Friday, 23 September 2016

Darkness be my friend

Kielder Observatory in a landscape free of light pollution

As we approached the autumn equinox, the darkening evening skies gave me the notion to seek out the dark skies, away from light pollution, to get a proper view of the night sky.
There are children and probably, adults in this country who have never seen the Milky Way, the "basket handle", arching across above us, the end-on view of our galaxy, our own wee spot in the universe.
Just down the road from us is the Northumberland National Park with its Dark Sky areas.
The whole area is outstandingly beautiful and around Keilder there is a concentration of spots to star gaze.

Skyspace  viewing point

I booked into a great B&B* and settled down to have an evening with the stars. Unfortunately, the observatory was booked for a private event so I was thrown back on my own resources but my hosts made two telescopes available and I had my binoculars.
The gods smiled upon me and the skies cleared for a great view of the southern sky. I am no expert but managed to find the square of Pegasus. Thank goodness for Perseus' mother-in-law, Cassiopeia. The elongated W of her constellation is always easily found and acted as a starting point.
The planets were all too low in the sky for me to see them. At least I think that was why I couldn't find them but as I said I have no expertise only enthusiasm. So, no Mars, Jupiter, Venus or Mercury. None of the old gods were on view.

The next day, full of classical allusions from the heavens, and, being in the area, I drove along the stretch of road that runs, like all Roman roads, in a dead straight line following Hadrian's Wall.

The straight Roman road and wall

At Vindolanda, robbed of its stone over the centuries, you can still catch a glimpse of the might and power of the conquerors. They didn't last. No empires do. Still, the site was occupied for over three hundred years... about six generations or more... a time as long as from the Union of the Parliaments, the creation of Great Britain, until now, except there was no Scotland or England or United Kingdom then. It was Britannia - the most northern province of the Roman Empire. Nations are mere accidents of history

What intrigued me most was a soldier's worn out boot, a caligula, recovered from the rubbish in the ditch and now in the museum. It had once marched along the road I had just driven or stood guard on the fort wall above. Its owner would have shivered in the cold wind from the north and might have looked up at the same stars as I did. There would have been no problem of light pollution for him as he stood on the ramparts.
The legions and cohorts manning the fort seem to have been mostly Gallic. Batavians, Nervians, and Tungrians drawn from what is now the Netherlands and Belgium so the climate wouldn't have been much different to their home but they would have had different names for the constellations. No Greek mythology for them.
Did they see their gods in the skies?
 There are temples to various deities on the Vindolanda site but their stones are mute.

Temple of Jupiter Dolichenus

I must return to the dark skies later in the year. 

Monday, 12 September 2016

Berwick Law

An extremely accurate East Lothian signpost !

Munros are getting a bit much for me these days so I thought I'd tackle a Marilyn instead.*

Berwick Law

Berwick Law or North Berwick Law is a conical volcanic plug that rises from the East Lothian countryside to dominate the harbour town.
The climb up the well worn path is relatively easy. The hill has the classic crag and tail outline with a steep easterly side and a slope on the west where , presumably, the lava flowed in a river of molten rock between three and four hundred million years ago.

Napoleonic Wars watch house

On top are a couple of watch stations, one from the Napoleonic Wars and another from WWII, a trig point and a whalebone arch. Strictly speaking the arch is fibreglass or similar material as the original whale's jaw bone deteriorated so much it had to be removed.  So used were people to looking up and seeing it that a facsimile was erected in its place.

Craigleith, lying off the harbour at North Berwick

Craigleith through the arch

The views from the top are wonderful. The other extinct volcanic outlets of the Bass, whitened by the guano from thousands of gannets, the Lomond hills and Arthur's Seat are clearly visible. 

The Bass

You can see the Fife coast and up to Ben Chonzie and Ben Vane amongst the Lomond Munros.

Fidra  and the Lomond Hills

To the south across the fertile farmlands of East Lothian, the farms look like islands in a sea of arable fields.

There are Exmoor ponies on Berwick Law. They were introduced to keep the tussocky grass cropped for the wild flowers to regenerate.

The ponies' grazing seems to be working

I completed a circumnavigation of the entire hill, including a scrambley ascent of the steep east side, following their hoof prints and (fresh !) droppings but saw nary a sign of them.

Still, an enjoyable wee climb on a sunny day.

* A Marilyn is a mountain or hill in the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland or Isle of Man with a prominence of at least 150 metres (492 ft), regardless of absolute height or other merit.
There are over 2000 in Britain including two of the sea stacks of St Kilda.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Autumn arrives

Hotter than Spain on our beach

Autumn is here. Despite the sunshine – the beach hut thermometer recorded 30 degrees C two days ago - the close bosom-friend of the maturing sun is conspiring to change the season. The haws are ripening, the brambles are getting black and juicy and the autumn crocuses and cyclamen are out beneath the cherry tree.

 The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies. *

Autumn crocuses and cyclamens

Time to prune back the shrubs and trees leaving the fuchsia magellenica to last as the bees are still feeding on its flowers.  Ballerina flowers our children called them.

Like a little dancer
Pruning one of the bigger bushes, I came across a tiny nest, its cup not much bigger than a 1p coin.
I think it must have been a goldfinch or a wren though the latter's nests are usually domed. Good luck to the industrious little architect anyway and here's hoping for a mild winter.

Cleaning out the bird boxes brought another collection of old nests, a robin's with man-made fibres woven into it. A reflection of our times.

Some time ago, our beach was threaten by erosion and the local council planted marram grass. Coarse and prone to give a bare leg a jag, it provoked outrage from the beach hut owners. Time has shown the wisdom of the move. For once the council got it right as the thick mat of roots stabilised the sands and now the area has been colonised by the tougher wild flowers - ragwort. campion, yarrow and ox-eye daisy as well as the ubiquitous nettles and plantain.

 There are even a few tiny trees taking hold- elder and sycamore. The butterflies and bees have followed in. It looks like the beach is safe from further elemental damage ere winter's storms begin.

 *Ode to Autumn

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

A hazel nut in every bite!

The barley is ripening, the harvesting has begun, summer's course is almost run.  Autumn is hiding round the corner waiting to... 
"... fill all fruit with
ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd,
and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel" *


It has just been St Philibert's day, so I bicycled up to the dean to see if the filberts were ready. We are a bit far north so they are usually a week or so later than the due date.

Hazel trees in the dean

St Philibert of Jumieges doesn't seem to have any connection with the hazelnut tree or its fruit other than having his feast day around the time when they appear. He seems to have been a fairly unexciting seventh century abbot (608-684) in what is now France at the time of the Meringovian kings.
Much more exciting was Fionn mac Cumhaill or Finn Mac Coul or Fingal

The young Fionn met the druid and poet Finnegas near the river Boyne and studied under him. Finnegas had spent seven years trying to catch the Salmon of Knowledge which lived in a pool on the river and had became all-knowing through its diet of hazelnuts dropped from a holy tree: whoever ate the salmon would gain all the knowledge in the world. Eventually, the old man caught it and told the boy to cook it for him. While cooking it, Fionn burned his thumb, and instinctively put his thumb in his mouth. This imbued him with the salmon's wisdom, and when Finnegas saw that he had gained wisdom, he gave young Fionn the whole salmon to eat.

Finn Mac Coul became a giant figure, sometimes literally, in Celtic - Irish, Scottish and Manx - legend creating the Giant's Causeway and Fingal's cave.

Eating the filberts has never had much effect on my mental or physical stature but following the path of the stream down the dean to the shore looking for hazel nuts and sloes has always been a pleasure so thanks to good old Philibert for the reminder.

The dean - a wildlife haven

Eventually, it reaches the shore
* From 'To Autumn' by John Keats

Monday, 25 July 2016

Evolution before my eyes

Dog minding has its advantages. It gets you out to the beach in the early hours when it's empty apart from a very few other dog lovers.
The sea was calm, the sun was warm but had yet to get hot enough to make exercise an effort.

Terns were fishing out on the bay, too far out to distinguish species. It was the same with a group of divers – birds that is, not sub aqua enthusiasts though we get plenty of those as well.
The fact that there were four together made me think they were black-throated divers which do sometimes gather in groups in the summer but, without binoculars, they were just divers.
These summer visitors are a welcome sight especially in a year when we have had so few swallows and house martins.

Common, Arctic, sandwich, little, or roseate terns must have all had a common ancestor before they evolved into their specialised species and so with great northern, red-throated and black-throated divers. or swallows, sand-martins and house-martins.
Darwin went to the Galapagos and studied the finches on the different islands before the penny dropped that they all arose from one original stock and yet it is plain to see, all around us, once the idea of evolution of species is accepted.

Following the burn up from the beach, I came across another visitor that has made its home here.
The monkey flower. Mimulus guttatus, which apparently started off as a wild flower in North America.

With one hundred and sixty different variants from annuals to woody-stemmed small shrubs, the mimulus species has become a leading model system for studying ecological and evolutionary genetics in nature.

A marmalade hover fly follows the "landing strip"  of red markers leading to the nectar and the pollen

There is to be an expedition to The Cradle of Storms, the remote Aleutian Islands off Alaska, to try and prove that the ancestor of the Scottish variety of monkey flower arose there and was brought back to Europe by a Russian -German explorer, Grigori von Langsdorff, in the nineteenth century.
There they were, growing in our burn, apparently a master of adaptation.
Evolution on our doorstep.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Bridges and castles

Under the bridges up the river path

The lap-top had to go to the local computer expert to get some glitches fixed. Computers are a bit like modern cars. Most of us use them daily to make all sorts of digital journeys to the shops, the bank, the library, even to the doctor's sometimes, but we haven't much idea what makes them tick so when they stop, it pays to get an expert opinion rather than tinker by yourself.

Waiting to collect the item, I spent a pleasant hour strolling along the banks of the Tweed from the Old Bridge built in the early seventeenth century to the Royal Tweed Bridge, which replaced it in the early twentieth century.

Looking up from the path, I could see the looming walls of the splendidly intact Elizabethan walls around the town.
 The great swan herd that gathers on the tweed estuary in the autumn was diminished presumably by the availability of food and nest sites upriver but some remained to glide seamlessly beneath the arches with the flow of the current.

The Royal Border Rail Bridge from the gun slit of the riverside guard-house

Further up the river the East Coast mainline crosses on the Royal Border Bridge, a magnificent viaduct carrying the railway to and from Berwick station.

The railway skirts the ramparts of Berwick's fortifications but the castle built by King David in the thirteenth century to protect what was then the major Scottish port, was in the way so it was demolished. The Great Hall where fate of the Scottish crown was decided is now a platform with an information board. 

The remains of the curtain wall - the White Wall - and a tower with gun-loops to guard access to the river are all that remains. After three hundred years of warfare between the Scots and the English when it changed hands many times and three hundred years of united peace, the castle had to make way for the railway.

The castle as it was with the guard house on the riverside

In the nineteenth century the impact of the railways must have been as encompassing as that of the internet today. Isolated villages where things had changed little since Jamie the Saxth of Scotland went south across the Tweed to become James I of the United Kingdom, now had access to and information about the wider world.

The internet has connected people all over the world in the way that the railways connected everyone in the country.

I can just carry it about on a phone or a laptop and ancient piles are safe.

 Someone created this whimsical boat from driftwood

Friday, 1 July 2016

... and there in a wood a piggywig stood

Beech trees and pignuts in the Dell

The Dell is one of my favourite spots. A little wood along the banks of a burn, mostly beech and ash trees, it was almost certainly planted in times when the estate and farms surrounding it would have been self sufficient in raw materials. Ash for tool handles, building and fuel, beech for pannage, fodder for pigs.

Others appreciate the quietude of the Dell

 Pigs thrive in woodland especially on beech mast. I've no doubt that the wood was planted more than a century ago with pigs in mind.

The reason I'm so sure is the abundance of pig-nut, conpodium majus, growing on the woodland floor.

Conopodium majus

 They are a fairly common plant, an indicator of long established grasslands.

The delicate leaf fronds and the creamy white flower heads are not what the pigs like. It is the nut or tuber at the end of the long root that is so attractive. At one time country folk especially children would dig up the nuts to eat. They are a bit like hazel nuts or sweet chestnuts to eat but, as they aren't nuts, they have no hard shell. They seem to be a sort of tuber

The  pig nut or the earth nut

Their presence was probably the reason for the planting of beech trees in the Dell. Unlike ash, beech don't spread seed easily and are usually a deliberate planting. Someone thought, "add the beech to the pig nuts and we've got a great place for pigs to forage and fatten for free"

Pig-nuts or earth-nuts are sometimes called St Anthony's nuts after the patron saint of swineherds!

Now the local pigs have a much more organised lifestyle. They still live out with their offspring in amenable surroundings but they have a diet of concentrated food pellets from hoppers to ensure a predictable end product.

There is one little day-flying moth that relies entirely on the pig-nut for food for its caterpillars. The chimney sweeper moth is black with white edges to its wings. There were none flying the day I was there but they do prefer bright sunshine, a commodity in short supply of late.

There are no pigs rooting about in the Dell now but that does leave more pignuts for the chimney sweepers

 Shakespeare must have grubbed up pig nuts as a child for he understood the difficulty of finding them at the end of the long, easily broken root

"I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow; and I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts"*

Crab apples or scrogs as the Scots would call them were also planted where the pig-nuts grew to provide food for pigs.

*  Caliban in The Tempest.