Local Patch - Oxford

It’s good to have a local patch.  The place nearby that you go to as a stand-by when you just want to spend a bit of time outside.   When I’m in Oxford,  the C S Lewis community nature reserve is my local patch.  

The reserve is managed by BBOWT (the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust), and it’s used by lots of local folks.  Some for their fresh-air or jogging fix, others for dog walking and some just as a short cut through to Shotover Country Park.

The reserve was once, long ago, C S Lewis’ back garden, and his house ‘The Kilns’ still sits in front of the reserve.  Several houses have appeared on other parts of the old garden as the years have gone by, but it’s still fun to think of C S Lewis wandering on what is now the reserve as he conjured up the ideas for Narnia.

There are a couple of Victorian-era clay pits in the reserve - both now water-filled - that provide a lovely habitat for a reasonably good range of birds - on a good day you’ll see mallard, moorhen and coots and lots of small birds in the trees above the ponds.  On a really good day the local heron and kingfisher will put in an appearance too.

Although I’ve lived near the reserve for close to 30 years, it’s really only over the last 7 or 8 years that I’ve been visiting regularly, and for the last 3 or 4 I’ve been involved in at least some of the fairly regular volunteer work parties that meet 5 or 6 times each year.

Here are a few of the pictures from my collection…









Tale of Two Cats

I don’t often do cat posts here, but just occasionally it is needed.

We first encountered Moff and Koop at the Oxford Animal Sanctuary just over a year ago - and they came to stay with us at the beginning of March 2017, so we’ve just got to their first adoption-day.

These two, we think they’re siblings, were c.19 years old when they moved in with us, so they were already well into the geriatric age range.

They had lived with an elderly Oxfordshire couple and M & K really didn’t take well to life in the hustle and bustle of the Animal Sanctuary.  Most of their time was spent hiding under things or eating.  Our first tasks were to encourage them to come of hiding and to lose a bit of the excess weight.

The first few days were challenging - much of our time was spent trying to figure out where the latest hiding place was and they always hid in different places (being siblings doesn’t mean they like each other!).

Once we’d got past the staying hidden 24 hours-a-day phase, we gradually introduced (or re-introduced) them to Outside.  Again, this was a bit of a shock for them - probably sensory overload!

But over the months they’ve both spent more and more time out of hiding and whenever they get the chance, and it's warm enough, around the garden too.  They are both past the climbing-fences stage of life, but they do know that the garden is their territory and any visitor from around the neighbourhood soon gets escorted off the premises.

I’m not sure they are ever going to be lap-cats, but they do like to sit as close to you as they can without climbing onto you.

It really has been a delight seeing them emerge from hiding and to appear to be enjoying life over the past 12 months.

And, yes they have both lost weight!  And we still don't know where the names come from, but they seem to suit.

Moff - out of hiding

Koop - watching for intruders in the garden

Koop - taking the sun

Best Mates - or possibly just keeping warm

Shetland January/February 2018

When people find out that we have a house on Shetland, one of the first reactions is often something like “I expect you spend time there in the summer”.  The expectation being that since it’s a long way North it likely to be a snow-blasted near-Arctic wilderness where the locals get periodically polished off by marauding polar bears (except for the ones that are polished off by other locals, see Jimmy Perez for further details).
And truth be told, there are occasional winter days where the place does feel like a snow-blasted near-Arctic wilderness. But they are pretty rare. Yes, it can be a seriously breezy, and fence maintenance is a regular local pastime.
However in the depths of winter you can get splendid weather just as you can get rubbish weather at other times of the year too.

One of the reasons I like being on Shetland in winter is for the days between the storms - I've included a few pictures that give a flavour of Shetland at this time of year.

Rainbow Wave - West Voe of Sumburgh

Compass Head from St Ninian's Isle

Scat Ness - Sunshine and Waves

Snow Clouds over south Shetland

Still weather at St Ninian's Isle

Wave power at Scat Ness

Waves at the Hog of Brei Geo, Scat Ness

Snow-capped Compass Head from Scat Ness
There are more pictures from this Shetland trip on Flickr.

First Impressions

On this weekend in 2007 we started our first visit to Shetland.  We flew up from Heathrow via Glasgow and arrived at Sumburgh Airport mid-afternoon on Saturday 27 January 2007.  My Shetland geography wasn’t very good at that point and I remember being rather surprised about how little time it took to get from the airport terminal to our hotel.  It took significantly longer to get our small group into the minibus than it did to drive the few hundred yards round the airport perimeter road to the Sumburgh Hotel.

Sumburgh Head

We came to Shetland mainly to see what Up Helly Aa was all about and to get a fix of the winter wildlife (my recollection is of sea birds and otters).  My other recollection is of the two distinct halves to the week - the group tour (with Shetland Wildlife) and the extra few days we spent exploring the islands on our own. 

Up Helly Aa - The Burning

Watching the Junior Up Helly Aa

The first few days were spent in/around the minibus. I can remember visiting Sumburgh Head, St Ninian's Isle and Scalloway and going (successfully) a bit further north on the mainland in search of arctic hares and otters.  I can also remember the weather being pretty bleak for much (but not all!) of the time - to the point when the group refused, pleading bad weather,  to get out of the minibus at one of the planned stops.  

St Ninian's Beach

The next few days were completely different - we might not have found any more otters, but we did get to see how fantastic the Shetland weather can be even in the middle of winter.  On the day when the other members of the group were dropped at the airport and we collected a hire car, the weather was transformed - from winter bleak to winter sunsine.    The final episode I can recall from that trip was sitting in our car at ‘the old radar station’ on Garth’s Ness in the sunshine. We’d just spent time looking at the Quendale Bay shipwreck - not the Braer - but the older wreck that appears very occasionally at the west end of Quendale Beach.   We certainly didn’t have any inkling that we would wind up spending quite so much time around the south end of Shetland over the years - and despite many walks on Quendale Beach, I’ve never seen the old wreck again.

Quendale Wreck

Once we made it back down south we were so enthused by our first visit to Shetland that we promptly booked a much longer trip for Summer 2007 - and that pretty soon degenerated into finding and buying our Shetland house - just a few yards from east end of Quendale Beach.

I do wonder if our departing memory from that first visit to Shetland had been of cowering in a minibus avoiding the weather rather than sitting in the sunshine looking out to sea if things might have turned out differently.

Back up North, Shetland January 2018

The wikipedia article for the Shetland Islands starts with the phrase “Shetland is a subarctic archipelago” and my journey back to Shetland over the the last few days certainly didn’t give me any reason to challenge that.

When I booked the trip the Met Office suggested that the worst of the weather would be at the start of the week and that by Friday when I was planning to do most of the drive north to Aberdeen the snow would be past and the roads OK.  By the time I started on the journey that optimism had slipped to a “Yellow Snow” warning.  I have always been suspicious of yellow snow.  

By the time I was on the M6 (getting a few hours sleep in the Travelodge at the Knutsford Services) there was an “Amber Snow” warning for most of Scotland and the radio stations were cheerfully reminding us that several hundred drivers had been trapped on the M74 (just north of the border) earlier in the week.

I tend to mostly regard “Yellow” warnings with a bit of a shrug, but I do pay attention to the “Amber” ones.  In this case it looked to me as if the real Amber-ness was going to be later in the day so I headed straight for the car and (after forcing the frozen doors open and hacking the ice off the windscreen - it’s bleak in Knutsford) I headed north.  Up to the border was uneventful (albeit pretty!) and I’d started to get to the point of thinking that the weather wasn’t going to feature.  

Tebay Services - ideal picnic spot
Over the border, however, the clouds started to offer a few flurries then some serious sleet - by time that Stirling appeared on the signposts the snow had reached 10/10 on the #uksnow index.  

At this point I was starting to contemplate pulling over and calling to rearrange my ferry crossing - and when a passing lorry managed to dump so much slush onto my windscreen that the wipers briefly gave up trying, if there had been somewhere to stop I might have done so.  After that I just kept trundling northeastward past Stirling towards Perth.  By time I got to Perth the skies had cleared and the blizzard had slipped from memory.  I’m guessing that the decision to get going early was a good one - a couple of hours later would probably have ensured that roads were impassable.

The Calm off the Aberdeen Coast
While most of southern Scotland had submerged under a snowdrift, Aberdeen was still and calm - and the 12 hour ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick was as smooth as I can recall.

Early Saturday morning on Shetland generally isn’t very busy - it’s a fine time to stock up at Tescos - and a couple of inches of fresh snow made everything even quieter.  The temperature was down to around -3C on the higher ground, but down at the south end of Shetland it was just about freezing and there was just enough snow to qualify as picturesque.

Snowy Shetland Saturday
Snow on Fitful Head

The forecast for the next few days suggests that were going to get the Ws - windier, wetter and warmer.  If I had any say in the matter I’d stick with the Cs - cold, calm, clear.

In the meantime, I should probably do something about the fence that got dislodged by the last big storm to pass through. 

Repair Needed

Plans 2018

Now that we’ve got the first office week of the year out of the way it’s time to start adding some detail to the plans for the not-in-the-office weeks of the year.

Somewhat usually I don’t have a big Arctic or Antarctic trip in the diary for the next year (at the moment), instead the recent turn-of-the-year aspirations revolved around spending more time on Shetland and making in-roads into my Landranger Project.

I made gestures towards both of these aspirations this week.  I booked the ferry to Shetland for next weekend and I ordered another batch of Ordnance Survey Landranger maps to add to the collection.

This latest batch of OS maps had an island focus and as I unfolded the maps I also found myself looking at the CalMac website trying to figure out a logical journey (or more likely, journeys) through the islands.  

In the Outer Hebrides the route is pretty obvious (the only real decision being whether to travel from south to north or vice versa).  Long long ago (June 2006) I crossed from Oban to Castlebay on Barra then drove slowly north via causeways and ferries until I got to Stornoway before going back across the Minch to Ullapool.  

The Castle in Castlebay, Barra
Isle of Harris / looking across to Taransay

I’ve only been back to the Outer Hebrides once since then (in 2014), this time getting the ferry from Uig on Skye to Tarbet on Harris (where I spent several wild nights in a tent around a couple of day trips to St Kilda - and I mean wild in the wet and windy sense!) before jumping back on the ferry to the Skye and the mainland.

Beaches, South Harris
MV Hebrides, Uig Bay

Next time it probably makes sense to drive south through the Outer Hebrides and then come back via either Tiree, Coll and Mull or via the Small Island (Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna).

At the moment I can see half-a-dozen geographically obvious island groups to explore (or re-explore). (i) Lewis, Harris, the Uists, Benbecula and Barra, (ii) Tiree, Coll and Mull, (iii) Rum, Canna, Eigg and Muck, (iv) Islay, Jura, Colonsay and Gigha, (v) Skye and (vi) Bute and Arran.  Hmm, the Landranger project seems to be evolving into a how-many-islands-can-I-visit project. Maybe this bit of the project would be easier if I had a boat rather than a car. 

And that’s before I set off exploring either Orkney or Shetland.  Shetland, I hear you cry, aren’t you always there?  

Yes, But!

There are still some of the Shetland Islands I’ve not been to yet - and others I’ve only been to once. 

Weather permitting, more on winter on Shetland next weekend. I hope.