Thursday, 29 September 2011

At Last a Summer

What a fabulous week we are having, after a rubbish summer, we have had guaranteed hot, sunny and cloudless days this week with more to come. It's like we have suddenly gone backwards into July, this really has been a topsy-turvy year. Every day this week it has simply been a case of enjoying it to the full, on the reserve in the mornings, followed by gardening, etc, and then after lunch out for long cycle rides around Minster and finally an hour or two sunbathing in the garden with a cold beer to finish - looking for birds has been put aside for just this week.
And yet, amazingly, I read a blog last night, by a guy who rarely misses a days birdwatching, in which he complained that this rare, hot sunny weather meant that there were few birds about for him to count and therefore he might not see as many as last month, now how sad is that!

Anyway, I have mentioned before how the road going out to Warden Point ends, due to cliff erosion, by suddenly going over the edge of the cliffs, which are very high. If you double click on this photo and enlarge it you will see the tarmac road suddenly end at the edge, although it is of course blocked off just behind where I took the photo.

It must be unique that just a couple of miles to the west a second road does exactly the same - Oak Lne in Minster. Unfortunately there there end of the road is all overgrown with bushes and so I couldn't get a similar photo but this next one, slightly to the left, illustrates the edge once again of the cliffs, looking out to sea.

Turning to the left and this is the view from the top of the cliffs at Oak Lane looking down onto Minster Leas and beach.
Oak Lane itself has always been a very quaint old lane, barely a car's width wide and we used to cycle up there from Sheerness as youngsters to enjoy the wildlife and the risks involved of making our way down the steep and boggy cliffs to the beach. Even nowadays people still have to be rescued by Coastguards through getting trapped in the boggy conditions there.
The cliffs here are very sandy with sheer frontage and throughout my youth and early teens were home each year to a large Sand Martin breeding colony, which fourty odd years ago suddenly died out and has never returned, despite it remaining suitable habitat.

Oak Lane is a turning off of the main road running from Minster to Eastchurch and directly opposite is another side road running southwards in the opposite direction and this one is called Elm Lane. This one too is a reminder of how beautiful Sheppey's lanes and countryside used to be and halfway along it is a place where the old Sheppey Light Railway used to cross on its way to Brambledown. But for me, the best part of Elm Lane is still thankfully, Tadwell Farm and its views across southern Sheppey to the mainland. It has been in the same family for many years and is still farmed with old-fashioned ideals in mind and is superb. Double click on it to enlarge and enjoy the view.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Sloe Gin and Mists

It was beautifully autumnal over the weekend, especially the early mornings, with mists and spectacular sun-rises. With all that mists and mellow fruitfullness stuff in mind my thoughts turned to sloe gin this morning and I determined to get out and pick some sloes. To be correct you should wait until they have had a frost on them but sloes on Sheppey always seem to disappear quite quickly so I picked mine this morning and will give them a few days in the freezer to mimic a frost. The crop this year is as good as I've seen it and the bushes are well laden as you can see from this photo.

Picking something free from the countryside is always a special treat and it was just so this early morning, with the sun on my back and The Swale and Harty Ferry to my side. A Robin accompanied me with its wistful autumn song, two Great Tits made their way through the hedgerow and all was well with the world.
Sloe gin is a delightful winter's drink and so welcome when arriving back home on a frozen winter's evening from a late afternoon bird count, frosty darkness outside and cold hands are soon forgotten as those first few sips are swallowed.

Saturday was a favourite type of weather for me, thick mist to the height of a house and then clear blue skies above it and getting to the reserve before it was fully light made it even better. Clarity of sound is amazing and it carries for miles and things suddenly loom out of the mist as it closes in thickly and then recedes again, a spookiness that I love.
Midge in a mist.

And gradually the sky gets bluer as the sun struggles to break clear of the horizon and the mist and then all the aeroplane con-trails seem to lead towards it. A slight breeze stirs and the mist becomes more mobile as the sun attracts it like a magnet and burns it up and then suddenly, its all gone and the curtain rises on a beautiful autumn morning.

Dawn on Sunday saw no mist, just a lovely sunrise across the saltings and a new set of con-trails still leading towards the sun. (Double click on it and enlarge it for a better view)

Later in the morning on the farmland they were sowing the winter wheat into bone dry ground and the continuing drought is illustrated by the dust cloud being kicked up from the soil. We have a mini-heatwave forecast for the next week or so and so it looks like the birdless conditions on the reserve are set for some time yet.

"The dog-pissed doorway stains
an the shop fronts,
have to wait now until it rains,
sadness like an empty bottle of wine,
is all that remains,
an dust blows in circles
as eyes weep their stains

memories like anchors, weigh
heavy on the soul"...............................Derek Faulkner

Monday, 19 September 2011

Dry Days and Memories

Well, another week has passed by and its still difficult to come up with anything new from the reserve. The dryness out there now has probably exceeded last autumn's drought and it is the driest I've known it in my 25 years wardening out there. Yes, you can still see good numbers of birds at the traditional High Tide Roosts at Shellness Point and Harty saltings but on the main grazing marsh its pretty dire. Walking round each day it's very difficult to find anything substantial, a few Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails still pass through and there are usually a Chifchaff or two in the boundary hedgerows, but little else. Even the local wildfowlers have pretty much stopped coming because of a lack of wildfowl, which I suppose can't be a bad thing. Its hard to see when these conditions will change, certainly not this side of New Year I shouldn't think.
Its also getting colder in the mornings now and yesterday as I drove down to Shellness Point at dawn there were several patches of frost on a few low lying pieces of marsh. Its that awkward time of year where you start off in a coat because its so chilly and then an hour or so later, when the sun has come up, you're too hot. I took this photo yesterday morning from Shellness beach just as the sun was about to come out.

Back on the main reserve and the floating mink trap is still being used as a feeding platform by the water voles as you can see. (I've unsprung the trap to avoid catching them in it)

Even these two young marsh frogs got in on the act and were doing a bit of sunbathing. (Double click on the photo and enlarge it for a better view)

I'm afraid that the rest of the blog is aimed at a few ex-Sheppey-ites that I know read it, a few places that they might recall.
This first one is at Sheerness East. The shrubbery at the side of the RH house was the track of the old Sheppey Light Railway before it crossed the Halfway Road to the Sheerness East station, which used to be alongside where I was standing and behind me would of been the old bus station. You may recall that the RH house was a sweet shop for many years.

I moved out to the Warden Road for this next photo, the Wheatsheaf Inn, which some might of used and its still going strong today.

And just round the corner from the Warden Road is Plough Lane, probably the only lane left on Sheppey that still looks much as it always did. To the left is Garretts Farm and to the right is Connetts Farm, out on the cliffs.

From the same spot I swung right and over the top of Eastchurch Gap there is the familiar sight of the old WW2 Maunsell Forts.

And lastly, two shots of the walk along Sheerness seafront towards Garrison Point, with the Moat and the few remaining wartime buildings from the old army garrison there. Double click on each and enlarge and recall your memories from there, I took the photos standing close to where the old "Greenhill" would of been - now there's some memories we'd better not talk about!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Shurland Hall

I went to the reserve earlier today but with a gale force wind and horizontal drizzle blowing across the marsh and me getting very damp, I quickly decided that I'd leave such unrewarding conditions to those that feel it classes them as somehow superior, and returned home after an hour.
No such weather on Saturday afternoon when in hot, humid and sunny conditions I enjoyed for the first time in my life the opportunity to look round the recently repaired remains of Shurland Hall, it was open to the public for just three hours.

To those of us that have lived all of our lives on Sheppey, Shurland Hall has always been this mysterious and empty Elizabethen hall that stand on its own in fields to the rear of Eastchurch village on Sheppey. Somewhere that we could never visit or get close too as it yearly fell into disrepair and our only ancient building of great historical significance. Recently however a London based charity, with grants from the government and others, spent a few years replacing the Hall's derelict roof, rebuilding the chimneys, re-pointing large parts of the outside and repairing all the inside rooms, although they remain bare.
In the picture below you can see members of the public enjoying views of the surrounding Sheppey countryside from the roof.

The chimneys had to be rebuilt exactly as they were, with only old photographs as a guide and even used mortar mixed with local seashells, exactly as originally. Even more impressive, if you double click on the photo and enlarge it, is the fact that the brick work in the chimney spirals, a superb piece of re-created skill by a modern day lady bricklayer!
Something that impressed me whilst on the roof, were the views, it must be one of the few places on Sheppey where the view on all four sides remains pretty much as it was hundreds of years ago - no housing estates etc. just old farmland.

Shurland Hall has connections with two of Sheppey's most famous families from the Middle Ages - the de Shurlands and the Cheyneys.
The original Shurland Hall, some say castle, had stood on the site and been owned by the de Shurlands for many years before being inherited by one Sir Thomas Cheyne in 1496. He did not like what was by then an old hall and so between 1510 and 1518 built a new and splendid hall, surrounded by twelve, square, walled quadrangles. It was classed at the time as a "stately residence" and had no expense spared on it. It was the main hall to a huge estate that took in most farms and marshes at that end of Sheppey.
In 1532 King Henry VIII and his new wife Anne Bolyne stayed at the Hall for a few days whilst on their honeymoon and en-route to see Francis I in France. They were entertained at near financially crippling expense by Sir Thomas Cheyne, to great feasts and much hunting on the estate.
It seems that by the early 1600's the Hall had already begun to fall into disrepair and went through several changes of ownership, none of them continuing to spend much money on it.
Apparently the last time it was occupied was during WW1 when soldiers were billeted there, resulting in the place being left much damaged. And that was how it remained until recent renovations, a mystery place to us Sheppey dwellers and now up for sale at 1.8 million pounds.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Some Harty Views

The marsh part of the reserve remains quiet bird wise with even the Green Sandpipers now apparently having moved on. Wheatears are the most constant passage bird at the moment with several seen most days and along the edge of the saltings the four Eider ducks are spotted regularly, they were there today, an imm. drake and three ducks.
As a result I thought I'd capture a few views of Harty in general, although I picked a pretty gloomy day light-wise to do it but if you double click on each photo in turn, the enlarged view will be much better.
This first one is down the track running to Harty Church. Alongside it the farmer has sown a wildflower cover crop for the birds which as you can see includes sunflowers. Park Farm is in the background.

Passing the church and following the track down to the seawall and The Swale, out on the edge of the saltings the remains of the old sailing barge "Lizard" are gradually being swallowed up by the ever expanding saltings. It was originally built in 1891 and was still working during WW2 and is still serving cormorants today.

Half a mile away, moored in The Swale at Harty Ferry, there was the real thing this morning. Unfortunately I forgot to record its name.

This photo shows the causeway running down from the Ferry House Inn to what once used to be the site of Harty Ferry across to the mainland. It began as a simple boat rowed to and fro across but before it ended had improved to being wound to and fro by cable. The frame is all that remains of the original winding gear.

The view eastwards across Harty marshes from the top of Harty Hill, a little of the water in Capel Fleet is just visible in amongst the wide reed beds. When enlarged, this shows the old and the new - a sailing barge passing the wind turbines.

Harty Hill from the Harty Road.

The Raptor Viewing Mound along the Harty Road. Never the warmest of places in the cold winter winds.

The view NE from the Raptor Viewing Mound, a great place to watch harriers quartering the reed beds of Capel Fleet alongside.

From "Capel Corner" on the Harty Road, Capel Hill Farm sitting up on the hill to the north.

From the same spot, two views of Capel Fleet and its differing width, these two shots are seperated literally by just the width of the road.
Looking west.

And looking east.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

What Month Is It

It is September but to be honest it feels more like October, this whole year has seemed like that, since the hot and sunny April and May we seem to have always been a month or two ahead of the actual month name. It could even be snowing by actual October, its been that kind of year.
Anyway, as a result I've started trimming back and part-tidying up the rear garden - it will go from overgrown and neglected to a tad tidier - overgrown is so much better for the wildlife.

The first job has been to cut out completely the prostrate conifers on the bank behind the pond, as per the before and after photos below.

It looked good and now looks rubbish but its only a small garden and I try and grow everything that will benefit bees, butterflies, etc. The bank will be re-planted with flowering herbs such as Golden Marjoram, Thyme, heathers and any other flower that does the right job, the conifers looked good but fed nothing, so they had to go. It might become a bit dis-organised, things might not be all the right heights and things, it might not look like gardens do in gardening magazines, but my ultimate aim and delight is sitting there in summer and seeing the plants covered in insects.

As I write this it's another gloomy, grey and cool afternoon with spits of rain. Nana has just woken up from her old age slumbers and sits at the open door of the conservatory, sniffs the outside air and stays where she is - not the weather for old dogs, she'll just stick her nose out and leave it at that. Midge, after a run of several miles on the reserve this morning, is asleep, tucked up inside a blanket on the "dog's sofa" in the conservatory and there is an imaginary sign on top of her that says "do not disturb until dinner time".

Dylan Thomas in one of his poems said "time ticks a heaven around the stars" and this year is ticking down now unto its end, unfortunately it'll get worse now before it gets better.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Reflective Stormy Weather

Today has seen the first stormy day of this year's Autumn, gale force gusts of SW wind and varying degrees of rain, a stay indoors day for the most of us - a reflection day.

The rain beats on the conservatory windows, the view from the study window is of the Thames Estuary shrouded in mist and rain, with nearby trees bent over in the wind, and somewhere indoors I can hear Nana snoring, probably behind the sofa in the lounge, her favourite place. Another afternoon and another CD, this time Van Morrison's "Inarticulate Speech of the Heart", haunting stuff and with it a dram or two of the best rum in the world - Appleton Jamaican rum. I've been to Jamaica several times and love the place and that rum is best drunk on a stool at a hot beach bar alongside the Carribean - today grey, wet and windy Sheppey will have to do.

One of my favourite memories of Jamaica is walking along a hot and deserted beach at 6.00 in the morning, paddling in the warm Carribean as I went, and following along the length of the beach, a flock of Turnstones as they ran up and down the sand at the water's edge in front of me. It seemed surreal, a few days previously I had seen Turnstones on Shellness beach and now there they were again in Jamaica, although obviously not the same birds, but it seemed like a bit of Sheppey had come with me, what great and well travelled birds they are.

Back to reality and the other morning, just after dawn, I was really pleased to see a small bat circling my garden. It seems ages since I last saw one, when I was a child they were as common as House Sparrows, now, well both are becoming more and more uncommon - what is happening to this world. Fortunately, I may only have the one bat but I still have a large and resident flock of House Sparrows in the garden and most of the year they average out at around 30+ a day on the bird tables.

I also came across this old photo of me in the 1970's. Double click on it and enlarge it and you will see I'm wearing one of my favourite stripey tank-top jumpers - so 1970's. I was checking one of several fyke nets for what is obviously a poor catch of eels and the fleet is now part of The Flood in front of the Wellmarsh Hide on Elmley RSPB reserve. Such perfect days, eel trapping all summer, rabbit catching all winter and birds and wildlife around you all the time.
Much experience, many memories, and much to reflect on during a stormy September day.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Good Autumn

I've just returned from a short visit to the reserve and wow! is the only way to describe how beautiful it was down there theis morning. It was one of those classic early autumn mornings with blue skies, slight distant mist and a stillness so profound that you could hear a pin drop a mile away. It was also very warm, I can't remember the last time I was able to walk across the marsh in shirt sleeves at 7.30 in the morning and be so warm. (Double click on this photo to enlarge it - can you not feel the hazy warmth and quietness coming out of it)

I didn't see too many birds, just a couple of Wheatears, some Green Sandpipers and a Greenshank and this small collection of long-legged cousins having a chat in the sun. (Double click on the photo and it'll enlarge them a bit).

I had a brief chat with the morning's sole wildfowler, who was bemoaning the fact that there was little about to shoot and I've also read on a few blogs lately, birdwatchers also complaining about the scarcity of migrant birds, but do you really need to have such things on such a beautiful morning - what's wrong with simply enjoying being there.
It was only a short visit because I had taken Nana the beagle for one of her now rare walks out there. She's 16 in November and with bad arthritis and general old age she struggles to walk more than a few hundred yards these days without lots of rests. But if nothing else, she enjoys the opportunity to experience the sights and smells of a place where she has spent so many happy years doing her own thing.
It is so gratifying being able to give a dog a lifetime of free ranging on a marsh such as that, without the restrictions of leads and collars and fortunately, for lots of reasons, during 40-odd years of doing so, I've also not suffered the attentions of narrow-minded birdwatchers who are unable to share the countryside with other people.