January Commentary 2018


Spent the New Year in Matlock with the family (that’s not Matlock above, by the way…)

Situated on the edge of the Peak District, Matlock does a nice line in rocky outcrops, underlying bedrock and watercourses. The River Derwent winds its way through nearby Matlock Bath, and appears to possess something of a dogged nature, opting to cut its way through a limestone gorge rather than follow an easier route to the east. Geologists may suggest landslips or glaciation would account for this but sometimes a river just wants to get out of its comfort zone.


Annie and Sarah in need of some winter sun

Matlock Bath developed as a spa town when thermal springs were discovered there, and both John Ruskin and Lord Byron – celebrities in their day – popped over to check the waters out. Not long after, they may well have been inspired to a bit of canvas daubing and sonnet scribbling.

This may be an opportune time to introduce a few notable quotes from Lord Byron:

Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.

Friendship may, and often does, grow into love, but love never subsides into friendship.

The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.

There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more.

I only go out to get me a fresh appetite for being alone.

Lots of necessary drinking took place with an inevitable curry at Maazi’s – a contemporary Indian restaurant set in a former cinema with an incongruous tuk-tuk plonked neatly above the main entrance.


An incongruous tuk-tuk


I’m not sure if Alan Bennett ever went to Matlock Bath (I’m betting he has) but in his memoir, Keeping On Keeping On, he borrows a line from the poet R. S. Thomas on political correctness, which is worth an airing:

I am not going to affect the livery

Of the times’ prudery.


That’s enough culture to be going on with. How to follow a great few days in the Peak District? I would have thought going to a Pen Museum would be the obvious answer.


Pen Museum – Oosoom

Based in a former pen factory, the wittily entitled Pen Museum celebrates the story of how our modern pens evolved from quill to steel nib to fountain pen.

Birmingham’s factories supplied the majority of pens to people all over the world with thousands of skilled craftsmen and women employed in the industry. Apart from anything else, it encouraged many who previously could not afford to write to develop literacy skills.

Tucked away in the Jewelry Quarter, it is a quirky little museum packed with exhibitions and fascinating bits and pieces.

Of course, the whole business collapsed after the invention of that pesky little Biro – but that’s another story…




The annual trip out to Rutland Water turned up its usual blend of birds and banter but we didn’t manage to cover as much ground as usual. This was probably due to a surfeit of waterfowl splashing around on the water, and we enjoyed particularly good views of the bonny Smew (it’s a duck!)


There must be something feathery out there…

There also seemed to be more waterfowl than ever ducking and dabbling around the pools in huge numbers – just about every species of duck you would expect to see including Pintail and Goldeneye. A sneaky Caspian Gull also managed to immerse itself in with a flock of floating gulls until some sharp-eyed birders dug it out.

A few Red Kites were spotted en route to Rutland in the morning. On the return journey, further diversion was provided when a loud crack came from the roof of the coach. Some air-conditioning mechanism had been torn loose, and there was a bit of a cold journey back for some.

One bird at Rutland that did get pulses racing – plus a fair bit of jostling and jousting in the hide – was that splendid little wader, the Whimbrel.


Always a bit of a star whenever seen in the UK, they seem ten-a-penny in the Canary Islands. (This is a lazy little tie-in to that other annual pilgrimage of ours – a cheeky week in the sun!)


Arrecife Gran Hotel & Spa

Lanzarote was the island of choice this year and although not overly sunny and hot, there was still enough warmth for shorts and T-shirts during the day, and a fleece in the evenings.


Steve and I stayed at the Arrecife Gran Hotel & Spa. Located on the front and alongside the harbour, overlooking the Reducto Beach. It is the biggest landmark on the skyline with seventeen floors (we were on the sixteenth, just below the panoramic bar!)



The capital of Lanzarote, Arrecife was once a small fishing village – boats could be hidden behind the black volcanic reefs to deter pirate attacks.

Another defensive stronghold to keep out the pirates was just along from the hotel, the Castillo de San Jose, a historic fortress now housing contemporary art exhibitions in the barrel-vaulted rooms that were once used to store powder.


Castillo de San Jose


“Eat my goal!”

On Sunday, we went to watch Lanzarote FC play the Villa.

Brad Cockerell (the son of a friend of a brother) plays in midfield for Lanzarote’s top team but unfortunately he wasn’t on the pitch as they went down 0-1 in the last minute to Villa Santa Brigida.

The neighbouring resorts of Costa Teguise and Puerto del Carmen are all within easy reach of Arrecife. Certain levels of exploration were required, which took in several bars along the way.


Great Grey Shrike at Costa Teguise



Steve finds his spiritual home


As do I

Puerto del Carmen was within walking distance along the coastal pathway that sneaked around the airport. Flitting around the rocky beaches were more Whimbrel, Turnstones and Sanderlings, which provided the ornithological diversion between beers.




Bar-tailed Godwit





Ringed Plover


Grey Plover

The marina also became a favoured spot for a little light drinking…





Stop Press! A children’s book that I illustrated is now up and running on the shelves:



After the publication of the children’s book, it seemed of only natural to attend the Wolverhampton Literary Festival at the end of the month.

At first I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss the metric structure of Byron’s love poetry with kindred spirits – or possibly to interrogate the conflicting interpretations of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

But really I wanted to go so I could ride on the tram.

There were a couple of very good talks to attend – a passionate delivery on the merits of writing groups by the Oldbury Writing Group, and a interesting discussion given by a panel of self-published authors, which provided much grist to this mill.

Now, here’s a little extra plug for my own novel published a couple of years ago (in the very unlikely event that anyone missed this little gem!)


Please read the amazon reviews first though – it definitely isn’t a children’s book despite one friend accidentally ordering several copies for her children’s library!


The Flat Disc Society’s film offering this month was this excellent choice:


It scored 93% on the Tomatometer – and here’s a review by Hal Erickson from the Rotten Tomatoes website:

John Huston’s 1948 treasure-hunt classic begins as drifter Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), down and out in Mexico, impulsively spends his last bit of dough on a lottery ticket. Later on, Dobbs and fellow indigent Curtin (Tim Holt) seek shelter in a cheap flophouse and meet Howard (Walter Huston), a toothless, garrulous old coot who regales them with stories about prospecting for gold.

Forcibly collecting their pay from their shifty boss, Dobbs and Curtin combine this money with Dobbs’s unexpected windfall from a lottery ticket and, together with Howard, buy the tools for a prospecting expedition. Dobbs has pledged that anything they dig up will be split three ways, but Howard, who’s heard that song before, doesn’t quite swallow this.

As the gold is mined and measured, Dobbs grows increasingly paranoid and distrustful, and the men gradually turn against each other on the way toward a bitterly ironic conclusion. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a superior morality play and one of the best movie treatments of the corrosiveness of greed.

Huston keeps a typically light and entertaining touch despite the strong theme, for which he won Oscars for both Director and Screenplay, as well as a supporting award for his father Walter, making Walter, John, and Anjelica Huston the only three generations of one family all to win Oscars.


There was a short introductory cartoon, Bugs Bunny Rides Again, to start things off – one of the first cartoons to pair Bugs and Yosemite Sam who faced off in the Western town of Rising Gorge.


That’s all folks!


October Over and Out

laddermontageSituated on a farm, The Barn at Upcote in the Cotswold Hills was the perfect location for Gavin and Keira’s wedding. Getting spliced in the old threshing barn wasn’t as painful as it sounded either.

Here are some photos of the happy few hundred…:



















Gavin on a CHAIR…!!!


Enough of the wedding – now for some nature.

Merlins are magical birds and two separate sightings of these raptors were conjured up during the WMBC’s visit to Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire.

There was a distant, hazy view of a beached Merlin resting out on the sands beyond the Mill Hill viewpoint, and then a ringside showing from the platform off the new Visitor’s Centre. The latter flew up over our heads and sped away to perch awhile atop atree. The Merlin, a female, loitered long enough for leisurely views of this elusive falcon before zipping off out of sight at a rate of knots.

There was a blizzard of Knots and Oystercatchers whirling around in front of the distant wind turbines. Gibraltar point is a dynamic stretch of pristine coastline with sand dunes, saltmarsh, ponds, and lagoons and woodland so it’s not so difficult to rake up a good haul of wildlife on a walkabout.


Seals were hauled out on the sandbanks, and sooty multi-horned Hebridean Sheep converged in the grassy hollows of the reserve. These hardy sheep are particularly effective at scrub control, and help maintain natural grassland and heathland habitats.

It had already been a good day at a very good reserve, having just clocked a confiding Pink-Footed Goose knuckling down in the rough grass, which turned out to be not so much confiding as broken-winged.

Spotted Redshank, Greenshank (bereft of spots), Avocet, Snipe, Water Rail, Mandarin Duck, and several Kingfishers were spied along the freshwater lagoons. In a small wooded clearing, a cheeky little Pied Flycatcher was sensibly keeping a low profile with all those Merlins about, and a flock of Redwings scattered overhead as if shot from a gun.


Lesser-Spotted Twitchers – can you spot them?

Quirky Aside: en route to Gibraltar Point, we passed through Boston so the American city and the English town were quirkily tied up as having both been visited within a matter of weeks!


It was soon Film Club Night and the Flat Earth Society went Peter Vaughn-mad (the actor died last December and was widely known for his menacing cameos in BBC’s Porridge as Grouty).

The main feature was Symptoms.

Having been released back in 1974, British horror film Symptoms has always been incredibly difficult to obtain. It was last seen on TV in 1983 and has since lived only in legend.

Here’s Movie Marker’s Stu Greenfield take on this mysterious and under rated film:

Set in a large country house surrounded by woods in the English countryside, Symptoms focuses on Helen and Ann. They return to Helen’s family home from Switzerland and it soon becomes apparent that there is more to this situation than meets the eye. As they spend more time together Helen’s nervous disposition becomes apparent, as does her affection for Ann. A previous occupant of the house, Cora, is spoken about but appears to touch a nerve with Helen who refuses to talk about her in any detail. Also present is the grounds keeper Brady (Peter Vaughn), and the cracks in his relationship with Helen are tangible, but without context. Gradually the sinister and disturbing truth is revealed…

Angela Pleasance, daughter of Halloween’s Donald Pleasance, is perfectly cast as the lead role. Her piercing blue eyes and ability to portray a seemingly vulnerable and nervous young lady whilst also providing a sinister undertone is outstanding. Symptoms is a must for any British horror fan.

Symptoms was ably supported by The Return:

Lonely spinster Miss Parker has been employed as the caretaker at a huge home for the last twenty years. It’s been up for sale the entire time and over the two decades she’s seen living there all alone, not one potential buyer has expressed interest in purchasing it or even renting out a room there. Could be because its reputation precedes it…

Plus a bonus A Ghost Story for Christmas story: Warning to the Curious.

Broadcast in the dying hours of Christmas Eve, the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series was a fixture of the seasonal schedules throughout the 1970s and spawned a long tradition of chilling tales for yuletide viewers.

An amateur archaeologist arrives in Norfolk and strikes out in search of the lost crown of Anglia, but at every turn, something unearthly guards it…


Bristol and the Zoo

One of Sarah’s birthday pressies was to be Keeper for a Day at this famous zoological garden, so a weekend in the making was summarily made.


Chuffed to be here…


The rare Red Dave

Bristol Zoo is justly famous, of course, for providing the television backdrop to many a seventies childhood with Johnny Morris and Animal Magic.

Here’s a YouTube clip for anyone feeling nostalgic:

Many breeding firsts were acclaimed here – the first Black Rhino in Britain, the first Squirrel Monkey in captivity, and the first Chimpanzee in Europe. It is probably fitting that Bristol is also home to the magisterial BBC Natural History Unit.

Before hitting the zoo, it was incumbent upon us to see what Bristol had to offer on a fine Sunday morning, the Saturday having been a wash-out, relentlessly driving us into a selection of sheltering pubs and bars.



There was a Banksy on one wall (the elusive graffiti artist is believed to be from Bristol), and some very fine buildings through which the River Avon weaves its way. The River Avon made Bristol a great inland port, and in later years boomed on the transatlantic trade in rum, tobacco and slaves.


A Banksy on a wall


A vantage point on Brandon Hill can be easily reached from which to view the city. A better view would have been from Cabot Tower just behind us but only Theo had the liver for it after the previous night’s drinking.


All this plus an enormous gorge running through part of the city ensures Bristol is regularly cited as one of the UK’s most liveable cities.



October was rounded off with the soothing sounds of thrash heavy metal as Paul C and I took in a brilliant Raven Age gig. They previously supported Anthrax earlier in the year but were now headlining for the head-banging at the old Digbeth Institute with their own support – In Search Of Sun.

…and there was more:

Craig and I went to see The Elvis Dead at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. Elvis Dead is not another thrash metal offering but a brilliantly innovative show by Rob Kemp loosely based around the film Evil Dead II and Elvis (naturally). It is certainly difficult to categorise (the flyer has it as a unique thrill ride of hip-swinging music and blood-soaked mayhem, so that will do for me) but very easy to enjoy.


Here’s some YouTube footage to give you a taste…:


Attuned to June



National Trust, Waddesdon Manor / John Bigelow Taylor

Waddesdon Manor was the venue for our annual Staff Social day out. This plush country house in Buckinghamshire is the ancestral seat of those bankers, the Rothschilds. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style of a French chateau by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, it came in very handy for entertaining house parties and for showing off his fine collections of art.

Baron Ferdy originally bought it as a farming estate from the Duke of Marlborough (thanks to a hefty inheritance from his father) and he set about transforming the site with lavish gardens and an aviary.

The last member of this illustrious family, James de Rothschild, bequeathed the house and its contents to the National Trust and is one of their most visited properties.







It was the hottest day of the year (Scorchio!) and the food festival was in full swing as our coach set down and set forth the staff. The cider tent was a particular favourite…



The hot weather continued into the following week, which meant our regular visit to the Aegon Classic did not involve as much scurrying to the beer tent whenever rain threatened.


Svitolina to serve…

Thus we managed uninterrupted tennis on the first day and enjoyed four decent contests:

Naomi Osaka (Jpn) beat Laura Davis (USA) 6-1, 2-6, 7-6

Barbara Strycova (Cze) beat Yulia Putinteva (Kaz) 6-3, 6-3

Elina Svitolina (Ukr) beat Heather Watson (Gbr) 6-2, 5-7, 6-3

Naomi Broady (Gbr) beat Alize Cornet (Fra) 7-6, 6-0


Nature Notes Warning:


Frampton Marsh The RSPB

Frampton Marsh was to be the venue for the season finale of the West Midland Bird Club.

Frampton is one of many coastal wetland reserves where seeing anything ornithological is merely a bye-the-bye bonus to accompany a brilliant walk. However, high vantage walks look out across the Wash and inland views take in reedbeds, freshwater scrapes and marshy fields. With a new digital camera making its juddering debut, I blurred fairly decent views of Corn Buntings, Avocets, Lapwings, Yellowhammers, Reed and Sedge Warblers and Spotted Redshank – plus a pair of loved-up Spoonbills.

There are some great photos on the official Frampton Marsh website, which I’ve included here plus my own meagre offerings and a classic photo fail!






Another One






And if we are on the cute chick photos, we cannot fail to show these reed warblers (though they may want to improve on their toilet training!). Photo by Paul Sullivan


And these photos are by Neil Smith:




The parents are busy looking after their young. You don’t get more protective than avocets, who chase off things which might want to eat their chicks…

…and those that wouldn’t, but just get a little too close


March-ing On


Common Lizard

A heady mix of gladiatorial passion and throbbing football was the order of the day with Tamworth downing high-flying Salford City 2-0 at the Lamb Stadium. Salford City had risen phoenix-like in recent years with the unparalleled wisdom and experience of Manchester United’s former poster boys investing in the club. Unphoenix-like but very in tune with the death throes of a stricken grouse on the Glorious Twelfth, Tamworth’s talons were unsheathed and, with little regard for mixed metaphors, felled the northern giants.


But enough of that.

The avian theme continued, however, with our annual pilgrimage to the Forest of Dean with the West Midland Bird Club.

To notch up Hawfinch, Goshawk and Great Grey Shrike before the day was done is always mightily pleasing. Added for extra vim, in the skies above the New Fairy Viewpoint, were a Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Buzzards and Raven.

Also warming up nicely along the viewpoint was a couple of Common Lizards, either very confiding or just too cold to move.

To complement, here’s a lizardy cartoon from the crow Collection:


Its impossible not to enjoy a day out in the spring forest regardless of what may or may not be seen but there’s always something to gladden the eye. The Hawfinches were spied along the treetops at Parkend; the over-wintering shrike (there’s always one) put on an inhibited showing at Crabtree Hill and goshawks plied their distant aerial acrobatics at New Fancy.


Great Grey Shrike – Marek Szczepanek (the photographer, not the Latin name!)


Hawfinch – Mikils


The Commitments was on at the Alexandra Theatre, and we squeezed into the restricted leg-room seats to enjoy a hugely entertaining production based on the successful film, which was based on the successful book by Roddy Doyle, which was adapted for the stage, which whatever…


Apart from the usual grumpy tirade about having to pay outrageous extra ticket fees on top of ticket prices and then getting hit by a stealthy transaction fee (for what? For why? For Goodness Sake!) it was surprising not to be subsequently charged an entrance fee at the door and a completion charge to exit at the end of the show!

Tirade over. It was a great show, as summed up by this review by Diana Davies of the Express and Star:

The Commitments, New Alexandra Theatre – review and pictures

These are things we learnt whilst watching The Commitments stage show last night.

Soul is politics, soul is the rhythm of the working people, soul is sex and sex is soul.

Well if soul is sex then I am certainly in need of a rest and a cigarette after watching that performance at the New Alexandra Theatre. That much soul can wear a girl out!

Watching this production of The Commitments is like your best night out with your craziest friends – or family!

Set in Dublin in 1986, young music lover Jimmy decides to form the ‘world’s hardest working band’ to bring soul to the people of Ireland and sets about recruiting band members.

What follows is a cacophony of people shouting and occasionally fighting, oodles of laughs and some fantastic classic soul tunes.

Andrew Linnie who delivers a solid performance as the ambitious young entrepreneur plays Jimmy but he is ultimately the ‘straight man’ to the many colourful characters in the band and the production.

The strangely charismatic, ageing musician Joey ‘The Lips’ who claims to have a musical CV to die for, is back in Dublin to spread the word and love of God – though he spreads the love a little too freely with the girl singers in the band.

The base but annoyingly-talented singer Deco is played by Brian Gilligan. If soul is sex then the velvety smooth seductive voice of Gilligan is the aphrodisiac. His performances of It’s a Thin Line Between Love & Hate and also Try a Little Tenderness send a tingle down the spine that sinks down to your very toenails.

And his irrepressible energy in such upbeat numbers as Proud Mary, Mustang Sally and Papa Was a Rolling Stone is stubbornly infectious.

Sadly Deco is an aphrodisiac that works only if you close your eyes, as the character’s personal habits are as detestable as his arrogance and vanity.

Kevin Kennedy – who for most of Britain will only ever be Curly Watts – brings a lot of laughs as Jimmy’s ‘Da’ despite a dodgy accent, while my favourite character was Mickah, played by Sam Fordham, as the excitable and somewhat menacing ‘security’ man.

The trio of backing singers are played by Amy Penston, Leah Penston and Christina Tedders who, as well as demonstrating some incredible vocals, play interesting, individual characters who have their own influence on the dynamics of the band.

It came as no surprise to see everyone on their feet at the end of the show singing and clapping along – we had been fighting the urge from the start of the show.

Bonus clip: here’s a little taster of the gang from their Dublin show on YouTube:


This month’s Flat Disc Society film, La Strada, is also doing the rounds at the Birmingham Rep this year. So this is the Rep’s own take on it, which, as usual, saves me a job:

Frederico Fellini’s Oscar-winning La Strada is one of the all-time masterpieces of world cinema.

La Strada ‘The Road’, a metaphor for life, is a deeply impassioned tale of love and loss. A journey into the heart of the Italian countryside where Gelsomina, full of the innocent spirit of youth, is bought by Zampano, a travelling street performer, to join his ‘strong man’ act. When the mismatched pair stumble across a ragtag circus and a daredevil tight-rope walker, Gelsomina finds herself caught between the two men, not knowing which way to turn…

Before the main feature, we were treated to a short film, The Vagabond, featuring Smethwick’s very own Charlie Chaplin!

Here’s some pertinent – and handy – photos from the Birmingham Mail website:


Michael Chaplin attending the unveiling of a memorial to the Romany Gypsy community in Smethwick, where his father Charlie Chaplin is believed to have been born.


The Black Patch in the 1850s.


Black Patch Park in Smethwick, thought to be the birthplace of comedian Charlie Chaplin.


It was not too far a venture this month for our monthly walk as we nipped over the border to Warwickshire and stretched our legs around the Studley area.

Here’s Stuart with the particulars:

Map: Explorer 220

Parking: Sports Centre car park, off Pool Road, Studley. Free parking and there are “award winning” toilets a short distance on at start of walk.

Grid reference: SP070636

Post code for satnav: B80 7QU

The walk:

I haven’t pre-walked the route yet but my route will be roughly south towards Coughton and then north west to Sambourne for lunch at The Green Dragon pub. An excellent pub, which serves well-kept Hobsons and Purity beers.

After lunch it’s east and then north to follow River Arrow back to Studley.

It was a nice, flat walk – none of that hilly nonsense. The Green Dragon pub was interesting in that it was a regular haunt for Brummie comedy actor Tony Hancock – his Mom having been the licensee for a few years.



Once more, I have plundered YouTube for this clip of Hancock delivering one of his more memorable skits: The Blood Donor bit:


Managed to catch the last weekend of the Francis Bacon exhibition – or rather last chance to see his painting, Two Figures in a Room, at the splendid Barber Institute. The painting was on loan from the University of East Anglia, and is the first ever to go on display at the Barber. Here’s the painting and the blurb from the Barber website:


This disquieting image from Bacon’s middle years features two naked figures, usually interpreted as male lovers, and was daring and provocative at the time of its creation, when homosexual acts in private between men were still illegal in the UK. Works by Matisse, Degas and Michelangelo have been suggested as sources for the two figures – and its display among the old master paintings of the permanent collection simultaneously suggests the debt and influence of historic art on modern painters.


April Foolery



Our annual trip to Devon kicked off on the 1st of the month and a long weekend lay in wait for some walking, birding and boozing.

It was the WMBC’s spring foray into darkest Devon, and before joining the rest of the group at the Best Western Passage Hotel in Kingsteignton, Pete and I ran up a few hours in Haldon Forest Park.

Clocking the Siskins and Coal Tits on the feeders, we then took one of the circular trails through the forest, detouring slightly to visit the raptor viewpoint from which we could hear a thrush but little else.

Exminster Marshes proved more profitable with the poster boy for the day – a Short-eared Owl quartering the fields not far from the car park.

The marshes are always a good diversion with stretches of marsh (the clue’s in the name) and squelchy grass fields spanning the points between the railway lines to the canal.

A pint of Yellowhammer ale in the Turf Hotel after a yomp to the estuary shore supplied all the criteria of our initial aims. A few waders pootled around the mudflats as we quaffed some ale and made inroads on huge slabs of fruit cake (a staple accompaniment on a par with scratchings and peanuts).

The next day and a very similar (but not unwelcome) itinerary to previous years with a first stop at Berry Head for Cirl Buntings and Wheatear, then Broadsands for Coffee and Pasties, and Dawlish Warren for Whatever the Wind Blew In.

Berry Head was in much better condition than last year without the howling rain and crashing wind. The buntings weren’t showing particularly well, but some sprightly Wheatears were flitting around by the quarry.





Poop-Scoop needed!


We returned to the car park and left 22 minutes past our allotted 2 hour stay and were subsequently fined £85 by the marauding car park company via their CCTV. Rip-off doesn’t come close so a strongly worded letter must surely be in the offing.

Broadsands has a very convenient café from which to view the sea for the lazy watcher, and much to enjoy around its little circular shoreline. A pair of Peregrines bombed through overhead, and a Kestrel stuck to the script, hovering above the lower slopes of the surrounding hillside.


At Dawlish Warren, the walking took us over the sapping dunes alongside the golf course and onto the hide facing across the strand and shoreline. Nothing out of the ordinary but the ordinary is always welcome with waders, plovers, gulls, mergansers, egrets and terns tearing up the place.

On Sunday, we took off for Bowling Green Marsh on the east bank of the Exe Estuary. Plenty of waterbirds crowded the grassy banks and swirled around in the pools. BGM overlooks the Clyst and the rising tide often pushes waders off the mudflats. The tide was taking a time-out when we got there, many of the birds blurry in the distance.


So it was off to the fern and gorse of Woodbury Common for Dartford Warblers and a general mooch about, catching the odd glimpse of these elusive little perks of a bird as they ducked and dived in the undergrowth.



Having stayed overnight at the Manor Hotel in Exmouth, we made the slow run back to Brum via Ham Wall and Shapwick Fen in Somerset. Lots of Great White Egrets, a Bittern and Glossy Ibis provided a decent haul in between the prolonged showers (actually, prolonged drenching, more like).


Glastonbury in the distance


The Rotter’s Club, that most excellent coming-of-age novel by Jonathan Coe, was being adapted at the Birmingham Rep. A World Premiere, no less (according to the flyer).

Always a sucker for a World Premiere, I roped in Steve B and we popped along for the show, performed by the Rep’s very able and talented youth theatre.

Here’s some of the review by Richard Lutz and a photo from the Birmingham Press website: http://thebirminghampress.com:


The Rotters’ Club: Sparky, cheeky and fresh faced in a changing world

There’s a telling photograph on the cover of The Rotters’ Club theatre programme. It shows a group of mid-seventies grammar school boys in Birmingham: cocky, ready to roll, happy to pose and be posey in front of the camera. They’re the aspirational class lads. And Jonathan Coe’s novel brought their hopes, anxieties and fantasies sharply into focus in his successful novel of the same name.

Rotters'Now it comes to The Birmingham Rep. And what a pleasure it is to see a Birmingham story, written by a Birmingham writer, staging the premiere in a Birmingham theatre by a young troupe of…you guessed it…Birmingham actors.

It’s never easy to transplant a book into a play. Many times it fails. This one doesn’t. The novel’s context is stripped away by adaptor Richard Cameron leaving us with what has to be the bare bones of Coe’s book and its era: From Callaghan to Thatcher, from the end of frugality to the pub bombings, from emerging prosperity to the Longbridge strikes and even from the ennui of prog music to the anger and spit of the punk generation.

The transformation is told through the eyes of Ben Trotter clearly a youthful Jonathan Coe – who loves his music, loves his dream girl and has an even more deep love for his grammar school pals (Coe himself was a King Edward lad).

The young cast, some of them in their teens, acquit themselves well: refreshing, vigorous, foul mouthed, sparky and, for the boys at least, fetid, sweaty and, of course, obsessed by sex.

Leading the pack is Charlie Mills as Ben, a south Birmingham shaggy-haired lad whose daily path on the number 62 bus takes him from post-war family complacency to the more rigorous world of school. He experiences the universe of changing music, the anger of politics, the ugliness of racism and, through a family tragedy, the vileness of the IRA murders in the city in 1974. There is growth and there is the allure of the future. Mills does teenage yearnings and anxieties very well. An A for him.


Other cast members flesh things out – Jasmin Melissa Hylton as the young teenager who longs for her older married lover and Haris Myers has a nasty sting as a fresh-faced proto National Front supporter. All thankfully use the Brummie accent, that only adds to the sense of place.

So, full marks for this cast from The Young Rep troupe. They had to deal with the stripping back of a good novel but in all a production worth seeing and one for this city to be proud of.



The month’s fell-walk ventured into the heady heights of Leicestershire, a county no doubt agog with impending Premiership acclaim.

Here’s Adrian with his usual brief account:

Welcome to details of the next excursion this time to the pleasant hilly countryside of Leicestershire.  Several miles of undulating loveliness with (on a bright day) some excellent views to be had. There is some Geology for the rock heads, some archaeology for me, something for the steam heads and a bit of tarmac for Roy. And dur dur dur dur, dur dur:  a surprise feature on the walk. Might do a dur dur dur dur, dur dur surprise feature bit on walks from now on. 

Burrough Hill, Leicestershire

Start: 10.00 am: Burrough Hill car park

GR: SK 766115

Map: Explorer sheet 246

Postcode for Sat Navs: LE14 2QZ

The walk:

We end up going through the Hill Fort at the end so will probably not dwell there at the start although views from there are glorious on a bright day. Anyway if I start rabbiting on about the Iron Age at the end of the walk instead of the beginning, you can all make your excuses and leave or just sneak off behind my back so I am left talking to myself.  

From the Hill Fort area we pick up the Old Dalby road. Sorry Roy don’t get too excited it was grassed over decades ago you will have to wait a bit longer for some tarmac. We go through a pleasant wood then turn to pick up the path to Somerby taking in the lovely Leicestershire countryside. The beer at the Saddle in Twyford where we shall go for lunch is pretty good. It must be. It is after a visit there that most people have spotted the Twyford Panther roaming in the village. Green King IPA was on last time I was there at Easter as well as some local panther-seeing inducing brews.     

Anyway we make our way out of Somerby and Roy finally gets a bit of tarmac to walk on. I am then in two minds. No, not that of a fool or an idiot. There are two paths we could take. The one slightly longer but does disguise this walk’s dur dur dur dur, dur dur surprise feature for longer and may be the more pleasant. If there is time I shall take the slightly longer route (Editor’s note: we did). Either way we end up at White House Farm. From there we go through a very pleasant shallow valley to: dur dur dur dur, dur dur – THIS WALK’S SURPRISE FEATURE.


The Surprise Feature…

I could give details about it but then it wouldn’t be a surprise would it. From dur dur dur dur, dur dur THIS WALKS SURPRISE FEATURE, we make us way to nearby Twyford and the aforementioned pub The Saddle. 




Details of pub menu are given below at the bottom. You can try and book your order if you want to. Might be best, as they may feel swamped otherwise. (Editor’s note: no point – they only had sandwiches on).

 From the Saddle it is a little uphill but we go through some lovely open country side. Crossing the bed of the old railway line and eventually to the edge of the Church at Burrough Hill. From there we head for the Hill Fort, which we do have to climb up to. It took me 1 hour and 20 from the Saddle to the top of the Hill fort last time I did it. That was by no means pushing it. So we should do that stretch in well less than a couple of hours. But you do then have time to take in the Hill Fort and its glorious setting and surroundings. There is a toposcope in one corner of the fort. You can see back to a walk we did a few years ago just outside Leicester where the newly elected Chairman of the club won the annual raffle for a year’s subscription of a magazine. You will pass the bottom end of that walk on the A46.


This walk does undulate. I was originally going to push on from Twyford to the Carrington pub at Ashby Folville. But that would push the walk too far and the Carrington has been taken over by someone who wants to project manage it. Project Management in the civil service usually means a bloody shambles.      

Cheers Adrian!


Bonus bird trip time: Off to Woolston Eyes in Cheshire to see what was occurring at this RSPB reserve, a superb wetland habitat, which lies next to the Manchester Ship Canal and can only be reached by scurrying across the Mersey via a steel bridge.

The eyes are beds that were (and still are) used for holding pumped dredgings from the canal. No3 bed is the main part of the reserve, and is actually an island accessible by a bridge with a secure gate. Pochard, Teal and Tufted Duck milled around on the pools; some Shoveler, Shelduck, and a couple of Little Grebes also did their bit. However, the flagship species is the Black-necked Grebe, and there were several of these bonny little birds bobbing along in the water.

Then it was off to a new reserve for the afternoon – Burton Mere Wetlands, which straddles the border between England and Wales on the Dee Estuary.

It was worth going just for the bluebells that floored the forest. Here’s a selection:





Burton Mere has been crafted by many years of hard work, which has restored reedbeds, fenland and farmland into a unique blended landscape. An impressive Visitors’ Centre leads out onto boardwalks and trails, which lead up past an Iron Age Hill Fort to Burton Point, affording wide, sweeping views over the estuary.

As well as the usual medley of waterfowl, a cluster of Yellow Wagtails proved to be a highlight, flitting between goose-laden grasses and often perching on the wire fencing.



The month’s Flat Disc Society theme was nuclear catastrophes (next month: rom-coms) marking the 30th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine.

First up was a documentary, The Battle for Chernobyl, to get us in the mood. Then Threads – Barry Hines’ controversial 1984 film examining the effects of nuclear war by following two Sheffield families. Barry Hines died last month, and is best known for his novel A Kestrel for a Knave, filmed as Kes.

Threads was pretty meaty but if you want a more thorough review, here’s the lowdown from http://tvtropes.org:

“In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong, also make it vulnerable.”

Threads, a 1984 docudrama produced by the BBC. Britain has quite the history of post-apocalyptic fiction on its DVD and book shelves, and Threads is amongst the most disturbing examples.

The film depicts the terrifying consequences of nuclear warfare upon an unsuspecting world. Set mainly in Sheffieldduring the height of the Cold War, Threads follows two families, amongst the other members of their town, as they deal with the absolute destruction of their society as a result of nuclear war with the Soviet Union (which at the time of release was somewhat more likely than it is today). The findings of the 1955 Strath Report noted that the UK was singularly vulnerable to a nuclear exchange due to the country’s small size, high urban population, and dependency upon food-imports. The film reflects this fairly accurate assessment of the UK’s likely situation with what the uninformed might call a hopeless and pessimistic outset – ending with a medieval world where agriculture predominates, starvation is ever-present, modern medicine doesn’t exist, martial law prevails, capital punishment is routine, children are undereducated savages, the ozone layer is gone, and Survival Of The Fittest is the only way to get by.

To any would-be viewers: if you’re looking for a story with a happy or hopeful ending this movie is not the way to go, and a strong stomach is pretty much mandatory. Its strict adherence to a realistic portrayal of nuclear war and its after-effects makes it one of the scariest films ever made.


November Skies


Great to welcome Hunt Emerson’s latest book, Hot Jazz, onto the bookshelves – a very entertaining jazz-themed adventure comic book.

Hunt is a well-renowned and award-winning cartoonist http://largecow.com and I was happy to contribute a little doodle to his latest book.

And here it is – a jazzy little dawn chorus – and with Christmas looming I’m sure Hunt’s book will be the perfect present to pop into a stocking somewhere – preferably one hanging from the mantelpiece.


Big Time Nature Notes Warning:

The first of the month was the hottest day in November since records were put on a turntable.

To be on the north Norfolk coast in T-shirts and sunglasses was an unexpected bonus, and even heat haze had to be contended with when scanning the countryside for our feathered friends.

Many of our subjects didn’t need seeking out as Norfolk lends itself to a spectacular array of confiding and easily visible birds (stop yawning now, you at the back).

En route to our usual haunt at Le Strange Arms Hotel in Old Hunstanton, Pete and I popped into Eldernell on the Nene Washes. A short westerly walk along the bank turned up a distant Marsh Harrier and a Green Woodpecker.

We finished up at Titchwell, a reserve we have visited often recently, and it remains one of our favourite locations.

Our forays around Titchwell unearthed an obliging Jack Snipe, which was bobbing away (its what they do) on the shore of the fresh water lagoon, while waders, ducks, geese and swans fussed around in the backwater.


Golden Plover

At dusk, two Barn Owls were seen batting away over the fields close to the Autumn Trail, and squadrons of Marsh Harriers flew into roost; mini-murmurations of starlings scrawled over the reed beds.

Here are some photos of the sunset but you had to be there…

Sunset copy



The next day, after a pre-breakfast sea watch squinting at the bobbing speck of a Slavonian Grebe, we took off for Cley Marshes. Along the shingle beach, the saline lagoons, distant grazing marshes and reed beds were continually checked out for anything migratory.

But the highlight was an otter weaving its way up through a channel before hauling up onto the bank.

We eventually finished up at Burnham Overy Staithe, where the river spreads out into multiple tidal creeks before reaching the sea. The walk along the sea bank meant a continuous elevated position was held over the adjoining fields and saltmarshes. From this vantage point, decent views of Grey Partridges, Curlews, Buzzards, Pink-footed, Egyptian and White-fronted Geese could be enjoyed. A Hare also put in a fleeting appearance.

Late mists crept in as the light faded, leaking over the fields and tumbling down in the ditches and hollows. Always a good scenario for a bit of purple prose.


The tongue-twisting little hamlet of Burnham Overy Staithe was the nautical playground of Nelson, who learned to row and sail a dinghy here at the age of ten.

It also provided a home for Richard Woodget, the master of the famous Cutty Sark.

In another maritime aside, it is believed that Delia Smith based her famous ‘Let’s beavinyou!’ Seafood Soufflé on shellfish gleaned from the shores when crabbing here as a little girl with Stephen Fry.

Another day, another sea watch before breakfast – and another Slavonian Grebe.

It was thick fog in the morning as we headed to Holme Beach, dipping through the mists covering a golf course to reach the sea. A Brambling materialized on some gorse but the real show-stoppers were Short-eared Owls. To see three of these owls in one morning was as treatier a treat as you’ll ever get. They never seemed particularly bothered by us and just went about their business, flying high and surveying their territories for vole-shaped morsels.

Then it was onto Thornham, a small coastal village where a Kingfisher momentarily lit up the mudflats and tired creeks.

Naturally, Titchwell was once again assigned to top off an excellent day, and we duly congregated to enjoy the usual majestic melee over lagoons and reed beds with some Bewicks’s and Whooper Swans joining the duck soup.

From the reliable Autumn Trail, a female Hen Harrier zoomed in to join the roost, circling a few times before hitting the hay. The Barn Owl was on duty once again, and a whole bunch of Starlings hitchcocked their silhouettes to a dead tree.


Sundown stole the show again as thick layers of mist and fog crawled across the reserve, puddling and twisting around reeds and bare trees to fashion an eerie and ghostly dusk.


Having stayed over an extra day, Pete and I called into Sculthorpe Moor on the way back to Brum.

Sculthorpe is a quietly impressive woodland and fen habitat located in the Wensum Valley. Unfortunately, it was very quiet during our brief visit, and we failed to churn up anything more exciting than a Marsh Tit on a bag of nuts. With excellent education and visitor facilities, more boardwalks are planned to provide even greater access – there is already an elevated hide, which gives great views across the fen and reed beds.



The Classical Spectacular concert at the Symphony Hall was conducted by the ever-entertaining Anthony Inglis, with the City of Birmingham Choir and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra pulling out all the stops.   Soprano Sky Ingram warbled away like there was no tomorrow, and the tenor, Mario Sofroniou, absolutely nailed Nessun Dorma.

It was a shame there was no Bolero – always a good one to torvill away to – but its not bad to experience a different programme, and the Borodin number was a decent substitute.

As usual, the 1812 Overture with cannons and fireworks neatly closed the show – then it was off to the pub!


This Month’s Flat Disc Society (AKA: the Film Club) came up trumps with Kenny as its main feature – a very funny Australian film about a Melbourne plumber who works for a portaloo rental company.

This screening was deliberately chosen to celebrate the United Nation’s Toilet Day. No lie, here’s the link: http://www.unwater.org/worldtoiletday/home/en/

penguinlooThere was a short warm-up feature, Look at Life: Men of the Snowy, a concise ‘slice of life’ featurette from the 1960s.


With a rubbishy wet final weekend (they’ve even started naming storms now) I visited the Ikon Gallery for a bit of contemporary relief.

Scroll Down And Keep Scrolling by British artist Fiona Banner was the exhibition on show.

There was a life-sized glass scaffold tower in one of the spaces with its fragility apparently undermining any sense of usefulness. Some black beanbags representing the full stops of a few selected typefaces were scattered around the galleries for people to sit upon and nod sagely (and stroke their chins). Fiona Banner seemed to be channeling the Vietnam War in other areas of the exhibition – a pile of Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide books towered almost to the ceiling, and a film screened a military air show with a Chinook helicopter looping around.

I sat on a beanbag and nodded sagely.


September Sessions


The Business School at UCB held an industry updating session over two days in early September, which included a residential trip to London via Bristol. It was a mere case of hopping aboard.

First stop was the Engine Shed, a collaboration between Bristol City Council, the University of Bristol and the West of England Local Enterprise partnership.


Situated at the heart of the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone, the Engine Shed is based in Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s historic engine shed (bit of a giveaway) at Bristol Meads railway station.


This Tudor-style building was opened in 1841 and epitomized the cutting edge of technology in the 19th century. It is now a buzzing hub for new technology.


A short tour of the Shed and Innovation Centre then followed, plus a couple of presentations to be had before hitting Gorditos for lunch.


Then it was off to London for cocktails at the Ice Bar!

The Ice Bar is exactly what it says on the tin, with capes and gloves being provided before the quaffing can begin.

With the bar, cocktail glasses, tables and furniture carved from blocks of ice, this novelty venue only allows for short stints in allotted timeslots in which to enjoy its chilly atmosphere.





The hotel we were staying at was the fantastically quirky Qbic London City Hotel set in the trendy East End neighbourhood of Shoreditch.

This hotel is a great little melting pot of the unconventional – an eco-friendly hotel with serious commitment to environmental responsibilities, incorporating solar panels, with chemical-free cleaning and waste management within its design. It is sustainably built with comfy beds set in a trademark cuboid arrangement.

Here’s a useful video from their website showing how these unique rooms are put together. Its speeded up so don’t despair!


We just about had time to get ready for dinner, which was at Sheba in Brick Lane, an area famous for its ethnic food and drink.

Sheba is one of the longest standing restaurants in the area, not just celebrated for its Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani cuisine but also famous for being the setting for the Peter Kay commercial for John Smiths.


The location of the hotel is also ideal for experiencing the regeneration of the east of London, and a two hour walk around the area was arranged for the following morning.

Over the last decade, London’s East End has evolved from a run-down backwater of starving artists into an epicentre of creative energy.

The Shoreditch Grind was our chosen muster point, a peculiar circular building perched on the edge of the roundabout – an espresso and cocktail bar, with a recording studio upstairs.


The Shoreditch Grind

The walk took us through various cross-sections of the Shoreditch hubbub through a mixture of buildings including industrial and warehouse properties, with colourful Graffiti and street art covering many a wall.







Silicon Roundabout is fast becoming Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley, encompassing Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street. It is all happening here with hundreds of new companies rising up and employing thousands of people thus generating a sense of community, excitement and entrepreneurship in the area. It has become a profitable place to invest, attracting Google and Microsoft to set up business in the region.

And down in the subways, short-term rents were allowing entrepreneurs to set up and sell all manner of stuff.

The Boxpark was an interesting concept – the world’s first container mall house with an eclectic mix of established brands, independent boutiques and restaurants.


The Boxpark


The Tree Office





After lunch at the Old Shoreditch Station, a short presentation from the founder of a tech start-up was squeezed in.

A very competent and interesting talk was given about Makerble, a sort of charity projects subscription service, which can be funded and then followed with issues being addressed and changes implemented as various projects develop.


Then it was onto The Shard, where observation decks provided stunning views across the city.



The Italian architect Renzo Piano designed The Shard, and took inspiration from the spires of London churches and the masts of tall ships as depicted by the 18thcentury Venetian painter Canaletto. The Shard was designed as if a spire-like sculpture was emerging from the River Thames.

As if there wasn’t enough to cram into one day, we finally repaired to the London Bridge Hotel for afternoon tea – with no shortage of tea, cakes and scones on offer.


There must be something about September and city walking. As soon as the weekend was upon us, I joined a bunch of family and friends for a TV & Film Location tour of BIrmingham.

Mark Wilson and Sindy Campbell had joined forces to present an interesting and informative discovery trail of the city’s rich TV and film heritage, both present and future, which covered 40 years of film-making in the city.

We ventured into several filming locations from shows such as Hustle, Dancing on the Edge and Line of Duty. There was also the odd snippet of interest such as Cliff Richards’s starring role in the film Take Me High. His character in this veritable Hollywood blockbuster is sent to Birmingham instead of New York where he helps an unsuccessful Birmingham restaurant compete with its rivals by introducing a new gourmet delight – the Brumburger!

Here’s a couple of before and afters of the film from the website Reelstreets:



Before: Cliff entering Gas Street Basin from Gas Street.


After: A new bridge to take pedestrians over the canal. Gas Street Basin is where the New Main Line Canal of the Birmingham Canal Navigation (BCN) meets the Worcester & Birmingham Canal.

Highlight of the tour was access to the old Birmingham Municipal Bank with its grand ionic columns and Portland stone façade that squats on Broad Street. It is now used as a versatile and regularly used filming location. On the ceiling is an inscription: “Thrift radiates happiness” which could almost apply to me if I wasn’t so downright wanton with money.

In the basement, a door of 12 inch thick steel leads into two-feet-thick concrete walls, which contains the safety deposit strongroom.

Altogether the room houses a total of 10,528 silver deposit boxes, which are all still intact.

These tours are organised in partnership with Film Birmingham and are great way to spend a couple of hours mooching around the city and learning stuff.


Nature Notes Warning (the part where the blog gets down and birdy):

Frampton Marsh always does it for me: the big skies, The Wash awash (although not quite) and bundles of wilderness to get through. Who wouldn’t enjoy a visit here?

Always a favourite with its saltmarsh, scrapes and shimmering pools, this reserve offers up a real pic ‘n’ mix of birdy stuff with an impressive pool of waders taking centre stage. There are plenty of designated trails to follow, so we traipsed aimlessly around a selection of them enjoying good views of Yellow Wagtails, Ruffs, Little Stint, Kingfishers, Spotted Redshanks, Wood Sandpiper as well as Marsh Harrier, and a probable Merlin whooshing past.


Wood Sandpiper


Two fluffy Little Owls were perched over the rubble by a barn and (a possible first for the reserve) a Fulmar.

The Fulmar was out of sorts so we assumed it had made its way up through the gullies of the saltmarsh after suffering some mishap. Or it could have just been out on the lash last night and was recovering.


Fulmar – far from home…


There was still just enough of the month left to squeeze in a trip to the Trentham Estate in Staffordshire.


Apart from the mighty award-winning gardens, there is also a lake, lots of woodland, and a sizeable monkey  enclosure stocked with Barbary Macaques, which can be walked through.

A few of us opted for the miniature train ride up to Monkey Forest (how old are we?) as well as getting the boat back.

However, we did manage to scale the high peak to the monument.





Perseus with a big weapon


And now for a postscript.

That shy and retiring friend of ours, Stevie B, again had to be cajoled into getting up on stage during Musical Bingo at the Old Joint Stock – and it wasn’t even Karaoke night.


Ok, we’ll finish on a little poem – this posting hasn’t had nearly enough culture in it…

Yesterday returneth not,
Maybe tomorrow cometh not,
Today is thine,
Misspend it not.