Travelling life

New day, new view

The last few days have been a great illustration of the variety we experience living and travelling on our Golden Girl and they have given me a better insight into the appeal of this lifestyle. Storm Hannah gave us a fair old battering in Lymm last week but Sunday dawned calm and much brighter and we were more than happy to untie and move on. First stop was Stockton Heath just a few miles to the west and that was our first port of call to catch up on a range of routine chores.

The services at Thorne Marine are adjacent to a bridge with moored boats on either side and I recalled being a bit stressed last year trying to work out where to pull in. I’m much more relaxed about these situations now and I was happy to tread water while another boat finished off filling up with water before vacating the spot we needed. We have become quite slick at these service stops and without any discussion we were soon filling up with water and diesel and after emptying the bins and toilet cassettes there was still time to browse the chandlery section of the shop for a couple of clips and shackles that we needed. I laid out my shiny new bits of hardware on the counter in an “experienced boater” kind of manner and I was all ready for a bit of salty Jack tar conversation but somehow the proprietor and I ended up talking about Excel spreadsheets and our respective inability to remember numbers as we got older. Maybe I need a stout pipe and a broad Cornish accent before I’ll be taken seriously as a nautical type.

Photo by Gill
Pit stop at Stockton Heath

The water tank was finally full and after the usual wrestling match with the hose pipe we moved away from the services and tied up once more. Shopping time! Stockton Heath seems to be quite an upmarket kind of place with a selection of smart boutique shops and eating places. As neither of us urgently needed a new ‘outfit’ we settled for a meal deal from M&S for tonight’s tea and a main shop in Aldi for everything else. We always do supermarket shopping with a list and we are pretty good at sticking to it so the large red and black wheelbarrow wheels that definitely weren’t on that list looked a bit incongruous as they sat amongst the extra virgin olive and oil and breaded ham at the checkout. But that’s the problem with Aldi isn’t it? There’s always something to tempt you and knowing our boating friend Bob was looking for a pair of wheels as a mooring aid it seemed churlish not to buy them. I should say at this point of course that other German supermarkets selling a variety of obscure domestic hardware and sports goods alongside the baked beans and cheap wine are available.

Wheels
Look what I got Bob!

We left Stockton Heath with everything that could be emptied empty and everything that could be filled full, including ourselves after a very tasty Cajun chicken pizza. (£1.69 from Aldi)

The next two days were spent moored in a fabulous spot with neither a town nor village in site and little but birdsong and the occasional Virgin Pendolino for company. We were quite close to the main west coast rail line and still not clear of the Manchester airport flight path but these things were a minor price to pay for an otherwise peaceful and isolated mooring. We were now on the Trent and Mersey canal and the beautiful river Weaver was just a twenty minute stroll away. We spent hours and hours exploring the Longacre and Birds woods nearby with their breathtaking displays of wild garlic and bluebells.

Bluebells
Garlic anybody?

Back on the boat Gill was busy transfering her recent photographs to the computer while I spent a relaxing hour sitting on the prow and watching a very patient heron fishing. The heron eventually caught his supper but not before a kingfisher had paid a visit and a sparrowhawk had shot across the canal in pursuit of some prey or other. A David Attenborough voice over wouldn’t have gone amiss but I guess you can’t have everything.

Photo by Gill
Painted lady butterfly
Photo by Gill
Heron fishing

Later whilst washing the dishes from our very tasty M&S dinner for two I was struck by the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of this existence we are living. Like the pendulum of a cranky old time piece we swing effortlessly between home life and wildlife without a pause. Our domestic circumstances are really not any different to those when we are stationery in the winter, but the travelling adds a completely different and ever changing backdrop to the everyday routines of our days. I think the appeal lies in the perfect blend of adventure and predictability. The familiarity and comfort of home but in a never ending variety of new places just waiting to be explored and discovered.

Time for another adventure

Time for another adventure. We’re off for another six months of meandering lazily around the waterways and I won’t be sorry to get away. We love the marina we live in during the winter and it’s been great to have the time to do work on the boat but the swallows are here and it’s time to follow their example and get moving once more.

OK, elephant in the room, no blogs all winter I know. No excuses I just haven’t felt inspired to write for some reason so with the full intention of making up for it over the next few months I’ll start with a quick run down of our second winter on the boat and the first of our retirement proper.

I say proper because after retiring in April last year it felt like I was on holiday until we came back to Rufford in October. I got no real sense of what retirement felt like and to be honest I was a little bit apprehensive going into the winter months. Newly retired folks seem to fall into two categories, those that get bored really quickly and either go back to employment or throw themselves into voluntary work and those who say, “I don’t know how I ever had time to go to work”. I appear to fall into a third category, that of enjoying doing lots of things whilst revelling in not having to do any of them. Choice has never felt so good. I’ve always liked choosing. Choosing a book in a library, a meal in a restaurant or a route for a walk or a bike ride, but being able to choose just about everything I do is totally liberating. But there’s a catch. It didn’t take long to work out that whilst I could choose to be idle all day every day, or spend every day busy as a bee it turns out it’s all about balance. Isn’t it always? I’m getting the hang of it but maybe it will take a little longer to fine tune things and who knows, I may even choose to write more.

Nice to be home

Coming back to Rufford was a joy. Like a real home coming. We were enthusiastically welcomed by old friends and warmly accepted by all the new floating residents that had moved here in our absence. The marina is full now and it’s such a lovely community to live in. Totally relaxed, peaceful, stress free and friendly. We are surrounded by nature and in tune with the ticking of the seasonal clock. I have loved being immersed in the transitions from autumn to winter and eventually spring. To really have the time to notice the falling leaves, first frosts, frozen water, snow drops, catkins and daffodils and now, our first fledgling mallard ducklings have marked that passage with a reassuring sense of inevitability. Our regular walks along the tow path have rewarded us with so many sightings of kingfishers we have reached the point that it’s disappointing not to see them. Barn owls, roe deer and hare have all surprised and delighted us whilst the sight and sound of thousands of pink footed geese passing overhead are as much a part of winter as frosted window panes and frozen hose pipes. I have loved it all.

Piggy backing: an early sign of Spring

Converting the spare bedroom on the boat into a sitting and eating area with storage has kept me busy while Gill has been honing her skills as an artist. She seems to have uncovered a treasure chest of hidden talent whilst I have become a dab hand with a tin of emulsion and four inch roller. It’s been great to ‘put our mark’ on the Golden Girl and she now feels well and truly like home. We are now frantically finishing a long list of final preparations before departure and wondering why we didn’t start the list sooner or at least make it shorter. It can feel a bit pressured until I remind myself that since we are actually going away in our home with everything in it there isn’t really a departure day at all. Like the seasons, it’s much more of a transition from our stationary winter mode to what we hope will be another wondrous wandering summer.

Gill’s painting is really coming along

Our route this year is no more precise that ‘vaguely heading south’ but we will be passing through some glorious countryside. I don’t like to promise but I’ll try to blog a little more than last year and if anybody fancies meeting up at a waterside hostelry or two it would be lovely to see you.

Teenagers in the making

Blackcaps and Bluebells or “What’s in a name?”

I’ve always liked those short pithy adages that sum up a huge experience or offer profound advice in a few thought provoking words. Things like; “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. That particular one often comes to mind when I sit down to try and write something. The barriers to doing so many things in life can usually be brought down by making that first brave and daunting step. I thought I would have a go at writing my own saying to sum up what I did last week. It’s a bit rubbish and I doubt it’s destined to feature in the top ten memes of the twenty first century but here it is anyway:

“If you can’t sell your house and buy a boat, take a walk in a Bluebell wood.”

I have always taken a passing interest in birds and wildlife but working at Brockholes Nature Reserve here in Lancashire has fuelled that curiosity and given me a thirst for more knowledge. In particular I was keen to get to know the reserve better first hand and with that in mind and a certainty that getting close to nature is a sure fire way of putting things in perspective Gill and I decided to spend a day there. What could be more fun than poking around in the woods and gazing out over the River Ribble and the numerous lakes in the hope of spotting some of the rarer delights of the reserve and trying to identify them.

Brockholes floating village

It wasn’t long before we were staring hopelessly up into the now quite dense spring foliage of the trees desperately trying to pin down the source of a loud and stunningly beautiful bird song. It doesn’t help that in my case being deaf in one ear means that I have no sense of audio direction. Most of the time I wasn’t even looking in the right tree. We did eventually spot a small bird with a black cap as the source of the warbling and identified it as the unimaginatively named Blackcap. This led me off on a train of thought about all the people that spot birds and other wildlife and claim to have no idea what they have seen. Like the small seagull with the black head for example. That will be the Black Headed Gull actually. Or the dainty little white butterfly that I was watching just the other day. When I looked it up later on the internet it turned out to be called a Small White. I should have guessed. You see you probably know a lot more than you think.

Small bird with black cap. (Photo Wikipedia)

That theme doesn’t always run true though. The next bird we identified, the Garden Warbler wasn’t in a garden at all. A much better name for it would have been The Tall Trees by the River Warbler. Nice song though. After a couple of hours of exploration we made our way back to report our findings and add them to the sightings board in the visitor centre. There, one of the regular bird experts, Bill Aspin, undermined our growing confidence in song recognition by playing us a recording of a Willow Warbler (not always in Willow Trees I should point out) which was impersonating a Chiff Chaff. Oh well, still lots to learn I suppose. We paused to recuperate over a sandwich and a cuppa in the floating restaurant on the lake.

Re-fuelled we made our way along the reed bed walk and peered deeply in the reeds in the hope of spotting a Reed Warbler (makes sense) or maybe a Reed Bunting. What we did see was both a Large Red Damselfly and a Blue-Tailed Damselfly both of which live up to their names admirably.

Large Red Damselfly. (Photo Gill Pearson)

This was all beginning to make sense now and a small brown bird with a white throat turned out, predictably, to be called a Whitethroat. Everything was falling into place until we spotted a Kestrel and a pair of Linnets and and I realised the flaw in my new found theory of how to guess the name of everything. Then there was a pair of Great Crested Grebes building a nest on Ribble Pool. They break all the rules; Grebe meant absolutely nothing to me but the great crests on their heads made some sense. It’s all very confusing. When I say they were nest building by the way that isn’t quite accurate. One of them, gender not established, was busily swimming all over the lake gathering reeds and twigs and laboriously bringing them back to add the the structure while it’s partner slept peacefully nearby. Occasionally the sleepy one would raise it’s head and open an eye as if to say, “you’re doing fine, just another couple of hundred sticks should do it”. I could sense a row brewing so we moved on and left them to it.

Grebes with great crests (Photo Gill Pearson)

Now we were in the Bluebell Woods.

Lots of bell shaped blue flowers. (Photo Gill Pearson)

In every direction there were thousands of small, blue, bell-shaped flowers. Who would have imagined. As we were watching a delightful little Bank Vole (a vole that lives in a bank) amongst some fallen logs a couple of visitors came by. Seeing our binoculars they jumped to the false conclusion that we knew a thing or two. They were wondering if we could throw any light on the identity of a small song bird they had seen. It was a pale brownish grey with a black cap they said. We tried not to sound too smug as we confirmed for them that what they had seen was almost certainly a Blackcap. They didn’t look particularly impressed and I think they may have thought we had just made the name up.

So there we go. A fabulous day of diversion therapy in a beautiful place. Oh, and if you were wondering; Brock is the old word for Badger. On the fringes of the reserve there are Badger sets and of course Badgers make holes don’t they. Which brings me back to adages and the particular one; “What’s in a name?” Quite a lot it seems.

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.

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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.

 

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.

 

Wildlife on wheels

Bit of a dearth of blogging lately I know, my only excuse is starting work and spending all my spare time trying to stop the big fat pigeon from eating all the food we put out in about thirty seconds. There will be more on that and my new job in another post soon.

In the mean time I have been guest blogging for the Wildlife Trust junior web pages on the joys of combining cycle touring with watching wildlife. The result is over here: http://wildlifewatch.org.uk/wildlife-cycling I hope you like it.

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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.

 

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