A few days in Ardnamurchan

This was new ground for us; at least once we’d crossed Loch Linnhe it was. Ardnamurchan was a strange oversight, considering how many times in the past we’d driven that stretch of the A82 from Crianlarich to Fort William. We’d passed the slip road for the Corran ferry any number of times and never boarded; looked over the loch to the other side, wondered about it, but never crossed. I’m thinking this could almost be worked into a new verse for Caledonia.

So, on an impulse, we decided to visit the Ardnamurchan peninsula, found some accommodation, booked and then spent a few weeks trying to plan for… well, for west of Scotland, so all eventualities. Having spent those weeks reiterating the possibility (likelihood!) of rain-bearing westerlies, potentially storm force, I did feel some responsibility for the fact that we’d gone overboard on the waterproofs and fleece and were correspondingly a bit under-equipped when it came to shorts and T-shirts. But pessimism is a lifelong affliction and my new mantra is that, yes we can go back, but we’ll never be that lucky again…

This is definitely one of those occasions where the pictures tell a better story than any words, so with that in mind I’ve tried to create a sequence of slideshows, which my cheapskate, bottom of the range, WordPress plan doesn’t exactly make easy. The slideshows were created firstly with iMovie then uploaded to Youtube and can be accessed by links; the transitions between frames are not the smoothest but I’m operating at the extremities of my technical knowledge here.

The first part of the journey begins not far from where it ends, insofar as I’ve omitted the M5/M6/M74/A74(M) sections and started somewhere around Ballaculish. The shots of Glencoe were mostly taken from a moving car (not by the driver!) and I’d forgotten just what a spectacular place it can be; which is pretty unforgivable really!

And we finally got to board the Corran ferry – in itself a short voyage of discovery.

Day 1 – Journey and crossing

Day 2 – Laga Bay and Glenborrodale

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Should aesthetics trump functionality?

I’m assuming it’s still okay to use the word ‘trump’ in the title of a post without attracting some incoherent response from the man on Capitol Hill.

On a short outing in the Severn Valley a few days ago, I was struck by the contrast between some of the structures and apparatus – old and quite new – which we encountered along the way. At the foot crossing in Eymore Wood we paused briefly as former Southern Region pacific 34027 Taw Valley passed through with a longish and busy train. This is the locomotive which has, on occasions, appeared around the country in maroon livery carrying the Hogwarts Express nameplate. Built immediately post WW2 (1946) it still looks the part, although – had it not been rescued from a south Wales scrapyard – it would have had a very short working life, having been withdrawn from service by 1964.

There is a slight uphill incline at this point and it was the kind of cold, crisp day when a bit of exertion generally produces good, photogenic steam.

Between the railway and the nearby river, a couple of Severn Trent reservoirs double up as boating lakes and wildlife retreats – wildfowl mostly but with a growing cormorant population. In combination with the preserved railway, the river itself and the northern edge of the extensive Wyre Forest, which reaches all the way to the opposite bank, it’s an attractive and not over-used area. Unfortunately, it seems to have been considered an appropriate site for a solar farm (Cenin Renewables in conjunction with Severn Trent apparently) – a development which started small and seems to be proliferating over a wide area. This is part of a cluster sited a few metres from the bank of the river…

One of the local councils – Kidderminster Parish – said at the time of the initial development they only found out about Severn Trent’s plans after they were approved because of (quote) “a loophole in planning regulations”. I could go on about the effectiveness and appropriate siting of these panels – that and the still ongoing debate around their dubious longevity and payback – but that would make for a much longer post. For now I’ll leave it that they’re unsightly and in a place where they should never have been considered; a place, incidentally, where if you pitched a tent for a night’s wild camp you’d quite likely be moved on.

About a couple of hundred metres upstream (no more) John Fowler’s elegant and timeless cast-iron arch bridge carries the railway across the Severn. Probably an unfair comparison, but even in the fading light of our return journey it struck us as more enhancement than intrusion…

Earlier in the day I’d taken this shot from the road bridge adjacent to Arley Station. It’s a jumble and just about everything is wrong with it, but I quite like the overall chaotic effect of steam, people, trains and infrastructure…

There are still a few examples of lower quadrant semaphore signalling to be found out on the main lines, including around the Worcester/Droitwich/Malvern area. Upper quadrants (raised signals) are a bit more numerous, particularly around the stations on the Highland Main Line; the GWR always liked to be different.

With the light almost gone, there was just about enough time to capture the bulrushes below. This group are at the edge of one of the two small reservoirs and are often frequented by coots, and occasionally reed warblers. Nature’s designs are often studies in understated elegance; something we could learn from…

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.


     

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