Sunday, 31 May 2015

Is this really Summer?

When I got up this morning at 05.30 it seemed pretty clear to me that a reserve visit wasn't going to be on the cards any time soon - it was raining steadily and very windy. So I settled for having some breakfast and reading the Sunday papers and during that time the rain eased to next to nothing. At the same time, every time that I got up, both the dogs would rush to the front door to remind me that surely it was going out time. That's one of the many beauties of having dogs, they never allow you to go a whole day doing nothing, they force you to be active, weather conditions have no effect on their lives.
So, around 08.00, with the rain pretty much stopped, we set off and arrived at the reserve, as it promptly started raining hard again! Not only that, it was very gloomy and there was a strong SW wind blowing, is it really summer? And so we set off, the dogs rushing ahead to get to the old salt-working hillock where rabbits abound and me with my coat zipped up to under the chin and hands in pockets to keep warm. By the time that I was making my way across the marsh to the rabbit hillock the rain had stopped and I was just left in a blustery wind and like a tortoise, my neck gradually began to extend from where it had sunk into the depths of my coat. Ellie, the youngest of the two terriers, was meanwhile chasing rabbits at full speed. The hillock is covered in both stinging nettles and rabbit holes and she works on the principle that if she runs round the site at full speed she will ultimately come upon a rabbit that wasn't expecting to see her wizz by and occasionally it works.
Today I was in no mood for hanging around though and so called both the dogs to me and we carried on across the marsh, following the line of the Delph fleet as I did so. I stopped at one stage and listened to the non-stop and monotonous singing of the Reed Warblers in the tall phragmites reed beds and pondered the fact that the reeds were being severely buffeted by the winds. The warblers build a nest by placing it between 3-4 reed stems and inter-twining some of the material around the stems to hold the nest in place. However when the stems are being pulled in all directions by the strength of the wind it hard not to imagine the nests being pulled apart and the contents spilled into the water below.
Tomorrow night and into Tuesday morning gale force winds and heavy rain showers are forecast and so any relief from the weather will only be short-lived for these birds and their nests. We still seem some way short of getting any settled spell of proper summer weather and it's getting quite depressing.

For a while, more raindrops briefly flew in on the wind and so I made my way to the seawall hide and sat in there for a while, looking at wavelets being pushed along the surface of the Delph, the non-summery view and pondered where I'm at in life. The answer was pretty much as I commented to another blogger earlier today, it's basically about enjoying still being able to get out and about as a 68 year old with arthritic feet and other minor problems. I don't obsess these days about being able to ID everything that I see, or to keep tick lists and stats sheets about every year that now goes by. There's a whole new generation out there now, Twittering and Face-booking their natural history achievements to everybody, and ever challenging each other to better a macro'd to death photograph.  
No, these days I'm happy to just wander round the reserve with the dogs, see what I see, muse on my fifty-odd years of experience being involved in the countryside and basically leave it at that.

And now, dragging myself out of the stupor of a bad day's weather, how's the reserve doing at the moment. Well for a lot of the birds, such as the waders and plovers, the breeding season is beginning to come to an end and as the youngsters start to fledge, it won't be long before some post-breeding flocks of Lapwings begin to form. A lot of the continuing breeding will be with species such as the summer visitors - Reed and Sedge Warblers for example. I had a wander round 50% of the reserve's reed beds yesterday in an attempt to gauge how many pairs of both species were nesting and the Reed Warblers appear to be looking quite good. The only problem is that because of the width and breadth of the reed beds you cannot get in and actually find nest, you can only count singing male birds and use that as an estimate on pairs.

But as the breeding season gradually draws to a close, dryness begins to take over and wildfowl and waders drift away, wild flowers and butterflies become the main interest for me at least. Two types of wild flower currently in full flower on the reserve are the staple of any grazing meadow, the Buttercup and a flower of roadside verges and waste land, the purple-flowered Salsify.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Back to Reality

Well, after spending a bit of time in the past, it's now time to fast forward fifty years and rejoin current life for a time. Last Sunday, Di and I attended a midday event at the Elmley barn whereby a very large number of friends and colleagues of the late Steve Gordon had gathered to celebrate and remember Steve's life. Steve, who was far too young when he died last December from the effects of a brain tumour, had lived on Elmley for around thirty years and had been for many years the much respected and loved farm/reserve manager there.
The photos below don't do justice to the large number of people that attended on Sunday and the car park there was overflowing, although one of his friends got round that problem by arriving in his own biplane and landing it alongside the barn, that was pretty cool.

It was an extremely pleasant couple of hours and it was astonishing to realise just how many people that Steve had befriended and been loved by, from all corners of Britain and Europe, and he has been greatly missed over the last few months. Personally, it was great to meet so many people that I had known for years but not seen for a number of them and to talk about both Steve and where we are at in our own lives these days. I first met Steve in the early 1980's when he joined a badminton club in Sheerness that I played at and we played there for a few years. I also met him occasionally at Elmley in those days, when I was out there on my weekly rabbit and eel catching forays. Those were the days when the staff at Elmley were a colourful bunch of guys who farmed hard and drank hard, mostly on large quantities of home-made beer of dubious quality! In a lot of ways they carried on a lot of the old-fashioned and historical ways of Elmley and in doing so it meant that transition to a fully fledged nature reserve only happened gradually and smoothly.
In recent years, as Steve became responsible for the Swale NNR as well as Elmley, then we saw each other and co-operated a lot more and it was then that his remakable qualities really came to the fore.
Huge thanks must go to Philip Merricks and his family for making both this the event and the Elmley NNR possible.

Moving on to The Swale NNR, and May, like April this year, has been a pretty cool and dry affair with really warm and sunny days very few and far between. But at last, the grass has begun growing well now and both the small cattle herds and wildlife are enjoying the benefits.

The down side are that water levels are still dropping too fast as can be seen by the pale tide-line at the base of the Delph reed beds..............

...........and the fact that several of the shallow rills created across the grazing marsh to provide wet and muddy areas and insect life for plover chicks, have now dried up.

But it's not all doom and gloom, latest Lapwing breeding counts are showing a reasonable number of hatched chicks after a cold and dry start and there is the potential to better last year's number of fledged chicks. There are also more duck and geese young being seen, the Avocets have done well and are now dispersing their chicks away from the main breeding site and Yellow Wagtail pairs are currently up. A bit more regular warmth and no winds are now what is needed.

The track through the farmland spinney onto the reserve is now looking well overgrown on each side, making it attractive at the moment to both Whitethroats and the odd pair of Sedge Warblers and a Blackcap.

And amid all that vegetation is one large clump of Comfrey, giving much sustenance to both bees and other insects. May as always, is one of the best months to be out and about in the countryside.

And one last thing. Across the road from me is a short terrace of old houses with traditional chimneys and their pots, home for many, many years to breeding Jackdaws. I'm always fascinated when watching the birds drop down the chimney pots to their nests inside as to how they always pop back out just as easily. The pots are 2-3 feet deep, with smooth sides and of a width that doesn't allow the birds wings to fully open out - so how do they do it - it's a mystery to me.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Young Love Tries To Move On

After the breakdown of my first romance in Sept 1964 and a short spell of getting over it, I decided that there were plenty more fish in the sea and so moved on and cast my net. The result, over the next year, was almost sod all caught, clearly I didn't have the appeal that was necessary, which wasn't surprising.  I was 17 going on 15, and girls my age were looking at guys closer to 20 years old, plus I was growing my hair longer, as was the fashion then, I wanted to look like the Stones, the Kinks - everybody on "Ready Steady Go". That first year growing my hair just didn't work, my hair just seemed to grow thick and tight like sheep's wool and at one stage it looked like I had a German helmet made of hair stuck on my head. But I stuck at it and by mid 1966 and later, coupled with a moustache, I had eventually achieved a look that resembled the guys in the charts and seemed to do OK with the girls, but in late 1964 that was an awful long way away.

So it was simply back to spending an awful lot of boring evenings round the house of my old school mate in Minster. We cycled to and fro to each other's houses, we played chess, we hung around with the girl next door and her mates and dreamed of romance and pop stardom but in reality achieved none of it. But by the end of 1964 we had achieved something, despite being under-age, we had discovered the pub, the "Halfway House" pub to be exact. Today, it's one of the few pubs on Sheppey that still remains open, as you can see below, but back then, even in the small area known as the Halfway, there were two pubs within a few hundred yards of each other, the "Halfway House" and the "Oddfellows" and for the next several moths we frequented them both.

Unfortunately the "Oddfellows", the large white building below, ceased to be a pub years ago and is now a collection of rather tatty flats. It's hard to believe that the entrance door used to be where the middle downstairs window is.

Also, in November 1964, my work location changed. As part of my continuing training as a Groundsman, the Kent Education Committee (Estates Dept) decided that several months working at two other sites the other side of Maidstone was necessary. So I was firstly transferred to their plant nursery at Boughton Monchelsea and later, to the Maidstone Police HQ sports grounds. This entailed the daily chore of catching the 7.30 commuter coach from Sheerness to Maidstone and then a trolley bus out to Loose, close to where I worked. It also meant that every Tuesday I had to attend one of the Maidstone colleges in order to learn about and pass, exams in horticulture and agricultural machinery, which I eventually did.
I was not at all happy, I was getting home two later than I would working on Sheppey. However, as is always the way on daily commutes people form little cliques and normally sit in the same seat each day. It soon became clear that a pretty girl sitting near the front was always going to be on the same coach and that she normally had the attention of two rather flash guys a year or two older than me, in suits. However, because I got on the coach a stop before them it meant that the seat next to her was always empty and so I quickly claimed that as "my" seat. So that's where I always sat and for the next eight months we became good travelling companions and I fantasised many times about how nice it would be to ask her out, but never did. I bought her chocolates for that Christmas, I sneaked a kiss or two for New Year and she even visited the "Oddfellows" pub a couple of times when I was there. Sometimes if she absent with sickness, I would even ring her at home to ask after her health. But despite us being the same age, I'm pretty sure that she never saw me as anything else but a pretty immature boy with funny hair who was OK to travel to and fro to work with. Eventually I believe, she did in fact go out with one of the suits. When I was eventually transferred back to Sheppey in July 1965 I rarely ever saw her again and anyway, soon after that, my world went off in a totally different direction to the one that I imagine her one did.
Two things that I do recall from those coach journeys were both the route and the lack of public holiday. In those days the A249 did not go past the bottom of Detling Hill as it does now, it turned into and through the little village of Detling and came out further down. Secondly, we still travelled over to work at Maidstone on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve and worse still - New Years Day! It wasn't a public holiday then and that was always a difficult morning after being out till after midnight.

Back home my social scene changed very little during the first half of 1965. When our meagre funds allowed (wages then were c. £5-6 a week, but you could get drunk on £1) my best friend and I visited the two Halfway pubs and very rarely a social event such as a dance. In the winter of that first half of 1965 we had also bought electric guitars and small amplifiers, in my case a bass one because I wanted to be like Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. For the next few months we spent many noisy days and nights at my friend's house trying to convince ourselves that we were turning into a group and thoroughly annoying his parents and neighbours in the process. Purely because I didn't have the patience to learn the basics of bass guitar first, I never did learn how to play that bass guitar properly. However by mid-summer, after I'd been turned on to Bob Dylan by a guy at work, we ditched the electric stuff and bought cheap acoustic guitars and then I did it properly and became a reasonable folk guitarist. From then on, while the likes of Bob Dylan and Donovan became our principal interest, we also began to expand out into all kinds of folk and blues music, something that stuck with me for the rest of my life.

Aside from that I also grew all manner of vegetables and flowers in my parents garden and my greenhouse, with some of the plants unofficially brought back from the nursery where I was working at Boughton Monchelsea. I still occasionally visited the older groundsman that I used to work with, still cycled to and fro to my best friends house in Minster - in short it was a pretty unspectacular time in my life but by late summer it was to change quite dramatically. In July I transferred back to Sheppey and joined a gang of men that travelled round several school grounds, each week, maintaining their sports fields, etc and then on Sheerness Carnival night in early August I met the gang of long-haired and like-minded youths who became my way of life both overnight and for several years afterwards. It's an event previously written up by me a couple of years ago but perhaps I'll re-visit it soon.

One last point before I go, there are one or two readers of this blog who are old ex-Sheppey followers and aside from the demise of the "Oddfellows" pub pictured above, they might be interested to see the following photos.
Below is the old Victoria Working Men Club (the VC), for so long part of Sheerness's drinking history, as it looks today - now a block of apartments.

Below in the background, is the Conservative Club (the CC) and still going strong.

This is the old "Prince of Waterloo" pub at the top of Minster Hill, closed for several years and in the process of being changed into a restaurant.

Lastly, the old "British Queen" pub, by Oak Lane, Minster, closed for several years and now a private house.