But It’s Ten to Ten!

Waking at 5.55am on Sunday wasn’t the plan at all. Peeping through the curtains it was evident that a swirling mist had its arms wrapped around the cottage. Not much to see, so off I toddled downstairs for a very early morning cup of Earl Grey tea. My bedroom was bathed in brightness, despite the weather outside and, giving up to being wide awake, I propped myself up in bed with tea and book for half an hour before rising for the day once and for all.

Ten to ten! Ten to ten!! How on earth did that happen? One minute I was happy to be reading page after page and the next… ten to ten! At least I’d got my priorities right and finished my cup of tea before dozing off. Sunlight was now threading its way into the room and, still scratching my head, I wandered downstairs, for the second time, to make my second cup of tea of the day. I needed a kick up the backside to get going.

After a full English, complete with fried new potatoes, I shoved a chicken in the oven for a couple of hours (not a live one, you’ll understand but one minus its feathers.) Donning my boots and grabbing my camera I set off over the fields. Ten to ten… half the day was gone and there was so much I wanted to achieve today. I’d decided to walk a neighbour’s land, down towards the woodland. Out of respect to the farmer, I hugged the hedgerows as I rambled along across fields laden with buttercups, red clover and cuckoo plant, or ladies smock, as I know it. This particular field was covered in delicious, glowing, yellow buttercups as are many acres this year. 8V7A2092

A turn to the right and I was making my way downhill towards the wood and its many treasures. I enjoy the feeling of walking across lush fields, which are awash with wild flowers. Each flower urges you to stop, inspect, identify and admire.  I haven’t a clue what some of them are, but they will nod their heads as if to say ‘find out who I am’ and it’s hard to pass them by… and why should I? They are there to be discovered, to be enjoyed and to be known. How else will I pass my knowledge onto my children and grandchildren if I am clueless?

I stood at a gate where a flock of sheep and their growing lambs were grazing beyond. I looked at them and they at me. Across the rolling fields, a herd of Devon ruby-red cattle, with their calves, were traversing the greenness on a much walked pathway. They stood out against the backdrop with their distinctive red colour and I watched them amble along for a while before moving off again. I turned right again here towards a small, sturdy gate to cross the lane into yet another field. In my pathway was a dandelion clock which was almost perfectly formed. It seemed to be a lone specimen in amongst the other wild flowers but I knew that wouldn’t be so next year, once the tiny parachutes had launched themselves into the air with the help of a gust of wind. A dandelion, yes, but just as beautiful as any other wild flower.8V7A2093

An Exmoor beech hedgerow led me onto a narrow lane and, once crossed, I made my way over a sloping, stepped piece of land. Again, sheep grazed in the field but my eye was taken by a movement in the sky – a buzzard was preparing to land on a tree stump. The buzzard, once landed, stayed on the stump until a crow began to tease it. Before  I could focus the camera on it, he was off, up and gone soaring into the blueness of the sky, away from the childish crow. From here I had a magnificent view of the valley  below me and Exmoor stretched out far away towards the horizon in all its glory. Dry moorland, rich woodland, thriving pasture and the sound of the river, coursing its way toward the nearby village.

Crossing the field, which was a little scrubby with prickly thistles where I walked, I came to a five bar gate. On the other side is woodland made up mostly of pine trees. It became darker as I entered the wood as very little light filters through these towering trees. Downwards, the hedge line would lead to the river eventually and a newly excavated badger sett. Upwards, a lush grassy pathway would take me further into the wood and perhaps a sighting of some red deer. I chose to go up – it was chilly under the canopy of the trees and I needed warming up. 8V7A2158 I love to walk this route as it takes your feet between two woodland areas. Both are totally different from each other. One is tall, dark and eerie at times – the other is dense, knotted, gnarled and low compared to its neighbour.

It was in the low area that I expected to encounter the red deer. Tending to graze in the fields beyond the woodland, if disturbed, they will make their escape through the trees and out into the cover of the woods. Walking the woods made me feel very vulnerable – it’s a good job that I know them fairly well. Every tiny sound hit my ears like a thunder-clap: the snap of a twig, a wood pigeon’s wings clapping in the trees, the call of a pheasant in the undergrowth. With senses working overtime, I still wasn’t prepared for the sound of a hind barking out her warning call, and my feet left the woodland floor for a second.  It happens every single time – I am aware that I may hear it but it never ceases to startle me. Hidden in the trees, away from prying eyes, the deer would have seen me first and were on their guard. I dropped down behind a fallen tree which crossed the path and waited for their silent approach. Large they may be but they move with such stealth when required. Then a dog barked in the background, not too far away – the deer may not be as silent as expected now. Obviously spooked, by not just me, a rush of bodies came toward me, the continuous empty, echoing sound of feet on damp but solid ground gave them away and there they were – eleven of them. One by one, they crossed the path in front of me some twenty feet away, bounded over fallen branches and began to filter down into the thick woodland below me. Standing on the tree, I watched their progress as far as I could see them until they blended with their surroundings and were gone. Always stunning to witness, never ever boring – the red deer of Exmoor.

8V7A2159 Sometimes I take a pew in the woods, on a fallen tree such as the one I was stood on. I am a lover and a hugger of trees, which makes people smile but trees are of huge importance to us and have ancient stories to tell. Many have been standing for years and years, their roots embedded in the ground below us, holding them firm enough, grounded, until it’s their time to fall. I know that those same roots will take my troubles and stories on board, should I wish them to. Don’t be surprised if you find me with my back against a tree trunk, offloading  my troubles to whichever tree wants to listen and also thanking them for what I am lucky enough to have in my life. My daughter still laughs at me when I tell her that I’ll go visit the man in the woods. She knows exactly what I mean!

It was a trudge up the hill from here but I did say that I wanted to keep warm – there was also a full English to work off. Just like anywhere else, on Exmoor if you go downhill then you’ll have to work your way back up again at some point, so I struck out at a fair pace.  I was beginning to make my way back to the cottage again but was still a fair bit away. There was still a couple of uphill fields to cross, all quite pleasurable though and I would tarry awhile to take in my surroundings, as is usual for me. The fields are edged by beech trees, now sporting their full green summer outfits, and beneath the trees was a covering of newly unfurled ferns along with tall grasses. It’s shelter such as this that the deer calves will be hidden in when they’re born, safe from harm.IMG_0059 Well hidden they are too as I’ve walked straight past a little one, only a foot away from my feet, and not seen it until it made a dash across the field, behind me.  Fresh deer slots were evident along the hedgeline, where the ground was soft and muddy, so instead of taking my usual path back to the cottage, I entered the woodland again and followed a track that I knew would take me towards the lane and home. If there were any deer in the fields, then I didn’t need to disturb them any further. Who knows, we may just be witness to a tiny calf very soon and that really would be a sight for sore eyes. 8V7A2163

It was so very tempting to make my way toward the river, which I could hear below me. A welcome perch on a boulder, surrounded by mini waterfalls and white-water patches would have cleared the cobwebs but I’d left the cottage with no prepared supplies and a chicken in the oven – it was, after all, ten to ten when I awoke this morning.

So, onwards I walked along a somewhat damp path with fields to my right and the wood to my left. The shrill birdsong of a robin, with that of a chaffinch came from the hedgerow and, although I couldn’t see them, they made it plain that they were there. The track was quite precarious as there were branches to dodge, both overhanging and on the floor and boggy patches to navigate through. It’s not a well-used route but I quite enjoy that aspect of a wander.

The smell of the rich, dark woodland floor was a welcome scent as I walked toward the lane home. The lane edges are a riot of colour covered in bluebells, now going over, red campion, buttercups, foxgloves and the white of cow parsley. I’m pleased to report that woundwort and jack-by-the-hedge are also in amongst these more popular flowers. I’ll be collecting some woundwort very soon to make into a cream for cuts and wounds ready for winter and next year so I’ve made a mental note of where to return to when the time is right. DSC02426

I had no idea of the time but with the cottage in sight, I knew I’d soon find out. A welcome cup of coffee, a piece of spiced, sultana cake and my garden was calling me to walk a little faster and I’m sure I could smell my chicken cooking, but with such beauty around, I’m always being pulled in two different directions. But, where was the problem here? There was always this afternoon for another wander should the fancy take me.

Then I remembered that there may not be much of the day left… It was, after all, ten to ten when I woke this morning! 🙂

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Windy Wildlife Wandering (Thoughts from Yesterday)

Today is one of those days when you itch to venture out in the open air. However, you know that you’re going to get a soaking if you do, let alone get blown away, not by the fantastic scenery, but by the wind. Exmoor at its finest!

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As I stand and look out the study window, I can see right across the moor. It’s bleak, it’s misty, it’s drizzly… but it is beautifully atmospheric. I know what the weather is hiding and I also know that it will still be there when this awful run of weather has passed. Exmoor keeps me feeling alive and positive – whatever it throws at me. Later I will venture out – I cannot and will not stay inside all day. At the moment, my garden umbrella is legging it across the adjoining paddock,  dancing in the wind.  For all the world it is free to do as it pleases for a short time. I’ll go and retrieve it after lunch and stake it back where it belongs – it can do no harm at present.

Over in the corner of the paddock is the distinctive aroma of foxes. There, in a marvellous triangle of wild flowers – red campion, buttercup, ox-eye daisy and fern – a pair of foxes are bringing up their young. I am sure of it. The scent is strong – too strong for a passing fox to have made and I’ve seen one of the parents parading through the short grass – healthy tail, white-tipped, brushing the ground. I have also been the receiver of small parcels on my steps and around my raised vegetable beds for some time now. I’ll keep you posted.

Across the field I can bear witness to the high winds, as the beech trees, resplendent in their new greenery, wave and toss their branches about against the grey sky. Every branch and twig is pointing toward the north, all of them uniformly directing their arms in the same direction. It’s a stark sky but the green against the grey clouds are pleasing enough. It’s a sad sight to see that the lane is strewn with ripped leaves from these glorious beech trees – they’ve only just emerged and yet have fallen foul to the weather already. Plenty more where they came from though, as well I know from collecting them during the autumnal months.DSC02182

It seems that my resident birds are not put off by a touch of wind and rain. The robin is still milly-mandering about on the raised beds looking for a tasty morsel. He moves from post to post quite methodically and eventually ends up on the corner of the topmost raised bed.  I’m never alone when gardening and the robin will keep me company each and every day. He will sit, waiting for me to turn the earth and can always be seen atop my garden fork, should I leave it to stop for lunch, but not today.

It really is a grey day with the clouds scudding across the sky at quite a rate. I thought it would have passed a little by now but, no… I have to be patient a little while longer. The swallows, however, have no patience as they whirl about the sky, standing out like silhouettes as they flit about. Their song isn’t as orchestral as it has been on warmer days, but they’re still there – fighting to feed their young. I’ll expect to see their podgy fledglings soon enough, lined up on my cherry tree, waiting for lunch. If the wind catches the parents as they pass by the window, they stutter in their flight but are masters at regaining equilibrium and are off like jets across the paddock. Amazing to watch, whatever the weather.

In a terracotta urn full of twigs that sits under my dining room window, an innovative pair of blue tits are nesting. I watch in awe and amazement as they fly to and fro, with beaks full of insects and small caterpillars. The nest is well hidden from view, right down in the pot.  I’ve tried, very carefully, to see it by opening the window and peering in but no joy. On returning to the nest, if they suspect someone is watching them, they will land on the fence, edge their way along quite nonchalantly, and then dive into their hideaway! It’s so funny to watch them and I’ve tried to catch them on camera but are fearful of scaring them from their young. It comes down to that ‘patience’ word again and I’ll have to wait and watch for the little ones to leave the safety of their home in order to photograph them.

I’ve been up the lane for a short jaunt this morning already – fighting against the Exmoor misties of drizzle and wind. There are puddles sitting in the gateway, twigs and small branches litter the drive (good starters and lighters for the winter fire!) and the sheep have stopped their calling. Sheltering under the hedgerows, the ewes and lambs have taken refuge whilst the worse of the weather passes by. Quite sensible I’d say, but I do miss their bleating – it’s normal background noise for me. No planes, no trains, no HGVs – just noises of the countryside and all quite relaxing._MG_0555Across the way is a field which is given up to sheep but they’ve been moved for the moment. Behind the gateway I spotted two small baby rabbits, sitting quite still in the drizzle but easy to view from the lane. I expect they’ll be furnishing me with their presence one of these fine mornings! Hopping across the lane, the babies will come up alongside the cottage, use the steps as a place to groom themselves and then probably find my carrot tops! I don’t mind – there’s enough for everyone and I’d rather have them in the garden than out on the lane, open to all sorts of danger. DSC00835

   It’s after lunch now and I’ve been out to brave the weather and, heigh-ho, whilst I’ve been off across the fields the weather has broken. Rain has ceased, winds are still blowing a hooley but the sun is breaking through. I’m a mess, my hair looks like a deflated meringue and I’m damp but it was refreshing to be out and about. My camera came with me but it was hard to keep it still in the wind. I’m up high, here on the moor and, although protected around the cottage, out in wide open spaces it fair-by takes your breath away!

DSC02201 But look what I found on my travels . Sheltering against the hedge line was a small herd of red deer. With my camo coat zipped high and an oversized hood on my head and most of my face, they were oblivious to my being there. What a wonderful way to spend half an hour, leaning against a gate in weather such as we’re experiencing today. I left them, safe from the elements and tucked into the edge of the field to make my way back home to the cottage.

My walk back was much more friendly than my outward journey and I could stop awhile to admire the wild flowers and greenery. Red clover punctuated the fields of buttercups and grasses, and cow parsley decorated the hedgerows with the ferns, at last, unfurling to make the most of the damp weather.

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Taking the 30DaysWild challenge, I thought I’d refresh the pile of small logs at the front of the cottage. I’ve had it in place for a couple of years now and always replenish the pile each year. The small, gnarly branches are ideal for creating hidey-holes and crevices for residential use. Apart from topping it up I don’t touch or interfere with the pile, unless it’s required. DSC02225

Having blown the cobwebs away and taken in some air, it’s now back inside the cottage for a welcome cuppa. No cake today though – baking day is tomorrow this week…unless the much talked about Somerset heat wave hits us. Can’t quite see myself tied up producing cup cakes whilst the sun shines!

So, I’m back in my seat overlooking the moor with a cheeky magpie to keep me amused by banging and pecking the slates above the window. Magpies, although naughty at times, are one of my favourite birds (although I admit to having quite a few favourites.) When I was small, my brother brought a fledgling home, whose parents and siblings had been shot. She was raised by our family and lived with us for eighteen months before meeting a mate and leaving us to live freely on heathland. Her name was ‘Maggie’. It’s no wonder, then, that magpies with their stunning plumage, hold a special place in my heart and evoke childhood memories at the mere sight of one of them.

The sun shines now – the wind is still breezy. Herbs, in all their splendour, call to be planted out and given room to breathe. Looks like that’s my job for the next hour or so then. I’ll take my tea with me, rescue the escapee garden umbrella and see if the robin will keep me company for the rest of the afternoon. There are fairies at the bottom of the garden – perhaps I’ll see them too!DSC02223

Oh, to be out and involved in simple pleasures…it’s hard to top them when you live in such a stunning place.

Have You Ever Lost Your Car?

Next time I go walkabout on a particular part of the moor, I’m going to stick one of those highly coloured flags on a long, bendy pole to the front of the car! You know the ones… They use them on crowded beaches or at festivals to show that ‘X’ marks the spot. Well my spot well and truly needs to be marked before I’m let loose again because today I lost the car! I cannot believe I lost the car…only for a little while but I still lost it!

I’ve walked the route from the ridge road down into Winsford so many times before. It’s a stunning view down into the Punchbowl but first you have to park said car (I cleverly parked next to a large motor home) and next you have to navigate your way through heather clad moorland with minimal pathways to guide you. If you’re clever, you may be able to see and follow the routes that the Exmoor ponies use but these trails criss-cross the moor like a jigsaw that doesn’t fit together, so it’s a bit hit and miss. Usually I carry my trusty map, hand marked in biro with all the sightings of bird and beast alike,  but today I was  empty-handed because I knew where I was headed,… or so I thought.image

Once over the moorland, I’d joined  a pathway and the jaunt down toward Winsford was pleasurable.  It was full of joyous moments as  red deer, disturbed by my presence, ventured out of the gorse to cross the path right in front of me. Fields, groaning under the weight of wild flowers gently moved in the slight breeze to the left as I walked with the Punchbowl on my right. Through a gateway the view into the centre of the gaping, sloping bowl is spectacular. It’s here that you fully take in the greenness of greens with the mix of foliage bursting forth from the surrounding shrubs and trees. I’d not been walking for that long but even this was worth a quick wander of anyone’s time.

It was an easy route to follow, and I walked further down the hill following a line of trees and  through the edge of a farm, nothing new…I’d done it all before. I  came out on sloping, lush green fields with the Punchbowl behind me now and began to cross them using the pathways. It’s here that I can usually find buzzards as they soar over the massive dip in the  landscape. Against the backdrop of trees with their myriad of colour the spectacular buzzard can be seen easily, whether it be against sky or leafy greens. Here I sat, just off the path, without my camera, waiting for the buzzards that I knew would appear with their mewing sound giving me a heads up. I wanted to actually see these birds of prey without looking through a  lens but I did have  my field glasses with me, should I need them. Plus, the walk back up to the car was certainly not conducive to carrying a camera with its heavy lens across me. Been there, done that and it sure did make me breathe…and that’s with two Kit-Kat breaks along the way.

So, time spent, job done and my return to the car was underway. All was good as I retraced my steps up the hill, walking at a 45 degree angle for most of the way. Digging my feet in and stopping to feast my eyes on my surroundings, every now and again, I made it to the edge of the moorland stretch with its heather and bracken. Still on a slight but lengthy incline, any parked car is hidden from sight from this angle so nothing was amiss and I continued to walk, following a trail that looked familiar, to the right.

Guesstimating when I should make my left turn towards the road over the heather, I thought I was home and dry. However, after walking for around fifteen minutes, using trails that zig-zagged across the moor, I realised that I wasn’t where I thought I should be. With my head down on the homeward run (looking for snakes as well as the trail) I must have lost my bearings and walked too far along the top of the Punchbowl. I still hadn’t reached the road and couldn’t understand why. I must have walked quite a bit out of my way as I’d parked next to the motor home, which wasn’t small in its proportions, and I couldn’t even see that poking its head out to wave at  me above the gorse. I bet the owners had since made it safely back to their vehicle and done a runner, leaving me with no marker. How inconsiderate of them, I was thinking in my frustration and confusion!image

I’m normally excellent at picking up markers, land marks, track patterns…but not today it seemed. I’ve even been known to mark specific places, junctions, trees and the like with my own version of patrins: sticks crossed over each other, piles of inconspicuous stones, grasses tied in a knot.. Daft I know but I have used them to guide me home on many occasions…but not today. Today my brain fell out – no map, no markers, no sense and no car!

I stood for a while on the moor, every bit looking exactly the same as the bit adjacent to it. I wasn’t panicking because I knew where I was, in effect, but I couldn’t for the life of me  figure out how I came to be where I was.  I was trying to think logically and my thoughts told me I couldn’t possibly be that far away from where I started. All that had happened was that I’d walked too far with my eyes on the ground and I’d been brainwashed into thinking I was on the right track. What I hadn’t done was look around me for signs other than the neighbouring motor home which should have shone out at me like glowing beacon once I’d topped the ridge.

Long story short… I decided not to walk back on myself but to stand quietly and listen for a passing car. I’d then know which way to walk and hopefully follow the road back to the car. Pleased that it was half term and blessing the tourists for their presence on the moor, the plan worked and said vehicle was duly located quite some way along the road, where I’d left it. No sign of the motor home – they’d probably changed their boots and had a cup of tea and moved on by the time I’d made it back!

I hadn’t properly lost the car but it certainly made me think how scary and disorienting it can be when you lose your bearings on terrain such as this. I know this part of the moor…well, I thought I did but I’ll not be complacent again, in not making a mental note of immovable landmarks. Even though there’s not much to use up here, there are funny shaped gorse clumps which are better than a poke in the eye with a long stick (or, on reflection, maybe not). I’d also be taking my map with me in future. I may not have to look at it all the time but I would have it as security and be able to pat it in my pocket every now and again.

I went all the way there… and now I’ve come all the way back again. Oh, and where can I buy one of those colourful flags on a long, bendy pole? 🙂

Babysitting, Birds, Badgers and Back Home

I’ve been away. Some would say ‘away with the fairies’ and, surprisingly, I wouldn’t argue with that. However, I’ve really been away,  from home, from Exmoor and for the whole of last week. It’s been bitter-sweet – I was  away because my daughter and little grandson needed me and, without a second’s thought, I was there for them both but time away from the cottage is always hard for me to deal with. My daughter understands the passion I have for the place where I live – she understands that my life here on Exmoor is entwined with the land outside my windows and the home that I am so much a part of. My excuse is that I’m a true Cancerian in every aspect – a family loving home-bird who hates change but I  am a mother figure personified, in every sense, so  I toddled off for a week on the Wirral…but now I’m back and, as the song goes, I’m feeling good!

Arriving home I had to beat a pathway to my back door through exploding weeds which had, once again, shot up in my absence.  Turn your back and all that… but I decided to deal with those later. My garden had exploded too… a mass of colour which looked quite professionally planned on first glance but to my trained eye 😉 it’s all very haphazard and chaotic – just the way I like it. My stone and slate steps up to the main garden were covered in lilac blossom and my fingers itched to take the broom and begin sweeping. I always have a broom outside the back door because when I sweep – I think. I find it’s good therapy and very relaxing to take a broom and rhythmically sweep away, not only whatever is on the ground, but my own troubles and thoughts too. You see I am away with the fairies more often than I let on.

However, the rain we’ve had this morning (and it’s been torrential) has flattened out the scented geranium clumps, assisted the taller foxgloves in falling to one side and has probably drowned and washed away the seeds I’d planted in my raised beds yesterday. It’s still going on now but it’s all quite promising for this afternoon so onwards and upwards we go! Having been woken this morning around 6.30am by the dulcet tones of a lone blackbird, I opened my eyes and felt utter contentment. Then without further ado the song turned into panic-stricken cluck-clucking as an emergency was declared by the soloist outside the bedroom window. The dastardly magpie had probably struck again and was after the blackbird’s eggs or young. Magpies are notoriously naughty for attacking birds in the garden. They’ll think nothing of taking out a blue tit or two and even took several leaves of a little gem lettuce from the bird table the day before yesterday. I’d only just put the leaves out thinking that the finches may have a peck or two from them. I turned my back to peg some washing on the line, came back down the steps and the leaves were gone! All of them… vanished into thin air. Needing to know who had taken them in such a short space of time, I replenished the bird table and sat by the kitchen window to watch. Down came the magpie and off went the lettuce, dangling from the magpie’s beak, like an extra wing. With no trouble at all, it took the lot – perhaps it had a nice three bean salad to go with it for lunch that day, who knows?

I was sat planting radish seeds yesterday when to my amazement the chattering of a swallow made me look up. It was very loud and very close by and I turned my head towards the sound.  Behind me, sitting perched on my bean poles, was a lone swallow. It was about four feet away and it continued to chitter away as I watched it, watching me. Swift as ever, the clever birds were diving for small insects as I turned over the earth and were working in close proximity to me, following me up the paddock as I worked in the beds. I must have been slacking in my work for this one to sit, waiting on my bean pole struts, for me to turn the soil once again. In that moment, it was  so good to be home.DSC00593

After planting out some of my home-grown herbs, filling gaps in my banked-up flower bed where I’d thinned out the lungwort, I thought I’d wander down across the fields towards the woodland. The sun was out, it wasn’t too warm as the breeze was chill but it would do me good to be upright instead of bent over on my knees tilling the earth. I’d grabbed some crackers and cheese, an apple and some fruit pastilles and was gone before anything could change my mind, like the housework, more weeding… ironing even.

Since I’d been home I’d already reaffirmed my connection with this special part of the world, so I’d already been walkabout. I needed to feel the ground beneath my feet, the air on my skin and the sun on my back. However, the most important job to be done was to cleanse my necklace, bracelet and rings in the clear waters of an Exmoor river and that couldn’t wait, hence the hurry to be out and about.

This wander would take me down to the woods where we know there to be a new badger sett. It’s at the bottom of a meadow-like field, on the edge of the wood and we’ve had our eye on it for some time. There has been excavation going on for some weeks and, little by little, the hole leading to under ground has become larger and wider. Now, around the entrance, there is a wonderful mound of earth with small stones and rocks that you’ll find anywhere if you dig around these parts. Even my garden is full of them and it’s a bane when you’re trying to plant something quickly. Northmoor Woods 2It was here that I was headed – not a long walk but long enough to appease my appetite for being out on the moor and to work up a foody appetite too.

The walk down to the woodland had always inspired me to stop awhile, take in the breathtaking view and revel in the fact that I live here and, unlike the unfortunate visitors to Exmoor who have to return home at the end of their stay, I simply have to walk (maybe trudge) back up the hill and there I be. I have never taken for granted the fact that I live here, because I know how blessed I am.Hinam Valley 3

Lush fields took my feet towards an ancient hedgerow where a makeshift stile helped me over the obstacle. A wren called out with its huge song as I stepped up and over into the next field but I still listened as I walked through a meadow of wild flowers and grasses. Yellow buttercups, cuckoo plant, blue speedwell and tufty balls of red clover all sang to me as I wandered the outskirts of this friendly expanse of green.

I could see the woods now – tall fir trees reaching to the blue sky above but flanked by old beech trees, full of leaf now and swaying in the breeze. They shushed and hushed in the gentle wind as I approached them. It’s a sound that fills my ears most days as my own garden is edged with beech trees. Without pulling back the curtains, I can usually tell what weather is waiting for me outside, simply by listening to what the trees are imparting with their voices.Barle River Misted

From here I could see the river, far below, meandering along. I knew that there would be walkers enjoying the pathway alongside it, yet they had no idea that I was up in the wood that day. I wanted the badgers to have no idea I was there either, if that was at all possible. I wanted to sit above, but downwind of the sett and this meant that I had to pass it via the woodland. I skirted wide through the trees, after using a sturdy, wooden gate to enter the woods. From my viewpoint I could see that the entrance to the sett had collapsed but on the other side of a low fence, another entrance had been dug. Again, there was a huge mound of the tell-tale earth, complete with small stones, outside the opening. I was pleased to see this as it showed the badgers hadn’t abandoned their home but had simply patched it up and made good of it. This must surely be a good place for them to make their home – woodland, fields and safety. There were trails to and from the sett, a gap in the fence where the ground had worn flat, giving them access to and from their home. All the signs were favourable and even if I didn’t see them today, then I knew they were in residence.

Back in the field once again and finding a good position, I lay belly down on the soft grass. With my camo coat on and a netting camo cover for my face, I was fairly well hidden. As nothing was about, I thought I’d eat my make-do lunch and settle down for an hour or so. If I’m honest, I didn’t expect to see anything that day but the temptation to sit for a while and bring my thoughts together had been too much of a lure. What better way than to spend a couple of hours, taking in the silence and the peacefulness of the countryside after a week away, looking at roof tops and dealing with clogged roads.

Sitting watching the sett with hope in your heart that a badger would appear was quite exciting! As I waited a cheeky jay bounced down onto a nearby fence post, bold as brass. I’d seen it before in this neck of the woods, several times but today its plumage was vibrant against the backdrop of dark fir trees. It bounded backwards and forwards from floor to post for several minutes and then was gone.

The sound of twigs snapping on the woodland floor hit my ears. In the stillness of the day, this simple sound could be heard loud, sharp and clear. No wonder the red deer can pick us out when we’re trying to creep about, thinking that we’re being the world’s best stalker! I wondered if it were red deer approaching to feast on the newly grown grass in the field – a usual spot for them to come and feed. Keeping my head down I waited and watched but nothing appeared from out of the trees – a pheasant then, perhaps, making my heart beat louder.image

A couple of evenings ago I’d made my way down here to sit and watch. It was barely dusk and I’d only come out for a quick wander with no intention to stay. But Exmoor does funny things to you and it urges you to wait a little while longer, then a little while longer still… until it’s time you were off and away and in your bed. Today, however, I needed the solace and was happy to stay and let the day pass me by. Raising my head a little to move  slightly, I noticed something move in the entrance to the sett. Holding my breath I strained my neck as far as I could without causing too much disturbance and, there, poking out of the expansive entrance was, not one but two badger heads. There truly wasn’t much to see and, to be exact, it was only half their head on view but I was mesmerised.

Glued to the spot I revelled in the fact that I’d seen them! Not that I hadn’t seen badgers before but these were special. Special to the land around the cottage and I’d witnessed their presence. I couldn’t tell whether they were adult or little ones but they didn’t venture any further out than what I’d seen. Waiting that hour and a half had been so worth it. It was all I needed and now I had the problem of creeping away, stealthily, backwards and uphill, so as not to scare them.

Having extricated myself successfully from my hidden position, I found myself smiling like a Cheshire cat all the way home on my return journey. I really did feel like the cat who’d got the cream! It’s as if I had a secret that nobody knew about and I really did feel like hugging myself tightly. It’s silly, I know, but it’s moments like that where Exmoor comes and wraps its own arms around you and makes you feel really, really special. How lucky am I to live here? How privileged am I to bear witness to such a simple pleasure?

But, as I always say, it’s a simple pleasure like this that brings me so many smiles and that’s what makes my day. You have to go out to see, go out to find – otherwise you’d miss moments like this. It made me think… maybe I should have ventured further afield, when I was away last week because everywhere holds special moments – if you take the time to look.

What Time Is It? It’s Cuckoo Time!

As is the usual routine of my day, I woke early to shining wet lanes, dripping citrus green beech leaves and an overcast sky. However, there was promise on the horizon across the moor – brighter weather was on the way… but for how long I wondered? Behind the bedroom curtains and in the fields beyond there grazed a large herd of red deer, eager to glean what they could whilst the pickings were good in the fields.  They’re back with me for the moment and making their way each day, across the fields to the thick woodland for cover.

The vibrant pair of goldfinch were still busying themselves with their young. It’s wonderful to see them outside  the bathroom window, sitting on a rather large white flowering shrub, picking away at the new blooms. I don’t mind them using my blossom as feed for their little ones if it keeps them around the cottage. To be able to clean my teeth, whilst they potter about on the branches, so close, just outside the window is a very special moment for me. I just hope they can’t see me, first thing in the morning!Birdie

We are inundated with swallows at the cottage and it’s good to see. Dive-bombing their way back and forth with beaks full of flies, they fair-by take the hair off my head with their acrobatics, which are akin to the famous Red Arrows at times. Boy are they swift in their flight. It’s amazing to watch them speed their way to and from the eaves. Their constant chittering and chattering goes on from dawn until well after dusk. Using the adjacent fields as hunting ground – climbing high and then swooping down low across the meadow grass, they take what they need for their young. I count myself very privileged to be able to see these birds working their socks off at such close quarters. Their nests, made from mud and horse hair, cling to the side of the cottage and look as if they are about to fall off but you know that they are solid as a rock and not going anywhere. They are a work of art.

Out of  the bathroom window, two days ago, I was over the moon to see the male bullfinch with us again. They are one of my favourite birds with their bright orangey-red breasts  and their thick beaks. I always look for them at this time of year as it seems the only time that I have them here with me. The male, majestic and very bullish looking with his jet black head, was soon joined but the dowdy, dull looking female. She looked for all the world like a medieval lady in mourning, as she picked and poked about on the same shrub as the goldfinch had done this morning. A stunning pair of birds and, again, so lucky to have them with me here at the cottage._V7A1274

Anyway, I digress because today I was going cuckoo searching. With the weather much improved and the sun trying to shine through the thin, wispy clouds, I thought I’d be good to go. The cuckoo always seems to return to the same places on the moor and I packed up a lunch and headed off to see what I could find. Driving along roads edged by the vibrant yellow gorse and down lanes pretty with red campion, bluebells and white wild garlic, giving off its pungent smell which I enjoy, I arrived at my destination. It was a trek over the moor to where I needed to take root for a couple of hours, but already I could hear the call of the cuckoo in the distance. You can never tell exactly where they be, so I decided to plonk myself down where I always do – under a thorn tree, on a flat area of grass. Scraping away the rabbit droppings and pieces of twig, I made myself comfortable. The sun was shining weakly and the breeze was a little sharp but it never bothers me much – I’d never venture out if it did. Waiting for the elusive cuckoo to come along is always a pleasure because there is so much more to look out for. There’s never a danger of becoming bored…numb, maybe, but never bored.

Along the way a herd of cattle grazed quite peacefully until one of them began to let out a plaintive mooing bellow. That set them all off and I wondered what had triggered this joint calling. Down in the valley below me I spied one lone beast, feet in boggy  ground, trying to make its way back to the herd. Its blackness stood out against the wheat coloured grasses, yellow gorse and bracken. The lone cow and its herd called to each other continuously as it made its way back up the steep hillside to rejoin the group.  Only then did silence return.

Out  of the corner of my eye I noticed a hawk-like bird flying low across the grass. It dropped down onto the flat terrain and I knew I’d found my cuckoo. My first ever sighting came only three years ago when I’d thought I was watching a kestrel at work but, low and behold, it was the cuckoo. It had fooled me like it fools the little meadow pipits, whose nests it uses to lay its egg in.

_V7A1147 (2)It was very quick in its movement and I sat quietly there on the moor, well hidden and observed it swooping from thorn tree to ground for some time. It seemed to work in a pattern, using a semi-circle of trees from which to work, calling frequently loud and clear. It will never cease to amaze me that they lay their egg, deny all knowledge of it and carry on with life, using a nanny to bring their young up. I can’t help but love them though for their markings, their wicked, knowing eye and that distinctive call that heralds the beginning of spring. It’s a simple pleasure for me to be able to share its time here and I always look forward to early May out on the moor and cuckoo time. Whether I see it or not is of no consequence to me but to hear its call is everything. Outside the cottage door is a rather peculiar shaped stick. It’s simply a stick, but I picked it up on the moor the very first time I saw a cuckoo and I call it my ‘cuckoo stick’, funnily enough! Each and every time I pass by it, it brings memories of that day on the moor and my first sighting and that’s where I return to every year._MG_0413 crop

As time went on, the cuckoo moved further down the valley and who could blame it? I was in my element that I’d been able to spend time watching its antics so I sat for a while revelling in the colours, rich with the newness of the season, that were bringing the deep valley alive. I knew it was boggy and wet on the valley floor but it wasn’t bothering the grazing sheep that were freely wandering nearby that day.Moor Above Watersmeet

Taking the opportunity of lightening my load by devouring my lunch with a coffee, whilst the weather was still good, I turned my attention to the grassy banks opposite. Here, the banks are dotted with rabbit holes and the inhabitants are never backward in coming forward. Rabbits of all sizes popped out of the burrows and were quite entertaining to watch as they encountered varying obstacles on the hillside. They frequently showed me their white rear ends as they hopped in and out of the grassy tussocks. On an old, gnarled log to the right of me, a stonechat landed. It made me smile with its white eye markings and colourful breast as it flitted back and forth.  It stayed about long enough for me to finish my refreshment and I enjoyed its company.Whinchat

Time to return to the cottage then and, whilst I walked, I contemplated whether I should turn my slow cooking chicken into roast or salad later that evening. What did I fancy after a peaceful morning on the moor? Time and the weather would tell I suppose but if I opted for a simple salad I’d be able to wander over the fields, perch on a gate and watch the world go by after planting up some herbs in the garden. Now that sounded like a plan!

Decision made, I’d lengthened my stride across the moor, bid the Exmoor ponies, who were grazing not too far away ‘a good day’ and headed for the car and home with a happy heart.

The cottage down the lane was calling me once again and I was happy to oblige.

Hawk Walk – A Unique Experience

A very special someone had a birthday coming up but what to do? He’s the sort of person who doesn’t hanker after material possessions – well not much. That’s not to say he has everything, it simply means he receives more pleasure from giving presents than from receiving them and, so, is not fussed about birthdays. I wanted to gift him something he could and would remember, for a long time. An out of the ordinary present that we could both share here on beautiful Exmoor – and it was with a little research that I came upon the North Devon Hawk Walks (www.northdevonhawkwalks.co.uk). According to the write-up, a hawk walk is where you are actively involved in flying two Harris Hawks – namely Cassius and Lady Macbeth, on the moor and is very hands on.

Knowing that I’d hit the mark, I booked an hour with Nigel, the falconer, who was extremely helpful. I didn’t really know how the time was going to pan out but I knew that it would be a perfect gift.

Last Saturday on a gloriously sunny, but breezy, afternoon we met Nigel at Withypool Tea Room and there began our adventure. Travelling up and over the moor passing Knighton Combe, we arrived at Landacre Bridge, which crosses the River Barle. It’s a firm favourite with us both for picnics and also for photographing the characterful dipper and  hovering kestrels.

Parked up alongside Nigel’s vehicle, we alighted and waited with bated breath for our first sighting of the hawks. But, firstly, we were handed a very thick and substantial glove to put on which immediately showed us that the walk was beginning there and then. It was all very exciting and almost impossible to hold onto the emotions that were running through both of us.  Cassius was first to appear and would be the first to fly. I cannot explain the feelings of sheer joy at seeing a hawk held so close to us. Nigel began to settle Cassius on his hand whilst imparting his immense knowledge about this stunning breed of bird. It became abundantly clear that he is passionate about what he does and knows his birds inside out. We were instructed on how to hold our hands, what to do and what not to do and then without further ado, Cassius was perched on my glove, on my hand, in my space… and it was absolutely amazing! I was certainly not in control of my emotions and felt myself becoming quite choked up and it wasn’t even my birthday!

Nigel began walking down the valley toward the river and it has to be said that the backdrop of scenery here is spectacular. A perfect place to fly these wonderful birds of prey – undulating grassland, moorland all around us, woodland in the distance and the River Barle tripping along below us.
For over an hour we flew the two magnificent hawks. Firstly Cassius, slightly smaller, slightly younger and a little more clumsy than the second hawk we’d fly, namely Lady Macbeth – a hawk with the presence of aristocracy hovering around her.  It felt like the birds were ours, using our gloved hands as perches, flying to and from us, jumping up from the ground, when they came in too fast and missing their mark, and then finding us once again. We held pieces of meat in our gloved fists and watched as they tried to find it, jumping up and down on our clenched hands as if trying to release the tasty morsels.

DSC02092 (2)Nigel explained everything as we walked around and it encompassed the aerodynamics of the hawks, their background, nature and hunting ability. We flew the hawks understanding about them always striving to be high up and realising how powerful they are when they hunt. Cassius flew down to my protected hand from a height and came at me like a bullet – wings tucked in like a jet and, boof!.. he’d landed safely but so gently. No wonder they’re the hunters we know them to be with a technique such as he’d demonstrated. Cassius flew over us, skimming the tops of our heads so carefully, he flew at us and showed off the workings under his wing feathers and then, job done, he hitched a ride up the hill with us – riding along on a gloved hand, to be replaced by Lady Macbeth. _V7A1378 (2)

The difference between the two hawks was immediately noticeable with this special Lady being heavier, gentler and grander  than her counterpart. Lady Macbeth, bearings noted, took off. She flew high, soaring in the huge open sky above Exmoor and we watched in awe as she flew over the river, over the woodland and, at the sound of a call and whistle, returned to land on a gloved hand. She was definitely more powerful, when she flew towards you but so very gentle when she landed. She came in with an attitude that said ‘don’t mess with me’ but her landing was as soft and light as a feather and very exact. What a stunning bird!

Being a part of their daily routine was breathtaking. To have the privilege of being so close to the hawks was second to none but to be able to have them fly to and from you is something I cannot describe very easily. The birds are swift, they’re up in the blue of the sky, flying with grace and the next, they’re down, on your hand, right there, next to you and you are looking into their eyes, shiny as beautifully polished beads. Claws that could do untold damage are inches away from you, yet there is no fear, just pure beauty. No words can explain the feelings of utter exhilaration at their comings and goings, bells jangling in the breeze as they move around, letting you know they’re safe – letting you know they’re close.

Together we stood on the moor, a place we both love so much, and witnessed the two Harris Hawks, doing what they do so well.  I knew simply by looking at the face of my companion that he was in his element. It was a picture to witness his joy, which continued with a smile painted on his face well into the next day and the day after that. What I’d wished for was a gift that would leave him with memories and that’s exactly what I’d achieved, with Nigel’s expert assistance, knowledge and, of course, his wonderful birds!

Saying our goodbyes to Nigel, we stayed at Landacre Bridge for a lunchtime picnic watching a small group of red deer up on the grassy moorland above us. The river played its own tune as it tumbled on past us towards Withypool and beyond. A wagtail dipped in and out of the stones at the river’s edge and the sun shone. The breeze was less sharp here than up on the moor, allowing us to dine alfresco whilst we chatted about our unique experience of flying the hawks and then, gradually, coming back down to earth, just the like the hawks had done a short while ago. However, what we did giggle at together,  was the fact that no matter where we walked or whether we had a hawk on our hand or not, our arms were permanently out at a right angle…very funny to watch!

I cannot express enough what a fantastic time we had – it is something for all ages, so very different from the run of the mill activity, so good to share with each other and excellent value for money. Nigel is a perfect host, the idea is so clever and is executed extremely well. If you want to put a smile on someone’s face for a birthday, anniversary, wedding present or anything else and keep your memories forever, then give this a go – you won’t be disappointed, I can assure you. It’s an experience not to be missed!

It was amazing, simply amazing!

All Quiet on the Western Front

Simple pleasures – the cottage has been full of them this last week as I’ve had my seven month old grandson to stay with me. After a week of hilarity, hoots of laughter and tears, the cottage walls are settling back into place. The solid bricks finding their place in the foundations that hold the cottage strong. It’s all quiet on the western front. I wouldn’t swap the time that I spend with my grandson – to gaze deeply into his stunningly bright and smiling blue eyes reduces me to tears. To see into the very soul of his being conjures up a bond so powerful, it will remain for life and beyond. Two hearts – that of a nana and her grandchild. A very simple pleasure. I miss him – he has returned home now. The cottage has regained its equilibrium of peace and calm after being baby central for seven days. It’s bitter-sweet, this peacefulness. I’m torn between two pleasures: the pleasure of being alone, free to do as I please, when I please or to be in the company of my grandson, passing on knowledge (as young as he is) and rejoicing in his being with me, here on Exmoor. I know I’m allowed a mixture of both and that suits me fine. I suppose it’s the light and shade of life and we need both to survive – to make life interesting. Waving them off down the lane early on Sunday morning, I stood there in my fleecy pyjamas, which were tucked down into my boots to prevent them becoming soggy. The day had dawned wet and breezy and there was a white mist hovering above the road, shifting as the slight wind took it on its way across the fields. There and then I decided to take myself off across the moor to Fyldon Common, Kinsford Gate and Simonsbath to see what treasures I could find on this dismal day. Packed up, camera at the ready and with my charity shop Bear Grylls fleece keeping some of the drizzly rain at bay, I was good to go and go I did. Mist on Exmoor is intermittent – pea soup in places and then, magically, gone! This morning was no different and I travelled down the lanes and across the moor driving in and out of the blanket and lace curtain swirls. image Reaching my destination it was abundantly clear that there was to be no sightings of anything that morning. I was high up on the moor with, usually, excellent views to the left of me… but not today. There was just the rousing call of a pheasant coming eerily out of the dense mist. Executive decision time found me making my way towards Lynton and Lynmouth on the North Devon coast. The Valley of the Rocks was somewhere I hadn’t been for some years. I thought it would be a welcome change to go shout at the sea and throw my troubles into the wind on this dramatic coastline. Carefully, I made my way through the mists and out the other side.  Reaching the road to Lynton was like coming out from under a blanket after a weird dream, with all becoming  clear once again and I felt myself waking as I headed towards the brighter skies, a coffee and a homemade cookie. The lanes here are lined with beech trees, new with citrus green leaves that dappled the shiny road ahead of me, as the sunshine broke through them. My view changed as the undulating roads took me past lush, emerald-green fields, ancient woodlands and sparse, wheat-coloured moorland. Here, rich fields butted up against the dry-looking moor and it made me think about our wonderfully diverse countryside. Red deer grazed on the moor, camouflaged by their brown-grey coats but with their whitish rump  giving them away.  I pulled in to watch them awhile as they were quite a large herd – their heads raised at my presence but not unduly spooked by my observation. I left them to their breakfast and followed the curving roads once again. Climbing the hills to the Valley of the Rocks is quite hairy if you’re not used to the roads. They are dotted with hairpin bends that come at you, out of the blue and I’ve been in cars where passengers have gasped out loud, clinging onto their seat, as the bends and hills are encountered, captured and triumphed! As the rocky outcrops came into sight I wondered if I’d catch a glimpse of the wild goats that roam the cliffs here but, car park in sight, my first priority was sustenance by way of a welcome coffee and something to eat. A text message from my daughter informed me that she had stopped for breakfast herself, so I thought I’d share the time with her, even though I was absent from her company. Being apart from your offspring doesn’t mean they are out of mind, does it? It would give me time to ponder awhile on the week that had just passed and at how fortunate I was to have such riches in my life. When  faced with the vast ocean in front of me, I always like to release something into the wind, a secret or trouble that I need to share. Parting with it and giving it to the rolling sea, a beautiful blue today, releases my shoulders and frees me in a way I cannot explain. I could have waited until I reached Hollerday Hill (quite apt considering the task in hand) but, no, it had to done there and then. So, secrets and troubles dealt with, I am on my way along the coast path towards Lynton and perhaps a mouth-watering, delicious crab sandwich on thick, crusty granary bread. DSC01952 Gorse bushes are dotted about on these rock-strewn cliffs, each like a shining sun themselves, brightening up the grey rocks. Small purple flowers, violets I think but am not sure, cling to the vertical grassy areas and contrast well with the bright yellow blooms of the gorse. Down below me, the sea was as calm as it can be on an early May morning. It glistened in the sunlight, tiny jewels, twinkling on the surface, hundreds of them, and I know they’d fascinate my small grandson. DSC01948A wooden bench, engraved with the initials of another walker who, loved this area too, begged me to sit and take in the view. Who was I to refuse its request? The coastline to the left was now clearly in view for me to see and the colours were astounding! Green, grey, purple, brown, yellow, blue, white – they seemed to go on forever and I felt my heart at peace and my body relax even more so. Ahead of me I could see the path stretching onwards so I’m off again, but first I spotted several dots bobbing up and down, black and white, in the ocean below.  At first they looked like penguins and I smiled to myself at my thoughts. Binoculars up to my eyes, I could now see that they were not penguins (as much as I’d like them to be) but perhaps guillemots? Whatever their identity is, they gave me huge pleasure just by watching them, taking in the gentle swell of the sea on a Sunday morning. As I travel the pathway, I meet other walkers who pass the time of day and share their sightings with me. I was pointed towards two goats who were perched on a flat slab of rock overhanging the sea. How they’d  managed to pick their way down to where they sat, I’ll never know. The drop was practically vertical but there they lounged, enjoying the sun and it was great to see. With their shaggy coats in brown and white, gnarled and curved horns, they were obviously safe in the knowledge that they were inaccessible to passers-by, I took my photo and left them there, relaxing. DSC01962 Birdsong kept me company as I wandered along and a wren dipped in and out of the gorse bushes aside me. It was a very reddy-brown, tail high in the air and so tiny that I couldn’t keep track of it as it flit about. Using the bushes like a maze, darting in and out, it stopped  in its tracks to treat us all to its shrill song. Grey wagtails ran across the terrain using the rocks as stepping-stones, their tails moved in a rhythmic pattern as they searched for their lunch. I don’t seem to be able to walk anywhere without a robin finding me…and he found me today, his velvet notes vying for attention against the little wren. The robin found it easy to trust me and selected several dried gorse branches to belt out its tune, sending me on my way. It’s not far to Lynton from here and there are several viewing points along the way where you can take time to stop and gaze. What is a walk if you cannot stop to enjoy your surroundings? I take pleasure in looking out along the coast, watching the change in the surface of the sea, the  blues changing from dark to light as the sun moves from cloud to cloud, and the gulls as they wheel about the cliffs – their white, black and mottled-brown hues stark against the sky. I imagine witches and wizards, twisting their magical wands, uttering incantations and spells as they talk to the sea as I have done. DSC02003 Musings finished, Lynton called and it was bustling with tourists and locals alike looking for somewhere to quench their thirst, enjoy an ice cream or to indulge in a spot of lunch. I joined them in their quest and calmed my appetite with a local crab sandwich as I’d anticipated. I could have taken the scary but fascinating cliff railway down into Lynmouth but decided to make my way back. I wanted to make the most of the glorious weather and try to visit Watersmeet whilst over this way. I’ve heard there are dippers nesting there and sometimes you can find yourself quite close to a heron whilst wandering the pathway along the waterside. The tumbling rivers, with their mini waterfalls are a pull to those seeking a cream tea from the excellent National Trust tea rooms there, where chaffinch and various members of the tit family come to visit you at your table expecting a crumb or two. Who knows, I may just have worked up my appetite again and indulged in an afternoon cream tea myself – clotted cream, oozing strawberry jam and warm scone. My daughter and grandson were safely home, so why not? Simple pleasures – my life is full of them.