Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

IT’S 6am and the park, unsurprisingly, is deserted.

It’s bitterly cold, with frost on the grass and steam rising from the river. But a small black shadow beside me is snuffling along quite contentedly, eager to discover just who’s wandered this way before.

It’s a route we’ve already explored a lot, in all kinds of weather conditions and at all times of day and night, but it takes a crisp, sunny morning before we’re actually able to photograph the lively, excited ball at our feet.

NEW ARRIVAL: Teddy the black lab

Meet Teddy, a four-month-old black labrador who has already seen a lot of upheaval in his young life, but who arrived a few days ago to join our small family.

For us, it’s the culmination of two years of searching and researching, of considering different breeds, of watching training videos, speaking to breeders and reading puppy books. And now he’s actually here, our world’s been turned upside down overnight.

FRESH START: Teddy arrives in the Chilterns

For Teddy, the change is probably just as dramatic. The fact he has already seen a couple of other households since leaving his mum and siblings is no fault of his own, but down to unfortunate changes in personal circumstances affecting the humans in his life.

As we research his birth, vaccinations and back story, we meet a succession of people who are full of praise for our four-legged arrival. The only black lab in a litter of 11, he’s learned some basic commands, is good with children and seems lively and intelligent.

WINNING WAYS: Teddy knows how to make friends

He’s also teething, curious and boisterous in the way that black labs are. Already he’s won our hearts and he is trying SO hard to please – but we know it’s going to be a steep learning curve for us all.

The vet’s pronounced him fit and healthy and friends and family have been helpful with their top tips and sound advice.

MOMENT OF PEACE: learning how to chill out

But however many books you read, first-time owners are never fully equipped to know how to tackle every new challenge that arises – or how to cope with the sudden and overwhelming imposition on your daily routine (and interruptions to your sleep patterns!).

Not-so-tiny Teddy weighs more than 13kg and has big paws and a healthy appetite. He’s had three names and this is his fourth home in as many months, so it’s not surprising if he has found life a little confusing up to now. Mercifully, he seems relatively unfazed: biddable, eager and affectionate, he wins friends easily.

LIVEWIRE: puppies are eager for attention

Best of all, everyone is happy to help. From neighbours and family members with multiple dogs to kindly shop assistants and strangers in the park, there’s a lot of expertise to draw on.

Everyone makes it look so easy, with their polite and respectful packs trotting so neatly around them and responding with alacrity to clickers, calls and whistles. But re-reading old friend and colleague Lucy Parks’ experiences with her rescue dog Yella has been useful too, and a timely reminder of the rollercoaster journey that lies ahead.

USEFUL LESSONS: Lucy’s adventures with rescue dog Yella

Back in the park on our 6am foray I belatedly remember that it’s my birthday. Now in my mid-60s, I’ve only owned cats in the past and despite all the videos still feel I know little about how to train Teddy to become the trusted, loving, loyal and obedient adult companion I know he can be.

But I also know just how many lessons dogs can teach to us humans too, not least about mindfulness, zest for life, grattitude and unconditional love.

BEST BEHAVIOUR: perfecting the sit command

“Dogs are our link to paradise,” said author Milan Kundera. Or as author Orhan Pamuk put it: “Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.”

It looks as if we all have a lot of learn. And as those affectionate eyes look up at me and we start heading homewards to the warmth and breakfast, I’m determined not to let the little fellow down. Here’s hoping he really can help to teach an old dog new tricks.

How did dogs become such faithful friends?

ROUND our way it sometimes seems as if everyone has a dog.

Little and large, fluffy and hectic or aloof and unflustered, they come in all shapes and sizes, from purebred aristocrats with a proud pedigree to scruffy scoundrels rescued from the streets.

BEST FOOT FORWARD: loyal companions PICTURE: Lucy Parks

But whatever their size, breed and provenance, we love them just as they are, taking them into our hearts and our families in their millions as part of an extraordinary symbiotic relationship where it can be hard to tell who needs the other more.

Dogs and people have lived together for thousands of years, and we have bred different breeds to hunt and to guard us, to herd sheep, retrieve game and just keep us company.

Domestic dogs may share 99% of their DNA with wolves, but they are social pack animals which thrive on attention and affection, helping them to win our love and admiration for their skills, intelligence and character.

FURRY FRIEND: dogs win our love and admiration PICTURE: Olivia Knight

They may need us to survive but it seems that we need them just as much: our most loyal and faithful companions cock a listening ear to our worries, give us a paw to hold and an unconditional love that sometimes borders on obsession.

Mind you, it’s an obsession that is mutual. Britain boasts a canine population of more than nine million, with more than 200 breeds to choose from.

Joyce Campbell, the Armadale farmer whose squad of collies were a hit with viewers of This Farming Life, said: “We really are a nation of dog lovers – my team of dogs have also been inundated with fan mail. We have genuinely all been blown away with everyone’s kindness.”

FAN MAIL: the dogs from This Farming Life PICTURE: Joyce Campbell

That’s why we’re setting out to meet some of the best-loved dogs in the Chilterns, and asking you to send us your pictures of them out and about enjoying our wonderful countryside.

As well as sharing your shots on our Twitter and Instagram feeds, we’re keen to hear your own stories about the impact and importance of four-legged friends in your life.

Most dog owners will tell you that their dog is a family member – and for many, dog ownership has proved a life-changing experience.

CHILTERN ADVENTURES: rescue dog Yella PICTURE: Lucy Parks

Lucy Parks has written in detail about her adventures with Cypriot rescue dog Yella as the four-legged arrival adjusted to a new life in the Chiltern Hills.

“She was my first ever dog, although I’d wanted one for ever,” says Lucy. “I finally got her aged 50 and she’s totally changed my life!

“Yella has got me out into the local countryside exploring new places and has introduced me to the dog-owning community in Amersham. I’ve got new friends as a result, as has Yella, and we know far more about the area we live in.”

FRESH PERSPECTIVE: Yella explores her new home PICTURE: Lucy Parks

From beagles to greyhounds, lapdogs to St Bernards, each breed has its own ardent fans, and although dog attacks have contributed to some chilling headlines in recent weeks, millions of responsible owners know how crucial it is to spend time training their pet to ensure that wagging tails and stress-free greetings help to put strangers at their ease.

The rewards are huge. No animal can surpass dogs for their devotion and intelligence, and it’s that unwavering loyalty and pure delight in our company that wins us over so readily. We know that our furry companions accept us for who we are, flaws and all, without reserve or judgement.

For Beyonder photographer Sue Craigs Erwin, energetic sprocker spaniel Ted has been at her side for the past six years.

BEST OF FRIENDS: Sue and Ted at Coombe Hill PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

“He has given me a reason to go out walking again after losing my husband six years ago,” she says. “I have become more aware of our beautiful surroundings. I always take my camera with me, capturing the day’s walk and sharing the beauty of the wildlife and changing seasons with my Facebook friends.

“We have recently made friends with a beautiful little robin in the woods. Ted now runs ahead of me and searches him out before I get there. I can’t resist a few shots of the friendly little chap everyday.

“It’s so therapeutic to be walking in the fresh air whatever the weather. Dogs are just the best company.”

GOOD COMPANY: Ted among the bluebells PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Sue isn’t alone in appreciating Ted’s constant companionship. In a fast-paced world where human connections sometimes feel fleeting or even confrontational, dogs offer us vital emotional support, helping to reduce stress, anxiety and loneliness.

Says Jennifer Wynn, proud owner of a Great Swiss mountain dog: “Fearne is more than just a companion for exploring the beautiful Chilterns.

“She’s a friend for both of my teenage children, one of whom is autistic and the other is awaiting assessment. She listens without judging, loves no matter what and gives 50kg cuddles!”

Dogs have been our friends and protectors for centuries, and although they have transitioned from being primarily working animals to cherished family members, today they perhaps bring more joy and comfort than ever.

BIG HUGS: Great Swiss mountain dog Fearne PICTURE: Jennifer Wynn

They teach us responsibility and help youngsters learn the importance of kindness, while formidable sheepdogs and astonishing therapy dogs startle us with their skill, sensitivity and ability to perform complex tasks.

Of course, the individual breed we favour will vary according to our own preferences and lifestyles. Do we want a snuggly cockapoo happy to flop around the house like a supersoft chenille throw, or a livewire collie who’s panting to head for the hills every morning?

Do we need a miniature dachsund getting under our feet or an Irish wolfhound or Great Swiss mountain dog edging our guests off the sofa?

SITTING PRETTY: Fearne at home PICTURE: Jennifer Wynn

It’s all very personal, as author Patrick Gale writes in The Returns Home, a chapter of Duncan Minshull’s 2022 collection of walking stories, Where My Feet Fall.

“Hounds are not emotionally needy dogs when walking; whippets and greyhounds have none of the collie’s need for constant affirmative interaction with its human but seem quite content to trot independently from smell to fascinating smell, occasionally breaking off to send up a pheasant or make a show of chasing a rabbit. They enjoy walks hugely but they’re not forever nudging you to say, ‘I’m enjoying my walk. I am. Are you? Are you enjoying yours? Are you really?'”

LIVEWIRE: COAM sheepdog Bang PICTURE: Chiltern Open Air Museum

Whatever our personal choice of companion, those rambles allow us to come across a dozen other breeds, making new friends along the way, from doe-eyed whippets and gentle golden retrievers to inquisitive terriers or rumbustious young labradors.

Back in the Middle Ages, European nobles had close relationships with their dogs. Ladies doted on their fashionable lap dogs and noblemen went hunting with hounds — a practice that grew so popular that breeding hunting dogs became a trend throughout Europe.

By the Victorian era, dogs had wormed their way into the heart of family life and Britain had become a centre for dog breeding, with the first formal competitive dog shows held in the middle of the 19th century.

BEST BEHAVIOUR: TV dog trainer Graeme Hall PICTURE: Channel 4

Canines played such vital roles in military operations during the two World Wars that they steadily gained increasing recognition of their intelligence and abilities throughout the 20th century, with films depicting the adventures of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin capturing the hearts of millions in the 1950s.

The Queen’s fondness for corgis helped to popularise the breed, while on the small screen Blue Peter presenter John Noakes became so inseparable from his excitable border collie that “Get down, Shep!” became a catchphrase so well known that it was even immortalised in song by The Barron Knights when the pair left the show in 1978.


These days dogs have become a much more familiar presence on TV and social media, with the Crufts dog show attracting an unbelievable 18,000 competitors and almost nightly programmes highlighting different aspects of canine behaviour and welfare, from sheepdog trials to different training techniques.

Of course, the difficult down side of our love affair with dogs is the pain we feel at losing them.

Countless online commentators attest to the fact that the death of a beloved pet is excruciating. With their shorter lifespans, it’s also unfortunately an inevitability, made all the more intense by their unconditional love and constant presence by our side.

Shepherdess Alison O’Neill has won a Twitter following of almost 50,000 for her glorious photographs and homely posts from her small hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales, where sheepdog Shadow is a star attraction.

FAITHFUL FRIEND: Alison’s pinned tweet PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“Dogs are the best,” she says. “But yes, I’ve known the loss of a dog. It’s no different than any family member passing.”

Coping when they are suddenly not there at our side can be devastating. But then perhaps that works both ways.

Many dog trainers and behaviourists believe that dogs feel grief too, being highly intuitive and sensitive animals — perhaps much more than people give them credit for.

It may not quite be on the scale of devotion demonstrated by the apocryphal Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh, but artist Sir Edwin Landseer summed up the sense of loss memorably in his 1837 oil painting, The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner.

SENSE OF LOSS: Landseer’s 1837 portrait PICTURE: Victoria & Albert Museum

In a sparsely furnished room, a moping dog rests its head on the coffin of its master, the shepherd, whose staff and hat lie underneath a table supporting a closed bible.

The pathos of the scene made it popular with both collectors and the Victorian public in general, but it’s a striking representation of loss, described by the influential art critic John Ruskin as one of the “most perfect poems…which modern times have seen”.

Sentimental it may have been, but the painting also became an important part of animal advocacy campaigns in the 19th century, a reminder of the shared experiences and strong emotional bonds that can exist between human and non-human animals, and few 21st-century dog lovers would argue with the importance of that message.

We’d love to share your pictures and stories about your own dogs enjoying our wonderful Chilterns countryside. Contact us by email or our social media links — you don’t have to include personal details or precise locations, but we’d love to hear from you about the four-legged friends in your life.

Idyllic village where fact meets fiction

WHEN you visit Turville for the first time, don’t be surprised if the place looks familiar.

So many films and TV shows have been shot in and around this picturesque Buckinghamshire village that a sense of deja vu is almost unavoidable.

LOCAL LANDMARK: the Bull and Butcher in Turville

From the Vicar of Dibley and Midsomer Murders to Killing Eve and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the quaint buildings frozen in time against the glorious backdrop of the Hambleden Valley are often indelibly etched on our memories.

Isn’t that the windmill in which Dick van Dyke – sorry, Caractacus Potts – lived with the children back in 1968 when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang hit the big screen?

And isn’t that Geraldine Granger’s cottage in The Vicar of Dibley? And the church where she preaches?

Don’t worry, you’re not imagining it – you really have seen these places before.

In fact Geraldine’s Grade II-listed home in the grounds of St Mary the Virgin Church hit the national headlines when it went up for sale in 2022 for the first time in 60 years.

But then this is the English countryside at it’s best, so it’s not surprising that the ramblers and sightseers flock here at weekends, sometimes clogging the narrow country lanes as they explore the pretty villages, historic churches and cosy pubs that they’ve seen on TV.

Most are keen to combine a leisurely ramble with a sociable Sunday lunch in a classic country pub, so hostelries like Turville’s Bull and Butcher are popular watering holes.

SCENE OF THE CRIME: on the Midsomer Murders trail

Built in 1550, the quintessentially English pub boasts large open fires and original beams in the winter and a large sunny garden and patio area for warm summer days.

SUNNY SPOT: the Bull and Butcher garden

Owners Brakspear know there’s nothing like a walk in the countryside to work up an appetite, so they’ve produced a handy free app describing dozens of circular walks around many of their pubs, some like the Bull boasting downloadable leaflets you can print out too.

BREATH OF FRESH AIR: pub walks around Turville

A trio of walks feature on the Turville leaflet, ranging from an hour-long wander round the village taking in the church and distinctive Cobstone Windmill – a smock mill dating from around 1816 that was owned by the actress Hayley Mills in the 1970s – to longer and slightly more demanding routes taking you further afield to the villages of Skirmett, Frieth and Fingest.

STAGING POST: the Chequers in Fingest

Incorporating clear directions, pictures and some useful snippets about local history, there are similar leaflets covering routes around other Brakspear pubs in the valley.

WAY TO GO: the route explained

Weekend ramblers in this part of the world are also likely to stumble across fans of the Midsomer Murders detective series hot on the trail of DCI Barnaby, thanks to a downloadable guide to the Hambleden Valley launched in 2018.

ON LOCATION: the Midsomer Murders guide

The 17-mile circular route from Marlow to Hambleden, Fingest, Lane End and Frieth features locations from the TV series and includes tourist attractions like the Chiltern Valley Winery and Brewery and Lacey’s Farm.

MURDER TRAIL: Neil Dudgeon as DCI John Barnaby

But this valley is a veritable magnet for ramblers, cyclists and nature lovers, and if you want a friendly guide to an even wider range of picturesque routes around the area, Chilterns-based runner, trekker and “general mud-lover” Richard Gower has a whole range of illustrated walks on his website.

VALLEY VIEW: Richard Gower outside Hambleden PICTURE: Timea Kristof

Why do sad songs mean so much?

MY BELOVED has no great aversion to men in kilts. She even married one. 

She’s as moved as anyone by the sight of a lone piper on a castle battlement and has been known to step out on the ceilidh dance floor with gusto.

FORMAL DRESS: the big day PICTURE: Alexis Jaworski

But expose her to what she cruelly dubs “maudlin and sentimental” Scottish music and she’s a lot less sympathetic.

This is the source of the occasional good-humoured marital disagreement, because I have a weakness for the sort of poetry and song that’s guaranteed to make any exiled Scot go misty-eyed with emotion over their glass of malt.

Why so? A childhood of holidays on the Moray Coast and four years at Aberdeen University for a start.

HOLIDAY MEMORIES: Findochty on the Moray Coast

Summers in the sixties were spent roaming the cliffs and beaches of the small fishing village of “Finechty” surrounded by what seemed a huge extended family of uncles and cousins.

The chance to study Scots and Irish literature amid the hallowed walls of the ancient university in Aberdeen meant returning north as a teenager to the Granite City with its seagull cries and those biting winds sweeping in off the North Sea.

The latter half of the 1970s were spent here, enjoying the still calm of a lonely desk hidden among the “stacks” of King’s College library in Old Aberdeen and attempting to explore all of the city’s 250-odd drinking establishments.

SEASIDE RENDEZVOUS: the beach at “Finechty”

After that, a decade working on the local paper, initially as a trainee reporter and later as features editor of the Evening Express, meant years spent experiencing, relishing and chronicling all the trials and tribulations of life in the north-east of Scotland.

Life in Thatcher’s Britain was posing plenty of challenges, but from “district drives” in remote Aberdeenshire villages to interviewing everyone from politicians and professors to farmers and teachers, detectives and criminals, there could hardly be a better way of immersing yourself fully in the community.

It was a young, sociable team on the EE too, with 4pm finishes allowing plenty of time for teatime drinks down at the Kirkgate Bar, which had also been a popular student haunt.

FAREWELL TOAST: an EE leaving do in the 1980s

All of which of course means countless memories too: of friends and family, student parties and dances, music and laughter, times of loss and fond thoughts of those no longer around to share the reminiscences.

Which is where the music comes in. But why do we listen to sad music? And is nostalgic music necessarily sad?

The song that has prompted the whole conversation is one that’s a new discovery to me: Lewis Capaldi’s Someone You Loved, released back in 2019 and inspired by the death of the Scottish singer-songwriter’s grandmother.

The accompanying video featuring his distant cousin, the actor Peter Capaldi, is a real tearjerker, made in partnership with charity organisation Live Life Give Life to help raise awareness about the issue of organ donation.

It’s a poignant story of loss and hope about a husband who is trying to cope with the death of his wife, who became the heart donor for the young mother of another family, saving her life.

Heartbreaking, uplifting, impactful…the Youtube comments make it clear that this is a song which resonates with listeners, especially those struggling to cope with bereavement. It doubtless became an instant hit to play at funerals.

It’s also brilliantly performed by the actor we know better as Dr Who, or the irascible, foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It and In The Loop.

Like all timeless art, it captures the universality of those shared emotions which help to tie us together, reminding us of our own lost loved ones: the tinkling laugh of a favourite London aunt or soft Scottish burr of a kindly Orcadian uncle, perhaps.

Like a picture from an old album, our thoughts may wander back to a moment frozen in time: that day back in the 1960s when my mum was standing with her brothers and my young sister Fiona outside my grandmother’s home in Findochty, for example.

FLASHBACK: a rare, rediscovered 1960s family snapshot

I don’t remember the smart white coat, but she was obviously very proud of it. My uncles, John-Alec and Willie (“Doods”), would doubtless have been gently teasing my father about his “posh job” in London, and slyly slipping me a half-crown at some point during the holiday that I could use to buy a paperback.

The picture is significant because it’s such an “ordinary” unposed shot, taken at a time when we owned neither a camera nor a car, and all the more poignant because it remained undiscovered for decades in a box of old slides, unseen because we never owned a slide projector either.

It’s not my favourite picture of my uncles, though: that honour goes to an earlier almost biblical shot of the trawler skippers mending their nets in the harbour. But both shots are evocative reminders of where my own family’s journey started.

BIBLICAL IMAGE: mending the nets

This is the small fishing village that my mother left as a teenager to train to become a nurse and midwife – initially in Aberdeen and later hundreds of miles away in London.

Our annual childhood visits back to the north-east were an August ritual for years, my grandmother always a familiar figure on the doorstep of “Number Eight”, a house that smelt of polished wood and bubbling broth, where there was an organ in the smart front room and a short-wave radio in the lounge for tuning in to the fishing boats at sea.

WELCOMING SMILE: grannie on her doorstep

This is where my mother and father married in the mid-1950s, surrounded by friends and family at the small village church, guests arriving by steam train on the glorious coastal route along the cliffs from Cullen, a trackbed I would walk as a teenager 20 years later, long after the last train had run.

BIG DAY: wedding guests outside the village church

It’s the same church you can see from the picturesque cemetery where nowadays they and other family members are buried: a last resting place in the most spectacular of locations.

Which takes us back to Lewis Capaldi, perhaps. Nostalgia is all about a sentimental longing for times past, wistful memories of pleasure or sadness from years gone by – like those wonderful summer holidays in Scotland, for example, with relatives who have long since passed.

COASTAL VIEWS: the cemetery overlooking Findochty

Capaldi’s sensitive lyrics give the song a broader appeal too, not just for those grieving the loss of a loved one, but for anyone lamenting the end of a relationship, perhaps.

That’s all very well. But why do we often actively enjoy listening to sad music? And are Scots particularly fond of wallowing over sentimental memories?

Scots traditional music is steeped in melancholy, of course: of parting and of unrequited love, of forgotten battles and the homesickness suffered by those forced to leave their homeland and emigrate abroad.

Celtic tunes crossed oceans and ancient ballads and laments became an important basis for American folk, bluegrass, and country music too.

JAM SESSION: university friends tune up

Music was a constant theme of my university years, at ceilidhs and discos and impromptu jam sessions with talented friends.

From nights at the ABC Bowl in George Street watching Frank Robb and Super Klute to sociable sessions at the Malt Mill or Bobbin Mill, we made the most of Aberdeen’s thriving music scene.

There were regular ceilidhs at the Northern Hotel, Celtic Society and university officers’ training corps, Sunday jazz at the Gloucester Hotel, countless informal get-togethers in snug bars and student flats.

And years later those songs would still resonate in the memory, LPs of bands like Five Hand Reel, Ossian and Runrig on regular repeat to recapture happy memories of those sociable years.

Why do we love sad songs so much, though? As Simon McCarthy-Jones discusses in The Conversation, perhaps it’s all about empathy: that flood of emotions we feel when we relate to other people’s circumstances and can share in their hopes, fears and tribulations.

Nostalgia relates to our memories being trigggered by important moments and shared experiences in our own lives: and from Burns poems to Scotland the Brave or the Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, it doesn’t take long for a group of exiled Scots to start belting out some familiar classics.

From protest songs like Hamish Henderson’s evocative Freedom-Come-All-Ye to the unofficial national anthem that is Dougie Maclean’s Caledonia, a song with a story to tell is all the more resonant too.

Whether it’s the technical brilliance of a plaintive chord or haunting melody, the beauty of the lyrics or vividness of the imagery, this is music to make the heart melt.

But let me tell you that I love you, that I think about you all the time
Caledonia you’re calling me and now I’m going home

Such songs may stimulate the release of comforting hormones, boost our feelings of connectedness or help to distract us from our problems, but whatever the underlying science, it seems that sometimes allowing ourselves to spend a little time savouring melancholic thoughts can help boost our overall emotional health.

TARTAN REUNION: a night of music and song

And bring a group of exiled Scots together for a Burns night meal or similar celebration and it’s unthinkable that there won’t be plenty of music and song to accompany sentimental reminiscences about times past.

The lyrics don’t have to directly echo our own life experiences, either: we can empathise with the specifics while tapping into the same broad emotions, conjuring up a kaleidoscope of our own memories spanning the years.

In my case, that might mean nights out with university friends or office outings with colleagues from the Evening Express – to the Insch races, Braemar gathering or rugby in Paris.

EIGHTIES HEYDAY: the Evening Express before computerisation

Listening to Caledonia might remind me of bumping into Dougie MacLean at a bar during the Edinburgh Festival, the chants on the rugby terraces at Murrayfield, that familiar brewery smell when you step off the train at Haymarket or Waverley.

Or waking on the overnight sleeper to be greeted by those glorious coastal views as the train wends over the border and north towards Dundee and Aberdeen…

Or those countless nights of fun and friendship with work colleagues, tinged with sadness because not all of those smiling faces are still around to share the memories.

ABSENT FRIENDS: EE staff enjoy a night out

Sharing a dram with an old friend who’s been told he is dying, the tunes and the memories are all the more poignant, of course.

We met as 17-year-olds almost half a century ago and have shared plenty of adventures over the years, at home and abroad. There are a lot of tales to tell and laughs to share.

As students we worked long shifts in a Dutch pickle factory and later rode the rails around Europe. We slept on Milan station, played backgammon on a Greek ferry, fell ill on a crowded train in what was then Yugoslavia.

TRAVELLERS’ TALES: a night out on Speyside

A croupier, teacher, filmmaker, bullrunner and entrepreneur with a mischievous sense of humour, a knack for political incorrectness and a distrust of anyone in authority, he’s fondly remembered by former students for his eccentric ties – one for every day of the teaching year – and even more colourful teaching methods, as well as those school football tours abroad that involved a great deal more socialising than football.

Being around him has its drawbacks. The relentless lack of political incorrectness, the bad jokes and madcap schemes can be exhausting. But the childlike joy at planning a merry jape is ample compensation, especially when you can look back with affection on countless shared adventures spanning more than four decades.

Pour him a large whisky and those old stories start to flow, many particularly poignant because health worries and the advancing years mean that we can’t turn back the clock.

SHARED ADVENTURES: raising a glass at New Year

But if the past cannot be repeated, it can certainly still be recaptured – and perhaps that’s where those sad songs are of most importance.

Interestingly, when it comes to his nomination for an old favourite to savour over a dram, it’s a timeless classic from the Scots band Runrig, with a particularly poignant story to tell.

Back in 1973, two brothers and a friend from the Scottish island of Skye formed a ceilidh dance band that would go on to tour the world, release a string of hit records and touch the hearts of millions of fans.

Inspired by the language and history of the Western Isles, Runrig took Gaelic culture from the dance halls of the Highlands to massive arenas across Europe, although when we saw them play at the students’ union in Aberdeen it was a far cry from their final performance four decades later in front of 50,000 crying, dancing fans in the shadow of Stirling Castle.

But you don’t have to come from the Hebrides to understand how our past shapes and defines us, or to appreciate the poignant beauty of music and melody which is infused with both joy and sadness.

And when we watch the emotional video which accompanies “The Story”, there are dozens of intermingled images conjured up by those lyrics: of student nights in an Aberdeen bar or wild ceilidhs in remote village halls, of the annual Highlanders’ dance at Portobello Town Hall in Edinburgh, of all those exploits and hijinks that span the decades: of watching children grow up and grieving the loss of family and friends, of love and loss, of hope and laughter.

And that’s the beauty of good music. Or, as Elton John tells us:

They reach into your room, oh oh oh
Just feel their gentle touch (gentle touch)
When all hope is gone
You know sad songs say so much

Concrete wilderness where nature’s under siege

JONI Mitchell spotted the problem a lifetime ago.

It’s more than half a century since she wrote Big Yellow Taxi, though the youthful Joni could hardly have realised her words would turn into quite such a timeless environmental anthem.

Inspired by the juxtaposition of her hotel parking lot against the backdrop of the Hawaiian mountains, she wrote:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

It was 1969 and she was just 26 when she penned her “little rock and roll song”, which originally appearing on her Ladies of the Canyon album and was released as a single in April 1970.

It was her first trip to Hawaii and she later recalled how she took a taxi to her hotel late at night without getting to see much of the island.

“When I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart,” she said.

ISLAND LIFE: the Nā Pali coast on Kauai PICTURE: Jelle de Gier, Unsplash

Initially a regional hit in Hawaii, it took time for the impact of the music to gain a true international audience.

“It took 20 years for that song to sink in to people most other places,” she later recalled. “That is a powerful little song because there have been cases in a couple of cities of parking lots being torn up and turned into parks because of it.”

Hey farmer farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees

Flash forward to Britain in 2023 and that concrete jungle has become not just an everyday reality but is posing an existential crisis for our wildlife.

URBAN BLIGHT: cars dominate our lives PICTURE: Michael Fousert, Unsplash

Somehow we’ve become blind to the issue and the insidious way in which the motor car has come to completely dominate our lives.

For a few brief months in the heart of lockdown we were exposed to an alternative reality, where families went out for walks together and we suddenly started to hear the birds and insects above the steady drone of traffic.

MOMENT OF CALM: families left their cars at home during lockdown

But as Paul Donald examines in his new book, Traffication, it seems we have very quickly forgotten any lessons we might have learned during the pandemic.

And as Mark Avery suggests in his review, Donald’s book could be very timely and significant for all those interested in wildlife conservation.

It’s not just that the trillions of miles of driving we do each year are destroying our natural environment, but that we have become almost oblivious to the scale of the threat.

OVERFLOWING: cars dominate the landscape PICTURE: Christian Wiediger, Unsplash

Our streets and driveways are overflowing with cars. Whereas car ownership was once a dream for poorer families, it’s become a prerequisite of 21st-century life, as much as smartphones and Netflix.

And whereas we once ridiculed Americans for their reliance on gas-guzzling limousines, their endless highway traffic jams and sprawling out-of-town shopping malls, we have hardly noticed how our small island has been transformed in the past 20 years.

CONCRETE JUNGLE: parking space is at a premium

More than a decade ago, a report showed millions of the UK’s front gardens had been paved over to become parking spaces, a trend that has continued ever since, with fewer and fewer front gardens boasting any refuge for wildlife.

Such lifeless hardstandings are often actively encouraged by estate agents, boasting that a driveway could add to the value of the property, yet this doesn’t just deprive birds and insects of vital food but increases floodwater run-off, making drains more likely to overflow.

Over the past half-century our lives have changed in many subtle ways. But during that time, car ownership figures have exploded. In 1950 there were just four million vehicles on the road. Today it’s more like 33 million, and they are clustered everywhere: on verges and roadside, car parks and front drives.

QUIETER ROADS: car ownership has trebled since the 1970s

The proliferation is every bit as damaging to nature as habitat loss or intensive farming, and not simply in terms of roadkill: a busy road can strip the wildlife from our countryside for miles around and the impact of traffic all-pervasive, affecting every aspect of animals’ lives.

Couple all this with the growing popularity of artificial grass and the fact that our roads are lined with litter and pockmarked by flytipping, and it genuinely feels as if the natural world is increasingly under siege in our urban landscapes.

It’s also not a problem that’s just as bad everywhere else in Europe. Take Amsterdam, for example, where cycles, trams and boats outnumber cars – and where the air quality is much cleaner as a result.

TWO WHEELS GOOD: cycles in Amsterdam

Back in Britain, it feels as if we’re running out of time to protect what’s left of our countryside.

As the wonderful Joni wrote all those years ago:

They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them
No, no, no

RARE SPECIMEN: an ancient tree at Burnham Beeches

We’re not quite there yet, but we desperately need to reverse the trend. We have lost billions of birds, insects and mammals in recent decades, and wildlife needs all our help to survive and flourish in the coming years.

Large-scale rewilding partnerships are wonderful, but millions of ordinary householders could be doing their own bit to stop the rot…before it really IS too late.

Tweet of the week: 26/12/21

THERE’S nothing cosy or sentimental about Chris Packham’s Twitter feed.

But it’s the searing honesty displayed by the naturalist and TV presenter that has made him such an important figure in the battle to save the planet – and his half a million followers won’t hear a bad word against him.

When it comes to fighting for conservation or climate change issues, no one could have a fiercer supporter, whatever the personal consequences. And while his fan base may be large, he’s made a lot of enemies by speaking out on subjects close to his heart.

As he confessed in a Guardian interview a couple of years ago: “I don’t look for conflict, but I won’t shy away.”

It’s a stance that has seen both online and offline harassment and physical threats against him, especially after his work in 2019 with Wild Justice in challenging the legality of general licences issued by Natural England for landowners to shoot a range of wild birds.

In the wake of a suspected arson attack on his home in the New Forest earlier this year, he revealed that discovering dead animals (including foxes and badgers) tied to his gate had become a “normal occurrence”.

Packham’s skill as a broadcaster lies in his ability to maintain a completely natural style of delivery, whatever might be happening behind the scenes.

It singled him out as a TV natural at an early age, thanks to his unique ability to remain unflappable in a crisis. On Springwatch he found a perfect verbal sparring partner in Michaela Strachan, his old buddy from The Really Wild Show  days in the 1990s, and the pair’s banter has underpinned the popularity of the series for more than a decade.

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During the long months of lockdown he teamed up with step-daughter Megan McCubbin to launch their Self-Isolating Bird Club in response to the coronavirus crisis.

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With 30,000 followers on Facebook, 20,000 on Twitter and as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show, the club proved an unlikely internet refuge for nature lovers eager to escape lockdown blues.

Like Packham, McCubbin also has that rare skill of appearing totally at ease in front of a camera, neither nervous nor overtly self-aware and able to comfortably join in with the casual banter that is a hallmark of the best of this style of wildlife broadcasting.

The 90-odd broadcasts revealed a different side to Packham, providing a timely antidote to the bleak backdrop of national news and allowing thousands of viewers to be drawn into the family intimacy of Packham’s culinary disasters and offbeat musical tastes.

It also paved the way for McCubbin to join the Springwatch team, with the pair going on to co-present a six-part series titled Chris and Meg’s Wild Summer for BBC2.

But back on Packham’s Twitter feed, there’s no let-up in his mission to spell out just what’s wrong with the world, whether that relates to conservation, climate change or his current campaign against fox-hunting.

As he told the Guardian back in 2019: “As a conservationist, I’ve failed. Since I bought my first pair of binoculars, we’ve lost 90 million birds from the UK countryside and 45-50% of the world’s wildlife.”

If anything, that means shouting louder, however unpleasant the backlash. “On my watch, we’ve seen catastrophic declines of the things that I care passionately about. And so, given my shortening life, I feel that I have to up the ante, and put more energy into trying to sort these issues out.”

That energy has been obvious in recent months, culminating in a short animation for the Keep The Ban campaign group highlighting how trail hunting has been a “smokescreen” for illegal fox-hunting.

Narrated by Packham and voiced by actor and fellow animal rights campaigner Peter Egan the animation documents key moments since fox hunting was made illegal in 2004 and the ongoing battle to encourage landowners to follow the example of the National Trust earlier this year and ban trail hunts from their land. ‍

As Packham said back in 2019: “It’s not that I don’t care about death threats, or getting shit posted through my letter box… I’m just impervious.

“My friend Billy Bragg said to me, “If you’re not getting flak, you’re not over the target,” so I’m reassured when the shit turns up in the post. It means I’m putting pressure on the right people at the right time. Frankly, if they’ve got no other arguments than to post shit, that’s a clear indication that I’m winning.”

Tweet of the week: 12/12/21

EVERYONE loves a fairy story, it seems.

But Los Angeles photographer Kelly Kenney could never have forseen how her lockdown tale of a virtual encounter with an imaginative four-year-old would become something of an internet sensation.

FAIRY STORY: Eliana’s colourful garden PICTURE: Kelly Kenney

Better known on Twitter as Kelly Victoria or @saysthefox, the photographer’s pinned tweet thread from December 2020 told of her discovery of a fairy garden created by the parents of a local four-year-old who felt lonely in quarantine.

“At the beginning of the pandemic I went through some painful personal stuff and would often go out at night for long walks because no one was around and I couldn’t sleep anyway,” she wrote.

MAGIC MOMENT: the message from Eliana’s parents PICTURE: Kelly Kenney

The elaborate fairy garden was at the base of a tree, complete with painted rocks and tiny trinkets and a Polaroid picture of the garden’s creator, four-year-old girl Eliana.

Posing as a fairy named Sapphire (and with a separate note reassuring Eliana’s parents of her true identity), Kelly began to exchange messages with Eliana, kindling a friendship that would last through some of the darkest months of the pandemic and beyond.

As Kelly herself confessed: “Doing this every night gave me purpose in a horribly painful and lonely time. I looked forward to my days again and I started ordering art supplies and little trinkets to leave her.

“I hope one day when she’s older she can understand that I truly needed her as much as she needed me these past few months.”

As the pen-pal relationship grew over the course of the pandemic, Eliana’s mum told Kelly her fairy friend Sapphire had been a great emotional support for the child, before finally coordinating for the two to meet in person.

When Kelly first tweeted her thread about the friendship in December 2020 and headed for bed, a handful of people had seen the post. By the end of the weekend, it had been liked and retweeted by hundreds of thousands of people.

By the following June, media mogul Oprah Winfrey was sending five-year-old Eliana, her family and fairy friend Sapphire to Disneyland.

But more important for Kelly is the knowledge that despite Eliana moving out of the neighbourhood, this is one friendship that’s likely to stand the test of time.

Says Kelly: “She’s changed me forever and the things her mom has said about how her self-confidence, her kindness towards others and her creativity have skyrocketed since meeting me make me feel like I made an impact too.”

Need a pet in your life? Do your homework!

Guest writer Lucy Parks always wanted to own a four-legged friend, but it was only in 2018 that Cypriot rescue dog Yella flew into the country and changed her life forever. With pet ownership still on the rise, she offers some timely advice for those yearning to own a dog of their own

THE UK’s dog and cat population has risen by around 50% since the end of 2019 and the number of lockdown puppies continues to grow as more and more people seek a flexible working arrangement and have more time to be at home with their pets. 

SPECIAL DELIVERY: Yella flew into the UK in 2018 PICTURE: Lucy Parks

For those still considering getting their first puppies, I offer a few words of wisdom based both on my own experience as a first-time dog-owner and the insight I have gained from working as a veterinary receptionist… 


It’s easy to be swayed by cute puppies but it’s really important to know what you’re letting yourself in for. It’s not possible to do too much research: do think carefully about how the chosen breed will fit into your lifestyle and home environment.

How much time do you have to devote to training and walking your new pet? Yes, working cocker spaniels are adorable and, yes, they’re a fairly small dog, but they need A LOT of mental and physical stimulation. A husky or akita may appeal to your machismo, but do you have the firm hand and the time needed to train him? And are you ready for the hair shedding?

Poodle mixes are popular because they’re low-shedding but a) be sure you know what mix you’re getting or you could end up with a 30kg dog when you’re expecting a 10kg one and b) poodles are a high-energy, intelligent breed so whatever the mix, they’re going to need a lot of work… Oh, and low-shedding means an extra cost in regular visits to the groomer: that fur’s got to come off somehow.

PERFECT CHOICE: kokonis are stubborn, playful and loyal PICTURE: Lucy Parks

If you’re going the rescue route, keep an open mind and listen to the advice given by the rescue centre. When a kokoni was suggested to me as a good first dog, I did my research. They’re loyal, low maintenance, stubborn and playful. Yella has totally lived up to this and she proved to be a perfect choice. 


No dog-owner is an island and there will be times when you need support to just live your life, whether that’s someone taking your dog for an hour’s walk or having them overnight. I have both supportive friends and a paid dog sitter that I turn to; other friends have had great success through Borrow My Doggy.

Dog walkers and dog boarders are massively over-subscribed at the moment with the sheer volume of new pets and they can afford to be picky about who they take: a well-trained, well-socialised pooch will always win over the high-maintenance chewer! 


With the surge in pet owners, and the double whammy of Covid and the impact of Brexit meaning fewer EU vets available in the UK, many vets are no longer taking new clients. We’ve had people register with us from 30 miles away, just because they couldn’t find a vet closer to get their puppy’s vital first vaccinations.

SOCIAL ANIMAL: Yella adores whippets and collies PICTURE: Lucy Parks

There’s some advice to get a vet before you even get a pet, but this may not always be possible. Either way, don’t forget to find your local vet for vaccinations, socialisation and, of course, should anything go drastically wrong… 


Lockdown puppies have rarely been left on their own, which has led to a rise in separation anxiety. This can result in destructive behaviour, howling and a generally miserable dog. Get your pup used to being on its own by leaving it alone, gradually building up the amount of time each day. It may seem cruel, but it gets them used to their own company. It may be your rose-tinted dream to have a dog you can take with you everywhere, but it’s simply not feasible and, if you can’t even step into another room without your dog missing you, you’re both going to be miserable.


Many people opt for a small breed dog, simply because they’re more manageable, but there’s a danger in not allowing your dog to be a dog. Don’t carry him everywhere: he needs to walk, and sniff, and experience life from the ground.

Dogs need to socialise with other dogs. Yes, not all dogs get on – as with humans – but they need to find their own way. They’ll tell each other off if they’re not happy and, while this can be scary for owners, it’s part of their development.

As your dog gets older, you’ll get to understand them. Yella doesn’t like bouncy puppies and flat-faced dogs (and I steer her clear when possible) but she absolutely loves whippets, greyhounds and collies… it’s just her preference, which I’ve learned over time.

Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals. Click on these links to see her earlier posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part and Part 7.

Tweet of the week: 28/11/21

OUR Sunday night Twitter foray this week takes us deep under London’s streets to a maze of tunnels containing clues to the hidden history of the capital.

The @HiddenLondon account has more than 600 followers despite sending out NO tweets during the past six years.

However it does provide an introduction to tours of London’s disused stations, organised through the London Transport Museum and a Hidden London Hangouts channel on Youtube containing 75 videos exploring the city’s underground history, from Highgate to Clapham South, Wood Green to Whitechapel.

The Twitter account may not be an active one, but the Youtube channel has attracted more than 30,000 visitors since it launched in April 2020.

Real-life tours give Londoners the chance to explore some of the stations and spaces that are normally off limits to the public, uncovering the fascinating stories of London’s transport history in the company of an expert guide.

During lockdown, many of the tours have taken place on Zoom, and the Youtube podcast series features the museum’s assistant director Chris Nix teaming up with Laura Hilton Brown, Siddy Holloway and self-confessed Tube geek Alex Grundon to explore closed stations and hidden tunnels from Aldwych to Metroland.

The team use photos, videos and never-before-seen footage from the museum’s collection to explore a station or area, with tickets for guided tours going on sale at regular times through the year.

Find out more about stations that never fulfilled their intended purpose, like Highgate in North London, which was set to become a bustling interchange as part of the Northern Heights project but which now lies in a secluded vale as an urban wilderness home to protected species.

Or disappear 11 stories underground to explore Clapham South deep-level shelter, which has over a mile of subterranean passageways revealing the extraordinary stories of those who sheltered here, from Londoners seeking refuge during the Second World War, to hopeful Caribbean migrants arriving on the Empire Windrush.

Aldwych station is one of London’s secret places, holding myths and memories of times gone by. Opened to the public in 1907, it was never as heavily used as originally intended and closed nearly 100 years later in 1994.

The station has had a varied history from providing shelter to Londoners during the Blitz to being used for film and TV shoots including The ABC Murders (2018), Darkest Hour (2017), Sherlock (2014), and Atonement (2007).

Other tours explore dusty stations and deserted platforms once used by the travelling public, including at Euston station a gallery of preserved vintage advertising poster fragments that have been concealed for over 50 years.

To keep up to date with Hidden London events, sign up to a free monthly newsletter from the main London Transport Museum website.

Tweet of the week: 07/11/21

WHEN is a tweet more than a tweet? When it’s a gateway inviting us into another world.

That’s the “through the looking glass” feel you encounter in the social media feed of novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison, the latest in our Sunday night series focusing on Twitter accounts which help to inspire and brighten people’s lives.

Journal, diary, podcast, book – Melissa is a woman of many talents, but whichever means she uses to communicate, her writing is full of humour and kindness as well as delight and wonder at the natural world.

Of course her most memorable writing is reserved for her books and newspaper columns, and she clearly has something of a love-hate relationship with social media and the “grinding daily labour of trying to compose a tweet about some minor thing X in such a way that 26 ppl don’t reply advising you how to do thing X better, informing you that thing X doesn’t reflect their own lived experience or telling you that thing X is problematic, actually”.

But she has encountered much fun and friendship on social media too, which goes some way to counterbalancing the inevitable belligerent point-scoring and mansplaining likely to be encountered by any woman brave enough to openly express an opinion about anything in the twittersphere.

The great joy about Melissa’s feed is not so much to be found in the wit and wisdom of individual tweets, but from the introduction they offer to such a powerful voice in modern nature writing.

Her social media output is prolific, with some 178,000 Tweets since her account opened in 2010. But while much of this is standard author chat about book launches and new publications, or retweets from other nature lovers, writers and commentators, the feed is a very personal one too, with welcome occasional glimpses of Suffolk country life that echo familiar themes in her newspaper columns.

Throughout all her writing, including those latest nature novels for young people, By Ash, Oak and Thorn and By Rowan and Yew, any underlying environmental messages are not trying to engender guilt or fear, but tend to extol the power of noticing and being curious, and how that just might change the world.

For those delighted by the lyricism of her third novel, All Among The Barley – a subtle and haunting tale of the realities of country life in 1930s Suffolk – her 2020 “nature journal”, A Stubborn Light of Things, might have appeared a little more down-to-earth and prosaic, chronicling her relocation from London to rural Suffolk and compiled from entries from her Nature Notebook column in The Times.

But its publication at a time of pandemic makes the diary resonate more deeply than might otherwise have been the case, since the author’s joyful engagement with the natural world coincided with many families’ deeper exploration of the beauty on their doorstep – and a dawning recognition of the need to preserve it.

The diary is also something of an almanac that benefits from close re-reading, especially for anyone discovering the quiet richness of nature with similar wide-eyed wonder.

RURAL ESCAPE: walking the dog in Suffolk PICTURE: Melissa Harrison

As a Londoner for over 20 years, moving from flat to Tube to air-conditioned office, Melissa Harrison knew what it was to be insulated from the seasons, as so many of us are, despite growing up in a Surrey commuter village where a rambling garden and the local woods and common became a playground that fuelled her love of wildlife and fascination with creepy crawlies.

But if wildlife then was something of a refuge, as she explained in a recent newspaper interview, her relationship with nature persisted. Adopting a dog and going on daily walks helped reconnect her with the natural world, and moving to a quiet farm cottage in ancient, rural Suffolk allowed her to complete her transition from townie to true country dweller, lucky enough to be able to walk out of her cottage straight into open countryside.

Inspired by that new-found freedom, she added a new string to her bow during lockdown when she discovered the joy of podcasting, eventually producing a 28-part series that attracted thousands of listeners each week.

“It saved me through lockdown as much as it helped anyone else,” she says. “I didn’t have to feel so guilty about having fields and woods that I could walk into and not see anyone and be safe when lots of people I knew were stuck in flats in cities and couldn’t get out at all.

“It’s easy to forget how frightening it was at the beginning. The only thing I wanted to do was keep people connected to nature because I knew it was going to be important.”

A year on and her children’s books are helping to fulfil her desire to get young people outdoors and connecting with nature in much the same way that she herself was inspired by the writing of British naturalist and children’s author Denys Watkins-Pitchford.

His books, she explains, “helped me understand that the lives of birds and animals are just as real and important as our own”.

She continues, writing for Caught By The River: “It’s vital that today’s children grow up into custodians of nature, so I wanted to write something that might do the same.”

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to

Twins tell the long story of the Thames

GORING and Streatley are twin villages which face each other across the Thames, nestled in the gap that the river has carved between two chalk hillsides.

And it’s here that Chilterns travel blogger Mary Tebje sets off on another of her local sojourns, this time exploring the picturesque countryside around the Goring Gap.

RIVERSIDE SETTING: this stretch of the Thames boasts spectacular views PICTURE: Mary Tebje

As glorious views go, the backdrop of the two villages clustered around the Goring weir is the stuff of jigsaws and chocolate boxes, and the perfect starting point for a ramble around a stretch of the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border which is sandwiched between two areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Mary explores the long history of the villages and how the river, along with turnpikes and railways, shaped their fortunes.

Whether by boat, foot or on horseback, it’s not hard to imagine the bustle of the boats, soldiers and drovers who once converged on this lovely spot, and even today the Thames Path, Ridgeway or Icknield Way can tempt visitors onto trails which have been trodden for centuries.

Famous faces associated with the area range from Oscar Wilde to Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, and George Michael fans still make a pilgrimage to leave flowers and light candles near his former home.

The article is one of the many entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of her adventures here.

Tweet of the week: 17/10/21

IT’S A small world, it seems.

Given that the whole thrust of our Tweet of the Week series has been to explore the positive benefits of social media, it seemed appropriate that our (belated) choice this week should be nominated by a follower we only know online.

Autumn Showers by @itsnotaboutwork

And yet Wendy Tobitt, who responded to our Sunday night Twitter challenge to nominate inspiring and uplifting social media accounts by suggesting the artist @itsnotaboutwork, is not a total “stranger”, it turns out.

Her nominated Twitter account is a self-confessed “incessant doodler” from the East Midlands whose drawings have been delighting followers for the past 10 years.

Lie back and stay cool by @itsnotaboutwork

“I love his random and usually joyous cartoons. A grasshopper in a waistcoat, for instance,” says Wendy, a Thames Path National Trail volunteer better known to us online as @12beesbuzzing.

She is clearly not alone – with almost 10,000 followers on Twitter and a healthy Instagram feed too, @itsnotaboutwork is a nature lover whose irreverent drawings have a broad appeal.

Autumn Toad by @itsnotaboutwork

Hedgehogs, newts and sparrows rub shoulders with tortoises, frogs and snails, all drawn with an irrepressible sense of fun. And cheeky jackdaws are a particular favourite.

Fun with a feather by @itsnotaboutwork

The birds come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes wearing hats and scarves, often playing among the leaves or having slightly surreal adventures, but always raising a smile.

Our doodling addict admits a certain fondness for autumn, as well as jackdaws, but the account includes few personal details otherwise, despite the regularity of the tweets, and the collection of more than 500 drawings on Instagram.

Worm that glows by @itsnotaboutwork

Not that it matters: the drawings speak for themselves, as Wendy points out. And this is someone who should know. Wendy, it transpires, is a friend of local artist Anna Dillon and landscape photorapher Hedley Thorne, and the cousin of artist Tim Baynes, formerly from Beaconsfield but now living and drawing in West Wales.

Not so much a stranger then, just a friend we haven’t yet met…

Do you have a favourite Twitter account which brightens your life? Let us know by writing to and we’ll see if they should feature in our Sunday night series.

Tweet of the week: 10/10/21

YOU don’t have to be an artist to keep a nature journal, but it’s always a delight to see a professional at work.

In her Drawn Into Nature blog, Bristol artist Jules Woolford explains how her love for the natural world led her to a career helping people to engage with nature and wildlife. And her @DrawnIntoNature Twitter account echoes that fascination.

ENGAGING WITH NATURE: Jules Woolford at work

“When I discovered the world of journaling, it was a natural progression to begin keeping a traditional nature journal, like my idols Edith Holden and Beatrix Potter,” she says.

Her beautifully illustrated journal is a personal, creative response to the natural world in which she shares stories of the flora and wildlife she encounters. But it’s more than that too, as we revealed in a feature earlier this year.

ON A MISSION: Jules encourages everyone to keep a nature journal

“My mission is to encourage as many people as possible to join me in creating their own journal,” she says. “I’m passionate about showing people the wonder of the natural world, literally ‘on the doorstep’. Gardens, local parks and green spaces, even roadside verges.

“You don’t have to live in an idyllic rural setting to engage with nature; part of my journaling patch is an ex-landfill site! My garden isn’t grand or landscaped, but it’s a wildlife friendly habitat full of native plants. We have a regular procession of daily visitors who keep us entertained….”

ATTENTION TO DETAIL: keeping a journal helps to fine-tune observation skills

And she is adamant that the life-changing benefits are not dependent on someone being a talented artist. “The good news is that it doesn’t matter,” she insists. “Improving your drawing comes over time, and keeping a journal is the ideal way to practise your skills.

“Looking deeply at nature helps you fine-tune your observation, and that helps you develop your drawing skills.”

Her blog came about through wanting to connect with others like herself who were interested in discovering the wonders of engaging more fully with the world around them.

She says: “Our lives are filled with noise, busy work, and negative stress. I’m on a journey to slow down and simplify; concentrate on experiences rather than things, try to worry less, be more grateful, and kind.

“Sometimes I take two (or three) steps backwards, but I keep going. Through my journals, I try to be an advocate for nature, caring for the planet and the life within it. I’m fascinated by the stories we’ve created about the natural world, and I love sharing these little tales from history, folklore and fable.”

TELLING TALES: Jules mixes stories from history, folklore and fable

If her mission sounds inspiring, take a moment to enjoy those wonderful pictures: in her occasional newsletters, Jules is frank about the fact that life can be an uphill struggle at times.

“I’ve been a bit lost with Notes from Nature in 2021,” she told her followers. “Life’s overtaken me, and I know from your kind messages and comments that many of you have felt the same this year.

“It’s been the kindness of friends and  the lovely folk who follow me online which has kept me going, so a huge thank you to you all.

UPHILL STRUGGLE: 2021 has posed unusual challenges for many

Back among the chittering grey squirrels scurrying to raid the hazel trees and cache their winter stores, Jules is only too well aware that this is the real world, where it is only too easy to overlook the important stuff: the autumn songs of blackbird and robin, the hedgerows decked in their autumn finery of deep red rose hips, crimson hawthorn and purple sloes.

She writes of her delight that a wonderful ‘ lost’ apple orchard on her patch has been brought back to life, full of old varieties with wonderful names such as Merton Charm, King of the Pippins, Gascoigne’s Scarlet, and Ashmeads Kernel.

But she’s conscious too that time spent on social media can be problematic, even when it brings so many positive benefits too.

AUTUMN SONG: portraits of some welcome garden visitors

“I learn something with every post I write and every drawing I do. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it,” she says.

“It’s easy to feel guilty, and forget about self-care when you seem to have so many responsibilities. I even begin to worry when I don’t post online – so this year I’ve tried to spend even spend more time than normal just being in nature; simply because that is the most important issue for me.

“I’ve not made as many journal pages as last year – but it’s fine.”

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Tweet of the week: 03/10/21

SUNDAY night is the perfect time for a moment of quiet reflection about the week past and the week to come.

But if you like to start each day with a similarly peaceful few minutes of contemplation, one unlikely social media feed is worthy of a much wider audience.

SISTERS IN FAITH: Martha and Mary Magdalene by Caravaggio © Detroit Institute of Arts

@ChristianArtTod is the Twitter feed of art expert and seminarian Patrick van der Vorst, a Belgian-born auctioneer and industry expert who featured as a winner on the TV programme Dragons’ Den when his antiques-valuing website Value My Stuff was backed by both Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis.

But the entrepreneur’s life took a new twist in 2019 when he enrolled as a seminarian with the Diocese of Westminster, studying at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome to become a priest.

EARLY MARTYRS: St Peter and St Paul as depicted by Cavarozzi © Galerie G Sarti, Paris

And it’s now a couple of years since he launched a new website linking daily Gospel readings with poignant and reflective works of art, accompanied by a short personal commentary.

From Old Masters to street artists, the website features an extraordinary range of artworks spanning the centuries, allowing visitors to consider the daily gospel reading from a fresh perspective.

Characteristically, this takes the form of a mini-homily where Patrick’s expertise helps him to forge a better understanding of both the art work and the Bible story it might illustrate – and while his Twitter followers get a link to the website, subscribers get the daily reading delivered straight to their email inbox at 6am every day.

If the 200+ Twitter following sounds modest, the website claims to be sending out 800,000 emails a month, so the offering is not as low-key as it may first appear.

*In November 2021, the website posted Patrick’s is 1,000th Christian Art reflection spread over three years and boasted 26,516 daily subscribers. 

The time has come now to launch a new, updated version of our website. Over the past few months we have been working on redesigning the website and laying the foundation for more features that we may want to roll out in the future. Our new platform will launch soon, so stay tuned!

In case you missed them, here are some other favourite “Tweets of the week”:

@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.

@A_AMilne: With 73,500 followers, this celebration of the wit and wisdom of the much-loved author and playwright taps into the timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood.

@woolismybread: Solitude, sheep and collie dogs in the company of Yorkshire shepherdess Alison O’Neill, whose 38,000 followers appreciate her straight talking and love of life’s simple pleasures.

@fenifur: Dartmoor wanderings with “Sea Witch” Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

@HenryRothwell, whose morning and evening tweets pay tribute to artists like Eric Ravilious, and celebrate some stunning English landscapes.

@BooksAlbans and a string of other local independent bookshops whose tweets, podcasts, signings and author interviews delight book-lovers across the Chilterns.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Balmy month bows out with a bluster

SUDDENLY, it’s easy to forget that September heatwave that saw temperatures soaring around the country.

Overnight, it seems, there’s a chill in the air and blustery showers are setting the autumnal mood.

It’s the time of year we dust off our warmer coats and cardies, bemoan the loss of those long summer evenings and slowly begin to adjust to the idea that autumn is definitely upon us.

SIGN OF THE TIMES: following a footpath outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Days have been shortening since the summer solstice but it’s now that we start muttering about the nights drawing in and winter being around the corner.

The children have settled into the new school year after the long holidays, universities are reopening their doors and dramatic skies are warning us of more changeable weather to come.

CHILL IN THE AIR: sunset over Chesham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

The colour palette is subtly changing too, the greens gradually giving way to golds, russets and browns. Deep in the woods, it’s conker season for pupils wandering home from school and foragers are out looking for mushrooms, berries and other edible delicacies.

SHARP CONTRAST: thistles on the Misbourne PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Not that that’s such a great idea for the uninitiated: start nibbling the fly agaric, destroying angel, death cap or white bryony and you could face vomiting and diarrhoea, stomach cramps, hallucinations and even death.

NATURAL PATTERNS: a study in textures PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Although we have basked in some balmy weather this September – the month was the second-warmest on record in the UK and the warmest ever in Northern Ireland – it doesn’t take us long to forget those temperatures once the chillier nights set in, especially as we face soaring fuel bills and long waits at the petrol pumps if we can find a garage actually open.

WIND OF CHANGE: Pitstone Windmill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

But aside from the moans and groans about fuel prices and petrol shortages, September was a spectacular month for getting out and about, especially now that so many local destinations have emerged from lockdown restrictions.

FRESH HORIZONS: the view from Pitstone Windmill PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

September is the month when thousands of volunteers across England organise events to celebrate the country’s history and culture for the Heritage Open Days Festival, opening hidden places to the public in thousands of events spread over 10 days.

For art lovers it’s the month of the Herts Open Studios event too, although this year there are more online galleries to view than ever before, and a chance to catch up with artists you may have missed from similar events in Bucks and Oxfordshire earlier in the year.

EVENING LIGHT: the sun casts a warm glow over farmland PICTURE: Sarah How

This Sunday is harvest festival time too, a thanksgiving ritual dating from pagan times and traditionally held on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox.

As we mentioned last year, in days gone by the festival was a matter of life and death that would involve the whole community working together, including children. A prosperous harvest that would allow a community to be fed throughout the potentially barren winter months would be cause for much celebration.

LAND OF PLENTY: harvest was once a matter of life or death PICTURE: Sarah How

As an occasion steeped in superstition, it’s no surprise that so many ancient customs and folklore pre-date Christianity but still reflect the importance of crop gathering and the reverence in which the harvest was held.

Meanwhile it’s still getting light early enough to be woken by the reassuring honking of geese flying past in perfect formation – just one of some 4,000 species of birds around the world migrating in search of milder weather and more plentiful food.

NIGHT OWL: a little owl silhouetted against the moon PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

The geese aren’t the only ones of the wing. The skies are hectic with criss-crossing migrants and down at the local gravel pit the numbers of gulls and cormorants will be building.

Bats and owls are busy too, while baby birds like tits, robins, blackbirds and starlings are beginning to look a lot less scruffy as autumn approaches.

SHOWER TIME: baby blue tits get spruced up PICTURE: Nick Bell

Baby squirrels are dicing with death on the back roads, ants and hornets are busy building their nests in the woods, while the baby moorhens are skittering around on their lily pad rafts.

RICH PICKINGS: hedgerows are bursting with berries PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Hedgerows, shrubs and trees are bursting with berries, fruits and nuts, providing a welcome feast for birds and small mammals and a welcome splash of colour in the woods.

INNOCENT LOOK: squirrels can appear disarming PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Some babies are still being looked after carefully by doting parents, while others are getting their first taste of independence ahead of the harder winter months.

MUM’S THE WORD: mother and fawn enjoy a family moment PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Fungi are springing up on dead trees and fallen branches to the woodland floor and spiders are out in force, spinning their elaborate webs, intricate patterns glistening in the morning dew.

Some dragonflies are still on the wing too for those photographers with the patience, stealth and a zoom or macro lens for close-up shots.

ON THE WING: a migrant hawker dragonfly PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But as September moves into October it’s the changing colours of our deciduous trees that provide one of the big natural spectacles of the year.

Coupled with the bright red flashes of the berries and fungi, the glow of those dramatic sunsets and the spectacular hues of our birds and insects, it’s the perfect time to venture back into the woods and soak up some of that autumnal sunshine before winter really takes a grip.

As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for October, contact on email or via our Facebook group page.

Local bookshops brighten our lives

IT’S not a single Twitter account that’s in the spotlight this week, but a small supportive group of independent booksellers doing their bit to brighten the lives of avid readers across the Chilterns.

Books on the Hill in St Albans encourages younger readers

Booksellers have faced a rollercoaster ride over the past 18 months, but there’s no hiding their delight at seeing eager customers browsing the shelves again.

From Wallingford to St Albans, Thame to Tring, small shops across the region did their bit to boost people’s spirits during the long weeks of lockdown.

And they were only too keen to welcome the explosion of interest that marked their reopening last June, with almost four million books being sold in the first six days.

The Wallingford Bookshop boasts a lively Twitter feed

After so long having to rely on online or click-and-collect services, retailers were clearly relishing the chance to meet customers face to face again, in spite of all the social distancing and hand sanitising.

Chilterns Bookshops has outlets in Gerrards Cross and Chorleywood

While the amount of time people spent reading books almost doubled during lockdown, much of that custom was picked up by online retailing giant Amazon.

But independent bookshops have been flourishing in recent years and many took to Twitter to maintain that daily contact with customers during the darkest days of lockdown, including newcomers like Our Bookshop in Tring and Books On The Hill in St Albans.

The Tring bookshop opened in September 2019, initially as a way of supporting the town’s book festival in November, but becoming a permanent fixture, complete with online author interviews and even its own Youtube channel.

Our Bookshop in Tring hosts book launches and has its own Youtube channel

With more than 2,000 followers already on Twitter, the bookshop is also home to the Tring Comedy Festival and the town’s comedy club.

Another new arrival on the local bookshop scene is Books On The Hill in St Albans, a family-run shop which opened its doors in November 2019 with the dream of creating a “warm and inviting, old-fashioned bookshop” which would provide a haven for busy lives and a meeting place for readers, writers, poets, talkers, speakers, thinkers and dreamers. 

Books On The Hill in St Albans aims to create a warm and inviting atmosphere

Antonia Mason, who runs the shop with her mum, Clare Barrow, and saw the shop plunged into lockdown just months after opening, said they had been “overwhelmed with our community’s kind words and support”.

Antonia’s tweets have quickly won her more than 1,000 followers online, and the shop also hosts podcasts of author interviews, as well as recommendations and reviews.

Another local bookshop with a lively Twitter presence is Wallingford Bookshop, which has been active on social media since 2011 and boasts more than 6,800 followers.

First opened by Mary Ingrams in 1983 and now owned by Ali Jinks, the shop is an integral part of the the local community, with more than 6,000 books in stock and a website which claims: “The only thing we love more than helping you to find your perfect book is a challenge.

“So whether you’ve forgotten the name of a book, an author or both come and test us – we’ll do our darnedest to find the book for you!”

Staff at The Wallingford Bookshop relish a challenge

When bookshops reopened last year, books worth £33m were sold in England in the week to June 20, the best performance for that week of the year since the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix back in 2003.

The Booksellers Association’s managing director Meryl Halls described the increase as “heartening” and predicted bookshops would roar back once the coronavirus pandemic had passed.

The Book House in Thame dates from 1973

Speaker in a live Twitter chat hosted by The Bookseller, she said: “Book lovers will return from this crisis hungry for human connection, desperate for conversation, stimulation, inspiration. Booksellers will be there, arms open.”

Another Oxfordshire bookshop with a long history is The Book House in Thame, which dates from 1973 and is active on both Twitter and Facebook.

The bookshop was even mentioned by author Claire Fuller in a Penguin Books feature celebrating independent bookshops.

She recalled: “I lived in Thame when I was teenager, and The Book House (or The Red House Bookshop as it was called then) was a favourite place to visit. For many years in a row, I won the art prize at school, and the prize was a book token. I can still remember the shop’s newly printed books smell, the little corners to sit in (it is a beautifully higgledy-piggledy bookshop), and the amazing crazy fact that any of the books on any of the shelves could be mine.”

Outside seating at The Book House in Thame

The shop even boasts a small outside area where browsers can sit on a summer’s day.

Meryl Halls spoke of the profound emotional attachment which readers have for their local bookshops. Speaking about the impact of the pandemic, she responded: “We will return from this with a new appreciation for each other, for human endeavour, for writing, for community. There will be lots of hugging. Lots of tears. Some wine. Many parties.”

Back in April on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Waterstones managing director James Daunt echoed Halls’ assertion about the importance of books and bookshops.

He said: “Books are important, they help people isolate, they help mental wellbeing and we are in fact experiencing huge numbers of sales, particularly of children’s books and educational books.”

The Marlow Bookshop

Since then bookshops around the country have shared their delight that “lovely customers” have come back in their droves, despite initial concerns about reduced opening hours, social distancing challenges.

In the meantime, many of them have also learned how to use social media to great effect, adding podcasts, author interviews and online shopping to the delight of actually being able to sit in the corner of a bookshop and turn the pages of a freshly published volume.

In case you missed them, here are some other favourite “Tweets of the week”:

@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.

@A_AMilne: With 73,500 followers, this celebration of the wit and wisdom of the much-loved author and playwright taps into the timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood.

@woolismybread: Solitude, sheep and collie dogs in the company of Yorkshire shepherdess Alison O’Neill, whose 38,000 followers appreciate her straight talking and love of life’s simple pleasures.

@fenifur: Dartmoor wanderings with “Sea Witch” Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

@HenryRothwell, whose morning and evening tweets pay tribute to artists like Eric Ravilious, and celebrate some stunning English landscapes.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Tweet of the week: 19/09/21

OUR Sunday night social media reflection this week plunges us into the art world, and particularly landscapes from the 1930s and 1940s.

Our host is @HenryRothwell, whose morning and evening tweets pay tribute to artists like Eric Ravilious, transporting us to that unsettling period between the wars when the outstanding British painter and designer, best known for his watercolours of the South Downs, was at the height of his creative powers.

Chalk Paths by Eric Ravilious, watercolour on paper, 1935

Rothwell’s favourite featured artists include John and Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and George Clausen, but range from 19th-century works to contemporary artists like Anna Dillon, whose ongoing Wessex Airscapes exhibition at the Sewell Centre Gallery highlights her collaboration with aerial photographer Hedley Thorne based on their shared passion for the landscapes of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. 

The Dryers by Anna Dillon from her Wessex Airscapes exhibition at Radley College

Rothwell’s own Twitter identity is slightly cryptic, but the “recovering” archaeologist is based near Wells in Somerset and has a particular interest in using digital media in the presentation of archaeology, spending much of his time developing a digital map of the hillforts of Britain.

But it is his fascination with art which has won him more than 30,000 followers on Twitter over the past decade and which translated into a small family business in February 2021, when Rather Good Art was launched, offering postcards and greetings cards based on the work of those favourite artists.

From small beginnings the number of cards on offer is steadily increasing, with the range of featured artists now extending to Van Gogh and Klimt.

Piquet Hill by David Alderslade, watercolour and gouache

Back on his Twitter feed, Rothwell’s enthusiasm for English landscapes allows him to sweep around the country, from Norfolk to Cornwall, from Kent to the south-west of England, perhaps pausing for a moment to study a favourite work by the contemporary artist David Alderslade, for example, based in his caravan on the edge of Salisbury Plain.

He does stray further afield on occasion, to Scotland, France or even Canada, and to coast and city scenes too, but his roots are firmly in the English landscapes of Ravilious, Nash and contemporaries like Claughton Pellew.

The Train by Claughton Pellew, 1920

Away from social media, Rothwell reveals yet another range of interests on his Notes for the Curious website which, alongside book reviews and occasional essays, features a score of Grave Goods interviews with a range of writers, historians, musicians, comedians and others deciding which items they might like to accompany them to the afterlife on their final “great adventure”.

Highlights include interviews with mudlark Lara Maiklem, comedian Isy Suttie and nature writer Melissa Harrison.

Like our other Tweet of the Week selections, Henry Rothwell is able to lift our spirits and transport us into a different dimension – and who can ask for anything more from their social media friends?

In case you missed them, here are some other favourites:

@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.

@A_AMilne: With 73,500 followers, this celebration of the wit and wisdom of the much-loved author and playwright taps into the timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood.

@woolismybread: Solitude, sheep and collie dogs in the company of Yorkshire shepherdess Alison O’Neill, whose 38,000 followers appreciate her straight talking and love of life’s simple pleasures.

@fenifur: Dartmoor wanderings with “Sea Witch” Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Moorland escapes offer the best medicine

AFTER last week’s trip to the Westmoreland fells, this week’s social media feed finds us at the opposite end of the country, exploring the wilds of Dartmoor.

And in the same way that shepherdess Alison O’Neill’s @woolismybread account offers followers a welcome escape from the pressures of city life, our social media host this week is equally rooted in the great outdoors.

Sea Witch is the Twitter monicker of @fenifur or Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.

An able writer and photographer, she launched a modest blog in 2018 dedicated to encouraging people to make the most of nature – without feeling under any pressure to document it beautifully or do something unusual in order to really be experiencing it. 

“I spent the first half of my life almost permanently submerged in the sea or out on long walks on the South Downs, but even then I recently began to feel anxious that I wasn’t doing nature ‘right’,” she writes.

“I can only imagine how unsure some people who have grown up in urban places who have not had access to wild spaces for one reason or another may feel. Perhaps especially so when we are told that nature will ease our anxieties, yet taking part seems to involve additional uncertainties and planning.”

As somebody with ADHD, insomnia and chronic pain from hEDS and autoimmune conditions, Jenny understands that getting to grips with the natural world may not always be as easy as it sounds.

Yes, we know it can be beneficial for our mental health and how gardening or rambling can alleviate depression or anxiety. But what if you have a chronic pain condition that doesn’t mix with the bending and kneeling of gardening, or find it stressful trying to keep several things alive, or can’t afford compost and seeds?

If growing up in the south coast cathedral city of Chichester gave Jenny a lifelong love of the sea, it’s Dartmoor which has in recent years provided her and partner Pat with a place of respite and relaxation, as well as exploration and discovery.

When a serious illness left her with post-viral fatigue, exacerbating her joint pain and autoimmune problems, exploring the moor seemed to provide the perfect challenge to help her regain her strength, using John Hayward’s classic 1991 book Dartmoor 365 as an inspiration.

His book highlighted interesting features to be found in each of the 365 square miles of the park, prompting Jenny to follow in his footsteps, using a separate @DartmoorSquares account and her Instagram feed, @jennynaturewriter to build a photographic map of her walks.

“I put a pause on this during lockdown because Dartmoor was really suffering with an excess of visitors and it didn’t seem right to post walks to some of the less well trodden places,” she says. “Hopefully my posts will encourage people to appreciate and enjoy Dartmoor respectfully.”

Jenny’s explorations are about the simple pleasures in life, from picnics and river swims to foraging for mushrooms, elderberries, sloes or wild raspberries, following deer paths, watching the ponies or soaking up the last rays of a particularly spectacular sunset.

Her rambles also immerse her – and us – in the history of the place, and allow us to savour those discoveries too, from the abandoned villages and tin mines to remote “letterboxes” where visitors can still leave a calling card to show they have found the spot.

Back in Victorian times no one was better known to visitors to the district than James Perrott of Chagford, who for more than half a century acted as guide to tourists wanting to explore the wild landscape, and became known as the “father of letterboxing” – after setting up a cairn and bottle for calling cards at Cranmere Pool in 1854.

Here, luminaries of the day like Charles Dickens could leave proof that they had accompanied Perrott on the arduous 16-mile round trip from Chagford, and it remains one of two permanent letterboxes on the moor, though hundreds of others exist, hidden from view from all but the most determined explorers.

Those weekend “route marches” across the South Downs as a teenager may have given her a certain level of confidence about going out alone into spaces away from towns as she got older, but chronic joint pain and a year almost bed-bound with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome means she has a particular understanding of those who find such feats difficult or impossible.

Her six-part blog is a work in progress but provides a lively introduction to walking, wild swimming and foraging, with the promise of more posts to follow.

Her @DartmoorSquares and Instagram feed provide a pictorial record of rambles around bogs, tors, and ancient settlements, capturing some fascinating places of interest along the way, like Crockern Tor, where the ‘Great Parliament of the Tinners’ would meet from the early 14th century to legislate in relation to stannary law, regarding tin-mining.

But immersed as it is in the wonders of nature, there’s nothing cutesy about her personal Twitter account, which sometimes feels as wild and untamed as the landscape she loves so much.

“I would LIKE my Twitter feed to be a way for people to learn more about nature and the environment in general, Dartmoor, history, walking, maybe a place to inspire people to go out exploring,” she says. “However it is also my personal account so this can turn into vents now and then! Everyone who has met me in person knows that I rarely take myself seriously, though my humour is very dry and that doesn’t always come across online.”

Perhaps it’s the intensely personal nature of the account which makes it so appealing to her 2,800 followers. She has certainly proved to be no fair-weather friend, with more than 54,000 tweets since her account was launched in 2010 maintaining an almost daily presence, many clearly posts shaped by her health issues and her decision after a few years working in wildlife charity and university admin to retrain as a medical herbalist.

“Without trying to sound dramatic, Dartmoor literally saved my life,” she says. “I got sick all the way back in 2016. I’d been in hospital with liver adenomas and heart issues, and had been given four types of intravenous antibiotics, so my system was defenceless when I got a norovirus a week later.

“I had to go to part time, sleeping in my lunch break on working days. I had an eight-month wait to see a specialist, so spent that time researching on my own. I was eventually diagnosed with various things which the PVFS had exacerbated. Before the specialist I’d been seeing my GP who didn’t ‘believe in’ PVFS though, so I spent a lot of time worried I was dying with some kind of rare disease.”

Depressed and ill, daily visits to Dunsford nature reserve provided a change of scenery, but did not offer a linear recovery. “Some days I could only manage a mile, and that could take me two hours,” she recalls. But one day she made it the two miles to a meadow which was full of meadowsweet, a plant used by medical herbalists to treat stomach issues.

“I couldn’t tolerate omeprazole or ibuprofen and was desperate not to be on codeine or tramadol, so I tried meadowsweet tea twice a day and it changed everything! Suddenly I could eat without searing pain every time, it was the glimmer of hope I needed.”

More years of ups and downs were to follow, but the Dartmoor walking challenges would help immensely. “Having a challenge to complete helped motivate me to get up when it felt like the last thing my body wanted, and I had the privilege at the time of having savings in the bank to live on, which meant I could just do temp work and volunteering when I was able for a whole year,” she recalls.

That’s when she chose to qualify as a medical herbalist – although taking that leap in the dark with another two years to qualify has brought its own anxious moments.

“With 150 clinic hours under my belt I’m qualified to treat ‘self-limiting’ conditions under my own insurance, and any patient with supervision in my course’s clinic,” she says. “It’s evidence-based plant medicine, and for me the gentle, holistic approach is much more friendly towards bodies and systems that are in distress and attacking themselves.

“It’s my aim to help people with chronic illness live with less pain and if possible get back some if not all of their physical health (and therefore improving mental health).

“I live every day in pain and I have to watch out for flare-ups, but without Dartmoor and the plants I found there to help my body heal, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

It’s doubtless that searing honesty, as well as her compassion, wit and irreverence, which makes Jenny a welcoming online presence.

In the same way that we know how much she hates drones, waste and noisy neighbours, we can also relate to those flashes of impatience over family expectations, gaslighting by doctors and her ferocious reaction to injustice or unfairness.

“Dartmoor saved my life” could be her mantra – and long may she continue tramping through the bogs, streams and prehistoric sites that make her beloved moor such a place of discovery and adventure.

Thanks to Jenny for permission to reuse pictures from her Twitter feed.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Rich pickings signal the end of summer

AUGUST is a time of plenty, when gardens are in full bloom and the combines are rolling across nearby farmland.

FRIENDLY FACES: sunflowers put on a show near Aylesbury PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Ironically, Britain’s farmers may have an unlikely source to thank for thousands of us watching those crops being harvested with a new and more knowledgable eye this year.

For amid all the mysterious talk about spring beans, oilseed rape and winter wheats, moisture content and disappointing yields, it seems that the belligerent “petrolhead” Jeremy Clarkson was responsible for introducing a new generation of TV viewers to the trials and tribulations of farming life.

FARMING LIFE: harvest time at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

The success of Clarkson’s Farm offered some unexpectedly revealing insights as our Jeremy took personal charge of the management of the 1,000-acre Cotswolds farm near Chipping Norton that he bought back in 2008.

And amid all the hapless bumbling and frustrated swearing at the continual setbacks, we were treated to a warm-hearted gem of a series that potentially taught us more about farming than any other agricultural programme on the box.

WINTER FEED: hay bales outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Farmers are a notoriously tough audience, but many were won over by the TV star’s hard-hitting commentary about bureaucracy, pricing policies, Brexit challenges and bad weather.

“I think the show is absolutely brilliant,” Redditch-based farmer George Beach told Birmingham Live. “Clarkson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but everyone seems to agree about what he’s done.”

Even Sutherland hill farmer Joyce Campbell, who proved such a popular character on BBC2’s This Farming Life that even her collies get fan mail, tweeted: “I love @JeremyClarkson on his farming. The best TV ever.”

SUNNY SIDE UP: a sunflower crop near Aylesbury PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

From cultivation to harvest, misty dawn starts to exhausted night shifts, this was Clarkson as we have never seen him before, in a world where failures have real emotional and financial consequences.

The whole experience also gave him a new respect for farmers, he confessed. He told monthly magazine Farmers Guide: “I get annoyed with what people think about farming. It’s either the huge barns in Texas where they brutally grow pigs or cows, or Kate Humble with a freshly scrubbed baby lamb on a clean bed of hay. Farming is somewhere in between.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: overlooking the Misbourne PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

“Farmers are trying to fill the supermarket shelves with cheap good food, and at the same time look after the countryside. Every one of them I talk to is responsible and doing this all the time, despite what is going on with Covid, Brexit or idiotic political decisions.

“We should give farmers a lot more respect. We’re all eating what they produced.”

SPLASH OF COLOUR: heather in bloom on Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Away from the arable farms, it’s been a colourful month on local heathland like that at Stoke Common, where the heather and gorse are at their finest.

Pockets of heathland like this provide a marked contrast to the large ploughed fields of the scarp foothills where medieval open fields were divided into regular parcels through the process of enclosure. From the 1750s onwards, enclosure by parliamentary Act became the norm, affecting more than a fifth of the total land area of England by the First World War.

EVENING LIGHT: a Chesham sunset PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

The majority of Chilterns crops are cereal crops like wheat and barley, used in a variety of foodstuffs from bread, cakes and biscuits to beer and whisky. One of the most familiar crops is oilseed rape, with its distinctive yellow flowers and pungent aroma, the rapeseed being crushed and the oil used for cooking or food processing, or as an industrial lubricant.

But you can also find peas and beans, alternative crops such as linseed, borage and poppies, and of course thousands of cattle, sheep and pigs, not to mention the occasional less familiar livestock like red deer, emus or alpacas.

POLLEN COUNT: a bee gets busy PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Parts of the Chilterns have a long history of orchards, particularly those growing cherries, while there are also several vineyards producing quality wines – and while the arable farmers are busy with haymaking and silage collection, insects, birds and baby mammals are abundant too, the annual wildlife population at its highest this month, even if the birds are too busy moulting to make much noise.

DISTINCTIVE CALL: the green woodpecker or “yaffle” PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

Lambs born in the spring are back out in the fields, reptiles can be spotted basking the sun and baby squirrels are beginning to put on weight and bully the young birds at garden feeders.

But according to meteorologists, August 31 marks the end of summer, and although it’s too early for the real golds, reds and browns of autumn, there’s a definitely chill in the morning and evening air that hints at the start of a new season, even if we are hoping there are plenty of sultry September days still to enjoy.

COLOURFUL CHARACTER: an Egyptian goose PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

September is a big month for bird migration, with the British Isles a crossroads for millions of arrivals and departures, but the first to head south are already on the move in August.

ON THE WING: a swallow skimming over the river PICTURE: Graham Parksinon

Swallows, house martins and swifts are all migratory birds that winter in Africa. Swallows and house martin arrive back in the UK in late March to early April and leave again in September to October, but the swifts are first to leave, and young swallows and house martins are honing their flying skills and enjoying the abundance of insects before joining the exodus.

Fruits, berries and nuts are plentiful, the game season is under way for meat eaters and the list of vegetables in season is quite overwhelming, from beetroot and broccoli to parsnips, peas and peppers.

TOUCHDOWN: Canada geese coming in to land PICTURE: Nick Bell

Home-grown herbs are also in plentiful supply, and from bilberries and crapapples to wild damsons and mushrooms, there’s plenty to keep foraging enthusiasts busy too, as well as ensuring a fertile feast for many species of birds, eager to gorge on berries before their long migration and helping plants propagate in the process.

Across the Chilterns, it still feels as if summer is with us, with warmer temperatures marking the opening weeks of September. But this is a time when the leaves are beginning to dry out on plants and trees, flowers are fading and days are becoming shorter.

Whisper it quietly, but autumn is sneaking quietly in. We haven’t had the dramatic drop in temperature yet, or the growing awareness that the leaves are beginning, ever so gradually, to change colour. But it won’t be long, so enjoy that September heatwave while you can, as temperatures briefly push close to 30 degrees centigrade before autumn finally makes its presence felt.

GROW WITH THE FLOW: the river Misbourne at Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for September, contact on email or via our Facebook group page.

Challenges and rewards of life on the hill

TWITTER accounts don’t come any more dramatic and enticing than that of Alison O’Neill, a shepherdess in the Yorkshire Dales whose @woolismybread account offers thousands a welcome escape from the pressures of city life.

Not that anyone would claim running a small hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales is an easy task, but living in nature amid the spectacular scenery of the majestic Howgill Fells in Westmoreland makes up for any harsher challenges life throws at her, she insists.

OPEN OUTLOOK: Alison’s pinned tweet features her beloved fells PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“I am blessed with a rare freedom,” she writes. “I work quietly in the old way, woven to my landscape, betrothed to the life of a shepherdess.

“I don’t like sheep, I love them and I always have. I care for my flock and in turn they provide for me. I fashion their wool creating beautiful products, offering provenance and heritage as hallmarks for every item I produce.”

That love of nature shines through her posts from the fells, but it’s the lifestyle as much as the scenery which her followers find both restful and inspiring, from the homely sound of clucking hens around the farm to the sight of a bulging breakfast tray or the reassuring company of Shadow the sheepdog.

Alison enjoys sharing her world, guiding walks and holding talks about my life on the fells with her beloved sheep, amid the whirling swifts and restless winds.

HOME COMFORTS: Sunday breakfast on the farm PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

Born into a shepherding family, she recalls: “Life for me was practical and everyday, sometimes harsh in a northern way. I was lucky and thankful to be reared on fresh air and freedom, a country girl whom inherited an instinct to nurture and a desire to care.”

When in the late 1970s her grandparents and parents sold their farms, she vowed that one day she would have her own farm and follow in their footsteps, despite the warnings about the impossibility of making money from small-scale hill farming.

Come the run-up to the millennium, and she was taking on the tenancy of Shacklabank Farm, a 37-acre plot which would be home for the next 20 years: where her daughter Scarlett would be born and where unhappy memories of the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic and a divorce would be offset by the rewards of farming in one of the country’s most stunning landscapes.

Thanks to that “sheer Dales-woman grit and determination”, she has managed to remain at the farm on the hill, offering an antidote to fast fashion and intensive farming.

LABOUR OF LOVE: Alison has farmed at Shacklabank for 20 years PICTURE: Alison O’Neill

“Rather than selling my wool for next to nothing I found a way of turning it into highly desirable tweed clothing. And rather than pushing wildlife back on my farm, I have encouraged it to flourish. My labour of love is a way of life and one that I am most grateful to have,” she says.

Certainly her 38,000 Twitter followers appreciate her straight talking and love of simple pleasures, like the smell of autumn in the air, the company of the loyal Shadow or nurturing her beloved Rough fell, Swaledale and Herdwick flocks, using their wool to produce a range of natural tweeds that capture the “spirit of the place we all call home”.

It’s a lifestyle that has made the Yorkshire shepherdess something of a media star, but for her Twitter fans it’s her ability to “keep it real” that continues to delight and inspire.

Alison’s website, shop and media and video links can be found here.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Woodlands echo to hoots in the night

THERE’S no sound which better captures the atmosphere of the woods at night than the hoot of an owl.

NIGHT OWL: a little owl silhouetted against the moon PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

But even when they are at their loudest and most active, these nocturnal hunters are not always easy to spot – and there are even some popular misconceptions about the noises they make too.

LOCAL FAVOURITE: a little owl poses for the camera PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Like that “twit – twoo” we so often mimic, for example, is not one owl, but two different owls calling – the high-pitched “kee-wick” of the female tawny owl, which is responded to by the “hoohoo” or “twoooo” note of the male.

Owls have evolved as specialised hunters with a wide range of skills to help them locate and catch their prey. Each species has a range of incredible “superpowers” that many other birds do not possess, but which give owls the ‘tools’ they need to survive.

Different species can see in almost total darkness, have soft feathers with a comb-like ‘fringe’ on the flight feathers which aids silent flight, have round facial discs with special feathers to ‘catch’ sound and a toe that swivels so talons can be used in different ways when squeezing prey or gripping a branch.

PERFECT CAMOUFLAGE: a tawny owl hides in the trees PICTURE: Andrew Knight

But for most of us, spotting any of the five species of UK owl can be tricky. They can be notoriously difficult to track down, are very well camouflaged and tend to set up home in some pretty hard-to-reach places.

The calls may echo around the woods on an autumn evening when pairs begin courting, ready for nesting around February, but can you tell your tawny owl from a barn owl or little owl?

DAYDREAMING: a little owl appears to yawn PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

For Steve Gozdz and partner Billie O’Connor, relocating to the Chilterns in 2019 to be closer to nature has sparked an ever-evolving fascination in the wildlife to be found near their home base where the ancient villages of Goring and Streatley straddle the Thames, the meeting point of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs).

From here, Steve’s Owl Walks over the past couple of summers have introduced locals and visitors alike to the range of owls to be found in nearby woods.

EVENING RAMBLE: owl walks have proved popular with locals PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Says Steve: “We are really lucky to live in an area which has four different types of owls all sighted in a small radius. Whilst the short-eared owls and barn owls are a less common sight for most, it’s been delightful to show a number of local residents the families of little owls we have nesting and breeding here in Goring & Streatley, and to help them learn more about them and the tawny owls we so often hear and sometimes also get to see too.”

Steve’s business, GG Wildlife Experiences, was born out of lockdown and his long-standing interest in wildlife.

“I think there really is a growing interest in the countryside and appreciate of the wildlife within it,” he says. “The difficulties of Covid-19 have been numerous, but during these hard times we have seen a positive by-product – the growing love and appreciation of our countryside and wildlife.”

FEATHERED FRIENDS: little owls nest and breed locally PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Billie adds: “We already know we are incredibly lucky to live in such a beautiful location, of scenic countryside and amazing wildlife. Many of us might hear the evening and night-time calls of different evening creatures, the most recognisable for some being the tawny owl.”

Steve started Goring Gap Wildlife Walks back in 2019, but the broadening into a wider range of experiences was a natural step, says Billie. “We now offer guided wildlife spotting boat trips, and even nature breaks, so expanding the business and rebranding made sense, to show we now offer so much more.”

The pair believe that helping people understand local wildlife better will encourage them to want to look after it. “The more people understand, the greater their interes, and then a lot of people want to know about how to protect it, how to create good habitats in their garden or on their land to allow wildlife to flourish – which is a great way to protect and grow those species we really want to see thrive,” says Steve.

BIRD IN THE HAND: wildlife photographer Steve Gozdz

So much so, that last year Steve turned his woodwork skills to good use and began creating and installing custom handmade owl boxes for those in the local area.

“You can’t just put any box up and hope for the best. Different Owls require different habitats and very different homes; it also depends if you are creating just a roost, or are creating a nesting location,” he says.

Steve will check out the garden or land and advise on the most appropriate box for the owl type that is likely to frequent the area. And in some cases, he has advised against buying one, as the habitat just hasn’t been right. “The environment needs to be suitable for a long-term habitat in order for the wildlife to flourish, and so I want to ensure we give the right advice, and give the wildlife the best chance,” he explains.

HOME TO ROOST: owl and bat boxes have proved increasingly popular PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

A new request at the end of last year was bat boxes, and Steve began installing these for customers who enjoyed seeing bats in the garden and wanted to provide a safe haven for them.

As the guided owl walks season comes to an end, Steve is now busy with a series of owl box orders in the run-up to the roosting wintering period, ready for the next year’s mating period when new pairs will need to find new homes……

You can contact Steve at or visit his website for guidance or advice on your garden’s suitability for different wildlife. Guided Wildlife Experiences run all year round.

Village tales are stranger than fiction

WHAT connects the Wall Street Crash and Benjamin Franklin with Hollywood stars and an English rake with a reputation for arranging underground orgies?

The answer lies in a picturesque village of wobbly roofs and hidden passages where time seems to have be standing still for centuries.

FROZEN IN TIME: the picturesque village of West Wycombe PICTURE: Mary Tebje

And as Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje discovers, the story behind the extraordinary village of West Wycombe really is stranger than fiction.

Today it looks like a film set, though it was once an important stop for stagecoach travellers heading to and from London, with more than a dozen public houses vying for the custom of weary passengers.

Yet this is a place of scandal and innuendo, thanks to the antics of an 18th-century politician whose Hellfire Club was notorious for orgies and black magic.

RUMOUR AND INTRIGUE: history comes alive in West Wycombe PICTURE: Mary Tebje

In the latest instalment of her “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns, Mary finds out more about Sir Francis Dashwood and the story behind his parties, his wonderful park and his imposing mausoleum, which still dominates the landscape after 250 years.

It’s just one of a continuing series of stories about the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Vivid memories of a year in pictures

IT’S been a year since we launched our Picture of the Week series – and what a year it’s been.

Inspired by the open studios events staged across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire each year, the series was launched at a time when months of lockdown had prevented artists from getting out and meeting potential customers face to face.

Such events offer a great opportunity for artists and makers to throw open their doors and showcase their work, but if the lockdown put paid to such intimate contact, it certainly did not the cramp the enthusiasm and ingenuity of creative souls from all over the Chilterns.

LOCKDOWN WALK: Blenheim by Maureen Gillespie

Some turned to local walks near their homes for inspiration, while others took the opportunity to go back through old sketchbooks, sort out old photographs and revisit settings which had never quite made it on to canvas.

STOCKTAKE: Beaconsfield artist Tim Baynes searched old sketchbooks for inspiration

And many seized the chance to improve their virtual galleries and reach out to customers through blogs, instagram posts and online shops.

PERSONAL TOUCH: Dorset artist Sam Cannon launched a monthly newsletter

Of course that’s not quite the same as getting to meet your customers in person, but as lockdown restrictions started to ease, those exhibitions, pop-up displays and working studio visits soon began to emerge again.

PERSONAL TOUCH: self-taught artist Sabbi Gavrailov from Hemel Hempstead

For wildlife and nature lovers, highlights of the weekly series have included many works inspired by or reflecting the natural world, including animal portraits and sculptures, and paintings rooted in the local Chilterns landscape, from the Ridgeway views of Anna Dillon and Christine Bass to the colourful Oxfordshire scenes captured by Alice Walker, Jane Peart and Sue Side.

VALE VIEW: Inchombe Hole, Buckinghamshire by Anna Dillon

We have ventured out into the parks of Harpenden with Andrew Keenleyside, explored the wetlands of Oxfordshire with Jane Duff and delved deep into Wytham Woods with Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley.

WOODLAND FORAY: a reduction linocut by Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley

A score of those local artists can be accessed through our Local Landscapes page, and their subject matter ranges from portraits to seascapes and abstract works.

CORNISH VISIT: Sundown, St Ives by Sue Graham

Further afield, Chilterns artists have taken on us on journeys from Cornwall to West Wales, while guest artists have hailed from as far afield as Dorset and the Lake District.

Photographers have featured too, patiently waiting for the perfect wildlife shot, whether otter or kingfisher, red kite or dragonfly.

FAIRGROUND FUN: handpainted gallopers at Carters Steam Fair

Over 52 weeks, the collection has grown into a formidable showcase of local talent, punctuated by occasional more unusual contributions, ranging from the fairground art of Joby Carter and family to a step back in time to enjoy the 1930s art of Eric Ravilious, the “happy little trees” of TV art legend Bob Ross or the stunning works of Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon.

Do you have a nomination for an artist who should be featured in our weekly series? Write to explaining the reasons behind your choice.

Tweet of the week: 29/08/21

IT’S hard to believe that Winnie the Pooh is almost a hundred years old – and yet the amiable, bumbling, honey-loving bear remains as popular as ever with children and adults alike.

And one Twitter account which taps into that rich seam of affection and timeless appeal of Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood is our Sunday evening Twitter choice of the week, @A_AMilne.

With more than 73,000 followers this account has been active since the summer of 2018, offering a daily Tweet taken from the famous children’s books or appropriate words of wisdom from the author and his son, on whom Christopher Robin was based.

While the famous wood was modelled on Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, a landscape itself facing numerous challenges at present, the spirit of Pooh seems alive and well in the Chilterns, where in woodland from Black Park to Burnham Beeches it never feels as if Pooh, Piglet and Tigger are too far away, as we wrote last October.

From den-building in the woods to a noisy game of Pooh sticks on a small wooden bridge over a stream, it’s clear that new generation of children has every bit as familiar with the adventures of the gloomy donkey Eeyore, meddlesome Rabbit and the rest of the gang as those first excited readers of almost a century ago.

The upbeat daily Tweets celebrate words written or inspired by the author and incorporate quotes from Christopher Robin Milne, whose relationship with his father inspired the 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin.

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 this is one voice on Twitter that manages to capture some of the magic of those innocent adventures, whether in search of a Heffalump, getting stuck in a rabbit hole or floating away on the string of a balloon.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Tweet of the week: 22/08/21

SUNDAY night seems an appropriate time to enjoy a quiet moment of contemplation about the ups and downs of the past week, and to prepare to make the most of the week to come.

So what better time to launch a new regular feature highlighting some of the more stimulating, thoughtful and thought-provoking material to be found on Twitter?

Social media may not seem the natural place for a relaxing read, but perhaps that’s the point of taking time to focus on the best that it has to offer, rather than the worst.

We know that some people find Twitter a dangerous place, filled with harassment and abuse. The company has been roundly criticsed for failing to act quickly enough to remove rogue users and prevent menacing and threatening behaviour.

But the platform also provides an excellent opportunity to communicate with a worldwide audience of readers who share similar concerns and interests, so of course it makes perfect sense as a complementary platform that allows us to spread the word about our website’s content to a broader audience than our core Facebook membership group.

Reaching new audiences can be a mixed blessing, of course, as we discovered when Jeremy Clarkson responded to our recent Tweet about queues outside his Cotswold farm shop, prompting “likes” from more than 10,000 of his followers, not to mention a fair share of acerbic remarks.

But having been on the platform since June 2018, we have been protected from most of the worst aspects of online interaction, and instead have been able to savour the posts of the 1,000-odd people we have chosen to follow, from naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts to farmers, growers and local groups with a special interest in what the Chilterns has to offer.

Back in July 2018 we wrote about the benefits of positive thinking online, of attempting to surround yourself with engaging and upbeat company rather than become depressed by the unrelenting misery of negative news feeds and toxic exchanges which sap our energy and undermine our peace of mind.

With that in mind, our new feature is very much focused on finding the positive online and seeking out those voices that provide us with joy – particularly when that takes the form of accounts which celebrate wildlife and the great outdoors.

It might be a joke, cartoon or nature clip, or perhaps a thought-provoking commentary or personal experience that chimes with the magazine’s aims.

In our own posts we have attempted to be uplifting in output, deliberately restricting the number of weekly tweets and trying to provide our 450+ followers with pictures and links which brighten their day rather than the reverse, as well as linking to the content of our regular and one-off features.

Local photographers have been out and about capturing the magic of the Chilterns landscape for our monthly calendar feature, while artists across the region have featured in our Monday Picture of the Week series, which has been running for the past year.

The magazine’s Twitter feed is slightly more political than our Facebook group page, reflecting growing concerns about climate change and the state of the planet. But at the same time as highlighting unavoidable concerns, the mood of the feed has always tried to remain upbeat and positive.

Whether that means singing the praises of moths or slow worms, highlighting colourful characters who adore the Chilterns countryside, exploring our fascinating local heritage or spotlighting dozens of top local attractions for family days out, the focus has been on celebrating the very best our region has to offer, and hoping to encourage readers to spare a moment to peruse the magazine’s main website in a little more detail.

With almost 300 articles to choose from, we hope those who find their way to the website are able to find something to hold their interest, from characters with interesting stories to share to stories steeped in the history of the extraordinary Chilterns landscape.

So do join us over the coming weeks as we try to seek out some of the most inspiring, entertaining and informative Twitter users who prove social media can be a powerful force for good, and not just a place for division, gossip and abuse.

Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.

Hidden villages with surprising secrets

DAPPLED beechwoods and ancient churches dot the landscape around the Domesday Book villages of Great and Little Hampden, outside Princes Risborough.

In this tucked-away parish, travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje discovers classic Chilterns countryside where difficult geography has protected the landscape from the worst intrusions of road and rail.  

GOTHIC REVIVAL: Hammer horror films were set at Hampden House PICTURE: Mary Tebje

From ancient earthworks and picturesque churches to a manor house where Hammer horror films were set, there are some unexpected surprises to be unearthed in these quiet valleys and hilltop hamlets, as Mary discovers.

LIVING HISTORY: Little Hampden church PICTURE: Mary Tebje

The article is one of numerous entries in her “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of her adventures here.

How fossil secrets sparked a mining boom

SCRATCH beneath the surface of a pictureque Chilterns village and you’re never quite sure what secrets you might discover.

That’s certainly the experience of local travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje as she ventures into Shillington village, just north of the Barton Hills in Bedfordshire.

LOCAL LANDMARK: All Saints Church in Shillington PICTURE: Mary Tebje

The ancient village church is such a prominent landmark that it’s perhaps predictable that a visitor’s thoughts turn to the past, and how this former Saxon monastery has survived the weather, natural disasters, war, decay, plague and pollution for so long.

Perhaps more surprising is how this village, along with many others spread in a line towards the Suffolk coast, grew rich through the unexpected mining and selling of coprolite: the fossilised remains of land animals caught as sea levels rose 90 million years ago.

Why get so excited about dinosaur poo? These droppings of bear, lizard, wildebeest, fish or dinosaur contain the fossilised teeth, claws, scales and bones of all sorts of dinosaurs, marine lizards and other animals, not just filling the shelves of excited 19th-century geologists but spawning something of a mini-gold rush once the phosphate content was fully appreciated as an important fertiliser.

THIRSTY WORK: Shillington no longer boasts a dozen pubs PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Mary discovers how Shillington’s population exploded as locals cashed in on the lucrative trade, with weary workers packing the village’s dozen pubs.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Clappers command an impressive outlook

BACK in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, defence was a big issue for early settlers in the Chilterns.

And as hill fort locations go, few can boast quite such a commanding position over the local landscape as the wonderfully named Sharpenhoe Clappers, a scheduled ancient monument in Bedfordshire, part of a wildlife oasis sandwiched between the urban sprawls of Bedford, Dunstable and Luton.

BIG SKIES: the view towards London from Sharpenhoe Clappers PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje sets out to explore Sharpenhoe, and discovers an ancient chalk escarpment that nowadays is a place of big skies, wildflowers and a sense of calm, criss-crossed by waymarked trails and looking spectacular against a foreground of rape fields.

It is one of a quartet of National Trust properties lying adjacent to each other, with the Sundon, Moleskin and Markham Hills to the west and Smithcombe Hills to the east. Reputedly haunted by a Celtic tribal chief, these days the hills are frequented by ramblers and picnickers, butterflies and red kites.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

Lofty view of Bedfordshire at its best

RARE plants, precious downland and spectacular views single out Barton Hills as a popular destination for walkers and wildlife enthusiasts.

And yet this national nature reserve in the northern Chilterns north of Luton is often overlooked by tourists, as Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje explains when she embarks on a ranger-led walk to find out more about the area’s heritage and habitat.

WORTH THE CLIMB: the outlook from Barton Hills PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Steep paths may make the going hard in places, but the rewards include spectacular views over the Bedfordshire hills and valleys and a chance to reflect on the dramatic climate events that shaped this landscape millions of years before early settlers arrived.

Fuelled with artisan cheese and the chance to sample a “Bedfordshire clanger” – the county’s answer to the Cornish pasty which was once baked for consumption by field workers – Mary discovers an extraordinary habitat of chalk grassland with a rich history.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns which shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

HOMEWARD BOUND: a rainbow brightens weary walkers PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Where chalk streams tumble below the ridge

FOR thousands of years, drovers, traders and invaders have walked or ridden the prehistoric trails which stretch for hundreds of miles from the Dorset coast to the Wash.

High in the Chilterns at Bledlow Ridge, the route offers a drier and less wooded journey for travellers than the spring line settelements below – and it’s amid this ancient landscape that Chilterns travel blogger and tourism marketing professional Mary Tebje ventures off the beaten track to explore the picturesque village of Bledlow.

TO THE MANOR BORN: a water feature at Manor House Gardens PICTURE: Mary Tebje

Lying just outside Princes Risborough on the western edge of Buckinghamshire, this is a village of wobbly brick and flint cottages where signs for the long-distance trails invite you “up and away over the hills”.

“It would be no coincidence that the communities who lived here either welcomed visitors, or had to defend themselves at the sound of soldiers boots on the chalk,” writes Mary. “Not hard to imagine as there’s something refreshingly untamed about the place.”

Here, she discovers a ‘fabulously wild’ parish church, a manor house with a secret water garden and a ravine of noisy tumbling streams.

The article is one of numerous entries in Mary’s “quiet exploration” of the Chilterns in which she shares the stories of the people and places that have shaped the region and attempts to “capture the beauty in the mundane”. See more of Mary’s adventures here.

What’s new at the back of Beyonder?

SOME stunning new pictures have been added to the header pages of The Beyonder – thanks to the generosity of local photographers Nick Bell and Graham Parkinson.

FROZEN IN FLIGHT: a southern hawker dragonfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

The pictures form part of a carousel of around 30 images which appear as a background on the site whenever someone opens a new page.

LIGHT AND SHADE: a hot day in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Until now the images used on the site have almost all been taken by Beyonder editor Andrew Knight, supplemented with occasional free photographs shared by photographers on the Unsplash photo-sharing website and credited on the magazine’s Support Us page.

SHADOWLANDS: local woodland provides an atmospheric backdrop PICTURE: Nick Bell

Says Andrew: “We have always wanted to feature local photographs on our pages, but in the early days of the site my cheap point-and-shoot digital camera simply wasn’t good enough to produce top-quality images.

AUTUMN COLOURS: fallen leaves in Staplefurze Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“We were grateful to the photographers on Unsplash who share their work in return for a credit, but we also wanted to ensure that all our pictures are local ones and feature a cross-section of wildlife as well as landscapes.”

READY TO DROP: a bee captured over a poppy PICTURE: Nick Bell

Original Beyonder display pictures featured a range of destinations pictured through the changing seasons, from Langley and Black Park to Burnham Beeches, Cliveden, Marlow and Penn.

MORNING GLORY: rays of sunshine in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Several of the new pictures featured in the first part of a profile of Nick Bell featuring his insect pictures.

UNDER COVER: a ladybird potentially unaware of its prey PICTURE: Nick Bell

“Nick’s photographs are stunning and they help us to reflect the breadth of content on the site,” says Andrew. “Capturing fast-moving insects and birds is a very specialist skill, and it’s very exciting to be able to use images of this quality in this way.”

BIRD ON THE WIRE: birds silhouetted against a huge sun PICTURE: Nick Bell

As well as a quartet of insect photographs, other shots show sunbeams in woodland and a dramatic picture of clouds at sunrise. Additional pictures featured in a second article spotlighting Nick’s bird photographs.

MORNING GLORY: a dramatic sunrise PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other pictures taken by Graham Parkinson have featured in an article about his hobby and in local walks featuring a cross-section of his portraits of locations like Homefield Wood and Littleworth Common.

DAWN LIGHT: ominous shadows in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“Not all pictures are suitable for these background displays because of having to be able to read type over them,” Andrew explains. “But we are looking forward to including more pictures when we can find just the right ones.”

TINY TERRORS: aphids on a rose PICTURE: Nick Bell

The random nature of the header selections means there’s no way of selecting which one will appear on any particular page – so anyone looking for a particular image may find they need to refresh the page quite a few times before it appears.

“It can be quite hard to replace images because some of the older ones have so many happy associations,” says Andrew.

“Many of them were taken on local walks at different times of year and conjure up other images of a particular day out – the colourful fungi in Penn Woods, the flooding by the Thames near Bourne End, an autumn day in Black Park or springtime coming to Spade Oak quarry.

“But Nick and Graham’s pictures are a reminder to visitors that there’s much more to the website than just people enjoying a ramble in the woods.

“We have a lot of articles about all sorts of things, from birds and insects to local history, interesting people with a story to tell, book reviews and places to visit once the lockdown restrictions allow.

NATURAL CURE: an early morning walk provides great stress relief PICTURE: Nick Bell

“For anyone stumbling on the website for the first time, there are now more than 200 different articles to read, so hopefully there will be something that catches their eye.”

Have you a photograph which might be perfect for The Beyonder? Drop us a line at

Rare attractions on the reserve

WEST of Marlow is prime walking country, with the Chiltern Way leading out through Bovingdon Green towards Rotten Row and picturesque Hambleden.

Enticing footpaths split off in every direction, and those favouring a circular loop can take a four-mile circuit from the Royal Oak that takes in both a section of the Chiltern Way and Marlow Common.

One highlight along the route is Homefield Wood, a site of special scientific interest owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

LIGHT AND SHADE: fern fronds lit by the sun PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Here, the chalk grassland of the small but peaceful nature reserve makes it one of just three sites in the country where rare military orchids can be found – not to mention offering a perfect habitat for birds, butterflies, moths and other insects.

WELCOME GUEST: bees are vital for pollination PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The nature reserve may be small, at about 15 acres, but the herb-rich grassland offers a chance to see Chiltern gentians and upright brome grass, as well as a variety of orchids, though visitors need to be careful to avoid trampling rare plants that may not yet be in flower when the reserve is at its busiest towards the end of May and in early June.

As reserves manager Mark Vallance explains, the military orchid is so called because its dense spikes of pinkish-violet flowers have petals and sepals folded in such a way that they resemble a knight’s helmet, with the lower petal shaped like a human form with ‘arms’ and ‘legs’, and spots which resemble buttons on a jacket.

IN THE PINK: foxgloves flourish in late spring, bringing a splash of colour to the woods

Ferns and foxgloves make Homefield a delight in the late spring, and the wood has a mixture of young beech plantations, with some conifers and many native trees.

Resident and visiting species of birds include chiffchaff, cuckoo and blackcap. Tawny owls can often be heard calling during the day.

PARTRIDGE FAMILY: a variety of birds can be found in the woods PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

It’s only a couple of miles west of Marlow but parking is very limited, so getting there on foot is an environmentally kinder and more enjoyable way to travel.

MORNING LIGHT: Homefield features a variety of different trees PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

There’s been woodland on this warm slope for at least 200 years, though forestry work has created many changes. Nowadays the reserve is made up of beech, ash, sycamore and whitebeam with glades and open grassland.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: deer browse woodland shrubs and herbs PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The rides and glades are home to a range of mammals too, from inquisitive squirrels to shy fallow and roe deer. But for sheer variety, the prize has to go to the huge population of butterflies and moths.

WOODLAND CHOIR: a robin strikes up a song PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Butterfly species range from the marbled white and white-letter hairstreak to the silver-washed fritillary and some 400 species of moth have been recorded, including blotched emerald and striped lychnis.

SUMMER DANCE: butterflies and moths flourish at Homefield PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Visit the BBOWT website for more information about Homefield Wood and how to get there.

Ancient acres offer space to escape

EXPLORE the sprawling Ashridge Forest in the company of Chilterns travel writer Mary Tebje, whose blog sets out to capture the beauty in the mundane, the stuff “that the locals have stopped noticing but is the very essence of what makes this place special”.

Despite the continuing lockdown, Ashridge Forest offers plenty of space and the distance needed for enjoying the great outdoors, she writes in her most recent post.

BREATH OF FRESH AIR: the trails are quiet in winter PICTURE: Mary Tebje

“I am fortunate in having many outdoor options that are local to me, where I can walk and feel almost that life is ‘as usual’,” she writes.

Mary has written extensively about Ashridge Forest, Ashridge House and the surrounding countryside.

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished on the orders of King Henry Vlll, but you can find out more about the history of the estate in: Ashridge: A Flourishing Trade and explore Ashridge House Gardens too.

Walkers make tracks for the common

MAYBE it’s the proximity of a couple of welcoming pubs that has made Littleworth Common so popular with walkers.

The location beside Burnham Beeches helps too, not to mention its handy position on the 16-mile Beeches Way, which runs from the Thames at Cookham to the Grand Union Canal at West Drayton.

LONG-DISTANCE PATH: the Beeches Way runs across Littleworth Common

Whatever the reason, a host of ramblers find it a handy starting point for a walk, whether that means a leisurely stroll around the common itself or a more demanding circuit taking in some of the substantial areas of woodland that surround this spot.

QUIET REFLECTIONS: a pond on Littleworth Common PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The 40-acre SSSI (site of special scientific interest) is common land owned by South Bucks District Council and comprises open heathland, most of which has developed into birch and oak woodland, although some remnants of acid heathland survive.

MORNING HAS BROKEN: dew drops lit by the rising sun PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

A network of paths criss-cross the common and the “muddy boots welcome” sign outside the Blackwood Arms says it all.

WALKERS WELCOME: the Blackwood Arms

This is one of several dozen Brakspear’s pubs which feature a number of local walks on a handy app, and a trio of routes are suggested, ranging from a half-hour wander around the nearby common to a longer three-hour adventure taking in nearby Egypt Woods and Burnham Beeches.

HOME COMFORTS: a duck house close to the Blackwood Arms

Thirsty souls can choose between here and The Jolly Woodman: both pubs have featured in the Midsomer Murders series and provide a perfect base for a wander.

LOOKOUT POST: a red kite with hunger pangs PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Across the common lies the pretty 150-year-old church of St Anne’s at Dropmore with its small graveyard, where passers-by on a Sunday may be able to drop in for a cream tea during the summer months.

CREAM TEAS: St Anne’s at Dropmore

It’s one of a few dozen buildings encircling the common, which is popular with dog walkers and other locals and the starting point for a range of routes allow you to quickly slip away from other ramblers to discover less well frequented trails.

RESTING PLACE: the graveyard at St Anne’s

Fancy Free Walks, for example, suggest a three-mile circuit that takes in some of the less familiar parts of Burnham Beeches for those who fancy a day exploring the ancient woodlands.

It’s one of more than 40 mapped routes contained on the not-for-profit website set up to introduce more people to the countryside and to connect with our historic land, towns and villages.

FOCAL POINT: various routes fan out from the common PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The site has a 10-mile circuit too, taking in Stoke Common and Hedgerley, and for those wanting to ring the changes, permissive paths on the Portman Burtley Estate provide an opportunity to explore a range of mixed woodland habitats.

PERMISSIVE PATH: insect-hunting in Staplefurze Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Burtley Farm boasts around 1,000 acres of mixed woodland ranging from conifer plantations from the 1920s and 1950s to older oaks planted following the Napoleonic wars when there was a perceived shortage of timber for ships.

The most ecologically important area of woodland is Egypt Wood, part of the Burnham Beeches National Nature Reserve complex and reached on a footpath from Abbey Park Farm.

MIXED WOODLAND: on the Portman Burtley estate PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

This is also part of a longer two- to five-and-a-half-mile signposted circular walk taking in a picturesque Buckinghamshire village of Hedgerley as well as an RSPB reserve and remnants of the once important local brick industry.

BRANCHING OUT: a footpath heads south towards Burnham

Many wanderers are happy to stay close to the common, but more ambitious ramblers can check out the long-distance route west to Hedsor and Cookham or east to Stoke Common, Black Park and Langley.

WATCHFUL EYES: starlings in Bristles Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

For other ideas for local walks and places to visit, check out the highlighted pages.

Feathered friends flock to the feast

THE tiny square of pebble-covered ground outside our front door is a little humble to be classed as a front garden.

But a bird bath and feeding station have transformed it into a source of constant activity over the past three years.

DRESSED TO IMPRESS: an aristocratic-looking pheasant drops in for breakfast

Our smattering of largely unremarkable plants may be of only passing interest to wildlife, though our neighbour’s small pond is close enough to provide refuge for the occasional toad and the hibiscus hedge provides welcome cover for the dunnocks later in the year.

SHY VISITOR: dunnocks usually prefer to stay close to the ground PICTURE: Nick Bell

Around the country, millions of us have been relying on our feathered friends for company during the darkest days of the pandemic. And as a nation it seems we are now spending up to £300m feeding the birds in our garden each year.

GOOD COMPANY: UK bird lovers spend millions on garden visitors PICTURE: Angela Scott

Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that seeing and hearing birds in the garden has a direct link to lowering levels of stress, anxiety and depression – and that people who spend less time outside are more likely to feel depressed in their lifetime.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: jays have striking and distinctive plumage PICTURE: Nick Bell

Most of us probably don’t need any convincing that having trees, shrubs and birds close by makes a difference to how we feel – and the daily antics of our garden visitors are a source of delight to millions of us too, increasing our levels of happy hormones.

TASTY TREAT: a blackbird stops for a snack PICTURE: Angela Scott

Against a backdrop of unprecedented biodiversity loss, researchers have increasingly recognised the range of benefits provided to humankind by nature – and that became even more evident as people struggled to cope with lockdown pressures.

STANDING PROUD: a hungry heron stakes out its next meal PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Research by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has shown our growing love affair with feeding the birds has significantly altered the composition of our garden bird communities over the past 40 years, helping the populations of some species grow and increasing the variety of birds visiting feeders.

In the 1970s, feeders were dominated by house sparrows and starlings. Today, a much broader range is commonly seen taking advantage of the growing variety of supplementary foods on offer, with population growth across some 30 species, particularly those like goldfinches and woodpigeons.

SUCCESS STORY: goldfinch numbers have grown in recent years PICTURE: Neil Richards

The former were in long-term decline but with the introduction of sunflower hearts and nyjer seed to bird feeders, the numbers have been steadily increasing.

There are dangers too, of course, not least the possibility of disease transmission at feeders, but those following BTO tips to avoid such worries have delighted in the huge range of species appearing in our gardens – up from around 18 in 1987 to some 130 today.

OCCASIONAL GUEST: a stunning green woodpecker PICTURE: Nick Bell

Looking back over 2020 in our own small patch, there have been around two dozen different bird species dropping in to visit.

ENTERTAINING: squirrels are agile and cheeky visitors PICTURE: Angela Scott

Much of the time it’s the squirrels, pigeons, tits and robin providing the daily entertainment, and what delightful and uplifting visitors they are.

SONG OF JOY: the unmistakable sound of a thrush PICTURE: Nick Bell

As well as the blackbirds, there are plump thrushes and occasional magpies too. Living close to water means that ducks are daily visitors, with the occasional moorhen, pheasant or partridge showing up for breakfast.

Long-tailed tits are among the regulars, darting about in the bushes along with the other tits and dunnocks so that the undergrowth sometimes seems alive with movement.

RARE DELIGHT: the great spotted woodpecker PICTURE: Angela Scott

Rarer visitors have included woodpeckers, jays, starlings and even a ring-necked parakeet, currently in the firing line for a government cull because they have been spreading around the country so quickly.

Recent favourites have included goldfinches and a nuthatch, the distinctive black eye strip making him look like a cheeky bandit.

BANDIT COUNTRY: the nuthatch has a distinctive appearance PICTURE: Nick Bell

There was even a tawny owl audacious enought to turn up on the roof on the very night we had been unsuccessfully scouring the local woods for hooting owls – a delicious irony.

Living beside a small nature reserve means that we don’t have to travel far to encounter a wider range of birds – an egret, heron, mandarin duck or kingfisher along the river, perhaps – and Kevin the red kite has been a long-standing resident of the Cedar of Lebanon that towers above the houses here.

POETRY IN MOTION: a red kite captured in flight PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But we are the lucky ones. An RSPB study a few years ago suggested that only one in five children are connected to nature and wildlife. Successive surveys by different bodies keep confirming what we might already guess – that youngsters spend about half as much time outdoors as their parents did, and twice as much time looking at screens than playing outside.

Perhaps lockdown will change that a little. It may be a pretty chilly January day but there are couples and families out in the woods walking everywhere. Yes, the novelty may wear off, but these cold family days out might just be sowing the seeds for a new generation to show more interest in the natural world around them…and that could only be a good thing, not only for everyone’s mental health, but for future of our troubled planet too.

WOODLAND WONDERLAND: hunting for insects PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Back at the feeders, there’s a final flurry of activity from the robin, tits and dunnocks which the cat pretends not to notice, assuming an air of benign innocence.

Lockdown may have stopped us going out and seeing all the people we would love to spend time with, but it’s surprising how much pleasure these small creatures have brought us during these most difficult days – and hopefully their winter food gathering has been a little easier too.

Sincere thanks to Nick Bell, Graham Parkinson, Neil Richards and Angela Scott for their wonderful illustrations for this article.

Top tips for a contented canine

Guest writer Lucy Parks continues her occasional blog about how Cypriot rescue dog Yella has adjusted to life in the Chilterns

YELLA will be three at the end of this year, which means I’ve had her in my life for 2.5 years. And what a learning curve it’s been!

I thought I was prepared: I’d done a lot of research before I got her, I’d asked my dog-owning Facebook friends to give me their best advice, I’d booked her in for training, I’d bought what I understood I needed… but reality is often a surprise.

What I offer here, based purely on my own experiences, through trial and error, are my top tips for happy dogs and happy owners. 

Training: as a first-time dog owner, I had both a one-to-one session with a dog trainer and took Yella to puppy classes. They gave me huge confidence and helped me to understand how best to train her, but two commands have proved invaluable: “wait” and “this way”.

“Wait” works in so many situations, whether it’s stopping her from running to the front door when someone rings the bell, to crossing the road safely or keeping her out of danger when it’s time to go back on the lead after a good run. 

“This way” is a great alternative to saying “no” when encouraging her to go in a certain direction. It’s a simple distraction in a positive way rather than shouting “no!” to stop her running off – and I’m convinced Yella even knows her left from right because of this.

Visibility: as regular blog readers will know, Yella loves to go exploring in the woods. Because of her colour, it can be tricky to spot her, especially among autumn leaves, but I invested in some dog bells, which fit on her harness and it means I can always hear her, even if I can’t actually see her. They’re a cheap lifesaver from constant worry about where she’s gone.

In the winter, I add a dog light to her harness for extra visibility. One early evening last year we managed to startle some walkers in the woods when they saw just a jangling red light belting towards them. It took them a moment to realise it was only a friendly little dog, rushing up in the dark to say hello.

Toys and beds: It’s easy to spend a fortune on dog toys. One friend gave me a great piece of advice: buy children’s toys from a charity shop, wash them, remove any choke hazards, and you’ve got a new toy at a snip of the price. Yella doesn’t really much care for playing with toys, but she loves to play tug and, for that, her “toy” of choice is the leg of an old pair of tracksuit trousers…

Dog beds can be equally expensive. I bought a cheap child’s bean bag chair from Amazon (cost about a tenner), cover it with a £2 washable fleece from Ikea and she’s sorted. In fact, Yella and Nancy the cat have a bean bag chair bed each and Yella likes to spend her time between both of them.

Winter extras: I’ve found winter to be a more accessory-heavy time as a dog owner, a constant battle against the mud and wet. Early on I discovered Equafleece coats (above). They’re not cheap but they keep Yella warm, wick away moisture from her body and keep off the worse of the mud – plus she looks darn cute in it! She also has a stash of microfibre towels, which are great for towelling her down because they dry really quickly so there aren’t wet dog towels hanging around the house. A pack of (cheap) wet wipes by the front door also help to get muck off her paws when we’re back from a walk.

For me, Acai thermal, waterproof skinny trousers are a top find. They look good, dry fast, mud wipes off and they keep me toasty on winter walks. I could wear them all day, they’re so comfortable. Again, not cheap but worth every penny. The same goes for good walking boots and wellies. It’s worth spending a bit more (I know – I’ve tried the cheap ones and it’s a false economy). I favour Merrell walking boots and Hunter Balmoral wellies.

Practical tips: Yella is a shit-roller. Fox poo, badger doo-doo, bird mess, cow pats, even human excrement (I know: vile)… Yella has rolled in it all. I don’t like to bathe her too often but sometimes there’s no option and Animology dog shampoos do the trick for me. They get rid of the stink and she smells like biscuits afterwards. She hasn’t yet worked out the correlation between rolling in poo and having a bath, but she accepts her fate and quite enjoys having a good rub down.

Arden Grange liver paste is the answer when giving Yella meds. Simply wrap any tablet in a bit of paste and she’s mad for it. Nancy the cat has it, too, with her meds – it’s a winner in our house.

And, finally, if you allow your dog on the bed (Yella’s allowed only by invitation and usually only at weekends for a lie-in), a handheld vacuum cleaner is perfect to get rid of the dog hairs. It takes only a moment for a quick whizz over the duvet and saves finding dog hairs in your mouth at bedtime. And no-one wants that, right?

Next time: Some of our other favourite walks in the Chilterns.

Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog. A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals. Click on these links to see her earlier posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.

Taking it easy on the towpath

THERE’S something immensely satisfying about watching a canal boat negotiating a lock.

Whether that’s because of our fascination with water or the step-by-step ritual of filling the lock chamber and opening sluice gates to raise or lower a vessel, we’ve enjoyed studying the process for centuries.

“Gongoozlers” is what canal folk call those of us who idle on the towpath watching others do all the hard work in this way – but if it was used derisively in the past, nowadays there’s no shame attached to the curious spectators intrigued by the graceful art of lock navigation.

And so it is with a mixture of curiosity and admiration that we are on the towpath on a murky day at Denham Deep Lock watching the owners of The Hatch Shop showing just how to do it in style.

This is the deepest lock on the Grand Union Canal, bringing the canal down by a whisker over 11 feet – nothing dramatic by national standards, perhaps, given that those in Bath and at Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire are almost 20ft, but a decent drop nonetheless.

(If you really want to see a lock with a formidable drop, take a glance at the Ardnacrusha Lock on the River Shannon near Limerick, whose two chambers offer a total rise of 100ft, or the world record-breaking 138ft Oskemen lock in Kazakhstan.)

Anyway, Denham Deep Lock may not be able to compete with those figures, but it still offers plenty to distract the casual observer wandering along this section of the Grand Union Canal as it passes through Denham Country Park.

The original Grand Junction Canal, constructed more than 200 years ago, ran from Birmingham to London, some 137 miles and with 166 locks. Nowadays known as the Grand Union Canal, this is the trunk route of the canal system, passing through rolling countryside, industrial towns and peaceful villages as it gives voyagers access to Milton Keynes, Northampton and beyond.

TRUNK ROUTE: the Grand Union Canal PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Back in Denham, The Hatch Shop is making light work of the lock on its way to Uxbridge. Officially opened back in July but hampered by lockdown restrictions, the pop-up narrowboat shop – complete with Vietnamese rescue dog Sidney – has been moored in London and Oxford, selling a bohemian collection of trinkets and mementoes, from dream catchers and incense burners to cute signs and candles.

With the rear lock gates shut, it’s time to open the sluice gates and allow the boat to slowly slip down to the level of the canal on the other side of the chamber.

That means a little bubbling and boiling as the excess water slips through those atmospheric lock gates, coated with lichen and ferns.

Once the water level inside the chamber has subsided, it’s time to push open the heavy lock gates and move out into the lower level, ready for the onward journey.

With over 1500 locks on the canals, building new lock gates is a year-round job for the Canal and River Trust. Each one is unique, and made to measure by a team of carpenters.

An average lock gate lasts for about 25 years and it could take anything from a fornight to a month to build, using green, sustainably grown oak with steel fitted to strengthen the joints.

Safely out of the chamber, it’s time for The Hatch Shop to resume its journey to Uxbridge, leaving the country park behind.

On a drizzly day in November, it has to be said that this is not the most prepossessing section of the Grand Union, particularly with the roar of traffic from the nearby motorway and a motley collection of vessels in various states of repair dotted along the banks.

The park opens out to the north, towards Denham Quarry and a succession of other attractions in the Colne Valley Regional Park, but the mosaic of rivers, lakes and farmland is not looking at its best at this time of year, and HS2 construction work has left heavy scars on the local landscape too.

Walkers still flock here all year round, but we may have to wait until the spring until the place perks up again and the crowds return to Frans Tea Gardens for a welcoming cuppa by the side of the lock.

Dogs help beat the lockdown blues

Guest writer Lucy Parks continues her occasional blog about how Cypriot rescue dog Yella has adjusted to life in the Chilterns

DOG owners have their walking habits – Yella gets a short walk in the morning, before work, to the poo bin at the top of the road and back, and a longer, off-lead walk in the afternoon – but everything changed during lockdown in 2020.

With fine weather, a huge change to routine and little else to do, we suddenly started meeting many, many more dog owners on our daily walks: neighbours that we’d never spoken to before, neighbours who we didn’t even know had a dog, new friends for Yella to meet out in the fields and woods. It really was a warm, friendly and, well, community-bonding experience.

I missed bumping into Alfie and his human dad in the alleyway at 6.30am every morning to exchange a few pleasantries but relished the lie-in that lockdown brought and the expansion of our dog social(ly-distanced, of course) group.

Yella’s new BFF is Arthur, whose lovely human owners were shielding but walking round and round our small estate every day for exercise. We’d wave out the window or stop for a short chat.

Everyone we met on our walks, whether they had dogs or not, just seemed happier, more friendly and yet mindful of the strange situation we found ourselves in and the rules we had to follow.

We kept an eye out for Maggie, the octogenarian who lives across the road with her 12-year-old rescue dog Hector, and made sure she was getting the support she needed. Yella tried to run around with Hector but, frankly, he’s an old boy who’s landed on his feet with Maggie and he was happy to just have a head-scratch.

Yes, there were awful things going on around the world, but Yella and I will always look back with fondest at that spring and summer as a happy time of long walks, long lie-ins and new friends.

Next time: Lucy’s top tips for happy dogs and happy owners

Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog. A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals. Click on these links to see her earlier posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

Grouse beater in the doghouse

Guest writer Lucy Parks continues her occasional blog about how Cypriot rescue dog Yella has adjusted to life in the Chilterns

IT WAS a beautiful summer afternoon and we’d taken the dogs – Yella and her daughter, Lumi – to what was one of our favourite spots: Shardeloes in Amersham.

As Lumi’s human mum and I sat on a bench, enjoying the view across Shardeloes lake and on to the Chilterns, we saw Yella belting across the field below us, having the time of her life.

WHO, ME?: Yella tries the cute and innocent look

And then realised that she was in hot pursuit of a brace of grouse. With equal horror and admiration we watched in almost slow motion as the birds flew away… apart from one, which decided to run rather than fly… and Yella caught it.

This was not Yella’s first rodeo. Although she now had all the home comforts she needed, Yella was still at heart a street dog. The first time this showed itself was when she was (unbeknownst to me) pregnant and obviously craving food. One of the cats caught and brought me a pigeon. Yella spotted it, grabbed it, rushed into the garden and ate the whole thing – feathers, bones, beak and feet. I could only watch in astonishment and Nancy, the cat, was furious.

A couple of days later on a walk down a wooded alleyway and Yella caught her own pigeon. In fairness, it must have been pretty dozey to have not flown off, but Yella had her prey. She ran off with it into the garden of a nearby large and rather fancy house and emerged without it only a few minutes later. From the mud on her nose and paws, I reckon she buried that one in someone’s garden…

PRIZE CATCH: Yella’s prey was shocked but unhurt

That afternoon in Shardeloes, Yella proudly brought us her catch. She growled when Lumi went near it but allowed me to see her wondrous prize: it was still alive and didn’t seem hurt (apart from being in the jaws of a small dog).

After some deliberation, we decided to seize a moment when Yella had dropped the poor bird to pop her lead on, drag her away from it and briskly leave the area. She wasn’t happy, though, and she never forgets.

Subsequent visits to Shardoes resulted in Yella returning to the scene of her crime in search of grouse – to the point that we can no longer go back there because, so single-minded she is in her determination, she’ll go missing for 20 minutes at a time exploring any faint sounds of rustling.

It’s a shame because it’s a lovely walk but, while the squirrels and deer she chases will always out-pace her, Yella the Street Dog just can’t be trusted when it comes to dopey game birds.

Lucy Parks lives in Amersham, in the glorious Chiltern Hills. She adopted Cypriot rescue Yella in July 2018, her first dog. A journalist by trade, Lucy left corporate life in 2018 and set up her business, Parkslife, as a freelance journalist and artist. She’s also a veterinary receptionist, allowing her to indulge in her love of animals. Click on these links to see her earlier posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Next time: How lockdown brought the dog-walking fraternity closer

Nature puts on a fireworks display

IT’S great to see so many families getting out into the great outdoors in search of autumn colour.

Ramblers, dog-walkers, cyclists, foragers and picnickers locals have been shrugging off the misery of face masks and social distancing by escaping into the woods at the first glimpse of sunshine, however unforgiving the October temperatures.

And what a spectacular show they have seen on those days when the sun breaks through the rainclouds and turns woods and parks into places of wonder and mystery.

Our earlier post about autumn colours took us to Burnham Beeches, Black Park, Langley Park and Cliveden – but it seemed remiss not to return to Penn Wood, given that our last proper sortie here was on such a monochrome February day.

How different the landscape looks now. The colours at this time of year are truly spectacular, the falling leaves forming a tapestry of different shapes and textures, and the trees themselves a glorious variegated backcloth of yellows and greens, russets and pinks.

It’s warm enough in the sun to linger over the array of different fungi peeking out from beneath the leaves, or pause a moment to study the cattle grazing their way incuriously around this remnant of Wycombe Heath, managed by the Woodland Trust.

Across the centuries, Penn and Tylers Green are villages that can boast a long and illustrious history and until the middle of the 19th century, this was a 4,000 acre common of heath and woodland stretching over seven parishes from Tyler End and Winchmore Hill in the south up to Great Kingshill in the north.

The landscape has changed a lot over the years, but you can sense history all around you here, and the evidence ranges from iron age earthworks and Roman pottery to written records of royal hunting parties in the 12th century or aristocratic shooting parties in the Victorian era.

Indeed, recent suggestions that an important Roman official was living in Tylers Green 1700 years ago might force historians to rethink the importance of this area during the Roman occupation.

The southern edge of Wycombe Heath consisted of Kings Wood, St John’s Wood, Common Wood and Penn Wood, where there would have been little if any settlement during the Saxon and early Norman period.

Back in the woods, the wild boar and wolves of the middle ages may have long disappeared but grazing cattle have returned, helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilising the ground.