Wednesday, 31 July 2013

An exploration of British wild flowers

A couple of months ago I bought myself a new macro lens for my digital SLR camera.  For anyone who doesn't know what a macro lens is, basically it allows you to focus on objects at very close range and the resulting images are reproduced at a ratio of 1:1.   With my lens, for example, I can focus on a small postage stamp until it fills the frame and this will be recorded at actual size on the camera's sensor.

I originally bought the lens for food photography, but a very pleasing by-product of this has been my discovery of flowers, particularly wild flowers.  My new lens is perfect for getting in as close as possible to a flower and really showing off its beauty.   And in doing so I've then gone on to identify each specimen, which isn't always easy.  There are several sites on the internet which allow you to key in various attributes of the flower, such as petal shape and colour, and by a process of elimination  so far I've identified every one.
Some I didn't need help identifying, such as the Bluebell:


Some I have seen growing wild in many hedgerows, fields and even urban areas, but had never taken the time to look up their names, such as the Oxford Ragwort:

Others I knew, but until I actually got in close with my new lens, I had no idea how stunningly beautiful they actually were, such an example being the Borage flower (otherwise, for obvious reasons when you look at it, known as the Star Flower):

When using a macro lens, the closer you get to the subject the shallower the depth of field (simply put, the amount of the subject in focus) and so it's important, as a photographer, that I establish which part of a plant I want to be tightly focussed.  Thereafter, the rest of the image becoming increasingly out of focus.  In the example of this Red Campion flower, my point of focus (as is often the case) was the central stamen.

Occasionally, focus on the actual flower has been eclipsed by the appearance of a bug or fly, such as this Yarrow flower onto which has settled a horse fly.  In this instance I also had to rely on the net to help me identify the fly.  And this, in turn, may start me off on another journey of exploration...bugs and flies! 
For now though, whilst the hedgerows are still in full bloom, I shall keep focussing on all those beautiful flowers.


Monday, 29 July 2013

Book Review: The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

When I was given this book as a gift I thought by the title that it would be rather light-hearted and jokey in style. Particularly as one of the reviews on the cover refers to it as "Monty Python and the Holy Grail with footnotes..." This is actually misleading as the book is a very detailed and comprehensive social history of England in the 14th century. There were quite a few light-hearted moments, some disturbing and some rather dry and tedious too. On the whole though it balanced out into a fascinating and obviously very well researched piece of work.

Unlike most books on medieval history this one focused predominantly on everyday people, at times giving you a very real sense of what it was like to be around at that time. And in that regard the title is highly appropriate.

I would say that this book would be invaluable for anyone writing about the 14th century and would provide a great source of reference for novelists.

First adventures in geocaching

As an aside to my country walking, I have recently been trying my hand at a spot of geocaching.  For those unfamiliar with this hobby, basically it entails using GPS to track down a cache which someone has hidden.  The caches, which can vary in size from film canisters to large containers, contain a log sheet and sometimes other items which can be traded.

Many serious geocache enthusiasts use a dedicated GPS device but for a beginner, like myself, an app can be downloaded which works perfectly well enough to get you started.  Once you have the app and have created your own geocaching profile you're ready to go. 

Geocaching is a worldwide pastime, with over 2 million caches hidden around the world, approximately 70,000 of which can be found in the UK.  And this number is increasing as the number of enthusiasts grows.  No one is ever likely to be very far from a cache! 

Starting off with a smart phone is simple.  From your main profile screen you just click on the "Find Nearby Geocache" tab and then follow the directions from either a map screen or with the aid of a built in compass.

The distance gauge shows you how far away you are from the cache, whilst the compass keeps you heading in the right direction.

Smartphones are usually accurate to within around 5 metres, so when you are very close to the cache it's better to put it to one side and trust your own eyesight.  Can you see a likely hiding place?  Often this can be a large rock, the hole in the foot of a tree or similar.  The larger the cache the easier it is to find.

Once you have the cache in hand the first thing you should do is sign the log with your unique geocaching user ID (people usually use a nickname) and the date. After you've signed, either immediately via your phone or later by computer, you should also add a note to the cache's unique online log.  Also inside the cache you may find a small collection of little items and you are perfectly welcome to take one, provided you leave something in return.  In truth the items people leave are seldom worth taking.  I've seen used hair bobbles, personal business cards, Christmas cracker novelties but, occasionally, something I've wanted, like a small pen.

The larger geocaches can also contain what are known as trackables or travel bugs.  These are items with a metal dog tag attached which carries a unique ID.  If you find one of these items and take it, you must visit the item's page on the geocaching website ( and record that you have taken it.  Then, at a later date but as soon as possible, you should deposit the trackable item in another cache for others to take and move on.

It was on a recent visit to Hadrian's Wall that I found a geocache containing a garden gnome complete with a travel bug dog tag. 

The little chap was called Gofar and on returning home after my short holiday I was able to follow his journey from its start in London, up to the northernmost coast of Scotland, then back down to Hadrian's Wall.  I kept Gofar for a few weeks then took him on holiday with me to Wales, where I left him in another cache in a wood by the beautiful Pembrokeshire coastal path.

To date I have only notched up 15 geocaches to my name, which in comparison to the thousands located by dedicated enthusiasts is a drop in the ocean.  To be honest, I don't see this as a serious interest and I won't be rushing out to buy a dedicated GPS device.  But it can add a bit of added interest to a country walk now and again.

Thursday, 25 July 2013


Until last week I had never seen a badger.  Well, actually, that's not strictly true.  I'd seen them on television nature programmes and, sadly, I've seen several dead ones at the side of the road.  I even got out of the car once to take a close look at one which had been recently mown down and, for a brief moment, I considered taking it to a taxidermist.  In the end though I drove on and left it for someone else who fancied the idea of having a stuffed badger in their living room or, more likely, as a substantial meal for the crows.

Then last week my badger drought ended.  Suddenly I found myself keeping nightly company with not one but three of the adorable, humbug faced little creatures. 

The place was Wales.  North Pembrokeshire to be exact, where myself and my husband had rented a small cottage on an isolated farm.  When I had booked the cottage several months previously, I vaguely recall there being mention on the website that badgers could sometimes be seen hanging around for scraps of food, but by the time we actually got there I had forgotten all about it.  A couple of nights into our stay and I was sitting on the small patio belonging to our cottage when suddenly a distinctive black and white face peered out of the undergrowth.  I kept very still indeed and slowly but surely the little chap climbed up onto the patio and began snuffling about.  When I stood up to go inside he darted back into the undergrowth but had no further hesitation about showing himself again when I returned and scattered a couple of slices of bread around the patio.

Thereafter it became a nightly ritual for the rest of our stay.  Every night at around 10 p.m., by the light of an almost full moon, not one but three badgers would climb onto the patio and await their free feast.  To be honest we weren't entirely sure what a badger's natural diet consisted of, but have since learned that this is mostly worms and bugs.  Even so, they seemed to enjoy bread, bread and jam, and even dog biscuits provided they were crunched up into small pieces.

I believe the three badgers were a family - a mother and her two cubs, the youngsters possibly being a few months old and not quite fully grown.  They weren't especially tame but at the same time not completely timid and would only dart back into the undergrowth if we made a sudden movement.  The flash from my camera didn't seem to bother them at all, but then I have since discovered that despite being nocturnal they have very poor eyesight.

I have to admit my knowledge of badgers was embarrassingly poor.  I knew they lived in tunnels known as setts and that they are nocturnal but that's about it.  When I asked my husband what animal family they belonged to he hazarded a guess at bear and they certainly have some bearlike characteristics, particularly their noses and long claws.  We were surprised then to learn that they are actually a member of the weasel family, which I suppose I can see when they have their long necks extended.  Confusingly, the males and females have pig's names (boar and sow) whilst their young, like bears, are known as cubs.

Badgers are believed to spread bovine tuberculosis and consequently a controversial cull has been recently undertaken in areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire.  Whilst out walking in the North Pembrokeshire countryside I got chatting to a farmer who told me that he was happy to report no such cull was planned for that area.  In spite of being a cattle farmer, he seemed to welcome the badgers and told me that he regularly encountered one old boar whose nightly range covered the entirety of his 400 acres.

As for the badgers on our patio last week, they didn't have to venture very far to get a nightly snack.  I'm pretty sure every occupant of this particular holiday cottage is delighted by their visits.  I just hope that in feeding them their regular diet and foraging ability isn't badly disrupted.

I'm so pleased to have had the privilege to be in such close proximity to these wonderful little animals.  A very rare and great pleasure indeed.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Book Review: The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris

It was a real pleasure to read such a well written and thorough account of this pivotal moment in British history. 

The book began by providing a comprehensive background history of events leading up to the Norman invasion and in doing so built up a very detailed picture of all the political machinations, bloodshed and treachery which culminated in 1066.  Thereafter the author went on to give a detailed history of the rest of the Norman occupation, beyond the death of the Conqueror himself and gradually culminating in Norman integration within English society.

I particularly liked the way the author wove together all the contemporary sources, such as the Anglo Saxon chronicles, the Life of king Edward, etc. and interpreted them in a believable way, comparing one against another to build a picture which seemed authentic.

The style of writing is very easy and readable.  I would thoroughly recommend this book as an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to study the beginning of the medieval period.

A visit to Hadrian's Wall

I just love visiting Hadrian's Wall.  I've lost count of how many times I've been there now, but I never tire of the place.  Quite apart from the fact that it's teeming with Roman history and archaeology, it just feels so wild and wonderful.

My last visit was back in April (2013) when, for once, the weather was very kind to us.  Well, let's say it was kinder than usual in that we were up there for two days and the first day was fairly sunny.  It only rained a bit on the second day (just for the duration of our four hour walk).  Even when it rains though, it's still a truly magical place and there's something strangely satisfying about walking into the wind with your hood up and your head down.  It makes the tea room at the end all the more welcome.

On each of the two days this visit we (that is myself and my husband) walked circular routes of around 8 miles each, setting off on each walk from the visitor centre at the intriguingly named Once Brewed.  From there it's just a few hundred yards to get onto a very intact section of wall and then you can strike off in either direction, east or west.

Day one (Saturday 20th April) we headed east towards the fort of Vercovicium, better known today as Housesteads.  Walking the wall is a bit of a rollercoaster trek - great exercise and absolutely stunning scenery.

As well as the gloriously wild views there's something of interest at every point on this particular stretch of the wall.  Like Sycamore Gap, made famous by its appearance in the Kevin Costner movie, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.  Incidentally, for anyone who doesn't already know this, Hadrian's Wall is approximately 385 miles from the White Cliffs of Dover so the next time you watch the film bear this in mind....the journey on foot from one place to the other would take a lot longer than the few hours it seemed to take in the film!  Also, it would mean Robin had overshot his destination of Nottingham by approximately 195 miles.  Just saying.  I'm sure most people knew that anyway.


Back to my last visit....  The weather was great for photography on day one.  Not so on day two, when we walked from Once Brewed in the opposite direction.  All of the images I'm showing here were taken on day one.  The camera didn't leave its bag on day two.

Both our walks were taken from the excellent North of the Tyne website (Hadrian's Wall walks 1 and 2).

Finally for this post, I must make mention of the hotel we used on our last visit.  I enjoy reviewing hotels on Trip Advisor, especially when I get the opportunity to wax lyrical about how good (or occasionally bad) a place has been.  The Centre of Britain Hotel in Haltwhistle is, without a doubt, one of the best hotels I have ever visited.  Every room is a suite, but the prices are only a little above that of a guest house.  All this and it's only a five minute drive to The Wall.  The little town of Haltwhistle lays claim to being at the exact geographical centre of the British Isles (hence the hotel name) and to prove it the hotel provide free post cards with a map!  There's not much to do in Haltwhistle beyond having a coffee and visiting Sainsbury's supermarket, so staying in a hotel with its own sitting room is a real bonus. 

I'm sure I've rambled enough for this post.  I'm always happy to answer questions if anyone would like any recommendations for this area.  Feel free to contact me.