'I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out 'til sundown, for going out, I found was really going in.' John Muir

I've seen the top of Everest (from a long way off), smelled the breath of a whale (from way too close) and lived on a boat in Greece (for a few years), but I continue to experience some of my most precious moments right outside my backdoor.

If comments are proving difficult to do, please email me; sleepysparrow@yahoo.co.uk

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Slow Days of Christmas....

In December, there’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday, (and thankfully,Small Business Saturday).  It can be dark, dreary, depressing and dear.....but it doesn't have to be. It’s still possible to take a step back and enjoy some ‘slow’ days.

A group of us decided to leave the Christmas shoppers to it and spend a Saturday on our bikes.  We cycled to a fab cafe in a converted barn (Meadow Lea Farm, Mickle Trafford). At a table between the glowing stove and the twinkling Christmas tree, we ate hearty soup and thick bread and planned a New Year's Day ride.....

On Sunday we were back on our bikes to join a few hundred cycling Santas delivering presents from the Pier Head in Liverpool to Alder Hey Children’s hospital.

After another morning otter survey with North East Wales Wildlife (with poo and paw prints to prove otters play in our river), we got creative and made a herd of silly reindeer with bits of tree and twigs.
On a dark and chilly day, my friend and me made a lovely mess (in her house) making home made Christmas cards, glue and glitter everywhere, mince pies and Christmas songs and mugs of hot choc.

This is the month when we love to take walks during that magic 'just before it goes dark’ time. Sometimes the sky is purple, pink, lilac, orange. When we get home we drink mulled wine in the dark, except for coloured Christmas lights.

I made an alternative ‘tree’ out of birch twigs and glittery pine cones. When I was collecting the twigs in the woods, I heard a tawny owl and later a crowd of 'cawing' crows came to roost.

I watch birds. They make me laugh on dark days.  These sparrows are outside my dining room window and one morning the sun came up like a big orange ball of fire and made the fluffy brown birds glow.


Saturday, 30 November 2013

Another Border Crossing – into Denbighshire

.........or Middle Earth?

The seven mile trail around Alwen Resevoir on the Denbigh Moors is one of my favourite walks.  The route is clear, no need to wrestle with maps.  Today is soft and glowing and quiet enough to hear crispy leaves land on the gravel path.  The trees are statue-still and draped in cob-webby lichens.  I half expect to bump into Miss Haversham or maybe a Hobbit
Up on the rippling moor we wait for the zoom of a peregrine, the whizz of a merlin, but get the tail-flicking scolding of a wren when we squat in her sheep fold to wrap our hands around steaming cups of coffee.
At home I discover that ‘Wales, for its unit area, has the highest diversity of lichen species in the world.’
And, according to an article on the BBC News Mid Wales page, ‘Lichens in Wales may hold the key to antibiotics resistance.’

Thursday, 21 November 2013

A Border Raid...in search of cake

(Another 'Slow Flintshire' day)

‘It’s far too cold for a bike ride.  Let’s stay home and eat cake.’  That’s my trump card, a promise to make a chocolate fudge cake if I stay home.  But the stand of larch on the distant hill glows like forest fire, the sky’s a single wash of ice-blue that an artist would never get away with and I’m promised great cake at the end of the ride. So, we get the bikes out, the layers on and head off. 

I’m trying out a different bike, a more sophisticated machine, with drop handle bars and no room for a basket. The nearby section of the National Cycle Route 5 from Connah’s Quay to Chester is ideal as I’m a bit wobbly to begin with. It’s traffic free and today, mostly people free too.  We could have cycled alongside the River Dee into Chester but this route is inland, part of the old Mickle Trafford freight line and sheltered from the icy river wind by amber maple trees and berry-filled hedges.

 The first thing I notice about the bike, apart from having to swing my leg over the man’s frame rather than step through all lady-like (glad no-one saw that), is how my head is angled down.  I don’t like that.  I need to be able to look up so I can follow the flights of crows, gulls, lapwings, linnets.  Today I hear their calls and songs and see tantalizing flashes of feathers from the corner of my eye but it’s a strain to look up.    

The cycle path is great, I’m gaining confidence and we coast along past Chester.  We could come off at various points and visit Chester zoo, Ellesmere Port Boat Museum, the Wirral, New Brighton and even Liverpool, via the ferry.  But we press on towards Mickle Trafford and Meadow Lea Farm cafe for my promised cake.  But when we get there, it’s closed.  It opens Wednesday to Sunday 10 until 4.  Charlie forgot to note that on his last visit. ‘What a shame, their cakes were great too.’  I give him one of my looks as I blow hot breath into hands that would love to be curled around a steaming mug of hot chocolate right now.

We turn around and head back along the cycle path, past a horse and a fox made from willow.  We could detour off into Chester along the canal path and eat cheesy chips at Telford’s Warehouse, but we decide to head home.  My neck is aching from trying to look up every time I hear a ‘caw,’ or a ‘chack, chack,’ and what if I miss waxwings, I’m not familiar with their calls and the hedges are bursting with berries, and I desperately want to see waxwings...some cake would be nice too.

Friday, 15 November 2013

DRAMA IN CLWYD-THEATR-CYMRU - a slow afternoon

I’m at the theatre. Not to see a play or eat homemade soup and scones or to shop for Welsh-made earrings or gaze in awe at local works of art.  I’m here for Clare's Dru Yoga class.
I compete for car parking space with the Mansfield Park matinee-goers and dash into the warmth of the cafe, filled with the aroma of spicy pumpkin soup, though my eye is caught by a glistening chocolate cake... not before Yoga.
Upstairs, the Clwydian Range is our backdrop as we stand barefooted in the mountain pose .  There’s a silent scenery change as beams of sun and silver edged clouds are replaced by a black and grey wash. Then the sound effects begin - hail pelts the flat roof, bouncing and pinging as we stand rooted to our purple mats.  We stop to watch the show and cheer at crows flapping in the wild wind, like cloak-swirling-old-movie villains.  Then we turn back to face Clare and concentrate on inner fire.
We end the class wrapped in fleecy blankets, with Clare encouraging us to let tension melt away.  The storm has passed and we bask in the glow of watery sun beams reaching in through the window like spotlights.
I'm lucky enough to live 3 miles from this fabulous theatre.  There's a lot more to it than plays.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013


Today I helped North East Wales Wildlife with a winter bird survey.  I used the RSPB website to brush up on some bird songs and calls before I went. I tried to make notes on the sounds so I’d remember them in the field, but how do you write down the sound of a bullfinch?  They whistle softly, a sort of wheeet, wheeet, wheeeeeeeeet.  How many ‘E’s is that?  And how do you spell the sound a goldcrest makes, or a flock of goldfinches?

Kim Atkinson paints birdsong.  She sits and listens for half an hour, makes notes and then paints what she’s heard.  Perhaps little dots for a skylark, short thick strokes for crows.  She’s made an art book with Noelle Griffiths which you can see on Youtube, or in the flesh if you visit the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

I find relating the sounds to things helps me to remember them. Long tailed tits sound like tiny football rattles as they clatter overhead in their family flocks.  I can almost taste the sound of a great tit, 'teacher-teacher,' like a metallic filling in my mouth.  Goldfinches tinkle like the wind chimes on my birch tree.  A great spotted woodpecker sounds like someone has trodden on the edge of a squeaky dog toy.  The nuthatch sounds demented, like it’s forgotten where it’s hidden a nut and trying desperately to find it.

I love Simon Barnes’ description of a blackbird’s song from his book; Birdwatching with your eyes closed: ‘Blackbirds whistle.  They whistle almost like a man, leaning dreamily against the wall with his hands in his pockets, not too stressed about his next appointment.’
We did see a male bullfinch, glowing like an ember in a hawthorn tree but he stayed silent.  The golden-penny-leaves of birch trees trembled when long-tailed tits rattled through. And a movement from the corner of my eye turned out to be a tiny,round goldcrest hanging like a Christmas decoration in a tangle of brambles. We gasped with excitement.  I wonder if birds can identify humans by the sounds they make?  ‘Ah, judging from that sound, they’re obviously a flock of bird watchers.’  

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Postcard from the riverbank

The River Alyn flows through my patch, at least it does until the summer or when there’s less rain.  Then it flows under my patch.  It’s swallowed up by great yawning caverns, old lead mining tunnels and natural limestone fissures.  I’m always sad to see it go.  One minute it’s murmuring along at my side and the next day just a few silent pools remain.  I’ve never seen a kingfisher or a dipper on my stretch of the river but I’ve seen them upstream and downstream where the river stays at the surface.

After the heavy rain we’ve had recently, the River’s back and I hope so are the otters. I join Kate from North East Wales Wildlife to look for signs. 
The sky’s the blue of a jay’s wing feathers.  We walk along the squelchy banks, sinking into cattle trodden mud and slithering over sycamore leaves.  When we reach the holt and the camera, Kate scrambles down and removes the memory card to check later.
I love this section of the River.  The woodland opens out into a meadow and today the trees glow and the river fizzes and sparkles like someone’s dropped a crate of alka-seltzer tablets into it.
I turn from admiring the amber view and see Kate stooping over some otter spraint on a lump of limestone.  She points out tiny fishy vertebrae in the oily splodge.  We mark the place on the map, photograph the poo and amble on.

Coming around a bend in the river, we disturb a female goosander.  She hurries skywards leaving trail of water droplets hanging in the air like pearls.

At the foot bridge we find more spraint. Kate tells me about the otter slide she discovered here earlier this year when the snow was thick on the ground.  She said it looked like they’d been sliding down the steep bank and plunging into the river over and over again.   We stand at the spot imagining an otter water park.
On the other side of the River is an old willow with one branch leaning right across the water, a perfect play tree for otters.  We find more spraint.  There are definitely otters here then, and even though we don’t see them, just knowing they are around is exciting.
Back in the office with mugs of tea, we hunch over the computer screen to watch the footage.  The camera is triggered by movement.  The computer shows that it’s been triggered many times. But when we watch we see we’ve been out foxed by a fox - a badger, an annoying bit of Himalayan Balsam blowing in the breeze... and a bouncing Jay with sky blue wings.

I've a feeling we'll have more luck with the camera on our next survey...

The next otter surveys are on:
Tues 19th and Wed 27th November 2013.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Postcard from...The Garden

I filled up the nyjer seed container and within twenty minutes the goldfinches were back. Where do they come from? How do they know? They look so stunning, like over-made up Geishas bustling into the garden, giggling and flapping and flicking their fans.  In flight they bounce and tinkle like tiny bells, so delicate, like butter wouldn’t melt. But when they reach the feeder, they show another side - squabbling, flicking their golden wings, crimson faces shrieking at each other.  

I pulled my one and only pumpkin, the one the slugs didn’t get.  It’s smaller than I’d hoped for but it’s the colour of the sun and as soup, will warm us on an ice-blue day.

I’m still picking raspberries for breakfast. With thick yoghurt drenched in Greek honey, they bring back spring on the island of Spetses.

There’s one sunflower left.  Who put it there, right in the middle of the path? Not me. With curling petals and crispy leaves, it’s looking past its best but I’ll leave it for the birds, the seeds will give them sustenance when the days get shorter.

I’ve left the plastic windmill to spin.  It didn’t stop the birds from eating my lollo rosso seedlings but I love the whirring sound it makes on these windy autumn days.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Plant It and They Will Come

In the recent RSPB magazine, Simon Barnes (author of the fantastic 'Bad Birdwatcher' series of books) wrote about The State of Nature Report. It's the work of 25 conservation organisations, a 'wildlife health check'. It said that two thirds of everything living is now declining. More than one in ten species are threatened with extinction in the UK. The document shows the decline clearly and incontrovertibly.

This morning I spent a dreamy half an hour watching 16 small tortoise shell butterflies feeding on the purple Buddleia. They were joined by a red admiral, two painted ladies and a peacock, not to mention several whites (I don't like to mention them, their caterpillars have decimated my cauliflowers, though they do dance beautifully together, like pale ballerinas).

I have some 'sea holly' plants (Eryngium species), blue as the summer sky, that are covered in bees and hover flies and the lavender bushes seem to buzz in the breeze.  

Bees and butterflies are struggling.  If we all planted a buddleia, some lavender, a few eryngiums, just think what a difference it would make.  And, if you've never spent time watching bees land on blooms, flit from one to the other, making that lovely, deep 'sound-of-summer' buzzing, then you've missed a treat.  You'll find your heart beat slows, your shoulders drop and the furrows fall from your brow. 


Monday, 5 August 2013

A Good Crop

After a slow, shivery start to summer, a heat wave and now torrents of rain, my little veg patch is exploding with
courgettes, peas, kale, swedes and runner beans.  By far the most successful crop in my garden this season though is Passer domesticus - sparrows to you and me.  It's hard to count them as they are never still for long enough but yesterday I got up to 26 before they all zoomed off to the hawthorn hedge crèche for a rest and a squabble. 
They hurtle about the garden in a big gang, up to mischief, like the urchins from 'Angels with Dirty Faces'. They eat their way through the six port seed feeder in a day and when that's empty they start eating the fresh leaves from my peas, despite two scarecrows, a row of Buddhist prayer flags and a windmill that spins very fast.

This box has held three broods of sparrows....so far.

Sunday, 21 July 2013


There’s magic afoot in my village......

My hands are blue but not because I’m cold.

I proudly peg my beautiful (well, I think so) creations on the line strung out between the birch trees.  They drip drip alongside, vests, sheets, pillow cases, skeins of wool and squares of material  all dyed the indigo blue of a late night summer sky just before the first stars appear.  But each piece has a unique pattern, swirls of white, tiny neat squares, straight lines, zigzags, little round circles and these patterns were created by MAGIC!

Marietta welcomes eight of us to her Indigo Dyeing Workshop run by NEW Wildlife at Rhydymwyn with a promise that we’ll each take home something unique at the end of the day.  We ogle at her fabric samples printed with intricate patterns and look at the array of pegs, rubber bands, string and even a bag of dried chick peas and I for one doubt that I’ll transform my plain white t-shirts into something so blue and beautiful.
She makes up two buckets of dye and demonstrates how we can create patterns on our fabric, then we begin – pleating, pegging, tying, scrunching, wrapping.  We become more creative as we get into it and wrap pine cones, pebbles and even the puzzling chick peas into our fabric.

Chick Pea patterns

Outside in the sunshine, with bees buzzing, a woodpecker pic-pic-ing and swathes of yellow loostrife lighting up the outside workspace, we squat before the buckets of dye and dip our pegged, paper clipped and chickpea-ed items into the liquid.  After 5 minutes we lift them out.  They are yellowy-green but - ‘hey presto’, as soon as the air hits them, magic occurs and they turn indigo before our amazed eyes.  More magic happens when we remove the string, pegs, pine cones, etc to reveal beautiful patterns.

Watching our creations flutter in the warm breeze I think; Harry Potter couldn’t have done better on his first day at Hogwarts.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

World Listening Day

Today is World Listening Day.  The talk on the radio is of 'acoustic ecology and of going on a 'sound walk.'  We should care more about the way the world sounds.  Those high powered hand driers in most public loos make a lot of people jittery apparently.  Some people like the satisfying clunk of a car door, there's even a man who loves the sound of cars driving over cattle grids so much that he's made a CD called 'Cattle Grids of Dartmoor.'

On may way to the dentist I notice how I tune out the traffic sounds and only respond and look to the sky when I hear a shock of screaming swifts, a dozen swirling over my head.  They'll leave soon.  I'll miss that stop-me-in-my-tracks-sound. 

In the dentist waiting room there's the ubiquitous and unwelcome radio, 'Sisters are Doing it for Themselves.'  I suppose it masks the sinister buzz of a machine coming from surgery number 1.

I visited Cemlyn Bay Sandwich Tern colony on Anglesey last week with Dad.  Now there's a sound to revel in.  A real wilderness noise. I lay on pebbles made round by battering seas, closed my eyes and let the harsh 'kirrik' cries of a couple of thousand nesting birds pierce my ear drums. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

A short trip on the longest day

I had to be outside.  A primeval urge pulled me like a magnet up to Moel y Gaer hill fort.  At 10pm there was no-one else about.  I stepped over black slugs on the grassy path to the top of the hill and stood on the ramparts.  When the wind stopped buffeting me for a moment and I could hold my binoculars steady, I could just about see Blackpool Tower lit up and in the foreground, the steely River Dee and all the glowing lights of Liverpool.  I turned around and traced the dark, gentle mounds of the Clwydian Range, like soft scoops of chocolate ice cream.  And then the rain came, great big spots thwacking on my down jacket.  The wind picked up and blew the long grass in waves across the flat topped hill fort and murderous clouds covered the wavy-edged moon.  

I circled the ancient ramparts, paying my respects to Mother Nature on this longest day, apologizing for anything I may have done to upset her.  I did squish a slug last night as it made its way over a fresh green lettuce leaf in my veg patch.  Normally I lob them over the hedge.  When I had completed the circle, I headed down the hill with just enough light to avoid squishing any more slugs.
A blackbird sang in the gorse scrub, oblivious of the rain and the wind and the murderous clouds.

I’m going up again on Sunday to see the Supermoon.

Friday, 14 June 2013

A Short Break - Sixty Minutes from Home

Last week we holidayed all of 60 minutes away from home -  on the edge of the Menai Straits. 

Day one - from Is Helen camp site, a stone’s throw from Caernarfon Castle, we cycled past fields of glossy buttercups and verges fizzing with wild carrot to the windswept beach at Dinas Dinlle, ate mango ice cream, climbed a hill fort, drank tea in Caernarfon airport, watched tiny planes take people for an eagle's eye view of Snowdon.  Back at the campsite we watched swallows swoop for insects, and the sun set over the blue isle of Anglesey. 

Day two -  my reward for cycling to Rhyd Ddu via the Nantlle pass was a cream scone in our favourite tea room and sublime views of Snowdon all the way, complete with ant people and a miniature puffing train.

Day three – over the Menai Bridge to Llanddwyn Island. 
 ‘Nothing wins hearts like cheerfulness,’ according to Saint Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers. She lived as a hermit on the island (I wish).  Shelly coves, wild violas, pale blue squill, sea pinks, creaking terns, it’s a special place.
Neither sickness nor sorrow will follow a man from Llanddwyn.’ Dafydd ap Gwyllm, 1320 -70

Sixty minutes later, we’re back home, watering courgettes, dead-heading purple pansies, smiling at the memory of crunchy sand, frothy hedgerows, squealing swifts.

Thursday, 13 June 2013


I’m like a teacher on playground duty.  The garden is full of baby birds, squabbling, fluttering, squawking and pecking – at anything that might be food.  I’m on cat and magpie alert.  I need a whistle.

Baby sparrows hurtle - head first after their parents.   Fluttering their wings like crazy they crash land in the laurel with a great rustle of leaves. 

A baby blackbird with a punk hair-do and a stubby tail squats under the garden bench, his beady black eye darting all around.  He emits high-pitched squeaks, like an electronic gadget.

The clattering noise behind my chair turns out to be a pale yellow frog, making its way along to, who knows where?  We eye each other through the trellis.  We had a fibre-glass pond about 25 years ago, for a short time, perhaps the frog remembers it?  I can hear it jumping across sacks of compost and old flowerpots.

There are baby plants in the garden too- feathery carrot seedlings, tiny velvet apples forming, clematis buds about to burst and lots and lots of nasturtium seedlings in places I didn't put them.

Birds are very vulnerable when they bathe.  So I am honoured when a blackbird bathes about three feet away from where I’m sitting.  Pearly drops of water roll off his black feathers and the yellow ring around his eye is the same yellow as the Welsh poppies growing in the gravel path.  We know each other well, this blackbird and me.  I cut up apples for him, he sings when I need it most.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Tales of a Rhydymwyn Riverbank

Last week, on a rare warm spring day, I joined Kate from North East Wales Wildlife on her regular otter survey route, past banks of pale yellow primroses and delicate violets.  The smell of wild garlic caused us to wrinkle our noses and talk about making wild garlic pesto sauce as the River Alyn murmured gently in the background.

Kate stopped and peered through her binoculars, ‘There’s some spraint,’ she pointed at an oily splodge on a prominent rock on the edge of the river.  We crouched over it and saw that it was full of white specks, ‘Frog leg bones,’ said Kate.  Of course we had to sniff the splodge, there’s a lot of speculation about the smell of otter poo.  Some say it’s like jasmine tea, others that it’s fishy or even like freshly mown hay, anyway, we agreed it’s not as unpleasant as it looks.  And more importantly, it meant there were otters here.  We spotted more and more spraint further along the river and then, even more exciting, paw prints in the silty mud

It was an idyllic spot on such a day, open meadow, slow meandering river, wild flowers, buzzards mewing, a woodpecker beating a frantic rhythm on a nearby dead tree.  Suddenly, we flinched at a sharp ‘peep’ and saw a blue blur as a kingfisher zipped past us.  It was tempting to take our shoes and socks off and paddle, but we were meant to be looking for otters. 
In fact, the cameras set up by NEW Wildlife have already picked up an otter and two cubs, we wanted to check if they were still around so were keen on finding fresh spraint.  The paw prints were certainly fresh and we imagined the otters scampering and playing over the many new branches fallen after the heavy April snows.  We were willing an otter to appear and kept our eyes peeled amongst the dark places under the overhanging bank and in the tangle of willow roots but we knew it was very unlikely. 
We agreed that just knowing they were around was enough.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Re-visiting an old backyard

Although it is my mission to appreciate and explore my own backyard, in April,the cold and snow forced me into submission.  I lived on a boat in Greece for a while where my backyard was watery and filled with dolphins.  It was time to re-visit that backyard for a couple of weeks.

Things got off to a promising start when a leather-jacketed bloke called Odysseus met us at Athens airport with our hire car. 

Greece in the springtime is sublime.  Flowers burst from every crevice, anemonies, poppies, marigolds, daisies, all mixed up and higgledy-piggledy, like one of the gods had scattered a giant packet of mixed wildflower seeds from a great height. 

We followed old cobbled paths up and up towards distant snow-capped peaks, crossed a deep, dark gorge where tall, thin cypress trees were scattered like exclamation marks. And beyond, the sea glittered, turquoise and silver and the sky was blue as the Greek flags fluttering from the taverna.

We ate Greek salads,
drenched in thick green olive oil
topped with slabs of salty feta cheese,
washed down with tongue-numbingly
cold Mythos beer. 

Our shoulders gradually slumped, we sashayed rather than scurried, felt our toes unclench and our eyes smile. It was good to be back.