There’s some corner of a highland field…

DSCN0951Just past Whitewell, returning from Glen Einich, I paused to look back towards Braeriach, take a couple of photographs and noticed an item of equipment parked in the corner of the field. I use the catch-all term “item of equipment” to allow some latitude for my lack of knowledge in these matters; although I think this is probably a tractor and that’s as specific as I’m prepared to be.

That said, I do know that there’s a wealth of knowledge out there among the outdoor community. My thing is railways – even old, long disused stretches of the former network, trying to picture how things might have been in their heyday; or the dedicated freight loops where a couple of trains a week fight through the buddleia en route to some surviving remnant of a quarry or colliery. We all have our little idiosyncrasies…

Anyway, all of that aside, zooming in revealed this…

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Judging from the tyres, it might still be in use, although the front ones seem to have sunk a little, and the more you zoom the more blemishes are revealed. If its working life is done, it’s got a splendid place to spend its retirement.

Carn Ban Mor: 1,052 m (3,451 ft), not a Munro

It doesn’t matter that it tops out at well over 3,000 feet – there’s more to it than that. Scottish hill classification is – like life itself – something I don’t fully understand; probably because, as with life itself, I haven’t always been properly paying attention.

It’s to do with relationships and proximity (like a restraining order?), and also parents and subsidiaries. That last bit sounds like the kind of stuff you’d find in a PLC’s profits warning and maybe it all serves some purpose, but…

(Here’s the ‘but’): if it’s the case that Carn Ban Mor is blissfully indifferent to its designation – and we can probably take that as read – then I don’t really think it should matter to me either; which is convenient, because it doesn’t. To misquote Robbie Burns “A hill’s a hill for a’ that” and Carn Ban Mor is a fine old hill, and one with a particularly fine path.

Just before the croft at Auchlean, a track leaves the tarmac road and cuts away across the heather and bilberry. Alternatively, just past the croft, another track leaves the path to Glen Feshie at roughly 90º. It’s not long before the two converge, but fortunately we chose the latter option, otherwise we would have missed the two cuckoo chicks being fed by a pair of warblers in the lee of the farm buildings.

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Cuckoo chick, waiting to be fed (Glen Freshie)

The energy expended by those small birds, incubating and nurturing the two cuckoos, is a genuine wonder of the natural world. For perspective, imagine a pair of robins tirelessly rearing a couple of young pigeons and you’d be about right.

Many hours later, we chose to return via the same route, just to see if the feeding was still going on: it was, even though the chicks both looked well capable of taking care of themselves. And their foster parents.

I’ll not dwell too much on the route, as there are any number of detailed and well-written descriptions available online. The path climbs through mixed woodland, which eventually gives way to open hillside and views of Glen Feshie and then the Spey valley. The Cairngorms national park is accessed via a gate and introduced by a boulder situated just inside the park boundary.

DSC07544A food stop was taken in the comfort of a peaty gulley, just to the side of the path. It was only on emerging onto the higher open ground that we realised just how much we’d been sheltered from the wind by the presence of Carn Ban Beag on our northern side. On the upper slopes a group of reindeer crossed our path on the ascent, and did so again as we were returning.

What sets the path apart from many others is that it takes you to within a whisker of the summit, without the degeneration into either quagmire or ankle-snapping boulder field, which is so often the case and usually just at the point where the trickiest part of the ascent is reached. A small waymark cairn marks the point where you need to leave the main path and head across gently sloping open ground to the summit cairn/shelter and take in the views which, in this case, really do justify the use of the word “panoramic”.

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Sgor an Lochain Uaine and (right) Cairn Toul

The summits of Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine are familiar from a thousand pictures seen in guidebooks and on internet sites and; a little further on, there are excellent views across to the western corries of Braeriach. Almost due north, the rocky summit of Sgor Gaoith looks within touching distance; a little deceptive, as there is a drop down onto a saddle before needing to reascend another 100 metres in height.

 

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The summit of Sgor Gaoith (1,118 metres) – Carn Ban Mor’s ‘parent’ hill

Terns in Worcester

On a pleasantly warm summer’s day, a steady procession of traffic eases over the stone bridge carrying the A44 across the river Severn at Worcester and out past the county cricket ground. In the shadows of the masonry arches, scarcely noticed, a pair of common terns engage in aerial ballet – wheeling, turning, stalling momentarily before plunging, fully submerged, into water the colour of tea with too little milk.

Whatever it is they are catching, momentarily attracts the attention of a few of the much larger birds they have for company; most of them simply continue to drift with the slow current. In any event, none of the gulls – herring, lesser black-backed, even the nifty and mobile black-headed variety – is anywhere near quick enough to effect a mugging before the food is swallowed whole and on the wing. The terns, for their part, seem wholly indifferent to the presence and interest of their larger neighbours; they are busy, and hungry.

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One of the terns against the backdrop of the road bridge masonry

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Stalling, immediately prior to diving for food

Worlds apart

There’s a spot on the Long Mynd, a place where we often hunker down for a lunch stop: it’s generally sheltered, undisturbed, and – once we’ve been settled for a while – a good position to scan the sky for birds of prey; peregrines in particular. On those days when visibility is good, you can also see the flats in Dudley; something which will probably appeal only to a limited demographic and not likely to be featuring in any Shropshire Tourist Board literature…

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Hills with a genuinely Welsh feel; which can only ever be a good thing…

Sitting among Welsh hills, looking at the – albeit distant – epicentre of the black country can be slightly disorientating. And yes, it’s true that the Long Mynd is in England: the high point – Pole Bank summit – is a good 9 or 10 kilometres on the English side of Offa’s Dyke; but the hills are properly Welsh. At least they have a properly Welsh feel to them; not least because, the more you get to know your way around, the easier it becomes to find the places where you’re not likely to have much company; that and the accompaniment provided by the sound of the free-flowing streams which track the floors of the hollows (as many of the valleys are known around these parts). Of course, in the times before arbitrary boundaries were drawn, or built, none of these semantics would have mattered; although Dudley did have a castle, long before the flats showed up.

Long Mynd - 26.0.813_0020This isn’t quite a case of “I can see my house from up here” – for a start, Wenlock Edge would be in the way; but looking back at those flats (one block now, where once there were many) and the transmission masts and assorted ironmongery atop the Rowley Hills, it all feels a bit disconnected. And the disconnect is a measure of just how many transitions there are in the landscape as you head out from the periphery of the west midlands conurbation and across the cultural and physical divide of the river Severn – the UK’s longest, and arguably its most turbulent. You can still see where you’ve come from, and to where you’ll be returning; but, for the time being, it’s a world away…

Peregrines aside, encounters with another falcon – merlin – if not exactly commonplace, are by no means unknown. Frustratingly, they mostly seem to follow a well established pattern – recognition (following initial uncertainty); excitement; a too slow raising of the binoculars; and finally, fleeting sight of the rapidly receding falcon. The whole process generally takes maybe 3 to 5 seconds!

One day, I’ll be ready.

 

 

Close to home

This is all a bit embarrassing: it’s a sorry tale of indifference, bordering on neglect.

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Broad Bodied Chaser Dragonfly

There’s a forest within about 20 minutes drive of my front door. I knew it was there, had skirted the fringes of it on any number of occasions, but never believed it was really a forest; not a proper one. From a position of pretty much total ignorance, I’d dismissed it as “more of a decent-sized wood”. Well, turns out I was wrong: it’s a proper forest all right – one of the largest remaining tracts of ancient woodland in Britain – extending to more than 26 square kilometres. I could have easily researched all of this, but – already convinced that I knew of plenty of better places to spend a day – didn’t take the trouble.

We were really only persuaded to pay a visit to the area, back in early spring, on the recommendation of an acquaintance, suggesting it as a place where we might possibly get to see – among other things – lesser spotted woodpeckers. With their small size, increasing scarcity, and penchant for living out most of the year among the dense foliage of the uppermost branches, these birds are becoming increasingly difficult to find, even more so to actually see.

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Pied Flycatchers – one arriving, one departing. Photograph taken at distance and on high ASA setting to compensate for semi-darkness in wood – hence the dubious quality!

As are adders, with their heightened sensitivity to vibration and inclination to slide away into the dense undergrowth long before you would ever know they were there. So we considered ourselves pretty fortunate to have clear sight of three of them within the space of a couple of visits; not to mention by far the largest grass snake either of us had ever seen. And then a tawny owl – out, and seemingly hunting, in broad daylight; possibly the consequences of a hungry brood and a disappointing return during the hours of darkness (it had been extremely wet throughout most of the night).

Although, if there had to be a vote for industry and persistence, it would probably go to the pied flycatchers: male and female, double-teaming to deliver a never-ending supply of small insects; coordinating their arrivals and departures so that the nest box was never unattended for more than a few seconds.

And the woodpecker tip turned out to be sound: we have a tendency to stick to the quieter paths and happened to be in just the right place when a small bird (no bigger than a chaffinch) broke cover and headed for the top of a dead – and therefore defoliated – tree; just far enough away to remain unfazed by our presence and close enough to be definitely identifiable through the binoculars. Sometimes a bit of luck can be the deciding factor!

If there’s a moral to any of this, it’s probably not to overlook what’s virtually on our own doorsteps. Particularly as less driving means more time to wander and explore.

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Flycatcher pausing briefly before returning with food

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Feeding: the beak of a flycatcher chick is just visible

 

Hay Festival 2016

SONY DSCThe Hay Festival isn’t an annual pilgrimage for me, even though, after every visit, I promise myself it will become one. That’s really because every time I do make the effort to attend, I leave already looking forward to the next time. But sometimes life – that unruly, incoherent mess of other commitments, conflicting priorities, disarray and (when time permits) even a little inertia – conspires against returning quite as quickly as I might have hoped. And of course there always has to be an event or two worth attending; it would be an unusual year when that wasn’t the case.

My overriding impression of Hay during festival week is that it would be very difficult to spend time around the place and not find yourself in a good mood. Artists – some of them familiar faces, others less so – mingle comfortably with the crowds, whether it be inside the festival grounds or simply meandering around the town. On a previous visit I exchanged affable nods and greetings with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour as if we were a couple of neighbours passing in the street. This year I bumped into George Monbiot taking some time out on the river bank. Obviously good weather helps, and it was certainly a riverbank kind of day.

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Gibraltar point – Wednesday 1st June, 2016

Unremittingly, uncompromisingly hostile, in that way that can typify the north sea coast when the mood takes it. Cloud: grey, unbroken; wind: persistent, strong; sufficiently strong to skim a blinding, sand-blast layer from the surface of the dunes and make walking an uncertain, faltering activity, even for adults. And, just for good measure, it is a north-easterly; sometimes the weather can feel almost personal.

And yet, somehow, a little tern – probably weighing no more than 50 gms (and I admit I had to ‘google’ that) – manages to manoeuvre, hold its position, and even fly against the full force of the wind. The shoreline birds, which are undoubtedly present in numbers at this time of year, are more to be heard than seen, although a few reed buntings manage to make headway from one patch of cover to the next and swallows are airborne – as they always seem to be.

DSCN0749The coastline has an oddly familiar feel about it; probably a consequence of our acquired taste for ‘Scandi noir’. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to round a corner and be met by a contemplative Kurt Wallander.

A new visitor centre has risen from the devastation of the tidal surge in December of 2013. The recently opened building is elevated on stilts as protection against any similar occurrences in future and allows extensive views of the mixed habitat, which extends to saltmarsh, dunes and shoreline. The dunes form part of a constantly regenerating system – new ones already having become established in the wake of the 2013 storm damage.

 

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 The Gibraltar Point Reserve is one of a number managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust