Books, Dreams and Leaves

Autumn is finishing and Winter is beginning to close in.  The sunny days of early and mid-November that highlighted the changing leaf colours have given way, in the last week especially, to grey murk, mist and damp.  But, today is sunny and Christmas is coming and, beyond that, a chance to think about a new, hopefully less pandemic-ridden new year.  I will have to start thinking about New Year resolutions and how well (or not) I did with 2020’s resolutions.

Horsley Woods Exactly A Month Ago

At the beginning of 2020 I set myself a target of reading 20 books in the year.  To my disappointment and surprise, I am going to fall short of the target.  Disappointment because I have consistently read 16 to 17 books a year since I retired and so reading 20 was only a small step up.  Surprise because I enjoy reading a lot and would have expected to have found more time for reading in what has been a year of pandemic lockdown and, therefore, more time sitting around at home.

Local Sunlight Through Mist (Photo Courtesy LSW)

I would like to be able to say that the relatively slow pace at which I have finished books this year has been a function of those books’ complexity or length.  But given that one was ‘How to Be a Footballer’ by Peter Crouch, I can’t get far with that argument.  No; the real reason is that almost every time I pick up a book during the day – especially after lunch – I doze off.

Birthday Voucher Books

A few weeks ago I cashed in a book voucher my mother in law had kindly given me for my birthday.  As I carried the books home, I resolved to resist siesta time more determinedly.  I have had partial success and am now embarking on the third of the books I bought.  However, I think the only real solution is to when read standing up or while sitting stiffly at a table.  I am still finding that trying to read on the sofa or in a comfy chair leads inexorably to a frittering away of retirement in a pleasant but wasteful snooze.  I’m going to try harder.

The first of the new books I read was ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison.  This is an intricate novel about, at its core, slavery and how ex-slaves and their offspring came to terms with their experience.  It’s a brilliantly constructed book with fragments of the story, told by different protagonists, coming together gradually to create a whole.  The presence of a ghost (as representation of guilt, memory or trauma – I’m not sure which) was a device I don’t normally warm to, but it worked here.

The next book in the new pile was ‘Always North’ by Vicki Jarrett.  This was very different from Beloved.  It is set in a dystopian near future, not the past, and is a fast paced climate emergency thriller.  There are some parallels between the books though.  They both describe a tragic environment and they both deal with the nature of memory and dreams.  I thought that some of the ideas in Always North were only partly thought through.  However, the excellent first section of the book describing a survey of the Arctic hooked me, the story unfolded quickly enough for me to forgive any logic holes, and I learnt a few things about likely climate change trigger points above the Arctic Circle.

A Few Remnants Of Autumn Colour On The Walk To Town Through The Fisheries

The preoccupation of both books with memory and dreams links to some thoughts I have had about these recently.  I have had a spate of dreams over the last few months that have had a corporate office work theme.  There were people in the dreams from my previous work life.  There were offices, deadlines, files and meetings.

I won’t relate what fragments I can remember of any of the dream sequences – I often think there is nothing more tedious than hearing about someone else’s dreams – but it is weird that they have cropped up over 3 years after my retirement.  I read once that dreams are the brain’s way of flushing out information that is not needed anymore.  Well perhaps my experience is bearing that out!

Beautiful Autumn Leaf Colour

So, onwards into December…  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are looking forward to Christmas despite the constraints on gatherings.  I have issued a light and laughable survey to our sons asking them what sort of Christmas they want with us – what food, drink and activity for example – and that has helped to build up some excitement.  Most of all, we are looking forward to some long chats around meals, during long walks and in front of the wood-burners, in advance of what should be a good and interesting 2021.

The Sort Of Country Walk We Like

Already – and regardless of the pandemic – LSW and I can see the potential for big changes next year.  The landscaping of the garden behind the house is nearly (and finally, belatedly) finished but will need planting and then we should decide what to do about the big crumbling stone wall in front of the house and the gently declining stables in the field.  The Barbican flat in London is being vacated by Eldest Son and his girlfriend as they move to Edinburgh and so we have to decide whether to sell it.  The tenancy of our Tin House in a neighbouring village is coming to an end so there needs to be some thinking about the future of that too. 

Beyond the pandemic, there will no doubt be other opportunities and issues to confront.  Not least we are keen to travel around the UK rather more – especially to Northern Ireland, now Youngest Son is settled there, and to Scotland, once Eldest Son and girlfriend have moved there.  I will also visit my Mum and Dad again after a long break due to the lockdown.

Unexpected Autumnal Fungal Beauty

The sun coming out today after four days of grimy, grey weather has made me feel optimistic again….. There is still some autumnal colour in the leaves on some trees, the woodland paths are gorgeously spongy with the recent leaf falls, fungi are thriving in the undergrowth and birds are still marking out their territories beautifully noisily.  And a Covid-19 vaccine is coming….

The Stream Just Beyond Our Field In Early Sunlight (Again, Photo Credited To LSW)

There is much to appreciate and anticipate.  Roll on Christmas and the New Year.

Shrinking Life Boundaries

I’m leaving October with the rain pouring down outside and the threat of a further significant tightening of the lockdown against the pandemic apparently imminent.  One can always expect the rain in the UK at this time of year but who would have predicted, this time last year for example, that life would be so constrained.  I certainly hadn’t imagined that retired life would be so narrow and boundaried.  I expected to be travelling, exploring and experiencing variety whereas, now, life has shrunk to very modest activities.

A Windy And Wet Autumnal Day From The Warmth Of Indoors

Of course, the little island of life that I have retreated to is very comfortable relative to many.  Despite all that one reads and hears on the radio, it is hard to put oneself in the shoes of a young intern now without an internship, a single mother without an income, or someone like my Mum cooped up in a care home without visitors.  It’s a tough period in which to be holding a poor hand of life cards in the UK and the deaths of those in the Channel this week hint at how much worse things are in some other parts of the world.

A few days ago we took Youngest Son (YS) up to Heathrow.  (He had been over from Belfast to drop off a car and do a video job in London which was ultimately, disappointingly cancelled due to a Covid-19 infection at his client.)  On the way back Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I listened to a radio programme hosted by Arlo Parks, a young British singer/songwriter, on the demise of live music during the pandemic.  As I listened, I realised that it is probably watching live music that I miss most in this constricted pandemic life.

Up Close With Zun Zun Egui at Cafe Oto (My Favourite Music Venue), London March 2015

One of the points made in the programme was that live concerts are more than just opportunities to hear live music that one likes or might like.  These concerts are short periods when pretty much everyone in the room come together for a common experience and somehow that lifts the listening to the music to a broader, collective emotional high. 

Mogwai At The Roundhouse, London June 2015 – One Of The Bigger Gigs I have Been To

This experience can be near perfect or fall flat; that is not always because of the quality of the music.   I have listed all the gigs I have been to since mid-2007 (368) and rated them as I went. 

Jazz Servant Quarters, London; A Tiny Venue With Nuria Graham

My ratings have, of course, been determined mostly by the quality of the performer – and that is not just the quality of the music but also whether the artist looked like they were enjoying playing, their engagement and the banter between songs, and the overall atmosphere they created.  But there are other factors contributing to the overall enjoyment and, therefore, the rating.  These include the quality of the venue and the audience. 

The Antlers At Union Chapel, London, April 2019

On that last point, I’m old-age and traditional.  I hate being in an audience where the crowd are more interested in shouting over the music at each other than listening and getting into the show.  I wonder why people go to a gig if all they want to do is chat to each other – just go to a bar instead why don’t you?  I’ve learnt which venues, in east London at least, are best for listening to the music and experiencing the togetherness that Arlo Parks and her colleagues on that radio programme talked about.  It’s that, and the anonymity of being in the crowd where everyone is focused on the stage, that I miss.

Faeland At Chapel Arts. The Last Concert I Attended

I’m missing visiting London, visiting exhibitions and live football too.  I’m regretful that I can’t travel – it looks like our planned trip to Wales next month is doomed.  But when one of my biggest worries is whether I will be able to get another haircut this year, I should quit moaning and appreciate the things I can do. 

So, in that spirit, here are a couple of pictures from recent, lovely woodland walks!

Stay safe!

Ups And Downs Of Walking

Anyone who has read this blog over the last few years will know that one of the greatest pleasures I have taken from retiring, and therefore having more discretionary time, has been in walking around the vicinity of our home in Gloucestershire.  That has continued in the last few quiet weeks of Covid-19 semi-lockdown.

Typical Local Cotswold View From A Local Walk

The weather has become distinctly Autumnal.  Now there are puddles and a sogginess underfoot on some of the footpaths that is requiring more care and more mud and waterproof footwear.  However, the weather has been largely good and recent walks have continued to be full of interest.

Autumnal Sunrise From Our Bedroom

The berries on the trees and hedgerows remain vibrant and fungal growths on tree stumps seem to have become more extravagant. 

Autumn Fungal And Mushroom Blooms

The local streams have become little gushing torrents again following the rain and the birds are noisy with their staking out of their territories. 

Local Streams And Waterfalls Are Filling Up

The changing seasons are bringing shifting palettes of colour to the views from walks where the green of fields and trees has previously dominated.  I am hoping that the warmth of the summer that accumulated in our woods has allowed trees to make the sugars that will bring out even more brilliant browns, reds and yellows as the month progresses.

The only irritants on my local walks have been the increasing prevalence of discarded face masks and dog poo bags along the way.  I have read that the standard plastic face masks take 450 years to decompose.  In recent years I have seen a raised consciousness of how the oceans are filling up with our plastic waste and I feel that we have begun to understand the potential (all bad) implications of this for the food chain and wildlife degradation.  Suddenly we have found a way of reversing that progress through carelessness in disposing of face masks; frustrating!

Perhaps I shouldn’t get started on dogs and their owners’ misuse of poo bags.  It makes my blood boil and I’m sure the issue is getting worse.  Of course, no-one wants to step in dog poop.  Picking it up and disposing of it safely should be a basic requirement for any dog owner.  But many choose not to do so when their dog is on a footpath crossing a field.  That endangers not only my shoes but also livestock in the field.

Locally Bagged Deposits Including The Particularly Egregious Example Pinned On A Stile Behind A ‘Please Clean Up After Your Dog’ Sign

Some dog owners are diligent in picking up their mess.  However, when they do, most use plastic bags that usually take centuries to decompose and create micro-plastic particles that simply end up poisoning the earth or flow into the oceans.  Googling ‘dog poo bag decomposition’ produces pretty frightening results.  Then there are the worst dog owners who pick up the poo and then, astonishingly, leave the bag swinging in a nearby hedgerow or lying by the side of the path; disgusting!

Disappointing Use of A Grit Bin In Our Lane – Dog Poop and Plastic!

Of course, dogs bring huge amounts of pleasure to millions of people.  But I worry when I read that people in the UK alone have bought 2.2 million dogs in the last six months of Covid-19 lockdown.  Will spotting discarded poo bags be the norm on any outing?  And what about the meat consumption of all those pets and the impact on greenhouse gasses that has?

I know – I shouldn’t have started my rant.  Rant over!  I’ll focus on enjoying the views during my walks by looking upwards and hoping my mud-proof footwear deals with the rest.

A Surprise Test Event

The undoubted highlight in what has been a further two weeks of Covid-19 quietude was a surprise test event held at Forest Green Rovers Football Club (FGR) – my team!  Test events to ‘test’ the efficacy of running sporting events that are open to the public during the pandemic have been scheduled across several sports for some weeks.  Because of the latest surge in infections many have been cancelled but apparently FGR were asked, at short notice, whether they wanted to hold one.  They obliged by inviting all their season ticket holders to take part.

Once I knew that my allocated, socially-distanced seat in the stand wouldn’t be in any potential driving rain, I jumped at the chance.  In the event, it was a sunny day.  The attractive, hilly walk to the ground felt like old times, and the whole occasion was a very exciting break from Covid-19 routines. 

There were socially distanced queues for temperature checks and then to get into the stadium.  The imposition of face masks muffled my cheers of team loyalty and those of the other 500 supporters.  But, not only did was event an emotional highlight, it felt safe.

The game itself was one FGR should have won.  However, following two players being sent off (the opposition), a missed penalty (us) and a scorching last-minute-of-injury-time equaliser (us), we had to be content with an eventful and dramatic draw. 

FGR vs Bradford City; The Only Professional Game I Will See Kick Off Live This Season?

Unfortunately, the increasing progress of the Covid-19 infection rate means that this event is likely to have been a one-off.  Further attendance of live FGR games feels a long way away again.  But I feel lucky that I had a brief reminder of the visceral pleasure of live football in a stadium.  (And we didn’t lose!)

As another highlight, Long Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) mother took us out for a very pleasant lunch (only our second restaurant lunch in 6 months) at The Potting Shed.  We also walked to the relatively new Wild Carrot Cafe on the very rural edge of the Parish and have made a few visits to our local and increasingly pandemic restriction-bound local pub.

The Wild Carrot Cafe, Chavenage

Otherwise, waking life has been a merry-go-round of walks, day-to-day shopping, meals and catch up television.  Outlander (just Series 1 so far) has been our latest TV box set plough-through.  That was very watchable except for the rape and torture scenes during which I tended to go off to make my warming evening drink!

There have been a few little frissons of excitement courtesy of nature.  I saw my first lizard (other than slow worms) in the garden.  We also had a huge dragonfly perch briefly on our garden table.  The friendly pheasant is back. 

Garden Visitors

Indeed, the garden continues to be a bountiful pleasure with masses of chard, huge but tasty beetroot, courgettes (of course) and masses of wonderful dahlias from two plants that have survived the cold of the last two winters. 

They Just Keep On Coming: ‘Cafe Au Lait’ Dahlias

The walled garden we had built three years ago is still laced with lots of white, purple and pink flowers among the tall grasses and shrubs.

Still Lots Of Colour In The Garden

Meanwhile, achingly slow progress is being made on a new garden behind and above the house.  LSW loves a project and, when the builders have finally completed the terracing and walling, there will be loads of work for us to do to clear unwanted plants (bind weed and hypericum is rife, is hard to eradicate and both LSW and I hate it) and renew the area with new ones.

Diggers In Our Garden Once Again

We are so lucky to have the space to be able to enjoy a garden and enough cash to be able to remodel it.  The garden has been such a boon during these weird, pandemic times.  It’s such a shame though, that this weirdness will continue, as most of us feared, into autumn, winter and beyond.   I look forward to my next sporting test event – whenever that may be – as a sign that these weird times may be ending.  Stay safe, all.

Colourful Hedgerows This Year (Black Bryony, Hawthorn and Rose Hips)

Rewilding

I have just finished reading ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree; I don’t read much non-fiction but I loved it.

It is a well-told story of how she and her husband conceded defeat on making their 3,500 acre farm profitable on marginal agricultural land in Sussex and, instead, allowed nature to take over.  They followed some examples of similar projects in Holland by allowing natural scrub and vegetation to take over the ploughed fields and by introducing some wild herbivore animals – longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and deer.  Then, over a period of 20 years, they observed how the disruption these animals introduced created drove the development of an amazingly biodiverse landscape.

The book is full of interesting facts.  For example, the average earthworm has around 50 different sorts of bacteria in its gut that process toxins, waste and organic matter to improve the soil as they digest it; jays can plant over 100 acorns (an oak forest!) a day.  I enjoy facts but more memorable was the account of Isabella’s emotions as previously held conventional wisdoms were upset as the project continued and the bureaucratic barriers and early local opposition was overcome.  There is humour too through the ups and downs in the project; I loved the chapter on the profusion of ragwort and the passages about how the newly introduced pigs tore up previously pristine grass verges.

One Of Knepp Farm’s Tamworth Pigs (A Picture From The Book)

Several years ago, we turned our little, bland grassy paddock just beyond our garden into a building site (as the rubble from the excavation to accommodate a house extension was layered under removed, and then replaced, topsoil) and then into a meadow-cum-orchard.  Since then, and particularly since retirement, I have been interested in how nature reclaims this cultivated land when cultivation and intensive grazing stops. 

A Small Herd Of Shorthorn Cattle On A Local Farm

In the upper part of our field away from where we are blending it with our garden, we see the rapid encroachment of bramble, bullace and blackthorn around the field edges.  We know that, if we leave it be without grazing animals to constrain these thorny and woody shrubs, they will expand and protect larger tree saplings.  That will generate a different sort of natural biodiversity than we are moving towards.

Bullaces Picked From The Boundary Of Our Field For Jelly (If I can Ever get It To Set) And Syrup (If I Can’t!)

In any case, already, the regime of scything the meadow and taking away the cut waste is delivering greater diversity of insect and plant life in the field.  Even just the number of different kinds of grass has multiplied several-fold. 

All that is having a positive effect on insect life in the adjacent garden and that is attracting a wider variety of birds.  The voles in the field may enjoy nibbling my vegetables but the kestrel I have seen twice in the huge ash tree that overlooks the field may be suppressing their numbers.

A Bit Of Our Local Wildlife – An Elephant Hawkmoth Caterpillar

I wish now that I had kept more formal count of wildlife varieties spotted in our field and garden over time to back up the feeling of greater diversity and the anecdotal evidence.  Certainly Isabella Tree (how well named she is!) did and those statistics are wonderful.  For example: male turtle dove sightings (a now desperately rare occurrence in the UK) on her Knepp estate rose steadily from zero to 20 by 2018 and by July of that year the estate was home to the largest colony (388 were counted) of rare purple emperor butterflies.

A Purple Emperor (Picture From The Book). The Chapter On This Butterfly Describes An Amazing Habit and Lifecycle

As the story of Knepp Farm unfolded so I was constantly taken aback by how fast nature recovers and a complex web of interdependence across so many species can be developed.  The story brought to life how, at pace, river pollution can be reversed, flooding can be obviated, soil can be improved and species can find new homes.  Towards the end of the book there was a good summary of a lot of the rewilding thinking and how this might be ported to other marginal agricultural land for our long term benefit:

‘So far in the post Brexit debate, farming and conservation have been pitted against each other as if the two must battle it out for resources.  But as experience at Knepp and elsewhere has demonstrated, farming and conservation – should not – be at loggerheads.  Giving over areas that are not on prime agricultural land to nature is farming’s greatest ally. 

By halting and reversing land degradation, securing water resources and providing insects for crop pollination, rewilding provides services vital to the long-term sustainability of agriculture and food production.  The complex mosaic of habitats stimulated by free-roaming grazing animals as we have seen on post-agricultural land at Knepp is not only remarkably easy to achieve.  Compared with conventional conservation, it is manifestly inexpensive.  It also provides much of what we need and what our landscape is currently lacking: biodiversity, resilience against climate change and extreme weather, and natural resources.  And it can still produce high-quality food like pasture-fed meat.’

‘Wilding’ reinforced much of what I already believed to be true but added some surprising detail and emphasised how resilient nature is if we allow it to be.  It’s such a positive book and I feel more hopeful having read it.  I recommend it.

Postscript: Just yesterday I read an article in the Guardian about similar but more ‘guerrilla’ rewilding efforts by a farmer called Derek Gow in Devon involving voles, wild cats, beavers and storks (the last two of which are covered in Isabella’s book).  I might pick up Derek Gow’s book ‘Bringing Back The Beaver’ next!

Phoebe Weston’s Article In The Guardian On Derek Gow

Football Coming Home?

Last weekend, I went to my first live football game for almost 6 months.  Granted, it was a relatively small local village affair but it stoked feelings of regret for the football I have missed due to the Coronavirus and some excitement for the delayed but impending advent of the new football season.

The match was played on our village playing field – an unassuming but picturesque venue – between our very own Horsley United and a guest team.

Pre-Match Line-ups For Horsley United And The Guest XI

Pre-Match Line-ups For Horsley United And The Guest XI

The match was a celebration of Horsley United’s promotion to Stroud District League 2 last season.  Somehow, the organisers had managed to attract three ex-Premier English League footballers to play for the opposition (Deon Burton, Lee Hendrie and Lee Carsley).  Each of these showed their class (and their age) and they added an unexpected gloss to a very pleasant occasion.

I have to say, too, that Horsley United look a much better team this season.  While Stuart Hendrie (Lee Hendrie’s younger brother and another professional footballer) was probably the best player on the pitch, two new young Horsley strikers caught the eye and ultimately won the game.  I look forward to seeing village football again soon.

My main team, Forest Green Rovers, have also started playing friendlies.  The building anticipation for Forest Green Rovers’ new season in English Football League 2 has been accelerated by the streaming over the Internet of some of the more important friendly games and the availability of season tickets.  I fear that social distancing in the main stand, which has reduced capacity by about 75%, will mean that my allocated season ticket seat will be near the front or sides of the main stand where the risk of getting very wet in westerly storms is high.  However, I may get lucky and, anyway, I have waterproofs and I can’t wait for the season proper to start.

Initially, games will be streamed since the stadium can’t be opened until infection and death rates are lower.  There is hope that this will be sometime in October but, given the experience of other countries in Europe, our confused approach to lock down in the UK, and currently rising infection rates, I’m not so optimistic.  My purchase of a season ticket within an hour of sales starting was an act of faith and of support for the football club I love; hopefully, it pays off.

Forest Green Rovers's Current Stadium

Forest Green Rovers’s Current Stadium

In the two weeks since our trip to Northern Ireland I have become aware of how much I needed that trip away from home for the first time in five months.  The lock-down days have now returned to their rather lustreless routine.  The walks through local nature continue to be very pleasant – I spotted some bats a couple of evenings ago which was an example of how uplifting little incidents on these walks can be.  The garden continues to be a pleasure even in the relative wetness of this year’s August.  The gentle rhythm of walking, shopping, reading, listening to music, cooking and eating, snoozing and watching catch-up television generates contentment if not outright excitement.

One Of The Local Walk Pleasures - A Glorious Sunset

One Of The Local Walk Pleasures – A Glorious Sunset

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has found another outlet from this routine with another short trip – this time with a work colleague to (very) northern Scotland.

Her absence has accentuated the predictability of my own home routine.  I look forward to LSW’s return.  I look forward to the return to a football season.  I look forward to other signs of post lock down normality.

Another Bonus From Having Time In Retirement To Stroll Through The Local Countryside: One of 'My Five A Day'

Another Bonus From Having Time In Retirement To Stroll Through The Local Countryside: One Of ‘My Five A Day’

Actually, as I think back over the last couple of weeks, there have been more breaks from lock-down routine than it feels.  Eldest Son visited us on his way to a camping trip.  Middle Son is visiting us tomorrow following a meet up with friends in Bristol.  We also managed a very pleasant ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ lunch with friends last week at our local and excellent William’s Kitchen.  Another move toward normality is the restart of the monthly series of village pub quizzes from next month.

I helped keep some semblance of momentum around the village quiz going earlier this year.  Now, the local pub is setting up a quiz that will be adherent to the government guidelines for social distancing, for making too much noise and for having too much fun during the pandemic.  Despite my general hopelessness at answering the quiz questions, I am looking forward to participating in something that, like the start of the football season, suggests we have turned a corner in the pandemic.  Once again, my fingers are crossed.

Out And About In Northern Ireland

Youngest Son (YS) took us out for two major trips away from Belfast while we were visiting him for the first time in his new environment in Northern Ireland.  The first was a drive south for a walk in the Mourne Mountains in County Down.  Then he persuaded us to make a very early start to visit the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast of Antrim.  YS loves sunrises and sunsets; on trips he has arranged for us in England, Australia and now Northern Ireland he has repeatedly proven that he is fully justified in that!

Sunrise Starting To Illuminate The Giants Causeway, Antrim, Northern Ireland

Sunrise Starting To Illuminate The Giant’s Causeway, Antrim, Northern Ireland

The first thing that struck me when we approached the Mourne Mountains was the character of the stone walling separating fields and gardens.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are very familiar with stone walls since they are ubiquitous in The Cotswolds.  Indeed, we are currently having a few new ones built to create some terracing in our garden.  But the walls around the Mourne Mountains are very different and very striking.  Essentially they are huge, rounded granite boulders placed on top of each other so their very weight gives the walls strength.

Granite Wall In The Mourne Mountains

Granite Wall In The Mourne Mountains

Even more impressive was the fact that these walls not only skirted the mountain slopes but also sat on the ridge lines right up and over the highest peaks.  The ‘Mourne Wall’ was constructed between in the early 1900’s to define and enclose the catchment area for the Silent Valley Reservoir.  The wall is 22 miles long, crosses the peaks of 15 mountains and keeps farm animals away from the reservoirs and rivers that flow into them.  It’s an amazing feature – both in terms of simple engineering and of beauty.

Walking Up Beside Part Of The Mourne Wall

Walking Up Beside Part Of The Mourne Wall

We were blessed with perfect weather for walking.  It was sunny but a great deal cooler than the simultaneous overbearing and sweltering weather back home in Gloucestershire.  The wispy and puffy clouds not only helped with the backdrops to the photos but created a constantly shifting, dappled shade across the muted mauves, greens, greys and browns of the mountainsides.

Views And Granite Rock Formations At The Summits

Views And Granite Rock Formations At The Summits

The circular walk was challenging but not exhausting.  The views from the peaks of Wee Binnian and Slieve Binnian were easily worth the exertion.  The subsequent substantial and carbohydrate laden brunch at Railway St felt very well deserved.

Our second trip out of Belfast with YS started before 5.30am.  YS drove us snoozy oldsters out to the Giant’s Causeway Heritage Site.  We effectively had the place to ourselves throughout our visit and as the sun rose over the cliffs and started to illuminate the causeway, we felt very privileged and pleased with YS’s insistence on an early start.

The Giants Causeway

The Giants Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway itself was much as I had expected – after all, it is so well documented in pictures including some we had seen when YS had visited the place a few weeks earlier.  What was a more unexpected pleasure was the walk around the adjacent cliffs and the ruggedness of the nearby coast.  That feeling of wildness was enhanced by the lack of other visitors at such an early hour, but also by the path closure signs (which we partially ignored) which warned of rock falls for which there was plenty of recent evidence.

Some of the 40,000 Hexagonal Basalt Column Tops Forming the Causeway And (Bottom Left) Other Huge Columns Forming Cliffs

Some of the 40,000 Hexagonal Basalt Column Tops Forming The Causeway And (Bottom Left) Other Huge Columns Forming Cliffs

YS took us on to see Dunluce Castle which was one of the locations used for The Game of Thrones television series (Greyjoy Castle apparently).  It is certainly spectacularly located and, when the coronavirus has passed, it would be great to visit this National Trust property more fully.

Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle

We then went on to White Rocks Beach which was a further geological surprise: chalk cliffs backing a beautiful sandy beach.  Then, after a brief walk around Portstewart, we refuelled with breakfast in The Three Kings.

White Rocks Beach, Antrim

White Rocks Beach, Portrush, Antrim

Old Salmon Fisherman's Cottage Near Portstewart

Old Salmon Fisherman’s Cottage Near Portstewart, County Derry/Londonderry

We made and attempted a couple more stops to see some of the dramatic landscapes used in The Game of Thrones series.  But the visits to White Park Bay and Boheeshane Bay were brief or aborted as, by now, crowds of other tourists were gathering and car parking was becoming problematic.  I can feel another 5.30 am start being required next time we visit Northern Ireland to see YS!

White Park Bay, Antrim

White Park Bay, Antrim

There certainly will be a next time.  Some aspects of the tour around Counties Antrim and Down were expected: the calming greenness and the quiet, rural character.  But there were many surprises too and we want to see more.  Perhaps the multi-day itinerary we had planned for a walk along the South West Coastal Path in England last June, but which we had to cancel due to the coronavirus, will switch into an Irish coastal walk rather than just be rescheduled for next year.  Who knows, but we certainly enjoyed this first taster of Northern Ireland very much.

Belfast

After long consideration of the relative risks during the Coronavirus pandemic, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I finally swallowed feelings of unease and flew to Belfast to see Youngest Son (YS) and his Northern Irish girlfriend in their new home.  We had a packed four full days there – so packed that I will use two blog posts to cover my thoughts on our trip.  Here is the first.

Travel to Belfast by car and ferry was going to take a day and the fastest route involved travelling through the Irish Republic.  We were concerned about possible quarantine restrictions being imposed there during our trip but the ferry direct to Belfast from Birkenhead took nine hours and we couldn’t face that.  So we plumped for a short flight from Bristol, our closest airport, and a payment to Solar Aid to offset the carbon emission and to help people in Africa.

The 'Beacon Of Hope', Belfast (Also Known As: 'Nuala With The Hula' and 'The Thing With The Ring'

The ‘Beacon Of Hope’, Belfast (Also Known As: ‘Nuala With The Hula’ and ‘The Thing With The Ring’)

We had a wonderful time in and around a surprisingly sunny Belfast.  Fundamentally, it was good to be able to see how YS now lives.  Also, having shared a number of misgivings about his move to Northern Ireland while he had been staying with us during the Covid-19 lockdown, the visit indicated our validation of his move.  Beyond that, we ate and drank well, got a good feel for Belfast, and managed a day on the north Antrim coast and a day in the Mourne Mountains.  I’ll write more on those two trips another time.

LSW had the wise suggestion of starting our stay with a bus tour of Belfast.  With our best face masks firmly fastened again, we rode around centre and immediate suburbs of Belfast.  Much of the journey was through and past places that we recalled vividly from news reports of sectarian strife in the latter part of the last century: the Europa Hotel, Shankhill Road, Falls Road, Crumlin Road Gaol.  The Peace Wall separating communities in the west of the city is now repurposed for genuine messages of peace but it was still shocking.  The murals and the flags in many of the streets indicated the recent rawness of The Troubles.  Coupled with the helpful bus tour commentary, we got a very good introduction to the city.

Two Of The Very Many Street Murals Reflecting The Troubles Of The Past

Two Of The Very Many Street Murals Reflecting The Troubles Of The Past

Early highlights of the tour were the famous Belfast shipyards and new Titanic Experience museum which we visited on the following day.  My expectations of the visit weren’t very high – I thought that the exhibition would major on the sinking and the romance of the likes of Winslet and de Caprio in the award winning film; I was wrong.

The Titanic Experience Building

The Titanic Experience Building

The material on the Titanic’s fatal maiden voyage and a cross-section of the people who travelled and survived was well presented.  The exhibition also provided a lot of fascinating context such as the history of Belfast and, especially, the way industry built up around linen manufacture and then shipbuilding.  The exhibits included interactive displays and a splendidly unexpected and well operated automated ride through part of the building.  This was laced with audio and video that allowed us to get a better feel for the working conditions in the dry docks and the scale of undertaking to build the Titanic.

Our fortune with the weather made wandering the streets of Belfast pleasant.  There are few pre-Victorian buildings and many central streets are a strange mix of run down warehouses and old office buildings, late-Victorian civic and religious buildings (such as the Customs House, City Hall, and St Annes Cathedral) and the usual modern mish-mash of shops and offices.

Albert Memorial Clock (Yes, It Really Is Leaning Over), St Annes Cathedral And Belfast City Hall

Albert Memorial Clock (Yes, It Really Is Leaning Over), St Annes Cathedral And Belfast City Hall

One of the most impressive buildings is Stormont which is now the home of Northern Ireland’s Parliamentary assembly.  It was built in the 1930s next to the late Victorian Stormont Castle and sits in wide open grass and wooded grounds.  It is surprisingly accessible and views of it and from it are impressive.

Stormont

Stormont

Apart from Stormont and the City Hall, the city did not appear elegant but there is huge potential and an emerging vibrancy.  We saw the rumbustiousness of that vibrancy on Saturday night in the bar-laden Cathedral Quarter (not much social distancing there!) and in the presence of new hip coffee shops, cafes and restaurants.  Of these we particularly liked Freight, Established, General Merchants and OX Cave (sister wine bar to OX restaurant which we look forward to trying next time we are in Belfast).  Our centrally located hotel, The Flint, was also cool and comfortable.  We felt safe from Covid-19 and everything else wherever we went and the people we met were very friendly.

Belfast 3-D Street Art

Belfast 3-D Street Art

Other highlights in the City were a mini picnic and coastal walk along the river Langan estuary to Helens Bay and visit to Belfast’s rather weary but endearing Botanic Gardens.  The Palm House there is a scaled down, but rather more beautiful, version of the Palm House in Kew Gardens.  LSW and I used to live in Kew and so it brought back some old memories.

Palm House, Belfast Botanic Gardens

Palm House, Belfast Botanic Gardens

On our final evening in Belfast, we went to dinner at the house of YS’s girlfriend’s parents.  We had a lovely evening enjoying their hospitality and catching up with them for the first time since they visited Gloucestershire several years ago.  It was an excellent finale to an excellent few days in Belfast.

Sunset Across Langan River Estuary

Sunset Across Langan River Estuary

 

35 Years Ago

Yesterday was Long-Suffering Wife’s (LSW’s) and my wedding anniversary.  We have been married for 35 years.  Now that is long-suffering!  Nah, I’m kidding; neither of us would have put up with a marriage of suffering for very long.  It has been a very successful union and the fact we are still united is a testament to that.

Our Wedding Cake

Our 1985 Wedding Cake

Of course, there have been some downs as well as ups.  Most of the downs related to the stresses of my professional work life or the strains of parenting three young boys.  The 1990’s, when those two stress generators came to a peak together, were certainly challenging.

My Family At Our Wedding With More Hats Than Usual

My Family At LSW’s And My Wedding (With More Hats Than Usual)

Overlaying all that peak stress with a move of the family from London to Gloucestershire in 1998 wasn’t easy but, with hindsight, was probably a critical success factor for the longevity of our marriage.  I continued to work in London and commuted weekly from the new family home.  That meant my work stress could be isolated from the family to a degree and maybe it’s true that (my weekly) ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’.

Our First House In Gloucestershire From Which I Commuted To London Weekly

Our First House In Gloucestershire From Which I Commuted To London Weekly

As the boys have grown into adults so there have been times when we have been reminded of another old adage: ‘small children, small problems; big children, big problems’.  LSW’s emotional intelligence and parenting training and skills have been to the fore as we negotiated those challenging times together.  But as my professional life has wound down and then I retired, so I have been able to contribute to family life a bit more equally and become more relaxed.  We are still happy with our lot and each other.

LSW and I dined out at Calcot Hotel restaurant to celebrate our anniversary.  A meal out in a restaurant felt like a bigger deal than usual – not only because it was our anniversary – but because it was the first time we had eaten in a restaurant since we went to Bath just before the Coronavirus lockdown, well over four months ago.  It was a very pleasant meal and break from routine.  The restaurant had made social distancing arrangements and we felt safe.  The evening was a welcome change from testing out home cooking recipes from our shelves of recipe books and piles of newspaper cuttings.

Calcot Hotel And Spa At Night

Calcot Hotel And Spa At Night

Over dinner, as has been the case at such events for over 30 of those married years, we talked about our sons; how alike they are, how different they are, our hopes for them and how they are being realised.  We also talked about our respective families; how different our family traits are and how different our respective siblings are.  We also talked a bit – as we had on a recent local walk together – about how we have managed 35 years of marriage.

I read recently an article which postulated tolerance as the main driver for a successful marriage.  Certainly compromise is required.  However, there need to be boundaries to compromise and tolerance.  Constantly being tolerant, to the point of always giving in, builds resentment.  Poor or unthinking behaviour needs to be challenged even if change is only even likely to be partial and slow.  LSW’s thinking is that both participants in the marriage need to be confident in themselves so they know when to be tolerant, when to compromise and when to draw a boundary and stick to it.  That all sounds about right to me and is certainly true of LSW.

Onwards to another 35 years of marriage?  I’ll be 99!  I’m not at all confident I’ll be around to celebrate that but I’m happy enough living in the present in our road-tested marriage.  As one of our boys used to say – I forget which – ‘Good choosing Dad!’  But choosing is only the first step.  Sticking at it for 35 years requires luck, patience, tolerance, self-confidence, hard work and, no doubt, much more.

Resplendent Nature At Every Turn

Retirement has brought me closer to Nature and I seem to have had even more than my usual exposure to Nature in the last two weeks.  The local walks have been particularly good.  The rain in June and early July has made the pastures, hedgerows and trees a lush green and the recent sun has brought out the garden and wild flowers so they are now showing off their peak displays.

My Favourite Field

My Favourite Field – Filling With Maize This Year

One walk was especially spicy in underlining our closeness to Nature.  We were crossing a field with a neighbour during a walk that we hadn’t undertaken for a while, when we saw another figure crossing the field at right angles to us.  Thirty yards out, we could only see the man’s bare and bronze torso above the wheat.  As we crossed paths though, it became clear that we had met – and then briefly engaged in conversation with – the infamous ‘Naked Rambler’.  Our neighbour remarked that his naked rambling exploits are frequent since ‘he was brown all over with no tan lines’.  I could only mutter that I hoped he looked out for stinging nettles.  The encounter made our day.

The Naked Rambler

The Naked Rambler (Picture Courtesy The Evening Standard – I Didn’t Have The B*lls To Take My Own Picture Of Him)

We also completed a series of walks when my Best Man (BM) visited us last weekend. He has been working from home and in isolation throughout lockdown and needed a break.  Fortunately the weather was excellent and we were able to visit our now re-opened pub for our first sit down (outside) meal since lockdown started.

On A Local Walk: Strip Of Green Manure In Full Flower

On A Local Walk: Strip Of Green Manure In Full Flower

A highlight during his stay was a long walk during which we saw a field sown with green manure coming extravagantly into flower.  Another marvellous natural phenomenon was the sighting of a crazily large number of small white butterflies fluttering together in the sun and drinking from wet mud on our path.  Both were uplifting sights.

Flowers In The Strip of Green Manure - Antirhinums, Phacelia, Sainfoin And Many More

Flowers In The Strip of Green Manure – Antirrhinums, Phacelia, Sainfoin, Bladder Campion And Many More

BM works for a large oil company which is trying to shift away from fuelling (literally) carbon emissions.  His job is changing and intense.  Even while he was with us, he had to prepare a short presentation that he was due to give on the following Monday.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I were sufficiently intrigued by this that we signed up for the public event he was a panel member for and run by the ‘World Business Council for Sustainable Development’ entitled ‘Nature Action for a Healthy and Resilient Future’; what a couple of mouthfuls!

As I listened in to the webinar, I was reminded of my own corporate work life by the business jargon being used by the numerous presenters including BM, and how it flows off the tongues of business professionals.  I was also left with a greater feeling of hope for Nature and the planet.

I suspect that the event was populated largely by the ‘green mouthpieces’ of the corporations that were represented.  However, several sounded convincing about their company ambitions and commitments and the scale of the opportunity to turn our destruction of the planet around while creating millions of worthwhile jobs in new green industries was clear.

Optimistic-Looking Daisies

Optimistic-Looking Daisies

I have just started reading Wilding by Isabella Tree.  She is so aptly named given that the book is the story of how a failing arable farm has been turned into a successful experiment for re-wilding a large tract of land in Sussex.  The timeline at the start of the book shows how allowing nature to reclaim intensively farmed land can bring back flora and fauna diversity very quickly.  Given the chance, Nature can recover surprisingly quickly and I’m enjoying Isabella’s account of her experience.

Butterflies Everywhere: Comma, Peacock, Small White, Ringlet And Skipper

Butterflies Everywhere: Comma, Peacock, Small White, Ringlet And Skipper

I have continued to busy myself with some local climate action activities – my small push towards alleviating the pressure on Nature.  There is also much to do in the garden and on the allotment given that we are in peak growth season for vegetables and weeds.  We are thinking up creative ways to use the inevitable courgette mountain, we are eating chard with almost every meal and the runner bean avalanche is about to hit us.  In the next week too, I will need to brush up on my blackcurrant jam making skills since I have a bumper blackcurrant crop this year.

Flowers Among The Veg On The Allotments

Flowers Among The Vegetables On The Allotments

Nature is amazing.  Just last week, we saw a recurrence of another incredible phenomenon we have been lucky enough to spot a few times before: the inundation of our home valley by seagulls predating on flying ants.  It is almost unbelievable that the gulls will fly over 25 miles from the nearest coast on just the right day to catch the flying yellow meadow ants that rise from their nests in our neighbouring fields on just a couple of days a year; but there they were again.

Garden Views: Panorama From Our New Gate, Hollyhocks and First Use Of The New Fire Pit

Garden Views: Panorama From Our New Gate, Hollyhocks and First Use Of The New Fire Pit

Nature can also do us damage.  Badgers rip up crops, deer eat the roses and strawberries, earwigs are eating the dahlias, blackfly are tormenting my beans and hay fever can be really annoying.  The climate emergency and the creation of new human diseases when we encroach too much on the wild are macro problems far greater than my local problems with wildlife.  The solutions to these are going to be challenging to find but my immersion in Nature this week underlines the importance of doing so, and gave me some more hope.