Just a few pictures…

Not many words to this post, just a handful of shots taken out and about with various hand-held devices…

Storm Doris uprooted a tree – A Scots pine, sadly – in the park, no more than about 80 yards from our front door. Not just any Scots pine either, although any loss is one too many; this was the tree where the female sparrowhawk used to sit – big, even for a female, and queen of all she surveyed. Recent work on the path around the pool may have destabilised the roots somewhat; if so, other pines in the same stand might be similarly at risk…

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This run of attractive and cleverly woven fencing along a stretch of the Droitwich canal, utilising the trunks and branches from an established hedge; hazel, I think, although I’m no expert. I believe the weaving technique has a local name which, like so much these days, escapes me. Whatever it’s called, it looks nicer than chain-link and razor wire…

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Last week in February and rhododendrons already in full bloom – or very close to it – Bunkers Hill Wood, right on the West Midlands/South Staffordshire border…

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Hampton Loade station, Severn Valley Railway, and I’m reminded that, like it or not, I’m looking at a scene that – more years ago than I care to remember – I would have witnessed many times out on the main line: an old, first generation, diesel multiple unit, standing alongside a BR tank engine pulling coaching stock. Dudley Port low level, early sixties, heading for The Hawthorns to watch The Albion; who knows where the time goes?

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And a carrion crow – plumage more blue-black and unblemished than any I can ever recall seeing…

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The shot of the carrion crow was taken on my son’s Sony HX300 bridge camera, which easily outperforms my Nikon P510, although it is a bit bigger and heavier.

 

 

A weekend wander

dscn1141It was almost windless today; the column of smoke rising from the farmer’s rubbish fire was proof of that. But it was also, even without windchill, bitingly cold – that seeping, bone cold which seems able to penetrate any number of layers without the temperature ever needing to go below freezing. We kept moving and were glad of any uphill stretches to generate a bit more heat. As is often the case, my thumbs were the last of the extremities to warm through; although even then the cold was replaced by an ache for a while. Perhaps I am becoming soft as the years tick by; if so, I am not alone, judging by the number of insulated jackets, zipped to the very top, the wearer’s nose tucked away inside, like a quilted balaclava.

dscn1132On the far side of a field – maybe a hundred metres or so away – a decent-sized buzzard was resting on a fence-post, feathers fluffed out against the cold. It was just about at the extreme of the zoom range on my camera and even leaning on a gate the shot wasn’t completely steady. The zooms on some of these modern cameras are remarkable in technological terms but there are limitations when it comes to using them towards the limits of their range. Mine is a Nikon bridge camera (a P510) with a supposed 42x maximum zoom: at anything beyond about 30x the light gathering starts to fall away appreciably; add in the effects of camera shake and quick, precise focussing becomes a problem. Wildlife subjects can be gone in the time it takes to frame and focus, but attempting to hurry the process can give mixed outcomes. No doubt things have moved on in the few years since I last bought a camera, but I can understand why those whose primary hobby is photography choose to carry SLR cameras, multiple lenses and tripods. I’d be unable to walk very far carrying that much gear, so there has to be a trade-off.

dscn1143Walking along a stretch of canal towpath in rapidly fading late afternoon light, we came across some cattle drinking from the side of the canal; something I’d never seen before. Although, as canals go, this stretch is relatively ‘pastoral’, I still couldn’t imagine January canal water being the most appealing of refreshments. It must be the case that animals in the wild have to take hydration wherever they can find it, and my judgement is probably still distorted by the altogether different canals remembered from my distant youth (see here).

dsc01140Spotting the Brush Class 60, returning steel coil empties along the Worcester-Stourbridge line and headed for the Round Oak terminal (and there’s a whole other story for a different day) was a bonus. At one time threatened with total withdrawal from operations this charismatic locomotive was one of the last made in numbers (100 were built) by Brush Traction’s Peterborough works, and has thankfully returned from the brink.

 

 

The return to earth (20/06/2015)

The return to earth

There’s no avoiding the fact that leaving the highlands involves ‘coming down’ in more than one sense. From a seemingly unending choice of mountains topping three and a half thousand feet, we return to a locality where the highest accessible summits reach around half that height.

Abdon Burf (Brown Clee), at 540 metres (1,770 feet), is the highest point in Worcestershire and Shropshire; Long Mynd – despite feeling much more like proper hill country – tops out at the summit of Pole Bank (516 metres/1693 feet).

It’s hard not to suffer withdrawal symptoms, and not just for the landscape either: highland place names evoke a particular nostalgia, all of their own. Simply planning a route in The Cairngorms can be enough to prompt anticipation and excitement: tracing a line on the map across allt; gleann; creag; stob. The principal waterways – Dee, Spey, Feshie – mostly seem to be identified by the anglicised ‘river’ but elsewhere the landscape is doing its bit to preserve the mystery and romance of gaelic. Could there be a better and more appropriate way of conserving a language than through the naming and identification of iconic landmarks?

The Welsh have a word – ‘Hiraeth’ – which has no direct equivalent in English, but one definition is “… a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia and wistfulness”. And there we have it, in a nutshell – an Englishman, back home and stricken with hiraeth for the wild places of Scotland (and their names). It’s almost a subliminal argument in favour of the union.

So, what to do? The realities of daily life demand attention and recreation has to take its place in the queue; not always at the front, unfortunately. Meanwhile, the post holiday void has to be filled, as best it can, by the frequently shorter and invariably less dramatic outings taken closer to home. As coping strategies go, this seems better than any of the alternatives…

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The Worcester and Birmingham canal, near Droitwich

Canal walks are one of our staples, and what they lack in terms of hills is usually compensated for by the generally less hurried pace of life and movement around inland waterways. That and the often surprising diversity of wildlife colonising the margins; particularly where the canals border on areas of arable farmland.

Canals in the Droitwich area have benefited from substantial restoration efforts in recent years. These are too extensive and complex to cover in a blog post but there are a number of online sites detailing the work which has been carried out. Suffice it to say that the restoration projects have reactivated previously derelict and overgrown sections of waterway and towpath, created a variety of new wildlife habitats and some excellent walking opportunities. The restored canals are now in the care of The Canal and River Trust: their site can be viewed here; there is also, among others, a wiki page giving some of the back story.

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Reed Warbler

One particular component of the  habitat enhancement has been the creation of extensive reed beds; these attract a variety of bird species but seem particularly appealing to probably the highest concentration of reed warblers we’ve ever encountered anywhere. Perhaps the day will eventually arrive when I can reliably distinguish them from a whitethroat at first sight; I’m not there yet.

Reed warblers are one of the varieties vulnerable to being used as a host by parasitic cuckoos and we heard distinctive cuckoo calls coming from a copse quite close to the towpath. In fact we’ve heard a number of cuckoos calling in the vicinity of local canals this spring/summer, where we can often go several years without hearing a single one in the locality. I suppose it could be that this is connected to the apparently thriving warbler population.

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Serendipity: while trying to pinpoint the precise location of the cuckoo, Rob chanced upon this green woodpecker sitting uncharacteristically motionless on top of a tree stump…

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Cultivated land, hedgerows, some woodland. A nice mix of habitat for warblers and other varieties.

 

 

Be ready for the weather (whatever it happens to be)…

For the weekend, and the few days leading up to it, the weather forecasts had been so vague as to be just about meaningless. A frontal system moving across from the west might/might not reach us; colder air from the north could extend this far south, but on the other hand…

Maybe both would make it all the way and meet above our heads in some post-biblical apocalypse. Alternatively it might just be grey skies and some drizzle – that’s always a sound bet in the midlands, in January.

Canal & Kinver.18.01.15_01 18 15_0002So, in the absence of any guidance from the meteorologists, we layered up for just about every eventuality and set off with no particular plan, other than that we’d start with the canal and feed any ducks we happened to meet. There were loads of them, and they cleaned us out of food in no time; to those who missed out, we can only apologise.

Setting off along the towpath, the weather was pretty benign, although with that extra couple of degrees more bite that you often seem to get near water. We were going to be out for no more than about three hours, so this would do just fine – it might even be possible to shed a layer as we warmed up.

Canal & Kinver.18.01.15_01 18 15_0014A spur of the moment decision led to us leaving the canalside walk and heading off towards the most accessible piece of higher ground – Kinver Edge.

‘High’ is a relative term, and even by the humble standards of our local hills the height of the ridge is modest (the trig point is at 538 feet), although there are a couple of steepish, if relatively short, pulls to be negotiated on the way to the crest of the ridge.

If we were going to discard a layer, this would have been the time; but it would inevitably mean stopping again to put it all back on, so we put up with briefly being a bit too warm. As it turned out, it wouldn’t be lasting for very long.

Kinver Edge is the southernmost point of the Staffordshire Way, and the place where it meets the merged Worcestershire Way and North Worcestershire path. It was also, for us, just about the point of no return in terms of this particular walk and therefore – inevitably – the place where the weather suddenly changed for the worse.

Canal & Kinver.18.01.15_01 18 15_0017What little was left of the day’s sun was quickly consumed by grey cloud and the wind, from which we had previously been sheltered, carried the first warning shots of a sleet storm. The temperature dropped several degrees.

This all seemed to happen in the time it took to cover a few paces and a quick glance in the direction from which the storm was gathering suggested it was only going to get worse. It did, with a vengeance: sky almost black; daylight virtually extinguished; rain and sleet horizontal in a biting wind, even penetrating the cover of the woods. And then it was gone…

Just as if a switch had been thrown, the weak sun was visible again, the rain and sleet eased, and the wind subsided – no wonder the forecasters hedge their bets. Any thoughts of being too warm were gone for good though.

Eventually we rejoined the canal towpath and finished the walk in near darkness; our eyes adjusting to the gathering gloom as the dusk thickened.

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Surprisingly, two weeks into January, a number of gorse bushes were already coming into flower

Fifty shades and more…

I don’t know how many subtle variations of grey are scientifically achievable, but fifty is barely a start where nature is concerned – the greyscale palette available to the natural world seems to be just about limitless. Yesterday (Sunday 4th January) we had the rather eerie experience of a walk almost completely rendered in monochrome and seemingly viewed from behind a veil; I even conducted a little experiment to prove the point…

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The two pictures above and below are from the same image: the only difference is that the upper one has had the black and white ‘effect’ applied in a simple photo editor (iPhoto); in all other respects they are identical. There is some colour visible in the lower shot, but you need to be looking hard to spot it.

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The sun, albeit briefly, suggested that it might break through the clouds and mist, which had merged into a single seamless shroud. In the end it turned out to be just a suggestion, nothing more, and a short-lived one at that.

The land to the west of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal serves partly as catchment for the run-off from the slightly higher ground beyond. Eventually the water drains into the Smestow Brook, a tributary of The Stour, which in its turn joins The Severn at Stourport. Strange to think that the water which makes it as far as Stourport will, a few days later, pass beneath the suspension bridge and out into the Bristol Channel – meeting salmon and trout making an altogether longer journey in the opposite direction.

Drainage and soak away can be a slow process following periods of sustained rain, and pools will lie outwith the natural watercourses for sometimes weeks on end. Below are two slightly different shots of an area where water would not usually be found, but expanses of temporary swamp are not particularly unusual, frequently persist and often get colonised by herons, wildfowl, kingfishers even, before they eventually dissipate.

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Yesterday, with the temperature barely getting above zero, the ground bone-hard from a deep overnight frost, and the slack water frozen to a slurry, there seemed to be little prospect of this scene changing anytime soon; that said, today is already noticeably milder.

With the sun having apparently given up without ever making an impression, the mist, particularly where it hung above the surface of the water, began to thicken again – the near distance becoming increasingly indistinct and anything beyond fading completely from sight.

The familiar looking shape in the middle of a tangle of twigs did turn out to be a kingfisher. Unfortunately a closer shot was never an option as the boat (below) was already approaching its perch and it was gone within a few seconds.

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A heavily frosted spider’s web remained attached to one of the few patches of greenery we saw during the entire walk. A passing insect, had there been any, could have strolled across it without jeopardy.

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This shot of the boats in the distance was taken just before the mist began to close in again. The mixture of smoke from the log-burners on the boats and mist rising from the surface of the water was considerably more atmospheric when seen in the flesh.
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Throughout this walk I was wearing an item of clothing I’d never anticipated walking in – a Montane Prism jacket. It’s a lightweight insulated jacket – pertex shell with 40g primaloft fill – and was only ever envisaged as a throw-over for rest and food stops on colder days. As it was so cold, and because we would be following a canal towpath with only a couple of shortish gradients, I decided to risk it as an alternative to softshell/windproof layering.
The trial was worthwhile: I was comfortably warm from the outset but without ever overheating. Any spells of sustained climbing, or even the sun breaking through the clouds, and I would have expected to quickly become too warm. On the other hand, a few hundred miles further north and a couple of thousand feet higher and it might be a viable option on a cold, dry day.
The Prism seems to come in a limited range of colours; mine is a single shade of grey.

 

From the vaults: A few thoughts from the towpath (02/09/2011)

p1060246I spent some of my formative years around canals. Wretched affairs they mostly were too: stagnant, slow-moving, oil-slicked and rancid; anachronisms even then; relics of a way of life already in steady, irretrievable decline. Occasionally worked, invariably neglected, their banks and towpaths were places for chance meetings laden with promise, menace, sometimes both at once: for fights, spontaneous or pre-arranged; furtive sexual encounters (or stolen moments of romance – depending on your point of view); or for simply passing the time of day with a fellow traveller. The latter being nothing more than a euphemism for having a good old grumble: one of the many ways in which we made our own amusement back then.

By the time I’d reached school leaving age I’d probably seen enough miles of canal-side to last a rational person a lifetime. Fortunately I’d also discovered by then that there are canals and there are canals…

Walking a rural towpath at a quiet time puts me in mind of those science fiction films where time continuums (continua?) overlap; repeatedly cutting from blurred activity to slow motion sequence and back again. The water itself sets an unhurried background rhythm, quickened occasionally by the opening of a lock. It’s rare to find a boat moving at more than steady walking pace; livestock at the water’s edge will barely raise their heads to glance at passers-by. Similarly the heron; too transfixed on events below the surface to break its concentration.

p1060275It would be easy and, to be honest, not unpleasant to become lulled into a mild narcosis by the sedative effect of all this unhurried calm, were it not punctuated – usually unexpectedly – by the moments of abrupt activity: the flash of a kingfisher, the silvery turn of a shoal of fish, the sudden violence of a kestrel’s kill; the furtive dart of a too-quick-to-be-identified rodent. The event – already over – registers, and after a brief moment of surprise tranquility returns.