’s one of my favourite quotes also” he said, patting me on the shoulder “thank you for reminding me of it”. My new claim to fame. The not too clear photo below, taken on my phone, shows Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark.

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Richard Ford being interviewed by Kirsty Wark (Click to enlarge all photos)

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Richard Ford’s memoir of his parents

It’s now late summer and as I write, today (31 August) is the last official day of summer in the UK. Many of the flowers in my garden are now at their peak or e.g. the lobelia are showing signs of fatigue, with fading colours and drooping stems. In this photo, you can see the lobelia struggling to match the burgeoning of the gladioli and geraniums.

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Plants on our decking

At our back door, from late spring we have an ever expanding hydrangea which is now covered in large pink flower heads and I captured a close-up of this one just after a rain shower. The bunches of 4 petalled flowers nestle into each other to form a perfect ball and the petals are like little fans, ready to protect the delicate centre at any time. The flowers’ pink colours develop and change over weeks, from pale pink to brighter pink and then back to pale, almost pallid pink as late autumn and cold nights take their toll. This is a much admired plant.

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Close up of hydrangea ball

At the front of the house this year, we have three different colours in the gazania plants I bought in the spring. The one shown below has intriguing shades of purple, yellow, brown and white. It is a celebratory plant which opens in full sunshine and might be yelling out how wonderful it is to be alive. I like the cluster of Sydney Opera House type petals which brandish their bright colours in contrast to the more reticent yellow of the centre.

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Gazania daybreak

One of the welcoming appearances in the past few days have been brightly coloured butterflies which feed on the gazanias. The first one I managed to photograph was a peacock butterfly  shown below. Butterflies are like bees – playful. They wait until you think you have a perfect photo and just as you are about to click, off they flit and land on a nearby flower. The markings on the seemingly ragged wings are surreal and multi-coloured, spread out from the slim, curved body with its twin antennae constantly checking the environment. In this photo, there is a lovely contrast between the realist flower heads and the surreal marking on the butterfly.

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Peacock butterfly

The second one is a small tortoiseshell butterfly. I find this one more restrained in its colours than the peacock. I love the symmetry of this butterfly. If you (metaphorically) sliced it in half and folded it over, there would a perfect match. The colours appear to have been daubed on to the wings and the body shaped from a mould. The twisted hat-pin antennae are both a warning to the butterfly of approaching danger and a warning to potential predators. So we now have new arrivals to join the bees which are still feeding on the lavender but having to work harder, as the lavender is fading also.

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Small tortoiseshell utterfly

 

Dirleton Castle and gardens

July 21, 2017

The attractive village of Dirleton (pr Dirril – ton) lies 15 miles (25K) along the coast from Dunbar. I’ve featured the village on the blog before – here. We’ve been to Dirleton many times and I’ve cycled through village but we had never been to the magnificent castle and exquisite gardens before. The castle and gardens are now owned and maintained by Historic Environment Scotland. After you pay at the entrance, immediately on your left is a stone gazebo (1st photo), which houses a small museum and from which you get a very good view (2nd photo) of the gardens which stretch out around an extensive lawn.

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Gazebo at Dirleton Castle (Click to enlarge)

 

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Dirleton Castle gardens

There are hundreds of different plants in the gardens and there was a brilliant range of colour in the shrubs on the day we visited. Many of the shrubs had flowers which contrasted well with the green leaves, such as this feathery specimen, whose name I didn’t know, but should have noted as there are many signs in the garden denoting the plants. Our good friend Sandra enlightened me as to the name- Astilbe.

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Flowering Astilbe at Dirleton Castle Gardens

I also took some close up photos, firstly of a thistle, and with its purple, pineapple-like, studded  head and dancing arms, it has a look-at-me appearance to attract the bees.

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Thistle in Dirleton Castle Gardens

I managed to capture a close-up of a bee on a thistle, in the photo below. This bee, with its gossamer wings and delicate colours on its hairy body, must have stopped for a second to allow me to capture it so well. I was going to crop more of the background but I like the surreal look of the flower head, as if parts of it are trying to fly off or are whirling like a dervish.

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Bee on a flower in Dirleton Castle gardens

You can walk around the gardens many times and always see something different – a newly seen peachy rose or a startlingly purple poppy, of which there are many varieties in the garden, such as the one below. I noticed this on the way back from the castle and was struck by its dark purple interior, the yellow starfish centre and the curving pale purple of the petals, parts of which were white in the sunlight. The gardens are strikingly beautiful collectively and individually and form a wonderful start to the visit.

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Purple poppy at Dirleton Castle gardens

The castle itself is only partly visible from the village green but once you turn the corner at the end of the gardens, it looms into view above you. As a show of strength and power, and architectural skill, the castle cannot but impress. What first strikes you is the thickness of the walls, designed to keep out the enemy and keep in the heat. As the photo shows, the walls were about 6ft in width and, given that some were built in the 1200s, they are still in remarkably good condition. Working on castle walls in those days was often a perilous occupation, with little thought to health and safety.

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Stone walls at Dirleton Castle

For the aristocratic families which owned the castle over the centuries, the de Vaux, the Halyburtons, the Ruthvens and the Nisbets, this was mainly a place of refuge where they could rule the lands around them and impress their guests with the huge dining hall aka the Great Hall. The 1st photo below is of one of the guide boards at the castle shows an impression of the hall with its high, ornately beamed ceiling. The 2nd  photo shows the remains of the hall as seen today. When you stand in the hall, you get an idea of just how big this space was and how many people might be entertained. Less fortunate were those who worked as servants in the castle, with the searing heats of the kitchens below and the cold, cramped accommodation in winter.

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Great Hall at Dirleton Castle

 

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The Great Hall at Dirleton Castle

There is much to see in this well preserved castle and there are many informative guides in the different rooms. The final photo shows the castle from the newly formed gardens which border the castle. The trees in the foreground are well established and you can see their height by the man captured in the far right corner. The castle imposes itself on the landscape above, another show-off, just like the thistle above. For another blogging cyclist’s view and photos of the castle and gardens, see here.

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Dirleton Castle from the west

Paul Bartlett paintings, St Emilion and Paul’s Place

June 6, 2017

A recent exhibition (now closed) at Waterston House in Aberlady featured the intriguing work of wildlife artist Paul Bartlett. I was rather late in contacting Paul Bartlett, but he kindly sent me two examples of his work to use in this blog. He uses a mixture of media, in particular collage and papier mache with acrylic paints. From a distance, the works look like paintings but as you approach, you see the often stunning effects of the use of different media together. For example, in the first work below, it’s not clear that this is not a “normal” painting i.e. using only paint. Oystercatchers are a very familiar sight on the rocks near our house and I often watch them through my scope, as they poke with intent at limpets on the rocks. Once the limpet has been eased off the rock, the oystercatcher will scoop out of the flesh and dip this tasty ( I assume) snack in a rockpool before eating it. They are also very disputatious birds and you can hear them often before you see them. The ones in the picture below look at ease with the world and Bartlett captures their orange beaks and legs very well, although his aim is not to reproduce a copy of an oystercatcher. This is a representation of the bird and its seaside environment, which is cleverly depicted by the blues and greens in the background and the various colours of seaweed, sand and rocks beneath their feet. When you see the actual picture, the effects of the mixed media enhance the quality of the colours and the flowing shapes in the birds’ feathers.

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The Roost by Paul Bartlett

The second work shown here depicts a shoal of rainbow trout swimming determinedly upstream to spawn. You can see the determination in the eyes of the fish, intent on one purpose only. It looks a glum business but maybe in real life, this is an exhilarating process for the fish, in their communal venture. Rainbow trout have the intriguing official name Oncorhynchus mykiss  which comes for the Greek for hooked snout, with mykiss being a name the fish are given in Russia. A romantic fish? As with the oystercatchers above, the colours in this work are very impressive and you find yourself going from fish to fish to see the multitude of colours on display. This work is so detailed that it must have taken the artist a long time to create and paint. There is also great motion in the work and when you look away and look back, you think that another group of trout have swum into the picture. Bartlett’s work will shortly be seen at the annual Pittenweem Arts Festival, so if you can get  to see his work there or in the future, don’t miss it, as you will be very impressed.

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Rainbow by Paul Bartlett

On our trip to Bordeaux, we took the train to the lovely village of St Emilion, famous for its surrounding vineyards and world famous chateaux, which produce superb wines. There’s a distinct classification of the wines, with Premier Grand Cru Classe A deemed to be the best and of course this is the most expensive. For example, a bottle of Chateau Ausone from 2011 can set you back £835. I did buy a bottle of wine in one of the many wine shops in St Emilion but it was a Grand Cru and not a Classe A. Would I know that the Chateau Ausone 2011 was worth over £800 if I tasted it? I doubt it but give me a few free lessons and tastings and I will learn quickly.

The village itself is charming – once you get there. When we got off the train, we and the other passengers looked around to see vineyards all around us, which was a bit perplexing. We then saw a sign saying that the village of St Emilion was a 20 min walk – we did it in 15 min in 28 degrees and sunshine. You walk up cobbled streets past the old houses and the never ending succession of wine shops. It’s a steep climb but at the top you get great views across the village. We climbed the church tower to see the two views in the photos below.

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St Emilion from the church tower

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View of St Emilion vineyards from the church tower

The village is over looked by the huge Monolithic Church (includes short video) originally built in the 12th century. The church is so-called because the hillside was excavated and the church built upon the catacombs to form one building. It’s a very impressive sight as the photos below show. In the first photo, you can see the magnificent carvings on the entrances as well as on the bell-tower and your eye is taken from the older, rounded parts of the church up to the bell-tower. The 2nd photo shows how the church was built to dominate the village and to remind the population of the power of the church, as well as being a tribute to Saint Emilion, an 8th century hermit.

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The Monolithic Church in St Emilion

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St Emilion and the Monolithic Church

A final note on Bordeaux. There are some excellent restaurants in the city and the three most memorable are shown in the business cards below. From the right, Chez Dupont (good photos)was a real find on our first night in Bordeaux. The hotel suggested the Rue Notre Dame, where you’ll find a number of good restaurants away from the city centre and Chez Dupont provided us with an excellent meal, the sea bream being delicious. Near the river, but not on the quayside, the Restaurant Au Bouchons de Chartrons was another great find. We had swordfish with vegetables served in neatly tied plastic, see through bag. This method is known as sous vide and is popular in France. The third restaurant Paul’s Place proved to be more than just a restaurant. On leaving the Chez Dupont, we passed Paul’s Place and saw that on the Saturday evening, there was a singer performing Bob Dylan songs, so we booked a table. This turned out to be a great evening, with Andy Jefferies playing a range of early Bob Dylan songs – and singing them very well – accompanied by a slide show of Dylan photos and video. The food in Paul’s Place is rustic, very tasty and extremely good value for money. The co-owner Paul is a friendly and welcoming host, formerly of Cambridge. The restaurant has bohemian (but fascinating) décor e.g. the ceiling is papered with the front pages of the Times Literary Supplement. This restaurant is certainly worth a visit.

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Bordeaux restaurants