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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bath is a lovely city and we had a good sampling of its history and geography.
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)!
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.
A full stomach and a full spirit, what more can one ask for?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I made my exit and walked back to the flat to get ready for the day’s further adventures in and around Bristol.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The streets around Bristol (and many English cities) are narrow, but this close spacing seems endearing to many American eyes. Almost quaint.
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.
We wound down the afternoon walking past the Old Vic Theatre and some other historic buildings near the River Avon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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].
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!
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.
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.