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One of the most talked about and debated subjects amongst narrow boat owners is toilets. The discussions revolve around the different options for dealing with the unavoidable consequences of not being attached to mains sewerage and they generally end up with an agreement to disagree. If you really want to know more about such things just search any boating forum for the phrase ‘toilet type’ or ‘toilet options’ and you will have all the entertainment you require to see you through the long winter nights. I haven’t raised this subject to start a debate but rather as an explanation for my unusual morning habit.
I have taken to going for a walk around the marina just as the day is dawning, which at this time of year is about 7am. The first time I took the stroll it was to avoid using our own on board toilet and therefore reduce the frequency with which it might need emptying. That purpose now plays second fiddle to the fantastic sunrises, the setting moon and the early morning sounds of nature that accompany me on the five minute walk each way.
I don’t meet many folks at such a time and those that I do probably think that I’ve forgotten the dog, but I do get to see the day wake up whilst waking myself up at the same time. Maybe I have just been lucky so far but I haven’t walked in the rain once and I’ve seen some stunningly beautiful skies. The sight of a razor sharp crescent moon suspended against an ice blue dawn sky would be enough to take anybodies breath away but last month the planet Venus came to add a touch of bling to the show too. The sky on the last two mornings has managed to graduate from a fiery orange yellow through the most delicate shade of violet to blue. It’s a trick that as a young painter I tried, but largely failed to recreate and it has fascinated me every time I have seen it since. The closer you look and the harder it is to see how the colours blend from one to the other.
Famous work of the well known artist; Nature
These magic skies are full of birds on the move at this time of year. Thousands of geese in great geometric skeins pass noisily overhead as they make their way to their day time feeding grounds whilst large flocks of jackdaws rise from the surrounding trees filling the air with their distinctive cries and putting me in mind of squabbling children.
Pink footed geese on their feeding grounds
There are always coots, moorhens, swans and mallards on the water, already busy at this early hour watching out for movement on a boat that might indicate food is on its way. The rapid repetitive quacks of the mallards always makes me think they are laughing at something. Come to think of it maybe they are: probably that daft bloke walking to the toilets at such an unearthly hour of the day.
“Any chance of a bit of breakfast?”
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After a half hour drive on nearly deserted city roads the initial shock of a 3am start is beginning to wear off. As we put on our boots and gather up camera and binoculars the light of the full moon is competing with the glow of the unrisen sun to create a half light and the sounds of the birdsong are clearly audible above the noise of the nearby motorway. It’s a short walk along one of the reserve paths to check on the nesting great crested grebe sitting stoically in the cold on her semi-submerged platform. Dedication personified. From here we enter the woodlands and as the sounds of nature take over from those of the grinding wheels of commerce we are, in turn, transported to another world. One of natural tranquillity and rich earthy smells emanating from the abundant woodland floor.
We can pick out the repetitive but beautiful call of a song thrush and just about make out its silhouette, perched on a nearby sapling and as we watch a subtle movement catches Gill’s eye. She calls out, quietly, deer! There are two young female roe deer just twenty yards from us. All four of us have stopped in our tracks and we stare at each other waiting for somebody to make a move. After a couple of breath taking minutes the deer decide we are far enough away not to pose any immediate threat and they melt quietly into the undergrowth. Jumping over fallen branches soundlessly and seemingly without effort they make their way through the familiar terrain as we clomp clumsily on along the path in our heavy boots, like aliens in a foreign world.
It’s still too dark in the woods for bird watching but we have fun trying to identify the numerous calls and songs. The familiar wren is ever present with its strikingly loud song that nearly always incorporates a giveaway trill mid call. It’s a wonder that such a tiny creature can create such a powerful cacophony? At less than a quarter of their size it drowns out the blackbirds and song thrushes it shares this place with and seems to shout out its territorial demands with an unlikely authority.
As we leave this enchanted place the sun is threatening to rise over the river, opposite the still bright moon which glows pale and surreal through the high branches of the trees.
It’s cold, very cold and despite the promise of a warm spring day later on; we are glad of hats and gloves as the faintest of breezes wafts the chilled air off the waters of the Ribble. The river is busy with black headed gulls, oyster catchers and the odd redshank. Herons are already standing sentinel, looking for their first fish or eel but the sand martins that occupy the riverbank mud walls are nowhere to be seen. I’m thinking that it’s probably too early but just as that thought crosses my mind the first ones appear swooping and darting above the river, leaving their nest holes to feed on the early flies.
Chilled bird watcher
A fiery red crescent is growing out of the distant skyline giving the impression that the eastern horizon is being engulfed by a terrible inferno.
Here comes the sun
I can’t wait to feel the first warm rays on my back as we turn away from the water and make our way towards the car park area where it’s very likely we will be able to spot one of my favourite mammals. We climb quietly up the river bank and peer, commando style, over the top of the rise and sure enough there are two brown hares cavorting on one of the paths just close by. They pick up our scent immediately and retreat to a safer distance but not before we catch a tantalisingly brief view of their antics. They are spotted on the reserve at all times of the day but if you want to be sure of a good sighting it’s best to come early.
Brown hare in car park. Photo by Emma Jayne Sharples
By now the odd car is arriving on the reserve. We are not alone any more and the feeling that we are somehow privy to a wonderful secret is slipping away. It’s time for something to eat and a brisk walk to restore some warmth to chilled fingers and toes. Our visit isn’t over but the main objective of experiencing the new day is. We have shared something very special that only a dawn walk can provide. There is a real sense of adventure about starting out in the dark and a wonderful reward in watching the birth of a new day at this spectacular time of year. Was it worth setting the alarm for three in the morning? What do you think?
Early morning light
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The song of the blackbird is a complex and beautiful thing, but not necessarily at 3.25am when it is just outside your open window. On this occasion, I was prepared to forgive him because this was the day of one of our annual dawn adventures and he was only five minutes ahead of the alarm I had set on my phone. I used the extra five minutes to listen to the seemingly infinite variety of beautiful calls that a blackbird can make and even smiled to myself as he seemed to try one or two that didn’t quite come off. If you have never listened to a blackbird then you should. It’s a sound that lifts the heart and is guaranteed to banish the saddest of feelings. I have read that the males sing like this to reinforce their territorial claims which seems a bit odd to me. Most animals spray urine or defecate to mark boundaries and many will openly fight. The blackbird sits on a post or rooftop and declares; “Just one step closer and I am warning you I will sing something even more beautiful than the last bit.” Rambo of the bird world he certainly is not. But this isn’t a blog about blackbirds; it’s a blog about going on a mini-adventure.
Ready for off
“You must be mad”, “Are you crazy?” or “Rather you than me” are the usual responses when I tell anybody that we plan to rise before the sun and head off for a walk or a bike ride, but these are knee-jerk reactions with no thought for what such an experience is really like. I’ll save you the bother of thinking it through for yourself and tell you what it’s like.
For me, at least, a good walk or bike ride in beautiful surroundings is a bit like a lovely tasty meal. That is to say that these things are satisfying in their own right but when you add a sprinkle of salt and vinegar to fish and chips or a generous handful of parmesan cheese Bolognese they really come to life. They are lifted to another level of sensation and choosing to set off on a walk or a bike ride before sunrise has the same effect. It adds spice. It turns just another outdoor experience into a mini-adventure. There is an enchanted short period before the sun rises when all the pleasures of being outdoors are intensified. The light is magical; the sounds are amplified and the smells are more distinct. There is a feeling of being part of a secret escapade simply because the majority of people wouldn’t contemplate doing such a thing. It’s as if the world is briefly yours and yours alone to explore and to indulge in. So that is why we crawled out of bed at 3.30am and put on our cycling kit.
Empty road, promising sky
The dual carriageway to Preston is normally a road we dread but at this hour it was a joy as we cycled side by side soaking up the passing sounds of the birds as they announced another day. After ten minutes we stopped in a layby for a quick breather and gasped at the beauty of the rapidly brightening eastern sky silhouetting the distant hills and the two hares that frolicked around in the field besides us. It was hard to imagine that just a few hours from now this road would be packed with speeding cars and lorries, their occupants totally unaware of our other world that had recently existed in another time.
Sunrise, Preston Marina
Our destination was Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve about twenty miles from home and in the time it took us to get there our two worlds of calm and chaos had been bridged. As we arrived in the village of Rufford at 6am the traffic was already starting to build and it was a relief to escape into the peaceful sanctuary of the woods and be enveloped by the sounds and smells of nature once more. We crept into one of the many lakeside hides and tucked into a well-earned breakfast sandwich before taking in the scene before us. The early morning light was as sharp and clear as the mist on the lake was ghostly, and the sound of an owl reminded us that the brand new day was only just beginning. A heron flew towards us from the far shore and landed just twenty yards away to patiently await its own morning snack while a small duck (Pochard we thought) with two youngsters in tow glided back and forth just in front of our viewpoint.
View from the hide
Now it was time to be still. To look, to listen and to breathe in the complex cocktail of aromas that surrounded us. The deep damp woody smell of the hide itself enhanced by the subtle fragrances from flowers and woodland plants all around us. The periods of complete silence broken by a tiny splash as a fish took a fly from the surface of the lake or the sudden surprisingly loud call of a moorhen amongst the reeds just below our viewpoint. Gradually our senses tuned in like eyes getting used to the dark as more and more of this magical scene was revealed. The incredibly subtle movement of the heron as it watches with infinite patience for a fish or frog in the shallows by the side of the lake. A huge bug clinging to a reed just inches in front of our eyes that we didn’t see until it moved and made us jump. It was like a secret magical world that would only be revealed if you were prepared to wait and let it come to you. This time of the day is something that is precious and deserves to be savoured and given space, it’s not a time for rushing around to see what can be seen. Let it come to you and the rewards are enchanting and will stay with you forever.
Inevitably the transient early morning had to come to an end and we prepared for a very different experience as we knew all along that this would be a trip of two halves. With some reluctance we pushed our bikes back out of the woods and taking the memories with us we took to the roads once more for the journey home.
We took a more circuitous route to get away from some of the heavier traffic and there was a little added spice as we progressed further and further along a road that we had been told more than once was “closed ahead”. Turning back at the first warning sign would have been like eating the fish and chips without the vinegar. This was a perfect opportunity to add that little extra zing as we gambled that we would be able to get through. I’m pleased to say that on this occasion the wager paid off.
We rode along quieter roads with names like Long Meanygate and Wholesome Lane and all the time the power of the sun grew steadily stronger reminding us of yet another reason for our crazy early start. Sadly, in the crossing of a roundabout these quiet roads were but a memory as we plunged back into Preston and all our attention was immediately focused on the fast and heavy traffic around us. We weren’t quite finished with nature though as on the city marina there are dozens of pontoons supporting nest boxes for visitors from Namibia in the form of common terns. We made a small detour to see how these noisy but spectacular birds were getting on.
The population had boomed since our last visit and hundreds of birds are now sitting on one, two or sometimes three speckled brown eggs while their partners dive for fish to keep them sustained. In contrast to the peace and tranquillity of the woodlands this was a scene of noise, aggression and fast, furious movement. All the birds seem to be continuously at war with each other, squabbling over space and stealing food from the very beaks of other birds in random acts of ambush.
Just another argument
They screamed at each other and pecked furiously at their neighbours, keen to maintain their small precious share of the available space. It occurred to me that life in the city is pretty much the same whatever the species.
We arrived home in the middle of another hot day. The blackbird was still singing away from his high perch but now I looked at him a little differently. Now we shared a secret, this blackbird and me; we both knew what it feels like to experience a new day from the very, very beginning. That blackbird isn’t crazy, and neither are we.
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Usually when people set their alarm clock for 3am it’s because they have a flight to catch. More often than not the flight will be taking them to some warm and possibly exotic place to start their annual holiday so the pain of the alarm is quickly replaced by excitement. The cruel interruption to our sleep had an altogether different purpose. No sun soaked beach or lazing by the pool with a G & T for us. Our destination was a stretch of the Lancaster Canal and the dawn chorus.
Sunrise was at 5am and the first birds usually begin to sing an hour earlier so I was worried we might have cut it a bit fine as we made our way down to the tow path. I was also disappointed to hear the steady drone of traffic from the distant M55 motorway. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get away from road noise these days, even pre-dawn. The motorists were probably all heading for Manchester airport and a flight to some …. oh hang on, we’ve done that already haven’t we?
As we descended to the water’s edge the noise faded as this part of the canal is deep in a cutting and we were blessed with near silence. It was cool but perfectly still, not a breath of wind to disturb the atmosphere. The rich smell of damp earth rose to meet us, so much more distinctive this early in the day. We’d made it just in time because the silence was broken at that moment by the beautiful and distinctive sound of a robin announcing the start of what we had come to hear. It was still dark enough to require care as we walked slowly along the path listening to those first few notes. Robins are often the first to sing and this one was soon joined by others and the silence was gradually filled with their cheery song. These soloists were quickly accompanied by the blackbird and its flute like mellifluous tune cutting clearly through the crisp morning air. We startled, and in turn were startled by, a moorhen which skittered across the water calling in alarm, its cries of panic momentarily drowning out the early song birds.
Creeping past the live-aboard narrow boats so as not to wake the occupants we reached a bench where the canal passes through dense woodland and settled down to listen to the performance. By now it was possible to make out the outlines of the trees against the lightening sky and the mist that was forming at the edge of the woodland. A heron took flight just fifty yards down the tow path and settled under the arched stone bridge to patiently watch for its first catch of the day. By now the bird song was unbroken and first the wood pigeons and then the fabulous wren joined the orchestra. A bat was patrolling on a regular patterned circuit making the most of the final cover of darkness. It would soon be replaced by the swallows. There would be no respite for the flying insects today.
Heron’s fishing spot
We strolled on, passing under the bridge, forcing the heron to relocate temporarily and as we left the woods behind a spectacle of pure magic unfolded. Patches of dense mist clung to hollows and along stretches of the water creating a mystical feel to the scene. In places the water provided crystal clear mirror images of the trees on the canal bank but then the mist would swallow the image in its cold silky veil. The tranquil scene was broken as a male swan chased away a family of Canadian geese that were getting too close to his mates nest. He flared his wings in a threatening gesture, swimming fast at the goose and letting him know who was boss. The female swan looked on anxiously then settled down again on the nest, fussing to ensure she had her eggs perfectly protected. Calm was restored.
Two trees for the price of one
Shhh, they may be asleep
The hedgerow was full of the song of wrens and the remarkably loud call of a warbler scolding us roundly for threatening her unseen nest. As the sun finally broke the horizon we turned tail and headed back towards home. The mist was clearing and the cacophony of song had now been replaced by the more familiar individual calls of pheasant, crow and wood pigeon. The performance was over for today and soon it would be over for this summer. For many of these early morning choristers the focus now will turn to raising their young and then preparing for another hard winter or a long flight home.
Sunrise, one hour after the dawn chorus begins
Our experience was well worth the pain of that early awakening and we had the advantage of heading home now to tea and bacon sandwiches before climbing back into bed to catch up on the lost sleep. I couldn’t help but think about those early morning travellers, no doubt waiting nervously in their boarding queues checking and rechecking their passports and tickets. I had to admit to a tinge of envy when I thought of them soaking up the sun but then I reflected on the last two hours and remembered that sometimes the magic is right on your doorstep if you just go and look for it.
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