Long Tailed Tits and narrow waisted trousers

The problem with being of slim build is that there is nowhere to hide an ever expanding waistline. I’m currently shaped like one of those fishing floats that are long and thin with a large bulge in the middle. It took a wedding in the autumn to force me to pull my head out of the sand when I realised that none of my trousers that were remotely suitable for such an occasion could actually be buttoned around my waist. Two months on and I am finally getting round to doing something about it.

Now that I am able to walk a reasonable distance again without any significant pain there is no excuse so it was out again this morning for my regular two mile march around the streets and into the countryside as the sun struggled to get out of bed. The route I took today is about fifty percent main road, thirty percent housing estate and twenty percent country lane. It’s fine for getting a little bit of exercise but not brilliant for scenery or bird watching so I don’t usually bother to take a camera or binoculars. It’s more a case of head down and quick march while I mentally run through my wardrobe of narrow waisted trousers and try to summon up the purpose to walk faster and harder. This morning was different though and an abject lesson in stopping to smell the metaphorical roses and regret leaving the binoculars at home.

For a start it was cold but blissfully calm after several days of windy weather and the sky was magically lit by a reluctant winter sun. We may have turned the seasonal corner now that we have passed the solstice but the sun is like a sulky teenager at this time of year. It unenthusiastically peers over the horizon and attempts to perform its daily duties whilst barely leaving its bed. It doesn’t get up any earlier either for the next few weeks; it just goes to bed a bit later but those extra few minutes of daylight are already filling me with anticipation of what is round the corner. There were other early signs of a change too; a Robin and a Dunnock were singing enthusiastically as if nobody had mentioned to them that spring is still a good few months away.

What a cutie. The Long Tailed Tit. (Photo by Craig Smith)

Along the short stretch of country lane a Long Tailed Tit caught my eye as it flew into the bushes next to me and as I looked around for more (they usually come in small flocks) my eye was caught by the frenetic and constant movement of a pair of Gold Crests.

The Gold Crest. (Photo by Tairi and uve Pixdaus.com)

These are stunning little birds with their brilliant black and yellow head stripe and they are a joy to watch as they acrobatically search for small grubs and eggs in the nooks and crannies of trees and shrubs. They are constantly on the move prompting the question of whether they might not need quite so much food if they ever sat still for a minute or two. They are actually quite common, similar in winter numbers to Robins but being Britain’s smallest bird and rarely appearing out in the open, lots of people have never seen one. The final birdy treat was provided by a Blue Tit that flew past my face so close that I actually heard its wing beats.

The last stretch of the walk is through a housing estate and back to the main road. It didn’t mean there was nothing to see though. Starlings, Blackbirds, Gulls and a flock of Gold Finches all added colour and sound to the otherwise dull scenery while the sky continued to flaunt its silvery winter splendour.

Winter sky and a chance to find out where the birds nest.

Oh and I nearly forgot; I saw sixty seven pigeons as well.

As I walked the final stretch to home my thoughts turned back to those frantically busy Gold Crests and I realised where I might be going wrong. I’ve never seen an overweight Gold Crest you see and come to think of it; I’ve never seen one slumped in a chair drinking beer either. I’m not planning to start doing acrobatics in the bushes but maybe less beer and more walking might go some way to alleviating the problem of a wardrobe full of trousers that don’t fit me.

Problems, perspective and Pigeons

A little bit of perspective.

Gill has been getting arty with the camera

After my self-indulgent moan about not being able to buy our narrow boat right now I was reminded of how trivial a problem that is when I read a friend’s blog. His subject deals with life after the loss of a loved one, his partner and mother of his young children in fact, and reading it made me realise that perhaps I was getting things a little out of perspective. It’s worth a read by the way.

It’s easy to do though isn’t it?

“There’s always somebody in the world worse off than you”, people say to you. Of course there is. It doesn’t matter how bad your circumstances are there will be somebody somewhere in a more difficult situation. Pondering this might put some perspective on your own problems but it doesn’t make them go away. What it actually does is make you realise that not only do you have a problem that is less enormous than somebody else’s but that you should also feel guilty about your problem because it is inadequate. So now you have two problems!

It was also pointed out to me that struggling to sell a property is only a problem if you have a property to sell in the first place. Very good point. That really is perspective isn’t it? So, time to move on to other subjects I think.

There is something that I need to get off my chest. I suppose it’s a bit of a confession or at least, an admission. I’ve kept it quiet for a while but I feel that the time is now right to open up and share with you. I’ve become a bird watcher. So has Gill. As you know we have been feeding the birds in the garden all year but now we have taken it to another level. We have been visiting wild places at strange times of the day armed with binoculars, ham sandwiches and a flask of tea. I’ve always had a passing interest in birds ever since I used to nick their eggs as a boy but I’ve never actually gone bird watching before. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a twitcher at this point although we did go looking for Waxwings in Preston the other day because I’ve never seen one. We looked for them on the Rowan trees in Morrisons car park but we were disappointed and had to settle for a cut price bottle of Gordon’s Gin instead.

The fabulous but illusive Waxwing. (Photo by Janet Stocks)

I suppose there was a certain inevitability about it once I started working at Brockholes nature reserve.

Not a bad place to work really. (Photo by Gill)

Conversations with the bird enthusiasts there about what they had seen left me intrigued and wanting to go and look for myself. By happy coincidence Gill acquired a bit of unexpected cash at around this time and very kindly bought me a new pair of binoculars. She also borrowed them and enjoyed herself so much she bought herself a pair. Added to these things we found we could go bird watching without walking too far which fitted perfectly with my gradual recovery from Plantar Fasciitis. Before we knew it we were sitting in draughty hides misidentifying all manner of small feathery things and discovering that 99% of all birds are actually pigeons.

Indoor Pigeon. Handy for bird watching in poor weather conditions.

For all I have a basic knowledge and we are both learning fast we are still capable of providing much entertainment amongst real birdwatchers by mixing up our Dunlins and our Sanderlings or getting told off for talking too loudly in the hides. Also, Gill’s hat is pink, which is not the colour for any self-respecting ornithologist to be seen in and I suspect we aren’t always being taken seriously. We don’t really look the part. The real bird watchers are all in green.

A rare sighting of the fabulous pink hatted smiler.

They even have green binoculars. You wouldn’t think there would be much danger of injury from such a sedate pastime as bird watching but tripping over a well camouflaged birder is a genuine hazard. I spent five minutes scanning a small bush for thrushes the other day when it picked up a tripod and walked away! Some of them are harder to spot than the birds.

Anyway, it’s all a bit of good clean fun and the perfect accompaniment to life on a narrow boat but we are trying not to think about that at the moment. For now we will be doing our observing from dry land but it should be a good excuse to write nonsense on this blog which is something I haven’t been doing enough of lately. You have been warned.

Moaning Minnie

Good grief! It’s been nearly three months since I last posted on here. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, more a case of having nothing worth writing about. I still haven’t really, but as the year draws to a close I thought an update might be in order and besides, I need to have a bit of a moan. I’ll understand if you don’t want to read any further of course.

Back in October Gill and I spent several days touring marina brokerages looking at narrow boats and getting, firstly very giddy indeed and then secondly terribly frustrated. We found several boats of interest and within out theoretical price range and then we found ‘the one’. Pilgrim was a beautiful 57 foot traditional narrow boat which had obviously been cherished by its previous owners. We both fell for it instantly and had we had the funds in place I think we would have bought it. Unfortunately our boat buying funds are tied up in the bungalow that we are trying to sell and that is where the frustration comes in. With no real interest despite several price drops our hands our tied. We came home from viewing Pilgrim full of excitement but after a rather dangerous conversation involving bridging loans we came to our senses, got really fed up and decided to stop looking at boats until the property sells.

The cosy lounge area of Pilgrim

For the last two months it has felt as if we are in limbo. The irony of the phrase ‘treading water’ whilst waiting to buy a boat has not escaped me but that is what it feels like. I am constantly wrestling with the exciting anticipation of the time when we will actually be able to go ahead with our plans and the incessant nagging guilt that we are wasting precious moments of our lives. A friend of mine once explained life as a period of years allotted to us that we simply had to fill up with stuff. What we filled it up with didn’t matter, he said, so long as it made us happy. Right now I can’t help feeling that we are letting ourselves down.

We are very lucky in that we have managed to acquire something that many people of our age are still dreaming of. We have a plethora of spare time but it’s hard work filling it with what feels like second best. To be fair to myself it has been complicated by my on going suffering with plantar fasciitis which has meant I haven’t been able to do much walking. Thankfully  that is now on the mend and we are out and about increasingly and enjoying a new found interest in bird watching. (If you are a sufferer you might want to check out this exercise routine which has finally borne fruit.) But it still feels like we are killing time. Every time I see memes along the lines of ‘seize the day’, ‘strike while the iron is hot’ and ‘don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today’ I feel incredibly frustrated but also ungrateful at the same time. We are lucky, we are rich with time and memories and life is easy and my Catholic upbringing tells me I should be thankful for what I have and stop moaning. But I’m still moaning.

Here’s a pair of Cormorants killing time.

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions but maybe this year I should try and start 2017 with a definite plan to focus on the now and leave fate and the future to themselves. Oh and I’ll try to stop moaning. Thanks for listening, I feel a bit better now.

Yours

Moaning Minnie

Learning Narrowboatian

Buying our narrow boat is totally dependent upon the sale of a property that we have a share in so we were very excited to finally get the bungalow on the market, one step closer to life on the water. Or so we thought. Of course we didn’t expect to the sell the house immediately but that didn’t stop us getting excited and intensifying our search for the perfect floating home and that’s when sod’s law took effect.

Of course we should have guessed that the total absence of any interest in the house whatsoever would be in direct contrast to a veritable flood of near perfect boats coming up on our searches immediately. We have a fairly detailed and strict criteria against which we are matching our floating dream home and it was unbelievably frustrating to tick all the boxes against the sales ads whilst knowing that with no interest in our property for sale there wasn’t really any point in organising a viewing or even making a tentative enquiry. That frustration has now got the better of us and having dropped the asking price on the bungalow we are busy organising visits to view boats that are for sale within our as yet, imaginary price range.

Spacious lounge: Tick, Wood burner: Tick, ...

Spacious lounge: Tick, Wood burner: Tick, …

This brings me to the topic of how you choose a narrow boat to live on, which turns out to be very similar to choosing a house. In both cases it is common to lay out the basic requirements of style, price range, age, number of rooms, outside space etc. before selecting properties/boats to view based on those requirements. However, listening to other boat owners that have been through the process reveals that like buying a house, all those carefully thought out requirements will all be abandoned the day you step on to the perfect boat and fall in love with it. It turns out that it’s more akin to choosing a dog at the rescue centre in that the boat, apparently, will choose us rather than the other way around. It doesn’t mean I am abandoning my carefully constructed spreadsheet that, in theory, identifies our perfect craft. It simply means that we have to be prepared to fall head over heels in love one day and we will need a level headed friend to point out that the new love of our lives won’t last five minutes on the canal before it sinks and hopefully they will stop us wasting our relatively easily earned cash on it. A bit like the way your heart sinks when your precious teenage child comes home all doe eyed with that totally inappropriate girlfriend or boyfriend in tow and it’s your job to delicately persuade them that they really could do better. Love is a dangerous thing.

Some of these ads are just teasing us.

Some of these ads are just teasing us.

The similarities with buying a house wain by virtue of the fact that most houses don’t have an engine and you can’t, therefore, drive them around. A narrow boat on the other hand is the essence of freedom and mobility; provided, it turns out, that it is of certain dimensions. There are two thousand miles of navigable canals and rivers in England and Wales and we want to explore all of them. That means that our craft can’t be longer than sixty feet and no more than seven feet wide if we aren’t to be restricted by certain locks on the system. We are advised that since we want to ‘liveaboard’ (that’s what we canal people call living permanently on the boat) we will also require at least a fifty seven foot boat to give us enough space so it would appear that our choices are actually quite narrow in more ways than one.

Restrictions may apply

Restrictions may apply. Photo: Canal and River Trust.

In the mean time we go on looking and I am busy learning the new language of Narrowboatian so that I can converse with the salty dogs that are hanging up their windlasses and retiring, hopefully, to a nice two bedroomed bungalow close to the sea.

Swapsies?

Swapsies?

Anybody want to swap a short fat bungalow for a long narrow dream home?

 

Poking around in their bedrooms

We spent a pleasant enough afternoon yesterday investigating the homes of complete strangers, grilling them mercilessly about their bathroom arrangements and poking around in their bedrooms.

The homes in question were afloat and no more than seven feet across at their widest point. Yes, you’ve guessed, we are going to buy that narrow boat.

For some time now we have had a plan to retire to the waterways in about seven years when I receive my state pension and we are finally free from the shackles of paid employment. It’s what is referred to as a long term plan and therein lays its failing. It’s not dissimilar to the position we were in three year ago when we had long term plans to pack in our jobs and cycle around the coast. Back then we suddenly realised, prompted by a change of circumstance, that waiting was a mugs game and as readers of this blog will know we packed our bags and got on with it. We have decided it’s time to just get on with it again.

Obliging owners who took us for a ride. (Cruiser stern)

Obliging owners who took us for a ride. (Cruiser stern)

Waiting and dreaming sometimes works out for people and good luck to them but so often it turns into an invitation for disaster and disappointment when all the plans come tumbling down due to some unfortunate and unimagined circumstance. We simply don’t want “if only” to feature anywhere in our epitaphs.

It’s a bit like seeds that are held in an inanimate state waiting for the right conditions that will enable them to germinate and flourish. We acquired this particular seed some time last year when we were tossing around ideas that would satisfy our newly found wanderlust but we put it in the metaphorical fridge as insurance against future drudgery and boredom. A few weeks ago we realised that the fridge was no place for something with so much potential for joy. Now the seed is firmly planted in the optimum conditions and already the first exciting signs of germination are appearing.

Hello! Wake up, can we look in your boat?

Hello! Wake up, can we look in your boat?

We have visited various narrow boat marinas over the last few weeks and have found the location for our new home and placed a deposit on it. Now we just have to raise the funds and go and find the home itself. All our conversation at the moment revolves around cruiser versus traditional sterns and the pros and cons of pump out or cassette toilets. We have produced a complex list of features, (in a spreadsheet of course) each weighted with a score according to its importance and we are busy putting boats for sale through the matrix to find the kind of craft we need to go and view once we have the funds. It’s very exciting and talking to boaters that already live on board is all part of the build up to this next adventure.

Traditional stern

Traditional stern

Our technique so far has been to visit a marina or section of towpath where it is possible to engage with owners, ask them a slightly corny question such as, “how long is your boat?” and then without further ado invite ourselves on board for a good poke around and a grilling of the occupants. So far, without exception, they have been more than willing to show off what is very obviously their pride and joy and also to encourage us without reservation to ‘get on with it’. So we are.

We have to sell a property to raise the funds for this so it might not happen tomorrow but happen it will and that in itself is far preferable to wondering ‘what if?’ Expect a lot of pictures of narrow boats on here over the next few months.

Salthill Quarry – Clitheroe

As we retrieved binoculars and camera from the boot of the car the stale musty smell of refuse hung in the air, accompanied by the grinding metallic sounds of heavy machinery manipulating the discarded detritus of modern life. We were just about a hundred metres from a refuse and recycling plant and about fifty metres from a 360 million year old wonderland. This is Salthill Quarry, a nature reserve on the outskirts of Clitheroe.

The reserve is managed by Lancashire Wildlife Trust and is a prime example of nature thriving alongside industrial activity. The smell from the re-cycling plant might be offensive to my nose but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the wide variety of butterflies, moths and insects that inhabit the woods and meadows of this delightful place. As the name says it is the site of an old quarry but long before the rocks were blasted apart by the quarrymen’s dynamite (the drill holes are still visible) they were laid down under ancient seas and the thousands upon thousands of Crinoid fossils (Sea Lillies) are plain to see on just about every exposed rock surface.

Crinoids

Crinoids

The area is a mixture of dense woodland, towering rock faces and delightful wildflower meadows and embankments which encircle the small industrial estate. It is divided in two by the road that services the various businesses but a good path with information points takes you comfortably around the whole reserve in a couple of hours. It’s a strange environment because one minute you might be completely entranced by the many species of butterflies that are busy amongst the wild flowers and the next you are reminded of where you are by the sound of a power tool or heavy machinery. Fortunately the industrial activity and factory buildings fade into the background because the combination of birdsong, insect life, flowers and fascinating geology dominate your senses.

Information board

Information board

We were just too late in the season to find any rare Bee Orchids which are often found here but the variety and abundance of wild flowers more than made up for that. Speckled Wood butterflies are everywhere, as are the six spotted Burnett moths gliding lazily from flower to flower.

Speckled Wood butterfly

Speckled Wood butterfly

The signage explaining what to look out for in different locations is backed up by numbered posts that carry quick scan codes which will reveal additional data when scanned with a smart phone.

For many visitors the highlight will be the profusion of crinoid fossils that cover the rocks. In many places it isn’t a matter of looking for a fossil in the rock, more a case of looking for a patch of rock that doesn’t hold a fossil. I ran my fingers over the copies of these strange sea creatures which can still be found living in our seas today and tried to take in that figure of 360 million years. It’s strange to be in contact with the ancient past in that way. One of those moments that puts our fleeting presence into some kind of perspective and leaves you feeling small and insignificant.

We picnicked amongst a dazzling blaze of colourful flowers accompanies by the buzz of bees and the beautiful tunes of a Song Thrush. We were intrigued by a strange growth on a young wild rose bush but had to wait until we got home to discover its origins. Apparently it’s called a mossy rose gall but also goes by the name of Robin’s pincushion. It is the home of a wasp called Diplolepis rosae the larvae of which modify a new leaf bud chemically causing it to distort and from the protective ‘nest’. Fascinating.

Robin's Pincushion

Robin’s Pincushion

Pendle Hill

Pendle Hill

More dense woodland led out to another open area littered with fossils, flowers and huge rocks scoured by glacial activity. There seemed to be no end to the variety of things to explore in this small but captivating reserve.

Sculpture seat by Jon Fenton

Sculpture seat by Jon Fenton

We made our way back to the car scouring the grassy banks still hoping for a glimpse the elusive Bee Orchid but it wasn’t to be. That treasure will have to wait for the next visit.

Clitheroe is famous for many things including its sausages and its cement but I would suggest that perhaps its best kept secret is actually Salthill Quarry. It’s a little haven of wild tranquility surrounding a busy hub of industrial bustle, conveniently reminding us how incredibly important such wild spaces are when we spend so much of our time divorced from nature.

One third of #30DaysWild

If you are gifted in the way that snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan is, i.e. you are ambidextrous, then this blog post may not be relevant to you. If on the other hand (sorry) you are like most people and have a dominant hand try this; clean your teeth with the opposite hand to that which you normally use. If it isn’t the right time of day to try it you can just pretend to get a feel for how difficult it is. (It might be better to leave it for now if you are on the bus or the train.) Now try this challenge; clean your teeth with the opposite hand for thirty days. At the end of the month something quite remarkable will have happened, well two things actually. Firstly you will become competent at cleaning your teeth with either hand, which could be convenient if your dominant hand ever develops an allergy to toothpaste. Secondly your brain will be fitter than it was at the start of the experiment. That’s because doing something like this is the equivalent of gymnastics for the brain. It forces the brain to do something completely different which makes it work harder and get fitter. Which brings me to The Wildlife Trust and the natural world; obviously.

You see this whole business of doing something different for thirty days is one that I have been fascinated by for several years and regular readers of this blog will both know that I have written about it before. It came to my attention again earlier this year when I came across The Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild campaign. The challenge is to do something every day that connects you with nature and the outdoors with the intention of changing your perspective on such things at the end of a month. That month is June and we are now one third of the way through the task. Despite thinking I knew all about this idea I realised yesterday when taking a photograph of a snail that I had actually failed completely to enter into the spirit of it all.

You see the clue is in the word change. The whole purpose of any thirty day challenge is to bring about change and I suddenly realised that whilst I may have been putting vaguely amusing posts on Facebook and Twitter about my encounters with wildlife I had completely missed the point. I wasn’t actually doing anything very different to any other month’s activities, hence the photo of the snail. You see I don’t normally photograph snails, or any other terrestrial pulmonate gastropod molluscs for that matter, so yesterday was a bit of a breakthrough. Now the challenge really starts as I try to find new things to do that will give me genuinely new experiences.

Getting down with the molluscs

Getting down with the molluscs

Even our bike ride that started at the unearthly hour of four a.m. this week didn’t really count because we do such things at least once every year. Now if I had borrowed a unicycle and set off at midnight rather than dawn then that really would have been different. Possibly disastrous too I admit but at least it would have given me a whole new experience. I’ve got twenty days now to come up wild ideas that are nothing like my normal activities. The difficult task will be striking a balance between being truly imaginative and trying not to get arrested. Wish me luck. Or send me some suggestions if you like.

P1030933

Nice, but not very original

You can still join in #30DaysWild by going to the website for some ideas here. Go on, you might discover the new you.