Shetland December 2010

The days between Christmas and New Year provide the opportunity to watch old films and eat rather too much (no doubt in an attempt to keep the calorie in-take up to Christmas and New Year levels).  And I’m very partial to both old films and eating.

However the “between-holiday” days do also provide a chance to do other things. 

A couple of years ago I spent the “between-holiday” days in Tromso attempting to photograph the northern lights.  That wasn’t a great success – it rained throughout the time I was there, and I went down with pneumonia immediately afterwards.

This year I opted to take the opportunity to go north again, this time as far as our house on Shetland.  The weather offered every possible option – there was snow on the ground when I arrived, and over the next few days I saw gale force winds, heavy rain, fog – and a little bit of sunshine too.  Although Shetland is capable of offering all of these over the course of a week a pretty much any time of the year.  In between the showers I managed to get out to walk on a number of the beaches around the south end of Shetland - and to take a few sunset pictures too.

In Tromso, I needed to get used to there being nothing brighter than twilight in the middle of the day.  On Shetland in December sunrise was just after 9 AM, and sunset shortly afterwards at about 3 PM.  The plus is that you can get you sunset pictures and still get home for afternoon tea.

Shetland December 2010

Shetland November 2010

Aiming to get up to Shetland for a weekend right at the end of November was always likely to be a little bit touch and go.  I was picturing lots of wind, some heavy rain and very bleak scenery.  I hadn't given much thought to snow - silly me.  Towards the end of last week the weather forecasters started talking about the arrival of early winter, and on Friday there was some evidence, not much in the south of England but definitely further north.

On Saturday morning I had the entertainment of an early drive up the M40 and M42 to Birmingham airport.  Not much traffic around but there was the occasional bit of white-out where there wasn't any evidence of lanes at all.   The flight from B'rum up to Edinburgh was pretty much on time and I was delighted to see (as I hit third breakfast) that the onward connection to Sumburgh was on time too.  I was starting to picture my walk on the beach and lunch at the Sumburgh Hotel.  However the news from Shetland wasn't encouraging, lots of snow around and it was taking time to clear the runway to allow my plane out to get to Edinburgh.

Delays stretched out ( and my plans, in my mind, changed too).  The walk went first, leaving a restock trip into Lerwick as the priority, eventually I realised that even doing this was going to be a challenge with the closing times and this was before I realised I was actually heading into something that looked like an arctic winter.  Finally picked up my very small rental car, and headed gingerly around the airport slithering and just made it up to the local shop at the south end of Shetland for an emergency restock before it closed.

Then headed to a very cold wee house, which is on a much steeper hill than it was on when we were last in residence.  Of course I didn't realise how steep the hill really was until I was part way down it - when it became apparent that I wasn't going to be able to get back up without assistance.  I found a suitable place to abandon the car and trudged through the snow to the house and got into the thaw-out process.  The real downside of storage heaters is that they need advance warning, so there isn't much scope for instant heat.  Did get one room reasonably warm, and ate my tea there, before unpacking the sofa bed for the first time and went to bed fully dressed (including Fair Isle hat) making use of all the available duvets.  Even had to fight with the fridge - it had decided that the kitchen was too cold to bother, and it was only when I set the fridge on its arctic setting that it would do anything at all.

First light revealed how much snow there was on the ground - 6 or 7 inches of really light powdery snow blowing around at the slightest provocation, and more still falling.  I could briefly see Fair Isle in the distance completely covered with snow.  After porridge made with a slice of milk (a consequence of the arctic fridge setting), the main morning amusement was a long walk along Quendale beach watching the fantastic changing light - a black, grey, white and orange pallet.  Looked as if the sky was on fire at times.

Post-walk, the car rental company came to haul me back up the hill - next time I'm getting a 4x4.  Throughout the day I'd been aware that normal plane noise was missing - my 16:30 flight to Aberdeen was feeling like a real longshot.  However the airport folks encouraged me to assume it would go as planned, and surprisingly it did, followed very shortly by a much earlier Aberdeen flight whose passengers had spent several hours sitting at the airport.

This all seemed good until about half way to Aberdeen when the pilot came on to say that the airport had now closed again, but that they were working on it, and we would just slow down a bit - how much can you slow down a plane?  It all sounded OK until he said that we still had plenty of fuel - I hadn't thought about fuel until that point.

Aberdeen airport was full of people waiting for flights some clearly settled in for the long haul.  My return flight to Birmingham was only 45 minutes late - and the pilot was happy to point out that Aberdeen was his warmest stop of the day (and that had included a visit to the Channel Islands).

The entertainments of winter travelling.

Shetland November 2010

Shetland October 2010

Exploring the South end.

We spent the first half of October getting to know the house, and getting to know the south end of Shetland mainland better.  Over the last few years we've spent a lot of time around the south end staying either at the Sumburgh Hotel or at the Pool of Virkie - somehow the trip was different this time, we were exploring our new patch.

There are several bays, beaches and headlands either within walking distance or a few minutes drive away.

The real local area is the beach at Quendale - which was pretty reliable for both seals and porpoise, in addition to various and numerous seabirds - even in October.

Further west from Quendale are Garths Ness (where the Braer ran aground and broke up in 1993 - shedding 85,000 tonnes of crude oil into the water and onto the beaches) and Fitful Head.  Fitful Head, like all the high points around the southern end of Shetland is topped by both warning lights and radar stations.  One to ensure that planes can find the airport at all, the other to ensure that they avoid the hill tops on their approach.  The need for the warning lights is demonstrated by the memorial to the crew of a Halifax bomber that flew into the cliffs below Fitful Head in March 1942, heading back from Norway to their base at Kinloss.  Fitful Head is probably the only place from where it's possible to see both Fair Isle 25 miles to the south, and Foula 20 miles to the west.

Due south of our cottage is the Scatness head land - we visited there briefly a couple of times on previous trips but had not had very satisfying visits.  I can't recall why we weren't taken by it then - this time it was different.  We spent time watching the waves and picturing what life must have been like living in the old block house at Ness of Burgi.

Sumburgh Head and Compass Head are the southeastern corner of Shetland Sumburgh Head grabs the headlines with its lighthouse and RSPB monitored bird cliffs (even in October there are a surprising number of fulmars still around, presumable staking their claims for the prime nest sites next year) but Compass Head is actually higher and has the expected lights and radar installations and an excellent (close to pilots eye) view of the airport.  If you follow the coast north from Sumburgh Head you cross Compass Head, and then drop down to Grutness where the Fair Isle ferry sails from.  The little headland beyond Grutness is another beautiful spot to watch the waves at this time of year, and to dodge the aggressive terns during the spring and summer.

My other final favourite spot is St Ninians Isle the island is linked to the mainland by a magnificent shell sand tombolo and is dramatic at any state of the tide, and at any time of year.  It was recently voted Scotland favourite beach it not hard to see why.

No trip to Shetland would ever be complete without talking about the weather.  A pretty major storm stopped the Northlink Ferries at Lerwick just before we were due to travel north, so we wound up getting there 48 hours later than planned.  After that the weather was splendid several days of strong winds from the south meant dramatic seas and blue skies, and after that the winds dropped and eventually swung round to come from north.  To spend two weeks on Shetland in October with hardly a drop of rain must qualify as pretty fortunate.

A few photos from this trip are linked below.

Slovenia September 2010

It’s confession time.  Until a few weeks ago, I knew very little about Slovenia and really only had a pretty limited grasp of where it was.  My school-acquired knowledge said things like it used to be part of Yugoslavia and it probably wasn’t very far from Italy. Or was that Slovakia?

I’m delighted to report that I know a bit more Slovenia now, I’ve certainly figured the difference between it and Slovakia – and it’s a splendid place to spend a few days, particularly in September.

I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the BBC don’t know where it is either – before I went their weather forecast was that it was going to be damp and cool, and after I got back the forecast for Ljubljana was pretty much the same.  However, when I was there it was warm and sunny and most folks (perhaps excepting those relying on BBC weather forecasts) were wandering around in shirt-sleeves.

I was trying to find a way to sum up Ljubljana in a few words – “cafes” and “bicycles” are the first two that came to mind, and “carnivore” is probably the third.  This trip (I should say that I was actually in Ljubljana for an ASPECT project management meeting, before anyone gets the idea that I was on vacation) was the first one where the standard hotel booking included bed, breakfast, internet access and bicycle hire.  The centre of Ljubljana is pretty much entirely pedestrianised and every one appears to get around on bicycles, and (with the exception of the castle up on the hill overlooking the river) the city is flat enough to encourage cycling.

The centre of old Ljubljana definitely still has a “Hapsburg” look about it – the similarities with Prague and Vienna are certainly pretty strong, but here the river is well marshalled through the centre of town – with lots of bridges - and each side of the river is lined by cafes.   The huge number of cafes and the absence of motorised traffic give a really calm and relaxed pace to the centre of a fairly major city.  I’ll certainly be trying to get back to Slovenia again – I think it’s probably an ideal place for a long weekend (at least in the summer or autumn), and next time I’ll try and make sure I’ve got time to get up into the mountains or down to the coast.

And the carnivore bit – the traditional restaurant menus leave you in little doubt that meat is big is Slovenia.  I sidestepped the stallion steak, but did have vension, wild boar, and what looked very much like Slovenian haggis.

Slovenia September 2010

Shetland August 2010

A Tale of Two Bank Holidays

In May we spent a couple of weeks on Shetland – some of the time was spent touristing with a group of knitters we’d encouraged up from the South, much of the rest of the time was spent house hunting.

We looked at lots of houses – some needed an awful lot of work, some we just didn’t like and some we fell in love with, but none of them were right.  We pretty much gave up on the exercise – we filed it in the “we’ll do something about this next time” box. Then we screwed up reading the arrival time of a flight at Sumburgh Airport where one of our knitters was due to appear.  Sumburgh Airport is pretty small, and on this particular day had a seriously wobbly electricity supply so we couldn’t even get a coffee while we were waiting.  So as wondered what to do with the couple of hours we had to spare, we recalled seeing details of a house about 5 minutes drive from airport.  There couldn’t be anything to lose in having a quick look at one more house – it really was the last one we were going to get time to look at - after the long list we’d already seen and discounted.

Of course this house was different – freshly refurbished, a view of Sumburgh Head and Fair Isle in the distance, and within budget.  All this was happening on the Friday evening of a Bank Holiday weekend.  To cut a long story short – by 4:55 pm on the Bank Holiday Monday, we’d had a look at the house from the inside, been through the survey, found a local solicitor (a lawyer in American English), discovered that someone else had made an offer on the house, made our own offer and had it accepted.

On the Friday of the August Bank Holiday (about the time we’d seen our house on the May Bank Holiday) we were driving North out of Oxford with a very heavily laden car – camp beds, camping chairs, a folding table plus a selection of other household essentials ready to move up North.  Over the next few years I’m expecting to drive up from Oxford to Aberdeen to catch the overnight ferry to Lerwick quite a few times.  This time our emotions ranged from disbelief (Do we really own a house on Shetland?) via excitement (We’ve wanted a house somewhere remote for a long time) to trepidation (Did we really sink most of our savings into a house we looked at for about 15 minutes?).

The driving was fine (for a Bank Holiday weekend), the ferry crossing was smooth and the house was everything we’d hoped it was going to be.

For most of the week, the sun shone and the winds were light.  We walked on the beaches at Quendale, West Voe and St Ninian’s Isle.  We sat in the front room and looked out towards Sumburgh Head and to Fair Isle.  And from the bedroom window we were able to see curlew in the fields and both gannets and porpoises (or were they dolphins?) in the bay in front of the house.

Around  the domestic stuff (figuring out how the electric and gas worked, sorting a phone line, ordering kitchen appliances and furniture),  I spent some time taking pictures and my other half networked with the knitting fraternity at the In The Loop conference.

We’ll no doubt have trips up to Shetland when the weather is foul, and the ferry crossing is deeply unpleasant, but on this visit everything was perfect.  If you’d told me that my ideal holiday would involve ordering fridges, buying paint and weeding, I might not have believed you.  On this trip it did, and it was.

I’ve also needed to revisit one of my blog postings from earlier this year.  In May I asserted that North started at 60 degrees north – I’ve changed my mind.  North now officially starts at 59 degrees and 52 minutes north. That's just about where my new front door is.

Shetland August 2010

Svalbard June 2010

Travel guidebooks and, indeed, tour leaders have a predilection for adjectival overload.

“Svalbard is the destination for an unforgettable holiday.  This wonderous archipelago is the world’s most accessible piece of the polar north and one of the most spectacular places imaginable” [Lonely Planet]

“The islands of Svalbard comprise an Arctic wilderness where nature reigns supreme” [Bradt guide]

“A journey around the spectacular Arctic region of Norway's Spitzbergen Islands takes you into a remote land of dramatic icy peaks and glistening glaciers.” [Exodus website]

“..this will be a very special expedition.” [Exodus/Quark Expeditions trip notes]

And these all understated the trip.

I (and about 100 other fortunate individuals) were lucky enough to be able spend 11 days on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov exploring Svalbard – over the course of the 11 days we covered about 1500 nautical miles, had ten zodiac cruises plus three landings, saw at least 22 species of birds and watched walrus, seals, dolphins, whales, reindeer and arctic foxes.  And saw and photographed a huge number of polar bears.  As each day passed the adjectival overload got more extreme – and hearing haggard (and some not so haggard) arctic veterans waxing lyrical about what they’d seen on each outing really did start to help us “high-arctic novices” realise quite how good our fortune had been. There was a real sense of disbelief that things could go on at such a pace – but they did.  The bar talk (often huddled around laptops) allowed everyone to enthuse about what they’d seen and to share superlatives with someone else who’d seen pretty much the same thing.  By the end of the trip the enthusiasm was being tempered (just slightly) with discussion about how much space was left on memory cards – and whether it was reasonable to delete a perfectly exposed and framed image of a polar bear (now just a “PB”) because it happened to have one eye closed at the moment the shutter was pressed.  At the start of the trip every PB was getting extended photographic attention, by the end of the trip it wasn’t really worth slowing the zodiac unless it was mother with at least one cub, and preferably two.

The trip started at Longyearbyen and headed south towards the southern tip of Spitsbergen.  Our polar bear spotting got off to an early start with a single bear spotted at the end of Hornsund.  With hindsight one could have suggested that this sighting was staged by the expedition staff to let us see just how challenging it was to spot a slightly-ivory-coloured bear over a mile away across fast ice at the front of a glacier.  On day two the bear spotting got easier, much easier.  The intention had been to spend the day cruising along fast ice looking for bears, in fact one of the expedition staff sitting in the bar spotted a bear in the water just after breakfast and cautious manoeuvring of the Vavilov allowed us to get close enough for a clear look at the bear swimming before it headed off onto the ice and into the mist.  The decision was made to just sit still and see what happened – eventually the curiosity of the bear (a young male) got the better of it and it choose to come back out of the mist and to have a good look at the ship at close quarters. It didn’t quite get as far as trying to head up the gangway, but it was clearly very interested in learning a bit more about us.  Having had a close look at us, and done a few of his party tricks, he opted to head back off into the ice, and our expedition crew got to make one of the harder calls of the trip.

We were told that the ship had been given a really ‘hot’ tip, and that despite the fact that we had already been very fortunate in the southern part of the islands, we were going to spend the next 24 hours steaming north as fast as we could, to an undisclosed destination.  Speculation ranged far and wide – there was a mother and cubs to be seen, a whale had been washed ashore, we were heading to the pub in Ny Alesund to watch the England – Germany match.  The crew and expedition staff said nothing.

Early afternoon on the third day saw us just outside Holmiabukta near the northern tip of Spitsbergen island – and finally getting the chance to see what the hot tip was.  We were rewarded almost immediately with a single bear on the water’s edge, then another adult with a cub in tow, then on the far side of the bay another adult, and another female with cub.  The sequence just carried on, on both sides of the bay until we’d seen at least 9 different bears.  Eventually the crew called for a return to the Vavilov for dinner, before a return trip in the evening by which time the sun had shifted, and the tide had gone out (tides are apparently very difficult to figure in/around Svalbard).  The evening light revealed a bear plus cub on the ice at the foot of the glacier at the end of the bay, and the falling tide revealed the remains of a whale that was clearly the real driver for the bear-related activity around the bay.  Above the waterline was a picked-clean whale spine, below the water was clearly enough rotting meat to provide for a lot of bears.

From the “Bay of Bears” we headed on northwards to Woodfjorden, and the Andoyane islands.  The islands are mainly bird reserves – and gave fantastic views of Red Phalaropes and King Eider, but the PB’s just wouldn’t let up and we found a freshly washed bear around one of the islands – this time even more dramatic against a dark island background.

Leaving the bears behind for a few days we forged further north crossing the 80 degree line (it’s always good to clock up another geographic landmark) to be greeted by a group of walrus near Moffen Island – finally dropping anchor in Sjuoyane, the northern-most part of Europe (80.6 N).  This really did feel bleak, the bright sunshine that we’d been enjoying continuously since leaving Longyearbyen disappeared into the mist, and it wasn’t difficult to realise that we were just a few hundred miles from the north pole.

As we headed southwards we stopped back at Holmiabukta to see if there was any more bear action.  This turned out to be the most dramatic photographic day of the trip.  We spent about 8 hours in zodiacs around the bay in two extended sessions, watching bears (and cubs) in every direction – pretty much just getting on with being bears.  From solitary older male bears, to a mother nursing a young cub.  From the antics of a small bear as it tried to get scraps its mother had pulled from the whale skeleton to an indulgent mother watching her two curious cubs investigating our small flotilla of zodiacs.

The trip provided truly amazing opportunities to see polar bears in their natural habitat, doing what bears do – I’ll be picking through the pictures I took for many weeks, and I’ve not said much about visits to bird colonies, the chance to see walrus, reindeer and arctic foxes in the wild and the fantastic scenery around many of the glaciers.

The pre-trip puff had promised “a very special trip” – but I think it far exceeded even the wildest imaginings of the crew.  Paul Goldstein infected everyone with his photographic expertise and enthusiasm (and adjective collection) and ensured that we all got back to the UK feeling pretty seriously sleep-deprived but with amazingly good photographs.  Woody and Annie and the rest of the Quark Expeditions crew (and the captain and crew of the Vavilov) provided fantastic access to the wildlife, and Ian Stirling both interpreted what the bears were doing for us, and ensured that we weren’t influencing the bears behaviour adversely.

It was also a privilege to spend 10 days with so many fantastic photographers – I learnt a huge amount just by talking to other people and seeing what they were doing, and how they were doing it.

This was my first trip on the Vavilov.  It won’t be my last – the only question now is whether to book a return trip to Svalbard next, or to head back to Antarctic.

I also took far too many pictures - a few that have grabbed my attention as I've started to go through them are linked below.

Svalbard June 2010

Shetland May 2010

"It’s going to be a bit lumpy today".  There are certain phrases that just aren’t good, and the lumpy phrase is way up there.  From the kitchen it suggests that the custard might not be up to scratch (not a phrase I hear at home, I should add), but not a real problem.  When the grinning skipper of the Good Shepherd IV says this standing on the pier at Grutness, it definitely falls into the problem category.

The Good Shepherd IV is the maritime lifeline that links Fair Isle with the rest of Shetland.  There is an air service too (at least when it isn’t foggy) but all the heavy cargo, and the more intrepid travellers, go via the Good Shepherd.   This Good Shepherd has been shuttling back and forwards between Fair Isle and Grutness harbour on the southern tip of Shetland for about 25 years.  It carries 12 passengers and up to one car (although that needs to be winched on) and pretty much all the supplies that the island needs.  The Good Shepherd was purpose built for the Fair Isle run, and is reputed to be able to cope with pretty much any weather that  the seas around Shetland can throw at it , I’m not sure that the same can be said of this group of passengers.  The skipper was true to his word on this trip - after 45 minutes I thought we were all going to die, and after 90 minutes I was pretty sure that death was the preferred option.

The trip on the Good Shepherd was the start of the second part of our Shetland trip for this summer.  We’d spent the first part of the trip house hunting (more about that roller-coaster in a later post), and  for the second  part of the trip we’d been joined by a group of knitters from Oxford, London and Edinburgh all of whom wanted to learn more about knitting on Shetland and Fair Isle.  There’ll be more about the knitting trip on my others half’s blog in due course.

The Fair Isle leg of the trip was based with Kathy Coull and provided lots of "craft-in-croft" experiences, and gave me time to walk round the island photographing the bird life and just enjoying being out in the fresh air (as well as trying my hand at spinning).

One of the most striking things about the trip was the weather, during the seven days that our friends from the south spent with us we saw no rain at all.  For these folks, most of whom were visiting Shetland for the first time, dry, warm, mostly-windless weather is ‘typical’ Shetland weather.  I suspect their subsequent visits might not be quite so benign.

On the Mainland part of the trip, we spent time around Nesting, Sumburgh and Lerwick  - as well as going over to Bressay and up to Hillswick and Eshaness, and to the woollen mill at Sandness.  It was good to finally get a chance to look at the wonderful new museum - our previous attempts to do so had got derailed by (i) its opening ceremony, and (ii) fog delays on a previous return from Fair Isle.

On the mainland we stayed at Heart Stones in Lerwick - a lovely flat really close to the Museum, and it will be very convenient for Mareel once it's finished.

As always it was good to be back above 60 degrees North - and a real joy to be back on Shetland.

I’ve added a few more photographs to my Shetland collection on Picasa - just click the thumbnail below.

Shetland May 2010

Barcelona May 2010

An annual trip to Barcelona is a good idea.  

It's 12 months since I was last there and this time (Icelandic volcanoes not withstanding) I got to be a tourist.  On my previous trips I managed to grab a few hours to be a tourist, this time I had a whole day to just wander around town.  I spent lots of time on La Rambla and in Port Vell (probably my favourite bit of Barcelona).   My plans for a quiet dinner on the Sunday evening were rather disrupted by Barca winning at home to retain the Spanish League title - it made for a rather boisterous and very photogenic few hours in the Placa Catalunya.

Eyjafjallajokull did it's best to disrupt my return flight - but the disruption was rather less dramatic than in April.  I had briefly hoped that I was going to get struck in Barcelona for a few more sunny days.  Maybe next time.

Barcelona May 2010

Looking North

I’ve been thinking about the North again, reflecting on my previous trips, and anticipating the two trips I’ve got to the far North over the next couple of months. Before I go much further I’d better define "North". I toyed with using the Arctic Circle as my definition of North, but eventually decided that 60 degrees north made more sense. 60 degrees means I can (just) include the northern extremities of the UK in North. Lerwick (60.2N) on Shetland is just north of the line, there’s even a sign on the side of road between Sumburgh and Lerwick to mark the spot.

I first got to 60 North in 1972 when I toured southern Norway with my parents - we went through Bergen (60.4N), and the most northerly point I can find evidence of is Eidsbugarden (61.4N) in the Jotunheimen mountains.

My next trip that far north was in 1984 - this time a skiing trip to central Norway, flying to Oslo (59.9N) then getting the train to the area near Vinstra (61.6N). My recollections from that trip are very vague, and most of the photographs from the time seem to include evidence of a significant amount of alcohol which might be a factor in the quality of recollection.

It was almost 10 years before I ventured north again. It was June 1993 when I spent a week (notionally working) in St Petersburg (60.0N). It might be just stretching a point to include St Petersburg itself, but we did go out along the coast towards the Swedish boarder one evening which certainly took us over the line. That was the first time I was conscious of the "White Nights", when it never really gets dark and I was able to take photographs of the Neva at 11 pm.

After that it wasn’t until 2004 that the North came calling again, and since then I’ve made 8 trips that have crossed the 60 line. 2004 involved a return trip to Norway, again crossing to Bergen, this time rather than heading cross country towards Oslo the trip was much more north focussed. We turned left out of the ferry gates in Bergen and headed north through Alesund (62.5N) and Trondheim (63.4N) until we reached the Arctic Circle (66.5619N). That felt like an important landmark, and it really was a struggle to make myself turn the car round just after we crossed the Circle.

2006 was my first visit to Iceland, flying into Keflavik (64.0N), then spending time in Reykjavik (64.1N) before heading along the south coast as far as Hofn (64.2N) and up to the original geyser at Geysir (64.3N). At some point we must have gone straight past the Eyjafjallajökull (63.6N) without giving it a thought.

In 2007 I stepped up the pace somewhat clocking up three trips which crossed my North boundary. The first two were both to Shetland, spending some of the time just south of the line at Sumburgh (59.9N), some time in Lerwick (60.2N), and getting as far north as Hermaness (60.8N) on Unst. The British Isles pretty much runs out at that point. The two Shetland trips were also at extreme points in the year. First in January, when the Shetlanders get back in touch with their inner Viking for the Up-Helly-Aa festival, and then in June when there is the Shetlandic equivalent to the "White Nights", the "Simmer Dim". A little later in summer 2007 my inner Viking took me back to Iceland, again to Reykjavik (64.1N) this time as a stepping stone to eastern Greenland. I spent time in Kulusuk (65.6N), notable as being one of the very few places on the east coast of Greenland that has a real runway - a leftover from the American Cold War activities, and at Tasiilaq (also 65.6N), one of the few real towns in eastern Greenland. You can tell it’s real town because it’s got proper roads, you can’t go anywhere on the roads, they stop at the edge of town, but they are there.

I kept the pace up in 2008, again clocking up another three North trips, back to Shetland again - Virkie (59.9N), and Lerwick(60.2N) - in the height of summer to watch the puffins and gannets, and to Helsinki (60.2N) in November and Tromso (69.7N) in December. The Helsinki trip was a city break, with the only goal being to enjoy discovering the city. The Tromso trip was a thwarted attempt to see and photograph the Northern Lights. It rained and I failed on both counts - and got a souvenir case of pneumonia to mark the occasion. I did however get a little bit further up the coast to Skjervøy (70.1N), marking my first crossing of the virtual line at 70 degrees north.

Since then I’ve not managed to get to the North, but the next few weeks should remedy that. We’re heading back up to Shetland again. We’ll certainly get as far north as Lerwick (60.2N) and maybe a little further. Shortly after that I should (volcanoes permitting) be heading up to Longyearbyen (78.2N) in the Svalbard archipelago, and hopefully as far north as the 80 degree line.

So what keeps dragging me back to the North? Aside from wanting to get in touch with my inner Viking. My father’s family come from Tain (57.8N) in the north of Scotland - maybe there are genes from further north there too. I’ve got at least two theories about the pull of the North. The light is fantastic (at least in the summer), there is daylight for most of the 24 hours and the air is usually (Icelandic volcanoes not withstanding) amazingly clear. One of my strongest memories from the Greenland trip was getting off the plane in Kulusuk, and realising how far I could see - that clarity really came through in some of the pictures I took. The other factor is people, or more critically the lack of people. Southern England is full of people and the roads are full of cars - the further north you go the quieter places are, and the pace of life is slower too. There also isn’t much sign of wilderness here in Oxfordshire (51.8N) - and a little bit of wilderness always leaves me feeling better.

I’m looking forward to my upcoming trips to the North, and I’ve got a really strong urge to plan some more.

The North

NOT Barcelona April 2010

Today should have been my day for blogging about my latest trip to Barcelona and perhaps for posting a few new pictures from Las Ramblas or the waterfront - Eyjafjallajokull saw that off.

I’m going to pass on speculating about whether this is the Icelandic economy getting its revenge or even whether this is really how the Gaia hypothesis is going to work.

The ash cloud from Eyjafjallajokull has, for me, had a few positive consequences, although various friends who are either stranded overseas or have long haul trips in the very near future are probably struggling to see any positives.  It’s given me a chance to play with the new camera I eventually got via Amazon last Monday (the last mile really does still challenge the online shopping process), to buy a decent lens to go with the camera (from a bricks and mortar dealer), and to reflect on the assumptions I make about the ease of air travel.

Over the last three years I’ve made something like 30 international trips that involved flying.  At the slightest provocation I’ll head for an airport clutching my passport and, despite grumbling about the fact that yet again I’ve not got a free upgrade, I’ll sit back and wait for the plane to push back and look forward to the new sights I’ll be seeing in a few hours.
The extended closure of UK (and most of northern and central Europe) airspace for the last four days with the prospect of ‘normal’ service being a considerable way off really does start to challenge assumptions about being able to do this. A number of travel bloggers have started talking over the weekend about the "end of air travel for several months" or even a "return to the 1900s (but this time with Web 2.0)" - this might be a bit over the top but it does provoke thoughts about doing stuff more slowly.  I'm not quite sure that my soul moves at the speed of a camel, but the assumption that heading off around the world should mean long haul flights and jet-lag might need to change.  In recent months I’ve mused about going round the world by train or going on safari by boat.  Both of these examples are quite do-able now although the competition for the limited spaces might get a bit tougher and I'm going to need to ask my boss for much longer vacations.

In the short term, I’m certainly looking forward to heading for my next US conference by liner from Southampton, rather than by Airbus from Heathrow.

Or more likely attending by video conference from my desk. :-(

North Devon April 2010

There’s nowhere we’ve been to more often than North Devon.  Despite my habit of keeping notes of where I’ve been, I really don’t know how many times we’ve walked along various bits of the North Devon coast, particularly around Morte Point and the Bull Point Lighthouse.

I started my regular Devon visiting in the mid-80’s when my wife and I would visit a somewhat eccentric elderly aunt (of hers) who lived in a slightly run-down wooden cottage, a building that was once apparently the Woolacombe golf course club house before it was - somewhat implausibly -  moved onto the cliffs just outside Mortehoe.

For us, Mortehoe was the default place to head to in both spring and autumn, not too far from Bristol where we were living at the time, but far from the crowds (at least if we were there out of season).  When Freda passed away we thought about buying her cottage but decided against it because it seemed at the time to be a bit too far from Oxford but that distance hasn’t stopped us returning regularly since.

We try and get back to Mortehoe every couple of years (although we missed out on the 2008 visit) now staying at the Watersmeet Hotel which really is on the coast between Mortehoe and Woolacombe.  The Watersmeet is a slightly old-fashioned country house hotel "built in 1907 as an Edwardian Gentleman's residence by the sea" (as it says on the website).  The location is fantastic with every room promising (and delivering) a sea view, and the spectacular dining room faces west, looking out to sea giving you to chance (weather permitting) to watch the sun dipping into the sea as you dine.  After a long walk in the sea air and a good dinner, the sound of the waves at high tide on Coombesgate Beach pretty much guarantees a good night’s sleep.

As usual when staying in Mortehoe we walked to both Morte Point and Bull Point, and walked for miles along the beach at Woolacombe.  On some visits we‘ve had only the occasionally dog-walker on the beach for company, on this occasion (we were there for the Easter weekend) the beach was littered with hardy picnickers (windbreaks, fleeces and woolly hats) and surfers (wetsuits clearly needed).

Being in North Devon for the Easter weekend also gave us the chance to see things that aren’t on offer at other times of the year - the lambing at Borough Farm, and the Exmoor Border Morris dancers outside The Ship Aground in Mortehoe.   A fantastic weekend, and the weather even decided to co-operate.

We’ll certainly be back in Mortehoe again - maybe we don’t need to wait until 2012 to do it.

Devon April 2010

Estoril March 2010

A short break from the UK winter - and a chance to add another country to my list.  Somehow I hadn't managed to get round to visiting Portugal before.  I also hadn't realised Estoril's place in English literature - both Graham Greene and Ian Fleming spent time here - and Fleming's Casino Royale was inspired by his espionage activities in and around the casino.  I didn't see any evidence of spies, maybe they've moved on to other more glamorous gambling locations, but I definitely did enjoy the chance to have early morning walks along the sea front.  Getting up at 06:30 is so much easier if there's a sea front walk on offer before breakfast.

Estoril gets a place on my (long) list of excellent seaside destinations to visit out of season - most of the time I only had sea-birds and the very occasional slow-moving jogger for company.

The real reason for being here was for management meetings linked to the EU-funded ASPECT project - a follow-up to the workshop in Budapest last November, but I did take a camera to keep me company on the morning  walks.

Portugal March 2010

Cairngorms February 2010

A holiday in the north of Scotland in winter is always a bit of a lottery - the temperature can vary from close to double figures (in centigrade) down into the teens below zero, the cloud cover from clear blues skies to heavy cloud (along with persistent rain - or snow - that can last for days on end) and can offer anything from dead calm through to gale force winds.  Sometimes all in the space of a couple of days.

The last February holiday I had in the Cairngorms was about 25 years ago and despite lugging skis all the way up from Bristol on the overnight train I and my companions spent our time walking in the mountains since the high winds had blown away most of the snow.  My recollection of that trip was that it was clear and sunny and also bitterly cold - our real challenge was how to chop up the frozen logs so that it was possible to get them inside to thaw out.

This time round we again started the trip with almost implausibly blue skies but with almost no wind - and temperatures falling overnight to -15C, which was more than enough to freeze solid anything left in the car. Apples survive freezing and thawing much better than bananas - although deep-frozen bananas would appear to be an ideal healthy dessert.  At least we didn’t have the challenge of log chopping - the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey provides very effective oil-fired central heating.

During the first part of the week we visited Loch Morlich (where I once went canoeing, was solid enough to walk on) and Lochs Garten and Mallachie in Abernethy Forest (again both more suited to winter than water sports).  We also did woodland walks around both Nethy Bridge and Grantown.  All of these walks were in glorious sunshine with lots of beautifully crisp snow underfoot.  We also took advantage of the clear sunny weather to go up Findhorn Bay and to briefly visit Culbin Sands.  The most spectacular scenery was on the road north from Grantown and the A939 towards Tomintoul (often described as the first road to shut when the snow comes).

Around mid-week the weather changed pretty much completely - temperatures jumped to just below zero, the cloudless skies filled in and the snow started falling and just kept going - during the first snow-day we were able to keep moving around and visited both Anagach Woods and got at least as far as the bird feeders at Loch an Eilean if not to the Loch itself.  By the morning of the second snow-day there was about 30 cm of snow on the car and on pretty much everything in/around the Cairngorms - and although we had another walk through part of Anagach Woods and looked at the Spey it wasn’t possible to do much more than that - and certainly very few of the cars in front of the hotel moved far.

After snowing for about 48 hours continuously (dumping a total of about 50 cm on the town - and well over 2 metres on the ski slopes, sufficient to bury the ski train) it did eventually relent allowing us (and several other folks in the hotel) to decide that it was time to try and head south.  At this point the A9 was closed in both north and south directions, and the various hill roads out of Grantown to the north and east (the A939 had indeed shut first) certainly weren’t passable in anything other than a high clearance 4x4.  The escape route - once we’d been helped out of our own personal snowdrift - was to head west, going down the A9 to Kingussie then across to Fort William on the west coast.  This isn’t the most obvious route south from the Cairngorms - but was open and very dramatic in places particularly through Glen Coe and over Rannoch Moor.  A 10 or 12 point stag standing in open snow-covered ground near road beside the Glen Coe ski area was particularly spectacular - shame there wasn’t any way to stop and take pictures.

As we got further south the snow mostly stopped - and by the time we made it to Edinburgh it had become messy persistent sleet.

In an effort to prolong my trip a little longer I went slowly through the snows south of Edinburgh, before spending a fantastic few hours at the WWT Reserve at Caerlaverock on the Solway Firth watching huge numbers of whooper swans and barnacle geese.  The swans spend the winter in Scotland and head north to Iceland for the summer.  The geese follow a similar itinerary but go to Svalbard in the summer – hopefully I’ll get to see them again later in the year.

Cairngorms February 2010

Types of Snow – the Inuit are suppose to have names for lots of types of snow – how many have the Scots got?

1. We stayed at the Grant Arms Hotel - and the Bird Watching and Wildlife Club there provide lots of really useful information about what’s around and where - and encourages residents to log what they’ve seen too.
2. Our bird list for the 4 days in the Cairngorms got to 31 species – I was particularly pleased to see Crested Tits in Abernethy Forest.
3. Next time I go to the Cairngorms in winter I’m going to turn up in a 4x4.

The Stuff of Dreams

Life is always full of dreams - some get fulfilled but others somehow don’t and remain with us, sometimes for many years.

I left my childhood with three unfulfilled dreams.  I wanted to join the British Antarctic Survey, I wanted to join a Norwegian brass band and I wanted to get stuck in Aviemore.

The Norwegian brass band idea was probably not really my thing - and almost certainly had more to do with location than any deep understanding of Scandinavian music or of brass bands for that matter.  I did manage to get mixed up with a group of other kids of my age from a Norwegian band on the ferry from Newcastle to Bergen - and still wonder what might have happened if I’d run off with the band rather than joining my parents on a caravan tour around southern Norway.

I’m not altogether clear why the BAS thing didn’t happen - I did fill in all the paperwork when I was finishing my physics degree but never quite got round to sending if off.  This meant I spent the next three years of my life sitting in small dark rooms playing with computers and microscopes in Bristol rather than wandering around the ice in the far south.  Maybe recent trips to the Antarctic and the Falklands have got this out of my system, at least a bit.

Getting stuck in Aviemore was always The Big One.  Year after year my family would spend either Christmas or Easter, and sometimes both, staying in one of the hotels in Aviemore and depending on the weather spend the days walking or skiing on or around Cairn Gorm or Ben Macdui or even canoeing on Loch Morlich (that was one late and strangely warm Easter).  On every trip I would hope that we were going to get stuck there.  One year we managed to not get there at all - the snows prevented us getting north from Edinburgh, another year the road was closed just behind us as we went south, and to add insult to injury my school headmaster at the time got stuck in Aviemore - which meant that I got home in time for the start of term but he didn’t. But in all those visits we never managed to get stuck in Aviemore.  With the benefit of hindsight, I was probably picturing a very particular sort of getting stuck - the sort where it’s not possible to get home but where all the local facilities remain fully operational.

Which brings me to now.  I’m sitting in a hotel room in Grantown-on-Spey about 14 miles north of Aviemore - snow has been falling steadily for about 24 hours and is forecast to continue doing so for another 24 hours, the car had about a foot of snow on it this morning and when I last looked the snow gates on the A9 were closed.  By most definitions we are stuck here.  We’re actually due to try and head south tomorrow but most of the locals seem to think that this latest fall is going to carry on for a few days yet and that getting south (or north or east or west) isn’t a great idea.  

So is this the stuff of dreams? Maybe I am going to get an extra day or two up here which might even put off going back to work at the start of next week.  We did get out for a walk this morning in a mild blizzard which was fun when the wind was behind you but a bit bleak heading the other way.  We did get to see goldeneye and goosander on the Spey this morning both seemingly oblivious to the snow, but standing watching them was only really realistic for a few minutes.  And the fantastic scenery we were able to both see and get out into a couple of days ago is now pretty much inaccessible (and certainly invisible).

This is clearly one of my dreams coming true - it looks like I really am going to get stuck in or near Aviemore but like lots of dreams it’s not going to be quite as good as it might have been.  However I can finally cross it off the list.

Which, I guess, just leaves the brass band - should I try the cornet or the trombone?

Big Kid in a Candy Store

Recently I spent some time at the Destinations Show in London - I hadn't been to the London version of the show before having previously only done Birmingham.  In lots of ways it's a seriously dangerous place for me to be - my enthusiasm for trips almost inevitably bubbles over learning about new destinations and contemplating revisiting places I've been too before, and I can feel the credit card twitching in my pocket.

There were a few companies (and places) I expected to see represented and others I didn't expect to see there.  I probably do need to apologise to the nPower employee who tried to engage me in a extended conversation about my domestic energy provider - but really, what where nPower doing there?  I was much more interested to find out about trips by jeep up the Karakorum Highway or heading across Central Asia on horseback than to contemplate gas and electricity. And no, I really don't know what I pay for my electricity each month.

In the "missing" category I was hoping to see the folks from Discover the World again, and the RMS St Helena - and I was hoping that the Falklands Islands Tourist Board would be there to back up the heavy advertising they've been doing in the UK.

The region that surprised me most (by the scale of the presence) was South America - and particularly Colombia.  I was still picturing drug barons - but I was quite taken by the slogan "The Only Risk is That You'll Want to Stay".

Like lots of people - e.g. Wanderlust - I felt a need to put together a list of 10 new/reinvigorated travel ideas from wandering round the show (so in no particular order).

1. Eagle Festival in Mongolia

Thought the scenary looked fantastic - and Mongolia definitely fits into my pattern of heading off to places that most other folks don't want to go to.  I'm pretty keen to try and get to the Altai Eagle festival - would have some really good photographic opportunities.  The folks from Panoramic Journeys were very enthusiastic about this being a good place to visit in the autumn, and were also pretty sure that I really needed to stay for a month (or "maybe six weeks") to really see everything that Mongolia had to offer a photographer.  I wonder if gers are anymore comfortable than yurts.

2. Monks and Rhinos in NE India

I've been to India a few times before, but only to the 'main' part of India - and I hadn't really given much thought to the Assam area (I might have been able to point to it on a map but not with much confidence).  Travel the Unknown weren't a company I'd seen before - but some of their rather less usual destinations do appeal.  Their collection of trips to Assam and Arunchal Pradesh has certainly got my attention - with an interesting mix of culture and wildlife.  

3. Eastern Bhutan

I really enjoyed talking with the folks from Blue Poppy - we'd used them via Cox and Kings when we went to Bhutan a couple of years ago.  It was interesting to hear a bit more about the eastern end of Bhutan - which we didn't manage to get to on our first visit - it's further off the usual tourist circuit (is any part of Bhutan on a usual tourist circuit?).

4. Karakorum Highway in Pakistan

Long long ago I did manage a trip to Pakistan - spending a few days in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, before going up to Peshawar and not quite making it to the Khyber Pass.  Peshawar is pretty much off the tourist route at the moment - but it was good to hear from TravelPak that some parts of northern Pakistan are good to go to at the moment.  I was particularly interested to hear about a possible trip up the Karakorum Highway towards the Chinese border - almost joining up with the trip from Kashgar last year.

5. Self-guided touring in Japan

I first found out about self-guided tours in Japan at a Destinations Show a couple of years ago - I'd always assumed that language meant that Japan (outside the big cities) was only doable on a group tour.  However there are a number of companies offering self-guided tours - everything is booked and planned - and you get a phone contact to bail you out if you need it.  The companies I talked with this time were InsideJapan and IntoJapan.  

6. Faroe Islands

This has been on my list for a while - but it was interesting to hear more from Atlantic Airways who fly direct (in the summer) from Stansted to the Faroes.  Atlantic Airways did fly from Stansted via Sumburgh in the Shetlands - but I gather they needed to stop doing that because it was often too foggy to let them land on Shetland and they kept winding up with stray Shetlanders on Faroe.  National Geographic Traveller came up with the label of "The World's most Appealing Islands" - the pictures and descriptions would support that.  Looks like a really strong candidate to to add to my island collection - and not too far away.

7. National Parks in Tanzania

Another destination that was already on my wish list - there were a number of companies making really interesting pitches about visiting various of the Tanzania National Parks - everything from pretty basic tented camps to seriously expensive camps and lodges.  The two companies I talked for longest with were Simply Tanzania Tour Co and Cox and Kings (who we've used on several previous trips to India and Bhutan).    

8. Photo safari in Sri Lanka

We'd wondered about Sri Lanka a few years ago - post tsunami when there was a lot of push to rebuild the tourist industry.  There were two reasons why Sri Lanka attracted my attention this time - firstly that the island is now said to be safe to visit all over (which certainly wasn't the case a few years ago), and a fun sounding Exodus photo safari looking for Whales and Leopards - there can 't be too many places that combines these.  I'm due to do a photo trip to Svalbard with Exodus later this year - maybe Sri Lanka as a my photo trip next year.

9. Whale Watching in the Azores

Picking up both the whales and atlantic islands themes again - the Azores sounds like a good bet - offering whales all year round.   Again lots of people offer this - I talked with Sunvil Discovery.

10. Wildlife Tours in Iran

I've been to Iran before - a week long visit to Shiraz, with a chance to have a look at Persepolis, and while I had thought of visiting there again I hadn't thought of Iran as a place for a wildlife holiday. Persian Voyages had other ideas and have at least one interesting tour combining natural history and Iranian culture.

I talked with lots of other people too - and my brochure stack also included Jordan, Cape Verde, Nova Scotia, Chile and the Trans-Siberian Railway.   The folks from Promote Shetland were there too - trying to cope with the volume of interest driven by Simon King's Shetland Diaries.  I don't really need my interest in Shetland encouraged - we're already due to be up there for (at least) a couple of weeks in the summer.

So many possible trips - so little annual leave.

Flights of Fancy (and other means of transport)

One of the problems with the UK is that it's just too small.  I can drive from Oxford to the southern-most tip of Cornwall on the same day, I can make it to northern Scotland in under two days, and even our blessed train companies can match sort of range in a couple of days.  Maybe this is why I've got a fascination with long journeys - and particularly with trying to do more ground based travelling.  When we first visited India nearly 20 years ago we pushed our travel companies really hard to figure out ground-based itineraries (and when one of the trips coincided with a pilots strike this turned out to have been a really good idea).  The plus for us then was that we got to see a lot more of rural and village India than we would have done otherwise - and the food on the journeys was certainly better.  It was probably better for the environment too - but I don't remember that being talked about in 1991. When did we acquire 'Carbon Footprints'?

In the 'maybe' pile at the end of my desk I've currently got plans and ideas for three long, mostly ground-based, journeys.  There was a fourth idea - involving the Silk Road and the Karakorum Highway, but the trip to Xinjiang last year seems to have got these out of my system (temporarily at least).

The first long journey doubles as an ego trip (Is this where the term "ego trip" comes from?).  I thought it might be fun to go to the Ross Sea via Mackenzie Country.  A little bit of investigation suggested that while it is possible to get to the Ross Sea via South America and the Antarctic Peninsula it is only occasionally possible and is stupidly expensive, so it would make more sense to get to the Ross Sea from southern New Zealand (that's how Captain Scott and all the other early Antarctic explorers got there), and if I'm going to have to go to New Zealand I might as well spend a bit of time there in Mackenzie Country too.  Getting to New Zealand is pretty difficult these days without spending some time on planes - even the Man in Seat61 only offers a few suggestions about looking for passenger places on freighters, but there are ways.

The second folder hooks into my desire to spend some time talking photographs of wildlife in Africa - the easy way is to jump on a plane at Heathrow and fly due south for 10 or 12 hours.  A much more entertaining way to contemplate this (in my book at least) is to look to the last Royal Mail ship still in regular service which shuttles regularly between Ascension Island, St Helena and South Africa - with the occasional loop back to Portland in southern England.  The added bonus would be the chance to spend a bit of time on Ascension Island or St Helena - I spent a few hours on Ascension last year but didn't manage to leave the airport, next time it would be fun to stay a bit longer.  The real attraction of this would be to spend a bit of time seeing what life was like on a really isolated island.  St Helena is due to get an airport at some time, but the current economic climate means that it won't be any time soon.  

The third folder (which is actually at the top of the pile at the moment) is mostly about Japan, which is ideal for train-based travel - with the observation that it ought to be possible to get there by train (and boat) too.  The Eurostar link is the obvious first step (snow in Kent permitting) - then sleepers across Europe to Moscow and then the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok.  In theory at least it's possible to get a scheduled ferry from Vladivostok to Japan - but I gather that it's actually pretty challenging to book a passage on it.  So maybe I'll agree to fly for the last leg of the journey if I've done the first 12,000 km by train.  I did wonder about completing a round the world rail trip by finding a way to get across the Pacific, and then crossing Canada or the US by train (another 6,000 km) before heading back to the UK.

The real problem with all these journeys is the time they take (and the money too) - Phileas Fogg and Michael Palin both gave themselves 80 days to get round the world - and I suspect that doing any of these trips without resorting to jumping on a plane to get home who take this sort of time too.  A friend recently suggested that going round the world on 80K would be a very pleasant way to do the journey - I wasn't sure if she was talking in dollars, pounds or euros.  I don't think it would take quite as much as £80K to do any (or even all of these) but it's going to cost more than a couple of weeks in the Med.   

I haven't quite figured how to break the time-money conundrum (I'd like to have both), but I'm working on it.  Then I'll figure out if there are enough blank pages in my current passport. 

Big Garden Bird Watch - early

Most years we do the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch (this year it's 30th & 31st January), but this morning turned into a rehearsal.  An hour peering out of the windows produced a huge amount of bird life, no doubt some of it provoked by the fat-ball bribes we've been distributing around the garden since the cold weather started.

Today's list was 2 chaffinches, 2 redcaps, 2 jackdaws, 5 house sparrows, 3 long tailed tits, 3 goldfinches, 4 blackbirds and half-a-dozen starlings plus a couple wood pigeons, a wren, a dunnock, a great tit and a collared dove.

There's nothing particularly spectacular in the list, but it was good to see some goldfinches back (no idea where they went in the snow), and it's been a while since we've seen long-tailed tits in the garden.

We'll be doing the BGBW next weekend - but it probably won't result in nearly such a good haul.

Another Snow Event

In what seems to have now become another regular event - the country (at least the bit I'm in) has ground to a halt again under a layer of snow.

At the moment there is 8-10 inches of snow on the ground (with drifts significantly deeper than this in places) - the most snow I've seen in Oxford in the 20 years we've been here.

 The presence of lots of snow certainly makes everyone more friendly, and makes the place much more photogenic.

Headington Snow January 2010

The Moleskine Promise

The turn of the year is an obvious time to reflect on the last 12 months, and to give some serious thought to the next 12.  It’s also the time when I move from one Moleskine to the next.  To the uninitiated the Moleskine  is just a (usually) black notebook, but for me (and others I’m sure) it’s where I capture my thoughts about my travels, including where I've been, where I am and where I’m contemplating for future trips.  I’ve tried a few notebooks and travel journals over the years, but the Moleskine is The Real Thing.  It slips into pockets and bags easily, is just the right size for boarding passes and my passport and it can cope with the wear and tear that travel can inflict. It may not be very Web 2.0 - but it is one of my travel essentials. It’s my aide memoire to help me label photographs after the event, it’s where I capture scenes when I can’t use a camera, it’s my companion when I’m eating on my own, and it’s my travel planner when I’m sitting in airports or on planes.

The just-retired Moleskine (with the FC sticker on it) took me as far east as Beijing, as far west as Montreal, as far north as the Cairngorms, and as far south as Sea Lion Island in the Falklands.   On 10 trips it and I have clocked up about 40,000 air miles, and spent 67 nights away from Oxford (including 2 on boats, 4 on planes and 2 in yurts).

As I flick through the old Moleskine I very quickly get pulled back into the experiences I’ve had over the last year and the people I met up with on my journeys.

There’s a little map showing where I abandoned my car in a blizzard at Brize Norton airbase (which I did need to find the car again).  There’s a reminder of the glorious heat on Ascension Island (a contrast after being literally stuck to the runway in Oxfordshire - the wheel-chocks were frozen to the ground).  There’s a reminder of the excitement of sitting amongst the Gentoo penguins on Sea Lion Island, and amongst the black-browed albatross on Saunders Island.  There’s a reminder of the impossibly salty curry served on Alderney, and of the just inedible breakfasts offered along the Silk Road in Xinjiang (I’d never fantasised about muesli and cold milk before). And the observations on how Budapest has changed since 1997 - then lots of US-style burger bars, now lots of US-style burger bars plus western coffee shops albeit with significantly better cakes than we get in the UK.

I also got a bit caught up in visiting places beginning with B.  Barcelona, Beijing, Bishkek, Boston, Budapest, Birmingham and Bromsgove.

There are reminders about the fun (and frustrations) of travelling with groups of people.  I’ve enjoyed meeting up with people who make my travelling efforts look positively amateur, and talked enviously with folks who make a living travelling.  I’ve also enjoyed having time to absorb being in new places without the distraction of crowds and companions.

There’s also a slightly smug entry about being able to get into a Business Lounge during a long lay-over at Istanbul airport where I was able to have a shower and get a bowl of cereal with cold milk. Sorry.

And there are even a few cryptic notes about work in various places - mostly ramblings about IMS specifications and about OERs.

The notebook also highlights my satisfaction in getting to places and doing things that have been on my to-do list for years.  I got to travel along the Silk Road and (at least) some of the Karakorum Highway (I’ve got old guidebooks for these dating from 1993 and 1996).  I got to photograph hump-back whales breaching off the Boston coast - and my bird photography came on leaps and bounds (OK - it’s difficult not to take decent bird photos in the Falklands).

So where is the new Moleskine promising to take me this year?

At the moment two trips are booked (to Shetland and to Svalbard) - so I should get further north this year than last but other than that the plan is blank.  I’d like to get to Japan - and it would be fun to go by train and boat rather than plane. I also feel that my travel pedigree is a bit lacking since I’ve still got one continent missing (Africa).  I’ve also got a real hankering to get back  to Antarctica & the Falklands (and to visit South Georgia for the first time) and to see more of Bhutan. And I’ve not been across the Pacific Ocean. And I’d like to spend more time in the Middle East....

Probably won’t get to do all of these this year. But where-ever I do get to will be captured in my Moleskine.

Happy travelling in 2010 - and may all your journeys be long haul.

P.S. In 2008 I came to the conclusion that my travelling carbon footprint was something like 16 tonnes of CO2 - in 2009 this dropped to just over 11 tonnes (7 from flying and 4 from driving).