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.

Lockdown Diary: Week Eleven

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.

A digital connection into a wild world

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.

Lockdown Diary: Week Ten

This has been a week of memorable walks. The easing of the restriction on the amount of exercise  we’re allowed to do, and how far we can travel to do it, has given us more opportunities to be outside in the continuing great weather.

We’ve been to Richmond Park a few times since the restrictions were eased but earlier this week we went for our first evening walk. The Park was much quieter than during our daytime visits and a little cooler too; quite welcome given the recent heat. We headed from Ham Gate to the lakes and back again, through the woods and open grassland. The deer were more visible than during the day time and were out enjoying the quietness in the last of the sun. All except one group of red deer which chased of a couple and their dog when they walked past too close to their one small calf. The Park had a much calmer atmosphere that evening, as the day was coming to a close and the light dipping behind the trees, we’ll have to go again and the evening might become our favoured time if the days become even busier than they presently are.

Last night (Friday), we went for a walk after our evening meal, in the last light of the day. The walk down to Kew Green, along the Thames and then back through the residential streets, was the quietest local stroll we’ve had since lockdown began but also one of the most memorable. The air had a bit of a nip as we left the flat but the air was still. The clear sky meant there was enough light to see and the glow from the west gave a sharpness to the scenes. At Kew Green, we walked around to the Elizabeth Gate entrance to the Botanic Gardens and saw a mother fox and her small cub running around the manicured grass and flower beds. Walking onto the river path, the enclosing trees brought darkness but it was just possible to see across the water and watch the strange flickering patterns the light breeze was making on the Thames’ surface. Back through the deserted streets we hoped to see more foxes out and about. At first a cat raised and dashed hopes but on the last street before the turn for the flat, a fox wandered across the road, stopped to look at us but soon disappeared into gardens as we approached.

Today, we left the city and headed a few miles west to Seer Green for a country walk. Only half an hour away from London but distant from any busy honeypot areas, within minutes of parking the car we were out in almost silent rolling Home Counties countryside. The first footpath we passed along was in the dip of a shallow valley of ripening wheat and the only sound was a calling skylark somewhere out of sight in the clear blue sky above our heads. As we continued our walk through the fields and woods, we came across a few people, but far fewer than we do on our daily walks in Kew, and there was so much more peacefulness in the countryside than the city. We crossed a couple of busy roads but there was little other activity and we spent much of the time listening to the birdlife as we walked. We stopped to watch a whitethroat claiming his territory from a high hedge perch and later stood as red kite circled and called above the fields sloping down into another valley. We eventually turned towards the car and passed through the village but even there it was quiet with very little activity going on.

Now back in the urban Kew, it is much less quiet with the passing traffic but also the more natural sound of the breeze passing through the London planes outside of the window. The chance of a wander around the countryside has fed my need for rural space and will hopefully dampen that yearning for a while.

I was going to finish with a point about easing lockdown too quickly but will leave that for now and stop here before I let the post end on a less relaxing tone. These walks have made a big difference to us, being able to be outside in nice places, both urban and rural, connecting with nature and bringing some peace and calmness to what still remain quite hectic weekday lives.