Sunday, 15 December 2013

One of the odd things about living on a 'border', particularly one formed by a confluence of several rivers, is that it can sometimes be quicker, easier and cheaper to cross over twice than to travel round the edge. As it was today.

The plan was to walk at Mount Edgcumbe, which is on the Cornwall side of the Tamar. So is my home in Saltash, but 20 miles or so away by road. Taking the bridge into Plymouth and the Cremyll Ferry back across the river is a considerably shorter distance, not much quicker but much more pleasant, particularly when one can collect a couple of friends on the way.

It was a very murky morning. Yesterday's wild brightness and southwest gale had deteriorated into horizontal drizzle; I couldn't see the bridge, let alone Plymouth beyond it. Still windy, still blowing from the south, making it almost unseasonably warm for December. The dog and I took a stroll round the coombe to check we had the right levels of weatherproofing (new boots, thin trousers under waterproofs, light fleece and unlined waterproof jacket, woolly hat for the wind, not warmth, thin gloves) and crossed the bridge.

I was immediately struck by the heavier than usual traffic on the way towards the city centre - by the time we got close all the traffic lanes heading for the carparks and shops were gridlocked, but luckily I was skirting round it and had no problems collecting my friends and driving round to Stonehouse for the ferry.

The tide was out as far as it ever goes and the ferry was moored right at the very end of the jetty - Cornwall was now invisible, but the ferryman knows the way and in no time at all we were in Cremyll, where we met two more human and two canine friends and set off on a somewhat soggy stroll.

Mount Edgcumbe isn't quite a mountain, but it's steep enough. Up you go, up and round, first through the park then up through the woods, mud underfoot and dampness in the air. In the woods somehow it's easy to overlook the lack of visibility; it was when we emerged onto the wide open fields at the top that we were suddenly rattled by the wind and confused by odd figures jogging across our eyeline in random directions. Very confused - until we spotted a waypoint and realised that there was an orienteering session going on. A very good day for making the participants rely on their compasses!

Down is always easier, especially on the sheltered side of the hill. And the weather cleared a bit, so we could actually see Drake's Island, Jennycliff and Stonehouse over the other side. A jolly good lunch always helps, too, and the carvery at the Edgcumbe Arms was as good as ever. Back on the Ferry to Admiral's Hard and home just as dusk was falling. A good walk, a very pleasant day...

Sunday, 10 April 2011

It was even warm on Dartmoor...

We've been having an early preview of summer the last few days. I've no idea what the temperatures have been but it's been warm, properly warm, so that walking has become a real pleasure again. And this weekend has had more than its share of pleasurable walking (and dining) experiences. On Friday afternoon we foregathered at the Borough Arms, Dunmere, near Bodmin. Six humans and four dogs strolled along the Camel Trail in a leisurely manner for an hour or two, working up an appetite for dinner. The woods were full of violets and anemones, although very few bluebells yet, birds were singing and the new leaves were almost too bright to look at in the sunshine. Ty insisted on a swim, and Megs and Harvey joined in for a splash about. After rounding off the evening with a pleasant meal I went home thinking that we'd been very lucky with the weather, not expecting it to last. But it did. Rather earlier on Saturday afternoon, much the same gang plus a couple of extra humans met at the very first car park on the very edge of Dartmoor from the Plymouth direction. We were guided on a circular route, crossing the Devonport Leat (dry) then across country to the Drake Leat (also dry but in better condition) which we followed for a while then back after a couple of hours to the Dartmoor Diner for a Cream Tea in the garden. Our guide knows the area well and was able to explain a lot of the history on the way round. It was such a lovely day that I had to dig out the sunhat and the trekking sandals for the first time this year. Spring isn't quite as advanced on the moor as down by the shore where I usually walk, but what we lacked in spring flora was made up for with fauna. Our first surprise was a young adder sunning itself on the path. It was noticeably aggravated at being disturbed and hissed a bit before moving off to a quieter spot. None of the dogs noticed it, luckily, and were easily persuaded to go in the opposite direction to the snake. We saw quite a few ponies scattered here and there, grazing quietly, but then we saw several all converging purposefully and rapidly on the same point. Where we discovered a lady throwing apples in all directions for the ponies to pick up. This would seem to be a regular occurrence, as we saw her later in a different place where another small herd were waiting for their treat. Buzzards and skylarks overhead, robins and chaffinches in the bushes, many different butterflies, bees and other insects. After two long walks in two days running with the other dogs and pretending to be their age rather than the ten year old he really is, Ty didn't even get all the way upstairs when we got home, collapsing on the landing for a nice long sleep. By morning, however, he was completely restored and ready to start again. Sunday's walk was a little more ambitious, about five miles around Lydford. Lydford is a village roughly halfway between Tavistock and Okehampton on the western edge of Dartmoor, situated in a fold in the hills, not up on the open moor. It was historically one of the most important places in the area, with a silver mine and a mint, stannary courts and a medieval jail, but these days is a popular with tourists coming to visit the famous Lydford Gorge. We didn't do that, though, but went on a circular route first travelling towards Okehampton on the old railway line, now a cycle track known as the Granite Way, then cutting across country and down to a ford (with a plank bridge) and back up through pretty woods and eventually round to the village again. As we had a little time to spare before lunch we also inspected the 'castle' (actually a 12th century jail) and walked down the hill to a bridge over the Gorge, peering down at people walking up and down the tortuous paths to admire the various waterfalls. Where it goes under the bridge the gorge is almost narrow enough to reach across from one side to the other but very deep. To me it seemed dank and claustrophobic, but I am assured that it opens out and is really very pretty. It's looked after by the National Trust these days and the paths, though steep, are perfectly safe. I'll take their word for it, thank you... The Castle Inn has a garden, a very nice beer garden. At the back, through a hedge, can be spied a slightly separated glade under a big alder where there is a large round table perfect for our largish round party of seven and a dog to take lunch. And a very good lunch it was, too. It was also a very pleasant place to just sit and put the world to rights for an hour or so after lunch... I'm told the weather is about to change. Well it would, of course, as the Easter holidays are starting soon. But I'm very glad I've been able to have this little bit of premature summer, and look forward to many more pleasant walks to come.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Cholesterol - is it good or bad?

My father didn't die of a heart attack in his fifties, despite a family history of heart disease. He was lucky enough to become involved in one of the earliest studies into the effects of cholesterol, back in the early 1970s. The research was being conducted at Birmingham University, and he was an ideal subject for the study; overweight, very fond of good living, history of heart disease, in his fifties, highpowered executive whose only exercise was gardening, AND the father of five children aged roughly between 25 (me) and 12 (my youngest brother).

So we all got tested. Dad was told to cut his cholesterol or die, and chose the strict diet (with a bacon and egg treat lunch on Saturdays) which gave him another healthy 25 years of life. Two brothers and myself had high cholesterol levels, my sister and another brother low ones. Back then there were no 'lite' foods or low-fat options - they advised me to eat steak and salad, but as unfortunately I was on a bread and cheese budget at the time I just put the warnings to the back of my mind. I had other more pressing things to think about, then and later, although I have adopted lower-fat, more sensible eating options as they have become available at a reasonable price in the intervening period.

Recently I was offered the opportunity to take part in a trial of Flora pro-activ, a spread containing plant sterols which can, they say, lower LDL cholesterol by 10-15%. Well, why not, I thought, especially as it wasn't going to cost me anything, not even for the cholesterol tests I would have to have done before and after starting the four week trial. So I signed up.

This morning I went on an adventure to Sainsbury's superstore in Plymouth to have my first test. I hadn't been there before, and took some time to find the pharmacy (I was walking round the edge, it was right in the middle). The test was simple and painless, but the results were surprising:

Total: 3.95 (recommended below 5.0)
HDL 2.00 (recommended above 1.2)
Ratio 2.00 (recommended below 5.0)

Well within the healthy recommended limits before I start, then. I must have been doing something right all these years... And now I am about to start the trial. I shan't change anything at all in my diet or habits apart from substituting the pro-activ for the olive spread I usually use, and we'll see what the results are in four weeks' time.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Boat Transport Fail

A simple task. Pick up smallish boat and trailer from dinghy park, drive round to Millbrook, hand over boat, come home. Nice day out, take the dog, perhaps stop off for a pasty and a pint on the way back, lovely. Or not...

It started well enough; Ron had already checked that the boat was secure on the trailer, tyres blown up, bearings greased, trailer board tied on and working, etc. All we had to do in the morning was hitch the outfit to the back of the monster truck. A little bit more pushing and heaving than I really enjoy, but we were soon ready to go. The road that runs along the shore and up to the main road is fairly narrow, often has cars parked on either side, and is furnished with speed bumps every hundred yards or so. At the second set, Ron told me he was going to take them awkwardly as a roadworthiness test. Fail. Absolute, abject, utter fail. The offside stub axle on the trailer snapped in two, the wheel fell off and the trailer tipped over.

So there we were, monster truck with eighteen feet of trailer and a ton of boat, stuck in the middle of the road not going anywhere. Luckily, very luckily, we were still within the shadow of the two bridges, so I went walking back down the road to try and round up some strong men with toolboxes, while Ron looked for trolley jacks in the back of the truck. I found two likely looking lads in the carpark; one under a car with a spanner (he'd got a trolley jack and a toolbox!) and another 'helping' him. Off they went to the rescue while I carried on under the bridges to the pub, where I found another 'volunteer' just about to take the first sip of his first lunchtime pint. Into the fridge it went for later. Another kind person didn't just leave his coffee, he left his child on the shore (under supervision, of course). Posse rounded up.

By the time I'd walked back lots of things had happened: the police had stopped by and told him to get his triangles out (!), he'd jacked the trailer up and a couple of little green trolleys had been produced. They proved not to be quite robust enough, sadly, although they did just about serve to get the whole rig turned round and pointing back towards the river. And I had the presence of mind to start taking pictures, beginning with this one of the broken wheel and one of the broken trollies.

The next bright idea was to use a trolley jack as a roller skate under the broken axle. This looked quite good but didn't work - it just kept swinging round, even when anchored with half a mile of rope.

The final plan involved turning one of the broken trollies upside down and just skidding along on it. This worked, just about, until we had to go up the half inch kerb into the dinghy park, but generated a lot of noise, a vast cloud of smoke and an extremely unpleasant smell. It has also left a deep scratch gouged in the surface of the tarmac.

And so, finally, the trailer was backed down the slip and the boat was set free. This is the dead trailer on the slip.

And this is the boat on the river.

That was yesterday's adventure. It had a happy ending thanks to the people who were willing to drop what they were doing to come to our rescue - we'd have been in deep trouble without them. Friends are wonderful...

I declined the opportunity to take part in today's adventure, delivering Millie by water the couple of miles down river to Millbrook - it was raining and it meant starting before dawn to catch the tide. It was, I'm told, quite unadventurous - a two boat convoy went downriver, tied Millie to a buoy (possibly the wrong one) in Millbrook lake and got home in time for brunch.

On the trailer, by road, the scenic route is almost forty miles. It would have been easier to go by water in the first place, but the new owner had bought the boat on the trailer, so that was what we tried deliver. We'll send the trailer on later, when it is rolling under its own steam again.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Boot Test - walk from Liskeard to Looe

The German word for glove translates literally as hand-shoe. When footwear shopping, I like to look for the opposite - the foot-glove which is so comfortable that you can forget you've got feet. Not too tricky with normal shoes, perhaps, but hiking boots, which by nature have to be rather more robust than a carpet slipper, are more difficult. It's possible, though; I found some in Holland about ten years ago, long worn out, and I think I've done it again now!

The new boots arrived on the Thursday, purchased online after consultation with friends, looking at Which? reports, and trying some on in a shop. They got taken down the Coombe to the creek and back on Thursday afternoon and for a very quick walk on Friday morning, then I was away to meetings and didn't have the opportunity for a longer test until last Saturday morning. A long-planned trek down the West Looe valley from Liskeard, starting at the station there and ten or eleven miles later returning back up the East Looe Valley line by train.

This may sound like a gentle downhill stroll but it isn't! In fact, it starts by going quite a lot higher up to the start of the valley. Like most Cornish river valleys, it is steep sided and mostly wooded. The paths descend to and often cross the river, but also rise up the valley sides in places, making an interesting but fairly strenuous walk on many kinds of terrain - decidous and coniferous woodland, steeply sloping grass fields, swampy valley bottom by the river, exposed rock (mostly upended slate), some bits of tarmac lanes and wide forest tracks and finally, where the river becomes tidal at Watergate, some low-tide-only muddy shore. The heavy overnight rain ensured that conditions underfoot were as treacherous as they get, although the day itself was gloriously sunny apart from a couple of short sharp showers. The river was full and fast flowing and we came across one unfordable ford (over knee depth). Luckily the map showed an alternative path on *our* side of the river, although our first attempt at it involved climbing a steep rocky path almost to the top of the valley only to have to retrace our steps...

A good test for the boots, then. I ended the walk with warm, comfortable, dry, happy feet which didn't even feel tired. I was even just as happy to put them on again the next day for another walk.

But the day wasn't all about new boots. Much more important was the walk itself, being out in the changing seasons. The sun was still quite intense, and after the heavy rain of the night before it intensified all the autumn colours - at times it seemed that we were walking on carpets of scarlet and gold satin - and particularly the autumnal smells of pine forest, cut wood, fungi, wet grass; an olfactory feast! The dogs enjoyed the swollen river, too. We stopped for our picnic lunch on a mossy stone bridge where I suppose a road once used to be and Ty was able to indulge one of his favourite sports, swimming really hard to get upstream, barking all the while, then turning round to allow himself to be swept back down under the bridge at speed before turning to start the whole game again.

It was a glorious day - possibly the last really nice day of the season - and most enjoyable, especially with new boots and good company.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Tamar Valley from the 'Wrong, Side - Bere Alston

I like it when a ramble in the countryside throws up questions - what's this plant? what's happening here? I like it even more when I find some answers. Last Sunday's circular walk from Bere Alston railway station, along the Tamar on the Devon side and back was one of those days.
It was a beautiful day, almost too warm in the sun but pleasant in the shade. No wind, no clouds, not at all October-like. Knowing that it was quite likely to be the last fine walking day till spring also added to that enjoyable holiday feeling. I was a bit indecisive about whether to bother with boots or just stick with the trekking sandals - there was no mud, but there turned out to be quite a lot of wet, almost frostily cold grass, so I'm glad I opted for the heavier footwear in the end. The fleece was hardly necessary, though.
From the station our party of eight humans and three dogs walked north, downhill, to the river Tamar and turned left, downstream, along it. Several of us had never seen it from that side before, pointing "Ooh, look, there's Calstock", "Look, there's Cotehele", "Doesn't the viaduct look odd from here", as we recognised landmarks from the 'wrong' direction. After travelling about three miles along and above the river we turned inland to circle round and return to our starting point.

Most of the highlights were flora, this time. Unknown flora. The first stange thing we came across were beautiful deep pink seedcases in a hedge - the seeds inside being bright orange. None of us had any idea what it was, but Google did, of course, when I got home. Common or European Spindle. An unremarkable hedgerow tree, so inconspicuous as to be invisible except for these few short autumn weeks when it is gloriously, surprisingly beautiful. One of my fellow walkers took this picture.

Another oddity we came across was almost recognisable, but not quite. Resembling a potato (which would not be in flower, indeed would have withered by now) or it's cousin the deadly nightshade (which has bright purple flowers) but covered in small white blooms, it was another one which had me reaching for the reference books on my return. Black nightshade, apparently. Why black nightshade when it has white flowers? The book didn't say...
The third vegetable mystery remains a mystery, for now. We walked round the edge of a large field planted with a root crop. The leaves of the plants appeared to have been cut (or eaten), but the roots themselves were mostly still in the ground, although quite a few were plainly visible or lying on the surface. About half of them were turnips. The other half were dark red in colour, white fleshed, with an unusual waisted, almost hourglass shape. Thus far not even Google has revealed to me their identity, nor their purpose, although I'd guess they were destined for cattle feed.
Other highlights of the walk included a heron posing in a field right next to the path, a totally unexpected "Ramblers Rest" area with tables and benches overlooking the river, a bright red microlight overhead in the brightest of blue skies, and an abandoned orchard where delicious apples fell into our hands - just one each for munching as we walked. Just enough, indeed, to keep us going till lunch, which we took in the beer garden of the Olde Plough Inn, Bere Ferrers, an excellent traditional Sunday roast.
From Bere Ferrers one can look down the river to Saltash. It's so close, so very close, less than a mile away on the wrong side of the water, but there's no way to get there so it was back in the car for a 16 mile drive home.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Autumn comes to the Creek...

Down at the top of the creek this morning, there where the rain-swollen stream meets the rising tide, a kingfisher was fishing. It didn't see me approaching along the stream until I got within about five metres but then flew across to the far bank, calling quite loudly. As I could still hear it calling I stood quite still - even the d0g was being quiet behind me - and the bird came back to the same perch. It was a perfect photograph, silhouetted against the sun on the water. Unfortunately, by the time I had carefully eased the cameraphone out of the pocket and switched it on, the kingfisher had seen a fish, dived and was gone in a flash of blue over to the bank again.

It's not often I see kingfishers down there - they only seem to fish there just when the rising tide fills the creek and sweeps the little fishes up towards the mouth of the stream, and although it is my normal morning destination it doesn't often coincide with fishing hour. Today I also saw a sandpiper - a sign that winter is on its way - and a couple of jays, as well as the usual gang of blackheaded gulls in winter white. And having remarked to a friend a couple of weeks ago that it seemed the grey wagtails which used to nest by the little bridge seemed to have moved on this year, I've seen at least one every day for the last week!

In the garden, too, the balance of feathered visitors is changing with the season. The largest group now is the goldfinches, who often arrive ten or twelve strong and quarrel loudly and aerobatically over the niger seed feeder. The 'losers' aren't that bothered, though - they just move over to the 'normal' seed feeders and fill up from them. On the other hand, the sparrows, who keep together in a group through the whole of the spring and summer, split up and go their separate ways more at this time of the year. They still visit the garden, of course, but one or two at a time rather than in a flock. The largest number I've counted this year - about when the second brood was fledged and independent - was between thirty and forty strong. (They just won't keep still to be counted accurately!) Now, as well, the blue tits, chaffinches and great tits are reforming their loose winter flocks and including the garden on their daily patrols. In the summer they stay in the trees in the coombe, mostly.

There has been so much rain lately that all the winter springs have suddenly started flowing again in the coombe. Because the sides are so steep, it's not unusual for trees to fall occasionally, and we've lost two in the last week. A substantial young oak fell and blocked the path on the north side completely until the Council came and cleared it. They've left the fallen tree; just sawn through the trunk and branches which were blocking the path. On the other side, up at the top, a rather foolish badger had dug a new sett in the summer. At the edge of the path and under the roots of an alder, it was already beginning to undermine the path itself - my walking stick went through into a tunnel only last week - and now the tree has gone, down into the valley. I suspect it to have been a young one setting up home for the first time, and it will either start again in a better place or perhaps move in to one of the three big setts. The tree itself probably won't die, either - when they fall down the slope like that, with some roots still in the ground, they usually resurrect themselves. I hope so, anyway.