Thursday, 2 October 2014

October 2nd 2014

It felt strange last night not writing an entry on my blog. Not this blog, but my year long project blog, 365-2-50 which I completed on September 30th.

I've enjoyed writing about my life over 365 days immensely, however it meant that my long term countryside blog, this one, Wessex Reiver has been neglected. I thought I'd like the rest after being forced to write every day yet as I supped a tea this image made me want to say something about it. Just leaves of course but the powerhouse of nature, providing energy through their chlorophyll after having converted it from sunlight. the tree from which they fell is host to a myriad of wildlife, in fact there was a late ladybird larvae on the trunk. Now spent and fallen, the leave once again provide nutrients as they decompose to recharge the ecosystem with a few goodies. And so, a long winded way of saying that I am returning to the Wessex Reiver and my love of the rural way of life, not just nature, but customs and anything of an idiosyncratic nature. My mind is interested in many things, but always returns to my passion and first love, the natural world.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Orkneyinga Saga - part 2

I can't believe it's now two months since I took these photographs, in my mind it's just last week. It goes to show how when we're back in the thick of it time flies. But I must get this posting finished, a posting which has languished in my draft pile for 3 weeks.  Behold a selection of images 'wot I took' in April in Orkney. At the time I was struggling to come to terms with the incessant wind, but now looking back from on a humid hot June day in Bristol, a light freshing north easterly would be most welcome. Shall I write some prosaic reference to my time there or just blurt out a caption or two for each image...... Mr Pickwick, fetch me the quill, I shall caption with abandon.......

Why have I photographed my car on an empty road. This is no ordinary road this is the road used in the cover photograph of  the amazing album, 'Road to Hammer Junkie' by the Orkadian band, The Chair. It is my homage to a most uplifting and quirky album cover - sadly I can't find a link to the photograph in question but it involved a 1920's car and some disreputable characters thumbing a lift... I think the wind has blown them all away in this image.

These three images were taken at the Broch of Gurness. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broch_of_Gurness  I loved it here, arriving in the teeth of a gale, as I pulled into the empty carpark there in front of me was a man from the Council trying to paint a sign. Lets say they're a hardy bunch up here. The Broch itself is on the tourist trail but unlike its better known cousin Skare Brae, this site is open acess (for a small fee).  As I wandered about looking at the fortified centre and rooms radiating off I tried to think of what it would have been like 2,500 years ago. Harsh yes, life expectancy low, but a simplicity we have all but lost in our modern cluttered World. And the view is canny too as we'd say in the north.   

I was fortunate in that in all my time on Orkney I only had half a day spoilt by rain, not that rain ever spoils anything. This gave me an opportunity to head into Kirkwall and their magnificent St Magnus Cathedral http://stmagnus.org/ I absolutely loved this ancient, built by and for Norwegians place of worship. Walking into this echoing dark place after having my ears battered by the wind can only be described as the arrival of snow on a frosty night, everything was silent. In total I sat for over an hour just listening to the silence, which as a sound recorder is a precious commodity these days in Britain. 

The Italian Chapel. http://www.visitscotland.com/info/see-do/the-italian-chapel-p253741 By now the weather really was closing in with low cloud and rain, although the wind had eased. small mercies indeed.  How far south could I get then using the Churchill Barriers? Of course I knew the southern tip of South Ronaldsay but on the way I deviated into this well known landmark. Built by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940's it was a focal point for a large P.O.W camp here. Remnants of that exist in the turf, with only the Chapel remaining, which was restored by one of the artists in the 1960's. I'm always sceptical of visiting 'must see' site on a holiday, this one however was stunning. As I left the Chapel I met a musician called Rick Redbeard as I discussed in my oher 1 year project blog http://365-2-50.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/april-9th-2014.html

Newly opened in April, with a view to die for over the Pentland Firth, the Tomb of the Otters bistro. Lovely coffee and the cheesecake was........... yum! 

The Smithfield Hotel, Dounby. My HQ for the stay. I loved it here. It is absolutely bonkers, but nonkers in a way which makes me want to return time and time again. Take for the fact that to reach the restaurant from the hotel, one either has to walk through and behind the serving part of the bar, or walk outside and around the corner, entering from behind. It's not the current owners preferred route of choice but the previous owners added an extension without much care as to points of access for the paying guest. The owners Ali and Lyn were superb - Orcadian going back centuries, nothing too much bother and I learny more about the island from them than any guidebook. I'd recommend this hotel to anyone as long as you don't want posh and a sea view. A family hotel with character.http://www.smithfieldhotel.co.uk/

One of the surprising things of my time on Orkney were the mile upon mile of daffodils. Every roadside verge is at this time of year lined with nodding yellow - I asked Ivy why there were so many and she said 'because they've been planted' Now that is a good answer. 

A couple of nice views.............

Right here we go, the Kirbuster Farm Museum was the all time highlight of my visit. I recomment everyone who visits Orkney avoids the tourist trail and heads here. http://www.spirit-of-orkney.com/contents1a/2010/04/kirbuster-farm-museum/ It is centred around the oldest house in Orkney which is where the first 2 photos were taken, known as a firehoose. I walked into here and it felt like revisiting a Neolithic monument, yet it is only 500 years old. At a time when grand mansions were being built around London, landowners in Orkney still lived and slept with their cattle around a central hearth.

Lunch with a friend at the farm museum!

Maes Howe - which though spectacular was not as exciting as I'd hoped.

The equally impressive Standing Stones of Stenness

Many visits were made here in all weathers, Ring of Brodgar

The one disappointment was my visit to Scara Brae - I'd expected a wander around the site but not it's is all cordoned off, rightly, but as a foil to the visitors, a 'visitor experience' trail has been installed. Great for the children or those who don't know much and are juts casual visitors. But walking along concrete paths and passing timeline signage only then to stand behind a barrier is all a bit too Stonehenge for me. But that is a personal view. What Scottish Natural Heritage and Museums face to preserve this site is immense.  

Finally juts before I left as a force 10 gale began to arrive some images of the hotel owners Helly Aa shields and axes he has used over the years both in Orkney and Shetland, plus the 2 Orcadian chairs he made a few years back.

Nice to be back on the mainland - especially by 2pm after this image was taken the wind was at 60mph.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Spring cleaning after an Orkneyinga Saga - part 1

Orkney from Thurso beach
There is a time in life when the heart overrides the head and this happened to me last November. Looking back from the distance of 6 months I was probably going through some form of mental breakdown. Not quite a depression but pretty close to it. Heading towards my 50th birthday, in a rut at work, stresses and strains in my private life, everything feeling as though it was falling in on me  and a sense of longing for a change otherwise I'd go under. Nothing was bad, but nothing really gave me any satisfaction or purpose in life anymore.  I needed a break, I really did need a break and so after negotiations at work a 6 week leave was agreed for April 2014.
What this break has done more than anything has allowed me time away from the hum drum tedium of day to day living and specifically during 10 days on the road by myself in Scotland, a chance to sit on many a beach and think, no responsibilities other than which beach to sit on or what to have off the menu at the hotel. During these 10 days on my own I managed to dispel the grim reaper of doubt and depression and mixing with fresh sea air became focussed on the future. So that's that said and done.
Now I'm back it has made me realise a lot of distractions I'd become focussed on over the years are really not what I now need. Top of that list is the blanket news coverage we are all subject to. As my need for de-toxing took hold one thing I realised was that I spent a lot of time reading news feeds, papers and social media sites for breaking stories, looking for the new lead in a conservation idea. Being human this meant that I sometimes diverted off into a side alley of news only to then disappear down another alley. It is mentally exhausting, leaving little energy for doing other things. News had to go for the 6 weeks and it did. Only now returning to my normal life have I read about a ferry sinking on South Korea, Ukraine, Syria, middle aged men being arrested over sexual allegations and the rise of Ukip and so on. What has really struck me however is that coming back to the news after 5 weeks it is exactly the same as before I left, same topics, just different people involved or different countries. In the 5 weeks I'd been away from TV, internet or radio I'd missed absolutely nothing. Thus I am resolved to maintain this news blackout as much as possible going forward.
Next on the list was Twitter. I have a love hate relationship with Twitter, especially a lot of tweets that are just haranguing, moans, or generally negative. There are of course some positive sides to Tweets, but, and this may be due to whom I follow, most of the Tweets I read were negative. For a while I wondered if this was pushing me to some edge of despair. And so as with the news I had a Twitter blackout. I returned to Twitter yesterday and reading my feed it was all haranguing, moans, and generally negative. And again as with media news it is the same people saying the same things over and over again. I started to feel my old frustrations rising as I was going to reply to some tweets and then something in me said, why? 'You don't know any of these people from Adam and so really it is not real life'. That confirmed in me what I'd lone worried about Twitter, more so than with Facebook. Anyone can reply to anyone else and sometimes bizarre stand off's were taking place between people who had never met. Increasingly I found this strange and surreal. Therefore after only a day back on Twitter I recalled how I felt not having access to it, in a word good. Therefore with some genuine sadness I have reduced my sessions on @Wessex_Reiver Twitter account to 5 minutes at some point in the day, no more.
So what has all this to do this posting? Actually it has a lot to do with it. Part of my cathartic moods on Orkney made me realise that for me, and I can only speak for myself, I need people, real people around me. Social media had become a distraction, a way of thinking I had more contact with people than I actually did. Talking from behind a keyboard is not real life. Which makes me wonder what is real life now? One way to illustrate this is that I made a point of taking cash with me on my break. I had to go to a building society and draw out £500. And apart from the room accommodation which was paid for everything else on that 10 day tour was paid for by cash. Nothing new or ground breaking here but when you see money changing hands rather than passing over a plastic debit card, I began to stop and wonder whether I really wanted or needed that souvenir, or extra coffee. It became the norm each morning to count the notes in my wallet and say "hum I spent £20 yesterday, what on?" By the end of the 10 days I still had £180 left and that included paying for 2,100 miles worth of diesel.
Where am I going with this? Well for me life has become removed from reality. We are paid in kind, we never see our money, it is just a figure on a bank statement, we pay for goods via a plastic card and at the end of the month out bank tells me that I have spent all my money, money I never saw anyway. I used to think plastic debit cards saved money, now I know different. Paying £8.99 for something with a plastic card is cheap, breaking onto a £10 note and receiving £1.01p in change makes me think, "is that all the change I get for that sandwich and a fancy coffee"?
This is what the break did, made me re-evaluate what is important and what shocked me is how very little of what we do is important. Being able to sit on a beach for 2 hours thinking about absolutely nothing is priceless. And so to remind me a few images to look back fondly on.
Tickets for the ferry

Waiting my turn at Scrabster ferry terminal

Leaving Scotland

Hoy from Hoy Sound

First view of Orkney

A beach with a view

An artists paradise

We only have one chance at life

Location of my first encounter with Orcadian hospitality

Hooded Crow

Windbreak with a view

Matts café truck (I was told to go here)


Ring of Brodgar

A very good night's sleep to you all....

Latest from my 1 year project

I'm now 3/4 of the way through the 1 year blog challenge I've set myself so rarely end up on this site. So tonight a quick link to the year project.


I'll be back here before too long.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Have we lost the battle on the Somerset Levels

The winter of 2013 will be remembered by many I suspect as the winter of storms, low pressure systems repeatedly driving gales and rain across the Atlantic to, as many journalists would shock headline, “Batter Britain with extreme weather” .  And indeed according to the Met Office December 2013 was the stormiest December in the UK since data was compiled in 1969 and the windiest month since January 1993.
Now while these low pressure systems have been relentless, starting with the St Jude’s storm at the end of October 2013, but what has captured the public and media imagination is the flooding and damage that has happened and is still happening along our coasts and in many places such as near to my own home, the Somerset Levels. Pictures of people being flooded out, seawalls being demolished and communities being cut off are without doubt absolutely horrendous for those involved, even though they provide a form of smug titillation and voyeurism for the rest of us sitting warm and cosy at home.
And yet as long as I can remember I’ve watched flooding on television. As a child I used to watch the village river flood, often wading through it on one of the footbridges rather than walk the long way round on the way to school, just so we could be sent back home to get changed into dry clothing.  The floods which followed the snow of 1980, 1963, 1947 devastated much of Britain and across time floods have caused devastation and I remember someone saying to me “always buy a house on high ground”. And as if to prove some form of point to that, looking at the pictures of Tewkesbury Abbey, it remains afloat as it were, above the floodwaters, showing the medieval builders knew a thing or two where to build. On the higher ground where presumably local experience taught them that that parcel of land never flooded within the Severn floodplain.
And this brings me to my thoughts here. Since medieval times we have increasingly lost touch with the natural world and this includes the role that geomorphology makes to the ability of the land to absorb and dissipate water. We have an inbuilt ego as humans, we are in charge.
So what have we done, we’ve tamed the wetlands, draining them to produce fertile land. We’ve then built on these wetland and floodplains as the land is favourably flat, ignoring the obvious fact that floodplains are designed to hold water at time of floods. And we have canalised rivers to get the water to the sea as quickly as possible. This latter approach is very interesting as recent research is debunking long perceived notions that the best way to control flooding is to build deep straight channels, move the water quickly from one area to another. Before humans began mucking about with nature, rivers didn’t exist in the form we know today. Indeed there was a central channel of sorts, but trees, standing or fallen, impeded that flow so often a river in its mature stage could be 1-2km wide, a matrix of land, marshes, a number of secondary rivers, thick vegetation and open water. The result was that water slowly moved downstream in a way that the underlying soils or hydrology could naturally cope with.
If you are interested to read more here are a couple of interesting summaries. The hydrological and geomorphological significance of forested floodplains
The flooding of one’s home is absolutely devastating. I’ve known a few people who this has happened to recently and I’d not wish it on anyone. But, taking the Somerset Levels as an example, flooded residents are taking issue with the Environment Agency, Government and others involved with draining the Levels arguing that not enough is being done, asking for more dredging to take place to remove the water and therefore the risk of flooding. 
Keeping channels and ditches well maintained is sensible; that water which falls is moved away efficiently, but what is being overlooked many times is that the Somerset Levels is there because it is a wetland and predominantly only a few feet above sea level.  The very name Somerset comes from the Anglo Saxon of “'the people of the summer lands'. or in some accounts “settlers by the sea lakes”. These origins hint at the wetter than average landscape our ancestors frequented in the winter months. After a relatively benign 100 years or so some of the issues our ancestors faced we now face in the 21st Century. Before the advent of advanced drainage and pumping, it was only in the summer months that farmers and settlers could get onto the Somerset Levels. During the rest of the year as the Levels became flooded people left and lived on the higher ground. Glastonbury about 12 miles from the coast is not also known as the Isle of Avalon for fictitious purposes it rises out of a wet marsh; historically around the time of King Arthur, the lake famed in the Lady of the Lake story derived from a once stretch of open water only a mile or so away.
In the last 1000 years we have played Canute with this landscape; successive generations have drained the Somerset Levels. Sea walls prevent marine invasion, a myriad of channels and interconnected ditches keep the land dry, as the landscape is often below sea level often this was through the use of major pumping systems. Over time homes and farmsteads developed and the Levels became a desirable place to live. And yes in winter it could get a bit damp in the fields but by and large the buildings remained dry.
So efficient was this system of drainage that I remember myself struggling to find wetlands on the Levels when I first moved down here in the early 1990’s even in winter. Around 20 years ago subtle changes began as small areas of farmland were ‘sacrificed’ to nature. The pumps were turned off, holes were dug and many of the industrial peat workings were handed over to conservation organisations so that now the Somerset Levels are recognised as a wetland of international importance. The trickle of wetland recreation became a torrent of wetlands and fen regeneration and now one can’t move about large swathes of the Levels without bumping into egrets and thousands of wetland birds. It is a fabulous place to visit, but I’d not wish to live there.
For two years now we have seen catastrophic flooding of the Levels, roads impassable and villages cut off, farmland destroyed due to standing water pumped from watercourses to alleviate flooding lower down the river systems in places like Bridgwater. Often, as happened this week, pumps are useless as they can’t pump water out of fields until river levels drop sufficiently and so the affected land and homeowners are once more at the mercy of nature. Nature is biting back, so have we reached the point where playing Canute has become as productive as trying to eat an ice cream on a roller coaster?
I’m no hydrological expert, this is my opinion only, but as I see it there is a simple albeit socially contentious answer here. Should we as a society actively depopulate the most vulnerable parts of the Somerset Levels, and by doing so let nature revert that area to what it does best, a large wetland sponge?
Human nature is always focussed on ways to find solutions to a problem, to drive forward with that we will win at all costs attitude. Our solution to the problem of excessive dampness in the Somerset Levels has been to play Canute “we WILL drain the wetlands, we WILL hold back the water” Well much like Canute who floated off into the Wash, it’s not looking good.
So should we bite the bullet, not just on the Levels but in other areas prone to repeated flooding, is it time to be honest and admit we’re fighting a battle we can never win. Even with the arsenal of modern technology we have at our disposal, as we have sadly seen some parts of the Somerset Levels are becoming uninhabitable for a reason, there is nowhere to move the water to. Dredging the rivers will help move water once it’s in there, but it is a never ending task, and moving the water elsewhere often creates further problems downstream. Vast resources both technically and economically will be needed if as predicted sea levels rise and as the atmosphere warms, the energy available to create what was once a freak storm or prolonged torrential rain will increase and potentially we could see annual catastrophic flooding.
I listened to a farmer from near Tewkesbury at the weekend, he himself said his farm would not be a viable business in 20 years as the flooding is becoming too frequent.   Should we not then as a country have a serious robust honest conversation with ourselves and say, we will compensate everyone who now lives or makes a living in certain area, we will help move them lock stock and barrel to somewhere on higher ground. And then in that area, defined by experts in hydrology we switch off the pumps, let the area slowly revert to wetland and we leave it for nature to re-colonise.
It has a precedent in a way with the slum clearance movement at the turn of the 19th century. As a society we said we cannot expect people to live in such appalling conditions. We moved people out, built new housing and over a period of 50 years changed the landscape. Am I the only person who finds images of people being flooded out year after year appalling?  Yes dredging and wetland management may sort out the problem, but in the long term I just don’t see this being sustainable. Many people I’m sure will be reticent to move, others will I’m sure discuss my thoughts in terms of social cleansing. Far from it; if all things were equal, the status quo could remain. From what I have read over the years hydrological change is on the way, not today, but in the decades to come.
This is about humanity. If the scientists are right and human activity has caused climate change,  that climate change is now inflicting a serious cause and effect on innocent people getting on with their daily lives. Should we not then as intelligent compassionate humans seek a solution which if it worked through properly could not only provide long term stability to those who live there but provide a wetland in Somerset that would rival the Camargue in France.
In a small way we would be putting something back. Nature seems to be winning this battle, why not let nature win the war, on parts of the Somerset Levels at least. A dignified retreat.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Recording the sound of the weather

Originally published on my 365-2-50 blog earlier today

It may be a New Year but 2014 has arrived in Wiltshire as it pretty much left 2013 with deluge after stormy deluge playing havoc with us over the Christmas period. Yet another low pressure is sweeping across the Atlantic to batter the West and South of Britain. As I write this there has just been a gust which rattled across the house like an express train.
But this being a new day of a New Year I'm feeling positive and so this morning as the gales picked up I did 3 sound recordings to remember this day by. I absolutely love bad weather and so here they are;
First recording: Outside the house are 2 birch trees, this is the gale force wind through those trees first thing this morning
Second recording: This time as the wind and rain blew outside I wanted to record the sound of rain battering the window in the office, something I have heard many times before.
Final recording: My final recording from New Years Day is from inside the greenhouse. I love the sound of rain on the glass when working away in there, and today with the storm raging it really says wild elements to me.

Sunday, 15 December 2013