Thursday, 30 April 2015

Young Love

51 years ago, in 1964, Sheppey was still a green and pleasant land clinging on to much of the countryside that had characterised it for many, many years. Minster village was surrounded by narrow lanes with trees and hedgerows, wide grassy meadows and even the odd orchard. Despite living in Sheerness I spent a lot of my early teenage years in and around Minster because my best friend from school lived there, as did several other friends of both sexes.

51 years ago in 1964 I met and courted my first proper girlfriend (half a century ago - gawd!). It was the late Spring of that year and I was shortly to turn seventeen years of age and she was a year or so younger and in her last year at school. She was slim, fair-haired and had an appealing streak of rebelliousness about her that I knew from seeing her with a group of my Minster friends. Despite being almost seventeen I was still a tad immature and it would be another year before I plunged headlong into a whole new group of friends and the hedonism and music of the "Swinging Sixties" that grew me up and shaped my future life. But in that late Spring of 1964 we were still on the cusp of such things, our horizons were very limited and I was working as a trainee groundsman on the wide school fields of the Boys and Girls Secondary schools in Sheerness. Throughout my working week there I saw the girl quite regularly around her school and I think she made sure that I saw her and eventually I asked her out.

Our romance began slowly and tentatively, it was a whole new first thing for both of us, but I spent my whole 17th summer with her, we had no cares, we owned those summer months. There wasn't much of a social scene then, we walked the lanes and fields together, we went to the cinema and we visited other friends, one of whom was the much older groundsman that I worked with and his wife. They lived in a quaint old house in Minster, on it's own opposite the end of Love Lane and at it's rear, grassy meadows ran down to the edge of the cliffs and the sea. Today that house is still there but is surrounded on all sides by a multitude of big new houses and there is no field running down to the cliff edge. But back then, when we were out walking, getting to know each other and talking about our future as you do when all life is still ahead of you, we would call into that house and share coffee and cakes with the older couple. I was always fascinated by the fact that in his garden he grew a large number of tobacco plants whose leaves he dried and sent away for processing before turning them into the tobacco that he smoked in his pipe.

I met her parents and her older brother who had been in the same year as me at school and who didn't particularly like me. It became increasingly clear that her rebelliousness regularly caused a rift between her and her parents and so a lot of our evenings were spent out walking. If we didn't walk around Minster, we would walk the several miles down to my house in Sheerness where we could at least sit in my bedroom and play records. Later, before she had to be in, we would back to a favourite field near her house where we would lay for a while in the summer grass and kiss, cuddle and fumble, but little else.
For a time we were inseparable, her school broke up and she left school for good. One hot summer's evening we sat on the edge of the hill above The Glen, the "Bunny Bank" as it is known. We sat shoulder to shoulder like two doves on a bough. We held hands and snuggled up as the sky gradually began to fade from orange, to yellow and then to darkness and watched the lights of distant Southend begin to twinkle in the dusk.  Bats came out and flew over the Glen, over the bushes and the pool below. "I love you" she whispered and I felt the same and could not of been any happier. The darkness gradually enveloped us and  mosquitoes began to bite and so we reluctantly rose up and made our way back across Minster village. Past the bus stops, the library and New Road to eventually arrive at her front door, where within minutes, her mother sprang from - she had this strange and disconcerting thing about stroking my longish hair and telling me what nice eyes I had!

And so it went on, August was hot and sunny and much time was spent together, we were young and in love and loved being young - adult life was not for us. September arrived and one day we went on a bus trip down to Dymchurch. It was a lovely day and we had a great time there looking around and taking a trip on the miniature railway between the villages. But, two days later, she told me that she had found a new boyfriend and I was devastated, I spent a couple of days pleading with her to re-consider but to no avail, Clearly she had briefly over-taken me in the growing up stakes and needed new horizons and although we stayed friends, she was gone.

"I never dreamed you'd leave in summer
I thought you would go then come back home,
No, I never dreamed you'd leave in summer
and now my quiet nights are spent alone.

You said then you'd be the life in Autumn
said you'd be the one to see the way,
I never dreamed you's leave in summer
but now I find my love has gone away
-why didn't you stay"......................Stevie Wonder

Friday, 24 April 2015

Spring is almost Sprung

For a few hours this morning it was actually wind-free, sunny and humid and a real joy to walk round without needing a coat or heavy jumper. With a colder and wet weekend forecast it will be a short-lived rare occurrence but any rain will be welcome on the parched ground.
Not only did the sunny conditions brighten up the reserve but the reflection from this rape field on the neighbouring farmland also added to the colour of the morning.

As did this male Yellow Wagtail, one of several newly arrived from their winter quarters in South Africa. We currently have 4-5 pairs on the reserve and if they all stay to breed it will be the most for several years.

The breeding season on the reserve is finally beginning to catch up after it's late start and a few days ago I came across this lovely brood of Mallard ducklings in a ditch. Several broods of Greylag Geese goslings are also in the seawall fleet and so the wildfowl appear to be leading the way in the successful breeding stakes.

 Likewise the Coots, I have found seven nests so far this last week.

Hopefully the big success that we have been having in recent weeks with crow trapping will ensure that these rather vulnerable eggs will be left alone, in recent years whole clutches of eggs have been eaten by crows over a couple of days.

The Avocets are also busy in The Flood and will also welcome the fact that there are less crows and foxes on the reserve so far.

Finally, the first Reed Warblers have now arrived and are doing their best to out sing the rather noisier Sedge Warblers in the reed beds. Spring is finally taking off and to emphasise that fact I had an Orange Tip and a Small Copper butterfly along one of the reserve paths - great stuff.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Spitend Cottage

For those of you that are interested, here is the close up photograph of Spitend Cottage that I forgot to add to my posting yesterday.

Also regarding yesterday's posting and the mention of how dry it is becoming, I read in the Daily Telegraph today that the Met. Office is hinting that we might be heading towards a drought this summer. Apparently, as we on Sheppey know, so far in April we have only had a third of the rainfall normally expected during April. 
It has certainly caught one or two farmers out. A couple of weeks ago one of the farms alongside the reserve drilled his spring corn into a couple of large fields. When I had a look at it this morning the soil is dust dry and the corn seed is as dry and hard as when it was sown.

Secondly, I complained about how cold it has been, so what is it like today - warm and sunny and due to get warmer - I should have learnt by now!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm has seemed quite an appropriate title for the reserve this last few weeks given the cold weather that we have generally been experiencing for some time here on Sheppey. But first mention of the brief spell of almost summery weather that we experienced on Tuesday and Wednesday. The wind finally shifted round to the South and West and combined with long spells of very warm sunshine, it not only meant that I was able to walk round without a coat but that it brought about an incoming rush of migrant birds. As I mentioned in my last posting, the barren spell of Spring migrants that I was experiencing finally broke, since then, I have seen most of my target species, although not in large numbers. Wheatears, Sedge Warblers, Sand Martins, Whitethroat, Common Sandpiper, Yellow Wagtail and Hobby, were all recorded. Coot's nests and some chicks have begun to appear and I even saw a Spoonbill in The Flood one morning.
By Thursday however, the wind had gone back to the regular ENE direction that has plagued us for several weeks now, and with often dull skies, the temperature has fallen away again. Earlier this morning the wind had an almost icy feel to it and I was back to wearing my winter coat and gloves again as I wandered round hunched against the wind and cold. And with those cold and drying winds and any sun that appears, there comes the constant drying out of the wet marsh and the speculation that we are fast heading into a very dry summer. The current weather forecast suggest that we have another week of ENE winds with no rain and you only have to look at the photos below to see how much the water levels have dropped already. Just 5-6 weeks ago the dry area of mud was covered by water and the white water mark on the bush trunk shows how the water has already dropped by almost one and a half feet!  

This drying effect means that much of the grazing marsh has already become rock hard and is starting to crack up and the rather odd photo below shows something that gives me great discomfort as I walk round. It shows the countless cow hoof prints that are created as they walk on the soft ground in early winter before being taken off the reserve. When they become dry and hard as they are now, it has the constant effect of walking on cobbles and given that many of the areas that I walk each day, are affected like this, after a couple of hours of walking, the arthritic bones in my feet begin to ache quite badly and on bad days it is quite an ordeal.

Anyway, moving on from my tales of cold weather and knackered feet, I visited a part of Elmley this week that I haven't been to in almost thirty years - Spitend. Although I have often walked down to the "Brickfields" part of Elmley, for historical and solitude reasons, Spitend and it's daily visitors to the bird hides there has never really appealed to me. I have always been more than happy for the last thirty years with my patch, The Swale NNR,  mainly because of the peace and quiet that I get there. But, my "return journey" to Spitend turned out to be immensely enjoyable. It was nice to see how well the flood areas that I helped to start, back in 1976, have helped to create a beautiful nature reserve but more than that, I was filled with a great deal of melancholia because it still retained that over whelming feeling of flat and isolated marshland that has remained unchanged for centuries. It brought back memories of those pre-RSPB days in the late 1960's/early 1970's when we would roam across Spitend at will, hunting rabbits in the winter and eel-catching in the summer. Such special memories of youth and country pursuits and knowledge of the countryside learnt by actually doing it rather than reading about it.
Nothing portrays how hard it must of been living out there in the late 1800's/early 1900's than Spitend Cottage (Cods House) pictured below.

Thanks to the current owners of Elmley, this is one of just two surviving cottages out of several that used to be scattered around the marshes there and which either tenant farmers or their labourers would live in. Spitend Cottage was/is easily the most isolated of all the cottages that used to be there though. Standing as it does in the middle of Spitend marshes, it had one or two other buildings, probably cattle byres, adjacent to it at one time but that was it, it was miles from any other habitation in most directions. Fresh water probably came from a nearby well, lighting, if any, would of been candles or paraffin lamps, heat would of been from what little could of been found to burn and food, well it too must of been hard to come by. Try and imagine living there in those conditions, with several children, in bitter cold winter winds, rain and snow.

Oh, and one last thing, some misguided pratt or pratts this week, have been releasing the decoy crows from the reserve crow traps. Pest controls are a valuable part of successful reserve management and continued breeding bird success's and most nature reserves now employ them. It's annoying therefore, when soft-hearted people, with little practical experience of how the countryside works, have to interfere in such matters and without doubt, contribute towards the demise of such threatened birds as Lapwings. 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Wheatear Happiness

Well, after my "woe is me" posting of yesterday, things, as people said they would, changed dramatically today, as has the weather. Despite a strongish wind the day has been cloudless and very warm in the strong sunshine and the birds seem to have responded as well.
Below, from the seawall, is the view across The Flood which, although numbers have dropped by some degree, is still holding Mallard, Gadwall, Teal, Wigeon and Shoveler in small numbers. This morning there were also 150 Black-headed Gulls and 70 Avocets and several breeding pairs of Lapwings.

Looking left from the same spot and you can see the Sea Wall Hide and the wide, brown reed beds of the Delph Fleet that runs alongside the wall. I shall be checking along there tomorrow for some Sedge Warblers.

 Today however, I went in the opposite direction and immediately I turned back on to the reserve there was the bird I've been looking for, a Wheatear, two in fact. OK my photo won't win any competitions but at least it records what I saw. I then got better and better because a few paces past the Wheatear and over flew 5 Yellow Wagtails - I felt like doing cartwheels but knew if I did I'd never get up again, so settled for a rather loud "yesssss"..

On the farm land alongside, one of my favourite Spring events is starting to take place, the rape is starting to come into flower, turning all that drab green-ness into golden yellow and provide a much needed food source for hungry bees.

 The first of the cattle and their new calves are also out enjoying the sun after wallowing for a few months in the muck of the stock pens. How joyful that must be for them, despite the fact that decent garss is in short supply at the moment.

And finally, to complete the day's sudden leap into Spring, I found not only my first Coot's nest with eggs but also a brood of Coot chicks - what a day!

Monday, 13 April 2015

Wheatear Blues

Well, despite all my best efforts this last couple of weeks, I still can't find what should be an easy Spring migrant to find, a Wheatear, it's becoming an obsession and getting silly and so I shall give up on that one and move on. Instead, somewhere below, I'll simply post a winter photo taken by my girlfriend of a female Marsh Harrier.
At the moment the reserve seems to be stuck in some kind of winter time-warp with both a lack of summer migrants and breeding birds. Perhaps with the winter being fairly mild it has made everything seem as though it should be more advanced that what it is, it is only early April after all. The grass on the reserve has been slow to begin greening up and re-growing so far and on several of the grazing meadows it remains yellow and as short as a bowling green. This means that grazing for the cattle and their calves, desperate to be outside after being in stock pens during the winter/spring, is still at a real premium and only a few have been put back on the reserve so far.

I have also been wandering round some of the ditches over the last week or so, looking for Coots nests which are normally fairly common by now, but so far have found none. In fact on The Flood the Coots are still to be found in a flock of some eighty odd birds as they would be in the winter, what is going on? The first of this season's Lapwing breeding counts also took place last week and out of a possible 52 pairs of Lapwings present only 13 birds were actually on nests.
Perhaps with very warm and sunny weather due over the next couple of days things will dramatically change and the Swale NNR will start to move into Spring proper, I hope so.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Talking of Churches

I was near Harty Church this morning so grabbed a photograph of that wonderful little church. It sits on the high ground of Harty and from it's entrance it looks eastwards down across the flat marsh of The Swale National Nature Reserve all the way to Shellness Hamlet. The view from it's rear is down to the narrow and tidal Swale that seperates Sheppey from the mainland, and pretty much which ever way you look from it, the views are magnificent.
It's a lovely little church on one of my favourite parts of Sheppey but here's the nub, as a family historian it would of been really great if they had left all the grave headstones in place. Obviously nice manicured lawns back and front make the place nice and clean and tidy and very photogenic but when one is researching past family history there's nothing like a well stocked cemetery full of graves and headstones.

Minster Abbey (below) went the same way many years ago but there are old photographs around that show a large cemetery where the trees now are, packed with graves and headstones.

The  cemetery around Elmley church went the same way once the church was demolished, headstones were taken up and presumably lost, it was allowed to grass over and at one time old farm machinery was scattered across it. At Elmley, despite many burials there, some relatives of mine, all that remains is one broken headstone and at Minster and Harty some headstones do still exist, simply stood against boundary fences or walls.

Am I being over-sentimental or romantic, well perhaps but it's the historian in me coming out. To research a particular person in a family and then be able to find that person's untended hundred odd years old grave, clean it up and sit there, does help make that history more real. I can't help thinking of all those families so many years ago, burying a loved one with so much remorse, possibly scraping enough money for a headstone and yet now those graves do not exist, people walk all over them, so much history is lost.