Happy (soggy) new year!

Happy new year everyone, and what a strange start to 2016 it is; certainly a lot wetter, windier and milder than we’re used to. Who thought we’d still be in double figures degrees centigrade in January, with daffodils and irises already in flower?!

Today I travelled back from my Christmas break in North Cornwall on flooded but passable debris-strewn roads with overflowing gutters, alongside lakes that used to be fields. Not that I’m complaining. I know that some of you have had a lot worse to contend with up North, and my deepest sympathies to all of you who have water where it shouldn’t be!

Although we had a wet and windy time of it in the South West over the past week, with the right gear (new waterproof trousers for Christmas), we still managed to get out and explore.

Our highlights included:

Rocky Valley amble

Welcome to Rocky Valley

Welcome to Rocky Valley

Just East of Tintagel we strolled alongside the gushing Trevillet river, down through an ivy-clad valley …

Trevillet river

The swollen Trevillet river

… towards the bracken-strewn slopes of a rocky inlet …

Rocky Valley - North Cornwall

Heading towards the coast in Rocky Valley

… emerging above a stunningly stark black slate gorge where waves pounded the steep walls. At their highest point, the slate canyon walls tower over 70 feet above the river below.

Black slate gorge, Rocky Valley

The Trevillet river runs through a dramatic black slate gorge to the sea

From here, we climbed up onto a windswept headland …

Rocky viewpoint, North Cornwall

Rocky point of view

… for views along the rugged Cornish coast, across gorse bushes heavy with blooms …

Views of the North Cornish Coast from Rocky Valley headland

Views of the North Cornish Coast from Rocky Valley headland

… before heading back along the swollen river, where we found Bronze Age labyrinth rock carvings.

Labyrinth rock carving

Labyrinth rock carving

Camel Trail bike ride

The Camel Trail at Wadebridge

The Camel Trail at Wadebridge

Starting roughly in the middle of the Camel Trail at Wadebridge, we cycled along the river and under the trees to Bodmin, then to Wenfordbridge and back to Wadebridge, then along the Camel estuary to Padstow.

Camel river, Wadebridge

The sun made an appearance by the Camel River in Wadebridge

31 miles along a disused railway, and the rediscovery of my quad muscles, were enough for me, but while I relaxed with a coffee in Padstow, watching the evening Christmas lights flicker on around the harbour, my husband went into battle against storm Frank, cycling back to Wadebridge to pick up the car (my hero!).

Portquin to Port Isaac

Portquin, North Devon

All the gear, no idea … how muddy I was going to get!

This stretch of clifftop path squeezes in all the best attributes of the Cornish coast. It is unpredictable, wild and rugged, and on this occasion extremely windy and very muddy.

Wind and waves overlooking Portquin

Wind and waves overlooking Portquin

We slipped up muddy paths to watch gannets soaring over frothy waves off the headland. Then slithered down muddy paths to watch a lone grey seal ‘seabathing’ just off the rocks …

Grey seal

Grey seal

… before sliding over more muddy terrain for traditional Cornish pasties and hot chocolate (with marshmallows and cream!) in Port Isaac.

Port Isaac

Port Isaac

Given the pretty atrocious weather, we did have a few indoor highlights on this trip as well, namely:

  • Cornish real ales
  • A 5-star 5-course New Year’s Eve dinner in the St Kew Inn
  • Evenings at ‘The Beech Hut’ with a log burner and Netflix
  • A packed-out matinee showing of Star Wars at The Regal cinema in Wadebridge.

Although it has been a grey start to the year, there are always ways to make it greener.

Don’t forget: 15 minutes of green in 2016! cropped-15-logo-no-url-for-web.jpg

 

Blue Moon Microadventure

Coming up with inspired birthday presents for my husband is a challenge. I started with books, music and toiletries, moved on to sports kit and gadgets, and graduated to ‘experiences’. You name it, he’s done it – truck driving, zorbing, sand-yachting, hovercraft racing, indoor sky diving, segway rallying, flyboarding. I had drained the ideas well of actiongiftsformen.com dry. I needed a hefty dose of inspiration … fast!

Campfire inspiration

Cue the first-ever Transglobe Expedition Trust Campfire event, where an influential line up of adventurers, explorers and Olympic gold medallists enthralled us with invigorating tales of daring deeds and extreme physical challenges. The over-riding theme of the evening was to get off your backside and grab a slice of life.

Transglobe Expedition Campfire speakers

Transglobe Expedition Campfire speakers. From left to right: (Top) Ed Stafford and Alastair Humphreys; (Middle) Steve Backshall, Heather Stanning and Helen Glover, Sir Ranulph Fiennes; (Bottom) Me with Helen Glover – who knew Olympic gold medals were so heavy! And the wonderful Bonfire Band

While I am highly unlikely to trek the length of the Amazon (Ed Stafford), look into the eyes of a sperm whale (Steve Backshall), traverse the globe on its polar axis (Sir Ranulph Fiennes) or train for 6 hours a day to achieve Olympic glory (rowing gold medallists Heather Stanning and Helen Glover), the concept of a ‘microadventure’, as outlined by author/adventurer Alastair Humphreys, was appealingly do-able and provided the spark of an idea for my husband’s upcoming birthday.

What is a microadventure?

Essentially, a ‘ microadventure’ involves doing something outside your comfort zone, somewhere you’ve never been but close to home – a cheap, simple, short and effective means of breaking out of the same old, same old.

A bivvy bag and a plan

The present was simple to wrap – a bivvy bag and a promise of a microadventure to come. Alastair has a full year of microadventure ideas on his website, but the next one on his list at that time – sleeping without a roof on the night of the next ‘blue moon’ (31st July) – was simply meant to be, as my husband is a Manchester City fan.

This year's birthday present - a bivvy bag and the promise of a blue moon microadventure

This year’s birthday present – a bivvy bag and the promise of a blue moon microadventure

While my colleagues were hilariously horrified at the idea of ‘sleeping on a hill’, my husband was predictably delighted with the idea. So, on the evening of Friday 31st July, we got out our bikes, had a quick look at the OS map of our local area for contours and greenery (and a pub – there had to be some perks if I was tagging along!), and set off into the unknown. I admit that I double checked the weather forecast before setting off, as I do draw the line at sleeping without cover in torrential rain.

Some greenery and a few contours - key ingredients for a microadventure location

Some greenery and a few contours – key ingredients for a microadventure location

Blue moon view

We only cycled 4 miles, but it was far enough away from home to search for a place to sleep before it got dark, and near enough to a pub to enjoy a decent evening meal before we bedded down. Initially, we found an invitingly grassy clearing in a small wooded area …

A grassy clearing under the trees

Option 1 – a grassy clearing under the trees

… but as we had deliberately picked this date to see the moon, we decided to look for somewhere more exposed. We found the perfect spot between two already-harvested fields, where the long grass at the field edges had been flattened to make a cosy mattress.

Tonight's bedroom - a quiet corner between two fields

Tonight’s bedroom – a quiet corner between two fields

The moon was already high in a perfectly clear summer sky, shedding a slightly surreal light over the golden cropped field. I was a little disappointed to discover that a blue moon isn’t actually blue (nor is it made of cheese!). Without getting too technical, the modern definition of a blue moon is a second full moon in a month (which doesn’t happen that often).

Having picked our spot, we raced off to the pub to grab something to eat before they finished serving food, and caught a spectacular sunset en route.

Sunset

A sunset fit for a microadventure

Field of dreams

Fed and watered (stuffed and tipsy), we returned to ‘our’ field to settle down for the night. We hadn’t brought much with us – sleeping bags (of the 4 season variety, as the nights were already turning ridiculously cool), thermarests and of course the newly acquired bivvy bags. I’d also brought along a couple of ‘luxuries’, namely a small blow-up pillow and my toothbrush! We didn’t need our head torches as the moonlight was phenomenally bright.

Setting up camp

Setting up camp

Once we’d put our rucksacks in bin bags to prevent them getting soaked with dew and climbed into our sleeping bags (a process that seemed to involve considerably more faffing on my part than my husband’s), we let the silence of the night envelop us.

Settled in our bivvies. Woolly hats in July?!

Settled in our bivvies. Woolly hats in July?!

There were a few eerie nocturnal calls and every rustle of vegetation was amplified in the stillness; nevertheless, I soon drifted off.

Barking alarm clock

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the best night’s sleep! I tossed and turned quite a lot, and was eventually woken by the persistent harsh barking of a fox at 4.30am. At this point, my bladder prompted me to vacate my cosy cocoon and I struggled out of my wrappings. Stumbling into the hedgerow to complete my ablutions, I was impressed by how well camouflaged we were in the long grasses.

Camouflaged camping

Camouflaged camping – hard to spot us amongst the grass

As s I rounded the hedge separating the two fields, I was amazed to still see the moon in all its glory, despite the lightening sky.

Morning moon

Morning moon

I wandered around the field a bit, waiting for my husband to wake too.

This is no time for a lie in!

This is no time for a lie in!

He eventually stirred at around 5.30am, as the sun began to rise, and a deer appeared at the far side of the field, eyeing these strange interlopers in his usually private domain.

Breaking dawn

Breaking dawn

Dawn bike ride

Fuelled with cereal bars and fruit, we set off on our bikes before anyone was any the wiser that we had borrowed their field for the night. We took a longer route home, revelling in the views of the surrounding countryside as the sun warmed up the landscape. Not being a natural early bird, I was enjoying the solitude of this ridiculous time in the morning, when even the earliest of dog walkers hadn’t yet emerged.

Early morning views of Hampshire

Early morning views of Hampshire

We were back home by 9am, invigorated at having done something a little less ordinary. Now that we have experienced our first microadventure, I sincerely hope it won’t be a ‘Once in a Blue Moon’ experience (sorry, couldn’t resist!).

More microadventures please!

Another successful birthday present – ‘more microadventures please!’

If you’re fed up with the same old familiar routines, then I urge you to give it a try. There are loads of ideas on Alastair Humphrey’s website, and his blog is fabulous reading, so take a look, and let me know if you give it a go!

Magna Carta celebrations

On 10th June 1215, King John of England and his entourage rode out from his castle in Odiham, Hampshire, to meet a group of rebel barons in the water meadows at Runnymede, near Windsor. On 15th June, they sealed ‘Magna Carta’.

Well, actually, they sealed the ‘Charter of Runnymede’, a forerunner of what later became known as Magna Carta in 1217. But let’s not allow factual accuracy to get in the way of the celebrations 800 years on. In Odiham, we’ve been celebrating in medieval style.

Odiham peasant, Magna Carta celebrations 2015

Odiham peasant – I’ve no illusions of grandeur!

Flags over Odiham

First, we all put our flags and bunting out, so that anyone approaching Odiham and the neighbouring village of North Warnborough would know there was something going on. The colourful flags of all designs and sizes fluttering outside our shops and homes gave a heart-warming sense of community and proved to be  surprisingly educational, as prior to this event I had no idea what the Hampshire county flag or the Odiham parish flag looked like.

The flags of Odiham

The flags of Odiham. Clockwise from top left: Odiham parish flag; Union flags in flower pots, homemade flag depicting Odiham castle; mixed nationality bunting; the Mayhill flag; Hampshire county flag

The new Mayhill flag was designed by children at Odiham’s Mayhill Junior School to represent the NE Hampshire constituency in a parliamentary flag competition. The green ‘O’ represents ‘Odiham’ and the close relationship the village has with the natural environment. Inside the ‘O’ sits Odiham castle above a horse shoe, depicting Odiham’s connections with farming and King John’s journey to Runnymede (and let’s not forget the village’s association with the start of the veterinary profession in England). The two strips of blue across the top of the flag represent the River Whitewater and the Basingstoke canal. The gold and red backgrounds reflect Odiham’s historic connection with royalty.

The Mayhill flag, Odiham

The Mayhill flag – a pretty impressive piece of design

Village festival

The actual festivities got under way with a procession through the village, led by King John and some of his courtiers on horseback. There was a huge turnout, with lots of people getting into the spirit of the event in medieval costume.

Odiham village Magna Carta parade, medieval style

Peasants, nobility and knights walked side by side in the Odiham medieval procession

After the procession we congregated in ‘The Bury’, the former market square at the heart of the village in between All Saints church and The Bell pub.

The Bury, Odiham Magna Carta gathering

Quite a gathering: in ‘The Bury’, the area between one of our village pubs, The Bell …

Magna Carta event in The Bury, Odiham, outside All Saints Church

… and All Saints Church

The Hook Eagle Morris Men got the party started, with a lot of yelling, a fair bit of stomping and plenty of bashing of stout sticks; there’s nothing dainty about their form of Border Morris dancing – in fact, it’s pretty primeval. And a lot of fun!

The Hook Morris Eagles

The Hook Eagle Morris Men doing their thing

Meanwhile, in the walled garden adjacent to The Bury, medieval re-enactors battled each other with swords and spears.

Medieval re-enactors, Odiham Magna Carta celebrations

Chain mail, shields and swords: medieval re-enactors put on a show for the crowd

Living history

If that wasn’t enough excitement for this normally quiet corner of North East Hampshire, for several days the 13th century also returned to the fields surrounding the remains of Odiham castle (also known as King John’s castle) on the Basingstoke canal.

Odiham (King John's) castle

Odiham (King John’s) castle

Here, the Feudals Living History Group, along with several other historical re-enactment groups, camped out to demonstrate the various crafts and skills that would have been used during this period.

The 13th century brought to life at Odiham castle

The 13th century brought to life at Odiham castle

I was particularly amazed at the weight of chain mail. It was a wonder the knights of the day could walk in it, let alone fight.

Medieval knight in chain mail

It took a man with muscle to battle in chain mail

The falconry display by Albion Historical Falconry was a real treat. They train all of their birds of prey using historically accurate methods, derived from manuscripts dating from the 1100s to the 1800s.  Although King John is believed to have favoured the Peregrine falcon and Goshawk (native British birds), he would have been familiar with the use of Saker and Lanner falcons too.

Peregrine falcon and Saker falcon

Stunning birds. Left: the Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus); Right: the Saker falcon (Falco cherrug)

The terrain wasn’t suitable for the Peregrine falcon to be flown (given the speed at which it flies there wasn’t enough room for it to land!), so it was the Saker falcon that stole the limelight on this occasion, soaring at speed around the trees, which it used as cover to avoid prematurely alarming its prey, before swooping in on the lure at incredible speeds.

The Saker falcon, one of the hawks often used in medieval times

Preparing for take off: the Saker falcon, a bird that was imported from the Middle East and Mediterranean during the Crusades

And of course, there was always time for one more battle. Even King John made an appearance.

King John ... not the happiest of kings!

King John … one of the more controversial monarchs of medieval England

Medieval battle re-enactment: barons vs knights

On the one side, the rebel barons; on the other, King John’s knights. On this occasion, it didn’t end well for either side!

Flowers, dancing, boats and embroidery

As if that wasn’t enough, there was also a village flower festival in All Saints church, with over 30 stunning displays from various local clubs and community groups, and a clog and morris festival involving 20 Morris teams from around Hampshire.

Clog and morris dancing

The energetic manoeuvres of clog and morris dancing

Meanwhile, down at Odiham wharf, a canal boat rally was in full swing alongside canoe demonstrations and music by the Cactus Brass Band; it all added more than a little touch of colour to the Basingstoke canal.

Canal boats at Odiham wharf

Canal boats at Odiham wharf

BUT, the piece de resistance of all the amazing organization for these celebrations has to be the phenomenal embroidery depicting 800 years of Odiham’s history from the time of ‘Magna Carta’ (King John is depicted setting off for Runnymede) to the present day (as depicted by a Chinook helicopter from RAF Odiham).

Designed by Odiham-based artist Mary Turner, with contributions from around 70 volunteer stitchers, this beautiful work of art hangs in Odiham library, so if you’re in the area, take a look!!

The Odiham embroidery, depicting 800 years of the villages history, stitched using traditional materials and techniques

The Odiham embroidery, depicting 800 years of the village’s history, stitched using traditional materials and techniques

So what’s all the fuss about?

Magna Carta (‘The Great Charter’) laid down the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. In particular, the 39th clause gave all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial.

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice

Although the initial document failed to achieve much in 1215 (within a few weeks of making the agreement, King John, nice guy that he was, had the pope annul it!), it was, effectively, the first written constitution in European history and became part of English political life. It is now enormously symbolic as the foundation of democracy and civil liberties in England and as a major influence on the law of the land in the USA.

Bluebells, bikes and Hockney

This time last week I was travelling back from Yorkshire, after a fabulous bank holiday weekend catching up with ‘old’ friends. The ‘green’ highlight of the weekend was a walk on the Bolton Abbey estate, starting at the Bolton Priory ruins, a 12th century Augustinian monastery overlooking the River Wharfe.

Bolton priory ruins on the edge of the River Wharfe, Yorkshire Dales

Starting point: Bolton priory ruins

At this point, not being the most sure-footed of individuals, I opted for taking the bridge over the river. For those less concerned about getting their feet wet (aka, my husband!) the alternative is to hop across 57 stepping stones (some, a little wobbly!).

Bolton Abbey stepping stones on River Wharfe

Stepping stone route for the more sure-footed walker

From the other side of the river, we followed an uneven path up into Strid wood, a site of special scientific interest and one of the largest areas of acidic oak woodland in the Yorkshire Dales. At this time of year, it is still carpeted with bluebells, and the trees and river banks were alive with birds.

A carpet of bluebells, in Strid Wood, Bolton Abbey

A carpet of bluebells in Strid Wood

At river level we spotted a dipper bobbing up and down in its search for food among the rocks, while pied flycatchers and grey wagtails skimmed the surface of the fast-flowing waters in their quest for insects.

Dipper and pied flycatcher

Down by the river: dipper (top) and pied flycatcher (bottom)

Further along the path, someone had left several piles of seed out next to a bench, and we reaped the benefit of their thoughtfulness with an impromptu photography session, as nuthatches, coal tits, blue tits, great tits, robins – and even mallards – swarmed over the easy pickings. And we didn’t get much further down the path before we glimpsed a treecreeper inching its way up a rough-barked oak.

Woodland birds (from top left clockwise): nuthatch; coal tit; great tit; treecreeper

Woodland birds (from top left clockwise): nuthatch; coal tit; treecreeper; great tit

We passed the ‘Strid’ itself, a narrow section of the River Wharfe where the water gushes with extreme force through a deep chasm of rock. The strid gets its name from the Anglo Saxon ‘Stryth’, meaning tumult or turmoil.

The frothing waters of the Strid at Bolton Abbey

The frothing waters of the Strid at Bolton Abbey

After a brief (uncomfortable!) rest further upstream, we crossed the river at the turreted aqueduct. The impressive castellations of this elaborate bridge hide the pipe that carries water from reservoirs in the Dales to the conurbations of West Yorkshire.

Rest stop by the river, Bolton Abbey

I could do with a cushion!

We then headed back downstream along the opposite bank, back to the start of our walk, where we tucked into hot chocolates and fudge cake. Yum!

‘The arrival of spring’

As for the rest of the weekend, given how close we were to Saltaire, it would have been rude not to check out the work of local artist David Hockney. His only permanent collection in the UK is exhibited at Salts Mill, a former textiles factory built by Sir Titus Salt in 1853. It is now a complex of art galleries, bookshops, shopping outlets and cafes across several floors.

Road across the Wolds, 1997, by David Hockney

Road across the Wolds, 1997, by David Hockney

The star attraction at present, rather apt for the time of year, is David Hockney’s collection of 49 five-foot framed pictures, all drawn on an iPad, entitled ‘The arrival of Spring’. Each picture depicts a specific day between 1st January and 31st May, 2011, and are a detailed study of the change in scene on Woldgate, near Bridlington, East Yorkshire, during that period.

The Arrival of Spring by David Hockney

The Arrival of Spring by David Hockney

The introduction to the exhibition summed up how I feel about 15minutesofgreen and the time I spend in the natural world:

These pictures depict fleeting moments of intense beauty, reminding us of the importance of – and the joy we can get from – looking very closely!

My Hockney favourites

My Hockney favourites

Saltaire village

Titus Salt also built housing, a church, schools and almshouses for his work force, and we enjoyed a meander around the fascinating Victorian industrial village of Saltaire, which is now designated a world heritage site and well worth a visit.

I loved the Saltaire lions: ‘Determination’ and ‘Vigilance’ are positioned outside the former factory school, while on the opposite side of the road ‘War’ and ‘Peace’ watch over the Mechanics’ Institute (Victoria Hall).

'Determination' Saltaire lion. Originally designed by the sculptor Thomas Milnes of London for the base of Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square. After he had completed the models the commission was taken out of his hands and Sir Titus Salt snapped them up instead

‘Determination’ Saltaire lion. Originally designed by the sculptor Thomas Milnes of London for the base of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. After he had completed the models the commission was taken out of his hands and Sir Titus Salt snapped them up instead

Lots of lycra

So we’d experienced the nature, wallowed in the art, and nearly come to blows over politics at the dinner table (but that’s another story). And so to the sport, as our visit just happened to coincide with the Tour de Yorkshire, one of the biggest cycling events in the UK this year. We positioned ourselves along the high street in Ilkley, where an over-excited crowd had gathered.

The anticipation of the crowd, high street, Ilkley

The anticipation of the crowd, high street, Ilkley

After a lot of waiting, we saw … a lot of bikes … going very fast! Blink and you missed them.

A blur of lycra

A blur of lycra

I didn’t manage to get a glimpse of Bradley Wiggins (the only cyclist I stood a chance of recognizing), but I cheered on the rest of the peloton, and clapped extra hard for the stragglers further back (I know that feeling!).

Riders in the Tour de Yorkshire, Ilkley

Riders in the Tour de Yorkshire, Ilkley

Within a couple of minutes, they’d all gone past and I reverted to the serious business of admiring the town’s flower displays, which were simply stunning.

Ilkley flower display

Ilkley flower display

The flower beds of Ilkley were bursting with colour

All in all, an excellent bank holiday. Thanks to Steve G for organizing!

Pura Vida

For the past few weeks 15minutesofgreen.com has been on hold while I have been experiencing the ‘pure life’ (Pura Vida) in Costa Rica.

This incredible land between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean has a unique geography, rich in its variety of habitat. I travelled between humid tropical rainforests, jungle-fringed beaches and cool misty cloud forests, all teeming with spectacular wildlife.

The diverse habitats of Costa Rica

The diverse habitats of Costa Rica (from top left clockwise): the peaceful waterways of Tortuguero; Arenal volcano; the tropical foliage of Esquinas; Savegre cloud forest

Costa Rica covers less than 0.1% of the earth’s surface, yet it is home to 5% of the earth’s biodiversity. More than a quarter of this small Central American country is designated national park, biological reserve or wildlife refuge.

I can’t possibly do justice to the stunning scenery and jaw-dropping wildlife that I encountered, but I hope you will enjoy this brief snapshot of an inspirational country, which has reaped the benefits of putting conservation and the environment at the top of its list of priorities.

Fabulous flora

If you like trees, you’ll love Costa Rica. There are a lot of them (!) and the view from the top is simply breathtaking.

Monteverde forest canopy, Costa Rica

Monteverde forest canopy: mature tree crowns fill every available space in their search for sunlight

Below the dense green canopy lies a dimly lit underworld of strangler figs, bromeliads and giant ferns, bejeweled with heliconias and orchids.

Below the forest canopy, Costa Ricca

Below the canopy (from top left clockwise): the Monteverde forest; giant fern unfurling; epiphytic bromeliads; heliconia

Even outside the forests, the vegetation is vibrant and eye catching.

Fruits of Costa Rica

From top left clockwise: cashew nut; soursop fruit; guanacaste tree (Costa Rica’s national tree); plantain

Astonishing bird life

Although we could hear birds wherever we walked, they were often extremely well hidden amongst impenetrable vegetation; even the most brightly coloured species had an uncanny knack of blending in with the nearest tree trunk or branch. It usually took the eagle eyes of our expert guide, Andres, to point them out, and even then it took a while to hone in on what he could see. But it was well worth getting to grips with our binoculars on this trip!

A collared redstart foraging for insects on a mossy branch

A collared redstart foraging for insects on a mossy branch

Birds of Costa Rica

From top left clockwise: keel-billed toucan; boat-billed heron; male resplendent quetzal; blue-crowned mot mot

Humming birds in flight

There’s something rather magical about humming birds in flight … but blink and you’ll miss them

Amazing mammals

We would never have spotted the silent well-camouflaged sloths without expert help, but if we heard a rustling in the undergrowth, a little patience often revealed something furry snuffling across the forest floor …

Mammals of Costa Rica

From top left clockwise: coati; three-toed sloth; raccoon; agouti

… or swinging in the trees above us.

The monkeys of Costa Rica

The swingers (from top left clockwise): howler monkey; spider monkeys; white-throated capuchin

Leaping lizards

When it came to the reptiles and amphibians there wasn’t actually a lot of leaping going on. Most species were incredibly obliging when it came to having their photograph taken, posing sedately for their close-ups.

Green baselisk lizards, Costa Rica

We were captivated by the green baselisk lizards of Tortuguero national park, both male (left) and female (right)

Lizards, frogs and snakes of Costa Rica

From top left clockwise: jumping anole; spiney-tailed black iguana; green pit viper; moulting ameiva (whip-tailed lizard); poison dart frog

Seeing is believing

I could keep going, but you get the gist!  In Costa Rica, every person is constitutionally entitled to ‘a healthy and ecologically balanced environment’, and that’s what they appear to have. I’m not saying they’ve got it all sorted (who has?!), but the UK could certainly take a leaf (or several, as they have plenty to spare!) out of their book when it comes to protecting the natural environment and our indigenous species.

I know that I am extremely privileged to have been able to travel to such an amazing place and that such an opportunity is not available to everyone, but if you are a nature lover and it is within the realms of possibility to visit Costa Rica – GO NOW!!

My favourite links to Costa Rica:

Lily of the valley at Glynn Valley

This weekend involved some rather spur-of-the-moment planting at Glynn Valley Crematorium in Cornwall. Not my usual gardening hangout! On a sunny day (which it was), there are wonderful views from the top of the remembrance gardens down across a large pond into the wooded valley beyond.

The view from Glynn Valley crematorium remembrance gardens

The view from Glynn Valley crematorium remembrance gardens

My dad’s ashes are buried here, in a tranquil haven under a hawthorn tree. Close to established woodlands, and with birds flitting about everywhere, it’s a lovely spot to commemorate the nature lover that he was. Having given ourselves some breathing space since the funeral, we’re now ready to decide what to plant under the tree. Whatever we plant, it needs to tolerate shade in the summer (when the trees are back in leaf) and lots of tree roots, be low growing and low maintenance, and look as natural as possible in this setting.

One plant we know we want to include is lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). It’s ideal ground cover for dappled shade, and it was one of the flowers in my mum’s wedding bouquet, so it has sentimental value too. This weekend, while in Cornwall, I unexpectedly acquired a few lily of the valley rhizomes. After soaking them in lukewarm water for a couple of hours (sound familiar? see Planting wood anemones!), and snipping the ends of the roots off to jumpstart growth, I managed to lever them into the rooty ground in a couple of clumps either side of the engraved memorial book.

We inserted some sticks to mark the spot, and now we just have to wait to see if the ‘pips’ sprout (for some reason that’s what lily of the valley shoots are called). If they do, in May the plot will be graced with delicate arching racemes of highly scented bell-shaped white flowers, and red berries thereafter. (I think I’m going to try to grow some from seed in my own garden!)

Memorial plot

Memorial plot in need of a shade-tolerant, low-growing, low-maintenance planting scheme

Now that we’ve made a start, I plan to go back next month with a mixture of bulbs to fill the plot – more lily of the valley and potentially some wild wood anemones, snowdrops and cyclamen, but any other suggestions would be much appreciated.

In loving memory of Carl Beesley (dad), 1944-2013.

Mud and Tundry Pond

Everyone talks about January being the bleakest of months, and for the most part it is pretty grey and dreary. So when the sun emerges and the sky turns blue … get out there! Last Sunday, the wind dropped and the sun shone over Hampshire, so we laced up our walking boots and set off – with friends – along a (very) muddy footpath out of Odiham.

Friends on walk, Tundry Pond

Friends, sunshine … and muddy boots (not shown)

After our  new year Exmoor exploits, the beauty of this walk was …. no hills! We tramped over squelchy fields and through waterlogged woodland up to the Farnham road (A287), crossing over the busy thoroughfare to pass between two lodges, which were previously the gatehouses to the Dogmersfield Park Estate. From here, we followed the driveway up past a redbrick lakeside mansion, before continuing on a grassy track through picturesque farmland (complete with Highland cattle) towards Tundry pond.

Dogmersfield Park Estate walk to Tundry Pond

First glimpse of Tundry Pond

A few more fields and a lot more mud later, we emerged on the Basingstoke canal towpath, which we followed back to Odiham.

2 hours well spent!

Basingstoke canal

Basingstoke canal

Cycling through the conifers

Our final outing in Exmoor (2nd January) saw us back inland late afternoon and on the bikes, this time starting from Timberscombe, a small village in Somerset on the river Avill. And the first leg? You guessed it … uphill! It was a ‘steady’ southbound ascent, and although I ended up in the lowest gears again, this time I didn’t get off and push (result!).

Although a lot of the hedgerows had been cut back recently, they were still pretty tall. The view over their tops was by now very familiar but one we would never tire of – the patchwork quilt of fields, hedgerows and woodlands that covers so much of Exmoor.

Exmoor landscape

A now-familiar view

This particular hill seemed to go on for ever, and I was tempted to ask ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ To which the response, I’m sure, would have been, ‘It’s just around the next corner’, as there were plenty of bends, each revealing yet more uphill roadway. Eventually we did reach the ‘Couple Cross’ junction, and were able to start a downhill stint (they never last long enough though!) to the bottom of Croydon Hill.

So next, of course, our route took us to the top of Croydon Hill. Again, I managed to pedal all the way, as we headed upwards, first skirting the edge of a vast coniferous woodland and then entering it, winding our way through the trees on some of the many criss-crossing fire tracks with the goal of finding our way back to Timberscombe.

The conifers of Croydon HillThe conifers of Croydon Hill

The conifers of Croydon Hill

Up until now we had been following a well-annotated map, but the tracks were so well sign-posted to Timberscombe that we started following those instead. As a result, we ended up pushing the bikes through a rather muddy ditch, but there was good news, as the next signpost declared: ‘Timberscombe 1/4 mile’. We cycled over the top of Timberscombe Common as dusk approached.

Timberscombe Common at dusk

Timberscombe Common: which way now?

After 10 more minutes of cycling we reached another signpost: ‘Timberscombe 1/4 mile’. Someone was having a laugh. But we did indeed reach Timberscombe, in time to watch the nearly full moon rising over the trees.

Moon rising over Exmoor

Moon rising over Exmoor

Exmoor tour

Happy New Year! Yes, 2015 has arrived, and the weather in Exmoor has changed. Grey clouds have replaced blue skies, a drizzly rain persists and the still calmness of recent days has been replaced with a howling wind. Over the past few days, we have cycled to Dunkery Beacon, walked to Selworthy Beacon and explored the Exe Valley. So, today we’re revisiting some of our favourite spots in Exmoor, and discovering a few new ones … by car.

First on our itinerary was the 4.2-mile scenic toll road out of Porlock Weir towards Lynton, which we had not ventured along before. Part of the manor estate, the road was dug out by local people in the 1840s, and at that time tolls were taken at the bottom of the hill by staff at The Ship Inn. Today, approximately halfway up the hill, we reached a small toll house with a white wooden gate to drive through. With no ‘gate keeper’ in sight we posted our £2 toll through a slot in the toll house door.

The scenic route then twisted through Tolkeinesque woodland of young ivy-covered trees, a carpet of ferns and a babbling stream bordered by mossy rocks, before emerging onto open moorland.

Scenic toll road from Porlock Weir

Where are the hobbits?

We continued on past Countisbury, next stopping at County Gate viewpoint, a windy ridge between the East Lyn Valley and the Bristol Channel. The wind was so strong that I could barely open the car door, and found it hard to stand up straight. Despite the murkiness of the day, the views were still magnificent across to Southern Wood, and into the Doone valley.

County Gate viewpoint

County Gate viewpoint to Southern wood and the patchwork quilt of Exmoor beyond

Next, we drove into Brendon, a tranquil picturesque village through which the East Lyn river flows. Then on up along the rocky tree-lined winding route past Waters Meet, through Lynmouth, up into Lynton and out to the dramatic landscape of The Valley of Rocks. Perched high above the sea atop rugged cliffs, The Valley of Rocks gets its name from the many unusual formations of jagged grey rock dotted randomly throughout the valley, surrounded by bracken-covered slopes.

Valley of the Rocks

The Valley of Rocks

Finally, we drove inland to Simonsbath, a tiny village in an area that the locals call ‘Exmoor proper’. At its centre is a triple-arched medieval bridge crossing the River Barle. Travelling out from Simonsbath, we were soon enveloped by miles of moorland – bleak but stunning – where the grey cloud hung so low as to almost touch the top of the windswept tussocks of dry grass and heather. Hefty winds battered the the car, rocking it from side to side.

The moorlands of Exmoor

‘Exmoor proper’

Finally, we headed north back to Porlock along long straight roads flanked by parallel beach hedges, still hanging onto their russet leaves, and single-track ‘character’ lanes, full of blind bends to test the bravest of drivers. As dusk fell, the wind still roaring and the rain now doing the driving, we retreated to sit by the log burner in our cosy cottage.

What are your Exmoor highlights? Please share them with others here.

The Exe Valley

Exford is almost the geographical centre of Exmoor, and it is from this attractive village that we started our new year’s eve walk. At the far end of the village car park is the first of three kissing gates. Now, kissing gates are so called because the gate merely ‘kisses’ (brushes) the enclosure on either side, rather than needing to be securely latched, but I prefer the romantic notion that the first person to pass through has to close the gate to the next person and demand a kiss in return for entry. It was a good way to secure lots of kissing on the last day of 2014.

After the gates, it was time to head uphill again – well, a walk in Exmoor wouldn’t be a walk in Exmoor without a hill!

Exford walk, heading uphill again

The start of another uphill walk onto the moors

Lots of mud and a couple of fields later, and once again we were enjoying those undulating Exmoor views – a patchwork of fields, hedges and woodland on the slopes of the Exe valley.

Exe valley view

Exe valley view

In a land where we we seem to have to fight for personal space, here is a corner of England where you can truly get ‘far from the madding crowd’ (well, in the depths of winter, at least). We only met two other people in 4 hours of walking. There must have been others up here recently though, as, bizarrely, someone had decorated a hawthorn bush with several strands of tinsel and a bauble, an incongruous sight so far from the bustle of civilization.

Decorated hawthorn bush, Exe valley

Wild ‘Christmas tree’

As we passed from field to field, down towards the Exe river, I was particularly struck by one of the boundary hedges, a gothic-looking line of dark beech trees, bereft of their leaves, growing tall out of a mossy bank and disappearing over the horizon of the field.

Beech tree boundary, near Exford

Beech tree boundary

We continued down to the Exe river, where we stopped for a very quick lunch. It was a rather bleak scene at the bottom of the valley. Grey clouds loomed and there were a few spots of rain, but that didn’t spoil our riverside walk, slopping around in mud.

The bubbling river Exe on a cold winter's day

The bubbling river Exe on a cold winter’s day

 

We climbed a few more fields, away from the river, which thankfully were frozen over or would have been pretty boggy. Nearly back at Exford, that just left three kissing gates to negotiate – a good end to the year!!

Selworthy beacon

Dunkery Beacon one day, Selworthy Beacon the next. 30th December 2014 dawned clear and bright over Exmoor, so we figured we might as well head high again, only this time on foot.

We walked from Porlock down to the bottom of quiet leafy Bossington Lane, where Bossington Hill loomed ahead of us. From Bossington car park we crossed over a stream and into woodland at the foot of the hill.

Bossington Hill

Bossington Hill

We climbed gradually, first through the trees and then past tufty grass and bracken around the side of Bossington Hill. Even at this height, we had fabulous views across the calm sparkling waters of Porlock Bay. Straight ahead of us was Hurlstone Point, but instead we began the ridiculously steep climb up the cleft between Hurlstone Point and Bossington Hill. The path had been churned up by cattle, so it was hard-going in areas, but soon we could see the signpost at the head of the combe and made the final push for the top. It was then only a short walk further along the grassy top to Selworthy Beacon.

Selworthy Beacon

Goal achieved: Selworthy Beacon (308 m, 1012 ft)

We paused at the beacon for a quick bite of lunch, surrounded by huge gorse bushes in full winter bloom and fabulous panoramic views across the Vale of Porlock to the thickly wooded valleys and the moors beyond. The sound of galloping hooves alerted us to a small band of wild Exmoor ponies just down the path from us.

The gorse bushes of Exmoor (in winter bloom)

The gorse bushes of Exmoor (in winter bloom)

Next, we crossed over the top of the combe and into woodland, following well-sign-posted tracks on a steep descent into Allerford. The woods were pretty devoid of bird life at this time of year, but we did enjoy watching a flock of long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) as they passed excitedly through the trees.

We came out of the woods at Allerford, over the much-photographed packhorse bridge next to a pretty cottage. Built as a crossing over the River Aller (from which the village gets its name), the bridge is thought to be of Medieval origin. We were rapidly losing the light, as the sun had already disappeared behind the hills.

Allerford packhorse bridge

Allerford packhorse bridge

From Allerford, it was a relatively short walk down to the 16th Century unaltered Lynch Chapel and back along the roads to Porlock, where we stopped at the Top Ship Inn for an early evening drink.

Dunkery beacon

“A beacon a day keeps a heart attack at bay,” according to my husband. So, for our first cycle ride in Exmoor (29th December 2014), we didn’t just pick any old hill to tackle (and there are plenty of them around here). No, we decided to head for the highest point in Exmoor, indeed Somerset – Dunkery Beacon. Although I was hoping to break myself back into cycling gently (I haven’t been on my bike since the Alresford trip in October), it was a clear sunny day and it made sense to head for the beacon to make the most of the views.

To get anywhere out of Porlock (our starting point), you’ve got to climb, and our efforts were soon rewarded with magnificent views over the Vale of Porlock and the Bristol Channel.

The Vale of Porlock

The Vale of Porlock

From then on, it was a tough slog along the road, through Horner Wood, up Dunkery Hill. We emerged from the trees onto a great expanse of heather-covered moorland, and still the road kept going up! By this point I was in the the lowest gears and my front tyre was lifting. I’d love to say I cycled all the way, but as the road got steeper there was a fair bit of pushing involved. Despite the winter sun, the higher we got the colder it became, and there were large patches of ice on shaded areas of the tarmac.

Looking back down Dunkery Hill

Looking back down Dunkery Hill, on the icy road

Eventually, we turned off the road onto a rocky track, and struck across the heather-clad moors with the beacon in sight – it is marked by a huge rock cairn and there were people crawling all over it.

Cycle to Dunkery Beacon

Goal achieved: Dunkery Beacon (519 m, 1705 ft)

View from Dunkery Beacon

Views from the top

Ham sandwiches and hot vimto had never tasted so good. And the views were truly magnificent. But we soon started to cool down, and didn’t linger too long, heading onward along the rocky track for the circular route back to Porlock. The good news: it was all downhill from here. The bad news: the path was covered in sheet ice, and I hit it wrong. My bike went one way, I went the other. There were tears, there was blood, there was a hole in my cycling trousers, but apart from slightly less skin on my knees and a broken front light there was no real damage to me or my bike.

Still, we could see that the downhill route was going to take us longer than expected, given the conditions, so we cut short part of the ride and took the road down over Wilmersham Common, with a steep descent down to Pool Bridge (really tough on the brakes!). We took it steady, as there was frost and ice all over the road.

We then climbed back out of the valley and back down into Porlock for a much-needed hot bath and cup of tea.

If you’ve walked or cycled to Dunkery Beacon, please share your experience below. Thank you.