Saturday, July 30, 2011

Of sheds and dens and being a boy

Last week we had the builders round. Ostensibly they came to mend the fence, but before that I had a couple jobs which needed sorting in the potting shed. Just a bit of a tidy up, I said to Jane, and the electrics look ropey too. (I find that dodgy electrics is never questioned).

There followed a trip to B&Q: reels of cable, new sockets, masonry paint, thirteen lengths of 'two by four', three plywood boards, door hinges, polyfilla, junction boxes, woodstain - and a bill for two hundred quid (shhh...). Like I said, just a bit of a tidy up.

My grandfafther had a good shed; he called it his cabin. It was a gimcrack lean-to, painted pillar-box red and furnished with a bed for his afternoon naps after a few pints at the club. The shelves were stacked with jars of string or screws and bottles of unspeakable potions; he'd pasted the walls with our childhood drawings and we played there while he snored and the afternoon sun filtered through the net curtains. I'd have stayed there forever had there not been a time to go home.

My grandfather was clinically blind, and yet he had knack for dens. Once, he took us 'camping' (effectively a day trip to some wasteland) and we cooked sausages on an open fire, baked potatoes in the embers. I'll show you the tramps nest now, he said. And he led us to a tree with a whacking great platform of straw - it was big enough for two small boys, or a tramp, to sleep in I suppose. I remember him leaning on the trunk as we climbed the boughs; I'll just close my eyes, he said. I've never found a tramps nest since, and I've always wondered how he knew it was there. Wonderful man.

All my life I've delighted in sheds and tents, even mountain bothies. In a way they are all the same - a haven from the stress and pomp of the everyday world. It's an irony that by cutting out all the 'stuff' we work so hard to accumulate, we find a simpler, more profound pleasure.

But let's not get too philosophic. For there is something very uncomplicated about building dens. When my boys were small I taught them how to make shelters from sticks and bracken - now they are older they do the same with their younger brother. And when they get too distracted by their girlfriends or just generally surly, I and the little one go camping. Mostly we go a few miles from home, sometimes to the garden; it's as much about process as place.

All of which is long digression from my builders and the cost of materials. I left them to it as we headed to London - posh hotel, chaotic tubes, expensive restaurants - had enough after a couple of days. And driving back I mentioned casually, wonder if they've finished the fence?

As it turns out they did. But more importantly my new den was ready. My grandfather would have built it himself, before he lost his sight. But I'm time poor and I think he'd at least approve of the design. It has storage locker that converts to a bed, electrics (no longer dodgy) for a kettle and and a bench for writing. There's room for some homebrew, walls for Dylan's pictures, even shelves for a printer, books - perhaps jars with string and unspeakable potions.

And on Thursday night, before we'd even unpacked, Dylan and I tried it out. Your great grandad had a shed like this, I told him, his eyelids closing. He called it his cabin and I used to ...

Welcome everyone, to the new home of the bike shed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Peacocks, Admirals, and Emperors

In the front garden of my Wiltshire house is a towering buddleia. It dwarfs the privet hedge, dappling the lawn with shadow and brushing the roof of any car on the drive. One of the reasons I bought this house was that bush. In July it is thick with flowers and bees - there ought to be hundreds of butterflies too.

Yet this year I've seen only a handful feeding on its plumes. It was twenty five degrees on Saturday and there were two Red Admirals displaying, last week I saw a Large White; there has been the occasional blue. But that's about all and it's a worrying trend. The nature charity, Butterfly Conservation, organises a public recording scheme - The Big Butterfly Count - and the results show   serious declines in the number of Tortoiseshell and more recently Peacock butterflies.

I had thought this would be a good summer. Our spring came early and it's been the best weather for years. But of course there are other factors - we had a very cold winter, last August was wet and the climate on the continent affects migration of many species that we mistakenly regard as residents - Red Admirals being an example.  I suppose it's just possible that my garden isn't as attractive to butterflies as I'd imagined - only time will tell.

But I've found compensation for my disappointing buddleia in a local woodland. If I asked my neighbours for directions to the Three Crowns at Brinkworth, I reckon the majority could oblige. But if instead I queried the way to Sommerford Common (a mile or so from the pub), my guess is that I'd draw a blank. That's not surprising because it's hardly a visitor attraction.

Though perhaps it ought to be. For yesterday I went there with Dylan and Jane, and in a little more than thirty minutes we saw twelve different species. The highlight was a Silver Washed Fritillary crossing the forest break in an effortless glide. Earlier this summer I've seen Marbled White's, Large and Small Skippers, Essex Skippers (a misnomer if ever there was one) Ringlets, Meadow Browns, Brimstones, Gatekeepers, Common Blue... many more.  Some of these were there yesterday; as were dozens of Peacocks feeding on the thistle heads, so drunk with nectar I could hold them between gentle fingers.

Sommerford Common is a site of scientific interest, a haven for butterflies and specially managed to assist and encourage insects. As far as I can tell that management seems largely to consist of leaving the trees well alone and clearing the breaks of debris - this creates corridors of light that are conducive to flowering shrubs and meadow grasses. And yet that simple policy results in a transformation in the levels of wildlife.

Walking there with Dylan was like going back to an imagined childhood: insects rising at every step, the chirping of crickets, dragonflies hovering over the scrub, jewel like beetles and damselflies, moths, butterflies, ladybirds... literally, hundreds of thousands of insects. Earlier this summer I went there and saw a hornet  coming and going from a hollow in the grass; I stood motionless, gobsmacked by this fabulous creature that I'd longed for years to see.

There were no hornets yesterday and no White Admiral butterflies tough I'm convinced they must be there. And Dylan to be truthful wasn't up for looking much longer - he'd paid his usual attention to nature by insisting we play Star Wars throughout the entire trip. For the record, I was a Droid, Jane a Wookie and he was the Evil Emperor - any resistance was futile and looking for more silly butterflies would result in instant death. A White Admiral he assured me was no match for The Force.

As we neared the car a hawker dragonfly flew past and I suggested we play something different. How about I Spy? Something beginning with.

He looked at me disdainfully. It's going to be a B, isn't it?

Actually Dylan, it was going to be a D. D for drag..

I know, I know, he interrupted. It's Darth Vader!

Oh well, I suppose we're all different.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thoughts on flowers and landscape

The Pembrokeshire lanes are past their best. In June they sing with pinks and blues and the trumpets of foxgloves, gorse buds crowning the higher verges. The tradition here is not to use hedges between the fields, but to pile earth over stones, creating steep banks that effectively become meadow strips. By July the flowers are browning, long grasses bending over the last of the pinks; soon the council will be trimming the verges, clearing the roads for the hoards of summer tourists.

This process of cutting back is evidently essential to ensure the flowers return next year; like true meadows the banks need to be 'harvested' though I couldn't fully explain why. Indeed, I was thinking about this yesterday as I walked with Jane down the old drove road, noting all the flowers I could name and the many more I had no clue of. Wild plants, I said are something I know very little about.

That statement is relative. I clearly know something about how they thrive on the Pembrokeshire field banks, and for all I used the words 'pinks', I do know a Ragged Robin from a Red Campion - the blues would fox me though. I may not be able to name more than the common species but I'm generally aware of the presence of plants and their effect on the landscape.

Apart from butterflies (about which I do know quite a bit), the same goes for most aspects of natural history. I can identify more birds than the average person, but as soon as it comes to the 'little brown jobs', I'm lost. Moths I could tell you the family grouping but then it might get sticky; the same for fungi, sea life, and dragonflies. As for beetles, bugs and spiders... and what exactly is a lichen?

The truth is I'm a generalist, and a thin one at that. I know a little about everything and have a wide selection of identification guides for the times I bother to look things up. When I do, I'm usually checking for the name, which, when you think about it, is also a pretty superficial knowledge.

Last year I spent a week in North Wales with Nigel Brown from Bangor University; he knew more about the natural world than anyone I've ever met - he certainly knew about lichens, explaining that they're the symbiosis of a fungi and an algae. He knew too about the geology, the mammals, the rivers and the weather; we ran a moth trap every night and looked at stars through telescopes. A fascinating time, and if you're interested he's running a coastal wildlife weekend this september.

I shall never have Nigel's wealth of knowledge, but I've come to accept that's okay. I've realised something else too: that if I have any specialism at all, its an acute 'sense of place'. That's an imprecise concept, but I suppose I'm very aware of the overall the landscape, its relationship with the wider geography, culture, present and history. It's not enough for me to look at the mountains and rivers, I want to climb or kayak them; I want to walk or run the coast paths, to stand under the waterfalls, visit the derelict quaries, remote coves and down at heel towns. In Wales, where I've been doing this for twenty years, I'm acutely aware that I don't speak the language.

It is significant I think that although I write a lot about landscape I seldom take notes. I'm as likely to create a montage of photographs to trigger inspiration than to refer to lists or jotted reminders. Yesterday I could have picked some flowers to identify, but I didn't. Most important to me, is the way the landscape feels and that is largely an internal thing; a kinesthetic experience, in the language of the neuro-linguistic types. It is something more than knowing the names of plants or birds.

Or perhaps I should say it is something different. For deep down I wish I knew what those blue flowers were called, and those little brown birds that flit between the hawthorns. As for the browning grasses that define the lanes in July - I've never really thought about those.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Coast to Coast

It's nice when a plan comes together. Especially when it's others who benefit as well as yourself. So the picture of me with my bike in the sea - taken last Friday - is as much a celebration for them as it was for me. It marked the end of a six month and a five day journey.

Last January I had an idea. Why not organise a bike ride from my company's most western depot in Aberystwyth to our most eastern in Norwich, and then on a bit more to the sea? We'd travel from coast to coast, across the middling spread of England and Wales. And as part of the deal we'd all raise some money for charity. All I needed were some others to join me and a bit of training.

Finding volunteers wasn't a problem and my company got behind the plan with gusto. The training wasn't too bad either and last Monday myself and twenty colleagues set off over the Cambrian Mountains. Five days later we arrived in Norwich having raised around fifty thousand pounds for charity. For my part, when the cheques all come in I shall top two thousand pounds for Whizz-Kidz. To all of you who sponsored me, encouraged me, and inspired me, many thanks - you can take pleasure in knowing that your donations really will make a difference.

But what of the ride itself?

It's a long time since I rode a tour of that length and my legs are sore, but the impressions are more than just physical. Crossing the country by pedal power has left me with thoughts, not all fully formed, about the landscape, the places and the people we passed. Most of it is positive, if a perhaps little biased.

If I'm honest about the landscape my overriding impression is that after Wales it was all down hill. Given the height of the mountains this is almost true topographically, but it's also true, for me at least, in a scenic and cultural sense. It's not that Shropshire or Warwickshire or Northampton or Cambridgeshire don't have their good points - it's just that none of these could lift my spirits as do the mountains and forests I've adopted as my second home these last twenty years. The only sadness was the wind turbines despoiling the hills above Cwmystwyth - why is it, I wondered, that I saw more turbines in Wales than the three hundred miles which followed. I could weep, I really could.

The sound of the landscape is pertinent too - and again, the further east we went the quieter it became.  Not from lack of road noise (that tended towards the opposite) but from birdsong - never before have I been so aware of how silent the huge industrialised fields of modern farming can be. It was eerily so at times, and all the more noticeable as we passed the intermittent hedgerows from which the chattering would return.

And yet I rather liked the Fens - to some extent they were an exception that proved the rule - I especially liked their wide skies and whispering fields of corn. We met a farmer near Ely who allowed us to shelter from a storm in his barn - he and his brother worked five hundred acres with the help of two tractors and his wife who graded the potatoes. He told me he had always wanted to go to Wales to see the hills, though he loved his flatland farm and pointed out, with pride, that it was below sea level.

My impressions weren't just of landscape. Most of the people I rode with were neither experienced cyclists nor the senior managers I typically know. They were front line staff, out to do something different and significant. They rode with courage and humour and were supported by wives, fathers, brothers, children, colleagues, customers... Throughout our week we recieved hundreds of messages, emails, tweets, blog comments and personal visits. One of the most memorable moments was the unexpected visit by the family of one of our riders, his children waiting for us at a village green with cakes and drinks and banners.

And so on Friday lunchtime I arrived at the east coast, at California Norfolk. Ironically there were turbines off shore, just out of shot in the photograph - that too gave me pause for thoughts, but I'll leave those for another time. Most importantly, I'd made it - half a stone lighter and a great deal prouder of myself, my colleagues, my company and even my adopted country, than when I began.

Like I said, it's nice when a plan comes together.