Lockdown Diary: Week Seven

This week has seemed harder than the past few in lockdown. I woke up with a feeling of melancholy on Sunday and it was still there on Monday morning as I started work. Up to then, I hadn’t been feeling too bad apart from the first week, which I found very difficult to settle into. Speaking to colleagues, it seems that many have found the past week harder than others; maybe there’s a seven week itch in these things where tolerance starts to fray a little or coping mechanisms begin to weaken. Maybe it was more about people, including myself, finally accepting that we’re in this for the long haul and not even the new normal will be here any time soon.

The overblown talk earlier in the week of relaxing lockdown has been replaced by more sombre tones of small changes. However, just a little easing of exercise restrictions would be welcomed by many. It gives all of us without gardens or countryside (even if temporarily like me) to get out into some green space and connect with nature. However, those connections can be made even through an open window. 

Sitting at my desk this week, I heard a familiar and very welcome summer sound. I looked up from my screen to see two swifts chasing each other over the Kew rooftops. The following day there were three and the calls have been heard intermittently ever since. They’re my favourite bird of all and their calls, as I must have written here before, lift my soul like very few other things can. In the winter, I yearn for that sound and I cherish every time I hear it. After all, the swifts won’t be here for long and in no time at all I will be left once more with many months of waiting to hear them again. 

This week I also noticed as the darkness had fallen on another day in lockdown, the number of insects attracted by the street lights and circling in bright rays shining down towards the pavement. I wouldn’t say it was a startling observation but it got me thinking about how long it was that I had seen so many insect doing the same. That then led me on to consider whether the reductions in air pollution resulting from the lower levels of traffic might be be causing an increase in the numbers of insects. I’m no scientist but on my next long car journey it will be interesting to see if the number of insects picked up the front of my car has noticeably increased. Anecdotally, it seems that ‘fly splatter’ on cars has decreased over the past few years and any change in these observations over the next few months might be telling.

We have continued to go for walks this week and yesterday was a particularly memorable one. We set off in the morning and stopped at Kew Bridge to wait for the Red Arrows to pass overhead on their route from the VE Day commemoration flypast. They duly did and we went on with our walk and stepped down onto the shore of the Thames. It was a very low tide yesterday and we could walk almost all the way between Kew and Chiswick Bridges. Down on the short was the usual mix of swans, geese, ducks, gulls and herons but this time we came across some of the first young of the year with a gaggle of Egyptian goslings.

Even in lockdown, even staying inside, there are ways to connect to nature. Writing this post has lifted some of the gloom and I’ll go out for a cycle in a while, which will hopefully lift it further. I’ll have to see how many insects I get splatted on my sunglasses!

Lockdown Diary: Week Six

The weather turned this week, away from the summer-like sunshine and temperatures and towards something more appropriate for the end of April. We’ve had a few heavy showers, some stronger winds and there’s definitely been a chilly edge to the air. Tuesday was almost a write-off with heavy rain for much of the day but it slackened off in time for a walk after work. The weather over the previous weeks has been almost surreal with so much consistency in the warmth and sun, and whilst I do want it to return, this week’s rain and wind was almost a welcome return to the norm. The change has also brought another marker to show the passing of time.

Those walks after work have been so important in keeping some semblance of sense and perspective in my head. I hadn’t really realised just how important they have been until late this week when I’d had to wait until later in the evening. We usually go out immediately after finishing work for the day and they have formed a demarkation in time between the worlds of work and home. It seems I’ve finally noticed that working from home really can blur those worlds too much and without something to separate them it’s much more difficult to shut off the thoughts of the working day from home life hours. It’s also quite noticeable that I find it easier to block out home from work time than work from home time. That is not a reflection of the relative value I attached to them but more to do with my usual working self-discipline, the merging of home and workplace, and my significantly reduced ability to keep my mind occupied with my usual range of outdoor activities.

Those walks, as I’ve written previously, have enabled us to keep in touch with the nature around us. Kew is pretty special with all the lovely gardens, street trees and open spaces, as well as the River Thames. However, there is one unassuming spot that has been particularly good at providing wildlife highlights. There’s a closed off road between a railway embankment and the National Archives which provides a link to the river.  The embankment is covered in trees and deep undergrowth and, on the opposite side of the road, the Archives have a hedge in front of its gardens. As we’ve walked there over the past few weeks we’ve seen a daytime fox and plenty of birds including a garden warbler and two very loud blackcaps. However, this week we got a special surprise as we made our way down the road. In the deep undergrowth came a call I’d heard before but didn’t quite recognise. At first I thought it was a thrush but that wasn’t right. I then realised, it was a nightingale! I’ve only heard one once before and that was in a nature reserve, so it was a startling find, particularly in such a spot on the edge of London.

Whilst there is still a long way to go to get anywhere near back to normal, or more likely forward to a new normal, there are now at least some signs of hope in the daily news. We’re past the peak, the sad daily toll of deaths is dropping, at least in the measure of those passing away in hospitals. There is talk of relaxing some aspects of lockdown, if not social distancing, and the country is looking at ways to live with this virus while going about more normal daily life. I still think my girlfriend and I haven’t had it too bad compared to many others. However, the realisation that I really do need to go for a walk straight after work has highlighted that this situation can take its toll even on those who aren’t on the front line.

Lockdown Diary: Week Five

Now coming to the end of the fifth week of lockdown, the days seem to be merging and it’s becoming difficult to make marks in time to help judge the pace of the passing weeks. The weather has continued to be consistently lovely, more like earlier summer than mid-spring, making it even more difficult to tell one day from another. 

Perhaps the easiest way to see time passing has been the surrounding flora. The first weeks still had a few daffodils in flower and the trees were largely bare. Then came the wisteria flowers, adorning many of the grand houses on the leafy streets of Kew. Now they too are fading and the strong scent diminishing, but there are more flowers coming forward to take their place. The horse chestnuts seem to be particularly spectacular this year with some almost hanging heavy with the weight of their flower candles. As I wrote last week, the emergence of the leaves across all the trees has been a daily note and most are now in full leaf. The changing of the trees from winter to summer has possibly been the most dramatic marker of the time passed so far.

A more subtle changing has been the ebb and flow of the tides; not each high and low, but the shifting of their timing. Two weeks ago on our daily outing we walked on the bare gravel bed of the Thames close to Kew Bridge, but yesterday, out at roughly the same time, the river was washing over the footpath. There is something rather untamed about the Thames in this part of its flow. It may be hemmed in by walls, banks and buildings but it refuses to be submit and with every large high tide it threatens to flow into the riverside properties. This dynamic of the river is particularly spectacular around Richmond where is cuts off the Thames Path completely as well as a building or two, and floods into surrounding fields.

This part of London is a rather lovely place to be during the lockdown and there are many in much worse positions than us, many have no access to outside space and little greenery around them. However, despite being surrounded by green and water, it is still an urban environment, with a concentration of people and activity. The noise may be much less than normal, with fewer cars on the road and much less frequent planes passing overhead but I do miss the more open green and quieter spaces of the countryside. Perhaps even more so, I’m starting to yearn for the really wild places I like to visit and with two trips already cancelled I’m starting to wonder when my next trip away from urban life will be.

As a write this, there’s a chiffchaff calling from a nearby tree and blackcap singing in some undergrowth across the road. As long as they and others keep on singing, they will provide a link between me and those more wild places.

Lockdown diary: Week Four

After I wrote my first lockdown diary post, I realised just how quickly the first three weeks appeared to pass and since then the time hasn’t slowed down at all. Now a week on from that post and four weeks since lockdown begun, I can say that I have now settled into the pattern of life that Coronavirus has put upon us. I found the first week quite stressful but I think the calmness of a much quieter, slower pace of life has made it easier, but so has the weather.

After a spectacularly lovely Easter weekend, with unseasonably warm temperatures, things returned to a little more normal this week, albeit with plenty of sunshine and occasionally warmer weather. After so many months of poor weather, this prolonged period of bright sun and blue skies has made life much easier. Just the feeling of warm sun on the skin is enough to raise the spirits. The clear skies have also made the daylight last longer; maybe it’s being down in London rather than Cheshire but, even taking account of the clocks going forward, there seems to be so much more light now we are in mid-April and it’s certainly lifting the spirits. 

I’ve tried to continue from the last few weeks in letting nature into as many of the waking hours as possible. I might be stuck in the bedroom working for many hours from Monday to Friday but the room has a big window I can look out of and see trees and the occasional bird as each day passes. Looking out of the lounge window gives a feeling of living in a tree house; the second floor flat looks into the trees lining the road and across into those in Kew Gardens. One of the interesting aspects of being locked-down is that there is only a small amount of scenery to look at, so we’ve seen more clearly the emergence of the leaves on each of the nearby trees. We’ve seen different trees emerge at different stages and we’ve even seen over the course of a day the leaves emerging slowly from their bud cloaks. The view from the lounge is dominated by horse chestnuts, limes and London Planes, with the last two being slower than the first to come out. In fact, the chestnuts are now out in flower with some smothered in the white candles.

The birds have also been a good distraction too and we’ve over 50 species in the past fours weeks, which is more than I ever expected. However, it’s easy to see why there’s so many to see. The mixture of gardens, including the Botanic Garden itself, and the River Thames provide a rich diversity of habitats and the quieter road and air traffic makes the birds easier to hear. However, the dawn chorus seems quieter here than at home, partly because we sleep on a side of the building away from the Botanic Gardens but we’re planning to get up early one weekend to heard out to the Thames path for a dawn walk to hear the dawn chorus at it’s fullest.

The above paragraphs make it seem like my period in lockdown isn’t so bad and, really, it isn’t. I can’t complain too much, when others are having a much worse time. I’m sure for many, each week of lockdown has seemed endless; those working in hospitals, people living alone and those who are sick, and I’m very lucky that my job means I can work remotely and I have a very nice area to spend some of my free time outside.

Lockdown Diary: settling in

It seems a bit late to be starting a lockdown diary but, oddly, I don’t really seem to have had the time over the first three weeks. Life has already settled into a pattern where weekdays are filled with work, albeit with longer lunches, and the evenings provide time for a daily walk or run, some cooking and eating, and then a bit of relaxation before bed. Having spent whole days in front of a computer screen writing or on video calls, spending more time at a screen writing a blog doesn’t feature high on my list of things to do in the evenings. However, despite all the terrible things happening right now, I still find time to look at nature and, feeling generally a bit helpless about the situation in general (I’m not a key worker), I thought at very least I could make some effort to write a few blog posts.

I arrived at my girlfriend’s flat in Kew the day we both came out of self-isolation and the government called the lockdown that evening. As I travelled down from my home in Cheshire, I knew that lockdown was very likely to happen and that I could have to stay in London for the duration. The decision was really a non-contest between my own home comforts and being with Sarah.

I can’t say there aren’t things I’m missing; the flat’s balcony is a great space to lift the prospect of cabin fever but I miss my back garden, I should have brought a few more clothes with me and I would have loved to have one of my bikes down here – Sarah’s may have to be brought out as a stand in.

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. 

Kew is in the centre of a large loop of the Thames, which is a short walk to the north and to the east of us. We are just across the road from the famous botanic gardens, we can look over the wall from the second floor flat, but now it is closed to the public it blocks the route to the Thames to the west. Kew Green is also just down the road, on one of the routes to the river, and it brings openness to the area with its large park surrounded by lovely old houses with wisteria growing up the outside of many.

However, being Kew, it’s not just big garden across the road that has plenty of attention paid to it; so many of the residential gardens are lovely too. In fact the whole area is lovely and looking particularly so now. The roads are lined with more big old houses and terraces, and the occupants clearly all (or nearly all) have green fingers with the gardens seemly competing with each other to be mini versions of their famous, larger counterpart. The streets themselves are also almost gardens themselves; I don’t think I’ve ever noticed so many street trees and at present hundreds are out in blossom.

The past three weeks, whilst being the start of lockdown, have also seemingly seen the real start of spring. After many months of miserable weather (it almost seems to have been horrible since I left my three-month stint on Ramsey Island at the end of July), the sun and warmth have finally broken through. This week particularly has been very warm with temperatures up in the mid-20s at times and the sun has been out so much of the time. This appears to have kickstarted the trees with their leaves really bursting out all across the area.

The warm weather has enabled us to have the windows and balcony door open much of the time and that has let the natural sounds into the flat. The man-made sounds are less than usual with the roads much quieter and the planes going overhead on the flight path to Heathrow almost come as a surprise as they are so few and irregular now. The bird calls now float into the flat and I have to stop to listen every so often as the call of a green woodpecker or the song of a blackcap comes through into the rooms.

As I’m not a key worker and all I have had to do is shift to working from home, which is what I do at least a day a week anyway, I can hardly complain about the situation I find myself in. We have plenty of food and drink, we can get outside of the flat and can go for a walk or run each day. The traffic and planes are much quieter and spring is growing to its peak. There are so many people in much worse positions than us and under so much more pressure and anxiety. However, its not all plain sailing and I know just what a terrible situation the country is in at present, the stress of the collective situation we find ourselves in hasn’t completely passed me by but letting nature in is surely one of the best ways to cope with it all.

The seasons don’t stand still

As we are paused in our lives, hunkered down indoors, outside nature isn’t following us. The weather appears to have turned, from the seemly endless months of gloom and rain, to the past week which has been bright, cloudless and, occasionally, almost warm. The world is starting to react to these longer, lighter days with the earliest spring flowers coming and going, and the trees showing the first signs of leaves breaking out from their buds. The ground is drying out from the winter downpours and grass is coming into its first flushes of vibrant green. 

The birds are also reacting, with the residents building up their choruses at dawn and dusk, waiting for the spring arrivals to increase the depth of the music. The blackbirds, thrushes, robins, wrens and dunnocks will soon be joined by the warblers, redstarts, flycatchers and cuckoos, bringing greater intensity to the wave of calls washing across the fields and through the woods. 

The Glaslyn Valley always seems to be later to react to the coming of the new season, the plants and trees staying in their winter dormancy while other areas are well into their growth. However, we have noted the biggest sign of the coming of spring, the arrival at the top of that copse on the rocky outcrop in the wet meadowlands; the first osprey has landed in her nest and awaits the arrival of her parter.

Under current circumstances, I have no idea when I might been able to travel from my Cheshire home for my first shift of the protecting that osprey nest. For the duration of the lockdown, however long it lasts, I’m living in Kew, across the road from the famous botanic gardens, with a view over the wall from a second floor flat. Whilst there are no ospreys to be seen out of the window, we have our own nest to watch; a pair of magpies are setting up home in a tree only a few metres from our balcony. They’ve been noisily constructing their shaggy nest over past weeks and now seem to be getting on with the business of mating. We assume very we’ll only see one at once as the eggs are incubated.

Whilst Kew doesn’t have the rugged views of the Glaslyn’s natural landscape, it does have it’s visual charms. At present the cherry blossom is out and many of the streets are lined with trees slowly shedding their white and pink confetti petals.

Sunrise over the marshes

On the train to Birmingham this morning and was cheered by this lovely sunrise. I was just approaching Stafford and crossing Doxey Marshes as the sun first peaked above the horizon.

After the rain over the last few months, the marshes are looking even wetter than usual.

I just looked at the map to check the name of the location and learnt two things: it should be Sowford, not Stafford, and there’s a waterway in the Marshes called The Darling. Every day is a school day!

CNCV: Wybunbury Moss in March

Today I attended my first task of the year with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers. With many other things happening in my life at the moment, it’s been difficult to fit in my usual fortnightly volunteering with the group but today I managed to at least attend for half a day.

After having to do some work this morning, yearning to be outside on what looked like a lovely day, I rushed across to Wybunbury Moss at lunchtime to join in the work. After being there two weeks ago, there was brash to cut and burn while others coppiced woodland on another part of the site.

The view from my desk wasn’t deceiving, it was an almost springlike day. There was as much blue sky as cloud and the sun’s warmth could be felt quite strongly but a keen chilly wind kept the feeling of late winter in the air rather than early spring. As we finished the task in mid-afternoon, a few light showers came along to dampen our enthusiasm. However, just being outside with some lovely sunshine lifted my spirits and blue away the morning work-cobwebs perfectly.

I’ve really missed being with the group over the last few months and hopefully I’ll find a few more gaps to attend over the course of the spring.

Upliftingly lovely…

Yesterday I went on a Saturday morning cycle in what has to have been the loveliest of sunny mornings for a very long time. It was chilly but with a cloudless sky and light wind and there was even a bit of warmth in the February sun.

I, like many others, suffer from the winter blues during the dark days of January and February. However, yesterday’s cycle seemed to lift a weight off my shoulders and afterwards I was almost bouncing as I walked down to town.

Unfortunately, today is stormy with strong winds and driving rain – what a difference 24hrs makes.

A return to Norfolk in January

At the end of last month (I’m getting behind with my blog writing!), we had a long weekend on the north Norfolk coast, staying in the lovely village of Blakeney. This is the second year in a row that I have taken a long January weekend in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – it’s the perfect place to spend an early-year few days outdoors surrounded by nature.

Blakeney itself is a stunning little harbour village, about three kilometres from the sea up the River Glaven. The village is typical of this part of Norfolk with it’s few streets lined by flint-faced cottages. Our retreat for the weekend was a cottage in the old granary on the river front with great views across the wide and open salt marshes.

The two and a half days were spent walking along beaches, across the marshes and around some of the best nature reserves I know. This time of year on the north Norfolk coast is full of winter bird life with their sounds an almost constant accompaniment to any time spent outdoors. The richness of the wildlife is revealed by the figures; in just those short days in the area, we saw 80 different species and some huge flocks of wintering geese and ducks. 

Over the weekend we went to the coast at Holkham, had two visits to RSPB Titchwell, walked from Blakeney to Cley and back again, walked around the Norfolk Wildlife Trust site at Cley and made a dusk visit to the steep pebble beach at Weybourne. Through each of these places we saw a great amount of wildlife; from the large flocks of wildfowl and waders, the geese being my favourite, to the smaller birds gathered together to forage in the dunes and fields. The best sights were of hundreds of scoter off the coast at Holkham, the pink-footed geese in the fields alongside the main road, the flock of snow buntings behind the Holkham dunes, the mixed flock of curlew and ruff near to Cley, the dusk gathering of marsh harriers at Titchwell, and the hares running down and across a darkened back road.  

The place is so rich in life that I yearn for a winter day wandering the area and I’m never in doubt that I will return many times again.