Home again

It’s hard to imagine now that before moving Up North, My Taller Half and I spent six years living in Southend-on-Sea in Essex.

Southend is where miles of suburban flatlands meet miles of Thames estuary mudflats. Terrible for hillwalking, fantastic for wildlife and birdwatching. While I longed for the hills, I can’t deny that I also enjoyed the coastal wildlife, seafront pubs and promenade walks.

Occasionally I get dragged down to Southend for work purposes, and this week I spent two nights in my former home. After an interesting evening train journey from Liverpool Street to Southend Victoria*, I decided to walk the promenade from the pier towards Westcliff.

(*the whole train was humming, loudly, for the entire journey. The commuters seemed oblivious, I nearly pulled the emergency cord. The train operator was clearly embarrassed by their trains – there was no clue from within the carriage as to who they were).

While waders are now returning to the British uplands, whose who breed in the arctic are still waiting for winter to lose its grip, so I was thrilled to see little white birds, busy as ants, glowing in the night against the sea defences by the pier. Sanderlings. Thirteen of them (I counted twice). My absolute favourite bird (apart from starlings, oh and tree sparrows, and don’t forget spotted flycatchers…). Totally oblivious to my presence, eschewing the wader’s high tide sleep in order to fatten up for their impending journey.

A little further on and my slight nerves at walking in the dark in a town are now gone (how easy it is to forget how to cope in once-familiar places). A tight flock of sanderlings are sleeping right next to the promenade. About thirty, although this time I didn’t count. One or two feeding, the sleepy ones fluttering their wings and occasionally jumping slowly into the air. So trusting. I want to scoop them up and take them home.

I nearly go back to the hotel for my forgotten camera. It has a night time setting but I doubt I’d be satisfied with blurry sanderling shots, so I carry on.

I pass the Westcliff casino (always changing its name, still looks the same). Lots of cars parked in the bays between the traffic lanes. I spot a fox ahead. It’s found something tasty next to a car, clearly thrown out by the lazy occupant. Rural foxes are not brave – a rare treat to see one in Weardale. I stop so as not to scare this one off.

The fox gives up on its dinner and trots towards me. I hold my breath. It stops in the road, close now. A car beeps its horn, startling me, not really bothering the fox, who is now walking right past me on the pavement and then heading to the bin behind me and then back into the car park to look for more discarded food.

I get one more chance to visit the seafront on the morning of my last day. The tide is nearly in, but only one sanderling in sight and three Brent geese. I say my goodbyes and look forward to the trip home. This time I make the effort to travel the C2C line to Fenchurch Street (took me ages as a C2C commuter to realise the C stands for both City and Coast). Modern train, coastal views. I think to myself that I’d never have managed four years as a commuter if it wasn’t for the views from the train window.

Fast forward a boring but uneventful journey home. I’m getting off the bus at Wolsingham. I look up, and there are thousands of starlings gliding in the air above me. Sanderlings and foxes forgotten, what a treat to be back. Starlings can form huge roosting flocks in the winter, and I can’t believe these guys are still hanging around. Maybe like the sanderlings they are waiting for spring to arrive in their breeding grounds?

I should be hurrying home, but I enjoy the starlings circling above me when one of them dives down into the trees behind the main road. Two, three seconds pass, then starlings start pouring out of the sky in their hundreds and into the trees. I stand and watch for what seems like an age as the cloud of starlings, pendulum-like, arc over these trees, a small group pouring down at each pass. Eventually all the starlings are earthbound and I am released to go home.

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Murmurings

It started a couple of weeks ago. First a trickle, then a torrent. Starlings are on the move and a large number of them have decided that Wolsingham is a great place to hang out. And I get a ringside seat.

Starlings gather to roost in large numbers over the autumn/winter period. Before they settle they spend up to an hour flying together in fluid flocks known as murmurations.

I’m guessing that the starlings roosting in Wolsingham right now are gathering before heading off to their spring breeding grounds – they certainly didn’t winter here. Why they’ve chosen Wolsingham and how the newcomers know where to turn up I have absolutely no idea, but I’m not going to miss this photographic opportunity, especially as all I have to do to get the best view is open my window.

So for the last week or so, I’ve taken every opportunity to capture this spectacle, and I’ve even started getting creative (aka arty-farty) with my shots. Take a look for yourself. Unless they all decide to bog off tomorrow, consider this a work in progress.

A photo from each day I’ve been photographing:

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At first they arrived in small numbers

Only a small murmur, but making interesting shapes

Only a small murmur, but making interesting shapes

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Experimenting with black and white now

Getting a closer look

Getting a closer look

Going all arty-farty

Going all arty-farty

A step too far?

A step too far?

For more photos, check out my Starling Murmuration flickr album

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Best laid plans

Winter 2012/13 was pretty amazing (if you like snow). When I look back at the photos I took, from December through to early April almost every photo features the white stuff. It was also memorable because border collie Holly joined us in December, and her first ventures beyond the garden gate were snow-crusted. Holly loved snow.

Winter 2013/14 was a bitterly disappointing one. Autumn weather never really left us, and snow showers were fleeting. One of Holly’s toys had survived puppyhood, and I’d been harbouring a secret ambition to get a shot of her running in the snow with the same toy she loved so much as a puppy.

Holly in March 2013, playing with Blue Rope in the snow

Holly in March 2013, playing with Blue Rope in the snow

This week has seen our first decent snowfall of Winter 2014/15. I dug out Blue Rope (all Holly’s toys are named. We have forgotten some of them, but Holly hasn’t). Holly refused to play with it. If there is snow on the ground, it’s now snowballs or nothing. No negotiation.

So I’m still waiting to get my shot. In the meantime, here’s Holly catching a snowball.

Holly catching a snowball, photo taken yesterday

Holly catching a snowball, photo taken yesterday

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Two disappointments

Today we had two disappointments. The first one involved our border collie Holly. The second involves our house.

Disappointment #1 Holly

Today was Holly’s first practice run at going to Doggie Daycare. We’re not planning to abandon her or become part-time dog owners, but just occasionally we might want (or have) to go somewhere she wouldn’t enjoy. A small town, for instance.

We’d already had an assessment. “She’s a bit anxious, but after a few practice visits she’ll settle down”. When we got there (driving through snow – see how dedicated we are) she knew where to go and seemed happy. Just as we were arriving back home to do some sneaky DIY I got the call. “We’re having a few issues. You’ll need to pick Holly up…”.

It all started out well. Holly went on a walk and was well behaved. Then something changed. Back at base all her defensive instincts kicked in. “I’m alone. Abandoned. This is dangerous. Don’t touch me!”.

Looking after a dog with separation anxiety is a real pain. Sally from Doggie Daycare explained that with time and one-to-one attention Holly would settle, but they have a lot of dogs to look after and her anxiety is just too big a problem for them to cope with right now. Holly will never survive in kennels.

So I’m feeling disappointed, and I can see a lot of hard work ahead for us. It’s just lucky we don’t enjoy holidays abroad, and that our families don’t hate us for not visiting them ever.

Holly taking it out on the pond (not really - she loves this game)

Holly taking it out on the frozen pond (not really – she loves this game)

Disappointment #2 Floorboards

We had planned to use Doggy Daycare Time to take up the carpet in our hall to see what was underneath and to make plans for sorting out the upstairs floor.

We’d convinced ourselves we had floorboards in the hall, but were not sure about the bedroom. Guess what – no floorboards!

Right now we’re a bit deflated. We now have no hall carpet, and frankly, it looks like a building site. This is not a disaster though, but a spur to action. Next weekend is going to involve choosing flooring (it will be wood or laminate. No more dirt-loving carpet). Joiners may or may not need to be involved, but pretty soon (relatively speaking) we will have lovely flooring upstairs. That’s going to be a big tick in our home improvement programme.

Look - no floorboards

Look – no floorboards

Two disappointments in one day. Two journeys to take. One should be straightforward, but one will be hard. We will learn on the way, and get there in the end.

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Goodbye 2014, hello 2015

What have I been up to in 2014? Obviously not blogging (sorry blog). The Wolsingham Wayfarers have taken up a lot of my attention. I’m the ‘official’ walks photographer, and I manage the website, twitter and facebook page. Just google Wolsingham Wayfarers if you want to take a look.

The other thing that’s been taking my attention is the house. We’ve had a new boiler, new kitchen, floor tiles put in, and a wood burning stove installed this year. There’s still lots to do, but we’re getting there.

The allotment is ticking along but still needs love. My fruit trees are establishing, I’ve dug out the old raspberries and replaced them, and I have more kale and sprouts than even the chickens can eat. I have clubroot (boo, hiss) and the soil is pretty exhausted. I must get some more manure on the plot.

Holly is still a mad border collie, but she is starting to calm down now she’s two. She is starting to make doggie friends and is better at travelling, but still has a bad car/jogger/cyclist/cow obsession: as far as she is concerned, they are all dangerous and must be chased off. She adores the beach, so more trips to the seaside next year.

In the garden, it’s been a good year for tree sparrows. I now have a flock of around 30 visiting daily. They mingle with the rather larger population of house sparrows, and Vine House Farm are doing very well out of it (sparrows love the finch mix). I think the chaffinch and greenfinch populations have crashed locally due to the trichomonosis disease. Hardly see any these days. It hasn’t all been rosy with my chickens either, as Rowan and Hazel died this year. Willow and Ivy are currently thriving and rule the garden.

That was 2014. What about next year? I’ve decided that 2015 is going to be all about my photography.

I’m going to:

  • redress the balance between taking photos for the Wayfarers and taking photos for me. It’s really the processing that takes up the time, so I’m going to buy myself a nice little digital camera to take photos on Wayfarers walks and for dog walking
  • take fewer, but more considered photos with my DSLR camera
  • get back into Flickr in earnest
  • start printing my images

What’s going to happen to my blog?

I’ve been really neglecting Muddy Tracks for the last couple of years. I love writing, but just never seem to have the time. I may have to give in and get a laptop or tablet so I can write in front of the TV. I’ll try to be good. You are allowed to nag me.

That’s it. Let’s hope that 2015 is better for everyone than 2014 was.

Snowy day in Weardale. More snow please!

Snowy day in Weardale. More snow please!

Holly at Blackhall Rocks. Expect to see more photos like this in 2015

Holly at Blackhall Rocks. Expect to see more photos like this in 2015

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Further chicken traumas

Well, I predicted that Hazel chicken wouldn’t make it to Christmas and yesterday she proved me right. Whatever the malfunction was that stopped her laying has finally beaten her, so I’ll be digging another hole down the allotment shortly.

RIP Hazel chicken. I think you had a good life.

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Small and perfectly formed

The show season in Weardale is well and truly on. Tomorrow is the start of Wolsingham Show (oldest agricultural show in England) and next week is the turn of Stanhope. Last week I made my first ever visit to the Weardale Show in St John’s Chapel.

Weardale instantly became my favourite agricultural show. No queueing for parking, spacious, friendly, extremely dog-friendly, generally very laid back, and very very welcoming. This is a small show in Upper Weardale, with an emphasis on local livestock showing. To be honest, I was expecting it to feel cliquey and local (in the Royston Vasey sense). Well, I was wrong, so I apologise: sorry Weardale Show.

The Weardale Show was an opportunity to try out two things – my new macro lens, and Holly’s de-stress training. Holly excelled herself. She is newly obsessed with smelling other dogs’ scent messages, and once we were passed the car park (Cars! Let me round up the cars! Pleeaase let me round up the cars!) she was happy checking out all those doggy messages. She also got to wear her new de-stress T-shirt. Whether it works or not, who can say, but she loves having it put on (and this is a dog that will attempt to take your arm off if you even think of examining her).

If you find yourself in the area next August, you could do worse than popping in to the Weardale Show. Maybe I’ll see you there?

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After a long break (aka sulk) I’ve started posting stuff to flickr again. There are more Weardale Show photos here.

 

 

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