Lockdown at the lowest ebb

I haven’t resurrected my diary for this third, and hopefully last, in the series of COVID-19 lockdowns. Well, I didn’t for the short second lockdown either, but sometimes I do still feel the need to write something about the experiences.

I always find the post-Christmas period difficult, those dark, cold and bleak months of January and February when festivities are over and the bright days of spring seem a long way off. The dark  mornings and the early arrival of night-time each afternoon, alongside the often cloudy and drizzly weather does little for my sense of wellbeing and over the years, I’ve often been at my lowest at this time. Usually, this has felt like a period to tolerate and get through rather than welcome and embrace. The new year is something to celebrate but for me the positive feelings often evaporate very quickly once the decorations have come down and we all return to our normal weekday lives.

The first lockdown started just a couple of months later in the year than now but our forced isolation was helped by nature; the light was quickly returning to the days, the early spring flowers were out and the weather was exceptional. We were blessed by the bright, sunny and unseasonably warm weather that lasted for months and what felt like almost every day. The second lockdown was much more limited and while the autumn was upon us, the days growing shorter, it was in the run up to Christmas, and the novelty of the coziness of darker evenings was new and comforting. Now, though, those dark nights and poor weather, seem a drag on life and the days until those warmer and brighter days of early spring seem painfully far away.

Some years ago, I wrote a post about life at this time of year, mid-January towards early February, being at its lowest ebb, the coldest weeks of the year and with little sign of the life that nature will one day over the coming months bring back. During this third lockdown, life in general now seems to be at an even lower ebb than usual, making life much more difficult than during the first lockdown that started nearly ten months ago. 

It would be easy to descend into a very dark mood, and in some ways it’s very tempting to my personality to do so. However, with so many bad things happening right now, this would, of course, be the worst thing to allow. I have it relatively easy compared to many; I’m not on the NHS frontline, I’m not a key worker of any sort, I’m not in a high risk group and I don’t have to home school any children. All I have to do is sit tight, work from home, take some daily exercise and wait for this to pass. I also can be massively thankful that my situation changed in the year leading up to the first lockdown; going from living by myself to being in a couple and sharing lockdown together, means that I almost feel we benefited from the situation; life would have been incalculably harder if we had both spent the period alone.

Having said all that, it is still a struggle at times, compared to the other lockdowns and taking positive steps to both accept that and try to make it easier has been making a difference and maybe there’s more that I can do.

I’m missing the countryside more than I did during the other lockdowns, perhaps because it’s harder to see nature when I’m not working; it’s dark both when I start and finish work. However, I have a new desk, in a different position, now overlooking gardens behind my computer screen. This means I can see wildlife throughout the day. This often comes in the form of flocks of winter thrushes, fieldfares and redwings, which spend the day moving from one berry tree to another. There are also the urban foxes, which we see both at night and in the day time, and the ring-necked parakeets which often dominate the other natural sounds in the area.

The odd sunny day also makes a massive difference, at least for a few hours. Today has been lovely and not as cold as of late, so we went for a walk around our local patch – the Royal Botanic Garden is literally across the road. My list of birds is already growing reasonably just on the visits there and on walks along the Thames Path on the other side of the wall. We have also taken to walking at lunchtime, to get some air during daylight hours.

I have also, and perhaps most importantly, tried to change my outlook on this time of year, to embrace it rather than fight it. We have kept some lights up after Christmas, not a tree or a huge amount of decorations, but a few to bring more comfort and brightness into the evenings. I’m also trying to relax more, not over think things, not long too much for times that are yet to come. Whilst exercise is still very important, I’m also not going to push my running too much as part of my routine and perhaps put off some of my goals until we are released from these restrictions

Perhaps the biggest change I want to make, though, is to stop looking at my phone every time there’s a moment of silence – over stimulation at a time when my mind is already full of so many challenges is just adding to the stress and angst. I’ve found Twitter particularly bad for stopping me relax. I’ve sometimes gone from calm to internally raging in a matter of seconds after tapping on the app. The government’s shambolic handling of both Brexit and the pandemic are so often brought instantly into sharp and excruciating focus by those little but hugely impactful, messages of a few words. I’ve ‘muted’ so many words on Twitter to stop the endless battering of painful messages cascading through my phone but that isn’t enough. I’ve now decided to stop picking up my phone at every opportunity and leave it out of reach as much as possible. This should give me more time for more calming activities; reading, writing, looking out of the window and maybe just staring blankly at the wall from time to time. 

Being physically isolated from family, friends and colleagues has made me feel I need to be more digitally connected to the world but, actually, this has just led to more difficulty in coping with this situation we all face. Perhaps writing a blog post about this is slightly odd, but just sitting still, focusing on one thing for a while, and putting thoughts to digital paper, has really helped.

Looking forward to 2021

Reading my equivalent post for 2020, it is full of hope for many great things to come and I really don’t want to temper that hope too much at the beginning of this year. Whilst we no doubt have many months to come under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic and some very difficult news will undoubtedly come, I can’t start 2021 without talking about my positive hopes for the year. 

I have to say that being positive at the moment isn’t the easiest thing to do. I’m in a constant state of disillusionment at present where the country is concerned. I did start to write a few passages here about this but it just makes me angry and disappointed, and I don’t want to turn my blog into a space for unheard political rantings. Instead, I want 2021 to be a year where I refresh my blog and find my nature mojo again, building on my experiences of 2019 rather than 2020. How realistic this is, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

If all goes well, January, or possibly early February, will see us moving to a new home in the Midlands. We’re buying a house in a village north of Northampton in a lovely area of rolling countryside. After living in South Cheshire for the past 40 years, I’m really looking forward to exploring somewhere new; all the roads, lanes and footpaths, all the best spots for wildlife and views. Being more central in the country, we’re going to be closer to areas which have been out of reach of day trips from Cheshire, so hopefully a few trips to the eastern side of the country and further south.

Depending on what happens with COVID-19, there are the plans for trips that were put on hold in 2020 to take in 2021; I could almost cut and paste this part of last year’s post into here. In June we’re planning to go up to the Outer Hebrides to stay on the Isle of Harris at Luskentyre. At that time of year we’re hoping that the machair will be blooming and we can take a trip out to one or two of the outlying islands, possibly St Kilda or the Shiants.

In July I’ve got my name down for a week back volunteering on RSPB Ramsey Island but whether the island will be open to visitors and volunteers at that time is anyone’s guess. The following month we might have a trip across to Sweden to visit family but also spend some time out in the countryside.

Our biggest plan for the year, and hopefully far enough away that COVID will not interfere with it, is a trip to Zambia for a camping safari in the South Luangwa National Park. After having limited opportunities for wildlife watching in 2020, a chance to go back to Africa for a safari would be very welcome.

Given we are moving to a new house and new area, many of my volunteering activities of recent few years are now, sadly, in the past. Many of the activities I’ve been doing since 2011 including local volunteering with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers, bird surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and osprey nest protection shifts for the Glaslyn Wildlife. However, the move perhaps presents new opportunities to try different volunteering. I hope I can get a new BTO survey site in Northamptonshire and hopefully there may be a local group or two I could volunteer with but I’ll have to do some digging to find out what opportunities there are.

I’m not sure how much of the above is just wishful thinking, given what happened in 2020 and settling into a new home could easily take all of our time for quite a while. However, I’d rather be ambitious and optimistic with plans for 2021 at the start but not be too surprised if I need to change things as time moves on. Anyway, with most of the country in virtual lockdown for the coming weeks, there’s plenty of time to think it all through.

Looking back on 2020

The corresponding post to this one from 2019 talked about my three month sabbatical from work to long term volunteer on RSPB Ramsey Island and how, even after five months since leaving I had still not fully settled back into my usual life. I said that it had made a very big impact on my life and that I did not want that to diminish. However, looking back a year later, that hope has not been fulfilled. Maintaining it was an impossible task and it has been consumed along with many other hopes that have been lost amongst the myriad of competing challenges that 2020 has thrown at all of us.

The subsequent post, looking forward to 2020, was full of hope for new experiences, holidays and conservation volunteering. As I wrote that post, the COVID-19 virus was spreading around the world but I didn’t have a clue of the scale of impact it would have on all our lives as the subsequent months passed. 

This has certainly been a year like no other in my lifetime but it started quite nicely. We spent New Year with a group of friends in the Devon countryside and later in January we spent a long weekend wandering around the North Norfolk coast seeing a great selection of wildlife. February and March were quiet but included what may have been my final day volunteering with my friends at the Crewe and Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (with whom I’ve been spending every other Sunday since Autumn 2011).

With the news steadily getting worse over those early months it wasn’t until mid-March that it all came to a head. I caught what was most likely COVID-19 around the 14th March but didn’t show symptoms until 16th when I isolated for the week. At the end of isolation, I travelled down to my girlfriend’s flat on 23rd just a few hours before the first nationwide Lockdown was announced. Life then changed completely.  

I wrote a series of ‘lockdown diary’ blog posts over the course of the first national lockdown and I won’t go through all that now as there is a summary post here.

I normally do a list of my year in numbers but I think it would be somewhat lacking this time – I’ll leave that to my 2021 end of year post. However, one list, or set of lists, which I always reflect on is that of the species of wildlife I have seen over the course of the year. I’ve seen or heard 131 species of bird and seen 11 species of mammal. Given much of my time has been spent under COVID restrictions, I don’t think this is bad and the bird list is only 20 or 30 behind some recent years when I’ve been abroad. What surprised me most about these lists is that I managed to record over 70 species of bird during the long first lockdown when I was staying in London. Being in a more leafy part of the city, and close to the River Thames, meant that there was a range of habitats and this variation brought quite a variety of birdlife. Being locked-down in a very urban environment was difficult for me, someone who usually has easy access to the countryside, but the wildlife and other natural elements of my lockdown surroundings certainly helped to keep me a little more sane. However, overall, 2020 has been a year where I, and many other people, have not been able to connect to nature as much as they would normally like.

Between lockdowns we spent some time back at my house in Cheshire and it was here that I had my most memorable wildlife experience of the year. We had badgers coming in the garden over several nights and actually being only six inches or so away from each other, either side of the glass kitchen door. The fact that they have started appearing in my garden now, when I’m shortly moving, has left me with a sense of sadness. However they have given me a boost to connect even more with nature in 2021 and rebuild some of the effects of my stay on Ramsey Island that has diminished somewhat over the last 12 months. Perhaps that can start by attempting to encourage equally special wildlife into our new garden (when we eventually move in!).

At the end of my 2019 post, I said that year was probably the best year of my life. Well, 2020 may not have been the best year I’ve had, for such obvious reasons, but it will certainly be one of the most memorable. The biggest change of the year without doubt has been moving in with my girlfriend, not just for Lockdown but permanently. As someone who’s lived the bachelor life for many years, it’s a change that I never expected to happen. That bachelor life enabled me to do all the things I’ve blogged about over the last few years but the fact that we both like so many of the same things and share a passion for nature, photography and travel means that I will not only share these things with her but I will also continue blogging about them for some more time to come. 

The Cheshire Sandstone Ridge

As I plan and prepare to move home I have been thinking about the things I will miss about the area in which I currently live. It is, afterall, the area I have called home for over 40 years, it is the place of my childhood and of many years since.

South-west Cheshire, where I have lived since before I started school, and almost as long as I can remember, is a quiet and pleasant rural area. It is a place of large, open and largely flat, hawthorn-hedged fields, mostly given over to the dairy farming in one way or another. Through pasture, silage and often maize, the fields provide for the Friesian and Holstein herds that dot the countryside and give the area an often sweet bovine scent. It is not a remarkable landscape; it is mostly devoid of woodland or great rivers. The Dee passes along its border with Wales, barely the making a Cheshire river at all. In the east, where the county touches neighbouring shires, the Peak District rises, facing the opposing Welsh hills, but for much of the county, it is a flat, barely rolling plain. 

There is something, however, that stands out, quite literally, across a sweep of Cheshire; a low sandstone ridge of hills. They stretch just over five miles on a slight arc from north-north-east to south-west. On approaching them from home, they stand quite abruptly above the surrounding flatness but from other angles they have a shallower and more measured incline from the lower ground beneath. 

The hills are rather unassuming; they’re not the great fells of the Lakes to the north, the peaks of Derbyshire to the east, the mountains of Snowdonia to the west or even the Shropshire Hills to the south. They rise from around 100m above sea level at their base to just over 200m at their peaks, these not being grand pinnacles but the rounded summits of the undulating ridge.

They do not take great evocative names either, rather they take them from the surrounding villages that lie in the folds at their base; Beeston, Peckforton, Bulkeley and Bickerton. They do have places, though, that conjure thoughts back to previous times, when old industries operated and further back when myths and legends were made: Maiden Castle, Mad Allen’s Hole, Musket’s Hole, Raw Head, Coppermine Lane and Stanner Nab.

They are not quite a continuous string; Beeston Hill is like a friend now ostracised from the others. It stands alone, its craggy sheerness showing its back to the others. Its top ringed by an 800 year old castle, taking advantage of its all-seeing position, Beeston is the perfect site for a defensive position. The others, joined together, start at Peckforton, with its much newer castle-like country house, leading to Bulkeley and its covered reservoir and old narrow gauge railway up its steep face, and to Bickerton with the high point at Raw Head, heathland on its broad open top and its prehistoric fort. These hills are part of a longer seam of sandstone from the Mersey to the Shropshire Border, Frodsham to Malpas, but Peckforton to Bickerton, with Beeston alongside, stand apart from others, distinct in their familiar grouping.

The hills are a place of varying landscapes, broadleaf woodland, lowland heath, grassland and pasture. They are a place of wildness, of buzzards and ravens, a place of farming and quiet rural villages, a place of both pre-history and the modern world, and, for me and many, a place to escape and breath.

They have been a place that has dotted my life with memories. For the last 20 years I have seen them from my bedroom window through the gaps between the few houses between mine and the open countryside, but they have been so much more than that for so much longer.

The hills were a place for a toddle as a three or four year-old through the lower wooded paths, a challenge for climbing the railway track as a growing child, a hiking route along the hill top edges as a cub and a scout, a place for an afternoon walk with friends and family, a setting for early morning bird surveys and a place to take someone for a quiet wander.

I’ve slept out there too; in the Scout hut at Beeston, in a tent below Peckforton and in a hedge somewhere nearby. I’ve seen the sun rise from them and seen the sun set both from the top and from behind. Within their slopes I’ve seen the dusk on New Years Eve and the sun going down on Summer Solstice.

They have been places for all seasons too. I’ve waded through knee high snow on their tops, wandered listening for birds on warm, quiet spring mornings, walked end to end on hot summer days and felt the first chills of autumn on damp afternoon strolls amongst the copper and gold-leafed trees.

Above all, though, they have been continuous presence in my life, a back drop always there, somewhere to spend a spare hour or two, somewhere to escape for an afternoon or just somewhere to stop and look at for a moment. They have been a pivot in my local geography, I judge where I am by my relationship to them and they have welcomed me home as a first recognisable sight on a return from a journey away.

I will miss them…

In writing this post, I came across the website for the Sandstone Ridge Trust, which provides much more information on the area – well worth a look.

Even better badgers

Well, I say ‘even better badgers’, what I actually mean is even better views of badgers, and it’s been singular so far. Since the last blog post, we’ve been staying in London or away in Cornwall for a week, so we’ve missed seeing the badger. When we returned to my house, there was little sign that they had been visiting then garden in our absence; not really surprising given no food was being put out.

However, for the last two weeks we’ve been putting food out for them each night and we’ve continued to get great views. The badgers haven’t been visiting every night; they seem to come for a couple of nights in a row and then go elsewhere for another two or three nights.

There have been two particularly great evenings watching a single badger in the garden. Each evening started with the badger feeding from the ground bird feeder; we filled it with peanuts, bird food and peanuts. After very slowly and carefully taking all that food, he (we think it’ a he) walked onto the patio and up to the doorstep where we had put more peanuts. On both occasions we started watching him from the rear bedroom window but we sneaked downstairs and lay on the floor looking out of the bottom window of the back door. Our faces were about six inches apart and we could hear him snuffling and crunching on the peanuts – we were transfixed! After finishing the nuts, he wandered off and disappeared into the darkness. I never thought I’d see badgers in my back garden let alone come face to face with one through the glass.

After having so many fails with my trailcam in the past, it has been good for tracking their visits and the time of night they appear, if they do. We would also not have know that two badgers have been on some occasions after only ever seeing one at a time. The camera also showed us that a fix has been visiting too. It really does go to show that you never really know what’s out in your garden at night.

Garden badgers – why now?!?!?!

In the 20 years I have lived in my house, I’ve always looked on in envy at those people you see on TV who have a family of foxes, badgers, pine martens or other such creatures regularly visiting their gardens. Living on the edge of an urban area, close to the open countryside, I’ve always thought I was lucky to even have my narrow glimpses of fields and distant hills from my house, but wildlife has often been lacking. Yes, my garden bird list not terrible but I’ve rarely had any good mammal sightings. The grey squirrels are regular visitors as is a mouse, I installed a hedgehog home some years ago but I can barely remember seeing them, I once had a mole hill in the lawn and about once or twice a year I see a bat flit overhead as the daylight subsides. That’s about it for 20 years.

After being locked down in London, I returned home to find a hole had been dug under one of the large bushes in the back garden. It was not a huge hole; probably five or six inches round and around 12 inches deep. When I first saw it, the hole has largely been filled with leaf litter, so probably hadn’t been touched for weeks. I thought no more of it until last week. When I woke in the morning and looked out of the window into the back garden, there was a new hole on the edge of the lawn with the excavated soil liberally scattered across the grass around it. This new hole was about the same size as the first but around the rest of the lawn were a number of other smaller holes, about one to two inches round. It was now time to find out what was creating these holes!

I set up my camera trap and put out some bird food and peanuts on the ground in front of it and left it standing guard over night. In the morning, I went into the back garden but, as has been much the case for many of my camera trap’s outings, it only recorded me! I didn’t give up but for the next four nights got zero in terms of interesting sightings; only a couple of the local cats making their ways through the garden on their nocturnal rounds.

On the sixth night, however, I struck lucky, a badger! Snuffling around the garden, it was happily tucking into the food I’d put out for it (after having to replenish it daily after the squirrels had taken their fills). Eventually it finished all the food off and disappeared into the darkness. Massively excited, I didn’t leave it there and the trap was out each of the following nights with a badger returning the next night and the two coming the night after that.

Having realised that the camera trap had the wrong date and time set up on it, I put it right and the following morning when I checked the recordings, I realised the badgers must have been in the garden at about 9:30pm, before we had gone to bed. So, the next evening we put the food and camera trap out and waited for it to get dark. We crept upstairs and looked out of the rear bedroom window but couldn’t see anything immediately. However, as our eyes got used to the darkness, looking slightly away from where we had put the food, to improve our night vision, we saw some movement, and there, in the gloom, was the stripey face of the badger! 

The previous night, we had gone to bed while the badgers were still in the garden and the bright light from the bathroom, shining down onto the lawn, didn’t seem to bother them at all, so we switched it on. With the garden now more visible, we had a great view of the badger wandering around and eating; we could even hear him crunching on the peanuts, once we had dared to open the window. He didn’t even seem to bother us talking a little, in hushed voices; he just kept eating away and then foraging around the rest of the garden, with us watching him from above for about half an hour.

The following night, we did the same thing and had great views of a single badger from the back bedroom window. However, wanting a view from his level, we sneaked downstairs into the kitchen. With all the lights off and the bright digital clocks on the oven and microwave covered up, the kitchen was in pitch darkness. We stood by the largely glass back door watching the badger eat from the bird food tray about a third of the way towards us from the back hedge. Once he had finished that food supply, he started on the peanuts I’d scattered further towards the house. He came closer and closer, and much to our amazement, came right up to the door and peered into the darkness, literally less than a foot from our feet. He didn’t spot us and wander off around the side of the house before reappearing and wandering back up to the far end of the garden. We eventually left him to himself having had the closest view of a badger ever!

We put food out for the next few nights and frequently checked before bedtime to see if the badgers were there but had no further luck. One or two badgers did come back each night but the the timing of their visits varied over the hours between 11:00pm and 4:00am.

I’m absolutely ecstatic to have these lovely animals using my back garden, even if they do leave the odd hole here and there. Although after giving them so much nice food over those nights, I do slightly object to them setting up a latrine in one of the borders!

While it’s wonderful to have them in the garden, this comes with a very large dose of irony. After 20 years of living in the house and dreaming of having such wildlife in my garden, I have only a month left before I will be moving out and leaving the house behind – ‘why now!?!?!?!’ has been said quite a few times over the last week! 

Lockdown Diary: A reflection

It’s now two months since I last wrote a Lockdown Diary post, or any blog post at all for that matter. I think I needed a break from it and I’ve barely been touching social media at all. The months since lockdown was announced in March have been intense and it’s been good to take a breather from a few things. However, I think it’s time to return and I thought I would start with a reflection on my experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, so far. I’m sure there’s nothing particularly revelatory in the paragraphs below, but its a longhand full stop to a specific set of posts I needed to write at the time.

Like many people I expect, when news came over the winter of a new virus in China, I paid little attention to it. Previous viruses originating in the Far East over the last few decades have come and gone with little impact on the UK and I assumed this one would be the same. This wasn’t to be and as it increasingly spread and started to build in strength in some of our neighbouring European counties, alarm grew here. I felt reassured, however, by the sounds coming out from the Government that as a country we were prepared and we might not suffer as Italy, France and Spain had done. Despite my horror at the same administration’s handling of many other matters, I had hope that this country could be different. However, this was extremely naive; we were simply at an earlier part of the curve, some weeks behind those other nations, and the Government was complacent and unprepared to make the right decisions and implement them at the right time.

In mid-March, like many, I was still going to work, travelling into Manchester or Birmingham several days a week, and I spent a weekend staying with my girlfriend in Kew. On the following Monday morning I went to work as usual but on arrival didn’t feel quite right. I thought I might just have walked the mile between the station and office too fast but after about 30 minutes I packed up my laptop and headed home, still not feeling good. I started social isolation as soon as I got home but continued to work. It wasn’t until the Wednesday morning that, during a video-conference, I finally decided to stop working and I didn’t open my laptop again until the Friday. My symptoms weren’t bad; a seasonal flu in 2016 was far worse. I mainly felt groggy, with a sore throat and a raised temperature from time to time. The most clear symptom, however, was a tight chest and I was breathless each time I walked up the stairs. By the Sunday the symptoms had gone and after the seven days I came out of social isolation on the Monday morning. 

Coming out of isolation, I headed to local shops to get some provisions for my parents (social distancing, of course) before driving down, non-stop, to my girlfriend’s flat. Sarah had suffered worse symptoms than me but we both got off pretty lightly. However, it took more weeks for us both to recover; we were extremely tired and quite weak. When I eventually went for a run, about two and a half weeks after becoming ill, my breathing was terrible and painful. However, exercise slowly got easier and strength came back and we’re now physically both back to normal.

The evening I arrived at Sarah’s flat, the Prime Minister made a television address to announce lockdown and I was therefore to stay for the duration. My journey down to Kew was a calculated decision, travel down and risk being locked down away from home but with Sarah, or stay at home and risk being apart and alone for weeks. There was really no contest in the decision. Being alone during the Lockdown must have been awful and I know that I certainly would not have coped as much as I have done. The bonus from this is that Sarah and I have been living together for the best part of six months and it couldn’t have gone better, despite the added pressures of being in the biggest national crisis since the Second World War.

I found the first week of lockdown especially stressful. The combination of anxieties over the virus, food availability, family and friends, restrictions on life, being away from home familiarity, as well as day-to-day work pressure, was a powerful mix. By the end of the week, however, I’d settled in and over the following weeks the pressure reduced somewhat. The anxieties didn’t go away but I got used to them and found ways to cope. There were bad days and good days, bad weeks and good weeks. For some reason, the seventh week was particularly bad; something I know others felt at the time too. 

Getting into a routine helped enormously with managing, particularly with work, which often took a front seat during the week. The routine seemed to make the time fly and the weeks went past at a crazy speed. This also meant that days and weeks merged into one another and it was difficult to keep track of time. Working at home meant that it became increasingly difficult, particularly at the height of lockdown, to make the distinction between work and home life. We tried to be disciplined in keeping work hours and home hours separate and not looking at work once the day had finished. As I was working in the bedroom, I made sure that each day I cleared away to another room all work-related gear so that the night would not be invaded by signs of work. We also nearly always exercised immediately after closing down our laptops for the day, making a physical as well as mental break from work; we got so used to doing so that it could be quite unsettling not to. After many weeks of working from home, I have little desire to go back to the office. I’ve been more efficient and worked harder with less ongoing disturbance and the IT is good enough that I can talk to colleagues as well as I can in the office much of the time. However, I have missed the face-to-face interaction and it still remains a struggle sometimes to switch off; the commute does create a time-barrier between work and home without which there is more merging of the two.

Anyone who reads my blogs will know I love the countryside and outdoors and the prospect of being locked down, and locked down in a city in particular, goes against my basic nature (as I’m sure it does for most). Despite having loved being a student in Birmingham for four years and subsequently having worked in Manchester for over 20 years, cities are not my natural habitat and I like to spend as little time in them as possible. However, Kew is not central London and I have found that, whilst it’s not exactly rural, we are surrounded by wildlife and a lot of green space. This  has enabled nature to become a key coping mechanism and I’ve learned to value it more than ever. After spending so much time in nature last year, not least through spending three months volunteering on RSPB Ramsey Island, I had become a bit jaded and unmotivated in my nature interests but the boost it has given me over the last few months has made me even more determined to make a difference. Quite what that I’m going to do next with this I don’t yet know; some big changes in my life are continuing and I perhaps need to focus on those first and then see what I can do when we’ve settled a bit.

That boost from nature has come from many different directions. Firstly, the slowing of human activity enabled nature to come more to the fore. The disappearance of both traffic from the road and very frequent low-fly planes overhead brought a peace to Kew that it probably hasn’t known in many decades. What had been constant intrusions from city life diminished for a period to the extent that even light traffic became unusual and passing planes became a novelty. This allowed the bird calls to rise above manmade sounds and I could frequently sit at my desk listening to chiffchaffs, blackcaps and green woodpeckers. Then, later, came the swifts; for me the bringers of summer. They arrived in small numbers at first but eventually I could see a dozen or more chasing around the rooftops while I was on video calls (with the camera turned off!).

The weather also brought nature into our lives and what weather we have had. After months of, frankly awful weather, which seemed to start last August, as soon as Lockdown started the sun came out and the temperatures rose. I can’t recall a period of such consistently good weather, ever, from so early in the year. Starting in March the weather, with a few short and minor exceptions, has been fabulous, all up until I left Kew after 15 weeks to head home for the first time since this all began. Some might complain; the weather is awful for months on end and as soon as we can’t get out, it turns nice. To the contrary, I think it is one of the best things that could have happened to get us through all this. If the weather had continued to be awful, it would have made it so much harder to cope with. The single sessions of exercise a day enabled springtime walks or runs where the warmth of the sun could be felt on the skin, getting some vital Vitamin D and getting more fresh air into us (now even fresher without all the traffic).  

Then there were the gardens, trees and plants all around us. With the Botanic Gardens across the road closed to the public and no garden of our own, we had to walk the streets and Thames Path for our hit of greenery. As Lockdown was announced there were still no leaves on the trees but the signs of spring were very strongly there. First were the daffodils, which were just finishing when I arrived in Kew and then came the great displays of cherry blossom on many of the streets. Once the blossom had fallen confetti-like to the pavements, the wisterias flowered on many of the houses, with particularly lovely displays on the grand buildings of Kew Green and adjoining streets. We then had the gradual breaking out of the leaves in sequence on all the different species of street trees, followed by further blooming of the horse chestnuts and elders. With such a limited view of scenery from the flat and along our limited choice of walking routes, the transition of different flowers and leaves became very noticeable and provided one way of marking the rapid passing of time.

Back to the fauna, I’m utterly surprised by the number of birds I’ve seen or heard over the course of Lockdown. In total, I recorded 71 species of birds in London, which, amazingly, is two more than the 69 I recorded in my three months on Ramsey Island last year. The range of habitats helped, with a mixture of gardens and woodland, parkland, lakes, tidal river and, yes, cityscape. There were some great species amongst them too including great crested grebe, peregrine, hobby, common tern, nightingale and, of course, the ever noisy ring-necked parakeet. We were also kept company by some regular visitors to our balcony with a crow, woodpigeon and magpie making the best of the seed and fat balls put out for them. Crow, as he was affectionately known, had a brood of chicks not far over the wall into the Botanic Gardens and would come often to pick up food. It took us a while to work out who was taking big chunks out of the fat balls but eventually we saw Crow swinging upside-down jabbing at them to break pieces off. It seemed that we weren’t the only ones feeding him as at least two other flats in our block put out food for him and we saw him coming back from other houses with food in his bill.

The mammals played a supporting role too, with foxes often seen and heard in the streets at night and even in broad daylight at times. We also saw them as we looked through the cast iron gates of the Botanic Gardens before it reopened; a mother being energetically followed by a well-grown cub. Once we were allowed back in, we also saw one in the wild area just before we left late one afternoon; it stood and watched us watching it and then trotted off into the undergrowth. With the relaxation of some parts of Lockdown, we drove the short distance to Richmond Park and added red and fallow deer to our list, and there was the occasional rabbit and squirrel too.

The lockdown walks were a lifeline, in getting exercise and being closer to nature. Walking around the streets of Kew is very pleasant with the large houses and well kept gardens but it is all rather urban. However, the Thames Path made a real difference. Being close to water gave a different sense of place and more in touch with wildness. The Thames is tidal around Kew and seeing the water rise to wash over the path was a real sign that no matter how urban the place is, nature still has some control. There are also some parts of the path where, once the leaves had fully come out, the urban views were obscured and it felts almost rural and away from the dense population of the city. 

As we come out of lockdown, the past few months have left me feeling a mixture of anxiety, disillusion, shame, fear, hopelessness and anger. So much of me wants to cheerfully move on from where we have been, in the hope that there won’t be a resurgence of the virus over the next few months and into the winter. However, the position this country has been left in by the virus and other choices we have made, or have been made for us, is so poor that I really fear for the future. The Government has shown itself to be self-serving and incompetent, with little care for anyone outside its immediate circle. Where we go next as a nation is anyone’s guess.

I can’t end my post there. Whilst I do fear for both the short and the long term, there is also hope. That hope focuses on the potential for a green recovery, the potential to reduce our impacts on the climate and the resources we use, the hope that there may be opportunities to steer ourselves away from an even greater catastrophe and towards building back a stronger relationship with nature. My hope as we turn from summer into autumn, perhaps only from a first COVID-19 chapter to a second, is that this year can finally be the start of an environmental revival spurred on by people’s experiences of nature over lockdown.

Lockdown Diary: Weeks 13 and 14

Another two weeks have passed and Lockdown now almost feels mundane. Fourteen weeks in and the pattern of life is now so set that I feel it’s just a case of getting on with it and not hoping too much for a quick return to whatever normal we get to. Probably repeating previous comments, I’ve had it relatively easy compared to key workers or parents having to home tutor children, or indeed, key workers having to home tutor. I can’t say that this situation hasn’t had any impact, like most I’m feeling the strain and anxiety from what is a complex set of challenges. For me these challenges have particularly focussed on working differently and the difficulty in dividing work from home; the restrictions on movement, now receding, and at the beginning very great concern over food supply. What could have been one of the biggest challenges, hasn’t been a challenge at all; moving with a new partner can difficult but for us it has been the easiest of transitions despite the added stress of COVID-19.

The summer solstice passed on a week ago and we didn’t really mark it. We were going to but after having a lunchtime picnic in Kew Gardens, we decided to stay in. Thinking about this has made me realise that it’s now months since I’ve seen the sun rise or set. It’s now too early to see the sunrise before I get out of bed and the view to the west from the flat is obscured by trees. It may not seem a big thing but watching the sunset always links me back to the fact that we are all so small in contrast to the vastness of the world around us and beyond. The sunset also links me back to the many places I’ve seen them before and stood watching this daily spectacle. With the easing of Lockdown and a move back home for a period, I’m hoping for a few nice sunsets to watch.

This past week has been tremendously hot, with over 30c for several days running. After a couple of weeks where some well-needed rain came, the return to good weather brought with it temperatures I don’t see very often in the UK and it brought into perspective the notable differences in climate between the South-East and the Midlands and North.

Chiltern poppies

Last weekend we left the urban area of Kew behind and headed for a different part of the River Thames where it makes its way through the south Oxfordshire countryside. Parking at a village station we headed through the houses and onto the Thames Path, walking westwards in the direction of flow.

Not long after leaving the village behind, we looked north onto the Chilterns and just above the houses was a shallow valley facing the river with a large spread of poppies amongst the crops. As we picked our way along our route, we aimed to drop back into the village through that valley but just missed it by coming off the hills too early. However, we decided to head back up and were rewarded with the best view of poppies I’ve ever had.

As we walked up the slope a natural spectacular revealed itself to us. The upper part of shallow valley’s slope was covered in wild plants including various sorts of orchid. We found marbled white butterflies feeding on thistle flowers and numerous skylarks sang above our heads under the changing patchwork sky of clear blue and cloud. As we reached the top of the hill, we looked down into a wide open-ended bowl and a mass sweep of poppies spread down the slope, across the field and into neighbouring plots. The skylarks were joined in their songs by whitethroats and yellowhammers, all around us and across the valley, flying and calling, was a great congregation of red kites, at least 15 but perhaps more than 20. We walked up and down the path, stopping to take a few pictures, watching and listening, as the wildlife made the scene complete. As we prepared to leave and wander back down the hill, a couple of swifts sped past on their flickering wings, completing a quintessentially English summer scene.

Lockdown Diary: Week Twelve

Now into Week 13 of Lockdown there is a growing sense of normality. Not that things are back to the way they were but Lockdown itself seems almost a normal thing to be going through. The recent relaxations allowing more exercise and, as of today, all shops can open, have given some sense of the normal in our lives, at least away from work. However, in reality there has been nothing normal about the past week. COVID-19 mixed in with the Black Lives Matter protests and the Government stating that there will be no extension of the Brexit transition period mean that this has been a week with few parallels in any recent decade.

National news aside, it was another pretty quiet week, really. Work again took plenty of attention but there has been time for leisure and relaxation – perhaps too much looking over my recent exercise stats. The amount of exercise I’ve been getting has slumped significantly over the first half of June and I need to get it back up again. Maybe it’s the relaxing of the exercise rules but I’ve felt less inclined to do much. However, it has to be said that the weather over the last week has been far from ideal with some rain and much lower temperatures at times.

One major reason to get out and walk has been the reopening of the Royal Botantic Garden at Kew. Just across the road from the flat, it’s almost like our front garden. Somehow I managed to miss this from last week’s blog. It reopened in Week 11 but we had to wait until the Friday for our first chance to get in. This week we went in for a post-work walk on Tuesday and taking a very leisurely stroll around the different parts of the garden, I have to say was the most relaxing walk we’ve had since Lockdown began.

On Sunday, we left London behind again and went for a walk along the Thames Path at Goring. Any chance to escape to the countryside is welcome but this walk was particularly lovely. I’ll do a blog post about this one separately.

As we edge ever closer to the summer solstice, I’m very mindful at the moment that while we’re all still in Lockdown to a significant extent, the seasons are moving on. I do worry now by the time we get to any sort of normal that the best weather may be over and the darkness of autumn will be quickly approaching. Despite Lockdown, we need to be making the most of the good weather and light evenings as much as we can, within the restrictions we have placed upon us.