Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Year Ends

Walking along the reserve seawall into a gale force southerly wind, gusting to 50mph early today, was bloody hard work, I felt like I'd run a half-marathon at the end of it. It was quite a bit chillier than yesterday as well but then yesterday morning was quite exceptional. Yesterday was very mild, sunny and wind free and there was I and three wildfowlers, walking along the seawall chatting, with a cloud of mosquitoes swarming round our heads and biting us, ridiculous for the end of December!
But back to this morning and the sun-rise across The Swale was soon lost as the gale pushed in heavy grey skies, reversing the early morning brightness for much of the day.

As I walked round the reserve, this mixed flock of Greylag, White-fronted and Brent Geese all got up from the grazing marsh and circled round before re-settling again. Fortunately, the only wildfowler out this morning had already packed up and gone, otherwise I wouldn't of risked disturbing the birds.

The geese still remain the best of the wildfowl numbers, with ducks still in very short supply. The wildfowlers were telling me that even at the first glimpses of dawn light, the only ducks going out to The Swale are just very small numbers each of both Wigeon and Teal.

And how about this for showing how crazy and mild this winter is, I took this photo this morning of a wild dog rose with a newly blossomed flower amid the winter hips.

At last, our annual winter visitor the Hooded Crow has returned, a few weeks later than the average but at least it's back. We've had a single one each year for about ten years now, although whether it's the same bird is debatable and it always stays separate from the large flock of resident Carrion Crows, which makes it easier to find.
I had to go in the reserve barn this morning to get some rope to tie up a gate and was hoping to see at least one of the resident Barn Owls at roost, having not seen one out and about for a few weeks. Sadly, there were no owls present and only old, dry pellets, which indicated that it/them haven't been around for some time. They did this last winter but then returned to breed, so hopefully there isn't too much to fret about and we will see them back again.
This will be my last posting now until the New Year and just think, only around twelve weeks now until the first summer visitors start arriving.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Day

After yesterday's beautiful day of blue skies and sunshine and a full moon at both ends, this morning was no where near as nice. It seemed to remain dark for much later into the morning today and in the end I set off for the reserve in complete darkness at 7.15. Driving along the Harty Road and past the Raptor Viewing Mound in the dark, the outside temperature was showing as 9 degrees and I thought back to the last snow that we had, the winter of 2011/12. Below you can see the entrance to the RVM in that winter......

 ....and here the sea wall on the reserve, looking towards Shellness.

I wonder if we are to see weather like that again in the future.

As it is Christmas Day, I decided to forego the usual painful trial of getting round the reserve in the ever increasing muddy areas churned up by the cattle, I decided to have a wander along the farm track between the Harty Road and Muswell Mannor. As well as being relatively dry, this "concrete road" as we know it, rises to a high point that gives a splendid view down across the reserve, although at first when I arrived this wasn't possible. So the dogs and I set off along the road, quietly so as not to set off the geese in Brewers Farm and slowly.slowly, the darkness began to lighten. As it did so, the geese on the reserve began to call, first the familiar farmyard goose calls of the Greylag Geese and then gradually the lovely higher pitched "wink-wink" calls of the White-fronted Geese. One or two Mallard also joined in and gradually this wildfowl dawn chorus began to take shape. Alongside me, in a copse on the top of the road, a Robin also began to sing and back at Brewers farm the inevitable cockerels also began to serenade the coming of the light.
We carried on and by now the darkness was lifting to become a grey gloom, which did at least improve the viewing distance, if not the spirits. It was time for the geese to think about food and gradually small parties of 10-20 began to lift up off the reserve roost and fly out to the farmland and it's winter corn growing in the fields, thankfully they were safe from any guns for this day at least. Despite the gloominess of the morning's weather it was a pleasant walk, the dogs were wandering along the hedgerow looking for mice or voles and it felt as they we had the whole world to ourselves, a rare thing these days.

We eventually began to re-trace our steps and in the distance a light came on in Brewers Farm, somebody was obviously getting up, Jackdaws in the spinney alongside the farm were cawing like mad and the wind began to freshen, time to re-join civilisation I suppose. Tomorrow it is Boxing Day, the day that those involved in countryside pursuits traditionally go out and kill things and so I will be on the reserve seawall just as it gets light. By doing that I can see how many wildfowlers are about and have a chat with them later and hopefully the fox hunt won't be on the farmland alongside, chasing foxes as they normally do.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015


I was a tad amused to read in the Daily Telegraph today that because the BBC's Countryfile programme has become so popular, that the BBC is now commissioning a five day a week spin off to be called "Countryfile Diaries". Now there's no getting away from the fact that if you like your countryside presented to you in an English Tourist Board, Walt Disney manner, where no cute and fluffy things get killed and the presenters are attractive girls in shorts, then the programme will remain popular.
However, now that they are going to have more programme hours to fill, lets hope that they can now find time to show some real countryside events - shooting, hunting, fishing, ferreting, tying flies, making nets. Proper traditional, get your hands dirty stuff that still does happen in the real countryside. They could also have it presented by real country people with years of experience of their subject, who could talk about the countryside in the way that Jack Hargreaves did so well in his "Out of Town" series.
Somehow though, I rather expect that we will get more of the same format, where everybodies happy, nothing gets killed, the flowers always flower and the sun always shines.

Today has been a real beauty, clear blue skies, unbroken sunshine and some clean, cold air. It was so refreshing after the claggy and mild dampness, drizzle and gales of recent days. Being out on the marsh this morning was a real joy and a boost to the spirit. It was almost as if the weather was shrugging off yesterday's Shortest Day and giving us a taste of the Spring that is yet to come. It was good to see the flock of c.104 White-fronted Geese still happily feeding away on the lush, green grass in the Flood Field, their calls so much more musical than the farmyard honking of the Greylag variety. So far they appear to have evaded the shotguns that regularly wait on either side of the reserve for them, but they will come under intense pressure over the next two weeks as many wildfowlers and duck shooters have two weeks holiday.

Other than that it was a generally quiet day bird-wise, just the usual stuff, but it was nice to see that this brood of five swan cygnets, hatched on the reserve this year, have all survived OK so far.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Back to Normal

Well, after the travels back in time to hippy hedonism of the 1960's, it's back to the far less exciting or energetic, current day. I must say I found writing those accounts of my life fifty years ago, very enjoyable. It involved much reading of old diaries, looking through old photograph albums and aided by the odd glass of red wine, lots of nostalgia.  Lots of memories are the only good thing about being old, there's bugger all else good about it.

So. for early risers such as myself, we're in that awful time of year where it gets light late and dark early, the daylight is so depressingly short. By 7.00 I've had my breakfast, read the paper and I'm pacing the house waiting for some reasonable daylight to appear.
Eventually I arrived at the reserve under some blue sky, which only lasted an hour before darker, grey skies flooded back in but it was very mild. The warm temperatures of recent days are certainly creating some unusual sights, yesterday, mid-December and I had a bumblebee feeding from primrose flowers in my garden, neither should be about until the Spring.
Over on the seawall, looking back across The Flood field, you can see that inch by inch we are now beginning to fill it up with water, we just need to get the two strips of water to join up and create one large body of water and it'll look quite good. But with the green areas quite waterlogged it is already starting to attract many wading birds when the high tides push them off the nearby mudflats.

 Something else that is increasing day by day is the flock of White-fronted Geese. Counts this last two weeks has since their numbers increase from 65 to 85 and this morning to 104. For true wild geese they are far less timid than you would expect and this morning I was able to circle round them at only 80yds distance as they fed on the grass in one of the grazing meadows. Unfortunately the reserve only offers them a narrow avenue of safety from harm, the wildfowlers are not far away just over the seawall and farmland duck shooters in the opposite direction.

Other than that, there were very few other birds to be seen this morning, just the one's and two's of the usual species - Greylag and Brent Geese,  Marsh Harriers, Buzzards, Bearded Tits and a few Mallard and Teal. That was in contrast with the Monday just gone, when a team of three of us re-instated the monthly Wetland Bird Surveys (WEBS) on the reserve after a gap of two years. The WEBS counts are carried out nationally around the high tide and normally on the same day utilizing the fact that the high tide has pushed many birds off of the mudflats where they feed, up onto nearby beaches and farmland. Our co-ordinated count with the three of us having three separate counting stations, came up with some surprisingly good numbers of birds and a lot more than we have been used to seeing the recently.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Further on up the road

Having slept the night in the damp Falconwood woods (see previous blog "The Open Road"), we awoke early the next morning to bird song, numerous mosquito bites peppering some of our faces and bursting for a pee. The pee bit was easily solved, as any dog will tell you, that's what trees are for. After that we were starving, apart from a packet of crisps with our beers, those ones with a little blue bag of salt in, we hadn't eaten since the previous afternoon.
So, sleeping bags rolled up and back in their dustbin bags, we emerged from the woods like four raggedy cavemen out for a day's dinosaur hunting and set off along the A2 again into increasingly built up areas. Traffic for London was building up at that time of the morning and as at times we were going faster than the traffic, lifts were out of the question and so we headed for Eltham and then down on to the Woolwich Ferry to get across the Thames. Along the way the major priority was a cafe, I had a mouth like postman's socks and needed to swill a nice cup of tea around it. Not surprisingly, rough hitch-hiking travellers such as we temporarily were, didn't carry toiletry bags with them and so personal hygiene touches such as teeth cleaning and washing tended to get overlooked. There were occasions, if we were in Central London, that we could get a wash of sorts. The Gents toilets in those days often had an attendant in them and from him for just 3d old money, you could hire a bar of soap and a towel. So there we would be, a sink each, down with the underpants and lathering up the "meat and two veg" and other bits in case we got lucky on our travels, which surprisingly did happen a few times. Though clearly, with no toothbrush, I seem to recall that we by-passed the snogging bit.

But I digress, and so with a cup of tea and a fry-up eagerly disposed of, we crossed the Thames and continued the long walk through the various boroughs of London heading for the area around Walthamstow, Leytonstone and and good old Epping Forest, which tended to be our hotel most nights. We had been there previously because the very attractive cousin of one of my best friends lived in Walthamstow and when she had been on Sheppey the previous year we had swapped addresses. So we would hang around the area by day and sometimes drink with her in her local pubs by night, retiring to the woods without her to sleep. Sometimes if we got bored with that then we would travel on into London and hang around in Trafalgar Square with other road weary travellers and listening to the various guitarists that were playing there. If we had our own guitars then we used it as an opportunity to learn new songs and better techniques. Eventually our friendship with my friends cousin, fizzled out after I upset one of my travelling mates, though he's still a best friend to this day.
It came about because on a couple of occasions later that year she invited a couple of us up to her house two weekends running and she and her mother made up a double bed for us in their front room. She then took us out with her to a couple of dances on the Saturday evenings, it was good fun and with her looking very much like Cher of Sonny and Cher, not without temptation and that's where it ended up going wrong. The first night back at her house, my friend and I had settled down in the double bed and my friend was doing his best to suck the light down from the ceiling with his snoring. Consequently, I was still awake when the door opened and to my delighted amazement, my friend's cousin, wearing very little, crept in and quickly got under the sheets alongside me. Now, despite having a girlfriend back home, there are some opportunities in life that just can't be overlooked and that was certainly one of them. Unfortunately, after a little time getting to know each other, so to speak, our movements got a little too vigorous and despite my friend seeming as tho he could sleep through WW3, he did eventually wake up to find that some form of unarmed combat was going on alongside him - he was not amused!
The second weekend I left my friend in the double bed and de-camped to our host's bedroom for a night of fun but he later made it quite clear that things were getting a tad unfair and so despite us all hitch-hiking back to that area the following Spring, we never visited her again.

One time in I believe 1967, three of us took a week off work, the fourth never worked, and we hitch-hiked first to London and then all the way down to Brighton. Apparently the place was a mecca for hitch-hiking guitarists who sat around on the beach all day playing guitar and generally having a good time. The main thing that I recall from that trip was the fact that we walked all of the way, incredibly we never got an offer of one single lift, but it was OK and the weather was fine. Like many other people around that time, I'd just finished reading Jack Kerouc's "On the Road" and so imagined myself as being of that ilk, what were a few extra miles on the road to excess and freedom.
By the time we walked into Brighton after a day and half on the road, we certainly looked like seasoned travellers, unwashed and dirty and sleeping bags and guitars over our shoulders. Unfortunately it was also a cold and windy day, there were no guitarists practising on the beach or hippy chicks anxious to throw themselves at our feet in adoration. We were deflated, the excesses and occasional obliging girls that we had found on some of our London trips were not to be found and after a cold night sleeping under boats on the beach we headed back round the South Coast for home.

Back home we spent most of the summer weekends doing what the 1960's were famous for. We wandered around Sheppey with our guitars, attended drunken and sometimes hedonistic parties and slept rough most weekends in old two-man tents along the canal bank, where our girlfriends would sometimes sneak out in the early hours and join us in our sleeping bags. And 1967 became 1968 but by the Spring of that year the winds of change were beginning to blow through our gang of four. We still spent most of our time together but two of us were paying more attention to our girlfriends and the other two were beginning to spend time with other friends.
For me, the final change came on the Whitsun Bank Holiday in 1968. A few weeks before that, on the Easter Bank Holiday, three of us had, for the third year running, resumed our hitch-hiking to London and back, a pretty boring trip that saw us walking back along the A2 one night in a storm and pouring rain. Despite that, soon after on the Whitsun Bank Holiday, the same three of us were on the road again, sleeping over night at Dartford in some bushes. The next morning we walked all the way to Leytonstone and spent a hot, sunny day lounging around in Epping Forest but something was nagging away at me. In the evening we went over to the "Green Man" pub for a drink but I soon became overwhelmed by that feeling again, I really didn't want to be there anymore, I was missing my girlfriend of two years back home. "That's it", I suddenly announced to the other two, "I'm going back home" and I was away.
I caught a bus to Victoria train station and then the last train down as far as Gillingham. I walked along the A2 to Rainham and slept there behind some bushes at a lay by - even now I can't pass that lay by without glancing towards it and remembering that night. Early the next morning I walked all the way to Kemsley and caught a train to Sheerness and went straight to my girlfriend's house.

Two years later that girl became my first wife and I wrote the following about her.

"oh the beauty of her hair
that fell in a thousand curls
down to her shoulders bare;
fired in flaming colour,
lit in reds and gold,
it fell from her shoulders
to her breasts tight folds.

oh the beauty of those breasts,
tickled by her flaming hair
and swollen by every breath,
that no one else could touch,
that fought to be free
and jostled in their cups,
like ships on a stormy sea"........................Derek Faulkner

Monday, 14 December 2015

The Two Seasons

If Mr. Vivaldi was alive today and living anywhere south of the north of England, he'd have to re-write his Four Seasons masterpiece as the Two Seasons, because that's all we seem to get here these days. Spring when it arrives, seems to last for six months, rarely changing into what could be called a long, hot summer. Then sometime around October, autumn begins and drags on with it's mild, gloomy, damp, and ever shortening days for the next six months. Traditional winter with it's frosts and snow seems to becoming an ever distant memory, consigned nowadays to just Christmas cards and television Christmas advertisements. I always groan when sitting at home watching those advertisements now, still seeing people turning up at warm, snowbound houses in coats, scarves and gloves when in reality these days, it should be an umbrella and summer clothes.
Today, and by the look of it all this week, the days are not going to be any different. Grey skies, poor light and a mild dampness look set to continue the trend of the last few months. I imagine that the best and most useful Christmas present many people could receive this year, before they slit their wrists, is one of those daylight lamps that are advertised for SAD sufferers.

Personally, I have loathed this time of the year and Christmas in particular, for the last 50+ years, it does nothing for me, I don't know why. I assume that I liked it when I was a child but I had an unhappy childhood and much is locked away and forgotten as a result. I spend most of it these days looking forward to those first, warm Spring days and that whole plethora of wonderment that Spring always brings. Christmas Day this year will mean, as it does every year, having Christmas dinner at my wife's house with her and her parents, (we've been separated fourteen years but still remain firm friends) and then, a fortunate and happy event for the last four years, off to my girlfriend's house for Boxing Day and the New Year. That might seem odd but then my tangled, confusing, amusing and at times sad, love life over the last fifty years would merit a whole blog on it's own, but it's unlikely to happen. What I do do, is to often look at this photo of me, taken about 64 years ago, and with 68 years hindsight, mull over the lifetime that that innocent face had yet to experience and all the different directions that it might have taken, but didn't.

Friday, 11 December 2015

The Open Road

"There's real life for you.......the open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling down! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow!"

So spoke The Toad in the Wind in the Willows before his ill-fated caravan journey with Ratty and Mole.

6 o'clock on a Friday evening in the summer of 1966 and the landlord of the "Queens Head" public house in Sheerness is unbolting the doors to allow entry to four scruffy teenagers, each carrying a rolled sleeping bag encased in a black dustbin bag.
There was then nothing worse than being first into a cold and empty pub, just it's smell of cigarette smoke and spilt beer reminding you of how it might be later on, but never mind, these guys were on a mission. "Two pints of Stout and Mild and two pints of Light and Bitter" were ordered at the bar and soon carried to the old settee by the window. "So whose going first", was spoken and discussed between mouthfuls of best Courage beer. People passed by outside the window, it was a warm summer's evening, it wouldn't get dark until gone 10 o'clock that evening. "Well last time John went with Henry", said one, "this time it should be John and Del and Mick and Henry", "OK" was the answer, "so who's going first, we'll toss". John won the toss and he and Del would leave first.

It was the onset of one of our regular hitch-hiking trips to London - Mick, Henry, John and myself Derek (Del). We did this regularly during 1965/66 and 67, sometimes for a long weekend, sometimes for a week or more. Just the clothes that we stood up in, always denims, a sleeping bag and sometimes a guitar, though carrying the latter could be a pain in the arse and in my case one time, it got stolen.

Above you can see both John and I - c.1966 (I'm on the right with a hair style that looked like a helmet, gawd).
So, the beers were drunk and John and I set out into the warmth of the early evening and began walking the several hundred yards to the "Canal", the waterway that formed the outer limit of the town. The Halfway Road then stretched ahead across the Sheerness marshes, until about a mile away it ran through the then small Halfway village. The "Canal" had never been a true canal, it was basically a wide stretch of water about three miles long, dug in Napoleonic times as a defensive moat that helped protect the army and naval sites in Sheerness from any enemy attacks.
We stood with our backs to the "Canal", watching clouds of mosquitoes swarming in the early evening sun and begun thumbing for lifts, it was an easy and regular practise in those days. We had two immediate targets, first to get a lift off of Sheppey, closer to or along the main roads leading to London, and to do so before the other two stood a chance of overtaking us. Mick and Henry meanwhile, stayed in the pub and ordered another round of beers, the two pairs always set off an hour apart, a bit of fun to see if the latter two could overtake those going first and reach the destination ahead of them.

Quite quickly we were offered our first lift, an oldish guy was going to Gillingham, we could hop in, a good start of about fifteen miles. The route that we was on was the old A2, the traditional road that had run from Dover to London for countless years and was heavily used in those days. The new M2 motorway had been recently built nearby but pedestrians couldn't walk along that and so we stuck with the A2 where we knew we could get lifts. Walking through the sprawl of the Medway Towns was never a pleasant option and so we hung around for a while at the outskirts of Gillingham until a lift was offered that took us well past the Towns and back out on to the open stretches of the A2. There the road was long and with countryside either side of it until the outer reaches of London began to appear and there for a while another lift failed to materialise. We found ourselves simply walking, backs to the on-coming traffic, thumbing as we walked, into the fast approaching dusk of that evening. After several of such hitch-hiking trips, we had become students, if that's the right word, of roadside debris. One of us would be thumbing while the other wandered along ahead picking up the various objects thrown or lost alongside the road, car wing mirrors, broken of in some collision, empty match boxes with all manner of different labels on. Even used condoms, which always prompted wild suggestions as to, why there? alongside a fast moving main road, but we never worked out the answer.

Anyway, it was never pleasant thumbing in the dark, the evening light, after walking several miles, was fading fast. After dark always seemed to bring out the idiots, which I suppose we could be classed as for being there in the first place. With our backs to on-coming traffic the first we became aware of a car too close was when it's wing mirror deliberately thumped an out-stretched hand to the merriment of the occupants. There were also the cars that sounded their horns and stopped several yards further on as though suggesting a lift and then as we ran towards it, would suddenly roar off again. We plodded on, at least it was a warm and dry evening, on a previous trip I'd had to walk, with no offer of a lift, for around ten miles in pouring rain and that's bad news for two reasons. Sympathy from motorists would easily disappear when they weighed up the thought of having two wet through, scruffy types sitting on their nice dry car seats, which then meant that we had to suffer climbing into sleeping bags somewhere, in wet clothes for a few hours very uncomfortable sleep. The second worst fate was to hear a car horn sounding madly and to see the other two's grinning faces pressed against a window as they sped past to overtake us.

But neither of those things happened that evening, another lift materialised and with the dark now descending fast we were dropped off at a place called Falconwood, not far from the outskirts of London. That small cluster of houses alongside the main road had been an overnight stopping off place a few times before for us, mainly because it had a great pub called "The Falcon". Buoyed by the idea of a last couple of beers for the night, we offered the motorist a drink, which he refused, and rushed inside, it was 10.30, half an hour's drinking time!  Twenty minutes later, as the landlord was about to shout "last orders" the door burst open and our other two friends rushed in, straight to the bar and ordered themselves some drinks. Apparently they'd picked up one lift, all the way from Sheerness to around five miles back down the road and had been walking as fast as possible with the pub as a magnet!
Beers drunk, there was nothing else left to do but walk into a large wood alongside the pub, unroll the sleeping bags, tomorrow the walk into London, tonight sleep with the squirrels and the mice. Hard to believe that just 3-4 hours earlier we had been sitting in the "Queens Head" on a warm and sunny evening.