Welcome back, my friends! Let’s get back on track with my adventures earlier this year in the United Kingdom. This update is longer than most, So I’ve broken it up in two.
May 20, 2019
Our next stop was at the historic city (aren’t they all historic at this point?) of Wells [map]. The city is named for the upwelling of water from springs (probably similar to the source of Bath’s water features).
It is also the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells – what’s known as a Cathedral – so of course we have a big church (though described as “moderately sized” by historians)!
While it lacks the scaled down whimsy of Bath Abbey’s ascending angels, the saints and popes arrayed along the front are quite impressive and the stonework is beautiful.
Inside, the church is beautiful and spacious. Like most Gothic structures, it’s surprisingly airy. Even with somewhat dim light, it never felt oppressive or gloomy.
It might be hard to discern by the photos here, but this space is immense. The architects decided to leave the
Like most medieval construction, adaptations and changes had to be made as the structure was advanced. Some of this is just because of the simple fact that it took centuries to build these structures. Decades for just the basic functional layout, and then successive additions and adaptations to time and technology. One such engineering stand-out are inverse or “scissor” arches. They were added when the weight of the central tower started to cause the supports to start sinking. These arches redistributed the load and relieved the stress.
The cathedral also claims to have one of the oldest clocks in the world (although the internal mechanism was replaced in the 19th Century, it has it’s original face, and its time and other indicators were not interrupted). The face has a 24 hour dial and indicators for the phase of the Moon as well as the Moon’s age – or days since the last new moon. Above it is a miniature display of jousting knights that “perform” each hour.
The 13th Century chapter house was also impressive. Chapter houses were meeting rooms for church officials, and this one is still used for social events and other meetings from time to time.
The scope and intricacies of the church are truly monumental, and I encourage you to check out more details at the Cathedral’s official website: https://www.wellscathedral.org.uk/
Adjacent to the cathedral is the Bishop’s Palace, home to the bishops of Wells for centuries (though these days, most of the palace is a museum and public space). Stay tuned for Part 2!
Hi everyone. A brief interruption to my UK trip updates, if I may…
The end of August found me and my boss in India, of all places, to provide some software and process training. The approval and planning happened with relatively short notice just as our workload was increasing, so I wasn’t even thinking about the blog in the run up to the trip.
But in any case, here’s a selection of photos and the eBird lists for the week+ I spent in Bengaluru!
[Note to Tumblr followers: I realize the WP photomosaics don’t always work right. I’ll try to reformat and repost for you as soon as I can!]
Since my planned birding day near Plymouth didn’t work out, I took Darren’s advice and checked out the Slimbridge Wetland Centre (also referred to as “Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust”) in Gloucestershire [map]. There’s a lot going at this remarkable place, but for birders (particularly out-of-country ones!) it was a bit confusing. The first part, near the visitor center, is a series of exhibits showcasing birds from around the world, including local birds! And although these birds are ostensibly “clipped” to keep them from flying free, I observed on a few occasions these birds making short flights that could carry them out of their “enclosure” habitats. I’ll post my eBird link after the photos (presented without commentary beyond captions), but take some of the duck and geese species with a grain of salt. I tried to weed out the “captive” species, but there may be a few of the ambiguous sightings that got left in.
I’ve left off photos of some of the more exotic birds – like the Nene, a South American bird called a screamer (for good reason!), and some others that are clearly not UK or European birds. I may post them as bonus or extras in the future.
Here’s the somewhat confusing eBird list for the day. Ruth and Mrs. Lonely Birder came to pick me up after shopping in nearby Gloucester.
[Note: I realize it’s taking me some time to get through these posts. Please bear with me. It’s been a hectic summer]
May 18, 2019
Continuing our travels along the south coast of England, we drove back through Cornwall and to the ancient village of Marazion [map]. Off shore on the island of Saint Michael’s Mount is a castle and church that can be visited by foot during low tide. When the tide comes in, the causeway is submerged and the mount is only accessible by boat or amphibious vehicle.
The beach itself is quite flat, and when the tide is out one can wade quite far in places. A beach like this would be stacked with people, blankets, chairs, and fishing poles back home in Florida. Here, the beach was mainly empty, with people enjoying sea views from benches, restaurants, and shops from the village.
The castle and chapel are impressive, even at a distance and I imagine the views commanded from this vantage-point are impressive. People do live and work on the island, and an order of monks is active at the chapel.
The main part of the island was gated and closed, which seems a shame as there are extensive gardens and a museum I would have liked to see. I hear the geology is unique and impressive as well. But it was a lovely diversion nonetheless, but we couldn’t stay long as the tide was about to come in, which threatened to strand us on the island (or at least have to hire a boat) as the causeway would be inundated.
Meanwhile, back on the beach…
We walked back to the beach and then into Marazion, and had lunch at a cafe that had some local fare, known as a pasty. Pasties are a pastry filled with meat and root vegetables. Traditionally, they were miners’ food. The thick crust around the edge serving as a handhold that wasn’t normally eaten since the miners’ hands might be contaminated by arsenic or other poisonous substances related to mining.
From Marazion we worked our way west along the coast until we reached the ruins of the Botallack Mine, not far from the town of St. Just [map].
This stretch of coast has to be one of the most dramatic and impressive sights we saw in our whole trip. The juxtaposition of the natural beauty of the rocky coast and dramatic cliffs with the many abandoned mining structures makes for a nearly unparalleled visual experience. Add in the roar of the waves on the rocks below and the wildflowers blooming, and you can imagine what an experience this was.
As we approached the cliffs, a low fog was dispersing along the coast, which made the scene even more fantastical.
Seabirds were circling below (Northern Fulmars, as it happens) as waves and foam churned on the rocks. We were only able to walk so far down along the cliffs due to trail closures for safety.
The scope and scale of the cliffs are hard to grasp from photos alone. They are hundreds of feet high, some with very narrow places to walk out on. The lingering fog helped confuse the distance cues a bit, but added to the drama.
We were very near both Penzance and Land’s End, but we stopped at neither. On a future visit I would like to spend more time in this part of England and take it all in, natural and human.
We spent some time marveling at the scenery before climbing back out, past the mining houses and the furnace ruins, looking up at smokestacks that seem to defy gravity and the elements.
As we made our way back toward Bristol, we crossed into Plymouth by way of the Torpoint Ferry, rather than the bridge. It was fun.
Mrs. Lonely Birder and I got out of the car and went up on the deck and enjoyed some fresh air and a look at a few Royal Navy Ships. The ferries run on cables between both sides which is a safer, if more boring option for ferries ;-).
We eventually got back to Bristol and walked to the local pub (The Knowle) so those that imbibe could have a pint and we unwound a bit. On the way there, we passed some trees that have been decorated like fairy homes!
We ended the day out at the pub, in which Mrs. Lonely Birder saw a familiar friend, reminding us of our previous epic trip to Churchill, Manitoba! I’ll leave you with a couple of parting shots.
After a night in Plymouth, our adventures took us further afield into Cornwall and Bodmin Moor [map]. Driving past the ever present windmills and fields of the English countryside, we first stopped at a pair of stone monuments. These would have been the bases for wooden crosses, one of which bears an inscription commemorating King Dungarth (Doniert in Latin), the last King of Cornwall who is purported to have drowned nearby in 875 AD.
According to English Heritage, the Latin inscription on the shorter stone (Doniert’s) is translated as “Doniert has asked [for this to be made] for his soul[’s sake’]”.
The taller fragment has no commemoration, but its proximity to King Doniert’s stone and the discovery of an underground cross-shaped tunnel beneath the stones indicate this was an important early Christian site in the 9th Century.
From these ancient memorials, we made our way along the southeast edge of Bodwin Moor to the village of Minions. In this post-Despicable Me world, it was all too easy to snort-laugh and bring images of Gru’s mostly loyal underlings to mind. It seems to be a common enough thought.
The biggest attractions here are The Hurlers stone circles and a natural landmark called the Cheesewring. The Hurlers are a set of 3 remnant stone circles and a pair of stone markers (“The Pipers”) from the Bronze Age. Many of the stones have been eroded away or “borrowed” as building material through the centuries.
The three circles are nearly in alignment and thus likely intentionally related. The local legend has it that the stones are in fact transformed men who dared to play the ancient game of Hurling on a Sunday and were cursed. It must have been some game!
Close up, the stones are placid, yet evocative of ancient and mysterious cultures and beliefs. Through the ages people have ascribed all manner of mystical energies associated with stone circles, and it’s easy to see why. It’s awe inspiring to see this ancient handicraft, abandoned yet so accessible.
Nearby the stones were several building ruins. These used to house large steam engines, which helped drive pumps to keep water out of the mines as well as circulate air.
Much of the area beneath the Hurlers consists of mining tunnels, and some of the rumpled appearance of the landscape is due to subsidence. It’s unlikely one would simply drop through the ground casually walking, but it was perhaps best practice to avoid any obvious “dips” or potholes.
It’s nearly impossible to separate mining from Cornwall, or indeed much of southwest England and Wales. Just about every site we visited had evidence of mining from the 18th through the 21st Century.
After taking our fill of the Hurlers, we made the hike up Stowe’s Hill toward the Cheesewring, one of several granite outcrops sculpted by the wind over countless years. These are not artificial structures.
The Cheesewring gets its name from it’s somewhat similar appearance to cheese slabs that were pressed in its namesake device generations ago.
The top of the tor overlooks the countryside and some well used granite quarries. Darren says that a lot of the granite here was used in London, particularly for Tower Bridge. The top of Stowe’s Hill provided us with some good vistas, despite the ever threatening rain showers and obscuring mist.
As with most of the rural sites we visited, cattle and sheep have free rein and are grazing just about everywhere. There was evidence of grazing all the way to the top of Stowe’s Hill and right around the Cheesewring and the other outcrops.
We made our way back to Minions and (after meeting back up with Ruth, who had some other business to attend to) drove back to Devon and onto Dartmoor. We stopped at the Two Bridges Hotel (in the village of Two Bridges, where else).
Tea, as you may not know, is actually a light meal in Britain, not just a hot beverage. A Cream Tea is tea served with scones, clotted cream, and jam. We had heard a lot about this from Ruth and Darren, but unwittingly stumbled into a long running feud between Devon and Cornwall.
According to those from Devon, the “proper” way to have Cream Tea is to split the scone in two, spread the cream first and then put the jam on top. The Cornish way is to put the jam on first and then spoon the cream on top. Ruth is a proponent of the Devonshire method while Darren prefers the Cornish method.
There was much good-natured jibing, and I have to say I preferred the Cornish way (you get more of the cream taste that way), but no matter how you take it, this was a real highlight of the trip for me. Plus, my hot chocolate (in lieu of the tea and its caffeine) was amazing as well.
With full bellies we made our way back out and drove further into Dartmoor, making a stop at picturesque Postbridge and its medieval clapper bridge. Clapper bridges are simple slabs of rock placed across a river to cross it. In this case, two piers of stone were placed as supports.
The adjacent roadway bridge was beautiful as well.
While we were admiring the view (and I was passively birdwatching), I noticed some commotion. A woman had been trying to rescue a Common Kingfisher and it had tried to get out of the cardboard box it was in and had fallen into the cold water below.
A traveler who was hiking his way along the river immediately waded in and scooped up the bird, which was now shivering with cold, and the woman asked if we knew anyone who could help. I suggested any local wildlife rehabilitators, and she said she had tried and had no luck. Her intention was to dry and warm up the bird and give it time to recover and then release it. We wished her luck and thanked the man, who went on his way, wet and cold himself.
There were other interesting birds by the river as well, including a White-throated Dipper, gathering invertebrates of some kind, likely to feed its young. Dippers are fun little birds. They are adept at running along the bottom of fast moving streams, often completely submerged in pursuit of prey. They can also dive and swim quite well.
Another short drive brought us to Burrator Reservoir on the River Tavy and a nearby nature trail. Burrator provides some of the drinking water for Plymouth and surrounding places.
It was quiet around the reservoir with not much traffic and the weather was calm, and the sun had peeked out every now and then.
We made our way along a trail after passing a small but beautiful waterfall and cascading stream. The sound backdrop was serene and almost idyllic.
The vegetation here seemed well suited to damp weather, with many of the older trees covered in moss.
As we walked the ground gently rose as we make our way up onto the moor. Even here, there were cows grazing and resting in fenced off fields. In Britain, the concept of conservation is a bit different than here in the States. Here, the usual focus of environmental conservation revolves around preservation or the return of the landscape to some idealized natural state. In Britain, the majority of conservation efforts involve preservation of rural landscapes, such as farms, villages, and grazing lands.
All the while we were walking up the path, birds were singing and darting in and out of the trees. This included Willow Tits (differentiated by their song), Coal Tits, and quite a few songs I could not identify.
We didn’t walk much farther and turned back down the trail to the car park (that’s a parking lot, fellow Americans) and headed to our last stop of the day, at Lopwell Ford, on the River Tavy.
The water level was fairly high, and we could see it rise on the level indicator signs in the river. When the water is lower, vehicles can cross (ford) the river and get to the other side. Suffice it to say, without a taller vehicle like a truck or SUV with a snorkel, we weren’t managing that! But is was a pretty stop.
With that, it was back to Bristol to plan our next days’ excursions. Dartmoor is an amazing place, and I can imagine spending two weeks just exploring that area alone. But for us, it was on to the next!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.