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.
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.
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.
It’s been a relatively quiet lockdown week. Work has taken a front seat with long hours at my computer screen, starting early but still trying to finish at a reasonable time. We’ve exercised every day but not done any cycling as my steed was in the repair shop. Last week’s post of new or different walks seems a long time ago but the weeks still seem to be rushing past at quite startling speeds.
It’s odd to think that I’ve been in Kew under lockdown conditions almost as long as the three months I spend on RSPB Ramsey Island last spring and summer. Fortunately, that period didn’t seem to go as quickly as this has, although at the time, that too sped past far too quickly. It also seems a long time since I was in such a wild a place as Ramsey. In the autumn we spent a week in Mull and had five nights in Devon at New Year but they both seem a lifetime ago. Our day walking in the Buckinghamshire countryside last weekend really helped to dampen the yearning for wild places for a little while but now it’s back stronger than ever.
A busy week left less time to find escape from the world of work and this weekend we have both been very tired and a bit run down so there has been no opportunity for an brief escape to the countryside. Having said that, watching Springwatch this week (we’re a week behind) has made some difference and I’ve taken to it again after growing tired of some of the silliness over the last couple of years. It seems to be more serious, more scientific, but still gives those special insights into the lives of wildlife – for me, it’s got its magic back.
I wrote a blog post over the weekend for the Osprey charity I volunteer with. It focussed on how their webcam is giving a window into the wild world that many under lockdown wouldn’t otherwise see. I think I can now add TV to webcams in giving opportunities for everyone to connect better with wildlife. For some reason, I didn’t just stop watching Springwatch, I also stopped switching on to all wildlife programmes for a while. I can’t fully explain why. I used to love watching the numerous Attenborough series and The Natural World but I either just wanted to be in those places myself or I found it all too depressing that there’s so little of the truly wild places left. However, hopefully, lockdown has reconnected me to one avenue though which we can all better engage with the wild world around us.
Writing through a digital window on the valley, it is only the eyes than can sense the changes along the Glaslyn. The trees are now in full flush with their leaves turning from the almost luminous spring shock of bright new life to deeper, firmer, more solid greens. Amongst them stand the dead, the bone-white bleached trunks and branches of the lifeless trees, where leaves no longer flourish, but providing perches for some and homes for others. The fields and meadows are drying out after months of relentless rain; they are turning from sodden and saturated mud to lush spreads of sustaining grass. Feeding across them are ewes with lambs, the youngsters no longer so small but not so grown up to stop chasing each other around.
In the woodlands, all the spring arrivals are breeding with the willow warblers, chiffchaffs, redstarts and pied flycatcher raising broods amongst the branches of the moss covered oaks. The year-round residents also have young to feed with the tits, finches and thrushes all busy gathering the next mouthfuls for their chicks. Down on the ground, the mammals are raising their young with the foxes and badgers bringing their cubs out into the open at dusk.
An early summer has reached the Glaslyn Valley, hotter temperatures than many a July or August day are in place of the more gradual incline to the year’s peak. The sun, now not far off its strongest, casts a harsh light across the land and sends burning heat on any unshaded skin or feather. The smaller creatures can hide under branch or leaf, in concealed nests or under ground but some are less fortunate. When the cloud moves from the path of the sun, the osprey parents stand as shade over their chicks. The young have lost their down, exposing dark skins that attract even more of the sun’s heat. But the heat won’t last forever, and the frequent inclement weather can soon return, with the parents then shading the chicks from the monotonous dripping of rain onto their unfeathered bodies.
The wild year keeps moving on, even as our lives are partly dormant, keeping inside and away from many of our usual haunts. For many it is currently only a digital window that provides sights of nature and wildness; those in cities, in the middle of towns, or just with no view of green spaces. I’ve been watching the webcam. From the arrival of the familiar Glaslyn pair and the first egg laid, the chasing of crows and warning off intruders, to the hatching of the chicks, the never ending supply of fish and the youngsters’ continuing growth as remarkable speeds. The webcam really does give a window into a wild world, and a view that even in normal times, would be impossible to get without technology.
The Glaslyn nest is not the only site I’ve been keeping tracks on. I’ve been watching a white-tailed eagle family in Estonia and their enormous chicks, and I’ve been following a few African webcams in place of the trip in September now postponed for a year. Even if I’m not seeing the wildlife with my own eye, digital views are far better than having no views at all. It’s simply incredible what we can now all see from the comfort of our sofas or desks (even when working – sometimes)
It looks like this year, I’m only going to get that digital view of the ospreys. As things stand, I’m remaining in London for the continuing lockdown and there’s no sign of an opportunity to return home to Cheshire. Even if there was, the differing rules between England and Wales currently prevent any journey across the border, even just for the day. However, I’m fortunate that there is wildlife right on my lockdown doorstep. We have a crow visiting our balcony as he feeds his chicks and we often have sight of foxes, even a cub, as they start their evening patrols through the uncommonly deserted streets. On the walks and cycles around Kew and Richmond, I have now seen or heard over seventy species of bird including some I rarely observe: hobby, common tern, nightingale and green woodpecker. I’m also so lucky that this part of London is green and so much open space, the now reopened Botanic Gardens, the nearby green, the Thames Path and a little further away, the wide expanse of Richmond Park. However, these are not wild places and its difficult to get away, even now, from people and their noise.
So much has already been said about the positive impact of nature on our minds as we wrestle with the stresses caused by the current situation. Without the good weather we have had for so long and the sights of wildlife, many, including me, would have found this so much harder to contend with. Any chance to see wildlife, even digitally, gives us a the stronger connection to the natural world we all need, particularly at times like these.