A sense of place

The west midlands confuses people: not the endless proliferation of local dialects; not the eccentricities of the motorway network; perplexing though both of those can be. New York might well be “so good they named it twice” but The West Midlands (capitalised this time) is apparently such a brilliantly imaginative name for a place that to use it only once would have seemed wasteful; so it’s been applied to two completely different entities – one of which resides within the other.

First, there’s The County of West Midlands: neither small nor perfectly formed, this nondescript aggregation of bits taken from Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, all of which – reduced though they may be – still separately exist, managed to be a compromise of sorts in that it was held in almost unanimous contempt by residents of all three of its constituent parts. The reasons for their discontent might have varied – from the erosion of cultural identity to concern over the effects on property prices “If people get the idea we’re a suburb of Dudley” (yes, seriously) – but the thing that united us them was that we they just weren’t happy and that’s all there was too it. It doesn’t take much.

Then there’s the other ‘West Midlands’ which, according to Wiki is “One of the nine official regions of England”, stretching from Herefordshire and The Cotswolds to the edge of The Peaks and all points west, right up to the Welsh border. None of this is new, although it is to me.

Both versions of The West Midlands are officially designated as NUTS, which will surprise almost no-one.

Within about 10-15 minutes at a decent walking pace I can reach the remnant of an old Roman road, which marks the boundary with Staffordshire, just at the point where it is tapering down to nothing in the middle of some nondescript pasture; in rather less time again it is possible to exit Staffordshire and cross seamlessly into Worcestershire. So, I reached the Roman road, left behind the neatly suburban West Midlands (designated NUTS1) and crossed into the unkempt agricultural West Midlands (NUTS2), heading for one of those places where The Woodland Trust is doing some of its sterling work.

This is, for a while, an odd patchwork of an area: the clearly defined residential plots come to an abrupt end and are replaced by a chaotic, bits and pieces landscape of indeterminate ownership – a couple of small copses and a few fields which have remained undisturbed for, to my knowledge, the best part of 35 years. Vegetation comes and goes, proliferates, dies back, and the tracks which meander between the trees and brambles follow the same lines that they have followed for as long as I’ve known them.

At least over time the wildlife changes: the buzzards and ravens which would once have been considered exotic are now relatively commonplace, particularly the buzzards. The grey squirrel and rabbit populations ensure there is certainly no shortage of food; no doubt there are field voles out there as well, but they maintain a lower profile. These days the squirrels have to compete for cached food with the expanding population of jays – a bird with attractive plumage but frequently sounding as if it’s being tortured. Goldcrest are present in good numbers; possibly they always were and I never noticed them or, more likely, thought that anything so small would automatically be a wren.

Today the kind of snowfall we rarely see any more has thrown a pristine blanket over some of the less attractive aspects, like the unused rolls of razor wire and discarded feed sacks. The woods themselves seem to be groaning under the covering of snow and the goldcrests and wrens, as they flit between branches, set up small tremors dislodging many times their own body weight.


     

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Modern camera technology

The final photograph in the previous post was of a kingfisher, sitting on some stonework just out of Worcester city centre. I described it in the post as ‘heavily cropped’ and I think it’s a testimony to the quality of modern camera sensors and lenses that an image can be effectively ‘blown up’ and still retain so much resolution.

Here’s what happened (and I must stress that there was no skill involved on my part beyond the use of the cropping tool; no photoshopping or enhancement of any kind – it is all down to the camera equipment).

The kingfisher flew across the river and alighted on the quayside; it was some distance away but was clearly a kingfisher. Not wishing to spook the bird, my son took a few shots in ‘burst’ mode without moving any closer. He was using a Sony Alpha 6000 with a Sony 55-210 zoom lens; from memory he thinks it was shot at maximum zoom but it was all in a bit of a hurry. This is the original shot…

The kingfisher is visible, just left of centre and on the corner of the quayside.

When we’d got the pictures loaded onto the computer at home, I just thought I’d try cropping to remove the railings; I expected the result to be grainy and unusable. This was the first crop…

It was way better than I would have anticipated, but I knew you couldn’t expect to keep cropping without compromising image quality. Nevertheless, I though I’d give it one more trim – this time with really low expectations…

The result was the photograph above, which is the one used in the previous post.

I just thought this was an amazing testimony to the quality of modern camera equipment, even in the hands of an amateur (although Rob, to be fair to him, does have a decent eye for a picture). I contributed nothing beyond the use of the cropping tool.

 

 

 

 

 

Urban diary: Wildlife in Worcester/2

Paradox: drawn though I am to remote places, and the opportunities for solitude and quiet reflection which they provide, I would never actually want to live far from a railway station. I don’t much care for driving these days, mostly find it a chore; there are exceptions of course, but given the choice I’d walk, take the train, or some combination of both. Days like this one are greatly enhanced by leaving the car on the drive.

Worcester is a place we return to fairly regularly: more urban than was once the case, it’s still managed to retain some of its appeal as the development gradually pushes further out along the line of the river on the southern side. Possibly on the northern side too; it’s not a part of the city we visit.

The completion of the Diglis footbridge in 2010 allowed for a circular walk, out past the cathedral and returning alongside the county cricket ground; or the same route reversed, if preferred. Generally it’s the cathedral side of the river which seems to catch more of the sun and provides the better options for a food stop; there is no shortage of benches.

The road bridge carrying the A44 past New Road county cricket ground

A view back towards the city, marred by some 1960s architecture

Riverside walkway – cathedral side of river

Worcester Cathedral

Not being of a religious persuasion, I sometimes find the opulence and ostentation of high churches a little unsettling; and it doesn’t always do to dwell for too long on the history of it all. Smaller, more spartan country churches are a different matter, and their churchyards are often quiet and welcoming places to dwell for a while. That said, there’s no denying the levels of craftsmanship achieved under what must have been severely demanding working conditions in all sorts of ways…

[Left] Interior view – Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Mary the Virgin of Worcester, more commonly known simply as Worcester Cathedral.

 

 

 

 

There are some attractive dwelling houses in the immediate environs of the cathedral and around College Green. Who owns and/or lives in them I have no idea…

Oh yes, of course, wildlife…

It can all get a bit chaotic at times

There’s a swan sanctuary just south of the main road bridge and on the cricket ground (west) side of the river. The swans are monitored and regularly fed, although they have to be quick to keep ahead of the opportunist gulls and pigeons. No wonder peregrines regularly use the cathedral as a nesting site…

 

 

This was a rarity though – a black swan (left). I’d never seen one of these anywhere on the river before, the closest would have been the WWT reserve at Slimbridge. It could possibly be an escapee: smaller than the resident mutes, they can apparently be quite aggressive; it certainly didn’t seem fazed by being heavily outnumbered.

 

 

And finally, a heavily cropped picture of a kingfisher which decided to sit for a while on the stonework, just near to where the canal joins the river…

A return to mid Wales

This is mostly a photo post: it was the second visit of the year to the Rhayader/Elan Valley area and, coincidentally, the walking was mostly defined by the heavy rains which had preceded our few days there. ‘Coincidentally’ because this had been exactly the case back in May; sustained spells of heavy rain – not exactly a rarity in mid Wales – can turn some of the hills into a quagmire, and a misery to walk.

However, there are compensations to be had from arriving in the aftermath of a good deluge…

The overflowing dam at Penygarreg reservoir – viewed from Penbont

As above, but from a little closer. Or possibly zoomed

The rain was just about over by the time we arrived, but there was still plenty of low cloud around and a heavy clinging dampness hanging in the air. This is Wales – come prepared!

The fire in the distance looked more appealing the closer we got. It turned out to be forestry workers on clearing duties, rather than wild campers

By mid afternoon, the combination of clearing skies and steadily lowering sun had lent an altogether different feel to the water and surrounding hillsides…

Better had been promised for the next day, and was duly delivered…

Inevitably, in this part of Wales, there would be red kite…

Looking for feeding opportunities among the boulders

And taking advantage of thermals, conspicuously absent on the previous day

 

Risky post (attacking a national institution)

First things first: GCHQ can stand down; this isn’t about a latter-day gunpowder plot, or a coup to depose the board of trustees of Age Concern England. This is about… well, it’s about Autumnwatch, or what’s left of it. In fact it’s about the whole Seasonwatch franchise and what it’s become.

I caught a few bits of the series just ended; not quite sure why but I did. I’ve never been one of the ‘waste of the licence fee’ brigade; there’s still plenty to like about the Beeb, particularly in the context of what passes for content on most of the hundreds of alternatives which fill the screen when you press the ‘Guide’ button on the remote. But is this really it? Is this what the acclaimed Natural History Unit now considers to be acceptable output?

Right back to its origins, more than 10 years ago now, the programmes have never pretended to be anything other than gently informative, while remaining mostly uncontroversial. But there was at least some quality to be found in the early days, both in terms of the content and the presenters. Okay, it was probably inevitable that Bill Oddie’s eccentricity would eventually alienate as many viewers as it would attract, and personally I was never a big fan of Kate Humble. For me the programme was defined by the contributions of presenters like Gordon Buchanan and Iolo Williams; Gordon has gone on to bigger and better, while Iolo’s contributions are latterly infrequent and all too brief. Maybe his tendency towards ‘frankness’ when dealing with issues like raptor persecution could have something to do with it.

What do we have now? On three evenings last week we saw Gillian Burke – a talented and engaging naturalist – reduced to the role of circus master, arranging for urban foxes to learn tricks with scraps of food attached to string. That’s not a prime time nature broadcast – it’s Blue Peter with foxes! Foxes incidentally, so de-wilded by generations of inculcation that they’re more tame than the average tomcat. If the objective is to engage a younger audience then broadcast that stuff late afternoon, before the early evening news; not at 8:00pm a prime slot on a supposedly flagship channel.

There’s a rich vein of self-satisfied laziness running through the whole franchise now: the presenters are provided with accommodation for a base; supporting personnel with high levels of expertise; contributions from people with local knowledge; a nerve centre with more screens than a city dealing room; more cabling than the East Coast Main Line; and for what results?

Urban foxes; grainy shots of excavated earth where there had been a badger earlier in the day; repetition mostly; species many of us could spot on a decent day’s walk; very few genuine rarities. Go and find a lesser-spotted woodpecker, or a nightingale, you lazy bastards! You have enough resources at your disposal. Or deal with some proper wildlife issues, maybe highlight some of the appalling land management practices going on out there. I could tell you where to start looking!

Anyway, glad that’s off  my chest. And finally, a glimpse of what once was and could be again…

Richard Taylor-Jones

 

 

Ambivalence on Cairn Gorm

Preamble:

This has taken an absolute age to write and I’m really not sure if I shouldn’t have just paid heed to that and abandoned it. For a while I’ve been toying with the idea of taking the blog in a different direction, without ever really being clear about where that direction should be. Brilliant, eh? An outdoor blogger who can’t even navigate a way through his own thought processes. 

Thing is, there are only so many times it’s possible to write about the final approach to the summit of Worcestershire Beacon, or the tricky descent of Light Spout Hollow. Ironic really, considering there is probably no limit to the number of times I would happily descend Light Spout and never tire of doing so. And it can be tricky…

Anyway…

I’m not a great lover of Cairn Gorm; at least not on its northern side. Actually, that’s not an entirely fair resumé: it would be more precise to say that I’m not a great lover of what’s been done to that part of the mountain, not least the rebranding – and why? – of the mountain’s name, which somehow grates more than it should when I see it on facilities, information boards, or even one of the funicular vehicles and its completely innocent cargo of passengers.

I’ve touched on this before [here] and Chris Townsend recently posted about the rather slipshod manner in which redundant infrastructure was being removed – albeit only partially – from parts of Coire na Ciste. As someone who isn’t, and never has been, a downhill skier, I don’t feel qualified to argue the merits, or otherwise, of the pastime; hence this, from the earlier post…

“It’s true that Cairngorm itself is an untidy clutter on its northern side: mostly the consequences of ski development. I know there are arguments in favour of skiing as a leisure pursuit; not least the economic benefits in the winter months and, equally importantly, the fact that, for some, it’s an enjoyable activity. There’s no denying though that skiing is greedy for land and creates an awful mess on the hillside when there’s no camouflaging blanket of snow…”

I did also – in the interests of intended balance – concede that “there are equally instances of spots (Snowdon summit, Ben Nevis as examples) where the accumulated effects of tens of thousands of walkers can leave the place looking far from attractive…”

With all of that said, and nothing really resolved, I just think that the development – if it had to be done at all – it could have been carried out with a little more subtlety, a lot less intrusion, and with a view to a generally more sympathetic outcome. There’s an obvious question hanging here: if that’s how I feel, why go there? Well, it is a very accessible summit on those days when the weather looks like it might run through its entire repertoire in the space of an afternoon, and – the other side of that coin – a relatively straightforward place from which to retreat. And, once you begin to cross the summit plateau and the buildings and equipment, the tows and fencing, fall behind and dip out of sight, then it really becomes a different place.

I find my gaze is usually drawn first to the lochs Avon and Etchachan, rather than to the neighbouring summits; then, as I adjust my eyeline upwards, there’s often the compulsion to look back down again and confirm that I have secure footing, despite standing on a solid rocky base and a long way from any precipice; a feeling of exposure, where none actually exists – it’s almost become a mannerism. Then the details begin to reveal themselves: the high summits of neighbouring mountains; steep crags falling away into deep-cut valleys; watercourses threading their way down until they meet, combine, create bigger watercourses, spill into the lochs and, in some cases, feed rivers which will make their journey all the way to the coast, gathering power as they go.

And then I realise that I actually love it up here…

I might have liked it more in former, wilder days; I might have liked it more in the future, when the wolves have returned and land management lower down has been reclaimed by lynx and beaver. But for now, and as long as I’m able, I’ll continue to climb past the ugly bits and enjoy the views from the top. To some extent, traversing the summit plateau from north to south is like crossing a watershed, a frontier where national park status is broadly observed to the south, and has been selectively set aside to the north.

(Context: it has been more than nine weeks since I last wandered past the summit cairn to take in the views to the south)

Ski tow equipment – Coire Cas

 

Just walking clear of the last of the development

Not pretty, maybe, but natural and as its intended to be

No comment needed (other than that this is taken inside a national park)

 

 

Carn Ban Mor and Sgòr Gaoith: 10/08/17

About this time last year I was ruminating, in that way that curmudgeonly old gits do, about the vagaries of Scottish hill classifications. It was to do with Carn Ban Mor (3,451 feet) not being a munro, on account of having, in close proximity, a parent hill, Sgòr Gaoith (3,668 feet).

Being neither a committed bagger nor cairn-toucher I didn’t much care, and still don’t. Which is just as well, because it doesn’t end there: turns out – if Wikipedia is to be believed – that Sgòr Gaoith itself also has a parent peak (Braeriach – 4,252 feet). Well, seeing as it’s Braeriach, we’ll say no more about it; you wouldn’t want to get into a dispute with Braeriach,

We followed the path – well walked and well engineered, winding up out of Glen Feshie from near the croft at Achlean. The first part is through woodland, always climbing but never too severe, until eventually the trees begin to thin out.

Encouragingly, well beyond the end of the established tree line, there are signs of regeneration and a gradual recolonising of the slopes by native pines. This could well be a consequence of Glenfeshie Estate’s policy of controlling deer numbers; if so it’s a welcome one, although personally I’d rather see implementation of the programme handed over to a few lynx.

Gaining height across the open hillside is, in the main, progressive rather than strenuous, and the views back towards Glen Feshie and beyond begin to open out. The path does steepen a little as it climbs to its high point, which is just about where you need to look for a small cairn marking the junction for the final short, easy stroll up to the summit cairn/shelter of Carn Ban Mor. It’s worth paying a bit of attention to directions and landmarks at this point because, by the time you reach the top of Carn Ban Mor and look back, this way-marker cairn will just have dipped out of sight.

Summit cairn/shelter – Carn Ban Mor

On a previous outing we’d decided against pushing on to Sgòr Gaoith; this was partly down to a later start, but also because a couple of trip reports I’d read had suggested that the walk across was deceptive in terms of both distance and re-ascent from the hollow between the two summits. In the event it proved somewhat easier than we’d expected, although the wind was beginning to pick up and the temperature was dropping as we climbed towards the distinctive outline of number 5 buttress (visible from the platform of Kingussie Station if conditions allow). The drifting clouds also meant that the top was disappearing and reappearing every couple of minutes.

The wind was sufficiently strong to keep us away from the very edge of the precipice, but we did venture close enough to get some shots looking down into Glen Einich and across to Braeriach. Loch Einich was a much more attractive colour than it had been when viewed from the shoreline a few days previously…

Braeriach – not quite prepared to reveal everything

This one – not one of mine, by the way – made it onto the Visit Scotland site

The edge of Sgòr Gaoith dissolving into the low cloud

With the wind coming hard from the west, the only viable shelter would have been one of the grassy hollows just above the 2,000 foot drop down into Glen Einich; maybe worth bearing in mind for a calmer day, or one where the wind is blowing away from the edge. We chose a more cautious option and walked back to the shelter on Carn Ban Mor , which had the dual advantages of being perfectly aligned for the wind direction, and a long way from the precipice. It was an easy decision, and a unanimous one.

Having said above that I’m not particularly fussed about touching summit cairns (or trig points), I do have a fondness for sitting inside them when they double up as a shelter. The one on Carn Ban Mor is particularly helpful, as it’s an exposed top, whichever direction the wind is from, and there isn’t much in the way of natural cover. We took an extended food stop while Braerich, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul played a game of cat and mouse with us – the object being to get a picture with all three summits clear of cloud. Inevitably the mountains outlasted us; they are better equipped for a long game.

Just a final word about Braeriach: what a staggering piece of mountain architecture that is! From a distance, or close proximity, it just seems to keep revealing one more new facet, then another… We haven’t yet viewed it from the Cairn Toul approach, so there’s still more to discover. The Highlands – there’s always a reason to go back.