When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
“He was a man who used to notice such things”?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
“To him this must have been a familiar sight.”

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, “He strove that such innocent creatures should
come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.”

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand
at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
“He was one who had an eye for such mysteries”?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
“He hears it not now, but used to notice such things”?

Thomas Hardy

Solitary Walker recommended this poem in his comment on my last post. I liked it so much, I thought that I would share it here.


Eyes Wide Open

In Eaves wood on Friday I noticed that a yew I passed was covered in small yellow flowers. Standing right next door was another yew without flowers. I couldn’t remember seeing yew flowers before. For the rest of day I kept my eyes peeled. I passed many yew trees, but only a few had the yellow flowers on. So, what’s going on?

Apparently, yews are dioecious, which is to say that each tree is either male or female. Only the male trees have the yellow flowers. Female flowers are green and much less noticeable. Only female trees have the red berries in autumn. I also read that the flowers generally appear in March, so some of the other trees that I examined were probably male, but not yet in flower.

I also noticed that some of the many hollies I passed still retained some of their berries. (Holly is another dioecious species)

By one of the paths in Eaves Wood a large owl nesting box has been erected in a tree. I think that I’ve seen it before, but had completely forgotten about it.

Near Silverdale Moss back in the woods is the shell of a tall ruined building. Except in the winter the leaves on the trees will almost certainly obscure it, but I’ve been this way in winter many times before and I can’t remember ever noticing it.

Have I been walking around with blinkers on or is my memory just very selective? Or both?

The knowledge that I will be writing the blog has definitely made me take more careful note of what I see on my walks, and I am sure that I have enjoyed them more as a consequence. It has also made me think more carefully about where I go. On Sunday morning I set out thinking: “Haven’t been to Jenny Brown’s point since I started my blog.” – so I ended up heading that way.


A generally bright and very windy day today. When the showers came they brought a rainbow and since Amy is currently obsessed with rainbows, that was ok.


Driving home from Arnside this evening a roe deer hopped over the wall in front of me, crossed the road and then effortlessly sprang over the fence and disappeared into the woods at Gait Barrows.

Eyes Wide Open

Serendipity Too

It didn’t look like it was raining before I left the house this morning, but as I crossed the field a fine drenching mizzle was blowing across like smoke. There were no oystercatchers about (the tide must be out!), and the crows and gulls were airborne flotsam tumbling in the wind.

Through Pointer Wood and Clark’s Lot and along Hollins Lane brought me to the path that descends through woodland down onto the salt marsh. Undeterred by the weather, the woodland birds were singing cheerfully. Apparently, the simple tee-cher call of the great tit which I heard so often in Weardale is characteristic, but only half of the story: great tits also have a bewildering range of other songs. (I gleaned this info from Birds Britannica by Richard Mabey and Mark Cocker). As I walked through the woods a great tit sitting on a nearby branch trilled in what might have been a second rate imitation of a robin. Shortly afterwards a robin gave a demonstration of how it should be done. Here’s a poser – why is it that the songs of woodland (and therefore garden) birds seem to us to be so cheerful and uplifting where as the birds of open spaces – I’m thinking of the crows and the gulls, and the curlew, dunlin and oystercatchers that I heard later – sound so desolate and mournful? It can hardly be something inherent in the calls – I can’t imagine that Curlews are any less happy with their lot than robins – so it must be something to do with our perception. Perhaps our response is hard-wired and reflects our prehistoric affinity with woodland and its sounds?

As the path begins to emerge from the woods, there’s a fine example of limestone pavement, with several trees rooted straight onto the rock, a tenacity that always impresses me.

On the opposite side of the path is an apparent botanical curiosity – an ivy tree.

Actually it’s a hawthorn which is completely swamped by ivy. Because there are several hawthorns here which have grown into shrubs or small mature trees – rather then being trimmed into a hedge – this is a good place to come when the ‘maytrees’ are flowering.

Just beyond here I dropped onto the marsh and walking into the teeth of the wind and the rain was very cold and very wet. The path follows a small stream which flows into Quicksand Pool the stream that drains Leighton Moss. Here a pied wagtail was skittering down the sandy bank only to be blown backwards to its starting position. I watched him try this several times, and since he didn’t seem to be about to abandon this sisyphean task, I left him to it.

A curlew glided across the marsh. On the sands large groups of dunlin trilled and cried.

I passed the old chimney, the remnants of a smelting works and then gained the road and a modicum of shelter. By now my thoughts were firmly centred on home, dry clothes and a hot cup of tea.

But when I reached Jenny Brown’s Point and went through the gate onto Jack Scout, I saw what I had been looking for on Friday: a magnificent display of daffodils. They were right on the cliff edge and as I tried to work out whether I could find a vantage point for a photo a flock of geese came flying past heading northward along the coast.

In the picture they look miles away, but to me they seemed pretty close, and also very low – almost at eye level. This is one of the groups from several that flew by. I couldn’t say for certain what kind they were, but I think canada geese.

The huge wall disappearing into the bay is what remains of a failed nineteenth century attempt to reclaim land from Morecambe Bay.

Later, as I was on St John’s Avenue and almost home – two blue tits on the road apparently fighting. More fighting tits!


After my walk, we took the children swimming. When we got home for lunch it had brightened up considerably so we decided to walk to Woodwell and then to treat ourselves at the Wolfhouse Gallery’s cafe.

With Amy and Ben on their likebikes its usually our turn to struggle to keep up. (Ben hasn’t fully woken from his afternoon nap here)

This is the ‘bear cave’ (according to Ben) under Woodwell cliff.

It being February, we sat outside (near the play area – we have no choice!).

It did give a great vantage point to watch a crow dive-bombing the tail of a buzzard – which no doubt had some tasty morsel that the crow coveted.

Serendipity Too


Angela took the kids to Bowness to meet friends, leaving me with another opportunity to get out for a longer walk.

The lady who served me in the Co-Op this morning described the weather as ‘blustery’. A fine example of the English knack of understatement.

I cut through Eaves Wood and Holgates caravan park heading for Far Arnside. As I crossed the fields I could see that the tide was in, and that there were whitecaps in the bay, which is fairly unusual. I had decided to head this way because the woods beyond Far Arnside are the best place I know of locally to see wild daffodils.

There were some flowering, but I shall have to go back to see it at its best.

But perhaps subconsciously I had realised that just after a full-moon the sea was likely to be dramatic. Or perhaps serendipity was at work. The tide was unusually high, and the wind was driving waves into the cliffs.

There’s always something to see along this path. During the course of the year it provides an enormous variety of flowers. Whilst this is not the best time, there’s always gorse:

As I rounded the corner into the Kent estuary the sun was dimly showing through the clouds, and a few patches of blue had appeared. As always, turning the corner also offered some respite from the wind.

I would normally drop down to walk on the sand here, but clearly not an option today.

From White Creek…

the path follows the edge of the estuary, but it was underwater today. Fortunately, an alternative route takes a more direct inland route to rejoin the estuary at New Barns.

Where the road, and the land between the river and the road were all underwater. I managed to get through dry shod. As I left the road to head up Arnside Knot (on the right in the photo) I saw the bodies of perhaps sixty moles hanging from a wire fence. I understand that moles can be pests, but its sad that this is necessary.

Turning to shut the gate at the edge of the woods I noticed for the first time that across the field in the hedge bottom a heron was poised, completely motionless. These fields are very flat, and fringed by reeds. At some time they must have been another of the areas mosses. The heron eventually turned its head and then took off and coasted over the hedge.

Even when you think that you know an area really well, there can be new things to discover. I only came across this little cave on Arnside Knot last year (whilst orienteering) and this is the first time I’ve been back.

I resisted the temptation to crawl inside and took a photo of this moss on the rock above the cave instead.

From here it was a short walk to Heathwaite, where I ate my ham sandwiches sitting on a fallen birch trunk. I was soon cold, and when I set off again it was under darkening skies.

In the woods on Heathwaite I had a fleeting glimpse of a greater spotted woodpecker. I’ve been hearing them drumming a lot, but this is the first I’ve seen this year. In fact I couldn’t swear that it was a woodpecker because of how briefly I saw it, but the flash of colour, its size, the height at which it flew and the way in which it flew combine to make me feel pretty confident. I believe that proper birdwatchers call the distinctive characteristics that make a bird identifiable in awkward circumstances its jiss.

From the top of the Knot I took an unfamiliar route that gave a great view of the restored wetland at Silverdale Moss. Like Barrow Scout Field this area has been very quietly purchased by the RSPB and flooded to create an extra habitat for Bitterns.

I headed across the fields towards Silverdale Moss to take a closer look.

As I came nearer I saw a swan splash away from one of the meres, circle and then touch down again further away. Just the head of a heron was visible poking above the coarse grass at the edge of the reserve. A kestrel swung over and began to hover almost exactly over the heron, the heron didn’t seem to like this and flapped away.

On the far side of the moss I came across a huge oak. The trunk split into two at about eight feet. Below that the main trunk had a a large fissure slowly opening and closing in the breeze. Like the beat of an ancient heart. Presumably, sometime soon, at least half of the tree will go over.

Heading towards Haweswater I saw perhaps a dozen long-tail tits bobbing about in the branches of path side trees. Ironically, I had only just been remembering seeing a few in our garden this morning and thinking that whilst I see them in the garden reasonably often I never seem to see them anywhere else.

My view of the long-tail tits was hampered by the raindrops on my glasses, and as I headed home past Haweswater and through Eaves Wood the showers turned to more persistent rain and, as I was almost home, to a proper downpour.

No walk (or blog) seems to be complete without some fungi, so:

Doesn’t this look like a foot?


Plant Recognition Software

Out briefly yesterday with Sam in the buggy. I was only planning to do some grocery shopping in the village, but he fell asleep just as I got home, so I took him and the shopping across the field to Stankelt Road and then round Bottoms lane and back. The farmer has been muck-spreading and the fields were busy with crows, oystercatchers and black-headed gulls (some of whom are beginning to regain their trademark black heads).

I’m not sure that I can subscribe to the Solvitur Ambulando idea, because I don’t know that I have ever solved any problems by walking, but I do think that walking often provides an escape from problems. For me it’s also a space in which to do some thinking.

Here’s something that has crossed my mind recently. We all know that we can type a word or phrase into a search engine and get an image in return. What if there was a search engine that worked the other way around? Enter an image (I’m thinking of a photo of a plant, a bird, a mountain…) and find out what it is that your image shows. Apparently some cameras can now recognise your family members – which must be useful if you have a large family and a bad memory for faces – so the technology surely can’t be far off?

Of course there would be all sorts of commercial spin-offs. Medical applications could computerise diagnosis of skin complaints etc.

Feel free to take this idea and run with it, but just remember – you heard it here first.

Plant Recognition Software

Normal Service Is Resumed

On Tuesday we took the kids to Durham. The plan was to shop for children’s shoes, have a walk along the River Wear, and to look around the Cathedral.

We managed to fit all of those things in, although somehow we seemed to spend most of the day in the Cathedral’s cafe.

It was another bright, clear day. On the river, Cormorants were stretched out sunning themselves at the top of a weir. We watched a man throwing bread off a high bridge and the black-headed gulls dexterously catching it mid-air.

As we drove the few miles back to Angela’s mum and dad’s we entered a thick fog. the next morning the fog had left everything with a magical coating of hoar frost. On the way home the fog seemed to offer the promise of lifting. It felt like sunshine was on the way. We stopped in Barnard Castle, where the Castle was unfortunately closed, but the kids had a great time picking-up bargains in an Oxfam shop. (Toys and games half-price, Children’s books 10p).

As we crossed the Pennines it was still cloudy but the quality of the light changed, and the white clouds overhead became ominous black ones.

It was great while it lasted, but wet and windy weather is back.

Normal Service Is Resumed

Weardale Walk

There was a curious feeling in the air, a slightly gleeful sense of playing truant from the proper order of things. When, we wondered, would normal service be resumed? When would we have to be glum again?

Richard Mabey Nature Cure

On Monday I was definitely playing truant form the proper order of things. Doctor Sun was still in attendance, Angela had dropped me off at Sunderland bridge on her way to meet an old friend and her new baby and the kids were terrorising my in-laws. Ahead of me several miles of the Weardale Way and several hours of selfish solitary pleasure.

Initially I backtracked slightly, heading upstream, the ‘wrong way’, to take in Croxdale Hall. The hall was coyly cloaked by trees and difficult to see properly, but this is the little chapel beside it.

From the Hall an avenue of magnificent trees led me down to the river Wear. There are three bridges here.

Croxdale Bridge

Sunderland Bridge

…and Croxdale Viaduct.

This first section of the walk was wonderfully tranquil and relaxing. Aside from the sounds of the river, my only company were the pugilistic robins and the two-note great tits. Two species whose songs a half-arsed bird-watcher like myself can identify because they have the good manners to show themselves whilst singing.

There must have been a mist or a fog down in the valley in the night, because everything was covered in hoar-frost.

The fields were frozen too, but in the strong sunlight the thaw was such that I could hear the water dripping from the riverside ash, and the frosting turned to silvery droplets, like the ones on these past-their-sell-by-date burdocks:

I passed Spring Wood on the far bank…

and crossed the road at Page Bank Bridge. “Opened by the Right Honourable Tony Blair 1996” said the small plaque.

The right of way on the map implausibly passes through one of the outbuildings at Lowfield Farm. Ignoring it, I stuck to the river bank and was rewarded with a duck that I couldn’t place. It was under the far, shaded bank of the river but from what I could see, was mostly white, with a black back, a very dark head and bright orange or even red feet. It didn’t seem to appreciate the attention and flew upstream and away from my prying.

After Furness Mill I took a path that climbed beside Hunwick Gill.

I decided to leave the Weardale Way at least for a while, and to follow the old railway line into Bishop Auckland. I thought that the slight gain in height might give better views, and that a straight level trail might get me to Bishop and some lunch that bit faster. For the most part the path was enclosed either by embankments or by scrubby hedges, but I did get some views and after crossing Newton Cap viaduct (now carrying the main road) into Bishop, a filling meal at a greasy spoon.

The next section to Escomb would be my last opportunity to walk by the river bank today.

I saw another of my U.S.D.s (Unidentified Flying Ducks), but this time he had a female companion. or…two, no…three. They were mostly grey, with a crested chestnut head. Goosanders! So why the earlier confusion? Because I have always seen them in pairs. Later the male would fly past at tree level, wings whistling, orange feet tucked neatly, aerodynamically beneath his tail. Later still I would see another (or the same?) lone male fly back downstream.

After Escomb the path follows the valley, but strays from the river. A series of old gravel pits have been flooded and many of them were teeming with birds.

Between Willington and Bishop Auckland the path had been a bit busier, but now I had it to myself again. This time the slight elevation did give great views across the valley. Even away from the river, the trees were often willow and alder:

Where the path followed the edge of Holme wood, and a small stream, which must at some time have been straightened, there was a fabulous display of snowdrops.

In the fields between the wood and a fishery a huge flock of greylag geese had gathered. Spooked by my proximity they noisily took to the sky. Since there were probably between one and two hundred of them this was a very spectacular sight and sound.

I had a tantalising view of Witton Castle’s battlements, and then crossed the river for the last time at Whitton bridge.

A heron flapped lazily overhead.

The path now clinging to the hillside, the view of the sun dropping into the hills behind MCNeil Bottoms Quarry, which was another man-made lake, was excellent.

The copse above McNeil farm, and its neighbour Sandy Bank Wood were full of the ghostly trunks of silver birch. Above them the moon was high and almost full, its surface marked by dark continents or seas. I dropped down to Wadley Beck and with the sun sinking low had to pull on my hat and gloves as the air began to chill.

I left the Weardale way and followed Wadley Beck along the edge of Hollin Hall Wood, again mainly birches. This rotting trunk hosts razor strop fungus.

I spiraled in on Crook and my in-laws home, crossing the last few fields in the dark.

I had been walking for seven and half hours and I think that I must have covered about twenty miles. It was mostly pretty level, and where there was climbing to be done I found myself puffing and blowing like a cart horse in harness, but I’ve felt no ill-effects and I’m looking forward to my next bout of self-indulgence.

Weardale Walk

Memory Maps

On Sunday morning, with the weather still clear and sunny, I took Amy and Sam back to Woodwell.

Without Ben to play with, Amy fell back on talking to me, which was a great delight. Already different parts of our route are linked in Amy’s mind with memories, associations, activities and even future projects.

“We walked here with playgroup Dad, when Ben had chickenpox.”

“We came back this way from the barbecue in the dark with our torches”

Where the path scrambles down Woodwell cliff:

“We climbed up here once. You helped Ben and Andy helped me.”

When we heard a woodpecker drumming:

“I want to see a woodpecker. Where could I see one?”

After our last visit Woodwell is now not only The Place With The Treasure, but also The Place To Fish For Pondweed.

In this ambition, Amy was thwarted because the pond was frozen over. But this prompted a new game in its turn: Breaking The Ice. She first tried hitting it with a stick, then throwing pebbles at it, which skittered across the surface “like marbles”. Finally she found a larger stone, which when dropped onto the ice did at least produce some cracks, and although it rested on the surface, perhaps a hidden hole, because a number of silvery bubbles of air appeared, trapped against the ice.

I’ll give Amy the last word. When we saw three bullfinches in the treetops (which don’t seem to interest her when they are on the feeders in our garden, but which had her complete attention flitting allusively from tree to tree):

“Shhh. Shhh Dad. Shhhhhhh!”

Memory Maps

Nature Cure

I’ve just finished reading Nature Cure by Richard Mabey. It’s a mixture of autobiography and nature writing, covering his recovery from depression and his reengagement with the natural world.

It’s beautifully written, and a real pleasure to read.

(My copy will be back in Lancaster library next week, but click on the picture if you want to see it at Amazon)

In one passage in the book he describes the work of a biologist, Bernd Heinrich who observed ravens by dragging carcasses into the hills and then sleeping beside them.

He was surprised to discover that the ravens were using a ‘yelling’ call to summon more of their own kind to share in the bounty.

After many years of study, hypothesising and contemplation he finally concluded that:

The yelling, feeding mobs are juveniles, doing what all young creatures do when they have time on their hands: forming gangs, looking for pick-ups, showing off, making friends, seeking status, having fun.

Mabey is interested too in the daredevil antics of swifts. Later, he describes a dance performed by cranes. Perhaps, he suggests, not all animal activity fits neatly into a Darwinian model of the struggle to survive and reproduce.

I mention this because the behaviour of the great tits that we saw seems in retrospect more like boisterous rough and tumble than the wary and ruthless acts of genuine combatants.

Nature Cure

Fighting Tits

Yet another clear and sunny day, although with a chill breeze and the temperature just above freezing, it actually felt like February for a change.

Today the whole family made it out for a walk. We drove to Milnthorpe and after briefly investigating the swings, slides and climbing frames, set off across Dallam Deer Park. The kids enjoyed the gaggle of Mallards and the Solitary swan in the River Bela, but were too excited by the series of waymark posts to take much interest in the herd of Fallow Deer which live here.

On the track through Haverbrack we found a dead rat, which was the incident today which made the biggest impression on Ben. He also enjoyed accumulating his usual collection of sticks, acorns, pinecones and feathers (some striking pheasant tail feathers which he described as being “like Cheetahs”).

Alerted by the whirr and clap of their wingbeats we watched two swans take off and then circle the large pond below Haverbrack. After climbing through the woods, we stopped for a snack at the top of Haverbrack bank. It’s only 110m, but it has a view out of all proportion to its modest size. Milnthorpe Sands and the Kent Estuary lead the eye northward and into the Lyth valley and the fells beyond.

In the woods near Sandside we stopped to watch as four Great Tits burst through the branches beside us. They tumbled and chased in close pursuit of each other, when it seemed that one of the birds had fallen from a branch into the leaf litter below. A confusing flurry of yellow, blue and black and of wings, legs, backs etc made me think that the bird was injured, but then I realised that in fact all four birds were on the floor, and they appeared to be fighting each other. Soon they were airborne again and squabbling noisily whilst slaloming amongst the trees.

By the weir on the Bela, Amy and I stopped to count the ducks, swans and geese. Amy told me: “Dad, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen”.

Back in the Deer Park, a pair of Goosanders and some Tufted Ducks stayed well downstream of the Mallard mob.

Entering the woods on Haverbrack bank.

Fighting Tits