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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Essex revisited - Part 3

The final aim of my pilgrimage to Essex was to meet up with Simon and Clive, birdwatching friends from my school days in Colchester. The plan was to revisit some of our old birding haunts to see what we could turn up.

Colchester Royal Grammar School, still the Gold Standard for excellence in teaching and learning

Me (hatted) with Clive, Pat (Simon's wife) and Simon at Clacton-on-Sea

Part of the Essex Marshes, habitat of wildfowl and wading birds. Here we found Avocets and Little Egrets that were not present in my birding days in the area

Abberton Reservoir, one of our favourite birding haunts. Countless times I cycled the 10 miles around the reservoir on that track

Wivenhoe, on the Estuary of the River Colne. The Wharfe-side buildings are still there but no longer trading commercially - now luxurious homes

Pinmill on the River Orwell - many a weekend family sailing was undertaken from this village

This Essex Skipper butterfly was a "lifetime first" of this species for me!

Clive, Pat and Simon, afternoon tea at the tower café, Walton- on- the Naze

I recorded 89 bird species during my four-day trip to Essex, of which the most interesting for me were Little Egret, Avocet, Marsh Harrier, Bar- and Black-tailed Godwits, Yellow Wagtail, Turtle Dove, Spotted Redshank, Little Tern, Little Owl and Corn Bunting.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Essex revisted - Part 2

Canvey Island lies on the north bank of the Thames Estuary, just a little closer to London than Southend. In the 17th Century the low-lying land was reclaimed from the sea by Dutch workmen under the supervision of the engineer Cornellus Vermuyden. There are just two of the original Dutch cottages that remain today. The island is protected by a sea wall, the breach of which had fateful consequences in 1953. You can read more of Canvey's history here.

One of the two re- maining Dutch cottages

Shellbeach Road, now in the affluent commuter belt rather then a holiday home

The reason that Canvey is important to me is that my grandmother lived there when my sister and I were small, and we used to go there for up to four weeks at a time in the summer holidays. Her home (and others) in Shellbeach Road was demolished and rebuilt after the Great Flood of 1953. I visited Canvey again on July 22nd to see what memories I could recall.

My lingering impression of a seawall and miles of mud, edged by a strip of "sand" (actually the ground up remains of shellfish shells) is borne out. The dark strip along the water's edge is the "old sea wall", reduced to a line of boulders, happy hunting grounds for crabs, shrimps and rag worms.

The swimming pool, refreshed with sea water at every high tide, still today used by kids catching crabs with a lump of bacon fat on a string

At high tide the reflection of the sky belies the muddy water of the Thames Estuary

Artificial surf: the wash from an oil tanker like this passing up the Thames to London docks gave an exciting episode on a calm day

The red-sailed Thames barges still ply their way, but more now as sailing instruction vessels than for commerce

The Monico - a den of drinking, gambling and debauchery - we were never allowed near it....

...instead we went here on a Sunday to pray for a good catch of crabs. Our Lady of Canvey and the English Martyrs, the Mass was said in Latin in those days
The Admiral Jellicoe is a landmark I remember

The King Canute was formerly the Red Cow but renamed after the Great Flood of 1953. Standing at the highest point on Canvey is was one of the few buildings the sea didn't reach

The Lobster Smack - the pub that Charles Dickens is said to have had in mind in his novel Great Expectations when Pip and Abel Magwitch attempted to board the Packet Steamer leaving London

Canvey North Point, still largely unspoiled
Despite considerable development of Canvey as a satellite town of London, I was pleased to see that there were considerable areas of salt marsh, vital for migrating wading birds, that remained unspoiled.

I found this uncommon Marbled White butterfly feeding on ragwort in one of the new nature reserves on Canvey

A group of Starlings take a bathe in a rain puddle

As I have mentioned, disaster struck Canvey in February 1953 when tidal and meteorological conditions conspired to cause unprecedentedly high tides. The sea wall was breached and, except for a little higher ground around Canvey Village, the island was inundated, resulting in the loss of 58 lives.

I still remember well arriving at the higher ground at Hadleigh overlooking Canvey, and seeing the sight recorded in the London Illustrated News (below), not knowing the fate of our grandmother. Thankfully, it turned out that she had waded, waste deep in a torrent of sea water, to her next door neighbour's house which, unlike our grandmothers, had an "upstairs". Shortly after this traumatic event, she moved and came to live with us in Lexden, in the cream-painted part of the cottages shown in the post below.
The Great Flood of Canvey in February 1953

Essex revisited - Part 1

For the first twenty four years of my life my home was in Essex. As it is many years since I have visited the area I thought it was high time to make a small pilgrimage to Essex. My earliest memories are of a bungalow in Clacton-on-Sea where I lived until the age of four.
34 St Mary's Road, Clacton. My first real memories are here
We then moved to the village of Lexden, just to the west of Colchester where my father was the postmaster of a village post office and general stores. These were said to be old cottages built originally by Dutch Hugenots when they came to England. This was my home until I left university and started working in Leicester.
The former Lexden Post Office (the pink cottage) though we lived in the pink and cream cottages.

Lexden Park - the view from my bedroom at the back, the perfect playground for young children.

Lexden Primary School looks just the same
In those days Lexden was a "country" village with woods, meadows and the River Colne in easy reach. I was free to roam and explore this area, and it was here that the foundations of my passion for natural history were laid down.

I have visited the area a couple of times in the intervening years, and I knew there have been many changes. Many of the fields are developed into housing estates, or a golf course. Some country lanes are now dual carriageways. Fields that us kids would explore are now fenced with conspicuous "Private - Keep Out" signs; country cottages that were formerly the homes of farm labourers have been converted and extended into affluent commuter properties.

Nevertheless, there are still secret places that can be found that bring the memories flooding back. There is a section of a lane leading to the river where I used to spend so much time fishing, and I was pleased to see that the water is clean and clear with shoals of roach and dace still present.

Lexden Bridge (always known to us as "Red Bridge") is still unchanged, though the adjacent fields are now out of bounds

The River Colne still runs quiet and clean in this unspoiled spot

A final glance up Lexden Hill. My home (the post office) was opposite the pub

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sain cerdd a chân, hen Gymru lân...

I took the opportunity when visiting my younger son Carwyn and his wife Kathryn in South Wales to leave a day early (Monday 16 July) to travel down through Wales, camping overnight in Snowdonia.

Capel Curig, gateway to Snowdonia

Camp site at Nant Peris

My route through central Wales took me through Machynlleth and past my former bird-watching haunt of Ynys Hir, where I stopped for lunch and spent a couple of hours walking round the reserve before heading off down to Cardiff.

RSPB Reserve at Ynys Hir, a diverse mosaic of ancient woodland, estuary and marsh

Tuesday evening we had a meal out in Cardiff and sampled the local Brains beer, and on Wednesday I had a chance to do some sight-seeing around my university town of Cardiff, and revisit some sights of my student days.

The spire of Cardiff City Hall

My university in Cathays Park, Cardiff. It happened to be graduation day

The centre of Cardiff has changed a great deal since my student days in the 60s. In particular, there have been huge developments in the Cardiff Bay area, the subject of a previous blog post.

However, some features haven't changed...

One of the purposes of my visit was to help to transport some items from Carwyn and Kathryn's flat in Cardiff to their new recently purchased house in Burry Port, a small coastal town just west of Lanelli. After dropping off the load, there was time to visit the harbour and local saltmarsh and estuary, and of course to visit the local pub, "Brains", of course!
Carwyn surveys his new garden in Burry Port

Sunset at Burry Port beach and harbour

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Cumbria Coastal Way

I heard reports that Storm Petrels have been coming close inshore past Workington on their way north to their breeding areas in the North Atlantic. Workington is one of a number of once thriving coastal towns (others include Whitehaven, Maryport, and Harrington) on the north west coast of Cumbria that have been somewhat in economic decline since the end of the mining era. You can see some pictures of Workington here.

I set off from Askam on the train with my bicycle and arrived an hour and a half later and made my way to the harbour mouth where the seabird passage had been observed. My first sightings were of other birds such as Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, Sandwich Terns and a Guillemot. The report that Storm Petrels were as "thick as flies" was not borne out.
Workington from the air. My observation point was at the end of the promontory of land jutting out at the mouth of the river just to the left of the wind turbines

However, a patient scan with my telescope revealed a single petrel feeding on the plankton amongst the buoys marking lobster pots. I had sustained views of it as it appeared and disappeared among the wave troughs, and it even "walked on the water" as, eponymously, it is supposed to do ("Petrel" from St. Peter who walked on the water).
The end of the pier was my observation point. The mountains of Scotland in the background
Rather than catch the train back from Workington, I decided to cycle the twelve miles south to Whitehaven to pick up a train there. Between Workington and Whitehaven there is a dedicated cycle track, some of it following the route of the Cumbria Coastal Way.

There is a network of cycles trails throughout the country that I am just starting to explore

The Cumbria Coastal Way - the cycle track follows the railway along this section of the coast

Under the railway line.....

The sweet smell of summer - banks of Meadow- sweet Fili- pendula ulmaria in bloom along the track

As I rode up to Whitehaven railway station, a train was just pulling into the station - perfect timing! Once on the train, it was only then that I realised I had been wearing odd shoes all day - a walking boot on the left and a trainer on the right. Ho hum!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Afternoon tea

This weekend (Saturday 7 July) I welcomed TCA (Worzel and Strudles - my elder son and partner) to Maalie Court. Arriving mid-afternoon, the first ritual was that of afternoon tea. In order to celebrate this, I made a loaf of beer damper, modified slightly from the recipe supplied by Ju's Little Sister here.

The recipe is simple: throw some self-raising flour into a mixing bowl (three cups is recommended, but I emptied what was left in the packet). Add some sugar (2 tablespoons recommended) and salt (one teaspoon recommended). Open a can of beer and pour slowly into the bowl and stir with a wooden spoon until it looks right - the individuality of your own loaf is imparted by what you decide "looks right". My mixture was runnier than bread dough but thicker than batter. Any remaining beer is consumed by the chef. As a variations to J'sLS's version I stirred in a handful of currents, to make it look a little like the Welsh bara brith (literally, "spotty bread", but the chapel-going Welsh use tea rather than beer).

The mixture is spooned into a greased bread tin and put in the oven until it "looks right", in my case a light golden brown. When ready the loaf is put on a grid to cool and served sliced and buttered.

Fresh from the oven

The tea is brewing

Worzel and Strudles enjoy afternoon tea

After tea, it was down to Askam beach for TCA to partake of an alternative pursuit to cycling, namely power-kite flying.

TCA flying a Flexifoil Proteam 8 double kite rig

A sudden gust lifts him into the air

On Sunday we went for a steamer cruise along the 12 mile length of Windermere, the largest of the Lake District's lakes.

Leaning on the taff-rail searching distant horizons

View down Windermere