Ifield Millpond in Winter

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I walked round Ifield Millpond yesterday. It was a beautiful, cold, crisp, winter morning. The sky was clear and blue, and the sun hung low, so that blinding sunlight bounced off the frozen surface of the millpond, making photography difficult. The grass and undergrowth were rimed with frost, and ice scrunched underfoot. A heron who habitually sits at the waters’ edge, was perched on the branch of a tree. The water birds, usually seen swimming happily, were today skidding and skating precariously on the ice. Three Canada geese one behind the other slowly and carefully plodded towards a patch of open water near the bridge. The first two held their footing reasonable well, but the last one slipped drunkenly on every step – two steps forward and one slip-step backwards. Seagulls coming to land, ran a few slippery steps, wings flapping wildly to keep their balance before coming to a standstill. A solitary duck padded across the ice, webbed feet flapping, but the rest of the ducks seemed to be crowded into a narrow stretch of water between the bank and the boardwalk.
The funniest of all had to be the coots. They looked rather like misshapen, feathered rugby-balls, with ungainly legs and long flat toes that are usually hidden under the water. No doubt the toes with flabby flaps of skin that act rather like webbed feet are ideal for paddling through water, but they are not really designed for walking on ice! The faster the coots tried to go, the more they slipped and slithered. But however much difficulty the birds had staying upright on the ice, I didn’t see any actually fall over; and thankfully neither did I!

 

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Looking up again!

I had to look upwards again today when I heard a familiar tap-tap-tap high up in next-doors old oak tree. I’d noticed it first a couple of weeks ago, but until this morning the culprit had eluded me. I was just leaving the house with my dog Charlie for his daily walk, when I heard the tapping again, a hollow vibration echoing through the clear morning air. I stopped and gazed upwards into the oak tree, scanning up and down the trunk and branches, and listening out for the sound again. Finally I saw him – a greater-spotted woodpecker – perched high up on a branch. I watched for a brief moment, then there was a flash of red under-belly and he was off, swooping across the pale blue sky, and leaving me with the feeling that spring is just around the corner.

woodpecker April 14The woodpecker was too fast and too far away to get a photo this time, so here’s a photo from a couple of years ago instead.

Looking up

We usually see the world from our own eye level. Children see a swathe of knees and trousers – a limited view, their eye-line often blocked. As an adult I see from a slightly more elevated level, and see faces and expressions. Go higher and our view extends even further, but the higher we get the more we tend to look down. I remember a couple of years ago looking down from the top of Old Dungeness Lighthouse in Kent, and last summer staring out across the Lincolnshire countryside from Sibsey Trader Windmill. Even with our feet firmly on the ground, we are always looking down – avoiding muddy puddles, wary of the broken paving stone that might trip us up. Consequently, unless we’re star-gazing, we rarely notice what is actually straight above us. When we do look up, what a different world we then can see; from clouds to skyscrapers, from the natural to the constructed. New perspectives, fresh patterns, surprising shapes and shadows. A new view of the familiar, and an unexpected view of the ordinary that makes it extraordinary. So take a moment to look up, and be surprised!

 

Shoreham Beach Local Nature Reserve

I visited Shoreham-on-Sea last Saturday, situated on the Sussex coast, and had a lovely walk along the Shoreham Beach Nature Reserve. It is a shingle spit naturally created over many hundreds of years, that runs adjacent to the River Adur estuary. It consists of mainly flint pebbles, washed down after the last ice age. The pebbles were moved along the coast by long-shore drift, and then combined with the action of the river at its mouth, piled up to form the shingle spit.
In among the pebbles grow surprisingly large clumps of vegetation, creating a striking display of shape and colour. On our visit we saw purple Mallow, bright pink Valerian, little spiky balls of pale pink Thrift, and white Sea Kale, with foliage that looks just like cabbage. Almost 90 different plant species have been recorded on the beach. In 2006, Shoreham Beach was unsurprisingly designated a nature reserve, in order to help preserve and protect this area of unique vegetated shingle, and the wildlife it encourages.
Unfortunately Saturday was very windy, and we didn’t see the variety of birds and butterflies that frequent the area, although there were plenty of seagulls overhead, and a few bees buzzing around the flowers. Despite the wind that made my ears ache, it was an interesting and enjoyable visit, and to be thoroughly recommended.

Shoreham Nature Reserve

Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway

Whilst staying in Hythe last weekend, we wanted to take a trip on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. I’d travelled on the railway many years ago as a child, when I lived in Folkestone. The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is a narrow gauge railway that runs for 13.5 miles along the Kent coast from Hythe to Dungeness. There is a fleet of one-third full size steam and diesel locomotives, that run on 15″ wide track, and is built to run safely at 25 mph. The railway was designed and planned in the 1920’s, by Captain J E P Howey, a racing driver and millionaire landowner, and Count Louis Zborowski, also a millionaire racing driver. They wanted to create the best miniature railway in the world, which would be run like any normal mainline railway. When it opened in July 1927, the double track only ran from Hythe to New Romney, but within a year it went as far as the shingle ridges of Dungeness. During the Second World War the railway line was requisitioned by the War Department, who built a miniature armoured train, which was used during the building of PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) which fueled the Allied invasion force. The railway was re-opened in 1947 by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Now, almost 70 years later, it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Kent, having in excess of 100,000 visitors every year.

So, on Sunday morning we parked by the Royal Military Canal in Hythe, and bought RomneyRover Tickets, which enabled us to get on and off the train at any station.  Like the locomotives, the carriages are obviously small, with just enough space for two normal sized adults to sit side by side, and a tall man (or woman) might find their heads touching the ceiling! There are open carriages, with no doors or windows, but we chose a closed carriage, with a sliding door. The guard waved his green flag, (children waved theirs), the steam whistle blew and we were off out of the station passing between the gardens of Hythe, until we reached the open fields. Sheep munched lazily, well used to the clickety-clack of the train passing, and the air was filled with the smell of steam and smoke. Dymchurch was the first station we stopped at, followed by St Mary’s Bay. Then at New Romney we got off and had lunch. We also had a look at the extensive Model Railway Exhibition which was included in our Rover ticket. Also at New Romney is a locomotive turntable, which I remembered seeing as a child. Then we were off again heading for Dungeness. Bells rang and red lights flashed each time we crossed country roads, and everyone waved good-naturedly as they waited for us to go by. The scenery changed dramatically as we moved onto the bleak open shingle ridges of the Dungeness National Nature Reserve, classified as desert by the meteorological office. The train looped round to Dungeness Station, where we got off and had a wander around, before catching the train back to Hythe.

It was a fabulous train trip on the world’s smallest public railway, and for me, a wonderful revival of childhood memories. If we had had the time, I would have loved to do it all again!
For more information see:  http://www.rhdr.org.uk

Old Dungeness Lighthouse

I spent a lovely few days last weekend in Kent, and stayed on a caravan site just outside Hythe. As a very small child, my Dad worked in Hythe, and we lived five miles along the coast in Folkestone. So visiting this area of Kent always feels a little bit like coming home.
On Saturday afternoon with no fixed plan, we decided to venture off in a westerly direction, and found ourselves driving through New Romney, then across the vast expanse of shingle ridges, towards Dungeness, ending up of course at the famous Old Dungeness Lighthouse.

There has been a lighthouse at Dungeness since 1615, when a 35 ft high wooden tower with an open coal fire on top warned early mariners of the dangerous peninsular that reached out into the English Channel. In about 1635 a 110 ft high brick lighthouse was built, which stood for over a hundred years. The shingle banks continued to grow, and in 1790 it became necessary to build a third lighthouse. It was 116 ft high, fueled first by oil, and later petroleum, and the light was magnified by concave reflectors, which were later replaced by glass prisms. Over the years the longshore drift caused the shingle banks to increase so much that by 1901 a new and taller Lighthouse had to be commissioned. This fourth lighthouse, now known as the Old Dungeness Lighthouse, is nearly 150 ft high, and was opened by the Prince of Wales – later George V – in 1904. The light flashed every 10 seconds, and could be seen for approximately 18 miles, providing a clear signal to ships in the English Channel for 56 years. Despite having survived two world wars, during the construction of the Dungeness Nuclear Power station in the 1950’s, it became clear that the light would become obscured, and so the Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1960, and in 1961, yet another Lighthouse was opened. This 43 metre high, black and white striped lighthouse is still in operation, and has a flash of white light every 10 seconds, that is visible for 27 miles.

The black and white tower of the Old Dungeness Lighthouse, now a museum and major tourist attraction, is an imposing, solid-looking structure, of industrial Victorian architecture. Inside are a series of mezzanine floors made of slate and supported by massive steel beams, linked by spiral staircases with wrought iron banisters. It’s quite a climb, with a total of 169 steps, but there are windows on every level, and with the panoramic views from the top over the bleak shingle headland, is well worth the effort. On the second floor of the lighthouse is the Lens Room, with an impressive, almost artistic display of lenses.

On the fifth floor is the Great Lens, which weighs between two and three tons. It was balanced on a bed of mercury, and was kept revolving by a clock underneath, which had to be hand-wound every hour by the keeper on watch. The one million candle-power light could be seen for up to 20 miles. In good weather you can climb out onto the balcony that runs around the top of the lighthouse, and gaze out over the Dungeness National Nature Reserve, Romney March, and out across the English Channel.

The Gordon River and Heritage Landing, Tasmania

The Gordon River meanders down from the Central Highlands, through mountain crags and temperate rainforest, until it reaches Macquarie Harbour. Entering the river mouth, we cruised quietly into the Tasmanian Wilderness, part of the largest tract of temperate rainforest surviving anywhere on Earth. The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (first listed in 1981-2), meets seven out of ten criteria for World Heritage listing, and includes the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. The battle to save it from the proposed 105 metre high hydro-electric dam in the early 1980’s, gained support from all over the world. Thankfully the conservationists won!

The LJF has a hull and engine designed for minimal impact on the environment, and as the maximum speed allowed in the Gordon River is only 9 knots, we hardly disturbed the surface. A tangled mass of undergrowth and trees tumbled right to the river’s edge, throwing mirror-like reflections into the dark water, stained amber by tannins from the buttongrass. These wet temperate rainforests are examples of forests that existed in the time of Gondwanaland, and many of the trees, like huon pine – which lives for up to 3000 years, leatherwood, celery-top pine and whitey wood are unique to Tasmania.

It was quiet and immensely peaceful as we slowly navigated the sweeping bends of the river. There was no other sign of modern life, so I could easily imagine Captain Kelly in 1815, exploring the river in James Gordon’s whaling boat. (Guess who the river was named after? – Many places in Australia and Tasmania have explorers, governors and other pioneers names!)

We disembarked at Heritage Landing, and walked along a boardwalk circuit through densely wooded rainforest. I could feel the deep, primeval wildness and sense the enormity of the wilderness, stretching for mile upon mile, or should I say kilometre upon kilometre? (Somehow that doesn’t sound quite so far). Hung on the trees above and all around, were strings of pale green lichen, and creeping mosses carpeted the fallen trees. Below the boardwalk, rivulets of water ran between the moss and decaying debris, into amber coloured pools. And yes, it did rain, but I suppose it does that quite often in rainforests! Although the undergrowth was tangled and gloomy, I did catch sight of a pademelon (small kangaroo), and later, in the open, I saw a tiger snake sunning itself on a log.

Walking through that tranquil rainforest was an experience of a lifetime. It was so isolated, so ancient; set apart from modern life and removed from the rest of the world. It was like a separate existence, or another dimension of consciousness.

Enough said; it needs to be on everyone’s ‘to do’ list!