Friday, 31 May 2013

Devon lanes in May

For the last few weeks, Marcia and I have been pottering around as she has been looking for and listening to the people who will, I have no doubt, dominate our household for the next few months during which we shall both get to know them better than our relatives and closest friends. What an odd business this is.

The tall people in the middle are antirrhinum. Around them are the white flowers of Little Mouse Ear and bottom left a few bluebells and there are a lot of other species in there too.

The bluebells are still with us. These are up on the moor beside a lane leading to Leusdon and are still in their prime. When we were down near the coast (a few hundred feet lower in a different world) they were just beginning to go over.
 Anyway, as we have pottered so we have revelled: the Devon lane in May is like nowhere else. For a few glorious weeks nature in all its glory unfolds itself not in some far distant place where you must travel and trek to find it but there, just there, beside the car as you travel about your daily business. Some, sad to say, never notice: their eyes are on what is to come (the shopping – fetching the children from school – the next business appointment – the next repair job – the next delivery). Not all miss out due to the hustle and bustle of life: we see people who stop for a few moments just taking it all in before setting off again. To some of these we speak and they have one thing in common – a thing we share: the need to connect even if only for a moment with that something outside ourselves that we give so many different names.

The yellow flowers belong to the white dead nettle. Bottom right the wild garlic (we call them ransoms). They smell wonderful on a hot day and, yes, you can use them in cooking.

A general view with scores of plants in view. The yellow ones are one of the hawkbits but I don't know which one (they might even be the related smooth hawk's-beard). The tiny blue flowers bottom left are speedwell.

Herb Robert (the same one as grows in North America where it is called  Robert Geranium) was used as a cure for toothache and nose bleeds. It has other names, too, such as "death come quickly" but why I have no idea. It is, of course, related to all the other geraniums.
There is a universal need to connect to nature which is why natural history programmes are so popular. I watch some of these too (usually in the depths of winter) but given the option of sitting in front of a television and watching some exotic beast from some foreign country or just pottering down one of our lanes I would always choose the latter. Indeed, I imagine myself in old age in a powered wheelchair doing so to the bitter end.

Ramsons again.

Stonecrop, a sedum that (as the name suggests) loves to live in stony places but there, just alongside, is a group of bluebells which don't. Both seem to be doing quite well.

I have chosen these two to demonstrate how short spring can be. Both are taken within a hundred yards of each other and show a hedge which has a good deal of sycamore in it (despite the fact that this is a pretty rotten plant for hedging). One section gets a lot more sun than the other which explains the difference. Anyway, top - new and very beautiful sycamore leaves still that luscious yellowy-pinky-red whilst the others are already quite grown up and a rather boringly just green.
 So yesterday I set off with my simplest camera – a delightful Panasonic Lumix – and I took a series of photographs from the car just to prove the point and to share some of the delights with you. Some of the plants shown here are already passing over – now the verges and hedges will start to take on their summer coats  the snowdrops have gone but we still have some winter aconite, primroses and celendines (but I have already shared them with you in earlier blogs). Yes, there will be much to see and much to enjoy but it will be autumn before the lanes are once again quite simply magical.

Almost certainly cow parsley or a close relative. This family (after which the umbrella gets its name) will dominate the verges for the rest of the summer.

I don't know. Simple as that. No idea. The leaves in early spring look just like bluebell leaves but they are rather harsher to the feel and less fleshy. The flowers, as you can see, are uninspiring. I have pored through books and asked friends for help with identifying them but nobody seems to know. So, over to you - come on, one of you must be able to help.

I should add that one of the constraints of sticking to taking photographs from the car is that you only have those images available when it comes to identification. I have done the best I can but some may well be wrongly named. The other problem is that you tend to hold up the traffic: sorry to all those who sat behind me, patiently waiting until (with a jolt) I realised they were there.

Of course he's called Churchill. Well, he had to be didn't it? (For those who do not live in the UK, this is the spit image of a dog who is used to advertise an insurance company which trades under the name of Churchill).

Friday, 24 May 2013

Swanning About

The simplest way to describe life this last week is to say we have been swanning around. This is all part of Marcia’s search for these rather ephemeral (as yet, anyway) characters she has in the back of her mind. Still shadowy, they have been dominating what we do and where we go. It seems a crazy way to write a novel but, as I am sure you would all agree, it works.

The source of the Dart is a bit tricky. Up on the moor it divides into the East Dart and the West Dart and then there are all the streams that feed into it. Most start as an "issue" where water literally oozes out of the ground. Above is the issue that becomes the Walla Brook that becomes the West Dart that . . . well, you get the idea.

Anyway, we have been all over the place, following the River Dart from it’s source on Dartmoor to the sea at Dartmouth and along the coast from there westwards to Bigbury and Burgh Island.

No confusing the mouth of the River Dart with its castle.

As usual, as we go I have been taking photographs and the odd scrap of video. As far as the latter is concerned you will find a video called (well, it had to be) “Swanning About” on YouTube. Click here to see that. Stick with it – it gets more interesting towards the end.

This photograph was actually taken on 23 May - 2009.
A sea of bluebells on the open moor.
Meanwhile, Marcia has learned that her editor is over the moon with the last book so there will be a new one out in the autumn of 2014. I never doubted this for one moment but Marcia is always cautious. She is right to be, there is more to getting a book published these days than simply writing a good one. Behind the editor is the marketing department, sales and the accounts department. All have their say for there is no value in writing a novel that cannot be marketed well, sold well and – vitally important for all involved – make a profit.

The really sad thing (this is a personal statement) is to watch people who for other reasons are in the public eye writing poor quality novels which, nevertheless, are listed in the top ten simply because the author is a “celeb” (or, of course, a ghost writer who has done all the work and will get none of the glory even if the return in financial terms is good).

End of rant.

The problem with modern life is, as we all know, that the speed of communication makes us immediately (and, often, dramatically) aware of the bad things that happen throughout the world. We were shocked by the impact of the typhoon on Oklahoma and so glad that, as far as we know, none of Marcia’s readers suffered loss or damage as a result. That gladness is, of course, tinged with sadness when we think of those who were less fortunate. Many thanks to Jeanne for keeping us informed.

This week our blog-dog is called Scarlett.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Oklahoma typhoon

Marcia and I were horrified to read about the typhoon and the devastation it has caused. Our thoughts are with all those whose relatives or friends have been killed or wounded and with those who have seen their property destroyed.

If you live in OK, please get is touch to let us know whether or not you are all right.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Location, location and characters

You may remember me telling you how we came to find the location for The Sea Garden. If you want to refresh your memory, click here. All the photographs below (apart from the blog dog) were taken while Marcia was researching in the area and I was just sitting there enjoying this extraordinarily atmospheric place where the light conditions change minute by minute, the tide surges in and out and, of course, weather and time of day all combine to ensure that it is never the same twice. Most do not have a caption as I think these speak for themselves. I suspect I have allowed myself to get carried away. You could just look the other way.

So we had a location but no characters other than the fact that Marcia was sure this would be a book in which Cass and Kate would find their lifelong relationship at risk when it looked as though the marriage between Cass’s daughter, Gemma, and Kate’s son, Guy, was on the rocks. That, however was not the main thrust of this book although at that stage Marcia had no idea what was.

Then one character stepped out of the shadows. A girl, really a young woman, on a train from Bristol to London and almost beside herself with joy. Who? Why Bristol to London? Why joyful? What has this to do with a book that is to be set on the banks of the River Tamar? Well, we lived with those questions for a week or so as we talked through all the options. As always, this became easier (or at least clearer) when the girl had a name: Joss. Marcia feels that names are so important: how can you give a baby a name before it is born, before you know what he or she is like? Perhaps this is why so many children end up with nicknames – their given names are all wrong. It’s the same with dogs – Kit was always the member of the Chadwick family to name the dogs at the Keep and this aspect of her character she shares with Marcia (or should that be the other way around?).

We are now back in that sort of situation as Marcia begins to fumble towards the next novel whilst trying to keep the characters of the last one in her head in case her editor wants some changes made. Today, however, it is not a location but no characters nor all the main characters and no location (and that has happened quite often) but an odd combination of the two: fleeting glimpses of shadowing people standing in the wings, odd senses of resonance when in certain places but nothing definite at all. We shall have to wait and see and, for now, spend time pottering around a wide area of moorland and coastal Devon hoping that as we do so everything will fall into place. They always have in the past so no reason why they shouldn’t again.

This is one of the racing gigs famous in the west country.

Marcia showing berries from the spindle tree

"Time for bed," said Zebedee and it was.

Meanwhile I am driving myself mad trying to sort out some of the thousands of photographs that I have on my computer or waiting to be scanned in and making some sense of them on my own web site. At the moment I am trying to add at least six different species of bird each week. At the same time, I am working on a few video projects. (Yes, quite right: those whom the gods wish to destroy they first send mad) Putting video on this blog makes it rather clunky and some people I know can’t actually see them because not all devices support that format. So, I have put a couple of snippets up on YouTube which you can look at or not as the mood takes you. Here are the links.

Then, of course, there is the blog dog of the week: Bosca by name.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Birds and other flying objects

Last week I was chasing ducks whilst Marcia brooded over the next book in her mind. With birds very much on my mind I decided that the way to tackle them on my own web site was to create a list of those birds it is reasonable to expect to find in what you might describe as “Marcia Willett country” and then make it an ambition to put up at least one of my pictures in that section. When that happens, the name on the list will become a link to a new page complete with the appropriate pickies.

Far removed from the British list is the avifauna of Australia. A short while ago, Nancy Sayers who lives down there sent me some delightful photographs of the kookaburra with whom (as far as I can gather) they more or less cohabit. It seems they have had a rough time down there. This from her last email:

“We are having our usual ‘start of winter’ amusements. Brian decided to give the wood stove a good clean as the cold is setting in. He opened the door, and it fell off in his hand, one hinge broken, and one cracked and making up its mind whether to stay or go. It went. We then...Murphy’s Law being what it is, had a severe cold snap, and no fire. [sigh].

“Chaos the cat, and Chloe the dog therefore decided that I was the next best thing, and both climbed on my lap together. I felt that a good old-fashioned hot water bottle might be a good idea for them, poured the hot water in, and it poured straight out again, through the withered side [hidden by the cover] all over my slippers. I may leave home.”

I do hope she hasn’t.

Meanwhile here, as spring finally arrived, I found myself in the garden on a lovely sunny day with a number of hover flies buzzing around my head. Because I like a challenge, I decided to see whether I could get a decent photograph of one in flight. This is, of course, near impossible. Any intelligent wildlife photographer mounts the insect on a long and very find sewing needle fixed to a suitable backing board and then, camera on tripod, ensure perfect focus, perfect exposure and a shot that hides the needle. This, of course, would entail killing the insect. Feeling that I would be somewhat peeved if someone killed me and stuck me on a needle just for sake of a picture I opted for the impossible. Actually the result wasn’t that bad.

She – I think it is a she from the position of the eyes – is about a quarter of an inch long. We have about a hundred and thirty species of hover fly in the UK but rather less than thirty are that size which narrows things down a bit. Anyway, I am reasonably sure this one glories in the name of Syrphidae Scaeva pyrastri which is why we common folk call then hover flies!

This week’s blog dog sporting the spotted handkerchief is Star.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Unusual Dartmoor

This story starts up on Exmoor some time ago. We were walking beside Oare Water when we saw a family of mallard ducks – a mother and her offspring. She was leading the ducklings upstream and it was great fun watching them as they scrabbled up the rocks. Not surprisingly, I took some photographs of them (which you can see if you follow the link at the bottom of this blog). However, it would have made a superb little sequence had it been on video. So, yesterday morning we actually set off on a duck hunt – where on the rivers flowing south of Dartmoor would I find those sort of condition and, of course, some ducks?

As we drove up onto the moor we came across something that is somewhat unusual on Dartmoor: a peacock lying across the lane. There are peacocks at The Hunters’ Inn at Trentishoe and there used to be some at a house called Moorgate beside Peek Moor Gate on the south east slopes of Ugborough Beacon where we often took the dogs for walks some twenty years ago but lying in the middle of the road on Dartmoor? Here is the proof.

Shortly after that, there in a field beside the lane was something else that is unusual on the moor: a small herd of alpacas. Yes, I know that they are becoming quite popular but they are not the norm here.

Nor are little clusters of daffodils growing in the open like these.

Nor are Polling Stations such as this one in the village hall at Leusdon (but, to be fair, it was polling day yesterday). 

Anyway, I decided that four unusual things were quite enough to warrant the heading for this blog.

*    *    *    *    *

Spring has finally arrived. Yellow flowers everywhere, . . . 


Primroses and some dandelions
a few white ones . . .

Wood anemones growing on an old tree stump
Mouse Ear

and some blue ones.

A few early bluebells
Shrinking violets
It was wonderful to see a beech in leaf near the lane that winds down from Buckland-in-the-Moor (to avoid confusion with Buckland Monachorum to the west of Tavistock) beside the delightfully named Mistresses Piece and so towards the confluence of the River Webburn and the River Dart at Buckland Bridge. Here we saw some dippers years ago and I hope to see them again soon but, sadly, no ducks.

Names are fascinating. Why “Mistresses Piece”? I have no idea. Googling the name doesn’t help and can, as you would expect, lead you to places best ignored.

Next was Salters Pool near New Bridge where we saw a couple of mallard a week or so ago busy diving for food. This time the pool was covered in water lilies (it will look wonderful soon – I will post a picture when they are in flower) and the water was a dirty green which I assume this was caused by a bloom of algae but today there was not one in sight.

Then it was home by way of the River Harbourne – also duckless. Not a successful day, but a wonderful one despite that.

The blog dog this week is Barak – a very refined and self-contained gentleman.