Fog lifts on a different landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CtransitmailprepBU6_20190126_1516_563_SC2 Pheasant male with female(r+mb Sample@576)

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

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Natural boost for our mental health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A feast of light in the darkness

WRITING in The Independent a few years ago, then environment editor Michael McCarthy pondered on how many people today know what Candlemas is all about.

One in a hundred, perhaps? Maybe even fewer than that. But as well as explaining the background to the Christian holy day he also painted a marvellously evocative picture of what this day would have looked and felt like in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the parish brought their candles to church to be blessed by the priest.

On that gloomy February day the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of light when the candles were lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary – making it literally the brightest day of the year and a welcome reprieve after the gloom of January.

But as the Springwatch 2019 Almanac reminds us, February 2 is also the day of snowdrops, with windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches decorated with the pure white flowers, or Candlemas bells as they were once called.

presian-nedyalkov-445146-unsplashSYMBOL OF PURITY: snowdrops in bloom [PICTURE: Presian Nedyalkov, Unsplash]

As flawless symbols of purity, they were the perfect flowers for the feast, and even today many of the country’s best snowdrop displays are clustered around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

This year’s warm January has meant plenty of snowdrops have flowered early, along with primroses, winter jasmine, gorse and other splashes of January colour, despite the old rhyme which says: “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day.”

And there are numerous locations where sheets of the small white blooms provide dramatic displays for visitors braving the chill January air, including great houses like the National Trust gardens at Cliveden.

A powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, Galanthus nivalis means “milk flower” in Latin and the “drop” is not a drop of snow but a “drop” as in eardrop, the old word for earring – although legend has it that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve was despairing that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared and transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers to prove that even the harshest of winters eventually give way to spring.

Snowdrops are popular among gardeners and galanthophiles are avid collectors of different snowdrop varieties. But it’s not just the simple beauty of the snowdrop which appeals.

As McCarthy argues in his Independent article it’s the timing of the flowers’ appearance that is symbolic too: “They’re the very first sign of something else, the Candlemas bells, an undeniable signal that the warm days will come again; and I’m sure they fill me with elation because what I am looking at, against the dead tones of the winter earth, is Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white.”

Time to start seeing the light

OUT WITH the old, in with the new. After the sombre removal of the Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night, January 6 sees a distinct change of mood with the celebrations marking the feast of the Epiphany.

And anyone feeling a little sad at the lights and tinsel disappearing for another year can always look forward to Candlemas Day on February 2, which since pre-Christian times has been a feast of lights celebrating the increasing strength of the sun as winter gives way to spring.

Epiphany, also known as Three Kings’ Day, originated in the East with Christians celebrating the birth and baptism of Jesus. The Western Church began following it in the 4th century as the day the wise men were led by the star to visit baby Jesus, according to the story of the Nativity.

inbal-malca-53324-unsplash-1THREE KINGS: Christians mark Epiphany on January 6  [PICTURE: Inbal Malca, Unsplash]

The traditional English Christmas has its origins in the ninth century, when King Alfred the Great enshrined in law the importance of keeping the church’s feasts. He commanded that there should be a holiday on Christmas Day and the 12 days that followed, for it was believed that the Magi had journeyed for 12 days to see the infant Jesus.

The twelve days of Christmas would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, as Ben Johnson explains.

As with all good traditions, there’s no universal agreement over the exact timing of Twelfth Night, since some regard Christmas Day as being the first day of Christmas, while others believe the 12 days begin on Boxing Day.

But the Victorians began the tradition that it should be the night that Christmas trees and decorations should be taken down, to avoid bad luck after the season of merriment (and to encourage everybody to get back to work).

There’s similar disagreement over the precise details of the story of the Magi: how many wise men actually visited, for example? And when was this? Some theologians argue that Christ would have been around two years old, since the wise men followed the star for two years and King Herod had all children two years and under massacred; by that time the Holy Family would also have moved out of the stables and into more permanent accommodation.

dan-kiefer-467645-unsplashTIMELESS TALE: the story of the Nativity                               [PICTURE:Dan Kiefer, Unsplash]

Maybe the precise details don’t matter too much – after all, it was Pope Julius I who had the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity, helpfully blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations.

By Shakespeare’s day, as well as the carols and church-going, Twelfth Night would have been marked by music, masked balls and feasting – and it was in this context that he wrote his raucous comedy Twelfth Night (or What You Will), as fitting entertainment to close the Christmas season.

The first record of its performance comes from Candlemas of 1602 to bring down the curtain on Tudor festive celebration which used to last throughout the month of January.

In fact, many of our favourite Christmas traditions date back to the Tudor period, it seems, including carol-singing, present-giving, mulled wine and mince pies, as the BBC’s History Extra magazine explains with the help of Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke – authors of the 2018 book A Tudor Christmas.

So if the sight of those bedraggled Christmas trees got you feeling a little down, don’t despair – the spirit of Epiphany is upon us, and Candlemas is just around the corner!

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Perfect time for a winter’s tale

JANUARY always seems the bleakest, dreariest, greyest month of the year.

But for anyone feeling down in the mouth about the lack of sunshine or suffering a bout of the New Year blues, help is at hand.

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The 2019 almanac from the BBC’s Springwatch team provides a timely reminder that spring is around the corner – and in the meantime offers a host of tips of ways to step outside and make the most of the British winter.

The good news begins with a table of daylight hours: true, it’s a little depressing to be reminded that at the start of the year sunrise in London is after 8am and sunset a whisker after 4pm. But flick ahead to the next chapter and you’ve got pretty much an extra hour of daylight to look forward to in February.

For now, you can take advantage of any mud or snow on the ground to look out for the tracks of some of our more surrepticious wildlife, from hedgehogs to mink, weasels to water voles.

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The bare tree branches make it easier to spot visiting birds and you can always take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, which has been monitoring the drastic decline in our bird population since 1979.

The sharp-eared can listen out for the vocal exchanges between little owls or barking calls of flirtatious squirrels, while more intrepid winter walkers may head to the coastline on the lookout for treasures washed upby winter storms.

The chapters are not a day-by-day guide to the natural calendar, but a series of snippets of seasonal delights, with occasional offbeat and quirky facts thrown in for good measure.

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You can find out about an ancient ceremony in Herefordshire to banish evil spirits, for example, or learn some of the score of different regional names for the humble woodlouse, or chiggywig.

Along the way there’s time to recall the horrors of the Big Freeze of 1963 or how the red kite was brought back from extinction to become a familiar sight once more, soaring on the thermals over the Chiltern Hills and elsewhere across the country.

Before you know it, you’ll be in February – the shortest month of the year, with Valentine’s Day a reminder that nature also has an extraordinary array of courtship unfolding during the month.

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True, it’s a little early to say spring is on its way – but the almanac provides a perfect way of keeping the winter blues at bay until those welcome longer days arrive.

The Almanac 2019 by Michael Bright and Karen Farrington features a foreword from Chris Packham and is published by BBC Books at £12.99.

 

 

 

New year, new beginnings

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

IMG_0416It may get dark quite early, with the car parks closing at around 4.30pm, but the weather was dry and mild enough for youngsters to enjoy throwing leaves in the air and a small army of assorted canines to be rushing excitedly around the woodland paths.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Walking in Pooh’s paw prints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big problems in Little Marlow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quarry lake teems with life

THERE’S a lovely autumnal chill in the air as we return to Spade Oak quarry for the first time in a few months.

This time we leave the car at Little Marlow and cut across the fields to the top edge of the quarry before circling round the gravel pit to the railway line and back up the other side of the water.

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The sun’s out but the temperature’s dropping as evening approaches. Although we only find out later, this is a good slice of Walk 16 of the Chilterns AONB website, which takes walkers on a three-mile level ramble from Bourne End station to Little Marlow and back, savouring the picturesque village and nature reserve on the way, along with a very pleasant stretch of the Thames Path.

Our circuit of the lake is uneventful and a little on the chilly side; the last time we were here, the rabbits were lolloping around in the evening sunshine and the lake was busy with all kinds of birds, from cormorants to moorhens.

There’s a lot less going on today, it seems – at least that’s how it appears on the surface. But with a little help from the Buckinghamshire Bird Club it’s possible to piece together a more detailed picture of what you might be able to see here, especially if you come armed with binoculars and know what to look for.

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At this time of year, gull and cormorant numbers are beginning to build up and just before winter gets under way redwings and fieldfare start to appear in the hedgerows, particularly along the railway bank.

Winter is one of the more interesting times to visit for bird enthusiasts, it seems, with good numbers of the commoner ducks including wigeon, teal, gadwall and shoveler.

The biggest concentrations of birds can be found around the large sand spit, best viewed from the west bank, with better views of the main island from along the south bank by the railway line.

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The list goes on, with buzzards and red kites over the fields and woods to the north of the lake. while the riverside meadows may attract geese, pipits, wagtails, various migrant passerines and sometimes waders.

Having made a mental note to return with binoculars, we nod our way past the anglers who are taking advantage of a similar amount of life under the surface of the lake.

This is one of nine venues frequented by members of the Marlow Angling Club on the look-out for carp, pike, tench, bream, rudd, roach and perch. Busy place, this quarry.

The waft from the sewage treatment works is a little riper than usual as we round the south side of the quarry, but the smaller gulls love the place amd sometimes there can be thousands of black-headed gulls gathering on the lake during the last hour or two before dusk.

Back in Little Marlow, the 12th century St John the Baptist Church has provided a picturesque backdrop for the antics of such famous fictional detectives as Poirot, Miss Marple and Lewis.

It also provides the focal point for a conservation area that incorporates the 16th century manor house and a score of other listed buildings: not to mention a couple of welcoming pubs for thirsty ramblers eager to take the weight of their feet.