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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

UK 2019 Day 1: Stonehenge, White Horse

Posted June 15, 2019

May 9, 2019

My wife and I, after a couple of years of saving and a lot of planning, made a trip to Bristol, England to stay with friends for a couple of weeks. They took vacation (“holiday”) too, and we spent a lovely, if hard paced time, around southwestern England and Wales.

Staying at their flat and having them drive us around (2000 miles!) saved us money, allowing us to make this trip of a lifetime. Thank you Ruth and Darren, we can’t say enough about your generosity and kindness.

After flying to Gatwick, and feeling only a little bit jet-lagged, we stopped at Stonehenge [map] on our way to Bristol. It was almost surreal after reading and seeing so much about this ancient site, to actually be there. Buses take groups of visitors to the site from the nearby visitor center every few minutes. Even though one can no longer walk among the stones, the footpath allows for close views, and one can walk around the ditch that encloses the site on all sides.

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Face to face with an icon of history. Stonehenge at last!

The weather was cold, windy, and rainy – a proper English welcome – but the awe and delight at being there did not dampen our spirits. It’s hard to put into words, but the site is impressive yet somehow appropriately scaled. One can tell it took a monumental effort to move these stones in place, but somehow it seems easy to imagine humans building and using the site.

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The stones at Stonehenge are weathered and lichen covered. There is evidence of some vandalism, going back hundreds of years. That the site remains so intact after over 4000 years is a testament to the toughness of the stone and the skill with which is was created. 

Although it is severely weathered and aged, one can still marvel at the skill evident in crafting these giant stones and the engineering that went into the design. The lintel stones don’t just lie on top of the uprights, but are fitted using a mortise and tenon design.

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The top of an upright sarsen stone showing a tenon that would have fitted into a mortise hole in a lintel stone.

This trip was primarily for seeing the England our friends live in. While I had some bird outings planned, almost every bird I would see even incidentally would be a life bird for me. Three of the five resident corvid species were evident at Stonehenge: Rooks, Eurasian Jackdaws, and Carrion Crows.

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Rooks have distinctive bills and facial skin, but are otherwise similar to most corvid (crow) species – conspicuous, gregarious, and intelligent.

I was also pleasantly surprised as a boldly patterned black and white bird landing right among the feet of a group of Japanese tourists. The White Wagtail is fairly common in Britain (I saw them in many places on this trip), but was a delight to see. This particular bird is probably used to handouts or getting food that people drop while marveling at Stonehenge.

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Each subspecies of White Wagtail have distinct patterns. The UK subspecies is called White-faced. Locally, the bird is often called the Pied Wagtail (as in piebald or bi-colored).

As we rounded the henge and faced into the wind and rain, it did become a bit uncomfortable, so we made our way to where the bus would take us back to the visitor center. There are additional historical exhibits there and (of course) a gift shop. But it was all very respectful of this ancient site. We saw a few barrows in the surrounding fields and nearby fields of bright yellow rapeseed.

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Farewell, Stonehenge.

We then drove through the countryside, in and out of rain showers, to Westbury – about mid way to Bristol – to see another large landmark. The Westbury White Horse [map].

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This large cliff-side carving dates from the 1600s. Several monuments of this type are known throughout Britain, at least one from late Bronze Age. We first went to the top of the cliff to see it from that vantage point. From above, I watched a Eurasian Hobby (a falcon) hunting below and a Skylark try to fly against the wind. The wind howling up the cliff face was biting and incessant, but the views were spectacular!

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The horse from the cliff top.
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The view from beside the horse looking down on the countryside.

The horse is easily visible from the valley floor for miles. At one lower vantage-point I did get my first Great Tits and European Robin, but the horse was the star of the show, for sure.

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I don’t know who was living in the valley at the time, but imagine coming through for the first time or after some time away, and seeing this!

From this vantage-point we got back on the road and on to Bristol, where we unpacked and settled in for the next two weeks. I’ll post more of our trip through the weekend and next week.