Monday, 9 August 2010

Canal trips to the Holy Isle

Just back from a bit of a tour-ette of England. As it was my parents Golden Wedding last week we had a trip up to see them this weekend, up in sun kissed Tyneside.

Before that however on Wednesday I had a 4am start from the house as I had to get to WWT Slimbridge before 5am. Having gone to bed at 9.30pm then woken by the hire car company dropping the keys through my door at 10.50pm, I finally managed to stagger out and be bright eyed and bushy tailed by 4am. I was met by the head of WWT press and publicity who looked (well it's ungallant of me to say so) but looked as though she'd had a good night avoiding sleep in any form, as she drove into the carpark holding a mug of coffee in one hand. As it transpired she'd been up editing until 1am, so we'll let her off..

I was here to record a piece about re-introducing cranes into the Somerset countryside. This project is in its first year, a collaboration between the WWT, RSPB and Pensthorpe Waterfowl Park. 25 eggs were brought across from Germany in April. The cranes have been reared and now in August the 21 survivors have been given a new life at a secret location down in Somerset before being released into the wider countryside later in the year. By 7.00 am the cranes had been loaded into the crates and we were off in convoy down the M5.

And by 10am the cranes were in their new enclosure alive and well. All went smoothly and I'm now looking forward to visiting again in a month or so to witness the release.

As you may imagine by 1pm that afternoon when I'd got back home I wasn't in best form so after a snooze, my mind was made up to have a day off the following day, Thursday, as I had already booked Friday off. A long weekend was what I needed.

So Thursday woke bright and cheerful. I'd not been for a bike ride in ages, and as I only had my folding bike with me, where better then than to pedal myself along the Kennet and Avon canal, not 1 mile from home. Flat scenic and exciting, the canal that is, not me on a bicycle.

From home it's a short ride over to the Crofton Beam Engine, the highest point on the Kennet and Avon canal. This pumps water 18m up from a spring fed lake called Wilton Water and helps supply the canal in two directions. East from here down to Reading and west from here down to Bradford upon Avon. It is the oldest pumping house still in use in the country.

I arrived on the opposite side so instead of crossing over a lock gate, I decided to cycle to Great Bedwyn along the tow path, have some refreshments and then back via the pumping station.

I don't know much about canals, except they're wet and long, but I do have to say they make a pleasant cycle ride with lots of interesting things to photograph. Such as these locks above. Or this bridge below.

After about 4 or 5 pleasant and sedentary miles I reached Great Bedwyn, where a local shop caught my eye. Travelling at that speed makes me hungry.

Purchasing an all day breakfast wrap (egg, bacon, sausage and beans) I tootled off to the local church to eat it. But before reaching the church I passed a monumental mason yard and local shop, where gravestones and plaques cover the walls. Too many to itemise, but I particularly liked this one.

But enough of this frivolity, I was off again, legs like egg whisks along the back lanes to the Crofton Pumping House, and a pot of tea.

Who's have thought dark satanic mills would be visible in Wiltshire's rural countryside?

Following a splendidly cheap cup of tea (£1.30 and 3 full cups squeezed from the pot) I had to cross under the main line railway and in doing so spotted a bank of teasels. Closer inspection revealed a myriad of insects, of which the 2 photos below of ladybirds are but a taster.

It was now nearing 4pm and I had to head home, so I push-walked the bike back over the recently cut stubble fields as the clouds gathered menacingly around me.....

...............as I descended into Dark Lane (yes it is called that) and back home.

By Saturday I was nearly 400 miles further north. This far north in fact, Holy Island. That's me on the Island with the mainland behind. It wasn't that far from here that the first of a series of strange animal encounters happened.

Firstly, we (I was up with Julie) were walking along the coast of the island when we heard a seal calling, to another. And there, not too far from shore were the pair of seals, occasionally calling to each other. I can not remember hearing seals calling before in the sea away from their breeding grounds. It does happen, but I can't remember it myself.

As I said hearing and seeing those two seals was the beginning of a series of strange and unusual natural encounters last Saturday. Later we were in the Ingram Valley and a Brown Hare was in the road, taking a lot of time to move off into safety. Further down the valley another hare. Brown hares aren't uncommon, but usually they scamper off pretty quickly. These two were quite lackadaisical, especially the first one who seemed to be in no hurry to leave.

I then parked up by the river Breamish and as if by magic a rainbow appeared and ended not more than 20 yards away, sadly too far away from us to reach the pot of gold, but an interesting phenomenon nonetheless. I tried to photograph it but failed to do it justice.

Later that night driving home just as it was getting dark, we spied a tawny owl on a telephone wire which just watched us as I stopped the car and watched it from inside the car for quite a while. Another remarkable encounter I'd say as their feet are poorly adapted to gripping wires. Just a few miles further on another tawny owl flew over the car. Then when it was totally dark out there, we startled what I think was a skylark who flew low in front of the car for ages, landing on the road to be picked up by the headlights, then flew on a bit more, stopped, flew on etc for a good while before flying off. Lastly a mile or so further on a roe deer hind was in the road and we had to follow it for a long while before it too decided to eventually leave the road and let us continue our journey unhindered.

All in all quite interesting encounters with otherwise shy and retiring animals and all in one day. I've travelled across the length and breadth of Northumberland for decades and not seen so many animals in a single year as I saw in a few hours. I wonder if they were welcoming me back after so many years since my last visit .... I like to think so!!

I digress. Sorry. Back to Holy Island. The tides were good on Saturday, as safe crossing time was 11.20am then after 3.45pm. So we got on my 11am and then relaxed as the tide came in and cut us off from the mainland.

A fair few other people had the same idea as us so we decided to ignore them and walk to and along the north shore. This always happens. The village is heaving with flip flops, the north shore not a soul in sight.

Giving plenty time for a few arty photos.

Eventually though after a good 3 hour walk the scent of a teashop beckoned and we headed back into the village, to be ambushed by this cheeky little fellah. Hoy that's my chocolate chip shortbread you're pinching, me "ole cock sparra".

I have been coming to Holy Island since in nappies, and it never ceases to draw me in. Its not the quiet place it once was, but if I ignore the busy carpark and pack-a-mack brigade, I can still hear the sounds of the fishing boats of old hauling out to sea and the likes of "Shiney Shoes" walking down to the harbour in their black woolen fishing attire. There are a few boats left on the island but now it's a tourism and christian retreat island. No bad thing in itself, just different.

We left the island, and as mentioned above, headed up the Ingram Valley for an hour or so, just to refresh the airwaves with clean unpolluted Northumbrian air, before meeting my parents for a wonderful meal at the Tankerville Arms, in Eglingham, just a few miles from where I lived 30 years ago as a 16 year old farm student near Glanton.

A busy day, so on Sunday we just had a leisurely morning down at the coast in Tyneside.

The view north past Marsden rock and to the Tyne

Father and son. I'd drunk my coffee already!

A day later I was back in Bristol and work, reflecting on 4 days of travelling to many diverse places and many strange and uplifting natural encounters with wildlife. I've not been a fan of August before, but August 2010 has so far been wonderful. I'd love to see that brown hare again in the Ingram valley, just sitting there watching us, watching him, watching us..... truly uplifting.

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