In Search of Martians… in Surrey.

For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice of 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.

The Woking Martian by Warofdreams via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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 now evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and crossing the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes by the side of the road, and the adventure of being outdoors.

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The frozen heathland of Horsell Common, near the town of Woking. A surprising location for the first extra-terrestrial invasion of our Earth.

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.

Horsell Common Sandpit
The site of the impact, where they found …a cylinder, thirty yards across, glowing hot…. And with faint sounds of movement coming from within.

The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of 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.

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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Through the trees to the heath on Horsell Common.

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.

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Enjoying the frosty view with a hot chocolate at Heather Farm, Horsell Common.

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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…yet across the gulf of space minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us.
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5 Seafaring Tales for a Sailing Holiday

Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.
Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.

I’m all at sea this month, quite literally, as I sail from Bermuda back to Britain on the STS Lord Nelson. On board we keep a watch system, with four teams working a rota to keep the ship sailing and carry out the tasks essential for everyone to live together in such close confines. Our down time, plus the lack of distractions, gives plenty of time to get lost in a good book. So, here are my recommendations for seafaring tales to take on a sailing trip. Continue reading

5 Fantastic Facts About Bermuda

Ah, that’s where it is. Image from bermuda-online.org

A tiny dot on the map near the middle of the North Atlantic, Bermuda the oldest Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom.  The 100 or so islands that make up the archipelago lie closer to North America, which exerts a strong pull, but despite this mix of influences, the island has its own unique story. Here are 5 things you should know about this offbeat place:

1. In the years between discovery by Juan de Bermúdez in 1503 and the first colonisation attempts in 1607, Bermuda was often called the Isle of Devils, and reputedly inhabited by spirits and ghouls. This superstition may have been fuelled by the calls of nocturnal seabirds, like the Bermuda Petrel (Pterodroma cahow), known locally as the Cahow. Bermuda’s only endemic bird, it was thought to have become extinct shortly after colonisation as it was easily caught, and quite tasty. However, a small population was discovered in 1951, nesting in the rocky isles of Castle Harbour, giving it the status of a Lazarus species, one that was found to be alive after being considered extinct for some time.

The Cahow, or Bermuda Petrel. So rare, it was considered extinct for 300 years. Photo from Arkive.org

2. I‘d always thought I’d had a pair of Bermuda shorts as a kid, but it turns out I was wrong. My neon pink and yellow knee-length shorts, with a print of palm trees and nautical charts (it was the 80s, and that was acceptable back then), were actually board shorts. The terms aren’t interchangeable; neither are Bermuda shorts the same as cargo shorts, cut-offs or baggies. Genuine Bermuda shorts are far more formal, made from wool-blend fabric or cotton twill, and when teamed with knee socks, and a blazer and tie, are the everyday working attire of Bermuda’s business men. White Bermuda shorts, at regulation length, and knee-socks, are part of the uniforms worn by the British Royal Navy in tropical locations.

Check out these dapper chaps on the way home from the office. Photo from bermuda-online.org

3. Bermuda shorts, albeit in more casual fabrics, are also considered appropriate dress by many golf clubs. Which is handy, as Bermuda has the greatest number of golf courses per square kilometre anywhere in the world; seven 18-hole courses for a land area of 56km². I’ve also seen it claimed that the island has more golf courses per head of population than anywhere else, but as a Scot, that seems to me like a pretty big brag for a tiny wee island. So, as it was a quiet day when I wrote this, I crunched a few numbers:

  • Population of Scotland = 5.295 million (source Google)/ number of golf courses = 578 (source Scottish Golf Union) = 1 golf course per 9160.89 people
  • Population of Bermuda = 65,024 (source Google)/ number of golf courses = 7 (source Bermuda Golf Association*) = 1 golf course per 9289.14 people

Nice try, Bermuda, nice try.

*10 clubs are listed, but one appears to be repeated 4 times.

Former Bermuda resident, Catherine Zeta Jones playing golf. In Wales. Not Bermuda. Or Scotland. Photo from BBC.co.uk

4. Many of the buildings in Bermuda are painted in cute pastel shades, with a few in more daring neon colours, but almost all have a distinctive pitched whitewashed roof. This isn’t after a particular fashion, or the result of keeping up with the Jonses (or even the Zeta-Jonses!), but serves a valuable purpose. The island has no freshwater rivers, lakes or springs, and fresh drinking water is not supplied by the local authority. Instead home-owners must collect rainwater falling on their roof, and store it in underground cisterns. The whitewash contains lime, which ensures the water is sanitised, and the colour makes it easy to remove dirt and debris from the roof. The roof of a building must also be sturdy enough to withstand the gale-force winds that can occasionally batter the island.

Downtown Hamilton in cute candy colours. Photo from Wikipedia

5. The Bermuda Triangle is a notorious area of the North Atlantic, roughly corresponding with the sea area between Bermuda, the east coast of Florida, and the islands of The Bahamas and Puerto Rico. A number of ships and aircraft are reputed to have disappeared mysteriously within the triangle, although a report by Lloyd’s of London states that this is not the case. Things allegedly lost in the Bermuda Triangle include: several aircraft, including a DC-3 carrying 36 passengers; the crew of a five-masted schooner, the Carroll A. Deering, which ran aground off Cape Hatteras; two lighthouse keepers on Bimini, Bahamas; the USS Cyclops (AC-4), and all of 309 crew, the largest non-combat loss of life for the US Navy; and Barry Manilow’s woman.

Barry Manilow. He can’t smile without you. Photo from Wikipedia.

Extinct is Forever: Why We Need to Save #JustOneRhino

I saw a rhino the other week. Out on training walk for the TGO Challenge, I took a footpath that led me along the edge of the nearby safari park, letting me look through the heavy security fence, and watch as it trundled over the plains of Bedfordshire.

It was a white rhino. Although it wasn’t remotely white; rather a dark grey. Not even the pale sort of grey, the grey that you might be able to call off-white in the wrong light. Just plain dark grey. Its name actually comes from a mistranslation of the Afrikaans for wide, referring to the animal’s mouth, which is wider than that of the black rhino. Incidentally, the black rhino is also dark grey in colour, although they just happen to be very slightly darker shades of grey than the white rhino. Continue reading

5 Books Set in Cold Places to Curl Up With This Winter

IMG_3884Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.  And what makes a cold winter evening even better is a good book to curl up with (and perhaps also a glass or two of amaretto and ice). When the wind is howling and sleet lashing the window, snuggle into your favourite tartan jammies, and read all about the ice and snow from the warmth and comfort of your armchair.  With the radio playing softly in the background, lights sparkling on the Christmas tree, and someone bringing warm mince pies occasionally, I can’t think of a more perfect way to enjoy the books below.

 

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

In the introduction to this book, Cherry-Garrard notes: Polar Exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has been devised. As the youngest member of the team accompanying Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole, Cherry-Garrard was one of only three survivors, and part of the rescue mission that discovered the frozen bodies of his colleagues. His account pieces together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen south.

Buy it here.

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

Long fascinated by the icy landscapes and exotic culture, Ehrlich travels extensively in Greenland, meeting people walking the line between a traditional way of life and modern development. She draws heavily on the journals of Danish-Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen from the 1920s and 30s, retracing expeditions by kayak and dogsled. The book combines travel diary with biography, ethnographic study and geography. 

Buy it here.

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A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

Finnish author Jansson is best known for the Moomin stories, and although this collection of short pieces is for adults, it captures the same feeling of childlike wonder her famous creations have for nature, landscape and life. The beautifully observed stories have a lightness of touch and at the same time a deep truth, making them a joy to read. For a bonus recommendation, seek out her short novel The True Deceiver as a follow up. 

Buy it here.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

This book is difficult to summarise in just a short paragraph. It details Lopez’s travels in the High Arctic, meditating on the landscapes and wildlife, how we explain and interact with them, drawing on historical, cultural, philosophical and scientific significances. This is not an easy book to digest, but the sparklingly beautiful prose and interesting, informative subjects make you want to take your time, and enjoy the brilliance. Best dipped into over a series of winter afternoons. 

Buy it here.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver 

A bone-chilling ghost story set in an abandoned whaling camp in the Spitzbergen archipelago, high in the Arctic, in the late 1930s. With thoughts of impending war not far from the collective consciousness, a British scientific expedition establish themselves in a remote corner, against the advice of the Norwegian administration. As the dazzling brightness of 24-hour daylight gives way to the creeping polar night, a growing unease builds in the team, but is the horror a presence in the darkness or the madness of isolation in a challenging environment?  Buy it here.

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Have you got any icy and snowy suggestions for a wintry reading list?

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow them to buy a book I recommend, I get a small payment from the company, at no charge to you whatsoever. It helps keep my book habit going.

The Adventure Continues…

What a difference a week can make. Two weeks ago, Draken Harald Hårfargre was tied up to the quayside in Lerwick, sail and sheets piled on the foredeck, the yard lashed along the starboard rail, after we lost our mast crossing the North Sea. The crew were camped out in tents on the edge of the high school playing field, just opposite the Coastguard station. And after initial relief at our safe arrival subsided, it was replaced with an empty uncertainty, as we waited to find out what would happen to the expedition. Continue reading

Quite Interesting: Hirvikolari

An inevitability of travelling is picking up odd words and phrases in the various different languages you encounter.  And certain words and phrases can give you an insight into the local culture, environment or mindset, particularly those which don’t have a direct translation into your native tongue. Take for example, hirvikolari, a Finnish word that was used in a BBC news article the other week. The incident described wasn’t particularly newsworthy in international terms, describing a traffic incident in downtown Helsinki, but the word hirvikolari clearly tickled the writer enough to make it into a story for the UK.

Must dash, I have a meeting in the Helsinki office at 11am. Image from bbc.co.uk

A hirvikolari is a specific type of Finnish traffic accident involving an elk (also known as a moose in North America). Shambling slowly out of thick forest in the dark and onto quiet roads, the creature’s long legs and bulky body make a collision particularly dangerous for drivers.   Accidents are known to occur frequently enough that Scandinavian car manufacturers Volvo and Saab constructed their vehicles to cope with a “moose-crash”.

2014 Travel Resolution #4: Travel More

Wanderlust, by adventurediva on Flickr.

Happy February! How did last month manage to pass so quickly? I have no idea. So slightly later than I intended, especially as it’s no longer January, here is my final suggestion for a resolution to make 2014 a brilliant year for travel.

#4. Travel More.

Ha, that sounds terribly simple advice, but please don’t think this last resolution is a cop-out and I couldn’t be bothered any more. A lot of us are tied down to a number of commitments, family, work, pets or property, that means the lifestyle of a full-time traveller is one we can only follow vicariously through reading blogs and browsing pintrest. But travel is all about your mindset, and I want to show you it’s possible to have amazing travel experiences with limited time. Here are my top 5 tips: Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas #6: Reindeer

I love reindeer.  I’ve been to visit the reindeer herd that live on the Cairngorm plateau in Scotland, and I’ve seen some grazing in fields next to the Hringvegur (ring road) in the Eastfjords of Iceland.  I’ve been to Finnish Lapland and watched families take rides in reindeer-drawn sleds, and seen the Sami round-up pens in Kautokeino and Karasjok.

IMG_0491v2Skiing on the empty fells above Båtsfjord  a small herd of reindeer crossed over the crest of the hill to our front.  They continued down towards us, the only sound in the still* air was the soft crunch of snow under their feet.

*A tenuous link to Ailsa’s weekly travel theme of still.

One fish, two fish, red fish, blackfish.

There’s a documentary film I’m going to watch on TV tonight.  It’s called Blackfish, and it discusses the story surrounding an orca kept in a SeaWorld theme park that gained notoriety from his involvement in the deaths of three individuals.  It’s showing tonight at 9pm (GMT) on BBC4 in the UK, or you can watch the trailer here and download the rest of the film from various sources.

blackfish As dolphin encounters are an item that often features highly on “bucket lists” and “things to do before you…” lists, I think its quite important for participants to be fully informed and aware of the wider impacts of their choices.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about the film and the issues it raises, or whether you’ve visited a SeaWorld theme park or had an encounter with cetaceans in a captive environment.  Don’t miss it!