'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.

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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.