Red Letter Days

2007 has been the year we have started birdwatching in earnest: see A Birdie Year. We are very lucky living where we do: Yarner Wood, the best place in the South West to see Pied Flycatchers, is 15 minutes down the road. 15 minutes in another direction will take you to the High Moor (Golden Plover at this time of year; Skylarks and Meadow Pipits for much of the Spring and Summer; and always the magical Ravens), or to Soussons Woods or the Fernworthy Plantations. Only a little longer and we can be on Dawlish Warren, watching waders along the Exe, or Slavonian Grebes and Common Scoters off shore.

We never know quite what we are going to see, and rarely set out with the intention of finding a particular bird. We don’t have life lists, and such records as we keep are more to help us remember what we have had the good fortune to watch, than to boast of our sightings. I see each day we are out as a red letter day, but some this past twelve months have been the reddest of such days: the afternoon of 14 April, with leafbreak just happening in Yarner and the first Pied Flycatchers arriving; the Ravens on Snowdon as we came off the Bwlch Main in very early May; the trip to the lighthouse at the tip of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge on Nantucket Island in October. These are days that will live in the memory.

January Goldeneyes

Reading my past posts, a recurring feature is the weather, and in particular, in this part of the West Country, rain (or at times this past year the lack of it). Before starting to write this afternoon, I decided to avoid any mention of weather (or rain) but it so governs our lives that it is not possible to ignore weather; or not for very long. It may no longer dictate the course of daily life, as it did for my great grandfather, but it still plays a large part in that everyday life. Today was no different: where to walk and what to wear? Having heard the forecast, and more importantly looked west from our bedroom window over the Moor, we chose to drive up to the Hennock reservoirs.

Evidence of the recent storms was everywhere: some trees down and branches snapped off. There was wind this morning but walking up through the woods the air was still at ground level, even though 50 feet up the treetops were moving. With the wind these past couple of weeks, we have had rain, and the reservoirs are full, water tumbling down the spillways. In early October the reservoirs were as low as we had ever seen them; they are now filled to overflowing.

Bird life is sparse both on and along the edges of the reservoirs. It is not one of our favoured bird watching places although this morning we watched Coal and Marsh Tits in the trees, and on Kennick Reservoir, four pairs of Tufted Duck and, very unusually, two Goldeneye drakes. Roger Smaldon’s The Birds of Dartmoor describes Goldeneye as a very rare winter visitor to the Dartmoor reservoirs, most often at Burrator, and so to see them on one of the Hennock reservoirs was special. Both drakes were displaying, throwing back their heads but it was too far to hear to hear the growling call they make. Why they were doing this with no duck present is anyone’s guess: perhaps just practice for Spring.

Ending this post, I am afraid that much of it has been about weather, but then according to Samuel Johnson, when two Englishmen meet their first talk is of the weather, and so perhaps all I am doing is reinforcing a national stereotype.

A wild ending

Wild weather has kept us off the High Moor this holiday, but the upside has been the opportunity to watch birds. This we have taken and have spent the last four days doing just that.

On Boxing Day we were at Lydford Gorge: a short walk as the main route is closed over winter, but after the descent to the waterfall, we climbed back up and along the old railway line to the hide at the end. Just before high tide on Thursday, we watched squadrons of Oystercatcher and Dunlin arrive on the Dawlish Warren mud flats, the sun catching the flash of wings like glitter. We watched Marsh, Coal, Blue and Great Tits at Yarner Wood very late on Friday afternoon, with fleeting glimpses of a Nuthatch and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the half-light. Yesterday we saw more Godwit along the margin of the flooded area at Bowling Green Marsh than we have seen before, and mixed in among them Redshank, Lapwing, Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal, as well as Canada Geese; and in the tree next to the hide, Longtailed Tits. Add to that watching Dippers on the Teign just up from Clifford Bridge on Christmas Eve, and seeing a trout (or perhaps even a very late salmon) jump in one of the pools.

This morning we were closer to home, back up to our favourite walk on Mardon Down, the weather rushing in from the south. In the space of 45 minutes we lost sight of the Moor completely but we missed the rain, which came just as we reached the Landrover (very clean and if not new, then definitely more pre-owned than second hand! One result of the problem with the central locking which I posted about in Technology is not all it is cracked up to be, was being persuaded by the silver-tongued salesman at Matford to trade in and up: another 110 Defender but three years and 70,000 miles younger).

2006 is not going out gently. The rain is hammering on the windows and it could already be tea-time, not just after lunch. It is all too easy to concentrate on our own small corner of Devon. But perhaps I do so because to understand the world beyond sometimes seems so difficult. These past few days have seen the unfolding drama of Saddam Hussein’s end, and yet more turmoil in Iraq. We caught the last half of Brian Walden’s Sunday reflection, A Point of View, on Radio 4 as we lay in bed this morning.

In five minutes, he put into words far better than I could ever hope to, a view many share. He spoke of lessons that need to be learned about the occupation of Iraq, calling it one disaster that we must never repeat. While entertaining no doubt about the physical courage of our troops, he asked our political leaders “to find the moral courage to face some unpalatable facts about Britain’s status in the world”, and in particular “the embarrassing impression that other countries look to us for ethical leadership”. As he put it somewhat bluntly, they don’t. And as for the rest of the world standing in awe of our righteousness, this illusion, he averred, is the source of many of our follies.

If I were to have one wish for 2007, it would be a government that understands this.

A change of scene

Change is both exhilarating and frightening. I do not necessarily subscribe to it being as good as a rest, and there are aspects of change that I find somewhat depressing, especially the gradual loss of physical attributes that I once took for granted. Nevertheless change is, by and large, a companion I welcome. Perhaps this is just as well, given the events of the past year.

Although I have spent much of the the past few months working in Bristol, I have, again, moved office within my firm. I am now back in Plymouth, where I began ten years ago, when I first left Bristol. Much has changed, both in the office and in the city, but I had a feeling of coming home. It was a change I did not look for but which was welcome for all sorts of reasons, and which I am enjoying enormously. A number of people have asked whether Caroline and I are moving. I have been able to tell them that we are staying put.

Ten years ago living in Moretonhampstead, and working in Plymouth, raised eyebrows; this is now not the case, as the professional and business community no longer live exclusively in the city. Not perhaps that they ever did, as many of the people I met and worked with lived in villages across the South Hams and up the Tamar valley. It was just that for many Plymothians the northern edge of the Moor was terra incognita.

Moving office means a different drive to and from work: from home along the Wrey valley to Bovey Tracey, then skirting the Moor on the A38, before dropping down to Marsh Mills, where the River Plym meets the sea. It is a longer journey, and at this time of year I drive much of it in the dark, but it has such variety. A local coach firm’s slogan, “Moor to Sea” is certainly true of my morning journey. At this time of year both woods and Moor seem almost monochrome in the early light, and such colour as there is, is to be found in the sky. I had forgotten this aspect of the daily drive until a week ago, when the black wooded valleys framed a dull blue sky with clouds of the deepest magenta to fiery orange. It was not the picture-pretty red sky of autumn evenings, but a meteorological warning of imminent storm (which we duly had). What leaves had been left on the trees are there no longer.

Coming home, I have a choice: back up the A38 or across the Moor from Yelverton. If I am doing the journey in the light I invariably choose the latter. It is a longer exit from the city but once over the last roundabout at Roborough, it is open country; and after Yelverton only a short climb through Dousland before the Moor proper. Because most of our trips take us south from Moretonhampstead, and rarely beyond Princetown, travelling north from Roborough Down lets me see the Moor from a different, unexpected angle. A December evening, however, is not the ideal time to drive this way home: too many ponies next to the road, always the chance of sudden mist, and on the desolate stretch of country north of Two Bridges the possibility of a meeting with the Wish Hounds.

Technology is not all it is cracked up to be

I have always thought that we have a rather low-tech vehicle, when compared to most modern ones. It is a Land Rover Defender 110: drives like a flying brick but in this part of the world indispensable. Our first Defender was third hand and somewhat spartan. This one was bought new but although an updated model, it is, nonetheless, instantly recognisable as a British classic.

It may leak, is certainly noisy and is remarkably uncomfortable if you have the misfortune to have to sit on the back seats on any journey more than 25 miles, but we love it. In the past four years we have covered over 75,000 miles in it. It has taken us birdwatching in north Norfolk, garden visiting across the South West and is our usual transport onto the Moor. As well as being the school run bus, it has ferried children and all their gear to and from universities (although I would not recommend the cross-London route we took last September taking one of the girls up to the University of East London). This morning it was a straightforward pre-Christmas shopping trip into Exeter. We dropped Ed off at school (drama rehearsal this morning and rugby this afternoon) before parking in the Southgate Hotel car park.

Returning an hour or so later, the central locking did not work. This is where we found the Land Rover somewhat higher tech than it might at first appear. When we bought it we were warned never to unlock the door manually once the alarm was set, as not only would this set off the alarm but trigger the immobiliser (requiring an expensive call out to reset it).With this in mind, we called a daughter, borrowed her car and drove home (collecting the shopping first) to fetch the spare keys. Back, much later, in the car park, I discovered the spare keys did not work either. I had no alternative but to make the ‘phone call for the expensive call out: 30 minutes later Lamb Garage (aka Land Rover Assistance) appeared.

He had no qualms about opening the door. The alarm didn’t go off, nor did the immobiliser trigger. He did not know what the matter was, but the engine started and I was able to drive home, cold, £135.00 the poorer, and none the wiser. The Land Rover will have to go back to the dealer on Monday, and once plugged in to their diagnostic equipment, we will probably learn that the whole alarm/central locking system has failed, and will have to be replaced. Life was certainly much simpler when you simply used a key to lock, unlock and start your car!

It left me wondering what we would have done had it happened last Sunday. We had driven up to Okehampton Camp and a little beyond, and then walked the military road before cutting off, up Oke Tor and back along the Belstone Ridge. Parking, we caught the first icy squall. Hailstones coming in almost horizontally at 40 miles an hour is not much fun, but in between bright sunshine, tremendous wind and good walking. We lunched sheltered behind Oke Tor (and watched another bout of dirty weather come over) and 45 minutes later had to take shelter again. We got back to the Landrover as yet another squall caught us. Had the central locking failed then, we would have been very stuck (and very cold!). But we had our mobiles with us and even if it had not been pleasant, no doubt someone would have come and helped us.

We rely so much on technology. I have been very tempted to buy a GPS for walking, especially as weather on the Moor, as we found last week, is so unpredictable. The problem is that once you start to rely on this equipment, you run the risk of losing the real skills that hill walking requires: map and compass work, the ability to estimate time, direction and distance; and, above all, common sense. It is like having satnav in the car, and ignoring the road signs: I once arrived at the back entrance (locked) of a hotel in Redruth, courtesy of satnav; a friend of ours didn’t pay attention when tapping in Moretonhampstead, and instead found herself on the road to Mortehoe: yet she knew the way perfectly well.

Machines are no substitute for sense.