“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” –Mark Jenkins

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Heading for the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct ("The Bridge that Connects")

Llangollen Canal RouteSo we are off again - this time to our soggy, but outstandingly beautiful, neighbour: Wales. North Wales to be precise. It's an early start Saturday, heading up to the Anderson boatyard, where 6 of us board the Fjord Emperor for a 7 night cruise along the Llangollen canal. The highlight, and the greatest challenge of the trip will be the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct - the oldest aqueduct in Britain. I say "challenge", not only because it will be a tricky one to photograph, but at 210 years old there are some slightly unnerving facts to get your head round;

  • To keep the aqueduct as light as possible, the skinny masonry piers that hold it up are partly hollow and taper at the top.
  • The mortar in those piers was made of oxen blood, lime and water. Kind of like treacle toffee!
  • It has 18 piers, each 126ft high, and 19 arches each with a 45ft span
  • The aqueduct holds 1.5 million litres of water and takes two hours to drain.
  • The structure is 1,007ft long, with the River Dee running beneath it.
I will be taking my new wide angle lens of course (16-35mm) still not quite sure of the plan for the shot, having not been there before, but with any luck the autumn leaves will still be clinging on in sufficient numbers and the sun will be providing enough of a glow to add some colour to them. The weather does not look great for the week ahead - so it's waterproofs all the way - including a set for my Nikon. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

Bawdsey Hall in Suffolk

Not sure what I thought before when someone mentioned Suffolk.... Sizewell B perhaps? farmers and flat fields? Minsmere and Springwatch? Now however, whenever anyone says Suffolk I will think immediately of Bawdsey Hall. What a truly amazing find - it certainly is "Suffolk's Secret Hideaway" and I intend to be hiding away there for as many years as David, the owner, allows me to.
We discovered it completely by accident (met some fellow amateur photographers on Skomer Island back in July) and decided to go stay and see whether what we had heard from these two guys was really as good as it sounded.... that they had badgers visiting the grounds every night (we were visited 7 times on one night), that they had wildlife camera feeds direct into your bedroom (true - 8 in fact, all fed into 2 channels on the in-room TVs!), and Tawny Owls visited the feeders almost on demand (true again - they are fed day-old chicks on an old tree stump in the grounds which can be viewed from the bedroom windows!). 
There are hares living in the car park, Little Owls living on the barn roof and a range of deer wandering about, including the strange looking, fanged, Chinese Water Deer, but we saw (and heard) only Muntjac. One of which decided to start barking right next to us whilst we silently waited for Badgers - much to the amusement of the owners who were sat yards away at the house listening and giggling (although they did also ferry out cups of tea to us throughout the evening which was a very welcome and appreciated touch).
We were only staying one night, but what a night. After spending some time wandering the grounds and getting acquainted with the various hides and set up, we returned to the Hall for a cuppa and chat with the owners about what to expect. The Badgers did not disappoint - we settled in to some chairs on the lawn around 830pm half obscured by low-hanging branches from a magnificent and very old Tulip tree. We were set up on borrowed tripods with a relatively low ISO and somewhat slow shutter speed ready on cable release - we were coached into waiting for the moment when a badger hears something and raises its head to listen, pausing motionless for a few seconds. With the first visitor around 9pm this happened quite a lot, but with a new lens and some focussing issues I completely failed to get anything half decent. It took a fair amount of practise but luckily I had plenty of opportunities to try again.... we were visited 7 times! at one point two badgers were feeding together which was nice to watch. One of them came across the lawn right in front of us - literally within a few metres - quite remarkable considering we weren't even in a hide! We stayed out until almost 1am when the last badger left and cold toes forced us to call it a night. 
Moth trap at dawn
Cannot wait to book again for the spring time - or even winter snow - I will definitely be looking round for more potential customers in the area to visit from now on. This is definitely a place to break up the monotony of a lonely salespersons typical hotel stays. 

With only a few hours sleep we still managed to get up for 7am Sunday morning and meet "The Moth Man" who was doing his rounds checking for anything spectacular caught in the dozen or so traps around the grounds. We weren't early enough to go with him, but we did manage an hour in the lane hide where we spotted a large dark bird with a white head and fingered wing-tips fly over - no shots, but neither myself nor Gail could place what it might have been. We later discovered it to be a female Marsh Harrier-  my first in fact.
We returned at 8am for our pre-booked full English which was to die for and more than makes up for the lack of restaurant on site - to be fair there is not the time to eat an evening meal anyway - Gail and I had bought sausage rolls and picnic food instead which was perfectly adequate.

Around breakfast time we met with the bird ringer who had set his nets and was returning with his first catch - two tiny Goldcrests. I have never seen one up close before and was completely shocked at just how small they are. His wings were measured and checked, details recorded in a log book and a numbered ring attached to his leg before being let loose again on the bird feeders. After breakfast we set off with him to check the nets again - I was fascinated to see how they untangled them from the fine meshing, but sadly on the round we chose to accompany him on, there was not a single bird caught. Another reason to return (like I really need an excuse!). Bawdsey you are fantastic and I, and probably Gail, will most certainly be back. Thank you.