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.

coll_feall_1_small
The sweeping arc of Feall Bay, on the southwestern coast of Coll
coll_machair_6_small
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.

coll_machair_10_small
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.
coll_machair_9_small
I think this dandelion-like flower is a type of hawkweed.
coll_feall_2_small
Sea pink, also known as thrift, and stonecrop clings to niches in the bare rock.
coll_machair_5_small
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.

coll_machair_3_small
A blanket of dasies and buttercups cover the machair next to the RSPB reserve carpark.
coll_machair_16_small
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.
coll_machair_1_small
The machair was traditionally used for summer livestock grazing and hay cutting.  It would have been exacly like the scything scenes in Poldark.
coll_coo_small
The size of that handsome lad.  He’s so tiny and cute.
coll_machair_12_small
The island of Coll, and neighbouring Tiree, are reputed to have the highest number of sunshine hours anywhere in Scotland.
coll_machair_8_small
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.
coll_machair_7_small
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.

coll_machair_13_small
I’m pretty sure that these pictures are all of the same kind of orchid.
coll_machair_2_small
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.
coll_machair_19_small
A green-veined white caterpillar chomping on a creeping willow.
coll_machair_17_small
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.

coll_machair_14_small
The sandy machair merges into the blackland of peat moors and bogs, and the plant community changes.
coll_machair_15_small
Bell heather, ling, crowberry, bog cotton, and even some rare alpine species are found on the higher ground.

Photo Journal: Oostende Voor Anker

I’ve always had quite a fondness for working ports and harbours, and how the concrete quays and non-descript marinas are transformed for a few days every year when the port hosts a maritime festival, lifeboat gala day, or traditional boat show.

atyla_ostend_1_small
A view of the harbour from alongside the Spanish tall ship Atyla.

Railings are decked with bunting; boats cram into the harbour, showing their dressed overall flags; stalls demonstrating traditional maritime crafts, or hawking food and drink line the quaysides; and from somewhere, shanty singers assemble.  The air is filled with the scent of Stockholm tar and smoked seafood, and the sound of fiddles and accordions.

Every May, the Belgian coastal resort and port of Ostend celebrates the maritime heritage of the North Sea, hosting traditional and classic sailing vessels from around Europe at the Oostende Voor Anker maritime festival (Ostend at Anchor in English).

ostend_hydrograaf_small
The Dutch steamship Hydrograaf, a former naval hydrographic survey vessel.
ostend_basin_2_small
Hundreds of boats decked in dressed over all flags lining the dock basin.
shtandart_2_small
Masts and rigging alongside the buildings of the city.
ostend_basin_1_small
The Russian square-rigger Shtandart at the heart of the lock basin in Ostend.

The festival takes place each year from a Thursday to a Sunday towards the end of May, depending on the tides, with vessels arriving into port in the preceding days.  From class A square riggers to the traditional barges that plied the coastal and inland waterways of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, over 150 vessels participate in the festival.

 

ostend_smoker_1_small
Preparing sides of salmon for woodsmoking over an open fire.
ostend_smoker_2_small
Later, the smoked salmon is ready to eat.
traditional_twine_small
Natural cord ready to be made into rope.
ostend_basketmaker_small
A traditional basketmaker making skeps from twisted straw.

A large part of Oostende Voor Anker celebrates  traditional craftsmanship, with a festival village filled with venues to find out more about boat-building and sail making.  A variety of stalls also sell local goods and produce, including what every sailor needs, a vast selection of striped Breton shirts.  I may even have picked up a souvenir or two as I browsed through.

ostend_smith_small
Blacksmith at work.
ostend_rope_locker_small
Lines, sheets, halyards, lifts, stays, cables, but no ropes.
ostend_oilskins_small
Racks of oilskins for sale.
ostend_breton_shirts_small
With a striped Breton shirt you won’t look out of place wandering around.
ostend_smoker_3_small
Traditional Flanders smoked herrings prepared during the day.

As well as open ship tours, demonstrations and stalls, the festival also features things like walking theatre performances, musical concerts, food and cookery demonstrations, arts installations, and nautical themed talks.

atyla_piper_small
An Atyla crewmember on the bagpipes.
ostend_shantymen_small
Shanty singers warming up for a performance.
ostend_oysters_small
Fresh Flemish oysters for sale, with a little champagne on the side.
ostend_flag_dancers_small
Flag dancers take over a junction in the city centre.
ostend_safety_1_small
Cadets from the Royal Belgian Sea Cadet Corps demonstrate sea survival.
ostend_safety_2_small
A sea survival demonstration in the harbour

My festival tips for Oostende Voor Anker

  • Avoid taking a car if you’re travelling from out of town.  Ostend has excellent rail and coach connections to Antwerp, Brussels, and beyond, and the station is close to the festival area.  The Belgian Coastal Tram is another travel alternative.
  • Wear shoes suitable for walking, as it’s likely you’ll do much more than you anticipate!  High heels can cause damage to the decking timbers on ships, and you may be asked to remove unsuitable shoes if you take a deck tour.
  • Pick up a festival guide as soon as you can.  It will have an event map and programme of activities to help you plan your day and find your way around.
  • Bring cash as some vendors won’t accept card payment.
  • Book your local accommodation early, as the festival is very popular.
  • The next Oostende Voor Anker festival takes place on 23-26 May 2019.
ostend_basin_3_small
Excelsior of Lowestoft leaving the basin in Ostend for the Parade of Sail. 
Do you enjoy visiting maritime festivals?  Have you ever been to Ostend?
Let me know your stories in the comments below.
pin_pj_oostende

Photo Journal: Stormbound in Skudeneshavn, Norway

The name Norway derives from Nordvegen, the north route, a network of sheltered sounds, straits and fjords along the country’s coast providing a shipping route protected from the wild North and Norwegian Seas.  Karmsund, the narrow channel between the mainland and the island of Karmøy, a Viking stronghold, was the final part of the route we’d  follow before emerging into the open water of Boknafjorden, north of Stavanger.

skudeneshavn_storm_9_small
Gamle Skudeneshavn, the old town, on the island of Karmøy, is considered to be one of the best preserved historic towns in Norway,

We make our approaches to Haugesund shortly before 4am, following a couple of large supply vessels into the port, and picking up the sector lights of the first of the channel markers.  Unlike previous night’s sailing, this was pilotage, picking out lights marking the edge of the channel and counting off the buoys, and in familiar water (I sailed here on Draken Harald Hårfagre in the summer of 2013).

gamle_skudenes_3_small

The wind had died away in the evening, and Karmsund was millpond flat in the lee of the island. With first light we picked up the beginning of the open water swell, rolling in across from the North Sea ahead of the coming weather system, and at the 7am watch change, we handed over a slate grey sea streaked with white horses, and the news that we’d put into Skudeneshavn rather than try to run ahead of the storm for Lerwick or Peterhead.

skudeneshavn_storm_7_small

Entry into Skudeneshaven is through a channel, only 30 metres at the narrowest just past the lighthouse at Vikeholmen.  After a couple of hours punching into the swell we find our line into the harbour, and start dropping sails for arrival.  I’m sent to the bowsprit to call distances and look out for traffic in the harbour (I’m rubbish at estimating distances) as rain starts to sheet down.

skudeneshavn_storm_10_small

Skudeneshavn was bustling herring port in the 18th and 19th century, a boom town during the age of sail, where fishing and shipping brought wealth to the locals and drew in workers from the rest of the region.  Now traditional herring drifters in the harbour have given way to vast oil rig supply ships and small leisure boats.

skudeneshavn_storm_8_small

We slide into the wind shadow of an immense oil rig supply ship with a helipad several stories above the tip of our mast, and try to find a berth big enough for the ship.  The harbour narrows down, lined with old buildings, and small boats are tied up on every quay.  The wind pushes us to one spot, and we quickly make fast, though this involves running up one lane and down another, and hopping into a garden.

The old town, Gamle Skudeneshavn, is a winding warren of narrow cobbled lanes, quays and jetties, and traditional whitewashed timber buildings, built by the master boatbuilders that were based here, in a tight jumble around the water’s edge.  The town still bustles through the summer, as a popular holiday getaway from nearby Stavanger, and the host of several heritage festivals, including Skudefestivalen, the largest traditional boat gathering in western Norway.

skudenes_woods_1_small

skudeneshavn_storm_1_small
Squalls blowing in from the south pushing waves up and over Vikeholmen.

In late autumn, the streets and the shore are far quieter, as weather systems sweep in from the Atlantic Ocean bringing regular wind squalls and rain showers.  Coastal walks become bracing, but there’s always a cosy corner in town to find hot coffee and waffles to warm up.

As the crow flies, we’re less than 15 nautical miles from the island of Utsira, imagined remote and stormbound yet so familiar from the Shipping Forecast, that regular incantation that masters the weather for mariners.   Violent storm 11 is every bit as terrifying as it sounds.  We’ll be staying here in harbour for some time.

skudeneshavn_night_1_small

skudeneshavn_night_2_small