UK 2019 Day 8: Dartmoor

Posted July 16, 2019

May 16, 2019

After spending most of our first week around Bristol and Somerset, we started our second week by heading southwest to the county of Devon and spent the day around Dartmoor National Park [map].

Dartmoor is an upland area covered in low vegetation and bogs, with granite outcrops (called tors) and very few trees. Large areas are covered in English Bluebells, which even in the intermittent morning overcast were beautiful. Ruth told us that the flowers were past their peak, but the vivid purple was still quite a sight.

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English Bluebells cover large sections of the moorland.

There are few trees on the moor. The large, ancient forests that covered this land were slowly cleared over the centuries. Human activities, like grazing and farming changed the soil, making it acidic, further converting the land. A few trees do grow, and there are small sections of forest remaining, and there are restoration efforts under way in part of the park.

Scrubby tree among grasses and bluebells.
Scrubby trees like this are scattered around on the moor. In a couple of denser copses, I heard European Cuckoos!

Dartmoor has hundreds of tors. These prominent high points, some topped with granite knobs or spires, are important landmarks and many can be seen for miles away (by the way, you may have noticed I’ve been using miles and feet in these UK posts. As metric as Britain is, roads and distances are more often still in “imperial” units).

Distant rock outcrop upon a hill with scrub and grass in the foreground.
One of many tors in the landscape. There are so many that a few have redundant names!

Much like the Cheesewring (which we’ll see in a future post), these outcrops are completely natural. The shapes and apparent layers are due to persistent wind and water erosion over the course of many millennia.

Rocky outcrop with stones scattered below.
Some of the rocks in the foreground are simply granite that’s been exposed from just below the surface. Some of the larger ones resting on the grass have tumbled from the tor itself as the inexorable forces of erosion do their job.

For large parts of the moorland gorse and bogs dominate the landscape. Here is a patch of gorse without the iconic yellow flowers. This thick cover is ideal for protecting various bird species which nest or roost within. I saw Meadow Pipits, Eurasian Stonechats, and even a couple of skylarks.

Gorse covering a grassy knoll.
Gorse, near some bird nesting habitat signs. I didn’t walk too far in – this stuff is thick and has a lot of thorns!

Dartmoor is famous for it’s wild ponies. They can seem quite tame and will walk up to visitors and even touch you with their noses or flanks. But they are wild and should be treated with that level of respect. Many of the mares had foals.

A foal and its mother laying on grass
A baby pony sleeping while Mom rests nearby.

As we wandered around near one parking area, one pony walked up to my wife and did in fact touch its nose to her hand. The mares were relatively unconcerned with our proximity to their offspring.

Foal standing on short grass.
There were quite a few very young ponies around the moor. This one was still a little shaky on its feet.

We drove to a few more vantage points around the park, including looks at the prison (“HM Prison Dartmoor”) and more tors. From there we made our way past Buckfastleigh and to the ruins of Holy Trinity Church [map]. On the adjacent cemetery grounds is the mausoleum of Richard Cabell, on whose legend and death Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.

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Cabell was said to be an extremely angry and mean person, and would set his large dogs upon trespassers on his land. When he died, he was placed in a relatively unadorned mausoleum, beneath a heavy stone surrounded by iron bars, to “…prevent his coming up and haunting the neighbourhood,” according to an early 20th Century travel guide to Dartmoor.

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The church itself is in ruins now, victim of vandals and arson in the 1990s. The elements have deteriorated the structure and the headstones more quickly than one might expect. This, combined with lichens and mosses growing on the stone makes the churchyard look even older still.

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The church, cemetery, and Sir Richard’s mausoleum are popular tourist attractions, and we saw a couple of tour groups and photographers making their way around the grounds.

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We left Master Cabell and his company of headstones and started for home, though we’d visit Dartmoor a couple more times during our stay in the UK. You’ll have to stay tuned for those upcoming posts!

A lichen covered and eroded stone angel affixed to a stone cross headstone.
Don’t blink. This Weeping Angel might be deteriorating, but you mustn’t let your guard down!

UK 2019 Day 7: Birding Day at Chew Valley Lake

Posted July 5, 2019

May 15, 2019

My first proper “birding day” was about 1/2 the day spent at a reservoir called Chew Valley Lake [map]. I had a chance to scout it out briefly on the way back from one of our previous day’s adventures, and it looked promising.

View of a lake with a tree covered island in the middle ground.
Chew Valley Lake.

Chew Valley Lake is named as a premiere birding spot in several places online, and it did not disappoint. The species diversity was high and added a sizable amount to my life list, as you might imagine.

The lake fills part of Chew Valley, forming a reservoir that provides much of the drinking water for Bristol and nearby locales.

View looking down a low dam with lake to the left and roadway to the right.
The dam along Wally Lane demarks the northern edge of the lake.

The morning started off cold, with temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 Celsius), but the sun warmed things up nicely as the day progressed. I walked along the dam first, but there was no public access around the west side of the lake from there.

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One of several White Wagtails around the lake.

There are well defined trails and paths around the lake and adjacent woodland, some with boardwalks, and a couple of wildlife blinds to make access to some of the shier birds a little easier. Unfortunately, this did not keep the Tufted Ducks from being skittish. I was unable to get any photographs even though I had targeted this species  before leaving for the trip.

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Much of the path around the north side of the lake has a high bank separating the path from the nearby road.

Although the Tufted Ducks may have been skittish, other water birds were not. I saw several Great Crested Grebes, a few Common Shelducks, and several dozen Eurasian Coots. There were also plenty of Mallards, Canada Geese, and a pair of Mute Swans.

close up of grebe swimming on surface of the water
Great Crested Grebe

The southern eastern and southern edges of the lake have areas of thick reeds and some scrub vegetation. There areas had active and vocal birds, like Reed Warblers, Eurasian Wrens, and Reed Buntings.

Small songbird perched in a bush.
A Reed Bunting making a brief appearance out of the reed bed.

The Eurasian Wrens have a loud song, for their size. The song is very reminiscent of a Song Sparrow here in North America, so it was confusing at times to orient my ears to what kind of bird I should be looking at.

Tiny wren perched among foliage.
A Eurasian Wren pausing between songs. Tiny body, mighty sound!

Similarly, the Eurasian Blackcaps and European Robins have some sounds in common and have thrush-like calls, which was confusing as there were typically Eurasian Blackbirds nearby.

Songbird singing within shaded branches.
Eurasian Blackcap male. The females and young have brown caps.

Eurasian coots were scattered out all over the lake close to the shore. I wondered if they form large rafts during the winter, like American coots do. Eurasian Coots are smaller and a bit more streamlined.

Close-up of a coot swimming on water's surface
Eurasian Coot.

Near one of the wildlife blinds, I heard a prolonged and rollicking song in the understory, and spent many minutes trying to get eyes on the bird. I managed a sound recording to use later for identification, but soon after the bird finally did pop into view. Many of the various warblers that live in these habitats are similar looking, and as they are all new to me, I thought having that recording along with my visual would help me nail it down.

According to descriptions of Melodious Warbler songs, “my” bird fit the bill (haha). It is said to have a prolonged song with many doublets and repeated phrases, similar to a Northern Mockingbird. Its song also has elements that sound like House Sparrows. To my ear, this is what I heard and recorded. I duly noted the (rare) bird on my eBird app and continued on.

I reached the end of the trail on the east side of the lake, where the woods abutted some agricultural land. I spooked a large raptor that I couldn’t identify, and then watched as a Eurasian Treecreeper worked its way up a few trees. All the while, more wrens, blackcaps, blackbirds, and robins were singing. I doubled back along the east side of the lake on a more wooded path running parallel to the way I came, which kept me out of the sun. Even 18 degrees Celsius (65 Fahrenheit) can feel hot after a few hours of hiking.

Dirt path with taller trees to the left and some grass and brush to the right.
Woodland path around Chew Valley Lake.

I made my way back around to the north side of the lake. My intention was to relocate the Tufted Ducks and perhaps catch a Common Merganser or two near the dam. I did manage to flush out a couple of Common Sandpipers and Shelducks as I approached the spillway.

Common-Shelduck_01
This Common Shelduck headed off the spillway outlet towards the middle of the lake like he was on a mission.

A few finch-like birds were singing and flying among the small trees alongside it. It took some sleuthing and confirming later that evening, but managed to identify both as immature males, one a Eurasian Linnet and the other a Black Redstart.

Eurasian-Linnet_01
Although not in bright breeding plumage, I think this Eurasian Linnet was a male because it was singing its heart out.

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Another small songbird perched on a young tree's branch.
Black Redstarts are common birds in the UK, but it took me quite a while, and in some cases outside expertise to identify them. Local knowledge and experience are invaluable in birding.

By this point I was nearing the end of my morning and ready to meet up with my wife and Ruth who had been visiting shops and sites back in Bristol. By the trail head near the dam, I waited at a higher, wooded spot and watched a few European Goldfinches dart in and out of the trees, nearby.

European-Goldfinch_01
This European Goldfinch was last bird of the adventure at Chew Valley Lake.

I walked a total of about 9 km (about 5.5 miles) and had nearly run out of water as my ride showed up and we rode back to Bristol. My species count was 37, and you can see my eBird list below.

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S56302558

View of a lake with tree reflections on the far shore.
Good bye, Chew Valley Lake.

Addendum

Astute readers will see that my eBird list has only 36 species. After arriving back home in the States, I received an email from an eBird reviewer in the UK, asking about my Melodious Warbler identification. I had posted my sound recording as supporting material. He said my recording was a Reed Warbler and would I please change my list. I have done so, but solely on the idea that a local birder would/should know more and have more experience with the birds I saw and heard. But I’ll link to the sound file below, and if any experienced UK birders can confirm or question the current identification as a Reed Warbler, I’d love to hear from you.

UK 2019 Day 6: Wales

One of the great things about being in and around Bristol is its proximity to Wales. A relatively easy trip over the Bristol Channel and there you are. We were quite looking forward to seeing some of Wales in part due to the TV show Doctor Who. Many of the “new” series (since 2005) has been filmed in Wales, and the show’s spin-off, Torchwood, was based in Cardiff.

Our first stop in Wales that day was Southerndown Beach. Doctor Who fans might know it as the beach by “Bad Wolf Bay”, where Rose and The Doctor part (at least in term of Rose as a regular companion) after “Doomsday” at the end of series 2. The beach is beautiful, surrounded by cliffs and long stretches of sand at low tide.

a broad rocky beach with sand toward the surf
Rocks and sand at low tide.
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Dramatic cliffs of Southerndown Beach.
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Rockfall from the cliffs covers much of the beach and makes for interesting tidal pools.

After hanging out at the beach for a bit, we headed over to Cardiff. [map], and the now iconic Roald Dahl Plass and the Wales Millenium Centre.

The Wales Millennium Centre with the Water Tower in the foreground.
The Wales Millennium Centre with its iconic Water Tower, beneath which the last remaining Torchwood Institute team had their headquarters. Due to construction, the water features were not operating.

The Millennium Centre is a beautiful structure, with materials chosen to reflect the history and heritage of the people of Wales. It’s steel clad dome pay homage to the steel industry, and other local materials like slate figure into the design. The words across the front of the dome are from Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis. The Welsh portion says, “Creu Gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen”, which means “Creating Truth Like Glass From Inspiration’s Furnace.” The English words are “In These Stones Horizons Sing”.

The front of the Wales Millennium Centre dome.
Poetic words on the dome at the Wales Millennium Centre. The steel has been treated with copper oxide to protect the metal from the seaside air.

Nearby to Roald Dahl Plass is the Senedd, or the Wales National Assembly. The political relationship among the countries in the United Kingdom isn’t always clear to Americans. Wales is a separate nation from England (as is Scotland and Northern Ireland), but for various reasons, Wales has traditionally enjoyed less self-rule than other parts of the UK. Without delving into politics of which I am a hopeless novice, I’ll just say that a degree of autonomy was attained in 1997 and the creation of a National Assembly for Wales (Cynulliad Cenedlaetho Cymru). While the modern Senedd building is where the Assembly meets and does its business, they acquired the nearby neo-Gothic Pierhead Building for use as an exhibit space and community center.

The Pierhead building in Cardiff
The Pierhead from Roald Dahl Plass.

Originally built for the Bute Docks Company, it was later used by the Cardiff Railway Company. The building is rather stunning in its setting, uncluttered by other architecture. The edifice is imposing, as befitting a 19th Century capitalist endeavor, of which both the docks and the railroads were.

The Pierhead Building in Cardiff.
In some ways, the Pierhead looks almost Romanesque revival, but perhaps my Art History courses are running a bit thin after 25 years.

It was a beautiful day to walk a bit around Mermaid Quay, the main shopping area at Cardiff Bay, looking out over the water.

A couple of sailboats out in Cardiff Bay.
A couple of sailboats out in Cardiff Bay.

As a bay-side city, the area was well represented by gulls, Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls, in about equal measure.

Lesser Black-backed Gull
A Lesser Black-backed Gull looking for an easy chip (french fry) to scavenge…

While looking for a place to eat lunch, we walked away from the waterfront and I saw this sign, which did make me laugh. I’m no beer drinker, but how can you not love a brewery named Brains (even with the provocatively missing apostrophe)?

Brains brewery dragon logo on the side of a building.
Brains Dragon.

After lunch at a place called Eli Jenkins, we made our way out of Cardiff and north to the city of Caerphilly and the medieval castle there [map]. Caerphilly Castle is a magnificent ruin in the center of the city, surrounded by a moat and green spaces.

Medieval castle overlooking a lake
Caerphilly Castle on a glorious day.

The castle was built in the 13th Century, and was an impressive stronghold for a couple of hundred years. Its concentric design was influential in many subsequent castles throughout Britain.

Welsh flags flying over part of Caerphilly Castle
Welsh flags flying over the restored eastern gatehouse.
Leaning, ruined castle tower
Robbed of stones and a victim of subsidence, the “Leaning Tower” tilts at over ten degrees from vertical.
Wooden statue seemingly holding up a leaning castle tower
The 4th Marquess of Bute, holding up the tower.

The castle site is quite large, and the towers have many worn and narrow steps. Most of the rooms are barren, with missing wall sections and closed-off staircases. Some parts of the parapets have been restored and can be walked along.

Castle parapet
Northern parapet, with motion activated battle sounds!

The interior of the castle has been preserved in some state of ruin or left empty and unadorned, except for the Great Hall.

Large room with shields along the wall and vaulted wooden ceiling.
The Great Hall. Many of the simple tables and benches were not in place due to continuing renovation. But it is an impressive space.

The whole site is amazing and expansive. Here’s a little slide show with a few more photos.

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The moat and surrounding lakes are full of ducks and geese, some feral domestic stock and some wild or at least established in the wild. Many of the geese had goslings of various ages, too.

Adult goose with goslings in the grass
Canada Geese are and established introduced species breeding in the wild in the UK.
Greylag Goose swimming
Greylag Goose on one of the lakes.

There were also Common Swifts and Barn Swallows swooping around the castle grounds grabbing insects. There was one attendant Common Raven, suffering from some sort of dermatological problem or other health issue. It was missing much of its neck feathers.

Raven with missing neck feathers
This poor raven was watching over the castle.
Songbird on wall over the water.
A Grey Wagtail resting on the castle wall over the moat.

It was getting to late afternoon and so we made out way back out from the castle to head home. Somewhat like at Stonehenge, I had a feeling of deep appreciation of the skills and pressures of the people of the past. Caerphilly Castle was built in just 3 years – an incredible feat no matter what the motivation or means. It’s impressive but relatable, and such encounters can only be enriching and enlightening.

I’ll leave you with one parting shot, emblematic of the state of affairs on both sides of the Atlantic.

Bollocks to Brexit
God save us all, not just the Queen.

UK 2019 Day 5: Bath

Posted June 21, 2019

May 13, 2019

Well into our first week, we decided to check our the ancient city of Bath [map]. Known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis, it was probably a sacred site to the local Celts before that.

The central fixture for the crowds and activity in Bath these days is the parish church, Bath Abbey. The abbeys and monasteries run by the Catholic Church in the 16th century were mostly destroyed and abandoned under orders of Henry VIII after he split the Church and declared himself the head of the Church of England. Some of the structures survived and were repaired or rebuilt afterwards, and then used by the Church of England. In this case Bath Abbey retains its moniker though it is no longer used as an abbey. The pinnacles, flying buttresses, and much of the interior were completed in the 19th Century based on Victorian ideals of Gothic architecture. It’s a well blended masterpiece.

Bath-Abbey_01
Bath Abbey’s western end dates from the early 16th Century.

I think we sometimes tend to think of “old” buildings and design as either ephemerally lofty or stoic and practical. But many of the forms and expressions in Gothic design are almost whimsical or contain an inside joke. Although rooted in scripture (Jacob’s Ladder), there’s a undeniable whimsy in the climbing angels on the abbey’s west side.

Bath-Abbey_13
On either side of the west facade, angels are climbing the church. I wonder if  Whovians have checked to see if any of them have ever changed position…

The church is made from locally quarried stone that has a golden yellow tint. Many of the older structures are made from this stone. The darker stone from the flying buttresses and the differential weathering of the stonework adds contrast and makes the structure even more dramatic.

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The interior is splendid, as well. The fan vaulting over the west end of the nave is centuries newer than that of the east end, but the differences are subtle. The design isn’t just decorative, but helps distribute the weight of the roof via columns and buttresses.

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Fan vaulting above the main organ in the north transept. This organ is a culmination of almost 300 years of modernization, expansion, and repair.

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A closer look at the fan vaulting, including various coat-of-arms.
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The church is airy, light, and open

Like most large churches, Bath Abbey has continued to have art commissioned and commemorated throughout the centuries. From the 18th through early 20th centuries, it was common to have elaborately carved memorial plaques made to honor a dead patron or their families. People continue to be inspired to make art for worship, reflection, and activism to this day.

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Some of the carved lime wood choir angels, made and donated in 2007. Note the butterfly mobiles in the background, above.
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Intricate stone ceiling, one of the abbey’s claims to fame.
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The light fixtures are converted gas lamps from the 19th Century renovation and repair.

It was mid to late morning when we finished our tour of the abbey, so we made our way to Sally Lunn’s Eating House to try their famous “Sally Lunn Bunns”. Sally Lunn was a woman who came to Bath from France with a recipe for a brioche-like bun that she perfected and has been passed down through the centuries. The house she ran a an eatery was already 200 years old when she lived there.

Sally-Lund_01
Tourist sign.

My wife, Ruth, and I each tried a different sweet bunn – mine was covered in chocolate butter. They looked so good and we were so hungry, it didn’t occur to us to take photos of them until we were done!

There’s a small museum and some artifacts that were found on a dig at the site, which has been occupied and adapted over the years. Many of the lower levels of buildings in Bath that are basements now were ground level floors hundreds of years ago.

Sally-Lund_02
The house, like much of old Bath, is made of the same local yellow stone as the abbey.

After our brunch, we walked down to Pulteney Bridge, a stone bridge over the Rive Avon with shops all along the bridge itself. In fact, if you didn’t know you were on a bridge, it would just look like another quaint, if slightly narrow, street.

Pulteney_Bridge_01
Pulteney Bridge is one of a handful world-wide to have shops across it’s whole length.

Bath is so named because the Romans took advantage of the local hot springs to build spas and bath houses. Although in ruins by the 5th Century, the springs were “rediscovered” and back in use as early as the 12th Century. The springs and the Roman ruins have preserved and are now housed in 18th century neoclassical buildings.

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The baths of Bath are located here. Entrance for a fee.
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Neoclassical building made from local stone.

We spent a bit more time walking the city, browsing the shops and enjoying some green spaces. As I mentioned before, many of the buildings in the older section of the city are made of the local stone (called Bath stone, as you might imagine). It does make for a warm, unified look.

I noticed tall walls extending past the roof-lines of some of the building rows, topped with chimneys. Ruth told us these are designed to prevent fires from spreading along the rows of flats. A lesson learned from a history of devastating city fires, typified by the Great London Fire of 1666. Catastrophic fires were known in most cities until safety and building codes, as well as firefighting practices and equipment developed enough to prevent and combat them.

Bath_stone
Note the multiple chimneys, showing how many fireplaces and living spaces these buildings originally had.

On a high point overlooking the city is a long, curved row of apartments called The Royal Crescent, partly enclosing a lawn on which many people were catching the sun or reading books.

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The Royal Crescent, posh apartments.

Bath is a lovely city and we had a good sampling of its history and geography.

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Farewell, Bath.

 

UK 2019 Day 4: Owl Be Home For Christmas

Posted June 20, 2019

May 12, 2019

We kept our schedule as flexible as possible for this trip, making many decisions on where to go and what to see the evening beforehand. We tried to make the trip a mix of tourist destinations and “local” living, with varying degrees of success.

One event we did schedule in advance was an owl encounter at the North Somerset Bird of Prey Centre [map]. This facility rescues animals in need or abandoned with a focus (as its name suggests) on birds of prey. They also have a selection of mammals and other animals.

Our encounter included close-up looks and interaction with five different owl species, some local to the area, some not. I’ve loved owls since I was a young child, and my wife and I both have a soft spot for raptors in general.

All the owls loved having their breast feathers stroked and were generally well behaved and in excellent health. These birds were rescued or rehabilitated and certainly have found a happy home at the Centre. Here are the owls we met, with lots of bonus shots of yours truly (a rare enough thing for this blog)!

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Dottie is a Little Owl.
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Little Owls are Britain’s smallest owl. I was surprised to find out they are an introduced species (19th century).
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Cherish is a Eurasian/North American Barn Owl. These lineages are considered conspecific, so she is not a genetic hybrid in the usual sense.
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Cerberus is a Tawny Owl.
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Close up of Cerberus, showing his facial disk and dark eyes, both adaptations for night hunting.
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This is Pedro, a Mexican Tawny Owl. He also liked having the back of his head scratched.
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Hercules, the aptly named Eurasian Eagle-Owl.
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There is something almost magical about holding an owl on your arm.
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Hercules’ orange eyes are adapted for crepuscular (dawn and dusk) hunting.

 

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Hercules’ talons are about the span of a person’s hand. 

After we all got to hold and interact with the owls, we each took part in a flight/hunt demonstration. Cherish was held by a volunteer on a perch a few dozen yards away, and we each held a piece of chicken in one hand and our other, gloved hand out as a perch. Cherish would then quickly fly and swoop up to take the chicken. This happened so fast that neither of us had an opportunity to get our cameras or phones out for a shot! Darn…

Bonus: Christmas Dinner at the Thomas’

When we returned home we had a lovely Christmas dinner with Ruth’s parents, Paula and Eric, in their downstairs flat. We had turkey (smoked on Darrens’ Kamado grill), roasted potatoes, Brussels sprouts and more. We finished with Christmas Pudding for desert and pulled open Christmas Crackers. It was festive and fun, and I can’t say enough how generous, sweet, and kind Eric and Paula are to have done this for us. They had also decorated the entrance to the house with the Union Flag and American Flag to welcome us.

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Christmas in May (photo courtesy of Paula Thomas)

 

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A warm welcome (photo courtesy of Paula Thomas).

A full stomach and a full spirit, what more can one ask for?

UK 2019 Day 3: Redcatch Park, SS Great Britain, Clifton Observatory

Posted June 17, 2019

May 11, 2019

I had forgotten how much longer higher latitude days are in Spring. Even before the March Equinox arrives, the long twilights running up to dawn and lingering after sunset make for extended daylight. I was up early on our third day to checkout the local park.

Redcatch Park [map] is just a quick walk away from our flat (I’ve always wanted to say that! A flat!) amid  proper football fields, a community center, a community garden, some tennis courts, and a playground. It’s a lovely patch of open space with copses of trees here and there, with nearby houses and gardens (what we’d call back yards, sort of, here in the USA).

As I walked to the park, Bristol’s urban dawn chorus was in full swing, with wood-pigeons, robins, blackbirds, chiffchaffs, and tits all singing and calling. I was happy to encounter most of these species in my walk through the park.

eurasian-blackbird
Eurasian Blackbirds are in the thrush family – similar to our American Robins. They have a melodious, flute like song. This male was singing and defending territory from other males.

It didn’t take long after I arrived for people to start entering the park to walk or play with their dogs. Most were on leashes, and those that were not seemed to ignore the birds and the birds, no doubt used to the canine interruptions, gave the canines a slightly wide berth but generally went about their business.

Dunnock_01
This tiny brown bird is a Dunnock. It was hard to get one framed up and standing still for any length of time.

As the sun grew stronger and the temperature rose up from 4 Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit) more of the smaller birds became active, including Great, Blue, and Long-tailed Tits, and House Sparrows. Robins were already singing their beautiful thrush-like songs. Common Chaffinches started singing from treetops, the males’ rosy-chestnut plumage brilliant in the sun.

Common-Chaffinch_01
A male Common Chaffinch atop an evergreen tree. His song dominated the park for a while.

I got some looks at birds I couldn’t immediately identify, but determined later to be Black Redstarts (a bird in the same taxonomic family as the European Robin). There were also Eurasian Jays, Common Starlings, and Carrion Crows flying or walking about the park.

european-robin
Another European Robin, watching me as I watched him. 

It seemed to me most of the birds were foraging – probably for nestlings or fledglings – or defending territory. This makes sense, given the time of year. The only courtship behavior I saw was between two Common Wood-Pigeons.

common-wood-pigeon-couple
A Common Wood-Pigeon couple, nuzzling and grooming each other.

I made my exit and walked back to the flat to get ready for the day’s further adventures in and around Bristol.

The eBird list for Redcatch Park: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S56112419

I went back to the flat to meet with the others for our next day around Bristol. This time our focus was at the harbor and in particular to see an important piece of maritime and engineering history: The SS Great Britain.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this ship. It was the first large ocean liner and the first to be powered by a propeller (or ‘screw’) as opposed to paddles, as had been the case before. This ship performed many functions over the years after it’s luxury cruising days were over. Perhaps one of its most important was to help lay the first transatlantic telegraph cables.

ss-Great-Britain_01

Designed by engineering genius (and by many accounts, jerk boss) I. K. Brunel, the ship is a linchpin in the design history of maritime transportation and the turning point for how ocean travel would progress from that point. You can read about her history at the official SS Great Britain website.

The ship, abandoned and scuttled on the Falkland Islands was recovered, towed back to Bristol, and restored and rebuilt more or less to its days as an ocean liner. Important original pieces of the ship – including hull plates, rivets, railings, and masts – are cataloged and stored in the adjacent museum.

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SS Great Britain sits in a dry dock originally built in the 1830s.

A clever bit of engineering makes the ship seem to float in water up to its waterline, but this is an illusion. Several centimeters of water is sandwiched between two layers of glass plate. This boundary is actually part of the preservation method for the ship’s hull.

On the outside, the ship’s detail are exquisitely recreated, including the stern decorations, and even the English coat of arms with unicorn and lion. “God And My Right” had been the English monarch’s motto since probably the 12th century. It signified the King (or Queen’s) divine right to govern.

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Windows and decorations a the top of the stern, just above the nameplate. 
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A goose (I think) over a cornucopia and some curtain effects.
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Lion, with the first half of the English coat of arms motto, “God And…”
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Close up of the lion. Those are some serious canine teeth!

 

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Second half of the motto, “…My Right”. I think it’s ironic that “My Right” is on the port, or left, side of the ship’s prow.

Above decks, the ship is colorful has several access points to the cabins and stateroom below. I didn’t get any photos belowdecks, though. I think I was too busy experiencing the ship and kind of forgot about my camera! Sorry!

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Even though the ss Great Britain is a steamship, like most early vessels of the type, it had supplemental sails. The rigging is simpler than that found in earlier sailing vessels.
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The masts were collapsible and could fold up flat on deck. 

Great Britain is a long ship, and quite narrow in its cross-section. This was done on purpose to reduce drag and increase efficiency of the propeller drive.

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View from inside the dry dock looking at the front of the ship. The silver cylinders along the keel are air blowers that put warm, dry air into the space to stop the iron hull from further corrosion.

Inside the dry dock, the environment is controlled to stem corrosion of the mostly original iron hull plating. In addition to “natural” rust and corrosion, there are a series of holes along the hull that were made to sink the ship in the 1930s.

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Corrosion on the original hull plating.

The ship was eventually returned to Bristol in 1970 for conservation and restoration. The dry dock dehumidifier chamber is a marvel itself, both functional below and aesthetic above.

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Looking up at the glass plate with the water rippling along the ship’s waterline.

The ship was eventually converted to use sails as well, and a winch system was developed to raise and lower the propeller, rudder, and part of the shaft out of the water. That assembly is in the museum building were it is slowly losing a battle against corrosion (the air is not optimal for either the iron fittings or the wooden rudder).

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Replica propeller to Brunel’s original design.

The ship and museum are a definite “don’t miss” if you ever come to Bristol or SW England. The exhibits were top notch, and the ship itself is so accessible and present. It seems right at home in Bristol Harbour.

After lunch and a quick drive to the nearby Clifton section of the city to view the Avon Gorge and the suspension bridge that Brunel designed in the 1830s (but wasn’t completed until over 30 years later, with some changes).

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Part of the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the River Avon. The Avon is part of the Bristol Channel which has the 2nd highest tidal range in the world. You can see the expansive mudflats along the banks when the tide is out.
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A full view of the bridge.

The gorge is beautiful, with dramatic cliffs and forested hillsides. There is evidence of old landslides, and the cars and roads below are dwarfed in scale.

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Old landslide scours, likely from hundreds of years ago.

The area atop the cliffs has a large green-space and people were sitting and laying in the relatively warm sunlight. Birds were happily mingling with the people, mostly Eurasian Jackdaws. A few of the more shy Eurasian Magpies stayed closer to the trees.

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The slight fluffiness on the side of this Eurasian Magpie probably means this is a recent fledgling.

A short drive and a walk away is the Clifton Observatory [map]. This building houses a camera obscura that renders a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape onto a central viewing table.

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The observatory’s camera obscura uses a small opening and mirror at the top to project a clear but dim image inside. Such devices could be used for aids in drawing or even to observe celestial events or objects, like a solar eclipse. The were popular in the 17th through 19th centuries.

Beneath the observatory is a long stairway down part of a cave system that opens up on the side of the cliff, about mid-way. A balcony has been constructed to give brave souls an amazing view of the bridge and gorge.

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Dubbed the Giants’ Cave (nominally St. Vincent’s Cave), the open-grate floor can be intimidating for some.

 

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A closer view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge from the Giants’ Cave balcony.

After the observatory and cave we drove around Bristol a little and then made our way back to the flat and settled in for the evening, ready for more adventures.

UK 2019 Day 2: Around Bristol

Posted June 16, 2019

May 10, 2019

Our first full day in England started with slightly better weather – only a few sprinkles and some Sun amid the clouds. It made for a good walking day around the center of Bristol.

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Ruth and Darren’s (upstairs) and Ruth’s parents’ (downstairs) home in the Knowle section of Bristol.

Darren dropped Ruth, my wife, and I off not too far from Cabot Tower, which sits at the top of Brandon Hill Park [map]. Completed in 1898 to commemorate John Cabot’s expedition to North America in 1497, the tower has over 100 narrow steps. For long-time Florida residents like us, the steep walk to the tower up Brandon Hill and then the steps was quite a trial by fire to the type of walking we’d be doing for much of our visit.

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Cabot Tower is the centerpiece of a lovely formal garden atop Brandon Hill.

The view from the top level of the tower afforded lovely views of Bristol, including some places we’d visit either later that day or later in our visit.

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Bristol Cathedral
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Wills Memorial Tower, University of Bristol
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Christ Church, Clifton

The garden provides some good habitat for area wildlife, so it was not surprise to see and hear Eurasian Blackbirds and European Robins singing, and see a number of Common Wood-Pigeons and Carrion Crows flying around the tower.

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European Robins were found just about everywhere we went, urban or rural. City birds, like this one, are more approachable than their shier, country cousins.
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One of several Carrion Crows in the park. These are most similar to our American and Fish Crows.
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Another view of Cabot Tower and the beautiful gardens.

We made our way down into the city below, including the storefronts along Park Street and surrounding areas. The University of Bristol is near this area, and there were many students walking, biking, and even skateboarding. The make up of that part of Bristol paints a dynamic scene, with old and new elements blended together.

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Impressive Wills Memorial Tower is part of the University of Bristol.

Bristol is the home to street artist Bansky, and his art is found in several places in the city. One work was being shown by a guide to a group of Spanish language tourists who were overjoyed to be seeing and taking photographs of it. You can see it’s been “commented” upon a few times, too.

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Original Banksy, vandalized! Tribute or sacrilege; you decide!

Eventually we walked up to Bristol Cathedral, one of many Gothic church buildings we saw on this trip. Also like many large Gothic buildings, it was built over many years, with the bulk of the church constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries. Here’s a selection of photos from this lovely church.

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Bristol Cathedral across College Green.
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Bristol Cathedral interior.
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Most of the original stained glass was destroyed either during the Reformation or much later from bombing during the second world war.
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Ribbed vaults inside Bristol Cathedral.
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The interior was comfortably lit, with windows taking up a large percentage of the wall area.

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This composite of the inside of Bristol Cathedral shows the immense – and deliberate – scale of Medieval architecture and the Church’s expectation of making you feel the majesty of God (and the Church).
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The exterior of Bristol Cathedral with simple buttresses.

There is so much to see in the cathedral, the above is just a small sample. Feel free to explore more about it, perhaps starting with these sites:

Opposite from the cathedral, on the other side of College Green is the Bristol City Council building which had these spectacular golden 18th century unicorns adorning each roof end.

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Walking east, we passed a statue of Queen Victoria on our way to the northern end of the waterfront of Bristol Harbor on our way toward Queen Square.

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“We are not amused!” A statue depicting  Queen Victoria in her later years.

Just about anywhere you look in the center of Bristol, there is spectacular architecture. Walking toward Queen Square I caught a glimpse of this ornate tower, which it turns out belongs to St. Stephen’s, the Church of England parish for Bristol

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The ornate tower of St. Stephen’s Church is from the 15th Century. In an oft repeated history of churches in England, it was built on the site of an 11th Century church.

The streets around Bristol (and many English cities) are narrow, but this close spacing seems endearing to many American eyes. Almost quaint.

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A typical Bristol street scene. That orange building (third in from the right) is the pub where our host friends met each other on their first date!

Ruth told us that Queen Square is the only square square in a major city in Europe. I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but you can look on the map and see how square this square compares to other squares.

I thought it was ironic that the statue at the center of Queen Square is actually of King William III, mounted on his horse. The history of Queen Square is quite telling, in that it was all but abandoned after the 1831 Bristol Riots as the more affluent Bristolians moved to Clifton. The square was nearly obliterated, with rail and road traffic crossing right through its heart. It was eventually restored in the 1990s and is now a beautiful and well used park.

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A wide gravel path among the trees at Queen Square.

We wound down the afternoon walking past the Old Vic Theatre and some other historic buildings near the River Avon.

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The Neoclassical facade of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre.

It was a fun and exhausting day, and my knees and feet tried to complain, but there was so much to see and I was too busy having an amazing time.

After dinner is was off to bed and dreams for day 3.