Goodbye (Good Riddance) 2020

Most of 2020 was pretty awful for the World due to the coronavirus pandemic.  For many, it will be a year remembered as one in which health and jobs were impacted hugely and where tragedy struck.  It is surely everyone’s hope that vaccines and natural progression of the virus will mean that, during 2021, the incidence of such these impacts and tragedies will lessen to insignificance.

Winter In The Shire

I have confessed in these blogs that the impact of the pandemic on me personally, especially during the spring and summer, has generally felt little more than inconvenience with a touch of boredom.  Certainly the personal impact of the pandemic has been much less than Middle Son’s accident in 2019.  My Mum contracted the virus in her care home but has recovered.  Phone and Zoom calls have provided the means of staying in touch with Dad.  Youngest Son briefly lost work but that just meant we had the pleasure of his company in our home for a few months.  We have been very lucky so far.  Nonetheless, I am very glad to be saying goodbye to 2020 and hello to 2021 and a new feeling of hopefulness.

Christmas House

Our family Christmas with all three of our sons here in Gloucestershire was made possible by Middle Son’s girlfriend being willing to drive Middle and Eldest Son across London just before the Tier 4 lockdown was announced, a bit of bending of the rules relating to Christmas gatherings, and a bit of judicious coronavirus testing.   

This Year’s Christmas Tree

Wrenching Middle and Eldest Son out of London earlier than planned caused some upheaval to their plans.  Eldest Son had some more work to complete.  Middle Son hadn’t had time to relax after finishing work for the year.  He showed the signs of work stress that reminded me vividly of the sort of stress I used to suffer when I was working in a big corporation.  Soon though, everyone chilled out and we had a few lovely and highly-valued days together.  I hope all readers of this were able to enjoy the Christmas period as much.

We ate well, with everyone sharing in the cooking, and our recycling bin reveals that we drank well too.  The weather was kind enough to allow some very pleasurable local walks over the Christmas period.  The exercise from those walks enabled periods of guilt-free slouching on the sofa in front of the fire, watching films and football on the TV together.  Long-Suffering Wife has just bought a new, wider screen TV so it would have been rude not to!

Sunny Christmas Day Walk Above Horsley Village

Rather boldly, we have already planned next Christmas.  On Christmas Day Youngest Son noticed that a property on the western edge of Skye in Scotland, that he had been alerted to by Eldest Son’s girlfriend, was free for 2021 Christmas week.  Immediately the other sons expressed interest and so we booked it straightaway.  Hopefully our sons’ respective girlfriends will also be able to join us for at least part of that Christmas week.  Christmas 2020 was a very different Christmas from normal and 2021’s Christmas promises to be even more different; that is an extra thing to look forward to in 2021.

Misty Boxing Day Morning Walk

I’m sure 2021 is going to have its challenges.  Climate change may (should!) start to take centre stage in terms of a World crisis.  The impact of the recent Brexit deal will bite across the UK.  Forest Green Rovers football club might not be promoted.  Other First -World problems might beset us.  But, with 2020 finally done and dusted, we can look forward in hope to less social distancing and more normal personal interactions, more unimpeded travel, and Christmas in Skye.

Happy New Year!

The Garden Under The First Real Snow of the Winter

The Newt Revisited and Weekend Rituals

For the first time in months, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I got in the car and had an all-day outing together.  We went to The Newt hotel and garden in East Somerset.  We left quite early so that we could walk around the ever-evolving garden and then have a leisurely lunch at the hotel before drifting back home feeling full and very satisfied.

One Of The Views Across The Newt Gardens – With More Landscaping Underway In The Distance

We have visited The Newt garden a couple of times over the last year or so.  It is a wonderful space even at this time of the year.  The attention to detail everywhere is amazing.  The garden construction and quality exudes wealth, but also love for craftsmanship and plants.  What I like especially is that the garden is continuing to develop rapidly.  That makes it worth visiting time and time again, not just from one season to the next, but year to year.

A New Plant Frame In The Constantly Changing The Newt Gardens

The entry pass is valid for a year.  As a result, there is a risk that parts of the garden nearest the entrance and the surrounds of the café, cider works and firepit, are being overrun by local mothers with pushchairs with toddlers and babies finding socially distanced company in a lovely environment.  However, it’s nice to see children enjoying the garden and, anyway, there are several paths off the beaten track which could explore while LSW perused the quality products in the shop.

The Newt Hotel

Lunch, in a glass roofed annex to the carefully restored hotel and amid several equally trim outbuildings, was excellent.  We drank cider produced on the premises rather than wine.  I haven’t had cider for many years but it was lovely and, having become inured to the high cost of quality craft beer over recent years, I may buy some to take away next time we visit.  The whole day was a lovely break from lockdown routine.

The Newt Gardens: Beautiful Textures And Colours

In that lockdown routine, the differences between Saturdays and Sundays and every other day have become decreasingly distinct.  Those differences between workdays and weekends were huge pre-retirement.  For most of the latter couple of decades of my working life, I worked in London but returned to the family home in Gloucestershire on Friday nights and left again on Sunday afternoons.   So, not only was the weekend activity different from the other days, the location and immediate company was different too.

Sometimes work impinged on the weekend – sometimes very considerably – and that blurred the weekend but, now I’m retired, Saturdays and Sundays are almost identical to every other day.  At times it feels like it is only the day and date on the newspaper voucher I hand over at the newsagent every day that keeps me grounded in the progression of the week. 

However, there has remained some structure to my weeks in retirement and LSW and I do still have some rituals that distinguish between the weekends and the rest – albeit some have been disrupted by the current pandemic. 

For example, the pandemic and the associated lockdown of hospitality has disrupted our regular Sunday visit to the local pub.  Since retirement, and since the village pub reopened a few years ago, we have popped up to the pub, usually via a lengthy walk, to finish the weekend quick crossword over a couple of Sunday lunchtime drinks.   Now limiting our visits to a quick drink without a complementing lunch is disallowed under the lockdown restrictions.  The only good thing about this is that my weekly alcohol intake has reduced and so my New Year resolution with regard to alcohol is well within reach.

Forest Green Rovers’ Current Stadium (Second Highest in England After West Bromwich Albion’s The Hawthorns)

The Covid-19 pandemic has also disrupted my attendance at live local football on Saturday afternoons.  Two local teams I sometimes watch have played no football for several weeks and the team I love, Forest Green Rovers, have only been watchable on live internet streams.  Watching live football has long been part of my weekend schedule.  So, it felt a little bit wonderful (despite the bone crunching cold) when, yesterday, I was able to return to a live game at my football team’s stadium to watch the mighty Rovers triumph.  I’m still hoarse this morning from all the vocal support (through a face mask) during the game – just like the ‘old days’.

Getting Ready For Forest Green Rovers 2 Cambridge 0

Amid all this weekend routine disruption, one weekend ritual has been maintained: bread!  Breakfasts during the week are, for me, fruit, yogurt and granola; for LSW they are more varied but are usually porridge and some combination of fruit, seeds and syrup.  At weekends, we abandon all that healthy stuff and have slice upon slice of locally made bread (Salt Bakehouse sourdough is our favourite).   On Saturday’s I have it untoasted and slathered with home-made jam.  On Sundays I have it toasted with Marmite; always!  That way, I know which day is Saturday and which day is Sunday 🙂

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