Sunday, 22 March 2020

abroad thoughts from home

But I might write a song that makes you laugh, now that would be funny
And you could tell your friends in England you'd like that
But now I've chosen aeroplanes and boats to come between us
And a line or two on paper wouldn't go amiss

Spain was just about to go into lock-down. We were in Seville for a few days - our birthday present to each other. We've been back 8 days now so hopefully all's well. Luckily enough we were booked on a flight out on the Friday and Spain was being shut down on the Saturday.

Many shops were closing early that afternoon and the bars and restaurants were fairly empty. We had a coffee and some tapas in a bar under Las Setas de la Encarnación (The Mushrooms of the Incarnation) and our waiter explained what was going on. He told us that normally at that time on a Friday afternoon the whole place would be heaving, all the bars full of weekend-starts-here revellers. He looked forlornly around and told us that the schools were closed as of that day so everyone would be at home looking after the kids. He then went into a diatribe about the Chinese which was uncomfortable but when in Rome . . . or Seville in this case. We were able to get to the airport despite the bus being full as an enterprising taxi driver did a deal for four of us so we got there quite quickly. Empty roads. The other two were a couple of ladies who were flying back to Manchester. The Manchester flight was very busy, much busier than ours to Stansted but both were slightly delayed. My understanding is that Saturday was a lot busier and stressful.

We were home just after midnight. It was Tuesday before we were able to buy toilet rolls. We weren't panic buying, just felt we may need more if we have to self-isolate. The unnecessary shortages could have been easily averted I'm sure. The most cynical thing I've seen so far is the profiteering nature of some of the shops. I feel sorry for families with youngsters that need Calpol but find the prices hiked to nearly £10. On Friday I bought a bottle of wine in our local Spar for £6. On Saturday they were changing the prices of all their wines. The same one was suddenly £7:50. It hadn't been on offer the day before, so it was sheer profiteering as far as I'm concerned. Needless to say I didn't buy it.

Seville itself is a city we'd never been to before and we spent four days there thoroughly enjoying it. Obviously we were tourists and felt we needed to see the sights. We went to the Cathedral which is, evidently, the largest Gothic cathedral in the World. Unfortunately we didn't go up the tower as we thought we had to pay more but it was actually included in the price. Never mind. What we did see though as we wandered around was the disgrace of redundant wealth. The amount of gold on show and 'treasures' (sic) were ostentatious in the extreme. I began to feel a little sickened to be honest. In contrast to that we got up earlier the following day and went to the Alcázar, the palace opposite the cathedral. The elegance and grace of the palace was much more to my taste. Yes, it's a huge palace built for royalty but it was far more impressive. It seemed to me that it was here that would normally show more pomp and flamboyance but, no, the cathedral trumped it completely. The grounds were great too. There was definitely a celebration of Nature here as opposed to just the small orange grove in the grounds of the cathedral. Again, the cathedral was definitely all about humanity and its ability to build needless monuments to its "jealous god" whereas the gardens of the palace seemed more about, yes, taming Nature but enjoying it too. Mind you, back in 1978 I visited the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and was far more impressed with that than any of the Christian churches too. Anyway, no lectures, just an observation.

I have to say that the weather was perfect too. Obviously we hadn't fully prepared but boots, jeans and T-shirts were all we really needed. We enjoyed the Triana market too where we ate Pescado Frito (fried fish). On the whole, Seville seemed fairly quiet so it was easy to get seated and food service was quick. We weren't sure right up until we left on the Tuesday whether or not we'd be able to travel and had been prepared to have the trip cancelled. We were quite lucky I guess. On the other side of the river was the old fish market which is now a gourmet version of the Triana and we visited that on Friday for lunch before we set off home. The river cruise was pleasant and we managed to walk all around the city easily - Mrs Dave's fitbit seemed pleased. Seville seems to be a very beautiful city that enjoys its cultural heritage. A group of buskers performed flamenco at the Plaza de España which was handy as we weren't there long enough to go to an evening performance. Food is a particularly appealing part of a visit. We found a great little bar - and I mean little as it was only about the size of the Nutshell in Bury St Edmunds! The Alfalfa bar was very busy and crowded but everyone was friendly and making the most of the last few evenings of freedom. Or so it seems.

The other thing about Seville is how many parakeets there seem to be. We're used to them on a much lesser scale here in the UK but I was taken aback by just how ubiquitous they are there.I recently saw a small flock of grey parakeets in Manchester and have seen the in London and, even, Ipswich. The noise and sight of these lovely green red-beaked chaps no matter where you go was wonderful. I spent a lot of time looking upwards.That's getting to be a dangerous habit nowadays with so many almost silent electric cars around!

I guess we're all going to have to rely on our memories of trips abroad - or anywhere really - for a while. Mind you, now that exams have been cancelled I won't be marking this year so I probably won't be able to afford to go anywhere for a while.

Monday, 2 March 2020

simple gifts

like pretty birds among the trees I will be all in motion
and skip and dance upon the breeze of love and sweet devotion
for lo it is a happy time, a time of making merry
of heavenly comfort all divine and very cheering, very

It's certainly true that wood-burning stoves are bad for your health. I cleaned ours out and prepared it for our New Year's Eve meal with friends and, somehow, by kneeling down and putting too much weight onto my right foot I managed to cause a hairline fracture of my metatarsal. At least that's what seems to have happened.

It took a day or two before the pain started but it's the only thing I can put this bizarre foot injury down to. I then spent all of January and most of February with a painful and swollen foot. I had a blood test and X-Ray but the Quack was unable to give me any definite answer to what had happened. The blood test was mainly for gout, which I haven't got, thankfully. The X-Ray didn't really show anything and I guess a scan would have been more useful.

So, we enter March. A beautiful Sunday and a chirpier feeling came over me so a walk was just what the doctor could have ordered. The longest walk I'd managed so far this year was a pleasant walk a week back during a short hiatus in the current Monsoon Season up the coast to the Ferry Boat Inn for a spot of lunch. Obviously a pint was called for to mop the solids up. This jaunt by the sea and by the famous Links golf course (as featured in the classic M. R. James story Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad although called Burnham rather than Felixstowe) is about two miles away from my house.

On Sunday we decided that another gap between named storms required a walk to commune with Nature. The village of Melton stands just on the outskirts of Woodbridge. We used to walk there quite a lot when our kids were younger so it seemed a perfect easy walk to get me going again. When we used to walk around this area we would stay on the Woodbridge side so this time a wander along the other side of the road would be interesting. We wandered briefly along by the river where a couple of oystercatchers digging for lugworms piped to us to wish us well on our way.

Parking for free in the rather overcrowded Melton Riverside car park we set off across the Wilford Bridge and stumbled along through some reed beds coming out onto a quiet road towards a village called Bromewell. This seemed a little familiar and then I realised that this was a section of the Sandlings Walk. This is a walk that meanders from Ipswich to Southwold and takes in a range of Suffolk's heaths, woodland, farmland and estuaries for some sixty miles. I completed this walk a good few years ago when I was still a useful member of society. Dotted along the walk are various sculptures of nightjars. Incidentally, the only time I have ever seen nightjars in the wild was on the walk, which seems unlikely even now. One of the smaller sculptures resides here at a junction in the village. We took a little detour to check out the church which is named after the patron saint of Suffolk, St Edmund.  It's a nice little church with some fairly recent stained glass. Well I'm guessing they are recent as the WW1 soldier and sailor helping Jesus carry his cross would have raised Time Traveller stories or some von Daniken-type nonsense. We wandered on towards Ufford.

The walk to Ufford was only a one-divorce graded one - that is, there was only one short section of the walk where I misread the directions and we ended up walking around a field rather pointlessly as we needed to be about half a mile away in totally the other direction where we coud cross the train line safely. The grading comes from the amount of arguments such misreadings lead to. The line runs between Ipswich and Lowestoft. Good luck to any passengers as neither is exactly the best Suffolk has to offer. Much of this part of the walk follows the channel of the River Deben which was flowing very freely. In fact, there was an overflow area pumping out into a field where a grey wagtail was bobbing about in its inimitable jerky fashion. A lovely flash of yellow amongst the bushes and branches. This part of the walk seemed like a miniature Louisiana swamp and in the back of my mind I could hear the familiar twang of Ry Cooder's slide guitar. Very Southern Comfort. We don't have too many Cajuns wandering around Suffolk as far as I know but I kept an eye out just to be sure.

After crossing the pretty red-brick Ufford bridge with a natural pool beneath we turned left and were greeted with the sight of a village pub with its own microbrewery. Blimey! An unexpected bonus. As it was gone two o'clock and we were getting rather peckish having foolishly gone for walk on fairly empty stomachs, it seemed churlish not to pop in. The White Lion at Ufford is well-worth visiting. Obviously the first thing that happened was a friend of Mrs Dave's was sitting there having Sunday lunch* as she lives in the village. The place is full of cds and old vinyl and there's a Community Pub of the year award (a few years ago now but it has a nice ambience). I tried the local brew, Longship Bitter which, at 4.7%abv can't be considered a good driving beer by any standard, but was an excellent very bitter Bitter indeed. We ordered food - Cajun chicken curiously enough - but had a long wait. By the time I asked where the food was I had had another pint. It would seem the lad who took the order must have enjoyed the night before but wasn't quite so sure about today. The food was very good and they gave us a free bowl of chips as a way of apologising for the wait. It was time to move on.

We visited the church which has an unusual font cover - the second tallest in England evidently. Standing at eighteen feet it does seem rather unnecessary but it does help to remember that East Anglia was once a very wealthy county due to the wool industry. There is a set of stocks by the front gate but unlike places where they usually have old stocks, you can't use them as a photo opportunity, not that we did.

By now we were heading back towards Melton and were warned by some locals that the road was covered by a large puddle and we should use the golf course instead. We ignored them and put our Goretex boots to good use, as for "puddle" read "ford".  We passed yet another church but this one was a redundant church. Still well-kept but we couldn't enter it. As we passed through some woodland along a lengthy track we passed a large body of water with a pair of mute swans that watched us wander by. Evidently they are called mute because they are less vocal than other swans. Well, these were certainly mute on Sunday. We passed an unusual Nissen hut that had been converted into a cottage, named Nissen Cottage needless to say. It looked a bit like a place you might find an old crone from Hansel and Gretel but there were no obvious signs of breadcrumb trails. Mind you, the bird life was quite active and the many robins and chaffinches probably had them anyway.

Suddenly we were at the Wilford Bridge near the car park and the road was pretty busy. We crossed over and wandered back to the car. Among the trees I topped to jettison the two pints I'd taken on board. Whilst so engaged the call of a Curlew sounded close by, I looked up and it flew over as if to wish us a farewell, thanks for calling. And homeward we wended.

All in all, a great first decent walk for the year amongst the simple gifts that Mother Nature offers us; and we certainly had our moments of what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) to set us up both psychologically and physiologically. Which is just as well given that every day seems to bring worse news than the one before.

* For some reason we seem to bump into people wherever we are in the World. I once bumped into someone who knew me whilst sitting outside a restaurant in the middle of absolutely Nowhere, Utah. It was someone who had worked in the same school as me a few years beforehand. I had just said to the family, "well, at least we won't bump into anyone we know here!"

looking for someone

nobody needs to discover me - I'm back again
you feel the ashes from the fire that kept you warm
its comfort disappears
and still the only friend I know
will never tell me where to go

It's been two years to the month since I last wrote on here. Sometimes I thought I'd never come back to it but there was always a nagging feeling that there was unfinished business.

When I started writing this blog back in 2010 I enjoyed the freedom it allowed me to get my thoughts down about any old crap really. It was exciting and when people started reading it and making comments on it, I realised that it was a worthwhile thing for me to be writing it. I guess it was started as a way of trying to keep myself a bit sane during those last few years of my working life. Actually, that's not really fully over as I still mark Film Studies exams every year but how much longer for, I don't know. Those last five years of working were not easy years. I'm not going to write about them as they are far behind me now and I still get fed up when I think about it. The education system is still constantly used as a playground for inept politicians so I'll move on as I've been out of it for a good four and a half years now. I'll say no more about it.

The World moves on and changes quickly. It seems to have changed massively in the two years since I last wrote anything here. When I retired I assumed I would have more time to write. I did, I suppose, but the madness of the job was behind me and gradually other things took over. Some other interests. Also, as I'm officially a grandad now life has definitely changed! However, whilst the World still turns and newfangled ways of tricking us and grinding us down have come along, a new sense of purpose has been building up in me. I still have some projects in mind. Also, many of the interests I had are still interests now. So, whilst walking, music, very amateur nature writing/bird watching and, of course, the drinking culture I grew up with are still very much part of my life, I do occasionally take up other interests.

So, this is a brief hello - shouting into the wind probably. I realise that writing this blog is still just an opportunity for me to get thoughts down. I know some of the few readers I had will still tag along for the ride once they become aware I'm active again. I hope so.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

picturing an exhibition

And it's cold and damp in the transit camp, and the air is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when I'll be home again and the morning answers "Never"
And the evening sighs, and the steely Russian skies go on forever

In the summer of 1968 the Russians marched into both Czechoslovakia and London. Whilst there is plenty of documentation of the Soviet leadership's response to the Prague Spring, there is much less about the August invasion of London.

Okay, that was a provocative opening paragraph but at the time much was made of the second Soviet 'Industrial Exhibition' at Earl's Court that August. The first had been held in 1961 and was quite a success and a third one held in 1979 which seems to have completely passed me by. But the second one was the one I had experience of.

With the amount of news currently being devoted to Russian antics and influence in the West it is probably understandable why this occasion has popped back into my head over recent months.

I was twelve that year and had been at secondary school for a year. After summer I would be going back to a school that was preparing to change from a grammar school that seemed to think it was Eton into a comprehensive school. All sorts of revolutions were taking place that year. I had been at Fairlands Junior School and my best friend Simon had gone to a different secondary school. Somehow I had managed to pass the Eleven Plus and fool the powers-that-be into believing I had the 'Right Stuff' for a Grammar education. Maybe I did but it soon beaten out of me by the bullies and barbarians (some of the kids were quite bad too). Anyhow, I kept up my friendship with Simon and our Saturdays were filled with reading Marvel comics, teaching ourselves how to draw by copying  superheroes and beginning to listen to music. This would continue for a couple of years. Simon was one of the few people I knew whose parents were divorced. I think in my year group there was a kid whose mother had remarried and another one who live only with his mother. So Simon and his brother and sister were a little unusual to me. His dad was some sort of artist - possibly a designer - and he had a live-in partner, a much younger woman, Sally. On top of this, they lived in a flat which was kind of cool too.

One day in the Summer of '68 Simon's dad invited me to go up to the Soviet Industrial Exhibition along with Simon, his brother and sister and Sally. This was all very exciting as it meant I got to go on a train which I loved. If we ever went to London my father would drive although I have a suspicion that we went on a train to see The Black And White Minstrel Show On Ice which, for some reason is less documented than the Soviet Exhibition. I can't think why. So, off to London we went.

There is a short Pathé News piece about it which suggests that it was all very exciting. Although the 1961 Exhibition had Yuri Gagarin turn up the 1968 one still enthralled the crowds. I knew nothing about Russia, Airfix never produced a packet of tiny soldiers to use to attack my Hornby railway* and I had yet to start reading the James Bond series. That would come the next year during a dreary holiday listening to rain pattering on a caravan roof probably in deepest, dampest Norfolk. The exhibition had, evidently, been met with some protest as were most things in that seismic year. Again, to all of this, I was oblivious. The idea of it seemed to be to introduce cultural propaganda to Britain on a huge scale. The reciprocal British Exhibitions to Moscow in 1961 and 1966 eschewed such an obvious line and the attempt to promote a greater understanding between Britain and the USSR was, perhaps, more problematic than many of us realised. With the Soviet response to the Prague Spring in full swing creating further tension in the Cold War, it would seem an obvious step to attempt to create a better understanding. However, what was on show has been seen as demonstrating a 'dreamworld' of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain.

On show were all sorts of artefacts from culture and science including clothing, art and - most exciting of all - a collection of flying dustbins that had been the Soviet contribution to the Space Race. The soviets had managed to land one-such, Luna 2, on the moon. In fact it was the first man-made object to land on another celestial body. The criticism of the exhibition seems mostly to be that the whole thing showed Russia how it wanted to be seen, in other words a complete myth. Evidently on show were such wonderful machines such as the one that could bring life back to the dead. Possibly something was lost in translation there. The hall that exhibited the space junk hardware was described by no less an authority than The Sun as a schoolboy's fantasy. This suggests that the whole presentation, or dreamworld, was nothing but a child's fantasy. To be honest, at the age of twelve even in those far-off days I'm sure that The Sun was already producing schoolboy's fantasies on page 3 every morning but we'll let that pass.

One of the big exhibits was their attempt at building Concorde (aka 'The Supersonic Jetliner of Tomorrow' according to the Eagle), the Tuperlev-144 or Concordski as it was commonly called. Whilst Concord was fairly successful (as in it could fly from London to New York but not Frankfurt to NY). The problem with the Tuperlev was that its engines were twice as heavy as and it burned fuel twice as fast as Concorde's and it only had a range of halfway across the Atlantic. Still, this didn't stop it from being a centre exhibit, all this was yet to happen. We were still in dreamworld.

 We walked the halls of the exhibition wide-eyed and full of awe, it all seemed so modern with its promises of a New World. Contemporary reports suggested that many of the 8000 exhibits were not that modern or exciting but to kids like us it all seemed stunning. At the end of such exhibitions, as with museums and galleries, there is always the opportunity to buy some tat memorabilia. Obviously in those far-off days we didn't have a lot of money to waste on fripperies but Simon and his brother Guy wanted to take something back with them. As we wandered around the books, postcards and toys - mostly Russian dolls I believe - I paid little attention to what the others were up to. Soon, their dad called us all together and off we went to get the train home.

During the journey, Simon's dad and his partner disappeared for a while, perhaps to the loo or for a cup of tea. Whilst they were away Simon and Guy brought out a selection of postage stamp presentation packs. These were cellophaned packs designed for stamp collecting. I expressed surprise and wondered how much they must have cost. To my horror they explained that they had nicked them. I had visions of what may have happened had they been caught stealing from the shop. From what we know now about the KGB who were no doubt mingling with the crowds, they would have made examples of us. We'd have ended up in Siberia down a salt mine. I'm sure an international incident of the scale we are witnessing in Salisbury was only just narrowly avoided. Being a such an innocent naïf must seem quite amusing nowadays but I was genuinely shocked at the time of their temerity. Within a few years we had gone our separate ways, different schools and different friends (and, if I'm honest, different mores) played their part no doubt.

We never really saw each other much after that. In our early twenties I heard that Simon had been to prison, something to do with a mail-order** scam. I don't think I demonstrated any real surprise at that news, to be honest. Still, I am grateful for the opportunity I was afforded by his family to get a chance to go to such an unusual major exhibition. It almost seems to have been erased from public memory as there's little enough information on it available. Perhaps subsequent Russian aggression put it firmly in the past.

Fifty years seems such a long time ago. It certainly seems like it was a dreamworld.

Luna 2 - the first craft to land on the moon
* We made our own amusement in those days. The tiny Airfix soldiers were of the same gauge as their model aircraft and tanks and my train set. It was an early type of war gaming, I suppose.
**  The precursor to Amazon was mail ordering. Argos on the high streets is probably the last vestiges of it. Evidently it was quite easy to scam them but the companies and courts looked down on such activities. 

Saturday, 3 March 2018

bonny birds (slight return)

Farewell, farewell to you who'd hear
You lonely travellers all
The cold north wind will blow again
The winding road does call

That Viking of the avian world hung around until mid-morning today. After behaving like Billy Bunter guarding the tuck shop for all of yesterday and aggressively asserting himself around our, and neighbouring, gardens he seems to have finally given up and moved on. By acting in true Scandinavian fashion he terrorised the neighbourhood and pillaged the place. However, it seems no rape took place although it may have been too cold even for the pigeons to perform. Either that or the female had a headache. Anyway the Robin Askwith of the bird world didn't get his way.

I made the decision not to put any more mealworms out for a while to encourage him to seek another meal-ticket elsewhere. By 10:30 he seemed to have disappeared and almost instantly his cousin the song thrush, the pair of blackbirds, Mrs Blackcap and a blue tit appeared as if by magic and life has now continued as it had for the past week. However, there are still no starlings to be seen at the moment. He was a lovely and surprising visitor but perhaps now there is a warmer feel in the atmosphere he decided to seek out his other raiding party mates and return to the fields. Interestingly, there was an article on Today on R4 this morning about fieldfares and redwings suddenly turning up in gardens.

I was fully aware of the irony of posting a piece last week about celebrating the more mundane and ordinary about the nature around us. However, that's what makes it more exciting when something out of the ordinary happens, hence my excitement at seeing our guest yesterday. He didn't really outstay his welcome but I will keep an eye out in case he comes back.

Friday, 2 March 2018

now all the bonny birds have wheeled away

Ragged robin is see-sawing 
In one half of a coconut shell
He can't find the bacon rind 
Hunger makes his red breast swell.

As I sit and write I find myself distracted because a fieldfare is sitting on the fence in our garden aggressively guarding the tray of mealworms against the the blackbirds and song thrush that are its usual diners. This is a first.

Sitting a few hundred yards away from the sea in town house with a tiny garden, this has been very exciting. I have never seen a fieldfare in our garden, or this close to the sea. In fact, I've only ever rarely seen any at all. As it happens, Mrs Dave and I saw a whole flock of them - a hermitage I believe is the collective noun - on Sunday in a field (funny enough) near Bury St Edmunds. We'd been walking with some friends in a part of Suffolk we don't know very well despite having lived here for about half our lives. We wanted to get a few miles in before the snow came - yes, the beast from the east indeed. Whilst watching a mini-murmuration of starlings over a stud farm, I was taken by a big group of larger birds that appeared lighter in colour, and most definitely weren't lapwings. Luckily I had a pair of binoculars that were just about good enough to see them clearly in a field. Mind you, they were better than the plastic toy ones I had as a child which could barely give a clear view of my feet, let alone a field of identifiable birds.

Due to the two weather fronts that we are currently experiencing and the fact that our house-guest Keats has relocated to Manchester, we have been able to start feeding birds again. It seemed unfair to lure them into the garden with a large, albeit fairly laid-back, cat watching them and licking his lips at the same time (probably as much multitasking he could manage). Anyway, so a seed feeder, peanut feeder, several coconut halves with suet and mealworms in and a tray of dried mealworms have all been placed around the garden. As the weather has worsened the robin, wren and all the tits - great, blue and coal - seem to have disappeared. Well, they seem to have stopped coming in to our garden anyway. Meanwhile, there are so many starlings around that yesterday our garden resembled a scene from The Birds.

A song thrush and a pair of blackbirds have been enjoying the mealworms, at least until our friend the
fieldfare came along today. Another first this week has been the regular visits by a female blackcap but sadly she has yet to appear today. I hope she's survived the cold snap. This has been really exciting and interesting as it is obviously the same one but there is no Mr Blackcap as of yet. As with the fieldfare, in the thirty years we have lived in this house, I have never seen a blackcap in the garden before. As Mrs Dave is now a keen photographer she has had ample opportunity to get a few candid shots of our visitors. The photos here are hers.

Last week I had to take the car to Ipswich for its MOT at a ridiculously early time. This gave me an opportunity to visit the Ipswich Museum which I have been meaning to for some time. The first thing that greets you is a life-sized replica of a woolly mammoth and the natural history of  the area. Various bits of mammoths have regularly been found around this area evidently. Now, the Ipswich Museum which is no longer in Museum Street, was started by various Victorians to allow the hoi polloi to learn about the huge world around them that they would never see. Consequently this meant that the only way to do it was to go out and kill as many animals, birds and insects as possible and stuff them. The heydays of taxidermy. Nowadays, of course, we watch David Attenborough programmes to see most creatures other than cats which we need Facebook for. Still, the reason I brought this up (stay awake at the back there) is because of the museum's vast collection of stuffed birds.

Wandering around the exhibitions became overwhelming and quite sad really. At one point I came across a case with a whole family of great crested grebes within. Two adults with two hatchlings. I actually found this profoundly sad. A whole family wiped out. In the museum there are several rooms absolutely crammed with glass cases of birds from all around the world. The best thing about this, I guess, is that I realised that it is one of the only opportunities we have of being able to compare hundreds of species of birds and, in particular, their sizes. So, for instance, a group of cases featured various British birds of prey so it was possible to be able to see how different a hobby is to a sparrowhawk (and, incidentally, a male and female sparrowhawk - the female being larger than the more colourful male). This all became useful to help with being able to identify birds. I was able to make a decision on what birds we were seeing on Sunday before I got a decent look at them. I guessed they were a type of thrush due to size in comparison with the starlings. I also spent a day trying to decide what our other visitor was. Until we got a photo of her to positively identify it I wasn't really 100% sure of what it was. I knew from the size in comparison to the great tits and look it was most likely a warbler of some sort. If it had been the male I would have known straight away but the chestnut cap of the female took a little longer to be sure.

All in all, I suppose that the Victorians that took to collective mass slaughter in aid of furthering our knowledge of the natural world did do us a great service but I must admit that can be a bit sickening wandering through the rooms full of dead creatures.

One last point. In buying the various types of wild bird food that is now obviously big business, my mind did hark back to my childhood. Growing up as a child in the 1960s without all the distractions available nowadays did mean we had to make our own amusement. For many gentle souls like myself, bird-watching was a lovely quiet hobby that nobody seemed to mind. I-Spy and Observer's books of birds were not expensive and didn't seem to cause any harm. I am glossing over the collection of bird's eggs that was definitely a craze then spurred on by The Observer's Book Of Bird's Eggs no doubt. Maybe I'll write about that another time. Often in the winter months I would sit and watch the birds feeding in our garden in Haycroft Road. In those days the only bird food that seemed available was called Swoop! which came in a small blue box much like Trill which was budgie food that made your budgie bounce with health, I believe. Funny enough, I have not been able to find a picture of Swoop! at all on the internet. We had to buy it in pet shops and I seem to remember the one in Stevenage was called Cramphorns.

The fieldfare is still sitting in our garden fending off all-comers. Still no sighting of Mrs Blackcap.

Friday, 16 February 2018

the vultures are coming down from the tree

The February man still wipes the snow
 From off his hair and blows his hand

The vultures were looking really woebegone.

We were sitting on a bus from the small French town we were staying with friends in and heading up towards La Mongie to get a last bit of skiing in. The clouds were low in the sullen sky. The fields were covered in a white sheet, the snow had been falling all night in what in Suffolk is called a “blunt”, and it didn’t look like it was planning on stopping for a while yet. Mostly the snow was newly lain and undisturbed by any feetings as yet. Later, at the top of the mountain, the sun will shine brightly and the snowflakes will take on a psychedelic hue - like a glitterstorm during a frantic tango on Strictly Come Dancing. Whilst the skis and boots rattled and rolled in the hold, I took a look around at the winter scene unfolding in front of me. The landscape here in this part of the Pyrenees is familiar from our visit last year. 

Last year our friends drove up the mountain in their hire car but this year in their own car, they can’t put snow chains on, so we are using the bus. Buses in France are cheap and, although only one or two a day, regular as clockwork. It’s nice to sit on a bus for an hour or so to take in the landscape. A fast-flowing river of clear water - in Gaelic a sgor-shruth - runs parallel with the road for much of the journey so Dippers flitting from rock to rock before diving in and running and swimming downstream hunting for insects, larvae and small crustaceans are a common sight. Often herons slowly launch themselves up from the riverbank with their haughty demeanour almost with a disdainful tut at being disturbed. Last year egrets sat quietly meditating in the damp fields ignoring the rest of the world but this year, there were none. 

We approaching the village where we bought live trout from a farm and watched three griffon vultures circle quite low overhead whilst on a trudge through a fine drenching in the woods and hills. They never come low enough to get a good look at them without really good binoculars (which I didn’t have, needless to say).

 I looked out over the fields and saw half a dozen dark shapes, short and slightly hunched over. I looked with more intensity and I could make out their shapes more clearly. The shadowy feathers, slightly ragged at the ends, and the white serpentine necks that suggest a more wyrmish ancestry were more visible. Six Griffon Vultures sitting in a field looking decidedly fed up with their lot. To be used to soaring high above mountains, seeking the corpses of large dead animals, if lucky, with those precision-honed eyes. If you’ve never seen one, they are quite large birds, about three foot high weighing in at about ten kilos. Pretty impressive in flight but morose and snarky on the ground. They reminded me of the vultures in The Jungle Book* but less like the Beatles and more like the Fall. They have large pale sandy wings, broad plank-like wings and a bare goose-like neck. Real vultures. 

These ones I was seeing looked much darker so they could have been younger but the weather was fairly atrocious in its Christmas card way out in the near distance of a pightle** and Everything looked darker. Ahead of us arose the possibility of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called a wolfsnow, a dangerously heavy and wind-driven snowfall on the mountains. We didn’t really know whether we’d be actually skiing or not. As it happened, the sun came out later and we had a pleasant afternoon skiing but at this point, the jury was still out. As the bus climbed higher over the verglass*** the mood in the bus seemed a little gloomy but nobody looked as dejected as the griffons.

Seeing vultures in the wild would normally be considered an experience available to those who travel to exotic locations like Africa but there are three types in Europe. Lammergeiers andEgyptian vultures are resident too but only griffons have the classic look. Still, the point here is that seeing something this, yes, exotic is out of the ordinary.

As pleased and surprised as I was in being able to observe these chaps so near to the bus perhaps we should be taking more pleasure in the familiar too. Given how much devastation we have created in nature, some more familiar species we are used to seeing everyday are actually disappearing. As an example, take the greenfinch. As a child I must have seen thousands of them and, up until recently, we have had many sitting on the aerials of neighbouring houses offering their fairly boring “zhou” call. The greenfinch is the Lorraine Chase of the avian world: they look like they’ve wafted in from paradise but when they open their gobs, oh dear . . . However, the poor old greenfinch is in decline. The avian disease Trichomonosis has leapt from species to species and is fairly quickly wiping them out. This disease was prevalent in pigeons but now affects chaffinches and house sparrows too. The sheer ubiquity of chaffinches in their tremblings (or, indeed, charms) may make them seem over-populous but they seemingly are dying out too.

In his book A Patch Made In Heaven, Dominic Couzens makes the case for taking pride in our own patches - “somewhere near to where we sleep at night”. I’ve probably been doing that since I was a kid. I’m not an avid birder, I won’t shoot off to other parts of the country to tick a rare visitor off on a list. I do regularly walk the same few areas nearby: the Grove, the seashore and the marshes. Often I see familiar birds. Cormorants and egrets are commonplace but I still get excited seeing them. Recently on a walk I heard a buzzard and recognised its call a few minutes before spotting it.

In the garden of the house we were staying is a bird feeding area set up as Neal is an avid birder and photographer. He feeds birds to bring them into the garden to photograph and is very successful at it. Regular callers at the feeding station include great, blue, crested, coal and marsh tits, nuthatches, tree creepers and, of course, chaffinches. Goldcrests and firecrests are fairly regular callers too. Whilst on walks Neal was trying to photograph an elusive black woodpecker (we tried last year too) and a middle spotted woodpecker. These to a regular birder are rare finds. I would love to have seen them but I am very pleased with the birds I did see. The crested tit we saw was a first as were the six alpine accentors we saw on a Chateau (a Joy of accentors, I believe). I came away feeling that I had seen some unusual birds - the accentors had to be pointed out to me!

Back home now I am aware that I have to keep any bird-feeding equipment clean and disinfected to try to keep the risk of infection down. I am going to be pleased next time Lorrai a greenfinch makes its silly noise and I am aiming to get up to the marshes to see some common (or garden) ducks and waders next to the more unusual shovellers and wigeon. In short, taking pleasure in the more mundane, I guess.

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got 
'Til it's gone

*   cheers for the correction Mike
** a word from Essex meaning a field next to a house
** black ice in French but to mountaineers, thin blue water-ice formed on rocks