Monday, 27 July 2009

Two Men in a Canoe - Day 3

We awoke to bright sunshine in our secluded pitch at Longridge and enjoyed a cup of tea before packing up the tent and kit ready for our final day in the canoe. Our slightly leisurely place meant that the sky had clouded over by the time we paddled away but the river was quiet and peaceful on this Monday morning as we passed the riverside houses set into the steep wooded hillsides to the east of Marlow.

Breaking clear of the ribbon of steep hills we headed out into the wide expanse of flat land that is Cock Marsh, the Thames meandering in a huge U shape around the exposed land. Bronze age round barrows stand as beacons on wide expanse of undeveloped land, the increasing breeze and grey skies adding to the bleakness of the landscape. We pulled hard on the paddles as we headed dead to wind working warmth into journey weary muscles, our much improved technique sliding the canoe through the water with clean strokes and balance.
Bourne End came into view and we passed The Bounty Pub, a quirky riverside destination that has resisted the fashion for corporate makeover. We didn't take the opportunity to drop in and instead headed on round the bend in the river. The sun was breaking through now, though the breeze remained and as we took a comfort break we watched a true three man rowing boat heading upstream.

Pulling on the oars the two oarsmen were hard at work whilst the third reclined with a cigar in hand commentating on the view ahead. The craft itself looked at home on the water and a warm relic of a byegone age with its roof hoops still in-situ in its gunwales however we decided we had the best of it in our two man canoe - one lazing around while two worked at the oars without a view of where they were going is bound to cause friction on the journey!

Under the railway bridge at Bourne End and then on to Cookham, with time to stop for a coffee at The Ferry Inn. After the break it was in to our penultimate lock and then on into the steep valleys that surround Cliveden. This was dramatic landscape to be rowing through - the work was hard again as pulled against the stiff breeze funnelling down the valley. Civilisation was more apparent. We were closer now to the Heathrow take off path and visitors were scrambling around Cliveden's open gardens.

As we escaped the shadowy chill of Cliveden Deep the sun broke through to shine on the last leg of our trip. First the pretty Boulder's Lock and the riverside house on an island once the home of Richard Dimbleby and then the final league down to Maidenhead and journey's end.

Whilst no great physical undertaking, Nick and I had completed a journey of some substance and escaped our normal worlds for a brief time to reminisce, debate and enjoy each others company.

Roll on our next adventure.

1934 - a night at the Proms

The year of 1934 is not just the last year England triumphed over Australia at Lords before our recent victory, but also the year that saw the passing of three of the UK's greatest composers - Elgar, Delius and Holst. In remembering the 75th anniversary of their deaths, Saturday's Prom at the Royal Albert Hall included works from all three. It was broadcast live on TV but we had the immense pleasure of enjoying it live.

The programme opened with Elgar's Cockaigne - a musical portrait of London that was instantly recognisable as Elgar's work.

Delius's Song of the High Hills was completely new to me and was absolutely stunning. The piece took you from the foothills to the summit of a mountain and back down again making use of both orchestra and choir. At times ethereal, the heights and vistas were painted beautifully and delivered exquisitely by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and conducter, Sir Charles Mackerras.

After the interval we were treated to Gustav Holst's Planets Suite, appropriate in the programme also because of the proximity of the 40th anniversary of the moon landings. I was struck by the thought that when this was written in 1914 there was very little connection between man and space, save for those who studied the heavens through telescopes, yet my own life has always had the possibility and background of space, such is the passage of history. Not surprising then that the programme notes described Holst as being influenced in his work by the astrology of the planets rather than the science.

The opening, Mars, the Bringer of War, is familiar to all but its power was not lessened by familiarity. Written just prior to the First World War it is often described as graphically illustrating mechanised warfare before the world had experienced it or the term was invented, with its strident beat and pulsating brass phrases.

The rest of the seven planets (Earth is not included and Pluto had not been discovered at its time of writing) preceded with equal beauty to another ethereal climax as the ghostly off stage voices in Neptune, the Mystic quietly faded to silence. A breathtaking evening.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Two Men in a Canoe - Day 2

We awoke on day 2 of our trip to a bright morning after a refreshing nights sleep. As we made morning tea Ring Necked Parakeets flew across the site from tree to tree, their range now stretching across Hertfordshire and beyond out from their original population in West London. The shorter paddling day allowed for a trip into Henley for a full english breakfast and provisions for the day.
We were on the river bank and ready set off by 11am, continuing north towards Temple Island, the start of the Royal Henley rowing course. The temple is a folly built in 1771 buy architect James Wyatt as a fishing lodge for nearby Fawley Court, supposedly the inspiration for Toad Hall in Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows. Fawley Court's history dates back to before the Norman Conquest and was given as a gift by William I to Walter Giffard, a leading compiler of the Domesday Book. Rebuilt and added to many times in the following centuries, its current incarnation is largely the work of William Freeman who had the house largely built in 1684, with gardens and landscapes designed by Capability Brown from 1764-1766.

Five or six Red Kites swooped above the water meadows to our right. One of the most beautiful british birds to watch in flight, their re-introduction to the Chiltern Hills north west of London has been one of the great success stories of wildlife conservation in the UK. Twenty years ago in 1989, ninety birds were introduced from Spain to the area and with great local support numbers have now risen to 500.

Historically Red Kites were a common site above towns and cities in the UK and were welcomed as scavengers who cleaned stinking refuge from Britain's Medieval streets, but in the 16th Century a series of Government Acts classified the kite as vermin. Its extermination followed until in the late 18th Century the last birds had raised young in England. They were constant and majestic companions on our journey, always providing a good reason to stop paddling and watch their twisting acrobatic flight as they scanned fields and hedgerows for carrion, worms and small mammals.

Second prize in the journey's beautiful flyers contest went to the Common Terns who worked the larger stretches of the river, often accompanied by Black Headed Gulls. It was easy to spot the difference even at distance, in the same way as you can between a Ferrari and a Vectra - the tern has evolved into a supreme flying machine with sleek lines and edges and a highly efficient and powerful wing beat that moves them from northern to southern hemispheres with the seasons.

We continue round the bend in the river, passing huge mansions with rolling lawns down to the water's edge. This was definitely the posh side of Henley. Our next lock, Hambledon, was soon in site and we entered it in the company of a huge gin palace. On exiting we discovered that it isn't a good idea to get too close to the back end, as it sprayed us with water on firing up its engine! Out of the lock and we were soon alone again on the river, enjoying the solitude. Another Heron stood still as a statue and tolerated our gentle approach before swooping away with huge wing beats to find another place to rest before fishing trips.

Our next waypoint was Medmenham, with its memorial to a successful legal battle to keep the public ferry open many years ago and an old priory now used by Thames Water as a Water Research Centre. Pulling away from Medmenham we were treated to one of the highlights of the trip; a close up view of a kingfisher in its irridescent tourquoise blue plumage. We were lucky to see four in total on the trip, mostly watching them fly arrow like across the river a few inches above the surface. This one posed for us .

Next was Hurley Lock before lunch on the river bank and then the final push eastbound towards our destination for the night. The clouds became more broken through the afternoon, bringing the beauty of Bisham Abbey to life as we approached. The long time home of the England football team for training camps its secluded riverside location must have been a welcome restbite from the goldfish bowl life of the professional footballer.

Having frustrated a wedding photographer by getting in his shot as we paddled passed (!) we pushed on to Marlow accompanied by occasional rowers and canoeists, one of whom I now realise after a bit of research was naturalist/climber Steve Backshall. He and the others put us to shame with their speed through the water, but we comforted ourselves that ours was a leisurely paddle over 3 days and not a training session!

Finally we passed under the bridge at Marlow and into a our final lock of the day. I'd marked the location of our stopover site on the map, located using the postcode in Google Maps, so we headed for the location only to discover that it marked a riverside mansion. A quick call on the mobile soon put us right and we paddled downstream a little further and pulled up at the Longridge Outdoor Centre in the late afternoon sun.

After checking in at reception we pitched our tent in a secluded spot by the river and changed for dinner, ambling into Marlow. After a quick reccy of the town and its restaurants we decided The George and Dragon (part of the Table Table chain) suited our purposes best, so we settled in for a few pints and a steak which I finished off with a bowl of Eton Mess. I pilfered a few sachets of sugar for a late night cup of tea and we returned along the lanes in darkness back to Longridge and continued our conversation long into the night.

to be continued......

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Jenny Wren - a behavioural puzzle

Our garden provides a great habitat for our resident wren population. Colloquially known as the Jenny Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes (the first latin bird name I learned and is one of very few I do know!), they are a welcome companion in the garden. As their latin name suggests they feed close to, under or on the ground on spiders and insects. Males build several nests to attract a female but after this frenetic activity don't participate in the incubation of the 5-6 eggs and feeding the young. Two broods in a season are not uncommon.

So what I wonder is the behaviour we have recently observed in our garden and continued tonight for a couple of hours at least? Taking up prominent positions on shrubs and fence posts a wren called with strident incessancy, caught in the brightness of the late afternoon sun. At one time 3 birds were close together on a fence.

Two possibilities spring to my mind, but I would welcome other suggestions
  • Territorial - after the young have fledged there will be a larger local population, so the birds are re-establishing their territory and moving the youngsters on to pastures new.
  • Breeding display - It would seem too late in the season, but is the calling bird a male, calling to attract females to his newly prepared nest sites?
Troglodytes troglodytes
Widespread in Europe and Asia from Arctic Circle to Sicily. Only species of Wren in the UK and second smallest British bird. Known as the Winter Wren in North America

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Two Men In A Canoe - Day 1

Nick and I go way back. We shared our late teenage years, our love of cricket in our twenties and early thirties and over time have managed to sneek away together for the occasional adventure.
A conversation earlier in the year had pinned July as an opportunity to do something and the idea of a canoe trip on the Thames seemed to present the ideal combination of physical exercise, a bit of camping and some peace and tranquility to enjoy together.

Thames Canoes provided lots of help and advice and some suggested camp sites and a plan started to come together; Canoe from Reading to Maidenhead with overnight stops at Henley and Marlow. Campsites were booked, diaries were cleared and last Sunday we made our way to Maple Durham, just west of Reading to pick up our canoe.

Following a briefing from the chap from Thames Canoes we packed our kit into the dry bags, donned bouyancy aids and set off after ensuring we had double checked in which direction we were to paddle - a decision with significant consequences. The first reach was thankfully quiet and reasonably wide as we sought to get to grips with the action of paddling, balancing our strokes and steering in a straightline. Visits to either bank and close acquaintance with overhanging foliage gradually reduced in frequency as we pulled with growing confidence.

After an hour we started to pull into Reading, Sunday morning strollers walking the river bank and dodging the light and occasional squally shower. Flocks of Mute Swans, Canada, Pink-footed and Egyptian Geese, interspersed with Mallard ducks populated the waters close to the cafe and awaited expectantly for paper bags of easy food. Under the bridge and the river quietened as we approached our first lock, the sound of an acoustic guitar from a riverside garden mixing with the light wind pulling at the leaves in the trees.

Lock etiquette and practicality mean that a canoe is last to enter a lock and so we did, joining a narrow boat and two motor cruisers as sun and blue sky started to peak through the breaking clouds. Another few minutes and we were out of Reading, happy to take a break to refuel on Lucozade and sandwiches. With the canoe under better control we were able to take in the surroundings and the beauty of a late Sunday morning on the river.

While the river was low on human traffic the birdlife was in abundance. Great Crested Grebes followed our progress, each stretch of water had its resident bird or pair. Egyptian and Canada Geese rested on the banks or edges of riverside gardens in between bouts of lawn mowing. Common Terns and Black headed Gulls quartered the water, hunting for rising fish. The occasional heron stood sentry on the banks, immobile and primeval.

We pushed on, navigating with our improving boat skills around canoe races and activities to the east of Reading before striking out towards Sonning. Having negotiated the lock, we pulled over for a pint and sandwich at at the The Great House at Sonning hotel in glorious warm sunshine.

Our estimates suggested we were now about half-way through the Reading/Henley leg of our trip so we needed to get a bit of a move on. Refuelled and refreshed our strokes became stronger as we followed the meandering Thames north towards Wargrave and Shiplake. Beautiful riverside houses adorned the banks, their English charm unchanged for perhaps 80 years. Though we didn't know it, we passed a house built by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and the location of another - Park Place, which was owned by General Henry Conway, first Governor of Jersey. Its grounds contain the Druid's Temple, a neolithic passage grave transported from Jersey as a gift to the Governor. Unfortunately Park Place no longer stands having been destroyed by fire, but when the estate was broken up the Temple remained, now residing within the boundaries of Temple Combe.

My research also tells me that the parish church in Wargrave was burnt to the ground by suffragettes in 1914 as a protest against the vicar who would not remove the word 'obey' from the marriage service. We had no time to visit or ponder such issues as we pulled on our paddles, shepherded by Red Kites who floated on thermals above the river valley, constant sentinels on this part of the journey.
We were getting closer to Henley now and Sunday river traffic was growing accordingly. Day boats filled with groups of young couples drinking champagne interspersed the motor cruisers of varying sizes - we remained though the only human powered craft. Locks provided rest breaks as we pressed on for Henley finally sighting the town in the late afternoon.

Festival week, which follows Regatta week, was drawing to a close and the white tented hospitality village was sparsely populated as we came under the bridge and paddled up the famous rowing course.

Making for the bank we found a spot to disembark, pulled the canoe from the water and tied it to a tree, hiking inland a few hundred yards to the extremely well appointed Swiss Farm Caravan Park. We couldn't have timed our arrival better - we entered the bar and to our surprise Monty and Jimmy Anderson were still at the crease in Cardiff. An ice cold beer sated our thirst as England frustrated the Aussies for six long overs to pull off a famous draw in the first Ashes Test of the summer.

Our last task for the day was to pitch the tent and then get a shower before we headed out into Henley in search of sustinance, happy to find anywhere with food still on its menu before returning to the campsite as the sounds of Hey Jude drifted across the river from the last Festival party. The longest leg of the journey completed we slept well, looking forward to another day of tranquility on the river.

to be continued......

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Roesel's Bush Cricket - Metrioptera roeselii

It's quite muggy in Barwick today, though none of the threatened heavy showers have hit us yet. From the look of this shot though I think Standon and Buntingford have received a soaking!

In the strip of set aside land surrounding the crop a constant high frequency chirping could be heard and a bit gentle creeping around discovered the culprit. The wonderful tool that is the internet has helped me identify it as a Roesel's Bush Cricket Metrioptera roeselii which seems to be a species that is extending its range in recent times. The UK population is predominantly located in the South East of England with another population in West Wales/Pembrokeshire. They are also found in the Low Countries, parts of France, Germany and across Switzerland and Austria.

The long grass seemed to be teeming with them. A first for me and a pleasure to identify. Off in the morning for a three day paddle down the Thames in a 21st Century tribute to Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. A blog telling the story will appear next weekend.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Spotted Flycatcher

We are lucky to have a good local population of Spotted Flycatchers that migrate to the area each summer. Sadly the species is now on the red list, meaning that they are;
* Globally threatened
* Historical population decline in UK during 1800–1995
* Severe (at least 50%) decline in UK breeding population over last 25 years, or longer-term period (the entire period used for assessments since the first BoCC review, starting in 1969).
* Severe (at least 50%) contraction of UK breeding range over last 25 years, or the longer-term period
Source: RSPB

Our neighbours knocked a few weeks back and asked what could be done to help a fledgling that they had found in their garden, complete with nest. My wife was shown where this had been discovered and my daughter noticed a gap in the brickwork that had been the likely original location. A quick trip up the ladder and the nest and bird were returned to the brickwork with the parents returning to feed at the nest shortly after.

Spotted Flycatchers migrate to the UK from mid-April onwards from sub-Saharan Africa, some travelling from as far as South Africa, arriving all across Southern England.

This one was perched on a Scots Pine in the village tonight, flying out to catch insects in the early evening sun.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Hares at full moon

I took another walk around the wood on Sunday night and as usual came across the family of hares that live there. With a full moon rising to the east above the River Rib I thought the association of the two would make a nice shot. Hares and a full moon have had a long history in global folklore, driven in part by the pattern of craters that resemble a hare on the moon's surface.

I entered the woods and crept around as quietly as possible but none of the badgers showed themselves tonight. It was perhaps too late in the evening and they were all out foraging. I did disturb a fox though who had positioned himself on the treeline, well covered to ambush a hare or rabbit. Too quick for me to get a shot though in the failing light.

Later in the evening while operating a taxi service for my son I returned down the lane through the fields of ripening wheat, illuminated by the glow of the now fully risen moon. To my left I spied a fallow deer standing in isolation in the vast field, the crop rising to its haunches. As I drew closer I saw a further pair of ears just protruding above the wheat, almost completely hidden. I paused close by and for a few seconds the fawn and its mother stood and watched me before bounding away across the field. My first fallow deer fawn in 10 years watching the wildlife of this area.

Linguistic note: Fawn originates from the Old French 'faun' or 'foun' and Middle English 'faun', meaning a young animal or cub or young fallow deer

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Anyone know a Coleopterist?

A good afternoon in the garden today. The sun was warm and the breeze pleasant. A fair bit of weeding and clearing in the flower beds, some attention given to the tomato plants, all the veg received a good water and one of the raised beds has shiny copper tape edging to keep the slugs at bay.

A chance discovery on a log in the shade at the top of the garden has led to a bit of a research on the interweb and in 'Collins British Insects' tonight, but I'm still a little undecided on the identification of this beetle. I favour the Lesser Stag Beetle Dorcus parallelopipedus, but it could be a female Stag Beetle Lucanus cervus.

The book says three spines on the tibiae (part of the leg above the foot) for the Stag, with only one spine on the Lesser, but I can't see clearly in the picture and didn't know to look at the time.

What do you think?

Friday, 3 July 2009

A young, very tolerant leveret

A few days earlier I circled the plantation, picking up a family of hares above the wood on a field with young sweetcorn growing. The youngsters, not so aware of humans, or perhaps more tolerant, allowed me to get quite close. After a 30 minute stalk as they moved around the wood, I managed to creep to within 8 feet or so, snake like through the grass, to get this shot.

Inquisitive youngster

Earlier this year I treated myself to a new camera - A Pentax K200. I went with this as it was the equivalent digital model to the K1000 that I grew up with and allowed me to use my old lenses. Over the following months I decided to invest in a digital zoom to go with it and now I'm really getting to grips with it. I took this shot at my local sett with the film pushed to ASA1600 and a shutter speed of 1/250 at f5.6. It was around 6.45pm and I had been in position for barely five minutes. The young badger came through the undergrowth and returned to his sett before emerging again a couple of minutes later. He knew something was not right but still tentatively came towards me, posing for a moment before returning to ground. A great moment.