Capture the colours of Caledonia

EXILED Scots wanting to capture something of the atmosphere of the Highlands should take a trip round Stoke Common this month.

Amid the ferns and conifers on this slice of ancient Buckinghamshire heathland, the gorse and heather are springing into bloom, giving the common a distinctly Caledonian feel.

No distant mountains or deep, dark lochs to complete the illusion, of course, but the yellows, pinks and purples create a carpet of colour as the heather bursts into flower at the end of the summer.

The iconic British moorlands of Wuthering Heights and Hound of the Baskervilles fame are depicted as bleak, windswept and foreboding – but all that changes by the start of August.

A large proportion of the world’s moors and upland heaths are in the UK, making our moorland habitats internationally important – and none more so than this one, since these 200 acres of land represent the largest vestiages of a landscape that was once extensive across Buckinghamshire.

So there’s no need to head for the hills of the Scottish uplands to savour the late-summer spectacle. The lowland heaths of southern England and south Wales also have the heather showing off at is best alongside the golden yellow of gorse, and Stoke Common is a perfect example.

And if you think the yellow flowers look good enough to eat, forager and author Rachel Lambert has some intriguing recipes on her website; fancy a wild rice pudding, anyone?

Find out more about Rachel at a website documenting the lives of people living and working by the Cornish coast.

Mixed emotions in Wendover Woods

BIKE-MAD teenagers love Wendover Woods, and many runners find it the perfect place to work out their fitness routines.

But not everyone is over the moon, it seems, at the programme of improvements funded by a massive HS2 community grant – and not just because of where the money came from.

There’s a sense of adventure as you make your way up what seems an interminable entrance drive, and it gives you a  chance to take in the full extent of the 800-acre site. This drive, the car park and the café are all part of the improvements financed by a £450,000 cash injection.

There’s even a promotional video from April 2020 saying how pleased Forestry England were with the redevelopment, although only a few hundred people have seen forest centre manager David Barnett explaining that it was “some 17 years in the making”.

Doubtless there are many who have found the easy car parking, new visitor hub and large café real improvements – and some visitors have praised all of those things. But there are also a number of reviews in recent months that have expressed less enthusiasm for the changes, with critics lambasting the parking and food charges, and finding the scale of the makeover a little overwhelming.

No one has any issues with the scenery, and on a quiet day the trails offer miles of varied paths and gradients to explore, along with picnic areas, a children’s playground, Go Ape treetop adventure course and nearby mountain biking area at Aston Hill for those wanting a more challenging range of adventure trails best suited to intermediate and expert riders.

But it rankles a little to pay £1.50 for the one-page map of the site, the coffee in the cafe was undrinkable on the day of our visit and the car park fees rack up for those staying for longer periods.

The signposting of trails around the cafe is far from clear for newcomers, and despite the facilities, the plethora of trail options and the impressive views out over Aylesbury Vale to the north, it’s clear several visitors have been disgruntled with aspects of their visit – though at the time of writing no one from Forestry England seemed to have answered their concerns.

Queues to pay for parking top the list of gripes, but some found the new cafe unappealing too: variously described as a “container” and “industrial warehouse”, dogs are not welcome inside, although some found the food reasonable and outside picnic area appealing.

Once in the woods and away from all the “commercial aspects” of the top area, it’s “magical” says one reviewer, but another found it a “dull commercialised version of nature” and yet another “little more than a countryside theme park”.

Sad to say, we found ourselves agreeing with the critics – especially compared to the blissful peace of Stoke Common or empty tracks at Black Park. And yet it was clear a lot of families were having a lot of fun at Wendover Woods, and long may it continue.

Outside peak periods the trails offer an escape from the cares of the outside world, and hundreds of families are taking advantage of that chance to engage with nature at first hand.

But Forestry England may need to pay a little more heed to the worries expressed by visitors. Numbers may be up, but that counts for little if the experience leaves a bad taste in the mouth or too large a hole in the pocket.

Oasis of calm and contemplation

COULD there be a more restful spot for a moment of silent contemplation or thoughtful remembrance of loved ones?

Hats off to the gardeners at Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens: the rhododendrons and wisteria may have faded, the roses are losing their blooms but the gardens still look spectacular and provide a welcome oasis of peace and tranquillity.

The setting may lack that dramatic splashes of colour we saw back in the spring, but this is still a place of beauty and serenity – a haven for quiet reflection where dozens of small secret gardens are dedicated to local loved ones; a place often stumbled upon by poetry lovers making a pilgrimage to the nearby grave of Thomas Gray in St Giles’ churchyard.

It’s not a park, and visitors are asked to treat the gardens with respect and behave accordingly. But see our previous feature, Secret garden soothes the soul, for more detail about the gardens, Thomas Gray and the adjoining churchyard and National Trust monument.

All creatures great and small

IT’S BEEN a month of making new acquaintances, small and large – from huge British white cattle at Burnham Beeches to tiny beetles, from inquisitive piglets to baby coots, goats, ducks and squirrels.

The largest livestock wandering our local commons are the cattle released each year to graze the vegetation at Black Park, Stoke Common, Burnham Beeches and Langley Park.

IMPOSING PRESENCE: British White Cattle at Burnham Beeches

Perhaps the most intimidating, size-wise, are the British White Catttle at Burnham Beeches, although they seem docile enough when lying down or thoughtfully munching their way through the local vegetation.

The modern day breed of cattle can claim direct links with the ancient indigenous wild white cattle of Great Britain, notably from the park at Whalley Abbey in Lancashire, and have become regular visitors in recent years as grazing has become increasingly seen as a way of creating diverse habitats in such ancient landscapes.

Once such woodlands would have been grazed by red deer, aurochs, wild boar and beavers. As humans increased their influence on the countryside they seriously reduced the numbers of wild herbivores, but introduced their own grazing pressures in the form of domestic livestock such as pigs, goats, sheep and cattle.

OLD FRIENDS: Sussex cattle have become regular visitors at Stoke Common and Black Park

Overstocking of woodland grazers can cause a loss of plant and animal species and prevent natural regeneration, but balanced regimes with appropriate grazing pressure can increase habitat diversity, support important wildlife populations and encourage natural regeneration. A lack of grazing often allows more aggressive plants to outcompete and dominate sites, one reason why the past decade has seen the wider use of grazing cattle across the UK.

The livestock’s dung decomposes quickly as there are many insects and fungi which have evolved to feed on it, making it an important part of the ecosystem.

Bugs and beetles, moths and butterflies are just as important to the local ecosystem but a lot harder to photograph. Thankfully local forums like the Wild Cookham and Chesham Wildlife facebook groups are awash with experts good at spotting, capturing and chronicling their movements, or pulling together useful photo montages of which species to spot – and when.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: the red-headed Cardinal beetle

One of the smallest but most colourful discoveries in a Chalfont meadow was the red-headed cardinal beetle, a bright red beetle with black legs and knobbly antennae found in woodland, hedgerows, parks and gardens over summer.

But this glorious meadow was alive with insects, from crickets to marbled white butterflies: it’s just tricky to capture them on camera when they move so quickly.

INSECT HEAVEN: summer comes to a Chalfont meadow

Thankfully the experts in the Wild Cookham facebook group are able to come up with much better images of some of the butterflies I have failed to capture, like the marbled white, comma, red admiral and holly blue, along with an excellent guide to about three dozen of the most common local species; Butterfly Conservation also have a useful identification guide.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: a silver-washed fritillary at Black Park

Apart from the insects, this is also the season for baby animals in all shapes and sizes. Living near water, we have several families of ducks among our regular visitors, although seeing the little family line dwindle as the weeks go past and local predators get to work can be a little disheartening, reminding us of our very special rescue duckling a couple of years ago.

FAMILY OUTING: ducklings drop in for a visit

Watching a family of young thrushes showering and playing in the birdbath was an unexpected delight, a reminder of just how many visitors dropped in during the dark weeks of lockdown to make our lives a little cheerier – from a flustered pheasant and partridge to tits, robins and blackbirds, dunnocks, magpies and goldfinches.

We were remiss in keeping a proper lockdown diary, but one weekly photographic record that is a regular source of delight is the photo-newsletter issued by the “Moorhens” from their base near Milton Keynes.

PIGEON POST: one of a series of weekly pictures from Roy Battell
NAUGHTY NIBBLE: another of Roy Battell’s visitors

A couple of years ago we posted the story of the Battells’ transformation of a couple of acres of cow pasture into an impressive nature reserve and their weekly newsletter continues to chronicle the exploits of a vast array of bird, animal and insect visitors, from courting pigeons to hungry foxes and naughty young squirrels. Contact their Moorhens through their home page to sign up.

The local farm shops have had new arrivals too, from piglets at Sandy Lane Farm to newborn goats at the Crazy Bear Farm Shop at Stadhampton.

PATTER OF TINY HOOVES: new arrivals at Sandy Lane Farm

Baby coots, ducklings and goslings have been vying for visitors’ attention at Black Park, and similar scenes have been repeated in ponds and rivers across the Chilterns.

From bats and barn owls to moorhens and muntjacs, after those long weeks when the main highlights were the daily visitors on the bird feeders, it’s a delight to be out and about again, lucky to be alive and blessed to be able to enjoy the amazing flora and fauna on our doorstep.

Bluebells lift the lockdown gloom

BLUEBELLS. If there’s one word which conjures up more positive images of life during 40 days on lockdown it’s this one.

And on a personal level, if there’s one abiding, memorable positive image to emerge from the extraordinary month of April 2020, it will be those vistas of bluebells dancing in the local woods.

We have been lucky, of course. Living on the edge of open country, it has been easy for our vital daily escape from the house to disappear into the woods.

And what a great healer nature has been. From the deluge of Twitter and Instagram pictures being shared from woodlands across the Chilterns, it seems we are not alone in finding this a welcome respite from the grim tally of deaths and infections on the news feeds.

It’s not a luxury we are taking for granted either – friends in Italy, Spain, China and Argentina have been under virtual house arrest, unable to get out for anything more than a tightly controlled shopping trip.

Not to mention those trapped on cruise ships or stranded in a drab hotel in a foreign country stressing about how to get home.

But these walks have offered so much more than just a welcome escape from the house, a breath of fresh air and all-important exercise.

From the moment that the prime minister addressed the nation on March 23 about government plans to take unprecedented steps to limit the spread of coronavirus, it was clear we were in uncharted and scary territory – not just in the UK, but all over the world.

Doubtless many volumes will be written about the awful spring of 2020, and it’s hard to write anything positive about this time without being conscious of the terrible human toll – some 27,500 deaths in the UK so far, with all the associated individual family tragedies that involves.

For a while, it felt as if we might be joining the statistics. A long feverish weekend paved the way to a fortnight of slow recovery. But lying in the night coughing and sweating, listening to relentless government press conferences and stories of doom from around the world, it was all too easy to succumb to the paranoia.

Every cough and tickle takes on a new significance. What if there’s a problem breathing? Will this mean dying on a ventilator in a hospital unable to say anything to your nearest and dearest? And the social media feeds don’t help – this is real, and friends around the world are already having to cope with the loss of loved ones.

Thankfully, the symptoms subside and strength returns. And nothing feels quite so exhilarating as the fresh air of that first tentative walk, even if we can’t smell the flowers.

Which makes those bluebells all the more enchanting. And they go on blooming all month on so many of the paths we wander through…English bluebells, of course, so long associated with the Chilterns and ancient woodlands and a constant source of inspiration for artists like Jo Lillywhite (below).

And as our first steps outdoors become a little more confident and we manage to stray further from home, there are new copses and paths to discover.

Enchanting and iconic, bluebells are a favourite with the fairies – and the violet glow of these bluebell woods is an incredible wildflower spectacle that really does lift the spirits and warm the heart.

“There is a silent eloquence/In every wild bluebell” wrote a 20-year-old Anne Bronte in 1840. The vivid hues may have begun to fade by the end of April, but the secret beauty of our ancient local woods has helped to set us firmly on the road to recovery and provide a welcome gentler vision of a terrible month which will haunt so many for years to come.

Life, but not as we know it

FORGET about the selfish shoppers piling their trolleys high with toilet rolls, or the shopkeepers marking up the price of their hand sanitiser bottles.

Crises have always brought out the best and worst in people, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.

But rather than focusing on the aggravating actions of that mean-spirited minority who always think of themselves first at any cost – including the scammers, fraudsters and other criminals eagerly targeting the most vulnerable of prey – it’s time to look at the bigger picture.

From the locals in Madrid applauding public health workers and those on Italian balconies singing into the night to the countless thousands of health and service sector staff knowingly putting themselves at higher risk of catching the virus, this is a time to salute the courage of the many, not the pettiness of the few.

The epidemic is not going to go away quickly. Indeed, it’s likely to spark a global recession on a scale we have not seen before – and make us all rethink our relationship with nature and the world around us.

New York trend forecaster Li Edelkoort was one of many early voices predicting that the virus could provide “a blank page for a new beginning” that could eventually allow humanity to reset its values.

Could it mean us getting used to living with fewer possessions and travelling less, as the virus disrupts global supply chains and transportation networks?

The crisis has already impacted on virtually every aspect of our daily lives – as it did for this priest, who asked parishioners to send him a picture of themselves and their families so he could tape them to the pews and remember them during Mass while the parish is closed.

Some campaigners certainly believe the economic disruption has already had environmental benefits, pointing out how carbon emissions and pollution in China dramatically declined after the virus first hit.

“It seems we are massively entering a quarantine of consumption where we will learn how to be happy just with a simple dress, rediscovering old favourites we own, reading a forgotten book and cooking up a storm to make life beautiful,” Li told the design and architecture magazine Dezeen.

The woman named by Time magazine in 2003 as one of the 25 most influential people in fashion said the impact of the epidemic would be “layered and complex” but would force us to stop taking planes, work from home more and entertain only among close friends or family.

With a younger generation increasingly concerned about the ownership and hoarding of clothes and cars, the transformation could be dramatic.

“Suddenly the fashion shows look bizarre and out of place, the travel ads that enter our computer space seem invasive and ridiculous,” she said. “Every new day we question each system we have known since birth, and are obliged to consider their possible demise.”

It is a time of profound challenges for our national and world leaders but by taking the decision-making power out of our hands, the virus has forced us to wake up and take notice of what we have been doing to the world.

But if it offers the prospect of resetting the dial when it comes to pointless travel, growing pollution and the ever-increasing production of ugly and useless plastic toys and souvenirs, it will come with a heavy price tag.

As well as potentially millions of deaths around the world, we can also expect to see many existing companies wiped out in the process of slowing down the pace – from luxury brands and airlines to hospitality businesses and importers.

Going cold turkey in changing our shopping and socialising habits is only the start. But as country after country shuts down, the process of rediscovering old books, dusting off old recipes and reconnecting with our nearest and dearest may do something to offset the negatives.

Of course, there’s little room for flippancy in celebrating any possible benefits of such societal changes. It’s hard at this stage in the crisis to have any realistic comprehension of the impact these events will have on our lives for generations to come – including the loss of loved ones, the hidden fall-out in terms of anxiety and mental health issues, the countless job losses and the extra strains likely to be imposed on already struggling families.

Not to mention the fearfulness of those who are already ill, the impact of the virus in prisons, hospitals, refugee camps and war zones.

Yet clearly the shutdown will also give people time to think – and maybe time to think differently, about new ways of living. As one popular poetic quote being widely shared on social media puts it: “And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.”

We are not at that stage yet. But we are already at a point where local communities are talking of ways of pulling together to protect the elderly and housebound, to counteract the selfish stockpiling of the greedy.

For many hunkering down at home, there may be different ways of supporting small independent businesses and allowing local ingenuity to flourish against the depressing backdrop of global economic pressures.

For those able to leave their house, there’s still the great outdoors to explore, even if that means a solitary walk rather than an outing with friends. But as these pictures show, when the sun breaks through the clouds, the natural world can provide a welcome escape from the gloomy news feeds or social media chatter.

Will we eventually enter an era where cottage industries flourish and arts-and-crafts initiatives prosper? Is our destruction of nature ultimately responsible for Covid-19 as some environmentalists believe?

We’ve suffered pandemics before, of course, from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, and all have had a profund impact on society (and not just through the devastating impact on population figures).  

How we cope with and survive from the current crisis is in our hands. It will undoubtedly mean looking at the world in a different way – and changing how we live our lives. It’s also time for all of us to do so with a lightness of heart and kindness of spirit that perhaps belies our own worries and concerns. And one thing’s for sure: for the post-coronavirus generation things will never be quite the same again.

‘Delight in the little things’

DELIGHT in the little things, said Kipling – yet all too often the simple daily pleasures slip past us without us taking the time to savour them.

These days there’s an added problem for the selfie generation: everyone is so busy taking pictures for Instagram or Snapchat that the chance to properly relish a reunion with old friends, an extraordinary meal or stunning view is sometimes undermined or lost completely.

It’s the perennial challenge for travel writers and bloggers, of course. Do you soak up that chance conversation with strangers, the scent of exotic spices in the souk or the interminable bus journey through the mountains without capturing a picture for posterity, or do you spend all your time looking at life through a lens?

On the first day of March, with the sun streaming in through the bedroom window after what seems like weeks of gales and torrential downpours, the birds are in full song and, to quote Wodehouse: “The snail was on the wing and the lark on the thorn – or, rather, the other way around – and God was in His heaven and all right with the world.”

And so, turning away for a moment from the grim TV news about coronavirus, locust plagues and war, what are the small reasons to celebrate this week?

One small highlight is the return of an old friend, Fez the pheasant. Or, to be a little more realistic, an avian relation that looks remarkably like Fez, resplendent in his splendid waistcoat, who became a regular visitor round the bird feeder last year.

This year’s lookalike only pays a brief morning visit before scuttling off in a panic, but we hope he will return – like his majestic cousin, so beautifully captured on camera by Roy Battell of The Moorhens and circulated to followers in one of his weekly newsletters.

Other seasonal highlights include the daffodils providing a welcome splash of colour around the nearby Cliveden estate, prompting the predictable outpouring of Wordsworth quotes and perhaps a less well known quote from the Twitter account of @A_AMilne: “I affirm that the daffodil is my favourite flower. For the daffodil comes, not only before the swallow comes, but before all the many flowers of summer; it comes on the heels of a flowerless winter. Yes, a favourite flower must be a spring flower.”

And although the slog up from the river to the house at Cliveden can be a thigh-wearying climb, it’s worth it to look back over the sunlight fading over the swollen Thames.

Other little pleasures in recent weeks have been culinary surprises like an enticing cream tea at the Crazy Bear farm shop, a tasty vegetarian lasagne at the Grocer at 15 in Amersham Old Town, an outstanding Sunday lunch at Flowerland in Bourne End and a tasty bacon butty at The Barn Cafe in picturesque Turville Heath.

Not that we’re name-dropping, I hasten to add. But it was nice to be able to recognise the quality of local produce in our post for the Rearing & Growing page, which was shared on some local tourism websites.

It’s been an exciting week for our website too, because our friends at cbacontent have been helping us finally sort out our top destinations for our What’s On pages, installing links to more than 50 top family attractions across the Chilterns, from free museums to Whipsnade Zoo.

The toughest thing with an outdoors magazine is sitting at the computer when you want to be outdoors, of course – and a call from the kitchen reminds me that we should be getting our boots back on to get back out there – actually delighting in those little things, and not just writing about them…

Escape from the rat race

THERE’S something immensely restful and soothing about Gregorian chant – and the same can be said of the tranquil surroundings of Douai Abbey in Berkshire.

Here, buried in the depths of the English countryside, is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery founded in Paris in 1615.

Vespers is sung prayer – in Latin. Traditionally this evening sacrifice of praise to God takes place as dusk begins to fall, giving thanks for the day just past, and although guests are welcome and some services and concerts are well attended, it’s not uncommon to find the monks alone at this time.

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Uprooted by the French Revolution, the monks moved initially to Douai in Flanders and settled in England in 1903, when they moved to their current base at Woolhampton.

The Order of Saint Benedict, also known as the ‘Black Monks’ because of the colour of their habits, is a religious order of independent monastic communities like Ampleforth, Downside, Worth and Buckfast.

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They observe the Rule of St Benedict, a sixth-century Italian saint who studied in Rome and then turned his back on the world and lived in solitude before founding a monastery at Monte Cassino.

Here at Douai, under the patronage of the Edmund the Martyr (the East Anglian king who died in 869), the monks live a simple life of worship, study and work, centred around six daily services, from matins and lauds at 6.20am to compline at 8pm.

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Despite their crow-like appearance when their black hoods are raised – an indication that they are in silent communion with the Lord – they are individually friendly and welcoming to guests who seek them out.

But “listening” is central to the Benedictine doctrine, so silence is an important part of their daily life – and for guests, a welcome reminder of how important it is for us all to escape the incessant hubbub of the modern world.

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And so it is in preparation for the weekday service that we attend. Beforehand, individual monks sit in contemplation, both inside the abbey church and on benches around the grounds.

They then file silently to their places in the pews for a half-hour of praise and peace,  the two dozen male voices echoing round the impressive arches of the abbey where we are the only other members of the congregation.

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The abbey church was opened in the 1930s but not completed until 1993, and is a Grade II* listed building on the National Heritage List for England with marvellous acoustics.

Our simple evening service is without ceremony or accompanying music but is no less moving for that. The individual Latin words  may be indistinct or unfamiliar, but the message of praise is clear – and the underlying sense of self-sacrifice and humility which underpins the monks’ way of life shines through.

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Douai monks still serve in parishes throughout England and welcome guests on retreats and courses,  as well as those seeking space for quiet or study. There are facilities for  conferences and for youth and chaplaincy groups and throughout the year they host a number of  concerts in the abbey church.

Guests may take a peaceful walk in the nearby meadow or sit in a small wooded glade at the foot of a statue of Christ. This is a place of peace and contemplation – and a welcome escape from the unrelenting noise and activity of our everyday lives.

For more information about the work of the monks at Douai, see their website.

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Wolf Moon puts on a show

STARGAZERS and nature photographers have been comparing their images of Friday’s Wolf Moon over the weekend – and it’s fair to say they managed to capture some startling and memorable pictures.

The first full moon of the decade lit up the night sky and coincided with a lunar eclipse, which happens when the sun, moon and Earth are perfectly aligned.

Clear skies across much of England provided perfect conditions for those staking out some of the country’s most iconic backdrops, like Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor.

And around the world, from the beaches of Malaga to the mountains of Macedonia, photographers on the American astronomy website space.com have been showing off their efforts to capture the moon – and the penumbral eclipse which took place between 5pm and 9pm UK time when the earth’s outer shadow falls on the moon, making it look darker than normal.

The term ‘wolf moon’ is thought to have been coined by Native Americans because of how wolves would howl outside villages during the winter. Space.com is one of a number of sites with dates of all the full moons of the year, including the occasional blue moon where the moon is full twice in a month (this year on October 1 and 31).

On Chesham Wildlife facebook group page, Graeme Kennedy, a voluntary duty warden with the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, managed to capture the moon early in the evening, so reflecting the sun’s orange glow (above).

Photographers across the UK managed to capture the moon throughout the night, but some of the most dramatic images were captured by Wiltshire landscape photographer and commercial drone pilot Nick Bull.

His YouTube Channel is dedicated to drone photography and his commercial licence allows him to capture crop circles and historical landmarks like Stonehenge (below).

Particularly dramatic footage this year includes his time-lapse footage of the Wolf Moon over Glastonbury Tor.

The full moon happens about once every 27 days when the moon and the sun are on exactly opposite sides of Earth. The moon looks illuminated because we see the sun’s light reflected from it.

Different tribes may have had other names for it around the world – spirit moon, goose moon or even bear-hunting moon, for example.

There are another three penumbral eclipses to look forward to this year – and the next full moon will occur on February 9, normally known as the “snow moon”, so get those cameras ready!

Time for a moonlit meander

TIS the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as Keats put it – of ripe fruit and harvest time, of an evening chill in the air and shorter days as we inch towards Michaelmas Day.

It’s the time of year where bats are swarming, birds are migrating and, deep in the woods, mushrooms and toadstools are flourishing.

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But while shepherds, farmers, druids and astrologers might have been all too familiar with equinoxes and solstices, city dwellers may be a little less aware of the significance of the Latin terminology, religious ceremonies and country folklore associated with the month of September.

Michaelmas on September 29 is the third quarter-day of the year and marks the Feast of the three archangels mentioned in the Bible (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael).

Traditionally this was the time when accounts would have to be settled by tenants, when the harvest was over – and the impending autumn equinox means it is also associated in the northern hemisphere with the start of autumn.

More than 50 English churches take their names from St Michael and All Angels, including those at Aston Clinton and Hughenden (below) in Buckinghamshire.

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Michaelmas is the start of school, university and legal terms, as well as being the last day of the year that blackberries can be picked, according to English folklore, since legend has it that when St Michael expelled Lucifer from heaven, he fell from the skies and landed in a prickly blackberry bush.

Satan promptly cursed the fruit and, depending which part of the country you come from, it is said that he scorched them with his fiery breath and stamped, spat or even urinated on them so that they would be unfit for eating.

Hence Michaelmas pie is made from the last berries of the season, while another ancient tradition suggests that a well-fattened goose fed on the stubble from the fields after the harvest should be eaten to protect against financial need in the coming year: “Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year”.

Indeed the day was also known as “Goose Day”, apparently following the example set by Elizabeth I who was dining on goose on the saint’s day in 1588 when she was told of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

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Looking to the skies, this is also the month of the autumn equinox, one of the two times a year when day and night are almost equal all over the planet and traditionally taken as marking the beginning of autumn.

Since that makes Michaelmas the time of year that the darker nights and colder days begin, the celebration  is associated with encouraging protection during the winter months when it was believed the forces of darkness were stronger – and who better to protect one than St Michael, the archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels?

This is also the month of the most famous of all full moon names, the Harvest Moon, with numerous harvest festivals being celebrated around the world, from America to the Chinese mid-autumn Moon Festival.

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In ancient times, it was common to track the changing seasons by following the lunar months, and for millennia people across Europe, as well as Native American tribes, named the months after features they associated with their seasons.

Today, we use many of these ancient month names as full moon names, including the Harvest Moon, which is the full moon nearest the September equinox. 

Immortalised in music by Neil Young in a song on his 1992 album of the same name, it is not the only full moon to have provided musical inspiration. October’s Hunter’s Moon or Blood Moon provided the title for Night of the Hunter’s Moon, a track on the 1978 solo debut album from Sally Oldfield, older sister to Mike ‘Tubular Bells’ Oldfield

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From Anglo-Saxon times, the Hunter’s moon is associated with hunting, slaughtering and preserving meats for use in the coming winter months.

For other moon names, see the Time and Date website.

Alfresco affair of the heart

WHERE better for a picnic and evening of outdoor theatre than the stunning National Trust Cliveden estate near Maidenhead?

Heartbreak Productions set the perfect tone for the occasion last night with their tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Private Lives, Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners about a divorced couple having an unexpected reunion when they honeymoon with their new spouses in the same French hotel.

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And the energetic five-strong cast of this Midlands touring company presented a lively and engaging reinterpretation of the play at the tail end of their marathon summer season.

The company head back home to Leamington Spa after presenting more than 250 performances of a quartet of different shows during a hectic three-month summer season that has incorporated everything from Romeo and Juliet to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny.

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Some 200 theatregoers took their picnics to L’Hotel Crevecoeur to watch Elyot and Amanda struggling with their rollercoaster emotions after their unfortunate meeting in Deauville.

The parts were played by Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence in the original 1930 production, and later by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a 1983 Broadway production.

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For this outdoor adaptation of the celebrated comedy, nostalgic music and dance helped to create the 1930s ambience as dusk fell on Coward’s delicious one-liners, but there were darker undercurrents too in the barely suppressed violence underpinning the central couple’s stormy relationship.

A fitting season’s end to Cliveden’s open-air theatre productions, as the Heartbreak team packed up and headed home for a final couple of shows and a welcome break.

Thoughts in a time of plenty

IT’S hard to believe we are already more than halfway through August, but the sudden splash of colour from the hibiscus hedges at our front door are the most vivid reminder of the changing months.

We’ve enjoyed the fabulous summer displays from the roses, fuchsia and buddleia in our tiny back garden, and now it’s the turn of the front to have a final spectacular flourish.

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Lammas Day (August 1) is past – traditionally the day when the first wheat from the harvest is made into a loaf to be the bread consecrated with the wine at a thanksgiving mass.

Lammas comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning loaf mass and has been celebrated for thousands of years, marking a bittersweet month of feasting and abundance, a time when growth is slowing and the darker days of winter and reflection are beckoning.

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These are the dog days of summer, when the gardens and roadsides are full of goodies, fields are full of grain, and harvest is approaching.

In ancient times it was a time to celebrate the great Celtic sun king Lugh and reflect on the upcoming abundance of the fall months – the season when the first grains are ready to be harvested and threshed, when the apples and grapes are ripe for the plucking, and we are grateful for the food we have on our tables.

August is a traditionally a month of feasting and celebrations – of market fairs, games and bonfire celebrations, circle dances and community gatherings, as well as being seen as an auspicious month for weddings.

There are many customs throughout Europe around the cutting of the grain or corn.

The first sheaf – which guarantees the seed and symbolises continuity and rebirth – would often be ceremonially cut at dawn, winnowed, ground and baked into the harvest bread which was then shared by the community in thanks. The first barley stalks would be made into the first beer of the season.

The last sheaf was also ceremonially cut, often made into a ‘corn dolly’, carried to the village with festivity and was central to the harvest supper: a corn maiden after a good harvest or a hag or crone after a bad one.

Old Lammas Day on August 12 apparently also marked the day when the lord of the manor would allow commoners to graze the medieval flood plain meadows until Candlemas at the beginning of February.

Locally, the blackberrying has been in full spate and the visitors from earlier in the year – Fez the wandering pheasant and Snoot the sneezing hedgehog – have been replaced by the delightful ducklings, swarms of cheerful tits and agile squirrels.

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It’s a reminder that it’s almost two years since we moved to Wooburn Green, and of what a delight that time has been, with the cooing of the pigeons and whistling of the red kite in the nearby Cedar of Lebanon a constant backdrop to life at “Bear Cottage”.

That slight chill in the evening air is also a reminder of the bittersweet aspects of August that former generations will have sensed – the imminent end of the harvest, the picking of the fruit and berries and the promise of darker winter nights to come.

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Tales of the one that got away

MY photographic skills are getting no better, it seems.

Taking an early morning stroll in the woods at Chartwell, near Churchill’s old home, I was in a perfect position to capture the drama of a bee systematically entering the bells of a wild foxglove.

Except that, as the evidence shows, the bee was a little too fast for me. Ho hum.

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The good news is that reading Britain’s Wild Flowers by Rosamond Richardson has partially compensated for my incompetence by informing me that this is the fairies’ flower whose distinctive flowers might even be gloves for foxes, given to them by fairies so that they can silently sneak up on their prey. How nice an idea is that?

Mind you they are known by a variety of different names in different places, from goblins’ thimbles to dead men’s bells – a sinister Scottish warning reflecting the idea that if you can hear them ringing, you are not long for this world.

Elves hide in the bells, apparently. The Druids revered these flowers and used them in midsummer rituals, while they were also incorporated into an ointment which, when rubbed on witches legs’, enabled them to fly.

Oh yes, there’s more. We know digitalis is poisonous, of course, and yet it is also the source of the most potent and widely used sustances in the treatment of heart disease. Thank you, Rosamond, for radically reshaping my knowledge of this wild flower and its intriguing history.

Next up, butterflies.

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Flushed with my success last time out, I’m able to capture another meadow brown in all its glory. But although the scene is idyllic – a field full of bustling butterflies against the backdrop of the Weald of Kent –  this is, after all, the only butterfly I have been able to capture on film.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when a small tortoiseshell starts sunning itself in the flower garden at Chartwell. Out comes the camera and a flurry of shots later, it transpires the bird has flown. Well, the butterfly, to be precise.

Instead of the aforementioned tortoiseshell, there a host of flower pictures of where the offending insect had been. You will just have to take my word for it.

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Likewise, the nesting house martins are out of focus and the other birds were too quick off the mark to feature in frame – there are some 45 species at Chartwell, apparently, but most of them weren’t hanging around long enough to pose for the world’s slowest and least talented photographer.

No matter. It was fun, anyway and I am enjoying the process of learning a little more about the natural world around me – the plants, birds and trees, for example. And I just have even more admiration for the wildlife photographers who have the patience, skill and stamina to capture nature in all its glory.

Yes, they may have the right equipment too, but they know how to use it – as demonstrated by Vincent Van Zalinge’s wonderful picture of a kingfisher from Unsplash.

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Mind you, my picture of the fox wearing gloves came out pretty well, surprisingly. But hey, I don’t suppose you would want to see anything as run of the mill as that…

Cunning intruder at the palace

IT’S JUST as well a competent photographer was on hand to capture the magic of a recent crafty visitor to the Pond Gardens at Hampton Court Palace.

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I’m normally quick to blame my photographic disasters on my equipment – the cheapest digital camera in the shop which has subsequently suffered plenty of bumps and scratches on our rural rambles.

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Fortunately as I fumble with the zoom to try to capture a fleeting image of the surprise visitor in the foliage, partner Olivia is on hand to take charge of the equipment and show me how it should be done.

Hence for once we actually have some pictures of the animal in question that are not obliterated by branches or marred by careless camera movements.

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However it also turns out our visitor is not so cunning or elusive as the folklore might suggest – and the warmth of a sun-drenched grassy spot proved too alluring to resist as the perfect place for a quick afternoon nap.

Even the excited squeaks of ‘Reynard!’ from the visiting French schoolchildren could not disturb the slumbers of this rather majestic palace guest…

Bird lovers flock to support pigeons

PIGEONS have plenty of loyal devotees after all, it seems.

Not only did our recent blog singing their praises attract dozens of visitors to the site – making it the single most popular post since The Beyonder’s launch a year ago – but a coincidental mention of the birds in the Evening Standard echoed our sentiments too.

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Columnist Ellen E Jones was writing in the wake of  story about an RSPCA appeal for information about an unidentified person seen throwing nearly hatched pigeon eggs off the balcony of an Airbnb property in Holloway.

She was quick to throw her hat in the ring in praise of the Trafalgar Square stalwarts, pointing out how clean-living and monogamous they are.

Ellen wasn’t alone in feeling that the much-maligned birds were worthy of some long-overdue recognition.

When Aimee Wallis of Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue posted a link to the article on her Facebook page her supporters were only too quick to add their own words of praise and appreciation too.

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Not to mention all those wartime achievements, racing feats and Dickin medals, of course.

I may have been a little slow to realise the true talents of these feathered friends, but thanks to all who flocked to their support and proffered a range of supporting arguments about why we should be a lot more forgiving about the pigeons in our lives…

Fog lifts on a different landscape

AFTER the snow, the fog – a murky, swirling affair worthy of a night on the Kent marshes or a Whitechapel back street.

But aside from conjuring up images of Magwitch and London pea-soupers, this latest twist in the February weather story also manages to banish the hard crusting of ice and snow that has been resolutely frosting the local landscape.

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And as the fog subsides, to be replaced by a steady drizzle, that’s great news for all those early flowers tempted into bloom by the mild January air and buried by last week’s wintry downfall.

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Candlemas day is past and the snowdrops are out, but the chill in the air still makes it feel as if spring is a long way off.

Nonetheless there’s a definite sense of anticipation in the air as the natural world starts to sense warmer times to come, and the bare branches and withered vegetation provide a drab backdrop against which to watch the countryside starting to stir.

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Certainly there’s a jauntiness to the dawn chorus this morning and the bare branches of the laburnum outside our bedroom window make it easier to spot the miniature army of blue tits, coal tits and long-tailed tits which have been frequenting our bird feeders.

The variety here is a little less dramatic than the visitors chronicled in this week’s newsletter from The Moorhens – alias Roy and Marie Battell, whose small nature reserve near Milton Keynes has been frequented by badgers, muntjac deer, red foxes and partridges, along with pheasants and woodpeckers.

But there have been a few less familiar visitors to our patch too, with one stray pheasant, a lone goldfinch and a cheeky lesser spotted woodpecker popping in for a quick bite.

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Not that these colourful guests have displaced the regulars in our affections. As well as the robins, blackbirds, magpies and dunnocks, one of our firm favourites remains the baby moorhen who has become a regular saunter round the feeders looking for scraps the smaller birds have dropped on the ground –  and whose distinctive tracks in the snow were a dead giveaway of her movements last week too.

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Natural boost for our mental health

IT SOUNDS pretty obvious that time spent outdoors can be good for our mental health as well as our physical wellbeing.

But a variety of different bodies have been quick to promote the wonders of the natural world to mark the start of the fifth year of Children’s Mental Health Week.

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From the Woodland Trust to local wildlife trusts, forest schools and activity weeks, the message has been simple – that climbing trees, building dens and playing in the woods can all help youngsters learn valuable life skills, as well as reconnecting with nature.

On Sunday it was worrying to read in The Observer that emergency talks were being held over the future of children’s adventure playgrounds amid concerns that funding cuts are making some popular sites too dangerous to insure.

“Too many children are living a ‘battery hen’ existence, spending more and more time sitting in front of screens and less time outside playing. I want to see more playgrounds across the country, not fewer,” said England’s children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, who has championed play as a weapon against child obesity and poor mental health.

Mental health and the natural world was also under the spotlight last week in an emotional interview on Winterwatch between Chris Packham and Bird Therapy author Joe Harness.

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Viewers were quick to phone, Tweet and email with their thoughts on the subject, pointing out how much pleasure even the housebound could obtain from watching garden birds at their kitchen window.

Certainly our own garden guests have been giving us great joy during the recent snowfall, with the tits, robins, blackbirds and pigeons being joined by curious moorhens, affable ducks and boisterous squirrels.

In America, a survey of managers of assisted living and nursing home institutions all agreed that watching garden birds had a positive effect on their residents’ morale, and that feeding and watching birds gives housebound residents a connection with the outside world and reduces isolation and depression.

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Braving the wintry weather has allowed eagle-eyed youngsters to pick out the tracks of some of the more unfamiliar guests, while budding photographers have also been out and about, discovering that finding beauty in nature can help to ease the February blues.

Laura Howard, digital producer for The Watches, points out: “During the colder months, when the sun is low in the sky the world seems to slow right down. A sleepy darkness creeps in and colours often mute to greys.

“However if conditions are right, this season can also show nature at its most inspiring as precious winter light illuminates the world. Due to its low profile on the horizon and its distance from the earth, winter sun has a quality all of its own as evidenced by these terrific photos.”

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It’s got to make sense – and on recent trips to Black Park, Burnham Beeches and Langley Park, it has been a delight to see people of all ages braving the sub-zero temperatures to make the most of the natural world in all its winter glory.

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New year, new beginnings

IT WAS great to see the car parks full at Burnham Beeches for New Year’s Day, with dozens of local families starting the year with a breath of fresh air and a ramble through this extraordinary 540-acre nature reserve. 

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It may get dark quite early, with the car parks closing at around 4.30pm, but the weather was dry and mild enough for youngsters to enjoy throwing leaves in the air and a small army of assorted canines to be rushing excitedly around the woodland paths.

More ambitious walkers can embark on a two-hour 8km history trail that provides a living history lesson about the ancient trees and monuments scattered around this landscape – including the 700-year-old Druids Oak and Iron Age hill fort.

Always a popular place for family walks, picnics and Sunday school outings, the reserve grew in popularity after 1880 when visitors from London could pick up a bus service from Slough station which stopped at tea rooms on the south western boundary of the site.

It seems odd to think of Victorian families enjoying the same sort of New Year’s Day ramble here more than a century ago – and perhaps even odder to ponder how many of the same trees they might have seen!

A downloadable map includes information about the reserve’s history and wildlife.

Walking in Pooh’s paw prints

OUR local woods are a constant delight – and although Black Park Country Park is spread over 500 rather than 100 acres, it never feels as if Pooh, Piglet and Tigger are too far away.

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If proof were needed that we are not alone in this sensation, you only have to go down to the entrance to the lake to find a new generation of children playing Pooh sticks over the small wooden bridge there.

Or snatch a glimpse through the trees of youngsters building a small den of the sort that Eeyore might well call home.

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All of which makes it all the more pleasurable to be able to savour some of Pooh’s adventures – and his creator’s words of wisdom – via a daily Twitter feed.

Also included are quotes from Christopher Robin Milne, whose relationship with his father inspired the 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin.

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The “real” stuffed toys owned by Christopher Robin may be a long way off – they have been on display in the New York public library since 1987 – but down among the trees it’s all too easy to hear the words of those childhood friends echoing among the autumn leaves, whether in search of a Heffalump, getting stuck in a rabbit hole or floating away on the string of a balloon.

As C R Milne put it: “When a child plays with his bear the bear comes alive and there is at once a child-bear relationship. Then the child gets inside his bear and looks at it the other way round: that’s how BEAR feels about it… and sympathy is born.”

Big problems in Little Marlow

IT’S A shame Thames Water can’t do a little more to clean up its act around the Little Marlow sewage treatment works.

Given that the works lies next door to a nature reserve, you might think some effort could be made to keep the approach road neat and tidy.

But ramblers enjoying the otherwise picturesque circular tour of Spade Oak lake down to the River Thames are once again greeted by a growing pile of fly-tipped debris just where the footpath crosses the approach road to the works.

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The pile looks remarkably similar to the rubbish dumped in the same spot some months ago, pictured below.

And given Thames Water’s pledges to invest in the area following its disastrous pollution problems some years ago, you might hope for just a little more effort to prevent the lane becoming a fly-tipping hotspot.

Back in March 2017 Thames Water was fined a record £20.3 million for polluting the River Thames with 1.4 billion litres of raw sewage.

The company allowed huge amounts of untreated effluent to enter the waterway in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in 2013 and 2014, leaving people and animals ill, and killing thousands of fish.

Judge Francis Sheridan handed down the largest penalty for a water utility for an environmental disaster at a sentencing hearing at Aylesbury Crown Court.

Richard Aylard of Thames Water said outside the court that the company had learned its lesson, changed its ways and was also proud to be working in partnership with environmental groups across the area, working to improve rivers.

Following sentencing, Thames Water also announced it would allocate £1.5 million towards projects to improve the rivers, wildlife and surrounding environment at the six locations.

One small step might be to improve the approach road to the Little Marlow works. No one is blaming the company for the fly-tipping itself – but if future incidents are to be prevented, more needs to be done to prevent this becoming a permanent blot on the local landscape.

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Full steam ahead at Bo’ness

IT’S HARD to think of a less likely tourist attraction that the UK’s second oldest oil refinery, at Grangemouth.

But if you drive past the gas flares and cooling towers for a few minutes, the detour off the busy M9 motorway from Edinburgh to Stirling will take you to a quite extraordinary reminder of a golden age of steam.

For this is the home of the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway, a five-mile working heritage railway and home to Scotland’s largest railway museum.

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The view from the station platform – the main station at Bo’ness was actually relocated from Wormit, at the south end of the Tay Bridge – could hardly be more authentic, although the 0-6-0 tank engine decked out in British Railways black is also “in disguise”.

Despite the BR livery, this is not the former LNER Class J94 engine which once bore that number, but a lookalike – an engine once owned by the National Coal Board which was built by W G Bagnall in 1945 and acquired from the NCB’s Comrie Colliery in Fife.

In its gleaming BR livery it certainly looks the part, though, and it’s only one of a large selection of steam and diesel engines to be found here.

Another surprise is the surprisingly rural atmosphere of the route. Despite the proximity of heavy industry, the line takes passengers to a local nature reserve, and you can always walk back along the coast or disembark at another rural station that has been a favourite with film-makers.

The museum across the footbridge at Bo’ness is open seven days a week until October 28 from 11am-4.30pm and boasts three large buildings full of memorabilia – from full size locomotives to old-fashioned railway signs which once adorned the walls of busy railway stations across the country.

For full details of the railway, see the link above – and more information about the Scottish Railway Preservation Society can be found here.

Wake up with a smile

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LEAP OF JOY: Jamie Ross’s winning banner picture for the Discover British Nature Group

WHAT do you wake up to in the morning? For many of us it’s a news feed, TV breakfast show or radio news bulletin – and sometimes that can prove a pretty depressing start to the day.

Fake or otherwise, news can be bad for our health. The dangers were highlighted rather neatly a few years ago in an essay by Swiss entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, who uses some pretty stark adjectives to describe our standard daily diet of toxic, stress-inducing snippets of irrelevant gossip.

With Dobelli’s warnings in mind of the damage this diet does to our ability to think creatively by sapping our energy, we at The Beyonder have been engaging in a detox with a difference.

Part of Dobelli’s cold-turkey approach involved ditching news in favour of magazines and books which explain the world and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – go deep instead of broad, he advised.

That makes a lot of sense, but we don’t always want to sit down for a lengthy or complicated read, so what alternatives are there to the standard news feed?

In The Beyonder’s facebook group – still at the time of writing a very select gathering of a handful of like-minded souls – we’ve been exploring groups, pages and websites for outdoorsy people which might help us start the day in a more positive way than the conventional tabloid diet of death and destruction.

So, here are a handful of our suggestions which might provide a handy starting point for anyone wanting to start the new day with a jaunty spring in their step and a smile on their face…and we are only too happy to have suggestions of other groups that might be added to the list.

Of course the starting line-up of possible sites is almost too long to contemplate, from charities and country parks to heritage sites and TV naturalists. And there are those which might be a touch too specific for more general tastes, like Emmi Birch’s 1200-strong group of red kite enthusiasts or the 5000-strong followers of a group sharing locations of starling murmurations, or David Willis’s uplifting exploration of bushcraft skills.

So difficult is it to narrow down our top six feel-good sites, that it’s worth highlighting a few more which are calculated to bring a smile to the face before homing in on our top recommendations…

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CREAM OF THE CROP: Sandy Lane Farm in Oxfordshire

For those who like a regular update of life on the farm which doesn’t begin and end with The Archers, there’s always the news feed from Sandy Lane Farm, just a few minutes off the M40 in Oxfordshire.

This family-run farm is home to Charles, Sue and George Bennett and has been growing organic vegetables for over 25 years and raises free-range, rare-breed pigs and pasture-fed lamb. The farm shop is open on Thursdays and Saturdays for those wanting to visit in person, but for 1300 online followers there are regular updates of what they might be missing out in the fields.

Over in West Berkshire, a similar number of followers enjoy regular updates from Aimee Wallis and partner Dario at the Corvid Dawn Wild Bird Rescue Centre. The centre’s work, focused particularly on corvids, formed a full-length Beyonder feature back in May and the news feed provides regular pictures and video of rescued birds’ progress.

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KEEPING IT CLEAN: volunteers in Kidderminster

There’s nothing nice about litter, but a couple of inspiring community websites provide regular reminders that for every thoughtless or selfish individual treating the countryside with contempt there are a dozen highly motivated volunteers behind the scenes doing their best to make their local neighbourhood a better place to live in – and none more so that Michelle Medler and her pick-up team in Kidderminster.

On to our top five, then – and the 1800-strong Discover British Nature Group which describes itself as a place for members to share photos, ask for help with identification and to share their common interest in British nature.

Apart from hosting a friendly banner competition – for which Jamie Ross’s memorable shot above was a recent winner – the daily feed of spectacular shots of birds, insects and other wildlife is always a delight.

A similar website with a bigger 11,000-strong following is UK Garden Wildlife where foxes, hedgehogs, deer and badgers are in the spotlight, alongside a full range of birds, butterflies and other insects.

Given the sheer quality of many of the photographs on all these sites, there’s no such thing as an outright winner here, but in terms of the sheer amount of pleasure given on a daily basis, a clear contender is UK Through The Lens, a Facebook group with 23,000 members and a broader remit for photographs to share landscape and outdoor photographs.

Unlike some of the other groups, this provides scope for sharing pictures from urban and industrial landscapes as well as coasts, wild places and rural backwaters. It is also an excellent place to learn more about photography and is open to all, from outright beginners to full-on professionals.

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FROZEN IN FLIGHT: Alan Bailey’s spectacular group header for Nature Watch

It’s a tough call to name a winner, then, but top of the tree of our photo-feeds for nature and animal lovers is Nature Watch which has a dedicated following of 31,000 members and a steady stream of inspiring photographs uploaded by enthusiasts across the country.

Another delight is The British Wildlife Photography Group, whose 21,000 members share very similar interests – and an equally stunning selection of photographs.

Of course this isn’t about choosing one website at the expense of the others, thankfully. It’s the combined input of all our contenders that helps to lift the spirits – and provides an inspiring and uplifting alternative news feed to those coming from the politicians, pundits and traditional news providers.

In the weeks and months since we have been following these pages (or joined the relevant group), the most noticeable thing about the vast majority of posts has been a real sense of humanity at its best.

Apart from the technical photographic skills of many of those contributing, it’s clear that these are people who care deeply about the environment – and what happens to it.

There’s plenty of scope on other sites to rage about climate change or animal cruelty or all the other things that are wrong with the world. But sometimes it’s important just to sit back with like-minded souls and marvel at the wonders of nature, from fluffy duckings and cute fledglings to stunning birds of prey, from some of the more elusive or nocturnal wildlife of our islands like moles and weasels to the less obviously breathtaking moths and beetles.

So, thank you to all those individuals on these websites whose startling snapshots of the natural world provide such a regular and genuine source of delight – and make each and every day just that little bit special.

We will be only too happy to extend our list to include further recommendations if appropriate – bearing in mind, of course, that membership of any of the closed groups mentioned is subject to acceptance, and abiding by the rules of that group.

Never too late to change

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BIG PICTURE: pondering our place in the universe  [PICTURE: Greg Rakozy, Unsplash]

THE MOST startling thing about Paul Kingsnorth’s 2008 portrait of England in decline (Seen and Heard – Books) is just how much of it sounds as if it were written yesterday.

And yet his round England journey was undertaken well over a decade or so ago. Which begs the question – why didn’t we all spot what was happening at the time?

Well, of course we did: we all had those bleak conversations echoing the book’s central message – moaning about those idiosyncratic pubs and cafes and shops being swept away amid the violent regeneration of our town and city centres.

And of course it wasn’t all bad, by any means. Many of those awful greasy spoons and appalling backstreet boozers were the very epitome of what was wrong with England. Those famous publicans who took pleasure in being rude to their customers, for example. Those village pubs empty on a Saturday night long before the smoking ban or the soaring cost of a pint had made a real impact on trade.

But as the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone – and in fact the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi would make a pretty good soundtrack to Kingsnorth’s expose of a country which seems to have lost its way.

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PRICE OF PROGRESS: high-rise city centre offices [PICTURE: Matthew Henry, Unsplash]

What resonates most about his book is the cumulative effect of all this so-called progress – of its dehumanising effect on us, creating a culture of dependency on the consumer machine created by the apparently unstoppable march of global capitalism.

“We expect. We demand. We are like children. Everything must be instant and, if it isn’t, somebody must pay,” he writes.

This is the real tragedy and it’s a growing selfishness that we see around us every day, in impatient queues at the till or blaring horns in traffic queues, the careless dropping of litter or the way tempers flare up so quickly over the most minor disputes.

The problem is that we have lost our ability to relate to other people, to empathise with their plight, share their concerns. Instead, we are living in a world of artificial reality, fuelled by our self-absorbtion, our narcissistic Instagram uploads and Facebook selfies.

We tap our feet in the supermarket when the person in front of us has the temerity to chat to the check-out assistant. We thump on the horn if someone takes a micro-second too long to spot the traffic light has turned green. We are patronising and sarcastic or downright aggressive when hard-pressed rail staff or shop assistants struggle to cope with problems beyond their control.

And all the time we are taking pictures of our food or the concert or the view and telling our friends how cool and happy and chic and contented we are.

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CONSUMER  CULTURE: global brands dominate our lives [PICTURE: Victor Xok, Unsplash]

And it’s this disconnect from any local community that poses the biggest danger to our wellbeing, not our reliance on global brands. It’s how we choose to use new technology that is the problem, not the fact that new technology exists.

And that’s nothing new. Joni Mitchell recognised the problem back in 1970 and we are far better informed today about the practical impact of our actions on the environment, as well of ways of starting to turn back the tide.

But if there is a more important message to be drawn from such a dystopian vision, it’s that there IS something we can do about it. As individuals, we can make choices. And as individuals working together we can be powerful.

That philosophy lies at the heart of what The Beyonder is about. At one level it’s about families exploring and enjoying the great outdoors so that it doesn’t feel as if we have totally lost touch with the landscape – or as if nature has just been contained and fenced in for our enjoyment (“They took all the trees / Put ’em in a tree museum / And they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see ’em”).

It’s about youngsters feeling as carefree building a den in the woods or a sandcastle on the beach as they do battling dark forces in the latest computer game. It’s about having the patience to keep listening to the old boy in the pub rattling on about the way things were. And it’s about sharing our enjoyment for some of the simplest things in life – the new ducklings on the lake, the screech of an owl at night in the woods, the glimpse of a hare or badger disappearing into the undergrowth.

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SIMPLE PLEASURES: taking delight in the natural world [PICTURE: Olivia Beyonder]

Kingsnorth recognised that if there’s any antidote to the ideology of mass consumption and growing disconnect between human beings, it lies in rediscovering the essence of the place itself, not just the field and stream, but the town and village too.

Human beings are social animals and enjoy being part of a community. We feel more anxious when we feel isolated, remote, separate from our environment, so it makes sense at every level to know our place and the other people who inhabit it.

We can’t bury our heads in the sand, turn off the news and live in a bubble, pretending the problems of the world don’t exist. But we can take a moment to share our appreciation of the natural world, our joy of living and our recognition that thousands – millions – of other people feel the same way.

Just as a sneak theft or random verbal attack by a stranger can spoil our mood and our day, so a random act of kindness can bring not just a smile to our face but a deeper inner joy.

There may be plenty wrong with the world, but there are other people out there who care just as much about what’s gone wrong – and who are working out the best way to put it right, one little personal step at a time.

Real England: The Battle Against The Bland by Paul KIngsnorth was published in paperback in June 2009 by Portobello Books at £8.99

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BACK TO NATURE: England’s threatened wildlife [PICTURE: Ryan Jacques, Unsplash]

Waging war on plastic

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GOING GREEN: vegetables without plastic wrapping [PICTURE: Scott Warman, Unsplash]

IT WAS a health scare that started Kathryn Kellogg first thinking about what she was putting in and on her body.

“I had never considered it before; I just assumed everything I was consuming was safe,” she says. “There’s very little regulation and testing for the products we buy. Cleaning companies don’t even have to release the ingredients they use.”

After starting to cook from scratch and starting to make her own cleaning and beauty products, the aspiring actress moved to California as was shocked to see all the litter and plastic in the ocean.

“I knew I had to do something; so, I decided to be the change I wanted to see. I stopped buying plastic and wanted to create a sustainable life. It felt like a really natural progression,” she recalls.

Living in the Bay area and spending her free time hiking and cooking, she worked a 9-5 job and is one of a number of young millennial women responsible for promoting a zero-waste lifestyle revolution that has taken off in a big way.

Kathryn’s blog, Going Zero Waste, was launched in March 2015 and by the time she was profiled in The Guardian a year later, was attracting 10,000 page views a month and had 800 subscribers.

The focus of her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts is all about homemade products and simple shopping tips that can help avoid unnecessary waste. The goal is to ensure her trash for the past year – anything that hasn’t been composted or recycled – fits in an 8oz jar.

She’s not alone – over in Chicago, Celia Ristow of Litterless espouses a similar zero waste vibe.

And it’s got to make sense. One of the best things about her blog is her desire to make things accessible and attainable: so that for anyone starting out on the zero waste journey or just wanting to be a little more eco-friendly, her first suggestion is always the ‘Big Four’ simple, easy swaps popularised by Plastic Free July, an initiative which originated in Western Australia but which now involves participants around the world.

Kathryn advises that these four items – plastic bags, straws, single use water bottles and takeaway coffee cups – are easy to avoid and make-up a huge portion of waste in landfills and the ocean.

It’s a great starting point for reducing litter at the point of consumption – and just one of a series of straightforward tips on Kathryn’s website.

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LESS IS BEST: steering clear of plastic [PICTURE: Heder Neves, Unsplash]

In fact, this is just one of more than 300 blog posts full of zero waste tips. For anyone starting out on the journey, Kathryn’s Beginners’ Guide is as good a place as anywhere to start.

Felicity makes a splash

DUCK

THIS afternoon a delightful, downy creature waddled into our lives and made a big splash in our hearts.

The river behind our house is home to some 20 adult ducks, and our neighbourhood has been waiting with bated breath for the arrival of the spring hatchlings.  We hadn’t spotted any – until today.

A grown parent pair was guiding their brood of two tiny ducklings upstream.  The river is very fast flowing and has a strong current, and it wasn’t long before the second duckling was struggling to keep up.

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We watched with a growing sense of alarm as the duckling began to lose strength.  Her bursts of ferocious paddling were growing weaker and she was floating further away on the current.  Meanwhile, the adult ducks had swum so far they were now around the next bend 20 metres upstream and out of sight.

We have quite an active colony of patrolling red kites that have made their home in the enormous cedar of Lebanon that watches over the waterway, and it didn’t take much for my maternal instincts to kick in with full force.

I waded out to the opposite bank of the river, struggling even at my height to keep balance in the flow.  The duckling was desperately trying to cling onto some ivy that creeps down to the waterline, chirping noisily to alert her parents.  They hadn’t noticed half of their brood was missing.

I scooped her tiny form out of the water easily and carried her to our landing bay.  She was still chirping wildly but did not resist my touch.  The next hour was spent in two ways: Andrew got on the phone to our friend Aimee Wallis at Corvid Dawn to find out what to do next, as she has rescued ducks herself and reared them for release.

I guarded the duckling, whom I have now named Felicity Duckworth, as she chirruped frantically from various vantage points around the garden in the hope that her parents would hear her and return.  I kept a watchful eye on our curious cat, Legotine, and shooed away a male mallard duck who was barking and snapping at Felicity with such ferocity that I snatched her away from him before he attacked.

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All the while, whenever I set the duckling down on the ground, she would run quickly to my feet and seek shelter under my long dress.  This behaviour, Aimee warned us, is called imprinting.  Ducklings have an instinct to follow moving objects that are bigger than themselves (animate or inanimate!), believing that object to be their mother.  I was flattered to say the least, and completely, utterly smitten.

Aimee told us the best thing we could do was to keep Felicity warm and take her to a wildlife sanctuary.  It is apparently rare for a mother duck to return for lost young after around two hours.  We duly waited and then, with Felicity tucked into a warm box lined and covered with tea towels, set off with heavy hearts for St Tiggywinkle’s Wildlife Hospital in Aylesbury.

Whoever wrote the ugly duckling song had clearly never seen a duckling themselves.  In the car, Felicity kept jumping out of the box that was in my lap and clambering desperately into the crook of my neck where she nestled herself and kept warm.  I had a chance to see her close up when she was relatively still.

Her down was brown and yellow, and more like fine, fluffy fur.  Her eyes were intelligent, sharp and very trusting.  She could only be days old as her beak was sharpened to a point by her egg tooth which she had used to hatch out from the shell.   All in all, this little bundle was quite simply perfection.

She was starting to close her eyes and her neck was drooping, a sign of shock or exhaustion in ducklings, so I put on Classic FM, thinking the music would be the closest thing to birdsong we had access to in the car.  She quickly came to and cheeped volley after volley of duckling songs for the remainder of the journey.

We were greeted by two receptionists at St Tiggywinkle’s, who humoured me as I struggled to break the bond that felt inseparable after only two hours of acquaintance.  Reluctantly, and with a lump in my throat, I handed Felicity to the veterinary nurse who lifted her in her blue latex gloves.  Three other ducklings had been handed over to the centre that morning after a female duck was killed in a road accident.  I am heartened to know that Felicity will be given a chance to ‘learn how to be a duck’ with three new siblings who will no doubt have stories of their own to tell.

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Tiggywinkles in Aylesbury, The Wildlife Hospital Trust, is a specialist hospital dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating all species of British wildlife.
 Wild animal casualties brought to the hospital are treated free of charge and released through a controlled programme back to the wild when they are fully fit. To find out more about the work of the hospital, which has a visitors’ centre, see the charity’s main website above or Facebook page.

Miniature mariners

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It’s great to see tiny sailing boats out on the Black Park lake – and other marvellous scale models like this little rowing boat.

The figures look so lifelike it’s sometimes hard to believe you are looking at models, unless there are a couple of ducks around to help put everything in perspective…

The park is home to the Black Park Model Boat Club, a friendly, non-competitive club which is open to new members at any time and covers all aspects of model boating from yachts to scale models.

The club uses the lake at Black Park on Thursday afternoons from 12pm and Sunday mornings. The park itself is signposted from the A412 between Slough and Iver Heath and  has toilets and cafés.

Once a year there is a whole-day regatta at the lake where other clubs are invited and money raised for a local charity.

For more information turn up at the lakeside on sailing days and ask for Frank or Alan, or e-mail the secretary at: secretary@blackparkmodelboatclub.org.uk

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