Just a perfect day

The last day of a week’s holiday, and another day out with the birds.

We started the week at the London Wetland Centre – very cold and gloomy, and notwithstanding recent sightings of Bitterns, we didn’t see any (we always arrive at a hide to be told, “You should have been here five minutes ago; you’ll never guess what we have just seen . . .”) – but plenty of Snipe, Tufted Duck, and Coot.

Wednesday was another cold but bright day at Slapton Ley and on the beach at Thurlestone. Shovellers, Tufted Duck and a solitary Little Grebe in the reeds by the Slapton Hide, and plenty of Canada Geese and more Tufted Duck on the water. Robins everywhere, and a Sparrowhawk through the bushes at the edge of the Ley, upsetting the troupe of Longtailed Tits that was bowling along the edge.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Thurlestone – we had to stop in Kingsbridge, where I was living when Caroline and I first met, and stop at the deli at the top of Fore Street and visit Pig Finka.  The marshes behind the NT car park were frozen and there was very little duck around. Instead, there were Oystercatchers and Turnstones on the rocks edging the beach, and a wonderful sunset.

Today we have been at Roadford Lake. We didn’t know quite what to expect – we last visited in January 2009, and had then seen little (and been rained on). This time was different: in the woodland and along the edge, Nuthatches, Great, Blue, Coal, Marsh and Longtailed Tits, Greenfinch, 6 Bullfinches and half an hour later another 9, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker chased off by a solitary Raven gliding through the canopy, Crows, Rooks, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard, Dunnock, Blackbirds, a Song Thrush, Redwings, Goldcrests, Robins and Wrens – and on the water, Coot, Moorhen, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Teal, Widgeon, Gadwall, Pochard, Herons, Great Crested Grebes and a Little Grebe, Shag, 3 Goosanders, and in the last light of late afternoon, a pair of Goldeneye below the bridge.

A perfect day.

Thurlestone Rock and a calm sea
From the bridge at Roadford Lake

Two very different days

Saturday afternoon and  Celia (daughter #4) and I were on the 6th level of the Millenium Stadium, watching Wales lose a game to South Africa that they should have won, and which at half-time they were leading.

The noise from the 60,000 of us watching the game was such that at times it was difficult to think, with what was happening on the pitch mirrored seconds later by the response of the crowd. Warmed up by all that now accompanies a major rugby game in Cardiff, we had seen male voice choirs, the Lostprophets, three base jumpers off the roof, choreographed pulses of fire, before the gladiatorial entry of the teams, and the anthems: Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika,  then Land of my Fathers. The final chorus, “Gwlad, gwlad, pleidiol wyf i’m gwlad” filled the stadium.  Expectation rippling around the crowd, a sudden still, the referee’s whistle, and then game on.

Television delivers an experience stripped of passion, where the commentary and the camera angles shape how you see the game, and just in case you missed it, the replays. Very little is left to you. There is no sense of involvement, and your role is no more than a passive observer. Up close and personal, or as up close and personal as you can get on the 6th level, it is all very different. You see the whole pitch, and even if the the players are difficult to distinguish, there is movement:  it is much easier to feel what is happening and to make sense of it. You can hear the stands opposite and at each end;  and the bank of spectators behind you: to your front it seems little more than a wall of noise, with the occasional words of Cwm Rhondda suddenly heard; and yet behind and around there are the snatches of conversation overheard, laughter and groans, and “Wales, Wales”, taken up and echoed back.

And afterwards there are the crowds.

Arriving at the ground is easy: we were through the turnstiles at 1.00 and had an hour and a half, watching the stadium slowly fill. At the end of the game it is as if a plug has been pulled, and thousands are funnelled down the stairways, and out through the Gates. It has been a very long time since I found myself  in quite such a crowd and making our way to the railway station, sometimes with and sometimes against the flow was not pleasant, even though he crowds were quiet: as if all excitement had been drained away.

This afternoon was a different world.

Caroline and I were on Mardon Down, bright sunshine and wind making ripples through the grass. The bluebells may be past their best but they still tint the shallow slopes where the bracken is uncurling, pale green- still only a hint of what will be a dense covering in little more than a month. In the air Skylarks, floating in the wind, with Swifts hawking insects and a lone Buzzard playing at being a Kestrel, holding position with hunched wings.

Just the two of us, accompanied by birdsong and with views south to the Moor, caught in shadowed sunlight. And a slow drive home. Hawthorn in bridal white and campion splashing the green walls with colour.

Bookended by bats

It has rained on and off for much of today, and the temperature has dropped. It is hard to believe that this is the last Saturday in May. This time last week was so very different.

Then we woke at 4.30 a.m. and took our mugs of tea into the garden, sitting on the bench looking out over the pond. It was very still. As the sky lightened, we first heard and then watched bats skimming the top of the wall behind us, before dipping over the pond and away. Bird song was almost the only sound: Blackbird, Blue tit, later Jackdaws and Rooks waking up. In the distance we could hear the occasional sheep in the Sentry. No traffic. For a brief moment there were both birds – Swifts, Swallows, House Martins – and bats in the sky, before we watched the bats disappear, one squeezing between the slate and the wall on our gable end. And then there was a buzzing of insects, and the cries of Swifts pierced our sleepiness. Back to bed for a couple more hours sleep, and by that time the town was awake.

It was a day spent in the garden: tidying, planting, watering, pottering around and potting up, to say nothing of breakfast and lunch outside.

And then driving south and west to the north coast of Cornwall, and a 60th birthday party. A warm, shirt-sleeve evening, a barbecue and another meal outside, as we watched the sun set over the Atlantic. And as the Swallows and Martins were lost in the dusk,  we once more saw and heard bats. A perfect day.

The boys are back

Saturday afternoon in Yarner Wood: bright sunshine and Pied Flycatchers. Summer is starting.

Yarner Wood is our local patch, and we visit the reserve throughout the year. But our first visit in April is always special, as we wonder whether the Pied Flycatchers are back. It was no different last weekend. The car park was unusually full (we later met the guided tour) and the weather not warm. Some years leaf break will have started; this year the oaks were still bare branched.

At the hide very little, but Caroline suddenly fixed on a male Pied Flycatcher. This was the only bird we saw from the hide, although there was birdsong in the treetops. We took our usual route, along and up, and as we reached Flycatcher Alley, nest boxes every other tree, we heard and then saw more Pied Flycatchers. All male, and in the course of the afternoon about eight in all. Reading the Warden’s notes later, they have been back at Yarner since 8 April.

And as well as the Pied Flycatchers, a Raven high over the wood, a Bullfinch, Greater Spotted Woodpeckers drumming, and all the usual suspects: Chiffchaffs, Great, Blue and Coal Tits, Blackbirds, Wrens, Robins, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Time stands still in Yarner Wood and by the time we left it was well past six o’clock.

The next day we were having a birthday tea with my mother-in-law. Her garden was alive with bird song, and she knows Summer is back because the Swallows, who have been nesting in her garage for the past 15 or so years, have returned. We stood and watched them, a fast glide and down below the lintel and up and out of sight.

All we need now are the Swifts.

Easter running

Spring has crept up on us this year. The last week has not been warm, and we seem to have had more than our share of rain, with only a little sun.

The house this Easter weekend has been full of running: not us but the girls (or at least three of them). The Great West Run, Exeter’s half-marathon, is a month away and all three are going to be home to run for Cancer Research: if you want to sponsor them you’ll find their page on Just Giving.

A savage downpour yesterday morning saw two of them pounding the track round Mardon Down. This morning was more ambitious: just shy of ten miles from the Hennock Reservoirs home. I dropped them at 9.00 and they were home as the Church clock struck 11.00. They are all pleased with how today has gone, but to beat two hours on 2 May will be tough.

We walked part of their route this morning on Friday, starting at the Trenchford car park and taking the road round to Tottiford then up to the county road, sharp right down to Kennick, across the dam and back along the road. Five miles of easy walking (although gumboots weren’t the best choice of footwear), and the chance to see Spring here: Swallows and House Martins over Trenchford, the first we have seen this year, and the earliest we have seen them in the 13 years we have lived here.

And just so we know Spring is indeed here, we heard the unmistakeable tapping of death watch beetle in the shutters in the study. This, I hope, is the last part of the house which is still home to them.

A Dartmoor day

Tuesday was a typical February day on the north Dartmoor edge: grey, rain threatened but instead a cold damp seeping into your bones.  2.00 in the afternoon, and the road into South Tawton lined with cars; in St Andrews, the parish church,  standing room only. A congregation of more men than women, in black suits rarely worn. A lot of people had been in the pub over lunch, but there was no buzz, little chatter. We were there, with, or so it seemed, most of Moretonhampstead, for the funeral of Roy Smaridge.

Roy was our builder. He had been born, he told us, just up the road from South Tawton, in Taw Green. We found this out as when we had thought of moving in 2006 (posted about in A lot can happen in seven days). The house we looked at had been in Taw Green. Roy, when he heard,  commented, “You wouldn’t have liked it much: that house was always damp”. A builder’s comment.

We had known him from the time we moved into Moretonhampstead in 1997. He had then been living here: a jobbing builder, a retained fireman, and one of those people that either you liked or you didn’t (or perhaps it was he that liked you or didn’t).  Whichever, we liked him from the start, and over the years he and his boys have lovingly rebuilt and repaired the house: bedrooms, bathrooms, dining room, hall, walls, roofs. There are very few bits of it that he has not worked on.

And the sadness is that those plans we still have for the house, and had discussed with him, will now be for someone else to complete for us. I always joked with Roy that our house was his pension: now not required. His yearly gift of a Christmas hamper to us might have raised the children’s eyebrows, but it was just part and parcel of the relationship. And he touched our lives in more ways than one. Roy had been on the shout when Holly had broken her femur up on Mardon Down, thrown off her pony: with the nearest emergency ambulance either Okehampton or Exeter, the Fire Service are our first responders.

We were in north Norfolk when we heard the news: somehow very apposite as it seemed that we were usually on a distant bird reserve when Roy called from work on the house. “Are you sitting down? Good. We have had to dig out the dining room floor” or some such piece of less than welcome news. And here we were, sitting in St Andrews with all those other people whose lives Roy had also touched.

And his boys brought him into the church to Madness’ One step beyond, and at the end of the service he left to Don’t let the sun go down on me.

A cold churchyard but a warm welcome

The first Sunday in January saw us on the moor: not walking but taking my sister and her husband on a quick tour by Land Rover along icy roads. Not quite as bad as Christmas Day afternoon, when we drove to Hound Tor past Jay’s Grave and wondered if we would get back in time to pull the crackers, but still interesting.

Permanent four wheel drive is great, until you lose it. Then, as we found a few days later, more than a ton of metal takes some stopping.

Widecombe-in-the-Moor was all but empty of visitors. The National Trust shop, in what was once the Church House, offered a temporary respite from a bitter east wind, but we had come to see the “Cathedral of the Moor” and morning service in St Pancras was not quite finished. We loitered in the cold churchyard.

It was well worth the wait. We not only got to see one of the finest churches in our part of Devon (even though Pevsner wasn’t much enthused about it) but we were met as we went in with coffee and shortbread; and the suggestion that next month we arrive earlier to help with the singing!

A cold churchyard but a very warm welcome.