Family and friends
Goldcrests are flitting tirelessly through the branches just overhead, Jays are leaving the edge of the wood and flying over nearby fields on strange bat-like wings, the thin high seee calls of Redwings mingle with the calls of Blackbird and Song Thrush as they head for the deepest darkest interior of the woods, seeking the sanctuary of their night-time roost and, beneath my feet, the soft yet lacerating carpet of pine needles adds to the earthy scent of autumnal decay as the putrid stench of a Common Stinkhorn assaults my sense of smell. The cold damp air penetrates through to my gloved hands, biting at the flesh, a gentle hint that winter is on it’s way.
I’m on familiar territory; Choppington Woods occupies almost the entire view from our office window and provides an escape from the office and the fresh air to invigorate my mind. Today though, it isn’t just about getting outside. It’s ten days since I had surgery to remove the scar tissue from an old shoulder injury. By next week I’ll be able to drive again, and the stitches will be removed from the operation wounds. Another two weeks in and around the office and then I’ll be back guiding clients before the end of the month 🙂
For now though, I’m wrapped in the warming embrace of the multi-sensory comfort blanket of the world outside, with the words of my surgeon, when I came round from the anesthetic, still firmly burned into my memory “best thing for your recovery is to just get on with your normal life” …
After decades of struggling to find any form of exercise that I really enjoy, I started cycling in May. By June I’d modified my mountain bike with lightweight alloy wheels and slick tyres and started following a 0-100mile training plan, by July I’d bought a road bike and last Sunday I completed the Great North Bike Ride 2013🙂
I’m not keen on warm weather, so waking up on Sunday morning to discover it was cool and misty with a reasonable NNW breeze was near perfect. Sarah drove me to Seahouses, waved me off at the start and then drove down to Tynemouth ready to collect me at the end of the ride. I thought I’d prepared well for the ride; checked the entire route, ridden some of the more challenging bits, followed my training plan fairly closely and made sure everything on my bike was working properly. Still a couple of nagging doubts though…could I manage to ride 56.5mi, and how would I cope with another 2000 riders on the road when I only ever train alone? The longest training ride I’d done was 44mi, so there was still a bit to go beyond that distance to make it to the finish line at Tynemouth Priory. I estimated that it would take me 4-5 hours to complete, so Sarah said she would be at the finish 4h after I started. As soon as I passed under the start line, those nagging doubts evaporated; having other cyclists around provided lots of inspiration and the miles quickly passed beneath my wheels. A quick check at the half-way point generated another concern…if I continued at that speed I’d finish in 3h 30m 🙂 As I crossed the finish line in Tynemouth I was cheered on by Sarah and Jodie, and glanced down at my bike computer to discover I’d finished the ride in 3h 22m! 500ml of orange juice barely touched the sides as I rehydrated, and a slice of malt loaf and a packet of Jelly Babies vanished almost as quickly.
Now I’ve set myself some new goals; 100mi ride, sub-30min 10mi time trial and, of course, complete GNBR 2014 in a faster time than I managed this year 🙂
What could be better than contributing to a good cause, getting some fresh air and exercise and enjoying the beautiful Northumberland coast…all in one easily accessible package 🙂 Sign up now! It’s well organised and a really enjoyable way to spend a Sunday morning in late August.
Chris’ comment as we arrived to spend Friday evening, as we do most Friday evenings, at The Swan suggested a customer with a fascinating repertoire of anecdotes… As Philip was about to head to his room, he came across to say goodnight to Chris and Kirsty, and we all got talking. As he’s passionate about wildlife, fly-fishing, photography and sustainability there were plenty of shared interests to chat about 🙂 When we discovered that he hadn’t had much publicity for the Northumberland coast section of his walk, a flurry of texts and tweets (at 22:30 on Friday night) led to interviews on BBC Radio Newcastle and Radio Northumberland on Saturday as he walked from Cresswell to Blyth. The other thing we could help him with was transport to Cresswell on Saturday morning, and some company for the first part of the walk.
Martin collected Philip at 10:00 and accompanied him for a very wet five miles down the coast to Newbiggin. Fulmars were soaring steeply above the clifftops, Gannets were heading north into the strong breeze and Skylarks sang overhead during interludes between showers. As they reached Newbiggin a lady came out of her house and put some money into Philip’s collection tin – she had been keeping an eye out for him after hearing his interview on BBC Radio Newcastle!
Philip’s a fascinating man, undertaking an amazing journey for a very worthy cause so if you can help him in any way, please do; follow him on Twitter, donate via JustGiving or check the schedule for the rest of his walk and think if you can help in some way as he passes along your stretch of the coastline 🙂
Most people adopt children. Somehow we adopted a cantankerous septuagenarian…
When we first met Jim, eleven years ago, he was already in his 70’s, but still very active and taking long walks in the countryside and camping most weekends. Retired for over a decade at that point, he became the first Treasurer of the Friends of Choppington Woods. He had a stroke in 2005 and was left unable to drive, so one of us, or Glen, would go and collect him so that he could attend FOCW meetings. We kept an eye on him and when we first started NEWT, and Martin had a lot of time on his hands, the two of them started going out around the Cheviot valleys and the North Pennines – two areas that Jim had studied extensively throughout his life. His boundless knowledge of the North Pennines, and its mining history and flora, was responsible for the itineraries that we developed for our trips to that area. Over time Jim was becoming less physically able; walks in the countryside followed by lunch became drives in the countryside followed by lunch and inevitably became drives to a nice pub for lunch. Discussions about book-collecting (a shared passion) and the natural history and landscape of Northumberland, County Durham and Scotland filled many, many hours and Jim inspired Martin’s interests in lichens, pollen analysis and botany. When he became ill in 2010, and moved into a residential care home, we took on the responsibility of keeping his close friends informed of how he was, and making sure that anything he needed was provided.
That responsibility meant that three weeks ago we had to let his friends know that he was seriously ill, and the hospital felt he was unlikely to survive. Jim had other ideas though and, after being taken off all medication, he woke up and asked where his breakfast was. After a week of remarkable high spirits and lucidity, now back in residential care, it was perhaps inevitable that he began to fade and we had to make those difficult calls again as he was readmitted to the hospital in a very poorly condition last Wednesday. Close friends came to the hospital to provide comfort to him, as even Jim’s resilience couldn’t hold back his own mortality any longer, and the hardest calls to make were on Saturday morning, to let his friends know that this extraordinary man – prolific book collector and binder, passionate supporter at one time or another of (amongst others) the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Society of Antiquaries, Lit. and Phil. and Northumberland Wildlife Trust, amateur geologist and botanist, with a wealth of knowledge in so many other fields – had passed away peacefully, just before midnight on Friday, with both of us at his side.
It was a privilege to have known him, cared for him and to have learnt so much from him in the last few years, and we’ll both miss him greatly. As we walk the fells of the North Pennines and explore the Cheviot valleys, we know he’ll be there in spirit.
Jim Milligan 1930-2013
Rest in Peace
One of my favourite birds eased the pain of a shopping trip to Morpeth on Saturday morning. Why a painful shopping trip?…well, going to order a pair of reading glasses was my acceptance that my eyesight (at least my near vision) isn’t what it was when I was younger. I do a lot of reading, but I’ve reached the point where my arms simply aren’t long enough to hold things far enough away for me to be able to read them, and I can’t grow longer arms…
As we approached Morpeth, it was comforting to realise that my vision, beyond a few feet, is still fine, as a distant flock of birds resolved into a group of at least 38, outrageously beautiful, Bohemian Waxwings. There really isn’t too much in the way of subtlety where Waxwings are involved and, shopping trip completed, I positioned myself with camera. Take a few shots…move closer…take a few shots…move closer. Then the inevitable happened and the birds moved closer to me, and too close to focus on (with the camera, not with my eyes!). Before that though, I did manage just under 300 images 🙂
Last weekend was the Big Garden Birdwatch and we followed tradition by sitting in our kitchen with a mug of coffee, and a bacon and tomato sandwich, having topped up all of the feeders the evening before. An hour later, we’d racked up a list of 21 species; Blackbird 3, Jackdaw 2, Collared Dove 2, Robin 3, Chaffinch 20, Great Tit 3, Coal Tit 3, Magpie 1, Blue Tit 2, Dunnock 1, Goldfinch 8, Jay 1, Bullfinch 1, House Sparrow 1, Greenfinch 1, Woodpigeon 2, Redwing 1, Tree Sparrow 1, Song Thrush 1, Sparrowhawk 1, Brambling 2. Quite a successful hour, although most species weren’t present in the numbers we would have expected and, as usual, several species that had been visiting the garden in recent days (Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Siskin, Great Spotted Woodpecker) failed to appear during the 1 hour of the survey. Easy birding, and part of a huge national survey. If you didn’t do it this year, give it a go in 2014 🙂
It’s become a tradition over the last few years that, on Christmas Eve, the Friends of Choppington Woods have a walk from one end of the reserve to the other. One year we finish at our house and the next at Glen and Karen’s. This year we were starting at our end of the woods so I drove to Glen’s and collected him and Sue, from Morpeth and District Red Squirrels, then back to our end of the woods for the start of the walk.
As we walked through the woods a lot of the conversation focused on the fight to maintain (and expand!) the population of Red Squirrels in Northumberland. It’s a comfort, in difficult times for this icon of Northumberland’s wildlife, that the volunteer groups throughout Northern England are filled with the people who have a genuine passion for saving the species.
After just over an hour walking through the leaves and the mud, we all arrived at Glen’s and were greeted by Karen with delicious mulled wine. After a buffet lunch (that has set the bar quite high in advance of Christmas Eve 2013…) we had a real treat as Glen drove us home in the original NEWTmobile!
Have a safe, merry and peaceful Christmas, wherever you are 🙂
As many regular readers of our blog will know, we have quite an affinity for our local pub The Swan at Choppington; Kirsty and Chris’s daughter, Annabel, is Sarah’s god-daughter, Northern Experience Images donated the photography for William’s calendar to raise funds for his World Challenge trip to Namibia and Botswana in 2013 (and Amy at Whiteacres, who has been the creative mind behind our logo and the NEWT Images range of cards and prints, donated her design services to the calendar project).
Friday evening is when we can usually be found relaxing at The Swan, and last Friday was no different. Then I was asked “are you Martin?”. Now, how was this going to pan out? What followed was a very enjoyable discussion about all things wildlife; Red Squirrels, Otters, White-beaked Dolphins, the Northumberland coast, the North Sea and the best places to find a lot of our local specialities. It was great to hear that a lot of locals follow our blog posts, and Peter had a request that we’re only too happy to oblige. Here you are Peter, just for you…
After a quiet Christmas and New Year, Tuesday saw both of us back at work. As well as updating a lot of the content on our website, Martin started preparing our monthly newsletter…and spent some time being quite domestic, making a pot of chili for our Bird Race planning meeting.
The Northumberland Winter Bird Race is always an excellent social event. Around dawn on Saturday several teams will set out with the intention of finding and identifying (by sight or sound) as many bird species as possible within the boundaries of Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle upon Tyne. Planning involves mainly deciding which are the most productive sites in terms of species, and working out the most efficient route to visit them during the short daylight hours of early January. At the end of the day all of the teams gather at The Three Horse Shoes and disclose their totals for the day. It’s a relaxed affair, with every team wishing every other team to do well, no ultra-competitive element involved at all 😉
Today brought more planning; this time for some contract work we’re doing this year. Then, a couple of hours ago, a ‘phone call from a PR agency we’ve worked with in the past – “Hi Martin, can you do a press trip on Friday please?”. Being asked to do a press trip by someone we’ve worked with before is like having a repeat client; confirmation that what we deliver is a consistent quality experience that clients trust us to deliver, and PR agencies trust their reputations to. At a meeting in December to discuss the uncertain future of tourism promotion in Northumberland, it was suggested that what we should all do is be creative and arrange press trips – PR agencies, accommodation providers, activity providers and visitor attractions all working together to promote Northumberland. It’s slightly worrying that there was even one person in that room who appeared to be unaware that lots of local tourism businesses are doing that already, ably supported by Northumberland Tourism and the PR agencies who are engaged by some of the larger businesses. We live and work in a beautiful county, with a tourism industry that has the skills, and the people, to ensure it remains sustainable.
Today is a special day for us; it’s exactly 4 years since we took out our first clients, so we’d like to say thank you to Go Wansbeck, the regeneration project that came to an end on December 31st and provided us with so much support when we first launched NEWT. Thanks to Keith, Karen, Martin and all of the team – you gave us the start that got us to where we are today 🙂
In no particular order of priority, here a few things we’d love to see happening in 2012;
1) An increase in the English breeding population of Hen Harriers. One of the most contentious wildlife issues we have – but perhaps 2012 will see, at least, the beginning of the abandonment of entrenched attitudes and finally some positive news for the ‘grey males and ringtails’.
2) The stunning cetaceans that spend time in our offshore waters being able to go about their business without suffereing unnecessary disturbance. There are some excellent codes of conduct for cetacean watching and NEWT use these to inform and plan our offshore activities, and to advise the skippers and boat owners who we work with. Martin will continue to raise issues of cetacean disturbance at meetings of the PAW Marine Wildlife Enforcement Working Group, but hopes that won’t be too often.
3) The continued excellent promotion of Northumberland as a holiday destination. Our county really is beautiful and you can ‘get away from it all’ without having to try too hard. Whatever your interests – birdwatching, wildlife, photography, history and culture are just a few examples where the county excels – you’ll find something that will make you come back again and again.
4) The recognition by the Government that all 127 recommended Marine Conservation Zones (rMCZ’s) need to be designated in order to achieve a coherent ecological network that will protect our seas for everyone and for the future.
5) Health, wealth and happiness for our family, friends and clients 🙂
Happy New Year everyone 🙂