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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.

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.

Holy stones and dancing pigeons

I am conscious of my lack of blogging just recently but there are mitigating circumstances. The combination of starting a new job, travelling the length and breadth of England visiting family and not to mention the stress of trying to outwit a fat pigeon have just left no time for writing I’m afraid. They are feeble excuses I know; the job is only three days a week, the family visits did, in practice, leave me with time on my hands on occasions and the battle of wits between me and the pigeon is largely won for the time being so it’s high time I started writing again.

This was before I made him mad.

This was before I made him mad.

If you haven’t already worked it out from my social media posts, my new job is that of, “Wildlife Supporter Officer” working at Brockholes nature reserve for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Unlike the Ronseal tin, the job title doesn’t really reveal very much, but in essence I try to persuade people to become supporters of the Trust by engaging them in fascinating and witty conversation about wildlife and why we need to protect it. The visitors are intriguing, ranging from very serious bird watchers who are so well camouflaged that I don’t usually notice them unless they move, through to courting couples that have absolutely no idea why they are at the nature reserve other than it seemed like a nice romantic backdrop to a first date. What makes the job so interesting is that it turns out that the hipster and his vertiginously heeled beauty are just as likely to be interested in the charity as the telephoto toting twitchers, once you get into conversation with them. They all seem to be really lovely people including most of the children. I say most of the children because the one that told me his idea of a fun day out would be to hunt down everything that moves with a high-powered rifle and kill it was probably beyond even my powers of persuasion. The rest of the little darlings are lovely though and we have all sorts of fun engaging in earnest conversations, mostly about badges, stickers and dinosaurs but occasionally also about wildlife. I have also discovered that my owl impersonation is a real ice breaker with four-year olds.

It’s early days but I am gradually building up my knowledge of the nature reserves across the region so that I can enthuse about the best location for observing the buff tailed bumble bee or explain which varieties of native newts are to be found amongst the courting couples in the St. Annes sand dunes. There is a lot to learn it seems. I still can’t see any difference between the Black Headed gulls and the Mediterranean ones and most days when I get home I have to turn to Google to find out if some wag of a naturalist has been pulling my leg or not. (It turns out that there is a partridge with red legs actually. It’s called a Red Legged Partridge.)

Despite the ridiculous number of miles we had to drive on the motorways to get around the family we did manage to squeeze a few lovely walks into our grand tour and I am more than pleased that both of our grown up boys and their partners are not averse to a stroll in the countryside. Something must have rubbed off on them somewhere along the lines. It was an amazing example of how easy it is to find yourself a bit of peace and quiet and to connect with nature no matter where you live. A Somerset canal, a Dorset beach and a Hampshire water park all proved to be delightful places for a bit of casual bird watching and, in the case of the beach, the discovery of some really intriguing stones with holes in them. A little research revealed that the holes are made by Piddocks, a bi-valve mollusc that literally eats its way into the rock to create a home. I picked up a couple of them and they are proving to be a great hit with the kids when I’m working. You can’t beat a rock eating mussel to create a bit of interest.

Holy stones

Holy stones

And so, the pigeon. As you know we have been feeding an ever increasing variety of birds (you can add chaffinch to the list now) from our bird feeding station as it is grandly called and it’s all been a huge success apart from the pigeons. Well it’s been a huge success for the pigeons from their point of view because for them it’s like a free Michelin star restaurant has opened up in town. The problem is we can’t afford their appetites so something had to be done. Ten minutes work with a wire coat hanger and our bird feed station food tray, the one that contains the avian equivalent of a three course gourmet dinner, is finally pigeon proof. Don’t be alarmed, I didn’t stab the pigeons with the coat hanger, I just made a simple cage that prevents them from getting at the food.

My pigeon rattling cage

My pigeon rattling cage

I may have stopped them eating us out of house and home but they, on the other hand, have worked out a very effective revenge. You wouldn’t believe how much noise two dancing pigeons can make on a tin roof at four o’clock in the morning! I’m on the case though; I’m making them a pair of slippers each next.

 

Mere Sands Wood

There is a nature reserve not that far from where we live called Mere Sands Wood. We took a stroll around it in the spring sunshine today and discovered a magical mixture of woodland and mere, (the clue is in the name) alive with water fowl and one particularly cheeky robin. Armed with just a mid range digital compact camera I tried to capture a little of the wonder of the place. I’m afraid the digital zoom leaves a bit to be desired but hopefully you can get a flavour of the reserve. It was very quiet there today and most of the hides we visited were empty. Apart from the one with that we barged into whilst talking very loudly only to find it occupied by very serious and very quiet photographers who were less than amused. Very sorry.

 

Desperately seeking justification

newspaper

I know, I know. Having nailed my colours firmly to the mast and banged on about living a simpler life in the last post, I had better deal with the very obvious elephant in the room, namely a brand new car that we will be picking up next week. With all this talk about the freedom of owning less stuff it might strike you as slightly at odds to be burdening ourselves with a car on a finance deal. I confess that I am not entirely comfortable with the decision but it’s made now so I suppose I ought to at least try and justify it.

Sometime last year I watched a TV program about people living in basic shelters in the woods. (Before you start, we have discussed getting rid of the TV on many occasions but for now, at least, it’s staying. Get over it.) They were off grid, living partially self-sufficiently and completely shunning the modern, materialistic way of life. No car, no TV, no electricity etc. etc. I admired them. What they were doing was extreme and frankly, not for me, but it doesn’t mean that they weren’t pioneers; challenging the status quo and giving us all something to think about. I see them a bit like the fashion designers that flaunt their latest creations on the catwalks of Milan and Paris. Nobody actually expects the average man or woman to be walking the streets of Nottingham in a space suit with a tambourine on their head next year, but some faint echo of the designs will filter through to everyday fashion for sure. It’s the same with people that take ways of living to the absolute extreme; we don’t have to copy them but we can take ideas from them and adapt them to our own lives. Gill and I are not ready to abandon our limited possessions and build a tree house just yet, and neither are we prepared to live without a car; but it’s not so much the car, as the brand new car, that I am having trouble adjusting to. This is how it came about.

Our previous car was fourteen years old and, a bit like me, it was suffering from fatigue. It was probably more of a perception issue than anything but we seemed to be getting overly familiar with the staff at our local garage. There was no doubt that what the car really needed was a new owner. Preferably a mechanic. Having put it up for sale on the Autocar website I began typing in the parameters of the kind of car we were looking for at a price we could afford. Well if websites could laugh this one would have been doubled up in stitches, rolling about on the floor and wiping its eyes; probably with an oily rag. I don’t know what possessed me but in a moment of madness I looked to see if we could get a 0% finance deal on a new car instead. I won’t bore you with the details of the sums involved* but they went a bit like this:

The cost of owning the old car over three years, taking into consideration purchase and sale prices, and adding in tax, insurance, repairs and servicing came to about £96 per month.

The new smaller car on 0% finance, including servicing and being exempt from vehicle tax, would cost £94 per month.

Factor in the £2500 deposit we have to pay (which effectively stays in the residual value of the car) and which might have generated about £110 in interest at current rates in an ISA, and you can see that the new car is no more expensive than the old one and hopefully it won’t want to spend half its life in the garage. It’s also a bit greener. (In a bright red kind of way.) Despite everything we were trying to do to be less materialistic we just couldn’t deny the maths and whilst desperately trying to convince the salesman that we weren’t really new car kind of people we signed on the dotted line and slunk out of the showroom trying ever so hard not to grin like a pair of Cheshire cats.

And here is my feeble attempt at seeking justification for our decision:

Whilst we don’t feel ready to give up on owning a car completely we do want to do less driving and make more use of the bikes, public transport and walking. The deal on the new car plays right into our hands because there is a limited mileage clause in the finance package which restricts us to an average 27.4 miles per day. Extra miles will result in a financial penalty at the end of the agreement. Enter stage right……… a spreadsheet! Yes I intend to monitor our mileage and use the mileage cap as an incentive to do more utility cycling and less driving. That way we get fitter and we save the planet into the bargain. Win, win.

I still feel uncomfortable though. Even more so because while I am sat at home writing this and listening to the rain hammering at the windows, Gill is at work. She went on her bike!

Hardy cyclist leaves for work

Hardy cyclist leaves for work

*If you really want to see it send me your e-mail address and I’ll mail it to you. (I promise I won’t tell anybody else that you asked for it.)

Oh dear, have we made a terrible and expensive mistake?

For the first time in about twenty eight years I don’t own a car. As far as I can recall I haven’t been in this status since a couple of days after I passed my driving test and bought by my first motor, a clapped out Hillman Avenger.

Boy racer days

Back in my boy racer days

That was the car that I actually learned to drive in, not the one the driving instructor picked me up in twice a week. I spent about six months throwing it all over the road, sliding around corners and trying my best to roll it until I eventually got overconfident and had to be towed out of a farmer’s field by a tractor. That was embarrassing. Since then I have been a mostly sensible/boring driver and have only really been interested in cars as a convenient means of getting from A to B. I’ve always been happy to use buses and trains or ride a bike when it was practical and never really considered myself to be a keen motorist. So I was a bit surprised by how it felt to be sans car.

Sorry to disappoint anybody but I haven’t suddenly become evangelically green by giving up driving by the way, it’s just that we are getting a new car which won’t be available for two to three weeks and today I sold the old one. I optimistically put it up for sale as soon as we decided on the change and in just the same way that buses turn up in threes when you aren’t actually waiting for one, it sold almost immediately.

So we have no car. More than three quarters of households in the UK own a car and for a brief spell we won’t be one of them. We could hire one of course but where would be the fun in  that? No, for now, at least, we will experiment with being a bit weird.

I am writing this just a few hours after letting the old car go and I am already overwhelmed by the evidence of how ingrained the automobile has become for the majority of people, us included. (I know there are exceptions out there, some of who may well be reading this. I apologise, you are exonerated.) As soon as we explain our situation to people their reaction gives the game away. You see we have been inundated with offers of lifts from friends, neighbours and work colleagues. It’s very nice of people to be so kind but what shocks me is the way in which people automatically assume that if you don’t have a car of your own then obviously you will need to fall back on the cars of other people. So far, on revealing that we won’t have a car for a few weeks not one person has responded with; “well that isn’t really a problem is it? After all you have legs and bikes and you live on a really good regular bus route”. That just isn’t what we hear. No it is just assumed that you simply MUST have the use of a car one way or another. I’m looking forward to finding out first hand if they are correct or not.

Yesterday was our first full day of being carless and ironically we needed to go to the car dealership to sign the paperwork for the new car. We also had some shopping to do so we turned the house upside down locating our touring panniers, lights, inner tubes and bike locks and spent about half an hour re-familiarising ourselves with what a lot of fuss it can be to prepare for riding bikes in the winter; which is where the car comes in I suppose. It’s just so easy by comparison to jump in the car and travel in complete ignorance of temperature, precipitation, gradient or security. It doesn’t even require any special clothing and the lights and locks are all conveniently built in rather than being lost at the back of a drawer in the shed. It’s warm, comfortable and relatively safe and you don’t need padded shorts to drive it.

But! And it’s a big but; when we got back from our bicycle based utility trip we felt great. In fact we were buzzing. We achieved exactly what we would have done in the car but we also got a bit of exercise and a natural endorphin based high thrown in for free. We also saved money in the obvious way of not using any diesel but also less obviously by opting not to put a fourth bottle of wine in the trolley by looking on it as dead weight rather than unbeatable value.

Day two:

We often go for two or three mile walks around our village just for the sake of a bit of exercise. This morning however, with the rain falling steadily and the weather station telling us it was five degrees outside, the prospect of another round of tea and toast was much more appealing. Under normal circumstances we probably would have forgone the walk altogether and driven down to the village to the butchers. But these are no longer normal circumstances and so we donned waterproofs and walked to the shops in the rain. As it turned out the rain wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t really cold once you got moving and guess what? When we got back we felt great. Anybody else see a pattern emerging here?

Choices, choices

Choices, choices

Maybe the novelty will wear off. Maybe it won’t. It’s early days but it’s going to be an interesting experiment and won’t it be ironic if, after three weeks, we decide that actually, we can manage without our new car after all. Oh dear, have we made a terrible and expensive mistake?

 

In the eyes of the gloomy beholder

Well we nearly got out on the bikes yesterday. It was discussed briefly but the gloomy skies and cold blustery wind were all it took to convince us that a walk would be more fun. It wasn’t. It’s quite shocking sometimes how your mood can smother every glimmer of brightness.

We headed for the nearest access to the canal about three miles from home and as we drove down the quiet country lanes a succession of cyclists in brightly coloured winter outfits acted like a powerful search light exposing our guilt at having left the bikes in the shed. Each rider we passed seemed to drive home the message that there was absolutely no reason for not being out cycling. I think that’s where the rot set in for me. Once on the towpath it quickly became clear what the effect that so much rain has had in the last few weeks and we were squelching through glutinous mud almost ankle deep. After a few hundred meters we turned back in the hope that the path in the other direction might be a bit drier. It was slightly easier underfoot but the cold wind was now squarely in our face making it difficult to stay warm even at a brisk walking pace.

There were three brief encounters with wrens which fluttered into the undergrowth like tiny little balls of rusty fluff but other than them, even the birds seemed to have deemed the day to be not worth bothering with. A few ducks huddled in a field adjacent to the water but the remains of ice floating on the surface was obviously enough to put them off going for a dip. The narrow boats moored along the bank looked sad and neglected as they listed in the water; lifeless and unloved under a blanket of last autumn’s debris. Branches ripped from the trees in the recent winter storms rose from the water like the dead arms of cadavers frozen in a last desperate cry for help.

Library photo reflecting a better mood

Library photo reflecting a better mood

I’m sure that in other circumstances I would have noticed all manner of signs of spring but the grey, damp blanket of sky casting it’s  gloomy shadow over everything seemed to blind me to such things. All I could see was black mud, dark sinister water and bare boned trees reaching up and touching the drab ceiling with skinny skeletal fingers. It was a bleak, hopeless scene almost entirely devoid of life. Or so it seemed to me.

After about a mile we turned tail to get some relief from the cutting wind and made our way back to the car and the promise of warmth, home-made soup and a lazy afternoon listening to the rain rattling on the windows. Sometimes it’s just hard to see the beauty and I brought the camera home unused for the second day in a row. I know the splendour is there, I’ve seen it before, but sometimes on a day like today, the problem is in the beholder.