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Alpha May

Blue

Yes, that is actual blue sky!

It is quite possibly the first of its kind seen around here since July last year (OK, maybe a slight exaggeration there – but not much of one).

Of course, if it’s hot and sunny, the obvious thing to do is to take off to somewhere quiet and peaceful and far from the madding crowd – somewhere like Stratford-upon-Avon on a Bank Holiday Monday!

Street

Stratford-upon-Avon is, of course, birthplace to the most famous writer who ever lived – old Shakey whose prodigious biro penned many a sonnet and balcony scene, and whose venerable status draws tourists aplenty to this little market town.

A procession of vintage cars glided along the street for the annual classic showpiece with some splendid old models being shined and waxed.

Yellow

Car camouflage

But this was not a day for looking at classic cars or for traipsing around museums and old houses, but a day in which a pub with a decent beer garden was to hold sway.

SteveBeerGarden

Steve spots a beer garden

Soon we were meeting up with old friends – matey old beer and chummy cider mainly!

BeerGarden

 

Nature Notes Warning:

Although Ynys-hir in Wales is one of the best places in the country with its fabulous ancient oak woodlands (and Ice Cream I’m talking to you, Rum ‘n’ Raisin…), the West Midland Bird Club’s aim was to clock the Western Woodland Trio of Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and Redstart – a summer visiting threesome that favours the woodlands of the west for their breeding grounds.

Woodies and Pied were quite obliging but the elusive Redstart remained out of reach for most of us.

Trees

However, Ynys-hir offered much more – a Red Kite soared past, its forked tail effortlessly steering the bird over our heads. A pair of Great-spotted Woodpeckers faffed around their nesting hole, the flycatchers were flitting around everywhere, and a medley of songsters were giving it full throttle: Willow Warbler, Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Song Thrush and Chiffchaff.

A Cuckoo perched up atop a low, bendy sapling – no doubt browsing for some poor sap to offload its parenting duties to. According to folklore, the cuckoo is also a good omen for marriage – should you wish to know whom you will marry, take off your shoe when you first hear the cuckoo and you will find a hair the same colour as that of your future spouse.

In his poem ‘The Shepherd’s Week,’ John Gay wrote:

Upon a rising bank I sat adown, 

Then doffed my shoe, and by my troth, I swear,

Therein I spied this yellow frizzled hair

(he then copped off with Robert Redford…)

BluebellsJC

Fen

It wasn’t all about the birds – bluebells, bees and butterflies abounded too. Damselflies and Dragonflies, including a Four-spotted Chaser (thank you Mr Bug Expert), could be seen zipping all over the reserve, with Brimstones leading a charge of butterflies throughout the woods.

Train

PeteBluebells

 

Mid-week, and Craig was headlining at the Barnet Street Bar in Leamington Spa so it was off to the royal town for some first rate comedy and some royal drinking amid the Regency architecture and broad boulevards (OK, just in a bar or two…)

 

ComedyCraig

 

With the good weather threatening to last almost a week, it was a good omen for the weekend’s walk around Herefordshire.

Green

Here’s Jane with a comprehensive guide:

Bosbury – Map: OS Explorer 190

Start: Meet up at Ledbury – car park is just off the main street (near to the market square) in Bye Street (HR8 2AA).

Pub lunch at the Bell Inn in Bosbury – it’s a nice dog friendly pub that serves baguettes as well as a carvery on Sunday (also notable for the poor waitress tripping over when delivering a cheese baguette and sprawling on the lawn. The dogs appreciated the baguette).

The Walk:

Ledbury – Wellington Heath – Bosbury (about half way round) – Oyster Hill – Frith Wood – back to Ledbury

Field

There were several interesting little churches along the way – one at Wellington Heath, another at Coddington, and there was a 12th century church tower stumped in Bosbury itself.

The route cut through Coddington Vineyard, one of the smallest commercial vineyards in the UK.

The dizzy prospect of Ledbury’s church spire during the final descent from the cool Herefordshire Trail was worth the walk alone.

stretch

Most interesting of all was the scenery, elevated views taking in great swathes of the green and the pleasant variety, seeping along with the Malvern Hills often in view, edging along deciduous woodland, through pastures, hop-fields and orchards.

Walkers2

Trig

A short climb up Oyster Hill presented a panoramic view from the distant Black Mountains to the Malvern Hills. The descent along the edge of a wide, flower-strewn valley took us past Hope End House, the childhood home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which was corralled behind a walled garden.

Dandelions

Barretts

Elizabeth was a frail, poorly woman who struggled with a lifelong illness but was strong-willed and fiercely opposed the slavery on which her family’s fortune was founded.

Although her most famous poem was ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ (that enduring staple of wedding speeches everywhere) Lizzy BB also penned a line or two about the Herefordshire countryside in her epic poem Aurora Leigh:

The Herefordshire Landscape

I dared to rest, or wander, – like a rest
Made sweeter for the step upon the grass, –
And view the ground’s most gentle dimplement,
(As if God’s finger touched but did not press
In making England!) such an up and down
Of verdure, – nothing too much up or down
A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky
Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb;
Such nooks of valleys, lined with orchises,
Fed full of noises by invisible streams;
And open pastures, where you scarcely tell
White daisies from white dew, – at intervals
The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out
Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade, –
I thought my father’s land was worthy too
Of being my Shakespeare’s…
Then the thrushes sang,
And shook my pulses and the elms’ new leaves…
I flattered all the beauteous country round,
As poets use; the skies, the clouds, the fields,
The happy violets hiding from the roads
The primroses run down to, carrying gold, –
The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths
‘Twixt dripping ash-boughs, – hedgerows all alive
With birds and gnats and large white butterflies
Which look as if the May-flower had caught life
And palpitated forth upon the wind, –
Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
Farm, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,
Confused with smell of orchards.

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING

I think a line or two about a hair-filled shoe would have enhanced this enormously.

Offside

This month’s Flat Disc Society prepared itself for the World Cup in Russia.

First up was an episode of Look at Life: Behind the World Cup, about the benefits of holding the World Cup in Britain in 1966.

Next was a short feature, Vita di Giacomo – with Giacomo struggling with his faith as he becomes a priest during the summer of 2006 at the time of the World Cup.

The main feature Offside tells the story of a Iranian girl who disguises herself as a boy to see a qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain prior to the 2006 World Cup.

In Iran, female football fans were not allowed into stadiums in case violence or verbal abuse was directed against them.

Despite these films, I wasn’t so over-dosed on celluloid that I could afford to miss the latest Marvel blockbuster:

Avengers

Brilliant!

A fine ramble along our regular Lapworth route was enhanced by glorious sunshine after a misty start. With all manner of rail network disruption going on, it necessitated a taxi being commissioned from Dorridge but it all worked out well in the end…

lapworth

NewABBA

NewABBA2

The New ABBA

Canal

 

World Cup Finally – a cartoon with a footy theme to round things off – back of the net!

anteater

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February Commentary

USA

The Reunion

Matlock Bath last month and this month: just Bath.

Bath is one of those creamy, warm cities garnished with royal crescents, enviable bridges and collectable stony facades. It really is a city just gagging to have some regency feature filmed about it (maybe even a bit of Les Miserables?) or maybe even a novel or two.

Jane Austen was a one-time resident in Bath (although she wasn’t keen on it). She set two of her novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) in Bath.

Bath is probably unchanged in the older part of the city, and many of the places in which she would have twirled her parasol are still there – the Royal Crescent, the Circus, Queen Square, Pulteney Bridge, and the Pump Rooms.

1280px-Royal_Crescent_in_Bath,_England_-_July_2006

Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Just to rub it in, Bath also has the rather splendid River Avon nudging its way under the Pulteney Bridge, which is one of only four bridges in the world to have shops sited across its full span.

Not far from the bridge is Bath Abbey in all its ecclesiastical splendour, towering and imposingly bulky against the grey February skies.

1024px-Roman_Baths_c1900_2

But the main attraction was waiting across the main square.

No, not the remarkable Roman Baths but my Long Island buddies Tom, Laura and Kristine!

A great day was had by all with plenty of reminiscences about last year’s USA trip to Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore and beyond. Obviously, it’s difficult to have a reminisce without a tall frothy one so a suitable drinking den was soon unearthed.

Tom&JC

Peaky Blinders playing a blinder

However, it would be unseemly to visit Bath and not seek out its main attraction, so a seemly bunch of us traipsed our way around this ancient Roman resort.

DressedUp

Getting ready for the pub

Bath has the only thermal spring in Britain, much enjoyed by the Celts before the Romans shouldered their way in sometime around AD43. They built a bath complex called Aquae Sulis – a resort devoted to rest, relaxation and probably a little fooling around.

The main pool is overlooked by a terrace of statues, the hot water itself looking anything but enticing these days with algae fooling around in it.

Baths

The whole complex is quite a feat of engineering, and provided healing hot baths, swimming pools, cold quarters and sweat rooms all ministered to by an impressive plumbing system.

There used to be a high colonnaded hall arching over the baths but it now stands open to the sky. There was once a handy temple nearby for worshipping between washing.

The Sacred Spring, a natural phenomenon where piping hot water hissed up through a crack in the earth, helped this plumbing along. The Romans took it to be the work of the gods.

 

Bowie

 

Speaking of natural phenomenons, the Bowie Experience at the Alexandra Theatre contrived to pay tribute to a musical one (you’ll never guess who?)

Red shoes were put on and Bowie’s life’s soundtrack was, if not danced to, at least enthusiastically nodded to as the concert did justice to his various musical personas from A to Ziggy. Vocalist Lawrence Knight was a convincing stand-in for the great man, and virtually all of Bowie’s hits were powered through – Life on Mars, Spaceman, Space Oddity, Fame, Rebel Rebel and Heroes, finishing on a high with All the Young Dudes.

No sign of the Laughing Gnome though…

 

OldMoor

Old Moor up in South Yorkshire was the venue for a spot of birding this month.

Old Moor is in the heart of the Dearne Valley, and has several trails and pathways to steer the happy wanderer around the open wetlands of reedbeds, meadows, scrapes and meres.

Wigeon

Wigeon

Teasle

Cormorant

Cormorant

The feeding station next to the visitor centre generates as many birds as you’ll be likely to see the rest of the day. Especially good are the finches with good numbers of Bullfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Goldfinch.

Bullfinch2

Bullfinch

The bird feeders attract huge numbers of other species too – Tree Sparrows, Reed Buntings, Robins, Blackbirds and Dunnocks, as well as a decent selection of pigeons and doves. A Kestrel perched up close by but affected such lack of interest that a tiny Bank Vole mustered a few nervous little scurries out from under a log to snack on a seed or two.

Jackdaws mobbed a Marsh Harrier, Goosanders goosed around the pools and a small gathering of barely-visible snipe hunkered down by the water’s edge.

Snipe fun fact: hunters have such difficulty shooting this bird because of its erratic flight that it gave rise to the term ‘sniper’ – meaning a highly-skilled marksman!

Here’s a snipe from the RSPB website (curiously, they don’t have any illustrations of snipers).

snipe

The Winslow Boy – Birmingham Rep

Winslow_Boy_1920x108012_clean_image_high-res-1

This little production was pretty good – not bad at all.

Here’s the Express & Star’s take on it, by Kirsten Rawlins.

At the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, about thirty per cent of the population were practising Christians. There was a rigid class structure and a very strict code of moral ethics. Perhaps the most highly valued of these was to always tell the truth, which is the central plank of Terrence Rattigan’s 1946 drama The Winslow Boy.

TWB0765_ret

Dorothea Myer-Bennett & Raquel

The history of politics is littered with the names of those who have failed in this respect. David Lloyd George sold knighthoods and peerages while John Profumo was involved with prostitutes and spies. Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitkin went to prison for their misdemeanours. In most cases it wasn’t the deed that caused the problem but telling lies about it most certainly was.

The play has 13-year-old cadet Ronnie Winslow expelled from Naval College for allegedly stealing a five-shilling postal order and cashing it.
When questioned by his father he denies the charge and the family decide that they will do whatever is necessary to clear his name.
This requires the hiring of the best barrister in the country, Sir Robert Morton, QC. The case takes nearly two years to be resolved. The Winslows lose most of the family money, the daughter is forced to break off her engagement, and the eldest son has to give up his place at Oxford University while the father’s health deteriorates rapidly. But the mantra ‘Let right be done’ ensures that the family will keep the action going.

The stand-out performance of the night comes from Dorothea Myer-Bennett, as Ronnie’s elder sister Catherine, who is a leader in the early Suffragette movement and clearly a proto-type feminist. She remains committed to her brother’s cause even if she has some doubts.

Timothy Watson gives a nicely judged portrayal of the celebrated barrister and admits that his courtroom style is in the pursuit of what is right. There’s tremendous support from Tessa Peake-Jones (Raquel from Only Fools and Horses!) as Ronnie’s devoted mother Grace and Aden Gillett as his father Arthur.

TWB1448_ret

The production has no quirky distractions and characters are allowed to develop. The drama is carefully unwrapped and tells a compelling story most convincingly.

The play does have a sad irony: It is based on a true story about George Archer-Shee who left his naval college and went to another public school. He was commissioned in the South Staffordshire Regiment at the outbreak of World War One, but was killed in action in the first battle of Ypres in October 1914 aged just nineteen.

 

walk

Now for this month’s walk – a bright, blue spring day ramble just a short hop from Brum. At lunch time, there was a classic car garnering quite a bit of attention in the pub car park (I think it was a 90 year old Austen 7).

Here we go, courtesy of Paul Hands:

Parking & Start :

New Wood Lane, Blakedown – parking on grass verges on left hand side of lane.

GR: 880777     OS map Explorer 219

The Walk:

Take the footpath North to Blakedown. NW past the golf course to Waggon Hill. Then Bridlepaths and footpaths to Churchill via a good viewpoint. Footpaths to Stakenbridge Farm, then on S of Harborough Hill to Broome. Footpaths S from Broome to Drayton for lunch at the Robin Hood – pleasant pub with good food and beer (and a good little sun trap on the patio!)

Austin

After lunch, take the footpaths to Hillpool, Sionhouse Farm. Bridle path over Barnett Hill (good views) and back to the cars.

This is pleasant, gently undulating walk, with lakes, some nice views, not far from Brum.

image001

Lunch Hour

This month, the Flat Disc Society offered a double-bill: two main features with a similar theme.

Lunch Hour, a tale of a romance between a married junior executive (looking not unlike a rogue Alan Partridge!) and one of his designers. They begin their romance by sneakily booking hotel rooms under an assumed name, but before long the lies told to the hoteliers take on their own form.

image002

Une Liasion Pornographique

Next up was Une Liasion Pornographique from 1999.  Unavailable commercially in the UK, Une Liasion Pornographique tells the story of two people who meet after she places a no-strings attached advert in a paper. They share their experiences individually and directly to us after the event. But are their meetings really that simple?

 

Apropos of nothing really, but here’s a Father Ted sketch to nicely round things off this month:

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January Commentary 2018

ColdBeers

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.

MatlockBath

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.

TukTuk

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.

PenMus

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…

pen

englandexplore.com/birmingham

 

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!)

Biders

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.

Birders2

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!)

Hotel

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.

SBLocal

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!)

Drink!

HotelSpa

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.

SanJose

Castillo de San Jose

LanzoFC

“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.

Shrike

Great Grey Shrike at Costa Teguise

cactus

SBBar2

Steve finds his spiritual home

GoldenCorner

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.

Sanderling2

Sanderling

Bar-tailed-Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit

Whimbrel2

Whimbrel

Whimbrel3

plover

Ringed Plover

Compare

Grey Plover

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

boats2

Marina

boats

 

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

SanityBook

http://thesanitycompany.co.uk/product.php?id=8

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!)

Cover

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:

Madre

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!

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December Splendour

Merry-Christmas!

Yes, let’s squeeze another gig in, why don’t we?

Following Queen’s regal offering on the previous evening, pop punk-alternative rock-pop rock-punk rock-skate punk-emo pop-post grunge-emo band, Good Charlotte went at their set-list with renowned vigour, and not a little mascara. The gig was at the 02 Academy, supported by Against The Current.

goodcharlottetour

After more than two decades on the scene, Good Charlotte proved they’re still relevant with lots of younger fans singing and dancing around to their hits. There were also some significantly older fans that should have known better – dad dancing is not a prerequisite when attending these sorts of gigs.
The Maryland band, formed around the Madden twins, opened the sold-out show with hit The Anthem, which had even the oldest members in the crowd jumping around like teenagers (like I said: dad dancing!!!)

This song was followed by The Story of my Old Man, My Bloody Valentine, and Boys and Girls – which every Good Charlotte fan knows the words to (but I don’t, as I’m busy googling this set list).

The final set hit its stride with Dance Floor Anthem, I Just Wanna Live, The River, and finally Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous.

hen-harrier_male_1200x675

The final bird trip of the year was to Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire (loved for the biggest skies and the tiniest creatures).

Wicken Fen is one of Britain’s oldest nature reserves, and has been a National Trust property since 1899.

We first visited this site a few years ago and, despite seemingly having no shortage of wide open spaces and reed beds, we saw very little of note.

It seemed a similar story this time around although there were plenty of Kestrels about but not a great deal else.

Pete and I took an extra long walk that took in the Reach Lode, before doubling back into the reserve and checking out The Mere and Sedge Fen.

It was towards the end of the day, with dusk pooling, that we saw the first Marsh Harriers homing in on their roost for the night. Top sighting though was the male Hen Harrier, which elbowed its way over the fen before settling down and going to reed bed. A splendid view of a splendid bird (as can be seen from the RSPB’s ID guide above).

image001

An evening of laughs with the Wax Elephant comedy night was to be had at a new venue – the Dark Horse in Moseley, with Craig on the bill with Jack ‘n’ Andy and Paul Tonkinson – plus a guest appearance from Joe Lycett.  The club had a very friendly atmosphere, and was held in rooms above the pub. Further ale and banter was to be had downstairs afterwards with open mic entertainment that took us sailing past midnight (rebellious or what?)

Darkness-SQ

It seems to be all about gigs at the moment, and next up was a return to the 02 Academy for a stonking show by The Darkness.

The Blackfoot Gypsies did a decent enough job as warm up before Darkness took the stage, the shy and retiring Justin Hawkins kept his appearance pretty much low profile with a sparkly, spangly cape and tight turquoise cat suit.

The Darkness are good fun to watch but they also have the necessary hard rock credentials to strip away any pretensions of a novelty act. Justin Hawkins is an engaging frontman – few can shriek as fetchingly as he – and he obviously enjoyed the banter with the sell-out crowd.

It was interesting (to me, at least) that the drummer of Darkness was Rufus Taylor, the son of Queen stickman Roger, who I had seen hitting the drums just the other week in the Birmingham Arena.

The hits were belted out (if there was a ballad in there too – it was also belted out) – I Believe In A Thing Called Love, One Way Ticket and, of course, Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End).

 

Before the Film Club, it was time to off-piste and watch something totally mainstream. Justice League…

justice-league-poster-social

…before the Flat Disc Film Club reigned us in for more challenging reels. This month’s festive feature was Home For Christmas, a Norwegian yuletide yarn that Wikipedia will now explain:

The film follows several different Christmas celebrations in the small Norwegian town of Skogli. Paul is a thirty-three-year-old labourer who marches into his doctor’s office demanding a prescription, then proceeds to lay bare all his woes. The doctor is beleaguered by his own marital and financial difficulties (he’s left his upset wife to work emergency calls on Christmas Eve). There’s also an elderly man preparing an esoteric ritual, a vagrant who runs into an old flame, a middle-aged couple in the throes of passion, a boy hopelessly in love with his Muslim neighbor, and a young émigré couple whose car breaks down as the woman goes into labour.

Home_for_Christmas_poster

A short feature, Every Day Except Christmas, introduced the characters, and sights and sounds at London’s Covent Garden market in a bygone era (1957). The style of the documentary was ground-breaking at the time, showing working class Britain in the 1950s going about their business in a style which modern reality TV owes much to.

 

Malvern2

Paul H led the next walk – to the Malvern Hills – and here’s the usual lead-up:

Parking and start:

Quarry car park between West Malvern and Upper Wyche. GR 767448. Above the Spout marked on the OS map: OS map:  Explorer 190

The walk can be flexible depending on how the weather is (it was crap!). The plan is to meander around North Hill, then drop down to St. Anne`s well for a cuppa (it was closed!). From here to Wyche cutting and the pub, The Wyche Inn.

After the pub we can climb Worcestershire Beacon and down to the cars via the Quarry.

Malvern

A little more walking – and a heap more drinking with a Boxing Day wander around Sutton Park:

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Of course, a New Year will need to be celebrated in time-honoured fashion (alcohol, friends, family) so we took ourselves off to Matlock in readiness to ring in the new, and to wring out the old.

But first, this little gem from YouTube:  “Fairytale of New Street”:

 

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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…:

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Done

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Clap

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What..

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Outside

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Monroes

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Dance

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Gary

Chair

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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.

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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.

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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!

Symptoms

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.

Sarah

Chuffed to be here…

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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.

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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.

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A Banksy on a wall

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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

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Goodbye July

Malverns

The Malverns

A fairly quiet month hardly deserving of a post so its going to be mainly filler and not killer this time!

In between bouts of drinking and watching the cultural twin peaks of Wonder Woman, and Spiderman: The Homecoming, there was a nevertheless an excellent walk to record.

This one took in patches of the Forest of Dean, views of the Malvern Hills, and a Roast Beef Ploughman’s at the Glasshouse.

It was Stuart’s walk and here’s the gen:

Map: Explorer sheet OL14 Wye Valley & Forest of Dean

GR: SO721260.

The walk:

The walk is mainly along field paths, through woods, and along quiet country lanes.

Go west from the car park in the market town of Newent, across playing fields then SW to Briery Hill. Follow Three Choirs Way southwards to Clifford’s Mesne, continuing along quiet lanes past the now closed Yew Tree Inn to ascend a long but not difficult climb to summit of May Hill (977 ft).

Crop

Tree

There are breath-taking views to Malvern Hills, Black Mountains, and the Severn Estuary (let’s hope for good weather). From the summit continue along Geopark/Wysis Way SE then NE to Glasshouse for lunch at The Glasshouse Inn.

Dogs are not allowed in the pub but there are pleasant gardens.

Glasshouse

After lunch we head northwards through the pleasant but occasionally muddy Newent Woods, and then past apple orchards to return to the cars.

 

1930s Poet Laureate John Masefield describes May Hill in his narrative poem “The Everlasting Mercy.”

It’s about a fist fight with a fellow poacher over territory with the main protagonist called Saul Kane with some Christian/Satan overtones and implications.

Its way too long to reproduce here so here’s some of the more memorable verses. It’s worth reading just to roll out the fantastic names of two of the peripheral characters: Doxy Jane and Dicky Twot!

Ploughing the hill with steady yoke
Of pine-trees lightning-struck and broke.
I’ve marked the May Hill ploughman stay
There on his hill, day after day
Driving his team against the sky,
While men and women live and die.
And now and then he seems to stoop
To clear the coulter with the scoop,
Or touch an ox to haw or gee
While Severn stream goes out to sea

and this bit’s quite good:

“Where is it, then? O stop the bell.”
I stopped and called: “It’s fire of hell;
And this is Sodom and Gomorrah,
And now I’ll burn you up, begorra.”

as is this:

“After him,” “Catch him,” “Out him,” ” Scrob him.”
“We’ll give him hell.” “By God, we’ll mob him.”
“We’ll duck him, scrout him, flog him, fratch him.”
“All right,” I said. “But first you’ll catch him.”

Finally…

They drove (a dodge that never fails)
A pin beneath my finger nails.
They poured what seemed a running beck
Of cold spring water down my neck;
Jim with a lancet quick as flies
Lowered the swelling round my eyes.
They sluiced my legs and fanned my face
Through all that blessed minute’s grace;
They gave my calves a thorough kneading,
They salved my cuts and stopped the bleeding.
A gulp of liquor dulled the pain,
And then the flasks clinked again.

This last bit was after the Boxing Day Sales at Selfridges…

Speaking of which: This was taken at the Green Man in Harborne on July 24th – WAY TOO EARLY!!!

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Noooooo!!!!!!

 

Sometimes, when you’re feeling a bit peckish, only a Seafood Fujiyakko will do, and fortunately one was at hand for our footy A-Team social at the Miyako Teppanyaki restaurant .

Kraaled around a Japanese teppan grill (with live cooking and loose egg throwing), an entertaining evening was in store with salmon, lobster and scallops being fired up on the Barbie. Of course, we had to have some traditional Japanese ale to help us along.

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Gavin failed to catch the egg in his mouth

A visit to the Falconry Experience in Swadlincote ensured a surfeit of raptors for our appreciation. For the first section there was a selection of owls including Little Owl, Barn Owl and Eagle Owl before the falcons, hawks and eagles took centre stage. The Kestrel, Harris Hawk, Buzzard and Tawny Eagle were all mightily impressive but even a guest appearance from a Kookaburra couldn’t diminish the star of the show – a Golden Eagle.

The talons on this eagle are impressive enough – then you learn they have a gripping strength of over 700 psi, which is up there with me hanging onto a Topic (the average person has a grip strength of about 20 psi.)

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Check out the talons…

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Nature Note: Raptor comes from the Latin word “rapere” which means to seize by force.

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And finally, this cartoon from the Crow Collection – I always liked this one but it never sold particularly well. I just like the silliness of it…

glacier copy

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May days

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You wouldn’t have needed boots to step out with the fell-walking club this month: a droll Cotswold stroll in blazing sunshine.

Pushing through woods thick with wild garlic (as well as some fairly miffed garlic and some indignant bluebells) and up and over rolling hills and woody glades. From Broadway, the circuit took in the villages of Buckland, Laverton, and Stanton before (the only challenging bit) clumping up Shenbarrow Hill and onto Snowshill for a pint or two before back to Broadway for some suitable regard giving.

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It was Roy’s walk and here is his only slightly longer proposal:

Map: OS Explorer OL45 (The Cotswolds)

Start: Long stay car park Leamington Road, Broadway

GR: 101377

Walk through Broadway Village and after church though fields to Buckland and Laverton and then on to Stanton. Long climb to Shenbarrow (3 acre hill fort 700BC). Then descend to Snowshill for lunch at Snowshill Arms.

Then an afternoon climb past Brockhampton Farm due north and finishing through bluebell woods to Broadway.

Covering sections of Winchcombe Way and Cotswold Way, on mainly tracks and field paths. No mud!

Garlic

Buttercups

Breather

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Oilseed

 

A mid-week Stag-do at the Glee Club for Mark K’s forthcoming nuptials was a brilliant stage in which to celebrate in suitably boozy fashion at the Comedy Carousel.

Hosted by Andy Robinson – who provided some brilliant compering – was ably assisted by comedians Bec Hill and Sunderland’s Matt Reed.

It was a fun night with one of our heckling entourage being heckled by a heckler.

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The A-Team at the Glee Club

The final Flat Disc Society evening for the season was a trilogy of films taking inspiration from the 5th International Conference on Roundabouts in Green Bay, Wisconsin (naturally).

First up was a short film from 1943: Piccadilly Roundabout A British Council film in which a soldier in a Far Eastern post explains to his mate the special significance of Piccadilly to a Londoner.

Next was an edition of Roundabout from May 1963. Roundabout was a series of short, monthly promotional films created by the Central Office of Information for distribution across the Commonwealth. This particular edition features, among other things, the opening of the new terminal building at Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong (now closed, but still visible across Kowloon Bay).

Finally, the main event was The Magic Roundabout’s 1972 feature film Dougal and the Blue Cat. There’s a new arrival in the Magic Garden in the form of a blue cat called Buxton, which spells trouble for the gang. Some very strange things begin to happen and it’s up to Dougal to save the day (spoiler alert: he did!)

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And finally, a birding trip to that most dead brilliant of RSPB reserves – Ynys-hir, which is Welsh for ‘dead brilliant reserve.’

Crunched up in the Dyfi valley, Ynys-hir puts out saltmarsh, oak woodlands and wetlands in tantalising array and, with a cast of thousands amongst its fauna and flora, there is always a cameo or two to savour.

Best one was the Red Kite swooping in to take Oystercatcher chick, which it then started munching away on as it swept back up into its native skies.

There was a Blue Tit bathing in the flooded siding of the railway tracks, and a pair of Pied Flycatchers seeing off a Great Spotted Woodpecker, which we were initially alerted to by the squabbling woodpecker chicks in a nearby tree hole. Some tidy Redstarts also drew more than a cursory glance being one of the UKs most splendid birds, and there were also scrunched up views of some heat-haze blurred Osprey dots in the distance.

On the top end of the view overlooking the estuary, a not so young lady asked us if we had any sweeties or goodies to spare for her companion who was struggling a bit with low blood sugar. Unfortunately, we didn’t – and said as much – to which said lady whipped out a Tunnocks chocolate wafer from her rucksack and thrust it at him.

Well, you better have this then, she said.

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Finally, to finish off the month, there was a pleasant afternoon in London wade through.

Walked through Hyde Park, with its unnervingly tame waterfowl where even a Coot was confident enough to nest on the edge of the lake (actually on the pedestrianised area surrounding the water), and swans and geese seemed happier out of the water than in it.

Coot

A couple of hours spent in the Natural History Museum is never enough but I managed to soak up the Creepy Crawlies gallery and the excellent Images of Nature exhibition.

Then it was off to the Thistle Hotel at Terminal 5 for a nice little chill-out before the morning flight to Romania…