out and about

More Stoats (nature notes)

What did I say?!

It had been a strange and frustrating journey home this evening. I set off in good time but my fellow drivers had other ideas:

First, there was an HGV struggling up a very steep hill. No problem on most days as it’s served by a dual carriageway. However, a guy two cars in front, driving what looked like a perfectly able car, barely managed to go faster than the trucker.

Secondly, I came across an unexpected tailback. It was caused by a stationary horsebox – not the trailer type but one of those pantechnicon things which always seem to be driven by a middle-aged, mumsie-looking woman in a gilet and head scarf. Sure enough, a woman seen matching that description – though minus scarf (it was warm) -could be seen on the other side of the road waving down traffic. God knows what that was about; maybe she’d misplaced her nag.

Following this, I managed to get behind slower-than-the-speed limit no. 2 but after a few twisty bends, the road opened up enough to pass. A couple more twisty bends and I was behind an old banger – slower-than-the-speed limit no. 3. It was an MG open-topped death trap, emitting a stench of two parts burnt oil to one part raw fuel, each time the driver shifted gear.

Finally, we hit another straight stretch where I passed safely. All in vain: around the next bend was a Romanian HVG barely touching 30. The speed limit for the road is 60mph.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too far from the cut through, a narrow country lane, where I spotted a stoat a week back. I turned into the lane and cruised about a mile from where the stoat was seen when I saw a group of animals scurrying along in the distance, tight into the verge.

I took them for partridge initially as there is a lot of game bred in these parts. I slowed right down as I approached them as birds are unpredictable, but then the group suddenly turned a right angle and I could see they were definitely stoats. One hundred percent.

Four of them, running across the road, leapfrogging, and playing what could have been stoat tag. I’m guessing they were siblings. What is the group noun for stoats? What do you call them at birth? A litter? A kettle? I don’t yet know.

The lesson of this tale to take away is not to get irritated by delay. It’s just time’s way of presenting an different experience. Had I not been held up, I’m sure I would have passed by long before the stoats happened to cross. It was a rewarding sight.


Talking to Strangers

Thanks to umanbn (Mark Hodgson) – whose drawings blog I follow – for highlighting the Humans of New York project, which is fascinating. Brandon Stanton is a photographer who explains the project in his “About” page;

“Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010. The initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants.”

In essence, he takes someone’s portrait in the street and gets them to tell their story, a little bit about themselves, and transcribes it below their picture. I see some of those guys are really keen to talk. They must feel a need to tell their story. It’s probably a good deal.

What began in NY has now extended beyond the US; I’ve been reading a few pieces from within Europe. People from all over, happily talking to a stranger with a camera.

I don’t know if he’s approached any Londoners. It’s been a while since I thought about myself being a Londoner but casting my thoughts back, I’m not sure many would easily reveal their personal history to a complete stranger. We hardly dare make eye contact. London is a busy, crowded place and you have to create a kind of privacy within.

It reminded me of a time in my youth when I had to use the public bus to get to work. Normally, you’d look for two empty seats together so you sat alone; if there wasn’t any, you might prefer to stand in the aisle rather than take a seat beside a stranger. But sometimes you’d take a chance, especially if the journey was long.

So I sat down besides this guy, a very vocal, slightly drunk, probably, middle-aged Irishman, and he immediately began telling me his life story. When he felt he’d exhausted that subject, he went on to tell me my own life expectations – even though he didn’t know me from Adam! He invented all kinds of bollocks, all of it implausible. I mean, I ought to be famous by now, as rich as Croesus, and a great political statesman to boot. It was excruciating at the time – but funny afterwards.

I’ve just remembered, our BBC have done a similar thing with The Listening Project, a series of short interlude pieces recorded for radio. I think they set up a recording booth in a chosen place and people go in, often in pairs, to talk about themselves.

The whole world wants an opportunity to talk, it seems. They ought to start a blog.

Humans of New York

The Listening Project (BBC)

image of two people on bench in Osaka, Japan, by Andrew Leu via Unsplash.com

Shorts, innit?

a flash-fiction piece

It had been the wettest Saturday since records began, they said, and football’s cancelled. The boys were disappointed. Still, it was May and I said, on with the shorts! Shorts are the best, in my opinion; you can’t go wrong. Well, except the young ‘un. He kicked up a stink, threw himself on the floor, big tantrum. I give in. Life’s too short.

She said, we’ll go to the park, it’s stopped raining. We put our waterproofs on, just the same. Life’s too short to muck about in a wet shirt. Good thing about shorts: your legs dry off quick.

(100 words)

written for Bikurgurl’s 100 Word Wednesday Writing Challenge: Week 120

image by Bikurgurl.

We Grow Accustomed To The Darkness

a writing prompt challenge

In the school where I go to learn yoga, the men’s changing room is just off the entrance hall. It’s a small room, not much more than six feet by eight. There is a low bench along the wall on which to put your clothes and the arrangement of its sparse furniture has been the same for more than fifteen years.

I arrive early: to bag a good spot and get into the right frame of mind for the session. I’m usually the first in and, entering the changing room, there is enough light spilling in from the bright hall to see by so I won’t turn on the light. How much do you need to see to remove one’s trousers and top, fold them and place them on the bench which has always been there? An act most could do with their eyes closed, and besides, it all takes no more than ten seconds.

If another student comes in while I’m changing, usually his hand goes automatically to the light switch; he may give me an odd look and may question me about getting changed in the dark. But the question surely is; why do something habitually, without any thought?

When I was a boy scout, one of my favourite exercises was the night hike. There were six patrols in our group, about five to six boys in each, and we’d be driven in a minibus and several volunteers’ cars to six different places in the countryside. Having been deposited in the strange gloom, the patrol leader was handed a map and compass, shown where we were on the map and a destination to arrive at before dawn.

I don’t remember it ever being frightening. When you’re the youngest, you look up to the older members, even though the oldest is only sixteen, four years older than yourself. When you are the oldest, you are their patrol leader. If you’re the mindful sort, you feel the responsibility for the others, especially the new boy, but you’ve been there before, and several times. Not the same place, exactly, nor the same destination sought but the nighttime, in very unfamiliar surroundings, can appear as a homogeneity: the habit we form of seeing it instinctively. It’s not a place you want to give in to.

When the grownups leave, it’s better we face our situation squarely and piece together the clues that eventually reveal themselves, as we grow accustomed to the darkness.

written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge writing prompt #81 – “as we grow accustomed to the darkness”

Reena’s prompt this week is also provided by the poem, “We Grow Accustomed To The Dark” by Emily Dickinson, in this animation by Hannah Jacobs

image: “Full moon over Greece” by Jason Blackeye via Unsplash.com

The Road Gang

We are settling into village life more and more and I received a nice email thanking me for my participation in the village tidy up. There were about a dozen of us meeting up last Saturday morning. We each had a pair of gloves, a hi-vis tabard, a plastic sack and one of those extended picker devices operated by a trigger so we didn’t have to keep bending down. Then we scattered to different points of the compass to pick litter.

The last time I went on litter patrol was at school. Then, it was seen as a punishment for some trivial felony, like refusing to wear a school cap or picking one’s nose in religious education. Although there was the ecological and aesthetic benefit to school, the purpose behind it was more humiliation.

But on this occasion it felt good and worthy. It helped that the morning’s weather was mild and sunny, and my stretch of road offered high views across the fields where there were sheep and lambs and cattle.

It was a big sack and I was worried I’d not fill it and look like a worthless newbie on my debut. So I busied myself with every speck of paper and dog end I could spot while my companions strode forth and were soon almost out of sight. I needn’t have worried; a little past the village welcome sign, I found all sorts of discarded detritus. Mostly, it was the expected soda pop cans, coffee cups and drink cartons, occasionally a takeaway container and a burger meal bag. I did find the broken remains of a car accident which filled up the sack to breaking point – I knew then I wasn’t to fail.

The oddest things I picked up in the space of an hour were, a large medicine bottle with a prescription label, an empty economy bottle for hair conditioner, a plastic box for small tools – the places for pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches etc. were clearly indented – a race competitor’s number label, 106 – I hope she or he wasn’t disqualified for losing this – and a pair of cut down denim jeans.

I got the hand of the extended litter picker eventually but I will say a thank you to all those considerate individuals who crush their cans before throwing them out the car window. Crushed cans are a lot easier to pick up with an extended litter picker than uncrushed ones – these tend to slip away as soon as they’re clamped. So, thank you crushers! A little thoughtfulness in a world of mindlessness makes life a little better.

Yeah, right.

Out & About

Bredon Hill (Overbury, Bredon Hill, Ashton-under-Hill, Grafton);
Cotswold Walk no.28; 9.5 miles; (6 hours inc. stops)

In summertime on Bredon 
The bells they sound so clear; 
Round both the shires they ring them 
In steeples far and near, 
A happy noise to hear.

(from “Bredon Hill”, a poem by AE Housman)

The sentiment once put to me that “October can be nice, also” has certainly had some traction this Autumn. I head off at the crack of dawn to the village of Overbury to walk Bredon Hill, the last of Jarrold’s Cotswold walks.

I don’t remember where I came by this book now, whether I bought it myself or whether it was a gift. From the many photographs I took on the first walk, an easy two and a half mile stroll around Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, I can see it began in 2006. I’d splashed out on some decent boots and I am now wearing my fourth pair. It’s a long time over which to complete twenty-eight walks – they could easily be done in a couple of years, I think – but events thwart all endeavours, and god and mice and men. To say nothing of the vagaries of our weather. I am a fair-weather walker, no point in going out to enjoy myself and not enjoying myself.

If you want views, this is a walk for you. They’re almost aerial in a sense, as near as you can look down over a broad landscape and still be on terra firma. The climb is gradual and not too arduous; I was passed by two middle-aged guys on mountain bikes.

Healing Stones

Halfway up, hidden amongst shrubs and trees, are the King and Queen Stones, though I counted at least three separate ones. They are said to have healing properties so I touched the zip of my old and favourite fleece jacket against them as the fastening has become temperamental lately. I’m sorry to say it remains temperamental. Oh well.

Atop The Hill

The summit is expansive and ringed with a typical dry stone wall over which you can see the Midlands of England spread out to the hazy distance. To the west, the dark hills and mountains of Wales. The flatness of the country rising abruptly to the Cotswolds gave me a clear impression of a geological catastrophe. It felt quite surreal, like being in a foreign place. I wished I had a more sophisticated camera than that on my mobile phone, though the emotional response to landscapes can be practically impossible to capture.

Lunch @ The Star

I made The Star Inn pub at Ashton-under-Hill at one o’clock – perfect timing for lunch. It’s a traditional pub and it was very welcoming. I wasn’t familiar with any of the three ales they had on draught and so the landlord talked me through them, and I took a chance on one by Three Brothers. It was very good and complemented my bacon, brie and cranberry sandwich nicely.

As you might notice from the pic, I sat out in their garden, the weather was so good. I wasn’t alone either. October was nice also for a number of drinkers and lunchers.

Saint Barbara Lost Her Noggin

Ashton-under-Hill is a quaint village of mixed buildings, some in Cotswold style, some thatched cottages and some red brick. I poked my nose in their church, as I do. It’s dedicated to St. Barbara, apparently one of only three churches dedicated to her. She was a comely lass, as legend goes; a Syrian possibly, from a heathen family. Her Dad locked her away in a tower to avoid suitors and in this prison she found Christ, much to the annoyance of Dad. When she refused to renounce her new faith, he cut off her head.

The Red not-a-Phone Box

It’s an hour’s walk back to the car which I left in Overbury, passing through the hamlets of Grafton and Conderton. At Grafton, there is a red public phone box, a fine example of one of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s designs, an British icon along with red buses and red postboxes – all red, we must have had a lot of red paint.

I read somewhere there are 40,000 of these phone boxes in existence though British Telecom is gradually removing the innards as use is dwindling due to everyone owning mobile phones. Though the equipment is removed, the boxes may remain and used for different purposes. Housing a defibrillator is quite a common use now. Another use you see in some places is a local lending library where residents donate their unwanted books. Grafton’s box serves both functions, though I can’t imagine any of the titles displayed in it giving anyone cardiac trouble. Still, it looked a well cared for little red box.

A great walk.

By the by, I found out that Ordnance Survey have taken over publishing the Jarrold Walking Guides. My edition has been superseded, and hopefully updated, but the walks are the same. They are very good, look out for them.

Please click on the pics to embiggen. Preferring to walk light, I don’t take a camera and make do with my mobile phone. Whilst okay for portraits and figure images, it tends to be disappointing for panoramic landscapes, which are difficult anyway. Sorry for the quality. After this, I’m thinking of rooting out one of my old cameras and seeing if I can get it to work. But then again…

Out & About

Great Rollright, Long Compton, Little Rollright & The Rollright Stones;
Cotswold Walk no. 27; 9 miles (5 hours inc. stops)

This is the penultimate walk in the Jarrold book of Cotswold Walks; 28 walks in all and they’ve lasted me about twelve years (I think I did the first in 2006, though I’d have to check). It’s a circular walk which, according to the book, should start off in a lay-by just outside Long Compton. As this village is home to the only pub on the route, I park up in the village of Great Rollright, diametrically opposite Long Compton, aiming to hit the pub at lunchtime. I mean, come on! Also this means visiting the neolithic Stones nearer the end of the walk which seems proper.

I couldn’t have pocked a better day: the sky is azure with just a few wisps of my second favourite clouds, high cirrus, as if castor sugar has been blown across a blue tablecloth, here and there. The temperature is mid-teens and there’s just a hint of fresh breeze; the sunshine still has the power to warm the muscles; perfect walking weather.

The preamble in the book warns it is “quite demanding and hilly” but the last leg, which for me is the first leg, is all downhill. Will I regret this? Actually, it isn’t bad at all in the end, just a steep climb out of Long Compton – straight outta Compton, I want to say – there, I’ve said it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Red Lion at Long Compton is a beautiful pub with a fabulous lunchtime menu. I’m walking so settle for a fish finger sandwich in ciabata with tartar sauce and a lemon dressing salad, a portion of chips (fries) on the side. The beer is Hooky which is a local brew and pretty good too. They think I’m nuts wanting to eat in the garden; there’s a roaring log fire in the bar but it looks a bit too warm in there and I don’t want to waste the glorious sunshine.

Climbing up and over into Little Rollright, the views are spectacularly bucolic. This area is on the edge of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds and I can probably see clear across Warwickshire and a few counties beyond. As with the weather, the visibility is perfect.

There’s not much to Little Rollright apart from a quaint little church in need of love and restoration, a few select houses and soon I’m walking along a field and can see the Rollright Stones in the distance. It comprises three groups, the first I come across are the Whispering Knights. These are actually the remains of a burial chamber (3500 years BC) but the three upright stones are close together, it’s easy to see how these resemble three characters huddled together, plotting against the King.

Some hundreds of yards away is a circle of stones known as the King’s Men (2500 years BC). The myth is that these can’t be counted. If anyone can count the same number three times in a row, they get their wish. I counted 71 stones on the first go around. I only got up to 30 on the second pass, recognising the 30th stone as the 29th one on the first pass. I left it as that, life’s to short to disprove a thousand year old myth.

The legend with all these stones is that a witch or witches turned the men into stones, as witches do. Close to the circle, an artist has sculpted three witches from hazel switches, dancing joyfully in a ring, holding hands. They looked really good. (These are actually intended to be fairies, I now find.)

Across the main road stands the King Stone, alone. He’s just short of the most wonderful view on the walk, a panorama of lowland England in its glory. Yep, he was hoping to see it too but the witches blocked it from his view. Then they turned him to stone for good measure. This guy is a bit younger than the others, Bronze Age (1500 years BC).

From here, the book says follow the road but from the map I see if I back track to the Knights and head through a wood, I can pick up a path over fields back to Great Rollright. And this is what I do.

It was a fantastic walk, with the weather one of the best in the book. Only one more left to do. What then?

The Rollright Stones

And October can be nice also

Well I am pleased to have quit work in time to enjoy the Autumn. There was a danger of it rolling on into Winter and I didn’t want that.

Though the weather in England is unpredictable and often disappointing day by day, we do have the two beautiful, though short, seasons, Spring and Autumn, which I think are sadly absent in a lot of the world. Spring is Life and Autumn for Contemplation, the best seasons in my view.

Autumn is a beautiful word for it, quaint and comforting, though Fall is better descriptive of what happens with the deciduous leaves; deciduous itself a wonderfully sounding word, from decidere, to fall down.

In my younger days, there was a colleague called Stefan. He was a peaceful guy with a soft Polish accent. One lunchtime, we came across one another out walking around a large public park in Ealing, London. It was a fine day as we talked about it. I said how much I liked September, when the weather could be great. He said, and I remember it exactly, both the words and the sound of his voice,

“And October can be nice also.”

And he is right.

image by Annie Spratt via Unsplash.com

Days For The Diary

My rolling subscription to Ordnance Survey maps brought to my attention that this coming 30th September will be the inaugural National Get Outside Day here in the UK.

There seems to be a day dedicated to everything and anything you care to think of (just think of something and google it adding “day” to the end, you’ll see. And there is a day especially for blogging – Blog Action Day, 3rd November – a date for your diary.)

Given that there are trillions of things imaginable and just 365 days in which to do them, it’s clear there’s going to be days shared by several celebrations, commemorations, endeavours and activities. I trust there’s at least someone keeping a register to prevent a conflict of interest. I mean, you don’t want Get Outside Day to fall on the same 24 hours as Stay In Bed All Day Day, now would you?

Blog Action Day (3rd November)

National Get Outside Day (30th September)

Stay In Bed Day (16th September)