Along the Canal / 27th December 2019

Well, I didn't intend to let the festive period interfere with the regular Friday blog posts.

I did however plan to spend rather more of the Friday outside than turned out to be possible.

Plan A was a quick drive from Oxford to Surrey, then back to Oxford for lunch and an afternoon walk - trouble was that I'd rather overlooked the fact that the entire population of the UK (slightly exaggerated for effect) also wanted to use the M25 or the M40 (or to sit in the queue at Beaconsfield Services).

The drive south was OK, but when I checked the traffic to pick a return route, every option was showing long delays.  This didn't really fit with my plan to get an Oxford walk, so I opted to get a wee fix of fresh air along the towpath of the (partially open, I think) Basingstoke Canal before heading north.

This was a very peaceful - and good head-clearing - way to spend a bit of time.  And, of course, it was peaceful (everyone else was already on the M25).

Having cleared my head, and tracked down a further fix of coffee - I headed to the motorways.  I'm sure it has taken longer to get from Surrey to Oxford, but at this point I just can't quite remember when.

Note to future self: 27th December is not a good day for travelling!

15 Years, 5478 pictures

Today (23rd December 2019) is a bit of a personal photographic landmark.

My first digital camera was something I helped build in the mid-1980s - it involved an analogue TV camera, a monstrously expensive digitising framestore and a computer (a BBC Micro).  The 'camera' was good for capturing electron diffraction patterns, but not really much good for anything else - and the images were 512 x 512 pixels.  You also needed a pretty robust trolley to move it around and mains electricity. There's an entire PhD thesis somewhere at the University of Bristol if you want to know more.

My second digital camera was about 20 years later, in November 2004 - when I finally bought a compact (and portable) digital camera.  Although the images weren't, with hindsight, that much bigger than the 1980s ones they were at least in colour.  I was also, in a rather nerdish way, intrigued by the extra information that came attached to each image such as date and time alongside the image information such as exposure time and aperture setting.  This metadata lured me into being rather more interested in thinking about the pictures I was taking - and generally into becoming a better photographer.

The first step in this was to be one year project to try and find (and take) a digital image every day.  And the rest, as they say, is terabytes.

The original plan was to take a picture everyday during 2005, but I started early - on 24th December 2004, looking out of my office window at the Open University in Milton Keynes.

Picture #1, 24 December 2004

Somehow, I just haven't yet managed to stop.

Today marks the completion of 15 years taking at least one digital photograph each day.  During the first year, I posted pictures here, then for a few years they mostly just stayed on various computer hard discs, and since July 2010 the images have been posted on Blipfoto usually with a short diary entry saying something about the picture.

Picture #5478, 23 December 2019

Tomorrow I fully expect to take picture of the day 5479 - as I start year 16 of my 'one year project'.

I might well be a rubbish diarist (in the traditional sense), but I think I'm getting the hang of the photo-blogging malarkey.

For anyone that's checking the maths - 365 x 15 is 5475, and there have been three February 29ths to confuse the numbers.

And, yes. I do still worry about happens if I get round to crossing the International Date Line.

Into the Valley / 20th December 2019

A rather strange Friday.

In some ways just a normal 'not-working' Friday, in other ways it felt like it ought to be the start of the long Christmas break (it isn't, I'm back at my desk on Monday morning).

The plan for the morning was to explore some of more remote parts of the Lye Valley - despite the rain, which switched between heavy and torrential.  The usual walk along the valley boardwalk was peaceful albeit wet, and it was good to see the work by the reserve volunteers, particularly in adding barriers to control the water flow.  The reserve is particularly vulnerable to heavy rain and the local building development has made the 'flash floods' worse - I'm inclined to suggest that a family of beavers might have been recruited to help with the work, but I suspect there are rules about this sort of thing.

Having walked the boardwalk I set out to explore one of paths along the edge of the reserve. At the moment the edge of the reserve is almost entirely built up, and there are moves afoot to 'fill in' the one stretch where there is a boundary path.  This won't do the reserve any favours, and will inevitably lead to move water getting flushed into the valley.

Into the Valley
We need beavers
Along the boardwalk
Looking into the valley from the boundary path

Walking from the House

It's good to get a walk.  It feels increasingly important to be able to spend time outside and away from the desk and keyboard (OK, so I do sound like a broken record here).  It also seems to me to be important to be able to spend time away from the steering wheel.

Over recent months I've found myself reflecting on the value of having the option of a decent walk that one can do without needing to have a 'car commute' added in too.

In Shetland, I regularly head off onto Quendale beach - simply because it's my local 'no-car' walk. Sometimes that walk does just turn out to be a there-and-back walk along the beach.  At other times it'll stretch to either the Garth's Ness walk - or even the Fitful Head loop which gives splendid views along the west coast of Shetland.

If I want further variety (on foot from the house), I can also opt to head towards the Pool of Virkie, Grutness Voe and the east coast of Shetland which isn't much further away.  Shetland might be best part of 80 miles from top to bottom - but it's very narrow.  I've seen it suggested that nowhere in Shetland is more than three miles from the sea - I've always been a bit skeptical about that number, I'm pretty sure it's not that far.

Quendale Bay
Wick of Shunni, West coast of Shetland 
Orca in Grutness Voe, East coast Shetland

In Oxford, there isn't any (obvious) walk from the house that involves sea cliffs, beaches or whales, there are however quite a few that involve nature reserves and woodlands.  My regular walks locally involve the BBOWT C S Lewis nature reserve and on into Shotover Country Park, or down the local streets to the lovely Lye Valley.

Headington also has lots of lanes which give the option of time away from traffic - I often wind up sharing pictures from the lanes or from Mesopotamia on the way into Oxford (and although this post was about no car walks, on that walk there's always the option of getting a bus home).

C S Lewis Reserve in the Spring
Autumn in Shotover Country Park
The Lanes up to Shotover in December
The Lanes up to Shotover, also in December
Lye Valley boardwalk in Spring
Through Mesopotamia

In The Woods / Friday 13th December 2019

Friday the 13th. What could possibly go wrong?

At past elections I've often stayed up late to see the drama unfold, or at least kept a radio playing at the bedside to hear the story play out.  This time the exit poll was so overwhelmingly depressing that it didn't seem worth the missed nights sleep.

So rather unusually, for a post-election day, I was just pissed off rather than sleep deprived.

An early morning visit to a local Sainbury's started the day.  I was tempted to shout at anyone who looked remotely happy (and particularly the person on the check-out who asked me cheerfully "how my week was going?").  It's kind of hard not to judge people based on how you think they might have voted, which is (I guess) a bit unfair - even if I have been doing it on a daily basis since the referendum in 2016.

Having endured the retail crowds I headed for the solitude offered by Harcourt Arboretum - this is part of the University of Oxford, and linked with the Botanic Garden in the middle of Oxford. There isn't much going on at the arboretum at this time of year - even the pigs hadn't bothered getting up, and I was, for most of the time I was there, the only visitor.

There is a sense of the trees settling down for winter - the leaves have dropped, the surrounding bracken is dying back - and when the snow comes, the woods are ready.

Today, there was no sign of snow just some watery sunshine casting shadows between the tree trunks.

A calming place after a tumultuous night and a busy start to the morning.

Scots Pine - with pigs around the tree trunks
Let Sleeping Pigs Lie
Autumnal Layers 
Sun between the trees
Surrounded by bracken

Oxfordshire / Friday 6th December 2019

One of the paybacks of a long weekend on Shetland is the extent of the "To Do" list the following Friday.  I'm certainly not going to start grumbling about it, but it does rather shape the day.

The day, this time, included several shopping malls - and even (may I be forgiven) a garden centre. I may have already reached my CCQ (Christmas Carol Quota) for the season.

I did however manage to combine these retail experiences (apparently, one does not simply 'shop' anymore) with a slow peaceful wander through Mesopotamia.  Still plenty of water coming down the river - but at least the water levels have dropped far enough to make the path passable.

Cherwell Turbulence
Cherwell Still Water
A Splash of Colour on the Marston Cycle Path
Complating boundaries at one of the weirs between the two rivers.

Shetland December 2019

Sunrise: 08:38. Sunset 15:10

Everytime I pitch up on Shetland, I watch the skies hopeful that I'm going to get stuck there.  The closest so far, was only getting as far as Aberdeen before Flybe decided that they weren't going to go any further that day.

And, I'm afraid I need to report that both northward and return journeys again went smoothly this time, even if the weather did immediately close in for the rest of the week.

Having checked the forecast I'd gone North in the full expectation what much of the time was likely to be spent inside or possibly wrapped in so many layers of clothing that wandering along the beach would be challenging in any conditions.

However I was able to spend most of the 6 or so daylight hours on offer outside each day.  

I've enthused in the past about the wonderful low sunlight during a Shetland winter and when you combine this with gentle (or no) winds you're definitely onto a winner photographically.  The only thing the pictures don't reveal is the temperature - there were still traces of snow in a few places when I arrived, and for most of the weekend, it felt fine as long as you kept moving.  Sitting around waiting for the light wasn't always fun!

One real bonus of the calm weather was the return of the Sumburgh guillemots - it's always a delight to both see and hear them, when they are back.  It might not be breeding season just yet - but their reappearance is a reminder that it won't be long until the solstice, and the days will start to get longer again.

Early Light - Scat Ness
Calm Seas - Quendale Bay
Fair Isle and Lady's Holm, south end of Shetland 
Returning Guillemots - Sumburgh Head

Scat Ness, Shetland / Friday 29th November 2019

I think I got lucky starting my not-working-Friday plan this month.

November has managed to squeeze in 5 Fridays - and this is the second one that has included an 03:30 alarm and an early flight to Shetland.

As with the previous time, the travel all went remarkably smoothly.  There have been times where my attempts to get north have been messed about by weather and airline 'complications' - so I'm still grateful every time an 03:30 alarm in Oxford turns into a prompt arrival at Sumburgh Airport.  Today I managed to be on Scat Ness just on the stroke of midday - with boots (and a lot of layers) on and camera in hand.

The other bonus was sunshine - I could still see signs that the morning showers had been snow or sleet, but by the time I turned up the showers had moved on and they didn't return until just after sunset.  I should point out that there isn't actually very much time between midday and sunset on Shetland at this time of year - sunset was officially 15:12, and it was dark enough to see both the Sumburgh Head light and the Fair Isle North light by 16:00.

The pictures could lead one to believe that the weather was warm - but although the winds were gentle (by Shetland standards) they were coming from the North and I'm pretty sure the temperatures weren't getting much above 2 or 3C.

And relax - looking from the Shetland garden across Quendale Bay
Loch o Gards, Scat Ness 
From Scat Ness across to Fitful Head
Cliffs at Brei Geo, Scat Ness
One of the freshwater pools on Scat Ness
Fair Isle on the horizon (and Lady's Holm in the foreground)

Shifting Baselines / Otmoor / Friday 22nd November 2019

Long ago (back in October) I used to struggle through to Friday, looking forward to the way-too-short two-day weekend, and occasionally contemplating the freedom and opportunity that my new work pattern was going to give me. 

Now, I struggle through to Thursday, looking forward to the new improved (but still too short) three-day weekend, wondering (i) how (and why) I ever routinely managed a five day working week, and (ii) how soon I can legitimately start petitioning for a three day working week and a four day weekend. 

It struck me that this was a classic (close to home) example of a Shifting Baseline.  Where I might at one time have thought that the five day week was the norm and a four day was something to be aspired to, it very quickly turns to four days being the norm and a three day work week becomes the pattern to aspire to.

On this particular Friday, it seemed like a good idea to return to RSPB Otmoor for a rather more leisurely wander than last week.

Apparently I 'just missed' one of the resident otters and the kingfisher wasn't in evidence, but there were plenty of the usual suspects (and very few people - other than a very diligent volunteer work party) around.

Next week, hopefully a bit further north.

Sydlings Copse and Otmoor / Friday 15th November 2019

Another Friday Blog.

Good to be away from the desk - even when it's raining.

Sydlings Copse and Otmoor are just over two miles apart but offer two different flavours of 'wildness' very close to Oxford.

Sydlings Copse is a small BBOWT nature reserve surrounded by farmland just outside the Oxford ring road - it has got elements of ancient woodland, open grassland, fenland and a stream.  Bits of the reserve were once managed but others have been left to do their thing for many generations.  In the spring there are huge numbers of wildflowers and in the summer the profusion of butterflies makes you think that you've stepped back in time.   And best of all, it's really quite hidden away so you often get the place to yourself.  Particularly in November. In the rain.

Just a couple of miles north of Sydlings Copse is a very different nature reserve.  RSPB Otmoor didn't exist when we first moved to Oxford.  Although Otmoor appears on old Oxfordshire maps it had over the years been 'improved' to become farmland, mostly by aggressive draining. In mid-90s the RSPB acquired the reserve (we helped!) and set about restoring the habit - a lot of the initial work involved reversing the draining, replanting reedbeds and generally attempting to turn the clock back by a few decades.  It's worked - there are now breeding bittern and lapwing on the site, kingfishers regularly hunt in the channels  and the noticeboard talks about the resident otters, stoat, weasels, badgers and fallow deer.  Over the winter there are huge numbers of wintering wildfowl and waders, and the regular spectacle of starling murmurations.  The site also has a wonderful sense of space - the open skies over the reed-beds offer space that is so often seems to be crowded out around Oxfordshire.