Photo Journal: Machair Wildflowers on the Isle of Coll

The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful.  The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.

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The sweeping arc of Feall Bay, on the southwestern coast of Coll
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The beaches of Feall and Crossapol are seperated by a fixed dune system rising over 50 metres in places, including a large swathe of flower-rich machair

The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides washes up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall.  Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of north western Scotland, and western coast of Ireland.

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I started to rue not paying attention when being taught the names of wildflowers by my Granny.  But I do know this is silverweed, and prefers damp spots close to the shore.
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I think this dandelion-like flower is a type of hawkweed.
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Sea pink, also known as thrift, and stonecrop clings to niches in the bare rock.
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Wild thyme and ladies bedstraw form a dense, deeply-scented carpet on the machair.

In her 2018 book Wilding, Isabella Tree reconts a number of alarming statistics about the state of nature across the British and Irish Isles, including the fact that around ninety per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War.  This has had a devastating knock-on effect on invertebrate fauna, and the birds which depend on them.

The machair of the Western Isles is a last stronghold, lavish with wildflowers through the spring and summer.  Common species like red and white clover, buttercups, daisies, wild thyme, ladies bedstraw, and bird’s foot trefoil carpet the pasture, with a scattering of rarer species like the Hebridean spotted orchid and Heath orchid.  The area around Hough Bay is a hotspot for bloody cranesbill.

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A blanket of dasies and buttercups cover the machair next to the RSPB reserve carpark.
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Machair wildflowers are vital for rare bumblebees, such as the great yellow bumblebee, once common across the British and Irish Isles, and now restricted to a few areas in the Hebrides.
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The machair was traditionally used for summer livestock grazing and hay cutting.  It would have been exacly like the scything scenes in Poldark.
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The size of that handsome lad.  He’s so tiny and cute.
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The island of Coll, and neighbouring Tiree, are reputed to have the highest number of sunshine hours anywhere in Scotland.
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I think this might be saxifrage, or maybe eyebright.  I do have a very good flora guide (Warne, The Wild Flower Key), but I’m just not very good at using it.
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There’s three or four different species of orchid found on Coll and Tiree.

Sea pinks (thrift) and stonecrop find refuge among the rocks. Ragged robin, meadowsweet, and beds of yellow flag (iris) define wetter areas, and provide the preferred hiding spots for crackling, croaking corncrakes, often heard but rarely seen on their summer sojourn from southern Africa.

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I’m pretty sure that these pictures are all of the same kind of orchid.
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They are either the Hebridean spotted orchid or the heath spotted orchid, though they can hybridise.  I also saw early march orchids, but my photo was rubbish.
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A green-veined white caterpillar chomping on a creeping willow.
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Hay meadows in the in-bye can conceal corncrakes; the crackling calls that give them their scientific name, Crex crex, the only clue to their presence

The drowsy, blossom-sweet scent of the machair charges the air on a warm day in June, enough that passing ships catch a draught on the breeze, like a half-remembered afternoon from childhood.  From the beginning of May to midsummer, the machair belongs to the skylarks, singing more than 18 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, and rare bees, bumbling through the flowers, honey-drunk on nectar.

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The sandy machair merges into the blackland of peat moors and bogs, and the plant community changes.
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Bell heather, ling, crowberry, bog cotton, and even some rare alpine species are found on the higher ground.

What I’ve loved this Summer

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Through this summer most of my travels have either been onboard Irene, or around the areas where the ship has been based.  After completing the TGO Challenge, and taking part in an interview for a winter job, I returned to Oban to rejoin the ship.  After a quick turn around, we picked up Kag, our kayaking guide, and a bunch of boats, and headed out to explore the islands of the Inner Hebrides.

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Looking back at Oban from the middle of the Sound of Kerrera

Our first stop was the sheltered water of Loch Spelve, on the eastern side of Mull, to wait out high winds and feast on mussels from the local farm and foraged seaweed.  As I was pottering about in the tender I had a phone call.  I was successful at the interview.  I got the job!  Or more accurately, I was going to be part of the team to do the job.  More about that below.

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Deckhand Dan, possibly the least successful fisherman on Irene.

Once storms abated, we headed through the Sound of Mull and round Ardnamurchan Point to the Small Isles, spotting a couple of minke whales on the way.  We dropped anchor off Eigg, under the imposing An Sgurr, for a couple of nights, and I was fortunate to join the group for an paddle along the east side of the island accompanied by singing seals and diving gannets.  Kag also introduced us to the concept of sea diamonds, which made kayaking in a total downpour seem damply magical.

Back in Oban we had time for a quick crew turn around and a couple of great nights out, before heading out.  This time we turned southwards, heading for Jura, and the sheltered water of Loch Tarbert, and Islay, dropping the kayakers in near Ardbeg for a paddle round to Port Ellen, with as many whisky stops as they could manage.  On the return leg, we called in by the islands of Oronsay and Colonsay, anchoring in beautiful Kiloran Bay for a barbecue on the beach.

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Irene at anchor in Kiloran Bay, Colonsay.  An extremely damp beach recce, but the weather dried up overnight for a beautiful stay.

At the end of June I had what felt like my first proper holiday in a very long time.  I spent five days on the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, and was blessed with the best weather conditions.  A spot of rain on the first afternoon, just enough that I didn’t feel I was missing out while I caught up on sleep after leaving the ship.  Then beautiful sunshine and light winds to cycle around from one end of the island roads to the other, and stopping off at spots around the island to hike, swim, birdwatch and beachcomb.

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The sweeping silver sand beach at Feall Bay, Isle of Coll

At the end of my leave I returned to Irene in Swansea, to move her round to Cornwall for the final months of the season.  We stopped off at Lundy on the way, anchoring overnight beneath the cliffs.  A 1am wake-up call to move anchor at the turn of tide turned out to be one of the most magical experiences of the voyage, as thousands of Manx shearwaters swirled through the air around us, through the rigging, and called out from their burrows.  A stowaway bird emerged from the hawsepipe the following morning, and I helped her back to the sea.

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At anchor off Lundy in the Bristol Channel on our way between Wales and Cornwall.

We finished our voyage in Newlyn, which became our base for the next month for voyages to the Isles of Scilly and Brittany, and very quickly one of my favourite places.  As a working fishing port, life here lacks the softness and sanitation of nearby coastal villages.  You wouldn’t be wrong to describe the place as rough or gritty, especially after a night out to the Swordfish pub, once considered one of the roughest in the UK, but the richness of the stories I found was compelling.

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Irene of Bridgwater sailing in Mount’s Bay. Photo credit: Penzance NCI
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Irene approaching Newlyn harbour under full sail. Photo credit: Penzance NCI
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Sailing onto the mooring alongside in Newlyn. Photo credit: Penzance NCI

I’d been looking forward to visiting the Isles of Scilly all summer, however weather conditions were not in our favour.  One drizzly grey voyage, and another blown out by an Atlantic storm.  However the Brittany trip was fantastic, with a few days exploring around Tréguier and Ile de Bréhat, and a wonderful wildlife-filled channel crossing, with common dolphins accompanying the ship from sunrise onward.  The only disappointment was that we arrived back to Newlyn on the very same day a humpback whale was filmed lunge feeding just a couple of miles away, and we missed it.  Check out the awesome photos on the Lone Kayaker’s blog, including one of Irene passing St Michael’s Mount. 

On my next leave I caught up with the rest of the team for my new job for a couple of days in London to get to know each other better, and for the chance to bombard Lucy, returning for a second season, with hundreds of questions about what to expect.

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Keeping lookout from the top of the lightbox
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Sailing onto our mooring outside Charlestown Harbour.

Back on Irene, we relocated the ship to Falmouth, using it as a base to explore the coast from The Lizard and Start Point, visiting Salcome, Fowey, and Mevagissey, as well as a favourite anchorage in the Helford River.  With big winds forecast on a couple of days, we also explored the upper reaches of the Fal above Trelissick Gardens.  At the very end of August we dropped in by the Classic Sail Festival at Charleston Harbour, deep in Poldark country.  So many beautiful boats that I want to sail on.

 

The new job!

So, it’s going to be very different this winter.  I’m extremely excited to share the news that I’ll be heading to Antarctica, to spend the southern summer season working in the Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy.  I’ll be part of the team helping to run the Post Office and greet visitors to the island, and have the responsibility to monitor the resident penguin population through the season.  I’m beyond overjoyed about it all, though a bit daunted at the prospect of four months on a small island in a remote setting.

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My summer love list:

Books: It’s been difficult to find time to read through the summer, but long train journeys to meet the ship in Swansea and Newlyn were perfect. I read Empire Antarctic: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis, taking screeds of notes.  I also discovered the fabulous Beerwolf pub/bookshop in Falmouth, and succumbed to temptation, buying a couple of copies of Granta Magazine.

TV Show: When I’m off the ship I can catch up on watching films and TV that I don’t usually get the chance to see.  The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has me so excited.  I absolutely adored the film when I was young.  And, inspired by my time in Cornwall this summer, I’ve got really into Poldark.  For the traditional sailing ships, not the shirtless scything, honestly.

Clothing: I’ve been living in shorts and flipflops for the past three months.  I don’t think I’ll ever manage to wear proper shoes again…

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Equipment: I think my most used bit of kit through the summer has been a heavy duty drybag with a shoulder strap that I discovered in the magic middle aisle of Aldi.  It’s been perfect for getting back and forward to the ship in the dingy while we’re on a mooring buoy or anchorage.

Food: Have you ever found a restaurant so good that you go back again the following night to finish off the menu?  The Sound Pantry in Newlyn is one of those places. The most delicious home-made Portuguese food for dinner two nights in a row, plus a morning visit to pick up pasteis de nata for our coffee break.

Treats: I spent an afternoon in the galley with our ship’s chef Alex and learned how to make the most fantastic baklava. So good.

What’s next:

These next few weeks are going to be an exciting time, as I prepare for spending the next few months living in Antarctica and working at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy.

I’ve also got a few hiking trips planned, including the Great Corset Caper, where I’ll join with a bunch of awesome women to take on Pen y Fan, in the Brecon Beacons, wearing period costume.  I have to admit, I’m very nervous about it, particularly the corset.

Thanks for following These Vagabond Shoes.  You can keep up to date with my adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  And look out for plenty of penguin facts to fill the time while I’m out of contact down south.

Read about my spring adventures here.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or plans you have for the season ahead.
Let me know in the comments below.

In Search of Martians on Horsell Common, Surrey

For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice on the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.

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The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.

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Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.

The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics by the side of the road, of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes; the adventure of being outdoors.

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The Woking Martian by Warofdreams on CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=940898

So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…

…not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.

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The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of aggregate quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath.

The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one. But still they come.

The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.

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Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.

Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.

We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.

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My Cold Weather Essentials

first_foot_at_compton_smallAs a wildlife ranger I’d spend the vast majority of my working time outside, all year-round, whatever the weather. As autumn heads into winter, there’s a few additional things I rely on to make it easier to get out and do my job, and to make the most of adventures on beautifully crisp winter days.

A buff

I have several of these stretchy fabric tubes, and they’re some of the most useful things I own. For keeping my ears warm when it’s just not quite a hat day; stopping cold wind creeping down my neck; covering my face as I watch birds through my binoculars on a frosty morning; making sure my windswept hair under stays under control; or just wiping damp camera or phone lenses.

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Warming up from the inside with a Thermos food flask

A food flask

After a long day outside in low temperatures, there’s nothing better than a hot, home-cooked meal. Well, perhaps something warm to eat to keep you going during the day, or as you sit out to watch the winter sun go down. I have a wide-mouthed Thermos food flask, which comes with a folding spoon and a large lid. Perfect for soup, stew or a curry.

A portable battery pack

It seems like the cold drains the life from my phone at a ridiculous rate. It’s part of my lone working policy to have a working phone to check-in through the day, and I’d never want to be caught out at the end of the day without a way to call for help if I get into trouble. Plus, I use the camera all the time, and wouldn’t want to miss a beautiful sunset sky.

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A winter midlayer from Houdini Sportswear

Insulated Jacket

I love my Houdini Sportswear insulated jacket, with primaloft insulation. It’s a perfect mid-layer between my branded ranger polo shirt and outer two-part coat (softshell inner and waterproof outer) for early mornings and late evenings when temperatures drops, and tucks away in its own pocket to stuff in my bag while I don’t need it.

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Keeping warm with a Buff, Finisterre wrist warmers and Rab knit gloves

Merino wrist warmers and gloves

I need to keep my hands warm while I’m using my binoculars or telescope to watch birds, but also be able to do little fiddly jobs like fastening zips or adjusting focus on my camera easily. So I layer my Rab knit gloves over a pair of merino wrist warmers from Finisterre.  Both are fine enough that I could wear under my ski gloves if temperatures really drop, and the wrist warmers keep me warm and let me pick up shells and other strandline treasures from the beach without getting my gloves covered with sand.

Softshell trousers

In winter I upgrade my usual hiking trousers for a pair of softshell trousers, currently a pair of Craghoppers Kiwi Pro Stretch pants. The water resistant, windproof finish of the fabric makes a huge difference when you spend most of the day out on the coast, with the chance of drizzle, windblown sand, and low temperatures.

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What kit can’t you do without when the weather starts to turn wintry?
Share your tips in the comments below.

What I loved this autumn

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Making repairs to the mainsail on Blue Clipper  while alongside in Molde, Norway

Where I’ve been:

I’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.

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Preparing to leave Ålesund, Norway, as dusk falls

Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund.  I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavn for a week longer than expected.

The voyage was amazing for wildlife encounters; migrating barnacle geese, eider ducks and other birds heading southwards, enormous sea eagles on every island, sharks cruising by on the surface, basking seals, pods of porpoises, dolphins, pilot whales.  Sparking bioluminescence mirroring the night’s stars.  And as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, a day or so north of Camariñas, two magnificent fin whales broke the surface on our starboard side.

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Fin whale blowing and surfacing in the Bay of Biscay. Picture courtesy of Mario Branco.

I’ve never really been one for sunshine holidays, so the Algarve has never really been on my travel radar until now.  I was really pleased to find that away from resorts (and in the shoulder season) there’s some really beautiful and wild parts of the coast, near Alvor and Sagres, estuaries and saltmarshes filled with birdlife, and even storks roosting on every tower in town.  And Portuguese food is pretty good too.

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Leaving the resorts behind to discover the wilder side of the Algarve coast
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There’s much more to the Algarve than golf courses and beach bars

Back in the UK I’ve been fortunate to get a couple of short trips in the time I’ve been back, with a couple of days in the Peak District near Leek, and a few more in Church Stretton to hike in the Shropshire Hills, brush up on my navigation skills, and appreciate the stunning autumn colours.

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Autumn in the English countryside

What I’ve done:

Since returning to Bedfordshire, I’ve joined the weekly parkrun at my nearby country park.  It’s been so long since I’ve been running, and I’m still getting over a knee injury, so I’m starting from the beginning again, but I really enjoy the sociability of the runs.

I’ve been developing an idea for a podcast, which I hope to launch next month.  So when I get a moment, it’s filled up with working: reading, researching, and writing.  Watch this space for more news.

I’ve also pulled out all my hiking gear, waterproof clothing, and sailing oilskins to give them all a proper deep clean, and coating with Nikwax waterproofing treatment ready for winter.  I hope the effort will pay off and keep me dry and warm through the months ahead.

My autumn love list:

Book: I’ve been remotely discovering the Scottish islands over the last couple of months, with several of the books I’ve read.  But When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John MacLeod has been the one that’s lingered longest in my mind.  An account of the tragic loss of the ship returning demobbed WWI soldiers and seamen home to the islands for Hogmanay, and the long shadow cast by the worst peacetime maritime loss in British waters.

Podcast: Dan Snow’s History Hit, which does exactly what is says on the tin.  Each is a short but deep dive into a specific event or idea from history.  With the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI in November, my recent interest has been mainly in the episodes covering that period.  Which brings me on to…

Film: They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary film by Peter Jackson that tells the story of WWI from the British point of view, using old film archives and recorded interviews.  The moment that the images on screen transition from black and white to colourised 3D footage is simply spine-tingling.

Clothing: Since returning from the Algarve to Bedfordshire, I’ve embraced the chill to get out and make the most of my favourite season.  That means warm woollen sweaters, including my favourite knit from Finnisterre, cosy socks, and a new pair of gloves from Rab.  I’ve also been able to dig out my flannel pyjamas for enjoying toasty evenings in.

Equipment: With the clock change last month and nights drawing in, I’ve found myself out in the dark often, and my Petzl Tikka+ headtorch has become one of the things I use most.  As a lightweight lamp, with a red light, it’s great for moving around a ship at night or going on evening runs, however I think I might look into upgrading to something more powerful for hiking in the dark, like one from LED Lenser.

I’ve also found my Thermos food flask, which is perfect for packing a warming lunch of soup, stew or pasta while I’m out and about.  It’s one of my cold weather essentials.

Treats: Autumn always means mince pies.  They’re usually available from around the time of my birthday in September, and I buy a selection from the different stores to work out which is my preferred mince pie for the season.  I’m still in the testing stage this year, as I’ve been scoffing pastéis de nata in Portugal until recently.

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Blogging in Blue Clipper’s saloon with good coffee and a few pastéis de nata

What’s next:

I’m planning on a much quieter few months over the winter, spending time back up in northeast Scotland visiting friends and family.  I’m hoping that there will be plenty of time to walk along the coast, and take a few trips into the mountains, around the projects I’ll be working on.

I’m also going to get stuck into the planning for my next big adventure, looking at maps, blog posts, and guides.  In May 2019, I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland from west to east.  Participants choose their own start and finish points, and plan their route between the two.  This will be my second attempt at the TGO, so I’ve some unfinished business to deal with, plus it’s the 40th Anniversary of the challenge.

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures (and vague rambling ideas) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

 I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead.  Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

Armchair Travel: 10 Books for a Wild World

For the second edition of my Armchair Travel series, I’m going back to nature.

Inspired by the Wildlife Trust’s #30DaysWild campaign, I’ve been thinking about some of the nature writing that has inspired me over the years. Not just to travel and spend time outdoors, but in my chosen career: I’ve worked in wildlife and nature conservation as a ranger and environmental education officer for several years.

So lace up your hiking boots and grab your field glasses, in this instalment we’re heading for a close encounter with ten books to go wild with…

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  • The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane pleads the case for wildness in our lives, from wide-open spaces, mountain peaks, and remote islands, to a just a bit of time to stop and stare, at the birds flying overhead, moss growing from a crack in the pavement, the small things. The things that make us feel most alive..

  • Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell

I watched the film one rainy weekend at my grandparent’s house in Caithness, and I fell in love with the otters. The book is even better, capturing the delight, sadness, and sense of awe that comes from living close to wild animals without being overly sentimental.

  • The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples – Tim Flannery

Though the title sounds like this might be a textbook, the subject matter dense and the scope epic, Flannery is an engaging writer with a deep understanding of the topic. The second part of the book is challenging, sometimes uncomfortable reading, but provokes the reader to consider their own relationship to the natural world.

  • Orison for a Curlew – Horatio Clare

I’m a bit of a birder, a beginner still, but I’m growing to know more and more. This slim book seemed to jump out at me on my last trip to the bookshop, and I was spellbound by the first page alone. The slender-billed curlew is rare, perhaps only a rumour, and in beautiful writing Clare examines the meaning of extinction, and how some species can be gone before we know they really exist.

  • The Outrun – Amy Liptrot

It’s often said that nature is the greatest healer, and this book is a celebration of the windswept nature of Orkney and the balm it provides Liptrot on her road to sobriety. It’s also a meditation on leaving behind the familiar, and returning home after a long exile.

  • Gorillas in the Mist – Dian Fossey

Fossey was a challenging and uncompromising woman, and pioneered the study and conservation of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire). It’s a hard book to read with the hindsight garnered from 30+ years since her murder in 1985, but ultimately rewarding in providing context to bucket-list dreams of mountain gorilla encounters.

  • Winter Count – Barry Lopez

This beautiful collection of short stories are so grounded in the natural world, I didn’t realise they were works of fiction on my first reading. A collection of stunning writing and evocative images that contemplate the relationship between people and nature.

  • Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

Another collection of short works, this time inspired by Scotland and Scandinavia, too beautifully written to be called essays and too sharp and insightful to be called reflections, which conjures up something wafty and vague to my mind. I wish I could write like this.

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  • The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia – Piers Vitebsky

I love reindeer; like really, really love reindeer. Enough to holiday north of the Arctic circle in February, and to visit the Cairngorm herd every time I’m in the area. This book is a beautiful account of people, animals and place; a classic of ethnography.

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

No list of books about wildlife would be complete without Gerald Durrell, and this is the book that introduces most people (including me) to his, er, well… adventures. So laugh-out-loud funny in places, it’s almost rude to read it in public. If you don’t read any of the other recommendations in my list, you must read this one.

Do you have a favourite piece of nature writing you can recommend to me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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Why you should try birdwatching.

BirdwatchingHello. My name is Vicky, and I am a birdwatcher.

I have many and varied interests (well, don’t we all?), but one thing that makes my heart go a-flutter more than most is grabbing my binoculars and keeping tabs on the local birdlife. It started as out a necessity, a university research project mapping the food web of an intertidal mudflat. Just work out who eats what…, and my interest grew slowly from that.

I’ve watched spear-sharp gannets dive for fish on the Scottish coast as I sailed by. I’ve hiked into a kauri forest in New Zealand at night searching for kiwis shuffling through the undergrowth. I spotted an improbably balanced toucan in a kapok tree as I set up a bivvy in the Belizean jungle. And every autumn I watch out for skeins of brent geese, like squadrons of aircraft, returning from the Arctic to my local coast.
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What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?

David Attenborough

Birdwatching brings all kinds of small pleasures; spotting something new and exciting, or something friendly and familiar; being outdoors and feeling the wind and weather around you; becoming attuned to the surroundings and focusing on observation. For me, it beats any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice.
puffins

Five tips for beginner birders

  • Begin at the beginning. Start by noticing what’s going on in your garden or local park. You can even put some feeders out to encourage birds close to where you can see them. Observe things like size, colour, behaviour; think about how you’d describe them and start to put some names to the regular visitors. The RSPB Bird Identifier is great to help get you started.
  • Get some gear. Basic birdwatching doesn’t need much; just looking and listening can often be enough to get you started. A field guide will help with identification, as will a notebook to jot down or sketch what you’ve seen. Good walking boots and warm, waterproof clothing will make your life more comfortable out in the field. Investing in pair of binoculars is the next step. Beginner level binoculars can be picked up for between £50 and £100, and decent pairs are often available second hand. Look for a good balance of magnification, field of view, and weight; I’d recommend going for 8×42, like my Opticron pair.
  • Find a birding buddy. One thing I found that helped most to build my confidence was to ask other birders to show me what they were looking at, and share any tips they had that would help me remember the bird for next time. Most birders are friendly and love to share their passion with others, so say hello next time you visit a hide. Twitter is also a great way to find people; follow your local nature reserves, and you’ll soon pick up other birders that will help build your skills.
  • Get to know your local patch. Find a nearby area that looks likely, such as your garden, a nature reserve, a stretch of coast, or any green space, and visit it often. You’ll soon start to see patterns and changes in the birds you see, and their behaviours, as the seasons change around you.
  • Swot up on species. Most nature reserves and hides have a sightings board or book with the birds that have been spotted recently. Match up the list with the pictures in your guide so you know what you’re looking for. You’ll also find online lists that tell you what to expect in your area, and any recent sightings of interest. There may also be a local ornithology group that you can join.

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The best books and guides for budding birdwatchers

  • How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, by Simon Barnes. A bad birdwatcher is a good thing. This book is a brilliant introduction into why watching birds is about tapping into your joy in the natural world.
  • The Collins Bird Guide, by Lars Svensson and Killian Mullarney. The most comprehensive and current book covering British and European birds, and worth investing in if you’re keen to improve your ID skills.
  • RSPB Bird Identifier. A feature on the RSPB website which suggests what you might have seen by answering a few questions, e.g. Where did you see it? What colour was it? What was it doing? and so on.
  • Identifying Birds by Behaviour, by Dominic Couzens. This book will supplement your field guide, and gives an interesting background into bird behaviour.
  • Birds Britannica, by Mark Coker and Richard Mabey. A rich study of the cultural and social connections between birds and people through history, filled with fabulous pictures.

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There are also a number of apps you can download to help with identification and recording species while you’re out and about.

Do you like to spend time birdwatching?
What’s been the most interesting bird you’ve seen on your travels?
Let me know in the comments below.