Saturday, 21 March 2015

March 20th 2015 at 09.28 hours.....the partial eclipse and the martins

It wasn't until I'd been standing there for nearly an hour that I realised it was dark. And it had turned cold. March 20th 2015 as everyone knows, was a day of a solar eclipse. The first since the full solar eclipse in 1999. I remember that event well and having a day off  I ventured out early to the Somerset Levels in anticipation. I took with me a sound recording kit as astronomical events like this are often accompanied by odd behaviour in animals.
Today was no exception. I got into position about 8.45am and after firing up the recorder, I walked some little way off to watch the event from a distance. At 08.45 although the eclipse had begun the Somerset Levels were as one would expect. Weak sunshine lifting the overnight mist, foraging wigeon whistling like asthmatic sheep on the wet reserve. Nothing unusual, but then I noticed. As if an unseen switch had been pulled just before 9am I noticed the light levels drop dramatically. I realised the wigeon, pintail, shoveler and other birds on the reserve had stopped foraging, stopped calling and returned to roost positions, heads tucked under wings. The reserve had fallen silent and what activity there was mostly involved small flotilla of wigeon drifting slowly across the water,  asleep.

It had gone silent save for a lone male reed bunting which took up position by the microphone to sing. And sing he did all through the time of the eclipse. The only real birdsong for nearly 20 minutes.  By 9.15am it was noticeably darker. A strange yellow light crossed the landscape. Oblique light but not as one would see say at dusk, when it had a reddish hue. This light was more Naples Yellow, strong but not overly so. I'd not seen that before and it fascinated me. Reeds and a passing great white egret were bathed in an aura of deep yellow, set against a dull darkened landscape.
The light wasn't the only thing I'd noticed. I say noticed but it suddenly hit me how cold I was. I'd arrived to a glorious spring morning, early mist was rapidly lifting, strong sunshine in a blue sky greeted me as I drove across the Levels to my destination.  So engrossed in the event, I hadn't noticed that around 9.15 am, close to the eclipse maxima time, I started to feel cold and uncomfortable; that cold feeling at dusk when the chill of a frosty night to come eats into your bones. The light had dropped but the temperature had dropped considerably too, my guess is 4 or 5 degrees back to pre dawn levels. The mist was rolling back across the Levels too, the landscape was returning to evening. Such a spiritual experience and it fascinated me. Something I have never witnessed before. And then the dogs barked.
Half a mile or so away was a farmhouse. Not long before the eclipse maxima two dogs began barking continuously. I became angry at first. My attempts to record the changing soundscape during an eclipse were being hampered by barking dogs. Inwardly I barked back - SHUT UP!!! Then it struck me. They were possibly barking because of the eclipse. I can only guess this was the reason, but they barked continuously for 5 minutes, until that is, the sun began to re-emerge and then they stopped as suddenly as they'd started. I'd read that domestic animals can act strangely when an eclipse is in full swing. Had I witnessed this today? I think so, as in the whole 90 minutes on the Levels those two dogs only barked for 5 minutes around the 9.30am maxima.
It was coming to an end, seemingly quicker than it arrived. The sun returned, sunlight streaked across the landscape, mist rolled back, blue skies returned and all in less than 15 minutes. As I stood watching this change I could hear cracks, cracks from the wood of the bird hide beside me expanding. It really had become a lot colder for a few minutes then. Then the wigeon woke up, began moving around more purposefully and calling. Soon the reserve was alive with birdsong, not just the wigeon, wren, dunnock, geese, mallard and numerous tits. It had been quiet after all.... a silent spring day!
By 10am when I'd switched off the sound recording equipment a warm spring day filled the landscape. Hard to believe less than half an hour earlier I'd been engrossed by a deeply moving, spiritual and fascinating event. I'm not that interested in the science behind an eclipse, but I am fascinated in the effect it has on every living thing that witnesses it. Including me. No wonder Ancient cultures worshiped these celestial events, they are truly breath-taking.
As a postscript to this as I packed up the local farmer, Colin drove into the carpark to check the water levels over his land. Leaning against his pick up truck, two portly gentleman in checked shirts and green coats chatted in the warm sunshine for an hour on all things wildlife and farming. Mid conversation about the Dexta tractor and a pied wagtail nest, I heard a chittering high up.
"Colin house martins!".
We peered into the sky. There, 6 black dots, white underbellies, way up high buzzing like flies against the blue sky. The first I've seen this spring. 
"Bugger oi theys early and no mistake" exclaimed Colin "ahh blooming lovely,  my swallows will be back afore long, I has 17 nests you know in they stables, knows them all by name, I loves them swooping in and out ".
Lone voice in the landscape - the reed bunting

By 9am the eclipse was visible
Great white egret fishing in a Naples yellow dusk

9.10 am and the eclipse gathered pace

Catcott Levels at 9.30am around the time of the full eclipse.
Reeds bathed in strange light

The eclipse reaching its Maxima in Somerset

An artistic view of the eclipse.... followed by the obligatory selfie...... I was there!

Saturday, 7 March 2015

March 7th 2015 - Project month 3

I actually wrote this blog posting longhand into my notebook whilst sitting in the village church (mid ground - image 1). At that point in the morning it was around 11.30am and being about half way through taking the 17 images, I'd popped in to the church to take part in their 'sanctuary' Saturdays, held on the first Saturday of every month. Apt really because as this little project of mine also takes place on the first weekend of the month, the 'sanctuary' event reminds me to do it.
Taking the images today really was a pleasure. The first two forays into reproducing the seasons in images were at best a trial. January was just wet and cold, February bitterly cold and miserable. Today, spring finally woke up and began to release winters grip. There is always a day in the first week of March when the sun shines, but more than that. On that day for the first time since mid-winter that sun beats down on a stirring landscape. Something has changed ever from a day or two before. The incessant mud is finally trying, dark brooding earth is giving way to pale soil. The sky is  a brighter shade of blue, the sun has warmth and there is well just a different feel about the countryside.
Today was that day for 2015. As the images which follow show, there was almost unbroken blue sky from horizon to horizon. Ostensibly the images, apart from being sunny, don't reveal too much of difference to January or February. But the differences were there for me to see today. As I sat in the church writing in silence, outside birdsong. Lots of birdsong. Chaffinch, great tit, blackbird, rook and jackdaw were prevalent. Later in the day I heard my first skylark of the year. Plus, the sunlight which streamed into the nave was brighter today.
I watched a shaft of sunlight move over the floor from one pew to another and in doing so it cast the first pew into shade in not much longer than 5 minutes. As I watched I could see the shadow millimetre by millimetre advancing over the floor left to right. A reminder of the reason for this project. Outwardly everything is the same yet nothing ever stays the same, not even for a moment.
Today's thought provoking text for the sanctuary had a specific resonance on this glorious spring day. It came from Matthew 13 : 31-33. In summary, sow a mustard seed it will grow and birds will sit in the mustard tree and from that we will obtain mustard and pleasure. In other we reap what we sow and nurture; work hard but remember that life is about taking time out and relaxing, especially by listening to the patterns of the seasons, to nature and to the rhythms of life. As humans we are designed to work a little, play a little but above all stop and let our spirit become attuned to the seasonal changes. That's healthy. And I agree. I'm not a religious person but these Saturday sanctuary mornings are becoming a must attend part of my life, a reason to enter a cool building (have a cup of tea) and just listen to silence; or the birdsong without. As the passing shadow pointed out, nothing stays the same and time is always moving, moving forward, eventually it will run out in more ways than one.
To the project then, a photo record of the changing seasons in this tiny part of North Somerset. What these don't show are the other aspects of the day. As the temperature rose to 16 degrees, from a cool 10, brimstone butterflies were on the wing, as were many bumblebees. Rooks were noisily defending their newly constructed nests. everywhere the sound of birdsong, and in many cases, the first lawn mow cut of the year. The countryside is just beginning to green up. Bud burst is still relatively uncommon, but daffodils and spring bulbs are bursting forth. In the hedgerows arum and umbellifer are beginning to grow. It will be a few weeks yet before the trees and hedges look green, but every day now a new aspect of the wakening countryside can be observed.

Image 1 : This looks the same yet changes afoot. The evergreen shrub on the right has gone and the wall around the house on the left was rebuilt this week and now has capstones. Plus a sneaky peek beyond the seat, a daffodil or two is in flower.

Image 2 : The main change here is the five rooks nests in the tree to the right. Ten days ago these didn't exist. Behind where I'm standing to take the image is a huge rookery, these are outspill rooks.

Image 3 : It was here I saw the first brimstone of the day just seconds before this image was captured.

Image 4 : The churchyard was ablaze with daffodils, sadly my chosen location wasn't.

Image 5 : Lane to Banwell, where I heard my skylarks.

Image 6 : Still all quiet in the orchard,

Image 7 : River Banwell looking lovely

Image 8 : The Strawberry Line

Image 9 : Thatcher's cider orchard still dormant.
Image 10 : Bridleway

Image 11 : Old Barn

Image 12 : Woodspring Priory, strong shadows crossing the field.

Image 14 : Sand Bay

Image 14 : Ebdon Bow junction.

Image 15 : The footpath now has a wooden gate tied on with bailer string.

Image 16 : Green's Farm, just visible in the distance a Leyland 270 tractor which passed by just before I was in position for the image.

Image 17 : River Banwell again, surprisingly little birdlife today.
April the 4th then is the next photo day. Easter Saturday.

Monday, 9 February 2015

February 8th 2015 - Project month 2

What is already interesting about this project having just completed the second suite of photographs is the weather effect. Normally taking photographs one would pick a sensual day, or a subject bathed in sunlight, frost or snow for example. Angles could be chosen away from the sun for that perfect image. But with this project I have 2 fixed points I can not adjust from here on in - firstly the image is now fixed and the date and time of repeat shots is fixed.  I have to go with what I have to work with, and this becomes apparent in some of these images for February.  

The week prior to this weekend, we were in a cold spell of sunlit and below freezing days, quite spectacular. I'd driven back from Hertfordshire last night and the sunset was amazing over the M25 (added to by the 4 lanes of stationary car-lights I found myself in). I woke on Saturday morning and the temperature had risen, but fog had replaced clear blue skies, uniform grey clouds replacing sun kissed burnt orange clouds and the whole landscape just looked dreary and flat. Due to other commitments I only had Saturday afternoon to work, and later on Sunday afternoon which proved to be gloriously sunny but gave other problems I'd not envisaged.  

Saturday was bitterly cold, with the temperature hovering around 2 degrees but a strong breeze making it feel a lot colder. The light was appalling and really by 3.30pm it was too dark to capture the last 4 images of the day. They'd have to take place on Sunday. Sunday was around 8 degrees and at 4pm the light was bright and crisp from a winter's sun, However that sun was an hour from setting and directly in the line of fire so to speak of the remaining 4 images to take. That is however the challenge and the joy of doing a project like this, coping with the constants.

In summary, not much has changed since taking the first lot of images in early January, but one thing of note is that the landscape seems much more grey-brown than in January, when the weather had not cooled down enough to put the landscape to bed for the deep winter period of mid Jan to mid Feb. I hope by March 1st and 2nd some changes will be more noticeable. 

And so to the 17 images taken this weekend.....

Image 1 : No real change from January, though this time it wasn't raining

Image 2 : This field has dried out quite a bit since January

Image 3 : I realised by this point that trying to match an image on my mobile phone with what I attempted to take wasn't a sound methodology. For March I'll have postcards to refer to.

Image 4 : Could have been taken last month it has probably changed the least of all 17 images.

Image 5 : Despite this being next to a road I couldn't find the spot exactly. 

Image 6 : Some work had happened in the orchard, evident not only of the wheel-marks but ladders propped up in the trees where saw cuts were visible. 

Image 7 : As I walked to the river to take the image a brilliant blue kingfisher shot along the bank - a vibrant splash in a very dull day. A bit less weed in the river this month, presumably the lower temperature has slowed its growth.

Image 8 : Pretty much the same as in January, again dries path though.

Image 9 : Hard to believe in three months these will be full of blossom.

Image 10 : This was taken on Sunday and I've had the change the angle slightly, partly as the sun was directly in my eyes, I couldn't see a thing. Partly as the original image was a bit dull on reflection, at least this new one has a piece of field in it.

Image 11 : Again the sun was in my eyes, but this time is gave for a lovely colouration of the barn sides. While there, a robin and dunnock entertained me in the shrubs. The field to the left was also full of lapwing 'pee-witting' en mass to enliven the landscape with sound.

Image 12 : The sunshine on Sunday did work to my advantage with Woodspring Priory - it looks absolutely stunning as a rays of light lengthened. The view hasn't changed much but boy the light has. 

Image  13 : Another, and last, image taken on Sunday. That huge whiteout area to the top right is the sun. As an image its poor, but as I said at the top, I am fixed in time and place. So next month I'll come in the morning.

Image 14 : By now I was cold. No change here at all, although next to where I stood daffodils were emerging.

Image 15 : The footpath could have been taken last month - A Groundhog Day moment.

Image 16 : The cattle are still indoors at the farm but a bit more inquisitive than last time.

Image  17 : The river still flows under the bridge, so everything is fluid, just looks the same.

So tune in again, weekend March 1st and 2nd, what will the changes be.......

Sunday, 4 January 2015

January 4th 2015 - Project month 1


This weekend I have begun a project I've wanted to do for over 10 years. It's simple. I live in a little known part of Somerset (technically North Somerset due to the fall out of the Avon County demise in 1996). But before Avon came to be in 1974, it was just Somerset. Somerset or  Dorset were the only really serious contenders as a replacement home to Northumberland; my spiritual home. And Somerset has provided a warm welcome.

North Somerset is as the name suggests in the north of the county. Draw a line roughly along the middle of the Mendip Hills, continue out to  the Bristol Channel, turn right and head along the coast to Portishead and then head inland along the River Avon to Bristol, and keep going back to the Mendips at Burrington Combe. That's where I live, not all of it you understand, just a tiny part between Weston Super Mare and Clevedon, 2 miles from the coast across very flat farmland.  

So the project. As I mentioned it is simple. Within a 4 mile radius of my home, take one photograph each month of the same view. Over the twelve months, a record of changing seasons will develop. This is a prelude (I hope) to a much bigger project I've had bubbling through my mind these ten years, which, I'll not dwell on here.

The challenge however was, what to photograph? Oodles of options. I could just go to every village and photograph the main street or church and that would be perfect. Making it personal however seemed important, and with that, seventeen images came to mind, each with some connection to me over the 17 years I've lived here. Places I go, views I see regularly, walks I've been on. That sort of thing.

Given this is the first weekend in January, I saw no reason to delay. To my regret the weather was at best dull, at worst downright soggy. That however meant, to me at least, that the images for January do reflect somewhat the dark days before spring. Who wants sun kissed images?  The 17 were born over the weekend, and will be revisited on the weekend of February 7th and 8th. I wonder if the views will be any different?

Image 1: Wick St Lawrence village. I live here, well round the corner in the new estate, but a very pleasant hamlet it is. The church is home to a silent sanctuary on the first Saturday of each month - and we'd just been there.

Image 2 : Just a field in Wick St Lawrence, but around here there are a lot of fields like this. Small, intimate and containing old trees, usually willows and apples. Behind me was a saddleback pig, she nearly made it into the image, but I guess she'll not be there in a year's time.

Image 3 : The Oldbridge River from Puxton Bridge. I cross this bridge regularly. It's narrow, very narrow. Occasionally vans try and cross it and well, repair is often needed. The bridge does however offer fabulous views towards Congresbury, and in autumn often shrouded in mellow misty moments.

Image 4: The Church of St Saviour, Puxton. Deconsecrated in 2002 this church is a gem. I love it. Inside Georgian box pews and little else. Outside it is managed as a wildlife sanctuary, evidence of many badgers there even on Saturday. I stood at the far south east corner to take this image, which was maybe not the best choice as it does not show the leaning tower, slowly sinking into the peat as it has done since it was built around 1539.

Image 5: I wanted to record some of the lanes around here and this one from Rolstone to Banwell fits the bill nicely. Crack willows festooned with mistletoe, willow hedges ablaze with orange fire. Only 10 miles from the centre of Weston super Mare, but they feel remote in these flatlands. A scene I'm sure will look completely different in June.

Image 6: Orchards are everywhere in this area. Until around 15 years ago most were ancient and redundant. However the resurgent popularity of cider has meant that many an old orchard has been saved and many new orchards planted by Thatcher's, the local brewer (see image 9). This one is near Banwell and I like the fact there is a caravan in there too - suggests work to me.

Image 7 : The River Banwell at less than 10 miles in total length must be the shortest river in Somerset. Most of its length is now in canalised ditches like this one, yet here, just outside Banwell village where it bubbles to the surface from Mendip springs, it is teeming with life. Even on a cold January, waterweed proliferates, providing much needed cover for the many fish here.

Image 8 : Back in Victorian times if I'd stood here I'd have been mown down by a train. The Famous strawberry trains from Cheddar to Yatton (and thence to Bristol, Birmingham, London and beyond) plied their trade here. Cheddar being on the southern slopes of the Mendips is well known for cheese and some of the best strawberries in the UK. They really are delicious. The line closed in 1963 along with many others across the country. Now, it is a long distance cycleway and wildlife reserve and here it ventures through more orchards and newly planted woodlands.

Image 9: Thatcher's cider fields near Sandford. Sandford is on the northern slopes of the Mendips and this area is home to Thatcher's Cider. In the last 15 years I've seen field after field be planted up with apples, which in spring are a wonderful sight. I shall look forward to returning here often.

Image 10 : One of the many bridelways which crisscross this ancient landscape. This one connects Wick St Lawrence to Sand Bay on the coast. Until recently it was almost impassable but work by locals and the Council have opened it up. We walked it in September for the first time.

Image 11 : There is no reason to take a photograph of this derelict barn other than I liked the look of it. It lies hard by a lane heading to Woodspring Priory. Quite overgrown but to my eye a worthy contender for the developing seasons...good spot for blackberries by the look of it.

Image 12 : Woodspring Priory. This ancient Augustinian Priory was founded by William de Courtney in the early 13th century, and dedicated to Thomas Becket. Now it is owned by the Landmark Trust (one can stay here) and is surrounded by National Trust land. Even in 2015 it is still an isolated spot.


Image 13 : Sand Bay looking towards Kewstoke, with Knightstone pier just off. I spend a lot of time here. This is an image I'd not normally snap, more often catching the sand, or the dramatic sunsets here. Today however on this project's quest I tried a different view. Hard left is the beach hut I sometimes sit in if the wind is bad. The dunes are awash with summer flowers. Inhabited since Iron Age times, Worlebury Hill woods beyond were clear felled for WW1 and replanted. An historical reminder for this project that nothing stays the same.

Image 14: The post box at Ebdon Bow. I've always loved this post box, still in use, since noticing it when I first arrived. Ebdon Bow is only a farm and a couple of houses. I've photographed this box many times and it is a reminder to me of what civilised society aims for, such as an universal postal service when we need it. It was recently repainted so I presume it isn't going to disappear too soon.

Image 15 : I've no idea if anyone uses this footpath, but historically it must have cut off a long loop of the lane out of Wick St Lawrence. At the opposite end is the post box in Image 14. Recently someone has cut away the brambles and opened up the path. Looking today however, no sign of footprints.

Image 16: Ebdon Bow Farm, home to Mr Green. Most farms around here are dairy and this one split by the lane I drive through every day to and from work. In summer the place is alive with swallows, but in early January, just muck and more muck. That's farming for you!

Image 17: The final image in this project is Ebdon Bow bridge. This 200 year old hump-back bridge has surely a story to tell. It's also the second outing for the River Banwell which is nearing the end of it's exhausting few miles flow to the sea. Another wildlife haven and I live not half a mile from here in the new part of the village. At this point the river is tidal and today it looks like the tide is out.

I shall return to these images in the first weekend in February.