Last weekend I was in Northamptonshire, at Knuston Hall for music-making, a journey round Renaissance Italy, visiting Florence, Milan, Naples, Verona, Rome, Ferrara, Mantua and Venice, under the expert tutorship of Peter Syrus. We were nine plus Peter. At the same time there were smaller courses happening on Russian culture, Hatha yoga, Making polymer clay jewellery, and Hand embroidery. I took no photos of the actual music-making – or anything else – but I did of the Hall and its grounds.
In our free time on the Saturday afternoon, Frances, who had already kindly driven me all the way from Somerset, suggested we visit Castle Ashby Gardens, about 20 minutes away. Sadly my camera decided to go on strike just after we had got there, so those pictures are were subject to the limitations of my tiny phone.
Castle Ashby is the ancestral home of the seventh Marquess of Northamptonshire.
Entrance to the Gardens was quite along way further on from this view. Having parked, we wandered towards the church, taking this photo of the Castle itself through the trees.
The church was locked when we tried the door, so we wandered around the impressive graveyard.
The vicar turned up after a few minutes and she explained that the church had been locked because it was all prepared for a wedding starting in an hour’s time, but we could explore it now.
It didn’t take long for us to notice that the small, topmost panes of the 19th century stained glass windows had images of musicians playing from the era of music we were making on the course. The organist arrived while we were there, and he said that the windows, and the delightful angel carvings at the ends of the choir stalls, had all been installed in the 1870s by an energetic vicar, the Rt Rev Lord Alwyne Compton, a matter of days before he left to be Dean of Gloucester, and later Bishop of Ely. (The stained glass windows were quite beyond reasonable reproduction by my phone, but I offer the following approximate images of a few of the carvings, mostly blurry because of insufficient light – and possibly a hand not quite as steady as it should have been.)
We moved on to the gardens.
The Orangery is at the end of the path.
What a delightful way to spend a couple of free hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Monday, 3rd June. I spent my final morning at Avielochan, on my way to Inverness Airport. The Grant Arms Hotel, where I had been staying for the four previous nights, has a hide there for the exclusive use of its guests, and indeed ask you that if the little car park already has its capacity of five cars to come back later. I was fortunate in that I was the only person in the hide for the full 90 minutes I was there.
I was fortunate also to have shelter – it was drizzling when I arrived, and for nearly all the time I was there. This was the general view from near the hide as I arrived.
Avielochan was another place where there was to be the chance of seeing Slavonian grebes, though, sadly, again they were not in evidence. But I enjoyed my morning, obsserving a variety of more common birds, some of which are featured below. For a short while, not long enough to get my camera to it, I caught sight of an osprey flying around against the background of the hills opposite.
There was short path beyond the hide, but I didn’t say long. By now I was perishingly cold, even though the rain had temporarily stopped.
And in the event, this was all I saw of the Slavonian grebes.
Despite the weather, and despite the underlying sadness over the very recent loss of my lovely Lulu, I did enjoy my short stay in the Cairngorms National Park. The hotel was a friendly, welcoming place and made me feel very comfortable and looked-after, which I’m sure helped my general satisfaction at the mini-holiday. But I was happy to get home to Bella in the early evening. I feel pretty sure I shall return to Grantown-on-Spey before too long.
Sunday, 2nd June. The verdict as to what I should so on my final full day was unanimous: ‘Strathdearn’, they said, which is also known as the Findhorn Valley.
I made several stops along the valley As I got back in the car the first time, ‘Henry’ and ‘Clara’, out for a walk, asked me was I looking for waders. I replied I was looking for anything, in a very amateurish way. The waders were all over the fields they said.
I succeeded in seeing nothing for a while, except some colourful cows,
evidence that sheep had once inhabited this field,
some actual sheep,
and some oystercatchers too far away to get a decent picture. I liked the colours in this newish wall round a farmhouse.
And then it started raining. Many years ago, when I was working in Whitehall on public housing subsidies, it had been alleged to me that it rained sideways in Scotland. Here’s the proof.
It calmed down, and I came to a little layby. ‘Jack’ and ‘Jock’ were there with telescopes and heavy rainwear. Of course I pulled in. Birdwatchers always compare notes, though I had nothing to offer. The hope was to see a golden eagle. I stayed just a short while, which they clearly did not think was very professional of me, but I was keen to reach the car park at the end of the road for lunchtime, and I was now only halfway along.
I had stopped at a broad bank and had been watching the first oystercatcher making desultory nest-building moves, before the second came along and appeared to tell her there was no point. ‘Marie’ and ‘Hamish’, who said they were keepers (self-appointed or not, I was not sure) came along in a Landrover, and said they were concerned that a pair of dippers had been disturbed ‘just under that bridge’ in their nest-building recently. They seemed satisfied that I was not guilty and after some pleasantries drove on in the direction I had come from.
I continued on my way, and just before the car parking area, I encountered this meadow pipit, with caterpillar.
This was my view as I sat in the car starting to eat my lunch. I was really, really hoping to see a golden eagle or some other raptor.
Then I stopped chewing, because I could see two tiny protuberances at the top of the mountain. With my binoculars I saw this.
I was spellbound.
In due course ‘Jack’ and ‘Jock’ came along, and asked me if I had seen the ravens. (As it was ‘Jock’ who asked me, I had to ask three times what he was asking, his accent was so strong.) The ravens were way up on a hillside behind me. I had been so mesmerised by the red deer (and nice and warm in the car as I ate) that I had not yet turned round to see them, on a far horizon.
I learned that ‘Jack’ and ‘Jock’ came up to the Highlands from Dunfermline and Airdrie as often as they could to look for birds.
All of a sudden ‘Jack’ got very excited. ‘I don’t believe it!’. He had just been idly looking through his telescope, and there was … a ring ouzel. I had never seen one in my life, and I had previously met people who had travelled many miles unsuccessfully to see one. It is a mountain relative of the blackbird, and has a white bib. I was invited to to look at it through their telescope. I then tried to find it with my camera, in vain. So I took some general pictures of the gully, hoping I might pick the bird out on screen later.
Here’s one of the photos.
And yes, the bird is there. Yes it is. Here is a tiny segment of the main photo, enormously enlarged.
And here’s a tiny segment of another photo.
Clearly there is a blackbird with a white bib.
I was chuffed! Thank you ‘Jack’ and ‘Jock’. I’d never have seen either it or, probably, the ravens had you not been there. But that’s the birdwatching world (of which I do not count myself part). They love sharing their sightings.
Another car came along, but I was moving on. I had more plans. Again using the map and information provided by the hotel, I was making for RSPB reserve Loch Ruthven. But not before this common gull had greeted me beside my car.
And I had zoomed in on this ruin back along the Findhorn Valley.
There was what turned out to be a very narrow one-track road over some moorland to get to the reserve. The sun was coming out, and it made this ‘blasted heath’ a little more attractive.
The road was only 7 miles long, but it took a while to travel it. There was a delightful small loch at the end of it, Loch Farr. But I stopped only long enough to take a picture of it, as I had a few more miles more to do.
This was the view as I parked the car at RSPB Loch Ruthven.
And these a couple of views as I walked along the path to the hide.
THE bird to see there is the rare Slavonian grebe. Half the UK’s breeding population is found at this loch. (I know, there are countries called Slovakia and Slovenia, but no Slavonia. I don’t know why the grebe is so-called! … Ah, I do now. Spellcheck didn’t underline the word, so I thought I’d better look it up. Slavonia is a region in Croatia. So now I know. Well, I still don’t know how the bird got its name. In the US it’s called the Horned grebe.)
Anyway, I didn’t see any. Neither did ‘Janet’ and ‘John’, who were already in the hide, and didn’t say hello. They left after after ‘Janet’ said to ‘John’, ‘Shall we give up?’ I was happy just to sit there and see
and various other birds of which I didn’t get decent photos, and to enjoy this abstract.
As I left, ‘Nick’ came in. We exchanged shy smiles and as I made my way back along the pretty path I found my self thinking, ‘I’m sure I’ve met him before. Is he on the telly, or is he in in the Somerset Wildlife Trust?’ I didn’t work it out.
Saturday 1st June. A day spent in Glenmore Forest Park, in the middle of the Cairngorms National Park. The morning was spent with the reindeer herd. This involved being led, (with 49 others) on a 15-minute walk, just a little steep at times, above the treeline, there to find a group of males kept during the summer months, within an enclosure of some 1200 acres, while they grow their antlers. The females and calves had dispersed a few weeks previously to roam the 10,000 acres available to them. The total herd is kept, by managed breeding, to 150, new bloodstock being introduced from Sweden from time to time.
We learned that a Saami (formerly known as Lapp), named Mickel Utsi, was visiting the Cairngorms in 1949 and realised that the conditions, (sub-arctic altitude, ground, lichens), were absolutely ideal for keeping reindeer, which are domesticated caribou. Indeed reindeer are a UK native species, but went extinct here about a thousand years ago. With his wife, Dr Ethel Lindgren, Utsi brought the first reindeer from Sweden to the Cairngorms in 1952. In due course, the Forestry Commission granted them the right to use the current land to keep reindeer. By the late 1960s the hill trip for tourists was well established, having been by appointment only up to that point.
Despite being in a group, or perhaps because of it, I was able to stop and take some pictures on the way up.
At the bottom right of the preceding picture is part of a boulder, with faintly engraved on it, ‘Utsi Bridge’.
Beginning to leave trees behind.
We come to a fence and see a boardwalk we will take, with the reindeer lying down by another fence.
We made our way back down in our own time, when we wanted.
I had some soup at the Glenmore Visitor Centre, and then looked at a plan of the various waymarked walks. I decided to do the longest, 3.5miles/5.8 km, starting from there. It was marked ‘strenuous’, which I would normally have avoided, but the shorter ones, all marked ‘moderate’ looked really so easy that I decided to risk the more demanding one. To begin with the path sloped gently upwards, and was wide and gravelly. The route, from the contour lines, appeared to continue to climb gradually and then steeply toward the end of the outward leg, culminating at a loch.
After a brief chat with two of the mountain goats who had passed me, who were contemplating continuing along to Ryvoan Bothy, and a nibble of a date flapjack, I continued on the waymarked walk, and was relieved to find that it was an easy path along a contour.
I was intrigued to notice this.
At first it reminded me of the mud volcanoes I had seen in Yellowstone last year. Then I thought it resembled a fountain. Then I realised it was a spring – and understood why in French the words for ‘spring’ and ‘fountain’ are the same, ‘fontaine’.
These four passed and fell behind me several times on my homewards stroll. I learned in due course that the 20-year-old grey was being used to train the 8-year-old piebald not to be afraid of the narrow drains which crossed the path at regular intervals.
The reindeer booking office/shop was just before the visitor centre car park, so I called into the paddock where those unable for various reasons to do the hill walk could go and see four reindeer, each kept there for just two or three weeks on a rotating basis. It was interesting to learn more about the creatures from the many information boards there.
Finally, I had seen very few birds on my walk, though the loud and joyful sound of them up in the trees had accompanied me all the way. So I was pleased to see on a feeder several instances of one of my favourite small birds, the siskin. This has not graced my garden for a couple of years now, presumably because climate change means it does not now have to come so far south in the winter.
I was right to take the ‘strenuous’ walk. It was, I would say, not so much strenuous as a bit difficult at times. And, despite the grey colour of the sky, and the chill up there with the reindeer, the weather was OK. It didn’t rain all day!
Friday 31st May. On offer this morning was a walk in the local woods, led by Simon, one of the experts on hand in the hotel. With three other residents, I availed myself of it. We started at the local golf course,
where we saw nothing of interest, though Simon did his best to convince us that this was a rare Scottish wild cat.
The Anagach Woods were established in 1766 by James Grant of Grant (more later), but they look very natural, and provide excellent habitat for local fauna.
As we walked through the woods, for much of the time to the right was acidic boggy land with stunted trees that could be 200 years old.
To our left, classic Caledonian forest, (the BBC’s ‘Springwatch’ is currently coming from just a few miles away) allowing lots of light through to nourish berry-bearing plants, good food for native species.
We emerged from forest into more open land, and I learned that this native tree was called bird cherry.
We reached the River Spey, and went on to a bridge. (Of which, annoyingly, I did not think to take a photo when we later went down to the path on the right hand side.)
You don’t often get the chance to see a mallard’s orange feet so clearly.
On the far side of the bridge I was able to see this bird, identified for me as a spotted flycatcher.
I said that I couldn’t see any spots, even when it obligingly turned round for me.
But spotted flycatcher it was, I was assured.
From the bridge I was also able to wonder at these wild lupins, through which we were to wander minutes later. We also saw a very newly fledged grey wagtail.
Once down there, along the bank we watched a fledged pied wagtail being fed. Its parent was too quick for me.
Further along was a dipper, again it was thought, newly fledged, not least because it was showing a marked reluctance to dip.
And then there were two, sibling fledglings. Believe it or not.
As we started to walk back, completing a loop, it started to spit. I was able to notice and admire these patriotic finials.
By the time we were back at the hotel, via the Post Office in my case, it was pouring.
And still was in the afternoon, so instead of pursuing my rural intentions, I did that standby of wet afternoons, the local museum.
Which was small and perfectly formed. I learned that the Clan Grant had been around for a few centuries when Sir James Grant of Grant, he of the Anagach Woods, and known as ‘the good Sir James’, decided, in the mid-eighteenth century, to create a town on the River Spey. It didn’t become quite the boom town he had hoped, because it was too distant from anywhere, but it throve nevertheless, especially once it had become such a sought after place for holidays and leisure a hundred years later.
I learned about the superclan (that’s my word) Chattan, and its motto ‘Touch not the cat bot [without] a glove’, meaning that they were fierce fighters. This was a confederation of clans and large families with origins at least as far back as the fourteenth century. The wild cats engraved on this large 1600s brooch, the Cromdale brooch, suggest it may have a connection to the Clan Chattan.
Alone in the museum, for 15 minutes I got quite emotional as I took up the invitation, below, to try the clàrsach, which was perfectly in tune, picking out tunes and even singing with it. (In the evening, I spent some time researching the cost of and how to play the instrument, I had been so moved by the experience, but have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I am unlikely to be any more successful with this instrument than I have been with any requiring the co-ordination of more than two fingers!)
Tearing myself away – I felt I could have stayed there for hours – I perused the rest of the museum, which featured various professions and achievements of the town’s residents, including the inventor of the flush toilet. (No pictures!)
I was fascinated by these next two images when I came to see them on screen. The light was flickering a little on the display of the curling stone, but my eyes did not see the complete darkness the camera did as it took the photos on burst.
Finally, the 1970s are clearly history to some, though I can remember the day we converted to decimal coins as if it were yesterday. Ironically, I was working in H M Treasury in Whitehall at the time. The lady on the sandwich kiosk was having a terrible time with the new coinage, and the queue was very long indeed!
Thursday, 30th May. It would have been nearly three months since my trip to southern Africa, so a few weeks ago I fixed a short, four-night break in this small town in Morayshire, on the northern edge of the Cairngorms. In the event, just a few days after burying my lovely cat, Lulu, killed on a country lane near to where I live, this was not the best of times to leave poor Bella behind, not was I really in the right mood to explore this new, for me, part of Scotland. But all was booked – flight, hire car, hotel – so I left home, hoping my sadness and guilt would not intrude too much.
The weather forecast for the five days was not great, but the worst was meant to be as I arrived, gradually improving over the period. So it was pleasing that, when I picked up the car (I’d booked and paid for the tiniest car possible, and they gave me a 2019 Astra with just 1350 miles on the clock) at Inverness Airport around midday, it was not actually raining, though there was a bitter wind. The hotel – more later – had sent me a load of information, so I had already made my plans for the afternoon. While waiting for the car, I had bought a sandwich, and drove along the Moray Firth to Nairn, when I parked by the small harbour and ate my lunch, looking at the northern side of the Firth through the windscreen. In the distance is a red ship, at, I think, the neck of the Cromarty Firth. It didn’t move all the time I was there.
Well wrapped up against the biting wind, I wandered around for a few minutes.
It was pleasing to see this sign on the harbour wall, but why only swans?
In the information from the hotel was a tip that there was a public car park, giving access to the beach, at the end of a road through a campsite, which otherwise I would have assumed to be entirely private. I went over the dunes …
on to the nearly deserted beach, and enjoyed the natural decorations.
I was wondering about the precise sizes of the oystercatcher and the black-headed gull …
… when a herring gull photo-bombed the picture and answered my question.
After a few minutes it started spitting, so, not wanting to get drenched, I set off to make my way back to the car. But it soon stopped, so I was able to take more pictures, of which this is one, looking back to Nairn.
It was now my intention to go to a place described as, ‘A beautifully scenic spot – the ruined Lochindorb Castle lies in the middle of Lochindorb, surrounded by heather-clad moorland and scattered woodland.’ Followed by a long list of birds which might be seen there and thereabouts. But well before I got there it was teeming with rain. I got out to take a couple of pictures on my way.
Approaching the loch I stopped to take this picture of the ruined castle.
And was delighted when a mother and six offspring ran across the road in front of my car. Fortunately I lunged for my camera. Had I not, but just driven on, one, then another, further offspring might well have been crushed. I managed to get this picture with all nine safely reunited.
I drove on, scarcely stopping anymore. There was no point with the rain lashing down. I just got this picture of the increasingly mountainous scenery.
I was pleased to arrive at the Grant Arms Hotel, in Grantown-on-Spey (pronounced ‘Granton’).
I had chosen it because it advertises itself as a wildlife hotel. It had already sent me a great deal of information, as I have said. As a guest you become a member of its ‘Bird Watching and Wildlife Club’. There is a library, masses more information about walks and suggested outings, and real live human experts on hand twice a day for tips and information, plus a few guided walks from the hotel, and evening talks about twice a week. They also have celebrity-led weeks from time to time.
The hotel itself is comfortable, traditional in furnishings, serving excellent food, and for me was very good value for money, as they charge per person not per room. I felt very well looked after.
Queen Victoria stayed there, incognito I read elsewhere.
Not incognito, and some time ago, another royal couple stayed there…
There was just one talk during my stay there, and it was that first evening. It was on Yellowstone National Park in the Fall. It was very interesting to make comparisons with my own stay there in the snow of February last year.
A friend told me about the Minterne Himalayan Gardens on Monday, and I visited the next day. This is an ideal time of year to go, because of the rhododendrons and the azaleas and other spring wild flowers, but the great collection of wonderful trees would justify a visit at any time of year. I took so many pictures that I cannot make a choice, so here for the record are lots and lots of them, with occasional commentary.
I decided to call in on the little church instead of returning straight home.
The very first Sir Winston Churchill, his wife, and his daughter are buried here. On the left is the grave of John Churchill, the first Winston’s father.
I felt particularly for this woman, ‘languishing under a tediouse sickness for halfe a year’ before she died.
And there were a few other commemorative plaques which caught my eye, some of which told interesting stories.
Until last Saturday, my only recollection of Gloucester had been of an incident at least 30 years previous. I had arrived, with others, by narrowboat in the docks, and, for reasons I can no longer remember, was wandering around in the area on my own. I was approached by a copper, who asked me to account for my whereabouts for the last 30 minutes or so. I did so, and he seemed content at my explanation. When I asked why he wanted to know, he told me that someone of my description had been seen leaving a local shop with stolen goods. (I was wearing blue jeans and a navy blue sweater, even more of a uniform those days than now.)
Anyway, this Saturday I went nowhere near the historic docks, though would have done so had I had the time. I was in the city to join in an early music singing workshop in the Parliament Rooms of Gloucester Cathedral. (All I have been able to discover about these rooms is that one of them was used by Richard II for a Parliament in 1378.) I couldn’t really take photographs of the workshop itself, but was pleased to have time during the lunch break to wander around in the immediate vicinity.
I must return to Gloucester to explore the docks once more, hoping to escape the beady eye of the law this time.
I had a choice at this point, to walk along a very busy road, or to enter a wood, where three years ago I had found carpets of bluebells.
There were no bluebells where I expected to find them. Either my memory was faulty or they had been stripped out. Or they had been suppressed by the acres of sedge that seemed to be everywhere. After a long while I did find some, but not in the swathes that I expected.
But happily they were English bluebells, with not a Spanish bluebell in sight, then or for the rest of my walk.
Impossible not to be aware of a great low-flying bird across my path. It settled in a tree to my left.
Then it flew off, to a much higher and much further tree, not yet covered in foliage.
A very pleasant afternoon. And other than on the first road, I didn’t meet a soul.
Our final day ended with a ‘sunset cruise’, intended, we were told, less to look for wildlife than to just enjoy the experience of being on the (Zambezi) river for a couple of hours. As I stood beforehand on the terrace of the Camp Nkwazi Lodge…
As people started embarking, I held back to get this picture, and feared that I was therefore condemned to sitting in the full sun of the open top deck. But in fact, given the breeze created by the movement of the boat, it was lovely up there.
It was very pleasant along the river, and, uniquely, sundowners were offered – I had gin and orange, the quinine in tonic not being good for my tinnitus. (Sorry, sufferers.)
We hugged the Zambian bank. I wondered if we would come back that way as well, given that halfway across the river we would be in Zimbabwe.
My geopolitical query was answered when we went well over the invisible dividing line halfway across the river when we turned round. So perhaps this trip should have been advertised as ‘Namibia/Botswana/Zambia/ Zimbabwe’. Though truth to tell, we had only ventured a few miles even into Botswana and Zambia.
We drift back over to the Zambian side.
I tried, not very successfully, to capture photos of birds low-flying back to their roosts.
As we arrived at the lodge, the owners signalled that there was a Finfoot (‘Uncommon resident.. resemble ducks and cormorants but … unrelated to these groups’, and not yet seen by us) on a small island nearby, so we went in search. Some got a reasonable but fleeting view, I saw it for about half a second scrambling up a bank, and some didn’t see it at all. No question of my photographing it.
But we did hear and see some trumpeting Trumpeter hornbills, and saw some more Hadeda ibis.
And could this be bettered as a final view at the end of a most fantastic and privileged trip?
PS. I went, last Saturday, to a Big Cat Festival in London organised by Bradt Travel Guides. There were lots of wonderful photographs, alongside some hard-hitting conservation messages. In Africa, except when we were at sewage works (!), where it was possible to see some wonderful birds, we had been in national parks, which exclude permanent human habitation. I would not like to have given the impression that these three countries are teeming with wildlife. Our visit was only possible because their governments see the value of preserving what remains of the living treasures they house. At the same time they are having to deal with expanding human populations, and drought.
At the Big Cat Festival, I saw this large picture, by Jonathan Truss. He kindly allowed people to take photos of it. (Sadly I only had my tiny phone with me.) If those lions we saw a few weeks ago had been even half the size of this imaginary one, I think that our confidence around them, even protected by our vehicles, would have been somewhat diminished!