Wednesday 26 February 2014

A Retirement Winner

One of the great pleasures about being retired is the fact that it normally allows you to take advantage of that special, out of the blue, day when it comes along. I spent so many frustrating years having to go into work on days that you just knew were going to be fantastic for being out and about in the countryside, or when "falls" of birds were guaranteed to happen. I guess the profession that I envied the most in those days was school teaching, so much time off throughout the year, especially in the summer and when I was stressed up to the eyeballs trying to meet targets and budgets, I used to dream about having six weeks off in the summer. But I'm retired now and so I don't have to envy those people and this morning was one of those special mornings that I didn't have to miss.
Arriving at the reserve barn under cloudless blue skies and with a sun that was becoming stronger by the minute was a real joy to experience. Skylarks were singing strongly over the grazing marsh and the first pair of Lapwings were carrying out their courtship displays, things were really looking and sounding good. That opinion was compounded when a cock Chaffinch began singing in one of the willow bushes alongside the barn, I love that sound, it's easily my favourite finch song. There's still plenty of time for the winter to have a sting in it's tail but let's hope that it doesn't.
Walking across the water-logged marsh to the sea wall hide, more and more of the surface water is now soaking into the ground and larger areas of grass are now beginning to be exposed and are drying out, it's all looking good. As I indicated in my last posting, the White-fronted Goose flock has begun to reduce as some birds have begun their journey north but this morning's tally was still 240 birds, all looking quite splendid in the morning sun. They've also quite clearly become used to the daily walk past by myself and the dogs, harmless as we are, and I was only a 100yds away from them when I took these photos with my little camera.

 If you look at the centre of the photo below, you can see one of three Barnacle Geese that have been with the flock for the last week.

 Eventually the flock decided that I was near enough and took flight and yet merely re-landed just a couple of yards behind me and so I sat down in the grass and watched them for a while through my binoculars, they are special birds. And just think, we just 3-4 weeks away now from those first Wheatears or Sand Martins!

The tides are building for this weekend's Spring tides and this morning's was fairly high and was pushing many displaced waders onto the ideally waterlogged Flood Field to roost. At one stage in their I counted c.900 Dunlin, 200 Grey Plover, 200 Golden Plover, 1,000 Lapwing, 40 Avocet and a spattering of Curlew. As well as the Whitefronts and Barnacles there were also c.300 Greylag Geese and the rare sight of a pair of Canada Geese. Ducks also featured with 50 Shelduck - 90 Gadwall - 70 Shoveler - 14 Pochard - 6 Tufted Duck - 250 Wigeon - 300 Teal and 130 Coot.
It was a thoroughly great day and one that I was over-joyed not to have missed - it was a retirement winner!

Friday 21 February 2014

Out and About Again

After spending most of the last week stuck indoors suffering the ravages of flu, the attraction of clear blue skies and strong sunshine outside this morning was too much to resist. So, well wrapped up and armed with a large handkerchief to combat a nose, running like a fireman's hose and almost the same colour, I set off for the reserve. Despite a chilly wind, on arriving there it was almost as if Spring had arrived overnight - blue skies, sunshine, greener-looking grass, lower water levels and a great cacophony of bird calls and song. From the Sea Wall hide the Flood field looked quite superb in all it's watery glory as I looked north across it to the Tower Hide in the background, with the sun behind me as you can see below.

However, go round to the Tower Hide and photograph the same scene looking south into the sun and see how much the light changes the feel of it all.

It wasn't until I got to the Tower Hide that I decided to take a photo of the 320 White-fronted Geese alongside The Flood and so the resultant photo doesn't show a lot against the light, yes those blobs are some of the geese.

But the longer that I watched the Whitefronts the more restless that they became. It was as if the Spring-like feel of the morning was getting to them, that the North was calling them back and it was time to go. Over the space of an hour the flock got up and flew round the reserve almost continuously, only briefly landing before taking off again. Finally, it was clear that I had guessed right. At regular intervals, small groups of 20-30 birds began to peel away from the main flock, rose high into the blue sky, settled into a v-formation and with those beautiful, wild calls that Whitefronts have, flew off high towards the north, my heart went with them.
Below you can see the main flock as they circled over The Flood.

After that, what else did the morning produce from the flooded areas, well there were:-
40 Mute Swan - 320 White-fronted Geese - 380 Greylag Geese - 200 Mallard - 50 Shelduck - 400 Teal - 60 Shoveler - 80 Gadwall - 200 Wigeon - 120 Coot - 20 Ruff - 600 Golden Plover - 900 Lapwing - and a few other bits and pieces.
Talking of the White-fronted Geese going back home - one thing that won't be doing that unfortunately, is the Sperm Whale seen in the distance below. It's dead body was washed up on the mudflats off of the reserve yesterday morning and today it was still there, further out in the channel off of Shellness Point.

And lastly, the beautiful weather today of course tempted out all manner of the public to shrug off the damp and the gloom of recent weeks weather, and why not, it's too precious to miss. I could see people walking their dogs along Shellness beach, birdwatchers on Shellness Point, a jogger and his dog ran along the reserve sea wall and of course, I was there with my two dogs. I couldn't help but immediately chuckle over thoughts of two local birdwatching bloggers who so regularly complain in their postings about how all those types of people will insist on being out at the same time as them and spoiling their day. What a nightmare for them today might of been!

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Growing up in Sheppey - Part 4

And so, in the summer of 1962, a few days after my 15th birthday, I finally left school and set about joining the real and working world. It was stand on your own two feet time and for someone who was a tad immature for his age, it wasn't going to be very easy, as my first venture was to prove.
Despite being in the top grade throughout my secondary school life, even top of the class in the third year, I eventually left school with no fancy exam results to talk of, just a School Leavers Diploma. All I knew was that I wanted to work outside at something, gardening perhaps. So for that reason, my best friend and I had applied to join a live-in Agriculture and Horticultural course in Surrey, with us doing the horticultural side. However, until we got our start date for that course something else had to be found and we both found jobs as general "boys" in the Great Bargain Stores in the town. This big and very old building stood on the corner of Russell Street and the High Street and had been turned into what was probably a basic and early form of supermarket. Further down Russell Street was the Sun pub and across the road the old Oxford cinema/theatre, which amazingly is still there today, selling discount carpeting. In the Stores we had the job of unloading delivery trucks, stacking shelves and scraping mould off the cheese on the counter first thing in the morning before customers came in. Fortunately it was a short-lived career because notification of our course soon came through and so in the autumn of 1962 two young and un-worldly young lads boarded a train and headed off for East Sussex.
We were housed, dormitory style, in a large old house near Dormans Land which was part of a huge estate, just over the Kent border near Lingfield. The agricultural students, each day, would be sent out to several of the farms on the estate and us horticultural types were sent to a large manor house with moat, kitchen gardens and greenhouses. To get there we had two walk across farmland and through woods in all weathers but that never happened until the second week. All newcomers had to spend the first week there being general dogsbodies around the house that we lived in. This consisted of cleaning and washing up in the dining hall after breakfast, preparing food for the next meal in the evening and then hoovering, polishing and cleaning the dormitories and bathrooms. One job that I particularly recall having was the buttering of bread for the evening meal. This consisted of sitting there with a huge stack of sliced loaves, buttering each slice and then arranging them round the inside of a metal dustbin until it was full up. This bread would normally last until after breakfast the following morning, it was either that or peeling hundreds of potatoes. The second week saw you go out to the various farms and the Great Hall for gardening. All I recall of that was having to stoke up the boilers underneath the greenhouse first thing each morning in order to maintain the heat inside the greenhouses.
The basic idea  of the course was that after around three months, the people who ran the course, and I having a feeling it might of been the YMCA, then secured you employment somewhere in the country in your chosen occupation. It all sounds great but sadly, being the immature types that my friend and I were, we found spending dormitory time with teenage boys who were more mature, aggressive or older than us, too much to adapt too and so, after around three weeks, homesickness got the better of us and we returned home.

So there I was, back in Sheerness, unpopular with my parents, winter was almost upon us and I needed a job. I found it with Mount's Dairy. Percy Mount farmed most of the farmland between Sheerness and the Halfway, (his daughter and her husband still do), and he also had a dairy alongside the cemetery in the Halfway Road. Here the milk that he produced was bottled daily and a fleet of electric milk floats took it out to deliver all over Sheppey. I got a job as a boy assistant to an established milkman with a round in Sheerness, earning £2-3 a week, a reasonable sum in those days! Six days a week I would wait in Coronation Road, the start of our round, at 5.30 in the morning, for my partner to arrive and off we would go and except Fridays and Saturdays when money was collected, we would finish around 10.00. It would then be time for a breakfast and chat with other Mounts milkmen in the Little Neptune cafe opposite Beach Street and then the rest of the day was mine, fantastic!
Unfortunately I barely started the job when over that Christmas the Big Freeze of the 1962/3 winter started and for three months, deep snow and ice rarely moved and even the sea off Sheerness froze up. It was a real test of stamina, empty milk bottles would be frozen to the doorsteps each morning and fresh milk quickly froze in the bottle and rose up and pushed the caps off the tops. It was really grim but we stuck at it and eventually the Spring arrived. The photo below shows me, aged 15 and a half, in the Spring of 1963 as the snow began to finally clear.

That is pretty much all I recall for 1963, I have no diary for that year to fall back on. I stayed on the milk round for the whole of that year and into the Spring of 1964. My best friend from school remained so, we went out on our push bikes - we hadn't discovered pubs yet, we dreamt that girls fancied us but were to scared to ask them, we basically carried on as we had done when were still at School. 1964 was the first year of change.
In the February of 1964 I began a job as a trainee Groundsman with the Kent Education Committee (Estates Dept). That meant that until the November I was back at my old school in Jefferson Road, six months after leaving it, as trainee with the full time Groundsman there and more importantly to me, not as a pupil but someone who sat in the teacher's common room with them as part of the staff! It also meant that we also got to do gardening jobs around the Girls School alongside, now that was something not to be missed. I recall one mowing the lawn in the Girl's Quadrangle, which was surrounded by both classrooms and a gym changing room. Hearing a commotion I looked up to see that the girls, who were in the 15-16 age group had pushed one of them out into the Quadrangle with no clothes on - that caused the mower to wobble!
One day a week I also had to catch a bus to Maidstone and attended a college there to study botany, biology etc. as part of my training and through regularly chatting to the same gang of commuters on the bus I gradually began to come out of my shell more. So much so that in the June I began seeing my first proper girlfriend, a Minster girl, a romance that lasted for three months or so before she left me to go out with the local pill pusher. Alongside that, my best mate and I were becoming inspired by the likes of the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, etc on Ready Steady Go on the television. We bought electric guitars and tried copying the various groups, with little success, and more importantly, we began growing our hair! I grew mine for four months before losing my nerve and having it cut but then resolved to stick at it properly and then went another couple of years before having it shortened a little. Below you see me in the summer of 1966, much to my disgust my hair used to grow outwards just as much as it did downwards and I used to look like I was wearing a Guardsman's bearskin at times.

In the November of 1964 the KEC, in continuation of my training, transferred me to their main plant growing nursery at Boughton Monchelsea, outside Maidstone. I quite welcomed that in a way, I had no girlfriend by then and looked forward to a change of scenery and after a short while, everybody on the daily bus became friends and widened the conversations that I was used too. Also, although I never realised it at the time, after catching the bus to Maidstone, I then had to catch a Maidstone trolley bus out to Loose and walk a mile or so to the nursery. A trolley bus! they were withdrawn not long after that, I was fortunate to experience that form of transport.

The KEC's plant nursery grew and supplied most of the plants, shrubs and trees that were sent out to all the schools and other establishments they were responsible for in Kent. They had bought Foster Clarke's old house and gardens and ignoring most of the huge and empty house, utilised the large gardens, sheds and greenhouses to grow most of what they needed. We wandered the wood-panelled  rooms in the huge house at will, it was a terrible waste of a lovely old house and it has to be said that we vandalised it a bit as we looked for secret doors and rooms,etc. In what would of been the library, hundreds of books were already strewn all over the floor by somebody previous to my arrival. I pinch myself at what rare or valuable books might of been lying there to be simply taken but I do still have a book of poetry from 1919 signed by the author, that I took home from there. I spent the winter months of 1964/5 there, taking thousands of cuttings in the greenhouses and bundling up and sending out trees, young shrubs and plants to various sites in Kent. Tuesdays were always spent at Maistone college doing theory work and taking exams. It was an enjoyable experience and I was happy there and learnt a lot but in the Spring of 1965 I was again transferred, to the nearby Maidstone Police HQ to work on their sports fields.

The Police HQ experience was OK but not as much fun as the previous site, the people that I worked with were mostly older and definitely not on my wave length and they found the fact that I was growing my hair out hard to accept. I was heavily into music by the likes of the Rolling Stones by then and with my hair getting longer I was becoming increasingly rebellious and I thought I knew it all, which more than once saw me get the odd slap from the older people that I worked with. However there was one defining moment in early 1965 which changed part of my life to this day. I was walking back from lunch with a guy I worked with at the Police HQ and he asked me if I'd heard of Bob Dylan. I hadn't and so he encouraged me to buy Dylan's " TheTimes They Are A'Changing" LP, I did and I was immediately hooked on everything Bob Dylan to this day.
The daily bus commute always meant that the same people sat in the same seats each day and I was fortunate to spend the two-way journey each day always sitting next to a girl from Sheerness who worked at County Hall. Over the months our bus friendship conversations ranged through all aspects of out life and I fancied her like mad and I eventually plucked up the courage one day to ask her out.  My star came down to earth with a bump right then - bus friends yes, but going out with a rough-haired, would be Bob Dylan was never going to happen - despite us being the same age, I wasn't quite old enough, or that's the impression that I got. Reading my diary for the first half of 1965 it isn't really hard to see why that was the case. When not at work and despite the fact that I was 18 in the July of that year, social life still hadn't moved on that much since I'd left school. My schoolmate and I still spent a lot of the time in each others houses trying to learn how to play the acoustic guitars that we had now bought in order to imitate Bob Dylan and Donovan. I'd had just one proper girlfriend, a sex life was still something that I dreamt about and Ready, Steady Go on Friday night TV was the highlight of our week. I used to get off the Maidstone bus and run all the way home to avoid missing that programme.
The only one major change in our life was that we had now discovered pubs, or at least, we finally looked old enough to be served in them. My very first drink was in the Halfway House and after that we spent a lot of time in the Oddfellows pub in the Halfway. Probably a pub who's name we lived up to with our longish hair, odd coloured shirts and our denim jackets with "Ban the Bomb" signs on the back in chrome buttons. Sometimes we would also drink in the Kings Arms and Highlanders in Minster village, although they became a more major part of our lives a couple of years later. It was a pretty lightweight existence, although we thought we were hip, especially in our "ban the bomb" jackets and carrying guitars that we could barely play, but it was soon about to change dramatically.
First, in the July of 1965 my work experience in Maidstone came to an end. I was still to travel over each Tuesday to the college, where I had begun to successfully pass my various horticultural exams, but on Monday 19th I begun what was to become my last year of working for the KEC. I was assigned to their Sheppey travelling gang of groundsmen based in a couple of huts at the old Technical School sports field in Seager Road, Sheerness. It was great to be working on Sheppey again and it was made even better by the variety of sites that we visited each day, every morning all piling into a truck and visiting on a daily rotation, all the various schools and other sites that came under the KEC remit. A favourite in the summer months was mowing the tiny patch of lawn in front of the small Police Station at Leysdown and watching loads of scantily dressed holiday-maker girls, or "grockles" as we knew them, passing by. We would maintain the sports fields and gardens at all of the Schools on Sheppey and as the groundsman that I had started with at the Boys and Girls Central Schools had retired, I also got to go back there for a while with the Gang. Mind you, I got into trouble with the headmistress at the Girls School during that time. The very early transistor radios had recently come out, the ones with a single ear plug that you pushed into your ear in order to listen to a scratchy reception on the radio it was attached to. But not too many people had them then and once the older girls at the school got to know that I carried one around with me, at their break times I would often be surrounded by these girls all taking it in turns to pass the ear plug round and listen to the latest pop songs. Being the center of attraction for all these teenage girls in their tight school blouses did me the world of good but unfortunately the headmistress, Miss Barker, didn't see it the same way. I was asked to visit her study, wherein she accused me of being a distraction and bad influence on the girls and to concentrate on my work or she'd have me moved. Concentrating on the girls seemed a much better option but I reluctantly had to cede to her request.  

So life was ripping along quite well that summer, we even took our guitars into work with us some days and during rained off spells or lunch breaks we'd continue to battle away at learning some of the easier Bob Dylan stuff, I even started to fill exercise books with my crap poetry. But then came Carnival Day, Wednesday August 4th 1965 and an event that really saw me leap forward almost overnight. Following the carnival round the town we came across this gang of around 40 guys, with various lengths of hair and pretty scruffily dressed in leather and denim. We chatted, they invited us back to their hang-out in the town, a cafe in Russell Street built into the side of the Great Bargain Stores and in Den's Cafe as it was known, I had found my spiritual home for the next couple of years. My best friend went away a few days after, on a week long bus tour of the Lake District with his parents, gawd, and when he returned he couldn't believe how much I'd changed but I was among like-minded people. In that cafe we played guitar, discussed folk and blues music, got drunk at night, stayed out till all hours, and that was just for starters. Some of us began hitch-hiking to London at the weekends and as we progressed on into 1966, most everything that was written about the so called Swinging Sixties, we happily indulged in at various times.
I know I've blogged before about some of those times but a visit to one written on the 6th June 2012 gives an idea of what we used to get up to. 

Monday 3 February 2014

Even more water

After a week whereby the water across the grazing marsh was beginning to soak in and lessen from being one huge lake, it went back to square one after the heavy rain last Friday afternoon/evening. Instead of being just the gateway onto the grazing marsh that was flooded, the water had made it's way back up the track and past the barn where I normally park. I was just able to get through the gateway this morning on tip-toe in my wellies but the two dogs had to swim through it, especially little short-legged Ellie.

Here, I think Midge is just about on tip-toe herself.

And the view across parts of the marsh didn't look to encouraging and made for a difficult trek to the sea wall once again. Probably about 60% of the reserve looks like this.

Anyway, after a brief flurry of clouds. it came out lovely and sunny, which made the day seem much better, even if it wasn't and we managed to get over to the sea wall hide OK, which made counting the birds a lot easier because the sun was behind us.
At long last, the bird numbers were as they should be in the winter there, especially in The Flood field and in there and a couple of fields alongside, the majority of the birds that I counted were as follows:-

48 Mute Swan - 1 Little Egret - 320 White-fronted Geese - 280 Greylag Geese - 400 Brent Geese - 50 Mallard - 600 Teal - 40 Wigeon - 60 Shelduck - 30 Gadwall - 35 Shoveler - 6 Pintail - 120 Coot - 1300 Lapwing - 4 Ruff - 1 Snipe - 90 Curlew - 300 Starling - 12 Skylark.

It was great to say large numbers of Lapwing back again but still no Golden Plover, it's a real mystery why they haven't appeared this winter at all. After  a couple of winters with no Coots at all, 120 today was by contrast, a record number in recent years for this species. Watching the lone Little Egret fly by and alight by a pool on the saltings I was struck by the thought that all this flooding must seriously impact on the ability of both herons and egrets to catch food and feed. Standing alongside reasonably shallow ditches and fleets in order to catch fish just isn't possible at the moment with them all flooded and over-flowing and I wonder how they are faring.