Raptor watching

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Red Shouldered Hawk, photographed by me earlier this year in the Botanic Gardens, Memphis USA

It was flying straight towards me. I had a perfect head-on view through my binoculars as it drew closer, then veered off to fly in a line parallel with the distant river Dee. It was a male Hen Harrier and I enjoyed every second of tracking its flight, watching its silver-grey body with distinctive black wing tips and quietly gasping at my good fortune at seeing it.

It was even more special a sighting as Hen Harriers are a persecuted species, especially so on open moorland close to grouse shooting estates, where there is known criminal activity of destruction of these magnificent birds and their chicks. So persecuted are they, only three pairs have bred successfully in the UK in 2018.

The Hen Harrier I was watching, as part of the RSPB’s regular Raptor Watch event at Parkgate, Deeside, can be seen there quite often…but it was my first sighting of the male. I’ve seen the female, known as Ringtail, a few times but managed to miss her this time around as there was so much going on.

“Overhead!” called one of the volunteers who run his event. It was a Merlin. As it flew at speed over our heads, another RSPB bod said “Female Merlin”. That instant ID, against the light of the sky, was impressive!

There were skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying in to the marshy areas nearby, egrets in amongst the vegetation and pools, two Marsh Harriers hunting further out near the river, and as dusk crept in, an elegant Barn Owl began hunting for food, dropping down from time to time to catch a mouse or vole, only to rise up again when it got away. Then he went down and stayed – he must have caught something and was ready for dinner.

But this was not to be as a kestrel appeared out of the blue, flew down to join the owl and mugged him, flying off with the catch in its claws. It was high drama at dusk as this happened not once, but twice.

As we left, it was almost dark but the shape of the owl could still be seen quartering the marshland in search of food.

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In a Scotland state of mind

Scotland’s on my mind, probably because I need some light at the end of the everlasting, deja vu-ridden Brexit tunnel of despair as negotiations continue on their journey of ever decreasing circles.

So I’ve updated the blog’s head photo with a stunning view I took several years ago of the mountains near Achnahaird in the Highlands – thoughts are straying towards revisiting next Spring.

With blue skies, crisp clear air and sunshine, it’s tempting to think of going to Scotland again, and my archives have revealed a few more temptations – the scenic cathedral ruins at Elgin…..and the  view from the promenade at Cromarty for starters.

Way up in the far north, at Dunnet Bay, I saw sun dogs refracted in a halo around the setting sun, and the wide empty sands at Balnakiel were wonderful to walk on and just simply BE.

095 deserted northThis view of the empty, dramatic Scottish wilderness was taken from the North Coast 500 road – empty when I was there apart from a solitary biker riding by. This route has become very popular, one of those scenic drives that has to be done.

I’m glad I saw it deserted and dramatic. Would I want to travel along it again? Maybe…but there are still many unspoiled, deserted places to discover. Maybe time to get out the guide books and maps and get the ideas flowing.

Liverpool’s Albert Dock

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Liverpool has some stunning architecture and somehow the old and traditional, and the new and modern seem to have blended together very well in the Pier Head and Albert Dock area.

I never tire of seeing the iconic Liver Birds on top of the classic older buildings at the Pier Head. I remember seeing the angular new buildings going up near the traditional stuff several years ago and wondered if they would ever be a match for their long established grand neighbours.

Now these buildings are finished. They are unashamedly modern and unfussy, with reflective glass and sharp edges…..but oh how well they work alongside the established, iconic traditional grandeur.

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A close up of the Liver Birds and the classic dome rising proudly above a modern cheese wedge of a building had me reaching for my camera again…..

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…..as did the light on the cobbled promenade by the Mersey. The former warehouses on the left are now apartments.

It didn’t use to be like this when I first came to live “ooop north” and visited Liverpool. It used to be a rather scruffy place – parts of it still are – but lots of innovative planning and design has made the city a big tourist attraction. Of course, the Beatles, the Mersey sound of the 60s, the siting of the Tate Gallery in the Albert Dock, the history and the Maritime Museum have something to do with this as well!

Great Uncle Jim

Gt Uncle Jim in uniform

This is him, my Great Uncle Jim. He served and died in France in World War 1 in Boulogne on 2nd August 1917. With the centenary of the Armistice approaching, now seems a good time to honour and remember him.

Although I never met him, he was my Grandma’s brother, and he was family. His name was James Small and he served with the Royal Marine Labour Corps in WW1.

He wrote to Dolly and Fred – my Grandma and Grandpa – in December 1915 when he was stationed in Le Havre. Here is part of the letter he wrote, with a photograph of himself attached.

Jim's letter 1915

He says “Well, Doll, you never said what I could send the children” (that would be my dad and his sister, my aunt) “I was a good mind to get a pinafore for the girl” and he says later on “Let me know what little thing I can get the children from France”.

 Jim is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery. As a member of the Royal Marine Labour CorJim's grave Boulogneps it’s unlikely that he was in active service on the front, and was most likely to have been involved in heavy manual support work.

Nonetheless, he was doing his bit and paid the ultimate price as it’s possible that he contracted an illness (the conditions weren’t healthy) and died in hospital. He was  47 or 48.

In the 1930s, my dad (one of “the children” mentioned in Jim’s letter) went to Belgium and France to see the WW1 battlefields and trenches. He found Jim’s grave in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery and took this photo.

About 10 years ago I also went to find Jim’s grave. It looks much the same, is clean and surrounded by well-kept gardens, thanks to the War Graves Commission, who helped by sending me the exact location of the grave so I could visit and pay my respects.

Now, when we travel to France on our way to visit and explore more of this, one of our favourite countries, I always nod towards Boulogne spread out below as we pass by on the autoroute, and think of Great Uncle Jim resting, I hope, in peace, and not forgotten.

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Boulogne Eastern Cemetery War Graves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terracotta Warriors

 

I recently went to Liverpool to see an exhibition of just a few of the famous terracotta warriors which were discovered in China in 1974. They are life sized, and there were more than 8,000 of them buried in the tomb of the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang.

Horses and chariots were buried along with the Emperor and the huge army of warriors, supposedly to protect him in the afterlife. Horses were killed before burial, as were the people who constructed the warriors, to keep the burial site secret. We had to wonder about how those who killed the builders of the life sized soldiers managed not to be killed themselves….and who by? Who killed the killers? Did they get away with it?

I personally came to the conclusion that the Emperor must have been a revolting little despot, reading details of his harsh authoritarian rule, but I was fascinated to learn about how the warriors were made.

I studied pottery as my main course at teacher training college and was always a more accomplished and satisfactory hand potter; I wasn’t very good at throwing, using the wheel. I was curious to find out how these life sized figures were made, and sure enough, it was by using similar hand pottery techniques to those I’d learned…..but on a far larger scale.

The amount of clay to be prepared for each figure must have been phenomenal, when multiplied by 8,000 – and that excludes models of horses and other animals which went down into the burial pit. It took several gangs of men on a conveyor belt style production line to produce as warrior. The last thing to be fixed on was the head.

Then there was the firing. How large were the kilns they used? And how efficient did they have to be at reaching the right temperature? The skills used were undoubtedly sophisticated for the date this all took place – around 210-209 BCE!

The figures are convincing and their faces wonderfully shaped into different expressions. A very interesting, enlightening exhibition, where I learned a lot more about Chinese dynasties and cultures.

But I was dismayed that the horses and the potters had to bumped off too.

68 songs

RC Ed

I’ve been a member of Rock Choir for over 5 years, and yesterday thought it was about time I tidied up my file of words for the songs I’ve learned and sung during that time. It totals 68 to date, and that includes the 3 songs I’ve learned in the past  five weeks, ready for polishing and perfecting for gigs our choir will perform in over the Christmas period.

What intrigues me is how I – and other Rock Choir members – learn the words, the notes and the dance moves that go with the songs. We don’t have music, we listen and memorise and make personal notes on our song sheets. We need to get the tune in place, along with the words, and with the guidance of our very professional choir leader, something magical happens. It all starts to fall in place, the words and tune take root on a deep level and when the moves are added, it’s not too difficult to associate music and words with moves. Somehow it all comes together.

It’s not always that easy though – it depends on the lyrics, some of which are pure poetry. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is powerful and very moving to sing. In the past year that has become a much-loved song in our repetoire, and it has a logic and story which made it easy to learn.

Classic 60s California Dreamin’ was another easy one to learn, but the 4 and sometimes 5 part arrangements we sing add a challenging twist, so what starts off sounding like a walk in the park is actually more difficult. All good stuff though as it keeps singers on their toes.

There are a few songs I’ve not warmed to. Katy Perry’s Firework has the strangest, illogical line up of  words which never really tripped off the tongue….”Do you ever feel like a plastic bag…” No. Nothing I could relate to there.

Rock Choir is a national choir, with something like 26,000 members. I belong to the Cheshire choir, where we perform locally for charity and community events, sometimes singing in the street, in a care home, or in a field in a country park to support an event like a charity run. The Manchester Marathon is a fun gig to do; as well as singing we applaud and encourage the runners, who sometimes stop off to join in with us before running off again. We even had 2 policemen joining in with us this year!

We’ve recorded at the famous Abbey Road studios in London, sung at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and at Chester cathedral, and this summer we performed at the Edinburgh Fringe. Next year we’ll be performing at the Liverpool Philharmonic.

68 songs later, I’m very pleased I joined, but I sometimes suffer from an alarming bout of earworm when I’m learning something new!

Abbey Road and Edinburgh Fringe

Goodwill

laughing women sitting in front of table doing high five clap

You know what good will is when you experience it

Saturday’s People’s Vote march in central London – where an estimated 700,000 people, all concerned about the impending doom-laden no-deal or hard Brexit –  united together in harmonious solidarity to express their feelings and demand a final say on what happens.

Britain, my country, is in a state of flux, and has been riven since the 2016 referendum. People marching and demonstrating on Saturday were demanding a second vote on the final Brexit deal (if a final deal ever emerges. Goodness knows they’ve been negotiating for long enough and have only recently started to leak out some alarming details, should we tip over the cliff edge with no proper deal at all on 29th March.)

I wasn’t in London, I’d just come back from holiday, but I followed the events via Twitter and news media. And I’ve signed the People’s Vote petition. What struck me was the huge amount of good will that seemed to be around. People of all ages were cooperating. It made for moving, heart-warming reading and viewing.

Italian psychologist Roberto Assagioli – a contemporary of Jung – focused on the use of the will. Assagioli’s work is often called “a psychology with a soul”. He would most certainly have supported the People’s Vote march; he went to prison for his views and attitudes during WW2.

Assagioli outlined three identifiable expressions of will:

The strong will, where determination and persistence are engaged to reach an aim or goal. Strength of purpose and a clear outcome are sought, and there may be a rigidity of focus too. Hard Brexit?

The skilful will, where we’re prepared to deviate from a straight line or pathway to a desired goal, acknowledging that we may have to shift position, change and alter expectations along the way. The skill is not to lose sight of the goal, but to be prepared to make concessions and evolve with the situation along the way. What the People’s Vote was saying? Minds can be changed.

Then there’s good will, which can permeate both the strong and the skilful will by bringing openness, acceptability of the situation we find ourselves in and work to understand and include the viewpoints of others. With good will, much can be achieved. There are good feelings, an ambient atmosphere and meaningful connections with others are made.

Good will is one of those qualities that we recognise we when we experience it, but it’s hard to describe. There was a lot of it about on that march, and it’s that kind of thing which makes me feel proud to be British. Don’t let’s lose sight of it – we need it to help us out of the hole we’re in.